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"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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Wednesday, 17 May 2006
Marketing: A New European Import
Topic: The Culture

Marketing: A New European Import

Who says all pop culture trends start out here in Hollywood? You've heard it all. Los Angeles, the City of Angels, offers something for everyone. Trends start here - some say so does the future. Hollywood creates trends. It determines what is cool. It's the world's cultural capital in some odd way, if the only culture left is large-scale shallow but flashy movies for the world market, popular music of all sorts, and what passes for fashion among fifteen-year-old girls, and celebrity detached from anything like achievement or expertise in anything but posing. And there's television - we gave the world the sit-com, games shows and The Simpsons and all the rest.

One needs to remember that Hollywood is a recent invention, incorporated as a municipality in 1903, with town ordinances prohibiting the sale of liquor except by pharmacists and one outlawing driving cattle through the streets in herds of more than two hundred. In 1904 we got the trolley - Los Angeles to Hollywood up Prospect Avenue. In 1910 Hollywood was annexed into the City of Los Angeles - we needed that water the new Los Angeles Aqueduct was piping down from the Owens Valley. Prospect Avenue was renamed Hollywood Boulevard. The movie industry boomed. Expatriates from Europe showed up in the thirties - Stravinsky, Schonberg, Man Ray - and Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald were writing screenplays, and drinking heavily at Musso and Franks. See this from February 4, 1905 in the Los Angeles Daily Times - "Business of an objectionable character has been discouraged; the saloon and its kindred evils are unknown." Times changed. Hollywood became the center of a certain sort of everything. And we came to know all the kindred evils, every one of them. We turned them into entertainment for the world.

But sometimes trends start elsewhere, and then out here in Hollywood we play catch-up, turning obscure French films into Hollywood blockbusters, and turning the Beatles into the far less odd Monkees. Now it seems to be happening again.

If you're in Paris you can switch from watching The Simpsons in German on Arte to watching Star Academy on TF1, the French take on American Idol. Drop by the local tabac and buy a pack of the most popular chewing gum there, Hollywood. Buy cheap jewelry at Sunset Boulevard on rue des Rennes. But know things sometimes run in the other direction. Earlier this year, NBC announced that it had acquired the rights to develop and screen a US version of the Eurovision Song Contest - instead of forty European nations competing in a cheesy big-budget show for the best bouncy pop song, each of the fifty states of the union will do that. You call in on your touch-tone phone and vote for the winner. Of course you can hardly wait for that.

It may seem peculiar, but the NBC people are no fools. The Eurovision Song Contest is now it its fifty-first year, and draws three hundred million viewers each year. So it didn't start in Hollywood. So what? This could be the next big thing on American television, if you hide the origin. Who remembers "All in the Family" was a version of a UK show, and Archie Bunker had his East End prototype? We're talking big bucks, smash hit potential, with a fine buzz.

Will it work here? Maybe, but this Eurovision Song Contest is very odd, and has come up before here - June 8, 2003, here - "watching the Eurovision Song Contest will either put you in a coma or drive you mad."

And from May 16, 2004, Silly Music -
Does anyone on this side of the pond follow the Eurovision song contest? I doubt it. This contest predates American Idol by many, many years, but like American Idol showcases some awful pop music. All the countries of Europe enter a singer or a group doing an original song - and from this event we were all introduced to Icelandic pop rock. Swedish stuff? Think of ABBA without wit or talent. You get the idea. Perhaps the only thing good that ever came out of the Eurovision song contest was by accident - many years ago an Irish folk dance group performed between contestants and became wildly popular, that was Riverdance and then Michael Flaherty proclaiming himself "Lord of the Dance" and stomping around. Whether this was a good thing depends on your appetite for penny whistles and fast unison clogging by rank upon rank of thin redheaded beauties.
The rest of the item covered that year's contest held in Istanbul. Ukraine won - only the second time the country had taken part in the competition - Ruslana won for her song Wild Dance. Serbia and Montenegro were second, with Greece third.

