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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Tuesday, 16 May 2006
Spinning Spinoza and Evil Albinos on a Slow News Day
Topic: The Media

Spinning Spinoza and Evil Albinos on a Slow News Day

Some days are just slow news days, and what we get is filigree - attaching lace and bows to the long legs of previous news stories, commenting on comments and waiting for the other shoe to drop, or some shoe to drop, or some story to break. Tuesday, May 16, 2006, was one of those days. Karl Rove wasn't indicted. The elected representatives in Iraq, even after five months, didn't form a new government. No top official resigned. The vice president didn't shoot anyone.

The news of the day? We found out that really was a 757 hitting the Pentagon almost four years ago, as in US Releases 9/11 Video Of Pentagon Jet Crash. Take THAT, all you conspiracy theorists. It wasn't a missile, or a bomb planted in the building that was part of a plot to outrage Americans so they'd be glad to get rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as even if he wasn't involved someone had to play and he was a nasty piece of work and would do nicely. Except the video shows nothing really definitive. The news shows ran the ten second clip endlessly. It would do.

Other non-news? One should note that here that Fidel Castro angrily denies what Forbes had reported. He says he is not a multimillionaire. He doesn't have eight hundred million anywhere. Good to know.

As for the other big stories? They were all follow-up.

The president's Monday evening address to the nation on dealing with illegal immigration (discussed here) was old news. The added detail for the day after was an item like this, Mexico threatening to sue over the proposed National Guard patrols on their border. This seems very odd. "If there is a real wave of rights abuses, if we see the National Guard starting to directly participate in detaining people ... we would immediately start filing lawsuits through our consulates," Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said in an interview with a Mexico City radio station. Right. Otherwise the Senate proceeded with their immigration legislation, persisting in pursuing some sort of temporary worker program and a way for long-time illegal folk to do some sort of penance and become citizens. The House guys, who want to deport them all and build a giant wall, fumed, as did most every conservative writer in the country (a good roundup of that here). But this was not news, just news of fuming and maneuvering in reaction to news.

And the NSA telephone records scandal (discussed here) was getting its own filigree. Did USA Today get it all wrong? Could it be the government didn't have the call records for every telephone chat in America since late 2001? The was no data-mining pattern recognition effort going on, because they didn't really have the data? The president himself sort of admitted that's just what they were doing, and told everyone not to worry, it was for our own good and no one was actually listening to any calls. But then there was this -
Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp., facing consumer lawsuits seeking massive damages, have issued carefully worded denials of a report that they turned over millions of customers' calling records to a U.S. spy agency.

USA Today reported last week that the National Security Agency has had access to records of billions of domestic calls and collected tens of millions of telephone records from data provided by BellSouth, Verizon and AT&T Inc..

BellSouth and Verizon denied the part of the USA Today report that said the companies had received a contract from the NSA and that they turned over records. However, Verizon declined to comment on whether it provided access to the NSA.

"One of the most glaring and repeated falsehoods in the media reporting is the assertion that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Verizon was approached by NSA and entered into an arrangement to provide the NSA with data from its customers' domestic calls,'' Verizon said in a statement on Tuesday.

However, "Verizon cannot and will not confirm or deny whether it has a relationship to the classified NSA program,'' the company said.

BellSouth said on Monday that "based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA.'' A BellSouth spokesman was not immediately available for further comment.

AT&T has been more circumspect, saying it has an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies but has refused to comment specifically on national security matters.

A company spokesman on Tuesday declined to comment about whether it provided the NSA access.
And Quest said they turned down the request from the NSA for phone records. It's very mysterious.

No it isn't. They turned over no data. There were no contracts for that. They just gave the NSA access to their truck lines and let the NSA guys gather the data themselves, and went out for coffee. USA Today is standing by their story. The only news here is shifting blame back to the feds, to keep out of legal problems with outraged customers. You can't sue the feds. Government of the people, by the people and for the people - you can't sue yourself after all.

And late on Tuesday, in a surprise reversal, the administration agreed to let the full Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees review the domestic spying program. So more than just a few "key people" will get some information. That was always curious - saying they really, honestly, no kidding, actually briefed key legislators, but couldn't say who as that was classified information in and of itself.

