Unite the “White”: from 2016 to Neo-Nazis

It seems we can’t get through a single month or even a single week without something Trump-related assaulting our media. And now, our lives.

Yes, the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia has EVERYTHING to do with that man you call a president. They’re his loyal electorate: brandishing tiki torches, Confederate flags, and Swastikas.

If you have trouble calling them out as terrorists when they start terrorizing an entire city, then you’re either an idiot or at least partly sympathetic.

People are expecting Trump to label them as such. Democrats, and now GOP leaders are pressuring him to “call it like it is” on Twitter.

But the problem is that these “terrorists”, like a famous klansman recently tweeted, are the reason why Donald Trump is in office in the first place. Him chastising them directly means alienating his “deplorable” support base.

When I heard the news yesterday initially I started to tune out. I knew I would spend all evening watching CNN reports with videos of hundreds of protesters clashing with counter-protesters. It looked like something savage when I saw it.

Reports came in that 3 people had been killed in the violence, along with two police officers who were monitoring the scene from above when their helicopter crashed.

One of the white nationalist terrorists plowed their car into a crowd of people, literally mowing a person over. And who was it: a young, disgruntled white guy wanting to take his country back from the infidels (aka. non-whites). Some asshole from Ohio (I’m not going to say his name) who makes me ashamed to be an Ohioan.

You might as well compare it to ISIS, which most Trumpians are reluctant to do. Similar tactics: use of vehicle to inflict mass injury/death. Similar ideology: washing the country clean of non-believers. But the religion isn’t Islam: it’s white supremacy.

What disgusted me the most wasn’t the fact of the protest: it wasn’t the presence of white nationalists, or even the violence they undertook. It’s the trend under which this kind of stuff is happening now. It’s the sheer and utter “normalcy”.

And you can expect Nazism and white supremacy to be normalized. The difference now is that they have an enabler in the White House. When chaos takes to the streets you turn to high places: where do you turn when that high place is corrupted.

I’m fully of the mindset that Donald Trump will go down as one of the worst things/mistakes that ever happened in modern American history. And not so much the things he said, but who is, despicably, as a person and what he represents.

What he represents is power to the lunatic fringe. He gives them hope. And emboldens them. Like the mayor of Charlottesville (Mike Singer) suggested, there is a “direct line” between the Trump campaign and white supremacist violence.

That direct line is rhetoric. It’s provocation and encouragement. It’s saying that Muslim terrorists are reason enough to ban people from Muslim countries, but in the case of domestic terrorism there are “multiple sides” to examine. Ergo, flip the coin when there’s a white face engraved on it and see the humanity of free speech. In spite of the fact that it came with violence and deliberate manslaughter.

So I’ll use the anti-Muslim argument here (contextually): not ALL Trump supporters are Nazis/KKK-sympathizers or right-wing fanatics. But enough Neo-Nazis/KKK-sympathizers AND active duty members just happen to be Trump supporters.

And now they feel their actions are acceptable with him in office. That’s the messed up part. Someone big in the White House actually has their backs now. Namely, the president.

Because he spoke to their rage: he gave it fists. And teeth. The enabler is always the most dangerous person. Along with the people enabling him: Congress. And certain portions of the GOP.

Normalizing extremism is pretty much-well….the norm now. It’s applying free speech to incitement. It’s strictly looking at “PC liberals” for their “off-brand” resistance when it takes the form of interrupting/online rants/loud protesting, but not criticizing your own hostility when it takes the form of assault, racial obscenities, terrorism-style tactics, sympathies with genocidal regimes, and eventually manslaughter.

Clearly this type of thinking shouldn’t have a home here. But Trump has given it one: he’s rented out one of his luxury hotels complete with gold toilets, crimson rugs, gilded walls, paintings and chandeliers to white supremacy.

Or rather he’s made them feel like their behavior warrants acceptance. And representation. 2016 wasn’t really a political war: it was a cultural war. A political war would have taken place between parties vying for public support. A cultural war takes place between one group of people, beyond party lines, who feel that their way of life is under attack by “the other guys”. Trump used that mentality to win the election, nothing else.

White supremacy won 2016: not Republicans or Democrats. And now we’re reaping the fallout. It’s shameful to watch young Americans march with the same flags that their grandparents and great-grandparents fought against during World War II. That’s not patriotic. For the people brandishing swastikas, giving Hitler salutes, and saying “Make America Great Again”, you must be talking about sometime in the 1940s. When we were actually at war with Germany. I’m sure Hitler would have approved your American patriotism while he was busy planning to destroy it.

At least rational conservatives can say that they love their country. These guys don’t. I repeat: radical, extremist Trumpians don’t harbor any special love for America. Otherwise they wouldn’t be waving Nazi flags. These guys just love white supremacy. They hide it behind America and, even more shamefully, behind religion. Trumpian extremists are despicable Christians. If anything I would guess Jesus has their names on a hit-list like Arya Stark. That He whispers every night before going to sleep.

I really don’t know how much more disgusted I can feel towards my country now. Yes, someone needs to sit these people down and show them the “light”. But a lot of them aren’t going to listen. It’s going to take someone with INCREDIBLE patience to discern the difference.

It’s going to take, first-of-all, a politician. We don’t have one in the White House right now. It’s going to take someone with a calm and collected temperament. We don’t have that in the White House now. It’s going to take someone with an understanding of basic issues. We don’t have that in the White House now. It’s going to take a decent human being.

We don’t have that in the White House now.

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Fighting Anxiety is all about Challenging, not “Zoning”

anxiety

Recently I came across an article that talked about introverts: more specifically why it’s important to understand comfort boundaries and not press them too far.

The context was basically this: you’ve got a shy student who’s nervous to speak up in class. I’ve been in the same situation: so many loud, rambling voices spouting off sentence after sentence. Meanwhile you can hardly keep up, attention-wise (in some cases), and in most others it takes a lot of courage just to raise up your voice.

The article talked about how it’s wrong to expect “introverted” students to speak up if doing so makes them uncomfortable. The alternative solution is to work strictly within parameters.

It referenced a creative writing professor who, rather than placing their “introverted” student under the same course requirements for participation as everyone else, would have them email him/her with any comments regarding the material. Instead of encouraging them to feel more comfortable in a classroom setting, the alternative was to cater to said student’s perceived “fear” or discomfort with speaking up. Ergo, start a classroom dialogue outside of the classroom. And keep it strictly there.

Which really doesn’t help when you have a “condition” of fear. Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways: one of the most prominent is social discomfort. As a personal sufferer I have struggled with anxiety disorders as far back as I can remember. There were fears of eating, fears of being alone, fears of getting sick, fears of failure, and, yes, fears of social situations.

And I still struggle with them. But my way of overcoming isn’t through “zoning” myself into specific parameters. When your mind lives in a climate of fear you have to challenge those parameters. Keeping them as is only rationalizes every nuance of the fear inside you. “Fear” itself is real, but the things it tells you aren’t.

You’ve seen the news reports where they talk about how parents get their children to swim at an early age: by putting them in the water. There’s going to be fear and trepidation at first, but that gradually wanes over time.

Obviously I’m not advocating throwing infants into swimming pools with the expectation that they’ll magically float to the top. But it is important to realize that exposure causes conditioning.

When I went to therapy for anxiety problems my doctor always told me about exposure. You can’t treat someone’s fears unless you help them to face them.

Unfortunately nowadays, while we are starting to address mental health from a place from understanding, we can also fall into the bad habit of “zoning” people with certain issues. “Zoning” is basically what I meant earlier: in the case of the anxious or introverted student, respecting every single boundary their fears have set for them instead of helping them to overcome.

The last thing people with anxiety need is for someone to rationalize the irrational, negative thoughts that they have to struggle with on a daily basis. “Zoning” them only says “this is the way you ARE.” Treatment says “this is the way you CAN BE.”

We need more reinforcements than zoning. If I had accepted every facet of my fears, social and non-social, as the God-honest truth, then I would probably have spent the rest of my life curled away in some dark corner. Challenging my fears rather than accepting them has always made me feel stronger.

Why: because people with anxiety need to know that their terrors, however vicious, are unfounded. That’s what makes them heal. Not zoning. The disorder is not going to go poof and disappear completely. But when you challenge it, you show that you’re not letting it control you.

Another example: I have anxiety/confidence issues when it comes to talking to women. Which is probably why my dating life sucks. Every day there’s a self-esteem monster creeping out from inside me. At times I just want to look at myself in the mirror and think “shit, you’re hopeless. Who’s ever going to like you?”

But then again that’s the fear talking. And the only way you get past that is by challenging it. I spent a lot of my vacation time making efforts to casually chat with young women. Not so much for the reason of trying to “score” while away from home. But to challenge this inner monologue that makes me feel shy/unattractive for one reason or another.

When you don’t do that you allow your mind to fixate on past failures: the wrong women you “liked” that you really shouldn’t have at the end of the day. Ruminating doesn’t allow you to replace them or the hole in your heart. Re-conditioning does.

And in regards to that situation I’ve since been on dates, which allows me to feel hella better. But I still have those fearful moments. The only thing that propels me forward is the idea of challenging them. Challenge has yielded reward in the case of other anxieties I have struggled with. So maybe I’ll stick with that.

But it is hard. Very hard. All I know is that the task will become impossible if I relegate myself to the sum of my worst emotions. And the cancerous situations that bring them on (aka. fixation).

Exposure doesn’t kill the crippled “fear” conscious. Habit does. Meaning you have to practice, day-by-day, walking into the proverbial lion’s den. Taking a snapshot of it and pasting it your mirror doesn’t count as “facing fears”.

Even with good intentions you can make fears and discomforts more real by accepting them exactly as is. A healer is someone who walks hand-in-hand with you through troubled times. A healer friend will, as Leo McGarry famously said on the West Wing, show you the way out of your hole, once they’ve climbed inside with you. A zoner will simply mark that as YOUR hole and climb down every now and then to have a bonfire and several beers. Then they’ll go right back up to ground level and continue their party with everyone else.

Healing levels the playing field. Through encouragement. And a little bit of a nudge. Zoning keeps you right where you are: it continues the climate of fear, greasing the various wheels and cogs that keep churning inside you. Making you reticent.

A person with anxiety has to SEE and EXPERIENCE the dissonance between the fear within them and the world outside. Not the similarity, or the confirmation.

When I told my therapist about having problems speaking up in class she advised me to prepare notes. Do a little research beforehand to brush up on facts so you’re right in the game once the talking heads start talking. And nothing has made me feel better than contributing, against my worser wishes. Why: because nothing pleases you more than telling the negative voices inside you to piss off (or some other four letter word).

When I was terrified of being left alone it took a few nervous weeks of doing exactly that (albeit, in small, increasing increments) before I was hardly even thinking about it. Ergo, habit kills the horror. Not the existence of fear or trepidation but the stranglehold that it has over every aspect of your life.

What worked in one area can work in another. Exposure and challenge is pretty much interchangeable. And it edifies rather than compartmentalize you.

At the end of the day part of your business is people: how you communicate and get along with them. I myself am an struggling introvert. But I want to be better at communication. Reaching adulthood teaches you the value of social skills. Sometimes I can have my awkward want-to-be-left-alone moments. But I push myself by pushing “out”.

The result: I’ve made significantly more friends in the past year than I think I ever made during undergrad. But it wasn’t a matter of “comfort” or “zoning” for me. It was a matter of making my own zone bigger and more encompassing.

Ergo, challenge.

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How To Be a Depressive Master of Disguise (In 5 Easy Steps)

 

Note, this post is not meant to be an actual HONEST-TO-GOD lifestyle guide. Depression/Anxiety are serious issues affecting a wide array of people. It sucks, to say the least, when your daily cloud is a little darker than others. All the visible ways to show it are looking tired, sad, or completely devoid. Or else looking scared to death of all the worldly things living and breathing around you.

But a lot of depressives can hide that. As a matter of fact, most won’t even “look” depressed because they’re busy wearing a public face, completely at odds with the silent, soul-sucking monster inside them.

I’ve heard a lot of people who’ve been through depression describe the same thing. Time and toil goes into presentation alone, minus the added crippling effort it takes to maintain it, minus the added effort it takes to mechanically slug through your daily routine.

But there are ways that depressives “keep it together”, not so much for themselves but for the people around them. Cause inside your mind nothing screams “failure” louder than exposure.

Many of the techniques/steps I’m about to mention are things I’ve tried in the past. Note, they’re NOT meant to be personal recommendations: just a look at how the blues affect your gray matter. And subsequently, your behavior.

Like myself, many people who’ve been through depression have probably (more than once) attended the master school of bullshitting. It’s like an acting school except one that lives in your mind, instructing you to either smile, soft-shoe, or pantomime to avoid publicly losing your shit. Result: you get your license as an undercover “happy person”.

Here are 5 simple steps those with the “chemical blues” take or will learn in order to keep their cover from being blown.

 

1. Keep your smiles LOUD and over-PROUD

Everyone with depression smiles in public, or just about. But by smiling I don’t mean doing it realistically: I mean making your face beam with blissful stupidity as you look around at things that repulse you. Just for the benefit of showing you “have it together”. But not just “have it together”; that you’ve attained some special, superior method of self-control that makes all your friends wonder, once you’ve opened to up to them, what in the hell you have to be depressed about. Because that’s always the response you’ll get: utter surprise: “Wow, I never knew it was rough like that”. The smile, of all basic gestures, should be ready to allay any advance suspicions.

