The Joke’s on Us: “Joker” Doesn’t Get its Own Sense of Humor

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The walls are closing in. Every form of liberty is really an exercise of the freedom of movement, the freedom to explore one’s physical and mental environment. Ergo, in order to move freely, one must have a free environment, which is to say: a natural environment. Imprisonment is punishing because it is unnatural: the barriers, restrictions, and limitations form a rigid antithesis to the fluid volatility of natural life. Some unnatural construction is required for the development of a society, lest the endless splintering reduce the unifying center to a superfluity, unfamiliar and useless; the problem is not the forming of a society, but the refusal of that society to leave in peace those who live, or would live, without it or apart from it. When the society seizes from uninterested outsiders, then the society has become a virus—and unless the virus is cured, then the society will eventually devour itself once it has consumed everybody else.

The United States is a society whose obsessive-compulsive fetish for death, death by consumption, has resulted in the acquisition of immense international power, but this external power, which I would argue is largely illusory, is reciprocated by an internal impotence. Our interpersonal dysfunction, mirrored by our incoherent culture, is an inevitable symptom of our pervasive social sickness, the physical act of destructive consumption transmuted and made ethereal, but much more palpable, as well. It is not impossible to live well in an unwell society, but it is impossible to live without coming into contact with some element of the diseased, and in turn, running the risk of infection. Usually, this infection takes the form of economic hardship—or economic anxiety, at the very least—which is later manifested in our increasingly strained personal ties. Our own failings become indistinct from our society’s, and we are unified only in our hopeless march toward our gruesome climax.

Our own ability to abandon this sinister parade is contingent on our freedom of movement. Absent this power, the people continue to make their unfree selections, selections that were chosen for them long before they were presented to them. One such selection is the movie Joker, currently in its fourth day of release. The film is centered on a miserable man named Arthur Fleck, who, in the midst of psychological deterioration engendered by incessant immersion in bleak society, finds catharsis in dressing as a clown and engaging in disturbing antisocial behavior, including murder. Countless people have been fascinated by this film since the release of its brilliant teaser trailer six months ago, and with good reason: the premise is a reflection of the unsettling, ominous decadence of our own social structure, and in embracing this grotesquerie before deconstructing it, the movie promises an emotional discharge for us as well as Arthur.

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An Open Letter to the Critics of the Bernie Sanders/Julian Assange Video

This morning, I received the following comment from an individual known as Lucid Primate, who is unhappy with my video of Bernie Sanders refusing to discuss Julian Assange, the reaction that this video received, and an essay I have written about it. Here I will publish his comment in full:

“Never has so much yarn been spun about 29 seconds of bushwhacked vid-clip “journalism”. Your pleading makes you sound like a tantrum thralled child begging for an ice cream cone. Your expectation of an answer about one of the most critical questions of our freedom from perhaps the staunchest supporter of civil rights (and certainly the import of the other 99% public good on all other issues) on the scene today make you and your disgusting exploitation making hay of Bernie’s non-committal comment as though he is revealing some evil, villainous, hidden self truth to be nothing more than self-promoting journalism-free narcissism on your part.

Make no mistake, I am 100% in the corner of Assange, Snowden, Winner, and Manning as true patriots and heroes of freedom everywhere. I believe all should receive The Presidential Medal Of Freedom in honor of their selfless service to America. Again, 100%.

Of course reasonable supporters want Bernie to support Assange. I want him to, too, but no matter what answer he gives you, he loses to your self aggrandizement. However, he’s smart enough to understand that, so he, with reasonable situationally aware politeness, allows the question to continue to simmer as his best answer in the moment. It is an answer which would otherwise open him to needless attack from any side of Assange consideration no matter what he says, drawing few and potentially offending far more. He is not about defining himself to your convenience, nor is this the single issue which defines him, as it seems you want it to be. He has no hope in the case of being bushwacked by you of providing any background of his considerations of the merits of his answer, or to educate why it is so important to us all. Most of the public don’t have any understanding of why they should care, so he doesn’t answer. He didn’t get to where he is without savvy or conviction. On this day he lets savvy carry his water. I accept that, for now. I do expect that he will do what’s right when he can, because that’s what Bernie almost always does, far more so than any other he runs against. And then, Tulsi.

