Retrospective: Losing It

Honestly, how many Rush songs deserve retrospection? I thought of “Anthem”, “2112”, “Xanadu”, “The Spirit of Radio”, “Subdivisions”, “Red Sector A”, “Prime Mover,” “Animate”, “Far Cry”, and “The Anarchist”. Quickly dismissed them all. Now that I’m in my fifties — and seeing a pandemic like Covid-19 rob people of their dreams, successes, and even life — the song for reflection is obvious.

“Losing It” (1982) is the white whale of the Rush canon. It’s a calm and mature track on the otherwise aggressive Signals (1982) album, but it’s depressing as hell — so depressing that I sometimes can’t listen to it. Usually I find bleak songs therapeutic, but there’s something about the ethereal melancholy of “Losing It” that makes me feel isolated — as if I’m really at the end of my meaningful existence, when everyone I know and the things I cherish are fading away. I’m not sure why it affects me that extremely, and it may be my favorite Rush song for this reason. Even if it’s the one I often have to skip over in my playlists.

The song laments getting old and losing talent, using the examples of a dancer and a writer. The dancer can’t cut it anymore, suffering from aching limbs and burning lungs, and she limps to her bedroom clutching memories of her successful years (“the echoes of old applause”). The writer is washed up, unable to fill empty pages, crying over his own memories:

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
With passion and precision
But now his mind is dark and dulled
By sickness and indecision

And he stares out the kitchen door
Where the sun will rise no more

As a middle-aged writer I see my future in these verses. What’s astonishing is that the song came from the early part of Rush’s career. Neil Peart was only 29 when he wrote it — already imagining himself and his fellow band members as has-beens at the end of their careers. In an interview he described it thus: “It’s a horrible thing. You spend all your life learning how to do a thing and then because of something beyond your control, all of a sudden you can’t do it anymore. It’s very sad. There’s an essential dynamic to life that you have a prime, and you have something leading up to that prime. The essence was whether it was worse to lose something great or whether it was worse to have never known it.” (Italics mine.)

Thus one of the saddest and most poignant verses in rock history: “Sadder still to watch it die than never to have known it.” When there’s a part of me wishing that my life had been boring and mundane, so that I don’t have much to lose, that’s staring into the eye of mortality. There will come that day, when the bell tolls for each one of us. I hope that “Losing It” has done whatever small part it can in preparing me.

 

Listen here (if you’re up to it) and sing.

🎶

The dancer slows her frantic pace
In pain and desperation
Her aching limbs and downcast face
Aglow with perspiration

Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire
With just the briefest pause
The flooding through her memory
The echoes of old applause

And she limps across the floor
And closes her bedroom door

The writer stares with glassy eyes
Defies the empty page
His beard is white, his face is lined
And streaked with tears of rage

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
With passion and precision
But now his mind is dark and dulled
By sickness and indecision

And he stares out the kitchen door
Where the sun will rise no more

Some are born to move the world
To live their fantasies
But most of us just dream about
The things we’d like to be

Sadder still to watch it die
Than never to have known it
For you, the blind who once could see
The bell tolls for thee, bell tolls for

For you, the blind who once could see
The bell tolls for thee, bell tolls for thee

🎶

From the album Signals, 1982.

Also watch the only live performance of the song on the Rush’s final tour in 2015. It was a special performance that brought the house down in tears.

Retrospective: Welcome to the Machine

The song that gave me what I could call an actual conversion experience was Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” (1975). I first heard it on Rock 101 WGIR in the early ’80s, and by the end I realized there was more to music than the top-40 garbage I consumed daily on 98.5 WROR. This was uncharted territory for my young ears. In the space of seven and a half minutes, Pink Floyd showed me music’s true potential.

I drank the ambience, falling under its spell. Years later I’d learn the nuts and bolts: the pulsating sounds were made by a VCS 3, a voltage controlled studio used increasingly by progressive ’70s bands. As early as 1971, The Who had used it in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and Led Zeppelin in “Four Sticks”. In “Welcome to the Machine”, Floyd used it to provide the distinctive bass sound that kept throbbing in my head days after triggering my epiphany. The band was pushing something insistent.

But I had no idea what at the time. I latched on to bits of the lyrics with the self-indulgence of fifteen-year olds. “Welcome to the Machine” was welcoming me, personally, to a better world of music. Come to find out it’s a very angry song, about greedy record producers and band managers. The machine was the corporate system telling musicians what to do, and what to dream, in order to become successful. Apparently this system had a hand in Syd Barrett’s psychological breakdown. (Barrett was Pink Floyd’s original lead vocalist who left the band in 1968, when schizophrenia, drug use, mood swings, and even catatonic trances overwhelmed him.) While the song isn’t about Barrett specifically, the Wish You Were Here album is something of a dedication to him.

The nameless young man of the song is waking up to a system that cripples artistic expression in the name of promoting it. He believed himself to be a rebel — “You bought a guitar to punish your ma, you didn’t like school, and you know you’re nobody’s fool” — but his contrarian ideas were fostered precisely to make him achieve fame and feed the machine. Rebellion: the means to money, expensive restaurants, and Jaguars. Reward: measured by consumption.

Granted this isn’t the deepest message. It’s an old story, and artists willingly sell out all the time. Genesis did so in the mid-’80s, and Aerosmith too. But few artists protest the cycle with such conviction. “Welcome to the Machine” is Pink Floyd’s middle-finger to what brought them to where they were. When I first heard it, the machine was an ominous new world daring me into its bosom. It later crystallized into the dirty politics of consumption. Either way, it was a milestone. And I’d just discovered Pink Floyd. What more cause to rejoice?

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine
Where have you been?
It’s alright, we know where you’ve been
You’ve been in the pipeline filling in time
Provided with toys and ‘Scouting for Boys’
You bought a guitar to punish your ma
And you didn’t like school
And you know you’re nobody’s fool
So welcome to the machine

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine
What did you dream?
It’s alright, we told you what to dream
You dreamed of a big star
He played a mean guitar
He always ate in the Steak Bar
He loved to drive in his Jaguar
So welcome to the machine

🎶

From the album Wish You Were Here, 1975.

Retrospective: Supper’s Ready

“Supper’s Ready” (1972) is an extraordinary 23-minute journey through the Book of Revelation, the kind of song millennials can’t sit still for. It’s about two lovers who are raptured and visit different worlds; when they return to Earth, the Apocalypse of John is in full force — the seven trumpeters, the earth disgorging obscenities, the sky raining fire, everything — until Peter Gabriel finally heralds the New Jerusalem. This is what epic songs should aspire to, with ambitious themes that seem out of reach. Think of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (26 minutes) and Rush’s “2112” (21 minutes). As grand as those operas are, they have nothing on the apocalyptic suite by Genesis that I’m discussing today. “Supper’s Ready” is a tapestry of sky-high drama — the highest you’ll find in any song — and, if I had to name one, my favorite rock piece of all time.

Guitarist Steve Hackett said the song was about “creating a film for the ear rather than the eye”, though it turned out to be for both. The band performed it live as a full-blown drama, with Peter Gabriel donning new make-up and costumes between the acts. Today’s generation doesn’t have the patience for 20+ minute songs, any more than they have for 3+ hour films, but that’s their loss. The ’70s were a golden age of music and film making. “Supper’s Ready” is the Godfather of rock songs. Both were released in ’72, and we’ve rarely seen their like since.

The song looks to the past and future, both stylistically and narratively. It’s the stuff of classical concertos and symphonies, but also a futurist odyssey. It harks back to the bible while raking forward to the world’s end. It carries its weight through all seven acts with ease, and plays on every musical grade — fast, slow, hard, soft, acoustic, electric, folk, ballad, high-energy instrumental — never clashing in tone. Though it’s possible to listen to any one of the acts as an individual track, I’ve never done that or had the desire to. For me it’s the 23-minute package deal every time. Each delivers more as part of the whole.

The lyrics are brilliant but demanding; they don’t make the story easy to understand. So here’s the outline:

Act 1, “Lover’s Leap”. The lovers are getting ready for dinner, when robed men descend and rapture them from the earth (their real supper is waiting for them elsewhere). They proceed to visit different worlds.

Act 2, “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man”. They come to a town dominated by two figures — a wise farmer, and the leader of a scientific religion who is called “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man”. This spiritual leader claims to contain a secret new ingredient capable of fighting fire, but he’s a pure fraud.

Act 3Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men“. They walk across fields and see a group of warriors who serve the Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man. At the Sanctuary Man’s command, the warriors pour fourth and attack people who don’t have an up-to-date “Eternal Life license”.