 

2. Overcompensate at all public events

Take your impression to an excess. I don’t know why but for some reason depression (especially with men) is the kind of thing that can make you want to over-exert yourself at parties and social functions: the ones you actually dragged yourself out of bed to get to. Hyperactivity can serve as an effective way to deter suspicion. I’ve used it a hundred times.

For the 5 steps in this post let’s think of a public venue, namely a bar or party. To offset your “inner darkness” you want to be the star of the show.

You see those “happy people” conversing all around? Screw ’em: you want to be louder and more interesting. See those two people playing flip cup and winning? Screw ’em: you want to be winning BETTER than they are. You want to be twice as loud as the most extroverted person in the room and twice as friendly, moving from crowd to crowd to bestow your counterfeit charm. Because what’s depression: hiding away in sadness and keeping to yourself. So you try to give off the most “opposite” impression. When the music starts playing what do you do: you start dancing and singing and shuffling twice as much as everyone else in the room. And they watch you from a distance, entertained by your antics, but conveniently unaware.

Because if they were, they probably wouldn’t have invited you there. And if you want more invitations (just to look normal) you’ve got to keep the act going.

The really (and no pun intended) sad part about depression isn’t the fact that it’s there: it’s how unrecognized it is. People like me (and others who have been through the “dark times”) typically have a better eye for it: you can recognize depression a mile away by the person at the party who’s drinking twice as much, playing twice as much, and talking twice as much as everyone else. Or at least trying to. Depressives don’t sit in a corner and mope in public (unless they’ve had WAY too much to drink); we save that shit for our bedrooms.

The funny thing about most of the DSM symptoms is that they happen behind closed doors where nobody can see. In public they can often present themselves as little or vaguely as possible. Ergo, the most extreme example of covert happiness: the party or social function. After the 100 minutes of slogging around your apartment trying to eat and get dressed you can damn-well expect to give about 200 more of “fun time”. Fake mood is what you put on before leaving the door.

 

3. Drink a LITTLE more than you should but NOT TOO MUCH

And I stress “NOT TOO MUCH”. That can send you into a depressive crash AT the party, instead of once you get home and wake up the next morning. But a little spike gets you up and going. It opens your mouth to words. It expresses those words. And it gets you around the room. If the depression Energizer Bunny had a logo it would probably be a shot of tequila. Just don’t beat the glass too hard with those drumsticks: cause your “worser” side might come spilling out.

But you really are drinking MORE than the people around you, because unlike them it makes you feel a bit more normal and less terrified. I should stress the anxiety illness as a key factor here, as well as depression. But a bit of beverage allays that. If your lips don’t want to talk, they start talking. If your legs don’t want to kick and sway they start kicking. And if your lips don’t want to smile your eyes certainly will.

Just make sure every now and then to return to your nearest bar or kitchen. Re-up with another beverage, so you can recharge that clever smile.

 

4. Always appear to be “superhuman”

Meaning don’t talk about your weaknesses. Your brain knows people won’t understand them. And if they do they’ll give you a b.s. answer (What you gotta do is…; some crappy life instructions). Which will lead you to disagree with them if you’ve “had too much”, which might leave you getting asked to leave. Cover blown. And cue the Hudson voice from Aliens: “Game over, man!”

The better thing is just to be “strong man” or “strong woman” instead. At least that’s what your mind says: power through the night and make sure to leave nothing less on your peers than a totally kick-ass impression. It should edify you beyond measure. Because, let’s face it, one chink in the armor leaves an air hole: for noxious fumes of the monster inside you to pass through.

 

5. Crash when you get home

After all the lagging, tiresome effort it took to conjure your spirits up (albeit temporarily) nothing fits you like a nice, twelve-hour slumber: one that’ll likely have you waking up tomorrow at 8, but not actually getting up until about 12. Your “covert” shift takes a lot out of you. And now you need some R&R before clocking in again. But just a little more than everyone else. Why: because you don’t wear your mask in private. You are the somber sum of your symptoms. And what’s most depressing: right now you’re the sluggish, moping self that nobody should ever see. But you can’t escape it. Because the mask is off. And even though the people you fooled are gone you can still sense them scrutinizing over every inch of your being. They see cracks and fissures in the places you taped up so nicely.

Should depression be privatized like healthcare?

It already is. At the end of the day its purest form isn’t regulated by doctors or public institutions: it’s regulated by the people who suffer it.

Most of your premium is based on how many hours you have to play up your public appearance. Interest includes malt liquor and beverages. Your deductible is how many hours of sleep it takes to revitalize that appearance. If you step out of your house with a 14 hour deductible on sleep, your little pantomime isn’t going to work. Any little ruse is going to come sadly short of your last performance. And with no copay your ass is screwed.

Now that we’ve gotten the satire out of the way I’ll say it candidly: depression is something that a lot of people use unfortunate ways to cope with. And dishonest ones. The list above is more meant to inform than advise. And it reiterates the sad (but true) notion that society’s biggest problems aren’t the ones that go “un-diagnosed”; they’re the ones that go unseen.

In the past I have used some of the ways mentioned above to cope with my own experience. But eventually fear eats the facade. Your body and brain grow tired of “keeping it all in”. Which is why the powder keg approach is bad for you.

The best part, though, is that it allows you to see which people are truly friends and care about what you’re going through versus friends who treat you indifferently. In other words, sham acting eventually uncovers sham people. It’s a very weird irony. But in the end you figure out the “friends” to cut off and the friends to keep (note: I used quotes to describe one type).

But obviously the one thing to do for yourself is to seek out help. Seek it by asking the people you know you can trust. Forge friendships with people who are better for you, if necessary. Look for permanent rather than temporary measures. And medication helps: the right kind. And the right kind of therapy.

It doesn’t “end” the problem obviously: you’ll still feel the need to slip on your mask at times and go “covert” with the five steps mentioned above. But hopefully you’ll have those moments where the mask comes off and reveals a smile instead of a frown underneath. One that you didn’t have to take three hours to make.

 

 

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Athens Did It Better: Ancient Democracy

I am currently reading Walter Scheidel’s “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century”. It gives a very interesting picture on how mass wars have had the effect of equalizing societies, in terms of wealth and democracy.

One of the most interesting parts is the section that focuses on equality/inequality in the Ancient Greece. Mass mobilization in warfare is one of Scheidel’s “four horsemen” of leveling and, as he puts it, Greek civilization developed “a culture of citizenship associated with mass participation” in warfare (Scheidel 189). The Greek world, at its zenith, came to comprise more than 1,000 separate poleis or city-states and a population reaching over 7 million.

Scheidel points to different examples of democracy and equality in the Greek world but, like many scholars, he refers to the two most prominent examples: Athens and Sparta. These pre-modern empires serve as the benchmark of Greek society.

Both had their notions of egalitarianism. But which one had the best program? In order to effectively curtail wealth inequality as Scheidel defines it, a state has to implement progressive reforms that target the common mass and encumber the rich with higher financial responsibilities, or else deprive them of assets completely.

Specifically, in “The Great Leveler” this can come in the form of four shocks: mass warfare, violent revolution, state collapse, and pandemics. The example of Ancient Greece focuses primarily on warfare and its effect on democracy.

Athens and Sparta were, of course, two ancient states that centered on military. But in different ways. While Scheidel chooses to classify democracy/equality in terms of wealth, it is also important to examine the political framework of the two premodern states.

Let’s start with Athens:

By the start of the early Iron Age much of the Greek world was mired in poverty. By 600 BCE, Athens suffered from “growing inequality fueled by population growth and abundant labor” (Scheidel 192). Many poor were in debt to the rich, on pain of enslavement.

So how did they start to change this? Athens took a cue from one of its neighboring states, Megara, which had introduced debt relief that required creditors to repay loan interests that would have otherwise fallen on the poor. Athens noticed that this progressive policy led to popular military mobilization, enhancing its naval power. As a result, Athens began to expand civic rights through measures that instituted debt cancellation and outlawed debt bondage.

According to Scheidel this progressive measure was driven by war, or rather the desire to avoid defeat by neighboring states. With a supreme military force, Athens would be unstoppable.

It was after a war with Sparta, in 508 BCE, that Athens began to restructure its population. Because the poor were in debt to the rich, aristocratic families could effectively control voting blocs. It was Cleisthenes, an Athenian noble and political expert, who rearranged the political structure of Athens.

Originally sectioned into four ancestral tribes, Cleisthenes divided Athens into ten tribes, each one with an equal population. Typically, in Athens there were three kinds of territory: the coast, the hills, and the plain. Under Cleisthenes’s system, each tribe contained a mixture of peoples from different territories. This measure established a new diversity within the ten tribes, and effectively released them from control by the aristocrats. All sorts of new groups began to coalesce around areas such as trades, religious cults, military units, and education (Cline 138).

In addition, the Athenian Council of 400, with 100 men selected from each ancestral tribe, was changed to 500 under Cleisthenes, with 50 men selected by lottery from each of the ten tribes.

Another famous statesman, Pericles, introduced legislation providing daily wages for jurors, in order to compensate poorer workers and also encourage them to participate in democratic assemblies. Another one of Pericles’s accomplishments was instituting a building program, through which many unskilled men could establish a trade in areas such as sculpting, wagon-building, and rope-making. Among the great, completed projects was the Parthenon.

As Athens became an inspiration by model, many other city-states pressed for expanded rights, often seeking Athens for help in the process. Tribute money from allies provided substantial state revenue that was used to not only feed its population but also supply a growing workforce.

Another tactic that Athens adopted to prevent tyranny was the imposition of term limits, namely one year, for those in office. Only those in the Areopagus court were exempt from this, since they served for a lifetime. All major decisions were made by committees, consisting of one man from each tribe. And what’s more, Another check was imposed on the power elite: ostracism. Through this, Athenians (during a three-week period) would come together and decide which powerful elites posed a threat to democracy. That person, after receiving 6,000 votes, would be sent away for ten years, with their property left intact (Cline 143).

The obvious, not-so-noble setback to Athenian democracy: it left out women, slaves, and landless poor.

If Athens could be described as more of a representative democracy, Sparta could be characterized as more of an oligarchy. You’ve probably seen 300: with the noble, warrior king leading his men into battle.

The Spartan oligarchy consisted of actually two kings (mostly as a matter of checking power) and a group of 28 nobles over the age of 60. Together they formed the “Council of Elders” (Martin, An Overview).

The council of elders would submit laws to a Spartan assembly that consisted of all free, adult males. While the assembly could amend proposals, they were more or less expected to approve them, as much of Spartan culture emphasized respect for the elders. The highest check on power was the board of “ephors”: five overseers elected each year (by the assembly) that, not only convened the council of elders, but also exercised significant judicial powers, namely judgment and punishment. The task of the ephors was to “ensure the supremacy of the law” and could even hold the king accountable for violations (Martin, An Overview).

In Athens, war played its role in expanding democracy and leveling the economic playing field. More soldiers was crucial to protection: wars like the Persian invasion of 490 BCE involved up to 40 percent of the adult male population, while another Persian war in 480 BCE resulted in a decree that mobilized the entire population (Scheidel 193).

Athens encouraged state participation in war through an expanded system of rights. The Peloponnesian War led to higher payments to the lower, impoverished classes.The military was democratized, as commanders could now be elected by citizen assemblies.

Additionally, mass mobilization encouraged domestic bargaining, which led to state subsidies in the form of higher assembly pay and sponsored attendance of state festivals. By the time of the war against Macedonia, following the death of Alexander the Great, all male citizens up to age forty were mobilized.

The rationale hinges on nationalism: you want to have a strong population with a strong, shared identity. The citizens must feel encouraged to participate, knowing that the laws will provide for them. Progressive laws help to ensure this, since they ease the burden on commoners, who are the primary participants of war and military campaigns.

As Scheidel argues, war promoted egalitarianism (to an extent) in Athens. It provided citizens with a reason to fight for their state by offering them land, wages, political participation rights, and better representation. The mobilization took place on two fronts: war and politics.

In Athens military operations “heavily relied on domestic taxation of the rich” (another progressive move), and because of its naval focus in battle, “warmaking involved redistribution to poorer citizens who crewed and rowed ships” (Scheidel 195).

Indirect taxes, specifically after the fall of the Athenian empire, relied on tolls, harbor dues, and lease income from public land, whereas direct taxes included a poll tax for “resident aliens”, a property tax for military expenses, and “liturgies”, which were contributions imposed on the richest Athenian citizens (Scheidel 195).

Through liturgies the rich had to pay for the outfitting of warships, provide for the crew, purchase equipment, manage repairs, and even cover losses in battle.

Soon large estates were made to contribute to this as well, further taxing the wealthy. And the naval liturgies were so high (8 times minimal subsistence income for an Athenian household of five) that some had to borrow and mortgage in order to raise public funds (Schiedel 195).

A few more facts about this upper “liturgical class”: they paid for 300 warships, public festivals, and property taxes. Their obligations may have completely absorbed any annual returns on fortunes clearing the wealth threshold. While compensated later with state funding, the richest Athenians may yet in still have had a tax burden equal to almost a quarter of their income. Call it Eisenhower in the making.

Yet in still the Athenian electorate held the rich in check by ensuring they carried the lion’s share of financial burdens. Liturgies reduced wealth concentration for the power elites. During a period of rapid economic growth (one of Scheidel’s conditions for inequality, ie. surplus economy), this kept wealth inequality consistently low when it would have otherwise growth to excess.

