Sunday, January 31, 2010

Congressional Success?

An interesting article in the Washington Post today argues that this congress has actually been the most successful since the Great Society years of 1964-65: What, you say? Ornstein does make some interesting points about the stimulus bill, tax cuts, impetus for green investment, increased regulation and the like. But the bigger issue right now is the obvious failure to pass healthcare right as we stood on the cusp of its success. Americans just don't like this idea of "big government." One irony of the Massachusettes election loss was that Mass. has a very successful public healthcare option that has relatively popular support among the populace. But put the word "Congress" in front of it, and it no longer sounds so great. The federal government has certainly screwed a lot of things up over the years. But what are our options now. The party of no has seemed to move us toward a country of no. Can we survive with pure negativity? It's hard to see how . . .

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

From Bad to Worse

This has been a bad couple of weeks for Democrats. If we add the election in November, things have been going downhill for a few months now, with the exception of the now moribund healthcare reform bill (which would have been a huge, baby’s got back, but). Obama has looked into the abyss and instead of finding himself, appears to be moving even further to the center ( I sometimes wonder if DC even knows that the financial crisis continues for a lot of Americans. Obama seems like he is going to shift to Republican strategies (with minor Democratic modifications): tax cuts, focus on the deficit and caps on spending. This seems like a really bad time to shrink the size of government, besides essentially putting up the white flag to the barrage of far right criticism (and contradicting what Obama said just a few days ago in Ohio). One wonders in the end if Obama has the resolve to stick to his guns? If we can say nothing else good about Bush, and I’m hard pressed to do so, at least he stubbornly adhered to his political philosophy. I cannot remember the last Democrat to do this. It might very well have been Lyndon Johnson who tirelessly and successfully pushed through almost his entire Great Society initiative. I have no idea what Kerry really stood for, am as confused about Gore in 2000 as he seemed to be, see Clinton as a major sellout (forgetting even the liberal social program side of his triangulation strategy after a couple of years) and could add a long list of other reptilian cowards to the list. With all the DNA testing going on, maybe our only hope is to clone FDR. Anyone have the number for those South Korean scientists?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Limited Liability Personhood

Now that the Supreme Court has further expanded the rights of corporations as individuals, I think it’s time to contemplate the issue from the opposite end. I think people should start incorporating themselves, thus limiting liability for their actions. Why not? Corporations were once given charters to serve the public interest, but that notion was replaced by the idea that profit maximization is in the public interest. While this isn’t implicitly untrue, it obviously often is in practice. So I have decided I want to be limited liability as well.

Thinking economically, my goal will be utility maximization rather than profit maximization, but the two are closely related. To maximize my utility, I need the guarantee of the court that I will not be held personally responsible for my actions. Feel free to sue the shareholders, in this case my parents, friends, community and anyone else you like – I no longer feel that I am personally responsible for my behavior beyond the notion of maximizing my utility. Toward that end, I have decided I will systematically eliminate all of my enemies. Beyond this, I will only follow those laws that serve the interests of my utility. Following the speed limit for example, is just too damn inconvenient. And limits on the money I give to political parties or individuals? That makes little sense to me. I will be giving $1,000,000 to my congressman next week (in a lovely alligator skin briefcase). This is my free speech right and should help with my ongoing problem in securing a liquor license for my apartment and any further impediments to my prostitution ring.

I have also decided that clothes are too large an onus on my finances. I will stop wearing them immediately. And those pot plants in my closet; I think I’ll move those to the back yard of my apartment. Doesn't the choice for what I do with my own property fall under the purview of free speech? Luckily New York City is already full of people that seem to make all their decisions in this manner already. A lot of them work on Wall Street, so maybe I will start spending time at the clubs and five star restaurants they frequent. A few other things I will now do include not waiting in line, refusing to pay taxi drivers I don’t care for, paying all my bills three months in arrears to allow me to earn more interest on my personal accounts, only paying doctors and dentist what I think are reasonable rates for service and kicking out my next door neighbor so I can double the size of my apartment. Let freedom ring!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Truman Show (1998)

Is Truman Burbank the embodiment of us all? The character, played by Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998), won him a Golden Globe for Best Actor and numerous other awards for the film. In it an insurance salesman comes to recognize that his entire life is a lie, a television show he has unknowingly been the star of since birth. Truman entertains millions who watch his life unfold through cameras placed all over the huge globe set created by the director Christof (Ed Harris). The name is of course a reference to Jesus, as he carefully constructed the world in which Truman lives from one day to the next.

