Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Plan B

I find that I can’t depend on Plan A, so I have only a Plan B. Plan A almost always depends on flashy but fallible equipment and high levels of coincidence or unprecedented cooperation. Sure, it sometimes works, often spectacularly, but you can’t beat Plan B for consistency and reliability.

When you have Plan A, you have to dream up a Plan B anyway, for backup. But why bother making two plans? One to step in when the first one flatlines? Sure, it sounds smart, provided you have time to concoct two plans—hell, time permitting, why not three or four plans?

In a pinch, lose the fancy buffer, and go right for dependable Plan B. Plan A is just to impress the investors anyway.

Speaking of investors—the government is now talking through alternatives to the failed $700 billion bailout. McCain went to the trouble of putting his campaign on hold (or at least announcing that he was doing so) so that he could rally the troops behind the bill, which failed yesterday, thanks to his fellow Republicans.

McCain blames Pelosi and the Democrats for the failed plan—but clearly most of the naysayers were his Republican colleagues, whom he’ll be expected to finesse, if elected. Of course, the same applies to Obama—he supported the bill, as well—but he at least did not make a big show about saving America’s economy. Then again, unlike McCain, he didn’t bankrupt his own campaign a year ago and have to scare up new money to pick up the pieces.

Rich man that he is, McCain holds $200 thousand in credit card debt. I know jackshit about economics, but I think I know as much as this guy does.

But here’s the catch. With the clear understanding that economics is several miles above my head, I sort of think the Republicans were right to vote against the bill—but not for the reasons they give.

First, I’m deeply distrustful of the “crisis” rhetoric surrounding the President’s and others’ presentation of the plan to help failing credit markets. It’s the same impulse buying we jumped at to get ourselves in Iraq, give the White House powers to spy on US citizens, and switch off checks and balances, making the Presidency even more unilaterally powerful than it’s ever been in our history. Act now, we’re told, there’s no time to think things through.

Second, certain wording originally in the bill should set off warning signals about what the Bush people are up to. Namely, “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.” No oversight? This from the same folks who brought us the crisis in the first place?

Third, I’m pretty sure once we’ve plied them with our tax money, the investment firms will want to make a show of acting more fiscally responsible, to prove themselves worthy of the kind gesture. How will they do this? I suspect, by downsizing low-level employees and tightening screws on the poor slob billpayers who have tried to borrow within their means and diligently repay their debts—at a fat interest.

Sort of like 1979 and Chrysler all over again--$2 billion in government guaranteed loans, with which Chrysler cleaned its slate by paying off only 30% of its debts and then promptly fired 42,600 hourly wage workers, along with 20,000 salaried white-collar employees—eventually allying itself with European carmakers, shifting some auto production to Austria.

Surely, a lot of people must understand this mess much better than I do. What do I know about money? But something in my gut (and, at bottom, that’s all this blog is about: my suspicions, not based on a keen understanding of markets) tells me to beware of Bush when he cries panic, when he begs for cooperation. It smells too much of his and his pals’ old tricks.

Besides, I need to hear what color-threat code we’re at for financial disaster. Have we actually hit orange yet?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman 1925-2008


My earliest memories of Paul Newman are of him wrapped in a terry-cloth towel in (what was it?) HARPER or THE PRIZE. His pecs and shoulders damp and fresh out of the shower. For months the words “terry cloth” meant sex to me.

I also remember him, a bit later, open-shirted as a krazy beatnik painter, channeling Brando and Kerouac, in WHAT A WAY TO GO!

Before Brad Pitt, six-pack meant Newman.

The iconic image of Newman is the HUD poster. I saw the movie only on TV, but, all respects to Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas, and Brandon de Wilde, the movie was all Newman’s—bristling machismo, boy-manly arrogance, attracting and repelling with the same brooding looks.

It’s the poster Joe Buck takes with him to NYC in MIDNIGHT COWBOY.

And then, somewhat later, Newman made an even deeper impression on me when I discovered he was also a stage and film director, a political activist, a racecar driver, and a saucier.

He was a sort of Renaissance man, a master of many talents. He embodied Hollywood liberalism in the same way he embodied “cool," in a gentle, self-effacing way—so that nobody ever mistook him for seeking a career in politics (though maybe he should have).

His late acting career showed that he had lost none of his diamond-like intensity with age. His Sidney Mussburger in the Coen brothers’ THE HUDSUCKER PROXY is a fine comic villain—vain, opportunistic, slick, the decadent ghost of the can-do spirit. His sinister turn as crime king John Rooney in ROAD TO PERDITION presented us with a nightmarish father figure, self-justified and ruthless, a man whose cynicism and greed have caused him to loath even those he thinks he loves.

Paul Newman died yesterday. Cancer. He was a class act.


“I'm a supporter of gay rights. And not a closet supporter either. From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community. There are so many qualities that make up a human being ... by the time I get through with all the things that I really admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant.” –Paul Newman

First Debate

Frankly I’m disappointed that Obama didn’t do any better than he did in the first debate.

He came off as smart and self-assured, certainly, but he needed to tear into McCain much more than he did.

Repeatedly McCain insulted Obama, calling him inexperienced and naïve, while Obama deferred to the doddering old coot, often pointing out how much he agreed with him.

Polite to a fault, Obama should have countered McCain’s insults by stating that McCain’s vaunted “experience” resides in acting the toad to Bush for the last eight years. If McCain knows so very much about foreign policy, why hasn’t he put that knowledge to better use?

McCain droned on about the supposed success of the ‘surge” in Iraq, and Obama, perhaps restrained by his position as a younger black man trying to placate the racism not only in the American right wing, but also in his own Democratic Party, failed to counter with alternative interpretations—such as that the apparent success of the surge is more properly due to Iraqi-vs-Iraqi sectarian violence that has effectively annihilated opposition in certain quarters of Bagdad.

