Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: March 2006

Friday, March 31, 2006

Four Thousand Errors in Blackburn, Lancashire?

I read the news today. Oh boy. Condi was visiting with Brit Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in his hometown of Blackburn, and she encountered a number of protests throughout the area. At one gathering, she admitted, "I know we've made tactical errors — thousands of them, I'm sure." I'm glad she's joining the rest of us in recognizing that, even if some of the errors may have been more than merely tactical. Though the errors might be large or small, they didn't count them at all. They still don't know how many errors it takes to fill the Capitol.

Blackburn is close to Liverpool, which she also visited, and it appears that the Beatles references were recurring throughout the day. Condi had wanted to meet Sir Paul, but apparently he was busy (and if he wasn't already when he heard of her interest, you can bet he made other plans pretty damn quick). However, she did go to a performance at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which Sir Paul had a hand in founding, and she heard a rendition of "Imagine" in which the singer segued into "Give Peace a Chance" in the middle. But all the protest seemed to bounce right off Condi. Taking an attitude often displayed by her boss, she simply said, "People have the right to protest. That's what democracy is all about." And, I suppose, she and her administration have the right to ignore them.

Ambulance Etiquette

Just back from seeing Art Brut tonight. It was a good show, though the band seemed a bit less tight than they did last time around. Of course, it may also have something to do with the fact that this time I have the CD and know how the songs sound on it. Eddie's mic was a bit fuzzy, so it wasn't as easy to make out the lyrics, which is such an important part of what the band is about. Unfortunately, the sound at the Metro is often a bit iffier than in other venues, which is too bad because it's a premier Chicago stop for bands on the way up. As I was leaving, I overheard a couple of people who didn't really like Eddie's performance that much, complaining he was "too Nazi-ish." I'm not precisely sure what that means--he didn't goose-step at all that I noticed (although he did raise his arm at one point; it didn't seem intended as a salute or anything, but if you didn't know better, it might've been possible to be confused). He was quite adamant at one point that everybody in the audience go out and start a band, but he wasn't particularly threatening or fascistic about it. He said that he'd return to Chicago and seek us each out individually to find out if we had indeed started a band, but if he found we hadn't, he didn't threaten any sort of punishment--he just said he'd be very disappointed. Another odd thing after the show was that someone was passing out flyers for an upcoming Depeche Mode show at the Allstate, a huge arena-size cavern where the larger acts often play. Are they having trouble selling DMode tickets that they're hawking it just like the band you've never heard of who's playing the Empty Bottle on Tuesday?

I actually started writing this post, though, because I've got a question about ambulances. I don't know what was going on in Chicago tonight, but on the way to the show, I had to pull over three times (in three different places) for sirens. Two were ambulances and one was a fire engine. One of the ambulances was getting on Lake Shore Drive when I was, and it wasn't going very fast. All the cars had pulled over to let it pass, but once we started going again, we quickly caught up to it. There was a long line forming behind because no one wanted to pass (Lake Shore Drive is eight lanes wide, so passing didn't necessarily mean getting back in front of the ambulance). Lake Shore is usually a fast street, and most everyone is speeding by as many as 15 or 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. At one point, I'd almost caught up to the ambulance and noticed that I was going 2 mph below the speed limit so that I didn't pass it. This brought two thoughts to mind. First off, if I'm in an ambulance that's speeding me to the hospital, I want the ambulance to be speeding. It doesn't have to be reckless, of course, but an ambulance driver has a pass for many (if not all) traffic laws, so I don't want the driver to be paying attention to the posted speed limit, and I certainly don't want them to be going slower than allowed even if they were prohibited from going faster. But what is the etiquette (and the law) in such an instance. On a multi-lane road, do drivers need to stay behind a siren vehicle no matter what speed that vehicle is going?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Shameless Sales Techniques

Check out Stu's Disgusting, Loathsome Press Release of the Day. Professional sports has always been about commerce, but the eagerness with which the franchises flog themselves for sponsorships these days is dispiriting.

But speaking of commerce, after you read that, take a look at Stu's Wrigley Field bio, now available in paper.

All in All, He'd Have Rather Been in Philadelphia

Today is the 25th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. The Washington Post promises more than it delivers in a retrospective article ("The Assassination Attempt on President Reagan Changed the Future Not Only for Those Involved but for the Rest of the U.S. as Well"--they don't really get in to the implications of how U.S. history was changed) but the piece is still worth your time. It also has extensive links to the original Post coverage from 25 years ago as well as a live chat earlier today with Jim and Sarah Brady.

When news of Reagan's shooting first broke, it seemed like maybe there was something to the zero-year presidential curse. Ever since 1840, every president elected in a year with a zero died while in office. This curse has sometimes been credited to Tecumseh, but I don't recall hearing about his involvement until much more recently (though the connection was apparently mentioned in Ripley's Believe It or Not! way back during the '30s, so it's not exactly new). But did Reagan's survival mark an end to the curse? One essay I found online reframes it a little bit: "Every president elected from 1840 onward in the years ending in 0 either has been shot or has died in office." So maybe not. We'll just have to wait and see, because the most recent president who took office after a zero-year election is still there.

Another little-known fact about the Reagan assassination attempt--and an intriguing one if you're of a conspiracy-minded bent--is that there are some connections between the families of John Hinckley, Jr., and Reagan's vice-president (what was his name, again?). In fact, Hinckley's brother Scott was due for dinner at Neil Bush's house in Denver the evening after the shooting (needless to say, the dinner was canceled). It was reported that the Hinckleys had been big contributors to George H. W.'s 1980 presidential campaign, but the vice president's office quickly denied that, and I'm not sure it's ever been pinned down. Some of the contemporary news reports from AP and UPI have been posted on the Free Republic Website (if you can stand going over there to have a look), or you can just Google "Bush" and "Hinckley" and drown yourself in the conspiracy sites that come up.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

CSA Scuttlebutt

In response to my comments about CSA: The Confederate States of America, I've heard through the grapevine that there's a theory the Confederate army would've been far more aggressive than they were if they'd just had the chance. In the film, writer/director Kevin Willmott portrays the winning Confederates as an army on the offensive, invading and conquering the rest of the continental United States after capturing Washington, D.C., and forcing the Lincoln administration to fall and Lincoln himself to flee. Although I understand why Willmott would do that for the sake of the film, I thought that the scenario was unlikely and didn't really follow from the facts as we know them. Willmott has said, though, that he was inspired by a section of the real Ken Burns documentary that described Confederate plans for a "tropical empire" after they achieved independence. Although I know some in the Confederate leadership fled south of the Rio Grande after the war, and a handful even resettled in Brazil, where their descendants continue to live today, I've never heard much about plans to expand the Confederate nation itself once it became an independent country. If anybody knows about such plans or intentions or can offer informed speculation about how a successful CSA might have interacted with the rest of the continental U.S., please offer your comments.

Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Keep Coming Back in New Configurations

Queen and Paul Rogers? Todd Rundgren and the Cars? How long until we see George Thorogood and Thompson Twins? Can Limahl and Quiet Riot be far behind?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Bye-Bye, Andy

Th White House Chief of Staff resigned this morning, and Washington wants it to be a huge story, but the press and the commentators can't seem to get too excited. The Washington Post reports: "President Bush took the first step in what aides say may be a second-term overhaul of his beleaguered administration." How much of an overhaul is this? Introducing Card's replacement, The Post continues: "In picking [Joshua B.] Bolten, Bush once again chose not to reach beyond his inner circle to fill a critical post." The New York Times called it "a step unlikely to satisfy calls within his own party for fresh thinking to address the administration's troubles," and further quotes former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans: "The differences between Andy Card and Josh Bolten are at the margins." In a separate piece, The Times tells us, "Republicans in Congress reacted positively to the appointment but with barely stifled yawns." It's hardly a surprise, but not only does the Bush White House fail to achieve change with this staffing shift, they don't even achieve the illusion of change. Oh well, at least Bolten plays bass in a rock band.

Is It Hot in Here?

