Quote of the day

>> Friday, April 30, 2010

Also, another important point: we need to be really careful who we let into rehab.

Ah, sweet serendipity! Lacking a blog entry for today, I headed over to YouTube to find a Kids In The Hall sketch to use as Friday Filler™, only to stumble across the clip linked to above from a recent Keith Olbermann episode and the beautifully cruel bit of quoted snark I just had to share.

Olbermann had Foley on because it seems people have noticed certain similarities between Glenn Beck's schtick and this classic from the last season of KITH (1994):

Obviously, the anticipation of Beck isn't so much due to the Kids' prognosticatory gifts as it's due to the fact that Beck is a throwback to legendary demagogues like Father Coughlin (the kind this sketch parodies) and relies on many of the same performance tics while spewing similarly incoherent paranoid fantasies.

Doesn't make the similarity any less funny, though.


Political FUDdites

>> Thursday, April 29, 2010

My Dad and I have this long-running non-argument. I say that as conservatives go, George Will isn't that bad. He says, no, George Will is worse. I say, c'mon, you have to admit Glenn Beck is an awfuler human being. My Dad says, no, George Will is, he's smart enough to know better. And it's a non-argument because it's not like I'm trying to defend George Will or anything. I mean, in some ways it's kind of like having a debate over who was a bigger tool, Francisco Franco or Benito Mussolini; at the end of the day they're both funny-looking fascist twerps from a couple of second-string totalitarian states.

I almost hate to bring this up, but it seems Will really wants to prove my Dad right and as much as I enjoy talking to my Dad, he's going to say "I told you so" next time he calls and I'm going to say, "Fine, fine, fine, whatever" and he'll poke me about it and I don't think I really deserve it because I never said George Will wasn't a lying douchebag, I've merely contended, and weakly, that he wasn't the douchiest.

But today I'm going through the news, and here I see a thing over at Newsweek, "VAT’s All the Fuss About? How an unlikely tax became right-wing pundits' latest fascination." I always find these secondhand items interesting because I frankly just don't read that many conservative writers or visit that many conservative sites, and conservatives are always talking about things liberals like myself are agitating for that I've never even heard of. (Nobody on the left tells me anything; I'm starting to get kind of pissed about it--was there a listserv I was supposed to sign up for or something?) And if I didn't read these meta pieces about what conservatives are talking about liberals talking about I probably wouldn't know what anybody was saying about anything unless it was cross-posted at IO9. (Say, Milla Jovovich is kinda hot in that pic, what is that, a pub photo from one of the Resident Evil movies? Sorry--what was I saying?) Anyway, apparently we liberals are talking about imposing a value-added tax (VAT).

Or at least that's what George Will says, only it turns out if you go to the source he's citing for that, he's sort of lying. Not totally--there are apparently some liberals who, possibly unclear on the difference between progressive and regressive are saying the Obama Administration should push for a VAT, and--according to the article Will cites to imply the Obama Administration is keen on the idea--the Obama Administration is ignoring them. So I guess Will is wrong.

Almost as wrong as this guy from the Heritage Foundation who says "Liberals" want a VAT.1 Actually... well, I'm not sure if I should try to speak for all liberals or not, but I think what we mostly want is to tax the rich.

I mean, let's be logical about this: rich people have derived benefit not just from their hard work or who their daddy is, but also from the institutions and protections of a free society, so it makes sense they should pay more for those benefits, doesn't it? Some conservatives like to talk about how they shouldn't be paying for somebody else's healthcare--it doesn't really occur to them that maybe a poor person shouldn't be paying for policecare they won't be benefiting from because they've never earned anything worth stealing or firecare when they don't have anything to lose from a good burning or militarycare when an invasion by the awful Canadians might even mark an improvement in their lives, just saying. But, hell, fairness aside, one might look at taxes as a civic duty, however unpleasant, and even if you're paying for services you don't benefit from, you're doing so out of a sense of public spirit and recognition that rising tides float all boats, that sort of thing.

VATs and sales taxes are regressive--a few percent added to a purchase of a necessary good or service (or even a luxury if one's attainable) takes more out of a poorer person's pockets than a wealthier person's. So, as a rule, we libs don't really like those things that much or see them as particularly fair. That's not to say we're all totally opposed--nations with a VAT also tend to be nations that offset the regressive nature of the tax by offering more public services to all and to the poor in particular. So I suppose I could be convinced to support a VAT if it were being used to support single-payer healthcare and other public goods, but that's overcoming my objections with practices, not principles; that is, you're not convincing me that a VAT is good in that sort of situation, only that it's acceptable in the larger context.

But the real question here is why are we even talking about this? Or talking about it this way, at least--I mean, a totally blue-sky, theoretical, hypothetical, riffing out our asses conversation about progressive and regressive taxation, VATs, income tax rates and the budget is great and all, but the folks Newsweek links to, e.g. George Will, are talking about this like it's really on the table and not something "a roomful of tax experts" are being mostly ignored about, or that the chair of the Senate Budget Committee says should be debated. It's pretty obvious, frankly, that as a serious consideration the VAT is a nonstarter, DOA, deader than a Norwegian Blue that once pined for the fjords.2

I was thinking as I got dressed this morning about how it would be nice, necessary, actually, to have credible opposition. As socialist-types go, I'd probably fit nicely into the Social Democrats if I lived in another country, which is to say I'm way to the left of Democrats while still a good bit to the right of a number of hardcore socialists who would be irate at my reactionary tendencies and call me a sellout and so on; which isn't quite on topic except to say that I'm happy to hear a good conservative argument if I hear one and even willing to steal a good right-wing idea if it makes sense and promotes social justice and so forth, see? I'm realist enough to recognize that there's always a risk, when you correct existing socioeconomic injustices, that you'll create new ones or just make the old ones worse, and if somebody on the other side of the aisle can point out a mistake so I avoid it or offer a credible alternative solution, I'm not about to reject it just because the idea (or its origin) are basically reactionary.

But the American right doesn't seem to be interested in credible opposition, which is why this whole VAT "argument" is so fascinating and irritating: unable or unwilling to engage on actual issues or acclimate themselves to real reforms, a helluva lot of people over on the other side of the aisle want to argue with strawmen about nonissues. In this instance, they're rallying against a tax that isn't being seriously considered and would be opposed (for different reasons, obviously) by quite a lot of liberals; this is the same thing the American right has done about the current financial reform bill (which doesn't enshrine bailouts, but rather sets up a way for failing institutions to go bankrupt gracefully), healthcare reform (no, there aren't any death panels), nuclear disarmament (the United States maintains enough of an arsenal to destroy civilization multiple times and reserves the right to use force--including those nuclear weapons--against bad actors such as those countries who don't join the Nonproliferation Treaty), and the citizenship of elected officials (mad props to Arizona for being halfway towards passing a law that would require President Obama to prove to the Arizona Secretary Of State what he's already proven to the Arizona Secretary Of State), and there's probably something else I'm overlooking.

So what they're offering is FUD by the ton. As is usually the case with purveyors of almighty FUD, it's a sign of their inability to compete fairly or rationally. The problem here, however, is that the consequence of embracing FUD in the political arena isn't that somebody gets tricked into buying a shitty computer, but rather that Rome continues to burn while talking heads spar over the historic ideology of water or long-term effects of dirt and the secret agendas of firemen. The FUDdites could abandon FUDdist principles and make suggestions that the centrist politicians in the Democratic party might accept and that even a stalwart Real Liberal™ such as yours truly would concede isn't a bad way to go about things even if it wasn't my idea of an ideal, but instead are acting as obstructionists so that little, less or nothing gets done. Which is appalling. Meanwhile, they're sowing mistrust in civic institutions, which is also appalling and counterproductive, and will bite them in the ass if the Republicans amongst them ever take power again and wonder why the anti-government sentiment they encouraged and enlisted lingers after the fact like the sulphurous reek of rotting eggs.

