Saturday, October 21, 2017

More White House Low Ball - Et Tu John Kelly?

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly
By all accounts, former U.S. Marine general John Kelly was supposed to bring a much-needed measure of order, discipline and ethical clout to a White House that has been embroiled in chaos and controversy since the day after the inauguration in January.

A cursory glance at his lengthy service record leaves little doubt about his love of country, or that he merits the respect of his fellow American citizens.

But it hasn't taken long for him to sink down into the very morass that he was supposed to fix.

After Fake President became defensive about all the negative attention he was receiving for taking twelve days to finally reach out to the families of the four U.S. servicemen killed in an ambush in Niger by terrorists supposedly aligned with ISIS earlier this month, he did what he usually does.

He started throwing around baseless accusations in an effort to blame other people for his own failings - not surprisingly, his target was President Obama.

On Monday, Trump flat out lied by suggesting that pervious U.S. presidents had not reached out to the families of fallen American soldiers as much as he had - as if consoling grieving families is some kind of competition.

It's well known that Obama often went to Andrews Air Force Base in the middle of the night outside Washington, D.C. to pay respects to the remains of fallen soldiers arriving back from overseas before meeting privately with the families at the base chapel.

He frequently visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland too.

(Isn't it interesting that regardless of the issue, somehow it always ends up being about Trump's off-the-chart narcissism?)

Robert Kelly (left) with his brother John Jr. (center)
and his father John Kelly, Sr. (right)
When former White House staff members of both Obama and George W. Bush publicly pushed back on Trump's fake accusations, on Tuesday he ratcheted up his idiocy even further by having the gall to invoke White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's deceased son Robert's name in a pathetic effort to lend credibility to his latest lies.

A 1st lieutenant in the 5th Marine Division, Robert Kelly was 29-years old when was killed after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan during his 3rd combat tour.

Kelly rarely spoke about his son's death publicly, so it's a pretty sad reflection of the monumental insensitivity and ethical cluelessness of Trump to use a personal tragedy like that to bolster a lie.

By Tuesday afternoon Trump was facing mounting criticism over his lies about previous presidents, and was clearly desperate to try and at least appear as if he gave a shit about the four fallen U.S. soldiers killed in Niger.

So instead of apologizing for speaking in error, or taking twelve days to contact any of the family members, he blundered yet again when he called up Myeshia Johnson, the widow of the 25-year old African-American Army special forces sergeant LaDavid Johnson who was one of the four killed in the attack.

Trump called her in the limo that was taking her to the airport to receive her husband's flag-draped coffin, and his insensitive and ill-timed comments angered both the soldier's mother Cowanda Jones-Johnson and Florida Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson - who were both in the car and heard Trump's call on speakerphone.

Myeshia Johnson weeps over her husband's
coffin on Tuesday
His comments were so lacking in empathy, tact and manners that it only brought more attention on the lie he originally told on Monday that ignited the whole controversy.

Congresswoman Wilson publicly took Trump to the woodshed for his clearly unscripted comments during the call, and in an interview with the Washington Post on Wednesday, the soldier's mother confirmed Wilson's allegations saying:

"President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband."

In response, Trump basically called the widow and mother of a fallen U.S. soldier liars by publicly denying he'd said the things Wilson claimed he'd said on the call.

Now at this point, one would think the White House Chief of Staff would have stepped in to try and halt this epic PR disaster, right?

Sure enough, John Kelly did step in, but rather than try to privately counsel Trump to dial back the rhetoric, stop attacking the widow and mother of a fallen soldier and the Congresswoman who knew him personally, Kelly made an on-camera appearance in the White House briefing room on Thursday.

Not only did he discuss his son's death in Afghanistan in 2010, he did so to try and justify the flagrant lie that Trump told on Monday about other U.S. presidents not comforting grieving families.

Kelly stepped waist deep in the swamp - and then some.

Not content to polish up Trump's lies, he joined the Trump White House's uncaged attack-dog mentality, ignored the obvious optics of the situation (a racist president attacking the African-American members of a soldier who gave his life for his county) and suddenly veered into a bizarre alt-righty character assassination of Rep. Wilson.

As careful examination of the video of a nine-minute speech Wilson gave during the dedication of a federal building in 2015 named after two FBI agents shows, as the New York Times reported on Friday, it became clear that the Boston-born, Irish Catholic former four-star Marine general John Kelly lied in front of millions of people.

Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson
The video (now widely viewed) proves unequivocally that the Democratic Florida representative was not "grandstanding" as both Kelly and his narcissistic boss alleged.

In fact, the video shows her giving credit for a Republican-majority Congress quickly authorizing funds for the federal building to several Republican Congressman, including the former Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Desperately trying to defend yet another White House bundle of lies, the truth-adverse WH press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders then veered even further into territory that can only be described as disturbingly pro-authoritarian by suggesting that members of the press had no right to question anything that Chief of Staff John Kelly said because he used to be a four-star Marine general.

What planet is she on?  Like Trump, she later walked back her comments in a rather timid written statement when the degree of the authoritarian absurdity of what she'd said became apparent.

But she also expended more of the White House's dwindling credibility by peddling more juvenile character assassination jabs at Wilson - as one point even poking fun at the colorful hats that Wilson is known for wearing.

Like her hats have anything to do with Trump waiting twelve days to try and reach out to the families of four fallen service members, then politicizing the death of John Kelly's son Robert to justify his having lied.

Yet another disastrous week for an erratic dysfunctional White House that seems almost clinically detached from the optics of the remarkably petty battles it chooses to engage in.

It's hard to gauge what's going on with John Kelly, a man who devoted his entire career to service, honor and duty, apparently reduced to shilling for a xenophobic racist sociopath and compulsive liar who's just insecure enough to pick fights with Gold  Star families.

With Trump, the bar is so low we expect that kind of low-life bush-league crap.

