17 November 2013

Quick thoughts on Thor

2....that is.

1) It was better than Iron Man 3, which puts it behind the Avengers and Iron Man 1 in the Avengers series, and easily the "best" blockbuster film of this year I'd say. Captain America is probably better than I gave it credit for at the time, but that's about the only other one in the running in this list. The rest are kind of meh.

2) Action was often very clever rather than just pointless devastation (unlike the Superman movie, which was terrible).

3) Some throwbacks to other sci-fi films (Star Wars references mostly).

4) Didn't take itself as seriously as the first Thor movie. This is basically why the Avengers and first Iron Man worked too, plenty of humor, both deliberate and in the meta-form of poking at the absurdities of comic book heroes with ridiculous powers. Thor's entrance into a London flat and subway were both hilarious, also Mjolnir following him around between the realms.

5) Spent more time on alien worlds than Earth. Thor movies should revolve mostly around Thor doing Thor things and Earth is just kind of a place that sometimes matters. It's also more interesting to look at Asgard and the other realms. Taylor seems to have figured out how to draw up and use fantasy sets from doing Game of Thrones, so that helped.

6) Thor has better and more interesting villains (especially Loki) than most other comic book story lines  in the Avengers set, which often has rather lame villains. His dynamic with Loki is really fun by now. Kurse was quite good as a badass.

1) Natalie Portman doesn't seem to want to actually be in these movies. Fortunately for her, for a good chunk of this one, she's basically asleep anyway. This was probably the biggest detraction from the first two Batman movies too was the labored love interest plots didn't have any chemistry and seemed just thrown in. (Catwoman in the last one worked). The Thor-Jane relationship functions too much on the "tell not show" theory that doesn't work in a movie. Stark-Potts works a little better because it works more on a show-n-tell routine. Even the Spider Man movie last year had a better chemistry formed around this part of its plot.

1a) Hopkins doesn't seem to want to be in these either.

2) Plot overall was kind of incoherent and messy. The writing and humor and clever action sets makes up for it but stopping to think about it, it just gets messy fast. Why exactly are these guys trying to destroy the universe again? Why is Odin an asshole/idiot suddenly rather than the man with a plan (bitter old guy?) Thor doesn't seem to bother figuring it out either so maybe we shouldn't ourselves.

3) I'm not sure what to make of the Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in. I assume that's needed to play the Thanos card eventually but I'd think they could work it in somewhere in a Thor movie.

07 November 2013

Virginia, and why politics is often about things people tell you it is.


I brought this up in a debate forum recently.

Basically the point is this: abortion is, for all intents and purposes, an irrelevant political topic in most elections. Republicans' problem with abortion has been they have recently run a disproportionate number of unskilled political figures who have said things on the subject, or tangentially related subjects like female anatomy and rape, that are well outside the political mainstream and treated harshly by voters (as they rightly should be). But their fundamental position on abortion, while disagreeable and in my view wrong, isn't a dead weight anchor that prevents them from winning or causes defeat in elections by annoying women in particular. They will not need to adjust it to "win back women" or to win elections overall. They will mostly need to shut up about it.

A closer case can be made for how Republican candidates talk about women (binders full of them!, or Romney's equally repulsive and stupid subsequent claim that women were bought off with free birth control) or have taken positions such as invasive ultrasounds being mandated for abortion procedures which are unpopular. But these issues are likely unpopular with men as well given that abortion politics are basically the same across gender, and at times that men have even evinced higher levels of pro-choice attitudes than women. In the superficial way in which most people, regardless of gender, consume political information and news, gaffes and extreme views are likely to attract attention and perhaps sway opinion when they are inevitably highlighted by press coverage and negative advertising. We could probably say that Cuccinelli's views on invasive ultrasounds or statements and record on sodomy and so on through the sexual panoply of political footballs for him to fumble created an overall attitude and perspective which a) annoyed many putative donors to his campaign and prevented him from raising money and enthusiasm outside of his base, b) annoyed a significant portion of voters into voting against him without regard for the opponent and c) allowed for easier attack advertising by his opponent by using his own words and record to attack him. Allowing a candidate to win an election without really providing a significant platform because they draw large numbers of voters who "hate you" instead should be a cardinal sin in politics. One can argue this is sort of what Obama did in 2008 by running against the Bush legacy and providing a lot of insubstantial promises about a proposed agenda, and that it is also what Romney attempted to do in 2012 but was far less skilled politically and charismatically to pull it off (and/or had poor political views). But the point is that saying dumb things or having a bad or unpopular record on a few issues is a bad idea if winning the election matters as it places a big handicap on your potential vote. This is true regardless of whether the subject is women, abortion, the environment (another issue that annoyed donors), homosexuals, or more simply, the damn roads and traffic.