Yet the underlying message of the film appears to be a metaphor about media culture itself. Are we not in some ways the same as Truman? How do we decide what we want and need? Where do our dreams come from? Why do we believe marriage is the realization of a happy life? Why do we buy Heineken instead of Bud Light, or vice versa, or craze pizza or a big mac when we are hungry? Why do cigarettes or chocolate entice us like the sirens? Who tells us what is cool and passé? From where does our image of beauty emerge? And what of ugliness? How do we decide what we want to do with our lives? Why do we believe what we do?

Does all this develop from within? Or is it possible that the external world emerges inside of us and helps us refract the very lenses through which we view the world. Is our psyche in some sense colonized by the media/consume culture that surrounds us – rearticulating needs and desires and creating a revaluation of values that does little to bring satisfaction, contentment or that elusive goal of happiness? Or is it the very fount of happiness in a sad, saturnine world? Sure our parents, peers, teachers and communities help us develop into who we are. School, church, neighborhood, country and a whole other series of institutions help us define ourselves and our place in the world. But what of the culture industry? Recent studies have shown that media and technology take up an astounding 7 ½ hours of the lives of youth each day. How can we not pretend that their influence transcends all others? Sure everyone is not the same and all these other influences are important. But where do are parent’s identities emerge from, how about our peers? Media culture has arguably become the key rearing and reproducing institution in society – all the more powerful because many fail to recognize its power.

Ultimately, Truman escapes the ecosystem that defined his life from birth. He bowed to the cheering audience and took the exit sign to freedom, saying you are not in my head. Can we do the same? Can we escape the grasp of media, even if we try? Do we want to? What does it mean to recognize the externalization of all that we presume emanates from within? The truth is that truth itself is constructed just as we are. But as the existentialists argue, recognizing the social construction of reality before most, we are conditioned but not determined. Ultimately we have the power to find our own exit door and forge a different life. How many will make that choice?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Nobody Listens to What They Want

Why do we smile when lost in sadness we lay?
Why do we laugh when tears right the way?
Why do we hate when we’d rather create?
Stay in a circle when we wish to escape?
The sun shines a shadow on our lost today
Tomorrow become the heart led away
Yesterdays gone in regret and despair
Happiness on that rainbow somewhere over there
Why is our heart lost and astray?
Why do we listen when words just betray?
Why not be happy I heard someone say.
Fear it appears, stands in the way.
Who do we whisper to in the heat of the night?
Who made us empty in the darkness absent light?
Why do we leave when we’d much rather stay?
Something awry in this cold world today.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wish You Were Here

The Supreme Court decision today is a smack in the face to democracy. Coupled with the result Tuesday, the hope the Obama presidency gave us seems to be disappearing in the dust of our collective stupidity. I think it may be that the country does not have the will to do what it needs to do to survive. Instead we are selling off America to the highest bidder -- in this case the corporations who will now run the government by fiat. Who are these people we chose to lead us? Does anyone have the balls to challenge this afront to our freedom? As John Adams sings in 1776: "Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?" and maybe most apropos "How quiet, how quiet the chamber is."

For some reason, the events this week make me think of one of my favorite songs (actually I know why) . . .

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have you found? The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

To finish on a positive note, here is a more hopeful part of the song

The croakers all say we'll rue the day
There'll be hell to pay in fiery purgatory
Through all the gloom, through all the gloom
I see the rays of ravishing light and glory!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Massachusetts Massacre

I haven't heard anyone mention the irony that MA happens to be the first state in the country to dabble in socialized medicine, when Dukakis was the governor in the 80s. This on top of the irony many have mentioned that Kennedy himself was a life-long champion of major healthcare reform. Now a late surge by a conservative candidate (in moderate clothes for the election) could jeopardize the bill only weeks after it looked like a foregone conclusion. Republicans are emboldened and the recriminations among democrats have begun. The most troubling discourse that has emerged, even as there appears to be some truth in it, is among the old New Democrat ilk (aka Clintonites). They argue that Obama has gone too far to the left and we should return to the fiscal responsibility and "liberal" agenda of the Clinton years. Um, sounds great, except we are now in the throes of a financial crisis and Clinton's nod to conservative economics helped put us where we are today. Given the reptilian backdone Democrats have had since the mid-80s, I'm afraid these voices of false moderation may win out and the party move back further to a center that has been moving right for the better part of 30 years. Can Obama find the will to challenge this push? It's hard to believe he will, given his record to date. But you never know. Many Presidents rise to the call that a moment ushers in. Let's hope he choses the more radical course (which is really just a moderate retro-70s disco move away). The real problem, as I've been writing about in this blog intermittently for some time, is the continued resonance of the small government discourse. Someone needs to challenge it, and the only one who seems able at the moment is Obama himself. Let's hope he gets back to those moving speeches that won him the election in the first place.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lessons for Iran?

