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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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Monday, 16 May 2005

Topic: The Media

Meme Overwhelmed: Newsweek, Suckered, Sucks the Air Out of the Room

Late Sunday in Meme Watch: A Touch of Class it seemed to be a week when the national discussion turned to matters of class and class warfare.

Wrong. On Sunday the conversation shifted to whether we should muzzle the press before they do any more damage to America. Newsweek backed off from an item in their May 9 issue, reporting "that American guards at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had committed infractions in trying to get terror suspects to talk, including in one case flushing a Qur'an down a toilet." It seems their source at the Pentagon said he (or she) really didn’t know that for sure, even though he (or she) had said there were internal memos about it. Suckers. They believed their government source.

Late Monday Newsweek just completely retracted the story. Sorry about those anti-American riots and all the dead folks. Editor Mark Whitaker: "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."

Fine. And note this -
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the story as appalling, admitting it had created a major problem for Washington in the Muslim world.

The White House had said Newsweek's apology didn’t go far enough.

"There is a certain journalistic standard that should be met, and in this case it was not met," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

"People lost their lives. People are dead," said US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "People need to be very careful about what they say…."
And so it begins – or continues. Time to rein in the press.

Something smells here.

Dan Rather at CBS got set up with false information, let his reporter’s ego run with it, and he got smashed. Gone. One less pesky voice. Now Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post group and affiliated with MSNBC and SLATE.COM, gets set up with false information, gets repeated assurances from their Pentagon source that this is really so, and gets cut off at the knees - blindsided. More evidence that the press hates America and should be more like Fox News. This Karl Rove guy is damned good. Now Newsweek is crippled.

You want a compliant press under the thumb of the government? This works.

The commentators on the right are piling on.

The novelist and military columnist Austin Bay here: "History may see Newsweek's fatal 'Koran flushing' story as the US press' Abu Ghraib…. Here's the connection: globe-girdling technology has once again amplified foolish behavior, lack of professionalism, and disregard for consequences into a tragedy."

Ah, as for amplifying foolish behavior, lack of professionalism, and disregard for consequences leading to tragedy, look to the Bush administration. The war is going well?

Michelle Malkin, that oh-so-cute Filipino-American columnist who recently wrote a book to justify our World War II internment of Americans of Japanese heritage (discussed in these pages here last August), says this: "Not good enough, Newsweek. People have died because of your shoddy work."

We’re at 1,622 US servicemen dead in Iraq at the moment, with perhaps ten thousand maimed for life or mad, or both. No WMD and no link it al Qaeda – and clear evidence we went to war in Iraq because we wanted to, not because we were threatened in any way at all. Hey, shoddy work – and lies too!

Ed Morrissey over at Captain's Quarters has this: "Newsweek ran an explosive story based on a single, unnamed source that it knew would cause a huge effect on the Muslim world, at precisely the moment when we need to ensure that people understand that we're not at war with Islam."

After the prison photos – that cigarette-smoking Lynndie England lass and her leash, the adorable Sabrina Harmon grinning over the rotting corpse, the naked human pyramid, the iconic hooded electrode-man and the rest - Newsweek being sucker-punched and printing what the Pentagon initially approved and stood by for a week is not exactly the problem.

Andrew Sullivan here (my emphases) puts it nicely -
We have yet to see what's at the root, if anything, of the Newsweek story. But I think it's telling that some bloggers have devoted much, much more energy to covering the Newsweek error than they ever have to covering any sliver of the widespread evidence of detainee abuse that made the Newsweek piece credible in the first place. A simple question: after U.S. interrogators have tortured over two dozen detainees to death, after they have wrapped one in an Israeli flag, after they have smeared naked detainees with fake menstrual blood, after they have told one detainee to "Fuck Allah," after they have ordered detainees to pray to Allah in order to kick them from behind in the head, is it completely beyond credibility that they would also have desecrated the Koran? Yes, Newsweek bears complete responsibility for any errors it has made; and, depending on what we now find, should not be let off the hook. But the outrage from the White House is beyond belief.

It seems to me particularly worrying if this incident further intimidates the press from seeking the truth about what the government is doing in the war on terror. It is not being "basically, on the side of the enemy," as Glenn Reynolds calls it, to resist the notion of government-sanctioned torture and to report on it. It is patriotism and serving the cause that this war is about: religious pluralism and tolerance. The media's Abu Ghraib?? When Mike Isikoff is found guilty of committing murder, give me a call. Austin Bay still insists that Abu Ghraib did not constitute "deadly torture." The corpses found there (photographed by grinning U.S. soldiers) would probably disagree. (Will Bay correct?) Three factors interacted here: media error/bias, Islamist paranoia, and a past and possibly current policy of religiously-intolerant torture. No one comes out looking good. But it seems to me unquestionable that the documented abuse of religion in interrogation practices is by far the biggest scandal. Too bad the blogosphere is too media-obsessed and self-congratulatory to notice.
Yep, the media is the problem, or that?s what we are being told.

