Specter of Reason

Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Neon Gatsby

[This post contains spoilers for the film, The Neon Demon.]

Hollywood excels at masking the shallow as profound. It is fitting, then, that a film offering a profound critique of Hollywood is widely seen as shallow. The film is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and its surface is so stunning that some critics assume that’s all there is. Yet, as the grotesque lay beneath the seductive glitz and glamour of Jay Gatsby's decadent parties, there is a familiar alienation and darkness beneath this film's skin. In fact, Refn's stylized portrait of Hollywood is strongly reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic literary vision of New York City. Like The Great Gatsby, The Neon Demon uses metaphor, imagery and symbolism, as well as an unreliable narrative point of view, to explore the romanticization of a corrupt narcissist while exposing the depraved society that consumes him--or her, as the case may be.




Though many view The Great Gatsby as a tragic love story between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan,  Fitzgerald’s novel is primarily about Nick Carraway, the narrator and purveyor of Gatsby's image. We see Gatsby through Nick’s desperate, judgmental eyes. Nick values Gatsby's reckless naivete above the irresponsible manipulations of the wealthy elites (Tom and Daisy Buchanan, in particular), and seduces us into making a moral distinction between them. Nick dreams of success and redemption—running away from the war and his Midwestern past, reinventing himself as a New York City bondsman, but unable to commit to any level of intimacy and too easily tempted by the mire of prohibition-era crime and decadence. Nick is a hypocrite, shamelessly participating in everything he condemns. He helps Gatsby and Daisy pursue adultery in secret and he risks moral condemnation and criminal prosecution by joining illegal parties and indulging in homosexual behavior. The novel is framed around Nick's struggles to maintain his dignity. Gatsby only makes sense as a fetish or scar in Nick’s imagination: a tragic image of purity and beauty destined for failure in modern America. The real Gatsby, if there is one, is something of a phantom, a phony and a crook who will stop at nothing to fulfill his own dark yet na├»ve fantasies. 

At the beginning of Fitzgerald's novel, Nick says of Gatsby: 

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"--it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No--Gatsby turned out alright at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (Chapter 1) 
We can imagine those same lines (with minor alterations) spoken in voice-over by Dean (Karl Glusman), The Neon Demon's aspiring photographer, about the film's ostensible heroine, Jesse (Elle Fanning). Though he is discarded before the final act of the film, Dean's point of view is central to how we understand the story. Dean frames the film at the outset with his foreboding photographic vision of Jesse, defining her as an innocent face and nubile body to be consumed, a dreamer destined to perish under the gazing moon.



Dean (Karl Glusman) creates a tragically romantic portrait of Jesse.

Introducing Jesse (Elle Fanning). Are these the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg?
Just as Nick (temporarily?) gives up his dream of becoming a bondsman, Dean (temporarily?) walks away from the world of fashion when his dignity is challenged. And just as Nick stands up for Gatsby and condemns the New York haves, Dean alone stands up for Jesse's inner value and condemns the Hollywood elites for their superficiality. Yet, like Nick, Dean is a hypocrite. Dean balks at Jesse for wanting to be like the elites, but their friendship grew out of a mutual desire to succeed in that world. His photography facilitated Jesse's career, and he hoped it would open doors for him, as well. On top of that, he knowingly risks moral condemnation and criminal prosecution by dating an underage girl. His indignation at the fashionistas is most likely a temporary upheaval. Dean might leave Hollywood, but he has not found a better path.

The parallels between Jesse and Jay Gatsby are also striking. James Gatz, the youth who would become Jay Gatsby, took his good looks and charm for granted. At the age of 17, Gatz used his innate gifts to redefine himself: He devoted himself to “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” inventing “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (Chapter 6). In The Neon DemonJesse falls in love with her own image at the age of 16, and is faithful to it until the end. Jesse's raw materials are the same as Gatsby’s: good looks and an innocence that captivate everyone in the fashion world. They are all taken in by Jesse, and it is not long before she is confidently using her image to her advantage--or so she thinks. Yet, like Gatsby, her persona is a fabrication. We cannot be sure where she came from or how she got to Hollywood. She could be a runaway, though she is happy to let others assume that her parents are dead. What matters is that her parents are dead to her, and she will forge their signature to get what she wants. And it's not just money and fame. Jesse wants glamour, to be the brightest star in every room she enters, and she is willing to cheat and turn her back on humanity to get there.