Now it gets interesting. This is not big news, a seminal event that changes everything, nor is it a grand finale that wraps up everything - Nixon resign, LBJ says he's had enough. This is the muddled middle, where gauntlets are thrown down and we get sputtering outrage one way or the other. It is kind of fun, in an odd way. It's the middle of the news.

And the rest of the news on a slow day is filler, like Garrison Keillor getting off a a fine quip with lots of resonance, as it refers to so much -
Having been called names, one looks back at one's own angry outbursts over the years, and I recall having once referred to Republicans as "hairy-backed swamp developers, fundamentalist bullies, freelance racists, hobby cops, sweatshop tycoons, line jumpers, marsupial moms and aluminum-siding salesmen, misanthropic frat boys, ninja dittoheads, shrieking midgets, tax cheats, cheese merchants, cat stranglers, pill pushers, nihilists in golf pants, backed-up Baptists, the grand pooh-bahs of Percodan, mouth breathers, testosterone junkies and brownshirts in pinstripes." I look at those words now, and "cat stranglers" seems excessive to me. The number of cat stranglers in the ranks of the Republican Party is surely low, and that reference was hurtful to Republicans and to cat owners. I feel sheepish about it.
That's a classic. Just the thing for a slow news day.

How slow? Late in the day SALON.COM - the site of first-rate journalism, much intellectual depth and amazing detail, and all the reality-based stuff that so angers the neoconservatives and the administration they direct - runs a book review, of all things, at the top of their first page.

Laura Miller offers Everybody loves Spinoza - "Atheist Jew, champion of modernism, and kind and sociable man, the 17th century lens grinder who was "drunk on God" continues to win hearts and minds with his breathtaking philosophical vision."

Spinoza? Talk about your slow news days.

But it opens with this -
Bertrand Russell declared the 17th century lens grinder Baruch Spinoza to be "the noblest and most loveable of the great philosophers." To judge from several recent books, he's not alone in that opinion. The neurologist Antonio Damasio made the philosopher's thought a keystone of his 2003 book on emerging theories of emotion and consciousness, "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain." In "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity," philosophy professor and novelist Rebecca Goldstein declares herself to have loved Spinoza since the first time she heard him decried in the Orthodox yeshiva high school she attended as a girl. Matthew Stewart, a management consultant turned freelance historian of philosophy, makes Spinoza the supreme champion of modernism in his tale of intellectual rivalry, "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World." Even Einstein, when asked if he believed in God, replied, "I believe in Spinoza's God."

All this is strange, when you observe, as Goldstein does, that Spinoza's ideas, from the perspective of contemporary analytic philosophy ("the philosophic tradition toward which I gravitate"), are considered "not just unsubstantiated speculations, but highfalutin nonsense." Surveying Spinoza's view of existence, Russell declared "the whole of this metaphysic is impossible to accept; it is incompatible with modern logic and with scientific method." Stewart characterizes Spinoza's thought as exhibiting a forbiddingly "eerie self-sufficiency." And in his own time and for decades afterward, Spinoza was widely denounced as (according to one church leader) "that insane and evil man, who deserves to be covered with chains and whipped with a rod." Yet however obsolete, ridiculous or even blasphemous, Spinoza still speaks to modern thinkers with an immediacy no philosopher of his time can match.
Then the three books are discussed in detail, and even if it may be highfalutin nonsense, it's pretty cool.

Way, way into that we get the core -
Key to Spinoza's heresy was his monism, his belief that everything that exists is essentially a single thing, "nature" (that is, the infinite universe), and that this is identical with God. (As a girl, Goldstein was taught that Spinoza wickedly equated God with nature, when Jews and Christians agreed that God is supernatural, outside of nature, and a person.) Everything we experience - people, events, objects - is simply a "mode" of that single "Substance" or essence. Because God/Nature is infinite and we are finite, we perceive these things to be separate when they are not; all separate identities, including our own individuality, are merely an illusion or misperception. We perceive good and evil when neither really exists, from the perspective of God. The only way we can come to understand the true unity of the world is through the understanding of pure reason, which is integral to Substance in the same way that roundness is integral to a circle.

