U2 at the Coliseum

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Camera: iPhone 8 

Location: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (NYCB Live) – Uniondale, New York, United States

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Book Recommendations – Volume VI

As we go into the month of December, the winds start to blow, the snow starts to fall, and the cold begins to set in, it’s no better a time during the year to crack open a book to catch up on some reading. The three books I’ve read at this time and am highlighting in this ‘Book Recommendations’ post focus on current events. I tend to stay away from politics but these books do a good job of reflecting upon the political moment we are living in here in the United States.

All three of these books come from authors who have a wealth of life experiences and are considered to be experts in what they do. If you’re not into non-fiction books, you may want to skip these ones but if you want to understand more about the United States in 2017, you should give each of these books a honest read.

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1. The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward G. Luce is an excellent take on the current state of liberal democracy in Western countries. Due to growing income inequality, the failure of institutions to handle complex issues involving immigration, health care, infrastructure, etc. causes more and more citizens to doubt the benefits of the current democratic system. Luce pulls no punches and does a good job summarizing the pressing problems that ail the United States and Western Europe.

While not the cause of these problems that have been building up for decades, Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties throughout Europe are symptoms of a virus that is weakening the fundamentals of liberalism. For every action, there is a reaction and the negligence shown by political and economic elites in the Western world has caused there to be a backlash against our system of governance. Luce believes that there has been a lot of doing away with the principles that made democracy work for the past couple of centuries. In the 21st century, the current political system has not adapted to technological, economic, and social changes that have occurred at a quickening pace. Unless more attention is paid to those men and women not succeeding in today’s globalized economy, there will continue to be political dysfunction within the democratic system.

Unless the Western countries can guarantee that political liberties and freedoms can go hand in hand with an economic system that works for the many and not the few, the status quo will not last. Mr. Luce is not hesitant in using the rise of authoritarianism in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines to draw a distinct parallel as to an alternative form of government that is becoming more prominent. The Western system used to be an example of good governance to the rest of the world but is that still the case today?

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2. Tribe by Sebastian Junger deals more with modern psychology than modern politics but you can gain a lot of insight into what drives us as human beings from reading this book. Mr. Junger is a war correspondent that has covered the front lines for over a decade in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From his experiences, he was able to form the hypothesis that there are certain living conditions that bring out the best of us. When a person is surrounded by the members of the same ‘tribe’, usually about 20-30 people, who he or she has something in common with and for whom survival is not guaranteed but fought for every day, that goes back to our early days on the planet as hunter-gatherers.

Mr. Junger makes excellent points throughout the book that we started out thousands of years ago as a communal society moving from place to place and relying on each other to survive against the elements and against other creatures. He argues consistently that we may do best when we work with each other instead of against each other for a common goal or purpose. The alienation, individualism, and me-first culture in modern Western societies is out of line with our evolutionary history and may be the cause of the mental illnesses and anxieties that have been shown to be on the rise. Combat veterans who come home from war often miss the bonds of brotherhood that were formed from fighting for the guy or girl on the left or the right of you. They often miss the bonds created during battle that are impossible to recreate after re-entry into modern society.

The author uses an example from early American history when some English settlers would leave the colonial towns to join the Indian society, which was exactly like the tribal lifestyle, and the reverse would never be the same. There were no Indians who would leave their tribe to join the English settlers in their more modern colony set-up. In tribal communities where everybody has a say and where everybody has a role to play, it’s easy to make the argument that there would be less stress, less anxiety, and more purpose for those apart of it. Mr. Junger also brings up the example of Great Britain’s citizens during World War II and how only adversity would bring that modern society together.

A lot of Britons felt more patriotic and more cooperative each other during the war than compared to before and after the war. Adversity, struggle, and the fight for survival can be more meaningful to people than the safe and sanitized existences that make up the modern West. The time spent living through natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes can stir up people’s memories more than the average vacation or wedding. Tribe is an excellent, must-read book that pulls different elements of history, anthropology, and sociology to make a compelling argument that the average person should think deeply about.

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3. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen is not your average American history book. Mr. Andersen spends about 500 pages summing up 500 years of American history through the lens of what’s fantasy and what’s real. Fantastical thinking, Andersen argues, has been apart of American culture since the first pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In order to understand what’s going on in the America of 2017, he does a good job of bringing out examples from past centuries to explain how we got to this unique point in our history.

The ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and other fantastical phrases that have become part of the national dialect are not outlandish in the sense that they have always been apart of the national character. Citing examples such as the extremes of Puritan beliefs, the Salem witch trials, P.T. Barnum and show business, the anything-goes ‘cultural revolution’ of the 1960’s, the spread of Hollywood and celebrity culture, etc., each century in America has brought about new fantasies to become part of the national fabric.

The individualistic nature of American culture has led to dreamers, believers, and magical thinkers being indulged rather than the other way around as done in other countries. The idea that you can be whom you want and believe what you want in America has become a national rallying cry, especially in recent decades. Our belief in the stuff of fantasy (ghosts, extraterrestrials, is the Earth flat?) has made America an international outlier among the industrialized nations.

Mr. Andersen argues that with the rise of Donald Trump and the excessive polarization along cultural and political fault lines that we may have hit a point of no return. The lines of fantasy and reality are becoming increasingly blurred whereas in our past, fantasy and reality were competing ideas in American society but never overtook each other to reign supreme. An amazing and timely non-fiction book that is an easy page-turner, Fantasyland is a must-read in 2017 and will help you understand how we Americans ended up here over the span of centuries.

The Massachusetts State House

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Location: Massachusetts State House; Boston, Massachusetts

‘Traffic’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘Traffic’ (2000) is one of those films that was way ahead of its’ time when it was first released over a decade and a half ago. It is a film that makes you think deeply hours or even days after you first watch it. ‘Traffic’ should be viewed more than once to really understand all of the nuances and subtleties embedded in its’ individual stories underneath its’ overarching central themes.

When compared to most other movies of the crime drama genre, ‘Traffic’ gained a lot of particular praise for the way its’ director and screenwriter were able to successfully weave multiple plotlines, characters, and settings together that slightly overlap with each other but are seamless enough as to not overburden the viewer with unrealistic connections.

‘Traffic’ is a movie that respects the intelligence of its’ audience and isn’t afraid to tackle the controversial topic of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s quite surprising when you think about how this movie was released back in 2000, but is still just as relevant and timely of an issue today as it was back when it was first released to the public. When ‘Traffic’ came out, it gained universal recognition and critical acclaim, and after viewing it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it was so noteworthy.

Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Traffic’, and Stephen Gaghan wrote its screenplay. Mr. Gaghan, who was responsible for another multi-layered film with multiple plotlines in ‘Syriana’ (2005), which also starred an ensemble cast of actors dealing with a different timely issue of oil and geopolitics in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most people, ‘Traffic’ won numerous awards including for Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. This ensemble cast of actors for ‘Traffic’ is very impressive and includes star names such as Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta Jones.

At its’ core, ‘Traffic’ focuses on the illegal drug trade going on in both the United States and Mexico. One of the brilliant things about this film is the fact that each character in the movie represents a different perspective on the drug war whether they are a user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s unlikely that a film like ‘Traffic’ would be made today but it’s distinctive editing, multi-use of colors depending on which of the three stories are being highlighted, and the political relevance of its’ themes could keep a lot of viewers away these days.

Its’ importance and timeliness today can’t be overstated as this film doesn’t try to impose a point of view on the audience. ‘Traffic’ would rather cause the individual viewer to ask questions, seek out more knowledge about the issue, and weigh the different opinions expressed by the characters throughout the movie. The three-color grades that are used for the three different stories are probably one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever seen when it comes to film editing. Each story in ‘Traffic’ could be its’ own movie in its’ own right, and the film is lengthier than most in terms of run time at two hours and twenty minutes total.

To briefly highlight the substance of the three stories without spoiling the whole movie, let’s go over each one to introduce the arch of the overall plot to prospective viewers out there. The first story is mainly set in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which highlights the efforts of two Mexican police officers that are trying to do their job as enforcers of the law under difficult circumstances. While trying to bring down local cartels in the easiest way possible, the two officers, one of them, Javier Rodriquez (played by Benicio del Toro) come up against corruption, and crime within their own ranks, which makes their ability as officers to keep their areas safe difficult with money and influence blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys.

Officer Rodriguez (del Toro) wants to do his best to keep his job, but to also hold his fellow policemen and elements of the Mexican army accountable for their actions without compromising his safety. He knows that ending the drug war is futile but he wants to keep his immediate community safe and that of its’ inhabitants. This is especially true if it means that the local kids in his neighborhood can play baseball at night with new stadium lights and not be at risk of joining gangs instead in their free time.