Act 4, “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?” They investigate the aftermath of the battle and discover a solitary figure obsessed by his own image. They witness an unusual transmutation, and are pulled into their own reflections in the water.

Act 5, “Willow Farm”. They climb out of the pool, and are again in a different world, in the middle of bright colors everywhere, and surrounded by strange objects, plants, animals and people too. Life flows freely and everything is mindlessly busy. At random, a whistle blows and every single thing is instantly changed into something else.

Act 6, “Apocalypse in 9/8“. Another whistle blows, and the lovers become seeds in the soil, where they recognize other seeds to be people from the Earth they came from. As they wait for the spring season, they are returned to Earth to see the apocalypse in full progress: God’s wrath pouring out over the planet.

Act 7, “As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs“. Christ comes again with the new Jerusalem. Everyone banquets in the great supper of God.

You don’t have to be Christian to be swept up by this, anymore than you have to be pagan to lose yourself in the Iliad and Odyssey. “Supper’s Ready” is a song that depends on theological considerations that you will simply take or leave. It’s power lies in its bipolar madness. Genesis put artistry in the service of extreme beliefs, not to preach, but to show how far progressive rock could go, and by Christ-come-again they succeeded.

 

Listen here and sing:

🎶

Act 1: Lover’s Leap (0:00-3:47)

Walking across the sitting-room, I turn the television off
Sitting beside you, I look into your eyes
As the sound of motorcars fades in the night time
I swear I saw your face change, it didn’t seem quite right
And it’s hello babe, with your guardian eyes so blue
Hey my baby, don’t you know our love is true

Coming closer with our eyes, a distance falls around our bodies
Out in the garden, the moon seems very bright
Six saintly shrouded men move across the lawn slowly
The seventh walks in front with a cross held high in hand
And it’s hey babe your supper’s waiting for you
Hey my baby, don’t you know our love is true?

I’ve been so far from here
Far from your warm arms
It’s good to feel you again
It’s been a long long time
Hasn’t it?

Act 2: The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man (3:48-5:43)

I know a farmer who looks after the farm
With water clear, he cares for all his harvest
I know a fireman who looks after the fire

You, can’t you see he’s fooled you all
Yes, he’s here again
Can’t you see he’s fooled you all?
Share his peace, sign the lease
He’s a supersonic scientist
He’s the guaranteed eternal sanctuary man
Look, look into my mouth he cries
And all the children lost down many paths
I bet my life you’ll walk inside
Hand in hand
Gland in gland
With a spoonful of miracle
He’s the guaranteed eternal sanctuary
We will rock you, rock you little snake
We will keep you snug and warm

Act 3: Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men (5:44-9:42)

Wearing feelings on our faces while our faces took a rest
We walked across the fields to see the children of the West
But we saw a host of dark skinned warriors standing still below the ground

Waiting for battle

The fight’s begun, they’ve been released
Killing foe for peace, bang, bang, bang
Bang, bang, bang
And they’ve given me a wonderful potion
‘Cause I cannot contain my emotion
And even though I’m feeling good
Something tells me I’d better activate my prayer capsule

Today’s a day to celebrate, the foe have met their fate
The order for rejoicing and dancing has come from our warlord

Act 4: How Dare I Be So Beautiful? (9:43-11:04)

Wandering in the chaos the battle has left
We climb up the mountain of human flesh
To a plateau of green grass, and green trees full of life
A young figure sits still by a pool
He’s been stamped “Human Bacon” by some butchery tool
He is you

Social Security took care of this lad
We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower
A flower?

Act 5: Willow Farm (11:05-15:36)

If you go down to Willow Farm
To look for butterflies, flutterbyes, gutterflies
Open your eyes, it’s full of surprise
Everyone lies like the fox on the rocks
And the musical box
Oh, there’s Mum and Dad, and good and bad
And everyone’s happy to be here

There’s Winston Churchill dressed in drag
He used to be a British flag, plastic bag, what a drag
The frog was a prince
The prince was a brick, the brick was an egg, the egg was a bird
(Fly away you sweet little thing, they’re hard on your tail)
Hadn’t you heard? (they’re going to change you into a human being!)
Yes, we’re happy as fish and gorgeous as geese
And wonderfully clean in the morning

We’ve got everything, we’re growing everything
We’ve got some in, we’ve got some out
We’ve got some wild things floating about
Everyone, we’re changing everyone
You name them all, we’ve had them here
And the real stars are still to appear
(All change!)

Feel your body melt
Mum to mud to mad to dad
Dad diddley office, Dad diddley office
You’re all full of ball
Dad to dam to dumb to mum
Mum diddley washing, Mum diddley washing
You’re all full of ball

Let me hear your lies, we’re living this up to the eyes
Ooh, aah, na-na-na
Momma I want you now

And as you listen to my voice
To look for hidden doors, tidy floors, more applause
You’ve been here all the time
Like it or not, like what you got
You’re under the soil (the soil, the soil)
Yes, deep in the soil (the soil, the soil, the soil!)
So we’ll end with a whistle and end with a bang
And all of us fit in our places

Act 6: Apocalypse in 9/8 (15:36-19:59)

With the guards of Magog, swarming around
The Pied Piper takes his children underground
Dragons coming out of the sea
Shimmering silver head of wisdom looking at me
He brings down the fire from the skies
You can tell he’s doing well by the look in human eyes
Better not compromise, it won’t be easy

666 is no longer alone
He’s getting out the marrow in your backbone
And the seven trumpets blowing sweet rock and roll
Gonna blow right down inside your soul
Pythagoras with the looking glass reflects the full moon
In blood, he’s writing the lyrics of a brand-new tune

Act 7: As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (20:00-22:54)

And it’s hey babe, with your guardian eyes so blue
Hey my baby, don’t you know our love is true?
I’ve been so far from here, far from your loving arms
Now I’m back again
And babe, it’s gonna work out fine

Can’t you feel our souls ignite?
Shedding ever-changing colors
In the darkness of the fading night
Like the river joins the ocean
As the germ in a seed grows
We have finally been freed to get back home

There’s an angel standing in the sun
And he’s crying with a loud voice
“This is the supper of the mighty one!”
Lord of Lords, King of Kings
Has returned to lead his children home
To take them to the new Jerusalem!

🎶

From the album Foxtrot, 1972.

Retrospective: The Battle of Evermore

Most Zeppelin fans favor “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, or “Stairway to Heaven” from the glorious fourth album (1971), but I go with the sneaky third track, and not just because I love Lord of the Rings. “The Battle of Evermore” has a structure and mood enhanced by its lack of percussion, is played only on a mandolin and acoustic guitar, around vocals weaving myth from the past. Gone are the usual Zeppelin themes of sex, drugs, and love; in their place are swords, spells, and war. Archetypes real and imagined replay battles in Scotland and Gondor. What more can you ask of a song that’s doing its damnedest to stand singular while sacrificing none of the mojo that makes it quintessentially Zeppelinesque?

And what a cast. There’s Frodo (“the Prince of Peace”), Galadriel (“the Queen of Light”), Sauron (“the Dark Lord”) and his Nazgul (the “Ringwraiths who ride in black”). Outside of Middle-Earth, the Arthurian legend is evoked (Avalon) and also real-world British history (with overtones of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce fighting for Scottish independence). Just in case you missed the title, the lyrics makes clear that we’re on a battleground of hopeless causes, where the right sides won not because they were good, but despite it.

Which is all fine and grand. The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told, and the Scottish Independence Wars (1296-1357) are stirring history. But stories are nothing if the music is shitty. Zeppelin’s music has two things going for it in this song, the first being its rhythmic urgency. It starts with a slow fade-in, announcing the urgency with intense cord stabs. The cords keep coming at the right moments and propel the song forward with the exciting narrative. Just as films depend on dramatic tension to hold interest, certain songs need the musical equivalent of dramatic tension, and “Evermore” has that in spades.

The second thing it has going for it is its question-and-answer style. It’s is the only recorded Zeppelin song to use a guest vocalist. Robert Plant wanted to make it a duet and so brought in Sandy Denny. They go back and forth, with Plant singing the narrative parts, and Denny crying out for the people. (In the lyrics below, I italicize Denny’s parts.) Now, duets are a dime a dozen in rock, but most are ballad-oriented, and none come close to matching what Plant and Denny accomplish here. (The closest would be Queen and David Bowie in “Under Pressure”.) When I first heard “Battle of Evermore” as a kid, I didn’t even realize it was a duet; I thought Plant was singing the entire thing, and just very effectively lilting his voice at different parts. That’s how seamless he and Denny blend over each other. But the pitches are unmistakable, and Denny’s calls to dance, song, and battle always chill me when I hear them.