Jesse (Elle Fanning) falls in love with her reflection.
Gatsby's dream takes its final shape--"the incarnation is complete" (Chapter 6)--when he kisses Daisy for the first time. Daisy is the outward projection of his narcissistic desire, and his blind devotion to her is what ultimately destroys him. Jesse, in contrast, is her own outward projection. Her dream is wholly centered around her own image. It is therefore when she makes love to herself that her incarnation is complete. And it is her devotion to the image of her own purity that eventuates her demise.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) completing the incarnation.
Neither Gatsby nor Jesse earns our scorn. We see their lack of compassion, their moral bankruptcy, and we feel sorry for them. They are victims of their singular dreams. They each seem to understand this right before they die. Nick describes Gatsby enjoying his swimming pool for the first time at the peak of a fevered summer, but rather than suppose Gatsby hoped for or expected Daisy’s call, Nick says:
I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about (Chapter 8).
These words could be used to describe Jesse as she, like Gatsby, hovers above a swimming pool moments before her death. In Jesse's case, the pool in which she is murdered is empty. The blue of her dress replaces the reflective blue of the water. She has become no more than her own image.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) hovers above the emptiness.
Jesse and Gatsby accept nothing but their demon, an impossible dream at odds with the material world. Gatsby lives in his own image for a number of excruciatingly lonely years before finally realizing that his dream is false and his life is a lie. In contrast, Jesse’s misery is not prolonged. We could imagine Jesse growing old, never coming to terms with the lie her life has become, always reaching for another star, always trying to shine brighter than before, but always feeling lost and alone. We can imagine her aging in Gatsby’s mansion, throwing parties she cannot bear to attend, full of people who know her but do not care about her. And she would not care about them, either. She would watch them desperately, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, hoping their presence heralded a new dawn, a final validation of her quest for greatness. Everyone wanted a piece of Gatsby and Jesse when they were alive, but few will miss them once they're dead. Very few show up for Gatsby's funeral. Who besides Dean will care that Jesse is gone?

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), ready for her close-up.
In Gatsby, Nick fetishizes Gatsby's beauty. He worships Gatsby at the same time he sees through the facade, and it leaves him lost and alone in the end. We are tempted to elevate Gatsby, as well--and many do see him as a Romantic hero. In much the same way, The Neon Demon also lets us see through the facade, but invites us to worship Jesse's so-called "natural beauty" all the same. It even tempts us into valuing her beauty above all others, by opposing her beauty to the supposedly inferior, "artificial" beauty of Gigi (Belle Heathcote). Yet, this distinction is a myth. Who is to say Gigi is not more beautiful than Jesse? To the fashionistas, Jesse is an oasis in the desert. She pulls at their thirst, just as she is meant to pull at ours. Gigi, in contrast, looks like a model trying on somebody else's style. Gigi does not look like the product of cosmetic surgery so much as the product of a weak and uptight imagination. Jesse succeeds because she is able to sell the image of authenticity. Once she realizes its value, she manufactures and sells her own innocence. It is her demon.

The opposition between natural and artificial beauty is a red herring. We are never shown that Gigi has had any work done, and, despite what the fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) says, there is nothing in the way she looks that suggests cosmetic surgery or treatments of any kind. We can only take Gigi at her word that she is the “Bionic Woman.” Similarly, we can only take Jesse at her word that she has not had any work done. In most films, we are expected to take characters at their word, but not here. Refn makes this point clear when Jesse's agent says, “People believe what they are told.” Should we believe Gigi has had tons of work done because we are told, even though she does not look like the product of a massive amount of cosmetic surgery? Should we believe Jesse is a natural beauty, even though we have no evidence corroborating the fact? What if Gigi has never had any work done on her body, but lies because she thinks it will earn her respect? What if she is just trying to fit in? What if Jesse, on the other hand, is too afraid to tell people that she’s had work done, because she wants to preserve the image of her own purity? What is important in the conflict between Jesse and Gigi is not who has had work done, but who has the better image. The conflict between Jesse and Gigi is a conflict between two images of beauty. When Jesse challenges Gigi's status, she is challenging Gigi's dream. 


Gigi (Bella Heathcote) does not like to be challenged.
Jesse presents herself as the image of natural beauty. an ideal which nobody questions. Yet, beauty is always both natural and artificial—artifice is part of human nature, after all. The image of Natural Beauty is no more authentic than the image of Artificial Beauth, and Jesse and Gigi each die when they recognize this fact. Jesse dies after she sees the artifice behind her image of natural beauty, and Gigi dies after she sees the humanity beneath her image of cold-hearted artifice.

Jesse's love of artifice is manifest in her relationship to Ruby (Jena Malone). Ruby is the master of artifice, the maker of outward beauty, who longs for purity but lives only through reflections. She craves Jesse, either for sex or food, or both. Ruby thrives in emptiness, makes love to make-up, be it on living flesh or a corpse. As the scene revealing Ruby's necrophiliac depravity is interlaced with images of Jesse's self-love, we are invited to question the relationship between them. When Jesse touches herself, is she, like Ruby, making love to a corpse? Is Jesse dead beneath her skin? Is Ruby Jesse's alter-ego? Are they reflections of each other?