Speaking of unappealing, don't miss this week's Time magazine cover package on global warming. Under a title of "Be Worried, Be Very Worried, " the story goes into a fair amount of depth, and the most distressing fact it offers is that now that the reality of global warming is more obvious, scientists are surprised at how quickly it is advancing. There's also a Web exclusive interview with James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, who recently had a much-publicized run in with some Bush administration officials who wanted to censor his statements on the subject. He talks about potential tipping points and how close we may be coming to some of them. But in the interest of giving both sides of the story--a trend that's very hot among journalists these days--Time does have another Web exclusive report illuminating the bright side of the subject. Finally, the long sought and hoped-for Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic may thaw. Or, as Time puts it, "Global warming may be bad for polar bears, but for a little port town in Manitoba, it could be a boon." Never mind our disintegrating climate and environment--that is good news!

Monday, March 27, 2006

New Trends in Popcorn

I was buying popcorn last week, and the choices they've got these days are overwhelming. You can get Butter, Extra Butter, Movie Theater Butter--any kind of butter you want. There are sweet ones that seem a bit more popular these days--Caramel Corn and Kettle Corn. But there was one possibility that completely threw me for a loop. Maybe it's just me, but this seems particularly unappealing.

Jolly Time may claim otherwise, but somehow I've got a feeling I wouldn't find this yummy. But while I was looking for a picture of this online, I found thousands of recipes (or at least thousands of Webpages with recipes--maybe they're all the same two or three) for marshmallow popcorn, so they must be filling some sort of niche. But none that I need.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

CSA: The Confederate States of America

Last month I wrote about the small, indy movie CSA: The Confederate States of America and said I intended to see it, but I neglected to mention it after I did. I enjoyed it--it was darkly comic and intriguing. Very low budget, it was rough around the edges, but that's often the charm of independent movies. It was set-up like the Ken Burns Civil War miniseries and told the story of a Confederate States of America that won the Civil War. I've been working on a couple of Civil War projects recently, and I found it interesting to see some of the same images that we've been working with turned on their head. Photos of destroyed Richmond, Virginia, and Columbia, South Carolina, stood in for Boston and New York. A painting of Lee, dressed in his finest dress uniform, surrendering to Grant, wearing mud-spattered pants and an enlisted man's jacket, could easily be interpreted as the regal Lee magnanimously greeting the loser Grant.

Since it takes the form of a faux TV documentary, the movie has a structure that allows for comic interludes in the form of ads for products available in the Confederacy. Although some of them seemed a bit over the top, the kicker came when it was revealed that many of the products--Coon Chicken Inn, Sambo Motor Oil, Darkie Toothpaste--had been real products. (I don't know if they tried, but I imagine the filmmakers wouldn't have been able to get permission for Aunt Jemima brand products, Uncle Ben's Rice, or Cream of Wheat.) The fake ads, sometimes the height of political incorrectness, offered some awkward laughs (awkward because of subject matter, not execution) but reminded us that the attitudes expressed by CSA officials and residents aren't that far removed from some we can find in our own world.

One complaint I've heard against the film concerns its approach to alternative history. In its purest form, alternative history changes some detail of a historical event and then follows the logical consequences of that change. CSA doesn't do this. Since Washington, D.C., is already below the Mason-Dixon line, once Confederate forces captured the U.S. capital and the Lincoln government collapsed, there would have been no reason for the rebels to go farther north to invade and destroy New York or Boston. For that matter, the Confederate government would have had no desire to take control of the rest of the continental United States. All they wanted was to get out of the Union. So, certainly, having the alternate CSA go against those basic ideas is a flaw in the film as alternative history, but I think the filmmakers had the larger intention of dramatizing racial attitudes in the fictional contemporary slave-holding CSA and allowing us to make our own comparisons.

I do have a couple of tiny complaints, though. The CSA Website has a timeline of Confederate history, but the best line from it didn't make it into the movie. The explanation for April 12, 1861, reads:

With war looming, at 4:30 a.m. Confederates under Gen. Pierre Beauregard preemptively strike with 50 cannons upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The War of Northern Aggression has begun.

I love that. Another opportunity was lost when a contemporary CSA politician was caught in a scandal--rumors were spreading that he had a slave ancestor in his family. The film was obviously playing off the Clinton difficulties, and when the politician faced the press, I was desperately waiting for him to wag his finger at us and claim, "My great-great grandfather did not have sexual relations with that woman." Yes, it's obvious, but it would've received a great reaction from the audience.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Spurning Congressional Oversight

Lately, it seems the Prez has been a bit more forthcoming in his intentions about what his administration is up to. I don't know if it's hubris (which would be amazing considering his low poll numbers and job approval ratings) or what, but I guess we should appreciate the candor. Earlier this week he told us that he had no intention of leaving Iraq. And a couple of months ago, when he signed the John-McCain-sponsored anti-torture amendment, he issued a signing statement to the effect that he'd ignore the law when he felt he had to. On Thursday, Charlie Savage at The Boston Globe reported that Bush has once again essentially told Congress, "You're not the boss of me." The Globe headline minced no words: "Bush Shuns Patriot Act Requirement." Although he signed the renewal of the Patriot Act on March 9 with a huge flourish and a large audience, he issued the signing statement that accompanied it a bit more quietly. That statement addressed only the provisions requiring Congressional oversight, which Bush made clear he'd ignore as he saw fit. If he finds it inconvenient to keep Congress in the loop for what his administration is doing, he'll just cut them right out of it. Does the White House not subscribe to the common interpretation of three co-equal branches of government?

Perhaps the most distressing detail of Savage's article is this sentence: "Bush's expansive claims of the power to bypass laws have provoked increased grumbling in Congress." This is potentially a Constitutional crisis, and all Congress can do about it is grumble!? They've got no spine. They won't get their backs up for our governing principles. Most of the Dems ran away screaming from Feingold's resolution to censure the President until they discovered some public support for the idea. We need leadership that will stand up to the President when he steps outside the traditional bounds of executive power. It's looking more and more like we have nowhere to turn in the political process.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Bush and the End Times

Last week, someone asked me whether I thought that Bush was actually a millennialist who believes Armageddon is nigh and that Christ's return is imminent. From what little we know of his personal faith, it seems to come out of the tradition that supports such a view, so I said that I guessed he did for what it's worth, but that he seemed like a man whose primary focus is on himself and his own personal world, so I didn't think millennialist ideas were an important part of his day-to-day beliefs.

In what many in the White House are no doubt convinced is the latest argument for keeping the Prez away from open forums and questions from the actual public, Bush was asked this very question on Monday. After a speech in Cleveland about Iraq (he apparently thinks things are going well and we should stay the course), the very first question he took from the audience cited Phillips's American Theocracy and asked if Bush believed terrorism and the Iraqi War are signs of the apocalypse. Bush squirmed and replied:

The answer is -- I haven't really thought of it that way. (Laughter.) Here's how I think of it. The first I've heard of that, by the way. I guess I'm more of a practical fellow.

He then proceeded to give a meandering reply about Iraq in general for about 700 words, pausing to joke about not answering the question--

("I'm kind of getting off subject here, not because I don't want to answer your question, but kind of -- I guess, that's what happens in Washington, we get a little long-winded. [Laughter.]")

--and finally repeating his point about being practical.

Now, if he's never heard of such a thing before, he can't be paying attention on Sunday morning. I don't have a problem believing that his mind might wander during the sermon, but you know he's going to pay attention if anybody at church mentions terrorism or Iraq. And you also know somebody has.

We still can't say whether he believes it or not. Although he strongly implied that he does not, this whole exchange feels very much like a nonanswer rather than definitive information. What we do now know, though, is that all of a sudden his instinct to distance himself from his fundamentalist supporters when pressed seems quite strong, indeed. He'll separate himself from his religious right base when he feels it necessary, but that's exactly the kind of behavior to which that same religious right does not take kindly.

Colorfully Curious

Before it scrolls all the way off the front page I want to make another point about that Lois Lane comic I mentioned last week, and I was reminded again after writing yesterday's post on wax cylinders and mentioning I Love My Wife.

