Episode 46: And the Award Goes to…

 

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On this month’s episode of Agreeing Loudly Coast to Coast, Bill Nentl makes his triumphant return from his multi-month suspension. In celebration of this momentous occasion, the Agreeing Loudly brain trust (minus one Pat Meacham) discuss their thoughts on who will win Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, the latest Trumptastrophes, and some more public policy they think would make the world a better place.

Will Bill be able to make it through one episode without being suspended again? Tune in now to find out! Hate using your data for podcasts, then download it instead.

Game of Thrones as U.S. Politics

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A few days ago, former Politico CEO and co-founder Jim VandeHei, in response to what he saw as a two-party system in American politics that predominately caters to economically comfortable buffoons, proposed that we create a third party. The problem with radical centrist VandeHei’s proposal, is that his third party ideas, in addition to promoting unpopular policies bordering on insanity, would basically create a third major American political party that predominately caters to economically comfortable buffoons.

Despite VandeHei’s insane call for a third party that is very similar to the two we already have, and despite basically calling for an age of an actual American empire, as opposed to a half-hearted attempt at one, the idea of multiple official and unofficial factions and alliances often seen in European parliamentary democracies is appealing and far more interesting to anyone who has studied political science. In honor of “Game of Thrones” sixth season premiere, Carson Starkey and I waxed philosophic on what multiple factions, personalities, and regions would look like if we were comparing American politics to the Kingdoms of Westeros and beyond. Enjoy!

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In Our Post-Factual World, Kayfabe is King

by Carson Starkey

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“By Any Means Necessary”

At some point in the not-so-distant future, The Nation of Domination will “interrupt” a Donald Trump rally/speech. They will appear suddenly in a doorway, bathed in spotlights, wielding baseball bats, chains, and tire irons. They will begin marching towards the main stage, advancing on scattered groups of terrified, hysterical, elderly white Fox News viewers to the sounds of NWA’s “Fuck Tha’ Police.” Images of Barack Obama transforming into Malcolm X will adorn the venue’s Jumbotrons.

Moments before The Nation can reach Trump’s podium to complete their attack on freedom and destroy America, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Chuck Norris, and Hulk Hogan will emerge from behind a curtain on the stage. They will be armed with American flags and steel chairs emblazoned with “Made in America,” as well as the United Steelworkers logo. Their spotlights will be larger. They will be surrounded by pyrotechnics while Bruce Springsteen’s immortal “Born in the USA” seizes control of the sound system, drowning out the evil, morally deficient, food stamp-encouraging hippity hop jungle music of the savage, unpatriotic attackers. Michaels, Austin, Norris, and Hogan will dispatch every member of The Nation with a combination of their signature finishers, and blows leveled with their white nationalist accouterments.

After Hogan levels Farooq/Ron Simmons with a dose of freedom, “Barack Obama” (played by Jay Pharoah) and “Hillary Clinton” (played by Kate McKinnon) will descend from the rafters, screaming “DEATH TO AMERICA!” The Illegitimate Kenyan Pretender and the Chief Feminazi Conspirator of Benghazi will attempt to aid their subversive nonwhite comrades.

Before Obama Hussein and Jane Fonda Clinton can enslave Real America, “George W. Bush” (played by George W. Bush) and “Dick Cheney” (played by Dick Cheney) will emerge from a previously undetected space beneath the stage. Bush-Cheney will overwhelm Obama-Clinton with respect for traditional values, devotion to capitalism, and freedom. Bush and Cheney will incapacitate Obama with a double vertical suplex through a table. America’s greatest cowboy hat-bedecked duo will complete their triumph with a double powerbomb of Clinton from atop of the main stage, onto a conveniently placed stack of Rachel Maddow books.

America’s glorious heroes will embrace. The crowd will shriek “TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP!” Trump will raise his hands high in victory, humbled by the show of conservative solidarity, and ready to win a general election.

Get used to saying “President Trump,” an America without social insurance, and seeing a whole lot more of Vince McMahon for the next eight years.

A Millennial Couple’s Journey From Saint Paul to New York City: Part Two – Is This Heaven? No, It’s Iowa

by Troy M. Olson

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Goodbye, Grand Avenue, Saint Paul. It sure was a great ride.

Now that I’ve finally wrestled the pen and paper away from professional instigator Harry J. Potter (tuxedo cat version), I’m digging into my journal (and likely horcrux for Harry) to tell our version of the journey from Saint Paul, MN to New York, NY.

Leaving Minnesota

We spent our last few days making the rounds to our favorite restaurants and favorite friends and people. Admittedly, I may have indulged in this a bit more while Jacki spent 90-plus degree days packing our stuff, the stuff we couldn’t get rid of and did not throw away. I feel okay admitting this bout of laziness now because I ended up driving the Penske “big rig” the entire way. Although the move was certain, perhaps I wanted to soak in every last drop of Minnesota unsweetened tea. We were excited, nervous, and pre-nostalgic. Very millennial.

After packing up the truck all day, with the help of parents, we were finally on the road at about 8 P.M. Harry was excited, or terrified. Or excited. Or terrified. We’ll get to that later. Later that night we crossed the Minnesota-Iowa border. While I’ve spent significant time in the Middle East, England, the state of North Dakota, and the state of Missouri in my life, this was the first time I could ever truly say I was leaving Minnesota, perhaps for good. It was bittersweet.

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Songs for the American Working Class

by Allan Branstiter and Carson Starkey

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It’s that time of the month. Bills are coming in the mail. Paycheck’s still a week or more away. Management won’t get off your back. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Landlord keeps getting on you about your dog. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump are the favored Republican nominees for president, and one Democratic candidate president made more giving one speech to Goldman Sachs than you’ve made in a decade.

Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. While we may not have the money or the machine on our side, we have the music. So here’s a list of songs to get you through your day. Let the melancholy, exuberant, repressed and empowered voices of these singers remind you it’s a privilege to be working-class.

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“It Was A Good Day” by Ice Cube (1993) – This song is simple enough; it’s about a good day in South Central Los Angeles. And as any working class American can tell you, sometimes the pleasures of good day are all you can hope for and more.

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“Factory” by Bruce Springsteen (1978) – The most culturally relevant rock hero in the world today wrote this at the height of stagflation, oil embargoes, and deindustrialization. America’s blue collar working populace, which bestrode the planet unchallenged in its productivity and prosperity for a generation after World War Two, was under ferocious attack from ultra-conservative elected officials, investment bankers, and industry owners who used racial bigotry as a vile, divisive wedge when they saw their opportunity to shatter both the consensus of progressive policy outcomes as well as the spirit of political consensus among ordinary people. “Factory” and the overall album “Darkeness on the Edge of Town” came from a place of sadness, anger, and anxiety about the future we non-millionaires faced (and continue to face) in a brave new world dominated by ferocious culture war distractions and wage slavery.

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“Hard Time Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster (1854) – I’m going WAY into the deep cuts here, but I’m going to start with the Father of American Music, Stephen Foster. “Hard Times Come Again No More” is a parlor song that was extremely popular among Civil War soldiers, who satirized it as “Hard Tack Come Again No More.” Although it had an international audience and was printed as piano sheet music for middle class families, the song is a story of sadness and poverty, with images of cabins, lost comrades, and toil. One of America’s original working-class songs, it has been covered by Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and a slew of others.

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“Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan (1965) – Dylan’s early counterculture war cry makes you remember why you’re in love with political music. Maybe your parents played Dylan in the car or in the house as white noise, and you never bothered to listen to the lyrics until you found yourself questioning the wisdom of unpleasant drudgery that otherwise “respectable” adults assured you would build character while they always disappeared during the heavy lifting. At some point, we all decided that we didn’t want to endure any more unfairness, or work for Maggie’s parents.

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“Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean (1961) – I love this old country song for its story-telling qualities. This song hearkens back to a day, our folk heroes were working people: Paul Bunyan, Calamity Jane, Joe Magarac, Casey Jones, Pecos Bill, and John Henry. “Big Bad John” is a story from that mold: a transient worker on the edges of society, whose strength not only killed a man, but saved his fellow miners. Absent from this story are the mining companies and managers, as Jimmy Dean focuses on miners toiling in “that worthless pit.” What else needs to be said other than “At the Bottom of this Mine Lays a Big Big Man, Big John.”

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“Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke (1960) – We can level a fair amount of criticism at popular music/musicians/record labels for giving excessive air time to the working songs of mostly white men. Sam Cooke, for all of his substantial crossover appeal to white people, blazed trails singing about the Civil Rights Movement and about an institution that had been used/still is associated with demoralizing poor black people. Sure, there aren’t explicit references to black people swinging hammers in the song, but the cultural references were clear then and now.

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“Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry (1970) – No, this isn’t Iggy Azalea’s terrible song. Bobbie Gentry wrote “Fancy” in 1969, and it was famously covered by Reba McEntire in 1990. “Fancy” is in many ways a problematic song since it approaches prostitution as both redemptive and exploitative. Fancy’s ma’s words betray the extreme precariousness of their situation as she tells her “Your Pa’s runned off and I’m real sick and the baby’s gonna starve to death” and urges he to “Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they’ll be nice to you.” Despite the fact that she was completely dependent on men for a living, Fancy never loses her determination to be true to herself, escape her dependent state, and her pride. Gentry argued that this song was her strongest statement for women’s lib, and she supported women’s equality, equal pay, and abortion rights (no small thing for a woman from Chickasaw County, Mississippi in the 1960s). “Fancy” still confounds us to this day, but the tone of the song never betrays an underlying truth—the powerless are not inevitably doomed to their powerlessness forever.

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“Union Burying Ground” by Woody Guthrie (1976) – Towering hero to Springsteen, Dylan, and Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie’s anthems defined, and continue to define, the language of American workers seeking better wages, safer workplaces, and a fairer society for actual wealth creators.

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“Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man” by Travis Tritt (1992) – The Tritt Kickers raise a fair point of frustration. Why is the rich man always dancing while the poor man pays the band? And why is it that when Big Gummit’ needs a dime (for unwinnable wars, or for tax cuts that exclusively benefit millionaires), they just help themselves to the little people’s pockets?

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“Rain On The Scarecrow” by John Mellencamp (1985) – A lot of Mellencamp songs come in mind for this list, but I want to go with the less obvious “Rain On The Scarecrow” solely because of the three farmers at the beginning of the music video. For all the strengths of “Jack & Diane,” “Pink Houses,” and “Small Town,” none of Mellencamp’s songs capture the plight of the Farm Crisis like these guys:

“Well, all the government wants to talk about is they wanna keep givin’ more loans, that’s all. Seems like that’s all they’ve got in their head. We don’t need another loan, we need a good price. . . . Just another farm loan, that’s another payment we gotta make and we can’t afford to do that. . . . I think the politicians are playing games with us, you know. It don’t cost them anything to change a rule, you know, and embargo another country. . . . All they want is cheap food and I can see that, but they don’t take the farmer into consideration at all. . . . Just sick of working ten or twelve hours a day or more and just breakin’ even if you lucky, if you’re real good. . . . If I knew what it was gonna be like when I got out of high school, I probably wouldn’t of done it. You wanna buy a far?”