I occasionally read Esquire for pleasure, usually while taking care of some daily business. There was an interesting quote from Mohamed ElBaradei (Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2005 and Director General, International Atomic Enger Agency) in the January edition: "Iraq has been pulverized. North Korea has been treated with kid gloves. The difference is that North Korea has nuclear weapons -- and this leson does not pass unnoticed."

This short quote explains the current impasses between Iran, the U.S. and Europe. Not only is there concern that Iran fundamentalists might actually use a nuclear weapon against Israel, there is the further concern that they will gain immeasurable power if they succeed in enriching uranium. Being in the belly of the beast, Iran is a much scarier place than North Korea and their strategic location makes the chaos they could reap that much more troubling. The United States knows this, and will do anything they can to stop this from happening. Does that include attacking Iran? I doubt it, though the Bushies certainly wanted to. But it does indicate the ongoing imbroglio and why concerns of nuclear weapons in the middle east far outstrip concerns for Israel alone. Troubling stuff . . .

Monday, January 18, 2010

Still Dominating the Debate II

The Post continues its discussion of the Obama presidency today, with E. J. Dionne offering his analysis of the current Conservative backlash and its success: He makes the obvious point that the best way to confront conservative orthodoxy is by discrediting it and offering an alternative narrative. Obama was somewhat successful at this, though one could argue that really he just ran as not Bush and on a rather nebulous notion of “hope.” For that hope to be instantiated in the real, it will take a cogent, persuasive vision of where that hope should lead us.

As Dionne argues, “It's also striking that most conservatives, through a method that might be called the audacity of audacity, have acted as if absolutely nothing went wrong with their economic theories. They speak and act as if they had nothing to do with the large deficits they now bemoan and say we will all be saved if only we return to the very policies that should already be discredited.” I think the point is Democrats must continue the dialogue that Obama initiated during his inaugural speech. It is not if government is good or bad, but when it is necessary for it to intervene. Conservatives win American minds and hearts with simplistic, ahistorical messages that prove empty and disingenuous under the glare of real scrutiny. Yet the media does little to shine that light upon that discourse.

So it is the dual job of Democrats to both successfully challenge Republican lies and outdated economic theories with arguments not so wonky or complicated that the average American can’t understand them and to offer an alternative to the current order of things. If one really thinks about it, the last one to do so was Gore, in the last month or so of the 200 election, when he was arguably pushed toward populism by the insurgent run of Nader. Obama has also provided the frame of an ambitious new direction, but it needs more details to be truly compelling to the general public. What vision does the Democratic party have for America? What vision do they have for the role of government in the economy, healthcare and the environment? How are their policies going to help the economy recover and grow in the future? What is their vision for improving the quality of life for the average American?

Because conservatives have a clear (though obviously in my mind flawed) vision of what America should look like, well-developed frames and discourse to spread and reinforce that message, as well as outlets to galvanize their base into action, they tend to dominate the debate. Democrats need to find a vision they can embrace themselves so that they can escape the tendency to react rather than proactively act and thus always be on the defensive. It’s extraordinary that this situation continues as they control Congress and the Presidency. On MLKs birthday, it seems apropos to remember that being right is not enough – one must have the power to persuade others of what is right as well.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Still Dominating the Debate

Obama won a sizable election a little over a year ago. He came into office with high popularity ratings and a desire by the country for change. And yet one year later, the tired old discourse on small government continues to dominate American politics ( The obstructionist party has been very effective at blocking major parts of Obama’s agenda, while the media continues to buy the rather absurd story that Obama is too partisan. He makes concessions and gets not one GOP vote. How could Obama be more conciliatory? Just accept the Republican position that we need small government, no new programs and no new regulation? Further privatize the economy? What exactly should he be doing to try to deal with the continuing financial crisis, a broken healthcare system that is draining resources from families and the economy and serious questions about the future competitiveness of America in the globe?