The nuances and speculations within their candidacies are manifold and profound. Never before in my experience has there been a more symbiotic paring in any race, even though it is tacit. She has strongly and clearly come down on the side of our heroes of freedom of information. In doing so she, silently, provides cover for Bernie while giving a place for Assange stans to take rest. At this point I have to take that as the best I’ll get. You should, too. The soul of Walter Cronkite will forgive you, I’m sure.”

This afternoon, I write my response:

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Bernie Sanders on Julian Assange

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“Why are you here?”

That’s an excellent question. Usually, I’m the one making inquiries, especially out on the campaign trail. But every once in a while, someone asks me something truly unnerving and, in the process, brings my heart to a pause. Why am I here, forty miles from home on a cool September morning, standing in line for the amphitheater on the Plymouth State University campus? I’m here because Bernie Sanders is here, holed up somewhere in the concrete labyrinth of the Silver Center for the Arts, from which he will emerge within the next two hours. I am here because he will stand before me and a few hundred others. And I am here because he will be exposed to me and my phone, and in his vulnerability, I’ll have the slightest chance of forcing him to speak, to declare his stance, on the prosecution of Julian Assange.

“Why are you here?” At first, I didn’t know what to say to the gentleman with the Sharpie. He met my puzzlement before he smirked in embarrassment. “I’m sorry. What I meant to ask was, are you here as a volunteer or just as a supporter?”

“Supporter,” I lied. “Just here to listen to the senator speak.”

“Very good. I just need you to sign in here and take a sticker, please.”

Nowadays, you always have to sign in. The ringleaders of the traveling circus always want your name, your email, and your phone number, at the absolute least. Sometimes, they want your home address, as well. It’s a deeply unbecoming, leechlike rite of harvest, the purpose of which is entirely mysterious: do they want a destination for the endless supply of advertisements that they pump out just to purge, or does this practice serve a purpose slightly more fascistic? The elderly gentleman to my right couldn’t have explained why they wanted so much of his personal information, and he didn’t care: he simply loathed the process, especially the rule that he fill out the forms on a laptop. Whether he was technologically illiterate, I don’t know, but it was hard enough for me to read the screen in the glare of the sunlight, so how inconvenient must it have been for him?

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In Search of Tulsi Gabbard, Part V: The New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention

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“At some future point, trade may acquire nobility, and the nobility might then enjoy trading as much as they have hitherto enjoyed war and politics. Even now it is ceasing to be the art of the nobleman, and it is quite possible that some day one may find it so common and even vulgar that, along with all party literature and journalism, one would classify it as ‘prostitution of the spirit.’”

-Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882

The Red Arrow is New Hampshire’s most overrated tourist attraction. I’m talking about the real Red Arrow, the claustrophobic diner hidden behind Elm Street in Manchester, and not about any of its soulless imitations, scattered elsewhere in the southern end of the state. Those blasé eyesores, with their overbearing lights and massive television screens, haven’t earned the dignity of a tourist attraction: no tourist to New Hampshire ever seeks out any of them, but many a stranger looks for the original, the same eatery that seemingly every presidential candidate of the last quarter-century has visited at least once. I’m not sure if any of them have ever eaten there, but all have visited, at least. It’s very strange, this practice of politicians visiting a restaurant, or some other establishment, are partaking in none of the business therein, just promoting his or her own image and campaign. Does this ritual redound to the proprietor? Or does the host only bleed in sacrificial tribute?

