Major Mariam

F-16 UAE Air Force_screenshotWhat the fighter jocks and hens (footnote) say about Fox’s sexist disparagement of Major Mariam Al Mansouri of the United Arab Emirates Air Force, who took part in the strikes on ISIL as pilot of a F-16 (illustrated).

Let’s also note a brilliant act of psychological warfare. Jihadists are, among other things, misogynists. They are quite ready to die as Ghazis in a hail of bullets from infidels. But the prospect of being killed in combat by a Muslim Arab woman must be deeply disorienting. The Nazi pilots and U-boat crews did not know how many of their deadly enemies were women. Had they known, the effect would have been similar.

Major Mariam is a brave officer. The publication of her name has made her a target, more than in her cockpit.

Do the armed forces have a better term for a woman fighter pilot? I constructed “fighter hen” from the Scots. A “Jock” is a Scotsman, especially a Scottish soldier; “hen” is a common term, affectionate and not pejorative, for a woman.


Colorado Congressman David Lamebrain Lamborn, who represents Colorado Springs and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, responded to one of his constituents, who asked a question that referred to “the Muslim Brotherhood in the White House” with a noncommittal
“I can’t add anything to that.” But the lamebrain added:

A lot of us are talking to the generals behind the scenes saying, hey if you disagree with the policy that the White House has given you, let’s have a resignation. Let’s have a public resignation and state your protest and go out in a blaze of glory.

Now of course a general who thinks the White House is seriously misguided has the legal right, and sometimes the moral duty, to resign and speak out. (Equally of course, he or she cannot speak out without resigning; that’s what “civilian control” and “chain of command” and “Commander in chief” mean.)

But for a politician to lobby serving officers to quit as combat action starts up is about three inches shy of inciting insubordination. If there are any actual patriots left in the GOP, they will join the rest of us in denouncing this grossly inappropriate behavior and demanding that official GOP bodies distance themselves from Rep. Lamborn. Their failure to do so will testify once more to how totally the Party of Lincoln is now in the hands of its lunatic fringe.

Footnote It ought to be remarkable that a serving Member of Congress should smile and not protest as of his dimwit constituents repeats war criminal Dick Cheney’s cowardly lie that the Administration has “supported the Muslim Brotherhood” (cowardly because Cheney said it behind closed doors to a bunch of GOP Congresscritters, to ensure that the falsehood would be reported but maintained Mr. Five-Draft-Deferments’ deniability). But of course the Weimar Republicans abandoned any pretense to civility years ago. In sober fact – and this goes back to Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay stabbing Bill Clinton in the back over Kosovo – most Republican politicians act as if they prefer American defeats as long as a Democrat is in the White House.

It’s simply not in Obama’s repertoire to express the appropriate righteous anger over this behavior. But I wish someone would. Maybe Bill Clinton?

Weekend Film Recommendation: Chasing Amy

When I heard that Alison Bechdel had been awarded one of this year’s MacArthur grants, I reflected on some of the films I have reviewed and wondered how many would pass her test for gender bias in film. Recognizing that I unfortunately could think of only very few, this week’s movie recommendation was chosen on the basis of its memorably strong female lead character, in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997).*

The film is set in a slice of New Jersey and New York that is heavily steeped in writer and director Kevin Smith’s familiar territory of comic books, cuss words, weed-induced munchies, and under-sexed pseudo-intelligentsia. Our two protagonists are bosom buddies and room-mates Holden (played by an uncharacteristically fragile Ben Affleck) and Banky (played by an unapologetically childish Jason Lee), who collaborate on the successful comic series Bluntman and Chronic for a living. At a comic convention, Holden meets the coquettish Alyssa (played by Smith’s muse for this autobiography of sorts, Joey Lauren Adams) and soon finds himself intrigued, then enamored, then hopelessly besotted.

Screen shot 2014-09-26 at 01.14.00

The challenge for Holden is twofold: Alyssa is both toweringly more intelligent and self-aware than is he (not difficult, given that he really is something of a dolt), and she is also a lesbian. The ‘forbidden fruit’ angle to the story, however, is given attention in this story line only after Holden has successfully bitten into the apple, so to speak: when Alyssa, too, develops strong feelings for Holden, the story focuses less on her struggle with her sexuality (which, in truth, becomes something of a footnote in the film’s plot) and instead looks to Holden’s insecurities and Alyssa’s process of overcoming the ostracism that accompanies her revealing the relationship to her lesbian social circle. A relationship between the two blossoms, and a strain develops in Holden’s relationship with the intensely jealous Banky.

