Monday, January 19, 2009

Dean-moment Of The Day

It was going to be an "Obamoment" but the image of a blogger I like yelling out to Howard Dean... really, it seems funny to imagine anyone yelling out to the National Party Chair of either party "THANK YOU!" So really, it's an Obamoment.


I have been noticing surreal moments of Obama's impending presidency all around. From now on, I will due my level best to post the surreal Obamoments here, to capture what I mean.

Today's Obamoment: a Times Square flier-person trying to get people to come to a "100% Barack Obama Approved" comedy show.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

On Suicide Bombers

Just a short thought: part of the reason youth in Palestine in particular or Iraq might be willing to give up their lives for a cause is because of the scale of death in their own personal lives. After all, if you surround a human being by so much death and destruction, they're going to come up with some sort of rationale that protects them from mental harm. One being that whoever did this is monstrously evil, two being that it's not so important because the virtuous dead find themselves in a better place, and three being the quickest way back to the ones you've lost and assuring your place among the virtuous dead is to attack whoever did this, the monstrously evil.

Yet another reason why this bombing in Gaza is utterly counterproductive.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Secretary Of The Arts

Barack Obama is going to put in place a new arts policy. Someone should oversee it. Hence, a Secretary of the Arts. Isn't that straightforward? For one of the first Presidents I've heard of with an actual arts policy, he should have a Secretary of the Arts. Or at least make the NEA chair a Cabinet-Level position.

As I've said before, this isn't a culture issue. This is an economic issue. Take this article, about how New York City's Broadway tax is allegedly going to hit AEA pensions. And not the billion dollar profits.

Now, one could argue that if the Department of Labor took arts issues to heart, a Department of Art wouldn't be necessary. But it clearly doesn't. Arts is a somewhat different industry--the way that Health and Human Services, or Agriculture are.

Also, what I like about the hypothetical Department of Art is what I like about the hypothetical Department of Food: although it's an economics oriented department, it keeps its goal in mind: producing art. If the FCC was made subject to this hypothetical Department of Art, it might behave differently. Or copyright law. The public radio/television organizations. They'd all be unified under one heading, working in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor.

I think it's a good idea. And other than the increase in bureaucracy, there isn't much downside. Do it, Mr. Obama!

Sign this petition for a Secretary of the Arts.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Arabs Stripped Of Representation

Well, I've been saying that a country founded on religion will always have problems with democracy, with the even-handed treatment of its citizens. Israel has, of course, not been very bad with the treatment of its Arab minority... not a very good relationship, but good enough to avoid major social unrest.

That appears to have changed.

The idea that political parties will be rejected based on the religion/ethnic group it seems to represent is a major, major step backwards in a democracy. As Americans, we have an innate protection of this in the First Amendment ("Freedom of Assembly" and also "Freedom of Worship") and in the Fourteenth Amendment ("equal rights and immunities.")

In related news, one of my grandmothers in Israel has been forwarding me email from pro-government sources (not Haaretz; often IDF websites). I don't read them, because I already know what they say. Today's email, however, came from Do they know that they don't get to represent themselves anymore?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Waltz With Bashir

Saw the movie Waltz With Bashir with my dad. My dad was drafted into the Israeli military in 1978, and opted to become a radio mechanic in return for serving an extra year in the military. My mother spent nine months in the military as a psychometrist (the person who performs psychological testing for new tank crews, to make sure that they don't hate each other) before she married him, and was thus given an out from the army.

In other words, my father was still in the military when the war with Lebanon broke out. He didn't have to serve there because he was from the "central" division of the Military (the army was divided into three sections: north, central, and south). Had he been in infantry or tank divisions, he would have been deployed for certain; as it was, he served no more than guard duty once on the border after he was discharged--because after his discharge he was repeatedly called to serve in the reservists. Of course, most of those were one-day summons, and he ignored them with little retribution. Because he ignored the one-day summons', he was never assigned a reservist unit. He finally was assigned a reservist unit when he went to get permission to leave Israel finally, in 1988--so technically he finally served in a reservist unit, although in actuality he came to the United States and finally left the army permanently behind him.

I mention this because after having seen the movie Waltz With Bashir, we talked about his service. His service, of course, is incomparable to the men in the movie--the main character was present in Beirut, and saw the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre--indirectly aiding, by keeping flares lit through the night of the massacre. But at the same time, it put my parents' decision to leave Israel in context.

For me previously, I had a sort of naive wall put up between Israel's history and the personal lives of my family. Even my grandfather, who fought in one of the freedom fighter groups against the British, risking his life to blow the shofar on Passover, helping to blow up key targets, spending time in a British prison. Somehow there's no reconciling him in my head to the retired accountant with the great sense of humor that I know today. Partly this is because of his own life: he lives shut off from that past. It is incredibly difficult to get him to talk about it, and when he does talk about it, it's as though he's reciting history--not telling his own personal story.

So to think of someone as peacible as my mother--pacifist, with a strong dislike of war in all its forms--being one of the top sharp-shooters in her division in basic training, or to think of my father being lucky enough not to serve in Lebanon--but having his friends serving there. Even when I was there--I was once in Israel at the same time as a double-bus bombing that killed around fifty people, during the height of the Second Intifada, and it seems as remote to me as the violence in Sri Lanka. Just words, concepts, and not flesh and blood in reality. That's the luxury of having lived a life entirely and solely in a peaceful country.

I also remark this because of my father's bitter comment as we were driving home. "Things haven't changed." Considering the scope of the horror, the needless violence, the madness decending into genocidal massacres at Sabra and Shatila, I cannot imagine a more depressing sentiment to take away from it. After all, Ariel Sharon who was i charge during Sabra and Shatila, became the Prime Minister--what's more, he was one of the people who brought us closer to peace with the Palestinians.