And Sullivan earlier said this -
"Our military authorities are investigating these allegations fully. If they are proven true, we will take appropriate action." - secretary of state Condi Rice. I feel the same way about this statement as I did about the president's recent reaffirmation that atheists are as patriotic as Christian citizens. To put it bluntly: has it come to this? It is perfectly conceivable, given the torture policies promoted and permitted by this president, that desecration of the Koran has taken place in Guantanamo. Many other insane and inhumane interrogation tactics have turned out to be true. Remember smearing fake menstrual blood? We are in a critical war for world opinion.

A critical part of our message is that this is not a war against Islam as such, but against Islamo-fascism and terror. And yet we see the religious right co-opting air force academies [see Who is YOUR Copilot? from April 24 here], and we hear of incidents like the alleged toilet-flush of the Koran. Since no one is ever held responsible for anything in the Bush administration, we can be sure this incident will be lied about, covered up or blamed on some poor military grunt who can be easily scapegoated. But at some point, we will have to confront the severe damage this administration has done to American prestige and credibility in a critical global battle of ideas because of its interrogation policies.

That is the shame - and the terrible gift from this administration to Osama bin Laden.
Newsweek, wrong though they may have been, is not the problem.

But Rumsfeld says the press should watch what its says. What a load of crap.

On the other hand, many on the right feel this way -
Let me clear up one thing. Whether Americans flushed the Koran down the toilet is irrelevant. Newsweek should not have reported it, even if true. It?s common sense, people. Those journalists knew how Muslims would react! Why would you hurt your own country and risk more deaths just to report this ?fact?? To what end???
Actually, that?s a pretty interesting question. What is, after all, the purpose of news? Do we really need to know what is happening all the time about everything ? when if what is uncovered makes us all look bad? Just why DO people want to know what is happening in the world, what they?re paying for with their taxes, what might get us all in trouble? Some facts are, indeed, dangerous.

I guess that comes down to a question of just trusting your government ? which is one definition of patriotism, but not the only one.

Maybe we shouldn?t know things.

Oh, and a note from Eric Alterman on such things here - "More PBS censorship on the way here. ? Now Republican CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson wants to monitor NPR for biased Middle East coverage. Why? CPB's own internal polls show Americans don't think NPR has any problem reporting from the region."

Damn. This is getting interesting.

Oh yes, the move toward an evangelical theocracy rolls on too. See Mark Lilla in the New York Times -
The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the 'end times,' the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement - all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.

No one can know how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist. But so long as it does, citizens should probably be more vigilant about policing the public square, not less so. If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers. That remains true today, both in Baghdad and in Baton Rouge.
Put away that newspaper; in fact, flush it down a toilet. Pick up a Bible.


Update - 9:15 in the evening, Monday, 16 May - Keith Olbermann also argues that something smells -
Last Thursday, General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Donald Rumsfeld?s go-to guy whenever the situation calls for the kind of gravitas the Secretary himself can?t supply, told reporters at the Pentagon that rioting in Afghanistan was related more to the on-going political reconciliation process there, than it was to a controversial note buried in the pages of Newsweek claiming that the government was investigating whether or not some nitwit interrogator at Gitmo really had desecrated a Muslim holy book.

But Monday afternoon, while offering himself up to the networks for a series of rare, almost unprecedented sit-down interviews on the White House lawn, Press Secretary McClellan said, in effect, that General Myers, and the head of the after-action report following the disturbances in Jalalabad, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, were dead wrong. The Newsweek story, McClellan said, ?has done damage to our image abroad and it has done damage to the credibility of the media and Newsweek in particular. People have lost lives. This report has had serious consequences.?

Whenever I hear Scott McClellan talking about ?media credibility,? I strain to remember who it was who admitted Jeff Gannon to the White House press room and called on him all those times.

Whenever I hear this White House talking about ?doing to damage to our image abroad? and how ?people have lost lives,? I strain to remember who it was who went traipsing into Iraq looking for WMD that will apparently turn up just after the Holy Grail will - and at what human cost.
Olbermann has issues with Scott McClellan, of course. But now the press is so skittish over this all no reporter at the next pres briefing is going to ask him if he is calling General Richard Myers a liar and fool. The press has been neutered.

Olbermann also points out that the Newsweek story is pretty much the same thing that was covered in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and British and Russian news organizations, except that Newsweek -
? quoted a government source who now says he didn?t have firsthand knowledge of whether or not the investigation took place (oops, sorry, shoulda mentioned that, buh-bye). All of its other government connections - the ones past which it ran the story - have gone from saying nothing like ?don?t print this, it ain?t true? or ?don?t print this, it may be true but it?ll start riots,? to looking slightly confused and symbolically saying ?Newsweek? Newsweek who??
Yep, hung out to dry.