The item also quoted this in SLATE.COM -
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted one die-hard fan who acknowledged that the contest - with its flamboyant costumes and high camp quotient has "seen better days." Noting that Eurovision enjoys a large gay following, he added, "It's like a gay world cup. Who else would sit here and watch this load of rubbish?"
Who indeed?

The next year was covered here, May 29, 2005 - Greece is the Word. Greek singer Helena won. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko presented her with the prize for her performance of My Number One, "a mid-tempo tune with minor-keyed Balkan flavorings." The surprise runner-up was Malta's Chiara. Romania's Luminita Anghel placed third. Vanilla Ninja, from Estonia but representing Switzerland, and Bosnia-Herzegovina's Feminem, with one of its three singers born in what is now Croatia, didn't do that well. So it was Greece, then Malta, then Romania. Cool.

Obviously the country for the previous winner hosts the contest the following year. That means the contest this year is in Athens, with the semifinal May 18 and the final on May 20, and you can read all about it at the official website here.

The best introduction, or at least the most pointed, can be found in SLATE.COM where UK-based Mike Atkinson offers this:

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest
Nonsense lyrics, frenetic dance routines, and costumes that sprout pterodactyl wings.
Whose Three-Minute Pop Ditty Will Rule the Continent?
Posted Wednesday, May 17, 2006, at 5:30 PM ET

The issue? The Eurovision Song Contest "can stake a legitimate claim to being the world's most watched regular music event. Despite this, the show remains entirely unknown to all but a handful of Americans."

And here's his analysis of what we have not yet encountered -
In theory, Eurovision's aim has always been to discover "the best song in Europe," with the focus on "song." In practice, things don't quite work out so simply. Since the majority of the viewing public will only hear the competing songs once before casting their telephone votes, it is imperative that each performance creates an instant impact to ensure that it stands out from the herd.

So, every trick in the showbiz book is thrown out, in rapid and dizzying succession. Dance routines start from a base level of "frenetic" and escalate upward. (This year, there's an awful lot of break dancing.) Costumes start at "florid" and expand outward - in many cases, quite literally. (The gown worn by the Swedish contestant covers most of the stage space behind her, and the monster costume worn by Finland's lead singer sprouts outsized pterodactyl wings during the final verse.) Mid-song costume changes are not unheard of; mid-song costume removal has become almost common, ever since a 1981 British victory in which the male performers tore off the skirts of the female performers, to a lyrical cue of "And if you wanna see some more!"

... Meanwhile, each country's props department works overtime to create the supreme staging gimmick - with mixed results. The Russians have a ballerina emerging from a grand piano, scattering rose petals. Ukraine has a huge jump-rope. Iceland's Silvia Night slides onto the stage from a giant white stiletto and pulls a telephone receiver from an outsized stick of candy. Finland has the biggest pyrotechnic display; Sweden the biggest wind machine. At Eurovision, size matters. (All of which makes the Latvian effort - a diminutive and decidedly low-tech junior robot - look ill-advised.)
Okay. Think about what each of the fifty states over here could do on the NBC version. Pennsylvania with molten steel and a remix techno-thump version of the Pennsylvania Polka? What will North Dakota do? Delaware? Oregon? It's hard to see how this will work. America has been homogenized in a way Europe has not. It not only that we all speak the same language (more or less), we all lead pretty much identical everyday lives - every mall has its GAP, Restoration Hardware and food court with the usual suspects, and Boston and Tucson and Billings look alike where one runs one's errands and relaxes. NBC may have misjudged this one.

Then Atkinson explains the music -
Due to a restriction dating from the show's genesis in the 1950s, when pop music was obliged to fit the strictures of the 7-inch vinyl format, no song is permitted to exceed three minutes in length. This ensures a tight discipline in their construction, into which a variety of well-worn tricks are squeezed. Each song must grab the listener's attention within the first few seconds, and each song should build to a suitably exhilarating conclusion - usually by means of an upward key change before the final refrain.