My, but the world is a far different place than it was 35 years ago. I apologize if I'm repeating things you already know, but the title of that comic, "I Am Curious (Black)," was a reference to a notorious film of the day, I Am Curious (Yellow). It was an import from Sweden and provided one of the first instances of full-frontal nudity in mainstream American theaters, yet here it was being alluded to in a kids' comic (and despite what we hear today about comics aren't just for kids anymore, this one definitely was, and probably intended more for little girls than little boys). I guess today it would be comparable to a Brokeback Mountain call out in Fantastic Four or something. That's almost unthinkable, given Marvel's stated policy that it would only use the gay Rawhide Kid character (outed in a miniseries a few years ago) if the comic was issued under its explicit MAX imprint with a Parental Advisory on the cover. But it's not just that they made the reference, it's the fact that, at ten years old, I got it. I certainly didn't know the details, but I knew that I Am Curious (Yellow) was a controversial sex movie. I suppose a fair number of today's ten-year-olds would get a Brokeback Mountain reference, now that I think about it, but I can't imagine a mainstream publisher in this day and age making it without getting ready for a storm of controversy.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

No Exit

In case anyone's still surprised, the Prez has no exit strategy from Iraq. He essentially admitted that, in almost so many words, at Tuesday morning's press conference.

Q Will there come a day -- and I'm not asking you when, not asking for a timetable -- will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future Presidents and future governments of Iraq.

Q So it won't happen on your watch?

THE PRESIDENT: You mean a complete withdrawal? That's a timetable. I can only tell you that I will make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say.

Talk About . . . Pop Music

Loyal reader Ceci sent me an article from Sunday's New York Times that I missed. It's all about recorded cylinders from the turn of the last century. These are some of the first commercially available sound recordings, from back before electronic recording existed. For years this material's been lost to all but the most dedicated researchers and collectors, but now it's available to all through the magic of the Internet. The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project from the library at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has put the content of more than 6,000 cylinders online. They apparently encompass everything from opera to spoken word to vaudeville performances.

I don't know if they'll be included here (and I have no idea if I could even find them if they are), but I remember hearing a couple of cylinders way back when I was in fifth grade. I don't know why--maybe it was the study of sound in science class or something--but somebody brought in an old cylinder player and played a couple of cylinders. One was "Turkey in the Straw," and the other was a song I didn't know. I should've realized then and there that I was fated to be a pop culture maven. The person who owned the cylinders introduced the second one by saying, "This expresses the ever-popular sentiment, 'I Love My Wife.'" At all of ten years old, I immediately thought of the then-current Elliott Gould movie of the same name. Now that I'm older, I'm not sure that was the proper reference. A quick search at the site shows that they have two recordings of "I Love My Wife, But oh You Kid." There are also four of "Turkey in the Straw".

I haven't had time to download or listen to anything, but it looks like there's an awful lot of fascinating stuff that's for all intents and purposes been lost for decades. Read the NYTimes piece, go search the Website, and discover your own buried treasure.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Whoever Said Democracy Runs Smoothly?

Illinois held its various primaries yesterday, and Jim Oberweis did better than most anyone expected in the Republican gubernatorial race. As predicted, Judy Barr Topinka won the nomination, but she just had about six points on Oberweis. If only those pesky opponents of his would've dropped out of the race like he asked them to, he might've won! His strong showing has gone to his head, though, because at this morning's "Republican unity breakfast," intended to paper over the cracks in the facade broken open by the hard-fought primary, Oberwies resisted endorsing the nominee. November might be a tougher fight than anyone's predicted, as current Governor Rod Blagojevich only got about 70 percent of the vote against an underfunded Democratic primary opponent.

All these results are approximate for the time being, though. New voting technology in Cook County has resulted in exceedingly slow ballot counting. They're hoping to get every vote counted by sometime Thursday.

In some other races around the area, Tammy Duckworth barely won against Christine Cegelis for the Democratic nomination to run to replace Henry Hyde, who's retiring from Congress this year. There were hard feelings as national Dem party leaders stepped into the race to encourage Duckworth to run against Cegelis, who took on Hyde last time and snagged 44 percent of the votes from him with virtually no support from the national party. Duckworth will face down Repub Peter Roskam in November. A bit south and farther west, John Laesch became the first of Air America and Kos's Fighting Dems to win his primary. He took two-thirds of the vote over Ruben Zamora, and he won the dubious honor of taking on Speaker of the House Denny Hastert. Take a look at this diary he put up earlier this evening at Daily Kos.

Phillips and American Theocracy Discussion

I've fallen a few days behind on reading Josh Marshall, so I missed the beginning of the TPMCafe Book Club discussion about Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy (which I first mentioned last week). As of this writing, there are only eleven posts, so there's not a huge backlog, but once you click the link, you'll have to scroll down to the bottom of the page and click to a previous page to get to the first post in the discussion, "Do the Republicans have sole ownership of Religious America?" by John Stuart Blackton, from Monday, March 20. If you find any interesting points you want to mention here, just leave a comment on this post, and we can pick up our own discussion. Happy reading.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Art Brut on the Rise

In Monday's Trib, Greg Kot crowned a champion from the recent South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Out of the 1,400 bands who performed, he narrowed his title of "the festival's best band" to just one (it is a superlative, so I guess it doesn't make sense to share). It wasn't Arctic Monkeys, as he (and buckets of others) seemed to expect. No, he bestowed the honor upon Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk fave Art Brut. I don't know how much weight Kot's opinion can carry in this town, but all I can say is that I'm glad I already have my ticket for their show at the Metro a week from Thursday. Here's what I thought from when I saw them for the first time a few months ago.

Innovative Pre-Election Strategies

From time to time we hear proposals to do away with the electoral college, but Jim Oberweis, a candidate in today's Republican primary for the Illinois governor's race, wants to get rid of the voters--or at least lessen their importance. Oberweis is lagging behind frontrunner Judy Barr Topinka by double digits, but he also has to contend with two other rivals for the nomination (well, two-and-a-half, I guess, but Andy Martin hardly counts). Instead of letting voters choose between the four candidates, Oberweis suggested a deal to his two other primary rivals. Bill Brady and Ron Gidwitz could join him in a "straw poll," in which actual straws would be drawn. The winner would face off against Topinka, while the two losers would withdraw from the race. This is a risky move, of course, so Oberweis wanted to weight the odds in his favor, if he could. He proposed that there would be twelve straws, one with Brady's name on it, one with Gidwitz's name on it, and ten with his own name on them. Apparently neither Brady nor Gidwitz is a betting man, as they each turned Oberweis down flat. Too bad. Now he actually has to face the other candidates on his own merits.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Vendettapalooza Linkfest--Updated with Picture

This was a big weekend for V for Vendetta. It topped the box office, but it will be interesting to see how it holds up next weekend. Did all the comics fans sate their curiosity, or will the film have staying power? (My wife and I played a perhaps cruel game in the theater of guessing who had and who hadn't read the original comics--the audience seemed full of fanboys. Of course, if anybody was doing the same to us, they'd've been right in pegging me for rereading the comics over Saturday and Sunday to remind myself what the filmmakers changed, overlooked, or ignored.) Although the Internet Movie Database claimed the movie got "decent reviews," Roger Ebert gave it a middling thumbs up, while Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, Carina Chocano in the LA Times, and David Denby in The New Yorker gave it outright pans. (Whether you're a fan of the movie or not, Chocano's dissection of it is a fun read. And James Wolcott's concerned that Denby's turning into a neocon.) I'm not sure whether J. Hoberman in The Village Voice liked it or not, as his take included lines such as, "Absorbing even in its incoherence." Either way, The Voice features the review as part of a cover package on the film,
which also includes an overview of dystopic film and a discussion with artist David Lloyd that looks back to the graphic novel (you can check out the cover and first three pages in PDF) and even namechecks Rich Johnston. But in case all this Voice coverage makes you wonder if the movie is an allegory targeting George W. Bush, Atrios has a nice comeback:

If a movie about a fascist tyranny has people freaking out because they view it as a critique of the Bush administration I think that says more about their own view of the administration than the filmmakers'.