If you don’t have people like this in your life, I feel sorry for you. Today’s liberals are making a mistake when they underestimate the intelligence and legitimate anger of the rural working folk. It’s no wonder we’ve lost them to the Cruzes and Palins of the world.

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“Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by Robert Johnson/Performed by Keb’ Mo’ (1996) – Blues legend Robert Johnson originally recorded this song in 1936, and it has been covered by the likes of Eric Clapton, Todd Rundgren, and Beck. If it’s not sacrilegious to say so, I prefer Keb’ Mo’s fusion of New Orleans jazz and Delta blues in his 1996 cover of the song. This song has a little bit of everything: reassurances to a penny-pinched spouse, a terrible boss, and the road home. “If you cry ‘bout a nickel, you’ll die ‘bout a dime.”

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“Paying the Cost to be the Boss” by B.B. King (1968) – Hating the grind of a nine-to-five job is understandable. The pay is usually not commensurate with the grief. The leadership doesn’t have your best interests in mind. The one redeeming quality of working for a living is that you retain some measure of independence, and that independence stems from claiming or controlling your wages. You can tell other people who disagree with your decisions that you earn and pay the bills. Another reminder that working people don’t need high-falutin’ titles or lifestyle morality lectures.

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“One Piece At A Time” by Johnny Cash (1976) – There’s nothing like stealing from your boss with the help of your friends. More light-hearted than Johnny Paycheck “Take this Job and Shove It” and a million times less racist than any of Merle Haggard’s songs, Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time” is my choice for the best country music working man song of the 1970s.

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“Song of the South” by Alabama (1989)  There once was a time when country music had a lefty bent, thanks to the legacy of farm socialism and populism. Sure, so much of it had neo-Confederate overtones and overly simplistic memories of FDR’s alphabet soup of agricultural agencies, but the key message here still rings true: life is better when land and wealth is distributed more equally. If only we could resurrect that message without all the old racism and sexism. Country hasn’t been the same since the height of Alabama and Garth Brooks’s popularity.

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“Solidarity Forever” by Ralph Chaplin (1915)/Performed by Pete Seeger (1955) – The single most famous song of the American labor movement. Required at any left-of-center political event because of its eternally relevant lyrics. If you’re not singing this song on Labor Day, you’re doing it wrong. Full stop.

Hillary Clinton and the Perils of Reconstruction History

by Allan Branstiter

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I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t watched a Democratic debate/town hall/forum in several months because 1) no one can bury a primary campaign in plain sight better than Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, 2) life, 3) my heart belongs to Bernie Sanders, and 4) they’re boring. Who knows . . . maybe after Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire these things will liven up a little bit. I must be doing something wrong because 3.2 million people tuned in to CNN to watch this high-octane slog-fest unfold—making it the highest rated town hall (not debate) ever. Nevertheless, a candidate said something at last Monday’s Iowa town hall on CNN that almost makes me wish I had been watching.

In 2008, Barack Obama once said that his favorite book at the moment was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a critically-acclaimed history of how Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet overcame political divisions and saved the nation. Obama’s use of Lincoln as model was safe and supported his argument that he would unify the country behind the cause of “Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes We Can!” Citing Lincoln also undermined Clinton’s argument that Obama was too idealistic and naive to be an effective president. Team of Rivals simultaneously gave Obama an historical precedent as the “Believer-in-Chief,” embedded his campaign within a centuries-old narrative of racial justice, and sold a ton of Democrats a book that they never got around to reading. Running for POTUS 101: Cite Lincoln because it’s safe, hopeful, and patriotic.

Last Monday, when asked which president she admires the most, Hillary Clinton answered “Abraham Lincoln.” Safe answer, boring answer . . . you’d think. But leave it to Clinton to fumble the ball on a Lincoln. Starting out, Clinton’s conjuring of Lincoln’s memory wasn’t bad. Heck, it even contained a well-known Lincoln quote:

“That’s what I mean, when you’ve got to do a lot of things at once what could be more overwhelming than trying to wage and win a civil war? And yet he kept an eye on the future. And he also tried to keep summoning up the better angels of our nature.”

Then she to a very old and very troubling interpretation of race and Reconstruction:

“You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive and I don’t know what our country might have been like if had he not been murdered. But I bet that it might have been a lot less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that it might have possibly back together more quickly, but instead we had Reconstruction we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow, we had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.”

Keep in mind that this is a Democratic candidate for President of the United States in 2016, not Donald Trump of the fake “River of Blood” Civil War monument. This isn’t even your crazy Uncle Gary who gets all his historical knowledge from cable television and Bill O’Reilly’s assassination porn. This is Hillary Clinton, Yale alumni, former U.S. Senator from New York, and former U.S. Secretary of State treading dangerously close to a neo-Confederate understanding of American history. So where does this come from and why is what she said troubling?

By arguing that Lincoln’s death opened the door to unreasonably harsh Reconstruction policy that served only to antagonize white Southerners hearkens back to an antiquated, debunked, and (frankly) white supremacist historical interpretation called the Dunning School. William Dunning, a professor of history at Columbia University during the turn of the 20th Century, argued that Reconstruction was a “tragic era” caused by a conspiracy of vindictive and intolerant Northerners who manipulated uneducated African American men and women into action against their former masters. To Dunningites, Reconstruction was a betrayal of Lincoln’s moderate stance towards the defeated Confederacy, as well as a tyrannical overreach of federal power.

