Tuesday, August 19, 2008

H. L. Mencken and David Brooks on Presidential Politics

The last couple of weeks of political mudslinging between candidates who most people thought were above this stuff has been really frustrating. David Brooks wrote today about the disappointingly conventional turn McCain's historically unconventional campaigning style has taken.

McCain famously chastised himself in his book "Worth the Fighting For" for an episode during his 2000 presidential campaign in which McCain took a public position contrary to his personal beliefs, siding with conservative defenders of South Carolina's racist state flag in an effort to woo conservative voters.

So it's no surprise that he has seemed uninterested in his campaign's bullshit stunts like mocking Obama's prudent advice on tire-inflation as an energy-saving practice. Tire inflation, as many have noted, will actually make more of an impact on short term fuel expenditures than offshore drilling, which everybody admits will do nothing.

As near as I can tell, McCain's drilling plan is a naked gift to the energy lobby, and will yield no new oil for years. This kind of proposal is nakedly designed to create the illusion of doing something when there is really nothing that can be done, and anything helpful would be too complicated to explain to the average voter. The Clinton "Gas Tax Holiday," which would have saved less money than inflating tires.

McCain probably figures, when it's all over, he'll hate himself less for the compromises it will take to win than he'd hate himself for losing, and maybe he's right that the courageous, honorable, principled John McCain I've admired for years can't beat the crowd pleasing platitudes espoused by Barack Obama (who would be much more interesting if he bore a greater resemblance to Professor Obama of the U Chicago Law School). Personally, I don't see how shoehorning his maverick image into the generic Republican mold could possibly benefit McCain, because generic Republican is in for a beating by generic Democrat this year, and the name-brand Democrat is a lot stronger than John Kerry.

Mencken famously wrote about presidential politics:

"When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.' The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

This is the secret of Karl Rove's succes; he won in 2004 on gay panic, marshalling stupid voters from the pulpits of their stupid churches by seeding swing-state ballots with gay marriage referenda.

Maybe McCain is facing a reality, now verifiable by scientific polling, that shows he has to pander to win this election. If that's true, it means the presidency doesn't merely attract bad or mediocre people like Bush and Kerry and Carter; it ruins good ones like Clinton and McCain.

Maybe that is why Al Gore, a career politician who achieved almost as much as could be achieved in that field only made a genuinely admirable human being out of himself after he left office.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight: Fascist

This film is being presented as a post 9/11 allegory, and maybe it is, but the message is really unusual and controversial.

The film revolves around three main characters: Bruce Wayne is Batman, a billionaire bachelor who gets his kicks by strapping on body armor and beating up bad guys. The Joker is a psychopath in clown makeup who likes stabbing people and blowing stuff up. And Harvey Dent is the hard-driving district attorney who, after initially providing hope that his organized-crime crackdowns can clean up Gotham, is ultimately disfigured by the Joker and goes crazy, becoming the villain "Two-Face."

In the allegory here, Dent represents orderly process, Batman represents unrestrained force and Joker represents terrorism.

Dent is everyone's ideal of the solution he represents, but, when applied to the Joker problem, Dent falls short. He is ineffective against the threat and ultimately corrupted by it. The idealization of Dent and his fall both inherently reflect the filmmaker's opinion of the institutions he represents. It's all well and good to talk about rights and process and everybody wants that in an ideal world, but in Nolan's worldview those ideals can't go to where the terrorists live and put the jackboots on their throats. This is best exemplefied in the party scene, where, as soon as trouble arrives, Wayne locks Dent in a closet and starts beating the shit out of people.

This isn't countered either, by Dent's early success in locking up a bunch of mobsters; first, that achievement relied on Batman's extrajudicial kidnapping of the mob financier, and, second, that just mirrors the Bush administration-type argument that the Constitution and the mechanisms that operate within it are sufficient for ordinary problems, but that terrorism presents a special circumstance that requires special expansion of executive power.

And, granted, the Joker problem can't be solved costlessly by Batman, but it can't be solved at all by Dent, who is ultimately exploited in service of Joker's agenda. And the ultimate costs are Joker costs, rather than Batman costs; a more reasonable conclusion of this parable is that Batman gets rid of the Joker, but the city is left with a Batman who peers into bedrooms and listens to their private conversations on his Bat-wiretap, and beats up whoever he feels like.

The Joker suggests, at one point, that the Batman is bound by rules, but those rules are far less restrictive than those binding Dent and the rights-respecting process he represents. Yet Batman engages on multiple occasions in illegal and tortuous interrogations, commits a criminal, extrajudiciary kidnapping on foreign soil, and builds a rights-invasive surveillance system with the capability of producing sound and images of the entire city, a system so offensive to the basic notion of personal privacy, that Nolan had to write in Lucius Fox objecting to it on moral grounds. This Batman is the Donald Rumsfeld of superheroes. But Nolan gives a total pass to the scariness of the power exerted by Batman, by portraying Batman as being unfailingly noble and fair in his exertion of extrajudicial force and unwarranted spying.

The guy is about one temptation away from being the worst possible supervillain Gotham could have. Arguably, the only difference between Batman and the villains he fights is that Bruce Wayne's vast legitimate wealth gives him a powerful interest in maintaining stability and the status quo, which counterbalances his vengeful rage over the murder of his parents.

Yet, because Nolan makes him chaste and measured and Christlike, he undercuts the magnitude of the power Batman has seized for himself. Instead of a fascist dictator, Nolan's Batman is a philosopher-king, ultimately sacrificing himself and taking on the mantle of the outcast to protect the reputation of Harvey Dent and be "the hero the city deserves."