Back to the abortion point.

There are several reasons it is irrelevant politically.
- Most people do not care, or hold relatively vague positions (that sometimes contradict each other). This is why I consider many Democrats to be effectively pro-life/anti-choice simply because they end up not opposing or even backing many restrictions on accessibility which to the uninterested or uninformed voter seem "reasonable", but which offer limited utility at best (and are unambiguously dumb in most cases). The vast majority of the public holds these squishy mentalities about abortion, with it existing in an uncomfortable moral and political space that they would rather pretend isn't there. When most people do not want to care about an issue in the first place, it is easy to ignore it altogether or say as little as possible or necessary about it and move on.
- The people who do care already have their minds made up, and are generally informed activists who vote on the issue in a more concerted way. They will enter an election cycle already knowing who they will vote for or against based on party heuristics or actual political attention and knowledge. Even extreme statements are unlikely to move their positions because those statements will simply confirm what they already know about the candidates.
- Political opinion on abortion isn't moving or trending significantly and doesn't demonstrate many demographic splits moving forward from age and generational shift. This distinguishes it from other social issues like the drug war (sort of) or gay marriage, where there are huge generational gaps politically that political figures must address or navigate, and requires some amount of attention in more elections because the shifts overall are large and positive in one direction (or another I suppose if one is less favorable to either than I am).
- Extreme statements are rare, that's why they are "newsworthy". Most politicians know not to say that they might consider rape/incest exemptions to be a problem. I personally consider these politicians who violate this third rail commandment of politics to be at least morally consistent, though I disagree with their moral basis and would oppose them for reason #2. Most voters do not and will not give them this credit. Most politicians know which abortion restrictions can be presented with some level of acceptability to a given population (parental notification, sometimes waiting periods, late term restrictions or bans), and which cannot (invasive ultrasounds, complete bans shuttering all or many abortion clinics). Polling data on these issues is readily available and has been relatively consistent for a couple of decades now. Political figures who wish to advance among conservatives can advertise their pro-life concerns but know they can accomplish nothing. This is what the previous GOP gubernatorial candidate in Virginia did (McDonnell), and what various candidates did not do (Cuccinelli, Akin, Mourdock, etc).
- If an extreme statement is not made, abortion will probably not surface as a political issue in any given election. It will surface if it is on a ballot, or if there have been more extreme laws passed (and usually overturned in courts), but it will probably not rise above more serious voter concerns like the economy, health care, crime, war, etc. I do not recall abortion being a serious issue in 2012 for example.
- My general contention would be to agree with a thesis that any actual success in overturning Roe-Wade by conservatives would be a death knell to their position. I think the political/policy elite knows this and knows that they benefit far more in activism and funding from being perceived as a somewhat extreme position that can be more vaguely expressed as "abortion is bad" rather than having to defend other positions like "these women are bad for needing/wanting abortions", or more likely "these women are dead, or suffered some other lesser grievous injustice, from an inability to get a safe and legal abortion", arguments on which the general public does not share the pro-life attitude, or opposes it openly. This means that the general Republican party attitude is to express public support for pro-life causes, perhaps pass a few laws that can restrict access without much opposition, or perhaps pass a few token harsher laws to be overturned in court, complain loudly about the courts and their activism either way, and move on to other things leaving this issue in more or less the status quo that it has been in since the Clinton years.