And what do I think? I'm not going to repost it here, but if you're interested, you can read my review at Howling Curmudgeons--but I’ll warn you right now, it's a weak-kneed, lily-livered, mediocre one--I neither loved the movie nor hated it.

Even though Alan Moore's loudly disassociated himself from all this hoopla in just about every way possible, the media can't resist the temptation to use it as an excuse to put him in the spotlight. The Independent devoted 4,000 words to him yesterday, and he gave a nice interview to MTV (by the way, Kurt Loder says the movie "will kick your ass"). I've been trying to figure out a way to excerpt a passage from that interview in which Moore explains his problems with the film's changes from his original work, but anything I edit out seems to leave it weaker, so I'm just going to quote the last few paragraphs in full.

When I wrote "V," politics were taking a serious turn for the worse over here. We'd had [Conservative Party Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher in for two or three years, we'd had anti-Thatcher riots, we'd got the National Front and the right wing making serious advances. "V for Vendetta" was specifically about things like fascism and anarchy.

Those words, "fascism" and "anarchy," occur nowhere in the film. It's been turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country. In my original story there had been a limited nuclear war, which had isolated Britain, caused a lot of chaos and a collapse of government, and a fascist totalitarian dictatorship had sprung up. Now, in the film, you've got a sinister group of right-wing figures — not fascists, but you know that they're bad guys — and what they have done is manufactured a bio-terror weapon in secret, so that they can fake a massive terrorist incident to get everybody on their side, so that they can pursue their right-wing agenda. It's a thwarted and frustrated and perhaps largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values [standing up] against a state run by neo-conservatives — which is not what "V for Vendetta" was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about [England]. The intent of the film is nothing like the intent of the book as I wrote it. And if the Wachowski brothers had felt moved to protest the way things were going in America, then wouldn't it have been more direct to do what I'd done and set a risky political narrative sometime in the near future that was obviously talking about the things going on today?

George Clooney's being attacked for making ["Good Night, and Good Luck"], but he still had the nerve to make it. Presumably it's not illegal — not yet anyway — to express dissenting opinions in the land of free? So perhaps it would have been better for everybody if the Wachowski brothers had done something set in America, and instead of a hero who dresses up as Guy Fawkes, they could have had him dressed as Paul Revere. It could have worked.

Y'know, he's right--it could've.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Songs

I had a discussion about love songs recently, and it occurred to those of us involved that we didn't define "love song" in the same way. Although I've never given the matter a great deal of thought, I've always considered a love song to be a paean to love, a celebration of it. I guess I'd include songs about unspoken, impossible, or ill-fated love, but I wouldn't think songs about spurned love really fit the category. One of the people I was talking with seemed to believe that any song about any aspect of love should be considered a love song. Under this definition, breakup songs would be a big part of the love song canon (and I apologize if I'm misrepresenting that position).

The song that brought up the question was ABC's "Poison Arrow." This is a pretty bitter song about that was love that was not returned. The narrator sings, "Who broke my heart, you did, you did." Later in the song there's this exchange:

I thought you loved me, but it seems you don't care.
I care enough to know I could never love you.

The narrator doesn't seem to be singing to lost love. He's so angry and bitter at this point that he seems to hate her. Even if the object of his affections changed her mind and decided to love him in return, he seems highly unlikely to go back to his old feelings and respond in kind.

What do you think? Am I wrong, and should "Poison Arrow" be considered a love song, or are breakup songs a different category?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Following Up

As promised, here's the link to the full New York Times Book Review piece I wrote about on Thursday, historian Alan Brinkley's write up of Kevin Phillips's new book, American Theocracy. As an added bonus, the Times also includes a page of links to their reviews of nine of Phillips's previous books, including his first, The Emerging Republican Majority. Here's a tease from the 1969 critique from Warren Weaver, Jr. (it's a PDF):

It is not a little depressing to read a serious 480-page book on politics based largely on the theory that deep divisive conflicts between black and white, Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Irishman, East and South are immutable, that such differences cannot be harmonizes and that the politician should thus simply play upon them to his own advantage.

By the way, someone asked me when the new Phillips book would be out, and it's my understanding that it's due on Tuesday.

Friday, March 17, 2006

By the Numbers

Kevin Drum cited a couple of interesting poll results yesterday. The first was a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (careful, it's a PDF) that (in addition to pegging the Prez with 37 percent disapproval--a new low for this poll) showed 52-46 percent support for the secret NSA spy program. That's not a huge majority, but it indicates that progressives haven't framed the issue properly. The question gauged support of "Using wiretaps to listen to telephone calls between suspected terrorists in other countries and American citizens in the United States without getting a court order to do so." If eavesdropping without a warrant were the only way to listen to these conversations, you could make an argument to support the action, but we know that isn't the full story. There are procedures in place that allow the Bush administration to get the surveillance and follow the law at the same time, and Bush is actively flouting them.

To return to the ever-popular metaphor of robbing a bank, this is the same as if I had $1,000 dollars in the bank and needed to get $500 of it quickly. Sure, I might have withdrawal slips or checks, but if I don't like to bother with paperwork, I might get a gun and rob the bank for $500. I wouldn't be taking anything that didn't already belong to me, but because we're a nation of laws (or so we were told several years ago), I can't withdraw my money that way. I'd be breaking the law. How is conducting surveillance on American citizens in defiance of the FISA court--which would certainly approve any warrant to spy on suspected overseas terrorists--any different?

The second poll Drum pointed out came from the American Research Group. They found that a plurality of respondents supported censure of the President for that NSA activity. Among all adults, the margin was close at 46-44 (with 10 percent undecided), but in a surprise (to me, at least), the margin widened when the pool was restricted to voters, with 48-43 (9 percent undecided) in support. This just highlights the cowardly behavior of Senate Democrats even further. While this issue obviously isn't an overwhelming winner, it's clearly one on which they could hold their own. For them to hide behind their desks and not even acknowledge it is not only spineless, it can't even be justified as effective pandering.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reading the Portents--UPDATED

Kevin Phillips has a new book coming out. This is worth paying attention to because he's a long-time Republican strategist and fairly accurate prognosticator of political trends. His most significant calling card is probably his first book, nearly forty years old now, The Emerging Republican Majority. That's where he predicted that a shift in population from the industrial North and Midwest to the suburbs of the Sun Belt (his term) would result in a significant political realignment toward the Republican Party. Sure, you can argue that in taking jobs with the Nixon presidential campaign and subsequent administration that he put himself in a position to influence policy to make his predictions come true, but if his foresight wasn't pointed in the right direction, he couldn't have manufactured the realignment all by himself.

Phillips started to fall out of favor with Republicans when he wrote The Politics of Rich and Poor, and he seemed to completely drop off the radar with American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. He can't expect to rebuild any bridges with the new one, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. He's back to making predictions, and some of them are doozies, but he's looking back for context, as well. Let's just say some of that context involves the Roman Empire, imperial Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Great Britain at points when each is well past its prime. The book's not out yet, and God knows this blog doesn't have a high enough profile that I'd have anything approaching an early review copy, so I can't lie to you and claim to have read it (well, I could, but you'd likely never believe me anyway). But I did read thought-provoking reviews in Salon (you know the drill--if you're not a subscriber, click through an ad to read the whole thing) and The New York Times Book Review (for which I thank a friend who forwarded a preview to me--I'll post a link when it's online). Here are a couple of quotes from Alan Brinkley's Times Book Review to whet your appetite:

No longer does [Phillips] see Republican government as a source of stability and order. Instead, he presents a nightmarish vision of ideological extremism, catastrophic fiscal irresponsibility, rampant greed and dangerous shortsightedness. (His final chapter is entitled "The Erring Republican Majority.") In an era of best-selling jeremiads on both sides of the political divide, "American Theocracy" may be the most alarming analysis of where we are and where we may be going to have appeared in many years.

. . .

By describing a series of major transformations, by demonstrating the relationships among them and by discussing them with passionate restraint, Phillips has created a harrowing picture of national danger that no American reader will welcome, but that none should ignore.

UPDATE: Here's the Times Book Review link.