My dad shook his head. "I mean that's how it started then! Rockets from Lebanon. And neither side learned anything. Anything at all."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Milk And Dianne Feinstein

Dianne Feinstein was in the news earlier this week; first she was upset that Obama named Panetta to CIA without consulting her (she's on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which did a very poor job of oversight of the CIA and NSA during the Bush administration), and then she broke with Democratic leadership over whether to seat Blagojevich's pick for Obama's Senate seat, the incomprehensible Roland Burris (she's on the Senate Rules Committee, and therefore it's her decision whether the Senate has the power to eject Burris)

But she also was very briefly in the movie Milk, which I saw this week (the day after she had come out in favor of Burris). She plays a minor, minor role in the movie even though she played a slightly larger role in real life--in real life, [spoiler alert] she was the one who found the bodies of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk after they were shot by former city supervisor Dan White.

For some reason, on a human level, I feel like that explained to a certain degree her decision to side with Burris. Something about being in the front row of watching a sidelined politician lose out because of the larger political atmosphere... well, that's where Roland Burris is right now.

Of course, I don't think Dianne Feinstein is backing Roland Burris because she thinks if she doesn't, he's going to shoot Harry Reid and Dick Durbin. That would be ridiculous. But her decision to stick by the rules (of which Harry Reid is aware and feels less bound by) may partly be her role on the Rules Committee, but it may partly be a sense of personal compassion for the man.

It's just some speculation, for if one day we decide to make a movie about this AWESOME Blagojevich story. Trust me, it'll make a great movie.

Doubt's Film Adaptation

I mentioned briefly in the last post that John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his own play to screenplay irritated me at points. The failure, in my mind, was to underestimate the subtlety needed to convey visual metaphors on the screen. It just felt a little amaturish at points-- I still enjoyed most of the film, I just felt that perhaps a better edit was needed to remove certain bits.

Then I noticed on the Doubt wikipedia page that Shanley has an exclusive contract that forbids anyone to change a single word of the screenplays he has written (presumably they can get him to change something if they want, but I don't think it can be cut in post-production).

I'm just observing the connection. I still am happy for Shanley that he has that sort of contract, and I still loved the movie. But I did roll my eyes at some of the gestures.

Doubt And Certainty

I saw Doubt, which is based on John Patrick Shanley's play. I was bitter at the time that Shanley's play won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize over my personal favorite, Thom Pain (Based On Nothing). I'm not as sure anymore. I think that Thom Pain (Based On Nothing) has a much more intricate use of the English. Will Eno's play reaches a level of finely crafted prose that, in my humble opinion, reaches William Shakespeare in terms of the beauty, simplicity, and high emotion.

But. On the other hand, Doubt is a play that is clearly going straight into the canon. It has that perfect balance of well-crafted writing, fascinating characters, and ambiguous interpretation that will allow each person who performs in it and each director who directs it to leave their own stamp and interpretation.

Anyways, my point was not to review the movie. I'm not even going to bang on about how disappointing it was to me to see John Patrick Shanley make additions for the screen that showed he didn't have faith that his play would transmit on the screen--blunt visual metaphors inserted into the scenes in a bit of a ham-fisted way, including that Hollywood cliche where there's a storm during the climax and dramatic lines are punctuated by thunder.

But anyways, the conflict of two stubborn people with a backdrop of religion actually made me reflect on the morality of doubt, as one of Andrew Sullivan's readers wrote in response (I quoted it and reacted in A Cogent Comment On War). The context there was the War in Gaza. I used the morality of doubt to talk about the morality of knowledge.

Watch the movie, and while you're watching it, think about Gaza. That's all I'm saying.

Charter 2008 and Solidarnost

In the two most mindboggling under-reported stories of December, apparently new opposition organizations have come together in both proto-dictatorial Russia and "communist" China.

The first, modeled on the Czech Republic's "Charter 77," is China's new "Charter 2008." Charter 77, for those who don't know, was a small group of marginalized, opposition intellectuals. They lacked widespread support--the Communist government's estimation was that there was a couple hundred intellectuals at the core, and maybe a few hundred more loosely involved individuals. They eschewed being a political party or union; they merely said they were interested in making sure that the Czechoslovak puppet government lived up to Basket III of the Helsinki accords, which the communists had made legally binding, and promised certain rights of self-determination and democratic rights.

Considering the power of the Chinese government and the lack of public organized outcry (with the exception of labor strikes that are increasing every year), it is not surprising that they are following the Czechoslovak model--pushing for reforms where possible without agitating the government, and dressed up in the legal and structural language of the existing government.

In China, the basis of this is Deng Xiaping (who succeeded Mao, and began the economic reforms that have created the unique and powerful Chinese economy of today), who outlined that within 50 years China should be democratic and capitalist--although it is clear that he didn't intend to transform China into the US. Rather, he was looking for a form of market communist that would be representative of the people. And this desire for both governance reforms and economic reforms (like glastnost and perestroika in Russia, but at a slower and more stable pace) might give room for Charter 2008 to exert a larger influence over time.

On the other hand, the second is modeled on Poland's "Solidarnosc" or Solidarity, the first non-communist labor union in a communist country. Using the political shield of the Polish Catholic Church (which did not exist in communist Czechoslovakia) and the government's reliance on the Gdansk shipyard, they attracted a mass movement of upwards of a million people, which were able to strong-arm the government at various points to accepting reform until, eventually, they became a part of government.