When it comes to that all-important chorus - which is reprised in a memory-jogging video montage just before the telephone lines open - the melodic hook should ideally be underpinned by a short, memorable phrase, using lyrics that are simple enough for the international, multilingual audience to grasp. In this respect, nonsense language can be a great boon: Previous winning songs have included "La La La," "Boom Bang a Bang," "Ding Ding-a-Dong," and the splendidly dumb "Diggi Loo Diggi Ley."
Well, we don't have much of a multilingual audience, so the lyrics here may be better, and the three minute rule can be waived, although it could be useful to limit viewer pain from overload. Too much screeching spectacle and the audience switches over to CSI, just for relief.

As for NBC moving forward, Atkinson notes "there is nothing remotely hip about Eurovision, which generally runs at least ten years behind developments in youth-based genres, if not twenty." Hardly any rap and metal - no modern R&B. But then, "this stylistic conservatism does ensure a continuing appeal to the sort of traditional, multigenerational, family-based demographic that is rapidly disappearing in our tightly segmented multichannel age."

Yeah, but will it play in Peoria? NBC has a problem. The whole thing is not remotely hip, nor does it seem to hit that sweet spot for middle America - safely hip in a non-threatening way that still lets the viewer feel "with it." That's an old Hollywood trick. What you give the rubes has to be as daring and controversial as the hot movie of the moment, "The Da Vinci Code" - not very. Think of "Rebel Without a Cause" - in the mid-fifties every fifteen-year-old guy in Ames or Buffalo was really James Dean, going though existential angst. Right. Make people think they're thinking, and let them think they're in on the cool. It sells.

This may not -
Yes, the Eurovision Song Contest is flagrantly camp - that overused and much devalued term - but like all the best camp, it retains a certain innocence and sincerity at its core. So, when the 10th dolled-up pop moppet in a row gushes at her press conference about what a deep and humbling honor it is to be representing her country, and our eyes roll upward in exasperation, we also know that, deep down inside, she actually means it. And I, for one, like that a lot.
Okay, camp just won't do. That's charming for forty seconds, then it's cloying. Americans will shrug and move on.

NBC has to sell the innocence and sincerity thing. People eat that up. And as they say out here in Hollywood, if you can fake sincerity you've got it made.


You might want to browse the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest entrants here. The Finnish entry, Lordi is conventionally strange - AC/DC meets the Orcs (or Klingons) - and check out Germany's Texas Lightning in their cowboy outfits. Camp indeed.


Will "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, be watching?

Here's what he had to say on the 18th -
Starts Saturday at 21:00 on France-3 TV. What else is on? A variety show on TF1, the 43rd rerun of 'Jean Moulin' on France-2, oooh there's '1631, Massacre à Magdebourg' on Arte - something about Europe's eternal wars of religion I guess - and there's 'Smallville' on M6. Canal+ I don't pay for so forget it.

Being in sort of a transmission shadow - I can't quite see the Tour Eiffel - my TV comes from an antique roof antenna, and then an antenna cable running through the apartment. Arte, luckily for me, gets the best reception. TFI and France-2 are about equal, France-3 is not so good and M6 sticks to black, white and snow. But I can use the tuner in the video recorder; it's better than the TV's.

France-3 has set aside three hours for Eurovision. Oooh, it says Michel Druker is one of the French hosts. He's been on TV since it was invented - the SECAM version - in France. He used to be with RTL, or he invented it too. He's not as old as this sounds and he doesn't look it, so there must be some clever makeup he's got. The way it works the French will comment the Eurovision with a French view. This will get somewhat more ironic after the French entry proves to be embarrassingly inept. The Bulgarian peasants and Albania goatherds will not fare well in the eyes of the French, who invented 'Ye-ye.'

The observation that the Eurovision can be very camp is true. For three hours the only jokes will be in the dulled minds of the viewers because no jokes are allowed on stage. It's a long time to go watching a band of nitwits trying not to offend anybody, from Palestine to the North Pole. In a word, it's Europe.

Last night for example, on Arte of course, there was a documentary about how the Nazis treated homosexuals - with four of the six remaining survivors telling us how it was. in parts It was pretty emotional. At the time, in the 20s and 30s, a lot of people thought the Nazis were a gang of 'schwülen.' There was Röhm for example, head of the SA. Anyhow, not-so-fond memories of stays in Dachau and other Nazi spas. 'Jean Moulin,' mentioned above, was a resistance hero in France, bounced by the Gestapo in Lyon and killed. There's a museum here named after him.