And the argument here that this is a political set-up?
The real point, of course, is that you?d have to be pretty dumb to think that making a threat at Gitmo akin to ?Spill the beans or we?ll kill this Qu?ran? would have any effect on the prisoners, other than to eventually leak out and inflame anti-American feelings somewhere. Of course, everybody in the prosecution of the so-called ?war on terror? has done something dumb, dating back to the President?s worst-possible-word-selection (?crusade?) on September 16, 2001. So why wouldn?t some mid-level interrogator stuck in Cuba think it would be a good idea to desecrate a holy book? Jack Rice, the former CIA special agent and now radio host, said on Countdown that it would be a ?knuckleheaded? thing to do, but ?plausible.?

One of the most under-publicized analyses of 9/11 concludes that Osama Bin Laden assumed that the attacks on the U.S. would galvanize Islamic anger towards this country, and they'd overthrow their secular governments and woo-hoo we've got an international religious war.

Obviously it didn't happen. It didn't even happen when the West went into Iraq. But if stuff like the Newsweek version of a now two-year old tale about toilets and Qu?rans is enough to set off rioting in the streets of countries whose nationals were not even the supposed recipients of the ?abuse?, then weren?t those members of the military or the government with whom Newsweek vetted the plausibility of its item, honor-bound to say ?you can?t print this??

Or would somebody rather play politics with this?

? this one went similarly to the way the Killian Memos story evolved at the White House. The news organization turns to the administration for a denial. The administration says nothing. The news organization runs the story. The administration jumps on the necks of the news organization with both feet - or has its proxies do it for them.

That?s beyond shameful. It?s treasonous.
Treasonous? No, it?s Karl Rove.

And Olbermann argues the administration now has it both ways ? sort of -
I mean Conservatives might parrot McClellan and say ?Newsweek put this country in a bad light.? But they could just as easily thump their chests and say ?See, this is what we do to those prisoners at Gitmo! You guys better watch your asses!?

Ultimately, though, the administration may have effected its biggest mistake over this saga, in making the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs look like a liar or naif, just to draw a little blood out of Newsweek?s hide.
Ah, a small price to pay for castrating the press.


Oh, and we have a new diplomatic tool ? as explained here by someone who chooses the moniker ?Liberal Avenger? -
Can you imagine how they are laughing at us in diplomatic circles around the world? European diplomats contacting the State Department expressing concern about Afghanistan's descent into anarchy and the official response is a shrugging of the shoulders followed by "don't blame us - blame Newsweek."
That seems to be our posture now ? a variation on these -

"The Devil made me do it!" - Flip Wilson (1933-1998)

"I didn't do it, nobody saw me do it, there's no way you can prove anything!" ? Bart Simpson (forever, it seems).

Posted by Alan at 21:35 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 17 May 2005 15:04 PDT home

Topic: The Media

Web Notes – Paying for What You Read

Web logs – blogs as they are know – seem to have become part of the national conversation. They are now covered on the cable news – on CNN and MSNBC these days for example. They may have played a part in bringing down Trent Lott and Dan Rather. They provide the political buzz, or a good part of it. For a list of those we consult regularly, to see what is being discussed as the hot topics of the day, see Sources for Political Commentary and News Before It Hits The Major Media - and I do need to add the ever useful Wonkette to that list of course. It’s all a matter of being plugged into the zeitgeist or whatever.

As said about web logs here fourteen months ago -
The folks who dig around these days are not with the mainstream press. It seems to be the investigative bloggers on the net who do the heavy lifting now. Some of us note things and try to stir the pot. But others actually do digging and keep looking deeply into things. Trent Lott would still be majority leader in the Senate had not he been hounded by web-heads finding this and that and posting his wacky (to be generous) comments. These same “diggers” kept pulling up stuff about Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard – odd items found and other odd items missing. There are more examples, but those will do to suggest something is afoot. In such cases the mainstream press eventually checked out what these independent sources had found and started reporting it, always graciously acknowledging who did the research, but not getting their own hands dirty with the digging through details.
And that was long before the bloggers got on Dan Rather’s case.

But how does the mainstream press play in the conversation? Bloggers are always quoting comments from mainstream columnists, noting when issues rise to the Big Time, or whatever. For example, over at the leftie Daily Kos we find Markos Moulitsas Zuniga noting that Paul Krugman at the New York Times finally gets around to dealing with the "Downing Street memo" with the comment, "The Iraq Debacle has slipped from the country's consciousness. Good to see Krugman bringing it back into the conversation." He provides some quotes.

Many other web logs have similarly referenced Krugman’s column - as the Times provides confirmation that this is a big deal. And that business has been floating around the web logs, of course, for ten or eleven days – in these pages on May 8 you’d find The Smoking Gun You Have to Admire, one of so many comments.

But things are changing. It’s going to be harder to read and quote the Times, as it seems they want to severely restrict who reads them.

See this from MarketWatch -
12:48 pm 05/16/05 to charge for Op-Ed, other content as of Sept - By Carolyn Pritchard

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- The New York Times Co. on Monday said that, starting in September, access to Op-Ed and certain of its top news columnists on the paper's Web site will only be available through a fee of $49.95 a year. The service, known as TimesSelect, will also allow access to The Times's online archives, early access to select articles on the site, and other features. Home-delivery subscribers will automatically receive the service, the NYT said.
That’s odd.