Additionally, the land was subject to more equitable distribution among the population. According to Scheidel’s estimates, 7.5–9 percent of Athenians owned 30–40 percent, while as little as 20 to 30 owned no land. The middling “hoplite” population (aka citizen soldiers) held about 35–45 percent (Scheidel 197).

Landownership in Ancient Athens implies a wide distribution of resources; the absence of large estates, or rather the lack of evidence for them (as the author asserts) points to a fairly egalitarian society. I should reiterate/paraphrase the author’s point and say “thus far”, according to modern research. However, Scheidel does note that non-agrarian assets may have been more unequally distributed.

What can be said for certain is that wages in Athens were considerably high by ancient standards. The state’s share in GDP was more than modest, as more than half of public expenditures (during non-war years) went to festivals, welfare programs, infrastructure, and subsidized political/judicial participation.

If egalitarianism in Ancient Athens was a matter of practice over time, then then model used in Sparta could be described as an ingrained tradition. Under Lycurgus, the famous lawgiver/reformer, certain constitutional norms were introduced. These included shared mess halls, which required all men, regardless of rank, to dine together every day in small groups. Each member of the group had to contribute their fair share, in food contributions.

Failure to meet this obligation was met harshly: those who contributed below the threshold were exiled and classified as perioikos, or “dwellers round about”, having lost their citizenship (Cline 118). After that you could never become a Spartan again.

Sparta is now notorious for being recognized as an “pre-modern communist” society. It is estimated that all farmland in Laconia, Sparta’s core, was split into 30,000 equal plots; 9,000 of them went to the male citizens and were cultivated by “helots,” a class of slaves, captured from territories, who were bound to the land.

Redistribution extended to moveable possessions, in order to prevent inequality. Another interesting fact about Sparta is that their currency was strictly iron, as one of Lycurgus’s constitutional laws effectively banned “the circulation and possession of gold, silver, and other precious metals as a means of transacting business” (Encyclopedia of Money).

All of this was established to foster equality and to keep citizens from engaging in non-military ambitions. Why: because I think we all know very, very well that MILITARY was the driving force in Sparta.

Take the Athens example and put it on steroids: mass mobilization was mandatory by tradition. For starters, ALL boys/men from ages 7 to 29 were put through an arduous physical training and discipline. They completed this training in military communes where all boys were kept together, away from their families.

A Spartan education emphasized strength and rigorous discipline. Boys were trained in weights and gymnastics; they were taught the value of survival by being sent out to forage and hunt for themselves.

Respect for authority was crucial, as Spartan boys were taught strict obedience to their trainers. In addition, they had to prove their endurance to pain through beatings and floggings.

Though required to show obedience, Spartan boys were also trained to steal, undetected, in order to provide for themselves. This ensured survival skills, as well as stealth. Since the Spartans carried no food provisions with them into war, they had to rely on finding it wherever possible during military campaigns.

The goal of Spartan boys was to steal without being caught, or else face a harsh punishment. A story by Plutarch recounts the extreme level of discipline required of Spartan youths: and the lengths to which they took it.

According to Plutarch “So seriously do Spartan children go about their stealing that a boy, having stolen a young fox and hid it under his cloak, let it tear out his guts with its teeth and claws and died right there, rather than let it be seen” (Carr, The Boy and the Fox). This was seen as a model of bravery for other Spartan boys to follow.

Spartan girls were likewise trained to be physically fit, but not for war or protecting their homeland. Instead they were bred for the purpose of reproduction: producing a strong, healthy (and preferably male) heir was integral to preserving the state. It was so much a requirement that mothers were encouraged not to become too attached to their children, since infants judged as “unfit” by the council of elders could be thrown over a cliff (Cline 119). As far as marriage went, Spartans could wed by 20 but would not live with their wives until 30.

Military society was designed to create a citizenry of equals, or homoioi,defined by their prowess in war (Scheidel 190). Unlike Athens they had a permanent system of military mobilization that was deeply ingrained in tradition.

While egalitarian in nature and ideology, Sparta may have been less so in actual practice. Scheidel’s notes indicate that Spartan property, imagined in equal portions, was always private and distributed unequally. One of the reasons for this is that land allotments were fluid, and could be passed down through generations. Inheritance leads to concentration of land, rather than distribution.

Also, Spartan citizenship depended on each person’s contribution to mess halls. If their wealth declined to the point where they could no longer contribute, they lost their status. Thus these mess requirements, according to Scheidel, were effectively “regressive” as they imposed “fixed levies regardless of personal wealth” on the Spartan population (Scheidel 192).

Gradually wealth concentration diminished the Spartan citizenry over time, from 8,000 in 480 BCE, to no more than 700 by the 240s BCE (Scheidel 191). Egalitarian norms and forced redistribution may have sustained the Spartan war machine but in the lack of progressive reforms, they failed to equalize to the same extent Athens did.

In the case of Athens and Sparta, the equality experiment succeeded in two separate ways: theory and practice. Mass mobilization advanced and sustained them in both cases, giving credence to Scheidel’s theory of wars as an equalizing force. Nonetheless one case is clearly more apparent as a model of pre-modern democracy.

Quite simply, Athens “did it better” because it conceived the state as parts of a whole, not a whole of parts. And it did so on a wider array of fronts, from politics and law to military and income. For all its shortcomings, the Athenian state was much closer than Sparta to a full, pre-modern democracy.

Sources:

Scheidel, Walter. (2017). The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Cline, Diane Harris. (2016). The Greek: An Illustrated History. Washington, DC: National Geographic Partners

Martin, Thomas R. “Spartan Oligarchy”, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander. Perseus Digital Library Project. Retrieved from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0009%3Achapter%3D6%3Asection%3D3

Spartan Iron Currency, “Encyclopedia of Money”. Retrieved from:http://encyclopedia-of-money.blogspot.com/2013/01/spartan-iron-currency.html

Gerber, H. A. (2013). The Story of the Greeks. The Baldwin Project. Retrieved from: http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=guerber&book=greeks&story=boy

Carr, K.E. “The Boy and the Fox”. Quatr.Us Study Guides. Retrieved from:http://quatr.us/greeks/government/fox.htm

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The New Tupac Movie was Terrible

I just saw “All Eyez on Me” the other day in theaters. I wasn’t expecting very much, but needless to say, I was incredibly disappointed. What should have been a genuine tribute to the king of West Coast hip-hop turned out to be no more than a lazy two-and-a-half-hour slideshow of important moments crammed together.

My friend described it best in the theaters: “This shit is making my head hurt”.

Let’s start out with the basics: actor Demetrius Shipp Jr. obviously has the looks of Tupac Shakur. And a little bit of the mannerisms. But that’s just about all. He doesn’t remotely possess the character. And when he tries to, it either feels too restrained or else too forced.

He’s mellow at times where Pac would have been…well…more Pac-ish. And he’s incredibly forced during moments where Pac would have been…well…more Pac-ish. Tupac was a truly unique artist in that he possessed such wild intensity: an intensity that could be just as smart and charming as it could be aggressive and out-of-control at times.

He was a human being with god-like talents. Rather than juxtaposing the two, the film seems to focus on only one: the archetype. Tupac is so larger-than-life that the movie forgets to make him human. Like a typical biopic it rushes through certain parts of his life like a check box, rather than a personal narrative.

The movie looks like a patchwork quilt. Crucial events are hastily sown together in order to offer quick explanations: ergo, this is why Tupac did this, wrote this song. The segways are anything but clever. Dear Mama: the result of a prison visit from his mother. Keep Ya’ Head Up: Tupac was watching a news report/reading an article accusing him of misogyny.

The only meaningful, detailed relationship is the one he has with his mother. Jada Pinkett was short-changed. More than the true close friend she was to Shakur, the movie portrays her like a secondary “mother figure”. She always enters Pac’s life at convenient transitional moments, either to chastise him or offer congratulations. Jada Pinkett Smith rightly expressed her indignation with this portrayal via Twitter.

The Biggie-feud wasn’t really explored in depth. The New York scenes set it up perfectly, with the rising friendship between the two rappers, Tupac’s association with some of New York’s toughest dealers, and the attempted assassination after his fallout with Haitian Jack. But, after that, more or less nothing. Yeah, there’s the diss track “Hit ‘Em Up” and a few quick reactions, but not much else.

This would have been the perfect opportunity to humanize Tupac. Yes, he was a man with incredible talents. But he could also be temperamental at times, almost irrationally so. The Biggie feud was a perfect example of this. It was a moment where Pac took things WAY too far, based on a personal grudge. But in the movie he seems a little too restrained.

Rather than making Tupac responsible for his actions the movie portrayed him in a much more reactive way. His destiny is determined by those around him, rather than the man himself. As a result, Tupac’s real-life imperfections are glossed over as every action becomes synonymous with his god-like status.

And Suge Knight is cartoonishly evil. I could deal with his portrayal in a better movie like Straight Outta Compton. But “All Eyez on Me” spends almost every scene with Knight trying to hammer home his reputation as the ruthless, thuggish mastermind of Death Row Records. And it does it in an over-the-top kind of way. Basically, he kicks someone’s ass on screen in order to prove true villainy. While Suge Knight really was a thug, strong-arming artists and threatening violence to get what he wanted, his place in the film only serves to reiterate this time and time again. And it’s tiring.

But, again, all this would have been more forgivable if we had a Tupac that actually “felt” like Tupac. In life he had so many passionate qualities: wisdom, creativity, personal insight, and a charming yet child-like sense of humor. Yet the movie fails to show him as multi-faceted. He is simply Tupac the Legend, not Tupac the Man. He is about as human as a Wikipedia bio page.

The interview format of the first hour and a half only feeds into the simplicity: it takes a slew of precious moments and mixes them together like a DJ, rather than a true and honest depiction.

If you want to see a better, more in depth portrait of Tupac Shakur watch Tupac Resurrection, or pretty much any extended interview on Youtube. It’ll give you a closer, but not complete taste of what the movie should have included.

Either way, R.I.P. to one of the greatest musical artists of all time. Like so many others, you deserved a better biopic.

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A Nightmare on Elm Street: Classically Cheesy

Ever since eight I’ve heard about Freddy Krueger. He’s pretty much engrained in the slasher lexicon, alongside Jason Voorhies and Michael Myers, as one of horror’s greatest villains.

What starts off as a not-so-sweet nursery rhyme, “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you,” turns into a murder ballad as children scream and knives graze along rusted pipes. That’s basically how the film opens: classic Freddy dream sequence. The teenager is trapped inside some surreal-looking maze/boiler room, running around trying to escape. Then the knives start tapping and an unearthly cackling ensues as a disfigured man in a fedora and Christmas sweater comes charging out of the shadows. The clueless teen only sees the razors rising to strike once it’s too damn late, like always.

Then he “GET’S YA!” Until you wake up and realize it was all a dream.

You have to admit, the premise is very clever: monster attacks you in your dreams, preying on your fears and worst nightmares. We can clearly see the inspiration for IT here. Yet in still the 1984 execution, complete with bland acting (give the boyfriend a chance, after all he is Johnny Depp in his first role), cheesy synthesizer music, jumping, jumping jump scares, 80s teenage angst, dated special effects, and hammy horror writing make for a “classic” movie that doesn’t stand up well over time.

Make no mistake: A Nightmare on Elm Street (the first) is a classic. I really enjoyed watching it, not in spite of but probably because of all its cheesiness. Undoubtedly, like many slasher/horror films of the time, it’s a movie that rides solely on premise, rather than plot or character development. I will be making a post soon about how character-driven horror/monster films are the best (ie, Alien, Jaws, The Exorcist, The Shining).

But there’s nonetheless something charming about classic Freddy Krueger. It’s always fascinating to find a horror icon and watch the original movie that started it all. It gives Nightmare on Elm Street a sort of vintage quality, like having retro-80s night where you remember all the movies, good or bad, that set the tone for the era.

80s horror WAS Nightmare on Elm Street. You’ve got the dead killer coming back to claim his victims. You’ve got the angsty teenager, aka Nancy, who has to solve the riddle and beat the bad guy at his own game. And the over/under-acting that comes with her saccharine dialogue. You’ve got the morbid, yet sweet on-the-surface kiddie jingle that lures all the unsuspecting children into a bloodbath. And, of course, you’ve got the blood: buckets and whirlpools of gushing blood (Johnny Depp getting sucked into his bed).

I did LOVE the scene with Tina (aka the “Scream slut who deserved it because she got laid”) slithering down the hallway in a bodybag. It was a nice touch, and probably one of the parts that I would say actually held up by today’s standards.

One part I hated, though, was the mother. Her parts were almost laughable in every scene. Nancy’s mom had some of the worst acting AND the worst dialogue. The part where she takes her in the basement and tells her the story of Krueger seemed to come out of nowhere. It reeks of the all-too-common “there’s something you need to know that I’ve been hiding from you all these years” scene. And there’s her constant drinking habits, which get beyond the point of being serious, and instead downright funny. She always has the same bottle with her in every other scene: I would imagine a parody featuring her snorting lines of coke and taking hits off a meth pipe, just to cope with the trauma of burning a child killer alive. And keeping his razor glove in your basement. I’d probably be drinking too.

And, of course, the cops are clueless. And somewhat incompetent, just like in Terminator. Any qualified adult authority figure has secondary knowledge/insight to a teenage girl/boy in these types of films.