As a practical notion, most people to the left of Attilla the Hun would find the notion of this kind of a hero least somewhat troubling, and if Nolan invites us to take Batman seriously, he needs to address these issues.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Best 1000 movies

The New York Times lists its thousand best movies.

Apparently, the list is only through 2004, so "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" weren't snubbed, The list is just outdated.

They like Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. So does everyone. They like Fellini and Kurosawa. So does everyone. They include the better part of the Preston Sturges ouvre as well. Necessary and not to be omitted, but unsurprising.

They take a strong stand in favor of Clint Eastwood, which is more interesting, but you won't find me disagreeing with them on that score.

Some choices seem weird though; Terry Gilliam makes the list with "Brazil" and "The Fisher King." But "12 Monkeys" did not make the list. You might suspect them of a distaste for Bruce Willis, since "Sixth Sense" also missed the list (likely sending M. Night Shyamalan into a temper tantrum). But they paid due homage to "Die Hard," which is as it should be.

They turn up their noses at the summer blockbuster. One slot for "Star Wars." No "Empire Strikes Back." In my opinion, it's a little bit snobbish to give M. Hulot more slots on the list than Obi Won Kenobi and James Bond, who tie up with Inspector Clouseau. The one Bond inclusion, by the way, is for "Goldfinger." On a list of 1000, I would probably find room for "Dr. No," "From Russia With Love," "Thunderball," "Casino Royale" and maybe "The Spy Who Loved Me" or "Goldfinger."

Ridley Scott got skunked; they snubbed "Gladiator" and "Alien," although they included "Aliens," the James Cameron-directed sequel. But Jim shouldn't celebrate too much; there was no room on the list for "Terminator" or "Titanic."

Also omitted, "Jurassic Park," although Spielberg's "A.I" made the cut. I agree with the inclusion of AI; it's a criminally underappreciated film, but if you're worried about saturating the list with a director, you could probably slash Scorsese's weird "The King of Comedy" and Hitchcock's mean-spirited "Frenzy" before Spielberg's great American dinosaur classic.

I can't agree with the exclusion of "Braveheart" however, although it wasn't a complete loss for Mel Gibson, who got on the list with "Chicken Run" and "Mad Max."

The Coen Brothers make the list with "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," and "The Man Who Wasn't There." No "Miller's Crossing," however.

Similarly, the inclusion of Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt" while skipping "Election" is bizarre. I think "Sideways" would have been too late for this list.

I liked that they remembered a couple of my favorites, "Rushmore" and "Metropolitan"

I'm not going to go with a full list of the ones I would cut, though "Shrek," "Roger and Me" and "Jerry Maguire" could all take a flyer.

And where is "Lord of the Rings." There's just no excuse for leaving that off.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Pro-life" Pharmacists

The Washington Post has a story about pharmacists who will not provide contraception. I don't think you can oppose these guys very strongly or make any serious argument that they should not be permitted to operate, while supporting abortion rights.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the underpinning theory of Roe v. Wade is that the government should not interfere in the exercise of discretion by medical professionals to determine what procedures are approriate to the individual circumstances of each patient.

If you believe that the government should not interfere in a doctor’s decision that abortion is the best treatment option for a patient, then I can’t see how you could simultaneously believe the government should compel these pharmacists to provide a treatment they object to as a matter of professional conscience, even if you disagree with their objection.

The professional freedom of a doctor to provide abortion is exactly the same as the professional freedom of a pharmacist to refuse to stock or distribute a particular treatment. You can support one use of the freedom and disagree with the other, but you can’t reasonably argue that one should be regulated and the other should be protected from regulation.

Pharmacists are professionals. These guys aren’t just desk clerks who hand out pills. The entry to the profession requires six years of higher ed and it’s considered a highly specialized job. The reason for this is, in large part, because the pharmacist faces issues of professional ethics and is expected to be able to make important decisions in the course of his business. These guys are highly-educated and well-paid to be a check on lying, drug-seeking patients and unethical doctors, and to catch medical mistakes that could endanger patients’ lives.

One common and extremely important example of a pharmacist using this discretion is if the same patient presents scrips from different doctors, and the pharmacist believes the doctors have not consulted with each other, may be unaware of the other meds, or that prescribed medications will have some dangerous interactions. In this case, the pharmacist should refuse to fill the scrips.

Similarly, if the pharmacist is getting a lot of scrips from the same doc for a powerful narcotic painkiller like Oxycontin, and he believes the doc is handing out the drug to people who don’t need it and should not be getting it, the pharmacist might refuse to fill the scrips.

Similarly, if patients who are not dangerously overweight are given a powerful prescription weight-loss drug, like the phen-fen/redux combo that was widely handed out in the 90's and turned out to be incredibly dangerous, the pharmacist might exercise his discretion and refuse to fill the scrips.

The central purpose of a pharmacist's job is the exercise of discretion, and while some may disagree with his use of it, his obligation is to his conscience and not to someone else's political agenda.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Blogs and the truth

While blogs have been around for a while, and the internet has been in use by the public for almost two decades, there's been a lot of recent proliferation of high-speed internet in offices and homes that maybe was not as common four years ago, and there's been a real boom in user-produced content.

Blogs are doing a more sophisticated version of what chain e-mails have been doing for years; dispersing questionable information to a whole lot of eyeballs. This has been used to the detriment of both party nominees:

Barack Obama's wife Michelle has been hit with rumors that she made a derisive reference to "whitey" while participating in a Trinity church panel discussion that included divisive Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

This rumor seems to have been a blogger named Larry Johnson who claims to have some unnamed friends who swore to have seen Michelle make these statements on videotape. But as, neither the friends nor the video have been forthcoming it's significantly likely that no such panel discussion ever occurred and that Mrs. Obama never said anything like that.