Against a background like this the Eurovision Song Contest better not have any jokes.
And that's the word from Paris.

Posted by Alan at 20:49 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006 19:00 PDT home

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

Hollywood Nympheas
Topic: Announcements

Hollywood Nymphéas

No political commentary today. Today was a day for visuals. For a bit of Monet on Sunset, here is Hollywood's Giverny, the lotus pools at Will Rogers Memorial Park on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, just across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Polo Lounge and all that - six photos and a wealth of botanical information and Hollywood trivia.

Posted by Alan at 20:25 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Monday, 15 May 2006
Pleasing Everyone, Pleasing No One
Topic: For policy wonks...

Pleasing Everyone, Pleasing No One

The week opened with some reframing - Monday, May 15, a speech by Karl Rove at the American Enterprise Institute where he explained the polling showing the president's approval rating at an all time low, and the overall disapproval rating (and the subsets by issue) sky high, was misleading. Why was that? That was because "people like him, they respect him, he's somebody they feel a connection with, but they're just sour right now on the war." The full quote is here, with the key polling data. The general idea was that this was sad, but such things happen - war is always hard and too many people are eventually wimps, and stupid too, as they allow their despair with the war to blind them what a wonderful job the wonderful man they like and respect is doing otherwise. That's one way of looking at it. Laura Bush the day before had said she just didn't believe the poll numbers (discussed here) - she's been on the road, at all the public events, and that disapproval is not what she saw. She was there. No one was so graceless as to mention each and every audience had been vetted, every time, and no one with a grudge or gripe got within ten miles of her, or her husband. She got a pass on her comments, including the one where she declared herself a feminist. It's not as if she's an elected official or policy maker or anything.

But the real reframing of issues was the president's Monday evening television address to the nation, in prime time during sweeps week (driving the major broadcast networks up the wall), where President Bush announced the solution to the immigration crisis, the crisis that comes up when major elections loom.

The context was important. The Republican-controlled House had passed a version of their solution - make being here without proper papers an aggravated felony, make any kind of aid to anyone you knew or should have known was an illegal immigrant a serious crime, even if you're a church offering no-questions-asked hot meals to the poor, and build a giant wall from the Gulf Coast of Texas down by Brownsville all the way west to the Pacific just south of San Diego. Send them all home. Seal the border. Punish them. The Republican-controlled Senate had almost worked out something quite different - send the most recently arrived home and let the others pay a fine and stay as guest workers, and let the long-timers with family, careers, who had been paying taxes and all the rest, become citizens after jumping through some specific hoops. The first version of that fell apart, but a new version will be discussed in the Senate soon. To become a law, the House and Senate must hammer out their differences and send the compromise legislation off to the president for his signature. That seems unlikely.

The president leans toward the way the Senate sees things, and looking at it generously he likes that approach on humanitarian and practical grounds. Looking at it cynically, he knows the corporations, including agribusiness, that bankroll the Republican Party, and are integrated into the Bush family, need cheap no-questions-asked labor, and you don't tick them off by sending it home. And looking at it politically, no one will be happy when lettuce costs three hundred dollars a head and you have to bus your own table at Spago or Denny's - and too you might need at least some of the Hispanic votes to hold onto the House and Senate, where, if you lose one or the other or both, the investigations begin and roll on for your final two years. You don't want to make "them" the bad guys.

The problem was obvious - the speech had to present something for everyone, while at the same time not really offending one side or the other. It was a classic exercise in offending the most people the least.

So just how do you do that? He'd be bold, and so he was, sort of. Too bold - getting in a helicopter in that cool jump suit, leaning out the side and machine gunning women and children in the Arizona desert for the ultimate photo-op - would be a bit over the top. He'd lose the moderates. The business folks would see their potential base of useful cheap labor rotting in the sun and the vultures getting the only advantage. Too cowardly - give those here amnesty and eventual citizenship and say to everyone that we need these folks and they'll be fine citizens so just chill - would drive the conservative "cultural values" core of the Republican Party to their gun cabinets for the revolution to overthrown their king. And there was Lou Dobbs on CNN with his nationally televised jihad to rid us of this plague - he'd buy the guillotine for the festivities.