And, really, they're diminishing their own brand. As I said, I'm receptive to alternative proposals--maybe there's a good idea over there on the right somewhere, or maybe my better idea could be honed and improved by some well-considered resistance. Likewise, my bad ideas might be amplified if I'm stuck in an echo chamber by default. A lot of libs feel the same way and would like to know who they should look to for that much-needed friction and antagonism;3 nerdy people like George Will seemed like the obvious go-to guys for that kind of intellectual sparring, but if he's going to be as douchey as some twit from the Heritage Foundation--well, he's going to be fucking useless, then, isn't he? Thanks for nothing, dude.

I've gone, then, from taking a bit of gleeful schadenfreude over the implosion and drooling insanity of the American right to concern that some of them might be violent to a new and surprising concern that they might be useless. Swell. What's a thinking man to do? What's the point in even having an opposition if it clearly doesn't even remotely care about being serious?

1I can't pass this by but can't think of how to put it into the piece above, which is kind of funny and apt, actually: the best part of Heritage man's piece is the way he writes eight paragraphs about how awful a VAT would be and then, in his last paragraph, suddenly starts talking about abortion and replacing Justice Stevens. Whiplash. It's like the final paragraph was cut'n'pasted from a totally different op-ed piece.

Way to write coherently, dude.


The VAT's not pinin'! It's passed on! The VAT debate is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If George Will hadn't brought it up again it'd be pushing up the daisies! Its committee minutes are now 'istory! It's off the twig! It's kicked the bucket, it's shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-TAX!

3One might even say, in fact, that I am suggesting rational conservatives offer antitheses to liberal theses in the hopes of achieving an optimal synthesis... oh dear, that sounds familiar somehow--but where would it be coming from?


"Come all without, come all within..."

And then, suddenly, randomly, your humble, erstwhile blogger found himself abruptly in the mood for some Manfred Mann's Earth Band.

Dylan's "Quinn The Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)" a.k.a. simply as "Mighty Quinn," performed by the Earth Band in Woking in 1986--oh, and the sound quality is so good I found myself second-guessing whether this was authentic, but they introduce themselves with the '86 MMEB lineup alright. It's a pretty kicking version, too.


I really can't overstate how much I hate this band's stupid name...

>> Wednesday, April 28, 2010

...but gahdammit, this is one of the catchiest frickin' tunes I've heard in ages. Yeasayer (shudder), "Rome":


La battaglia di Algeri

>> Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I finally got to see La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle Of Algiers) (1966) this past Sunday when they showed it up at Neighborhood Theatre. It was one Neighborhood Theatre and the event sponsor, The Light Factory has, if I recall correctly, tried to show a few years ago during a film festival but something interfered with the screening, and then the movie's been out as a Criterion DVD for a couple of years now, but this was my first chance to see it. And at the risk of engaging in hyperbole, it's one of those films that any thinking person ought to watch.

By way of explanation for that let me jump ahead of myself a little: if The Battle Of Algiers sounds familiar to you but you can't quite place it, it may be because you're thinking of a news item from 2003. That was the year that the movie, a depiction of the Algerian insurgency and French counterinsurgency during the Algerian War, was screened at The Pentagon by the Department Of Defense. A flyer for the event carried this tagline:

How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

The movie, in other words, is distressingly relevant nearly half-a-century after its original release.

But let's come back to that in a moment. The movie would be worth seeing even if it wasn't so bitterly, pointedly applicable to the repetitions of history, which, contrary to an old saying, doesn't always choose to repeat tragedies as farce--sometimes tragedy is repeated as tragedy. Director Gillo Pontecorvo wanted the movie, a fictionalized account of events with composite characters, to have the look of documentaries, of news footage, but in the digitally restored print the result isn't merely an authentic look but some of the most glorious black-and-white photography out there. That the film is beautiful to look at even while the events caught on film are horror and tragedy is a nasty juxtaposition, but also a brutally effective trick.

The movie begins at the ending, with French soldiers wrapping up the torture of an informant and, acting on the intelligence received, raiding a safehouse occupied by the last free National Liberation Front (FLN) ringleader in Algiers, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj). The bulk of the film is then a prolonged flashback: Ali La Pointe is a con artist on the streets of Algiers, is imprisoned, witnesses the execution of a FLN leader while locked away and joins FLN. FLN engages in an escalating terror campaign, beginning with the murders of French police officers and soldiers. The French respond, predictably and understandably by cracking down on the Casbah, and less forgivably through their own campaign of terror and vigilantism. FLN escalates their own violence, and the French ultimately send in a division of paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), who is given an apparently open portfolio to regain control of the city by any means necessary; recognizing that the FLN's pyramidal structure--three-member cells in which each member only knows the person who recruited him and the two members he himself recruited--is both the FLN's greatest strength and greatest weakness, Mathieu hacks the FLN from the bottom up by giving his soldiers free rein to torture suspects until they turn on their immediate superior, until the inner circle is exposed; while the FLN's structure promotes secrecy and shields members, it's also inflexible and brittle by virtue of its design.

And then, after all that, the French lose the war anyway, because the Algerians don't want them there, FLN or no FLN.

The documentary feel of the film extends beyond the filmmaking techniques to the script itself. While the characterizations of the participants feels spot-on, it's not a film in which characters are fleshed-out: we see them as a documentary crew might, if the cameras were allowed to follow their subjects into secret meetings and prison cells and so on, but we don't necessarily know whether Col. Mathieu has a family life or Ali La Pointe had a dog as a small child or whatever. One can imagine a Hollywood version of this story stuffing a justifying monologue into somebody's mouth or cramming in a sympathetic scene of someone calling home; instead what we get is brutally, pitilessly objective (which, ironically, is probably why the movie has been accused of being biased over the years--we'll come back to that in just a moment), which has the odd effect of making the characters more human. We have characters who have a mix of admirable and loathsome traits: Mathieu is an honorable, likable soldier who lets his men waterboard random suspects and La Pointe is a passionate freedom fighter who'd gleefully shoot a random policeman in the chest on a third-party's assertion that the officer was receiving information from a snitch. Petit Omar (Mohamed Ben Kassen) is a lovable street urchin in the mold of a Gavroche or Artful Dodger--one who plants bombs and runs guns.

Algiers was banned for awhile in France and heavily-edited upon its initial releases in the United States and Britain, has apparently been a favorite of some insurrectionists, and has been accused of bias. This would be because the film is frequently dispassionate and equally condemnatory: it's not the least bit flattering or particularly sympathetic to the French occupation, but it's not kind to the FLN, either. Certainly a montage of Algerian suspects being tortured by the French reflects unpleasant truths; but the camera also lingers over the faces of dead and dying civilians at a pub and milk bar blown to bits by the FLN. And if the film doesn't turn the terrorists and murderers of the FLN into obvious and cartoonish villains, choosing instead to treat them without judgment as human beings who do what they do and allowing the audience to pass judgment, the film extends the same courtesy to the French police captain (Ugo Paletti) followed during the first half of the film and to Col. Mathieu during the second. There are those in the world who need things to be binary, black-and-white, good-and-evil, but reality rarely obliges and Algiers captures that reality starkly.

Which may be the most horrifying thing to contemplate when one begins thinking of La battaglia di Algeri as a commentary on contemporary events. There are differences: during the decolonization of the postwar years, France was on the wrong side of history, clinging onto occupied territories that they perhaps never had any business claiming in the first place. But what is universally true, and illustrated abundantly by the French Algerian experience, is that violence tends to be a self-consuming, self perpetuating vicious circle. The violence of the Algerian nationalist movements was self-justified, at least in part, by the 1945 Sétif massacre; the terrorism of the more violent Algerian nationalist parties (and let's be blunt--they were terrorists) provoked excessive crackdowns by the French--including incidents of torture and the execution of nationalist leaders who became movement martyrs--which became the self-justification for more violence from the nationalists. Eventually, the French won the battle because they had greater force, more flexibility than the nationalist movements (whose secrecy and underground nature left them incapable of doing much of anything other than planning violence) and ultimately the will to use it. And then they lost the war--the French use of force (including torture) so scandalized the world that not only did Algeria gain independence in 1962 despite French efforts, but in the meantime the French government completely imploded, ending the Fourth Republic.