This model is the model that has been adopted in Putin's Russia, called "Solidarnost" there. Like in Poland, the goal appears to be to unite all of the opposition into one mass movement, to better coordinate their opposition to Putin. The question is whether Putin's Russia, which is moving away from representation, will be able to tolerate Solidarnost's existence, and if not whether he can effectively break them.

I don't believe totalitarian societies can remain totalitarian for very long. My hunch is that neither country is aiming for an entrenched, centralized, greedy totalitarianism like the ideological totalitarians (Communist Russia and the Warsaw Pact countries) or megalomaniacal totalitarians (Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, etc.). Rather, they see totalitarianism as a tool of stability. The difference is that China is moving, at an intolerably slow pace, towards more democracy, whereas Putin is "correcting" the error that was democracy.

Still, both of these groups may have long-term impact. Charter 77 was written off at the time, and few would believe that within their lifetime they would rule Czechoslovakia (and then the Czech Republic; the Civic Forum largely ran Slovakia after the divorce). My hunch is that history will play out differently in China, where a slowly strengthening opposition is eventually drawn into an increasingly more open China until they become simply another party in the system; but Putin's Russia is only as stable as the brute force that he wields and his ability to stay on top of public opinion.

Six-Year-Old Drives Family Car

I guess this news story circulated everywhere, about the six-year old who stole the family car to try and drive to school after he missed his bus.

What I find infuriating about the story is the officials' response: charging the parents with child endangerment, and confiscating both children to put them into protective custody.

Seriously? Is that what we've come to? I'd like to point out that Bill Waterson depicted something similiar in Calvin and Hobbes. Should Calvin have been taken from his parents and put in protective custody?

My father, when he heard the story, was equally furious about the subject. He said that when he heard about the story, he saw himself in the little boy, recounting a time when he got into his parent's fridge to make himself a cake because he figured he could make a cake. It ended poorly (although not life-threateningly).

My mother, on the other hand, was on the side of child services, thinking it's better to err on the side of caution--even if that means taking children away from their parents. She says this even though her own car keys are within reach. If she was doing laundry or doing one of the many tasks that take her out of eyesight of her children, could one of us have stolen one of the cars if we thought it fit?

Of course, quickly, the bugaboo arose again: Grand Theft Auto. The six-year-old had learned how to drive from Grand Theft Auto. And that's an adult game! The child could have equally learned how to drive from a racing game (which are currently rated E for Everyone; look for 'driving' to become a T rating activity). Never mind that--letting your child play adult video games is probably now part of the case of "child endangerment."

It reminds me of earlier in the week. My little sister (who is now around 11) was trying to make something out of plaster with my mother. She insisted on doing it herself, and she ruined the plaster--it set before they had a chance to make the art project. And my mother was furious! She had ruined the plaster, obviously. Why hadn't she let my mother do it?

My dad was unhappy. He kept telling my mother, "She has to be given permission to fail." That sentence has stuck with me. "It has to be alright for her to fail."

My dad was happy about this six-year-old. He said with a grin, "I want to hire that kid! I want him working for me!"

Revolutionary Road

I have no desire to see the movie Revolutionary Road, but I've had to watch the trailer several times now--I've seen more movies than average recently (Marley And Me, Frost/Nixon, Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk) and the trailer has gone before each one of them.

The reason I don't want to see the movie is because Revolutionary Road's trailer basically tells you the conflict, and then shows you nothing but that conflict for the whole movie. And it's not a conflict I'm particularly interested in.

The conflict appears to be "should you do what you want selfishly, or should you try to fit in to society and play by its rules." On the one hand is the hedonistic, enjoyment mode of thought, and the other side is your responsibility to your family as a husband, as a father, as a neighbor.

And then I realized that in two other movies (neither of which I was particularly interested in) I saw this storyline emerge again. One was one I had been dragged to against my will: Marley and Me, and the other was one that I kept looking over while my parents were watching, The Bucket List.

In Marley And Me we're introduced to a new family; a sexy high-powered reporteress, a sexy low-powered reporter who becomes a columnist, their dog (the worst dog in the world, apparently), and eventually their three children. As soon as the children start arriving, the reporteress suddenly transforms into a hysterical, over-stressed stay-at-home mom who resents being shackled to her children. The husband, meanwhile, finds his job less and less rewarding as time goes on--especially when they move to a nicer part of the country and he takes a "good job" which apparently he finds to be grinding and boring after having desired it for most of the movie.

In The Bucket List, a terminally ill older man decides he doesn't want to spend the last few months of his life with his wife, and decides to go traipsing off doing amazing things he never got to do in life with another terminally ill older man. By the end, he realizes he should be with his wife because he really loves her, so he ends the trip and goes home to die, happy, with his family.

The reason I find these stories somewhat boring, I suppose, is because it doesn't ring true with my family or how I was brought up. They set up this conflict: responsibility versus enjoyment. But the way I was brought up, responsibility brings enjoyment. My mother is a smart woman with a masters in educational psychology, but she has been a homemaker raising three children. But not once has she ever seemed to resent being at home, resent the work, or anything of the sort: in fact, she takes joy from being my mother.

Of course, that's not a prescription. If you're not someone who takes joy from stay-at-home motherhood (or stay-at-home fatherhood) then you shouldn't do it. But my point is that I learned that responsibility does not have to be a joyless burden. In fact, my mother was at great pains to teach me to find joy in performing a job excellently.

I worked at Regal Entertainment for a while as a concessions person, and before that at as a cashier for another retail group. And while the long hours, short breaks, and (most of all) less than happy customers were a constant wear, there was a certain pride I took from being there on time, from doing my job well, from being someone the management could trust to do a job well. So there were times where I was happy with my job--when we got done early because I'd come up with a time-saving strategy, or when a difficult customer left me happier than when they came.