In the end, Dunningites justified the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the violent overthrow of biracial state governments as an understandable reaction to Reconstruction. Ironically, they blamed the codification of Jim Crow laws in the 1890s as a necessary corrective to the intolerance of the left’s social justice agenda. Like Clinton, they argued that if radical Republicans and supporters of racial equality had only “been a lot less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant” the separation of the races wouldn’t have been necessary.

This interpretation became the dominant narrative of the Civil War era during the 30th Century. Anyone over the age of 50 probably learned it as fact during middle and high school. The Dunning School inspired and continues to inspire a nostalgic view of the South. Gone With the Wind (1939) is probably the most famous portrait of the values of the Dunning School; however, it was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) that captured the romantic potential of the interpretation and led to the appearance of the Second Ku Klux Klan.

Undoubtedly Clinton opposes all things racist and related to the Klan or neo-Confederate ideology, and I’m not arguing that she’s a racist apologist by any means. Even D.W. Griffith had the best of intentions when he made Birth of a Nation. In fact, he went so far as to include included this placard in his film right before his section regarding Reconstruction:

What follows this well-meaning placard qualifying the heroic portrayal of the Klan and the savagery of the rapine black and mulatto field hand an objective but benign historical fact? Why, a quote from none other than then President Woodrow Wilson that in the face of liberal tyranny and racial disorder, “white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” Such is the contradictory history of race in America.

Again, let’s make it clear—I do not believe Clinton is supporting the political ambitions of the Klan, nor does she harbor ill will towards nonwhite races (God forgive those who venture to condemn liberals as *a hush descends upon the room* racists). What I will argue is that Clinton’s privilege as white elite continues to inform her understanding of the past’s relevance to today.

It’s not like an alternative understanding of Reconstruction is so new that she could not be expected to know about it—W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935) is 81-years-old and while mainstream academic historians have undermined the Dunning School convincingly for half a century. What we now know is that Lincoln’s death may have lessened the acerbic nature of Reconstruction politics in Washington, DC, but white Southerners would have still obstructed any attempts to extend the full rights of citizens to African Americans. As historian Eric Foner argues, “today, scholars believe that if the era was ‘tragic,’ it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because it failed.” What prevented a quick and harmonious reconciliation after the Civil War wasn’t the inflexibility of radicals or the victimization of white Southerners, but the unwillingness of white supremacists to accept the legitimacy of black civil rights.

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During Reconstruction, conservatives (Northern and Southern, black and white) argued that radicals needed to show more forbearance towards those who sought to limit the freedom of former slaves, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants. They supported so-called “Black Codes” that stole black children from their parents and forced into “apprenticeships” under white planters. They denied blacks the ability to relocate in order to find higher wages and better working condition. White conservatives also chaffed when black legislators argued that the practice of leasing black prisoners was unconstitutional. To Reconstruction-era conservatives, these acts of racial injustice were a moderate and forgiving compromise that would maintain the racial status quo, while paving the way towards national reconciliation.

On January 22, 2016, a self-identified white “moderate” called into the Diane Rehm Show and said that while he never thought he’d ever vote for Donald Trump, the “changing demographics” of the country were turning him into a supporter. Showing the forbearance advocated by “respectable” people, the journalists on the show that day commented that the man sounded “so reasonable” and that his ideological moderation implied that he was (and by extension Trump’s supporters) primarily motivated by factors other than race and a perceived loss of white privilege.

I bring up this final point because it served as a fascinating moment when “moderation” bridged the divide between a man who fears a brown take-over of America and several white liberal members of the press. This sense of unity is made possible by a failure to reject antiquated and racially apologetic understandings of the past. While made in passing and without malice, Clinton’s misconceptions about American history allow racial discrimination to hide beneath a guise of well-meaning liberal white folk and their emphasis on unity, reconciliation, and respectability. What suffers is true justice—whether it be economic, gendered, or racial justice.

To the unaware, she sounds so reasonable and moderate. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates once stated, “the idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.” One might include those who find their words sprinting ahead of their understanding of history, as well.

PS—Evidently a ton of people going nuts about whether or not the question “Which of our previous Presidents have inspired you the most?” was a plant. Nuts, I tell you.

Sarah Palin, PTSD, and the Survivor-As-Hero Myth

by Allan Branstiter

IMAGE: BRANDI SIMONS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

This past Tuesday, half-term governor Sarah Palin endorsed fellow reality TV star and demagogue Donald Trump for president of the United States of America. That same day, her son Track, an Iraq war veteran, was arrested for drunkenly assaulting his girlfriend with an AR-15 and attempting to prevent her from reporting it to the police. At a press conference the next day, Sarah Palin addressed “the elephant in the room” and used her son’s alleged domestic violence incident as a platform to blame Obama for not supporting the troops, especially those with PTSD.

“My son, like so many others,” she explained, “they come back a bit different. They come back hardened, they come back wondering if there’s respect for what it is their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military have so sacrificially given to this country.” Remarking that she could “related with other families who can feel these ramifications of PTSD and some of the woundedness our soldiers do return with,” she then turned to Obama as the root of the victimization of American veterans. “It starts from the top,” she concluded, “the question though, that comes from our own president, where they have to look at him and wonder, ‘Do you know what we have to go through?’”

In the days since, many veterans have rejected Palin’s statements. Liberal critics wuickly condemned her overtly partisan manipulation of veterans issues, while others (like Bill Maher) argued that Track’s actions were the product of poor parenting, not combat trauma. Some [see 1, 2] have even gone as far as to argue that Track Palin never saw combat and, therefore, is lying about having PTSD (recent studies have shown that 31% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD, including many who never saw combat). While the response to Palin’s remarks has been almost exclusively negative, she is tapping into a perception among conservatives that Obama and Democrats neither care or understand the military or veterans.