So the obvious solution was to be moderately bold - throw each side a bone or two and hope for the best. Be very cautiously audacious.

So the major speech was quite odd. You can read a transcript here, or just look at the bullet points here (Associated Press) or here (CNN).

The first cautiously audacious step? Make an admission that no one expects. Say things are actually going badly, all the more effective because people know you just never do that. So say, flat out, that the United States "does not have complete control of its borders and millions of people who have sneaked across the border have stayed in this country, living in the shadows of society." If the president is somehow charged with protecting the border (it's part of his job as commander-in-chief), that's saying that over the last six years you screwed up. Ah ha! - the conservative "cultural values" core of the Republican Party will say, "finally, we're getting somewhere." So they feel a bit better.

The second cautiously audacious step? Say you're sending in the troops to fix it - the federal government will pay for up to six thousand National Guard troops to be deployed to the southern border (the Canadians are no problem). But you're only funding them. They'll be under the command of the state governors, not Bush or Rumsfeld. And by the way, these National Guard units will not be directly involved in "law enforcement activities" (avoiding any pesky posse comitatus issues) - the border patrol will do that stuff. And the National Guard units won't even be armed - they'll be gathering intelligence and building fences and patrolling roads, not involved in "the apprehension and detention of illegal immigrants." We're talking logistics and administration. So you send in the troops, sort of. And they will serve in two-week rotations - each year that means 156,000 troops could be sent down south. And you hope no one asks where they come from, since forty percent of our guys in Iraq and Afghanistan are Guard or Reserves, and there's a hurricane season coming, and floods in New England, and the Guard gets a whole lot of assignments. But you sent the troops to the rescue, sort of.

The third cautiously audacious step? For the other side, particularly the business who love that cheap labor, you suggest a temporary worker program - foreign workers could enter the United States for jobs for a limited period of time. But they're required to return to their home countries when their time is up, or the job is over. And actually, this is pretty clever. They don't really stay here, and the party that depots them is actually not the government - it's the employer. The company says the job is done and they are the ones deporting the used-up worker. So business gets tossed a bone, and it sounds somewhat humane (these people need work), but it's not like they stay, so the red-meat Republicans get something too.

The fourth cautiously audacious step? Dazzle everyone's eyes with something bright and shiny - high technology. Say employers must "be held to account for their employees." Yeah, you're cracking down on businesses that hire people without really caring if they're here illegally. So the proposal is a tamper-proof identification card for every legal foreign worker. This helps the law enforcement folks and leaves the nasty employers with no excuse at all for violating the law. Biometric information and digital fingerprints. That's the ticket. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge - the cards won't be ready for a few years, if ever, so if your carpet factory in North Carolina is full of these illegal folks working hard, you can rest easy. And as for building that big wall, say you're going to build a "virtual wall" with video cameras and unmanned drones watching everything from the sky, and motion detection gizmos in the cactus. The red-meat Republicans may buy into that. It does sound pretty neat. And it buys time - these things take years to work out and the "we're working on it, almost ready" line works wonders. People love technology.

The fifth cautiously audacious step? Redefine amnesty - "I believe that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law, to pay their taxes, to learn English and to work in a job for a number of years. People who meet these conditions should be able to apply for citizenship but approval would not be automatic, and they will have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law. What I have just described is not amnesty; it is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen." Well, if it were pure amnesty there wouldn't be a penalty. Right. That one may not fool anyone.

The sixth cautiously audacious step? Play the cultural purity card - the "social values" crowd loves that. Say Americans "are bound together by our shared ideals, an appreciation of our history, respect for the flag we fly and an ability to speak and write the English language. English is also the key to unlocking the opportunity of America." No homemade tacos and burritos. These people have to go to Taco Bell like normal Americans, and order in English. They have to act like good white folks. We all forgot our cultural roots. They should too.