So I'm not interested in these conflicts often because I can't separate myself from irritation that the characters can't find a way to make the demands of the world around them fit into their own joys and personal sensibility.

On the other hand, this thread in art is a thoroughly predictable one: it is the impact of the 1950s societally-based excellence and the 1960s permissive counter-revolution hitting head to head. We don't want to isolate ourselves from our work, our community; but we don't want to isolate ourselves from ourselves. That's always going to be the tension. So, I'm not saying it's not a fitting subject. Just, personally, I'm interested in the fact that I see these stories and am universally not interested in that conflict.

Why Art Springs From Discontent

Aldous Huxley's Orwellian dystopia, Brave New World, ends with a confrontation between a group of misfits who are at odds with the controlled, perfect utopia, and the Controller who keeps the world running perfectly. Each of them, for their own reason, can't fit into the mass of chemically-happy people they see in the world around them.

[Spoiler alert, I suppose]

The Controller is a friendly, understanding gentleman, as opposed to the rulers of George Orwell's world in 1984. Rather than disciplining them, he offers them a choice: they can return to their drug-ridden happy (and boring) world, or they can accept exile to an archipelago of islands where they will be surrounded by the other discontents in a suitably "normal" world--far away from the utopia.

The difference between Orwell's world and Huxley's world is that in Huxley's world, "counter-culture" is part of the plan. There are simply two choices: the utopia, or the islands. Orwell, on the other hand, creates a world in which the counter-culture is broken, reprogrammed, tortured until it fits in.

What is interesting is how agreeable this solution is to almost everyone involved. The book says of Helmholtz Watson:

"Helmholtz rose from his pneumatic chair. 'I should like a thoroughly bad climate,' he answered. 'I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example.'"

This is a parody of the artisan, who thrives of pain and discomfort. But of course, there is no way to act without first feeling discomfort, or discontent. Discontent is the sensation that the world is not right; that there is some different state that would be better.

And that's what the urge to create is. An artisan--a painter, say--looks at something beautiful, but is not content. They feel that there is some response that is necessary, and is not content until that response is issued (like a capacitor, building up charge and waiting for a single moment of release). In the painter's case, the responsive urge is to create; thus the painter is an artisan-creator.

Another artisan--a conservationist, say--would look at that same mountain, and would not be content either. The conservationist would imagine hikers ruining the mountain, or an industrial plant dumping waste onto it. And the conservationist would create a society to get the mountain protected, saving the beauty for ages. Thus a conservationist is an artisan-maintainer.

Artisan-creators: here I'm unifying not just the conventional artists, but everyone who creates something new rather than just maintaining what exists. A computer programmer who comes up with new algorithms and computing strategies rather than just programming the way you were taught; a research doctor rather than a GP.

I don't mean to put artisan-creators in a higher category than, say, the artisan-maintainer (a groundskeeper, a GP). But the artisan-maintainer comes from a different impulse. The artisan-maintainer must be looking at the good, and must feel that it is in danger--it is, at the heart, a conservative urge (in the non-partisan sense of 'conservative'). An artisan-maintainer in the arts, for instance, might be one of those Shakespeare scholars who are always attempting to return to the ur-Shakespeare, the original Hamlet or Macbeth. The artisan-creator, on the other hand, can be seen in one of those twisted reinterpretations. And there is no reason why these two cannot be united (I think that Patrick Stewart's Macbeth was a unification these two approaches in a productive way; bringing new things to the text without throwing out the parts of the play which work).

So the artisan-creator is motivated by discontent with absence, the desire to excise the chaff and bring in more wheat. And the artisan-maintainer is motivated by a defensive fear on behalf of what already exists--the role of the Controller in Brave New World or O'Brien in 1984; the curator of a restoration society or a documenter.

Could an artisan be motivated by contentment? I don't think so. Because if someone felt true happiness, true contentment, there would be nothing to do. We are motivated to action by our discontent.

The lawmaker (as opposed to a politician) is motivated by the desire to see a better set of laws. You cannot think that America is perfect and does not require alteration and still write new laws. Something is not operating correctly, and you move to correct it in that law.

The happier we are, the more passive we are. Because we have to change less, we are less discontented. There is no reason to take a walk because we can be happy enough in our own home; there is no reason to create because we can buy the things we'd like to create. We work because without money we'd be discontent again--unable to provide to ourselves the things which make us happy.

And yet an artisan can be created from happy circumstances. But the artisan remains discontented, even in situations that others would be happy in. An artisan-creator can be born in the "idyllic suburbs" and can spend his life creating mockingly anti-capitalist work. Something makes him discontent. And others, who are content, will become irritated with that work, because his work increases their discontent.

The artisan-creator, or the artisan-maintainer, should not have the aim to spread discontent, however. This would be rather like a satirist trying to make worse government so he'll have more to poke fun at (something Jon Stewart has been accused of, and which he disavows). But they cannot lose touch with their own discontent, or they will lose grip over what makes their art.

I forget where I saw it, but there was some playwright who wrote that underneath everything--even the comedy--there is a current of vicious anger at the way the world is, an insistent demand that the world be different. That's the discontent that fuels even the most beautiful poetry.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Benjamin Button?

I saw The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button today, and... well, I really liked it. I have seen various reviews from people whose opinions I respect alleging things about bad philosophical undertones regarding race relations, and a dislike of the use of Hurricane Katrina in the movie.