Oh, I'll probably put the New York Times on a credit card and not do the home delivery - no need for more paper around the house. But I may not. Most everything in the Times appears a day later and for free on the International Herald Tribune site. I suppose they may one day protect that site with a password too - to keep non-paying readers locked out.

Oddly enough, a week ago today the Los Angeles Times dropped the "subscription wall" that blocked access to their entertainment and industry content. Anyone who registers, for free, gets to see the stuff, and quote it and all that. They really want what they write to be seen and discussed, almost as if they want to be influential or something. Now the Wall Street Journal site has been behind a subscription wall for a few years now - 79.00 annually - and although that left-wing journalism professor at NYU, Eric Alterman, claims the Journal may be they best newspaper in America, but with the wackiest far right editorial page anywhere, no one quotes them much. They don't care. They get the money. The Atlantic used to be an influential magazine, but they went that route too with their web site. No one much reads them now, and no one quotes them, and folks don't write for them. And as Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta often points out, The New Yorker hides about eighty percent of its content from the net surfers, only opening up that which they know is hot, like the Seymour Hersch stuff.

It's a balancing act. The New York Times columnists, Krugman and Dowd and Herbert and the others who comment there are often quoted everywhere. The question for the Times? Do you really want that, or do you want the cash flowing in? You make your choices. In this case, better to reduce your audience than give away the product for free. Were I one of their hot-shit columnists I'd ask for a big raise to make up for being taken out of the national conversation.

One compromise is SALON.COM where you can get on for free if you first sit through a fancy daily advertisement. And they made money for the first time in six years last quarter, but not much.

The net is an odd place - lots of conversation and not much cash flowing around. Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, suggest I just subscribe to the Times. I don’t think so. I think the New York Times has made a bad decision.

I suggested Rick set up his site - City-Directory Atlanta - so only those who have paid you eighty bucks a year can access any pages, and see what that does to his readership. Consider it an Atlanta-based marketing experiment, like that one from a few decades ago, the Atlanta-based marketing experiment called New Coke.

Still, I'd like to turn my sites, this and Just Above Sunset, into money-making ventures. I have discussed this with Rick in Atlanta, and with Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, and with a friend who teaches marketing to graduate students at a famous upstate New York business school.

It's a puzzle. Perhaps it cannot be done.

Maybe the Times is doing the right thing.

But some of us would rather they remain in the conversation, and we’re sorry to see them walk away.


Farhad Manjoo comments in SALON.COM -
You can't stand David Brooks but you read his column anyway, twice a week. Paul Krugman's anti-Bush rants ring so true for you that you ditch your work in the morning to e-mail them to your friends. Then there's Thomas Friedman, the world's favorite Middle East explainer; Bob Herbert, well-intentioned, if sometimes boring; and Maureen Dowd, indecipherable. Yet such is the power of the New York Times' Op-Ed page that even though some of its columnists may drive you into a rage that you can barely articulate, you still care deeply about what they have to say. So you read them all the time.

But will readers care about the Times' columnists if they've got to pay for the punditry? The paper is betting that they will. ...
We?ll see.

Manjoo also cites the conservative Bush critic Andrew Sullivan - "The great gift that the New York Times gives the world is free access to its articles, opinion-journalists, and stories. But by sectioning off their op-ed columnists and best writers, they are cutting them off from the life-blood of today's political debate: the free blogosphere. Inevitably, fewer people will link to them; fewer will read them; their influence will wane faster than it has already. The blog is already becoming a rival to the dated op-ed column format as a means of communicating opinion journalism. My bet is that the NYT's retrogressive move will only fasten the decline of op-ed columnists' influence."

The free blogosphere? Whatever. And one assumes he means ?hasten? not ?fasten.?

And Manjoo contacts Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, of the Daily Kos mentioned above - "I think this is the best way they can become irrelevant. If my readers can't read it, why would I link to it? The key to blogging is that readers can look at the source material and make up their own minds." Moulitsas is a fan of Krugman's columns, but tells Manjoo that he would not personally pay for the subscription service. "I don't think it's worth fifty dollars. There's way too much content out there for me to pay for any of it."

Manjoo also cites Times columnist Frank Rich - "If you believe, as I do, that basically there is going to come a time when people are not going to read print newspapers anymore, someone has to figure out a way to get income for news gathering. Because who's going to pay for that bureau in Iraq? I think that every newspaper is feeling economic pressures, and so this is an attempt by the Times to exert some leadership, in some ways to stick a toe into this. It might solve some of the problems [declining print circulation, which afflicts generally all major newspapers in the country] without being draconian about it."

The need? Manjoo cites Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times Company chairman and publisher of the paper, reminding everyone that it costs a lot of money to produce the news - ?Damn it, just sending a reporter from the airport to Baghdad is expensive. It's measured in the thousands of dollars. And this war's only a small part of what we cover."