So did the president hit the sweet spot? He specifically called on Congress to pass a "comprehensive" immigration reform bill, one "that addresses all elements of the immigration problem in order to achieve a solution."

He punted. This is going nowhere.

The Democrats trotted out Senator Durbin to reply. No problem with the troop idea, but he didn't see where we'd find the Guard troops given how stretched thin things are these days. And he suggested this array of dreams wasn't exactly leadership. But then why should he say anything that harsh? The whole thing was directed to the warring factions in the Republican Party (and Lou Dobbs). Why get involved? Let them have at each other.

Here is a good summary from Kevin Drum -
The immigration speech seemed like it was mostly just the same 'ol same 'ol. Nickel version: Beef up the borders with troops and high tech wizardry but insist that it's not "militarization"; start up a guest worker program that's not called a guest worker program; introduce an amnesty program but insist that it's not an amnesty program (it's not, it's not, it's not!); and crack down on employers who employ illegal immigrants while pretending that they're actually victims of highly sophisticated fraud rather than willing coconspirators aided and abetted by the business wing of the Republican Party.

Actually, I don't really have anything against most of this stuff. Bush's position on immigration seems surprisingly reasonable to me. But it's still kind of fun watching him bob and weave and choose his words with such delicate care in order to avoid the first fully televised political suicide in history, courtesy of the wingnut base he's spent his life pandering to.
Pithy, no?

As for all this as seen from Mexico, the issue may be William Howard Taft.

What? See this -
Mexicans chafed Monday at the notion that President Bush wants to send National Guard troops to help enforce the U.S.-Mexico border, even as President Vicente Fox tried to downplay the seriousness of the move.

Many said the Guard troops could do little to stop determined migrants from finding unguarded places to cross the 2,000-mile border. Neither would the Guard do anything to solve the deeper issues behind the migration, they said.

Some were offended at a "militarization" they thought more appropriate for the border between openly hostile countries and feared that troops could become a permanent presence redefining the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

"It's worrying," said Arturo Solis, an immigrant rights activist in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas. "The bad thing is that the American government is insisting on confusing immigration with a criminal problem."

The move reminded some historians of 1913, when President William Taft sent troops to the Texas border. Mexico was in the midst of a chaotic revolution, and Taft was warning Mexican generals and rebels not to harm U.S. interests south of the border.

At the time, there was no real threat to American soil, but the U.S. public was clamoring for action, said Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent historian at the Colegio de Mexico.

"It sounds very familiar," Meyer said. "Taft said, 'No, no, no, this is not an unfriendly move. We just want to make sure that nothing happens at the border.' But it sent a signal that a peaceful border was being regarded as dangerous."
Yeah, and the New Mexico National Guard helped track down Pancho Villa in 1916.

A brief comment at Martini Republic sums it up - "Putting troops on the border will alienate one of our few remaining friends in the world. By treating terrorism as a state v. state military problem, when nearly all other nations treat it as a cultural problem, we've blown just about every friend we ever had."

And the Guardian (UK) noticed something else - "In addition to the national guard, which will play a supporting role to the border patrol forces, the plan unveiled by Mr Bush last night calls for an increase in detention centres for illegal immigrants."

More jails. Oh yeah, that.

Well, the hard-line side of the Republican Party is on a rampage, and part of the deport-them-all community says deporting these twelve million or so men women and children is still the best idea -
Not only will it work, but one can easily estimate how long it would take. If it took the Germans less than four years to rid themselves of 6 million Jews, many of whom spoke German and were fully integrated into German society, it couldn't possibly take more than eight years to deport 12 million illegal aliens, many of whom don't speak English and are not integrated into American society.

See Digby here on this Karl Rove strategy, as the speech may have been his calculation to get the party back together and keep control of congress in November -
Immigration may get his base out in the fall, and the issue may make this a closer election than we'd like. But history shows these immigration fevers come and go. Losing any hope of the Hispanic vote with a bunch of Nazi talk about "ridding the country of its problems" is the end of the whole enchilada. The Republicans cannot be a majority if they lose the Hispanics. Rove knows this better than anyone - and it's got him dancing on the head of a pin unable to please anyone.