When Ruby and Jesse meet for the first time, they are looking in opposing mirrors with their backs to each other. Ruby apologizes to Jesse for staring at her, but it seems as if they were only staring at themselves. It is as if they each exist inside of the other. Of course, we can take their relationship at face value, as one between a model and a predatory make-up artist; however, we can take it as a metaphor for something deeper. We can see Ruby as the demon taking possession of Jesse; conversely, we can see Jesse as the haunting image of purity within a depraved Ruby.

Ruby (Jena Malone) through the looking glass.

Right after the masturbation scene, Jesse changes into the blue dress and stands above the empty pool. Just as a "ghost" named George Wilson comes to haunt and murder Jay Gatsby in his swimming pool, a ghost-like Ruby appears to Jesse in the emptiness of the pool beneath her. When Jesse sees Ruby, she sees the truth about herself: Ruby has already consumed her, because Jesse has consumed herself. It is possible to read the murder sequence as a metaphor for Jesse’s suicide: She was not pushed into the empty pool; she let herself fall in after she saw the falsity of the image with which she had fallen in love. On the other hand, we can take it as a scene of literal murder. It does not matter. Ruby killed her either way, and either way, Jesse was already dead inside.

Like Jesse, Gigi also dies after she sees the falsity of her own image. She (literally or metaphorically?) cannot stomach what happened. Her body violently rejects her actions. She claims to be the Bionic Woman, but she cannot exorcise her conscience. In the end, it is her humanity that kills her.

The Neon Demon is ultimately about beauty and how we relate to it. The true conflict in The Neon Demon is not between natural and artificial beauty. Those are false idols which we only followed, if we ever did, because we were told to. No, the conflict at the heart of the film is between ways of relating to beauty--between compassion and consumption. It is telling that we are never told whether or not Sarah (Abbey Lee), the only model that survives in the end, has ever had any cosmetic surgery. Jesse, Gigi and Sarah are more alike than they may realize. They all relate to beauty in terms on consumption. They long to be shot and consumed. Yet, only Sarah survives, because only Sarah accepts the grotesque for what it is. Jesse and Gigi’s deaths don’t faze Sarah. She consumes Jesse and watches Gigi’s suicide with detached curiosity and understanding. She swallows the eye of conscience whole. It doesn't matter if Sarah has had cosmetic surgery or not. Sarah survives because she is unhindered by compassion and she knows it. She exemplifies what Hollywood rewards: sociopathic consumption.

Sarah (Abbey Lee) triumphant.


Gatsby’s and Jesse's stories can be seen as two versions of the same cautionary tale: This is what happens when American individualism runs amok. It is hard to shake the American Dream, the capitalistic conviction that all you need are the raw materials and the drive, and you can become whoever you want to be. Refn and Fitzgerald warn that, if you devote yourself entirely to that dream and follow it to its logical conclusion, you end up living and dying alone, and all for an illusion. Jesse and Gatsby are themselves more illusion than reality, and their deaths are less tragic than their lives. We can balk at their deaths as affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, we can see them as trite, as inevitabilities: standard set pieces in the story of American depravity. The most compelling interpretation might be this: The deaths of Gatsby and Jesse are theatricalities, performances meant to draw the curtain on a depraved illusion. They are not tragic heroes in the Romantic mold. They are the constructions of morally compromised yet tragically romantic imaginations. We are invited to partake in this imagination by witnessing their downfalls through Nick Carraway's and Dean's hypocritical eyes. Dean is a stand-in for the audience and frames our vision of Jesse and the broader conflicts between the Hollywood haves and have-nots, much the way Nick curates the reader's experience of Gatsby and class conflict in the Roaring Twenties. And like Dean and Nick, audiences are likely to balk at what they see without learning from it.

For The Neon Demon, as for The Great Gatsby, there is no path to happiness. There is only hypocrisy, cruelty and isolation. The irony at the heart of the film is that the fashion designer may be right when he says, "Beauty is not everything. It's the only thing.” All creation is the same, he says, be it a line of clothing or a dramatic character. Art is a unity and beauty is an indivisible, all-encompassing whole, the monistic God of Spinoza, the one, supreme substance of which all else is made. Thus, what we see in the film depends on how we define ourselves in relation to beauty. We can laugh at the film, embrace narcissism and celebrate ourselves as beautiful products to be consumed. Yet, can humanity--the lived compassion for other people--survive in the process? What the designer does not understand is that compassion is also beautiful. The fashion designer's Hollywood is a reflection of our world, where consumption is rewarded over compassion and children grow up embracing narcissism, longing to be mass-consumed. This is the profound dilemma at the heart of The Neon Demon. If it is shallow, it is no shallower than the pool in which we see our own reflection.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

We Know Who Won The Democratic Primary

In a new video, filmmaker Matthew Cooke taps into all the anger, frustration and disappointment that Sanders' supporters are feeling in the wake of the Democratic Party's primary voting process. His main contention is, "We don't know who won the Democratic primary." In other words, Bernie may deserve the nomination, despite the fact that he has lost by every discernible measure. He says, as many of Bernie's supporters say, that the results are invalid because the process is undemocratic. As much as I understand why some of Bernie's supporters might feel cheated, and why they feel he still can (or at least should) win the nomination in July, I think it is deeply wrong. There actually is a clear winner of the Democratic Primary, and it is Hillary Clinton.