N for No Letter Pun in the Title

In the run up to V for Vendetta, Heidi has a two-part interview at the Beat with Alan Moore (Part 1 and Part 2), in which he discusses V, his relationship with DC Comics, and his feelings about Hollywood and the film biz in general. The interview is a few months old at this point, but up until now it's only been excerpted (and we linked to that back in November) and never presented in full.

While you're over at the Beat, don't miss Heidi's reassessment of movie-musical-maker Busby Berkeley, who she calls "one of the great movie choreographers and an auteur of creepy, disturbing sex-infused visions comparable to, say, David Lynch." It's good reading.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Profiles in Cowardice

Once upon a time, there was a book called Profiles in Courage. Never mind for the moment whether John F. Kennedy actually wrote it or not. Instead, let's focus on what would define a profile in courage. Presumably it would include someone who stands up for what's right, particularly in difficult circumstances. It would feature a person who doesn't back off his or her principles, even if it would be more convenient to do exactly that. It might even entail standing up to bullies, especially if it requires some sort of personal cost. Even without the book, it's not really very hard to figure out what a profile of courage should look like.

If you want to see precisely what it does not look like, take a peek at Dana Milbank's Washington Sketch column in this morning's Washington Post. He's got a whole litany of Democratic senators trying to duck out of responding to Russ Feingold's resolution to censure the President. It's embarrassing. All your favorite Dems are here: Hillary, Kerry, Obama, Schumer, and many more. I'm on deadline again (my latest project should be finished tomorrow--please, God), so I haven't had a chance to browse around the blogosphere, but there may be a few people annoyed at Milbank for shooting fish in a barrel. If that complaint has been made, I think the appropriate response is for Dems to stop acting like fish in a damn barrel! They're worried about their political prospects, they're comfortable in their nice, cushy jobs as disenfranchised members of the opposition (and they are cushy, too--since they have no power, they have no responsibility, so they never have to actually do anything), and they don't want to take any position that might endanger that. How else to explain their refusal to even mention the resolution?

Because the Repubs control the chamber, there's not a chance that this resolution could ever pass, so this is nothing but an opportunity to go on the record about whether Bush has done anything wrong or not. Most of them say they disapprove of the NSA spying program. A few are even willing to suggest that it's against the law. So just vote the same position in this resolution! How hard is that?

The press is spinning the NSA surveillance program as a winner for the Prez, but I don't see it, especially over the long haul. The Repubs seem to think that as long as they use their talking point of "if anyone's talking to al Queda, we want to know why," they can pull the wool over everyone's eyes. Certainly that argument's good as far as it goes. I don't know anybody credible who would disagree with it. Of course everybody supports surveillance on al Queda and their contacts within the US. That's why we've got a FISA court to approve secret warrants to do exactly that. But if we've already gotten that taken care of, why does the Prez need to spy on other Americans the FISA court can't know about? And why can't Congress (which is theoretically charged with overseeing such things) know about it, either? If Dems can get put these questions in front of the people, I think they can convince most people that Bush (who I've heard is hugely unpopular at the moment, by the way) has at the very least overstepped his bounds.

But no. The Dems have to turn tail and run. They seem to be making a pretty good case that they're absolutely useless and don't deserve our support when they run for President in 2008 or just for reelection the next time that rolls around. We need to find some other party that will stand up to the President and defend the Constitution. Is that so much to ask?

Nothing New Under the Sun

FX's new show Black.White seems to be getting quite a bit of buzz. Through the wonders of modern make up, a black family masquerades as white, and a white family poses as black so each can see life from the other side. It's interesting as far as it goes, I suppose.

But it's been done.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Straight Talk About Straight Talk

Somehow, I never found my way onto the bandwagon for John McCain. I guess he's appealing if one goes for gruff, authoritarian figures, but that's never been my style. Sure, he's got that whole maverick image going for him, but he's never really seemed quite so maverick when it was important--he's gotten onboard the whole Bush agenda. That's bad enough on its face, of course, but after what Bush (or Bush surrogates) viciously did to McCain during the 2000 primaries in South Carolina, it's unconscionable. McCain was attacked with claims that his experience as a POW in Vietnam had made him unstable, but when that didn't get enough traction, the whisper campaign went after his family. Yet McCain remains an ardent Bush supporter.

In case you're thinking about hopping back aboard the Straighttalk Express in 2008, Paul Krugman would like a few words with you. Oh sure, Krugman resides in the lofty heights behind The New York Times's subscription curtain, but his Monday column is available to us through the generosity of B12 Partners Solipsism. Here are a few tidbits:

Mr. McCain's reputation as a moderate may be based on his former opposition to the Bush tax cuts. In 2001 he declared, "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us."

But now — at a time of huge budget deficits and an expensive war, when the case against tax cuts for the rich is even stronger — Mr. McCain is happy to shower benefits on the most fortunate. He recently voted to extend tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, an action that will worsen the budget deficit while mainly benefiting people with very high incomes.

. . .

So here's what you need to know about John McCain.

He isn't a straight talker. His flip-flopping on tax cuts, his call to send troops we don't have to Iraq and his endorsement of the South Dakota anti-abortion legislation even while claiming that he would find a way around that legislation's central provision show that he's a politician as slippery and evasive as, well, George W. Bush.

He isn't a moderate. Mr. McCain's policy positions and Senate votes don't just place him at the right end of America's political spectrum; they place him in the right wing of the Republican Party.

Krugman also cites data from Voteview, which identifies McCain's voting record as the third-most conservative in the Senate, bowing only to Senators Kyl and Sununu. He's not what the media sets him up to be. Don't fall for it.

Monday, March 13, 2006

It's Not Casual Sex, But . . .

The big news among progressives today, of course, is Russ Feingold's resolution to censure the President (that's a PDF file if you have to watch out for those). Although impeachment might be more satisfying (in some ways--if successful, it would still leave us with President Dick Cheney, which might be even worse than our current situation), I have absolutely zero faith that it's politically feasible at the moment, so censure might be more doable. It allows Congress (as if), politicians, the media, and the blogs to keep talking about the administration's wrongdoing in the NSA's warrentless surveillance of Americans.

Of course, even that might be too much to ask, as Congressional Democrats are tip-toeing carefully around the resolution. No one's leaping aboard to join Feingold's bandwagon, and professional scold Joe Leiberman, the first Democrat to rap Clinton's knuckles in the Senate chambers over his shenanigans in the Oval Office (Jane at firedoglake reminds us of Lieberman's statement at the time), made clear to CNN that he feels nothing should be done to respond to Bush. "I'd prefer to see us solve the problem." I suppose that would be lovely, Joe, if the Senate actually bothered to do anything that would solve the problem. But maybe the best reaction came in the same article from Arlen Specter:

But a leading Republican skeptic of the NSA program, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, said Feingold's censure resolution was "vastly excessive."

If administration officials like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are correct, Specter said, "then there is no violation of law by the president."

. . .

Specter said he did not know if the program was legal and constitutional.

"I don't have any basis for knowing, because I don't know what the program does," he said in the Senate.

So Specter doesn't really know anything about the program and its legality, but surely censuring the President is over the top.

There's plenty of other discussion of this around the blogger high school auditorium. Glenn Greenwald discusses the strength inherent in standing up for principle. Georgia10 at Daily Kos talks about the plusses of pursuing censure rather than impeachment. And, as usual, Jane and Redd at firedoglake have lots of various threads about the censure resolution and all kinds of other things at their regular blog address. It's not clear when the vote will come (if, indeed, it comes as all), but call your senators to let them know where you stand.

Tom Joad for the 21st Century?

For various reasons, I started and stopped a couple of times while I was writing the previous post, and I neglected to include the following, which was my favorite passage from The New York Times's Alan Moore profile:

Mr. Moore suggested that his comic-book writing has already defined his identity. He recalled an encounter with a fan who asked him to sign a horrific issue of his 1980's comic "The Saga of the Swamp Thing"; the admirer then disclosed that he was a special effects designer for the television series "CSI: NY." "Every time you've got an ice pick going into someone's brain, and the close-ups of the little spurting ruptured blood vessels, and that horrible squishing sound, that's him," Mr. Moore said. "So that's something I can be proud of. This is my legacy."