I find the general thesis that women are motivated to vote on the basis of "lady parts" to be rather disturbing and incorrect. Or it at least should suggest there's some plausible theory that men are voting based on their penis, which seems more likely honestly. Women are just as likely, if not more so, to be confronted with economic challenges in a mixed economy such as finding a job, holding a job, or even starting a business, and likely have grave concerns about the quality of education for children (or themselves), the safety and accessibility of public roads, and so on. To assess the probability of voting on the basis of abortion alone as a significant "women's issue" is first to fail to recognize that women are not distinguished in their views on abortion and the accompanying moral and legal frameworks we have from men, and second to demean women as incapable of having significant political views on a broad range of issues.

At the state level, these politics on abortion are somewhat more or less aggressive, but Virginia is a pretty moderate state thanks to expanding DC suburbs, relative to say, South Dakota or Nebraska or Kansas or Texas or Mississippi. We could say that in this case, Republicans ran someone who offended this status quo, and women perhaps correctly recognized this and voted accordingly, and good for them. Or we could also point out that there were a bunch of transportation and economic issues in the state (along with health care) that still overshadowed public opinion on abortion, and that on these issues, Cuccinelli also seemed out of step to his state's voters. Which is not altogether unlikely either since women still identified these as more pressing issues for their vote.

And this is also not altogether unlikely since Republicans have had a great deal of trouble articulating their economic views or plans for development of infrastructure, or in general a governing philosophy rather than a rhetorical opposition to governing in the first place. I consider this their far greater problem for women and for all voters; that they don't relate on economic grounds what their proposed policies would do or could do for voters at a personal level. Obama, of all people the supposed socialist by their reckoning, was far better at this than Romney at explaining how markets could work for example in a practical way. It's far too much "we need to keep taxes low" without recognizing that for most Americans, taxes are quite low historically (and the main exception is people near the poverty line who can have incredibly high marginal rates on increased earnings). And voters in their infinite wisdom, reject this as an insufficient platform and an insufficient solution to their problems.

02 November 2013

How a libertarian is not in the Tea Party, and probably doesn't want to be included in the first place

I've long maintained that the Tea Party is essentially a movement of social conservatives/strong conservative Republicans who reacted rather late to the anti-Bush portions of the initial wave of Paul-ite types opposing the expansive state and executive powers and woke up to these issues upon the ascension of an opposing political figure (Obama) rather than out of some principled conscience. It has always reminded me of a costumed Halloween-Constitution Day theme that has gone on way too long rather than some vibrant anti-statist community that re-assures me I have fellow travelers wishing for a smaller or less invasive state as a broad goal.

Evidence to this effect has been presented in polls for a long time, that the core of the movement holds very strong socially conservative views, and that it is, for the most part, rather anti-libertarian, even sometimes on economic issues for which it is painted as stridently so.

This kind of poll is devastating to that effect. 

I will raise a number of points here (and then raise a few derivations on atheism too, since that concerns me as well).

1) Libertarians have very opposed views on social issues from the Tea Party or Republican party in general. They're virtually the opposite on legalising marijuana (71% for, compared to ~60% opposed), a higher rate than even Democrats and many liberals. They're about as pro-choice as everyone else rather than restrictive on abortion access and rights, and they're much more supportive of physician assisted suicide even than most people, much less conservatives. And finally they're opposed to restrictions on pornography (on the internet in particular). This suggests that candidates who have highlighted such conservative attitudes will not garner much libertarian support or enthusiasm, if not gain outright opposition. This is true regardless of whether the candidate has a D or an R next to them as many Democrats are pro-drug war or will support various restrictions on abortion, for example.

2) Gay marriage remained an outlier to this (roughly 60% opposed, less than Republicans/Tea Party types but much less support than other issues).

I have less of a philosophical appreciation for why this might be, since I am broadly supportive of gay marriage personally. Naturally I am bothered by this polling result and how it reflects upon "my" politics.