The funniest part, though, was when Nancy woke up in the hospital (euphemism: psychiatry ward for sleeping disorders) and pulled Freddy’ hat out from under the covers. Everything from the bland look of shock on Nancy’s face to the fact that she’s holding some random guy’s fedora (where’s the rest of this asshole?) takes a chilling moment and reduces it to humor. If you ask me, she should have sold it on eBay. Or at least some 80s-equivalent Halloween store. People would pay a lot of money for Krueger merchandise.

In the end, Nancy outwits Krueger with the once-brilliant, but now tired “You’re not real; disappear!” trope. And she pulls a total Kevin McCallister: by rigging her locked-down house with booby traps. It’s a good thing bad guys can’t think or strategize in horror films. At least, only during convenient times. Freddy bumbles and stumbles through each trap, getting his otherworldly ass kicked by a 16-year-old girl (not sure what age they say she actually is).

And, in the end, it finishes out with another used-up, but once golden trope: it was all a dream, but not really. Tina comes back, with her douchie boyfriend Rod, who didn’t really get strangled in the prison cell. Glen (Nancy’s boyfriend) returns, who didn’t really get sucked under the bed. And, of course, the mom is back, who randomly decides to quit the bottle now that things have gone back to normal.

But the car locks as it drives away, trapping the teens inside. And Nancy’s mom, after waving “good-bye” gets pulled inside the house (or rather a plastic doll of her) by a…no…really….could it be…a giant RAZOR GLOVE!

Look out, kids. Freddy’s still comin’. And he’s got some shitty sequels to make. It helps to pay the rent for that big-ass boiler maze he lives in. Brace yourselves, slasher fans: this one’s a keeper.

Time has obviously played its part in Nightmare on Elm Street. Despite its very apparent flaws, it’s still a horror gem. I’m sure there are certain parts that would have creeped me out more if I had watched it back in the 80s, when new slasher concepts had more of an authentic flair. I still love the concept of monsters in dreams.

There’s something sentimental about Freddy Krueger that solidifies him as a definitive American horror-icon. He’s a demonic trickster who, unlike Michael Myers or Jason Voorhies, actually talks. And giggles. And screws with your mind in every way possible. It’s just as delightful to watch as it is corny. The corniness makes it even more entertaining.

I had an enjoyable time watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, though I wouldn’t compare it with other horror films like The Exorcist, or the Shining. Nightmare on Elm Street is more of a premise movie, with a clever gimmick. Yes, it rides the gimmick in every way possible, to the point of exhaustion. But it still stands as a genre-defining slasher film.

Kudos to Craven.

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I Didn’t “find myself” in college

Time and time again you hear the narrative: college was the greatest time of my life. It helped show me who I am and what I needed to do. It paved the way.

For me, that’s only partly true. And partly untrue. In college I gained awareness of the world around me. I learned about new topics and issues. I entered adulthood during those years, though I still don’t completely feel like an “adult”.

But I didn’t “find myself”. I didn’t have a magical “life-changing” experience. I made some friends here and there. But I found myself mostly isolated, even intimidated at times by the people around me: ambitious young adults who seemed to be oozing with knowledge and experience far surpassing my own.

I did become more uncertain about my future. I did become more depressed and anxious. I felt as if I were being thrown headlong into “the real world”, where literally EVERYONE moved faster than me and more decisively.

I had moments where I simply wanted to lock myself away and write in my own creative zone where nothing outside could trouble me. But many frustrations did: loneliness, anxiety, romantic/sexual frustrations/a sense of isolation from other people my age no matter how close I got to them.

I’ve often wondered since then what the use was sitting around and writing stories/novels when I could have made myself more practical. I’ve heard SO MANY stories from friends of “fun college times”. And, to be honest, some of that shit is pretty damn funny. Often I listen to try and relive, through imagination, something I never had.

We always see the story about the awkward high school kid who’s quiet, lonely, and doesn’t quite mix in with the social crowd. And then, it magically stops after high school. Because, we all know, EVERYONE finds their place in college.

But what about those who don’t, and are still searching? That narrative remains silent because everyone’s supposed to have “it” by adulthood: successful career, happy relationship, and a sense of place.

“Finding oneself” completely in college is one of the noble lies we tell teenagers. You’ll live it up, you’ll make stunning transformations, you’ll have the absolute BEST time of your time. But what happens when you go through depression/anxiety/ADD and find out that this “great time” isn’t all it’s supposed to be?

You stay in that “awkward high school” phase. Odds are, you don’t date much, because your social skills are still in progress. Sure, you could try drinking recklessly like everyone else, but then you’ll wake up remembering that the only brave words you made towards that random, cute girl came out of a shot glass.

You could try using the alcohol to cope, but that always ends up in worse depression. And desperation. You start to look for groups, not always doing so out of mutual interests, but an inborn desire to “find some place”.

And all around you you hear the glowing reports of how “wonderful” and “amazing” college is. You must be missing something. But the harder you attempt to find it, the further it slips away.

And then it’s over. You’re out in the world. But you still haven’t “found yourself”.

The reason I’m saying this is because, just like the “glory tales”, I’ve heard stories from other people whose college experience wasn’t so ideal. Like me, they are confused as to why their four years at university didn’t fulfill them. Or why their mental health declined, rather than skyrocketed.

Why: because they all heard the “noble college lie”: about all your “best times” taking place on campus. And the most “formative” part of your life.

Some people “form” in college and some people “don’t”. That’s just the reality. In the wise words of my friend, “the shit ain’t for everyone”. How many successful people were dropouts?

My own disappointment had an initially bad result: disillusionment. Constant comparison with other people in literally “every” aspect of life. It drove me crazy. I spent the entire first semester of grad school trying to “live it up” in order to compensate for the lack of happiness and fulfillment I experienced in undergrad. While everyone else had already “gone through that” and were now fully-functioning professionals.

The bad part was going out and spending WAYYYYY too much money at bars and clubs. I HAD to have that “great experience” everyone was talking about. I was way overhyped to satisfy a part of myself that had never found a sense of social belonging.

But the good part was that I made a lot of new friends: people I still talk to. And I wouldn’t change that. I would just like to forget the part that came to an epic crash. Call it a “Tale of Two Cities” philosophy: I had the “best of times” with friends, and yet the worst of depression.

Depression is odd that way: you push yourself to the limit trying to elevate that you forget to slow down. But then reality slams the brakes. And sends you crashing through the windshield.

Things have thankfully been more steady since then. I’ve started to put things into perspective. But I still have times where I wish I could repeat those “four formative years”. Maybe in a different town and school.

But the bottom line is, people place WAY too much emphasis on college. It’s helpful, yes; instructive, yes. But is it the definitive “young adult” experience? Hell to the no.

Social media often lies by showing otherwise: smiling, drunken faces, exotic vacations, and beaches galore. Which is why you (and I) should probably tune it out if we want to be more well-rounded/less deluded by what we think is the “ideal” lifestyle.

As a writer I am trying to find myself through exposure: blogging, joining writers’ groups, and connecting with professionals in the field. College can certainly help that. But it’s not the ONLY thing. My goal now is to use college “strategically” rather than emotionally, in order to grow myself as a professional.

I didn’t have the “great college experience”. I spent most of the time bouncing around with uncertainty. Sometimes now I feel out of touch/socially stunted around other people my age. I feel like they experienced something I could only dream of, and that I am fathoms behind in the social world.

But I have become better at “faking” things. Because I loathe the idea of “not getting it”: like there’s some epic code that’s far surpassed me. The best thing to do is just fake it sometimes. Nothing feels worse than the sympathy pat when you tell someone you’re a “late bloomer”: that you’re still, as an adult, going through that “awkward high school development phase” that they’ve long mastered and could never understand from your perspective.

Fake it. To those around you, be the best version of yourself that you “could have” been. Just don’t take it to excesses. Don’t blow your money on boozing: put a piece of your meager paycheck into savings.

It’s not really so much about “being yourself,” contrary to public opinion. That’ll put the bad qualities front and center; you don’t want that. It’s about imagining that you already are what you want to be. Even if you’re not there yet. Ergo, fake until you make it. That shows hella more determination than simply “being yourself”.

And allows you to self-discover along the way.

At least, I guess so.

I’m currently still finding the answers.

 

 

 

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From Russia With Lies: Some Takeaways from the Comey Testimony

comey2

The moment came at last today. We got to hear former director of the FBI James Comey testify against Donald Trump. No, I won’t call him “president”.

Everyone knew Trump was a lying son of a bitch. And a man who has no respect for the rule of law. It was only a matter of time before he shot himself in the foot. Hopefully now, we can work towards throwing his ass out the White House. I hope, I hope. Impeachment takes toilsome time and effort.

Comey confirmed that the star of “The Apprentice” tried to pressure him into stopping the investigation of Michael Flynn. Several times he mentioned that Trump had tried to create a “patronage relationship” with him. During a private dinner he was given the impression that his job, as FBI director, was contingent on loyalty. The words he used were “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty”. This, along with the later words “I hope you can let this go” gave Comey the impression that the the president was trying to direct him.

Here are some other takeaways from the Comey testimony:

  • Comey, without a doubt, believes there was Russian interference in the election.

 

  • He has no doubt they were behind the leaks and cyber-intrusion.

 

  • He believes the Russian government was aware of this.

 

  • Donald Trump did NOT ask him (directly) to stop the investigation

 

  • Special Counsel should make the decision as to whether Trump’s actions “obstructed justice”.

 

  • Regular foreign correspondence becomes a counter-intelligence threat when the actions become coercive (pressure to co-opt an American on behalf of a foreign power)

 

  • He became aware of the Russian intrusion around late summer 2015

 

  • The FBI had no “direct” access to hacked data

 

  • Comey documented each of his meetings (nine conversations) with Trump due to suspicions regarding “circumstances,” “subject matter,” “being alone with the president,” and the “nature of the person

 

  • Comey never felt the need to document meetings with Obama or Bush. With Trump he was concerned about blatant dishonesty/lying, so he chose to document the meetings

 

  • There are tens of thousands of investigations going on at once in the FBI. Trump never inquired about any of the rest

 

  • Comey believes he was fired because of the way he was conducting the investigation

 

  • He never told Trump that his conduct was “inappropriate”, but spoke to the Attorney General (Jeff Sessions) and explained his concern towards the way Trump was interacting with the FBI. He described his initial reaction as being “stunned”.

 

  • He asked a friend of his, Columbia law professor Daniel C. Richman, to leak his memo to the press

 

  • Donald Trump never asked what we should be doing to protect ourselves, amidst the allegations of Russian hacking

 

  • VP Mike Pence was aware of concerns with Michael Flynn before and up to the point where he was asked to resign

 

  • He made sure to avoid making a public statement saying that the president was under investigation

 

  • He was confused by the two-faced behavior of Donald Trump: initially praising him for his work, and then turning around and firing him

 

  • He said that the Trump administration “defamed” the FBI

 

  • Comey wanted to let Trump know that info about Russian hacking had got out in media to prepare him in advance, under that context that he didn’t want to create the narrative of investigating him personally

 

As to whether or not he thinks the star of “The Apprentice” colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, Comey would not answer in an open hearing.

 

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Of Writing and “Lost Dreams”

writers-block

Here’s to answer the big question: what do I do with my PASSION? Adulting has thrown me headlong into a practical world full of practical needs: food, clothing, healthcare, taxes, and bills galore.

And one big necessity: a J-O-B. With salary benefits, of course. In my career search I am trying to combine my passion for writing with professional work. But I have always been a “creative” kind of writer.

That goes back to when I was three years old. Ever since then I’ve always been writing fiction: from picture stories to comics to full blown attempts at novels. To this blog post. But during my college years I found it difficult to reconcile my “creative” side with the practical demands of every day work.

I wondered where in the hell my place was. And it did lead into moments of depression. As much as I loved my creative writing, I did find myself becoming a little too absorbed at times, almost obsessively. No, scratch that: more than obsessively.

My writing was like a window to imagination. And, at times, it became a window of escape. Once I realized what I had been neglecting, in the form of missed-out friendships, relationships, and basic social skills, I became depressed.

But the good news is that I have recommitted myself to working harder in those areas. I want to establish my place in the practical world. I want to reassess things. Obviously, this involves sacrifice.

But lately, at times, I’ve been wondering if that sacrifice involves having to choose against the thing that I love the most. I always fantasized about being a famous author and novelist one day: but those fantasies did delude me at times. With grandeur.

But, then again, sometimes it’s the grandeur that builds creative ideas. I know mine did, and continue to do at times. But what do you do when there’s conflict between passion and practicality?

So many people talk about giving up on things they love. The tale of “abandoned dreams” runs rampant: couldn’t make a living on it, so I settled for something else. These are not necessarily sad stories: some people who “sacrificed dreams” went on to do other things that fulfilled them. They, like Levin from Anna Karenina, came to find value in simplicity, rather than constantly seeking.

As a famous wizard once said “It does not do to dwell in dreams and forget to live”. But what happens when the dream is ongoing: persistent? What happens when you have to keep “waking” yourself up?

Maybe, like Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, or King, you have a gift. Everyone thinks they do. And everyone overestimates. But sometimes you just know. Especially when you’ve put so much time and energy into it.

Sometimes I wonder if all that time and energy was worthwhile. Or for nothing. When I see myself nearly broke and searching for jobs I feel like I should have put the pen and paper aside. And spent more time working on practical things. It feels like the world has raced ahead of me.

The question becomes: do I throw aside the “creative” aspect? Is that part of my writing a “lost dream”? Sometimes I wonder. Does being “sufficient” demand that you silence large ambitions in exchange for smaller ones?