Well, producing the news costs money. No question. There is no ?free press? in that sense. Opinion and analysis blogs may be the only medium with almost no overhead. This has, in a sense, exempted them for the real world of worries about circulation and advertisers, and the real world of spending real dollars for on-the-scene reporting. It?s fantasy to think the world of real reporters and real commercial enterprise would play by the rules of the blog world.

So these two worlds may go their separate ways. That seems inevitable.


A aside on Newspapers:

Of course this, of unknown provenance, has been going around the net -
1. The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country.

2. The Washington Post is read by people who think they run the country.

3. The New York Times is read by people who think they should run the country and who are very good at crossword puzzles.

4. USA TODAY is read by people who think they ought to run the country but don't really understand The New York Times. They do, however, like their statistics shown in pie charts.

5. The Los Angeles Times is read by people who wouldn't mind running the country - if they could find the time - and if they didn't have to leave Southern California to do it.

6. The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country and did a far superior job of it, thank you very much.

7. The New York Daily News is read by people who aren't too sure who's running the country and don't really care as long as they can get a seat on the train.

8. The New York Post is read by people who don't care who's running the country as long as they do something really scandalous, preferably while intoxicated.

9. The Miami Herald is read by people who are running another country but need the baseball scores.

10. The San Francisco Chronicle is read by people who aren't sure there is a country ... or that anyone is running it; but if so, they oppose all that they stand for. There are occasional exceptions if the leaders are handicapped minority feminist homosexual atheist dwarfs who also happen to be illegal aliens from any other country, provided, of course, that they are not Republicans.

11. The National Enquirer is read by people trapped in line at the grocery store.

12. None of these is read by the guy who is running the country.
Yeah, well?

Posted by Alan at 18:24 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 17 May 2005 15:16 PDT home

Sunday, 15 May 2005

Topic: Oddities

Paris versus Hollywood – Star Wars on the Champs Elysees and Palm Wars on the Internet

Courtesy of French Word-A-Day, an invaluable and rather pleasant language tool – J'ai decide d'etre heureux parce que c'est bon pour la sante. - Voltaire (I decided to be happy because it's good for the health.)

Okay, that’s out of the way.

This week’s issue of Just Above Sunset - Volume 3, Number 20, for the week of May 15, 2005 - the parent site to this web log, has more than the usual pages from and about Paris, in addition to its Hollywood and current affairs items. Covering the Cessna scare in Washington, and the president’s simultaneous and blissfully unaware bicycle ride, Jeremy Stahl, a freelance writer in Paris, offers us My Pet Goat Re-dux: The safer we are, the less they know? - and perhaps we will hear more from him. Recommended.

Not appearing on this web log, but of note, check out Scatology: Protests in Germany - even if the language is a bit rough. There Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, who was a journalist in Germany before he settle in Paris, has some amusing comments. Also exclusive to the weekly are the columns of Bob Patterson. This week he and Ric in Paris go back and forth on a very odd topic in Naked Aggression - and Bob does a number on the Raymond Chandler world of noir as the Book Wrangler and provides this week’s noir quotes.

The Hollywood sections? Those would be the photography pages. Exclusive shots from an auction of custom cars built for the movies and television, including what you might remember from The Beverly Hillbillies, the Flintstones and Grease – and much more – in The George Barris Collection. An amusing statue of John Wayne in John Wayne and Larry Flint, and Harry Shapiro from Chicago, a good friend of Jackson Pollock, channeling Frederic Remington - really. A Double Mini Cooper and Captain Kirk’s motorcycle in Oddities, and four color studies in Architectural Color: West Side Whimsy.

But the real French business? Ric Erickson and I decide to open the Palm Wars. Which city has the most impressive palms – and yes, they do have palms in Paris.

My opening salvo was Palm Wars: Hollywood versus Paris - on how this started. Ric returned fire with Our Man in Paris: A Fool for Palms.

Recent developments?

I suggested there was another war going on in Paris, pitting Paris against Hollywood.

AFP - l'Agence France-Presse - by way of The Tocqueville Connection - Friday, 13 May 2005 18:48:00 GMT

What is this about?
PARIS, May 13 (AFP) - Darth Vader and the Imperial stormtroopers gave shoppers a nasty shock Friday when they took over part of a Paris boulevard at the start of the first ever official Star Wars convention in Europe.

Some 3,000 fans of George Lucas' action-packed space saga, which has kept fans on the edges of their seats since its launch in 1977, have gathered in Paris for the three-day convention to be attended by some of the films' stars.

The convention coincides with the launch of "The Revenge of the Sith" the long-awaited episode three of the prologue, which brings audiences back to the beginning where the first three films started. Here Lucas finally reveals why the fresh-faced Anakin Skywalker moves over to the dark side to become the frightening, deep-breathing incarnation of evil that is Darth Vader.