Whether or not Track Palin suffers from PTSD remains unknown. As a veteran who has been treated by the Army and the VA for anxiety issues in the field and at home, I’d hate to attempt to diagnose Palin from afar. However, there are some lessons to be garnered from Palin’s statements that have not been addressed by most observers, namely where her statements come from and their effect on public perceptions of veterans. Most people on the left side of the aisle have dismissed Palin’s remarks as a bald-face and shameless attack on Obama. And yet Palin is tapping into several less obvious ideological and cultural strains regarding the role of veterans in American life.

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"Survivor Heroes" emphasized the victimization of veterans at the hands of abusive civilians while romanticizing revenge, violence, and mental trauma.
“Survivor Heroes” emphasized the victimization of veterans at the hands of abusive civilians while romanticizing revenge, violence, and mental trauma.

Sarah Palin’s statements tap into a long-standing view of the veteran as a “survivor hero.” According to historian and attorney Eric T. Dean in his study of mental trauma during the Civil War and Vietnam War, this mythic image emerged during the antiwar protests of the 1960s and gained additional meaning during the 1970s. Dean points out that by the Reagan presidency, “it became common in the United States to view the Vietnam veteran as beset by a wide range of problems and betrayed by his fellow citizens and government.” This image of the “survivor-as-hero” who fought a war they were not allowed to win and then attempted to piece their lives together in an ungrateful society was popularized by portrayals of veterans like John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in First Blood (1982), James Braddock (Chuck Norris) in Missing in Action (1984), and the entire cast of A-Team (1983-1987). While cinematic notions of the Vietnam veterans as damaged by war gained notoriety in essentially antiwar movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and The Deer Hunter (1978), the growing popularity of “survivor-as-hero” myth resonated with the “New Patriotism” of the 1980s.

In the early 1990s, the “survivor hero” myth was extended to a new crop of veterans returning home from the First Iraq War. While Americans repeated many of the mistakes from Vietnam in the country’s intervention in the Middle East (for example, believing that technological superiority, a destructive air campaign, and a ground invasion would allow the United States to secure a quick and inexpensive total victory), they were determined not to abuse this new war’s veterans as they believe they had done during Vietnam. Yellow ribbon campaigns were widespread and new “Welcome Home” festivities were planned for Vietnam veterans and Persian War veterans. The ground war in Iraq was quick and relatively bloodless, and friendly-fire incidents and growing rumors of Persian Gulf Syndrome failed to dampen the public’s belief that the victory had healed the old wounds of the Vietnam era. “It’s a proud day for America,” the elder Bush proclaimed, “and, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

The “survivor-as-hero” myth largely went underground during the 1990s, but the specter of Vietnam loomed large in American political life. Americans largely stopped thinking about veterans and the effects of war; however, films like Forrest Gump (1994) continued to portray Vietnam veterans as victims of historical circumstances, while taking a somewhat ambivalent yet nostalgic view of the cultural and social conflicts of the 1960 and 1970s. Racial discord was boiled down to pithy lines like “Sorry I ruined your Black Panther party” and “Mama used to chase coons off the porch with a broom,” while Gump’s relationship with the slain black soldier, Bubba, embodied the Boomer’s belief that they, as a generation and regardless of race, had been victimized by an era they struggled to understand. Misunderstood by society and left to wander the backroads of America in search of meaning, the film ends with the proposition that love (especially in the case of Lt. Dan and his Vietnamese wife) and capitalist enterprise allowed the Vietnam generation to overcome their victimization.

Before and shortly after September 11, 2001, the efforts of Tom Hanks, Steven Speilberg, and Stephen Ambrose presented a heroic image of World War II’s veterans that altered the “survivor-as-hero” myth. In their film Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), the trio presented an image of World War II veterans as righteous warriors fighting and dying for liberty and their comrades-in-arms. These works not only allowed civilians to claim a sense of “true” understanding of war, but an empathetic sense of appreciation for the experiences of veterans. I remember pastors preaching about sacrifice, quoting Hanks as he whispered “Earn this” to a bewildered and potentially undeserving Matt Damon—who served as a stand in for the American people writ large. Inspired by these films and the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Americans adopted a version of the “survivor-as-hero” myth that emphasized the heroic traits of veterans, while aligning all anti-war critics as abusers of troops.

After 9-11, it became easy for Americans to conflate what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” and Time’s “The Next Greatest Generation.” When the U.S. invaded Iraq again in 2003, Americans imbued my generation of veterans with a sense of patriotic and godly virtue. Media sources scoured the front for anecdotes to link the Second Iraq War with the heady memory of World War II. Battlefield baptisms in Kuwait served to link our war to the perceived godly mission and religiosity of our predecessors. Online videos of surprise homecomings gained millions of views, while various Americans (veteran and civilian) promised to give us the hero’s welcome the Vietnam generation was not afforded. Meanwhile, Vietnam vets ate their own in 2004, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Peace helped torpedo John Kerry’s bid for president and called into question the acceptable definition of “veteran.” Meanwhile, the “survivor-as-hero” myth returned in full force as the public began to fixate on what they saw as a growing veterans crisis of unemployment, PTSD, domestic violence, and suicide. Despite the welcome home celebrations, the pro-soldier country music songs, and the widespread insistence that veterans enjoyed the full support of the American people, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran came to be regarded as a psychiatric victim.