The writer at the Broken Levee likes “The Battle of Evermore” too, and acknowledges the difficulty of explaining why: “Music is completely intimate, personal, unique, abstract, so connected to our deeper feelings that it’s really hard to define its meaning.” That’s basically what I said yesterday in my retrospective of “Baba O’Riley”, and why I consider music the purest art form. Its elusive nature sets it (at least in one way) above literature and film. The writer nonetheless takes a stab at explaining why “Evermore” is so special, and I’d say it’s uniquely special. All of the song’s elements could have piled up to an embarrassment of riches, but Plant and Page milked everything — story, tone, and sound — for maximal effect.

 

Listen here and sing. (The italicized lyrics are the “responses” sung by Sandy Denny, who represents the town crier. The bolded italics are sung by both Plant and Denny.)

🎶

The Queen of Light took her bow
And then she turned to go
The Prince of Peace embraced the gloom
And walked the night alone

Oh, dance in the dark of night
Sing to the morning light

The Dark Lord rides in force tonight
And time will tell us all

Oh, throw down your plow and hoe
Rest not to lock your homes

Side by side we wait the might
Of the darkest of them all

I hear the horses’ thunder down in the valley below
I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon, waiting for the eastern glow

The apples of the valley hold the seeds of happiness
The ground is rich from tender care
Repay, do not forget, no, no

Dance in the dark of night
Sing to the morning light

The apples turn to brown and black
The tyrant’s face is red

Oh war is the common cry
Pick up your swords and fly

The sky is filled with good and bad
That mortals never know

Oh well, the night is long, the beads of time pass slow
Tired eyes on the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow

The pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath
The drums will shake the castle wall
The Ringwraiths ride in black, ride on

Sing as you raise your bow
Shoot straighter than before

No comfort has the fire at night
That lights the face so cold

Oh dance in the dark of night
Sing to the morning light

The magic runes are writ in gold to bring the balance back
Bring it back

At last the sun is shining, the clouds of blue roll by
With flames from the dragon of darkness, the sunlight blinds his eyes.

🎶

From the album Led Zeppelin IV, 1971.

Retrospective: Baba O’Riley

Over the next month I will be writing rock-song retrospectives. Some are famous, some infamous, and others less familiar. This is an exercise for me, as I find music rather difficult to review (unlike literature and film which comes easy), so hopefully I’ll become better through the process. I plan on covering 19 songs, the earliest from 1971, the latest from 2018.

Today’s feature, “Baba O’Riley” (The Who, 1971), is known by everyone and their mother, and cherished by about as many. On the surface the song is about a farmer in the fields, but it’s really addressing the cultural wasteland at the dawn of the seventies: the desolation of teenagers after Woodstock (1969) and the second Isle of Wight festival (1970), where everyone was half-baked on acid. Guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend said he was trying to capture the idea of a new generation running toward that ’60s culture and its vain promises of redemption. I was only three years old at the time; far too young for this stuff. Part of me wishes I had come of age in the ’70s. It was a confused decade, but a groovy one that saw a lot of transgressive creativity, especially in music. “Baba O’Riley” is much about that burgeoning artistry.

But it’s also about something else, something more esoteric: Townshend’s infatuations with two particular figures. The first is Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who claimed that he was an Avatar, or an incarnation of God. Baba had his religious awakening at age nineteen (in 1913), and began teaching that reality was an illusion — a bunch of misguided beliefs and perceptions formed by weak minds. The Universe is imagination, he said, and each human soul is really God passing through imagination to realize his divinity on an individual basis. The second figure is Terry Riley, a minimalist composer and musician in the ’60s who used tape loops and delay systems to make musical patterns. Now, Townshend somehow got it in his head that when musical patterns like Riley’s were played simultaneously, they would overlap and interlock to make a harmonious whole — a single giant chord capturing the harmony of the universe envisioned by Meher Baba. The song “Baba O’Riley”, explains Townshend, is basically what would happen if the spirit of Meher Baba was fed into a computer and transformed into music.

Maybe Townshend himself was on acid when he came up with that explanation. But I appreciate what drove him. There’s something about music that makes it — in my opinion — the purest art form. Purer than literature, film, and painting, which is probably why I find it hard to review. The power of music is elusive, and it’s easy to see the work of the divine when something resists analysis. And yet music works on a level so simple — more simple than writing, film making, or drawing — that you hardly need pay attention. You can lose yourself in music while doing other things. There’s power in something that infectious.

I can’t recall when I first heard “Baba O’Riley”, and I was never a fan of The Who, but it’s their one piece that has had this sort of divine effect on me. The opening keyboard is frenetic but stately, promising something grand. The middle guitar solo a seamless bridge. And Daltrey’s raging vocals an earworm that still burrows after 49 years. Whenever I hear it, I think of desolate landscapes, broken dreams, and a burning will to obtain something better, despite it all. Maybe that’s the fire we need during Covid-19.

Even before the pandemic outbreak, however, lead singer Roger Daltrey was insisting on the song’s relevance for the millennial generation. “Teenage wasteland” points a finger at the youths of social media as it did to those of Woodstock and Isle of Wight. Says Daltrey: “The main advice I give youngsters is to be very aware of what you are getting into on social media. Because life is not looking down at screens, it is looking up. We are heading for catastrophe with the addiction that is going on in the younger generation. Your life will disappear if you are not careful. You are being controlled, and that is terrible.” There’s probably more practical wisdom there than in Townshend’s fantasies about God being born through repetitive loops of music.

Whatever the song means exactly, there’s no denying its timelessness. “Baba O’Riley” has been recycled shamelessly in films, TV series, trailers, sports games, the Olympics — it’s practically the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony of rock ‘n’ roll. And like that symphony, I could listen to it any day of the week.

 

Listen here and sing:

🎶

Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living

I don’t need to fight
To prove I’m right
I don’t need to be forgiven

Don’t cry
Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland

Sally take my hand
We’ll travel south cross land
Put out the fire, and don’t look past my shoulder

The exodus is here
The happy ones are near
Let’s get together, before we get much older

Teenage wasteland
It’s only teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland
Oh yeah, teenage wasteland
They’re all wasted

🎶

From the album Who’s Next?, 1971.

Ten Films that scared Mark Kermode

I enjoy Mark Kermode’s film reviews and share a lot of his tastes, especially in horror films. What others find scary, he often finds banal and silly. There are no cheap-thrill blockbusters like The Conjuring and It Chapter 2 on his list of 10 films that really scared him.

Here they are. He excludes The Exorcist from consideration, which would be his #1, since he has analyzed the film to death many times.

1. The Vanishing (1988). (The Dutch film, not the ’93 American remake.) The final scene had Kermode in a state of abject panic that no other film (save The Exorcist) has ever achieved. It “scared the life out of him and scarred him”. Just talking about the film freaks him out. It involves being buried alive.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Kermode calls it as close to pure terror as you’ll ever find in a film (save The Exorcist). I think it’s pretty close to that, and it makes my list as well, though not quite as high.

3. The Haunting (1963). Unlike the ’99 remake, this haunted house classic nails it. It’s all to do with understatement and what you don’t see, which is an art lost in most of today’s horror films that drown in the overt.

4. Onibaba (1964). This Japanese historical horror drama terrified not only Kermode, but William Friedkin, who made The Exorcist, so that says something right there. It’s a nightmare vision of psycho-sexual bestiality, set in a 14th-century Japan of feuding warlords, where a woman and her daughter-in-law are forced to murder and loot weakened soldiers to survive. Then the older woman starts forcing her daughter-in-law into ugly carnal acts while wearing a demonic mask. The film has been interpreted over the years as a karmic tale, Buddhist parable, or Hiroshima parable, and all three are valid; it’s also bloody terrifying.

5. The Babadook (2014). The croaking noise made by the Babadook. (This was true of The Grudge too, which I thought scarier than The Babadook.)

6. Audition (1999). One critic was so scared at what he was seeing on screen that he said the police should investigate the circumstances of the film’s creation; that’s how much it freaked him out. I agree with Kermode that Audition is a great film, but it didn’t really scare me or have me panic-stricken in any way.

7. The Descent (2005). People in confined spaces in underground caves. Kermode has never been so claustrophobic as in watching the crawl-through scenes in this film. I agree with him entirely.

8. The Witch (2015). The demonic goat rising up on its legs really got under Kermode’s skin.

9. Nosferatu (1922). The image of the shadowy figure going up the stairs gave him nightmares.

10. Buried (2010). The rising panic that you get from seeing this guy trapped in a confined space throughout the whole film builds and builds.

 

Here are mine, also excluding The Exorcist, but The Shining too. Those two are in a class all by themselves.