The convention was launched with a parade outside the striking Art Deco Grand Rex cinema with some of the most hard-core fans decked out in costumes many of which have been lovingly made by hand.

Confusingly there was more than one Darth Vader, but then everyone loves a bad guy and there were gasps and applause as parents hoisted children onto their shoulders to get a better look.

For many fans unable to afford a trip to one of the official conventions so far only hosted in the United States, this was a unique opportunity to swap news and gossip and show off their own costumes. ?
Geez, there is no end to what Hollywood does to Paris.

How bad is this?
Former policeman Nicolas Hure, 26, from Montarges, became so impassioned by his Star Wars role that he gave up his day job, to work a full-time volunteer job as an extra called on for Star Wars advertising.

"It's just great to be part of another world, another universe," he said.

But getting together the costumes, takes time and money. Video technician Thierry Monmahou, 28, from Besancon, spent around 500 euros (650 dollars) on his garb and looks the spitting image of Anakin played by Hayden Christensen in "Attack of the Clones".

"I was seven, when my father took me to see 'Return of the Jedi', and that was it," he said, explaining how he had to get a riding shop to help him make up the boots, and a tailors to make the costume just right.

But even when the mystery is finally to be solved, Star Wars fans are taking heart from plans for a television series and a cartoon version.

"I think it's going to be bigger than ever, the best is yet to come," said Hure.
Or maybe this is as good as it gets.

Ric?s reaction, on the ground there?
I sat in front of my TV and saw this on the news but it failed to register. I saw chaos and clown costumes, hysteria and insanity, civilians acting weird without reason. This is Cannes film festival time when anything might spring to the little screen. All the excitement is followed closely by the endless and terminally boring tennis at Roland Garros. When I see tennis I think, 'Oops, Cannes must be over.'

On tonight's TV-news, George Lucas was interviewed in Cannes.

Frankly I seem to be operating under the misconception that the latest 'Star Wars' is number 17. Can it be true that the first one was 28 years ago and this new version is only part 3? If so then you have to give the guy credit for keeping it alive with endless 'between-marketing.'

Lucas said, to an overlong question in French, that he thought that the mental level of the newest 'Star Wars' was about 12 years. That's what I thought about the first one; and admired him for doing it that way. Too many adults take it too seriously. As for Lucas, he looks like he's been at it far too long.

And for 'Stormtroopers' in Paris, you know that until recently students were demonstrating here regularly, always surrounded by squads of the CRS riot troops. These look amazingly like Lucas' stormtroopers except for being uniformed in black. White stormtroopers look like Schmoos.

Whatever it is, it'll turn up on TV in three years.
Indeed it will.

But Paris should be Paris. As I have mentioned before, Christmas shopping there five years ago I noted one door from my hotel a store selling California beach wear, and from my window I could see the cinema behind Les Deux Magots was showing Mulholland Drive, and around the corner on rue de Rennes, across the street from the GAP store, was a junk jewelry store named Sunset Boulevard.

Something is wrong here. And they shouldn?t have palm trees.


In the May 8 item on Iran - Nuclear Ambitions, Automotive Ambitions - I reported that Iran is considering a rescue of the failed MG Rover company and might be willing to continue production in Birmingham in the UK ? or move the whole factory to Iran. Then I came across this:

AFP - l'Agence France-Presse - by way of The Tocqueville Connection - Sunday, 15 May 2005 10:47:00 GMT

This gives a great deal more detail on the Paykan, a descendent of Britain's long-gone Hillman Hunter, that is being phased out. MG Rover is one answer. But note this on what they build there now:
? the firms now assemble more modern cars such as the functional Peugeot 405 and the trendy Peugeot 206, and a project involving Iran Khodro, Saipa and France's Renault has also been set up to produce the Logan model - a potential replacement for the Paykan as the budget car of choice for ordinary Iranians.
Paris turns Hollywood, and they drive French cars in Tehran. Very odd.

In any event ? here are two Paris palms from Ric you have not yet seen ?

This is all very odd.

By the way, at this week?s Just Above Sunset you will find modified versions of items that first appeared here ?

- Fish Stories: A Conversation on Displaying One?s Faith
- Ambiguity: We don?t recommend him, so let?s vote!
- Fretting: The Price of Failure in Iraq
- Ethics in Three Parts: The State of Things
- Infamy: Was he number three, or are you?
- Our Turn: The Greatest American of All Time

Posted by Alan at 21:35 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 15 May 2005 21:41 PDT home

Topic: The Economy

Meme Watch: A Touch of Class

Last Monday, May 9, in Our Turn: The Greatest American of All Time (revised and posted today in Just Above Sunset, the parent site to this web log), you would find a discussion of how the Discovery Channel and AOL are teaming up for seven hours of primetime silliness to be telecast this summer. The idea is for us all to make our choice for “the person who has most embodied the American dream, having the biggest impact on the way we think, work and live.” That would be, of course, The Greatest American of All Time. Six days after the initial post here the contest seems to have gained the attention of the big-time web logs – Kevin Drum of Political Animal here and Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA here - and a search on DayPop or Google will lead you to many more.

