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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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Thursday, 18 May 2006
Notes on the New America
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Notes on the New America

Some days are slow news days, and some filled with events that seem to reveal a great deal and who we are, or what we're becoming. Thursday, May 18, 2006, was on of the latter. Here's an array of that day's events for you consideration, with commentary.

Chickens Coming Home to Roost, Again

This was supposed to go away. From these pages, March 29, 2006, The game is winding down, the one started on the nursery school playground... -
And if Abu Ghraib and some events at Guantánamo weren't enough now we have Haditha.

Well, it doesn't really count as March madness, as the event happened on 19 November last year. Marines this time. The Pentagon and Naval Criminal Investigative Service have opened an investigation (the Marines are traditionally part of the Navy). Time magazine covers it here - a raid where we captured a bad guy, but fifteen civilians, including six women and children, died. Was it civilians unfortunately in the way? The building just collapsed and that was that?

We say so. The local police say no. It may be that our guys lost one of there own and got angry and things spun out of control. A cameraman working for Reuters in Haditha at the time said bodies were left lying in the street for hours after the attack. One source here has the women and children handcuffed and shot in the head, execution-style. ABC News covers it here with video of the aftermath shot by an Iraqi journalism student - but who did what? That there is now a formal investigation is not a good sign. We've been forced to look into this. Abandoning the usual "sorry, fog of war" line is not a good sign. Ah, maybe it's nothing - things happened just as the guys said.
In the same issue this was also mentioned here to make a different point, and again in the April 16th issue here in another context - "When a culture is as historically clueless and morally desensitized as this one appears to be..."

But then it was time to let it go, and not mention the three Marine officers from that same unit who had been dismissed from command, for the cryptic reason that their superiors had "lost confidence" in their battlefield decisions. It was a local story, from Camp Pendleton, the big Marine base down the coast at Oceanside. And it was Donald Rumsfeld who famously said of the looting of Baghdad and the murders in the streets there, "stuff happens." Democracy is messy and all that. Maybe this was a "stuff happens" thing. Or maybe it's just not true.

But the story resurfaced here on May 17th from NBC -
A Pentagon probe into the death of Iraqi civilians last November in the Iraqi city of Haditha will show that U.S. Marines "killed innocent civilians in cold blood," a U.S. lawmaker said Wednesday.

From the beginning, Iraqis in the town of Haditha said U.S. Marines deliberately killed 15 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including seven women and three children.

One young Iraqi girl said the Marines killed six members of her family, including her parents. "The Americans came into the room where my father was praying," she said, "and shot him."

On Wednesday, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said the accounts are true.

Military officials told NBC News that the Marine Corps' own evidence appears to show Murtha is right.

A videotape taken by an Iraqi showed the aftermath of the alleged attack: a blood-smeared bedroom floor and bits of what appear to be human flesh and bullet holes on the walls.

The video, obtained by Time magazine, was broadcast a day after town residents told The Associated Press that American troops entered homes on Nov. 19 and shot dead 15 members of two families, including a 3-year-old girl, after a roadside bomb killed a U.S. Marine.

On Nov. 20, U.S. Marines spokesman Capt. Jeffrey Pool issued a statement saying that on the previous day a roadside bomb had killed 15 civilians and a Marine. In a later gunbattle, U.S. and Iraqi troops killed eight insurgents, he said.

U.S. military officials later confirmed that the version of events was wrong.
Murtha holds a news conference and says when this is over it will be clear that "there was no firefight, there was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

NBC gets one military official to admit, off the record, "This one is ugly." The Marine Corps issues a statement saying that they won't say anything - an ongoing investigation and can't mess it up by saying anything now.

Now John Murtha called this news conference not to deal with whatever happened at Haditha, but to point out it had been six months to the day since he had upset everyone and called for "redeployment" of American forces from Iraq. As you recall, when he did that the strange little woman from Cincinnati called Murtha a coward on the floor of the House. The Bush side introduced a sham proposal that we withdraw all forces from Iraq immediately, every single person there, and dared the Democrats to vote for that. Murtha and others protested that's not what Murtha had proposed. The Bush side said it was the same thing, really. It was a mess. Six months later Murtha is still saying the same thing, redeploy big blocks of our forces to other sites in the area and stop making things worse - and this Haditha business is one reason why. Our guys are so stressed out and overextended they can really lose it. And when they do it's awful for everyone, so let's help keep these guys from going all crazy and rethink what where doing, with whom and where.

And then he went on NBC's Hardball and said the same thing (video here).