On the whole, I think the debate was a draw—neither man nailing a memorable soundbite and neither man stirring much new passion or enthusiasm for his candidacy.

McCain performed better than I expected him to, especially as the debate turned towards the Middle East and Russia. Two or three times, Obama tried to pin the manifest failures of the Bush administration on McCain—and yet the overall impression was that McCain was lecturing a student who had got himself in over his head.

What Obama should have been able to make stick to McCain is his and the Republican Party’s inability to stir much loyalty among America’s allies and their failure to make significant inroads to reforming (or vanquishing) its enemies.

Obama mentioned his early opposition to the war in Iraq and yet faltered in outlining exactly how ill-conceived and costly the war has been. Perfect opportunities existed for him to tie the war to America’s current financial crisis. He wasted perfect opportunities to expose McCain’s associations with and allegiance to interests who have profited from the war—and his ineffectual advocacy on behalf of the troops and their families at home.

In so many respects McCain is vulnerable, not least because he has prostituted himself as a mouthpiece of the heinous lies of the present administration. But Obama preferred to concede the matter of McCain’s 25 years of congressional experience, to play the nice guy, failing to point out the blood McCain has meanwhile accrued on his hands and the egg, quite obviously on the old guy's face.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One Trick Phony

Oh, Christ.

McCain wants to postpone Friday’s debate for a timeout to deal with the economic crisis. So, not only can he not face up to Larry King after CNN’s Campbell Brown dared to press a McCain spokesman for answers a few weeks ago, now he wants to dodge Obama, as well. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin is out of public view, locked up tighter than a virgin princess in the Middle Ages, and the McCain campaign has suddenly decided its mission is to run against The New York Times.

Did McCain just get hold of Robert Mugabe’s playbook or something?

Is Obama the only candidate seriously running for President?

Or is McCain thinking that, between rightwing Diebold supplying voting machines in most states and the Republican Supreme Court waiting to call yet another election, he doesn’t owe America's voters a thing?

Not even the appearance of democratic debate?

Has McCain just never heard of multitasking? Is he climbing to the Presidency one ginger step at a time, with long breaks at every other step to catch his breath?

Republicans used to laugh at Democrats for not being “men of action.” Well, well. Now their candidate seems to have one trick and one trick only—stalling. Whether it’s a hurricane or the brink of a new Depression, McCain’s one-size-fits-all response is to delay.

Big T sign with fingers pointing upwards to the palm of the other hand.

I don’t think this is the way to stare down the terrorists, John.

And, funny thing, I don’t get the sense that he wants the time to consult with the best minds about how to save America. The sense I get is he needs the extra time to squeeze his head back out of his ass.

Yes, I’m Gay

Yes, folks, I’m gay. I can’t bear that another child might artificially enter the world and learn through my bad example that it is built on lies and secrets. I wasn’t raised that way—and by ‘that way’ I do not mean “that way” in quotes, I mean I wasn’t raised to disillusion the young and innocent. Besides, let the little rat’s assholes find these things out on their own. The dears.

I never intended to lie to anybody at all. In all sincerity, I intended only to deny that I am gay … repeatedly. I also hoped to win a $100 million lawsuit against NATIONAL ENQUIRER and high-priced rough-trade snitch John Paulus. Ninety-minute barebacking session on a motel mattress? I don’t think so, Johnny-O.

I’m still the same sweet fella whom you guys have loved out of all proportion to your knowledge of me for years now. If you fans leave me now, I don’t want you to leave hating me. Leave me because I abandoned the haircut. Leave me for covering “Here You Come Again.” Leave me because I’ve now shit on half of Kathy Griffin’s act.

As for my born-again fans, the ones who promised to sue my management if it ever turned out I was gay, um, hello? … especially you there who blogged, “Please tell me I'm not the only one who is shocked beyond belief! I feel numb I'm so upset. This can't be real!!" … to you, I say,

“God bless you, little lamb. May you never prove to be this big of a sucker ever again in your life. God bless. And good luck on the new diet.”

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading (Review)

It's interesting the amount of stalking that happens in the Coen brothers’ latest movie—BURN AFTER READING—from Internet searches to tailgating to breaking-and-entering to the use of hired investigators to uncover other people’s secrets.

The film suggests that Americans are all hunting and being hunted. Everyone’s a predator and everyone’s prey.

The little scene in the latter half of the film when a pediatrician (Tilda Swinton) tries to pry a kid's mouth open suggests the callous and intrusive nature of 21st century life. The scene reminds me of the short William Carlos Williams story “The Use of Force,” in which self-justifying authority out-maneuvers the resistance of the powerless, who simply want to be left alone.

This idea is also present in the art direction of the scenes at Hardbodies, the fitness center where three pivotal characters work—adjacent cubicles, glassed in, where privacy and seclusion are not only impossible but no longer desirable.

And our willingness to be intruded upon—poked and prodded by cosmetic surgeons for the sake of constant self-improvement, or publishing self-aggrandizing memoirs, or letting it all hang out on social networking questionnaires (and blogs!)—suggests an anonymously interconnected mass community where privacy and discretion no longer matter.

And in the broader contexts explored in the film, these intrusions affect our economy, our politics, and our "private" (or not so private) lives.

Everybody wants to be an “insider” in everybody else’s business.

And, in return, everybody wants to be an open book.

I have to admit that at the movie’s end I was puzzled and let down. You will be, too, no doubt. But I’m not inclined to think that the Coens have simply failed to present us with a satisfying ending.

I think what they are trying to depict is the futility of all the busy maneuvering we engage in. That is, the satisfying denouement we look for (even in life) does not exist.

Our rush to find and understand the Big Picture—when in fact, in the modern world, the Big Picture is just so much dissonant noise.