A similar accusation has dogged Republican nominee John McCain. Writer/blogger Cliff Schecter reports that he has anonymous sources who told Schechter that McCain called his wife Cindy a "cunt" in response to a joke she made about his thinning hair in 1992.

Both attacks rely on anonymous sources. If you ask Johnson or Schecter to verify their accusations, they will tell you that they are relying on the credibility of the sources, and if you ask who the sources are, then the writer is sworn to secrecy on the subject.

It's a mechanism rife for abuse, which is why newspaper and magazine editors have exacting policies on citing to unattributed sources, including independent corroboration. And a reputable newspaper will be very sure it trusts a reporter before it publishes a story by that writer containing unsourced claims. And readers generally know, within reason, which publications they trust not to intentionally promulgate lies.

Blogs have no such safeguards. Johnson and Schecter respectively could have fabricated these claims. No person alive will publicly claim to have heard John McCain call his wife a "cunt" or to have heard Michelle Obama refer to "whitey."

Barack Obama had to dedicate a whole section of his website to fighting the lies and questionable claims people keep making about him. McCain, whose out-of-context soundbites have been fodder for plenty of YouTube videos, will probably add a similar section soon (especially since his website has been redesigned to resemble Obama's).

You also have to wonder what the deal is with blogs who will excoriate one of these unsubstantiated viral smears while promulgating the other. Shame on the authors who publish these attacks and the bloggers who spread them.

Being better and being right means you don't have to lie about the other guy or misrepresent his positions.

Friday, June 13, 2008

This isn't that complicated

Obama wants to implement payroll taxes above $250,000 in income. He says it's unfair for lower-income earners to pay payroll taxes on every dime they make, while wealthier earners do not pay them on the majority of their income.

The thing is, it's not intended to be progressive. The idea is that you fund your own benefits. This is why people who earned more (and paid more into the system) get a larger benefit even though they are more likely to have retirement savings, investment income and other means of support than lower income workers. Social Security is a mechanism for protecting workers from becoming destitute in retirement or disability due to poor financial judgment or catastrophic events, not a mechanism for wealth redistribution.

If not for Social Security, a lot of people would spend all their money on lottery tickets, and wind up destitute in their old age, or if they became disabled.

What Obama is really proposing is that problem that will occur when the system begins paying out more in benefits than it takes in in taxes should be solved by a special tax on the wealthy.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The $175 hamburger

The Wall Street Burger Shoppe is hawking a $175 hamburger. Shock and horror has ensued.

First of all, this is clearly a publicity stunt. You can tell because it generates publicity. There are a number of restaurants in major cities where $200 a plate is pretty standard. In general, an expensive meal comprised of Kobe beef, foies gras and truffles would not raise a whole lot of notice.

But if you put it on a brioche bun and call it a burger, the obscenity and excess of extravagant dining is somehow magnified. Of course, that might just be the attraction for the people who will order this thing.

In New York, there is a high concentration of lawyers, consultants and bankers making hundreds of thousands per year, and a fair number of hedge fund and private equity managers who make millions, tens of millions, or even billions at the high end.

And many of the people eating these meals don’t end up carrying the tab, because there are lots of financial transactions that take place over ritzy expense-account lunches and dinners.

Job interviews, deal-closing dinners, performance incentives, deal pitches, celebrations of quarterly earnings, and various other events all trigger expensive restaurant trips on corporate accounts.

Blowing $1500 on dinner for four or five people seems a lot less excessive if it's part of a pitch that wins your company a deal worth millions. Networking in the financial industry can mean big bucks, and rich entertainment budgets for Kobe steaks and $300 bottles of wine are part of how deals get made in the financial industry.

There are also plenty of tourists who are willing to spend money to experience high-end restaurants, plenty of people who want to celebrate major life events or rich bonuses in high style, and people who are just so rich that their wealth will earn more than the cost of the $175 burger while they sit there eating it.

Incidentally, my favorite excessive NYC burger is the ribeye burger at Rare. A comparative bargain at $21.

The Dumbest Generation

Apparently, my generation is too addled by internet pornography and XBox games to read books, so it's surprising how much attention this one seems to be getting.

A number of recent articles discuss author Mark Bauerlein's central premise, which is that internet social networking tools, the internet generally, movies, television and games are addling young people and making us dumber.

This premise is supported by odd statistics, such as a claim, cited in Newsweek, that only 31% of Americans had "adult literacy" in 2003, down from 40% in 1992. That seemed bizarre, and I googled it.

I assume the citation was to The National Association of Adult Literacy assessment, which was conducted in 1992 and in 2003, and found no significant changes in literacy rates, despite a rapid rise in that period of immigrants who are not native speakers of English, a group that makes up 44% of those lacking basic prose literacy according to the survey.

20% of those failing to meet basic literacy standards suffer from multiple disabilities. About 85% of adults have at least basic literacy in reading tasks and in navigating forms such as job applications, while around 75% can handle quantitative tasks like balancing a checkbook at a basic level or better.

It seems pretty unlikely that that MySpace and Grand Theft Auto cannibalized the time people previously spent reading the newspaper, studying history and contemplating the classics. Not much thought seems to be given to the possibility that the under-30's who are constantly online and the under 30's who can't tell you who the Axis were in World War II are largely exclusive groups.