But there is no prize for being first. Just know that the conversation that began here with Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, reporting on the French version of this BBC gimmick - Le plus grand Francais de tous les temps - has bubbled up nationally as we prepare for the American version in June. Maybe CNN will do something on it next week, although there are some folks who work at CNN who are most unhappy with AOL – as when their parent company, Time-Warner, was absorbed by AOL the resulting drop in all the stock employees owned was more than a bit painful. Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, knows all about that. Maybe CNN will take a pass on this.

Oh, and note that Kevin Drum of Political Animal points to the Canadian version of the BBC contest - The Greatest Canadian of All Time. Last November those odd folks up north chose Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier, the man credited with being the founding father of Canada's health-care system, as The Greatest Canadian of All Time. Go figure.

Anyway, this week’s national conversation on the net, and maybe beyond, seems to be moving on. The new topic is the idea of class. No, it was not Tom DeLay last week saying that the Democrats offered the country nothing - "No ideas. No leadership. No agenda. And, just in the last week, we can now add to that list, no class." Even if Rush Limbaugh got all excited by this stunning observation, that moment passed. And too, DeLay has a pretty low quotient of class - however one might want to define it - to be saying such things, and I’m pretty sure Limbaugh is not an expert in such matters.

No, we are now talking about class in another sense. Think class warfare, or class mobility, or social caste - that sort of thing.

In the Sunday New York Times, which may or may not be "the nation’s newspaper of record" depending on your point of view, Janny Scott and David Leonhardt give us this - Class in America: Shadowy Lines That Still Divide (May 15) -
New research on mobility, the movement of families up and down the economic ladder, shows there is far less of it than economists once thought and less than most people believe. In fact, mobility, which once buoyed the working lives of Americans as it rose in the decades after World War II, has lately flattened out or possibly even declined, many researchers say.

The incomes of brothers born around 1960 have followed a more similar path than the incomes of brothers born in the late 1940's, researchers at the Chicago Federal Reserve and the University of California, Berkeley, have found. Whatever children inherit from their parents — habits, skills, genes, contacts, money — seems to matter more today.
Ah, choose your parents very, very carefully.

Well, if this is so ? and you can wade through the Times pages of tables and graphics here for data showing this is so ? then why does most of the heartland, or whatever we are now calling the fly-over part of America, those on the lower side of the economy, persist in supporting the current folks in power, who cut taxes for the rich and cut programs for those in the middle, and lower? This was discussed in the pages here last month, and it is a mystery. Could it be this?

Conservatism As Pathology
Are Bush supporters literally insane?
Timothy Noah - Posted Monday, May 9, 2005, at 8:40 PM PT SLATE.COM

In the same issue of the New York Times the columnist David Brooks argues not at all!
The big difference between poor Republicans and poor Democrats is that the former believe that individuals can make it on their own with hard work and good character. According to the Pew study, 76 percent of poor Republicans believe most people can get ahead with hard work. Only 14 percent of poor Democrats believe that.
Ah, so who is delusional?

Kevin Drum tries to sort it out -
Ever since World War II, the United States has done a phenomenal job of sorting people by talent. Not a perfect job, but an astonishingly good one nonetheless. All four of my grandparents, for example, would almost certainly have gone to college if they had turned 18 in the 1960s, but that just wasn't in the cards for any of them a century ago. Today, though, as a matter of deliberate policy, the vast majority of people who have the talent to succeed in college get the chance to try. As a result, they moved upward into the middle and upper classes decades ago, and their children have followed them.

But there's only a moderate amount of sorting left to be done. Random chance, both in nature and nurture, will always play a role in life outcomes, but that role has gotten smaller and smaller as the sorting has progressed. The result is that life roles have become more hardened. While incomes of the well-off have skyrocketed over the past 30 years, working and middle class incomes have stagnated. At the same time, the incomes ? and jobs ? they do have are far more unstable than they were a few decades ago. And as recent research indicates, most of them are increasingly stuck in these grim circumstances: every decade, fewer and fewer of them ? and fewer and fewer of their children ? have any realistic chance of moving up the income ladder.

In the face of this, Brooksian paeans to the hardworking Republican poor are little less than appalling. Clap your hands and you can be rich!

What this faux optimism masks is the astonishing real-life pessimism of modern conservatism. Among advanced economies, the United States is by far the richest, youngest, and fastest growing country in the world. By far. And yet, we're supposed to believe that an increase in Social Security costs from 4% of GDP to 6% over the next 50 years is cause for panic. We're supposed to believe national healthcare would bankrupt us ? never mind that our current dysfunctional system is the most expensive and most unfair on the planet. We're supposed to believe that broader unionization would ruin American industry, home of the highest profits and most highly paid executives in the world. We're supposed to believe that the nation's millionaires, having already had their tax rates slashed by a third over the past two decades, are still being bled to the bone by federal taxes.