I have encountered fairly libertarian-leaning people who have implied that the state shouldn't be involved in marriage in the first place, as yet one more intervention they think is unnecessary. Philosophically there's a great deal of merit to that claim to avoid the state's interventions where ever possible, but practically and legally, it is absurd. Marriage is already defined by the state in too many ways through common law and legal codes to eliminate it in a broad stroke, and is so defined in ways that differ widely from "traditional" notions already (such as the easier availability of divorce) that concerns over protecting "traditional" marriages make little sense to me.

By contrast, similar private contracts made by homosexual couples (such as wills or custody assignments) are often violated or voided by states rather than upheld as the wishes and private arrangements of their citizens. This is a great injustice committed by the state, arguably greater than the injustice of having the state involved in marriage laws in the first place since all that does is standardize contracts which can still be easily amended for particular demands (but not all, since taxation and legal residency status aren't property rights individuals confer by right upon each other as individuals in contract). It might be better if we were to start from scratch avoiding the state interventions in a new system, that argument can be made. That's not the world we live in, where most of those interventions are broadly popular and will not be practically simple to divorce from the powers of the state. It does not impress me as a reason to oppose extending these same legal rights to homosexuals. I would be much more impressed by this argument if a) people making it were to describe specific or particular types of powers in marriage laws that they would prefer to see abolished, including some of those that benefit themselves, b) they would accede to a method of enforcement of these contracts that was less arbitrary in the first place as a means of acknowledging that their own arrangements would likely be respected and favorably treated while other people's might not be so honored, and c) how this method would differ from having the state enforce marriage contracts as it does already. And along with any of that, some evidence that the general public could be persuaded to support such amendments to the structure of marriage contracts or enforcements or already supports such changes. Mostly I just see this expressed as a platitude that the state shouldn't be doing it rather than as a course of action on how it would cease. Which is perhaps philosophically and rhetorically appealing but isn't an objection to amending the status quo arrangement in some modest way.

3) Libertarians seem to identify at least marginally with the Republican party anyway. I suspect this is from some affinity to economic rhetoric which is less hostile to markets and more hostile to regulation and taxes.

I'm not sure it has borne out much fruits however as Republicans have repeatedly and whole-heartedly embraced some foolishly anti-market or anti-economically sensible business-corporate handouts while in office, and have persisted in these habits (see the agriculture bill or transportation votes earlier this year) even as these supposedly anarchistic Tea Party representatives have taken offices. Some have more principled positions (Mike Lee's proposal on transportation and gasoline taxes is not terrible for example) but these are still the minority amongst both Tea Party types and Republicans in general. Other than keeping taxes relatively low but mostly incoherent, I'm not sure what policy victories Republicans can claim here. Opposition to the ACA/ObamaCare is related to this however and may be considered as a major issue of shared concern (given the overwhelming percentage of libertarians who supported a notion that much more health care should be devolved to the individual's economic concern and planning rather than existing as a basic right as liberals or communitarians might claim).

The main questions this raises for me are as follows:
a) Why do libertarians perceive Democrats as poorly as they do. Is this from the hostility of liberal commenters and editorials to libertarian politics and objections as a tribal affiliation (something which many conservatives, particularly social conservatives, often adopt as well)? Or is this from hostility to Democratic policy choices and preferences? Or from ignorance of the similarities of the two parties and their supporters on many issues?
b) It appears libertarians and Tea Party types generally see both Republicans and Democrats as being far more liberal than they actually are. I see both as much less liberal than they are believed to be by others of less libertarian persuasion, curiously. I'm left wondering why there isn't very much of a left-libertarian lean available in expression.
c) Why do libertarians not bow out entirely from Republican politics or, perhaps alternatively, take alliances of convenience with the "most" libertarian candidate running, regardless of whether this is a D or R candidacy, whoever promotes particularly liberty-based preferences in the most categories of importance to the individual voter and can thereby be worked with to advance those into policy changes or the abolition of existing policy. The assumption of both parties seems to be that people voting for libertarians are doing so out of a disaffection with Republicans or conservatives rather than to express a particular strain of policy desires. While that might be accurate for now, as Republicans are increasingly seen as old-white guys, and libertarians are mostly drawing from younger white guys, that may come to a change in the party's stance on some key issues or may come to an abandonment of the party in favor of Democrats who are more flexible on economic concerns or third party candidates who are often more inflexible but much closer to ideological policy preferences.