When I’m writing it feels as though an entire world is coming alive at my fingertips. It gives me a thrill to build stories: to imagine their lives of characters. What if I can’t find the same “thrill” in another ambition?

That scares me sometimes. It makes me cognizant of the fact that I’m in my 20s and can no longer spend my time living in “dreamland”. So how to re-saturate myself?

Are my stories and characters destined to live in a box? Lately, learning to sustain has been to focus point of my life. Meaning that other things have taken a backseat. Will they stay there, inevitably, I wonder?

I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing, though. That’s just too a much a part of me. Sometimes I’ve wished it away, though. In order to make myself better at other things. In order to feel more “in-touch” with them. And less isolated.

No man is an island. But a lot of writers were probably born on one. Where do we go with our passions, when the truth of reality outweighs them? Or else seems to. Because not everybody’s a Dickens or Hemingway.

When you see the divergence between your work and your talents, it feels like you have to make a decision. Either choose one or the other. And, more than likely, you’re going to choose the one that pays the bills.

But I’ll still continue writing, in whatever field I choose. Because writing IS me. Even if the more creative part doesn’t land me a bestseller. Hopefully it does one day.

Maybe this isn’t a dream “lost”. Maybe it’s a dream redefined.

 

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How to Make a Movie in 2017

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First of all, I’m not a filmmaker. I have a very layman’s understanding of lighting and camera angles. But I do enjoy good movies. Mostly great ones. I’ve seen more “great” movies than the average person.

But I’m not advising on the greats. This is a general guideline to making movies in 2017. Most importantly, movies that sell. You want to reel in those box office dollars. So without any further ado, here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Find a franchise that already exists

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Nothing says sale like a long-awaited sequel. Especially to something that was done in the 80s or 90s. Nostalgia is your friend and commodity. People love things that already exist, so it’s best to contribute to something in that range. Or, you could resurrect an old franchise with a good-new-fashioned reboot. It’s always interesting to remake a story with the same elements, but a different cast. That way your movie serves as a reminder, rather than something random or completely out of the blue. That’s what you want to give your audience as a visionary: reminders. And plots that reinforce that: let’s find out how Voldemort went bad. Or what Han Solo was like growing up. What happened five seconds before the beginning of Star Wars? A two-hour backstory might clear that up.

 

2. Use Superheroes (with cameos)

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That’s a given. Supers sell. Especially reboots and sequels. Make sure you follow the carefully constructed algorithm of introducing a not-so-average Joe or Jane who has to balance power with personal responsibility. And a power-hungry villain who wants to punish humanity for its sins. Or convince the hero that the world “isn’t worth saving”. Since the trope has been successful countless times, it gives you a basic formula to work with. Make one and then plan another superhero story right after. Followed by a backstory to one of the sidekicks. Have them branch off and create a Netflix show. And then have all the characters reunite for another superhero movie.

 

3. Find A-List Actors

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Get them to play your superheroes and reboot characters. Or else have the A-List character serve as a wise mentor for the new, up-and-coming star. Batman teaches the League. Who better than Ben Affleck? Iron Man teaches Spiderman: Robert Downey Jr. Han Solo teaches Finn: Harrison Ford. Deckard (Ford) teaches ??? in Blade Runner 2049: throw Ryan Gosling in there. He’s pretty familiar. Familiarity, like nostalgia, breeds content. It’s better to pick someone we’ve seen a hundred times, rather than someone we’ve seen only two or three.

 

4. CGI Beautification

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Nothing looks better than video games. You want to give your movie an authentic video-game look to it. Spectacle speaks very loud. Much more than substance. So blow shit up. Blow big shit up. And when filming locations, use some of the most exotic green screen you can possibly find. You know what looks better than one spaceship blowing up: two blowing up simultaneously. Have it in 3D.

 

5. DON’T Take Risks

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This one’s incredibly important. Go by the Star Wars example: if you want your film to make money, take an incredibly safe approach to it. Do everything that “fans” love and appeal to a specific, well-tuned formula that doesn’t venture too far. Have the action right here and the humor right there. DO NOT do something that you wouldn’t see in every other modern success. Replication is crucial. With a franchise you’ve already got your source material, so you don’t have to go through the arduous process of trying to think of something kind of…er…different. Use things in your movie that look exactly like other things in other movies. Or else, in the case of reboots, point your audience back to what they loved about the original. Every five minutes. That way the familiarity sticks and your movie doesn’t risk becoming authentic. Risk is the enemy.

 

 

 

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Let’s Face It: Reality Television Has Given us the Worst of Humanity

The craze started around the early 2000s and has been going strong ever since: from idiot box to Oval Office. The gripping appeal of personal space is that it isn’t so personal anymore. Note: that statement could have been written ten years ago and still been relevant.

Through the camera lens we’ve encountered a wide array of characters. Most of them would fit better in a movie plot, rather than a show about everyday life. But people enjoy live drama, as much as they enjoy it on screen.

The list is endless: Jackass, The Real World, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, American Idol, Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of Whatever-city. And, of course, there’s the Apprentice. Why mention the Apprentice? Because one bombastic character stands out above all the rest as an example of Reality culture and its pervasiveness, or rather invasiveness into civilized society.

We’ve come to love watching horrible people make horrible mistakes on camera. Or else being horrible, unbearable assholes. It’s fun to see an old, white businessman berating someone, or two drunken women fighting in clubs. And it’s even better when we get to listen to an interview directly afterwards, replete with angry, four-letter words.

That kind of entertainment has entered the public sector. CNN might as well double for VH1 in 2006. You could intercut showings of the newest 16 and Pregnant with a Breaking News story from Anderson Cooper.

Who’s to blame: us. Ratings have always spiked for Reality shows. Not just the good ones, but the absolute worst. I often hear people talk about how horrible shows like Real Housewives are. Why watch them, then? I don’t. And I’m about as easily distracted by things as most people, probably more. Stupid people aren’t worth time. Or publicity. But they know you’ll watch them, the crazier they are.

Cue Donald Trump: a man who rides on the thrill of the crowd. But not in a Jerry Garcia kind of way. More like a hyper-masculine, jingoistic war cry. It’s an “us vs. them” mentality. And what do you see in the vast majority of reality shows: me versus her/him. Constant self-glorification, at the expense of others.

Trump’s cabinet drama is almost like a living room fiasco on Jersey Shore: shit hits the fan every five minutes. Only now it has global repercussions. Like trade deals. And diplomatic stability.

The public has always loved scandal. They’ve always loved watching scandal. That’s why Reality Culture is so prevalent in the rise of Trumpism: it publicizes scandalous people. It puts them front and center. And now, with Twitter, no one needs to watch VH1 to see the drama. It’s all online.

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How can you become famous now: by letting the world know everything. And not having a filter. That’s the raw, Reality-centered approach. Why Trump: because he tells it like “it is”. Or rather the way he feels it. Why the “Cash me outside” girl? Because entertainment demands shitty people with shitty behavior, no matter how old they are.

That’s the culture of politics now: entertainment. Whoever keeps attention keeps the voters. How can you keep attention: by using a Reality-approach: keep ranting to your supporters. Make every private grievance a matter of public knowledge. Turn debates into shouting matches. It helps if you have more people tweeting what you say than the next guy. And always thrive on the prospect that low morals make for higher-than-thou ratings. Every time.

How humdrum is it to watch a candidate who actually explains things and speaks with etiquette? That’s like watching a functional family on MTV: booooooorrring. It doesn’t arouse your synapses. Yours neurons remain depressively idle, while your brain twiddles its thumbs looking for the nearest public scandal.

Your ears are attuned to outrage: it appeals to some primordial beast inside you. It gets your blood boiling, fires those idle neurons, and removes any judgment of character. Any moral filters become retrograde, once you’ve come down from the “high” of the moment.

Reality Culture works by touching the “high”. Or rather extending it as long as possible. It draws on outrage by making it entertainment. So many popular shows are about morally “unpopular” people.

So, why is it any surprise that our president reflects that?

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I Despise Tinder (But Still Use It Anyways)

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While we’re on bad Millennial habits, let’s talk about the laziest one of them all: cellular dating hookup services. I myself have two: Bumble (which is actually somewhat better, but not really) and the shallow, surface-swiping Tind: with an “-er”. Where you can sit on your ass and scroll through profiles, instead of leaving the safety of your home. It’s very convenient, no doubt.

But God-forbid, you should find a hobby and try to meet people by going out to events/parties. As a person trying to become better socially, this is actually my goal. I swipe, yes, sometimes voraciously a few times a week, sometimes at least once or twice a month. But it all feels tiring, even after matches.

In any approach you’ve got to present yourself in a way that is “socially desirable”. Which is only right. Call it shaving, applying lotion to your ashy-assed skin, bathing, brushing. More importantly it means expressing yourself with a magical “c-word”: confidence. Now, try to put that on five pictures, and a 150-300 character bio. Condense the initial approach, with all its subtle nuances, laughs, and awkward pauses. More importantly, silence and replace them with a GIF from Friends.

What do you have: the most “convenient” way to meet and greet. Minus a few human touches. Actually, more of a personal algorithm. Yes, yes, no, no, yes, yes, and so on. And I use it simply because it’s “convenient”. Not because I like it. I tend to hate dating apps, for the simple reason that trying to improve social, interpersonal skills requires looking beyond them.

I’d rather there was a month in the year where we all took a Tinder fast. And, instead of swiping for matches, went to local “Singles” events. If you’re socially disinclined, oh, well-get over it…I’m a recovering “Introvert” too. I agree that the crowded bar scene is terrible, especially with loud, blaring music and flashing lights. That’s not the place to look either. But think of a nice venue with good food and good company. Throw in a few Tinder-disillusioned adults who are sick of swiping. You might not have “matches” but at least you’ll have interaction.

And by that, I mean “interaction”: in the purer, less digital sense of the world. I don’t mean to sound like an “old man”. I’m only 23. Which is why I want to enjoy life more while I’m young, in the best way possible: by spending time with others, be they friends, family, or relationships. Not swipes.

But, as we speak, my profile is still hypocritically active. It’s kind of just there. I may go on a random swipe binge in a few days. And then just lay it aside, until matches. But I’m not going to spend the rest of the time wondering why there aren’t alternatives. I’m going to be actively seeking alternatives. Better alternatives. Or at least working in them, for starters.

And, another thing: from the people I’ve spoken to (including myself), Tinder rarely leads to anything past one or two dates. I landed a nice date one time on Bumble and haven’t heard back since. My friend told me that that’s just the way it is: you’ve got to go into Tinder expecting to match, meet for a date, and then probably never see or hear from that person ever again. That can happen with or without Tinder: people passing in and out of life, especially dates. It just doesn’t feel as empty.

If I were going to put ALL my faith in online dating, I certainly wouldn’t choose Tinder. I would go on something more professional, like E-Harmony, where you actually look at someone based on interests/values, rather than just a profile photo. E-Harmony uses photos too, but I’m assuming the people there actually take time to read ABOUT the person.

I’m not saying Tinder users are lazy. I’m saying we’re unwilling to take more substantive efforts to mingle while single. We’re unmotivated to take chances socially. We’re more than likely shallow judges of character. We’re seekers of immediate satisfaction. Whatever takes the most time and effort repels us.

I’m saying we’re EXTREMELY lazy. Myself included. The most adventurous/confident I felt recently was when one time when I hopped in my car and drove out after the Cavs won the championship. It was a late summer night, in 2016. And Stephan Curry had just had his ass handed to him. Anyways, I rode down to Case Western, just because I wanted to be around other excited Clevelanders. Walking down the street I saw a very attractive woman cheering as one (of dozens) of cars went racing by, horns blaring with triumph. I don’t remember what the hell I said. All I know is I approached her and then we had drinks at the bar. And talked for close to two hours. I felt alive, at that moment. Even though that occasion didn’t lead to a serious relationship, it was a unique achievement for me.

That’s the kind of adventure I want to seek. One with balls (metaphorically speaking) rather than trepidation. Being good on Tinder doesn’t make you confident, or a master of relationships. It just means you’ve mastered the laziest way of forming them. You’ve mastered the cons of Millennialhood. The prize should be a trophy made out of pure 20-karat GIF. Instead of gold.

But then again, it’s really convenient. If you’re lazy enough, you may meet that “special someone” who’s just as lazy. For about three dinners.

Oh well.

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The Millennials: Why I Have a Love/Hate Relationship with Our Generation

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Facebook. Social media. College debt. Progressive values. Impatience. Ambition. Social Consciousness. Job-hopping. Tech-savvy. Diverse. Adaptable. Big dreams. Over-educated. Entitled. Health-oriented. Social retardation. Mental health issues.

These are words I would generally use to describe the pros and cons of my current generation. Our age bracket usually falls in between early 20s and mid 30s today. We’re the ones always bingeing Netflix. And posting on Facebook. And swiping Tinder. And trying to start small businesses. And trying to change the world, one online video share at a time. Or else venturing into some sort of post post-modern form of artistic/creative expression. A lot of us are stacking degrees. And debt. And traveling. And going vegan.

We’re also seen as socially inept: attached to our screens. And, politically, we’re pissed off. VERY pissed off. But hopeful about the future, somehow. I will say, though, a lot of us have terrible tastes in music. And it shows in what’s popular. But the music scene has started to improve recently (post 2010). And become more innovative.