But Et Tu John Kelly?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

AmeRaqqa's Secret War Against ISIS?

Syrian Democratic Forces celebrate in Raqqa
This week, the headlines of many major news media outlets (including CNN) the New York Times and the BBC) are all trumpeting what's being described as "the fall of ISIS" in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Because the battle-scarred city sits on the banks of the Euphrates River in the northern part of Syria, it's been the site of wars since the 4th and 5th century AD when the Byzantine, Roman and Persian empires all wrestled for control of the region when it was an important outpost along critical trade routes.

But the shocking scenes of rubble-strewn streets, death and widespread destruction you've seen on TV, online or in newspapers or magazines are the sad byproduct of the devastating Syrian Civil War that began back in March of 2011.

Considering the wide array of international "players" currently on the battlefields of Syria (including Americans, Russians, British, French, Germans, Dutch, Norwegians, Kurdish nationals, members of Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Qaeda as well as Mid East players like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and others), the origins of this conflict are rather humble.

As a BBC overview of the timeline of the Syrian Civil War notes, it was a group of young teenagers who spray-painted anti-Bashar Assad slogans on the wall of a school in early 2011 that first sparked the fire that's been raging across Syria for more than six bloody years.

When notoriously repressive Assad dispatched his forces to arrest and torture those teenagers to make an example of them, it didn't discourage protests against his brutal authoritarian regime.

It sparked violent pro-Democracy demonstrations that grew exponentially until protesters began arming themselves to battle pro-Assad forces - the rest, as they say, is history.

Syrian civilians fleeing during a break in fighting
To date well over 250,000 Syrians have been killed, thousands have "disappeared" and more than 11 million displaced from their country; causing refugee crises in multiple nations and conflicts over immigration that have influenced internal domestic politics in countries as far away as Europe and the United States.

It's morphed into a complex proxy war for a host of other conflicts - Sunni versus Shia, America versus Russia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran.

But the situation in Raqqa itself really went south after ISIS took over, as journalist and Iraq War veteran Seth Harp observed recently in Rolling Stone:

"Since 2013, when ISIS fighters took control of the city, Raqqa has been the most violent place in the world, a no-go zone where medieval punishments like beheading and crucifixion are meted out in the streets and diseases like polio and black fever run rampant."

While I'm not an expert in the Mid East, I am a political science major who follows current events.

And I'm also one of the millions of Americans tired of the thousands of lives, torrents of blood, and trillions of tax payer dollars the U.S. has spent fighting wars in one of the most destabilized regions on the planet over the past two decades.

As a nation principally founded on the institution of slavery that fought a war to liberate ourselves from the yoke of British rule, then fought another war to settle the uncomfortable question of slavery, Americans as whole have never shied away from a fight.

But there's something deeply troubling about the current state of "perpetual war" that politicians, some members of the intelligence community, the massive bureaucracy of the Pentagon and Department of Defense, and the enormous web of defense contractors who fuel and profit from armed conflict, have somehow made the new American norm.

A norm the American public somehow has little say in that we nonetheless pay for to the tune of billions of dollars a month.

On Wednesday I was burning off some calories on the exercise bike during lunch at the gym, on CNN I saw this clip of a Syrian Democratic Forces armored personnel carrier crowded with elated SDF fighters celebrating in the dusty, rubble-strewn streets of Raqqa - the tracked vehicle was doing donuts in tight circles like a NASCAR driver who just won the Daytona 500.

SDF commanders announce their plan to retake
Raqqa back from ISIS in November, 2016
Personally I'm a bit troubled by this narrative the media seems to be pushing. 

The U.S. military has been notoriously restrictive about allowing American journalists and television cameras into Syria.

But lately TV and the internet are full of all these snippets of SDF forces celebrating a victory against ISIS in Raqqa.

ISIS is notorious for planning terrorist attacks in secret.

So is it really wise to goad them publicly and preen about taking back a stronghold from them when we're not really sure where all their fighters who were in Raqqa have gone?

Clearly there is cause to celebrate the liberation of a city from ISIS control, especially considering the dehumanizing ways in which they treat civilians; but there's no evidence that ISIS is "defeated."

The push to retake Raqqa was a long, brutal campaign that began with a SDF press conference in Ein Issa just north of the city back in November of 2016 as Americans were focused on the presidential elections and the terrifying prospect of a Trump presidency.

The campaign was called Operation Euphrates Rage, which would consist of 30,000 "US-backed" SDF fighters - but there was no clear definition of what "US-backed" really meant.

U.S. Special Forces operating in Syria
What strikes me as interesting about all these headlines about "the fall of ISIS in Raqqa" is the lack of mention of the U.S. military's role in helping to push ISIS fighters out of the region.

After reading through a number of news articles about Raqqa's liberation, and the term "US-backed coalition" was used quite a bit, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are being widely credited with the victory.

The bulk of the SDF are made up of an alliance of Kurdish militias, a strongly feminist mix of fighters that includes Christians and Muslims among their ranks.

Now it's not like the news media hasn't been reporting about the deployment of American troops in Sryia to back the SDF, but if you look at an ABC News article from last April for example, while it does report about a battery of U.S. Marines who arrived to set up an artillery base to support coalition troops, it starts off with a quote from Donald Trump saying that U.S. troops are "not going into Syria."   

But that wasn't true then, and it's not true now.

As I've said, I don't assign homework or anything (it's not that kind of blog) but if you want to understand just how extensive the U.S. combat role in Syria is, you should really take some time to read journalist Seth Harp's recent Rolling Stone article "The Siege of Raqqa: On the Front Line Of America's Secret War With ISIS". 

It's a remarkable piece of journalism lifted from his having been secretly smuggled into Syria with the help of SDF guides (and probably a fat cash donation from Rolling Stone).