As to the first point, this is always a difficult thing to judge. I am an Israeli-American from Orange County--I can count on one finger the amount of black kids who were in my elementary school, and I didn't exactly wind up with a lot more. I wound up open-minded, I hope, but... well, okay. There's two kinds of racism. The first is actually believing one race to be inferior--hard racism.

Recently, I saw David Mamet's play Edmond performed. The ideological undergirding of that play appeared to be that... well, that black people are genetically predisposed to avoiding responsibility and doing stupid, short-term-enjoyment-oriented sinful activity, which ends them up in jail. I'm not kidding. White man decides to live like a black man for a day, and therefore winds up picking up hookers, killing a waitress, and going to jail. There he finds his true home, because he realizes that's where he was meant to be--because he wasn't born like all those other white folks. Again: I'm not kidding.

So, that's clearly over-the-top racist. My impression of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not that. The black characters are shown to be no more or less caring, kind, gentle (maybe more so).

But there might be a case to be made about the second type of racism, soft racism. Does it portray accurately how black people lived in New Orleans over the span of the film, or does it fall into two dimensional Gone With The Wind stereotypes? The answer is somewhere in the middle. I winced when, early on, a black woman (whose identity was never properly explained to me) referred to "Miss Daisy" while trying to make her feel comfortable--if not a deliberate reference to Driving Miss Daisy, then a huge oversight by the director. But I didn't feel I was looking at watermelon eating, "what is I gonna do," minstrel blacks.

Did I notice that in the "modern day" period, blacks were still mostly serving the whites, and that this wasn't questioned? Yes. But this, like it or not, has been my personal experience. I went to the Irvine Train Station for the first time a week ago, and was surprised to find that all of the ticket staff were African-American. This in a town in which I have not met an African-American resident.

But I am not in a position to judge, seeing as I haven't lived in New Orleans, among either communities. I don't feel the movie was disrespectful to African-Americans deliberately, but it may have had some elements that were offensive (I have not read a nuanced argument detailing what exactly the qualms might be). Still, if they exist, they probably are the victim of either the original short story (F. Scott Fitzgerald is still a product of his times) or modern day ignorance--or even just clumsy storytelling.

As to the second point, I do feel more strongly that using Hurricane Katrina was actually the right choice. It actually reminds me of the way that 9/11 is used in 25th Hour. It's part of the fabric of New Orleans now, a historical moment. But more than that: it's part of why we're telling the story.

See, the fascinating aspect (for me, at least--but I think it's central to the story) is how we deal with death. Each of the character confronts more than one close personal death, whether from old age or war, whether alone or all together on the tugboat. Some of the death is metaphorical--Daisy's dancing life dies after the car accident, Benjamin's affair dies with WWII. But it's about coping with death (and with aging, the sign of looming death).

What was most overpowering about Hurricane Katrina was facing up to death, just as it was the hardest part of 9/11, and remains the hardest part of Iraq. People, en masse, are stripped of even the right to die with dignity, with purpose--they die suddenly, without preparation, without knowledge of what is going on. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is told as a story to that younger woman who is about to lose her mother. Now, her mother doesn't die from Hurricane Katrina, but the fact remains that after the Hurricane there will be many people who want to know things from their parents, who want the story of their lives, and may have lost it.

Whether or not the story could have been told better is a matter of debate. I was not perturbed by the length of the movie, although it was pushing it, because it earned the length from me the same way Marquez' Hundred Years of Solitude did: by offering me a world, not just a story, and letting me watch that entire world unfold.

I think this movie has gotten a bit of a bad shake. I liked it a lot.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Quote Of The Day: Postmodernism

Quote of the Day:

"The free-for-all nature of the world of expensive art seems designed to confuse the difference between cheating and simply trying to make a living"

-- title of a post by Art Law Blog.

Yup. That basically sums up the worst sin of the postmodern world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Obaminet: The Upcoming Eric Holder Fight

Brian Beutler, on the statements from the Republican Party that they will try to block Eric Holder's nomination:

It looks like the Republicans threw every name on Obama's roster of cabinet designates into a hat and drew Eric Holder. And so, he'll be the guy they try to block.

I do think that blocking Eric Holder is crass and etc. But I don't think it's random. See, one of the very early questions that will face the Obama Administration is how to treat the crimes committed by the former Bush Administration. President Bush did not deliver any pardons, which means that an incoming Attorney General would be well within his rights to appoint a Special Prosecutor or in general open an investigation into, say, torture (along the Levin-McCain Report lines).

How can the Republicans in Congress possibly fight this? If they try to make a tough fight over Eric Holder, try and paint him as a partisan -- maybe leveraging his involvement in the Clinton Administration pardons -- they can then slander any attempt to bring President Bush or cabinet to justice as a partisan assault. They're hoping that they'll force Obama into the position of losing his mantle of bipartisanship, or forgetting any attempt to discipline the Bush administration.

Obamadministration: Envoys

Via Andrew Sullivan, Marc Ambinder reports on Obama's new Envoys.

I was wondering where Richard Holbrooke got off to. If you look back at my original (and wildly inaccurate) predictions of the Obaminet, you'll see I predicted a higher prediction for Holbrooke. I've heard some criticisms of Holbrooke, but he still seems to me a highly competent--if perhaps controversial and sometimes big-mouthed--public servant. But chief envoy to South-East Asia is a very flexible, complex, and difficult role.

Think about it. On the one hand, he's going to be coordinating war between Afghanistan-Pakistan and Taliban-Al Qaeda. On the other hand, he's going to be preserving peace between Pakistan and India. And then on top of that, he's going to be dealing with the implications and trade policy of the new emerging India of which we've heard so much about.

So, not Secretary of State. But still crucial.