We have most certainly inherited one of the worst cultural environments in American history. We entered an unpromising job market, college careers worth more their weight in loans than prestige, economic recession, overseas war, political turmoil, constant violence worldwide, and human relations governed purely by technology. We went from instant messaging and paging to cellular dialing, texting, Ipods, Myspace, Facebook, Tweeting, Instagraming, live-streaming, YouTubing, blogging, and Netflix and chill. Most of our entertainment is either the golden age of television, or the tiresome reboot, rehash age of cinema.

We might have gone to high school with a few emos that later evolved into “independent” hipsters with independent hipster beards, independent musical tastes, flannel clothes, skinny jeans and other fashion trends that would throw anyone’s “gaydar” into disarray.

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But that’s just one type. You might have gone to high school with several white boys who absolutely LOVE Snoop Dogg and other black music, then evolved into bro-ish college drunks who constantly pollute your Facebook wall with conservative political rants and “erudite” theories as to why Black Lives Matter is a hate group. Then they start wearing MAGA hats and voting for Trump.

I would break down my love/hate relationship with Generation Y based on two categories. One of the things that Millennials have often been complimented for, besides technical innovation, is their building, entrepreneurial spirit. These are the professionals, typically older Millennials in their late 20s and early 30s. Basically business casual, with a checked Men’s Wearhouse shirt (no tie), Dockers khaki pants, and maybe a fitted blazer. Again, just a generalization.

These are the start-up guys and girls: the ones who want to network and build. A lot probably left their old, status quo jobs for something more adventurous. Unlike the Silent Generation, they’re not going to sit down and work just for the sake of living. They want fulfillment, not standard routine, from 9-5. A lot of them are experts in digital media and networking. They want to build a brand. They want to self-manage, but do so in a way that fosters connections across a wide range of people. And they’re hopeful, witty, and have a somewhat off-brand sense of humor. They enjoy brunch and coffee. And hiking and traveling. And networking with all walks of life.

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These people are very practical, but also very creative at the same time. They have a business that smiles in a happy, quirky way. And they’re all about teamwork.

Now, let’s talk about the other kind. These are typically younger Millennials who, between the years of 2011 and Present Day, would fall into the 17-25 range. A lot are college students, or recently graduated. These are the entitled ones. These are the “online ones.”

The best way to describe them would be over-opinionated. They can’t have a conversation with someone they disagree with on the most minute issues without affirming moral superiority. They come in “far-rights” and “far lefts”. They are microcosmic examples of the same forces tearing our country apart socially and politically. Remember my mention of the white boy who used to “love” black culture in high school? Now he’s on Facebook complaining about “political correctness”. And, on the opposing side, you’ve got the equally self-righteous groups who want to prove their loyalty to social justice through long-winded posts, constant replies, and dramatic displays of public outrage. Both of these polarized groups want you to know EVERYTHING wrong with society. They have an overly romantic notion of the way the world should be and will often go into shouting matches over it.

Typically these are the people who spend their entire lives digging up dirt on others. Which isn’t such a bad thing when certain people need to be exposed. Like our president. But Broseph517, or DopeDivadynasty on Twitter isn’t exactly worth spending hours trying to expose to your friends, just so you can make a moral point. Shaming and shitting on others via social media has really gone to an extreme. People have the boldness to be assholes online when they don’t have to look you directly in the eyes. That’s a hallmark of our generation, in addition to some of the older ones.

Social media-driven relations have both helped and retarded our development as social beings. For the professional Millennial, it is a vessel for brand promotion. For the entitled Millennial (both “alt-right” and “PC”) , it is a vessel for self-promotion. It’s simply a place to lodge your private grievances. We’re all (myself included) guilty of that.

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Social media is a reflection of our currently divided society. Who are the biggest social media users? According to Pew, those in the 18-49 range. Which includes us, as well as parts of Gen X. But mostly us. If I were to describe the “entitled” Millennials in one phrase, it would be “too much, too soon”. Too much information dump. Too much arguing. Too much social impairment. Too much over-analyzing. And too much pontificating. Not enough cohesion. A lot (but of course not all) of the “professional” ones have either grown out of that phase, or else never had it to begin with. And not all of them are necessarily “older”. Some of the best, most professional ones are younger Millennials.

As a younger Millennial I have noticed this trend around me, and have struggled to overcome parts of it myself. I’ve fallen into the negative habits at times, admittedly. But now, and especially now, I see the value of the positive ones. Disillusionment is unfortunately very common among Millennials. But, so is creativity. It’s just good to have a fair mix of constructive cynicism (as weird as that sounds), and creative, professional insight. Rather than tipping the scales completely in one direction.

But we do suck at dating. That I’ll admit. Not just partly, but overall. Hookup culture affirms our horrible relationship skills. No, I don’t care if you had fun getting wasted and laying up with a bunch of Tinder-strangers: it sucks as a road-to-dating culture.

Whoops, there goes a social rant. I guess that’s me just being a total Millennial. Petty, petty, petty. But also creative.

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So long, Samurai Jack

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Saturday night brought eternal tears to my eyes. It was the long-awaited closure to one of the greatest animated shows of all time. In the last half hour of Samurai Jack, we got to see Jack finally defeat Aku (with the help of some friends), liberate Ashi from the darkness, return to the past, and have a happy ending. Sort of.

Then they pulled a major downer by killing Ashi right when she walked down the wedding aisle. Damn, son. But it’s one to be expected: as the literal “daughter” of Aku, born of his dark essence, Ashi’s life-force was bound to him. His death effectively changed the past, erasing her from history.

I kind of saw it coming, but didn’t know they were going to hit it THAT hard. We see Jack finally home, the world back to normal, and reunited with his family. We see his mother and the bridesmaids preparing Ashi for her wedding. All Jack’s friends are there for the big day (at least his friends from the past). And then as he’s watching her walk down the aisle, she falls. Jack rushes to her aid, and in her dying breaths she whispers that, without Aku, she is slowly fading. Then she vanishes in his arms, leaving behind only a wedding dress. Think Back to the Future. Except more tragic.

The show ends on a somber but hopeful note as the samurai, now alone, rides away into the woods. The air is dark and ominous. But then a ladybug flutters by, soft and gentle, reminding both Jack and the viewer of Ashi. It’s a warm remembrance that harkens back to a turning point for her character.

And then the sun shines, revealing a beautiful red tree, that looks somewhat identical to the one he showed her earlier in the season. If you recall, the tree was symbolic as one of the one last living things that Aku hasn’t destroyed in the future. It is nature, untouched and unblemished.

And credits roll. Wow. I immediately wanted more. Sure, parts of the episode happened very fast, but it came together in one tremendous conclusion. And still left me wanting more. And maybe that’s the best way to end a show: give it a proper send off. Instead of rebooting and rehashing every five to ten years, until the proverbial milk runs dry.

I saw this season of Samurai Jack as more of a finale, rather than a reboot or sequel. The story had never ended before that. Sure, the show went off, but we never got to see the final showdown between Jack and Aku. We never saw him return to the past. This season  and its finale gave us closure.

And a lot of fan service. In episodes six and ten (the finale) we saw the return of old characters, such as the Scotsman, the Talking Dogs, Olivia and the techno-ravers (at least a new generation), the Spartans, the Blind Archers, the Woolies, Da’ Samurai, the Triseraquins (I wonder if I’m spelling that right), the “Jump-Good” apes, and the robots from episode 41 commandeering a “giant stone samurai”. I almost jumped out of my seat when I saw them racing to Jack’s aid. It was a very heartfelt, nostalgic moment.

I loved how Tartakovsky unified the show by bringing some of its most classic, beloved characters together for the final showdown. Typically, Samurai Jack is a “different world, different” show, where most characters very seldom last for more than a single episode, as Jack moves on in his quest. This season gave us more consistency by referring back to those characters, first in the episode where Ashi goes seeking Jack, and then in the series finale. I just wish (teary-eyed) we could have had one last showdown with the Guardian from episode 32 (he’s the blue guy with sunglasses who talks like a black guy).

Nonetheless it warmed my heart incredibly to see the return of these characters. Tartakovsky really was thinking of the fans when he brought them back. Most importantly, though, he was thinking of the storyline. Samurai Jack has saved so many people that it only makes sense they would band together and come to his rescue.

So many emotions went rushing through me during that episode. But afterwards I kept thinking, is this really the end? To a show that I grew up loving and watching obsessively? As much as I wanted conclusion, how could things just wrap up like that? Cue confusion, and then a much more somber emotion: sadness. It’s over, I kept thinking. After starting again for eleven weeks (thanks to Rick and Morty). I read the Twitter comments, ranging from shocked to devastated. But they all shared one thing in common: praise. And thankfulness to Gendy Tartakovsky for bringing us such an incredible show. He practically raised us with Jack. I’ll always have fond memories of watching brand new episodes every Friday. When you start a show at age 8 and then finish it at 23, it’s bound to pull on some heartstrings. And every moment of this season reminded me of the show I loved, keeping its essence fresh after 16 years. (No pun intended by the word “essence”, Demongo. If you’re a true fan, you’ll get the joke).

Well, it’s over. I now have to move through life knowing our friendly, neighborhood Samurai is at the end of his quest. But, like the fans, I am grateful. The show ended on its highest note possible. I honestly couldn’t have asked for more. Well, maybe a few more episodes. But I was thoroughly impressed by the show’s conclusion. And, like many others, will now go back and relive all four previous seasons.

It’s been a great ride, from start to finish. See you later, Samurai.

 

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Samurai Jack Comes to a Close

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It’s one week until the series finale (drumroll…). And I had actually planned to write on this much sooner, but prior obligations have kept me away from my blog for some time. Excuses, excuses, excuses.

Anyway, the best thing about TV in 2017 (besides This Is Us) might be the revival of the classic kids’ show, Samurai Jack, on Adult Swim. And by “classic” I mean 13 years old. Either way, the show dropped off sometime in 2004 with no conclusion to the saga of Jack fighting his way back to the past in order to save his family and undo the evils of shapeshifting demon Aku.

The good news this year was, they decided to bring it back. The bad news: only for 10 episodes. Creator Gendy Tartakovsky assured that Season 5 would see the end of Jack’s journey home, giving fans the conclusion they’ve all been waiting for. And he catered it perfectly to childhood fans by maturing the show for a now older audience.

In the first episode we see an ageless, yet aged Jack, complete with a beard. He’s still defending people from the minions of Aku, but now bears a heavy burden: he’s plagued with cries of his people, and the guilt of leaving them behind after all this time. Cartoon Network decides to go darker with this than ever before when it explores Jack’s demons. It gives a harder edge to the show when it shows Jack, for arguably the first time (previous episodes kinda blurred the lines) killing another human being. We see the blood. We see the panic. And, through flashback, we later see a young Jack traumatized from watching his father, the emperor, kill several assassins that are attacking his family. The show gives a much deeper context here by explaining Jack’s code of honor not just as a matter of virtue, but personal pain. It is something he has to face when fighting the Daughters of Aku.

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Speaking of whom, we see the show introduce us to a new character: Ashi. The greatest of the seven daughters (and fully badass), she has, like her sisters, been trained from an early age to hunt the samurai. After failing her mission she and Jack are swallowed up by a giant sea beast. Stuck together, the two begin a rather tumultuous relationship as Jack, rather than killing, tries to convince her to change her ways.

Soon the hard-as-nails Ashi begins to soften as she sees the world from a different view. She learns about the true evils of Aku. She encounters many people that Jack has saved in the past. And, now free from the darkness of Aku (well…sort of), she aids the samurai on his long lost quest for home. And so the two begin their purely platonic, Tumblr-inspired “father and daughter” relationship (laughs).

Jack reclaims his sword, his gi (garments), and clean-shaven face, after going on a vision quest. And soon he finds something he has never had before: love. The show delves into mushy, but delightful romance, as the “father and daughter” mentor-student relationship between Jack and Ashi becomes more and more intimate. And it does it in some of the funniest ways, including sexual innuendos that are surprisingly innocent, given the chaste nature of the two characters. It’s actually very cute at times, and enough to enrage Tumblr apparently. We get an episode ending where the two, after fighting their way through a giant monster, lock lips after some heavily suggestive breathing. Dean Martin plays in the background.

The show is once more replete with everything great about Samurai Jack: the dystopian landscapes, the epic fight scenes, the return of some old favorites (The Scotsman, and several other past characters), beautifully stylized animation that even surpasses the original, cultural references, and scenes that reflect the quiet, Leone-esque way of showing-not-telling a story.

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It even has a robot assassin character based on Sammy Davis Jr. I nearly laughed my ass off when I saw it. Yale students erroneously decried this an a homophobic depiction. Being smart doesn’t stop you from being culturally tone-deaf, apparently.

And the show has embraced its Adult Swim license in a myriad of ways. There’s a lot more blood and violence (but not excruciating Tarantino amounts), character nudity (but kind of covered), darker themes of suicide, fear, and PTSD, a few mild but PG-rated swear words, and some lightly-sprinkled innuendos. And there’s a penis joke. Yes, Samurai Jack has a penis joke. Actually two. The first one is uttered by Scaramouche, the jazzy, sweet-talking, and clearly homophobic but not in any way Sammy Davis robot character. The second is a classic “what’s poking me, doc” joke, featuring Jack’s sword.

In the penultimate episode, Jack begins his face off with Aku. And the part about Ashi being free from darkness, well…not so much. We find out Aku impregnated her mother. And now he uses his evil to take over her, forcing her to fight Jack. Gut punch. At the end of the episode Ashi begs Jack to kill her before the evil spreads, turning her into a monster. And Jack falls, dropping his sword. Aku picks it up victoriously.