This is one of the tricky aspects to Chasing Amy. On one hand, Alyssa is more mature and socially competent in herself than is any man in the film, by leaps and bounds. And yet, one still gets the sense that gender bias plays out in the oddest of ways. This is, after all, a film about sexuality as told for straight guys by a straight guy. The lesbians in Smith’s world are represented throughout the film either as nameless props to be seduced and lusted over anonymously in the back of a filthy bar, or as elusive prizes who would happily turn straight if only, to borrow one of Banky’s lines, they discover what it’s like to “have a good dicking.” Even physical intimacy itself is represented in a manner that resembles a pubescent fantasy: Smith has no problem showing on screen the passionate embrace, warm kisses, and raunchy attraction between Holden and Alyssa. But on-screen lesbian sex dare not trespass beyond fatuous and fumbling kisses or mere narrative descriptions of the mechanics of sex, lest the viewer become too uncomfortable. (For the record, Smith’s first film Clerks was released with an NC-17 rating, so it’s hardly the case that he simply had squeamish sensibilities.)

Screen shot 2014-09-26 at 01.10.33

There’s no question that Alyssa is the only character who has her act together enough to know what she wants, and she unquestionably is in the right whenever she and Holden descend into a lovers’ dispute. Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that our impression of women in general, and lesbians in particular, can be reduced either to vindictive friend groups protective of ‘losing another companion to the heteros’ (as does the group that turns Alyssa into a pariah), or to be pointed at with puerile fascination (as does the childish Banky).

Smith’s overly simplistic representation of lesbianism notwithstanding, Chasing Amy is a highly complimentary representation of how a main character like Alyssa with identity issues can be a complex, impressive, and inspirational figure worth watching. Even though Holden and Banky come off as being ultimately unsympathetic characters, the comic conceit of the film relies on more than ‘one smart woman and a bunch of dumb guys.’ For example, the on-screen cameo that Smith brings as Silent Bob, the inspiration for Holden and Banky’s comic, reveals not only the origin of the title to the film but also that Holden’s challenge is to overcome his own vanity and trust in the love he’s found.



* Testament to the validity of Bechdel’s hypothesis about gender bias in film, Chasing Amy only barely passes. Trivia points to whomsoever can name, in the comments section below, other good films that pass the test. The requirements: name a film with at least two named women characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.

Cliffs Notes for a Carbon Charge

The conversation in comments at Andrew’s post indicates it might be useful to go over the workings of a climate tax charge.  I like to call it a charge rather than a tax because it is much more like what we uncontroversially pay when we take potatoes from the supermarket, than what we pay government whether or not we use the fire department or the courthouse.

The moral case for charging people when they warm the planet is pretty simple. The world has a fixed capacity to process greenhouse gases (GHG’s) while staying habitable for polar bears and people: when you let CO2 loose, you are denying some of that capacity to everyone else, exactly like the potatoes you deny to others by eating them. When you do either without paying, you are a no-good lousy goniff stealing thief taker, a species despised by all.  Much better to drive your car, or heat your house, without making your kids ashamed of you, right?

Is it right to let people pollute the planet — take GHG capacity away from everyone else if they pay for it? Well, is it right to let people take food out of the mouths of the hungry just because they are willing to pay for those potatoes?  Um, yes, it is. Poverty, hunger,  and inequality are big important problems, and public policy is needed to deal with them, but that policy is not in the climate department. If you’re worried that some people won’t be able to afford to drive when gasoline carries a carbon charge, by all means let’s do something about it, but the “it”  is not gas prices, it’s poverty, because the same people are having trouble with the rent and feeding their families.

