A movie about the “war on drugs”


At the end of the excellent movie Sicario, Benicio del Toro puts a gun to Emily Blunt’s face and tells her that she should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists because the place where they are – the U.S.-Mexico border – has become a land of wolves and she, unlike he, is not a wolf.

del Toro, who previously played a man who became a wolf in the 2010 movie The Wolfman, thus implies that he has murdered and will continue to murder because he recognizes that the land where they live is no longer governed by human law but rather by a primordial order. In such a time and place, humans must either flee or heed the call of the wild: master or be mastered, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

It’s an interesting argument in and of itself but moreso because the movie has already presented other, very different arguments as to who the titular hero, the assassin, is and why he must exist. This abundance of arguments betrays a lack of confidence in an otherwise perfectly confident movie about confident men. Why?

Continue reading


An intrepid researcher has mapped some of the microwave towers being used to conduct high-frequency-trading around the world.

HFT requires competitors to use cutting-edge technology to see ahead. It has antecedents:

Height, then, played an important part in facilitating that speed. A trader’s physical height became an advantage, which is part of the reason some traders were former basketball or football players –“taller traders were easier to see”. In the 1990s, some traders wore high heels in the pits to trade faster, and inevitably experienced injuries due to lack of balance. This prompted the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) to impose a ruling making the maximum size of platform heels two inches in November 2000.

via Alexis Madrigal.

Speaking of antecedents, one of the cons lovingly illustrated in the 1990 movie The Grifters involves exploiting time delays to make money on financial markets. The con involved selling the promise of that grift, not actually carrying it out. Brilliant.


Ev Williams is a 42 year-old billionaire and one of the founders of the company that created the popular communications tool Twitter.

Recently, Ev Williams posted a five-second video on Twitter implying that Human Rights Watch (HRW) should be embarrassed because one of its pieces of marketing was made in China.

Continue reading



Many film critics, including some of the most astute, have written praises for the 2014 movie “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. I greatly enjoyed a few scenes and marveled at many shots that are visually stunning. I also found it an offensively lazy and shallow commercialization of its predecessors. This is why.

In the 1963 novel “The Planet of the Apes”, the society of humans has regressed such that men and women live like foragers while the society of apes has advanced such that it has stratified into “aggressive gorilla soldiers, pedantic and politically conservative orangutan administrators, and liberal chimpanzee intellectuals.”

Written by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote about a society in crisis in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, the original “Planet of the Apes” is a satire of ideological blindness and post-war European society. When Boulle’s novel was adapted into a movie by the gifted polemicist Rod Serling, it became a critique of progress: a stark reminder that human society does not always advance.

Continue reading

The campaigns

I was reading about the person who inspired the poem Ozymandias when I came upon the headline:

“First Syrian Campaign.”

Huh, I thought, so he also went to war in Syria. Interesting. Let me scroll past the war to another highlight.

“Second Syrian Campaign.”

Oh, I guess it didn’t go so well the first time. Let’s keep scrolling down to the next part.

“Third Syrian Campaign.”

Jesus, OK. They really had to get that done. Let’s keep scrolling down to see what happened next…

“Later Campaigns in Syria.”

Ok. I’m seeing a pattern here.

Keep scrolling.

“Peace treaty with the Hittites”

Done. Apparently, the first peace treaty in recorded history: “Its 18 articles call for peace between Egypt and Hatti and then proceeds to maintain that their respective gods also demand peace.”

That “their respective gods also demand peace,” is an interesting turn of phrase. In liberal societies, we talk about the role of religion in instigating war but we may not spend enough time discussing how religion can inspire peace. We may be underplaying the role that theology can play in the political process.

Do we need a House of Lords?

Perhaps, this could be the future of the GOP:

Yet though the role of the House of Lords was historically conservative and reactionary, and thus an easy target for criticism, the argument in our previous book, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, suggests that it may have also played a useful role: in the sense that the House of Lords had the veto power against very radical redistributive programs may have made British elites more secure that the new democracy would not threaten their interests too much, and thus more accommodating to democratization at first and the rise of the Labour Party later.

previously and elsewhere

The best laws inspire the law-abiding.

