political power

For those who love statist politics as well as those who love to hate it, or who just love fantastic epic fantasy, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series brings plenty of grist to the mill. The game of thrones is the game of political power.

Named after the first book the series, Game of Thrones is the best fantasy television series ever produced. If you missed the first season, get caught up quickly! But read the book first if you haven’t yet.

Season 2 follows the second book in the series (A Clash of Kings), with the first episode scheduled to air on April 1st. If the teaser trailer is any guide, it’ll be all about the struggle to acquire and maintain power; and the character of Tyrion Lannister, superbly portrayed by Peter Dinklage, will be at the center of it.

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MOVIE REVIEW | J. Edgar: Power, Both Pathetic and Terrifying Thumbnail

J. Edgar, the new film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is making the news for dealing frankly with the decades old rumors concerning Hoover’s private life. But that’s not what makes the film immensely valuable. Its finest contributions are its portrait of the psycho-pathologies of the powerful and its chronicle of the step-by-step rise of the American police state from the interwar years through the first Nixon term.

The current generation might imagine that the egregious overreaching of the state in the name of security is something new, perhaps beginning after 9/11. The film shows that the roots stretch back to 1919, with Hoover’s position at the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation under attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer. Here we see the onset of the preconditions that made possible the American leviathan.

Palmer had been personally targeted in a series of bomb attacks launched by communist-anarchists who were pursuing vendettas for the government’s treatment of political dissidents during the first world war. These bombings unleashed the first great “red scare” in American history and furnished the pretext for a gigantic increase in federal power in the name of providing security. In a nationwide sweep, more than 60,000 people were targeted, 10,000 arrested, 3,500 were detained, and 556 people were deported. The Washington Post editorial page approved: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties.”

Here we have the model for how the government grows. The government stirs up some extremists, who then respond, thereby providing the excuse the government needs for more gaining more power over everyone’s lives. The people in power use the language of security but what’s really going on here is all about the power, prestige, and ultimate safety of the governing elite, who rightly assume that they are ones in the cross hairs. Meanwhile, in the culture of fear that grips the country – fear of both public and private violence – official organs of opinion feel compelled to go along, while most everyone else remains quiet and lets it all happen.

The remarkable thing about the life of Hoover is his longevity in power at every step of the way. With every new frenzy, every shift in the political wind, every new high profile case, he was able to use the events of the day to successfully argue for eliminating the traditional limits on federal police power. One by one the limitations fell, allowing him to build his empire of spying, intimidation, and violence, regardless of who happened to be the president at the time.

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MOVIE REVIEW | Being There and Limitless: Is Power Stupid or Smart? Thumbnail

If you seek power over others, how much of an advantage does raw intelligence gain you?

If you look at the makeup of the US Congress — which now has a 9% percent approval rating — or if you watch the Republican debates, you are not immediately inclined to label either the smart set.  In fact, you have to be a dim bulb to repeatedly say many of the things that seem necessary for electability. On the other hand, a certain amount of cleverness is obviously necessary to outwit the media and your opponents.

Which is it? Two films that explore the relationship between power and brains are Being There (1979) and Limitless (2011). The films came out thirty years apart but deal with the same issues. Being There suggests that being dumb as a chicken is a huge advantage for those who seek political success. Limitless suggests that politics is the inevitable trajectory of a person who is far more intelligent than everyone else. Which is more realistic?

I’ll state my own view up front: politics is a gigantic waste of brains. If a person really has a gift for high-level thought, almost any profession would be a greater betterment to society and probably more self-fulfilling in the long run. Whereas it was probably once true that the political life attracted some of the best and brightest, it no longer seems true at all today.

Being There is both hilarious and serious, worth sitting down with at least once every few election seasons. Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine star in this adaptation of a novel by Jerzy Kosinski about an illiterate and simple-minded man named Chance who happened to be in the right place at the right time. His utterances are few and most concern what he has done his entire life, which has been to tend one garden on one estate and otherwise watch television.

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