U.S. Marines carrying 155mm artillery shells in
Northern Syria
Not only does Harp, himself a veteran of the Iraq war who writes from a position of knowledge and experience, visit the front lines of Raqqa where SDF fighters are dodging ISIS drones that drop grenades on them from above as they huddle in blasted out buildings waiting for U.S. air and artillery support - he also talks about the massive U.S. combat presence there.

Not hundreds of U.S. soldiers but thousands of American personnel.

And not just members of SEAL teams, Green Berets, Army Rangers and Delta Force operators who make up the Special Forces (JSOC) on the ground fighting ISIS - but members of all 4 branches.

As Harp writes in the opening of his RS piece: "Today, there are some 14 U.S. military bases on Syrian soil. The troops on the ground include personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, but the government won't say exactly how many, where they're located, what precisely they're doing or how long they'll stay. A Few have died and a good deal more have been injured in combat, but like almost everything else about the U.S. presence in Syria, the number of wounded is classified."

If the SDF is going to become the face of "Democracy" in Syria, what does that mean for the thousands of American troops already stationed there?

Is this the start of another 15-plus year deployment of U.S. troops? If so what's it going to cost U.S. taxpayers?

And what are the parameters of their mission there?

The current news blackout on that mission by the Pentagon prevents American citizens from getting answers to those questions, but we have a right to know if American blood and treasure are being committed to a multi-year combat role in a foreign nation - especially one as destabilized as Syria.

My sense is that many Americans (including me) would consider defeating ISIS a noble cause, but if we're going to fight a war to do that then Congress needs to fully authorize it, hold public hearings about it and most importantly be upfront and straight with American citizens about what's going on there.

We have a right to debate the wisdom of deploying Americans to fight in a country that's been wracked by war since the 4th century AD - trying do that in secret is not the way to do it.

Something the Twitter-happy president who campaigned on an "America First" philosophy while criticizing President Obama's overseas military interventions is going to have to own.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Ma$$ Incarceration in the American Gulag: Ugly Truths in Caddo Parish

Caddo Parish (Louisiana) Sheriff Steve Prator
The news story that surfaced last week about Caddo Parish, Louisiana Sheriff Steve Prator's comments about incarcerated prisoners performing manual labor was a troubling reminder of one of the most insidious aspects of mass incarceration in America.

Namely the profit motive that channels people into the justice system on the front end, then moves them through an overburdened municipal, state and federal prison pipeline that extracts financial gain in a variety of ways.

Profit realized not from rehabilitating those found guilty in courts of law, but from keeping those individuals incarcerated for as long as possible, irrespective of flawed sentencing laws, overt bias on the part of some members of local law enforcement, or sometimes even a suspect's guilt or innocence - as in the tragic case of Glenn Ford.

As Jonah Engel Bromwich reported in a New York Times article last Thursday, it was almost three weeks ago back on Thursday October 5th that the sheriff of Caddo Parish Louisiana, Steve Prator, held a lengthy press conference in which he railed against a series of substantive prison and sentencing reforms passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by both Democratic and Republican members of the Louisiana state legislature.

Whether Sheriff Prator harbors personal political ambitions isn't really clear.

But his alarming suggestion that the 1,400 low-level offenders convicted of non-violent offenses scheduled to be released from various Louisiana prisons (under the terms of the bipartisan prison reform bills) would have negative economic consequences because they perform a variety of manual labor services for the state's prison system, seemed close to justifying slave labor.

Incarcerated Americans sewing military fatigues
Consider a Prison Policy Initiative report by Wendy Sawyer last April that noted that there's been a decline in the average of the already-meager prison wage nationwide - which can be as low as 50 cents an hour in some states.

In some southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and (Surprise!) Texas, do not pay inmates for regular work in prison at all.

My sense is that part of the reason Sheriff Prator's comments drew such widespread criticism was that he shed an unsettling light on some of the numerous ways that prison labor is used in the Caddo Parish jail - including cooking and washing and performing mechanical work on cars and vehicles.

But more troubling was that he was arguing that low-level offenders jailed for non-violent offenses should STAY in prison because local state municipalities need the revenue - that's frightening.

And to many it seemed to reek of the undisguised authoritarian stench of Trumpian policy; undermine the free press, label anyone who disagrees with him an "enemy of the people", encourage law enforcement to use excessive force against suspects, lie at will, support for-profit prisons and back off of prison reforms that would keep more people out of the mass incarceration pipeline.

As Bromwich noted the story really didn't blow up nationally until journalist and criminal justice activist Shaun King posted a link to Sheriff Prator's comments on his Twitter feed early last Thursday morning.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards
In the wake of the utter devastation wreaked upon the state of Louisiana's economy after the disastrous economic policies of former Republican Governor-turned failed 2016 presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, one of the core campaign promises of current Democratic Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards was to reform the state's notoriously broken prison system.

A system that, like in other states, costs taxpayers hundreds of millions a year to operate.

Back in June, as Rebekah Allen reported for the Advocate, when Edwards signed the ten separate bills into law with a large group of Republican and Democratic supporters looking on (Republicans drafted seven of the bills), the scope and depth of the reforms was hailed as an "historic achievement" - click the link above and read some of the details outlines of the bills that were passed.

It's literally a progressive roadmap-template for sensible national criminal justice reforms, and as Bel successfully argued, those reforms would save the state of Louisiana over $260 million a year by keeping non-violent low-level offenders out of prison and out of the justice system.

For men like Sheriff Prator to argue against that kind of common sense change reflects the deep systematic challenges to meaningful prison reform in America.

For years, writers, historians, advocates of prison reform and criminal justice reform have presented data and made the case that mass incarceration in America and other countries is used as a means to warehouse a massive pool of readily cheap labor.

Not just for states and local municipalities either - we're not just talking about some guys hoeing fields or cutting grass.

