Jun 262015
 

This week has reminded us that the United States is, at its heart, a progressive country. That progress does not always come quickly or easily and there can be long stretches of time when it seems like things will be ever as they are. But in fits and starts, we bend the long arc of history a little closer towards justice and equality.

In the wake of a horrific terrorist attack at a Charleston church, we came to the much-belated realization that the Confederate flag represents the worst of our country’s history and it is not a symbol that should be flying over state capitols. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court turned back a cynical challenge to the Affordable Care Act that, if successful, would have left millions of people without health insurance. And today, the Court affirmed that marriage equality is the law of the land.

Any of these events would have been momentous. Together, they represent a period of rapid and long-overdue change that will probably leave some people feeling confused, overwhelmed, or even angry. We may not recognize it now, but history will regard this time as a critical juncture in the country’s evolution and I feel so fortunate to be a witness to it. Here’s to the ongoing work for a better future and the countless anonymous people who will make it happen.

Jun 212015
 

The Supreme Court will rule on King v. Burwell in the coming days and the outcome could determine whether millions of people will continue to receive subsidies to purchase health insurance. But as Ezra Klein rightly points out, a ruling against the government won’t destroy the Affordable Care Act. In blue states that have set up their own exchanges (like Minnesota), the ACA will continue to function as if nothing had happened. It’s people living in red states who will suffer the  consequences of an adverse ruling. And some Republicans may rue the day that this suit was filed in the first place. They’ve had the luxury of taking potshots at the ACA without having to propose a serious alternative. If millions of their constituents suddenly learn that they are losing coverage, Republicans will be pressured to come up with some kind of solution. Whether they can pass anything is another matter entirely.

I’m still cautiously optimistic that the government will prevail, but a bad decision won’t realize conservative fantasies of a wholesale dismantling of health care reform. There will be turmoil and some people could suffer real harm if Republicans refuse to act. The law itself will remain and most states will eventually find a way to ensure their citizens enjoy its full benefits.

Jun 212015
 

Fourth of July Creek is full of broken people struggling with their past and present troubles in the rural Montana of the early 1980s. Pete Snow is a social worker who does his best to make life a little better for local families coping–barely–with poverty, addiction, and mental illness. Pete also has his own problems, including alcoholism, a broken marriage, and a teenage daughter who both loves and resents him.

In the course of his work, Pete meets Jeremiah Pearl and his son Benjamin. They live deep in the woods, where the elder Pearl educates his son in the ways of apocalyptic Christianity, elaborate government conspiracies, and white supremacy. Pete’s first impulse is to help them with offers of food and clothing, but he becomes fascinated with Jeremiah and tries to understand how this man descended into paranoia and fanaticism.

The book is at its best when it slowly reveals Pearl’s tragic history. Henderson skillfully manages the tricky task of eliciting sympathy for Pearl despite his cracked worldview. But the novel stumbles in its portrayal of women. Every female character of note is a mess of one flavor or another. I began to wonder if any well-adjusted women even existed in this fictional corner of Montana. I’m sure that Montana, even now, isn’t a bastion of feminist enlightenment, but I really hope it’s not quite so bleak as portrayed in the book.

Henderson is a talented writer and I look forward to his next work, but I hope he can tell a story that portrays women as something other than punching bags and sexual outlets for disaffected men.

Jun 092015
 

The AV Club is doing a pop culture retrospective of 1995, a year that has a special significance for me. It’s the year when I first began to feel like an adult. I graduated from college that spring and moved to Minneapolis a few months later. When I wasn’t trying to comprehend the basics of contract law and torts, I spent quite a bit of time navigating this newfangled thing called the Internet.

And now all of that is 20 years ago. Ugh. I’m going to put on some Oasis and order a sports car on eBay.

May 162015
 

Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie whose engine never stops roaring until the credits roll. It’s a brilliantly executed return to the post-apocalyptic wastelands of The Road Warrior, but Fury Road makes that movie seem like a leisurely Sunday stroll in comparison. The plot is simple yet elegant: an extended chase sequence that ebbs and crescendoes in tightly choreographed displays of chaos. Max (Tom Hardy) is once again the tortured loner eking out a grim existence in the wastelands until he’s captured by Immortan Joe, a warlord with a death fixation. Meanwhile, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), launches a plan to liberate her master’s most favored sex slaves and take them to safety. As you might imagine, things don’t go according to plan.