The technical case is a little more complicated, and  recognizes that burning fossil fuels (and fertilizing food crops; N2O is a potent GHG) is useful and creates real value as well as causing damage.  The liquid fuel in a medevac helicopter has no practical substitute because (i) two thirds of the “fuel”  is oxygen from the air that the helicopter doesn’t have to carry, so it  has an energy-to-payload ratio that beats existing batteries, wound-up rubber bands, and any other current possibility (ii) the stoker and boiler equipment to burn coal, or the pressure vesssel to hold hydrogen, are very heavy, while liquid fuels can be managed with an ordinary tank and a few pipes. This use of fossil fuel is a good decision.  The same fuel burned in a car that could have used electricity from a wind farm is much less valuable; if it’s going on a half-mile trip on a nice day next to a bicycle path to pick up a quart of milk, even less.  However, all of it does the same global climate damage at current atmospheric CO2 levels.  When the latter go up more, and we are flirting with putting seaboard cities under water, the damage per pound of CO2 will be higher.

It is not the purpose of a carbon charge to make everyone stop emitting any CO2: the right level of global GHG emissions is some, not none.  The policy goal is that we only emit the GHG whose benefits exceed its costs, the Goldilocks level: not too much, but also not too little.  This is the same policy goal we seek for all sorts of pollution and other kinds of bad behavior.  We don’t want people to never practice the trumpet, we want them to do it with the windows closed, at reasonable hours.  We don’t want no crime, we want the amount that suppressing further would be too costly in other ways.cc001

OK, I need to draw on the blackboard.  I’ve graphed the marginal benefit of each additional ton of fossil fuel (MB) and the price people pay for it, marginal private cost = MPC. Some uses, like the helicopter, have great benefits relative to possible substitutes or going without; others, like sitting in traffic with the engine idling, have very little value.  In the usual way, the world has settled down at point D.  But the real cost of emitting that GHG is additional to the current price of gas; the problem is that decisionmakers don’t see the climate damage they cause, marginal social cost (MSC).

According to what we know now, this system should be operating at point B.  We can get there if we impose a carbon charge of MSC so the last gallons of gas cost more than the users benefit from it. The right charge for now is (experts tell us) about $30/t, the social cost of an additional ton of CO2 where we are now; as emissions fall, that charge should probably fall as well.  What we have to know to get it right is the MSC curve over a reasonable range, and where we are now on the emissions axis. What we don’t have to know is where point B is: lay on the carbon charge and the world will show it to us.

We can get to B by a regulatory cap set right below it.  But to do that we have to know both the MSC curve and the MB curve, and the latter is even harder to see than MSC.  When we set out to put a stop to automobile smog emissions, the industry experts swore up and down, and probably believed, that a clean car would cost a fortune and be undrivable — that is, that the benefits of a dirty car relative to a clean one were very large. But they were wrong.  A cap also has to be allocated across emitters somehow; we could do it administratively by some sort of rationing, but most people come to see that letting emitters trade the rights to release GHG will lead to a much more efficient system.  It’s possible to show that a charge and a cap-and-trade system will get to the same sweet spot, at least in theory.  But what if we’re wrong about what the right cap level is, for example if the MB curve in fact is much lower than we think?  We’re already seeing it fall, as wind, solar, and conservation get cheaper so the advantages of fossil fuel (for lots of things) become less.  A carbon charge makes the whole world look for ways not only to pass up the fuel that’s not actually worth what it costs, but also to move that MB curve down by finding good substitute energy sources, so B moves to the left.

Actually implementing either a carbon charge or a cap-and-trade system is not a simple matter, what with making it work internationally (tariff?) and playing whack-a-mole with new schemes to cheat.  But the carbon charge is the way to go, all things considered. It’s easier for us to lay a charge on Chinese steel to account for the coal used to make it than to impose a cap on Chinese steel plants, but its big advantage is not having to pay attention to the fossil fuel industry’s bleating about how uniquely essential their products are to prosperity, freedom and the American way.  Just impose the charge, as well as we can calculate it, and the MB curve and point B will reveal themselves.


An Old Leftist’s Dyspeptic Take on Britain’s Fuschia

Comedy writer Ian Martin at the Labour party anual conference.

Someone asks me why I’m here. I find myself saying: “Because I don’t think I’ve ever despised the Labour party as much as I do now and I’m thinking of rejoining it.”