As I said earlier, the saddest part of the show’s revival is that we only have ten episodes. As of now, it’s nine down and one more to go. The Rick and Morty April Fools prank gave us one more week, or else the show would have just ended. I don’t want Jack to end. As a childhood fan, I can honestly say that this was my favorite show growing up. Season 5 suffers from the dilemma of being too damn-near-perfect to end. After hitting all the right notes the piano is about to go dreadfully silent. Arguably, it could have been even more perfect, if we had at least 13 episodes, like all the preceding seasons. Maybe we could have even seen a rematch with the Guardian (instead his broken glasses were found on the ground).

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But I really am grateful to see Samurai Jack make its return, even if only to close the series. It’s brought me pure joy to see a great show that, after 13 years, still hasn’t lost it mojo. In fact, it’s perfected it. I just hope that maybe, after a little fan pressure, Gendy Tartakovsky would kinda, sorta, possibly consider leaving the door open. Having mastered the Saturday night ratings, Jack would make the perfect edition to the Adult Swim lineup. And it opens the way for more darker, deeper storytelling, allowing the show to maximize its potential in ways that it couldn’t before. If you’re listening, Gendy…

At least it’s an exciting prospect. Even if it doesn’t happen. Either way, it’s been a wonderful nine-going-on-ten ten going on eleven (because of Rick and Morty) weeks. Glad we finally made it to the end. See you back in the past, Samurai. As I re-watch all my Season 1, 2, 3, and 4 DVD sets.

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Before Trump was crazy we had people like this guy: Daniel E. Sickles

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Lying, tweeting, fondling, fibbing, and firing-oh my. Those are a few words you might use to describe the White House administration right now. Craziness abounds in our current political climate. But it’s really nothing new.

We’ve always had our “deviants” to say the least: people whose actions fall outside the realm of civil discourse. Many of them have held and continue to hold public office, much to the chagrin of our American morals. You may or may not remember the speech where Donald Trump said, in so many words, that he could walk in the street, shoot somebody and not lose votes.

Well, the truth is that actually happened once. Not to him obviously but another politician, way back in the 1800s. He really did shoot somebody, in a fit of rage. The man’s name was Daniel E. Sickles.

Even his birth date remains in dispute: some say he was born October 29, 1819 in New York City, though the date may possibly be October 20, 1825, six years later. Sickles, raised in a wealthy family, started his career as a lawyer and politician in New York during the infamous Tammany Hall era. No doubt as crooked as Tweed, Sickles used his connections to gain several prominent offices, including corporation counsel of New York City when he was 28 (Krajicek, NY Daily News).

His cronyism also won him a seat on the New York State Senate in 1855, for two consecutive terms. In 1857 he was elected to the House of Representatives.

Five years earlier he had married his wife, Teresa Bagioli, in 1852. She would come to be a key player in the shooting scandal involving Sickles. It wasn’t exactly ideal: he was 33 and she was 15. Statutory rape laws weren’t exactly in full force then. Even creepier is the fact that Bagioli was the daughter of his music teacher, so Sickles had probably known her since infancy.

Her family, rightly so, wouldn’t consent to the marriage, prompting the two to conduct one in a civil ceremony. After tying the knot (and winning a congressional seat) the couple moved to D.C. where they spent most of their marriage. They lived large and lavish, acquainting themselves with the upper crust of society.

The Sickles were quite an attraction. Especially the missus. Teresa Bagioli was well known for her “superior” beauty. To boot, she was also skilled at horseback riding, as well as fluent in Italian and French (Krajicek, NY Daily News).

But their lavish marriage was marked with infidelity. Sickles, like any “respectable” politician, kept many mistresses. His affairs were pretty extensive, and included Fanny White, the owner of a New York brothel.

When they moved to Washington the couple leased a mansion at Lafayette Square, just across from the White House. There they held dinners for the rich and famous in D.C. As a result the Sickles became very popular in social circles. But the public was still aware of their private lives.

They had a reputation for being unfaithful. And it wasn’t just Daniel; his political lifestyle kept him constantly occupied, leaving his wife Teresa “lonely”. Their social connections put them in contact with a whole range of prominent figures including D.C. District Attorney Phillip Barton Key, who Teresa began to casually meet with. (Fun fact: he was the son of Francis Scott key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner). Eventually the two started a romantic affair.

Teresa took advantage of her husband’s away time. During Sickles’s absences she and Key would consort in the parlor. They would meet in quiet places around the city, even bedding down in cemeteries. Eventually Key rented a house in a poor section of D.C. where the two could meet undetected.

The affair soon became the talk of the town, especially among Washington elites. The scandalous news struck home, inevitably, when Sickles received an anonymous letter detailing the whole affair.

The result: Sickles forced his wife to sign a confession, which she felt only her duty as a “woman of shame”.

But the troubles didn’t end there. On February 27, 1859, a fatal event occurred. It was morning and Key was waiting across the street from the Sickles’ residence at Lafayette Park. His damning mistake: waving a handkerchief to get Teresa’s attention while her husband just happened to be watching.

And shit got real. After Daniel saw this he grabbed several (not one) pistols and stormed out of the house enraged. He ran into the square and confronted his rival in broad daylight. Sickles infamously screamed out “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die!” before drawing his gun and firing, in the presence of dozens of people (Soniak, Mental Floss).

He shot Key first in the hand. The two men grappled and Sickles drew another weapon and shot him twice: once in the groin and once in the chest. The wounded Key was hauled off afterwards but later died of his injuries. Supposedly he had pleaded for his life.

Sickles fled at first then turned himself in to police several hours later. He was charged with murder and thrown in jail. The murder didn’t wound his reputation so much; while awaiting trial many people came to visit Sickles, wishing him luck. He hosted many guests, such as Congressmen and high-ranking federal officials. He even received a personal note from President James Buchanan. Sounds like high praise for a lunatic.

But the shooting Senator did have his detractors as well. The case became a scandal, putting a bitter taste in many people’s mouths. It became a symbol of America’s declining values. Sickles had already been no stranger to controversy: he had once been reprimanded by the New York State Senate for bringing a prostitute into the chamber.

How could such a licentious man as Sickles be such a prominent public figure? And now, was he really above the law? One court case would tell so.

On trial Sickles was represented by Future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. His argument: that Sickles was obliged by “unwritten law” to protect his marriage from infidelity (Krajicek, NY Daily News). But then again, killing someone seems a little drastic, right? Now if you apply the right judgment: or rather in Sickles’s case, the lack of proper judgment.

The attorneys, so adept in bullshitting, argued that Sickles’s wife’s infidelity had driven him to “temporary insanity”. Ergo, a crime of passion. Ergo, the man was completely out of his mind when he acted on impulse.

There was reason to go for an “insanity plea”: historically speaking, courts spared criminals judged to be “mentally ill”, in the Middle Ages either whisking them off to asylum without trial, or referring them to a king for royal pardon.

But those were the Middle Ages. The modern “insanity defense” is said to originate in the case of Daniel M’Naghten, a Scottish woodworker who believed himself to be the target of a conspiracy by the pope and British Prime Minister [at the time] Robert Peel (Soniak, Mental Floss).

In 1843, M’Naghten tried to kill Peel at 10 Downing Street, but failed in his attempt. Instead, the botched assassination resulted in the death of the prime minister’s secretary, Edward Drummond.

During M’Naghten’s trial he was examined closely by psychiatrists who found him delusional. As a result the jury acquitted him.

This started an outcry, prompting the House of Lords to convene a special session. Here they discussed insanity under the law and came up with the M’Naghten Rules.

These basically say that a defendant can be acquitted if “at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of the wrongfulness of his actions” (Soniak, Mental Floss).

Its American counterpart was the case of Richard Lawrence who, thus far in the time of Sickles, was the only person in the U.S. acquitted for insanity. His crime: shooting at Andrew Jackson because he believed himself to be heir to the British throne and that the president was trying to keep him from claiming it.

In American law 25 states use a similar version of the M’Naghten Rules, while 20 (and Washington D.C.) go by the Model Penal Code Standard established in 1962 by the American Law Institute. Under this the defendant is not fully responsible if “at the time of his conduct as a result of mental disease or defect the defendant lacked substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law” (Soniak, Mental Floss).

Sickles’s attorneys managed to convince the jury that their client, the shooting senator, was every bit as unhinged as this. His “temporary insanity” rested on the fault of his insubordinate wife, rather than on his own actions and behavior.

And the jury concurred. Sickles, a politician who had committed murder in broad daylight, was shockingly acquitted. This would go down to be the first time a temporary insanity plea was successfully used in the United States.

Even more shocking to the public was the fact that Sickles didn’t divorce his wife. Teresa would later die of tuberculosis in 1867.

Sickles’s popularity took a nosedive. Many people did not associate with him after that, and he subsequently did not win reelection to Congress. He returned to New York in 1861 a dishonored man.

But Sickles’s story was hardly ended there. Duty would call in the form of military service. More specifically, the Civil War. Sickles started out serving as Colonel for the 70th New York Infantry. He was later appointed brigadier general of volunteers and given the command of New York’s Excelsior Brigade (CivilWar.org).

In 1862 he was promoted to major general. Sickles would come to serve in the Peninsula campaign, with Joseph Hooker’s Third Corps, and also the Chancellorsville campaign.

Sickles’s insubordinate ways continued into his military career. In the Chancellorsville campaign he was given orders to survey Confederate lines as word spread of their approach. Joseph Hooker was in command of his fighting force, the Army of the Potomac. He made the fatal error of assuming Sickles had come upon a band of retreating Confederates. Instead of pulling Sickles back to the main Union lines, he left him and his 18,000 man corps almost a mile and a half away from Federal support. This left a huge gap in the lines, which Stonewall Jackson’s army exploited by attacking the right flank. Sickles, unable to reach the main line, secured himself at Hazel Grove. When Hooker asked him to give it up he refused. The Confederates later seized it and dealt a decisive blow to the Union center lines (CivilWar.org).

Another famous screw-up: disobeying orders during Gettysburg. Sickles’s job was to cover Round Tops on the Union’s left flank. Instead he moved his men to a place called Peace Orchard. As a result the Third Corps was overrun and driven from the battlefield.

In this campaign Sickles lost his right leg, via cannonball. After being awarded the Medal of Honor he donated the leg to the Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. It’s still there now on display.

Sickles was put to other work after the war. He was sent to the South by Lincoln where he reported to him on the vile effects of slavery and offered suggestions for Reconstruction. He also served as a diplomat to Colombia, Military Governor of South Carolina, Minister to Spain, and New York City Sheriff, to name just a few.

Daniel E. Sickles died on May 3, 1914 in New York City of a cerebral brain hemorrhage. He is buried at Arlington.

Sources:

Soniak, Matt “Crazy Talk: A Jealous Congressman and America’s First Insanity Defense” Mental Floss. May 10, 2012. http://mentalfloss.com/article/30632/crazy-talk-jealous-congressman-and-americas-first-insanity-defense

Krajicek, David J. “New York’s killer congressman” NY Daily News.com. March 25, 2008. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/new-york-killer-congressman-article-1.306086

Biography: Daniel E. Sickles. Civil War Trust. https://www.civilwar.org/learn/biographies/daniel-e-sickles

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Bizarre Movie Theories: Zootopia was really about the crack epidemic

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Furry animals, funny jokes, anthropomorphic cops. And drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Zootopia is the story of “furry” Judy Hopps: a brave, young rabbit trying to make her way as the first of her kind in policing.

Typically rabbits in Zootopia are thought to be harmless, cute little bunnies whose only two purposes in life are farming and breeding. And they’re seen as incredibly dumb. But Judy wants to transcend this stereotype and enters the police academy to become the first ever rabbit cop.

While her job starts out small (Meter Maid! Meter Maid! Meter Maid!), she gradually rises up the ranks by doing what every movie cop does: solving a major mystery. Along the way she encounters Nick Wilde, a sly fox who hustles his way as a con artist. The two team up after Hopps cleverly blackmails him, in order to find out what happened to 14 “missing mammals” who have recently disappeared.

Nick and Judy’s epic search leads them into the underbelly of Zootopia where they meet Mr. Big, a pint-sized crime boss and clear cultural reference to the Godfather (aka Marlon Brando).

And along the way they uncover a conspiracy: involving drugs. One of the victims mentions something called “night howlers” just before going savage. At first Hopps suspects that the “night howlers” are actually wolves when they discover that another mammal was kidnapped by them.

Hopps and Nick sneak into an asylum guarded by wolves where they discover all the other missing predators being kept for investigation. What’s more, the mayor, Lionheart, is found to be behind this operation. He is later arrested and replaced by the seemingly mild-mannered Dawn Bellwether (a sheep).

After a press conference Hopps unwittingly stirs up public agitation by suggesting an underlying biological cause behind the mammals’ savage behavior. Naturally this creates a rift between her and Nick, but later the two make up and join forces once Hopps finds out that the mammals’ “savage” behavior is actually being engineered by forces outside their control.

She realizes that the “night howlers” are actually flowers containing toxins that induce powerful psychological effects. Mammals have been secretly targeted, due to their susceptibility to the toxin: it causes them to become “hyper-aggressive” and go into a violent, feral state.

And it turns out that these illicit drugs are being manufactured in an underground laboratory, extremely similar to Breaking Bad. Basically, he converts the chemical to a liquid toxin and then places it into paintball pellets, which are later fired at predators, driving them into a feral rage.