Our belief in complexly conceived conspiracies and our fascination with counter-counter-counter conspiracies.

Our trust in optimism and the can-do spirit (Americanism!)—self-improvement for its own sake.

“Keep an eye on everyone,” a CIA boss states at one point. “Report back to me when … I don’t know, when it makes sense.” That moment never arrives.

The cast is uniformly in high gear. Except for J.K. Williams, who plays the tired CIA boss quoted above, all the actors perform with breathless busy-ness that suggests that they are all pitching products—even if the products are themselves.

Brad Pitt plays the eternally boyish, middle-aged personal trainer at Hardbodies, who teams with a fellow employee, played by Frances McDormand, to make a fast buck over some potentially valuable information discovered in the women’s locker room. Both of them giggle and grin their way through characters of no particular intelligence and unfocused ambitions.

John Malkovich plays a disgruntled ex-CIA man, Osborne Cox, whose belief that everyone around him is a moron is both true and no contradiction of the fact that he is something of a moron, too. The only person he can comfortably confide in is his catatonic father. In this film, Malkovich achieves his most animated comic performance since the underseen COLOUR ME KUBRICK three years ago. He makes the character both a voice of reason and a monster of egoism.

As his wife, Tilda Swinton, always a riveting screen presence, plays the ultimate icy bitch. I’m not sure what it is about her, but Swinton always has the power to mesmerize and yet make me feel oddly uncomfortable. Her pinched mouth and cold predatory stares here serve to intimidate her husband and her lover.

George Clooney plays Harry Pfarrer, a federal marshal neurotically obsessed with sex gadgets, pine flooring, lactose, shellfish, and firearms—each obsession begging for Freudian analysis. Clooney goes over the top zany, like the other players—more complications occur in his eyebrows than in the intentionally minimalist/absurd plot.

As a follow-up to the nihilistic NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN last year, the Coens’ latest production supplies us with a nihilistic farce. In both, we have hunters and hunted, inexplicable violence, experienced lawmen who scratch their heads and shrug their shoulders, and mavericks who futilely buck fate and the unwinnable game we call everyday existence.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Adam and Steve (and Brad)

On Wednesday Brad Pitt announced that he has donated $100,000 to fight Proposition 8, the California initiative to ban same-sex marriage. Two years ago this month, the actor pledged that he and Angelina Jolie would not marry until gays and lesbians in the United States could marry.

Though presumably the cause is one with which socially liberal Hollywood sympathizes, Pitt’s donation is the largest that the anti-8 pro-gay movement has received so far.

The proposition, which voters will decide on in November, surfaced after California’s Supreme Court declared in May that the existing ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, prompting a flurry of gay-lesbian marriages in the state, most notably the August nuptials of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. California and Massachusetts are the only US states that have legal same-sex marriage.

Officially called the “Limit on Marriage” Constitutional Amendment, the California proposition would change the state constitution to read, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Although polls predict that Prop 8 will likely be defeated, its supporters have raised $16 million, mostly in individual fat checks from wealthy Mormons, compared to the opposition’s $11 million—money for TV ads targeting the hearts and minds of California’s undecided population, 18-22 percent of likely voters.

John McCain voiced his support for the amendment in June. Organizations supporting Prop 8 include the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and various evangelical mega-churches. Don Wildmon’s American Family Association has contributed $500,000 to the cause, and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family has contributed $400,000.

Barack Obama voiced his opposition for Prop 8 in July. Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes the amendment. Six California Episcopal bishops issued a statement earlier this month, opposing the bill.

I realize that, for many, gay marriage is a non-issue. Admittedly issues of war, the economy, healthcare, and global warming have priority.

I am of two minds about gay marriage—angry that legal privileges and rights expressly exclude gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, and yet unenthusiastic about the prospects of becoming a “respectable” minority, integrated into an essentially corrupt society.

But the fervor over McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate demonstrates the degree to which America is a reactionary, Jesus-haunted, though flagrantly hypocritical nation, especially hypocritical in matters of sex. The so-called culture wars are at least as real as the wars on drugs and terrorism—and arguably more important to the country’s future. In this area, we Americans are so far behind nations like Spain, Brazil, and, well, probably almost everybody but China, India, and Islamic theocracies.

America’s hang-ups about homosexuality—and sex in general—are as embarrassing as the country’s inability to deal honestly with its hang-ups about race and poverty.

And with the end of the cold war some 20 years ago, homosexuals have replaced communists as the hobgoblins of right-wingers, who sense homophobia as the most potent and lucrative emotional trigger to further their disastrous military, economic, social policies. Even 9-11 failed to take the heat off gays—since media figures, both religious and not, have linked America’s so-called “tolerance” for homosexuals to terrorism … and hurricanes.

As I see it, then, this is no non-issue. America’s failure to deal with “Adam and Steve” is tied to its bloodthirstiness for Armageddon.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Message to Tim (re: Lars and the Real Girl)

My friend Tim, who teaches at a seminary, sent me a lengthy message today. Here's an excerpt:

"Hey I saw [...] that one of your recent favorite movies is Lars and the Real Girl. We've found it to be a powerful movie about community! [...] One of the questions I've been asking in response is this: how do you discern when your acceptance of someone is enabling their brokenness rather than helping them experience healing? We tend to be a very accepting community (our church), but sometimes people stay stuck right where they are for years. Any thoughts on this, and on the movie?"

And here's my reply:

I love LARS AND THE REAL GIRL for precisely the aspect you mentioned--community. The brother, his wife, the would-be girlfriend, the doctor, the townspeople--the sense of wisdom and support there--fantastic--and deeply moving for me. It's what I always hoped existed somewhere.