Jack Shafer on the limits of gun-control legislation:

As Noel Perrin wrote in Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, cultures can change their violent ways, but building such a cultural consensus takes more effort and persuasion that just passing new gun-control laws.

Yes, but passing new gun-control legislation does a great deal to advance that cultural consensus. By defining guns – and some more than others – as dangerous and problematic, we impact cultural norms as well as individual behavior. Laws not only exist to punish law-breakers but to inspire the law-abiding; they provide a template for how we want to live.

Peeling back the layers of nonsense around the “Catholic, contraceptives” campaign talking point

Garry Wills expertly peels back the layers of nonsense and cynicism around the American bishops decision to make common cause with Rick Santorum:

Catholics who do not accept the phony argument over contraception are said to be “going against the teachings of their church.” That is nonsense. They are their church. The Second Vatican Council defines the church as “the people of God.” Thinking that the pope is the church is a relic of the days when a monarch was said to be his realm. The king was “Denmark.” Catholics have long realized that their own grasp of certain things, especially sex, has a validity that is lost on the celibate male hierarchy. This is particularly true where celibacy is concerned.

What if rigging elections is the extent of Putin’s power?

A fascinating argument by Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev on the symbolic function of rigged elections in Russia:

Thus, by far the most important political role of sham elections during the past dozen years has been the way they have allowed Putin to display his capacity for manipulating them in an orderly and predictable way and thereby, paradoxically, to demonstrate his authoritarian credentials. Rigged elections, known to be rigged, are the cheapest and easiest way for the regime to mimic the authoritarian power it does not actually possess and thereby to bolster its faltering grip on the country, or at least give itself more breathing room. It takes only modest administrative capacity to rig an election; but a rigged election produces a disproportionate increase in the government’s reputation for power and control. Organizing a pseudo-election is like wearing sheep’s clothing to prove that you are a wolf. Non-competitive, Soviet-style elections simulate a centralized power that Putin’s Kremlin spectacularly lacks. In a sense, fixed elections serve the same function as Red Square parades after the collapse of Russia’s military strength: they allow the regime to thump its chest, even if many of the missiles turn out, on closer inspection, to be duds.

via The Browser

Panic: single working moms, unemployed single men, and high finance.

One way to explain the moral panics of our day: a society governed primarily by old, rich white men of European descent apprehends an economy driven by single, working moms, weighed down by unemployed single men and traumatized by the reckless mass incarceration of the poor.

Their imagined community is obsolete to an increasingly multiracial, multicultural and anti-heterosexist majority. Quite simply, the numbers do not support their story of self. (Not that they ever did.)

Meanwhile, this ruling minority are also experiencing a crisis of faith, as their religion, high finance, keeps failing to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Thus, perhaps, a great deal of panic. From Wall Street to Main Street and back.

Bingo in Baghdad

From Daniel Voll’s The Hunter Becomes the Hunted in Esquire:

Clemente arrived to interrogate the suspect, a handcuffed middle-aged man named Zaid, and underneath a napkin on the table, he found a small device, the size of a brick, with a hand crank and wires with alligator clips at the ends. Clemente shut down the interrogation, took Omar for a walk.

“Is that how you do police work?”

“Of course. We torture them.”

“Don’t you try to figure out what they are doing first, and who they work for?” Clemente asked.

Omar said, “No, why should I? This guy is a terrorist — he was going to blow up people.”

“We can flip him,” Clemente said. “Let me talk to him.”

Continue reading

why are they so religious? also, camels, needles and the 1%

Many religions offer the promise of a supreme and perfectly fair authority. Such an eternal and just arbiter offers relief for people who live daily under unjust, biased and/or inhumane authorities.

Consider who is keeping Christianity and/or Catholicism alive in many parts of the United States. Undocumented migrants live in terror of being seized and punished solely for wanting to work in a productive economy and to raise their children in a safe society. They are like other groups around the world, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Pakistan, who turn to religion to restore their faith in a just order.

Rather than sating their thirst for justice, such a faith must also whet it. Perhaps, they take religion seriously because it takes seriously the matter of justice. Some religious citizens could thus be motivated to participate in a coalition that addresses the glaring injustices in civil society.