What's going on?

The right exploded with anger calling him a traitor and saying he should be shot and all that. But he's an odd duck, a Marine himself for almost thirty years, extremely pro-military and on the inside with the top command of all the services. Was he relaying a message to the administration from them, one they themselves couldn't force up the chain of command given the personality of the civilian commander of the armed forces, the current Secretary of Defense, the testy and impatient Donald Rumsfeld with his set ideas on how things should be no matter who says what and no matter what happens? Murtha has played this messenger role before. Was this a massage from the field - our troops need some relief here as this is going nowhere? Perhaps.

But that message was lost as it seems the Haditha event, seeming to be just what Murtha said, itself took center stage - some saying it didn't happen, or if it did it should have never been revealed as it hurts America, and others saying it surely did happen and shows something awful about the guys in charge, or the administration, or the whole idea of the war itself, or our whole culture, or whatever.

See Bill Montgomery here -
When the Abu Ghraib horror show first aired on 60 Minutes, I remember wondering whether it would prove to be the Iraq War's version of the My Lai Massacre - with the photo of the hooded man on his box, arms spread in a crucifix, as the enduring image of a military machine run amok, just as a photo of murdered Vietnamese women and children, sprawled in the middle of a muddy road, became the Americal Division's permanent badge of shame.

To a degree, that's what happened - with the hapless sadists of the 184th Infantry Regiment serving as the collective stand-ins for Lt. William Calley, and Colin Powell reprising his earlier role as the bullshit artist telling everybody what they want to hear.

But now it appears that instead of a symbolic My Lai, we have the genuine article...
And as for that office who said "this one is ugly" -
Ugly? That doesn't even begin to cover it. Dick Cheney is ugly. The Pentagon is ugly. An Abrams tank is ugly. Executing helpless women and children while they're huddled on the floor, praying to their God, is a war crime committed by terrorists. It's Lidice and Rwanda and Srebrenica and, of course, My Lai.

... I don't know if it's better or worse that this atrocity seems to have been committed by a military unit completely out of control, instead of one that was following orders, as was clearly the case at Abu Ghraib. On one hand, you can argue that it's simply a reminder that Americans are as capable of being beasts as anyone else: Germans, Japanese, Russians, Serbs, Arabs, Afghans, Israelis, Somalians, Afrikaaners, Salvadorans - the list goes on and on. There's nothing exceptional about us, even in our war crimes.

On the other hand, the fact that U.S. Marines - the few, the proud, etc. - were capable of such bestiality says something ominous about the psychological state of the American military after three years of being stretched to the limit. These weren't draftees or Guardsmen or pathetic losers like Calley. These were professionals, supposedly the best of the best, and yet they threw away their training, their code and their honor, and drenched themselves and their flag in the blood of innocents. They simply snapped, in other words, and it makes me wonder how many more like them are out there - one IED or ambush away from going berserk.

There is a whiff of genocide in the air, and not just in Iraq. While the keyboard warriors still talk in slightly coded terms about waging war with the "ferocity" required to win, some of the real warriors aren't bothering to conceal what those terms really mean.
As for the congressman from Pennsylvania -
I don't know why Murtha went public (just as the right wingers don't know) but I can make my own guess: He did it to try to prevent Rumsfeld's toadies from classifying and then deep-sixing the investigative report, as they tried to bury the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib. And if the past really is prologue, Murtha is probably speaking on behalf of some fairly senior Marine officers who either can't abide a cover up, or who want to pin the blame on the people who created this mess, and left the jarheads in Haditha to deal with it, instead of on their beloved Corps.
As for the reaction on the right see the roundup from Glenn Greenwald here, including - "Frankly, this is the action of a traitor or a sellout. He deserves to be ridiculed, excoriated and frog-marched off Capitol Hill, then remanded to jail. No bail. Doesn't this idiot know the type of damage this inflicts on the Marines?"

Murtha was thinking of the damage already done, and continuing.

And there's this from Greenwald -
Ultimately, do any of these war supporters really care if these allegations are true? Weren't they just recently celebrating Shelby Steele's recommendation that we fight this war with much less precision and sensitivity to civilian deaths, and with much greater and unrestrained "ferocity"? Are they angry at Murtha for violating their oh-so-deeply held beliefs in the need for due process before publicly proclaiming someone's guilt, or are they angry at him for confirming that the U.S. engaged in conduct in Iraq which, yet again, is incalculably harmful to our image and credibility in that region, supposedly the principal purpose of our occupation?