Being a relatively realistic portrayal of events, Algiers doesn't offer a solution, and I don't have much of an answer, either. The film did make me all the more appreciative of the nonviolent movements of individuals like Gandhi and King, but that's not the route the Algerians chose nor the result that insurrectionists in Iraq and Afghanistan have chosen for us. Nonetheless, Algiers could easily be one of the most important films you add to your Netflix queue if you haven't seen it yet.


I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him

>> Monday, April 26, 2010

The former President offers intimate, unprecedented details about his decision to quit drinking, his discovery of faith, and his relationships with his family. He writes honestly and directly about his flaws and mistakes, as well as his historic achievements in reforming education, providing life-saving treatments for HIV/AIDS and malaria for millions of people in Africa, safeguarding the country from another terrorist attack, and other areas.
-Crown Publishing Press Release,
April 25th, 2010
announcing the publication for President George W. Bush's upcoming memoir, Decision Points.

And no, I won't be reading this one, though I suspect it'll be better-written than Palin's godawful "memoir." (Who says Sarah Palin has never had an abortion? It's called Going Rogue. I'm sorry. That was inappropriate, wasn't it? Was that inappropriate? Whatever. I thought it, I typed it, I'm not taking it back.)

Anyway, the obvious response when I read the paragraph excerpted above in an AP item in Salon was, "Mistake Number One: running for President." (And, as an aside: if you go read that AP piece and the Crown Publishing press release, they're basically identical. Which says to me I entered the wrong line of work if I could get paid to be a journalist just by cutting and pasting press releases. I mean, what the fuck? This is pretty much "journalism" by way of acting like a baleen whale--hold your mouth open and let crap get caught in your cheeks. Lazy-ass reporters. Sheesh.) Anyway, that was the obvious response, but that didn't seem totally fair.

Because, as the Bard said in the remainder of the bit from Julius Caesar that makes up the title of this post, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." George W. Bush was probably the worst President in American history--and that's only because he's neck-and-jowly-neck right now with Richard Milhous Nixon in a fight for king of the muck at the bottom of the latrine pit, honestly.

But that doesn't mean he didn't do anything right. Even Nixon went to China and signed SALT I and the ABM Treaty--the beginnings of détente with the Soviets; and in an attempt to be really fair, let's acknowledge here and now that these were policy initiatives that JFK or LBJ couldn't have attempted... okay, so we also have to point out that they couldn't and Nixon could because he was a red-baiter in the '50s so Democrats couldn't reach out to Communist powers because of people like Nixon and Nixon could because he'd established his rabid anti-communist creds by trashing people like Helen Douglas... still. He done a good thing. Eventually.

So here's the point: just because Bush was either the worst or second-worst President in American history doesn't mean we can't leaven the bread a little by acknowledging the things he did that were reasonably okay or even good, and a full appreciation of the historical record means being able to say, "Okay, so he was a shitty POTUS, but at least he _____." And that's the game we're going to play if you're game: list one of George Walker Bush's mistakes and something that can be listed in his plus column as reasonably counting as an achievement.

I'll get us started:

Deciding to run for President despite a lack of obvious qualifications or experience beyond a tenure as Governor of Texas and corporate experience running a series of businesses into the ground.

Designating 200,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean as a conservation area, protecting umpteen marine species for future generations.

Now, if you're going to play--and maybe you don't want to and you certainly don't have to, but I think it's a fun way to stretch the brain a little--some rules:

1) This is about George W. Bush. It is not about Barack Obama. It is not about Bill Clinton. Nor is it about Millard Fillmore. No other past or present President should be mentioned unless it is to provide specific context but not comparison--i.e. you can mention a former President if George Bush succeeded or failed by continuing, expanding, or abandoning that President's policy, but not to complain that he's getting a raw deal in comparison to some other President.

Bush deserves the raw deal.

2) This is an exercise in open-mindedness. A comment about how Bush sucks and you can't think of anything he did right (or about how awesome he was and why do I keep picking on him when he shat ponies and burped rainbows) is understandable but not that interesting in this context. Try to think of the one time you had to say, "Fine, that was a good call... son-of-a-bitch," the one time you said, "Fine, a broken watch is right twice a day," the time you said, "Okay... but he's still a jackass."

3) Be specific. Links are helpful (and if you still don't know how to embed a link in text, take a look at this page, or at least learn how to use bit.ly or something). Mistakes or failures should be something (a) Bush had a choice about and (b) something he had a choice about. "Being born" was his mother's choice, not his, and "saved America from a terrorist attack" is horseshit. (But if you can name a specific successful policy that might have contributed to that, have at it.)

4) While conversation is normally wonderful, I think the interesting thing for this thread would be to keep it in a "Mistake: _____ Success: _____" format. If there are some interesting responses, I'll start another thread for it for people to debate whether something was really a mistake or really a success, but for now this is kind of a brainstorming activity more than it is a debate. Try to stick to the format.

5) In the spirit of the above, I'll consider deleting comments that don't stick to the rules. Not saying for sure if I will or won't--I like interesting conversation and I hate deleting comments, but I can also see this thing getting way off target really fast.

Most of the people who frequent Giant Midgets lean left with a few exceptions, and I think most of those exceptions actually weren't too happy with Bush when he left office, either. But I think all the regulars around here strive for open-mindedness most of the time, and I know a few have written blog posts talking about their efforts to see multiple sides of things. That's the spirit of this thing, a post-mortem enumeration of the good that Bush did that I tend to think will be buried with him, though I could be wrong.



"C'est la vie, say the old folks..."

Hello, how are you? This is Emmylou Harris and The Hot Band jamming out some classic Chuck Berry in the late '70s, hope it improves your Monday a little bit. How could it not?


"L'Estasi Dell'oro"

>> Sunday, April 25, 2010

Earlier this week I downloaded the soundtrack from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly from Amazon because I've been meaning to get it for awhile and I was looking for inspirational music for the thing I've sort of been cooking writing-wise. (Actual writing has been minimal, but I'm not unhappy about some of the research I've been doing towards the goal of writing, so that's not bad.) Once again, I was struck by just what a stunning piece of music Ennio Morricone's "L'Estasi Dell'oro" ("The Ecstasy Of Gold") is. It is, quite simply, an amazing, perfect little piece of film music.

And the scene it's used for, above, might be my favorite three minutes of film of all time. I mean, it's perfect film, pure composition of the shots and editing, with that perfect piece of music backing it up. No special effects, no dialogue, just this guy running through a cemetery while the music waxes and wanes as he searches for something (you don't need to know that it's a grave allegedly full of Confederate gold to dig the scene).

Look at the way the film's editors, Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli, cut between Tuco (Eli Wallach) running, held almost still in the frame, and the wall of motion that represents Tuco's point-0f-view. That rippling green-and-brown-and-grey blur is just... visual poetry, I hate the cliché but I don't know what else you could call it. Beautiful stuff, just beautiful.

And Morricone's scoring of the scene--perfect, just perfect. Slow and quiet in the beginning, rising to this clanging, swooping crescendo, horns briefly, casually referencing the movie's main theme as a momentary leitmotif, chorus rising, bells ringing and then, BANG, it ends in an instant. If this piece of music were a woman I'd marry it.

Amazing stuff. Just amazing.


"It breaks my heart to see those stars..."

When I was pulling that old clip of John Hiatt doing "Icy Blue Heart," it was hard to resist pre-posting this clip of him playing "Perfectly Good Guitar" on the same German TV show.

When Hiatt originally recorded this song in the early '90s, it resonated in a kind of curmudgeonly way with me--this was right in the middle of the era when Kurt Cobain was sort of infamous for ending Nirvana performances by doing a Pete Townshend and trashing the stage with some more-than perfectly good guitars--those Fender Jags Kurt liked to play weren't exactly filling up the pawnshop racks, especially after Nirvana hit big and a lot of kids wanted the same thing he was playing. Of course, the Hiatt song outlived Cobain's guitar-smashing days, in the saddest, awfulest way possible. Whether Kurt regretted any of those Jaguars or would have cradled one... I guess it doesn't matter, does it?