For example, those bringing light to the plight of the 99% might consider using posters that remind TV viewers that the Christian God expects more from the 1 percent than largesse. Something about camels being passed through the eye of a needle. Or about being generous when you yourself have received the generosity of others.

the microscopic battles that conquered the Americas

If the Spanish who arrived to the Americas in the 1400s had become infected with native viruses that felled them, they might never have become the conquistadores.

It was by pure chance that the native Americans were physiologically unprepared for the viruses brought along by the Spanish. That the mere presence of the Spanish would prove deadly for so many natives had the side-effect of re-enforcing the former’s cultural, political and military advantages.

Had the opposite occurred, the Spanish might well have lost faith in their plans, or, at least, a great deal of blood and treasure.

update: oh, there’s a whole body of work about this.

For whom is government the problem?

The Republican Party of Wisconsin, a private organization, is conducting a daring attack* on behalf of its benefactors and co-conspirators. Their target is not a budget line item or an unfunded mandate but the legitimacy of public resources.

Theirs is but the most recent campaign in an ongoing effort to undermine the ideology at the heart of the American experiment: equal representation. That is, the existence of a public body diverse enough to deliberate and powerful enough to carry out the will of the people.

Continue reading

What’s so vulgar about The Hangover? Not nearly enough.

I remember exactly where I was when I read the obituary for the music industry on the front page of the Wall Street Journal: it was a gray and cold morning in March of 2002 and I was standing in line to get a coffee at the Atlas Cafe in San Francisco.

While the report noted that there were many contributing causes it also suggested the main cause of death was a flawed risk model: record companies were spending huge sums on just a few albums in the hopes that these big bets would hit jackpot. Unfortunately for all involved, the labels were picking the wrong albums – perhaps, and ironically so, out of disdain for popular tastes.

This past week, I watched two movies at home: The Hangover, a seemingly vulgar yet entirely anodyne comedy from 2009 and Jeremiah Johnson, a potentially treacly yet startlingly ruthless western from 1972. Where the former attempts at being for the people while mocking their intelligence, the latter, despite its high-brow tendencies, is as blunt and dangerous as a rioting mob.

Continue reading

What Would Carlos Do?

The movie series Carlos is a must-see thriller for anyone born in the last half-century. It fits neatly alongside other chronicles of political terror like Munich and The Baader Meinhof Complex – or, obliquely, The Falcon and the Snowman.

As only a movie can, Carlos transports the viewer into the foreign world of the recent past. Audiences born after the fall of the Soviet Union will likely be shocked at just how popular it was during the Cold War to regard terror as a legitimate political tool; a potentially endless sequence of wrongs trying to make a single right.

“We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”

Terror is dirty but quick. Hence, its appeal to those who wish to accelerate the pace of political change. Get’er done. Whatever it takes. The ends justify the means.

Only they don’t. At least not when the ends are human rights, the foremost of which is liberty. The only legitimate and thus effective form of counter-terrorism is the rule of law.

Without a doubt, good people will be tested by bad acts. Law-abiding nations such as the United States will be thrust into illegality and illegitimacy by the lazy, the craven, the ill-prepared. Those diversions from the path of righteousness are heart-breaking and shameful. They cannot be without consequence.

It’s a testament to America’s resilience that our own Department of Defense is responsible both for maintaining and deconstructing Guantanamo Bay. That resilience is based on our popular culture, elements of which we share with every liberal democracy in existence or in the making.

How should America, as a freedom-loving nation, respond to terrorism? The answer begins on Main Street: how prepared are our citizens to choose good over evil? Movies that teach audiences to pose the question “What would a terrorist do?” are thus critical to defending liberty from those who disregard it.

The objective of any terrorist is to provoke a response. We have been misled into believing that the key to preventing terrorism is to be on the lookout for suspicious people or packages. That’s child’s play. The real challenge is being hyper-vigilant about our own behavior.

Good cops, bad cops and the costly failures of the SEC

Matt Taibbi:

Yet the case still somehow ended in acquittal — and the Justice Department hasn’t taken any of the big banks to court since.

All of which raises an obvious question: Why the hell not?

…Criminal justice, as it pertains to the Goldmans and Morgan Stanleys of the world, is not adversarial combat, with cops and crooks duking it out in interrogation rooms and courthouses. Instead, it’s a cocktail party between friends and colleagues who from month to month and year to year are constantly switching sides and trading hats.