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The "survivor-as-hero" myth has conflated generations of veterans, producing a view that veterans are both traumatized and exceptional.
The “survivor-as-hero” myth has conflated generations of veterans, producing a view that veterans are both traumatized and exceptional.

As Palin’s statement shows, who one believes is truly victimizing veterans depends largely on where one stands politically—clearly, the former governor blames Democrats and Obama in particular. While her willingness to blame the president for her son’s PTSD is disturbing and outrageous, it is important to understand that she is tapping into a extremely widespread and long-standing view of veterans as victims. As described above, Palin and the Right’s view of the veteran as a victimized “survivor hero” dates back to Vietnam.

The experience of the Vietnam War has created a view on the Right that all American veterans are suffering psychologically. To Palin and her ilk, veterans have been continually victimized by Democrats who never served in the military (while those who have are tarred as “fake veterans”). Rather than actually understanding the experience of veterans and PTSD, Republicans would rather repeat a well-worn myth that veterans are constantly in crisis. They blame the government and liberals for putting political interests above the welfare of soldiers (see: Benghazi) and ignoring veterans upon their return home.

What I find most unsettling about Palin’s remarks isn’t so much the fact that she uses PTSD to not only excuse her son’s actions, nor is it her blaming it on President Obama. What bothers me, and what I hope to remedy at least partially here, is the inability of many on the Left to understand why she would make such remarks and why so many on the Right accept them as truths. Since Vietnam, veterans and PTSD have slowly combined to popularize the view of the former as victims. Since 9-11, PTSD has transcended its definition with DSM Manual and become a cultural phenomenon. How people think about PTSD—its causes and effects—are largely shaped by the wholesale adoption of the “survivor-as-hero” myth into American political discourse. During the 1960s and 1970s, psychiatry used PTSD to criticize the military’s attempt to “salvage” traumatized soldiers in order to return them to combat. Later, PTSD was used to attempt to understand war’s effect on the individual soldier and create a more skeptical view of war. Today, PTSD is shaped largely by popular culture and the political Right, and images of veterans silently suffering from invisible wounds has become a useful political football. In most cases, I believe, Republicans have proven to be much more adept at exploiting the myth of the victimized veteran than Democrats.

In modern wars where there are relatively few American casualties, PTSD has become a kind of fetishistic totem. Burdened by the guilt of downplaying and stigmatizing mental trauma among servicemembers, the military has now attacked PTSD with a vengeance. Their response has been confused at times, ranging from over-diagnosis to inaction. Despite the military’s shortcomings, much of the blame for the “veteran’s crisis” is laid upon the Department of Veterans Affairs—an entity seen by most Americans as simultaneously bloated and underfunded. For their part, veterans have been all too willing to blame the VA for the failure of the government to live up to its obligation to their welfare.

Since Vietnam, veterans’ expectations for government assistance ranging from employment, education, medical care, and mental health have increased. Many veterans view themselves as a privileged class due to their collective sacrifice and their continued suffering. In the past, many benefits were limited to those who were physically disabled due to wounds. Since most veterans today were never wounded or even engaged in direct combat, there has been a tremendous amount of pressure (rightfully and wrongly) to expand the definition of sacrifice to include more veterans. Incapable and unwilling to criticize veterans for agitating for more benefits, the American people have embraced the “survivor hero” myth. As a result, we’ve reached a point where every veteran is seen as noble victim entitled to reparations.

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Literal and figurative.
Literal and figurative.

In 1944, sociologist Willard Waller argued that “the veteran is always a powerful political force, for good or evil, because others cannot protect themselves from him. He has fought for the flag and has absorbed some of its mana. He is sacred. He is covered with pathos and immune from criticism.” For decades, conservative Americans have not only imbued veterans with the mythical power of the flag, they’ve also come to think that some of the very same mana has wiped off on them. Empowered as the true defenders of an oft-victimized class of citizen soldier, these hawks are free to characterize wars and those who fight them in terms of their own pleasing.

Veterans are just as culpable as folks like Trump and Palin for the politicization (and commodification) of PTSD and vets more generally; however, there is little incentive for them to challenge the “survivor-as-hero” myth. Just look at the cultural prevalence of anti-liberal (imagined or actual) “survivor heroes” like Marcus Lutrell and Chris Kyle.

The myth of the “survivor-as-hero” myth imbues all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with the title of “veteran,” regardless of whether they saw combat. Military service is now seen as a “sacrifice,” even though many people continue to view enlistment as a net positive and a chance to gain upward mobility. The myth not only offers veterans with a heroic sense of themselves, it has also provided them with material benefits. Let me be clear, the damaged caused by wars, physically and psychologically, are very much real and often ill-served by the military and the VA. However, the extent to which veterans, their families, and their organizations exploit the “survivor-as-hero” myth to use the image of the victimized veteran in order to cudgel their political foes or position themselves as a kind of new minority class is not above criticism.

The fact remains that a large number of Americans believe that Obama and liberals are inflicting harm upon the country’s veterans. The fact remains a large number of veterans and their families believe that Palin is speaking on their behalf. The fact remains that the Left continues to fail to critique the “survivor hero” myth in any meaningful way because they hope that they, too, will one day be able to reap its rewards. The fact remains that Left-leaning veterans organizations continue to fail at providing a counterpoint to groups like the VFW and American Legion—groups dedicated to using this myth to privilege veterans over other groups. Until we can discuss this myth’s place in American history, culture, and political discourse, those sharing Palin’s sentiments will continue to wield influence over the nation’s foreign policy and view of military service. Failing to take on the myth of the victimized veteran robs vets of their agency, denies the important role they play in our political decisions, and fails those who need assistance the most.