Interpretation and Conversation

Never Bring Your Pet To A Devil Vet! has an interesting thing to say about interpretation:

Do not label the artobject. Rather allow the artobject to inspire investigation of oneself.

The goal of interpretation should not be the attempt to reach a hidden meaning within the artobject or to approximate an elusive objective meaning either.

The goal of interpretation...of meaning... should be the facilitation of conversation between two or more individuals so that they learn more about themselves rather than the piece of art.

Very true. I had read some other minor dissents against theaterfolks (and other artfolks) refusing to talk about the meaning of their work. That is how I used to interface with the work. I cite this little block of text (it's not an exceprt--it's the whole post) as having converted me. The meaning of the work should be discussed. So what if it makes the piece feel flat and explainable? It's how the artist starts a conversation about the work.

Now, the artist can't be tyrannical--if he says this is the one meaning of the work, then there is no conversation. So that's just as bad--maybe worse--than refusing to talk about the meaning.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Cogent Comment On War

One of Andrew Sullivan's many surprisingly astute readers responds to the Gaza War with an interesting philosophical discussion:

The problem with the doctrine of Just War, I would submit, is that it can only be applied in retrospect. In prospect, it is at once too restrictive and overly permissive. It requires an unachievable degree of certainty. But when leaders or their population nevertheless convince themselves that a conflict meets its standards, even though it cannot, it tends to grant them a sense of moral absolution that leads to callous indifference to the loss of human life.

No, the Israeli assault on Gaza cannot be said to be Just. Declaring it to be so is a manifestation of moral cowardice, of an unwillingness to face up to its awful price. It is merely a war: a messy, dirty conflict that injures all who are involved. It will exact a terrible toll on soldiers, militants and civilians, and there is no possible set of justifications which should blind us to that fact.

But that does not necessarily mean it merits moral condemnation. It does not mean that Israel was necessarily wrong to launch it, nor wrong to finish it. Those judgments tend to become clear only with the virtue of hindsight.

Take Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon. In its first week, many saw that invasion as justified. By the time it ended, it was widely viewed as a catastrophic, destructive, and unnecessary fight. Now, after two years utterly devoid of violence along the northern border, some are more ambivalent. If the conflict resumes where it left off, it will reconfirm its futility. But if Hezbollah and Israel arrive at a modus vivendi, it will be seen as having been the necessary precursor to peace. How are you supposed to know such a thing before you commit to fight, when years after the last shot, the consequences of the conflict remain unclear? Think of it, if you will, as a morality of doubt.

I am equally suspicious of the rectitude of those who unequivocally support this conflict as I am of those who sweepingly condemn it. The future is uncertain. The four conditions of the Catechism each point us in the right direction, and correctly suggest that the burden of proof must always rest with those who would resort to force. But three of the four demand absolute certitude: that the damage be "certain"; that "all means" be shown to be ineffective; and that it "must not" produce greater evils. Anyone who pretends to be able to answer these questions in the affirmative in advance of conflict is either a liar or a fool. No damage is ever certain, all means are never exhausted, and we never know in advance what toll a conflict will exact.

You have eloquently expressed your skepticism that the Israeli assault on Hamas will be seen, in retrospect, to have crossed these thresholds. I continue to believe that, if it meets its objective of clearing the way for a renewed ceasefire that is viable over the long term, it may well prove to have been justified. But I would be the first to admit that I am uncertain. I simply do not know what will happen.

The rhetoric that you and I find most abhorrent is spouted by those who experience no doubt, who see no uncertainty. It is dangerous. It lowers the threshold to initiate conflict, and leads to brutality after its onset. But the answer is not to identify a standard that would endow us with certainty; it is to recognize that certainty is always elusive, and to humble ourselves before that conclusion.

This post has calmed me down in a strange way. The certitude beforehand, the knowledge of right and wrong, is what is objectionable.

My own moral guidance has come from a passage of Albert Camus' The Plague:

The narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to the praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy and the general rule. The narrator does not share this view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

The IDF fancies it knows everything, and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. Hamas fancies it knows everything, and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.

The reason I bring this up is not so much to comment on Israel-Gaza, but rather to comment on how Bush's legacy may one day be restored by what happens in Iraq.

The way this standard examines responsibility for war (namely: its effects) may be kind to Bush. After all, now that we have this war, everyone is working their asses off to figure out how to salvage it. If, twenty years down the line, a mixture of our policy, international aid, and the hardwork of Iraqis manages to salvage the current levels of insanity, then President Bush will have been judged of having the foresight.

To a certain extent, you can argue that this is true. At the same time, you do need to judge the quality of the choice at the time. But I suppose President Bush is different than this, because even knowing what we knew at the time, we didn't have even a reasonable amount of evidence to go into war. And yet it was put forward with that same damaging certainty that the reader talks about.

It reminds me of why I told my suitemate I don't carry a gun for self-defense: because carrying a gun means you're going to make a choice at some point whether another person lives or dies. And I don't think I'll ever be that certain.

I've talked previously about the standards for war. The Powell Doctrine's strength, I believe, is that it gives an excellent benchmark to remain certain about war. After all, Clinton's interventions in Somalia and in Kosovo had roughly the same rationale--a few important practical elements were different, though, and that proved to be the difference between failure and success.