This administration hates nothing more than people who publicize politically harmful information that they want to conceal. Those who have been most viciously attacked, and at whom the most intense calls for imprisonment have been aimed, have been those who have disclosed information that has reflected poorly on the Commander-in-Chief and his administration. That is what explains these sustained attacks on investigative journalism. Investigative journalists, by definition, reveal information which the Bush administration wants to keep secret, and they are therefore one of the prime Enemies.
And he moves on to those attacks on investigative journalism. It's all the same.

Who we are? A large bloc of us thinks about the Marine shooting the three-year-old and her mother in the head as they pray, and feel that this is fine. We need to show these people not to mess with us. And if you blab about it you're a traitor. Interesting.

Tap-Dancing into the CIA

While all that was being discussed, the no-nonsense, blue-collar general from Pittsburgh (profile with photo here) faced the Senate Intelligence Committee, the first step in his confirmation as the new head of the CIA - they say he's okay and the nomination goes to the full senate for the formality of vote that counts for the record. He'll be fine. He's a shoe-in. John Bolton never got the larger vote to be confirmed as our UN Ambassador, but Bolton had a long history of saying the UN should be eliminated as they were all fools and crooks. The president had to use a recess appointment to get him up to the big blue building on the East River, where he could say such things to their faces there. But that's not the case here. Michael V. Hayden, who for six years ran the NSA with all those spy-on-every-American programs of dubious legality and questionable effectiveness, loves the CIA and wants to make it hum. Or that was his line.

The NSA stuff had to come up, even if his confirmation is assured.

Associated Press has the bare bones here -
CIA director nominee Michael Hayden acknowledged concerns about civil liberties even as he vigorously defended the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program as a legal spy tool needed to ensnare terrorists.

Peppered with tough questions at a daylong confirmation hearing Thursday, the four-star Air Force general portrayed himself as an independent thinker, capable of taking over the CIA as it struggles with issues ranging from nuclear threats to its place among 15 other spy agencies.

Hayden spoke of his own concerns about the no-warrant surveillance program and other eavesdropping operations he oversaw as National Security Agency chief from 1999 until last year.

"Clearly, the privacy of American citizens is a concern - constantly," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee. "And it's a concern in this program. It's a concern in everything we've done."

Hayden said he decided to go ahead with the terrorist surveillance program in October 2001 after internal discussions about what more the NSA could do to detect potential attacks. He believed the work to be legal and necessary, an assertion Democrats and civil liberties groups have aggressively questioned.

"The math was pretty straightforward," Hayden said. "I could not not do this."
As a practical man, legal or not, he had to run those programs. And what does it matter now, in this new job as head of the CIA, or more formally the Director of Central Intelligence?

As for the NSA business, Senator Levin - "Is that the whole program?" Hayden - "I'm not at liberty to talk about that in open session."

So thee was a closed-door session in the evening. No one will know what was said there. Whatever.

Hayden - "I also believe it's time to move past what seems to me to be an endless picking apart of the archaeology of every past intelligence success or failure."

Let it go, guys.

One critic, Christy Hardin Smith, won't, as we see here -
... just got off a phone conference call that the ACLU arranged with Bruce Fein regarding the Hayden nomination for DCI and the implications that the hearings might have for the illegal domestic wiretapping without a warrant in which the NSA has been engaged.

One of the things that Bruce Fein said struck me, and I wanted to bring it to everyone's attention here: the Bush Administration is doing everything it can to prevent any of the illegally collected data and information from being used in any courtroom context, because they do not want to have to face the consequences of a constitutional challenge to their failure to obtain a lawful warrant. Think about that for a moment - Bruce Fein is no liberal, he is a very conservative Reagan Republican, having worked in the DoJ as Deputy Attorney General in the Reagan Administration.

And he is saying, out loud, that the Bush White House is avoiding constitutional scrutiny because they know - they KNOW - they will be shown to be what they are. Lawbreakers.
And Congress has been letting them get away with this, because they have put their perceived duty to their party and to partisanship and division ahead of their duty to the nation, to our principles and our Constitution.

This must stop. And that's where all of our readers come in - if you can, today, please take the time to e-mail, FAX or call the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, first, and ask them to place partisanship aside and put the good of the country and our constitutional system of government first in how they evaluate General Hayden and the NSA wiretapping programs in which he was involved.
But Hayden is saying what's done is done. Let's move on.