That’s one of many choice lines in Ian Martin’s delightfully grumpy account of his experience at the British Labour Party Conference. Martin was the “profanity consultant” on The Thick of It, so if you enjoy the more brutal strain in British humor, his piece is worth reading for belly laughs alone.

But beyond that, it’s also a window into how British leftists of a particular generation are infuriated that the Labour Party will not return to its more openly Socialistic, pre-Blairite days:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear – austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

It did not surprise me at all to look up Martin’s birthdate and find that he came of age in the 1970s. I have a number of leftist British friends of about the same age who share his politics and his deep disappointment with Labour’s current outlook and approach. Leo Panitch, whose lambasting of Ed Milliband’s embrace of capitalism I quoted here recently, is about the same age.

They are nostalgic for the era of their youth, an entirely human impulse. They remember the 1970s as political heaven, when trade unions reigned supreme and the state was all-encompassing, spending almost half of national GDP. In their eyes, all it will take is a more staunchly leftist party, the proper rabble-rousing speeches and a courageous policy initiative to restore the country to what they consider its glory days.

This is the British version of Green Lanternism: If leftist leaders just had enough willpower, the world would, for example, gladly buy coal from unionized British miners at three times the price of Chinese or Indian coal. But in the globalized economy, a return to the hard-leftist British policies of the 1970s would get the country not the economy of 1970s Britain, but the economy of 2014 France.

If Ed Milliband becomes Prime Minister, national policies under his “responsible capitalism” approach will certainly differ in at least some respects from those of the current coalition government. The Labour platform suggests they will grow state services a bit, and tax and borrow a bit more to finance that growth. Whether one agrees with them or not, those are clearly consequential policy decisions that will influence the country. But they will not bring back the nationalized, unionized, centralized Britain of Ian Martin’s youth. Martin is of course entitled to despair at this, but he’s wrong to assume — as did UK conservatives of a prior generation who grieved the loss of the empire — that it’s within the power of any politician to restore an era that is gone forever.

Photo courtesy of The Grundian.

UPDATE: Andy Sabl, always a source of sound advice, informs me by email that term “Berk” requires an explanation. It’s Cockney Rhyming Slang (explanation here). There’s a Hunt in Berkshire and I think I will have to leave it at that.

Hundreds of thousands march for Pigou

There were lots of great signs at the People’s Climate March yesterday. But for RBC readers, I’ll showcase this one:

Sign from the People's Climate March, New York, September 21, 2014: Pay to use my air as your sewer: Carbon Tax I don’t know who’s responsible for popularizing the term “carbon pollution.” But it’s the rare political catchphrase that’s both tremendously effective and perfectly accurate. There was plenty of idealism (and of course a bit of wackiness) at the march. But at root, the core message is Micro 101:

Negative externalities should be taxed. And as a—poor, but politically necessary—second choice, they should be regulated.

Finding and Enjoying Older Movies

In the past three years, about 150 movies have been reviewed on RBC. Johann Koehler is a young, au courant scholar whose reviews include at least some films in recent release (e.g., Fruitvale Station, The Double). In contrast, my knowledge of recent pop culture does not go much beyond being excited about this Bob Bailey guy who recently took over from John Lund in the lead part of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Most of my film recommendations as well as some of Johann’s and our occasional guest recommenders can thus sometimes be hard to find. Some RBC readers wrote me about this challenge and asked for suggestions about where to find older movies. This post is my response.

First, although I do not myself own a television, I am given to understand that there are channels that regularly feature older films. One of them is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which also has a website packed with reviews and commentary on the films the channel shows. Another, American Movie Classics, has broken away from exclusive reliance on showing old films but still includes hours a days of classic film programming. A third possibility is IFC, which shows a mix of classic films as well as arty, offbeat and independent productions, including a number we have recommended here at RBC.

Second, a number of fine films have had their copyrights lapse and are available for free viewing. One place to find most of them is The Internet Archive. At RBC, we have recommended many public domain films, including Railroaded!, Nanook of the North, And Then There Were None and He Walked by Night.

Third, there are services on line that show films either in exchange for watching a few ads, or, charge an annual entry free that gives you unlimited access to their library. Examples include and I personally sign up each year for Amazon Prime, which has let me discover or re-watch many films that I have recommended or plan to recommend at RBC.