The real story seems to be the growth of an information elite, and a widening information gap. As AP and college credit options expand for top students, the difference between the education the elite students are getting and the No Child Left Behind, test focused education the bottom half we provide to the bottom half creates a massive gulf in educational accomplishment.

The cultural ignorance that Bauerlein decries is likely less a result of the complacency of an always-connected middle class than a symptom of the increasingly disconnected underclass, who, in many cases do not have computers or internet at home and are being left behind by new technology and the opportunities it creates.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Chuck Palahniuk's "Snuff"

Chuck Palahniuk's new book came out today.

Palahniuk is the author of nine weird novels exploring similar themes of disaffection, self-destruction, obsessive detail and obsession generarlly, including cult-classic "Fight Club," and "Choke," which is soon to be a movie.

"Snuff" takes place backstage on the set of a porno movie gangbang staged by an aging star named Cassie Wright, who is seeking to break a world record for the most sex acts in a single day. To this end, she's procured, through an open casting call, six hundred men to have sex with her. The book takes place backstage at the gangbang, as these men wait their turn to fuck under the hot lights, with rumors circulating that Wright intends to attain porno/urban legend immortality and create a record that will last forever by getting herself fucked to death.

The four major characters are an over the hill porn stud who is batting cleanup, so to speak, as number 600; a 19 year-old kid, number 72, who believes that he is the long-lost child the woman is rumored to have given up for adoption, a disgraced television actor, number 137, who was publicly outed as a homosexual, and Wright's booking agent and personal assistant who is tasked with wrangling all the meat. The book makes an ironically pointed statement at the beginning about the objectification of women through pornography, because, to each of these characters, Wright is essentially an object, and she represents something different to each of them.

Body grotesquerie is Palahniuk's metier, and this sort of subject matter is his natural habitat. He's fascinated with the things that ooze out of us and the things on us that ooze, with orifices and wounds and infections, with blood and pus and spunk and shit. He meshes ironic detachment and explicit description, and walks the line between disgust and excitement.

His characters are always most alive when they are pummeling each other to hamburger or fucking or popping pimples or masturbating. When they wax expository, the author's voice never seems to vanish, and the character's voice never seems to crystalize. Palahniuk is a wizard at honing descriptive language to create vivid imagery, and he's fond of complicated flashback-based narrative structures, but his interest in his characters often seems almost perfunctory; in this book, as in "Fight Club," he doesn't bother to even give them names. The characters become cyphers for the author.

This weakness crippled Palahniuk's "Haunted." The organizational conceit of that book was that a bunch of characters were locked together in a house after arriving for a sham writer's workshop, and each of them tells his or her story. But, though some of the stories were, individually, very compelling the novel didn't really work, because all the stories sounded like they were written by Chuck Palahniuk.

In "Snuff," similarly the characters alternate in the role of narrator, but they never fully distinguish themselves from each other, and you always see the puppetmaster working the strings. For example, Palahniuk is good at coming up with vivid metaphors, such as an encapsulating comparison of the whole gang-bang enterprise to wiping one's ass from back to front, and accidentally smearing shit all over one's balls. But he puts this observation into the mouth of a character who shouldn't be smart enough or perceptive enough to come up with it, nor should he be disaffected enough from the events to make such an analogy.

The multiple narrators conceit is a way for him to get out of the head of a single character, so the character isn't viewed exclusively on his own terms. But having multiple narrators who are all Chuck Palahniuk is more jarring than a single voice. Palahniuk often resorts to characters doing things to themselves that externalize internal turmoil that they would not necessarily put in words, and, often, he imposes injuries or deformities or physical transformations on his characters which serve as ironic or symbolic statements by the author

This is a central Palahniuk motif. In "Invisible Monsters," the fashion model protagonist manifested the turmoil simmering beneath her perfect exterior by blowing off her lower jaw with a shotgun. In "Fight Club," the masochistic narrator beat a hole in his face in underground fights so his hung open like a jack-o-lantern. In "Lullaby" the protagonist, wounded because he came from a broken home, stomped barefoot on tiny glass models of houses, until his foot was a mass of pus-oozing infection and glass house bits.

Perhaps the best example is "Choke," in which the protagonist, a sex addict who becomes convinced he is the second-coming of Christ, loses a latex sex toy up his ass, obstructing his bowel, so, as his delusions of grandeur escalate, he literally becomes increasingly full of shit.

In "Snuff," the grooming rituals of the aging porn-studs stands similarly, as a contrast to the deterioration of their souls, so they shave and wax their body hair until they bleed, and stain their skin with fake-tan until it crusts over on their fingers and smears onto everything they touch. And the book's conclusion, which I won't divulge, arguably tops "Choke" in physically transforming the characters into symbolic commentaries on themselves.

"Snuff" also continues Palahniuk's habit of ornamenting his fiction with oddball trivia nuggets. In this installment, we get an impromptu lesson in the symbology of prison tattoos, and the suicide habits and workplace-related injuries of movie stars.

All in all, it's a solid Palahniuk novel, but the author isn't exploring much here that's new.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

New York's homeless aren't the only parasites in the subway

Bloodsucking bedbugs have been observed in several subway stations. Those who promote public transportation as a green alternative to driving everywhere in a Hummer should be reminded that public transportation involves exposure not only to the public and their unpleasant odors and appearances, but also to the various ambient wildlife that dwells in their hair and clothes.

When informed by the NY Post reporter that bedbugs had been sighted on subway-station benches, one rider seated on a bench leapt to her feet shrieking. The real question is, why would she sit on that in the first place, when everyone except tourists knows that theose benches are soaked in urine? Dogs walk by them, and dogs have a natural compulsion to pee on everything. Bums sleep on them, and bums are notoriously incontinent, due to the they are frequently mentally-ill and passed out drunk. So sitting on a bench in a subway station is like using a urinal as a drinking fountain.