That is one atomic wedgie he's feeling right now. But hey, when he and his pals decided to exploit racial fears way back when, they consolidated a bunch of people under their tent who have a proclivity for unpleasant behavior toward those of other cultures and races. They are demanding that their party kick some dark hued ass, preferably close enough to home where they can really enjoy it.
Live by the sword, die by the sword. The Republican Southern Strategy of long ago - assimilate all the racists you can find and get them to abandon the party of LBJ and the Civil Rights Act for your side - seems to have drawn in folks who wax nostalgic about boxcars, stuffed full of men, woman and children, heading for the border.

And they're angry. You will find here a discussion of all the conservative voices saying Bush should be impeached for his failure to stop the "Mexican invasion" and protect our nation's borders.

Given the dynamics here, this speech was about the best that could be done. Things are not going well for the White House.


Footnote: What You Missed While We Worried About the Huddled Masses Streaming North

There was that whole thing late last week when we found the government had amassed a huge database of pretty nearly all telephone calls made in America since late 2001 - who called whom and for how long, but not what was said. That was discussed here. The idea is some fancy pattern recognition software will reveal plots by those who want to kill us all. As a few have said, this is like looking for a needle in a haystack, by building the world's largest haystack. It's very odd. And many, like Tim Grieve here, pointed out we have no way of knowing what the government is doing with the information once it has it.

Monday, May 15, we got a hint here - ABC News reporters Brian Ross and Richard Esposito say they've been told by a senior federal law enforcement official that the government is tracking their telephone calls in order to identify their confidential sources. The official told them: "It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick."

Ross and Esposito say they don't know whether the government got information about their calls through the ginat NSA database program or some other way, but they say that the Bush administration has a motive for learning about the people with whom they've talked - "Our reports on the CIA's secret prisons in Romania and Poland were known to have upset CIA officials."

Yep. And this -"People questioned by the FBI about leaks of intelligence information say the CIA was also disturbed by ABC News reports that revealed the use of CIA predator missiles inside Pakistan."

Ross and Esposito say they don't think the content of their calls is being monitored, but "a pattern of phone calls from a reporter" could reveal the identity of confidential sources.

That'll shut down the press.

Late in the day, the FBI confirmed, but said it wasn't the NSA database they used. The Patriot Act did just fine -
The FBI acknowledged late Monday that it is increasingly seeking reporters' phone records in leak investigations.

"It used to be very hard and complicated to do this, but it no longer is in the Bush administration," said a senior federal official.

... Officials say the FBI makes extensive use of a new provision of the Patriot Act which allows agents to seek information with what are called National Security Letters (NSL).

The NSLs are a version of an administrative subpoena and are not signed by a judge. Under the law, a phone company receiving a NSL for phone records must provide them and may not divulge to the customer that the records have been given to the government.
No warrant, no oversight, so here what was supposed to be used to shortcut everything and get the terrorists is being used to get those who report what's politically embarrassing, and just lies, and illegal. Criticism is terrorism.

The pattern, according to Josh Marshall, here -
I think part of the issue for many people on the administration's various forms of surveillance is not just that some of activities seem to be illegal or unconstitutional on their face. I think many people are probably willing to be open-minded, for better or worse, on pushing the constitutional envelope. But given the people in charge of the executive branch today, you just can't have any confidence that these tools will be restricted to targeting terrorists. Start grabbing up phone records to data-mine for terrorists and then the tools are just too tempting for your leak investigations. Once you do that, why not just keep an eye on your critics too? After all, they're the ones most likely to get the leaks, right? So, same difference. The folks around the president don't recognize any real distinctions among those they consider enemies. So we'd be foolish to think they wouldn't bring these tools to bear on all of them. Once you set aside the law as your guide for action and view the president's will as a source of legitimacy in itself, then everything becomes possible and justifiable.
And see Digby here -
The key here, I think, is to recognize that they will say that monitoring the communications of the press or political opponents is for the sake of national security. This is what comes of seeing your fellow Americans and political opponents as "enemies" to be eliminated. There is no logical or emotional leap to make between spying on terrorists in Dubai and spying on war protesters in Dubuque and spying on reporters in DC. It's the natural result of this Manichean mindset that openly touts a "with us or against us" philosophy and sees political dissent as acts of treason.