1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). David Lynch’s darkest film contains scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they still pulverize me.

2. Channel Zero, Season 2: The No-End House (2017). College kids enter a haunted house looking for cheap thrills, having no idea how bad it really is. It turns into a prolonged nightmare that yields some of the scariest material I’ve seen on film or TV.

3. The Pact (2012). This too is about a haunted house, with a heart-stopping twist. It turns out there is a ghost in the house, just as suspected, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole time, sometimes being confused with the ghost. A massively underrated film.

4. The Exorcist III: Legion (1990). An acquaintance of mine once made the following comment: “The Exorcist III and Event Horizon are the two absolutely most creepy movies I’ve ever seen, because you can’t imagine anyone making these films if they didn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. They pull no punches whatsoever and carry a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the real dark side.’ I cannot say that other films have struck me this way.” I agree with that statement, and the fact that these two films did poorly at the box office says something about the mainstream preference for cheap thrills over true terror.

5. Event Horizon (1997). This is basically The Shining in outer space, set on a spaceship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. See my commentary on #4 above. The Exorcist III and Event Horizon achieve a particular kind of fright that no other film has matched (including The Exorcist itself).

6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Unlike the slashers of the ’80s, this terrorizing monstrosity could only have been made in the ’70s, and hasn’t lost any power.

7. The Evil Dead (1981). No one with a heart condition should see this. Scene after scene nearly gave me a stroke as a teenager.

8. The Descent (2005). I felt the same way as Kermode. There are claustrophobic scenes that had me literally panic-stricken.

9. The Witch (2015). Again I’m with Kermode. This historical drama set in the time of the Puritans is organically terrifying, and relishes in the delights of hidden evil. It freaked me out big time.

10. The Grudge (2004). I saw this in the theater and I was literally cowering in my seat. At one point I thought I would have to get up and leave. Production-wise it’s not the most impressive film, but scare-wise it’s mighty effective.

11. (Bonus) The Man from Nowhere (1975). In the year 1976 I watched Once Upon a Classic, hosted by Bill Bixby. I was seven years old, long before I even knew what a horror film or TV show was. This “kids” horror story scared the fucking shit out of me. It’s set in 1860 England with a very effective Gothic atmosphere, and tells of a young orphaned girl who is sent to live with her uncle in his castle. When she arrives, she is stalked by a man in black who appears and disappears, telling her in threatening tones to leave. She is terrorized by this figure, and so was I. He stalks her everywhere and eventually even manages to break into her room in the castle, where he corners her. Another scene that gave me nightmares is where the man in black appears under Alice’s bedroom window around midnight whispering up to her in menacing rasps, “Alice! Alice!” I’ve been wanting to rewatch this to see how it holds up to my adult sensibilities, but it’s almost impossible to find.

Trump vs. The Pendleton Act

Donald Trump is in the process of trying to remove political appointees and career officials who are not loyal to him, and in support of his crusade, the head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Mike Rigas, is now claiming that the Pendleton Act of 1883 is unconstitutional. You heard that right. I was wondering when we would hit this point.

Trump began this purge after being acquitted in his his mid-February impeachment trial, leaving much of the task to John McEntee, the head the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) which recruits candidates for the executive branch. On March 17, McEntee forced the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Dale Cabaniss, to resign, replacing her with Michael Rigas. The change from Cabaniss to Rigas happened just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the nation hard — on St. Patrick’s Day, the day my library in Nashua shut down. Since then Rigas has been the one overseeing the two million workers in the federal government. Yesterday, April 22, he stated publicly that the Pendleton Act is unconstitutional. Many Americans have never heard of the bill.

The Pendleton Act

Also known as the Civil Service Act (1883), it replaced the spoils system that had been in place since the presidency of Andrew Jackson (for 54 years), with a system of merit, and it allowed government employees to stay secure in their jobs no matter which party was in power. It’s astonishing that it got passed when it did. In 1883 both parties in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, derived much of their political power from the Jacksonian spoils system. President Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881) had crusaded against the spoils system, but it was his successor Chester Arthur (1881-1885) who got Congress to abolish it and pass the Pendleton Act — despite the fact that Arthur himself was a mighty beneficiary of the spoils system, and a Stalwart Republican (a faction of Republicans at the time loyal to the legacy of Ulysses Grant, and the Jacksonian spoils system). For him to reform the spoils system was career suicide, and it cost him a second term.

But Arthur did what was right, rather than cater to his constituency. His signing of the Pendleton Act marked a watershed moment in America. Civil servants were to be appointed because of their capacity to do the job, not because of whom they knew and what they could pay. Their performances were to be assessed by objective standards and discerned by examinations. These exams were to be administered by a neutral civil service commission and graded by boards that were unaffiliated with factions. Once appointed, civil servants were to serve society rather than parties. They would no longer be subject to mandatory contributions during the elections, and they were given job security without having to worry about losing favor with the party bosses. It was now illegal to fire or demote federal employees for their politics. As a civil servant myself, I cherish this historical moment, and the roles of both Presidents Hayes and Arthur in making it happen. (Hayes and Arthur, in my assessment, were the fourth best and fifth best presidents of the U.S.)

Giant Steps Backwards

The system of Jacksonian spoils hasn’t been the way of things for 137 years now. But Trump and his man Rigas want to bring back that antiquated system, and staff the entire executive branch with partisan appointees.

While I believe the U.S. president should have the right to fire or dismiss cabinet members (or anyone that he appoints) at will if he feels he can’t trust them, that right should not extend to just any officers or career civil servants or special prosecutors, etc. The Pendleton Act and civil service reform under Chester Arthur is one of the most important landmarks in U.S. history. Should that be reversed and the spoils system of Andrew Jackson resurrected, it will be giant steps backward.

More here.

Ranking Donald Trump (So Far)

Donald Trump’s first term isn’t over, and he will probably have two, but I’ve decided to score him for the period of January 21, 2017 – April 15, 2020, to see where he falls in my president series. As I post this today, the Covid-19 virus is peaking in New Hampshire and is close to peaking in other states. The political climate is tumultuous to say the least, and who knows how things will look months down the line. This evaluation is obviously subject to change. For now, here’s how I rate our current president.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Of the three categories, Trump scores highest in this one. That’s not saying a lot.

The Moratorium (“Ban”) on Immigration

Trump used his authority over border control to keep out thousands of Muslim immigrants from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Later Iraq and Sudan were removed, and North Korea and Venezuela (non-Muslim majority countries) added in. The moratorium (often incorrectly called a “ban”) was hardly justifiable in the interest of security, and it didn’t even include the critical country of Saudia Arabia, which spends millions of dollars promoting jihadist warfare all over the world, and where most of the 9/11 hijackers came from. All Trump did was lift a template from an executive order signed by Barack Obama against the same nations two years before: the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, listing Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea. (Obama’s order had been as needless as Trump’s.)

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court was correct in upholding Trump’s order. In Trump v. Hawaii (6/26/18), the majority ruled that Trump lawfully exercised the broad discretion granted to him to suspend the entry of aliens from countries construed to be jihadist hotspots. The Supreme Court has no power to second-guess the president’s executive decisions, no matter how disagreeable, only to decide if the president’s decisions are constitutional or not. Aliens who have never set foot on U.S. soil have no constitutional rights, and nor should they. While the Constitution prohibits discrimination in the issuing of visas, it does not limit the president’s authority in any way to block the entry of nationals from certain places — just as several presidents have done before Trump. And while the Establishment Clause prohibits unduly favoring one religion over another, there were many majority-Muslim countries that were not subject to Trump’s order. The moratorium was not a sweeping ban against any and all Muslims, but a suspension against certain countries for purpose of national security. Whether or not one agrees that such a suspension was necessary or effective (I do not), the Supreme Court was correct that the president has the right to enforce such suspensions as he sees fit. Presidents have wide discretion on questions of alien entry into the U.S., and that is as it should be.

In sum, Trumps’ executive order wasn’t unconstitutional, but it was misguided and pointless, especially without the inclusion of Saudi Arabia.

Jerusalem: Recognizing Israel’s Capital

After the failures of three presidents, Trump upheld the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel and the US embassy be moved there, by no later than May 31, 1999. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move (absurdly) on grounds of national security. Trump had also signed a waiver in June 2017, but in December of that year ended the stalling.

Personally, I wish the state of Israel had never been created. Not because Israel is the Big Bad in the Mid-East, but because the two-state solution has made a battleground of Palestine. What the Allies should have done in 1947 was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust) and given that land to the Jewish people. But for better or worse, Israel does exist, and has controlled the entire city of Jerusalem since 1967 — for over 50 years now. Every other nation on earth gets to choose its capital, and Israel should be treated no differently.