That's almost as dumb as putting the receiver of a pay telephone near your face.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rev. Wright and Barack Obama

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor, went on a little roadshow this weekend, bringing himself back to the front of the news and embarrassing the candidate. Obama let loose with the denunciation that he refused to mete out last month when videos of Wright's sermons hit the news for the first time.

Some people think invoking Wright as a criticism of Obama is a way to inject racial anxieties into the race. And it's true, you can't automatically attribute Wright's statements to Obama, but Obama did worship in this guy's church for 20 years, so this connection shouldn't be glossed over lightly. Obama's condemnation has been emphatic, but his hand has been forced.

Wright isn't saying anything now that he wasn't saying before, and Obama's claims at being shocked and surprised by Wright's beliefs rings false. I disagree with Wright's claim that his ideology is the universal faith of black people; I think Wright is far to the left of mainstream Democrats and most black voters.

I think he's correct to be progressive on gay rights, but Wright's criticisms of
Israel and his embrace of the Nation of Islam borders on anti-Semitism. Anyone who finds Wright's beliefs offensive has to be concerned about Obama's affiliation with this church. I think race baiting is disgusting, but I don't think invoking Wright against Obama qualifies.

The counterpoints trying to diminish the impact of Wright or to tar other candidates similarly fall flat. There is, for example, a photo of Wright shaking hands with Bill Clinton at a prayer breakfast with clergy members. Wright is a successful preacher with a large Democratic flock, and he draws a lot of political water in Chicago, and that's plenty for a presidential photo op. Nobody is screening the sermons of preachers who shake hands with power, but Obama spent two decades in this guy's pews.

Similarly, Obama's relationship with Wright is far deeper and more important than John McCain's acceptance of an
endorsement from the bizarre Rev. John Hagee, whose bizarre and politically powerful ministry is both a cause of anxiety and a subject of derision.

Hagee and his sort of weird apocalyptic Christianity is disturbing, but taking his endorsement is a different thing entirely from attending his church for decades. I think it would be perfectly acceptable for a candidate to court and seek Wright's endorsement. Running for the presidency requires the assembly of a coalition of disparate groups, and progressive or left-wing groups have a place under the Democratic tent, even though the Democratic party is not a left-wing party.

Likewise, Hagee and his Texas megachurch and the millions he claims hear his sermons on television have a place in the Republican party.

Affiliation with Hagee's church would raise the same sort of objections about a candidate that are being raised about Obama's affiliation with Wright. But John McCain's connection with Hagee is much les significant than Obama's relationship with Wright.

That said, if Wright shuts up and Obama doesn't falter in North Carolina or Indiana, the Republicans may not take the risk of backlash inherent in trying to bring Wright back into the conversation during the general election. So the whole point may be moot.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Free Wesley Snipes

Considering the outpouring of anger about the outcome of the trial of the officers who shot Sean Bell, I am surprised there has been so little discussion of actor Wesley Snipes's three year sentence for tax evasion.

I agree generally with the availability of prison for tax fraud and other nonviolent white-collar type crimes, because these sort of economic activities can be deterred by the threat of serious punishment. Also, criminal enterprises tend to have substantial off-the-books income, and the ringleaders of those organizations are often difficult to connect with their illicit businesses, but, in some cases can be tied more easily to their dirty money.

However, I don't see what society gains by locking up Snipes for three years. He can't do anything from prison to generate further tax revenues or earn the money to pay back what he owes. Imprisoning him costs tax dollars, instead. He's not a danger to anyone. And while the Daywalker is in jail, we've got nobody to protect us from the vampires.

I think a heavy fine would have been sufficient in this case, and it's not unreasonable to question whether a white celebrity would have been treated differently under these circumstances.

Monkey Business

Jill over at a blog called Feministe is arguing that the monster in the 1933 movie "King Kong," and, I guess, Peter Jackson's recent remake, is symbolic of white people's fears of black people's sexuality. She's wrong.

I think the interpretation is really labored and clearly the product of someone who goes in looking to support a presumption that there is rampant racism in popular culture.

If King Kong were about a symbolic black man who grabs a white woman and then climbs a giant penis, it would be a pretty poor movie.

The Ann Darrow character is not a white woman endangered by black sexuality. The monster (which does not symbolize a black man) is not sexualized at all. A sexual act between the two of them would be an obvious an obvious physiological impossibility, because King Kong is about 20 feet tall and probably weighs a couple of tons. Comparatively, the woman can sit on the palm of his hand.

Her role is an ironic twist on the endangered female character who was a cliched element of period adventure stories, because, while she is ostensibly menaced by the monster, it is ultimately the woman who brings the monster to ruin.

The Empire State Building and the airplanes are symbolic of man’s conquest of the natural world, and these technological terrors are directly contrasted with the denizens of Skull Island. The film’s structure is neatly divided into the Skull Island half and the New York half, and it shows us Kong battling the mionsters native to each locale.

On Skull Island, Kong rules over the most fearsome creatures nature has ever produced. He is enormous and triumphant. In New York, Kong is dwarfed by and ultimately torn to pieces by the creations of modern man. That’s the point of the movie. The structure and the narrative are designed to elicit that comparison from the audience.

It’s also worth noting that the film was made during the interwar period, long enough after the first World War for people to have realized the terrifying efficiencies of the military technologies deployed in that conflict, and close enough to the second World War for people to be aware that it was going to happen and that it would be even worse.