Of course, the movie's a fantasy. Such a huge level of support and acceptance seems far-fetched--even the ease with which resistance was subdued seems improbable--far more likely (to pessimistic me, anyway) is that those who disapproved of Lars' little folly would have entrenched themselves, perhaps found a way to turn the whole deal into a Righteous Cause ("What kind of example is this for the children?")--the primal herd instinct to repel outsiders is much stronger than the movie presented.

But, then, I don't mean any of this as a complaint--it's only a movie, after all--Oz probably doesn't exist either.

Your related question is intriguing. How much is too much acceptance?

Here's my first thought on the matter, having not given it close examination yet: Acceptance is the opposite of resistance and entrenchment. When should we resist? Should we never resist?

Resistance is almost certainly the right thing to do when confronted with injustice, cruelty, manifestly destructive behavior--particularly when the harm is immediate and unmistakable.

But HOW should we resist? Nonviolently, compassionately. Is it possible? Is that really what turning the other cheek means? Satyagraha?

But we live in a culture that believes in redemptive violence--either the violence of swift revenge (or even torture) as an effective arm of true justice, or the violence of martyrdom, sacrifice, and (what's the word I'm looking for?) shunning, closing off, driving off. (I'm thinking as I go along here, so don't expect coherence.)

So, acceptance--I'm going on a limb here--is generally preferable to resistance--that is, saying YES is better than saying NO ... in general.

So when is acceptance wrong? I think acceptance runs the danger of becoming indifference when it ceases to be active. If "acceptance" is passive, it is simply not-caring. Active acceptance involves curiosity and involvement, empathy--an imaginative leap into the consciousness of others.

So in LatRG the townspeople (the ones we like anyway) manage, through openness and imagination to enter into Lars' delusion. In doing this, they are diligent enough not to become deluded themselves, but rather to find creative ways to interpret the delusion and mine it for its beneficial effects--not just for Lars but for themselves as well.

I feel the movie indicates that the people surrounding Lars are as profoundly changed in the end as Lars himself. (And we see some of them are already capable of this in the sister-in-law's persistence in trying to get Lars to come into the house for dinner, at the beginning of the movie.)

Talking about this subject, I'm reminded of something I read years and years ago about some Native American culture--what tribe or tribes I cannot remember. But it goes like this--if a child were born into the tribe whose only gift was to make dolls out of corncobs and could do nothing else, the tribespeople would then develop a NEED for corncob dolls--for ritual uses or as toys, or maybe as decorations. The tribe took from each what each was able to offer, in other words. When the dollmaker died, and if there was no replacement for him/her, the tribe gradually ceased to need the dolls anymore.

Of course, such a society would have to depend on the fact that most people would bring skills to the tribe conducive to survival, but given their organic view of community, all people's gifts were assumed to have value, not because they conformed to what is normal but because each member was already assumed to be irrevocably an organic part of the tribe.

Of course, this information may have been BS, part of the sentimentalizing of Indian culture--the noble savage and all that. But I think even if there never were such a culture, even if LatRG portrays a Hollywood dream, even if violence and ... ostracism! that's the word I was struggling to find up above ... but even if violence and contempt for outsiders are deeply ingrained in human nature, possibly even for good survival-centered reasons, still, isn't the idea of community a rather wonderful dream?

And maybe I haven't even answered the very intriguing question you posed.

A Supposedly Fun Thing


The writer David Foster Wallace was found dead by his wife on Friday. He had hanged himself. He was 46.

Twelve years ago when I read David Foster Wallace’s mammoth, gloomily comic novel INFINITE JEST, my immediate thought was that the novel as an art form was alive again. Metafictionists had declared the novel dead decades before, but here was a book that was as vital and socially astute as any nineteenth-century British novel, as playful and self-aware as any post-modern metafiction.

I sensed that the book was something big—bigger than perhaps it really was, as I half-expected it to resuscitate the role of the publicly-engaged intellectual in America, which was fading away—its last vestiges, at the time, being Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, and Gore Vidal, the latter being the only one now alive. I thought the book was going to be the new generation’s MOBY-DICK or HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

Immediately after I finished INFINITE JEST, I caught up on my Wallace, reading his brilliant short-story collection GIRL WITH CURIOUS HAIR and first novel THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM. The nonfiction A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN came out the next year—and in each case what impressed me was Wallace’s mastery and personal ownership of the various literary forms—short story, essay, novel.

The central event of INFINITE JEST is the appearance in the near future of a video so entertaining that people watch it to death—so captivated and entranced that they forget to eat or attend to the business of living otherwise, so they starve to death, sitting in front of their TVs. This sterile absorption by amusement also appears in the fact that the USA, Canada, and Mexico have merged into one corporate entity, the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN, recalling Onan, the biblical figure who “spilled his seed on the ground,” whom clerics in the Middle Ages interpreted as a type of the self-defilement of masturbation).

At a daunting 1079 pages, the book covers an array of subjects including Quebecois terrorists, child abuse, and tennis. I was mainly struck with its satire on consumerism—in the future, the years would be no longer numbered anno domini, but sold to the highest corporate bidder as advertising—so that a year would have a name like the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment or the Year of the Burger King Whopper.

All in all, the book imagines the soon-to-arrive twenty-first century as dumbed-down, vapid, and doomed—contentedly soulless, proud of its superficiality and mastery of the obvious.

Back when the novel first appeared, Frank Bruni stated in a NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE article, "Wallace is to literature what Robin Williams or perhaps Jim Carrey is to live comedy: a creator so maniacally energetic and amused with himself that he often follows his riffs out into the stratosphere, where he orbits all alone."