Neither of these was the question on my mind as I sat, nearly sleeping, at the countertop of the Red Arrow on the morning of September 7th, 2019. It was early, still darkly early, maybe half past five, hours before the desperate drunks of Queen City would emerge from their restless sleep and prowl the streets—in search of what? in search of purpose? in search of vindication? in search of Tulsi Gabbard? Unless the latter were their desideratum, this likely wouldn’t be their day to maraud, as all of downtown was due to collapse amidst the weight of the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention. I was one point of pressure amidst so many others, exerting what minor force I could to break the thin—but evidently impregnable—façade of faux progressivism that has arrested the imagination of the politically optimistic for the last four years, at least. To deal my feeble blow, I had to seek out the presidential candidates—all of those who’d yet to stare into my camera—and ask them one question, the question that haunted me on that morning, as it does every time I enter hostile political territory: “Do you support Julian Assange?”

Hmm. “Politically optimistic.” A redundant description. Isn’t all optimism, by its nature, political?

Only two other people were sitting at the countertop, sipping coffee and eating pancakes, as I was. To my right, a thirty-year-old man in a Bernie Sanders t-shirt compulsively and endlessly scrolled down his Twitter page, unaware of the two men wearing Joe Biden hats who had just entered and taken a booth in the corner. To my left, a man who wore no campaign merchandise at all asked me something he’d wanted to ask since I first walked through the door: “So, you must be going to the convention. Are you a reporter, or what are you doing?”

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The Trump-Ukrainian Controversy is Just a Joe Biden Campaign Commercial

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Of all the moral-political demonstrations in which American adults have indulged in the Trumpish Age, their aghast dance of incredulity to the Ukrainian whistleblower scandal probably is not the most embarrassing, but it is likely the most shameful. We are fourteen months removed from the last ostensibly serious—meaning, perfectly facetious—call for Trump’s impeachment, based, as it always is, on hard evidence of serious political wrongdoing—meaning, as it invariably does, a dull vagary that lends itself to an infinite array of pointlessly arbitrary interpretations. For those outside the know, an anonymous government official accuses Trump of threatening to deny half a billion dollars in military aid to the Ukrainian government—wouldn’t that be nice—unless its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, agreed to investigate reports that Joe Biden threatened to deny a full billion dollars to the Ukrainian government unless Viktor Shokin, General Prosecutor of Ukraine under Zelensky’s predecessor, was fired from his post.

https://www.rt.com/news/469618-trump-zelensky-transcript-explained-investigation/

Allow me to amend my last sentence: these are not “reports” or groundless allegations. Last year, Joe Biden bragged—in embarrassingly Trumpish fashion—that he dangled a cool $1 billion on a string in front of Pero Poroshenko, the price for, in his own words, that “son of a bitch” Shokin. Well, Shokin was fired, the International Monetary Fund gave the Ukrainian government its cash, and Biden went on his merry way. Now, why was Biden so discomfited by Shokin’s employment? Therein lies the question that comprises the “reports”, a question to which Trump has suggested an answer: Joe Biden’s son, the lobbyist Hunter Biden, sat on the board of Burisma Holdings, an energy company that, at the time, was under investigation by . . . Viktor Shokin.

Of course, there is no incontrovertible evidence—not as of this writing, at least—that this is why Biden forced Poroshenko’s hand, but why else would he take such extraordinary measures against Shokin? Why else would he harbor such resentment towards him? It’s very hard to imagine Biden furnishing a credible explanation, one that justifies the intensity of his wrath. Even if he somehow could prove that his aggression was completely unrelated to his son’s connection to Burisma, still there would be a very serious question of whether this kind of diplomatic threat is appropriate. Are we comfortable with this image of ourselves as the nation that weaponizes international finance?