Anyway, I know some people hate it, but I think it's a kicking song and it's my blog, so fuck you, eh?


Quote Of The Day

>> Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Some of these judges have lost their way," [Topeka, Kansas Mayor Bill] Bunten said. "Every day is a day of prayer in most Kansas lives, whether they are Christian or Muslim or Jewish or whatever, and to say that a prayer day is illegal is just ridiculous. That judge better go back and read some history about how this country was formed. Next thing you know we won't be able to sing 'God Bless America.'"
-quoted by Todd Richmond, "Atheists, faithful lobby
politicians on prayer,"
, April 23rd, 2010.

Mayor Bunten is responding, of course, to to last week's "well, duh" Wisconsin Federal District Court ruling that having Congress ask Americans to pray on a particular day violates the Establishment Clause.

Given that the National Day Of Prayer is designated by Congress (36 U.S.C. § 1191), one doesn't even need to get into a big honking discussion about whether the contemporary reading of the Establishment Clause (that it prohibits all governmental religious preference or discrimination, and not just acts of Congress) is overbroad--you can go to a good old, old-fashioned, foursquare, "four corners" reading of the First Amendment's text: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."--and say, "Is Congress making a law--check; is the law regarding the establishment of religion--check; can Congress do that--nope." It's not exactly rocket science.

But the most ridiculous thing about the whole affair probably isn't the waste of time or routine violation of people's rights or any of that--to be honest, the discomfort I annually feel whenever I see people gathering in front of my workplace at the courthouse for the National Day Of Prayer Lunchtime Circus is leavened by a certain degree of bemusement and apathy; no, the most ridiculous thing is the reason Bunten's comment is "Quote Of The Day" today at Giant Midgets:

Every day is a day of prayer in most Kansas lives, whether they are Christian or Muslim or Jewish or whatever, and to say that a prayer day is illegal is just ridiculous.

Which is also to say that a prayer day is unnecessary.

I mean, seriously: how insecure is somebody's faith that they have to declare a National Day Of Publicly Flaunting My Personal Beliefs And Pressuring Everybody Else To Join Or Feel Marginalized? Or is there really somebody out there saying, "Golly gee, I'm a Christian, but I don't think I could pray unless there was some sort of official government day for doing it." The National Day Of Prayer, like most religious attempts to make private faith a publicly mandated thing, at best a superfluous extra nipple and at worst a cynical attempt to bolster one's insecurities by trying to force the whole herd to act like one or two especially dolorous cows who are never happy with their own cuds.

If Congress went and declared a National Day Of Secularism, celebrating the contributions of a secular, rationalist, materialist philosophy to the national culture, I'd be confused and baffled by the sheer overweening stupidity of it. What would the fucking point of doing that be? I enjoy the benefits of rationality every time I flush my toilet or appreciate that the blue sky is a manifestation of the wonder and awe of a bunch of massless particle/waves that have flown at the fastest speed conceivable and still taken a minimum of eight minutes to arrive in my vicinity now being scattered preferentially at certain wavelengths by the gaseous envelope around my planet such that shorter waves that I perceive as "blue" are scattered more evenly across the sky. Or, when the weather is what it looks like it's about to be this afternoon, when I'll probably be appreciating the glorious beauty and horrifying power of an electrical discharge flowing down a column of ionized air accompanied by a sonic boom created by superheated air moving faster than the speed of sound in cooler surrounding air without thinking it's a magical supernatural creature's hammer or spear or somesuch.2

Of course, the ugly truth that the Day Of Prayer folks won't be likely to admit is that it is in fact insecurity that's behind the whole thing. After all, where does the current legal custom originate? In 1952, during the Korean War and at a time when "Godless Communism" seemed to be getting the upper hand in various parts of the world, Reverend Billy Graham pushed the concept at a revival and Congress made it a law, signed by President Harry Truman. That is, it was born out of the same Cold War belief that only by being obnoxiously assertive about the virtuous twins of Christ and Capitalism could we take on the maniacal forces of Moscow and the Monster Society Of Evil. Same reason, in other words, we have the Judeo-Christian God on our money and in the Pledge Of Allegiance. (But not the same reason we have it in front of our courthouses and town halls--that more-or-less started out as a movie promotion.) You can put this down to a fear of an evolving society simultaneously becoming more secular and diverse, or you can put it down to the oft-stated fear that if God doesn't hear everybody down here praying to Him a lot, He'll get all smite-y (because, y'know, what's the point of being the omnipotent creator of the universe if you can't get your ego stroked by terrified hairless monkeys or something?), but however you want to put it down, at the end of the day it's fear, it's insecurity, it's an irrational belief that if other people are or behave differently it will cause you undue and enduring suffering.

So, y'know, if you really want to pray on May 6th--or on the 7th, or the 5th, or the 17th, or some day in June or later this month (tomorrow, I do believe, is a Sunday, if you're into that whole "church" thing)--I don't think you need a Presidential Decree or Act Of Congress for permission. Every day can be a "National Day Of Prayer" if you want it, without a statute saying the President shall declare one, without the obvious bias towards Christianity, without the need of official government recognition of your talk-to-God thing. And hey, if a certain amount of flippancy on my part is a little offensive, let me just point out that I might not be talking about the subject at all if certain folks were content to let their personal relationships with the universe remain unofficial without requesting a pseudo-holiday to rub it.

§ 119. National Day of Prayer

The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.

2Unless... maybe that stuff is a bunch of motherfucking miracles, motherfucker, like the way Shaggy's kids look like Shaggy and J's kids look like J, y'all.

Think I'm having a crisis of faith here the more I think about it. Fucking magnets, how do they fucking work?

Oh wait, that's right. Never mind. We're all alright, kids.


Quote Of The Day

>> Friday, April 23, 2010

One group planning to show up is MindFreedom. The advocacy group for the mentally ill is staging a skit, and plans to post a video on YouTube.

"It's just a big hand saying, 'Sarah, you don't speak for the mentally disabled,'" said executive director David W. Oaks.
-Associated Press, "Palin descends on liberal lovin' Eugene, Ore."
April 23, 2010.

Y'know, I was going to lob the obvious snarky response, but res ipsa loquitur, folks.


"Research is such a restrictive term..."

>> Thursday, April 22, 2010

For whatever reason, I just haven't had a helluva lot to blog about this week. I've gotten some research done* for a writing project, meanwhile, but little actual writing.

What can I say? Some weeks are like that.

But I wouldn't want to leave you lost for a blog entry for this date, so have a little bit of The State; in this clip, Michael Ian Black and Thomas Lennon offer up another reason we liberals are horrible and a few fun things you can do with a monkey:

*On horses. But nothing any of them would hate.


The play's the thing

>> Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When I read Roger Ebert's recent piece, "Video games can never be art," I thought it was interesting and possibly wrong, but it didn't seem worth much of a response. But people are still talking about it, including the Penny Arcade dudes, who seemed to be sort of overly-offended by it, and I don't have anything else to write about today, so why the fuck not?

(Sorry, Janiece, I even went to the news to try to inform myself about the Goodwin Liu confirmation hearings, and the most interesting thing, personally, was that the dude is barely older than I am--he must have been a 3L when I started law school, in fact; which leads to the embarrassing and probably erroneous conclusion that he can't possibly be qualified to be a Federal Court Of Appeals Judge, because, jeez, he's a kid. Why isn't he writing about video games? At any rate, the petty antics of Republican Senators seem hardly worth getting exercised about. They say he's "too liberal," which, seeing as how they've started saying John Fucking McCain is "too liberal" pretty much means absofrickinglutely nothing--this is what happens when you go around half-cockless as the Party Of Nyet Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk. And they're trying to stall his nomination, which, again, is utterly meaningless for the exact same reason--because when you say "no" to everything it means you cannot possibly be taken seriously because I don't know if you're saying "no" for some legitimate reason or because you're acting like a fucking three-year-old. And that's about all I have to say about Goodwin Liu. Oh, and to say, "Fucking hell, he's only fucking forty?!" again.)