Protesters claimed that making Jerusalem the capital of Israel would play into the hands of jihadis, but that’s kowtowing to thuggery. When groups like Hamas threatened to launch a new intifada, they were doing as they do anyway, per the Islamic mandate for holy war. Trump should be applauded, not criticized, for standing up to jihadist intimidation. Repeating failed solutions in Middle-East — the failed solutions of all Trump’s predecessors going to back to Jimmy Carter at Camp David — will only continue to bring failed results. Muslim jihadists will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal as long as the state of Israel exists at all, regardless of where its capital is. It was about time that the Congressional law of 1995 be enforced.

Involvement in the Middle-East, The Iran Nuclear Deal, Striking at Soleimani

Trump isn’t consistent about much, but on the singular issue of war in the Middle-East he has been absolutely consistent and reliable. He doesn’t want it. He has dramatically reduced the number of troops in certain U.S. war zones overseas, and kept America out of war. He ended the vain, costly and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama that sank the American economy and made things far worse in the Middle-East, and indeed for the world. The dictators toppled by Bush (Saddam) and Obama (Mubarak and Gaddafi) gave us ISIS in Iraq; unrest and instability in Egypt; chaos and anarchy in Libya; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over. Trump is to be applauded for putting an end to our misguided Mid-East ventures. The Arab Spring rebellions were never about democracy and pluralism; they were about imposing Islamic law.

And as Trump kept America out of quagmires, he also knew when to strike, as he did at the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. This was in response to (a) Iran burning the American embassy on top of (b) engaging for a full year in other aggressions — attacking ships in the straits of Hormuz, shooting down American drones, firing on American bases, and arming terrorist groups across the Middle-East. The accusations that Trump was looking for an excuse to go to war in the Middle-East were proven empty, when the next day Trump announced there would be no declaration of war on Iran by the U.S.

Withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal (in 2018) was also a good move. The appeasement under Barack Obama — in bringing Iran to the table and giving Iran money — had born the expected rotten fruit. I had mixed feelings about the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015. On the one hand I could justify it as a lesser of two evils, especially coming as it did in the midst of Obama’s pointless war-mongering in every other corner of the Mid-east. But while negotiating with a terror-sponsored nation may have kept us out of conflict, it increased Iran’s determination to escalate conflict, and that is what Soleimani and others had been doing.

Trump’s strike against Soleimani was risky in the manner of most military strikes, but it was the right move. On moral grounds, if I had to decide between taking out a threat like Soleimani and bending over backwards for Iran — which allows the ayatollahs to continue being as violent as they want with impunity — my compass aligns with the former.

Saudi Arabia

On the downside, if Trump has broken with most of the policies of his predecessors, he has followed them in cultivating warm relations with Saudi Arabia — calling the nation a “great ally”. The Younger Bush held the hands of Saudi King Abdullah, and Barack Obama bowed to him. Trump did neither for King Salman, but he has nonetheless treated the Saudis as allies when they should be America’s #1 enemy.

North Korea

When North Korea stepped up its missile testing efforts in 2017, Trump threatened the country with “fire and fury”, using shockingly inflammatory language that no other president has ever used in the context of nuclear armaments. His incendiary aggressiveness — on top of the missile testing and mounting military presence on the Korean Peninsula — sparked fears of a nuclear conflict. Even members of the White House staff were appalled. Though a friendly détente began to develop between Trump and Kim Jong-un in March 2018, the year of 2017 was a harrowing one that yielded the speculative novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, by Jeffrey Lewis. The novel portrays a realistic nuclear attack by North Korea against the U.S., triggered in part by Trump’s tweets on Twitter.

In sum, Trump’s first year was one of reckless brinkmanship with North Korea, and we are fortunate that missiles didn’t end up flying.

Russia

Trump has cultivated warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and denied collusion with Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, despite the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies. On whole, his policies towards Russian have been a mixed bag.

In terms of his presidential actions (though not his rhetoric), Trump has been harsher on Putin than Obama ever was. Trump armed the people of Ukraine against his “friend” Russia with deadly weapons, which Obama would not do. Two hundred Russian soldiers were killed in Syria by U.S. forces under Trump, not Obama. Obama was the one who said (to Dmitry Medvedev) that he wanted to be flexible with Russia in 2012. Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia not under Trump, but under Obama, who turned a blind eye. The list goes on. Throughout his entire presidency, Obama underestimated the challenge posed by Putin’s regime. Obama dismissed Mitt Romney for “exaggerating the Russian threat”, and his foreign policy was grounded in the premise that Russia was not a national security threat to the U.S.

So while Obama didn’t like Putin, those personal feelings never translated into policy. Trump has had better policies on Russia (Obama apologists have made fools of themselves fumbling over this), but that does not excuse Trump’s reverential praise for Putin, his cozying up to the Russian president, nor his refusing to endorse the mutual aid clause of NATO (Article 5), which requires that other NATO allies come to the aid of an ally under attack.

Mexico: Immigration and the Border Wall

The worst stain on Trump’s foreign policy record is Mexico. From day one he has crusaded for an expanded wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, in efforts to stop illegal immigrants, gangs, and drugs from entering the U.S. A border wall is an impractical and expensive way of addressing those issues. The largest border challenge involves the hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees applying for asylum. They travel as family units and voluntarily surrender to US authorities. A wall wouldn’t stop anyone from claiming asylum at a port of entry, only border crossings. Nor would a wall stop the flow of drugs, most of which are smuggled through legal ports of entry. The only way to stop drug traffic from Mexico would be to completely shut down trade with Mexico. The drug war (which was always wrong to begin with) has taught that as long as there is a demand for drugs, there will always be a supply and ways of getting through.

The most hideous outcome of Trump’s border-wall crusade came in April 2018, when he enacted zero-tolerance for illegal border crossings, leading to mass detentions and the separation of children from their parents. The public outcry was so great that the administration pledged to end the family separations; but that doesn’t undo the ugly stain on Trump’s record.

Then came the government shutdown. When the House of Representatives refused to give Trump money ($5.7 billion in federal funds) to build the border wall, he shut down the federal government so as to force the congressional funding. It was the longest government shutdown in American history, lasting 35 days (December 22, 2018 – January 25, 2019). When that strategy failed, he then declared a national emergency on the border, which allowed him to divert funds from various sources (the Pentagon, anti-drug funds) to build the wall. (The House and Senate voted to end the national emergency, in February and September of 2019, but Trump vetoed their bills each time.) The Border Wall remains a national embarrassment.

The Paris Climate Agreement

By withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, in which nearly two hundred countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Trump showed his disdain for global welfare.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

If Trump’s foreign policy record is a mixed bag, his domestic policy record is a disaster.

Taxes

Trump’s tax cuts aren’t as bad as some have claimed, or at least in principle. Here’s the problem: tax cuts mean nothing without cuts to federal spending, and like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (though not George H.W. Bush), Trump has deficit-spent up the wazoo while giving tax breaks. It’s always astonishing to me, as a fiscal conservative, when self-avowed “fiscal conservatives” make tax cuts a priority, and yet willingly overlook the more sly tax increases and massive federal spending.

Trump’s tax cuts could have been a good thing — if he had cut federal spending significantly, and if he had substantially paid down the the trillions of dollars of national debt. Trump has done neither. But voters love government programs from which they benefit and for which they don’t have to pay; and because the impact of budget deficits is severe but mostly invisible in the short term, presidents like Reagan, the Younger Bush, and Trump easily win their second terms. The ones who really pay are America’s future generations. They’re the ones who will have to repay the borrowed money (plus interest) while not benefiting nearly as much as their sires. And of course they’re too young to vote.

Those who fancy themselves “small government Republicans” are not in fact for small government when they endorse spendthrifts like Reagan, the Younger Bush, and Trump (especially Bush and Trump). Eisenhower was the last really good Republican. After him, no Republican president has cut federal spending as a portion of U.S. economic output. The Democrat Bill Clinton did, however, putting all post-Eisenhower Republicans to shame.

Tariffs

Trump called the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the worst trade deal ever made, and he has launched trade wars by enacting tariffs. This is backwards. Tariffs are bad, because global free trade is ultimately better for everyone, businesses and consumers alike. Tariffs increase the prices of imports to consumers and decrease their buying power, and also cause U.S. exports to decline as other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own.

The irony about tariffs is that they are considered a “conservative” policy, but they often lead to non-conservative fiscal rescue operations. For example, Trump’s tariffs have hurt farmers in particular, and to compensate for that, the Trump administration has tried to steer government funds towards some of those areas — which is far from a conservative economic policy.