Public Domain

The Public Domain blog (via BoingBoing) has an interesting list of some of the authors died in 1938, and therefore whose work are entering the public domain:

Danish bacteriologist Hans Christian Gram (of Gram staining fame)
British-Canadian author, conservationist, and literary fraud Archie Belaney (Grey Owl)
Latvian-born ethnologist and musicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (to whom the lyrics to “Hava Nagila” are attributed)
American cartoonist E. C. Segar (creator of “Popeye”)
American illustrator Johnny Gruelle (creator of “Raggedy Ann”)
American lawyer Clarence Darrow (of “Scopes Monkey Trial” fame)
American songwriter James Thornton (“When You Were Sweet Sixteen”, written in 1898)
Japanese martial artist Kano Jigoro (founder of judo)
American industrialist Harvey Samuel Firestone (of tire fame)

In places like Europe where copyright is life+50, the following:

Australian politician (and sheep breeder) James Guthrie (“A world history of sheep and wool”)
American film composer Edward H. Plumb (“Bambi” and many other Disney films)
American hymnist George Bennard (“The Old Rugged Cross”)
British painter and illustrator Lucy Kemp-Welch (the original edition of “Black Beauty”)
American screenwriter Jack Henley (“Bonzo Goes to College”)
American writer J. P. McEvoy (“Dixie Dugan”)
American author Betty MacDonald (“Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle”)
British poet Robert Service (“The Cremation of Sam McGee”, etc.)
English poet Alfred Noyes (“The Highwayman”)
English music scholar Percy Scholes (“The Oxford Companion to Music”)
American artist and author Marjorie Flack (“The Story About Ping”)
American writer Johnston McCulley (creator of “Zorro”)
British aircraft manufacturer Alliott Verdon Roe (as in Avro, as in the Arrow)
Serbian geophysicist Milutin Milanković (early proponent of ice ages)
British author and translator Lionel Giles (translator of the most widely-published English edition of Sun-Tzu’s “Art of War”)
Romanian-British rabbi and scholar Shulem Moshkovitz (the Shotzer Rebbe)
American financial analyst John Moody (of Wall Street fame)

If I'm not mistaken, that means the works that they've created are now in the Public Domain. I wonder. Does that mean Bambi's soundtrack is in the public domain? Is Zorro? Is The Art Of War?

I'm interested because one of my favorite poets is on the list (Noyes), as is one of my favorite laywers (Darrow).

Furthermore: who knew that it was a Serb who was an early proponent of the Ice Ages?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Good Governor News, For Once

Tim Kaine, the former Governor of Virginia, is tapped by Obama to run the DNC (one governor out, one governor in, I suppose). I like Tim Kaine, although I wouldn't call him 'charismatic' by any means (his eyebrow is certainly worth a few laughs).

What does this mean? Not too much, as Matthew Yglesias points out--the President is the head of the party.

The importance of the appointment, however, seems to me to be the fact that Virginia is a success story for the Democrats. First Tim Kaine wins governor; then Mark Warner goes on to be a popular governor, then Jim Webb becomes senator. Each of these three are Democrats, but they're Democrats in a different mold than coastal dems like Pelosi or Reid. The utter disdain that Republicans can address Red State voters when saying "Pelosi" or "Reid" doesn't seem to have the same traction if you toss it against Kaine, Warner, or Webb. Each of these men have grasped a balance of toughness and compassion that will do well for the Democrats; how to cast the Democratic message and make it popular in a state which, a decade ago, was firmly red.

We'll see if this mindset works out. Saxby Chambliss, for instance, had a much tougher race in Georgia than most other Southern congressmen. Do I think this means Democrats will eventually dominate the nation? No. But I think we may be entering a less regionalized era of politics. For a short period, we're gonna have more swing states to go round, more swing districts. And Tim Kaine might be the man to put some states back into play that weren't in play before

Richardson Withdraws From The Obaminet

Aw man. I liked Bill Richardson too. But if it's true, then Obama is correct: out the door with him.

Not much to say, really, except that I am crazy disappointed in the man, and I hope that the charges turn out to be untrue. Obama's ride very high in the polls are going to slowly draw to a close.

First Rumsfeld-Bush Award

In a stunning lack of any human dignity, Michael Goldfarb at The Weekly Standard says:

But to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause. Perhaps it will make the leadership of Hamas rethink the wisdom of sparking an open confrontation with Israel under the current conditions.

Good. Let's start wiping out people's families, shall we?

Congrats, Mr. Goldfarb. You've got a Rumsfeld-Bush Award nomination.

Note: when I quote a writer whose publication I disapprove of, I link to someone who quoted it. I'm not going to increase The Weekly Standard's circulation just for being jackasses.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

First Cheney-Burress Award Nominee

First Cheney-Burress award nominations! Remember that the Cheney-Burress Award is for "Did you just say that?" or "Did that just happen?" moments. Things which strain not only your own credibility, but the credibility of reality.

Obviously, the winner for my general preposterous stupidity awards simply HAVE to come from the ongoing Blagojevich scandal. I'm limiting myself to one citation, for the moment, from this scandal for 2009. I think it's fair because the gentleman in question is not Blagojevich (who already has an award NAMED after him for crying out loud).

Here it is:

Nominee: Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL). This gentleman appeared on the national radar when he showed up to Blagojevich's press conference naming former Attorney General Burris to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. While the whole press conference itself probably deserves a Cheney-Burress award (why would Blagojevich do such a phenomenally pointless thing? Why would Burris accept? Why would anyone show up to support it), Bobby Rush takes the cake.

Not only does Rush stand next to a guy who's in the process of an impeachment for corruption, not only does he defend the man who's being appointed to the Senate despite the very clear indications that he will very certainly not be going to the Senate... but take a look at what he said!

"This is a matter of national importance," Rush said. "There are no African-Americans in the Senate, and I don't think that anyone, any U.S. senator who's sitting in the Senate right now wants to go on record to deny one African-American for being seated in the U.S. Senate. ... And so I intend to take that argument to the Congressional Black Caucus... I will ask you to not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer. Separate, if you will, the appointee from the appointed."