The Reagan revolution is still alive and well in the country, even as unemployment levels remain high, people lose their homes and the rich get richer at the expense of everyone else. Pride in ignorance has always been a part of American life, but the ahistorical nature of this position is hard to fathom given what is currently going on. As I have said so often, I believe the media has a lot to do with this by abrogating their responsibility as the fourth estate and failing to report facts that could alter the debate. Instead people somehow believe corporations and the “free” market can solve our problems better than the government. It seems there is still an undercurrent of populism in the country, but too much of it is anti-government rather than anti- those who caused the crisis in the first place (by pushing for the very deregulation at the heart of the problem). Is there a way to change American beliefs as the great depression did; leading to a long period of sustained growth where everyone was made better off. Do things have to get worse to get better, as Lenin once argued? Or like so many empires before, will we simply allow ourselves to fall as a country through inaction and the greed and intellectual laziness of those in power? I think if the democrats pull out the senatorial race in Massachusetts on Tuesday, they should simply push through their agenda and hope that positive results occur before 2012.

Sometimes the only way change can occur is through the force of will of an individual or small group that go against the tide of popular opinion and live by their ideals rather than polling numbers (Margaret Meade anyone). FDR was that leader, as was Martin Luther King and so many other great personalities throughout history. It is time for the president to take a stand for the country, even if it means risking his political future. Let’s hope he can find that resolve.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On a Magic Ghetto Bus Ride . . .

What do you get for someone who has everything? A private jet, a limited edition Porsche, maybe a small island in the South Pacific? Well for those of us with a more modest budget, how about a trip through the heartland of LA gang activity ( For $65 (which includes lunch), ex-gang member Alfred Lomas will lead you through the center of gang activity in the country today, replete with graffiti lessons, a drive by of LA’s biggest jail (“the unofficial home of 20,000 gang members”), four or five gang members on the bus in case you don’t see any “natives” on Saturday morning, and visits to famous sites like Watts. He and backer Kevin Malone (former GM of the Dodgers) did decide against their original plan to have residents shoot water guns at the bus and sell “I got shot in South Central” T-Shirts – but maybe you can still talk one of the locals into shooting you for a few bucks. In fact, the package includes a requisite release form warning of the danger of the tour and the possibility of death.

But is death that big a price to pay to observe these American icons in their native habitat? To be fair, Lomas says he is trying to educate people about gangs and will use the money for microloans to get gang members working. The question is whether exoticizing kids and adults who often turn to gangs to protect themselves and find family in poverty striken inner cities really helps them improve their circumstance. Of course maybe, given our economic prospects, some will take the tour to come up with their own plans to start their own gangs to compete for shrinking economic resources. Wall Street might be a better starting point though.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Foreclosures, Bonuses and the STREET Goes On

A number of articles today bring together an underlying theme of this blog. The first is from USA Today, detailing an unexpected rise in foreclosures for the first time since July (a presumed peak): Just to give perspective, that is 349,519 families that lost their homes last month. Another 2.4 million are expected to happen in 2010. In 2009, the total was 2.8 million homes, the year before 2.3 million and around 1 million in 2007. These numbers are staggering when put together, but there is, of course good news as well.

Things are coming up roses for banking, which some have erroneously blamed for the financial crisis (read sarcasm here). As reported in the Wall Street Journal today: “An analysis by The Wall Street Journal shows that executives, traders, investment bankers, money managers and others at 38 top financial companies can expect to earn nearly 18% more than they did in 2008—and slightly more than in the record year of 2007.” ( That makes sense, right?

To bring the two articles together, is an oped by Nobel Lauriat Paul Krugman regarding the current Congressional hearings regarding reregulation of the financial sector ( Krugman makes the very valid point that it is absurd to talk to Wall Street about fixing Wall Street, when they are so blind to the truth and so inured to the idea of profits over people and the common good. Historically, as I have mentioned many times before, the average person does better when markets are regulated. Wall Street does better when it is not. Yet the marginal return to regulation is better for everyone, given the pain almost all of us feel during financial crises like the Great Depression, 70s stagflation, the 87 crash and the current financial crisis. We need to remind politicians and Wall Street that the country is not built on the elite interests alone and that we need to rebuild a fair and just American economy before we are all forced to fold our cards and start the slow descent into third world country status. It is time for the people to stop listening to foolish talking heads regurgitating old Reaganomic lies and start listening to economists who know what they are talking about. Governments might be bad and dangerous sometimes, but they are necessary if we are to escape this mess.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Party that Loves to Hate