It's a grim view. But then, modern conservatives are grim people, with little hope that things can ever be made better than they are today. I guess that's why I'm a liberal.
Clap your hands and you can be rich? Actually, I have heard variations on that theme from my conservative friend. (By the way, if you click and pop up the Kevin Drum items you will see he links to all the studies he cites).

Bottom line ? cut taxes for the rich. We?ll need those tax breaks next week when we make it big.

But it isn?t going to happen, or so that data indicate.

Up at UC Berkeley, the economics professor Brad DeLong has some observations, but as he served in the Clinton administration you may want to discount what he says. After all, that administration ran budget surpluses and suffered from high employment and read GDP growth, so who ARE you going to trust in this?

DeLong?s summary of the Times piece? - Janny Scott and David Leonhardt? They are, I believe, trying to make three points: (a) consumption is more "middle class" than ever before, so that (b) it appears as though class is unimportant, but (c) in reality choosing the right parents matters more than ever in America today?

Then the professor gives us some history -
This argument - that rising standards of living as a whole are making it appear that class is unimportant while in fact class matters more than ever - is an old one. It is one of the centerpieces of George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell is distressed by the consumption of "cheap " by the relatively poor. He thinks: The system is taking advantage of the relatively poor by enabling them to consume commodities that they think are luxuries, but that in fact are not or are no longer so. It is conning them.

In the middle of the Great Depression in Britain, Orwell expected that the economic catastrophe would bring dismay, discontent, protest, and revolt. Yet it did not do so. Why? Orwell thought that even though "whole sections of the working class... have been plundered of all they really need" by high unemployment, they had also been "compensated... by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life": fish and chips, artificial-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolates, movies, radio, tea.

Note the words: "palliative," "mitigate," "surface." Orwell is in the final analysis not pleased at all by the fact that:

? the youth... for two pounds ten on [installments]... can buy himself a suit which... at a... distance looks... tailored on Saville Row. The girl can look like a fashion plate at an even lower price.... [I]n your new clothes you can stand on the corner, indulging in a private daydream of yourself as Clark Gable or Greta Garbo."

For Orwell writing in the 1930s this pattern of cheap middle-class consumption masks the reality - that the working class has lost relative income, relative wealth, and relative power. It makes tolerable what should not be tolerated: that the upper class has much too large a share of the pie.
Cool. Orwell is fun ? and we all like to be compensated by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life. This is the essence of Hollywood, where I live.

And the professor also gives us this -
It may be a very big mistake to think that human happiness is necessarily and significantly increased by piling up larger and larger heaps of material goods. Richard Easterlin in his Growth Triumphant points to evidence from public-opinion surveys that suggests that money does not buy happiness over time or across countries, and believes (though I think he is wrong) that people are no happier in the U.S. today than they are in India today, or were in the U.S. a century ago. Happiness is attained when you achieve your dreams and solve your problems. Material abundance helps you do so, but it also teaches you to dream bigger dreams and pose yourself more complicated problems. Easterlin thus concludes that modern economic growth is a "hollow victory": the "triumph of economic growth is not a triumph of humanity over material wants; rather, it is the triumph of material wants over humanity."

On the other hand, it may not be a very big mistake to think that human happiness consists in expanding our powers and capabilities to accomplish things (not the least of which are maintaining our comfort and satisfying our curiosity), and that wealth is a powerful tool to those ends. There is a standard American response to the claim that money doesn't buy happiness: "Your money doesn't buy you happiness? Then send it all to me. It will help buy me mine."
Any wealthy readers who wish to send me money, please contact me immediately.

In any event, you see this conversation - perhaps started by Thomas Frank with book "What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" (see this last July for a discussion) through Tom Noah discussing pathological insanity to David Brooks discussing the optimism of the Wal-Mart clerk in Topeka just knowing he (or she) with be filthy rich any day now and need some tax breaks ? is bubbling up again.

Ah, what would Jonathan Swift say about all this? Who knows? But at Rutgers University in central New Jersey their noted Swift scholar, Paul Fussell, produced what may be one of the better early discussions of these matters - Class: A Guide Through the American Status System - Summit Books; 1st ed. edition (October 1, 1983) ? ISBN: 0671449915 (reviews here)

Fussell, as I recall, wrote a lot about the Kennedy clan in this book. Who knows what he would make of the Bush family, and of the delusional minimum-wage optimists in Topeka? He did once say - ?I find nothing more depressing than optimism.? Yep. And I remember him from his 1965 The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism; Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke - but don?t we all?

In any event - heads up! The topic this week is class.

Posted by Alan at 16:49 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 15 May 2005 16:54 PDT home

Saturday, 14 May 2005

Topic: Photos

Who says there is no intellectual life in Southern California?

Saturday, May 14, 2005 – Hollywood about three in the afternoon, cloudless day, mid-eighties…

As seen from the front door…

Below my office window?.

Posted by Alan at 14:40 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 14 May 2005 14:41 PDT home

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