The second storyline in ‘Traffic’ takes place between the nexus of small town Ohio and the capital city of Washington, DC in the United States. A conservative judge, Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he becomes an unofficial ‘drug czar.’ Mr. Wakefield doesn’t seem to be enthused with the new position he’s been given due to the long hours, lack of support, and political skepticism from the official circles within Washington. He tries to make the most of fighting the ‘war on drugs’ even if he knows deep down that it is truly unwinnable. Because he is away from his family for long periods of time, he is unaware that his daughter in high school has developed a drug problem over the past six months and is struggling with a heroin addiction now.

On top of dealing with being a father and the leader of a national drug control policy effort, he struggles to be a open and forthcoming husband to his wife. Compared to other characters in the film, Wakefield changes the most in his views on the ‘war on drugs’ as the audience can see that his mindset changes when this issue becomes personal and not just professional. With his daughter’s future and life at stake, the ‘war on drugs’ becomes less of an abstract war and more of a battle to save his family from falling apart.

The third and last storyline takes place mostly in southern California in the San Diego area where two DEA agents are conducting an underground investigation. The investigation, led by Agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle), eventually leads to the successful capture and arrest of a top drug dealer, Eduardo Ruiz, who pretends to be a fisherman as his cover.

This arrest is instrumental in helping along the trial of suspected drug lord, Carl Ayala, who is thought to be the leading distributor of illegal drugs for one of the biggest cartels in the world. Ruiz is important to be kept alive and in good shape so that he can testify to the illegal activities of Ayala and his empire, but that is harder for the DEA than they ever imagined. With Ayala’s possible imprisonment and/or cooperation, the DEA agents are hoping to bring down this cartel, once and for all.

However, since Ayala and his wife, Helen (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), have a lot of wealth and influence still, they are able to put a damper on the DEA’s plans with the help of the shady family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (played by Dennis Quaid). DEA Agent Gordon and his partner are unable throughout the film to cope with the long tentacles of the drug cartels, and the amount of money and hit men the Ayala’s are able to use to threaten the safety of the DEA’s witness and the potential success of the prosecution against Ayala. You could imagine that this particular story in the film does not come with a happy ending.

Any of the three unique yet intertwined storylines of ‘Traffic’ could be ripped from newspaper headlines from over the past forty years. Ever since the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ back in the 1970’s, there has been endless debate about whether there have been any successes or mainly just the upholding of the status quo. ‘Traffic’ doesn’t try to impose a simple yes or no answer to the ‘war on drugs’ question.

Rather, this film intelligently asks its’ audience to weigh the outcomes of these different stories that are affected by the drug trade, and the viewer is supposed to make that decision for themselves. When it comes to special movies like ‘Traffic’, there are no simple black and white solutions. There are many shades of grey in all of these human stories, and it takes deep insight, critical thinking, and analysis in order for slow changes of the status quo to actually occur.

While this is a fictional movie, it is made clear by the film itself that a lot of these characters are based off of actual people who make up all sides of the ‘war on drugs.’ Overall, the one key thing that the ending of this film makes clear to the audience is that there are no winners in the drug war, only losers, and it takes an impactful movie like ‘Traffic’ to make that fact absolutely clear.

‘Lord of War’ – Film Review and Analysis

Arguably one of the best movies of the 2000’s and Nicholas Cage’s best performance as a lead actor, The film ‘Lord of War’, released in 2005, is a realistic and unfiltered take in the role of illegal arms dealers, who facilitate the sale and transfer of arms trafficking throughout the international arms industry, which continues to be one of the world’s most profitable endeavors. ‘Lord of War’, while nonfictional in its’ story is actually based off of the lives and exploits of different real-life arms smugglers. ‘Lord of War’ is directed by Andrew Niccol, and stars a cast of Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, and Bridget Moynahan.

Nicholas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, the son of Ukrainian refugees from the Soviet Union, where he and his brother, Vitaly, help their parents out in their Ukrainian restaurant as cooks and helpers. While Vitaly is somewhat satisfied with this simple life of cooking borscht and washing dishes, Yuri wants to achieve the ‘American Dream’ and get out of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he grew up after leaving Ukraine. He struggles to grasp at any real business opportunity in order to get out of the shadow of his ordinary life in Brooklyn.