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Bill Maher Cozies up with War Criminal Samantha Power

For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of running a weekly feature wherein I examine the propaganda of Real Time with Bill Maher. The only problem is that I would have to start watching Real Time again, which I haven’t done since April. I used to watch it every week, just to monitor mainstream political thought, but it has become so repetitive and flavorless in the Trumpish Age that enduring it achieves little more than a lingering headache. Formerly a lighthearted, if shallow, examination of American political culture, Real Time is now a pompous, funereal ritual in which half-a-dozen indignant millionaires ask themselves one question for sixty minutes straight: “How can we defeat Trump in 2020?” Sometimes I wonder what will happen if Trump is re-elected and the last four seasons of Real Time are suddenly negated, invalidated as a historical curiosity, like a survival guide to Y2K. Should this come to pass, then subscribes to HBO might have a legitimate claim to a refund.

In the meantime, examining Bill Maher’s logical failings is a tough sell. Watching his program is deeply unpleasant, and my exercise, if sustained for a full season, could become as joylessly ugly as Real Time itself. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a shot this past week, watching as much as I could before his guests’ strident squabbling descended into an unbearable cacophony. But prior to their meltdown, I did find something worth assessing, even if we never take this project up again: at the beginning of the episode, Maher chatted with Samantha Power, one of President Obama’s ambassadors to the United Nations.

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/30/world/30power.html

If you’re a veteran viewer of Real Time, then you might be saying to yourself: “Oh, let me guess: another apologist for the American government is here to reassure liberals that federal corruption was unfathomable prior to Trump’s inauguration.” On the one hand, yes, that is Power’s message condensed. It’s an appalling lie, of course, a demonstrable falsehood, but this felicitous revision of American political history is becoming more ubiquitous each day, as our anticipation of Power’s comments would suggest. The supposedly independent media regularly hosts retired government officials, all of whom have a corrupt interest in promoting their sanitized records, and only seldom do they field any serious questions. In brief, we bear witness to the marriage of media and state, a fascistic arrangement that is hardly exclusive to Fox News and Trump.

But on the other hand, there is something atypically troubling about this woman, Samantha Power, glorifying her own career in government. I’m not sure how many of Maher’s viewers were familiar with Power ahead of last week’s episode of Real Time, but all were reassured, if not mollified, as soon as he mentioned her connection to Obama. What he failed to mention was Power’s campaign to persuade Obama to launch a military offensive against the Libyan state. Much material has been produced on Hillary Clinton’s imperialist influence in the Obama Administration—on the Libyan subject, especially—but less has been written about Power, who, according to at least one report, may have convinced Clinton vis-à-vis Libya. Did Clinton, ever the enthusiastic warmonger, really need to be swayed on the opportunity to assault and obliterate a defenseless nation? And was Power really the bloodthirsty sophist in wait?

https://www.thenation.com/article/obamas-women-advisers-pushed-war-against-libya/

These questions could make for a fascinating interview, but that wasn’t quite what Maher had in mind. Like all of his contemporaries in the corporate media, Maher is forbidden to mention Libya, lest his viewers learn of the shocking—and, as of yet, unfinished—story of the American invasion and annihilation of an organized society. This story is being overwritten, blotted out and displaced by a laughable narrative of swift, seamless liberation effected and achieved by the indefatigably benevolent Yankees. This overwriting is performed, not just by the imperialists who are planning to pen subsequent chapters in Venezuela in Iran, but, as one would expect, by those who wrote the initial story, too. Samantha Power is one such malicious author, revising her own autobiography until it becomes hagiography, and Bill Maher is her impotent editor, correcting nothing, accepting everything.

Although the invasion of Libya isn’t mentioned in their conversation, still there is no lack of horror. Power begins by depicting herself as a victim, if you can believe it, a victim of what she describes as “horrible gendered metaphors”. She quotes an official, presumably a man, who said: “When we go into this negotiation, we gotta go in ‘open kimono.’” While I should thank Power for giving me an idiom that I will be sure to use in the future, really, we must be professional and, unlike Maher, challenge the authenticity—not of her account, but of her victimhood. If she is implying that, as a woman in government, she encountered directedly sexist disrespect, then she must explain how, at the same time, she and Clinton—and another woman, Susan Rice—successfully pressured the President of the United States to expend significant military resources on a completely unnecessary foreign invasion. It is very distasteful, these attempts by privileged and powerful women to co-opt the struggles of lower-class women, but then again, this interclass masquerading is all too common in politics today.