(This means, really, that at some point someone who's fifty will be elected President when I'm eighty or something, and I'll be pissed off and think she's utterly unqualified because, shit, she wasn't even born when I was old enough to buy beer for myself and I don't care if she was the first Senator to represent The Moon in Congress and co-invented the teleportamatron the year before she negotiated peace with the Fomalhautians, bringing the Second Earth-Leptoid War to a glorious end.)

I'm sorry, what was this post about again?

Oh yeah: Ebert, art and videogames. Yeah, well, Ebert's completely right. The problem, however, is that he's only completely right because he basically constructs a tautological argument out of vaguely-defined or undefined terms such that videogames can't be art, some art can't be art, and some videogames can't be games. I mean, if I say "Only squares are red" and then claim that you will never see a red circle, I haven't really said anything, have I? If art is defined as "the imitation of nature" and games are defined as something that "has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome," then it's pretty self-evident that nature doesn't really keep score or reach an end in which points are tallied and a winner determined.

The biggest problem I have with Ebert's definitions is on the game side of it. Hans-Georg Gadamer, who annoyed the piss out of me in college, might say (I think--it's been forever since I read Truth And Method and I only glanced over two or three pages before writing this before my head ached and I had to put it away) that the defining thing about a game isn't that it has outcomes and objectives, but rather that it has rules which define the boundaries of play, and that play is a thing unto itself that is done for its own sake. I bring it up at the expense of my own suffering merely because I would have to give the point to Gadamer, and it's a sounder point than Ebert makes.

Let me be more specific. As regulars may know, I've spent a good chunk of my life playing pen-and-paper role-playing games. Among the earliest RPGs invented, and among the earliest I played, was Marc Miller's Traveller, a science-fiction rules system that allowed players to create planetary explorers and such; much as Dungeons And Dragons offered a generic swords-and-sorcery system, Traveller (in its original incarnation) offered a generic SF system that could be readily adapted to anything from "hard" SF to light space opera.

Now, one of the interesting and/or daunting things about Traveller, and the reason I'm referring to it instead of D&D is this: Traveller had no character improvement system after character creation. That is to say, unlike D&D, which rewarded players for killing monsters and gathering treasure in the form of "experience points" which determined how powerful their characters were, in the original edition of Traveller a character didn't get any mechanical improvement or benefit at all. Character creation was very elaborate and very random, but once gameplay actually started, the only way for a character to become "more powerful" was identical to the only ways for a real person to become more powerful: you could tell the game referee you wanted to go to college or hire a personal trainer or take a seminar, and if you successfully simulated that using the rules, your character became better at whatever you pretended he or she had been studying.

From a "fun" point of view, this wasn't necessarily as enjoyable as killing an orc and seeing an immediate boost to your character's ability to kill more orcs, but obviously it was a more "realistic" system than an abstract mechanical awards process.

As for the rest of the game: it was like other RPGs, and unlike what Ebert seems to think a game must be. RPGs by their nature tend to be open-ended. There's no conclusion or winner or loser--or no more of such things than you might have in a novel or film or a television series that runs indefinitely. "Objectives" are as mercurial as a gaming group would like them to be: there's nothing that says that a role-playing can't be about people who simply sit around and have conversations playing various parts--indeed, there are RPGs where that is exactly what happens.

And yet I don't think there's any serious dispute that a pen-and-paper RPG is a game; it is not merely make-believe, because there are rules that keep the play within bounds. But RPGs aren't necessarily games by Ebert's definition if Ebert's definition requires a game to be something with winners or losers or a definite end or objective beyond the act of play.

It seems that either an RPG like Traveller isn't really a game, or Ebert's definition is wrong.

I could, I suppose, start picking on Ebert's definition of "art" next, but it doesn't seem nearly as worthwhile because even Ebert seems to have trouble taking it seriously. He grapples with the idea of art having an individual creator, admits there are artistic projects that have many creators, reneges and says that even these artistic projects have one primary creator ("Everybody didn't start dancing all at once."), and thereby "un-arts" quite a lot of jazz and improvised theatre. (Notably, improvised music and theatre frequently bear a resemblance to games in a Gadamer-esque sense, since musicians and actors in such situations are freely creating according to previously-agreed rules--all musicians shall improvise around Am, E7, Em and C or all actors are waiting for a bus that is late. This isn't an accident--if I recall Gadamer correctly, he would tie play and art very closely together, with art being a form of play and therefore, I think, innately related to gaming in a cousinly way.)

The Penny Arcade guys seem to think this is all pointless, that Ebert is being a curmudgeon. They're absolutely right, of course, they're absolutely wrong. Ebert is relating a constricted understanding of both art and play, but then again it's interesting to discuss why he's wrong with a sense of understanding what it means to play or what art is.

That having been said, I also have to say this: that I'm not sure whether I can say that he's specifically wrong about games-to-date. I have a hard time thinking of a videogame I'd call "a work of art" despite playing quite a few videogames that gave me an aesthetic or emotional experience akin to traditional media that I would call "works of art." This is separate, too, from the matter of whether there's artistry in videogames--i.e. the fact that a particularly well-rendered cutscene or background might show an enormous amount of artistic skill doesn't necessarily mean the whole videogame is therefore itself a piece of art... I don't think.

Years ago, the second time I played Knights Of The Old Republic, trying to make sure I'd eaten as much of the orange as I could, I played a thoroughly evil character. Hideously evil. Sith to the core. I stole money from children and threatened the elderly, stabbed heroes in the back and wantonly destroyed anything destructible. There comes a point in the game, if you follow this course, in which your party of allies splinters, and like a good frothing tyrant you must deal with the traitors. Particularly, there is a Twi'lek teen in the party and her best friend, a Wookie, and she refuses to go along with your evilness while the Wookie is reluctantly obligated to do whatever you tell him to do despite his loyalty to the girl. You can let the girl go, or you can run after her and kill her, or you can do what I did and force her Wookie best friend to do it for you.

And I still feel terrible about it.

I didn't do it because I'm a bad person. Aside from the fact that I don't think I am, there's also the fact that this was the second time I played the game, trying to see what would happen if you played it differently, and the first time I played it I was incredibly nice and heroic and a kind and wonderful chap who saved the galaxy and forgave traitors and all of that. These were just pixels, anyway, and not real creatures, and it was just a game. But I nonetheless felt awful watching the consequences of my actions and still feel kind of bad about it years later.

All of which I mention because this was obviously an emotional and indeed aesthetic experience as-profound-as or more-profound-than experiences I've had reading artistic novels or watching artistic movies or artistic plays or listening to artistic music. And I'm not saying Knights Of The Old Republic is art--I'm not sure that it is--but I am saying that with that sort of "artlike" experience being accessible, it might at least be something close to art, suggesting that Ebert's "can never be" might be completely off.

Anyway, something to think about.


What happens when a jazz band listens to a lot of Jethro Tull...

>> Tuesday, April 20, 2010

After about three years of having "Roscoe" as an earworm that continues to pop up pretty regularly on Indie Pop Rocks! on SomaFM, I finally got The Trials Of Van Occupanther this past weekend. Apparently the explanation really is that Midlake started as a jazz band, but then got heavily into Tull and Radiohead. I can hear it, actually.



"Not enough heat in the fires burning there..."

>> Monday, April 19, 2010

John Hiatt in 1997, performing what might be my favorite Hiatt song--"Icy Blue Heart."


Sunday afternoon yaarrgh...

>> Sunday, April 18, 2010

Was busy with a lot of family stuff this weekend, but when that was done I was ready to settle down to an afternoon of chilling at the coffee shop and trying to get some writing done. Unfortunately, Ubuntu One seems intent on pissing me off.