A small sample of companies that use American prison
labor in some capacity
Prisoners do everything from logging, to road resurfacing to working in call centers for major retailers - yes, some of those people you speak to in customer service when you call to place an order, book an airline ticket or return an item are prisoners.

There's a long list of companies like Walmart, McDonald's and Victoria's Secret that benefit from prison labor.

When you consider the immense lobbying power that these companies wield on Capitol Hill, and the influence they wield on Congressman, Senators and Governors (and Fake President), the pushback against prison reform, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, starts to become more clear.

Sheriff Prator isn't alone in his opposition to releasing non-violent offenders because it will make labor costs rise, many U.S. corporations feel the same way.

Of course you'll never see THAT in a television commercial for McDonald's or AT&T, but they do.

Remember the efforts to untangle the prison phone rate scam a couple years ago?

If you recall, the Democratic-majority Federal Communications Commission, in conjunction with wider prison reform efforts by the Obama administration, passed a rule capping the outrageous rates that major phone companies charge prison inmates.

Trump's FCC head Ajit Pai
But a federal court shot that down earlier this summer, and the conservative right-wing puppet that Fake President tapped to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, refused to pursue the fight.

Ajit Pai basically sided with the large telecommunications carriers that lobbied Republicans to be able to freely charge wildly excessive phone rates to incarcerated inmates - making it even more difficult for them to maintain some kind of emotional bond with family and friends on the outside.

Think about that.

But it's not surprising, like a young Dinesh D'Souza, Pai is one of those Ivy League-educated sons of hard working Indian immigrants who seem to revel in prostrating themselves before the alter of right-wing conservative American ideology - gleefully pushing all the buttons that make the corporate establishment squirm and giggle with pleasure.

If there's any issue on which the FCC could rule to stick it to consumers and make it easier for large telecommunications and internet companies to consolidate their power and rack up profits, you can be sure Ajit Pai will be on the front line making it happen - after using his law degree to work for the Justice Department's Anti-Trust Division, he took a job as Verizon's Associate General Counsel where he (surprise!) specialized in among other things, regulatory issues.

Now he does the bidding of a president who holds dark-skinned people in total contempt - MAGA!

Sadly, all this corporate ass-holery is not new in America as illustrated in disturbing detail in Douglas A. Blackmon's Pulitzer-Prize wining book, "Slavery by Another Name", which explores the disturbing truth that slavery in this country continued up into the 20th century in the form of forced human bondage based on arcane local laws, corrupt local courts and greedy businessmen who conspired to target, imprison and torture thousands of African-Americans in flagrant violation of the Constitution to quench a thirst for free labor that grew exponentially after the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

African-American prisoners laboring on a railway
in the late 19th or early 20th century 
These weren't just farmers using wrongly-incarcerated prison labor to clear fields or harvest crops; in some cases corporations like U.S. Steel and Standard Oil dipped into that ill-gotten labor pool too.

Slavery By Another Name is also a brilliant PBS documentary if you've never seen it; albeit a disturbing one that will alter one's perspective on the U.S. justice system and corporate America.

Michelle Alexander's 2010 nonfiction book "The New Jim Crow" is also an essential tool to understand the dynamics of mass incarceration in America and it's relation to a justice system warped by bias and internal dysfunction.

If there were some kind of a litmus test to measure the federal government's response to the urgent need for prison reform in the U.S., where would the score be on the spectrum?

The rigidly conservative, yet remarkably uncurious Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an ideologue whose quasi-religious adherence to his narrow concept of the "rule of law" could be seen as conditional and uneven with regards to the role the Department of Justice should play in such efforts.

While he's stated publicly that he would prosecute members of law enforcement who cross the line, there's little indication that he will - especially considering that he's already gone on record as saying that the Department of Justice under his leadership will steer clear of efforts to monitor local police departments who engage in systematic biased policing based on race.

Sessions also steered the DOJ back to approving the use of for-profit prison companies to manage some federal institutions - despite those companies having a sketchy track record in such areas as safety and cost-effectiveness.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions 
Part of what's troubling about the hands-off approach to bipartisan criminal justice reform under Sessions' DOJ is the simple stubborn refusal to recognize the dehumanizing and alienating effects that flawed sentencing laws and biased court systems have on the men, women and children who populate America's prisons.

It's like his adherence to an ideology blinds him to virtually anything else.

Nothing else exists - reality, facts and common sense are secondary to his entrenched belief system.

The narrow-minded, simplistic ideological rhetoric of men like Sessions, Fake President and Sheriff Prator often obscures the simple fact that prisons house real human beings - sure some have committed violent crimes and deserve to be in jail for their crimes, but they're still people.

Did you see the New York Times article last week that quoted the Texas Criminal Department of Justice as saying that some 6,663 inmates housed in correctional facilities across the state of Texas collectively donated some $53,863 to Hurricane Harvey relief charities?

This despite the fact that most only keep on average about $5 in their prison commissary accounts; much of which goes to telecom companies so they can make phone calls.

Prisoner fire fighters in California 
Recently the news has been full of the devastation and loss of life and property in parts of California in some of the worst fires seen in years - but as MotherJones reported recently, a remarkable 30% of California's forest firefighters are made up of state prisoners.

When you consider that California's forest fire fighting budget in 2014 was about $209 million, 30% of the thousands of forest fire fighters coming from prison labor is not small change.

Despite that devastation Trump has called for a $300 million dollar cut in the US Forest Service's wild fire prevention budget for fiscal 2018 (again, ideology uber alles), who knows, maybe he plans to plug those gaps with even more prisoner labor?

So in retrospect, Sheriff Steve Prator's griping about loosing a few inmates from the Caddo Parish prison cafeteria staff and motor pool seems like chump change in comparison with the wider use of prison labor in America by both the military, private corporations and state governments.