Director George Miller makes sparing use of computer generated effects, which gives his scenes of automotive mayhem a more visceral feel. The chrome and sand flying across the screen is tangible in a way that the superpowers of the Avengers still aren’t. And while Max may be the titular hero, Furiosa is the movie’s true moral center and the character with the most depth. Theron joins the pantheon of female action stars (including Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton) whose presence elevates their movies from the generic to the compelling. Fury Road‘s feminist themes have managed to elicit growling and howls from the caves of the men’s rights advocates, which is another reason to love this movie.

May 132015
 

Soylent is a “food replacement product” that has been getting some recent buzz. It’s a powdered drink that is supposed to provide total nutrition without all the hassle of grocery shopping or, you know, chewing. It seems to be targeted at millennials who are too busy coding or designing the next Uber to grab a bite to eat. Here’s a video of some Vox staffers giving Soylent a try:

I have one thing to say to the creators of Soylent: pfffft. I’ve been living on a liquid diet since long before your cute little startup came along. It’s called Osmolite and you can buy a case of it on Amazon for 36 bucks. It doesn’t even require mixing. I haven’t done a taste comparison, but I’m betting that Soylent and Osmolite share the same bland flavor. I can’t personally comment on Osmolite’s taste since it goes directly into my stomach. But I do find it quite convenient to eat while I’m asleep. In fact, I think I’ll have some right now.

May 112015
 

Other fans of the books may disagree, but I’m enjoying the liberties that HBO has taken with Game of Thrones this season. Characters and plotlines are beginning to converge in ways that either haven’t yet happened or may never happen in the books. These choices give the show something that has been lacking from the last couple volumes of the series: momentum. In particular, the show has made Stannis Baratheon almost. . .likeable? That may be too strong a word, but he’s far more interesting than his counterpart in the books. The TV version of Dany is also a more intriguing character, possessing a sense of maturity and agency that isn’t found in the pages of George R.R. Martin’s books.

I’m sure the next book will make some equally interesting choices regarding character and plot, but I do hope Martin is watching the show and taking notes on how to keep the audience engaged.

Apr 262015
 

When Republicans took control of the Minnesota House last fall thanks to the support of rural voters, they promised to enact policies that would promote the interests of greater Minnesota. But House Republicans are now pushing for a major tax cut that would be paid for with the elimination of MinnesotaCare, the health care program for low-income Minnesotans who don’t qualify for Medical Assistance. Republicans would require these individuals to purchase private insurance via MNsure and pay the associated higher premiums and cost-sharing.

It seems unlikely that our Democratic governor and Senate will agree to this. Minnesota has a budget surplus of $2 billion and it makes little sense to eliminate a program that provides affordable health coverage to so many and that, until recently, has enjoyed bipartisan support at the Legislature. Republicans also seem reluctant to acknowledge that a substantial number of people eligible for MinnesotaCare live in rural districts; perhaps because it would undercut their claim to be champions of rural Minnesota. They should have been clearer in their campaign literature: “Minnesota Republicans–we’ll cut your taxes! And that’s about all you can expect from us.”

Apr 172015
 

A few pop culture thoughts to end the week:

  • The new teaser for the upcoming Star Wars movie stands up well to repeated viewings. That shot of a Star Destroyer wreck in the desert (apparently not Tatooine, though) looks magnificent. But the teaser also raises many questions. What exactly is this new iteration of the Empire glimpsed in various scenes? Did the Rebels totally screw up their chance at governance? Are Han and Leia still a thing? These are the questions that will keep me awake between now and December.
  • I’ve only seen a couple episodes of the Daredevil series on Netflix, but what I have seen is excellent. The tone is dark but not oppressive, the dialogue is snappy, and the fight scenes are stunning. You should watch it.
Apr 092015
 

Republican legislators in red states like Kansas and Missouri are doing their damnedest to ensure that poor people never experience one moment of fun or pleasure on the public dime. The Kansas legislature recently passed a bill that would prohibit people from using their cash assistance at pools, movie theaters, cruise ships, casinos, race tracks, and other businesses. It would also restrict them from withdrawing more than $25 per day from their benefit accounts. A Missouri bill would prevent people from using food assistance to purchase seafood, chips, soda, energy drinks, and cookies.

Some restrictions on public benefits make sense, but these bills seem largely motivated by moral panic and antipathy. Republicans generally regard poverty as the direct result of moral failings. Conservative ideology demands that people with moral failings be treated with a firm hand or they will continue to make bad choices. These bills also provide a troubling insight into the conservative imagination. They perceive poverty as fun. They think that poor people spend their days going to the movies, eating lobster, and taking the occasional cruise courtesy of the taxpayer. Their deeply distorted view of poverty leads to policies that only compound the stresses that poor people experience every day. It’s cruelty thinly disguised as paternalistic compassion. And in most red states, that cruelty is only becoming more entrenched.