The Critical Race Theory premise that everything is viewed through the prism of identity simply misleads when applied to King Kong, and to many other things, because race isn’t the only problem, and it isn’t necessarily even the central problem of human or American history.

Kong isn’t a black threat triumpantly conquered by white intellect; he is a monster who is rendered obsolete by man’s own monstrous creation. The airplane was a relatively new development in 1933. It was an immature technology during World War 1, but it was clear that it would play a more central role in the next conflict.

“King Kong” presents a monster who is shown breaking a dinosaur with its bare hands and crushing a man in its jaws, and that monster is ultimately helpless against weapons that would be deployed against soldiers in a war audiences already feared was brewing. There were bigger things to fear in the 1930s than runaway black sexuality. You cannot gloss over the airplanes, and to turn “King Kong” into a racist text, you have to.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I've seen Curly, and you, Sir, are no Curly.

NYT Columnist Thomas Friedman was hit in the face with a pie.

The throwers are some assholes who call themselves the "Greenwash Guerillas."

I don’t think it’s funny, and I don’t think it contributes to any discourse. I reflexively want to oppose the goals of anyone who resorts to this kind of tactic. I’ve been conscious about reducing my carbon footprint. I have cut way back on beef and I walk everywhere I can. I am assiduous about recycling.

Seeing something like this makes me want to buy an SUV.

Universities should take a stronger line on people who do this. There is too much effort put into bringing people to campuses, and offering a forum for guest speakers is too central to a university’s mission, to allow people to try to silence ideas in this way.

These guys should be charged with assault and kicked out of school.

No, you can't have a dollar.

CNN is sued by some Chinese people over statements by commentator Jack Cafferty.

Cafferty derided Chinese "junk with the lead paint on them and the poisoned pet food" and said that "They're basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they've been for the last 50 years".

The plaintiffs' claim is that they're insulted. Unfortunately for them, Americans are protected by something called the Constitution which protects you from getting sued for a billion dollars for calling someone a goon.

I can't believe a lawyer took this case.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hillary keeps going

Hillary wins by 10 points in Pennsylvania and the Democratic campaign will continue. Howard Dean was looking, recently, for a way to kill her, and many other prominent dems seem to be souring on her.

I still like her better than Obama. As negative as she's gone, I still think the two dirtiest tricks of the campaign were Mitt Romney claiming he could bring the auto industry back to Michigan and the Obama campaign's attempt to stick a "racist" label on Bill Clinton.

Hillary's point that she will have to pitch to uncommitted superdelegates is that Obama can't win. Reverend Wright makes him polarizing, the "bitter" debacle makes him seem aloof and elitist. And he has been unable to close the deal in the big states.

One key point is that if Clinton gets the nomination and offers Obama the VP job, he's likely to take it. It sets him up as heir to the throne in 2016. If he gets the nomination, she may be back in four years if he loses, but an Obama victory in November probably finishes her presidential aspirations. John McCain and Bob Dole can be old and run for President, but trying to make that sale as a 68 year-old woman is going to be extremely hard.

Joe Klein has suggested a possible brokered convention nominating Al Gore. It's an interesting possibility, since it will be difficult to unite the party behind Obama or Clinton now, and McCain is trying hard to poach Democratic voters. I think Gore still wants to be President, despite his protestations otherwise, and I think he sat this one out as a courtesy to the Clintons. If McCain wins, I think he will run in 2012, and if the convention deadlocks, I think he's the go-to compromise candidate.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Democratic Infighting

I don't know whether this is a splintering of the party or a trial-by-fire for the eventual Democratic nominee.

My opinion is that the Obama campaign is not up to fighting a protracted battle, either with Hillary or the Republicans. I think he entered the campaign to raise his profile, and as this "momentum" built around him, he's run with it. His grassroots support has been extremely strong, his fundraising ability is exemplary, and his stump speech is inspiring and draws the crowds.

But based on these public meltdowns by top aides since Ohio and Texas, the organization built around this candidate doesn't seem to be ready for prime time. And if he doesn't have a top-shelf political staff, it's likely he doesn't have the best policy advisors either. When Hillary says that Obama is not ready to do this job on "Day One," I think there's some validity to that statement.

That said, despite his inexperience and any errors in judgment by his staff, the guy is running ahead of one of the most devastating political machines ever assembled. His younger, tech-savvy base has been built and energized by viral videos and social networking sites that are more effective than traditional ads, and cost nothing.

The will.i.am "Yes We Can" YouTube video and the "ObamaGirl" videos have reached an extraordinary number of people and cost the campaign nothing. This is an important development, and it may be the development that finally awakens the youth vote. Internet video has also dramatically increased the importance of the stump speech.

What used to be limited by the range of the candidate's voice can now be broadcast, in its entirety, worldwide on-demand. And Obama's stump speech is a great one.

Whether Obama built this movement, or whether he just represented the conditions that allowed it to form, he deserves credit for what he's accomplished.

That said, if he loses the nomination at the convention, he can go back to the Senate as a much more prominent figure. Four or eight years from now, he'll still be a fairly young man. If Hillary loses, the party will wonder "what if," and if Hillary wins, he'll burnish his resume as a leader of the party in power.

If he gets the nomination and he loses to McCain, he probably won't get another grasp at that brass ring. And if he feels that "red phone" ads are unacceptably negative, he will have a lot of trouble with the attacks on his national security policy coming from a candidate who is not backpedaling on the Iraq war issue. I also think the Republicans will make an issue of Obama's pastor.