Free trade and low tariffs are the truly conservative policy, and are best for everyone. The only post Eisenhower Republican president who understood this was the otherwise less than impressive George H.W. Bush.

Health Care

While there is much in Obamacare that can be criticized (not least: it has caused healthcare costs to skyrocket), Trump’s war on the Affordable Healthcare Act was counterproductive, and it’s just as well that it largely failed. However, I do applaud Trump’s success in removing the individual mandate that forced people to buy health insurance and fined them if they didn’t. That part of Obamacare had to go.

Department Appointments

Trump appointed department heads whose agendas oppose their mandates. For the Labor Department he chose a serial violator of labor law (Eugene Scalia); for the Education Department a woman with contempt for the public education sector (Betsy DeVos); for the Environment Protection Agency a climate change denier (Scott Pruitt), then replaced him with someone hardly better (Andrew Wheeler); for the Energy Department a former state governor who had called for its abolition (Rick Perry).

In other words, the Trump Administration was set up from the start as a self-parody. It would be amusing if it were satirical fiction, but this isn’t a novel, it’s real life.

Pandemic Response

As if that weren’t bad enough, Trump fired the Pandemic Response Team in 2018. This spelled serious consequences with the recent outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. As late as February, Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, comparing it to influenza and saying that the disease was well under control.

In March he wised up and declared a national emergency, allowing states to access more than $40 billion in additional funding from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). He signed a bill providing for free testing, paid sick leave, and expanded unemployment insurance, as well as a $2 trillion stimulus that includes direct payments of up to $1,200 for individuals, hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and grants to businesses, increases to unemployment benefits, and support for health-care providers.

On April 15, he announced that the U.S. was placing a hold on funding to the World Health Organization (for 60–90 days) for “failing in its basic duty” to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever WHO’s shortcomings in the early period, it’s an appalling decision to cut funding to the organization best equipped to fight pandemics.

Trump’s handling of the crisis has left much to be desired, but there has also been misplaced outrage, not least over his calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus”; as if pointing the finger at China is necessarily racist. That Trump himself is a racist in no way mitigates the root cause of Covid-19, and the necessity of speaking honestly about the way Asian dietary habits have killed millions of people: SARS, the bird flu, the Hong Kong Flu, the Asian Flu, Covid-19 — and there will be more if exotic foods continue to be marketed and eaten.

There are hand-wringing Americans who insist that Chinese people don’t eat bats — that it’s a racist myth — even though the diet has been known and documented for some time:

“Bats are not specifically protected in China and many species are eaten, especially in southern China, where bats are found regularly in markets. Requests from international agencies following the SARS outbreak, (which resulted in several hundred human deaths) that wildlife legislation be introduced in China prohibiting inter alia hunting and sale of bats have been ignored.”

That being said, Trump has reveled in finger-pointing China for the wrong reasons. His primary concern has been deflecting blame away from his administration’s poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Environment

Besides withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump has taken actions that prove he is no friend of the environment — nor even something so basic as clean water. In February 2017, his administration reversed the Obama administration’s decision to deny permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline, approving its construction. In June 2019, he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to rescind the Clean Power Plan (2014), a regulation that would have required states to move away from coal-based power plants. In January 2020, his administration rolled back the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) requiring government agencies to carefully consider public health before permitting projects on federal lands, and which gave the public a voice in that process. Later that same month, his administration rewrote the Clean Water Rule (2015), removing protections for more than half of America’s wetlands, along with many rivers and streams — threatening the drinking water for millions of people.

This environmental record speaks for itself. Green isn’t Trump’s color.

3. Liberty (Freedom, Justice)

The worst danger of the Trump presidency has been his unbridled authoritarianism. He has played the boorish king since his presidential campaign, and in the past year has defended his monarchical attitude with startling appeals to the constitution itself. In July 2019, he said that “Article II (of the U.S. Constitution) gives me the right to do whatever I want.” The article in question establishes the powers of the executive branch, as well as the powers of Congress to oversee the presidency. Obviously it doesn’t make the president a king.

More recently, in April 2020, Trump reaffirmed that “the authority of the U.S. President is total”, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. He believes that he can decide when to lift quarantines and shutdown restrictions imposed by local officials. In fact, it is those same local officials — governors, mayors, and school district heads — who have the power to decide when to lift their own restrictions. There is no legislation that gives the president the power to override states’ public health measures. Trump can order federal employees to return to their offices, and to reopen national parks and other federal property, but he cannot order state, city, and district employees in the way that he imagines. That won’t stop him from trying.

His declarations of executive supremacy actually aren’t that surprising to those who know American history. Other presidents have believed as Trump does and acted as if they were kings. Teddy Roosevelt — who is undeservedly enshrined on Mount Rushmore — openly flouted the Constitution, and was railroaded by congressmen for having no more use for the Constitution “than a tomcat has use for a marriage license”. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson maintained that it was actually his Constitutional job to do as he damn well pleased — that a president should behave more like a British prime minister, or even a king, than a leader constrained by the American system of checks and balances. Most presidents who have feelings of executive supremacy follow the Wilsonian tactic rather than Roosevelt’s. They at least try to preserve the illusion that they are doing their Constitutional duty, as they really expand their power that the document does not bestow on them. The Teddy Roosevelts and Donald Trumps are just more honest about it.

It doesn’t help matters that lan Dershowitz — a modern liberal Democrat, who was one of Trump’s defenders in the Senate impeachment trial — tossed in the following grenade: “The president is far more powerful than a king. The president has the power that kings have never had. He has a very, very powerful office, and the framers wanted it that way.” No lie: Dershowitz actually said that. The framers are rolling in their graves.

Trump and his Democratic defender — and indeed many Americans — are clueless as to what the Constitution says about executive power, and sadly many people are used to the idea of an uber-powerful president bearing no resemblance to what was envisioned for the office at the nation’s founding. We have primarily Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) to thank for that, though certainly others set horrible precedents in this regard: Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945), and George W. Bush (2001-2009). This catalog is party-blind; there have been as many power-happy Democrats as Republicans.

Free Speech

So far under Trump there have been no blows against free speech or the press, but there has been cause for alarm. He has repeatedly bashed the news media, and even threatened to pull NBC’s nonexistent “license”. He has used the Stalinist phrase “enemy of the people” against NBC. This sort of rhetoric, coupled with his authoritarian complex, leaves no room for doubt: if he could get away with censoring the media he would.

Habeas Corpus

It’s not being paranoid to worry about a martial law under Donald Trump. In March 2020, his attorney general, William Barr, submitted a proposal that would strip American citizens of their habeas corpus rights during the Covid-19 pandemic. If the bill passes, American citizens could be held indefinitely without a trial, for whatever reason, without being able to challenge their detention.

Only two presidents have suspended habeas corpus, Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush, and both wrongly. Bad enough as a violation of civil liberty, the suspension of habeas corpus could be a stepping stone to martial law — which would be a nightmare under an executive like Donald Trump.

Overseas Detention

Trump has supported the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, signing a 2018 executive order to keep the prison open. Obama had tried to close the facility, but was blocked by Congress (Obama can be criticized for much, but not this). While the Trump administration has sent no new detainees to Guantanamo Bay, Trump did make noise about using it to jail captured Islamic State fighters.

Transgender in the Military

Trump overturned the Obama-era policy of allowing transgender personnel to serve openly in the military. Another setback.

Native American Indians

Trump’s treatment of the Indians has been disgraceful. He routinely insults Native Americans and ignores their concerns about his plans for drilling on sacred land. In 2017 he approved slashing the protected Bears Ears site by 200,000 acres, and later announced that it would be opened for oil and gas bidding.

His most recent targets are the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, who are losing their reservation status for more than 300 acres of land. That land will no longer be held in federal trust, and the tribe won’t have any tribal authority over it.

On a minor plus side, in November 2019, Trump did sign an executive order (“Operation Lady Justice”) for creating a task force to address the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, in particular women and children. A small amelioration for a mountain of sins.

The Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch

Trump’s positive contribution to the cause of liberty has come in his appointment of Neil Gorsuch, who replaced Antonin Scalia after thirty years of service on the bench. Anyone who doubts Gorsuch’s rightfully earned place can refer to my detailed look at how he has ruled since joining the court. His model of jurisprudence is exemplary; he is the best justice who has served on the court in my lifetime.

He has often been the lone conservative ruling with the four liberals against the other conservatives. He joined the liberals, for example, in favor of Indian tax exemptions (Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc.); then again for the Indians on the question of Indian treaties (Herrera v. Wyoming); on a ruling about guns during crimes of violence (United States v. Davis); and in upholding the right to a trial by jury for a man convicted a second time of carrying child pornography (United States v. Haymond). If Gorsuch is conservative, he’s certainly no ideologue; he rules with the right kind of conservatism, interpreting the law, not legislating his personal views.