However, one day when he is dining at a restaurant in Brighton Beach, the business idea he needs comes to life for Yuri in the form of a Russian mobster killing two would-be assassins and fending off their attack with AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles. Yuri believes that there is a lot of money to made in international arms sales and decides to go into business despite the protests of his brother, Vitaly, and the fact that his parents don’t know what he’s up to.

One scene in particular that stands out in Yuri’s beginning as an illegal arms dealer is when he tells his brother that since there are so many McDonald’s and gun stores in America already, he needs his business to be international in its’ focus. At first, Yuri feels that dealing arms is comparable to serving food at a restaurant. He justifies his nefarious business by narrating to the audience that its’ providing for a part of human nature in his opinion, the instinct to kill and harm others, as documented by the “earliest human skeletons who had spears in their heads and ribcages.”

While Vitaly, Yuri’s brother has moral reservations about what Yuri is doing, he decides to join him later on as they crisscross the globe during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s dealing with corrupt governments, genocidal dictators, and other more ruthless arms dealers as their competition. As Yuri becomes more popular and wealthy with the illegal arms business, he runs up against a by-the-book, incorruptible, and idealistic Interpol agent, Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who tries unsuccessfully to track Yuri’s business dealings down by air and by sea.

Despite the fact that his brother, Vitaly, becomes a drug addict, and is an unreliable business partner, Yuri continues to run his illegal arms business as a one-man show. While a fictional story, ‘Lord of War’ is based off of real life conflicts and real life people who were involved in the illegal arms trade. These conflicts include the 1982 Lebanon War, the Soviet Union’s War in Afghanistan against the Mujahedeen, the civil war in Liberia during the 1990’s, etc. The movie does not gloss over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the impact that the end of this cold war conflict had on the rest of the world in terms of arms sales. Yuri is able to become a very wealthy and powerful arms dealer in the film due to his family connections in Ukraine and the sheer weaponry, and arsenal that the Soviet military left unused.

Like his arms business, which is run under false pretenses, he does the same with his love life as he falls for a fashion model and childhood crush, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), who he sets himself up with under the guise of a false photo shoot. Despite the fact that his parents don’t know about his illegal dealings, he lies to his new wife regularly, and his brother ends up in a drug rehabilitation center, Yuri does not give up on the arms business because he likes it, is good at it and is unable to go straight in legal business endeavors. Howver, in the wake of all of his ‘success’, innocent men, women, and children get killed by the guns, bombs, ammunition, tanks, planes, etc. that he sells and profits off of. As the film progresses, the director makes clear that Yuri has sold his soul in this dirty trade and it may cost him his life or the lives of others close to him if he doesn’t stop.

In a way, the audience who watches ‘Lord of War’ could be most closely aligned with the perspective of the Interpol agent, Jack Valentine. He knows that Yuri is a bad person and he wants to bring him down, but will it make any difference to bring one sole arms dealer down when billions of dollars are exchanged around the world each year through both legal and illegal arms sales. Like Jack, the audience may question the nobility of bringing down one arms sales dealer like Yuri when there are dozens of them out there, and Presidents / Prime Ministers of the major countries are the biggest arms dealers of them all.

Yuri never takes full responsibility for his business dealings during the film even if the sale of his arms causes bloodshed and death. He remarks bluntly to his brother, Vitaly during one scene: We don’t talk about it. How many car salesmen talk about their work? How many cigarette salesmen talk about their work? Both their products kill more people every year than mine, at least mine comes with a safety switch. Those guys can leave their work at the office, so can I.”

In Yuri’s opinion, he may be evil, but he’s ‘necessary evil’ because there are other people or governments out there like him involved in the business, but sometimes they ‘can’t have their fingerprints on the gun.’ Despite the pressures placed on him by family, friends, and the law, Yuri is committed to doing what he does best without having the moral imperative to stop. As I don’t want to reveal the ending, the first time you see it, you may be shocked but this film doesn’t deal in black and white, and that’s what I love about it.

There are numerous shades of grey that go along with the black and white, and the ending of ‘Lord of War’ falls within those shades of gray. ‘Lord of War’ doesn’t have your typical Hollywood ending, and that’s partly what it makes it such an alluring film. On top of the exquisite directing, acting by Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, etc. and the deep political and philosophical themes behind this film, I highly recommend it.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the film that is very poignant and is still true twelve years after ‘Lord of War’ was released in movie theaters. “While private gunrunners continue to thrive, the world’s biggest arms suppliers are the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, and China…they are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.”