Sunday, March 12, 2006

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta opens on Friday (St. Patrick's Day rather than the more appropriate Guy Fawkes Day), so that means it's time to crank up the publicity machine. Right on schedule, The New York Times puts a profile on Alan Moore and his disassociation from the film and from Hollywood in general on the front page of its Sunday Arts section. Moore wrote the comics series (with art by David Lloyd) on which the movie is based. The article offers a pretty good summation of Moore's contentions relationship with the film industry, with which he reportedly wants no contact whatsoever. It's actually pretty funny to see the movie people's reaction to all this. They can't fathom it as anything other than a marketing ploy--he must want more money, because why on earth would someone not want to be in the movies?

Moore saw a copy of V for Vendetta's script, which he has ridiculed, and he's wanted to cut all his ties to it for about a year. For a while, based on that, I had low expectations for the film and planned to avoid it, as well. But I have to admit that some of the things I've seen more recently have left me intrigued. David Lloyd has come out very strongly for it, and it's been getting some good buzz in previews. James Wolcott gave it a rave last month (but as I mentioned over at Howling Curmudgeons, Wolcott was a strong proponent of Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, too). And, although I'm fully aware that you can cut a bad movie into a good trailer or commercial, the previews are awfully compelling. I'm going to try to approach it on its own terms. Instead of judging it on how close it parallels the comics, I'll decide how it works as a movie. When it comes down to it, the comics already exist, and a good or bad movie doesn't have to have any bearing on them. A bad V for Vendetta doesn't do anything to lessen the Moore/Lloyd series. But let's just hope for a good V movie.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Habeas Schmabeas

If you get a chance, take a listen to this week's This American Life. They're exploring the detainees at Guantanamo and talking to a couple of detainees who have since been released. We can't know how well they represent most of the detainees who are still there, but these individuals clearly had no valid reason for their imprisonment. One put out a satirical magazine in Pakistan (watch your backs, Onion editors!). Another didn't even do that much to get under the military's skin but were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the arguments the White House has given for holding the detainees is that they were captured on the battlefield. That may be true for some, but others were captured because the military was offering bounties for terrorists, and people just turned in random individuals for the cash. This is a very disturbing hour that should get as wide distribution as possible.

(If you miss the episode this week, it'll be available in Real Audio archives on the This American Life Website in a week or so.)

Friday, March 10, 2006

It's All the Republicans' Fault

That's the Prez's opinion, not me just repeating mine, by the way. Even though he'd missed Mardi Gras, Bush returned to New Orleans this week to point fingers at Congress for not getting anything done. He first went to the city several days after Katrina hit and swore to stand by the beleaguered people of the area. Of course, he promised them the sun and the moon (and then turned out the lights), so maybe he felt that he needed to come and explain why neither the sun nor the moon had come through yet. (No, I don't really think that's why he went, either.) Whatever his true purpose, he walked around the 9th ward for a full twenty minutes before he took off again.

There's a problem with trying to lay all the blame on Congress, though. Maybe he's forgotten, but Congress is controlled by Republicans, so he's turning on his own. And not just any Republicans, but these Republicans are in thrall to the White House. They've had plenty of chances to stand up to the administration, but except for the lopsided 62-2 vote this week in the House Appropriations Committee to block the Dubai Ports World deal, they pretty much do the complete bidding of the White House. If Bush wanted the funding, something tells me that he could've made sure he was going to get it.

In other New Orleans updates, country music stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (who I swear is looking more and more like Debra Messing every day) are from Louisiana and Mississippi, respectively, and they spoke out against Bush's efforts in hurricane clean-up while the Prez was touring the devastated area. Although I'm not up on all the latest country music scuttlebutt, I'm not hearing a Dixie-Chick-style backlash against him. It's amazing how clearly documented ineptness and low poll numbers can make people more willing to tolerate dissent.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Senate Republicans Cave (So What Else Is New?)

Senate Republicans took a stand on the secret and potentially illegal NSA espionage against American citizens on Tuesday. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted straight down party lines to let the Bush Administration keep on keeping on in spying on Americans. Back in December, committee members Olympia Snowe and Chuck Hagel joined three Dem committee members to argue that the spying allegations "require immediate inquiry and action by the Senate." But that was then. Three months later, immediate inquiry isn't quite so required. In fact, no inquiry is necessary. Snowe and Hagel caved to the administration. Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts spun the whole thing as the committee's decision "to reject confrontation in favor of accommodation," but the only thing they're accommodating is the White House's ability to do whatever it feels like doing. Oh sure, there's nominal Senate oversight, just like there's already oversight from the FISA court Congress set up almost thirty years ago, but if the Bushies can ignore FISA, why would we ever assume that they wouldn't ignore whatever the Senate sets up this time when it's inconvenient?

Dan Froomkin gives the victory to Dick Cheney, who lobbied the "moderate" Repubs on the committee. I guess reports of his fading influence have been premature. The New York Times editorial page this morning called it "The Death of the Intelligence Panel."

The Senate panel has become so paralyzingly partisan that it could not even manage to do its basic job this week and look into President Bush's warrantless spying on Americans' international e-mail and phone calls.

. . .

It's breathtakingly cynical. Faced with a president who is almost certainly breaking the law, the Senate sets up a panel to watch him do it and calls that control.

. . .

The Republicans' idea of supervision involves saying the White House should get a warrant for spying whenever possible. Currently a warrant is needed, period.

But don't worry. The subcommittee that's now overseeing the NSA spying met today (but they can't talk about it), so it's good to know they're already hard at work. And in USA Today, Pat Roberts explains his own views on why it's entirely unnecessary to investigate the NSA surveillance.

It's the constitutional duty of the executive branch to make the tough decisions necessary to win wars. That's not the case for the legislative branch, which has the luxury of criticizing actions with the benefit of hindsight.

I guess it's nice to know that Pat Roberts doesn't need to make the tough decisions in his job, such as investigating the White House. That would explain why he allows the administration to walk all over him.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

You Can't Keep a Good Man Down

Great news! Tom DeLay won his primary race for the Republican nomination to defend his seat in Congress. No, there's no sarcasm involved in that statement. Really, there's not. I'm looking forward to seeing him face off in November against Democrat Nick Lampson. Lampson was one of the Democratic House members who were gerrymandered out of their districts before the last Congressional election. This will be a big race--probably the biggest House race this year (unless DeLay's legal troubles get even worse and he's forced toe withdraw from the race for some reason)--and Lampson should be ready to hit DeLay on corruption and sleaze as hard as possible. It should be fun.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Murrow's Influence Today

Or not. Atrios points us to this account of Chris Matthews defending Joe McCarthy on Philadelphia radio last week. The gist of it is that, although McCarthy didn't expose any actual Communists, you can't say he didn't mean well.

And John Dickerson wonders how we can misread his column.

Can Dems Hold the Ports Issue?

As far as I'm concerned, the main benefit of the Dubai Ports World controversy is the focus it can put on port security. It doesn't really matter what company manages the ports or where they're from if security is lax to begin with. And although they haven't been able to gain any traction until now, Dems have consistently been on the right side of the issue. An AP story this morning made the case.

Democrats in Congress almost daily blame their GOP counterparts for security holes in the U.S. maritime industry.

They trot out votes that show the Republican-controlled House and Senate turned back more than a dozen Democratic efforts to secure millions of dollars more for port security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"When it comes to protecting the ports, Republicans really do have a pre-9/11 mind-set," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

Among the votes:

* In 2003, House Republicans, on a procedural vote, agreed to kill a Democratic amendment that would have added $250 million for port security grants to a war spending package.

* Two years later, nearly all House Republicans voted against an alternative Homeland Security authorization bill offered by Democrats that called for an additional $400 million for port security.

* Senate Republicans stood together in 2003 to set aside a Democratic amendment that would have provided $120 million more for port cargo screening equipment.

* One year later, all but six Senate Republicans voted to reject a Democratic attempt to add $150 million for port security in a Homeland Security appropriations bill.

. . .

House Republicans were put on record again last week on port security when Democrats tried to force a debate and vote on legislation that would require congressional approval of DP World's takeover. The effort failed. Only two Republicans voted with Democrats.