 

The Hero’s Journey: Meta, Myth, and The Force Awakens

by Troy M. OlsonThe Hero's Journey

First of all,

“Calm down, nerds!” – Wife of the Year runner-up (because my wife won this year)

An amazing response from opening night when a new-to-Star Wars audience member was asking her husband a question related to the expansive and unfolding Star Wars universe and three twenty to thirty-something year-old males in the row behind hyperventiliated and attempted to hush her.

Second of all,

Thank you, Devin Faraci.

And finally, my review:

I enjoyed The Force Awakens, especially upon further viewings.

While it is great to see so many general audience fans excited again for the future of the Star Wars film mythology, canon, and universe; it is mildly annoying to see so many so-called “fans” make non sequitor attacks against the creator of this mythology and film series, George Lucas. There are very few public figures in recent years who have endured more unfair, unrelated, and hyperbolic criticism than the man who created the Star Wars franchise, among other things he has accomplished. At least when political figures are criticized, there are often big things (rights, liberties, livelihoods) at stake.

But I did enjoy The Force Awakens, and the following will focus on what I thought was “good” about it, as well as a passing mention to a few areas that I thought were “bad.” The “ugly” portion has little to do with the film and more to do with certain aspects of the fan base (whether diehard or casual, it’s hard to know exactly).

This film did exactly what the first Disney-era Star Wars film needed to do. First things first,

The Plot:

(Spoiler Alert!! But I feel like there should be a limit to how long someone should be able to play that card).

Act One: the Set-up of the Political Situation in the Galaxy

Poe Dameron puts (Princess Leia) plans into a droid, BB-8 (R2-D2), who goes on a special mission to find Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Ben Kenobi), who has vanished/been in exile for many years. Along the way, the droid stumbles upon our new hero, Rey (Luke Skywalker), on the desert planet Jakku (Tatooine), who then runs into Finn (Han Solo), and they go on an adventure together, eventually leaving Jakku (Tatooine) behind.

Act Two: the Mentor and the Passing on of Knowledge

Our hero Rey (Luke Skywalker), receives mentorship from an older character, Han Solo (Ben Kenobi) who is our connection to the past few decades of events which have occurred off-screen (building of a New Republic and the rise of the First Order or in the case of the original film, the events of what became the prequels).

Before we enter the lead-up to the climax of our story, Han Solo offers our hero, Rey (Luke), a job working with him on the small crew of the Millennium Falcon.

Act Three: Destroying a Super-weapon

The good team, the Resistance (Rebel Alliance), which is more diverse and in touch with nature, and follows the Light Side of the Force, fights against the “machine” Government — the First Order (Galactic Empire), who secretly follow the Dark Side of the Force.

To protect their central base from certain doom after a frightening demonstration of the super-weapon destroys the Hosnian System (Alderaan), Starkiller Base (the Death Star) is attacked and a narrative time-lock is placed on the climatic battle of good vs. evil. Once the plasma of a nearby star is gathered into Starkiller Base, it is ready to fire (once the Death Star clears the planet, it is ready to fire) on our heroes.

The Good:

This is probably the funniest Star Wars film yet. The new characters were great, especially the series’ new protagonist, Rey, portrayed by Daisy Ridley in her first feature-length film. The other new main characters, Finn and Poe, were also wonderfully portrayed by John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs. Everything that was new worked very well in terms of character. Even BB-8, like R2 and Chewbacca before him, worked well in its ability to convey emotion to the audience without any dialogue that the viewer can readily understand. It speaks to the solid, universal, mythical foundations that are at the core of this unfolding saga. While it did not immediately jump out to me on the first viewing, I also am now digging the new Darth Vader, Kylo Ren.

So while the new characters, especially Rey, worked well for me, arguably, a more scrutinized portion of the film was always going to be how the beloved “legacy” characters were handled.

For myself, the most important character isn’t even a character, rather it is the score of John Williams, who is the Mozart of film scores.

The score to The Force Awakens did not immediately jump out at me, although it works really well within the story. After further viewings, I’m happy to report that at 87-years young, Johnny “Baby” (note: John Williams calls everybody “baby” and because he is a jazz musician, that is awesome) still has it. The score was wonderful and operated as its usual companion piece to what has always been a cinematic and visual treat (2D version that is, the 3D version, like all 3D films is just too distracting for me, but I digress).

The characters in the story were handled with the outmost care and respect. Most important, the story decisions made sense. Han Solo was great. The film is elevated to another level the minute Harrison Ford as Han Solo again enters it. Like many of the new characters, Solo was charming and funny. In a way, this is the most Han Solo we have ever seen him. While previous films alluded to his exploits and overall scoundrel-ness a great deal, this is the first time we see him in the middle of an adventure like that on-screen.

Not far from Han Solo is the always-loyal Chewbacca, who shines in this film and serves as an almost R2-D2-esque role in being the sidekick that helps our main characters get out of trouble time and time again.

Princess Leia, although a little light on screen time (I will get into this more later), was very much the character I imagined her to be at this age. She is a fighter and a scrapper, not a Princess or a completely political-figure. It also alluded nicely to the fact that she is very much, still a Force-sensitive and is in tune with the Force, even though she may have never trained as a Jedi officially (does anyone really anymore?). Leia still has it, and her banter with Han, her estranged partner, is both short and snappy (a la Empire). Carrie Fisher does a solid job, especially considering she has not acted in awhile. Beyond the film though, pretty much every statement she made during the press tour was priceless. If you haven’t seen her one-woman show or do not know too much about her when she isn’t playing a space Princess, do yourself a favor and embark on a tour of her witticism.