THE HARVARD STUDY
Cooke's argument begins with a reference to a recent study which, he says, ranks U.S. electoral integrity as "the lowest in all developed nations in this world."  That is factually incorrect. The report he is talking about is the Electoral Integrity Project's 2015 Year in Elections report. It ranks the United States as the lowest among long-standing democracies, not lowest among developed nations.  There are dozens of developed nations which ranked lower than the United States for electoral integrity.

Still, you're probably thinking, being ranked the lowest among long-standing democracies is bad enough, right?  Maybe, but consider the bigger picture.

Imagine a child is enrolled in an extremely competitive and challenging school, and has managed to make it to the last year. They are about to graduate, and their final grades come in. Alas, the parents find out that they are ranked the lowest in their class. The following dialogue ensues:

Parent: I don't understand this! How can you be the worst in your class? It's a disgrace. You're a failure! You are wasting your life away! 
Child: But I'm graduating! 
Parent: What a joke! This diploma is meaningless. It's not valid. You haven't learned enough. You haven't really made it! 
Child: But I have good grades! 
Parent: What? 
Child: My GPA is a 3.2.  It's a B.  Actually, last year I got an A. You know it's a really competitive program, right? And I've faced a lot of disadvantages that other students haven't had to deal with. 
I hope we can all agree that the parent was wrong.  The lowest score is not necessarily a bad, or even mediocre, score.  Despite being the lowest among established democracies, U.S. electoral integrity received a high mark, the equivalent of a B, despite the fact that the United States faces challenges that most of the higher-ranking nations do not face: an enormous, widely heterogeneous population divided into many states, each with different voting processes. (The biggest concerns about U.S. electoral integrity were about campaign finance regulation and gerrymandering--both of which are particularly difficult problems to manage because of the enormity and diversity of the population.)

It is also important to realize that the report in question is based on subjective perceptions of 40 experts worldwide. It is not a comprehensive or objective analysis.  Furthermore, it is only based on the elections from 2012 and 2014. The United States scored higher in previous reports, and--like the student in my fictional scenario--recently earned an A.

So, yeah, based on expert opinion with respect to the 2012 and 2014 elections, America's electoral integrity is . . . good.  It's not great. It has problems. But it's good.


HAS IT GOTTEN WORSE?

Cooke's second point is that, as bad as it was in the past (or as good as it was in the past, if you want to be more accurate), the current election was worse.  To make this case, he presents a list of complaints supported by a series of visual images of Websites reporting on election issues. The alleged problems can be divided into two main categories.

Problem 1: The media announced the nominee the night before "six key states" had a chance to vote.

Were the six states voting on June 7 all key states?  Surely Cooke was exaggerating by saying "six key states."  Nobody would claim that North and South Dakota were key states. Montana and New Mexico? Likely not.  New Jersey?  Maybe. California? Arguably yes, though the role of California in this election is debatable, as I will discuss shortly.

The point is, key states or not, why did the Associated Press announce a presumptive nominee the night before so many people voted?

The explanation is straightforward. Over the weekend (on June 4th and 5th), Clinton won over 40 pledged delegates in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Then, on Monday, June 6th, the Associated Press got confirmation from additional superdelegates that they were, without reservation or qualification, going to vote for Hillary at the convention in July.  With the new pledged and unpledged delegates behind her, Clinton's numbers were enough to make her the presumptive nominee.  That is newsworthy, and it happened on June 6th, a day before California's vote.  (Lots of people voted early in California, but let's say that doesn't matter.)

Now, maybe it's not always a good idea to report whatever is newsworthy. The AP certainly could have waited a day, but it wouldn't have helped Bernie.

Bernie needed a ridiculously large win on June 7th to get the majority of pledged delegates. Without that, he had virtually no hope of winning over a significant number of Clinton's superdelegates. So, the AP was technically correct.  Clinton had clinched the nomination. She was the presumptive nominee on June 6th. Furthermore, as Jeff Weaver even admitted, the AP's Monday announcement was just as likely to lower the turnout for Clinton as it was to lower the turnout for Bernie. I imagine it did more to lower the turnout for Hillary, because a lot of Bernie's supporters seem to be motivated by a desire to be heard despite the official outcome.