He has also gone where his fellow justices fear to tread. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was the famous case involving the baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. The court correctly ruled for the baker (in a 7-2 decision), but on a technicality more than on the merits of the case itself. Gorsuch, in a separate concurrence, addressed the issue head on, affirming the free expression rights of a private business owner. There is a huge difference between (a) equal access to a commodity and (b) obliging someone to do creative work. If the baker had been in violation of (a) — in other words, refusing an available service or sale to a gay person — then the baker would be in violation of discrimination laws. That wasn’t the case. The baker, rather, was refusing to create something that he does not provide, period. Gorsuch rightly affirmed the baker’s First Amendment right.

We need more Gorsuchs on the Supreme Court. It’s not that the liberal justices are necessarily bad, but they tend to be more tribal. The judiciary by its nature is a conservative institution, designed to interpret and uphold laws already in place. It’s the nature of a progressive liberal to seek favorable change, but the best place for that is the legislature. The judiciary is restrictive. On issues of civil liberties, abortion rights, and separation of church and state, liberals like Ginsburg have usually ruled well, grounded in constitutional acumen and firm legal precedent. But on questions of economic liberty, and separation of the public and private sectors, the liberal justices have left much to be desired.

Conclusion

Here is Donald Trump’s report card, reflecting his presidency from January 21, 2017 – April 15, 2020. The scoring is subject to change.

Peace (Foreign Policy). For keeping the U.S. out of war (an immense change from the previous 16 years), Trump deserves serious credit. Most of his policies in the Middle-East are also impressive, but must be weighed against his mediocre policies with Russia, his reckless brinkmanship with North Korea, his hideous detainment polices for migrant families, his foolish crusade for the Mexican border wall, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. All of this weighs to a score of 9.

Prosperity (Domestic Policy). For fake tax cuts, trade wars, tariffs, crony capitalism, undermining departments by appointing them lousy leaders, mismanaging the Covid-19 crisis, and torpedoing environmental progress, he almost gets a goose egg. I throw him a single point for making Obamacare non-mandatory.

Liberty (Freedom, Justice). For his anti-Constitutional authoritarianism, believing himself to be entirely above the law, threatening the press, trying to suspend habeas corpus, supporting Guantanamo Bay, opposing transgender rights, and routinely stepping on Native Americans, he gets a putrid liberty score of 4. The appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch alone earns him 3 points, and I graciously throw him one more for creating the task force to investigate murdered indigenous peoples.

Peace — 9/20
Prosperity — 1/20
Liberty — 4/20

TOTAL SCORE = 14/60 = Bad

This makes Donald Trump, in my estimation, the fourth worst president in history, perched above James Buchanan, George W. Bush, and Woodrow Wilson.

Bill Maher on China: Simple Truths

Bill Maher continues to host Real Time while quarantined inside his home. And he continues to offend the PC Police for making what should be non-controversial statements. In this case, that Covid-19 is a Chinese virus, which it obviously is, but the PC police find that racist. Maher refutes the silliness with his usual wit, facts, and common sense:

Scientists — yes, scientists — have been labeling diseases after the place they came from for a very long time. Zika is from the Zika Forest; Ebola from the Ebola River; Hantavirus from the Hantan River; there’s the the West Nile Virus, Guinea Worm, and Rocky Mountain Spotty Fever; MERS stands for Middle-Eastern Respiratory Syndrome — it’s plastered all over airports, and no one blogs about it. So why should China get a pass?

Jesus Fucking Christ, can’t we even have a pandemic without getting offended? When they named Lyme Disease after the town in Connecticut, the locals didn’t get all ticked off. It scares me that there are people out there who would rather die from the virus than call it by the wrong name. This isn’t about vilifying a culture. This is about facts. This is about life and death. We’re barely four months into this pandemic, and the wet markets in China — the ones where exotic animals are sold and consumed — are already starting to reopen.

The PC Police say it’s racist to attack any cultural practice that’s different than our own. I say that liberalism lost its way when people started thinking like that, and pretended that forcing a woman to wear a burqa was just ‘a different way’ instead of an abhorrent human rights violation. It’s not racist to point out that eating bats is batshit crazy. In 2007, researchers at the University at Hong Kong wrote:

‘The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.’

Dr. Fauci says we should force a global closure of the wet markets, because the current crisis is a direct result of that. On Monday the UN’s acting head of biodiversity said the same thing. So when someone says, ‘What if people hear “Chinese Virus” and blame China?’, the answer is, we should blame China. We can’t stop telling the truth because racists get the wrong idea. Sorry, Americans, but we’re going to have to ask you to keep two ideas in your head at the same time.

We can’t afford the luxury anymore of ‘non-judginess’ towards a country with habits that kill millions of people. SARS came from China. And the bird flu. And the Hong Kong Flu. The Asian Flu. The next one could be even worse.

Watch the entire segment here.

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 12 & 13): Resurrection & The Longest Night

Analogies to Covid-19 fill the first season of Regenesis, but especially the last two episodes. Here we get quarantines; attempts to seal off traffic; health workers in respirator masks; and everyone is calling it a coronavirus. Which isn’t a bad guess. This virus gets in the lungs and life is over in a snap.

David and Jill arrive in Denver to start picking the virus apart. They get samples from all patients, half-expecting a Marburg chimera to show up, but there are no signs of poxes or internal hemorrhaging. Nothing about the virus looks man-made; it seems perfectly natural and not a bio-weapon. The terrorist threat that was set up in the previous episode recedes for the moment.

The tests run in Denver are only so useful, and David and Jill forward the samples to the NorBAC lab for proper PCR runs. But even the limited tests tell David enough. This is his lifelong obsession and something he dug up four months ago. The Spanish Fucking Flu. Appalled — knowing it’s true but can’t be — he bails on Jill, leaving her in Denver while he flies back to NorBAC to run the sequencing himself. When he sees the proof, the world falls on his head.

It’s at this point that the series brings us to the scene foreshadowed in the prologue of the first episode: an emotionally distraught David Sandstrom, walking the streets of Toronto in a daze, realizing that he royally fucked up, but clueless as to how. He calls his daughter Lilith and tells her he loves her; he musters the courage to go back to the lab and come clean to his co-workers; then he walks straight into the path of an oncoming car. He goes into a coma and is hospitalized.

The Return of the Spanish Lady

With David out of the picture (for now), it’s Jill who learns the truth when she returns from Denver, and reads the sequencing reports done by Carlos and Bob. Like David, she recognizes the Spanish Flu at once, since she did the sequencing for his sample four months earlier. The entire NorBAC team is stunned. How the Spanish Flu get out at all, let alone way down in Colorado? Caroline contacts WHO and other health departments to put out priority alerts, and then calls her associate Congresswoman Shuler. The politics of the phone call sound familiar in the era of Covid-19:

Caroline: “The Spanish Flu is extremely contagious. If not contained, it could turn into a pandemic overnight.”

Shuler: “Can you contain it?”

Caroline: “Right now there are 28 reported cases, all confined to the Denver area.”

Shuler: “That’s good.”

Caroline: “I think we should shut down all access to the Denver area — airport, highway.”

Shuler: “No, no. That’s politically impossible. And Caroline, do we have to use the term ‘Spanish Flu’?”

Keep in mind this is the same congresswoman who blocked Caroline and David’s attempt to shut down all the chicken farms in the Prion case. As I write this review (on April 9), the following eight states have still not issued statewide stay-at-home orders for the Covid-19 pandemic: Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The governors of these states, like Shuler, have their priorities.

Mission to Nunavut

Jill goes through David’s notes to find out where he got the Spanish Flu sample. She finds the Nunavut connection, and the name of Joe Okalik, but is puzzled that she can’t find any dig records or permits. Meanwhile the situation in Denver is getting exponentially worse:

Wes: “The CDC is widening the quarantine area.”

Caroline: “It’s doubled in just the last two hours.”

Wes: “They’re turning the old stables and airport into a quarantine center. Denver proper is reporting 10 confirmed deaths, 204 people in quarantine. Lakewood has 5 reported cases; Aurora 7.”

Jill: [Entering the room] “Here’s what I got. These are David’s notes, from what I can tell was the beginning when he first had a line on the 1918 flu victim. He was working with a guy named Joe Okalik in Nunavut, which makes sense, because the sample we worked on clearly came out of the permafrost.”

Caroline: “How did a flu in Nunavut end up in Denver, Colorado?”