We can't fully grasp this - our minds aren't adequate to the task - but with a dash of intuition, we can glimpse it and experience Spinoza's notion of true happiness. We can then attain what Goldstein calls a "radical objectivity," a perspective that's outside of our own limited identity. This objectivity will enable us to see the insignificance of our own pains, pleasures and losses except insofar as they help or hinder our ability to reason. We will realize that a life of restraint and peaceful coexistence with our fellow man is exactly what will sustain us in this cause; self-interest and virtue will be revealed as identical. Finally, we will be able to regard with tranquility the fact that we are mortal, that our minds, like our bodies, are simply a mode of the great infinity of Substance, and will someday end.
Got it? No?

Don't worry. Just know the guy wasn't a Republican -
A Spinoza whose dearest goal is to overthrow theocracy and ensure the freedoms of a democratic secular state is certainly more appealing nowadays than the one who insists on his own weird, impersonal, indifferent "God" and the supremacy of reason over passion. But it seems more likely that Spinoza's quest to discover the nature of reality came first, and that it was the efforts of various religious authorities to squelch his questions and ideas that led him to conceive of the ideal of a secular, tolerant state.
So THAT'S what you get on a slow news day, co-opting Spinoza in the long argument with Bush-Cheney-Dobson-Frist-Scalia about that view that the secular is evil and must be destroyed. We've got Spinoza on our side. Great.

So you don't get this philosophy stuff? Fine. There's something for everyone.

On the same slow news day the Boston Globe reports here that the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation is ticked off - "The Da Vinci Code" will be "the 68th movie since 1960 to feature an evil albino."

You didn't know there was a National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation? You didn't notice all the evil albino villains in the movies? Yeah, Bo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" turned out to be a hero and protector, but he was deeply strange. And what about that white-haired guy in the first "Lethal Weapon" movie trying his best to kill poor Mel Gibson. There may be something going on here. Now this new Ron Howard film, with hype beyond anything seen in ten years, based on a wildly popular crap novel, hits the screen - and it happens again. The Globe in on the case.

But it doesn't matter. The Cannes Film Festival is underway, and as we see here, at a screening for critics the day before its Cannes premier, Ron Howard's new film offended more than just the albinos from Hew Hampshire -
The Cannes audience clearly grew restless as the movie dragged on to two and a half hours and spun a long sequence of anticlimactic revelations.

"I kept thinking of the Energizer Bunny, because it kept going and going and going, and not in a good way," said James Rocchi, a film critic for CBS 5 television in San Francisco and the online outlet Cinematical. "Ron Howard makes handsome films. He doesn't make bad ones, but he doesn't make great ones."

One especially melodramatic line uttered by Hanks drew prolonged laughter and some catcalls, and the audience continued to titter for much of the film's remainder.

Some people walked out during the movie's closing minutes, though there were fewer departures than many Cannes movies provoke among harsh critics. When the credits rolled, there were a few whistles and hisses, and there was none of the scattered applause even bad movies sometimes receive at Cannes.

Critics singled out co-star Ian McKellen, playing a wry Grail enthusiast who joins the search, as the movie's highlight, injecting hearty humor and delivering the most nuanced performance. Paul Bettany added a seething mix of tragic pathos and destructive zealousness as a monk assassin who carries out the slayings.

Bamigboye said all the actors were solid, but enthusiastically added, "I've got to tell you, Ian McKellen steals it. He slices all the crap away."
He slices all the crap away. Cool. The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation will be pleased.

But Supreme Court Justice Scalia won't be. As a member of Opus Dei he probably relates to this story from AFP (the French guys) -
PARIS, May 16, 2006 (AFP) - The prelate of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic lay organization depicted in Dan Brown's book "The Da Vinci Code," is praying for the author and the makers of the Hollywood blockbuster debuting in France this week, he said in an interview released Tuesday.

Spanish Bishop Javier Echevarria Rodriguez admitted he had not read the best-selling 2003 novel, in which Opus Dei is depicted as secretive and violent, but said its popularity pointed to a need in society for "transcendancy".

"I haven't read the book. I have a lot of commitments and I don't have time to waste on that kind of novel," he told the Wednesday edition of Catholic French daily La Croix.

"It is not attacks on Opus Dei that matter to me, but those who attack our lord and the Church," he added.

"I pray every day for the writer and also for the makers of the film for they may not realize that what they suggest is blasphemous and could hurt people."
Hey, it hurt the albinos.

Ah well, it was a slow news day.

Posted by Alan at 23:15 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 17 May 2006 09:07 PDT home

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