Of course, the general concern here is that the media has worked in Hillary's favor throughout the election.  According to the Electoral Integrity Project's 2015 report, the role of the media is one of the biggest problems in elections throughout the world. But did Bernie really get it worse?  It is easy to conclude that your favored candidate has gotten it worse, because you are more likely to notice and remember all the bias against them. Yet, every candidate has been the victim of negative media bias. We can't trust our subjective impressions to conclude which candidate has had it the worst. Fortunately, we don't have to.  There have been two studies of media bias in the current primary (one and two), and both conclude that Hillary has suffered the most. The media's effect on Bernie's campaign has been net positive. Not so for Hillary.

Problem 2: The voting process is severely compromised

There is more legitimate room for concern here.  We can and should be critical of flaws in the system. We can and should push to improve the voting process. I appreciate all of the attention that this is getting, and I don't see the Democratic Party trying to ignore it.  In fact, the DNC filed a lawsuit in Arizona, and Clinton's campaign was critical of the massive purging in Brooklyn (especially considering that those voters were very likely to have voted for her)..

Cooke says that millions of California voters have been "denied voting rights" because "their ballots haven't even been counted yet."  Yet, the reason they haven't been counted yet is because California is an extremely large state and the process is extremely thorough.  This is not a denial of voting rights. It is a painstaking attempt to guarantee them.

Cooke says that longstanding Democrats have been bumped off voter rolls, but the evidence here is almost entirely anecdotal.  Somebody knows somebody whose brother's wife says she was bumped.  That's pretty much worth ignoring.  In fact, according to one of the articles Cooke flashes on screen, a woman appeared before a court and complained that she was bumped from the Democratic Party, only to have the court reveal that she actually bumped herself when she registered with the DMV.

There have also been complaints about unaffiliated voters having trouble voting for a Democrat in the semi-open California primary. The complaint here is just that some people didn't bother to find out how to vote properly.  There's no evidence that the information was withheld, or that people were misled. Some people just didn't bother to figure out how to vote.

Then there are the complaints about long waiting periods.  People had to wait in long lines, sometimes because the number of polling stations were reduced, or because they were understaffed. Some people had to wait an hour, maybe more, because the polling stations didn't have enough ballots.

Polling stations have to manage their resources. They calculate what they need based on expected turnout.  If the turnout is more than they expected, there will be delays. This is unfortunate, and it can even mean that fewer people will end up voting.  That is terrible, and should be avoided.  I think we all agree on that, but it is not evidence of fraud.

However, if your complaint is that people shouldn't have to spend an hour or two just in order to cast a vote, then how can you fail to mention caucuses?  Caucuses routinely take hours. Why doesn't Cooke mention that?  (Hint: It's because Bernie won most of the caucuses. Clinton won the majority of open primaries and the majority of closed primaries.)

Cooke also complains about voting machines.  There's an unreliable video of a touchscreen machine that seems to refuse to register a vote for Sanders. And Cooke presents a screenshot from True Democratic Party, which looks like one of the least reputable (but perhaps most amusing) sources out there.  The article makes highly suspicious claims and vague arguments without any factual support. If you look at other articles on the Website, you will learn that the moon has a magic portal and that the pyramids in Egypt were built by giants.  So, yeah.  Okay.


But What About The Exit Polls?

The final claim Cooke makes is one that has been used by a lot of Bernie's supporters to suggest that all the accusations of tampering are legit.  It's the claim that exit polls, which are a "benchmark" for electoral integrity, have been way off.  And yet, this report was based on a comparison of election results with unadjusted exit polls.  Of course unadjusted exit polls are going to be off. The adjustment process is necessary to make exit polls meaningful in the first place.  (Here's a rundown of how exit polls work, if you want more info.)

Imagine this scenario: Two voting districts have vastly different population sizes. One district has 100,000 voters. The other district has 10,000 voters. Let's say exit polls are taken in both districts, and the same sample size (100 voters) is used for each poll. To simplify, let's say that the large district overwhelmingly votes for Clinton, and the smaller district overwhelmingly votes for Sanders. The exit polls reflect this: 100 polled say they voted for Clinton, and 100 voted say they voted for Sanders. If you look at unadjusted results--that is, if you look at the exit polls without looking at the populations they represent--then it looks like Clinton and Sanders each got 50 percent of the vote. They each got 100 out of 200 polled. But if you adjust to the number of actual votes cast, you realize that Clinton got about 100,000 and Sanders only got about 10,000.

Clinton tended to do better in urban areas. Bernie did better in rural areas. This explains why the unadjusted exit polls underestimated Clinton's performance.


The Bigger Picture

This was not a very close primary. Clinton is the presumptive nominee by a large margin.  She has millions more in the popular vote and almost 400 more pledged delegates.  Even if Bernie got the support of the vast majority of superdelegates (which, good luck), he still wouldn't have more delegates than Hillary.

Yes, Bernie had unique challenges and disadvantages, though Hillary arguably had it worse in crucial ways.  And yes, the system is not perfect.  Thousands of people were prevented from voting.  Maybe even hundreds of thousands.  That is unacceptable. However, it is not grounds for denying the fact that Clinton has won.