I like the idea. But trying to sync between two machines is proving far more difficult than it ought to be. Right now a file I know uploaded last night isn't downloading to the netbook. And it's the stinking file I want to use. I could try Dropbox, I guess, but U1 is integrated into the operating system and all.

At any rate, as soon as some downloads finish here, I'm headed home to use the other machine and to try to get the files to match up between them. In the meantime, here's The Builders And The Butchers, "Bringing Home The Rain." Hope you're having a great Sunday:


Also, he can ball

>> Saturday, April 17, 2010

Yeah, I know, I know--Prince Week is over. But as a bonus, here's Eddie Murphy's brother, Charlie, on Chappelle's Show, telling the "is-it-true?" "True Hollywood Story" about the time he played basketball with Prince. If you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it. I'll just say that while the A/V quality sucks, I'm grateful to the person who posted it anyway and I'm telling you, you gotta watch the whole thing.

Have a great Saturday. And maybe some pancakes.


Nothing greater

>> Friday, April 16, 2010

And this is the end of Prince Week (YEEEHAW!), which may be a relief to some of you.

My first thought was to go with "Sign O' The Times" for a bit of darkness. It's a somber, brutal song. But y'know what? It's fucking Friday. We need something... Friday.

So I went looking for "Mountains." I was really looking for the original music video. What I found instead was this--which doesn't have a video, but... damn, it's special. Prince is one of those artists known for his afterparties--gigs after a show where he just kind of hangs out in a small venue, a club or someplace, and jams with the band (George Clinton does the same thing). I don't know that this version of "Mountains" is an afterparty version, but I'm 99% certain: it's pretty obviously a small crowd, for starters. Small enough, in fact, for this version to be acoustic. (If you love Prince as much as I do, you may have just swooned over that last sentence.)

If you hate the man, I don't know if anything I or Michelle posted this week won you over. All I can say is that he's one of the finest musicians and songwriters of his generation, and if you don't dig it--yes, he's kinda crazy, yes he's gone through weird sartorial phases and looks strange, yes he's sometimes acted like a total cock--but if you don't dig what the man does as a musician... then, yeah, you are missing something. Sorry. I know I'm not supposed to say things like this, taste being subjective and all of that. But some things really are just good or bad, whether you enjoy them or not, and Prince is just, simply good--I'm not saying you have to run out and become a devotee or anything, but whether or not the guy is an extraordinary talent isn't something that anyone can argue over, that's just how it is.

Sorry if that's arrogant to put into print, but whatever. It is what it is.

Have a great Friday.


Quotes of the day

>> Thursday, April 15, 2010

Still, if you're looking for a cheap excuse to get the Fox News Militia fired up, Tax Day is a gimme. And why not? As viewed from the comfy confines of conservative punditry, taxes are a form of bureaucratic robbery.

You dittoheads know how it works: Every April 15, millions of decent, hardworking Americans get shaken down by the IRS, whose sadistic geeks make them fill out really complicated forms, then send checks. This moolah is handed directly to welfare queens and illegal immigrants, who are required to mate in the hopes of producing a Mongrel Super Race of Criminal Freeloaders. If there's any dough left over, it goes into the Super Secret Christian Baby Abortion Fund.

I can't really hope to compete with that narrative.

-Steve Almond, "Suck it, Tea Party: I love Tax Day";
Salon, April 15, 2010.

Some defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying that since they had paid into the system, they deserved the benefits.

Others could not explain the contradiction.

"That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?" asked Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. "I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security." She added, "I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind."

-Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan, "Poll Finds Tea Party Backers
Wealthier and More Educated"
The New York Times, April 14, 2010.
(h/t unfocusedme!)


The bomb goes boom

Okay, this is funny. This is the song that hooked me.

I'm a kid, right, seventh-grade, I think. Thin, nerdy, shy. Lousy with girls. Socially maladjusted, moreso than the average seventh grader--social interactions beyond a small circle of fellow-nerds are almost traumatic. It's not being in public--I think I was already doing some theater, something that was a big thing for me through junior high and high school, but you know, that's abstract--the public is out there in the darkness, a billion miles away. It's something I've sort of gotten over, I guess, but not--being in front of a jury is kind of a theatre, kind of a role you play. But anyway, this is me, and for some reason I get invited to a party and I go.

And I don't remember anything about the party except this: that at some point in the evening, somebody put on Around The World In A Day, and they put on this song:

This was obviously not the first Prince song I'd ever heard. The album before Day was... drumroll... Purple Rain, and everybody who was within a line of sight to a cable television had seen the video for "When Doves Cry," right? And the radio had been full of Prince. But this song, of all things, was an epiphany.

And it's kind of a terrible song, is the funny part.

I was already pretty left-wing by that age. My parents are liberals, I'd been petrified by the fear of nuclear war a few years earlier and had briefly dragged my parents to SANE meetings, what I understood about politics was basically that Ronald Reagan hated poor people and kept acting like he wanted to blow up Russia, both of which seemed stupid and wrong even to a kid.

And here's this song--

Communism is just a word
But if the government turn over
It'll be the only word that's heard.

Oh, and how about:

Jimmy Nothing never went 2 school
They made him pledge allegiance
He said it wasn't cool
Nothing made Jimmy proud
Now Jimmy lives on a mushroom cloud

Seventh grade was about the time I stopped saying the Pledge for all sorts of reasons. I'd stand in class and... well, I just stood there. I don't think I've said the Pledge Of Allegiance since seventh grade and not just because of the religious stuff--I like the flag and am proud of my affirmation to uphold the Constitution, but that's what my allegiance is to, the Republic and not the symbol.

Even at that tender young age, "America" wasn't exactly my kind of song. Hell, even then I knew the jingoism and politics of the song were pretty much just a fucking mess--I'm not exactly sure what he was going for with some of the lines in there, though overall I suspect Prince was going after a cranked-up riff on James Brown's "America Is My Home." But that wasn't what grabbed me when the needle hit the vinyl.

What grabbed me was that groove. Fucking hell, that's a riff. Tell me you didn't catch your ass shaking during that one.

At some level, and this is what's so awesome or maybe so insidious about music, music itself has an utter abstract purity that's beyond politics or race or gender. "America" isn't a song I can get behind ideologically, if it's even cohesive enough to be discussed as a piece of politics. What ideology it has is, perhaps surprisingly given Prince's libertine pansexual image, pretty right-wing. Salute the flag, my country right-or-wrong, better to be poor and on the brink-of-death than to be a dreaded communist--and I'm not even sure the Purple One has even given all that much thought to what that word even means.

But damn; this is one I have to call a guilty pleasure. That earworm guitar hook, that sinuous, funkadelic sax. Prince is a helluva musician and a helluva songwriter--he's also a helluva an arranger. There's not a note, not an instrument that's out of place here, everybody locked down in a perfect groove start-to-finish.

What else can I say? This song pretty much stands at a right angle to most of what I believe in--but damned if I don't still adore it after a quarter of a century.


Dumbass quote of the day

>> Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The reason we pay attention to Beck is that he both comforts and flatters his audience; he makes them feel good, and good about themselves. And by "them" I mean the two groups that obsess over Beck the most: tea partiers and liberals. Tea partiers are driven by the belief that the America that elected Barack Obama isn't their America, and Beck comforts them by telling them they're right: that the America they love, the America they now feel so distant from, the America of faith and the Founders and some sort of idyllic Leave It to Beaver past, is still there, waiting to be awakened from Obama's evil spell. And he flatters them by saying that the coastal elites are too stupid or too lazy to figure out what's really going on; only his loyal viewers are perceptive enough to see the truth and, ultimately, to save the nation. In other words, Beck makes the tea partiers feel, as ["The Paranoid Style in American Politics" author Richard] Hofstadter put it, as if they are "the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph," which is better than feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, and looked down upon.