If Wallace left a suicide letter, I have not yet heard about it. INFINITE JEST will remain his legacy, if not his suicide note. He inspired other writers, his contemporaries, for instance, George Saunders and Jonathan Franzen, to enter the stratosphere in their own ways. Whether the public will remember him, except as that rarefied being, a writer’s writer, is impossible to say. A film of his book BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN, directed by actor John Krasinski, is set for release this year.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Even Barack Obama is saying that Sarah Palin is “shaking things up.” Unfortunately, it’s not clear what she and McCain have got lined up for after things are thoroughly shaken.

Apparently the media have selected to give Palin the Bush treatment from 2000—to follow up the understandable shock that someone so venal and incompetent could rise so high with tepid but polite admiration that the monkey gets anything right.

Palin’s inteview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, her first public, unscripted interview, is being praised for what the Alaska governor did not do.

The Chicage Tribune praises her, saying she “passes the test.” Meaning, I suppose, a D or higher.

NPR noted that she did not “explode.”

Thankfully, the AP and New York Times were a bit more critical—but in a measured way that suggests that Palin is a special-needs candidate deserving of our understanding and patience. Furthermore, the Times characterized Gibson unflatteringly as resembling an “annoyed” “university president” interviewing a prospective student who he suspects is unprepared for college—thus perpetuating the Republican story of elites versus the pretty yet capable ingenue.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick Smears

Yesterday afternoon, Barack Obama talked about the rhetoric of “change” both parties are touting for the November elections:

“John McCain says he's about change too, and so I guess his whole angle is, ‘Watch out George Bush -- except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics---we're really going to shake things up in Washington.

"That's not change. That's just calling something the same thing something different. You know you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. You know you can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it's still going to stink after eight years. We've had enough of the same old thing."

The McCain camp finds the comment offensive, taking “lipstick on a pig” to be a thinly veiled attack on Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin—?—perhaps because as a hard-shell Pentecostal she should not use cosmetics?

But maybe I miss the real point of offense. Perhaps McCain can, since he alone can judge his intent when, less than a year ago, he responded to a question about the healthcare plan proposed by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, saying, “I think they put some lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.”

Republicans excel in inconsistency and phony controversy. It always amazes me how thin-skinned a bully can be. Perhaps inconsistency is what Republicans think of as change. Perhaps hypocrisy is what they think of as values.

When asked how she could be sure that Obama directed the comment against Palin, Republican Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift replied. “As far as I know, she's the only one of the presidential candidates or vice presidential candidates who wears lipstick. It seemed to me a very gendered comment. There's only one woman in the race. It's directly analogous to comments she has made.”

I guess she means the joke Governor Palin made at the Republican National Convention—“You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick.”

I loved it. I laughed out loud.

Perhaps Obama should become more tactful in his use of language. These days they prefer to be called pitbulls, not pigs. An apology is due.

If Obama won’t do it, maybe I can smooth over the situation with a little clarification:

Republicans’ calling Reagan-era economic policies and Rove-style politics “change” is no change at all. It’s like putting lipstick on the turd of a pig standing knee-deep in syphilitic splooge while you fart the Star-Spangled Banner eight to the bar.

It feels so much better when you find the right way to say things.

Monday, September 8, 2008

10 Reasons McCain Won’t Do

I’d be the first to say that John McCain is probably the best Republican presidential candidate in 40 years, but I am quick to add that Barack Obama is the best Democratic presidential candidate in over 60 years—and, more important, Obama is the better man of the two candidates.

I would like to list my reasons why a McCain presidency is not a good idea for America. Although the Democratic talking points (e.g., “McCain is Bush lite”) may be implicit in my remarks, I would like as much as possible to explore my opinions on this topic without parroting party leadership.

(1) Of Obama and McCain, McCain is less likely to preserve American democracy. He has come to represent a stance on governance centered on national security, and history shows that such a stance tends to advance a police-state mentality. Public safety and security are important, certainly, just not all-important. American liberties and rights must not be threatened or slighted.

(2) Torture is an immoral and unacceptable practice. McCain, better than most people in politics, should know this, but his party has flirted too long with redefining “torture” to exclude practices like water-boarding, widely recognized as torture since the Spanish Inquisition. Not only is torture, including psychological torture, unethical, it has proved more likely to produce false confessions than useful information.

(3) McCain has shown no capability in winning the hearts and minds of the world. His appeal, such as it is, is limited to America, and, even here, with little enthusiasm. Unlike Obama, McCain shows little capability of winning international respect and confidence or building consensus among nations.

(4) Obama’s position on Iraq has proved to be the one that even the current Republican administration has come to regard as best—recently having agreed with the Iraqi government to pull out US troops within the next three years. McCain’s one “good” idea, the 2007 surge, perhaps produced some favorable results, but the general consensus appears to be now that they have not been favorable enough.

(5) While McCain has more experience in Washington than Obama has, the nature of McCain’s experience is tainted by the corruption of the special-interest lobbyists with whom he associates and by a tendency to alternate between playing “maverick” and cozying up to power-mongers.

(6) Much has been made of Obama’s effectiveness as an inspirational speaker. Perhaps not enough has been made of McCain’s ineffectiveness in inspiring even his most ardent followers; his recent VP selection has largely eclipsed him.

(7) McCain has conducted his campaign in a manner that would have effectively sabotaged the Obama candidacy—from plunging it into near-bankruptcy just a year ago to stumbling ineptly through pedestrian rhetorical challenges in his speeches. Unlike Obama, McCain has avoided opportunities to test and prove his positions with reporters inclined to ask tough, challenging questions. Obama has proved himself superior in every aspect of campaigning and leadership.

(8) Age has not made McCain wiser. He is short-tempered, easily discombobulated, and impatient in making important decisions. He habitually blusters in the worst tradition of old coots who feel entitled by seniority to honors for which they are unqualified. He relies too much on the abilities and strategic thinking of those around him, with little flexibility in thinking, and little natural good judgment.