Given all that, it's interesting how much time Trump spends talking about how immigrants are taking away American jobs in this country.

Why read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's massive three-volume work on the Soviet Union's forced labor camp system when we've got an American Gulag going on right here at home?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Trump SoHo - The Kids Are Not Alright

The family that lies together, stays together?
Trump's latest hissy-fit over NBC 's report that he stunned members of his national security team in a July 20th meeting by calling for a "ten fold" increase in America's nuclear arsenal strains the boundaries of hypocrisy.

"It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write" Fake President fumed to reporters - apparently not understanding that he basically just defined the 1st Amendment right to Freedom of Expression.

Obviously there's nothing funny about his empty threat to try and use his executive power to revoke NBC's broadcast license, but there's a reason he's kicking up a fuss over a news story.

The old saying "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" might best sum up the overtly unethical and illegal actions of Donald Trump, Jr. and his sister Ivanka as revealed in a joint investigation conducted by reporters from The New Yorker, WNYC and ProPublica that was released last week.

After listening to a WNYC segment on the story last weekend, it made Fake President's incessant tiresome whining about the NFL last make a lot more sense.

It also sheds light on why he flew down to Puerto Rico last week and made a complete ass of himself while trying to defend his administration's bungled response to the devastating hurricane damage in PR that left millions without power or fresh water before tossing paper towels into an audience of people waiting for him to announce some kind of federal aid package.

By now, Trump's bizarre modus operandi is pretty clear.

Whenever legitimate news stories that are not flattering to him, his family or advisers (current or former) are released, or about to be released, he immediately takes to Twitter to say something astronomically stupid and outlandish.

Or, he uses an appearance at a live televised event or press conference to lob some kind of red-meat statement (out to the 30-some percent of the American populace that still approve of what he's doing) like a grenade and waits for it to blow up.

Not to make an actual point or policy statement, but simply to try and change the media narrative.

The troubled Trump SoHo - which isn't
actually located in SoHo 
Pick any of his weekend Tweets, there's a reason he doesn't care whether it's true, factually accurate or even makes any sense - it could be total gibberish (remember "Covfefe"?).

If you take some time to read the expose on how Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka avoided a criminal indictment for blatant real estate fraud written by Jesse Eisenger, Justin Elliot, Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, Fake President's erratic behavior last week seems more rational.

At the center of this latest Trump-themed debacle is the 46-story hotel-condominium called the Trump SoHo.

The name of the property is basically a lie since it's located on Spring Street and Varick in the Hudson Square neighborhood.

Local residents of the West Village have protested the construction of the $450 million boondoggle since construction started in 2006.

Not just because it's immense size is totally out of scale with the character of the buildings in the neighborhood on the lower west side of Manhattan - located well west of the actual SoHo.

The soulless 391-unit building, which the 5th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City described as a "banal glass box", was built on the site of the former Spring Street Presbyterian Church, and the discovery of human remains during excavation for the building temporarily halted construction until archaeologists determined they were from the 1800's-era church burial vault - did you see Poltergeist?

Two construction workers were killed in 2008 on the site when sub-standard wooden forms used to make concrete molds collapsed - including a Ukrainian immigrant construction worker named Yuriy Vanchytskyy who tumbled 42 stories to his death and was decapitated.

Russian fixer Felix Sater and Donald Trump
The troubled building was a partnership between the Georgian (USSR)-born real estate investor Tamir Sapir and the Bayrock Group, run by the sketchy Russian businessman Felix Sater.

He's the guy who wrote in a 2015 email that he could arrange the construction of a Trump Tower Moscow in Russia that would help Trump win the presidency.

As a New York Times article by Matt Apuzzo and Maggie Haberman back in August noted, Sater wrote in an email to Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen, "Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it, I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this, I will manage this project."

Like many "Trump" building projects, Trump Soho is a licensing opportunity, so the brilliant "deal" Fake President made is to take some money for having his name plastered on the exterior of the building.

So while the Trump family didn't put a dime of its own money into the project, it bears all the hallmarks of Trump's sketchy carnival-huckster business ethics.

As Joey Arak reported in a 2011 SoHo News article, the project got a zoning exception that allowed the builders to make the building even higher in exchange for agreeing to build a relatively small section of public space at the base of the building - a little stretch of concrete plaza.

After getting their zoning exception, the operators then petitioned to turn the "public space" into an outdoor dining area for the exclusive use of hotel-condo guests / residents - MAGA!

Fraudsters: Ivanka Trump and Donald Jr.
After all the trouble associated with this project that Fake President didn't design, build or finance, what does he do?

In 2010 he decides that Trump SoHo will be a "New York real estate coming out" party for his eldest children Donald, Jr. and Ivanka.

Like many residential construction projects in Manhattan, Trump SoHo's bank loans and financing hinge on selling at least 15% of the condos.

Because the area in which it's constructed isn't licensed for residential, people who buy condos in Trump SoHo can't legally live in them more than 120 days out of the year - the rest of the time they can lease their condo out as hotel space.

Who in his or her right mind would pay truckloads of money for a pricey Manhattan condo where they can only live 120 days out of the year? Exactly.

As the joint investigation by ProPublica, The New Yorker and WNYC revealed, as part of their father's New York real estate "coming out", both Donald, Jr. and Ivanka - then in their early 20's - were both tasked with selling condos to prospective buyers in Trump SoHo.

To attract the high-end buyers, they both flagrantly (and knowingly) lied about the occupancy of the building in order to lure potential buyers into believing that the condos were selling like hotcakes - but they weren't.

Their lying about the property attracted the attention of the Major Economic Crimes Bureau of the Manhattan District Attorney's office, which opened an investigation into their activities in 2010.

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr.
Ten condo owners filed a lawsuit against the Trump SoHo owners accusing them of "fraudulently" misrepresenting condo sales figures.