Actually, the question isn't so much whether Dems can hold the issue, because they've been consistent on it. It really comes down to whether they can somehow keep it from getting spun away from them.

Whoever Said God Is Love?

Fred Phelps, the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, has long been on the fringes of the religious right, and he's always had a predilection for picketing funerals. His latest activity, described in this CNN story, promises to push him even farther from most Christian conservatives, but this quote, which I guess he thinks justifies his actions, borders on pathological:

"You can't preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God."

Keep doing God's work, Fred.

Kudos, Kudos

To put my editor's cap on for a moment, I want to commend The Washington Post for spelling the past tense of lead correctly in a sentence quoted in the previous post. So many people these days want to stick an a in that word, making it like read, which is spelled the same way (though pronounced differently) in both present and past tenses. People just want to believe that led is a misspelling. I blame Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

Government Secrets

The Washington Post had a front-page story on Sunday detailing Bush Administration efforts to tighten up its leaks. The White House is threatening to lean on journalists and is starting to play hardball (not the Chris Matthews kind).

The Bush administration, seeking to limit leaks of classified information, has launched initiatives targeting journalists and their possible government sources. The efforts include several FBI probes, a polygraph investigation inside the CIA and a warning from the Justice Department that reporters could be prosecuted under espionage laws.

In recent weeks, dozens of employees at the CIA, the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies have been interviewed by agents from the FBI's Washington field office, who are investigating possible leaks that led to reports about secret CIA prisons and the NSA's warrantless domestic surveillance program, according to law enforcement and intelligence officials familiar with the two cases.

Interestingly enough, they don't seem concerned with leaks outing the identities of CIA agents. In fact, they appear to be most worried about leaks of their own potentially illegal activity (so anybody leaking information about administration officials who leak the identities of CIA agents should maybe start watching their back). So they're starting to enforce the law to punish anyone who points out how the White House is breaking the law. That's a pretty sweet set-up if they can pull it off.

Monday, March 06, 2006

You Make the Call

There's an interesting Rorschach test up at Slate. John Dickerson's column about the Prez's Katrina briefing video has received mixed (though predominantly negative) reviews. Dickerson presents it as an account of the scales falling from his eyes to see Bush's lackluster and disinterested performance during the briefing. When I first read the piece, I thought that if I didn't know this was a serious column, I'd believe Dickerson could have a great future writing for The Onion. It reads like satire--it's full of setups waiting for punch-lines. (Here’s one: "I call on Paul Lynde for the block"--trust me, you'll know where it goes.) In fact, in an early draft of this post (oh my God, I don't just jot down the first few words I think of and hit the "send" button--yes, I’ve admitted it, and I'm not ashamed), I wrote that the column exposes the fact that Dickerson, despite being on the front lines of political journalism as a White House correspondent for Time magazine, simply never bothered to pay attention. Here's a key passage of his column:

Based on what I'd been told by White House aides over the years, I expected to see the president asking piercing questions that punctured the fog of the moment and inspired bold action. Bush's question-asking talents are a central tenet of the president's hagiography. He may not be much for details, say aides, but he can zero in on a weak spot in a briefing and ask out-of-the-box questions. I have been repeatedly told over the years that he once interrupted a briefing on national defense to pose a 30,000-foot stumper: What is the function of the Department of Defense?

Was Dickerson really stumped by the profundity of that question? Did he believe those White House aides over his own lying eyes? I wasn't the only one who was willing to take this at face value. Weldon Berger at BTC News thought the same thing I did, as did Digby. But then I noticed Berger's follow-up post, "I owe John Dickerson an apology." An e-mail exchange with Dickerson convinced Berger that he was actually being sarcastic, that the column was laced with irony. If you read it with that tone in mind, it works, so I guess I believe Dickerson isn't just trying to save face after being lambasted in the blogs.

But the more disturbing lesson in all this is that the press has so little credibility these days that it's not a leap to think that a White House correspondent is so idiotic as to believe Dickerson's faux position in his column. Digby's post, which is well worth reading no matter how you interpret Dickerson's tone, also adds Newsweek's Howard Fineman--based on a column he wrote last week--into the mix as an example of journalists who suddenly realize maybe Bush isn't all he's cracked up to be. She also mentions Bob Woodward's seminal Washington Post series of early 2002, "10 Days in September," which extolled the virtues of the Prez as commander-in-chief immediately after September 11, and which was instrumental in setting up this mythology in the first place. It's exactly the kind of representation Dickerson is (or isn't) sending up. In his apology, Berger explains, "I concluded that Dickerson must simply have gone round the bend at some point and was in the first stages of recovery, but the more obvious answer is that it isn't possible," and he refers to his "spectacularly bad job of reading" Dickerson. I think he's too hard on himself. He didn't amazingly In the context of the media bubble we live in, it not only is possible, it's true. Woodward and Fineman prove it.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Consequences of Paying Down Credit

Here's a story that's been going around greater Blogsylvania for a couple of days. Andrew Sullivan, AMERICAblog, and Article 19 each noted it, and the original column can be seen here. There's a couple in Rhode Island who paid a higher amount than usual on their Mastercard and were told that this had triggered an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security by. The column was written by Bob Kerr, who said that they'd fallen astray of the Bank Privacy Act, but it appears to me that it's actually the Bank Secrecy Act that caught them in its web. The Comptroller of the Currency has a handbook on the law (warning: PDF), and you can read the House testimony of a Federal Reserve Board official on it. But for a pithy summary of how the Bank Secrecy Act works, you probably can't do better than

The Bank Secrecy Act was originally intended to fight money laundering, and when the Patriot Act came along, the Bank Secrecy Act was subsumed into it to combat money laundering in the service of funding terrorism. The couple from Rhode Island fell astray of its requirements that financial institutions identify and report "suspicious activity" among its accounts. (The "secrecy" of the title comes from the fact that your bank, credit union, or credit card company doesn't tell you that you're being reported.) Once we get paranoid enough, the smallest variation from the norm--like paying off your credit card after sending in the minimum payment for months--sends up red flags; anything that's at all unusual registers as suspicious activity. That's a development that's particularly uncomfortable (and dangerous) in a country that celebrates the individual and succeeding by breaking the rules. At least when Big Brother watched the population in 1984, he used a big screen and everybody knew they were being watched.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Finding a Balance

Fines are one way we punish individuals or corporations when they break the law, and how much we levy for which offenses can tell us quite a bit about our priorities as a society. Just a couple of weeks ago, the FCC upheld the $550,000 fine levied against CBS for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" (helped along by Justin Timberlake) on the 2004 Super Bowl. I'm sure you remember the national trauma and firestorm that caused. But an analysis in USA Today last month compared that to the ridiculously low fines levied against coal mining companies for safety violations. The analysis has a number of examples. We don't know what kind of fines might be levied against the Sago Coal Mine where a dozen miners were killed in an accident on January 2, but a 2001 accident in Alabama that killed 13 resulted in a fine of $435,000, which was later reduced to a mere $3,000. Now, it's certainly fair to point out that the Jackson-Timberlake incident at the Super Bowl didn't kill anybody, but it's only proper to point out that none of those miners bared a nipple on national TV, either.

At a Senate hearing this week, Democrats argued hard for higher fines. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller correctly pointed out that when fines for safety violations are low and affordable, it's far more cost effective for the company to pay the fine than to correct the unsafe conditions. The House held similar hearings, but Charlie Norwood, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee in charge of the hearings abruptly ended them before Democrats could ask a second round of questions of the representatives from the Mine Safety and Health Administration in attendance.

Unfortunately, I'm too tired out tonight to be outraged by all this. Insert your own pithy comment about young lives mattering less than fleeting peeks at nipples here.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Satire as Fortune Telling

Sidney Lumet's Network was released in a new DVD edition this week. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, it was an audacious, over-the-top movie when it came out thirty years ago. Vincent Canby in The New York Times (registration required) called Network's humor "about as stern and apocalyptic as it's possible to be without alienating the very audience for which it is intended." Discussing the "wickedly distorted views of the way television looks, sounds, and, indeed, is," Canby worries, "I expect that a lot of people will sniff at the film on the ground that a number of the absurdities Mr. Chayefsky and Mr. Lumet chronicle so carefully couldn't happen." Variety described "how Chayefsky takes a good idea, pushes it relentlessly past discretion and through the barrier of intellectual credulity, making it so outrageous that it comes across as brilliant."