Smith say no -
I missed another great Bruce Fein point from my notes: that the Hayden hearings have done nothing to dispel - and have, in fact made it more of a concern - that there is no line that Hayden wouldn't cross if the President asked him to do so. Which makes the need for real, meaningful oversight all the more necessary.
Yeah, yeah, he did toe the administration line - no matter what you learned about the constitution in eight-grade civics class, the president is the big guy there to protect us all and can violate any law and ignore any court ruling about any law as that's his job, to deicide how to keep us safe. Article II says so, sort of - he's the daddy here, although the general from Pittsburgh didn't put it quite that way.

A large bloc of Americans is fine with that, saying we're all the silly kids and he's the stern and nasty daddy. Interesting.

English Only Down Mexico Way

What was daddy up to? He was in Yuma talking up his immigration ideas (see this) - he likes fences. They're neat. The problem is no one agrees what sort of neat wall we should have. The House proposes one across the whole border down that way, almost six hundred miles of wall. The president thinks one half that size would be fine, and the rest could be a virtual wall - he sees unmanned spy drones in the sky, and tethered radar blimps, and motion sensors and cool cameras, and wants almost two billion for the big defense contractors who will set it all up. Neat. The Mexicans are offended the we're thinking of building any kind of wall at all.

Yes, it's not very friendly, but the current chat on the right is all about the Mexican "invasion" - and when you put it like that, they are the enemy. The president has proposed sending in the National Guard, six thousand of them to the border. And even if they're just doing logistic and administrative work, it is nicely military in its feel. A character in a satire on Air America said, as the president was in Yuma, that the real answer was landmines - a few poor guys who need work and their women and children get their legs blown off and there'll be no problem. And someone may make that argument for real soon.

In any event, the real action, unlike in cowboy movies, wasn't in Yuma. The action was back in Washington, where the House is angry with the Senate as the Senate gets all mixed-message on the issue, as is the president. Yep, they vote for a guest worker program, and for offering a path to citizenship for a good number of the twelve million or so illegal immigrants already in the country and being normal and rather boring, as in paying taxes and being good - and at the very same time, so the House and the red-meat but-these-folks-aren't-exactly-white angry folks don't get mad, they vote for a wall (the shorter one with the electronic gizmos) and throw in a kicker. The Senate votes to make English the official language of America.

What? That's a new one.

The Los Angeles Times, from the city where every ATM is English-Spanish, covers that here -
The GOP-backed amendment, which passed 63 to 34, would allow the government to continue to offer publications and services - such as bilingual ballots - in languages other than English. It would require all illegal immigrants seeking to legalize their status in the United States to pass English proficiency tests and would offer guidelines to the Department of Homeland Security for a revised citizenship test.

Heated discussions about the measure dominated the Senate's proceedings, as proponents argued that it was needed to unite the country, while opponents insisted that it would leave the nation more divided.

Designating an official language is important to conservatives, who argue that the government should require English proficiency to ensure that the country does not descend into two societies, and that the 11 million to 12 million undocumented workers now in the United States only become citizens if they can speak the language.

Republicans, led by the principal sponsor, Sen. James Inhoffe (R-Okla.), argued that the amendment is needed because a common language is an important step in allowing people to talk to each other.

"It will help unify us as a nation," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

But the amendment also creates questions of fairness, said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), citing the possibility of someone who is legally in the United States but has difficulty with English. Currently, interpreters are provided in many official forums, such as courts. And many states, including California, provide official ballots in different languages.

"Are we going too far?" Durbin asked about the amendment. "What of people who are poor with limited language skills? Are we being fair?"

Republicans insisted that the amendment's language wouldn't prevent needed translations services.

"We are having a great debate on what it means to be an American," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Yep, they're arguing about changing the citizenship test.

See this -
"The reason I'm voting for this is that I think it tries to unite us," Graham said, adding that nothing in the amendment prevents the use of interpreters in courtrooms for those whose English is not strong enough. "It doesn't disturb the legal situation in this country. If I thought it did, I wouldn't vote for it."
He sees no slippery slope. No one will later use the law to stop printing ballots in other languages, to keep down the vote of those who just don't vote Republican. No one will later use the law to get rid of court interpreters, putting some of those folks in jail. You have to trust him on that.

"What of people who are poor with limited language skills? Are we being fair?"

We elected one of them (but not poor) to be our president. No problem. Anyone can grow up to be president, even without language skills - or curiosity, knowledge of the world or any significant or relevant experience or talent. We proved it.