If you are only willing to respect the outcome of an election when it is flawless, then you are setting the bar too high. You could not claim that Obama is the legitimate President of the United States of America.  You could not claim that any President in US history was legitimate.  In fact, I doubt any nation could pass that test.

Cooke's video is dangerously irresponsible.  He is not presenting a dispassionate assessment of what is wrong with the system.  He is presenting extremely biased, misleading and factually incorrect propaganda in an attempt to undermine Clinton's victory.  His goal is presumably to support Bernie's continued attempt to win the nomination even after he has lost, and to provoke even more anger and frustration among Bernie's supporters.  As far as inflaming anger and frustration, I am sure Cooke's video is successful.  However, it will not win Bernie the nomination. It will only hurt Clinton and the Democratic Party.  

We can work together to improve the system without divisive, negative propaganda which seeks to undermine the legitimate winner of the Democratic nomination. That should be our goal, unless you want to see the Democrats lose in November.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Clinton Has Won According To Bernie's Own Rules

Clinton won New Jersey by over 60 percent of the vote. This is the fourteenth contest she has won with 60 or more percent of the vote. Why is that a significant number? Because Bernie says anyone who has won that much of the vote should get the superdelegates, as well. If you add up the superdelegates in all of the contests which Clinton won with 60 percent or more, you get 183 delegates. That's a lot of delegates. In fact, it's enough.

Clinton looks to have won about 400 pledged delegates yesterday. The exact number hasn't been reported yet, but it is probably very close to 400. To be very conservative, let's say it is 390. That means she has won 2,202 pledged delegates. Let's make it an even 2,200--just to be more conservative.

So how many delegates has Clinton already won, according to Bernie's rule? Add the 2,200 pledged delegates she has won and the 183 unpledged delegates Bernie says she has also won, and you get a magnificent number. It's 2,383.

In case you have forgotten, 2,383 is the number of delegates needed to win the nomination.

Remember, I was being conservative.  She most likely won more than 390 pledged delegates yesterday.

If Bernie wants to continue campaigning, he needs to contradict himself. That's a hard fact.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Will Bernie Follow His Own Rule?

Bernie has argued that superdelegates should follow the will of the voters in states and territories which have been won by very large margins. In other words, if a candidate has won "60 or 70 percent" of the vote, he says, then the superdelegates from that state or territory should support that candidate at the national convention.

If we follow Bernie's rule, then Clinton is closer to winning than Bernie may want us to believe. If Clinton wins 405 pledged delegates tomorrow, Bernie will have to either contradict his principle or drop out of the race.

Clinton has won 13 contests with 60 percent or more of the vote. According to Bernie's rule, that means she has won the superdelegates from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Maryland, Virginia and the North Mariana Islands.

That's 167 superdelegates.

Clinton has already won 1,811 pledged delegates through the voting process.

According to Bernie's rule, that means Clinton already has won 1,978 delegates.

She is therefore 405 delegates short of the needed 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.

There are 714 pledged delegates left, and most of them will be awarded in tomorrow's contests.

Clinton needs 58 percent of the 694 pledged delegates from tomorrow's contests to win the nomination, according to Bernie's rule.

(Of course, if she wins any of those contests with 60 percent of the vote, then she will need even fewer pledged delegates. but that is unlikely.)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Bernie's (False?) Promise

Whenever Bernie is asked about the possibility of losing the nomination, he says exactly the same thing: He promises to do whatever is in his power to make sure Trump is not elected President. Isn't that suspiciously vague? And isn't it odd that nobody is calling him out on it?

In case the problem is not clear, let me spell it out: Bernie is not saying he will do whatever is in his power to make sure the Democratic nominee wins. He is not saying he will do whatever is in his power to support Hillary Clinton. Yet, a Hillary endorsement is what is expected. By not committing to one, he is implicitly saying that he might try to oppose Trump in some other way.

It seems fair to deduce that Bernie is planning to do one of three things:

  1. Run as an independent in the general election. 
  2. Endorse a third-party candidate in the general election. 
  3. Threaten to do either of the above at the DNC to put political pressure on the Democratic Party. 
Unfortunately, none of those options will help Bernie live up to his promise.

I would hope that Bernie realizes that the only way he can live up to his promise is by endorsing Hillary without qualification, and I would hope that he cares enough about the world to stand by his promise.

I would hope those things, if I had any faith whatsoever in Bernie Sanders.

Advantages and Disadvantages in the Democratic Primary

Bernie Sanders and a lot of his supporters complain about the fact that hundreds of superdelegates endorsed Hillary Clinton well before the primary season officially began. While this certainly gave Clinton an advantage, I don't think it was an unfair one. [Update: It looks like Bernie's claims about hundreds of early endorsements are not even true.]