But the film may not be quite so outrageous for a person seeing it for the first time today. Since it features greedy, ratings-obsessed TV network execs and news shows far more interested in producing spectacle than journalism, today's viewer might well wonder, "And the outrageous, audacious part would be . . . ?" To a jaded, cynical modern audience, it might look terribly run of the mill.

Paddy Chayefsky was just too clever for his own good. Except for the climax (which I won't reveal here in case anyone reading does see it for the first time), pretty much everything suggested in the film has already come to pass or barely seems a stretch. Chayefsky saw the trends and extrapolated. He may have gone much farther than even he thought was realistic, but real life overtook him very quickly. I'd highly recommend Network to anyone, but if at all possible, try to remember that this was when Walter Cronkite still anchored the CBS news and that it--and most all nightly network news--was still worthy of trust. If you can wait a couple of weeks, Good Night, and Good Luck will be coming out on DVD, as well. The two films might make an interesting double feature.

While we're on the subject of prescient satirists, take a look at this post from Tom Tomorrow. He features a strip he did almost three years ago whose final panel was his attempt "to portray what seemed like a ludicrously over-the-top worst case scenario." It might've been ridiculous then (and I remember this strip--it was over the top, but still vaguely disquieting), but now it's not even particularly funny. I'm tired of today's news being yesterday's silly, unrealistic satire.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Art vs. Life

There's an interesting case study in the intersection of real life, art, and ethics currently working itself out in Chicago theater. It's a cliche that art borrows heavily from life (where else does it have to draw from, after all?), but it's not always clear where the line is between "inspired by true events" and "invasion of privacy." A world-premiere play in Chicago, Somebody Foreign by Douglas Post, seems to have boldly crossed that line and then turned around and tried to jump back.

A number of years ago, a couple in Winnetka was murdered in their home. The wife's sister, Jeanne Bishop, had spent time working with human rights groups in Belfast. One of the working theories of the crime developed by the FBI was that the IRA had come gunning for Bishop and had killed the wrong sister. When she wouldn't cooperate in investigating this line of reasoning, the FBI shared that theory with the media. Ultimately, it was found that a local high school ne'er-do-well had been responsible for the murders, and he was convicted of the crime.

There's no question that this is a very compelling story, and it's easy to see how a playwright might want to explore the situation. Douglas Post did just that, apparently leaning heavily on a 1992 article about Bishop in the Chicago Reader. There may be a way to dramatize the story without exploiting Bishop, but Post couldn't find it. He fictionalized the story to some degree, but the main character was still apparently easily recognizable as Bishop. (Some of the language of the play also seemed to have been borrowed from the Reader article.) In November, Post contacted Bishop to let her know about the upcoming play, and Bishop, unsurprisingly, was not pleased. She got in touch with a lawyer to see what could be done. Michael Minor wrote about this aspect of the story in January in the Reader.

City Lit Theatre did not change its plan to open the play, but Post did undertake intensive rewrites to move it away from Bishop's personal story. He replaced Belfast with the Gaza Strip and the IRA with Hamas. In so doing, however, he may have glossed over political issues that differ between one and the other. In his review of the play, the Trib's Chris Jones wrote:

It was clear that the piece was an involving, plot-driven thriller (for the first act at least), but demonstrably unsure about what to say about broader Middle East issues and how to say it. There are contrivances. There is uncertainty. There is nervousness. The Middle East stuff felt globbed on.

Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times was even more blunt:

Whether intentionally or inadvertently, "Somebody Foreign" now turns out to be a play that Hamas would be more than happy to stage as a celebratory event when its representatives take office later this week in the Palestinian territories. The group could not hope for a more fervent trumpeting of the Palestinian cause, the evils of the Israelis, the abusiveness of the FBI and the ignorance and paranoia of the average American.

. . .

The play is essentially lifted from the Palestinian propaganda handbook.

Minor wrote a follow-up in last week's Hot Type column, detailing the fall out, which saw the City Lit board resign en masse. The show opened on February 10, and according to the Website, it will run until March 26. I haven't seen the play, and as I don't think we know anyone involved in it, I don't expect we will--at this point my interest in it would be mostly as a curiosity and cautionary tale of mixing too much easily identifiable life into art.

Although it seems that Jeanne Bishop never had any legal grounds for stopping the play, she was in a position to make trouble. And the ethical problems in this situation are far more distressing than any legal line the playwright or production may have crossed. These events were not Post's to borrow. If they had happened in his own life, then they'd have been fair game, but writers can't just plunder whatever interests them in the private lives of others. (Celebrities can sometimes be a different story, because they put a persona out to the public, and that's open for a writer to play with, but a private citizen is in no such position.) Post says he took twelve years to write his play, and that should have been plenty of time to solve the problems with the work. He should have identified the aspects of the story that interested him, distilled them to a more pure form, and devised a scenario that would allow them to be explored without intruding into Jeanne Bishop's life. That's what writers of fiction do: They invent situations, they don't just crib from the newspaper. He could have avoided the appearance of a sheen in shifting from an Irish milieu to the Middle East and instead filled his play with substantive Middle Eastern politics. Although both might involve terrorism, Ireland and the Gaza Strip are very different places with very different histories and very different reasons for their hostilities. (Yes, both can have religious overtones, but that doesn't make them identical.) Post could've taken the time to research the Middle East to make his story fit there rather than running a search and replace through his word processor. This apparent lack of understanding, and perhaps even lack of interest, in the implications a Middle Eastern background gives to the main character seems to be central to both Jones's and Weiss's complaints in their critiques. This is a weakness the play didn't have to have.

I don't want to be too tough on Douglas Post and his work, because it sounds like he was in a tough position. But it was a tough position of his own making, and it was one he could have avoided.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Beyond the Pale

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." That's what the Prez said after Katrina hit, and today we learned that it was a bald-faced lie. Oh, sure, we suspected as much, but now we know for sure, and there's tape to prove it. He heard from a number of experts who predicted Katrina could do exactly that. Of course, we still can't prove Bush was actually paying attention (he asked no questions whatsoever), so maybe he really did think that. The AP has revealed transcripts and tapes of the briefings Bush and other administration officials received before and during the crisis.

In dramatic and sometimes agonizing terms, federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees, put lives at risk in New Orleans' Superdome and overwhelm rescuers, according to confidential video footage.

Bush didn't ask a single question during the final briefing before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, but he assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: "We are fully prepared."

Or not.

Crooks and Liars has the video of the briefing described above.

The Latest British Import

When looking for the Bob Marley link below, I noticed a story Slate posted today. Apparently British retailer Tesco is entering the American market. I'm not sure if I've ever been in one or not, but pretty much all I know about Tesco's is that Saturday's girls work there and in Woolworths, wear cheap perfume 'cause that's all they can afford.

Good luck to them!

A Good Record Collection Used to Mean Something

I was recently involved in an e-mail discussion about this article on reclaiming Bob Marley's legacy. (It made some interesting points about the fullness of Marley's work being misrepresented by the greatest hits CD Legend, which is one of the best-selling CDs of all time. But I thought it was a bit much to blame our misunderstanding of Marley's true legacy on the fact that college freshmen like him.) Our comments took a bit of a side road into the subject of the sudden easy access to once-obscure music. That reminded me of a column from last summer in The New Republic, of all places. Michael Crowley wrote an essay that touches on Rock Snobs and the ubiquity of everything on an iPod. I'd intended to bring it to your attention shortly after it came out, but Hurricane Katrina sort of hijacked all my blog content for a little while. (Warning--The New Republic is a subscription site, but I seem to be able to bring that page up once or maybe twice before it hides it in the pay-only section of the site.) Feel free to weigh in on whether iPods are the greatest thing ever or are evil beyond measure.