As for the president's mixed-message problem - build an impressive wall to keep people out and, at the same time, welcome people and ask them to stay if they're good - John Dickerson here points out the president has done and odd thing, he's trapped himself in a "nuance box" -
President Bush has built his political career on clarity and simplicity. He's presented himself as the teller of truths sharply stated. He and his administration saw things clearly, made crisp decisions, and were home for dinner. In the post-9/11 uproar, Bush's clarity defined him and won him admirers. His plain-spokenness about "evil" was bracing and just what the country seemed to want. But the president's greatest talent has suddenly become a curse. Lack of clarity bedevils Bush on immigration reform, high gas prices, and Iraq. He's now trying to make nuanced arguments but his presidency rests on an anti-nuance platform. Now he has to actually make a subtle case, but he has neither the tools to do so nor a receptive audience.

Democrats have come to see any Bush attempt at nuance as a bait and switch. "Compassionate conservatism" sounded OK to them in 2000, but then Bush turned out to be just conservative. And conservatives see nuance as a sign of weakness, in part because Bush has taught them to view it as such. During the 2004 campaign, Bush advisers and campaign officials turned "nuance" into a pejorative. They walloped Kerry with it like a mallet. It was a point of pride for the president, who once reportedly told Sen. Joe Lieberman, "I don't do nuance."

Now Bush is nuancing all over the place, trying to explain to his supporters the complicated competing interests that require everyone to compromise by gathering at some "rational middle ground." But polling suggests Bush has lost moderates and independents. The only people left who still even listen to him are the ones least likely to buy the pitch.
Maybe so, but one man's nuance and rational middle ground is another's muddleheaded confusion and mixed-messages. One can be sure Vincente Fox is confused, as confused at the House deport-them-all fanatics.

The conflict defines where we are. We're of two minds, or more. But we'll all be confused in English only.

If You Can't Do Anything Useful Do Something Deeply Symbolic and Pointless

With the war not going that well, and the latest dismal polling, showing that on each and every major issue facing America the public prefers what the Democrats might do to what the Republicans seem to be doing, the Republicans need others issues, so they've dug out the old standby issues - we need two constitutional amendments, one to ban a specific behavior in political protests, burning the flag, and an amendment to clarify what the law means by the word marriage.

But even that didn't go well, as you see here -
A Senate committee approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage Thursday, after a shouting match that ended when one Democrat strode out and the Republican chairman bid him "good riddance."

"I don't need to be lectured by you. You are no more a protector of the Constitution than am I," Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., shouted after Sen. Russ Feingold declared his opposition to the amendment, his affinity for the Constitution and his intention to leave the meeting.

"If you want to leave, good riddance," Specter finished.

"I've enjoyed your lecture, too, Mr. Chairman," replied Feingold, D-Wis., who is considering a run for president in 2008. "See ya."

Amid increasing partisan tension over President Bush's judicial nominees and domestic wiretapping, the panel voted along party lines to send the constitutional amendment - which would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriages - to the full Senate, where it stands little chance of passing.

Democrats complained that bringing up the amendment is a purely political move designed to appeal to the GOP's conservative base in this year of midterm elections. Under the domed ceiling of the ornate and historic President's Room off the Senate floor, senators voted 10-8 to send the measure forward.
It was a bullshit thing, a secret vote in an obscure office, not the regular meeting room. And it was kind of a joke. Feingold just said so. Specter got pissed - courtesy demands that when you do this sort of pandering that will go nowhere at all, the opposition isn't suppose to laugh at you and point it out.

That afternoon, on CNN's Situation Room, Jack Cafferty explains to host Wolf Blitzer the question to which viewers should send email answers (video here) -
Jack Cafferty: Wolf, today's lesson in hypocrisy comes to us courtesy of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They met in a different private room behind closed doors today and approved a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage. at one point the thing got pretty ugly. A shouting match, between the Republican Chairman Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who said he was against the Amendment as well as Specter's decision to hold the vote in a private room out of the public's view.

These guys are shameless. Feingold eventually stormed out telling Specter "I've enjoyed your lecture Mr Chairman. See ya."

Senator Specter in a real show of courage, says that he is "totally opposed to the Amendment", but he voted for it anyway saying that it deserves a debate in the Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist says the full Senate will now debate a Constitutional Amendment which has absolutely no chance of passing. Frist hopes to have a vote by June 5th.