Furthermore, if Power wishes to complain of cultural misogyny, then she would do well to examine the gruesome aftereffects of her invasion of Libya. Sexual slavery is a serious problem in the post-invasion landscape, so ubiquitous that auctions and markets are held in plain view—“in the open air”, as it is usually described—with sadly little in the way of meaningful protection and effective recourse. To be fair, there has been modest coverage of these markets in western media, probably due to the subject’s shock value, but there has been even less mention of prostitution as a desperate solution to rising poverty, this rising being entirely attributable to the American invasion. In light of these disheartening conditions, could there be anything more tasteless, anything more ironic, than Power’s petty objection to the use of an indelicate expression?

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/10/libya-public-slave-auctions-un-migration

Power, Clinton, and Rice certainly entered their discussions with Obama “open kimono”, and they were no more bashful in their approach to the invasion itself. In the eight years proceeding, none of these women has repented or apologized, and in her discussion with Maher, Power exhibited an ominously enduring enthusiasm for American military intervention. It would be remiss to diminish the passion of her jingoistic concupiscence through a secondhand summary, so we might quote her statement at length:

“There are more non-democratic countries in the world than democracies … The most backsliding that is happening right now is within established democracies, like this one, and freedom is in decline. But it’s also a venue to challenge those countries in terms of their treatment of women, or in terms of their inability to deal with extremism in their midst, or their looking the other way from the recruitment of child soldiers.”

Her perfidy presents a dissimulating puzzle, the solution to which may not be nearly as evasive as it seems. What is her message? Clearly, she believes in American exceptionalism, an idea that has remained undefined, even by the most aggressive of political philosophers. Here, she would define it as America’s cultural and moral supremacy: this nation is superior to all others because it doesn’t need to be challenged . . . or, perhaps because it cannot be. No foreign government will successfully petition America’s treatment of women—even though, as Power seems to forget having said, this country struggles with sexism, too. No external military, with the possible exception of the Israeli, will be called upon to help us wrangle our extremists—even though, as Power concedes when she speaks of freedom “in decline”, there are some truly extreme individuals running ship in the federal government today. And of course, no substantive critic will overseas will ever accuse us of seeking child soldiers: we don’t recruit our children until they’re fourteen years old.

Might we return to her declaration that, in America, “freedom is in decline”? What does she mean by this ominous observation? Does she mean that America is unwell, or that America is plagued? If America is defined by its inexorable defense of political freedom, and if, in America, “freedom is in decline”, then she can mean only: “America is in decline.” Nevertheless, she considers it the responsibility of this unwell, plagued, and declining nation to “challenge” other countries, though she does not explain what such a challenge entails, and more than she names the specific freedom or freedoms that are in decline. In any case, how can an unwell, plagued, and defining nation stand atop the global hierarchy? Shouldn’t it be displaced by a strong, healthy, and ascendant nation, by its cultural, moral, and spiritual successor?

Undoubtedly, Power intended something more affirming and optimistic, but it is awfully difficult to accept her blissful, insouciant vision. Does she believe the American government treated Libyan women properly? What about the orphaned children, some of whom will decide to enlist in terrorist organizations to avenge their parents’ deaths? Relatedly, is she pleased with our military’s inability to contain ISIS, which campaigned for power in the aftermath of the invasion? Not even President Obama put a happy face on this latter failing, describing it as the biggest mistake of his presidential tenure. I find it highly improbable that Power would have forgotten such a significant statement, and much likelier that she has deliberately ignored it—although to be fair, Bill Maher doesn’t seem to be thinking about it, either. At one point in the interview, he reminds Power: “Obama’s foreign policy doctrine was famously summarized as, ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’”

https://www.cnn.com/2016/05/19/politics/axe-files-samantha-power/index.html

Power tries to end the interview on a high note by reassuring the liberal audience, and the American people generally, that “we have a democracy that is the envy of the world.” Another reference to American exceptionalism, that enchantingly nebulous notion that has sustained the Resistance, as it calls itself, in the Trumpish Age. Perhaps it is this desperate, dishonest, despairing defense of a failed political fantasy that enervates us, that demoralizes us until we have no choice but to begin “backsliding”, and then do we know “freedom is in decline”.