Fourth, consider buying DVD amalgamations of old movies. Here is one of many examples: 100 mystery movies for twelve bucks! Sure, some of them are stinkers, but if even only a third of them are good you are gaining fine movie viewing for less than a buck a film.

When sifting through old films that you purchase in this way or see scheduled on TV or a pay for service website, how do you pick the ones you will like? Rotten Tomatoes is one of many sites that provides useful guidance at no charge, as can a used movie guidebook (e.g., by Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert) which you can usually find in bookstores for a couple bucks. Also of course, you can go through this site’s digest of recommendations for ideas. I have just updated our film recommendation log by adding in capsule summaries and links for all the movies Johann and I reviewed in past six months. Click here to see the list. Regardless of how up to date the digest is at any given moment, you can always get a list of our recent film recommendations by clicking on the FIlm category button on any recent review.

Happy viewing!

Shame on you, Comedy Central!

1. I don’t think there should be a sports team called the “Redskins” anymore than there should be one called the “Kikes” or the “Micks” or the “Dagos.” This isn’t rocket science.

2. I think Jon Stewart is not only a very funny man but the most incisive political analyst currently on the scene, except when Stephen Colbert is really on his game.

3. Making fun of Redskins fans who don’t want to give up the name, and who pretend or actually believe that it’s not racially offensive, is entirely justified, and if some of them were foolish enough to agree to appear on the show, it’s their lookout if Stewart & Co. make them look silly as long as there’s no deceptive editing involved.

4. But – you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? – if the producers promised the guests that they would not be confronted with Native American activists when in fact they had such a confrontation planned – as the guests assert, and the producers don’t deny – then they, especially producer Jason Jones, behaved shamefully: not quite at the O’Keefe level, but in that direction. Apparently some of the Redskins fans were reduced to tears by the verbal abuse they took from the activists. Promises are to be kept, and people are not to be wantonly damaged just for laughs.

5. If the guests’ consent to appear based on the assurance of non-confrontation, then I wonder whether consent based on a false pretense is legally binding. I hope the Comedy Central team gets to find out the hard way.

Movie Trope #156: The Completely Ransacked Room


If you love movies as much as I do, you probably watch a lot of them. Generally that’s a joy, but some overused movie tropes can eventually to wear down even the most devoted cineaste. I have previously highlighted some of these, such as people yelling no-o-o-o-o-o-o!! in slow motion, military personnel signing off by saying “over and out“, the tell-tale cough of death, the mystery of weightless money, bullets that throw people across the room, and very patient villains who stand around pointing a gun for however long it takes a hero to show up.

Today I highlight one that always gives me a chuckle and that you — fair warning — will not be able to “unsee” once you know about it: The completely ransacked room. You know the set up: Our hero/heroine has hidden the black bird/legendary cumbersome diamond/exonerating evidence/incriminating photos/only copy of Great Uncle Casmir’s will in his/her room. But upon returning, s/he gasps as the camera shows us that the room has been tossed! All the drawers are open, the cushions on the couch are slashed, the floor is cluttered. The protagonist runs to the hiding spot, opens the box/drawer/envelope and says “Oh no — It’s gone!”.

What’s wrong with this picture? The room is invariably completely ransacked. But unless the bad guys have the bad luck to always look in the right place at the very end of their search, this wouldn’t happen. As soon as they found the black bird/legendary cumbersome diamond/exonerating evidence/incriminating photos/only copy of Great Uncle Casmir’s will, they would stop searching, leaving the rest of the room in a pristine state.

I imagine the exchange:

Senior bad guy: I found the treasure map!

Junior bad guy (stops stabbing the cushions): Right let’s go!

Senior bad guy: No way, keep stabbing those cushions while I toss the bedroom!

Junior bad guy: But…

Senior bad guy: You aren’t a scab are you?

Junior bad guy: No, I’m a member of the Loyal Brotherhood of Thugs, Yeggs and Second Story Men, just like you.

Senior bad guy: Then what the hell are you doing throwing away a good hour of work just ’cause we found the map? Remember, it will be 5 o’clock soon — that’s time and half for both of us!

Junior bad guy: Yippee! I don’t know what I was thinking. Can I pull up the linoleum after I finish with the cushions?

Senior bad guy: Good thinking, kid.