The owners quickly settled the lawsuit out of court in 2011, paying the ten condo owners 90% of their deposits back.

Despite the Trump Organization hiring a cadre of pricey criminal defense lawyers to protect Donald, Jr and Ivanka's privileged behinds, the Manhattan DA's investigation dragged on.

Which evidently angered Fake President - who brought his personal lawyer of ten years Marc Kasowtiz into the case to make it go away.

Kasowitz, who'd personally donated $25,000 to the reelection campaign of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. in early 2012, went to straight to the DA's office on May 12, 2016 and asked him to drop the case against Donny Jr. and Ivanka.

But just before that May 16th meeting, Vance's reelection campaign mysteriously returns the $25,000 Kasowtiz had donated just months before - three months after that meeting the DA overrules the recommendation his own assistant attorneys and drops the case against the Trump children.

Despite clear evidence that they'd both lied about the sales figures of Trump SoHo with the intent of duping potential buyers - a clear violation of the Martin Act.

It gets even sketchier.

6 months after Vance dropped the case, Kasowtiz makes another LARGER donation of $35,000 to Vance's campaign - and then helps arrange an additional $15,000 in donations to the sketchy DA's reelection campaign.

One really doesn't have to look far to see where the eldest Trump children get their predilection towards playing fast and loose with the truth in order to manipulate people into getting something they want or need.

Lying is apparently just a part of the Trump brand, which makes Fake President's unsubstantiated accusations about the media making things up all the more laughable - and indeed, pathetic.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 Replicates

Blade Runner 2049 movie poster
Some people are quick to respond to the idea of a film sequel with equal parts cynicism and skepticism.

Given major Hollywood film studios' current reliance on big-budget franchises (eight Transformers movies and counting) to boost revenue and woo audiences away from the comfort of the plethora of on-demand entertainment available through cable or OTT streaming services like Netflix, that's totally understandable.

Personally I'm not one of those people, as a film fan I try to take an individual film on its own merits.

There are many examples of sequels that are as good as, or exceed the original movie; even when the first one is considered a classic.

In my personal view, The Godfather II is a superior film to the original and I rank Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant sequel as one of the top five films of all time.

As much as I loved the original Star Wars, the sequel The Empire Strikes Back, is a much better picture in terms of the quality and depth of the story, character development and the overall film.

By any measure, it's a huge risk for a producer, director or screenwriter to attempt a sequel to a film considered a classic in its own right, but in my humble opinion I think there's no question that executive producer Ridley Scott and French-Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve have succeeded with Blade Runner 2049.

As someone who came of age in the 70's and 80's, the original Blade Runner, which came out in 1982, is often described as "visionary" - but it truly was.

Director Ridley Scott's dark dystopian film based on the 1968 Phillip K. Dick novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", underperformed at the American box office when it first came out (I saw it in the theater), but many fans and critics alike were totally floored by its moody, atmospheric feel and unusual characters.

The popularity of the film grew exponentially after it was released on VHS then eventually shown on cable TV as a wider audience got a chance to see and appreciate it.

Like The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Blade Runner elevated the science-fiction film genre into an entirely new level with its breathtaking scenery, special effects, cutting edge production design and brilliant (and haunting) sound track.

Rutger Hauer as android Roy Batty in his unforgettable
3rd act scene in the 1982 film Blade Runner
To say nothing of the acting performances of Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos and an absolutely unforgettable Rutger Hauer as the android Roy Batty.

The supporting cast, including M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, Brion James, Joanna Cassidy and James Hong was excellent as well.

William Sanderson's touching performance as toy designer J.F. Sebastian was amazing.

From my perspective, the original Blade Runner successfully tapped into anxieties felt by many people about the threat of nuclear war in the late 70's and early 80's.

For those too young to remember, this was at a time when elevated Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were a constant reminder of the vast nuclear arsenals of both countries.

Blade Runner came out a year before the widely-watched ABC television movie The Day After, which depicted the terrifying aftermath of a fictional nuclear war between America and the U.S.S.R - that was broadcast in 1983.

I think a lot of people were drawn to the original Blade Runner in part because it offered a glimpse of what a society that had survived the ravages of nuclear war, pollution and climate change, might look like - it offered hope that humanity would survive.

After seeing Blade Runner 2049 last night in IMAX, I think screenwriters Hampton Francher and Michael Green (Francher co-wrote the original film) successfully use the story to explore timely issues that our current culture continues to wrestle with today.

Topics like bigotry, the over-saturation of commercialization, the effects of drastic climate change, corporations allowed to run amok - and of course, the dilemma and ethical and moral implications of humans existing alongside artificial intelligence.

For those who plan to see it, don't worry I won't give away any plot twists or surprises.

A huge holographic figure from an ad talks with Ryan Gosling's
character "K" in Blade Runner 2049
But given the topics I explore in my blog I think it's important to note that Blade Runner 2049 offers glimpses of prejudice against androids in the first act (including slurs and graffiti) that instantly bring to mind the racism and divisiveness cultivated by Donald Trump.

One of the most interesting (and coolest) visual aspects of the first Blade Runner were the enormous video ads that were seen on the sides of buildings and large futuristic blimps or airships throughout the film in the background of scenes.

Those are reflections of the fact that director Ridley Scott originally learned his craft as a commercial director in London, and we get to see more of that in Blade Runner 2049.

The original Blade Runner was set in 2019, so thirty years later, improvements in technology (both in the story of the film and for SFX and visual effects teams) allow the ads in Blade Runner 2049 to exist as moving three-dimensional holographic images that are really stunning - and beautiful to watch.

For example in one scene, a luminescent three or four story-tall ballerina twirls and dances in the middle of a busy street at night crowded with pedestrians and vehicles; in another scene later in the film an enormous naked woman from an ad projected onto the side of a building steps out of the ad and crouches down to talk directly to Ryan Gosling's character "K" (pictured above).