Conservatives have been selling the idea of "the enemy within" for many decades. It's what they do. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ... rationalized their spying on the press and dissenters as necessary to plug national security leaks. Likewise, the Bush administration will have no problem doing it either.

I personally wouldn't support giving Gandhi and Jesus Christ the unfettered power to spy on Americans. But allowing these people to do it is unfathomable.
And a conservative voice here -
I am - and continue to be - a strong supporter of the President and his administration, but the crusade against reporters who publish stories based on leaks has got to stop. If they want to find the leakers and punish them, so be it. People who violate their oaths and the laws about government secrecy ought to be in jail. But not the reporters. They're simply doing what they're supposed to do - keeping us all informed. That's their job. And it's an important one because only an informed population can prevent a government from drifting inexorably towards tyranny.

... But there is no question the aggressive pursuit of information from and about reporters can do irreparable harm. Enough is enough. Really. It's time for these stutteringly stupid tactics to stop and those conducting these investigations to behave like responsible adults, not five year olds with a playground grudge.

... We can debate the merits of the news that's being broken - and we should. But we can't debate the necessity of having a press that's free to break the stories. And having reporters believe the government is cataloguing their calls or that they are facing jail anytime they write something that might be secret is the opposite of the kind of freedom that we need.
This is interesting. Reporting without telephones? Face to face, or email or instant messaging, until that's monitoring. Then?

Note to self: Chat with the older expatriate Russians in the apartment building here in Hollywood and ask them about how one found out what was really happing back in the Stalin days. The techniques may soon be useful again.

Posted by Alan at 23:08 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 16 May 2006 07:04 PDT home

Sunday, 14 May 2006
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Topic: Announcements

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No blogging Sunday. All that is elsewhere. The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log, is now online. This is Volume 4, Number 20 for the week of May 14, 2006.

A whole lot has been happening, and the week that just passed deserves some comment, so there you will find six extended commentaries. The first is what to make of the man form the NSA who has been nominated to head the CIA - the acronyms fly and his position on many matters is examined, with reference to famous cartoon characters. There's an item on trends, and as the woman said it the movie, "fasten your seat belt, it's going to be a bumpy ride." And do we have a new royal family now that George has said his brother Jeb would make a fine president? There historical precedents are examined. Of course all the voices on the newly revealed giant government database of every phone call made since late 2001 are noted, and the issues detangled. And there's a collection of odd political facts and figures, showing one can have fun with numbers. Finally, for policy wonks and those who think big, there's an item on ways of looking at the social contract - how we behave and how we expect others to behave, and what we expect of the government we fund.

There are three Hollywood items - a movie premier, an odd history of the corner down the hill (and all the celebrities and the riot there), and a bit of France on Sunset Boulevard.

The "pure photography" pages cover the oddest of LA signs down on Melrose Avenue, and some very odd walls there, and there are three pages of intense botanical shots this week.

Of course our friend from Texas provides the weekly array of the weird. And the quotes this week? The Wisest Fool of the Past Fifty Years. It was his birthday.

Direct links to specific pages -

Extended Observations on Current Events ______________________

The CIA Gamble: The No-Nonsense, Blue-Collar General from Pittsburgh
Storm Warnings
Tautology and Royalty
Telephone Records: Surprise! Making a List, and Checking it Twice
Facts and Figures: Fun with Numbers
The Social Contract: Will the Leviathan Survive All This?

Hollywood Matters ______________________

On the Scene: Another Day in Hollywood
The Eye: Looking Down on Ghosts
Cultural Dislocations

Southern California Photography ______________________

Ominous Signs
A Collection of Walls
Les Fleurs du Mal
Harsh Botanicals
Easy on the Eyes

Quotes for the week of May 14, 2006 - The Wisest Fool of the Past Fifty Years

Posted by Alan at 20:29 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

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