Hillary Clinton earned her support. Aside from her resume, she has shown that she can win votes: She won more actual votes than Obama in 2008--more than anyone else has in a primary--Republican or Democrat--ever. The greatest strength a political party can demonstrate in an election is its ability to unify behind an exceptional candidate who motivates a broad swath of its constituents. That is what hundreds of party officials and leaders have done by endorsing Hillary.

Perhaps some of Bernie's supporters believe that the Democratic Party should pretend to be weak. Some may believe that the Democratic Party should just dissolve so that a phoenix can rise from its ashes. However, I wonder if a lot of Bernie's supporters only refuse to see party unity as a good thing because the party isn't unifying behind their favored candidate. They claim that Clinton hasn't earned her place in the party. That she's somehow bought it, or won it through brute force and intimidation. They refuse to see her as anything other than corrupt, and her support as anything other than evidence of her corruption. Her supporters, in contrast, see her support as a sign of strength, not weakness.

While Clinton was advantaged by getting so much support from party officials, Bernie still had a good shot at victory. For one thing, he had a chance to win over all the unpledged "superdelegates" as well as the majority of pledged delegates. Nobody was ever obligated to accept Clinton. And let's not forget the fact that you do not even need the superdelegates to win the nomination. Even though it would have been hard for anyone to beat Hillary, Bernie had a clear path to victory.

He came pretty close, and he and his supporters should feel proud of that, but Bernie could have come a lot closer--and maybe could have even won--if he had chosen a different strategy. Whenever he was confronted with the fact that Clinton had enormous support (from superdelegates, from institutions, from voting blocs), he tried to undermine their legitimacy. Why did hundreds of superdelegates support Hillary? Bernie said it was because they were "establishment." Why did Planned Parenthood? Same answer. He even went so far as to denigrate women for wanting to rally behind a woman, saying he would never ask anyone to voter for him because of his gender. In short, his tone has been insulting and he has not respected the fact that people have different values than he does. Instead of trying to appeal to all of us, he has insulted us. And instead of trying to appeal to superdelegates, he has insulted superdelegates. It is no wonder he lost.

And lest you think Clinton is the only one who had advantages, let's consider some of the ways Bernie was advantaged, too.  For one thing, he is a white man. For another thing, the media has been biased against the Clintons for decades. According to one study, Hillary has gotten the most negative media coverage and the least positive media coverage, proportionally speaking, of anyone--including the Donald.  Bernie was able to rely on decades of media spin and scandal to paint Clinton in a negative light, a light which has so far spared him considerably. I'm not saying the media has treated him fairly, but that when it comes to media bias, Clinton has had it much worse--not just because of the coverage in the present campaign, but because of the history of coverage that still works against her.  I think one reason a lot of people respect her is because she has been able to weather these disadvantages and still come out ahead.

It's hard to feel bad for Bernie.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Closer Look at The OIG Report and Clinton's Emails

As is to be expected, most corners of the press are coming down hard on Hillary Clinton after the release of the State Department's OIG (Office of the Inspector General) report. If you read the report itself, however, you will see that the case against Hillary has been exaggerated.  This is not to say that she didn't make any mistakes, but only that their extent and seriousness are not entirely clear.  This is not because the OIG failed to do its job, but because the goal of the report was to identify weaknesses in the State Department's email records management and cybersecurity systems, and not to indict  Hillary Clinton.

The report focuses on two main areas of criticism which apply to Secretary Clinton. The first is that she did not strictly follow formal procedures for storing copies of her emails. The second is that she used a private email server without going through the proper channels for clearance.

What the report shows is that the agencies responsible for ensuring the integrity of governmental systems have not been doing their job.

Let's start with the criticism that she did not strictly adhere to formal procedures for preserving records of her emails. The OIG finds that the agency responsible for overseeing such practices--the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)--was not doing its job: "Although NARA is responsible for conducting inspections or surveys of agencies’ records and records management programs and practices, it last reviewed the Office of the Secretary’s records retention practices in 1991–a quarter century ago." Furthermore, in 2015 (two years after Clinton left the State Department), "NARA reported that 80 percent of agencies had an elevated risk for the improper management of electronic records, reflecting serious challenges handling vast amounts of email, integrating records management functionality into electronic systems, and adapting to the changing technological and regulatory environments." This is about all government agencies, not just the State Department. The OIG is clear: "NARA identified similar weaknesses across the Federal Government with regard to electronic records in particular." The question must be asked: Why was it that almost every governmental agency was failing to follow the formal guidelines for records management, and why wasn't NARA bothering to check to see what was going on?

The answer, as the OIG report makes clear, is that the United States government did not have an appropriate system in place for the proper storage of email records, and NARA did not impose any penalties for failure to comply with their guidelines.