Jared Leto as the ruthless Niander Wallace 
Without giving away anything, holographic projection of, and "physical" interaction with, humans figures prominently in Blade Runner 2049 in ways that are stunning, erotic and at times, creepy to watch.

As in the original Blade Runner, the only real government authority we see are the police who track down the remaining rogue Nexus-6 models of android "replicants" manufactured by the Tryrell Corporation.

In Blade Runner 2049 we are introduced to Niander Wallace, a sociopathic bio-engineer-CEO effectively played by actor Jared Leto who controls the powerful corporation that now manufactures replicants that, unlike the Nexus-6 models in the original film, are programmed to be completely loyal to humans.

Leto is solid as Wallace, a blind, enigmatic character who "sees" with the aid of small drone-like objects that follow him around, the main plot revolves around his desire to harness, and profit from, a disturbing secret that relates to Harrison Ford's character Deckard and his love interest Rachel, the stunning replicant brilliantly played by actress Sean Young in the original Blade Runner. 

Even more impressive than Leto in my opinion is his sidekick "henchman" (or hench-woman I should say) played by relatively unknown actress Sylvia Hoeks, in true Bond fashion she's graceful, intelligent, beautiful, ruthless and deadly - she really steels the scenes she's in and remember her name because this is a star-making role for her.

But before I wrap up, let's quickly review the good guys in the movie, which I intentionally saved for the end.

Harrison Ford's character Deckard appears in
Blade Runner 2049
As a guy whose grown up watching, and admiring, Harrison Ford from his first roles in American Graffiti, Star Wars and Apocalypse Now, I was eager to see what had become of the character Deckard.

Privately I worried that his presence in the sequel might be forced, awkward or klutzy from the standpoint of a screenwriter (Ford always delivers as an actor).

But the story in Blade Runner 2049 really delivers, and Deckard's appearance is a natural result of a logical, complex and well-structured plot.

It was an emotional moment for me as a fan of the original film and Ford, seeing the reality of both him and the character aging with grace and a kind of cinematic nobility - Ford (an avid tennis player) has clearly kept himself in shape and he looks good.

He also delivers a nuanced performance as Deckard reveals what he's been doing for the past thirty years - again, without giving away anything specific, he plays a critical part of the plot and the third-act resolution.

A plot that's bolstered with fine supporting actor performances by Robin Wright as LAPD Lt. Joshi and Ana de Armas as a hologram named Joi.

But, and I saved this for the end, this film unquestionably belongs to Ryan Gosling.

Ryan Gosling's character "K" sets out in search of
secrets across a futuristic landscape
Director Dennis Villeneuve (who directed Sicario and Arrival) has elicited what may be Gosling's finest on-screen performance to date.

Gosling's riveting performance is at once measured, introspective, subtle, moody and intense.

Yet he also displays emotional vulnerability and unleashes powerful physical intensity when needed - a modern reflection of Ford's incredible performance in the original film.

Gosling's performance perfectly captures the essence and style of the world of Ridley Scott's vision in a way that makes Blade Runner 2049 one of the finest sequels to a classic that I've ever seen.

To me one of the most impressive aspects about this film is that, like the original Blade Runner, the sequel never panders to any kind of mainstream Hollywood ideas about "commercial appeal".

It runs two hours and 44 minutes, and the producer, director, editor allow the film to take it's time to develop with long, unhurried scenes that allow the characters time to develop, and the plot to become carefully layered as it presents a new story set in the future, while merging plot elements with the original film.

New characters are introduced, and for fans of the original, old characters make appearances as well.

A giant holographic ballerina twirls in the middle
of the street in 2049 Los Angeles  
The sweeping camera shots by the master cinematographer Roger Deakins along with the a film soundtrack that incorporates the amazing music of Vangelis simultaneously takes us on a journey that wanders into the past original film, while moving through a future landscape and setting up a path forward for what will surely be another sequel.

Blade Runner 2049 makes clear that in some ways, the wall between humans and the artificially intelligent replicants who often display a humanity that is startling to behold, is growing even more fragile - a question we ourselves face as AI advances rapidly.

This amazing sequel manages to achieve the same epic emotional heights of the original in ways that make it something quite rare in American cinema today - a transformative and moving film experience that makes you work and offers no simple answers.

For film buffs and sci-fi fans, Blade Runner 2049 needs to be seen on the large screen - the extra few dollars to see it in IMAX is worth it.

It's not often that a sequel comes along that ranks up there with the original, and rare is the big Hollywood release these days that leaves you thinking as you leave the theater  - and searching for answers after the film is over.

This is one of those films that leaves you knowing one thing as you start your car in the theater parking lot, or wait for the subway or bus - that you have to see it again.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Big Republican Nothing

People gather at a makeshift memorial in Vegas
Sometimes it almost seems like the Republican leadership that currently controls the House of Representatives lives in some kind of parallel universe.

A kind of nonsensical ideological haven in the middle of a bubble located light years from where most average Americans try to eek out an existence wherever they live, work, retire, or go to school.

In that universe a simple truth is denied.

64-year-old Stephen Paddock used a weapon of war to kill 59 people and injure 500 others on Sunday night.

But he wasn't on a field of battle, for three days he was ensconced in the corner suite on the 32nd floor of a hotel with 23 different firearms (including semi-auto and fully automatic rifles with scopes set up on tripods) and hundreds of rounds of ammunition - some of which he used to fire at innocent people attending a country music festival.

The current Republican-majority Congress, the legislative branch of the federal government empowered and tasked by the Constitution to draft laws on behalf of the American people, made it easier for that to happen.

As the editorial board of the New York Times wrote in a blistering, mostly visual op-ed yesterday:

"477 Days. 521 Mass Shootings. Zero Action From Congress."

If you haven't already seen it, click the link above and take a quick look at the calendars covering 2016 and 2017 with the days where at least one mass shooting took place in America marked off.