4) Libertarians had a very unfavorable view overall of immigration and immigrants. Since most of the libertarian leaning scholarship I encounter personally and libertarian leaning commentary on the subject of immigration I consume has a very, very positive view of immigration, both economically and personally/culturally/historically. Perhaps since I came up in a rather diverse group of friends and classmates, descended from recent immigrants in many cases my own views are less suspicious of "others". I suspect this overall trend has to do with the near-universal whiteness of libertarians and some sort of racial hostility to Latinos or Africans, and to a lesser extent various Asian migrants. What confuses is me though is that it is a much stronger hostility than is expressed by even Tea Party constituencies. I do not communicate much with the Ron Paul/Lew Rockwell types but they seem much stronger than I had thought amongst libertarian perspectives. This was disconcerting as it was one of the few negatives that was stronger among libertarians than conservatives.

5) Religion plays a big part in why Tea Party types and Republicans in general differ from libertarians. There's a huge percentage of both evangelicals AND unaffiliated "nones" involved versus the more communitarian Catholic population, but there are still fewer evangelicals than are affiliated with Republicans or the Tea Party. These means that while there are still plenty of "religious right" affiliated types within a given libertarian population, it's very different from the Tea Party or social conservative constituencies that make up larger portions of Republican voter blocs where most such persons see themselves as far right religious voters. This may also reflect the distinctions on social issues being a hands-off from government approach rather than a strict legal regime, a greater tolerance for "good-without-god" morality (than even the general population provides), and a generally less religious outlook governing their politics or perhaps even individual lives.

6) In a less related point, but one which I've raised before here. The population of Americans who express belief in a "personal god" in this poll is over 60%. While this percentage is perhaps lowered to a more tolerable level by excluding evangelical Protestants, it is still much higher than many European secular Democracies or the views of many theological scholars for that matter. Atheists are often told that this belief is limited to the outlandish worldview of the religious right, but this ignores that:
a) the religious right is a very large and substantial portion of the American population, and exerts considerable control over the politics and the subsequent laws and regulations of many states, or within states to the city/town/county level, and up to federal representatives via its ability to mobilize over activism on particular causes and issues and to attempt to hold elected officials to particular mandates over these causes and concerns. It is not an insubstantial percentage of people who really don't matter who are being argued with by atheists on the application of these beliefs to political policies, much less the application of scientific reasoning or empirical deductions about the problems that are faced by individuals and the institutions and social groups they construct (like nation-states). They are quite real and they are quite numerous and they are quite busy.
b) It is not so limited to only crazy-right-wingers as indeed many people guided by communitarian left-wing politics express similar attitudes. That population is probably still significantly larger than the population of libertarians or atheists taken as a whole and still expresses sentiments or broad philosophical agreement with many state interventions based upon religious beliefs. Even if they might oppose some of the more strident objects taken up by the religious right (like legal opposition to gay marriage or abortion say) they may take up often paternalistic sentiments about health or provisions to the poor in kind rather as a raw cash transfer on the basis that some god-figure wants them to set up the state thus instead of out of some empirical assessment that this or that approach could best help the poor or the sick.

I think much of this is that most religious people who hold a more modest or vague view when pressed either lie about holding this view but are far more comfortable with the notion of a personal entity as a deity in their daily lives or just don't hang out that often among more literal Biblical types who take this personal entity far more seriously and assume that they are a rarer commodity in the general public. This second explanation is fairly likely as many people are uncomfortable holding religious conversations anyway and are not extensively skilled in debating theological points or consistently applying them as a practice of their faith.