Gettysburg

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CameraCanon PowerShot SX710 HS

LocationGettysburg National Military Park; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

A Future To Believe In

It is very rare in American politics these days to have a candidate running for high office who is sincere, genuine, and committed to his principles and ideals. A candidate who will not bow to the special interests, who will look out for all citizens and not just the wealthy few, and who has the ideas to make the United States a more fair, equal, and prosperous country. Because of these reasons, I am supporting  Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for President and why I will be voting for him in the upcoming Democratic primary in New York on April 19th.

While there is no such thing as the “perfect Presidential candidate”, Senator Bernie Sanders is the best choice not only for the Democratic Party but for the nation as a whole. He has served not only as a U.S. Senator for Vermont, but also as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Mayor of Burlington before that. For over thirty years, Senator Sanders has been a faithful and dutiful public servant. Over the course of his political career, he has always been a staunch defender for the rights of working class people, the middle class, and the poor.

From a young age of 22 when he was apart of the historic ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ along with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders, he has continuously fought for equality of opportunity and greater freedom for minorities, women, and the LGBT community. What is also notable to mention from his past was his willingness to participate in an anti-segregation protest in Chicago in 1963. Because he stood up for his beliefs, he ended up being arrested and was taken away by the police for living up to those principles of fairness, justice, and equality.

Mr. Sanders has made his Presidential campaign “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” He refuses to take money from SuperPACs unlike his Democratic and Republican rivals. He also does not accept donations from big corporations and the millionaires, billionaires of the country. He wishes to nominate Supreme Court justices who will attempt to overturn the disastrous Citizens United decision, which allowed large corporations the ability to donate huge sums of money to their favored candidates for elected office. I applaud his commitment to making his campaign about the individual supporters, donors rather than about corporate sponsorship and special interest contributions. More so than any other Presidential candidate in recent history, he has shown a commitment to running a national campaign that’s fueled and powered by the average voter.

In addition, I believe in his policy proposals for a national minimum wage of $15 per hour, a Medicare-for-all policy that would ensure universal health care for all U.S. citizens, and to reduce the incarceration rate significantly over time to end the unfortunate distinction of being the country that has the biggest prison population in the world. Over the past few weeks since I returned from Colombia, it has been a pleasure for me to knock on doors, make phone calls, and to volunteer for his campaign at the Washington Square Park rally on April 13th.

About 30,000 people attended one of the largest rallies of the 2016 election season at Washington Square Park this past Wednesday night to see Senator Bernie Sanders speak about his vision for America. As a volunteer at the event, I helped with crowd control by keeping the huge lines orderly and moving cordially. The atmosphere was filled with excitement and anticipation. The mood of the people attending the rally was happy and even joyous at times. It was a cold evening in lower Manhattan but you could feel the energy and the passion people felt about this particular campaign. In addition to Senator Sanders’ rousing one-hour stump speech, notable celebrities, public officials and figures also lent their voices during the massive rally. The most notable names were Tim Robbins, Spike Lee, Rosario Dawson, and Shailene Woodley.

I enjoyed the rally immensely and I was lucky enough to be close to the stage after a hectic day of volunteering and keeping order among the large crowds of people waiting in line. I shook Senator Sanders’ hand after the end of his speech and wished him well in Tuesday’s New York primary. It was an exciting moment for me and I was glad to be apart of such a large and historic campaign event. I can only hope that this rally will lead to a large turnout and a successful result at the polling places across New York State in just a few days from now.

While I usually avoid writing blog posts about politics, I have to make an exception in this case because I feel strongly about Bernie Sanders’ candidacy and believe that he is the best choice not only for the Democrats but for the country too. Similar to Candidate Obama in 2008, Candidate Sanders has created a lot of enthusiasm, held huge rallies, and has earned support from diverse groups of voters due to his campaign’s message and consistency.

Time will tell if his candidacy will be successful enough to be nominated as the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer and to continue on to the 2016 general election against the Republican nominee. However, so far, he has shocked all of his doubters and made it further than anyone would have originally thought possible. Despite what may happen in Tuesday’s New York primary and beyond, I know that I will continue to “Feel The Bern.”

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post represent solely my own and do not reflect or represent those of any outside party, organization, company, or group. Thank you.