It borders on madness when you consider that the Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as "four or more people injured or killed in a single event at the same time and location."  

Paul Ryan, Speaker of Platitudes?
Millions of Americans and people from around the world are expressing outrage and complete bafflement that U.S. law allows individuals to purchase and own semi-automatic weapons that can easily be updated to fire fully-automatic for less than $100.

In response Republican Congressional leaders are doing what they usually do after innocent Americans lose their lives to senseless mass shootings.

Absolutely nothing.

As Rebecca Shabad reported for CBS News earlier today, after Republicans holed up in a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, "Mr. Zero Action" himself, House Speaker Paul Ryan, emerged to take questions from the media.

When asked what Congress has done to help protect American people from the wave of mass shootings that have taken place across the U.S. during the time that Republicans have controlled the House, like a kid caught lying to the teacher about reading the homework assignment when he clearly hadn't, Ryan began pontificating about mental health reform.

"One of the things we've learned from these shootings is often underneath this is a diagnosis of mental illness."

It's remarkable that less than 48 hours after Stephen Paddock killed 59 and injured 500, these Republican right-wing nutjobs were able to offer a "diagnosis of mental illness" of a fairly wealthy guy with no criminal record without an investigation having been nearly completed.

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock
Despite the fact that his own brother told reporters Paddock was a normal guy who enjoyed gambling, and even sent his mother cookies, and the New York Times reported that Paddock meticulously planned this heinous attack.

Right down to strategically placing video cameras at various places outside the hotel suite so he could observe anyone approaching the room picking a corner suite with a perfect sightline to the concert taking place in a field nearby.

Doesn't exactly sound like a raving maniac who bursts into work at lunch and starts shooting.

But I wouldn't exactly put a whole lot of faith in the piercing psychiatric insight of the Republican Congressional leadership.

After all these are the same clowns who still haven't been able to offer a "diagnosis of mental illness" of Donald Trump's crazy ass after 8 months of relentless chaos, rampant idiocy and stunning lack of major accomplishments in the White House.

Speaking of President Useless, his pointless comments in the wake of the shooting have been about as comforting as a crazed raccoon with rabies inside your sleeping bag.

His ordering flags flown at half-mast and trite "warm condolences" to the families of the 59 people killed is little more than pointless lip-service to the millions of people fed up with Republicans solemnly shaking their heads and offering their "thoughts and prayers" after innocent people get mowed down with guns and they do nothing about it.
Remember, Congressional Republicans cut government funding for research into gun violence - think about that - before the shooting on Sunday they were preparing to vote on the NRA-backed SHARE Act which would make it easier to transport silencers across state lines and not classify some armor-piercing rounds as armor piercing rounds.

El Presidente Loco in Puerto Rico
The White House response then veered into extra bizarre and tone-deaf mode.

Trump and his obstinate one-note White House press secretary Sarah Sanders both dutifully touted the GOP Party Line on Monday by politely hinting that they won't be doing dick about passing meaningful gun control.

Sanders had the gall to get teary-eyed.

Then Trump flew down to Puerto Rico where he made an even bigger ass of himself.

Seriously, what kind of incompetent brain-dead asshole flies down to a U.S. territory where 95% of the people still have no electricity, access to safe water or steady food supplies and says "You've thrown our budget a little out of whack. We've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico."??

Then starts tossing rolls of paper towels to people like some inebriated dimwit fan with court-side seats lumbering onto the floor to shoot foul shots at the halftime of Knicks game.

The silence from the National Rifle Association after Sunday's mass shooting has been deafening -
there's been almost total radio silence on their normally active social media pages.

Remarkably, the same Website that touts the NRA as "Freedom's Safest Place" is apparently too chickenshit to open their mouths about the fact that a guy busted open a hotel window and started killing and injuring people with a machine gun.

But they've got the gall to have an article titled "Capital of Denial: How Much Longer Can D.C. Continue to Ignore the 2nd Amendment?"

James & Nelba Greene with a photo of their daughter 
Ana at a press conference in Sandy Hook, 2013
The NRA leadership occupies that same parallel universe where the Republican Congressional leadership lives.

Devoid of compassion, bereft of common sense, enraptured by the 2nd Amendment like it's a false god.

After James Eagan Holmes threw teargas canisters into a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and shot twelve people and injured 70 back on July 20, 2012, the Republican-majority Congress did nothing.

Five months later, after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his own mother then drove to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary and shot and killed 20 innocent six and seven year-old children and six adults on December 14, 2012 - the Republican-majority Congress did nothing.

Last year on June 12, 2016 after 29-year-old Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people and wounded 58 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida - once again, the Republican-majority Congress did nothing.

In fact, if you recall, three days after the Pulse shooting, outraged Democrat Senators including Connecticut's Chris Murphy took to the floor of the Senate to filibuster for 15 straight hours to express their outrage that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't even allow gun control legislation to come to the floor for a vote.

Like thousands of Americans I stayed up watching the filibuster speeches on C-Span, I called Murphy's Senate office late that night to express my support - and I could hear the phones ringing off the hook.

It was a brief, shining moment of hope that was dimmed by a Republican Senate leadership that is content to ignore the will of the American people because of the millions of dollars of direct political contributions they get from the NRA, as well as the unchecked millions in dark PAC money the NRA is able to funnel to the GOP in exchange for their turning a blind eye to the epic of gun violence taking place across the U.S. 

Today is my birthday, and I hate to start off the month of October on such a somber note, but I'm pissed - and like a lot of Americans I'm tired of Republicans hiding from their responsibility to pass reasonable gun control measures to keep us safe.

In a week when the American people needed real leadership from the party that controls Congress and the White House, we got a big fat nothing from a bunch of do-nothing obstructionists content to dwell in a parallel universe.