(9) Both McCain and Obama are wealthy men. However, McCain seems oblivious to the needs of not only the poor but also the rapidly shrinking middle class. He supports the old “trickle-down” ideology of the Reagan years, which in 28 years has not proved to benefit anyone but the already wealthy.

(10) McCain is a man of weak character. In the last four years, McCain has toadied up to George W. Bush, the man who, for political advantage, slandered McCain’s young adopted daughter in 2000. Worse, McCain has shown absolutely no disposition to hold anyone accountable for the reckless disregard for the lives and well-being of American troops or for the unconscionable lies by which these lives—and America’s former wealth and good standing in the post-cold-war world—have been imperiled.

Funny Ha Ha

I’m enjoying the new issue of ROLLING STONE (18 Sept. 2008), the one devoted to comedy.

ROLLING STONE has been my favorite magazine for the past eight or nine years, for, oh, many reasons. I like the lefty politics, the racial/gender/cultural balance, the gay positivity, the uninhibited interviews, and the film and music reviews. I don’t always agree with the RS reviews, but I always get enough from them to pick out something at the cineplex I’ll like. David Rees’s strip “Get Your War On” strip is genius, taking me back to the days when satire wasn’t on a leash, and Matt Taibbi’s social and political coverage is alone worth the price of a year’s subscription. The cover photographs are witty and sexy—the one of Obama grinning down at his US flag pin and the one, some 15 years ago, of Brad Pitt, shirtless and with shoulder-length blond hair, very Tarzan—both of them, best covers ever. (Oh, one more, the archetypal Lennon-Ono nudes of 30 years ago, how could I forget?)

This issue surveys a lot of funny people about what makes funny so funny. Two serious oversights are that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not on the list. Also, no Ricky Gervais, no ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, no Ellen DeGeneres, no Amy Sedaris, no SOUTH PARK. What gives?

But here is my list of the 8 responses that were on the money, concerning the “Funniest Movie Ever”—along with my list of 8 movies (in no particular order) that were the most egregious omissions:

Amy Poehler: “The Jerk.”

Chris Rock: “Broadway Danny Rose” and “Superbad.”

Tina Fey: “Election.”

Steven Wright: “Harold and Maude.”

Eddie Izzard: “Life of Brian” and “Ghostbusters”

Margaret Cho: “Withnail and I”


“Shaun of the Dead,” “The Big Lebowski,” “What’s Up, Doc?” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Gold Rush,” “Ed Wood,” “After Hours”

Sunday, September 7, 2008

God Hates Fangs

Producer Alan Ball is putting the red back in redneck.

His new HBO series TrueBlood combines Sordid Lives and The Vampire Lestat, exploring the hyperreal realm of Louisiana bloodsuckers. In the not-too-distant future the Japanese have invented a synthetic blood called TruBlood, and heartened by new possibilities for tolerance and respectability, vampires are “coming out of the coffin” to demand their rights as citizens.

Of course, any similarity to the gay rights struggle is intentional. And what separates this series from Buffy is a cheeky awareness of the sexual subversiveness of vampire lore, and what separates it from Showtime After Dark is that the thrills play against the backdrop of the culture wars’ biggest battleground, the Bible Belt.

Oscar-winner Anna Paquin plays goodhearted, virginal Sookie Stackhouse, a truckstop waitress with the gift of hearing other people’s thoughts. In Episode 1, she meets Bill (Stephen Moyer), a brooding vamp version of Dylan Mckay, whose thoughts she cannot hear. Right away she develops a sort of crush on the exotic stranger—and puts herself at considerable risk to protect him from exploitative humans.

We learn that vampires are as allergic to silver as werewolves, that some humans (fang-bangers) prey on the vampires, for vampire blood and vampire sex have rejuvenating, aphrodisiac effects on mortals. Just as we thought, though, vampires come out at night, are cold to the touch, and live through centuries without ageing.

We learn, too, that “human values” may not be better than the perverse, parasitical thirsts of bloodsuckers, after all. Sookie’s hunky brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) is a smalltown Hud with a taste for rough kink and, perhaps, serial killing.

All this unfolds with a great deal of wit and style.

In supporting roles, we get William Sanderson, Lois Smith, Nelsan Ellis, and Chris Bauer, who provide a homey, 21st-century Mayberry ambience—a nice dodge from the usual Dark Shadows archness.

The first episode shows promise—this show may be Ball’s and HBO’s next big thing—and I may find it almost as addictive as Mad Men.

Why Do Gays Hate Black Music?

I just read something on radaronline.com by a writer outraged that only 11.5 percent of the October ’08 OUT magazine’s list of best gay music is black. It strikes me as silly—on a profound level—to read racism into a fluff list in a fluff “lite-style” magazine like OUT—and to use statistics as proof.

Still, the article makes some intriguing points—such as that there really is no gay community (agreed on the whole—and it’s probably a good thing) and that whites dominate gay culture (just gay culture?)

One of the most flagrant racists I ever met was a gay man, so I’m certainly not denying that the gay “community,” albeit nonexistent, is spotless on this point.

But, God knows, the numbers for homophobia must be sky-high in hiphop and black churches.

The article goes on to make the perhaps valid point that rich gays and poor gays mix only on Craigslist—though I would argue that, historically, the economic classes have mixed more readily at gay bars than anywhere else in American society, except the DMV. And I wouldn't characterize the works of Kanye West, Mariah Carey, and Beyonce (three artists mentioned as being snubbed by OUT) as poor people’s music.

But look who’s pointing fingers: after a quick scroll down RADAR’s “Features” page, I calculated that only 12.5 percent of the pictured faces were black—and one of those is actually Obama’s back in a long shot, and another is Robert Downey Jr. in TROPIC THUNDER.