Classy, Rep. Rush. Classy.

Also of note: in the last senate Democratic primary, Rush supported a white man (Hull) against a black man (Obama).

Ah Rush... thank you. Please don't keep up the good work.

UPDATE: Oh Bobby Rush. Must you compare Harry Reid to George Wallace?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Burris And Franken COLLIDE

Democrats are threatening not to seat Burris. Constitutional questions persist.

Republicans are threatening to filibuster the vote to seat Franken (when Coleman's ridiculous opposition to his seating finally fails).

These two events are not disparate. Republicans are going to let Franken sit once Democrats allow Burris to sit--on the same rationale (they were picked by the legal process, so let it happen). If Democrats cave, so as to allow Franken to sit, it will feel like a Democratic victory (they get two Democratic senators rather than risking losing both Franken and Burris), but will really be a Republican victory (seating Burris might look like it damages Democratic legitimacy).

This Republican strategy doesn't seem to me like it'll work. It'll basically ask Republicans to go against two instances of Democracy (in one, opposing a special election in favor of an appointment; in the other, trying to invalidate an election as certified by the process). Furthermore, the odds are that at least two Republicans are going to think this strategy is cheap and political (Specter? Snow?), and Democrats will be able to override the filibuster--so they have no reason to cave on Burris. Let's just hope that they know that.

"Separation Between Church And State"

It's all been said. It's pointless and it'll kill people. It is incredibly disheartening. The only ray of light for me is it has drawn attention to J Street, a "pro-Israel, pro-Peace" lobby group seeking to displace AIPAC as the voice of Israel in America (and, according to a writer at Commentary Magazine, is therefore "anti-Israel"). J Street, which has the backing from the sorts of people as to make it at least seem credible, looks like a glimpse at a future in which there will be hope for the Peace Process.

My personal belief, as an Israeli who loves Israelis (no matter how hard they make it for people to like them), who also loves human beings and think they shouldn't have to die--come to after a long time of personal struggle--is that the Jewish-Muslim conflict in the Middle East (not just Israel-Palestine but Israel-Syria, Israel-Lebanon, Israel-Iran, and the upcoming Israel-Iraq which this current war is starting) will only be abated when the concept of "separation between Church and State" becomes the way--both in Israel, and in all of the Arab countries. Note: Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have secular leadership, and they have peace with Israel. Of course, they don't have peace with their own people b/c they have no democracy.

Can Democracy coexist with separation between church and state in the Middle East? It could, one day, but we can't force it. Turkey, for instance, is an example of divorcing Islamism and state--they did it voluntarily, for purposes of stability. It still is a hotly debated political issue. But it hasn't rent their society apart the way that it threatens to rip Egypt apart.

So if you had a bunch of secular republics that were built on the principle of representation, and representing everyone--not just a "democracy" that turns into leadership by whichever mob wins elections--they could come together.

What would this mean? It would mean no "Jewish" state in the Middle East.

Major sticking point of the Camp David and subsequent accords? Right of Return for Palestinians. Why can't we grant the Right of Return? It's not economic--if such an accord were granted, the international community would trip over itself from excitement to bankroll that peace process. No question. Maybe it's a security issue. But most of all, it'd a demographic issue.

If the Palestinians return to Israel, Israel will no longer be majority Jewish. And then it would be forced to choose between Democracy and between "The Jewish State." B/c the only reason it can be a Democracy and a Jewish State is because Jews are the majority. Granted, the Jewish population is shrinking, and they make it incredibly easy for Jews to immigrate and incredibly difficult for Arabs or other Muslims to immigrate. But add in several million Palestinians returning to Israel? No question. No more Jewish majority--and therefore, no more Jewish state.

Would it become a Muslim state? Probably not. Because Jews would still be a significant voting bloc. What it would become, most likely, is a secular state.

Right now, no one wants that. the Palestinians say they want an Islamic State, the Jews want a Jewish State. So they're fighting over a two-state solution with an impossible number of conflicting demands.

You want an answer to this crisis? A one state, pluralistic, representative Democracy--built along the lines of Turkey, perhaps--that would allow Palestinians and Jews some measure of equal power. And nobody wants that. So it's not going to happen.

Is there another route? Maybe. It is less implausable, but still well into the "impossible" column. If Israel decided to ignore Gaza completely--let humanitarian aid in, keep it separated from Israel, let Egypt do what Egypt wants to do--and then negotiate a separate peace with Fatah in the West Bank--including a full scale withdrawal from the West Bank.

The West Bank is much more moderate; the West Bank has not taken any military actions against Israel. It can clearly be worked with. Abbas may not want a separate peace, and Israelis might not want to withdraw from the West Bank if Gaza is still firing on them.

This is basically a three state solution--but that makes sense, because our current reality is basically three states (Gaza, Israel, West Bank). In fact, the West Bank and Gaza are basically at a state of war--whereas Israel and the West Bank are not. So let's create a separate peace between the West Bank and Israel.

What happens after that? Well, the West Bank sees economic growth. It becomes a prosperous partner to Israel. Hamas-run Gaza probably remains a place of strife and chaos. Eventually, they'll want to know why they're being shut out. People in Palestine will turn on Hamas. They will lack the traction. Because Hamas only gains in popularity when Israel attacks. If Israel refuses to let Hamas bait it, and demonstrates that it can come to peace with a Palestinian neighbor, Hamas' legitimacy will vanish.

But what am I talking about. Looking at Israeli politicians, it's clear that that's not happening.