For liberals, Beck serves a similar purpose. In an era of massive problems and extreme change—the Great Recession, the health-care overhaul, etc.—liberals can avoid the difficult question of whether Obama is leading America in the right direction by simply telling themselves that the only alternative would be someone like Glenn Beck: hyperbolic, demagogic, irrational, and slightly unhinged—"just like all conservatives." This is comforting. And by choosing to argue against Beck's patently absurd insinuations instead of, say, the legitimate policy proposals of someone like Rep. Paul Ryan—the progressive fact-checking site Media Matters posts about 15 anti-Beck items a day—liberals can flatter themselves into believing they're smarter and better informed than anyone who happens to disagree with them.
-Andrew Romano, "Unified Theory of Glenn Beck,"
Newsweek, April 13, 2010

Ah, I loves me some false equivalence after lunch. It's reasonably clear that Romano isn't too enamored with Glenn Beck--much of his article consists of an unsuccessful attempt to parody a Beckian conspiranoiac blackboard rant and Romano begins his piece by talking about his efforts to ignore Beck. But having criticized Beck's conservative fanbase by suggesting they're ignorant and paranoid, he has to show how fair and balanced he is by finding something similar to say about liberals--so he decides to accuse them of intellectual laziness and looking for an easy way to avoid grappling with controversy.

And this, dear friends, is an example of how liberals and conservatives can find common ground in agreeing that much of the mainstream media sucks.

There are a lot of liberal sites I just don't hit very often or at all. I can't say what goes on at Daily Kos, a place that has never impressed me and that I only visit when someone else links to it (indeed, I'm so apathetic, I'm not bothering with a link). I don't read HuffPo too often because their coverage of science and medical issues pretty much poisons the whole site as far as I'm concerned (I'm sorry, but if your perspicuous political policy piece is followed by some crazyass Lanza TimeCube crap or medical scholarship from an ex-glamour model/gameshow hostess, I won't be reading it there). There may be a lot of rah-rah pro-Obama kneejerking and bandwagoneering out there, I don't want to say there isn't. But what I certainly can say is that the liberal sites I do frequent, including Salon and the center-left Slate both do plenty of handwringing over Obama policies and are willing to offer strong questions about Obama's leadership choices.

Furthermore, I don't know of anybody who takes comfort from the idea that Beck viewers are unhinged; in point of fact, that's the entire reason liberals are "obsessed" with Beck in the first place. Nobody who is undertaking the laborious and time-intensive task of fact-checking Glenn Beck or digging into his background and connections is doing it dismissively, the idea is patently ludicrous. Nor is it a matter of someone who simply "disagrees"--to pick an example from amidst the low-hanging fruit, Barack Obama is either an American citizen or he isn't, a statement that he isn't is either objectively true or objectively false. You don't "agree" or "disagree" with such a statement, you are either correct or incorrect; you do not "have an opinion" on the matter, you are either right or you are wrong. A suggestion that this is merely a difference of opinions between liberals and conservatives is laughably childish.

You know, I find George Will to frequently be misinformed, factually inaccurate and generally disagreeable, but I can say this about George Will's readers: they mostly seem to be well-read and thoughtfully engaged, and if they're a bit stubborn, well so am I; we can at least have a reasonable discussion, however heated, and it's at least possible one of us will change our mind or that we'll stumble onto a middle ground somewhere or at least have something to think about. (I almost hesitate to mention Will, because my Dad and I end up having arguments about him; my Dad thinks I give Will too much credit, which puts me in the awkward position of having to offer a half-assed defense of somebody who I don't necessarily find defensible). Similarly, William Buckley was, in many respects, an awful human being who said some awful things (although, to his credit, he retracted some of them--which almost makes my point for me, try imagining Beck retracting something, anything, sometime); but at least Buckley and a lot of his readers seemed intellectually engaged and like people who wanted to be reasonable even when they might happen to be pig-headedly wrong about some particular. The point being it's never been a waste of time to engage Will or Buckley (or their followers); even if nobody changed anybody's mind, you could usually walk away knowing your own steel had been tested and was hopefully stronger for it.

That Beck's followers, on the other hand, might be ignorant, paranoid and bigoted, capable of harming other people or even themselves is not a comfort. I don't read something from Cesca or up on Salon or wherever and pat myself on the back, smugly thinking about how awesome I am (and I am, don't try to deny it, some things are objectively verifiable facts, remember). No, I find myself a little frightened and intimidated--like many stereotypical liberal city slickers, I'm afraid, I don't like guns unless they're appearing on a split screen with three other Ghost Recon characters or attached to the cabinet by a wire and you reload by pointing up in the air and pulling the trigger while the zombie horde moves in. Should any of Beck's fans actually go for broke and decide the revolution is not merely nigh but in progress, I fear I may be capable of doing little more than asking them to please desist.

Finally, as for Romano's challenge to engage Representative Paul Ryan's "legitimate policy proposals"; it might actually be telling that Romano offers a link to Media Matters but not to the House Budget Roadmap page as I did in the sentence you're reading now. First, because his assertion that nobody is engaging Ryan is about as true as everything else in Romano's paragraph--liberals are indeed arguing with the House Minority proposals, and second... well, because I'm not actually sure how much engagement is frankly necessary.

I wanted to step in here and take Romano's challenge, I really did. (One reader, I expect, will say he's disappointed.) But, y'know, how many times can you hear a Republican say "tax credit," "tax reform," "repeal the AMT," etc. before it starts sounding like the teacher in a Peanuts special? Basically, as far as I can tell, Ryan's "legitimate policy proposals" are a rehash of the usual post-Reagan talking points that every American has heard for the past several decades. Glenn Beck, in claiming that disgraced Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was a hero and American hero Theodore Roosevelt was some kind of commie stooge (both true on Beck's native planet, Htrae1), at least scores some points for original (if highly disordered) thinking.

Basically, the "Roadmap Plan" can be summed up as: "If we cut taxes and let the private sector take over, magic gnomes will make everything awesome like it was before the entitlement programs which 'are not in question' even though they caused an 'Erosion of American Character.'" And the argument against the "Roadmap Plan" can be summed up as, "There's no such thing as magic gnomes."

There. Happy now?

1On Htrae, Glenn Beck am smart, handsome and funny.


Lotta Love

I pontificated a wee bit in the last two installments of PRINCE WEEK, BABY mostly to screw with friends' RSS readers, being uncertain whether they were just being fed the first few lines or the whole posts.

Hey, I'm a bad, bad boy.

This time it's Prince with the cover--Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love". And man, oh man, does the Purple One shred it:

Michelle has offered some of her ideas this week about why Prince polarizes some folks. One thing I'll say here, briefly, is that a common refrain about Prince involves shots at his appearance. Okay, in some of his incarnations he's looked a bit silly, I get that. But even if you grant that--and I have no objection to the man's style, myself, what does that have to do with the man's musical proficiency (a multi-instrumentalist who plays nearly everything but can blow away nearly any guitarist alive), songwriting gifts (hitmaker for himself and dozens of other artists), or creative range (whether you think his efforts to create a female persona, "Camille," actually work, surely you have to admit it's, forgive the irony, ballsy-as-hell he even tries).

Listen to that guitarwork on "Lotta Love" and close your eyes. That's technical precision matched with soul and speed, a combo you rarely get (my personal favorite-ever guitar player, David Gilmour, plays precisely and soulfully, but even he says he can't play fast; somebody like Malmstein--shudder-plays fast and precise but with the emotional depth of a fish--one found in a supermarket on ice).

Prince goes from the famous chunky riff of the original to a Hendrix-esque ecstasy seamlessly. Listen to the way he runs the fretboard on the arpeggios, those sweet bends. That's a helluva lot of sweetass musicianship right there. Who gives a crap what he looks like, look with your ears. Gawd, I cannot believe I just wrote that, but I'm not even kidding.


Dumbass quote of the day

>> Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I don't have to prove that marriage is a man and a woman in a relationship for life. They have to prove that two men can have an equally definable relationship called marriage, and somehow that that can mean the same thing.
-2008 Republican Presidential Semifinalist Mike Huckabee,
quoted in a college magazine last week.