I’m not sure that one percentage point and blackface give RADAR the moral authority to cast stones.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Right of People Peaceably to Assemble

During this week’s Republican National Convention, 818 people were arrested for protesting near the St Paul Xcel Center.

Police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and shoved protesters to the pavement. News reports identified the protesters as anti-war anarchists. Police PR argued that, based on information gathered undercover by cops infiltrating the groups, the protesters—or some factions among the protesters—intended more destructive actions to disrupt the convention. Such a conspiracy may have existed, but to my knowledge no one in the media has yet asked the police for the evidence.

Is it not possible that, as in past police actions, the government infiltrators triggered the riots for the sake of discrediting the protest?

Four women, ages 38 to 53, were arrested in a peaceful protest sponsored by CODEPINK Women for Peace. According to the group’s Website, the police provoked the arrests:

“In protest of the war and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's pro-war and pro-drilling positions, the CODEPINK women had been singing and dancing in crowns, sashes and pink clothing, when police surrounded them and began to push them up onto the sidewalk and against a metal fence set up in the plaza. The women complied but continued to be pushed to the side and were told [to] clear out. In symbolic sign of civil disobedience, saying free speech cannot be caged and all of America is a free speech zone, the four women tried to crawl under the fence. Police pulled them through to the other side and arrested them.”

The police counted 10,000 people at these protests (protest organizers counted three times as many). Either number is significant, since “official” conventioneers (delegates, alternates, party officials, lobbyists, volunteers, members of the media, and guests) numbered only 45,000.

By contrast, in the last week of August, about 190,000 attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver, plus some 21,000 local volunteers. Police arrested 141 protesters outside that convention, including a dozen or so pro-life protesters led by Randall Terry. Denver police reportedly used hard batons and pepper spray to control fewer than 2000 protesters.

Unlike 1968, the press largely ignored these protests. In most cases, the media did not report on the causes the protesters represented, in favor of statistics and reports of violence and destruction of property. The coverage, such as it was, relied almost entirely on police sources.

Arguably the views of these protesters—both on the left and the right of the political spectrum—deserved at least as much attention as opinions about Michelle Obama’s Jackie-inspired dress or the huggability of Sarah Palin’s young daughter (not the knocked-up one). Furthermore, the media should have expected that at least a portion of their audience might be interested in understanding better the First Amendment implications of the corralling, beating, and jailing of regular Americans who wanted their voices heard, in addition to the scripted self-congratulations inside the convention walls.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pit Bull with Lipstick

On the most recent Real Time with Bill Maher, NPR correspondent Michel Martin warned everybody not to underestimate Sarah Palin. She said that most male politicians don’t know how to carry themselves when forced to debate a woman—on one hand they don’t want to look condescending, and on the other hand they don’t want to be perceived as unchivalrous.

Also, Palin, Martin noted, is a tough cookie.

The choice of Palin has seemed so ridiculous that it’s hard for me to see it as anything but calculated and sneaky. It stinks of Karl Rove, in fact.

I suspect Palin exists to impress precisely the people that Obama has been less successful in impressing—redneck America. Picking up the analogy fresh on all the tongues of political commentators lately, if 2008 is a mirror of 1968, then Palin is George Wallace.

And in six short days she has moved the national debate from the war in Iraq to the struggle of a smalltown family to deal with a teen pregnancy. The hypocrisy of Palin’s pro-life, pro-abstinence posturing is clear to me and people similar to me. But to rank-and-file working whites, she has emerged, like Bush, as somebody they’d like to have a beer with.

Her candidacy has moved the debate away from which Presidential candidate can most improve the US economy to how VP candidates should be properly vetted.

My first impulse is to write her off as trashy and ignernt—and she is—but she’s finding a soft spot in the hearts of Americans who likewise turned to mush over George W. Bush’s bad syntax and ham-fisted manners. Poor speech habits and inconsistent smalltown values these folks can relate to—and they get pissed off at the “elites” who make fun of such things.

Palin is tough, and like Bush she appeals to the bitterness and magical thinking of the poorly educated masses, whose feelings are better tuned than their reasoning. She’s lying through her teeth, but people hear in her shrill barking something they like. In an odd way she, again like Bush, stirs protective feelings in regular folk.

Picking on her mannerisms and family is only going to alienate undecided voters and rile up the right wing's nutso base.

Exposing the true elitism of the incredibly wealthy Republican bluebloods and the disastrous implications of the policies she and McCain promote is perhaps our best bet.

McCain mocked Obama’s celebrity and popularity—but in Palin he (with Rove’s help, no doubt) invented a popular celebrity he can use.

He mocked Obama’s lack of experience and call for change, but he’s hit on a tactic here for recasting the Democrats as stick-in-the-mud incumbents.

Most lower middle-class Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about what the proper procedures for “vetting” a VP are. We’re making a mistake if we make too big of a fuss over trivia.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

It’s Perverse Only If You Do It Right

Sarah Palin’s daughter can have as many babies as she likes, wed, unwed, or between hubbies. I don’t care and would be happy to be spared the details.

I’ve said as much regarding John Edwards, too; my interest in other people’s sex lives exists in only trace amounts, hardly detectable to the human eye. If any part were to interest me, it would be the sex itself—so long as it’s hot, sweaty, and nasty—so no thank you on the exclusive ultrasounds of little Baby Palin Johnston.

But, look here, this is what I ask: Palin needs not to breathe word one … ever … in eternity … about abstinence-only education. Governor, you no longer have a right to your old opinion on the subject, and if events haven’t taught you to change your mind, then please just shut up about it.

Another thing. Can the religious right pipe down about how the real story here is about the sanctity of life? Admittedly, as a “poster child of the pro-life movement,” this fetus is many steps up from the bloody lump in a garbage can the movement has been schlepping around for three decades now. Still, the hypocrisy is mind-numbing—and I’ve seen my share of hypocrisy, with only minimal numbing effects.