Clinton had a choice: One option was to use the SMART system, which was believed to have technical problems, to be difficult to use, and to "allow overly broad access to sensitive materials." The other option was to print and file all of her emails. She chose to print and file, but--as with almost every other governmental agency--only did so "sporadically":

employees in the Office of the Secretary have printed and filed such emails only sporadically. In its discussions with OIG, NARA stated that this lack of compliance exists across the government. Although the Department is aware of the failure to print and file, the FAM [Foreign Affairs Manual] contains no explicit penalties for lack of compliance, and the Department has never proposed discipline against an employee for failure to comply.
The OIG criticizes Clinton for failing to turn over records of all of her work-related email prior to leaving the office--a failing which can presumably be explained by the fact that her office had only "sporadically" printed and filed its emails. While there is clear evidence that Clinton fell short of policy requirements, the OIG acknowledges that this is "mitigated" by the fact that Clinton was able to produce 55,000 pages of work-reated emails upon request.

Yet, the OIG was "unable to systematically assess the extent to which Secretaries Albright, Powell, Rice, Clinton, and Kerry and their immediate staff managed and preserved email records."  The report continues:
In particular, OIG could not readily retrieve and analyze email records, in part because of the previously discussed weaknesses in the Department’s records management processes. Although hard-copy and electronic email records dating back to Secretary Albright’s tenure exist, these records have never been organized or indexed.
I would think that no amount of organizing and indexing printed files could guarantee a flawless accounting of any email storage and retrieval system. Unless you have direct access to the emails themselves, then you will never know if any emails were overlooked. Organizing and indexing make it easier to detect whether or not somebody has tampered with the records, but they don't make it easier to detect whether any emails were left out of the record-keeping process altogether. Nevertheless, the OIG has deduced that some emails were left out because they did not receive printed records of emails from the first few months of Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State. This is presumably because Clinton was transitioning into the office and had not established a proper system yet.

In sum, yes, we can criticize Clinton for not strictly following NARA's record-keeping guidelines, but there is virtually no bite to that attack.

The more serious concern, as we have all known for some time, has to do with her use of a private email server. However, on this front, the OIG report offers nothing new of substance. It does not conclude that her email server was unacceptable or that it did not comply with security guidelines. All it says is that Clinton did not go through proper channels to approve the system.

And let's be clear about one thing: This is not about using a private email account. It's about using a private email server. If the OIG report makes anything clear, it is that Clinton was allowed to use private email to conduct official business. The OIG report repeats this, just so we don't misunderstand: " laws and regulations did not prohibit employees from using their personal email accounts for the conduct of official Department business." It is currently advised that "personal accounts should only be used in exceptional circumstances," but this guideline was put in place in 2015, well after Clinton's tenure. So, when Clinton says she was allowed to use a private email account, she is not lying.

The question is, was she allowed to use a private email server?

The OIG report does not give a clear answer to that question.  What is clear is that any such system would have had to have been approved, and the OIG couldn't find any evidence that Clinton sought approval through the proper channels:
Throughout Secretary Clinton's tenure, the FAM stated that normal day-to-day operations should be conducted on an authorized AIS [Automated Information System], yet OIG found no evidence that the Secretary requested or obtained guidance or approval to conduct official business via a personal email account on her private server. . . .
During Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the FAM also instructed employees that they were expected to use approved, secure methods to transmit SBU information and that, if they needed to transmit SBU [sensitive but unclassified] information outside the Department’s OpenNet network on a regular basis to non-Departmental addresses, they should request a solution from IRM [the Bureau of Information Resource Management]. However, OIG found no evidence that Secretary Clinton ever contacted IRM to request such a solution, despite the fact that emails exchanged on her personal account regularly contained information marked as SBU.
Though Clinton appears to have made a mistake here, it does not seem to be a punishable offense. This can be deduced from the fact that the OIG ends the report by recommending the following:
The Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources should amend the Foreign Affairs Manual to provide for administrative penalties for Department employees who (1) fail to comply with recordkeeping laws and regulations or (2) fail to comply with Department policy that only authorized information systems are to be used to conduct day-to-day operations. 

In other words, even though Clinton fell short of formal guidelines (both for record-keeping and for using an unauthorized server), there were no penalties in place for these infractions. The conclusion, therefore, is that Clinton has not been found guilty of a punishable wrong.

The bottom line is, the OIG report does not tell us whether or not Clinton took acceptable precautions to protect the security of her email. It does not tell us whether or not her email system was secure. The OIG report does not give us any new, decisive information about those concerns. All it does is flesh out some of the details in a way which, hopefully, will help the State Department (and other governmental agencies) get their act together.

It's also worth noting that one of the OIG's recommendations is to "evaluate the cost and feasibility of conducting regular audits of computer system usage to ascertain the degree to which Department employees are following the laws and policies concerning the use of personal email accounts." The management rejected the recommendation, saying such audits would "not be beneficial or feasible, especially because the Department already conducts continuous monitoring to ensure the integrity of the Department's networks and systems."  Does that mean that there was an appropriate oversight mechanism in place during Clinton's tenure? If so, why didn't they respond to Clinton's use of a private server?