But there’s more: the real architect of this “conspiracy” is newly-instated Mayor Bellwether. She has instigated this whole thing, with the assistance of Doug, the Walter White-esque chemist, who has been shooting mammals with pellets loaded with the night howler drug.

Her rationale: supremacy. She wants to widen the segregation gap between “biologically prone” mammals and “prey”. If “predator” creatures are seen as inherently violent they will be removed from the city, establishing prey as the dominant species.

What does this have to do with the “crack epidemic” conspiracy?

Well, the story (whether fact or fiction) goes that the Reagan administration, along with the CIA, conspired with the Contras in a covert arms deal that allowed tons of cocaine into the U.S., specifically L.A., where it was converted into crack and distributed, en masse, to lower-income black communities.

The “lawful” response was mass incarceration: in 1986 lawmakers invented the 100-to-1 rule, in which possession of crack can warrant the exact same sentence as having a quantity of cocaine that is ten times larger. According to the Controlled Substances Act, five grams of crack would come with a mandatory minimum of five years in prison; while it would take about 500 grams of powder cocaine to do the same Over 50 grams would warrant a 10-year minimum sentence (US News).

Obviously this law targeted poor minorities. Rich people were the heaviest users of pure, powder cocaine, while crack cocaine was the drug of choice for the urban poor.

Black men, specifically (and other minorities) were disproportionately thrown in jail as a result. Mass incarceration gained its true systematic power under the Reagan administration.

It was only after the publication of a controversial, three-part story by U.S. journalist Gary Webb that the American public gained its exposure to what came to be known as the “Dark Alliance”: a conspiracy between the CIA and the Contras to allow illicit drugs into the country that resulted in the destruction of black communities. This story first appeared in Mercury News on August 18, 1996 (Narconews.com).

What was the background: the Nicaraguan civil war. In June 1979, the left-wing Sandinista guerrillas had destroyed the U.S. backed army of dictator Anastasio Somoza. One of the key players in the Somozan government, Oscar Danilo Blandon, fled to California with his family.

Blandon was the head of a multi-million dollar program financed by the U.S. government. During the war Sandinista forces had confiscated his family’s assets. After fleeing Nicaragua Blandon began to meet up with other exiles connected to the Somozan government. By 1981 they started working to rebuild its army: the Nicaraguan national guard.

Among the people Blandon connected with was Enrique Bermudez, a military commander hired by the CIA to salvage the Nicaraguan national guard. Another key player in the operation was Juan Norwin Meneses, another refugee who was already infamous for drug trafficking. He was placed in charge of security intelligence for the FDN in California.

The Contras and their associate organizations needed money for their operations. Weapons would not come easy without something to sell in return. Supposedly Bermudez didn’t know that the Contras’ funding would come from drug profits. But Meneses and Blandon were already at the works.

Blandon was put on delivery runs to L.A., bringing enormous amounts of cocaine to the U.S. The only problem was how to market it: cocaine had gained its reputation as the “rich man’s” drug. Fast profits to fund the Contra war would depend on a much more open market. The result: crack cocaine. If they converted expensive white powder into nuggets that could be smoked rather than snorted, poorer people could afford it. But they would still need a distributor.

They found this in the form of “Freeway Ricky” Ross, a high school dropout who connected with Nicaraguan dealer Henry Corrales. At 19 he started his empire in South Central, building a network of clientele. Blandon would sell him up to 100 kilos of powder a week, which Ross converted to crack rocks. This established a pipeline between Colombian cartels and black neighborhoods.

A lot of the clientele were gangs (Bloods and Crips). But that didn’t stop the “crack epidemic” from permeating every part of the community, from streets to schools and homes.

Much of the money gained was laundered through a Florida bank and then funneled to the Contra rebels. The crack boom allowed them to fund their war against the Sandinista regime.

While crack is no “night howler” (affecting only a specific population with certain effects), the effects are equally destructive to pretty much everyone, even more so due to its addictive qualities. As the lesser brother of cocaine it comes with a faster high and a swifter comedown, leaving the body craving for more. Though it can give you a feeling of bliss or euphoria, the high can quickly spiral into violent psychosis. Ergo, more aggressive behavior. As the comedown hits and withdrawal symptoms set in, the addict becomes more and more desperate to maintain their habit. Which can lead to crime. Other effects on the mind include delusion, vicious mood swings, and hallucinations.

At the height of his business, Ricky Ross was moving about $2 million to $3 million of crack per day. He became known throughout California and beyond as the new kingpin of crack cocaine. And his business extended into many neighborhoods across the country, destroying black communities as it went.

Where does the whole “government conspiracy” idea come in: well there’s the fact that the Reagan administration and CIA actively supported the Contra army. Losing a foothold in Nicaragua meant less U.S. domination, specifically as certain parts of the economy shifted from privatized to nationalized.

By now it’s common knowledge that the Contras were backed and funded by the U.S. government. What the whole “Dark Alliance” conspiracy emphasizes is that, although the U.S. was aware of dangerous drug activity, they did absolutely nothing to stop it, turning a blind eye as tons of cocaine came pouring onto U.S. shores.

Webb’s assertion is that, with such close collusion between the CIA and the Contras, how could they not know about the trafficking? Blandon’s later testimony affirmed that the CIA “covertly” supported the Contras. Another accusation by Webb is that there were shipments of drugs on Salvadoran Air Force planes sent to an air force base in Texas.

According to a History channel documentary, America’s War on Drugs, there were military planes with weapons sent to Nicaragua that later returned to the U.S. with drugs.

The whistleblower in this case was Celerino Castillo, an agent for the DEA who was selected for undercover operations during the U.S. War on Drugs. Initial suspicions drove him to investigate a base in El Salvador, where he began tracking planes by pilot and tail number. He noticed that one pilot in particular was Barry Seal, an American smuggler and DEA informant/operative. After discovering other drug runners he reported this to the U.S. ambassador.

What he found out was that one of them was working for Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban exile and ardent anti-Communist, who fought in the Bay of Pigs, as well as Vietnam. Being an operative for the CIA, he claimed to have close ties with the Vice President at the time, George H.W. Bush.

In spite of Castillo’s allegations his superiors refused to follow up on them, according to his story. Fate had a hard way of dealing “justice” to Barry Seal: assassination by the Colombian cartel. This happened after a seizure of cocaine shipments by the DEA implicated him in the crimes. Though he was supposed to be a “protected witness”, Seal was easily gunned down in public.

With pictures showing drugs being loaded onto planes as well as stories that he was personally working under the CIA to fly weapons to Contra forces, Seal had made himself an open target.

Not too soon after his death, Sandinistas shot down a U.S. military cargo plane. The pilot, Eugene Hasenfus, was known to be a covert U.S. operative as far back as Vietnam. Inside his crashed plane was found an arsenal of weapons. And another fun fact (according to the History channel documentary): it was the same plane that previously belonged to Barry Seal.

Then came congressional proceedings on Iran-Contra. To put something complex into short terms: U.S. sells missiles to Iran; profits go to purchasing weapons/funding war in Nicaragua. Many of these operations were supposedly directly by Lieutenant Colonel Olive North, who was serving on the National Security Council.

In his testimony he denied working with drug smugglers but admitted to disposing of classified documents aka. “shredding” pretty much every day. Though indicted and convicted, he was let go.

Earlier, in 1987, there had been another investigation was started by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations under then-Senator John Kerry. The two-year investigation resulted in a report in 1989 that detailed the involvement of Contra groups in drug activities, as well as supposed U.S. collusion.

The whole great power/great responsibility argument came into play as Kerry’s report noted “considerable evidence” that the U.S. was aware of the Contras’ drug trafficking but did not hold them accountable, or even try to prevent it (Grim et. all, Huffington Post).

According to the CIA’s inspector general at the time, the CIA did not inform Congress of ALL allegations it received linking the Contras to the drug trade. Rather, they had told them ABOUT allegations but did not go into specifics regarding individuals.

Some sources say that investigations into Blandon’s drug operations were dropped by the DEA, or else prematurely dismissed. The rumor goes that he and Meneses were shielded from prosecution. According to a later review of the Justice Department, U.S. prosecutors invoked the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) to prevent Blandon’s testimony from being presented to a jury during a federal trial (CIA-Contra, Justice.gov).

While Meneses denied trafficking for the Contra cause, Blandon admitted it. This testimony came in 1990 and 1991, just a few years after Rick Ross was caught for trafficking in 1988.

Blandon was originally going to be sentenced for life, with a $4 million fine, but the U.S. decided he was an asset to the DEA. While Ross was in prison they recruited Blandon for a reverse-sting operation in which Blandon organized a drug transaction with Ross. As a result Blandon walked a free man. Ross stayed in prison until 2009.

What was the result of this “undercover” drug operation? For one thing, the militarization of local law enforcement. Mandatory minimums spiked, along with a “tough on crime” attitude under the Reagan administration.

And mass incarceration. Black men were disproportionately thrown in jail. Though only 25% of crack users are black, they make up 82% of convictions for crack possession (Crack Epidemic, The Stranger). By 2000, black people made up 62.7% of offenders in state prison while only 6.4% of them were using illegal drugs, compared to 6.4% of white people (Kendi).

Why the disparity: it has something to do with biological perceptions. The idea of black people as predators, drug addicts, and violent offenders rested behind this “tough on crime” approach. Black neighborhoods became seen as breeding grounds for crime.

Black people were seen as naturally disposed towards crime and drug use. After all, didn’t high numbers of homicides in black neighborhoods point to a violent disposition? If you doubt the racial implications, look no farther than the opioid epidemic. White “victims” are publicized constantly in the media as helpless parents, teenagers, and families afflicted by a drug crisis. The drug is to blame, not the person. The epidemic has been shown as a human health criss, not a crime crisis. We are now reconsidering how we treat addiction: a crisis that has ravaged many other “non-white” communities for almost 40 years.

What could change the approach: a difference of perception. If a violent drug affects someone seen as innately “violent”, then their “treatment” becomes a matter of prison time. Drugs equaled criminalization when they affected black and minority communities; now that they affect white communities, they equal victimization.

The racial comparisons in Zootopia are pretty much obvious. What do we do with “predators” or people we feel unsafe from? We show them as prone to violence. Just like the U.S. government, the mayor of Zootopia made criminal activity a matter of “us versus THOSE people”. This justified removing undesirable people from the mainstream of society, based on biological assumptions.

What made those assumptions possible: drugs. Through some clever, covert operation involving the legal/political apparatus.

Am I saying Zootopia was for certain about the crack epidemic: no. But, interestingly, there are similar elements. I kept thinking that after the first time I watched the movie. In a funny way I was asking myself, “Was that movie about the crack epidemic?” I looked it up and eventually found other articles/blogs saying the same thing.

Obviously Disney did not and would not make a movie directly about the crack conspiracy. Even if certain elements look like they were inspired. The similarities are just weird. And oddly fascinating, at the same time. But for humor’s sake, I’ll still say to people that Zootopia was really about the crack epidemic, just to see their reaction.

As to how “involved” the U.S. was with the Contra trade, nobody knows to what extent. “Dark Alliance” has been discredited, in part, by several major news sources. Some of Webb’s sources have been called “unreliable”.

But the story has continued to be investigated, by reporters and scholars alike. Something obviously happened undercover. The Iran-Contra proceedings show that.

The U.S. obviously did not CREATE the epidemic in the same, direct way that was shown in Zootopia (shooting mammals with pellets). Our sin was mainly complacency. And greed. And irresponsibility. The CIA colluded with a dangerous army, in spite of its reputation. They did not hold them accountable for drug offenses that have effectively “criminalized” an entire segment of the population. It was bad negligence. And that does point to responsibility.

The result was mass incarceration. And the perception of black minorities as prone to crime, not because of a drug crisis, but an inherent nature of violence. Addicted black youths thus became “predators”, rather than sufferers of a crisis.

Regardless, I’ll still say that Zootopia was about the crack epidemic. Not completely.

But, let’s face it, it kinda was.

Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? I know.

Sources:

Webb, Gary “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion”, Mercury News. Mercury Center. Narconews.com. Aug. 18-Aug. 20, 1996. https://www.narconews.com/darkalliance/drugs/start.htm

Kurtzleben, Danielle “Data Show Racial Disparity in Crack Sentencing”, US News. Aug. 3, 2010. https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2010/08/03/data-show-racial-disparity-in-crack-sentencing

The Cia-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy: A Review of the Justice Department’s Investigations and Prosecutions. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 1997. Internet resource. https://oig.justice.gov/special/9712/ch01p1.htm

Grim, Ryan; Sledge, Matt; Ferner, Matt “Key Figures in CIA-Crack Cocaine Scandal Begin To Come Forward” Huffington Post.com. Oct. 10, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/10/gary-webb-dark-alliance_n_5961748.html

Kendi, Ibram X. (2012) Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York, NY: Nation Books.

Abe, Daudi “The Crack Epidemic That Once Ravaged Black Communities Didn’t Get the Same Sympathy as Today’s Opioid Epidemic” The Stranger.com. May 2, 2017. http://www.thestranger.com/slog/2017/05/02/25118961/the-crack-epidemic-that-once-ravaged-black-neighborhoods-didnt-get-the-same-sympathy-as-todays-opioid-epidemic

Moore, Solomon “Justice Dept. Seeks Equity in Sentences for Cocaine” The New York Times. April 29, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/us/30cocaine.html

“America’s War on Drugs” History channel documentary. http://www.history.com/shows/americas-war-on-drugs/season-1/episode-2

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