If the pious prudes were serious when they fretted over the negative message Murphy Brown teaches to young people, then for heaven’s sake don’t put this girl on a pedestal and pretend she’s some kind of faith-based miracle. The sanctity of life, God’s precious gift, is affordable to girls everywhere who spread their knees without benefit (or knowledge) of safe birth control.

And last. Yes, following the family’s press announcement, some responses to Palin’s private family predicament have been inappropriate and excessive. But let’s not pretend that, if one of Obama’s daughters got knocked up, the rightwing responses would have been any more measured and polite.

Just take two or three deep breaths now. Think: Sex is OK. It’s all right for our kids to think it’s OK. Sure, they need to learn responsibility—about money, voting, and calorie intake—and, yes, sex, too. Babies are a fine thing too, taken on a one by one basis.

The problem is not sex, people. It’s thinking you or your representatives in government have the right to stick a nose into other people’s private business. It’s whining about the choices other people make and seriously questioning their right to make those choices, and , then, when you make a bad decision yourself, pretending that your shit don’t stink.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Seeds of Atheism in Jason and the Argonauts: Some Notes


I don’t think any man of my generation did not see the 1963 Columbia Pictures production of Jason and the Argonauts in his boyhood. But behind the thrilling special effects supplied by Ray Harryhausen (a god to FX lovers and readers of Famous Monsters of Filmland), could there be a serious, maybe even subversive message?

It seems that a good portion of the film’s dialogue, written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross, concerns the belief in God or gods—about which little is said that is favorable to theism.

Having just watched the movie on DVD, I give you my notes:

I. Hercules

When the giant statue Talos collapses on top of his young friend Hylas, Hercules complains that the gods are unjust. Talos comes to life because Hercules steals a Titan’s golden hairpin. Hylas in fact warns Hercules not to take the javelin-sized pin, so he’s entirely innocent.

Later, as Jason struggles to stop the vengeful statue, Hercules flees and drops his souvenir pin. Out of love for Hercules, Hylas runs back to retrieve it, but the falling giant crushes him.

Why should the gods punish an innocent boy for Hercules’ offense?

II. Phineas

Later, King Phineas makes another point about divine justice. Admitting that he has sinned and perhaps deserves Zeus’s punishments (harpies who steal the blind man’s food), Phineas states that he nevertheless does not sin every day, so why then must he be punished every day?

The question of perfect, proportionate justice is contradicted by continuous and everlasting punishment, for which even the worst sinners can not possibly pack enough offenses into their brief lives.

III. Jason

When the Argonauts are forced to pass through the Clashing Rocks, Jason accuses Zeus and the other Olympians of going “too far.” He complains bitterly, “The gods of Greece are cruel. In time all men will learn to live without them.”

Once Hera and Poseidon intervene to save the ship and crew, Jason offers only a well-qualified thanks. In a philosophical mood, Zeus decides not to punish Jason, stating that if he were to punish every blasphemy, no men would be left to worship the gods at all.

Hera remarks that once mankind stops believing in gods, Zeus will be “nothing.” Zeus agrees and notes that the fact that Hera stays by his side in the face of looming non-existence is almost “human.”

IV. Medea

Jason then rescues the princess Medea from the Clashing Rocks, when gods fail to intervene on her and her shipmates’ behalf. At the ends of the earth, where Jason and his men hope to find the legendary Golden Fleece, Medea, high priestess to the Underworld goddess Hecate, has a crisis of faith.

When her father the king arrests Jason for treachery and murder, Medea prays to the goddess to help her, even though she owes her life to Jason’s human intervention. She shares her dilemma with the statue of Hecate (whom, interestingly, the film never bothers to personify as anything but a stone icon). If Medea helps Jason escape, she is a traitor to her country and her gods, but if she does not, she is a traitor to herself.

Ultimately, at great risk, she helps Jason. But her father Aeetes in turn calls on Hecate for help. Through Hecate’s black magic, he raises an army of skeletons, the victims of the seven-headed hydra that Jason has slain to claim the fleece. Jason and his men fight the resurrected warriors by sword and hand to bony hand. Ultimately, Jason outwits the undead, and they fall into the sea.

* * *

The movie ends before the true end of the story (ultimately, Jason will spurn Medea, and in vengeance she will kill their children, along with the woman Jason hopes to replace her with).

The goddess Hera spares the movie audience this hopeless violence and provides a Hollywood ending, with Jason and Medea kissing.

However, despite the victory over the skeletal army of Hecate, two human adversaries remain for Jason—King Aeetes and King Pelias (who’s not seen after, in the film’s first 30 minutes, he tricks Jason to go on the quest so that Jason will not kill him for destroying Jason’s family and stealing the throne). (In the full myth, Medea disposes of both kings, in grisly ways worthy of Hannibal Lecter.)

Zeus and Hera agree to stop the chess game they’ve been playing with their human pawns … for the time being anyway. But clearly in their minds (and in the minds of the audience members familiar with mythology) the story (ultimately tragic) is far from over. The happy ending, then, is another ruse by the gods—whose shabby treatment of humanity has been repeatedly questioned throughout the film—but the movie audience is at least spared having to see the worst of it.

Opportunism Knocks

(from my post on Neal's "wall" on Facebook.)

I can speak only on first impressions here, but I suspect that Sarah Palin could teach Karen Walker a thing or two about venality.

With a friend last night, I watched Palin and McCain on C-SPAN, talking about their heartfelt capitalization on the Gulf Coast hurricane preparations--she sounded like a shrill flight attendant announcing that seats can be used as flotational devices, and he kept scratching his navel and nostrils.

I think if the Republicans aren't going to party, the least they could do is offer the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul to the gays for the displaced Southern Decadence.


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