Jill: “I don’t know. But more important than that right now is we need to find the body he exhumed and make sure that it’s contained. But I can’t find any dig records or permits anywhere.”

Caroline: “Okay then, go home, pack your long johns and catch the next flight up there. Jesus, fuck.”

Jill: “What’s wrong?”

Caroline: “I don’t know what’s worse. Thinking that some terrorist released the Spanish Flu or that the head scientist of NorBAC did.”

It’s hard to shake the terrorist threat in the air from the last episode, but Chiernegin’s MO is pox-hemorrhagic combos, not influenza. And it can hardly be a coincidence that the 87-year old Spanish Flu has re-emerged only months after David dug up an intact sample. The disaster has David Sandstrom’s name all over it.

Hospitalized

Back to David. His coma is his just deserts — a season’s worth of assholeries coming back to bite him. He has near-death visions of various people who died on account of his “failures”: Hira Khan, shot by the bullet meant for him (episode 3); Danny Dexter, who swallowed pills after David told him to stop playing hockey if he wanted to stay alive (episode 5); Mick Sloane, who thought he was a clone and begged David to save him (episode 7). David wants to join them, but they won’t have him. Each in turn tells him to get off his sorry ass and fix his mess. The vision of Mick is particularly nice: the kid overturns the hospital bed, throwing David to the floor.

Meanwhile, in the real-world hospital room, Mayko sits by David’s side, and in the final frame of Resurrection he comes out of his coma. But the penultimate’s title isn’t about David; it’s about the resurrection of the goddamn Spanish Flu. David confesses everything to Mayko in self-indictment: that he’s responsible for bringing back the flu; that the sample Jill sequenced wasn’t sent to him, but stolen; that he took it from the body of a miner he dug out of the permafrost in Nunavut, without governmental permission. But neither Mayko nor David see how any of this could impact Denver so far away.

Caroline and Jill rip David a new one

Only hours out of his coma and barely able to walk, David takes his lashings back at NorBAC with considerable grace. Prepared to confess to Caroline, she beats him to it, having already found his records of payment to the Indian Joe Okalik for their grave robbing mission. Also, from Nunavut, Jill has forwarded Joe’s emails to Caroline, which reveal the details of David and Joe’s past communications. (Strangely, Joe Okalik was dead in his home when Jill arrived, having fallen in the shower drunk.) Caroline tears David a new one for breaking the law and scientific protocols — and for making NorBAC look worse than an organization run by Donald Trump. She vows that from now on she will be micromanaging the hell out of him.

At that moment, Jill calls from Nunavut, and Caroline puts her on speaker phone. Jill has tracked down and located the grave of the miner. The grave has been dug up again; there are polar bear tracks everywhere; most of the body is gone, and the remains are a mess.

David, feeling an abyss beneath him, insists to Caroline that he was careful as hell; he had put the body back, burying it exactly as he found it. But apparently disturbing a grave for even a few minutes can fire off a scent to a starving polar bear. Once again, Caroline welcomes David to a new era of micromanagement — where he is henceforth obligated to share with her every scrap of his research — and she orders him to immediately release all of his and Jill’s data on the Spanish Flu to the five top vaccine labs in the world.

When Jill returns from Nunavut, she too is furious — pissed that David lied about how he obtained the Spanish Flu sample, and even more furious that he rejected her advice (in episode 7) to send their data to the World Health Organization. Had he done so, the world would be a lot closer to a vaccine now.

None of this explains how the flu got from a polar bear in Nunavut to victims down in Denver. Redeeming himself as best he can, David (who still belongs in the hospital) sets out to solving that puzzle with his team.

From Nunavut to Denver: Natural born carriers

They find that Patient 0 was a bird-tagger in Colorado who was out camping. David surmises that the flu outbreak started with a migrating bird that fed on the remains of what the polar bear left in Nunavut; the bird must have scratched or bit the bird-tagger. According to a report, the tagger was replacing batteries in GPS bird collars. David examines the last ten birds that she collared, and finds that one of them, sure enough, was a red-tailed hawk — a species that ranges from Nunavut to the western United States. The tagger was somehow infected by the hawk as she was collaring it, and she later infected some Denver locals. Thus is born a pandemic.

NorBAC immediately puts out alerts that the hawk needs to be found and captured (by using the software used to track birds with GPS collars) as a #1 international health priority. And who knows how many other birds feasted on the miner’s remains?

The elusive Ivan Chiernegin

So what about Ivan Chiernegin and the Marburg threat that was set up in episode 11? It seems that the terrorist plot was dropped in favor of natural disaster owing to David’s recklessness. The twist comes that the two plots are tied together, and that the elusive Soviet terrorist Ivan Chiernegin is none other than David’s friend Vassili Borov. I have mixed feelings about this; the logistics are handled okay, but it feels a bit contrived.

Let’s go through it from the start. At the beginning of Resurrection, as David and Jill are working in Denver, Caroline is following up on the Marburg threat in Washington DC, where she learns that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Chiernegin worked for the CIA in Iraq. When relations between America and Iraq went sour, Saddam Hussein offered Chiernegin a palace on the Tigress River and all the money Chiernegin wanted to work for him. The U.S. — not taking kindly to this betrayal — promptly took out the palace with a cruise missile, killing (presumably) Chiernegin and his wife and child. But years later in 1997, Chiernegin reportedly resurfaced in North Korea, and two years after that in Pakistan, leaving behind bio-warfare programs in each country. Then he dropped off the radar again in 2000, just around the time “Ivan Havlac” emerged in Cape Town to start working on the Miranda Virus at Bethke Labs.

So Chiernegin is still at large, but who knows where, and who knows when he ever plans on using his Marburg concoction. At the end of The Longest Night comes the dramatic reveal, when Daisy, the mother of baby-bomb Miranda (from the season premiere), comes to David’s home. She heard that he was injured, and remembers his kindness to her when he tried to stop her from mercy-killing her baby. When she sees his friend Vassili Borov getting into a taxi, she goes completely ape-shit — screaming that he’s the man who operated on her in Africa. David, stunned that Vassili (of all people) could be Chiernegin, calls Caroline and has her put out an APB; Vassili is taken by the police.

When David visits Vassili in jail, the terrorist and natural-disaster plots bleed into one. Vassili explains that Chiernegin (who was Vassili’s boss from the ’80s, recall) ended up marrying his (Vassili’s) daughter and having a boy. Those two — Vassili’s daughter and grandson — were killed in the American missile strike on the Iraq palace. Chiernegin was killed too, contrary to what the intelligence agencies believed. Vassili assumed Chiernegin’s identity, going from North Korea to Pakistan, arming them with the bio-weapons programs, and then settling in Cape Town as “Ivan Havlac” to begin synthesizing poxes and hemorrhagics. “Acts of justice” against the west, he says to David. Miranda he put into action (in the season premiere), but he ditched his plans for using the Marburg chimera when a much better opportunity presented itself. On a night they got drunk together, David told Vassili about his illegal Nunavut adventure and how he acquired an intact genome of the Spanish flu. At that moment, Vassili seized his golden opportunity:

Vassili: “You thought the nights of vodka and conversation were about friendship? You think we were comrades? You talk very freely when you drink, David.”

David: [Aghast] “Jesus, it was you. You went and dug up the body, didn’t you?”

Vassili: “And I left it exposed. How sloppy of me. I let Mother Nature do the rest. The bears and birds were my delivery system, they spread it all over. And who knows? Denver may not be the only outbreak. We freed the Spanish Flu, David — you and I — and I thank you for it.”

And this explains the strange coincidence of the Indian Joe Okalik being found dead in his shower when Jill flew up to Nunavut. Vassili left no loose ends. That he, as David’s buddy, turned out to be the big-bad smacks slightly of lazy plotting, though it does make sense as to why Vassili cultivated David’s friendship to begin with.

Nature spread the Spanish Flu, but not because of David’s carelessness. He had reburied the body properly, exactly as he thought. It was Vassili who went up to Nunavut, dug up the body, and left it blatantly exposed. That sort of gets David off the hook — though he doesn’t cut himself any slack. When Caroline insists that the Colorado deaths are Vassili’s fault and not his, he replies: “You can’t split the atom and blame the crew that drops the bomb, Caroline.”

And with that, David Sandstrom resigns from NorBAC. He’ll be back in season 2, but not before a self-imposed exile takes him to China, where he can work off his guilt and get into more trouble. As for season 1, it remains some of the best TV drama I’ve seen. These final episodes pay off the narrative debts with a merciless blow from nature, and make me pray that the Spanish Flu never comes back. Covid-19 is bad enough.

Original air dates: January 16 & 23, 2005

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5