It may be that he is the real deal and he's "fired up and ready to go," and it may be that the kind of passion he inspires in his followers will create a wave that can carry him to the White House. But November is a long way away, and he's going to have to face the press inevitably turning on him, fatigue or backlash among the supporters, and the logistical difficulties of a national campaign.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Academy Awards

Of the nominated films, "No Country For Old Men" was the film that should have won. "There Will Be Blood" was spellbinding, but, I think, like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," ultimately didn't come together into a satisfying narrative.

I've written here before that the thematic arc that has been imposed upon "Blood" by critics, of capitalism and religion locking horns, doesn't quite fit. But it's a measure of the movie's flaws that it's so misunderstood. Most critics have also agreed that it's a film about a pathological misanthrope, but Plainview loves his son, even though he is flawed as a father. And he wants so badly to embrace the man claiming to be his brother that he engages in self-deception to allow himself to do so. I think it's a film about loneliness.

But I walked out of the theater not knowing what it was about at all, and that's the messiness of it. It's dense but unstructured, and the narrative seems to slacken to accomodate the performances.

"No Country" is unsatisfying too. It builds up and then abruptly dissipates, but it's in service of the narrative and of the theme, which is the futility of the efforts of man in the face of fate or chance or God.

Of course, I think "Ratatouille," was the best film this year, and it's a little odd because it is the thematic opposite of "No Country," since the moral of "Ratatouille" was that excellence is vindicated, and the moral of "No Country" is that ability is brought to ruin by chance.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

There Will Be Blood

I'm frustrated by the common critical interpretation that "There Will Be Blood" is about the struggle between commerce and religion. In my opinion, this interpretation of the film's premise attempts to shoehorn it into a conventional structure that does not fit the film, and elevates the importance of the Eli Sunday, the Paul Dano character, while minimizing other characters who are of equal significance.

The narrative premise of "There Will Be Blood," is that Plainview, the Day-Lewis character, advances and protects his interests by attacking potential adversaries with a mercilessness that outstrips the capacity of those enemies to do him real harm. The film is about who Plainview presents himself as, who he sees himself as, and who he really is, and his dealings with Eli Sunday are a piece of that, the same as the disposition of a man fraudulently claiming to be Plainview's brother, and Plainview's vicious dealings with the man from Standard Oil, who attempts to buy out Plainview's stake in the area.

The film's much talked-about final scene is only an escalated version of the resolution of the other story threads, where the audience's identification with Plainview is ruptured as he presses his triumphs further than he needs to.

The central relationship of the film is Plainview's relationship with his adopted son, H.W. His emotional connection to the boy is a raw nerve for him, and this is illustrated clearly in the dealings with both Sunday and with the Standard Oil man, who attempt to use Plainview's connection to the boy to their advantage and end up inciting Plainview's rage.

The irony of the film, and Anderson's final judgment on Plainview, is that, through his cold and unbending nature, he transforms the only person he loves into the only adversary that can destroy him. The last scene between Plainview and Sunday is only a postscript to the confrontation in which H.W. breaks Plainview, illustrating that the experience has left Plainview no less vindictive and dangerous than before.

That being the case, it's not Day-Lewis who Anderson indulges, but Dano, whose character has more screen time than he ought to. Maybe Anderson felt that giving Dano more screen time added to the impact of the final scene, or maybe he just liked watching Dano's entertaining performance. Whatever the reason, the prominence of the Eli Sunday character obscures the real point of the narrative.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I am not a crook.

In response to an article on Slate characterizing the crooked law firm in the movie "Michael Clayton" as a "devastating critique of the legal profession." It's not. It's just a play on popular misconceptions about the lawyers.

There is a reason that law firms exist as entities external to the clients. We are not them, and our identity, our credibility and our ability to stand for them before the court comes from the fact that we are not them and we are not responsible for their sins.

We have a professional distance from our clients which allows us to be viewed as a trustworthy party by courts or agencies who have every reason to expect the client to lie. We reach agreements between parties who won't sit in the same room with each other.

Once that separation is compromised, we can no longer credibly represent our clients. We don't hire hit men or blow up cars or dispatch "fixers." We don't want to do those things and our clients would never want us to do such things, because we have to be able to represent them before a court, and if we are untrustworthy, we are ineffective.

Bad people doing bad things create legal problems, and people who provide legal services therefore have to work on behalf of people who have done bad things sometimes. As long as an attorney adheres to his ethical duties, he is operating in the service of justice by advocating zealously to the extent of his abilities on behalf of his client. An attorney who defends a guilty or liable client before a court is no more responsible for the client's wrongdoing than a clergy member who absolves a sinner before God.

We can't make the client's problems go away. Once there's a litigation, there is a judge actively involved who is backed by the government and generally capable of doing his job. If the case washes out in a way that's clearly wrong, it's because he was derelict in his responsibility, not because of us.

The problem that drives the lawyer in Michael Clayton crazy is a common one, and simply resolved. If a lawyer discovers an unfavorable document in a client's files, he claims a privilege if he can, which is his responsibility as the client's advocate, and otherwise he discloses the document, which is his duty, and then he tries to muster other evidence to support a narrative that portrays the client in the most favorable light the facts allow.

It's not the easy cases like the one in "Michael Clayton" that drive you crazy. When the client is caught and there's smoking-gun evidence, the system usually functions well enough to prevent capable counsel of extricating the wrongdoer through some sort of legal sleight of hand. The job of the defense counsel is to put the other side's claim through procedural tests to see if he can expose it as bogus, and if it turns out to be legitimate, the lawyer will ordinarily counsel the client to settle.

If the system can't routinely resolve cases like this justly, than the lawyer's guilt in "Michael Clayton" is like the guilt of a thief who swiped some silverware from the dining room on the Titanic.