Hmm. Maybe we can make the most of this. Maybe we can have more fun than Maher and his gang of movie stars, pseudointellectuals, and war criminals. Maybe it’s time to get back into Real Time.

Start the clock, Bill. Your time is up.

Tim Ryan Flip-Flops on Julian Assange

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I can’t remember why I was lying on my bed, staring at the blades of my overhead fan as they cut past me over and over again. I know only that I was unhappy, rigidly unhappy, and when I fall into that melodramatic funk, I am paralyzed by the same self-aggrandizing thought that has fascinated me since I was five years old, when I was sent to my bedroom for some forgotten offense: “I would be so much better off, and the world would be such a prettier place, if I just gave up and died, right at this moment!” Perhaps I couldn’t articulate it quite so precisely when I was still wearing tighty-whities with cartoon designs, but the sentiment has endured, and resurfaces each time I contemplate my own ineffectuality.

Now, only the most hopelessly incurable narcissist is delusional enough to think that “the world”, whatever that is, would be changed, however superficially, by his absence or his presence, but in America, this pathology is almost our birthright. It is almost an ideal, the apex of achievement: to be useful is one thing, but to be indispensable is the most remarkable of feats. To believe that one’s life could tip the scales of all humanity in either direction is to believe in one’s indisputable value, and because it is far simpler to be a nuisance than it is to be an asset, well, martyrdom is the most convenient means of personal validation. And in America, where politics and wealth are honored most obscenely, it is no coincidence that a presidential campaign is the simplest and the costliest path to martyrdom: either one falls by the wayside on the campaign trail, or one achieves the glory of the democratic crowning.

Were thoughts such as these swirling in my skull as I lay upon my bed, defining my significance in contradictory accord with my own futility? No, I don’t think they were. Probably, I just reached for my phone to look at something on YouTube and I just so happened to notice that it was getting close to six o’clock. Was there something important about that time? Oh, my God! Yes! Tim Ryan was coming to the Franklin Pierce School of Law! He was going to make a speech, less than three hours before the Democratic Party’s third masochistic televised debate! I couldn’t miss that, could I? The speech, I mean; not the debate, for I would have so many opportunities to watch that debate at a different time! No, I had to see Tim Ryan in person, to ask him what he thought about Julian Assange, and to broadcast his predictable opinion to the fifty or sixty people who’d be interested in looking at such footage on YouTube—for free.

Ah, but it would require otherworldly motivation for me to rise from my mattress, get dressed, and drive five whole miles to the aforementioned School of Law, just to listen to a third-tier presidential candidate like Tim Ryan. It wasn’t necessarily that his campaign had been neutered in the first of four (and counting) televised debates, when Tulsi Gabbard reminded him that it was al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, who had the bright idea of hijacking planes on 9/11, even though that really should’ve been enough to abort his campaign in a heartbeat. The real issue was that, in a nonplussing piece recently published by The New York Times, Mr. Ryan had declared he believed the charges against Assange were unconstitutional, but that he would “rely on the Attorney General serving in my cabinet recommendation on this matter” [sic].

Hmm . . . so the same man who declared that we must remain in Afghanistan indefinitely because of an imaginary terroristic threat also believes that Julian Assange has been unjustly charged, but not so unjustly that the charges should be dropped? Hmm . . . it was all very confusing, so perhaps my own intellectual curiosity was enough to compel me out of bed and into my car and towards the School of Law, where I would find out where, exactly, Ryan stood on the prosecution of Julian Assange. Surely that would lift my spirits, eh?

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