Finally, it wouldn’t be the continuation of Star Wars without Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The first draft of the 1973 screenplay was titled “From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker” for a reason. Luke’s story or hero’s journey may be over, or passed on to the next generation, but that does not mean his character arc is over. Probably one of the most controversial choices in the story was going to be the way they handled Luke one way or another. At least for this film, I have to say that they knocked this one out of the park. As much as I would have liked to see more of Luke, I completely understand this design decision. When a friend   and co-writer of mine and I were talking about what the story of Episode VII should be, we had trouble coming up with a serviceable story with Luke in it. He overwhelmed the narrative because of the heights we left him at in the previous chronological installment (1983’s “Return of the Jedi”). It makes sense to take him out of the narrative in the present sense and turn him into the over-arcing “MacGuffin” of the plot. Because of his importance via absence, this story decision works really well for this film, and also sets up the next two films in the “sequel trilogy” really well.

Speaking of plot devices, in 2015, “meta” was all the rage. From “Jurassic World” having a character reference how the first park (movie) was the “real deal” to The Force Awakens having C-3P0 referencing people wondering about “his red arm” and how he got it (hint: that was directed at the audience). There were so many fourth wall-breaking references that I lost count. So lets just go macro with it. Each of the major returning characters was in large part, written from a real-world perspective of how the audience sees each actor.

This movie isn’t just the first Star Wars film with the original cast since 1983, for many hardcore fans it was the first time seeing these actors again. It doesn’t matter how many times you remind everyone that Carrie Fisher has been one of the most successful script doctors in Hollywood, and is a very successful memoirist. Or that Mark Hamill has been a very dynamic and prolific voice actor, etc. To so many fans that operate at the pop culture surface level, the tag line of “where is Luke Skywalker?” could very well be “where is Mark Hamill?” Princess Leia being a discredited noble within the New Republic (not the once-solid, now professionally mediocre policy journal but the current intergalactic government situation in the galaxy far, far away) could be seen as a commentary on her being Hollywood royalty (Fisher is the daughter of two movie stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”), which she shunned to be a writer and fighter. After all, being the offspring of Darth Vader would have its political obstacles, so it would make more story-sense that Leia is not a viable political figure in this galaxy anymore.

My favorite meta commentary is that of Harrison Ford, the only original star that never seemed to love his or her association with these movies. “You’re Han Solo” asks our heroine Rey, “I used to be”, replies Ford, I mean Solo. It’s super corny, but it is in-season and it works very well in this film. Because like the original film, we need a Star Wars in our lives. It is fun. It can be deep if you want it to be, but it can also just be a fun and thrilling adventure. The world is depressing enough at times. We all deserve to go into the theater and go on a journey into our imaginations.

Star Wars is successful because it taps into a very deep and psychological human need, not just to be entertained and delighted, but it speaks to our need for mythology. Our need to explain and understand the world.

The most important question I had going into this as a film fan, and a Star Wars fan, the question that needed to be answered in the affirmative for me to enjoy it was: Does The Force Awakens feel like a genuine continuation of the enthralling and endlessly compelling mythology told via the medium of film, as created all those years ago by George Lucas?

For me at least, it did feel like the genuine continuation.

The Bad: 

LA Times has one of the more negative reviews of the film I have seen and they bring up some interesting points. I don’t want to stress the bad too much, it has been repeated elsewhere by people who get paid to make these observations or opinions. I’m a film and Star Wars fan at the end of the day, so I’ll keep it brief (note: my version of brief).

No surprise given my deliberate description of the plot, The Force Awakens is highly derivative. It is so derivative that Lucas should have probably been given a “Story by” credit in addition or instead of the “Based on characters created by” credit. Speaking of Lucas, now that he has settled into a Gene Roddenberry post-season 2 of Next Generation-role, I could not help but notice the lack of the distinctive visual styling with shot composition and inventiveness, as well as the world-building of the narrative (mostly in terms of the stakes at hand: what are the politics? factions?)

Part of the weaknesses could be a course-correction gone too far. The more likely scenario though, the film was trying to replicate the original Star Wars as much as possible, and years of subsequent releases of further information and detail of this beloved galaxy have blinded us to the fact that if you just sit down and watch the original Star Wars without any other knowledge of anything, it is very similar to how little information you get in The Force Awakens. Chalk it up to perception and the “mystery box” at work.

The Ugly:

Nothing to do with the actual film itself was ugly, however:

The marketing campaign was cynical in certain aspects (constantly reminding fans of all the practical effects used, etc.), certain segments of the fandom’s treatment of Lucas continues to be embarrassing to watch, and some in the media picking up on the most negative aspects of Star Wars fandom is unfortunate (example: a few lone trolls and hateful people saying outlandish comments knowing the gullible and clickbait-based internet news media will pick it up).

The Bottom Line: 

Ultimately, who cares what I say, because the results and bottom line speaks for itself. This new Star Wars film is the most successful since the original Star Wars. That’s right, it may be blasphemous to say it, but The Force Awakens is already more of a phenomenon than The Empire Strikes Back, objectively speaking. Although, the original will no-doubt still hold the top spot (and probably always will).

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%

Box Office Mojo: The Force Awakens broke the all-time domestic record and is on track for top-2 or 3 worldwide all-time record. It recently surpassed the adjusted for inflation box office of The Phantom Menace to become the 2nd most successful Star Wars film at the box office but has some work to do to top the original Star Wars, which itself has benefitted from re-releases to be fair.

Academy Awards: will likely become the most nominated Star Wars film since the original film.