Heh, yeah, actually Mike, seeing as how it seems that half of first marriages, nearly two-thirds of second marriages, and nearly three-quarters of third marriages end in divorce, I'm kind of thinking you do have to prove that marriage is a "relationship for life." Hell, man, for Britney Spears a couple of years back it wasn't even a relationship for, what, a whole week?

Look, let's be honest--as long as there's any such thing as civil marriages, the single greatest threat to the "institution of marriage" is straight people. And let's also be honest about the likelihood that government is going to do what it probably should do and get out of the marriage game altogether. And let's be honest about the fact that even if government got out of marriage altogether, the history of "lifelong" religious marriage is that it's always been full of loopholes and technicalities for those able to find them (see also); I mean, at a very basic level the entire history of Europe from the beginning of the Middle Ages to the end of the Reformation can be described almost entirely as the history of monarchs trying to figure out ways to get out of their "lifelong" marriages, right? (See also.)

So, c'mon. Seriously, Mike. Really? Really really?

Huckabee also thinks that legalizing gay marriage would also be like legallizing drugs, which, you know, ixnay on talking about California and Oregon's egalay edicalmay otpay when the former Arkansas gov is around, lest his head explode like that guy in Scanners. It would also be like legalizing incest, which, uhm... actually, seriously, not trying to gross anyone out, but your mileage varies, dude. Finally, he says it would be like legalizing polygamy, which, I'll grant him, is illegal throughout the United States and probably would violate the Eighth Amendment if it wasn't, but at this point are we still taking Huckabee seriously enough to even bother pointing and laughing?

Oh wait, I can't pass this one by:

Huckabee also told college journalists last week that gay couples should not be permitted to adopt. "Children are not puppies," he said.

Am I the only one who thinks this one was ill-timed No, no, it's true, children aren't puppies--you can't give a puppy a note and put it on a plane back to Russia. I'm pretty sure they'd make you crate it.

Sometimes a political figure says things so outrageously stupid, you can't even get offended by them. I mean, really--the fundamental problem with what Huckabee is saying here isn't even that it's morally offensive or bigoted, which it is, or that it comes from a ridiculously-cloistered Bronze Age worldview, which it does, but that it's simply fucking dumb. Thanks, Mr. Huckabee, I needed the larf this afternoon! You, sir, are the greatest!


I still love Cyndi

I don't think she gets enough credit. There's the high-pitched, nasally, New-Yawkur speaking voice, the flamboyant hair, the vagabond clothes, the long flirtation with professional wrestling and all that goofiness. But I'll tell ya, when Cyndi Lauper opens her mouth to sing, BLAM! Those pipes, I'm in love with those pipes. Okay, I'm in love with the quirky chick, I'm the kind of nerd that digs the pink hair and thrift-store look, you caught me. But those pipes!

It was always an injustice that she won the 1985 Grammy for Best New Artist, not because she didn't kick ass and not because she wasn't the best nominee that year1, but because that award was already the kiss of death for artists' careers by '85 for some damn reason. Okay, so I don't really believe in curses and a lot of Lauper's career woes were the result of weird choices on her part. But even when she was on the edge of "Where Are They Now"-dom, oh man, those pipes! And it was even more of an injustice when Madonna kind of made off with Lauper's career. There used to be a sort of debate in the early '80s over who would last, and I like Madonna alright, but no doubt at all who had the pipes, not to mention, let's be honest, the uncalculated and admirably naïve artistic integrity, the soul.


Cyndi Lauper tears (like it's a fresh orange) into Prince's classic poignant-yet-hysterically-funny-because-it's-so-true (yes, sadly I've been there--who hasn't?) take on being on the loser's end of infidelity, "When You Were Mine":

(And I promise I'll stop picking on Jeri tomorrow... but Prince Week... Prince Week is on!

1The other nominees that year, if you were wondering, were Sheila E., Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Corey Hart, and The Judds. Shelia E. is a phenomenal drummer/percussionist and The Judds were decent vocalists (though I never cared much for their actual music), but Corey Hart--really? And I like FGtH (Frankie, by the way, still says "Relax") but they don't even belong on the list--I'm not meaning to disparage them, if you're in my car and "Welcome To The Pleasuredome" comes on the satellite radio, I will crank that shit, thank you, but "Best New Artist"? Okay, moreso than Corey Hart, sure, no doubt, but what the fuck, man?!

Basically, in other words, and notwithstanding the awesome that is Shelia E., Cyndi Lauper could have out-asskicked the rest of that slate with a sore throat and a dead microphone.


The harm

>> Monday, April 12, 2010

This is one of those things that I felt ought to be passed along--it's from Bob Cesca's blog and came to my attention by way of Chez Pazienza's Deus Ex Malcontent. It appears to have come to Cesca's attention by way of Amanda Marcotte. What we have is a five-minute audio clip from Glenn Beck's radio show that really needs to be listened to; no, it isn't one of Beck's classic malapropisms or tearful rants--it's Glenn Beck advising a caller, a woman on oxygen who's been advised by her doctors to start using a treadmill for her health, that she isn't entitled to an $800 stimulus refund from the IRS:

This is money the woman is entitled to by law. A conservative would argue it's money that the government should never have withheld in the first place and a liberal would argue it's an appropriate redistribution of collected funds--in other words, a liberal and conservative would likely agree she's morally entitled to the money, albeit for different reasons. She clearly needs the money and wants to put it to good use; her husband clearly doesn't care where it comes from and thinks she's being silly about getting worked up over the check.

And what does Beck do? First, he tries to feed her paranoia and insecurity by suggesting she's safer sending it back. Then, when he gets a call from a CPA who's familiar with the modification in the tax code that resulted in the government sending money back to someone, he implies that the money is tainted because it's politicized, that the government will spend additional money so that the President can send out some kind of letter at taxpayer expense to brag about the refund. Does it need to even be said that this latter, backpedaling assertion is simply silly.

The clip ends before we hear what the caller resolves to do with her money, this money that is hers, that is to say the money that belongs in her possession because it belongs to her, su dinero, son argent, ihr Geld, ее деньги, τα χρήματά της, i suoi soldi, 她的金钱, haar geld, 彼女のお金, 그녀의 돈, seu dinheiro....

I've been wont to laugh at Beck or to wring my hands over what his crazier and better-armed fans might do if they finally take the barrel over the edge of Niagra. But what never occurred to me before hearing this clip was the subtler and everyday harm this guy does. Where on Earth does he get off doing this to somebody?

Retired professor Robert T. Carroll has a site I follow, The Skeptic's Dictionary, that has a regular feature called "What's The Harm?" The point of the feature is to track the way some seemingly silly or harmless popular delusions can cost people their lives, health, or property--people who have been taken in by faith healers and dowsers and alleged psychics and so on. The point is well worth considering: speech and actions have consequences, sometimes unexpected ones, and someone or something that perhaps seems ludicrous can cause great injuries.

You listen to a clip like the one above, and it's just not that funny anymore, if it still was. And you listen to a clip like that one and it shouldn't just make you angry at Beck, it ought to make you feel sad for that caller, for all sorts of reasons. She may--and I hope she doesn't, but she may--passively hurt herself because her insecurities are fed by a man who compares himself to a rodeo clown in interviews, a man who, when called to task for his on-air behavior, dodges behind the shield of being an "entertainer" performing for his audience, giving them what they want.

I realize, too, that a number of my regulars are fairly disgusted with Beck already, and may be tired of the subject or may wonder why I'm bothering. So let me explain: there are two reasons; first, because this is my version of Dr. Caroll's "What's The Harm?", an answer to the question beyond the usual obvious concern that Beck may be inciting behavior that will lead to violence; second, because Bob Cesca has declared war on Beck, and while I don't think he's likely to get too far with it, I certainly want him to--so if I can link to something like this and repeat it and promote it and link to related sites and occasionally do my little bit to wave the flag and help feed the belt (and that's how you do a shooting metaphor, Sarah), then I'm happy to do my token bit on behalf of the effort, Viva La Resistance! and so on.

Glenn Beck is an awful human being. It can't be said too often or in too many ways.


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