This is all being done by the Republican majority in an effort to appeal to right-wing nuts in the Republican Party ahead of the upcoming mid-term elections. Ignore all of the pressing issues facing the country, and instead go grovel at the feet of the lunatic fringe. Senator Frist should be very proud of himself. That's leadership. Here's the question: Is now the time for the Senate to consider a constitutional amendment on gay marriage?"
Where we are now? Not only is everyone now developing a pretty good bullshit detector, they're laughing at what is clearly nonsense. Times are changing.

Sorry About That

In these pages, December 11, 2005, in a discussion of extraordinary rendition, where we secretly kidnap selected people and make them disappear without a trace to use some rather harsh methods to get them to talk, this - the long and short of it is we grabbed a German citizen in Macedonia, we imprisoned him and beat him up and all that, held him for five months of that sort of thing, and realized he was a nobody. We decided to release him - what was the point of keeping him? But we told the German government no matter what the guy said, they should keep quiet and not reveal we goofed on this one. We didn't need any legal crap, so they needed to lie and maintain our cover. We don't do such things - no kidnapping, no secret prisons, no harsh treatment. Not us. We asked them to back us on this. Deny everything.

That did work out so well. He sued.

But luckily that didn't work so well for him, as noted here -
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by a German man who said he was illegally detained and tortured in overseas prisons run by the CIA, ruling that a lawsuit would improperly expose state secrets.

Thursday's ruling by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III makes no determination on the validity of the claims by Khaled al-Masri, who said he was kidnapped on New Year's Eve 2003 and detained for nearly five months before finally being dumped on an abandoned road in Albania.

The ruling hands a victory to the Bush administration, which intervened in the civil lawsuit to prevent exposure of its tactics in the war on terrorism.

During his detention, al-Masri said he was beaten and sodomized with a foreign object by his captors. He also alleges that a CIA team forced him to wear a diaper and drugged him before a flight to an Afghan prison and refused to contact German authorities about his arrest.

Ellis said he was satisfied after receiving a secret written briefing from the director of central intelligence that allowing al-Masri's lawsuit to proceed would harm national security.

"In the present circumstances, al-Masri's private interests must give way to the national interest in preserving state secrets," Ellis wrote.
That's where we are. Be careful out there.

The guy's lawyer says it's absurd to think al-Masri's lawsuit would expose state secrets because many of the details of al-Masri's detention have been made public and confirmed by government sources in newspaper reports - "There isn't really any dispute about what happened."

The judge says "putting aside all the legal issues, if al-Masri's allegations are true or substantially true, then all fair-minded people ... must also agree that al-Masri has suffered injuries as the result of our country's mistake and deserves a remedy." But he says that's not his job. Congress might do something, or the president's executive branch. You want a remedy to an injustice? These days don't go to court. The courts can be neutered.

And that's where we are on that.

He's Back

There's a whole lot of discussion about the new Al Gore movie, which is this -
From director Davis Guggenheim comes the Sundance Film Festival hit, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, which offers a passionate and inspirational look at one man's fervent crusade to halt global warming's deadly progress in its tracks by exposing the myths and misconceptions that surround it. That man is former Vice President Al Gore, who, in the wake of defeat in the 2000 election, re-set the course of his life to focus on a last-ditch, all-out effort to help save the planet from irrevocable change. In this eye-opening and poignant portrait of Gore and his "traveling global warming show," Gore also proves himself to be one of the most misunderstood characters in modern American public life. Here he is seen as never before in the media - funny, engaging, open and downright on fire about getting the surprisingly stirring truth about what he calls our "planetary emergency" out to ordinary citizens before it's too late.
It's big. The buzz is growing, as in this from Franklin Foer at the National Review -
I found myself walking out in a strange mood. I had just seen a movie featuring a politician ... and there wasn't a trace of snark or cynicism coursing through my body. The film has genuine rhetorical power. It builds an incredibly frightening case without hints of fear-mongering or over-wrought moments. Because Gore is truly self-deprecating, the movie doesn't ever feel like an ego-trip - although it does occasionally look like a giant product placement for Apple. At any rate, I walked out of the movie and decided to sell my car and begin otherwise preparing for our planet's impending doom. I know this praise isn't so unexpected coming from TNR. But I think the movie has the potential to become a seminal political document - a cinematic Silent Spring
Can't have that. Check out the new massive ad campaign by the oil companies, through their PR arm, the Competitive Enterprise Institute here - there is no global warming and carbon dioxide is your friend - "We breathe it out, plants breathe it in." Take THAT, Al. Don't pick on our friend.

Some things never change, but Al's working on it.

Posted by Alan at 23:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006 08:49 PDT home

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
home

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.
Right.

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

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