If lawyers are unhappy or mentally ill, it's not because of our guilt over what our clients. I think part of what makes us unhappy is that we have a doomy professional outlook. When newly engaged lovers are dreaming about living happily ever after, lawyers are tasked with preparing prenup agreements and wills to deal with the disposition of the assets in the event of death or divorce. While businessmen toast the commencement of a new venture, their lawyers negotiate how to divide blame if the enterprise fails, and which creditors will feast first on the carcass in the event of insolvency.

Another source of unhappiness is that our analytical approach to thinking forces us to identify flaws in ideas we'd sometimes prefer to embrace uncritically. You can't stop being a lawyer when you go to church or listen to a political speech. Most of us start out as idealists, and legal training is about systematically puncturing those ideals.

We become incapable of being spontaneous or carefree. We look for rainclouds on a clear day. We are the nagging voice reminding you to get a flu shot. We're the guy at the party trying to get someone to be a designated driver.

The bankers and hedge fund managers are happier because they're optimists and we're pessimists. They look forward to success and we anticipate failure. Whether that's part of what we become by being lawyers or why we become lawyers in the first place is an open question.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Poor People Watch HBO

People on the political fringe are all up in arms about a NYT Op-Ed showing that poor people in the US are doing pretty well, as measured by the acquisition of consumer goods.

The fact that goods are cheaper doesn't diminish the fact that the ability of the poorest Americans to consume is increasing. Cheap goods increase consumer purchase power in the same way that increasing incomes do. The money people have buys more stuff.

I do think a problem is that poorer people tend to make worse decisions with regard to consumer purchases, and tend to pay more. Historically, poor people have been swindled on furniture and electronics rent-to-own arrangements, which result in them paying much more than an item costs over a period of months, in exchange for the immediate gratification of taking it home with no money down.

While chain-store practices are less predatory, they offer payment plans on big-ticket items that include hefty interest payments. So, while it may be progress that a poor person can own a $900 television, it's unfortunate that it will often cost him $1400. This also indicates the precariousness of an economy driven by the people buying depreciating assets with loans against future earnings.

If they wanted full procedural rights, they shouldn't have been terrorists.

The New York Times editorial today. I disagree.

If Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had been found in 2003 in a place where ground forces either couldn't capture him before he escaped, or where capture was not possible, the military almost certainly would have deployed aircraft to bomb his location, as it did in the 2006 killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

That is an option that would never be considered by domestic law enforcement, and was arguably an summary execution with no procedure, but it was not a subject of international criticism and it was considered an appropriate action against a valid military target. Our military enemies have a narrower set of rights than domestic criminal defendants. We can tap their phones, kick in their doors, search their houses, detain them without counsel and kill them in combat without judicial oversight.

The limitations on our dealings with our enemies are defined by international human rights treaties such as the Geneva Convention, which prohibit summary killing and punishment of captives and civilians, but endow no specific procedural rights for captives accused of war crimes. These enemies should not be permitted to avail themselves of the more expansive set of rights granted to criminal defendants under the U.S. Constitution.

There is no way to provide captives taken abroad by the military with the full procedural rights available to domestic criminal defendants who are pursued and captured by law enforcement agencies.

For example, if Khalid Shaikh Mohammed were prosecuted in a U.S. court, he could potentially exclude much of the evidence from the trial because of the circumstances under which it was collected. Wiretaps of foreign terrorists are conducted by military and intelligence agencies, and are not overseen by judges. The military successfully uses information gleaned from intelligence monitoring to raid and bomb terrorist hideouts, but all of this information is inadmissible in a U.S. court because the CIA and the military do not follow the constitutional rules for gathering evidence when engaging in covert monitoring of foreign communications.

Most of the physical evidence collected by the military, such as papers or computers, would be excluded either because it was collected in searches by military personnel that would be considered unconstitutional, or it may have been turned over to other agencies for examination in ways that could create challenges to its admissibility.

All statements made by the defendants would be excluded because they were not given Miranda warnings, and were detained without access to counsel. Additionally, the key tool of prosecutors in breaking up criminal conspiracies like the mafia, which are the closest analog to terrorist groups in conventional law enforcement, is the cooperating witness, a perpetrator who testifies against his compatriots in exchange for leniency. In these cases, we aren't offering deals, so we have no cooperators.

Hearsay evidence is necessary, because credible statements have been made by witnesses who are dead or who cannot be compelled to appear to testify before the tribunal. Also, it is reasonable that there would be serious public safety concerns about airing all the government's knowledge about Al Qaeda in making a case against these men.

There are compelling reasons for relaxing the standards typically maintained in criminal investigations in cases of these detainees, because the campaign against Al Qaeda has been designed around getting the information to stay a step ahead of the terror network and shutting down its ability to operate, rather than following the procedures to build a legal case against its leaders.

These United States had to take the extraordinary and unprecedented measure of going to war to bring these terrorists to justice, because they were beyond the reach of conventional law enforcement. We shouldn't let them off because the soldiers we had to send after them fight wars better than they build prosecutions.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Mitch Crawford Project: Day One

I am Mitchell W. Crawford. My friends call me Mitch. I am a writer, artist and aspiring hair-metal singer, because I am totally glam. I also have a lucrative day job in New York City.

This is my space for discussion of news, current events, pop culture, and whatever else seems pressing on a particular day.

I used to consider myself center-left politically, and I am a registered Democrat. Lately, I consider myself center-right, and I am considering voting for a Republican for the first time, ever in the 2008 presidential election. So I am watching the primaries closely.