So as Haitians are literally dying in the streets (, you assume all would rally to support them in their time of need. Of course, that would be a mistake. Not Rush Limbaugh et al, who are actually criticizing Obama for responding so quickly to the tragedy: You got that right – he responded too quickly, showing he cares more about Black Haitians than Americans who were unhurt by a failed terrorist attack. But this is mere trifling compared to the words of radical preacher Pat Robertson on the 700 Club yesterday:

"[S]omething happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'Okay it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It is cut down the middle on the one side is Haiti, on the other is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God and out of this tragedy I'm optimistic something good may come."

Who is the real devil here? The good news is the GOP sets the bar pretty low and thus the new governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell invited Robertson to attend his swearing in. The hypocrisy of the grand ole party would be funny . . . if it wasn’t destroying the country.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lobbying and Democracy II

An interesting article in the National Journal yesterday ( highlights the fact that six of the biggest health care insurers were spending between $10 and $20 million last summer, through the Better Business Bureau, to air ads that argued against the very legislation they were supposedly working on with Obama and Congress. There is, of course, nothing implictly wrong with this -- in fact, Madison argued for the power of factions to battle each other and thus balance out power. Yet one has to wonder what faction is challenging the power these large corporations have to dominate the form and framing of the debate. This spending did seem to reap benefits for the private healthcare industry, by turning the public against the public option and reform in general based on a series of half-truths and lies.

"The ads sharply criticized the high costs of the separate bills, especially the House version. The commercials warned the legislation would raise taxes for Americans and hurt the economy as it tries to recover from the recession. And some chamber-financed commercials attacked setting up a government run plan to compete with private insurers -- a special sore point for the insurance industry -- which is part of the House measure. The U.S. Chamber has spent approximately $70 million to $100 million on the advertising effort, according to lobbying sources. It's unclear whether the business lobby group went to AHIP with a request to help raise funds for its ad drives, or whether AHIP approached the chamber with an offer to hit up its member companies."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lobbying and Democracy

Some facts from Harper's Index this month:

# of registered drug-company lobbyists in DC for every member of Congress: 2
Average amount spent on Congressional lobyying, per day, by healthcare cos.: $1,500,000
Average amount the U.S. government spends on each child during first 18-years: $140,000

Is there something wrong with these numbers? As with the banks, companies are paying extraordinary amounts of money so they can drain more money out of your pockets. Of course they are scared of the government -- they have the power to make healthcare a public good, like it is in the rest of the world. The definition of a public good is one that is not owned privately, mainly because the social benefits and externalities are so great it is not well served by normal market function. Huh, might healthcare fit that definition? Could there be both individual, family and larger social good from a healthier population with more money to spend on other goods? Um . . .

Monday, January 11, 2010

GOP: “Jump!” --> Media: “How High?”

Item 1: The mainstream media in America has grown increasingly absurd in their obsequious acquiescence to any subject Republicans claim as important. The latest were the comments by Senator Majority leader Harry Reid in 2008. At the time, as I’m sure you heard, he spoke about Obama’s light skin and lack of “Negro dialect” as factors that could help him win the Presidency. Oh my God! He should quit! How could he say these abominable things! This is even worse than when Trent Lott said we would have been a lot better off if a staunch racist and segregationist had become president. Huh, now wait a minute . . . is this a good analogy? I think the GOP might be on the road to failing the standardized tests they love so much. Reid makes a Real Politik comment in support of a Black candidate for President, that probably holds some truth. Lott says the country would be better off with a racist. Me thinketh the lady doth protest out of her asseth:

Item 2: Last week ex-presidential and New York Gubernatorial candidate Rudy Giuliani goes on CNN and spews a line of bullshit that is hard to believe, arguing that there were no terrorist attacks under Bush, but one under Obama ( Is he that stupid? Is the media? Well, no one challenged him as he forgot the moment that made him a national superstar or the shoe bomber’s failed attempt, that huh, sounds pretty similar to the we’re talking about now. How daft is the media today? Do they even listen to what their guests are screaming at each other? Do they care? Here is what Host George Stephanopoulos said: ''All of you who have pointed out that I should have pressed him on that misstatement in the moment are right,'' he wrote on his blog. ''My mistake, my responsibility.'' I think maybe it’s time to bring back the “Stop the Insanity” loon Susan Powter, though her insanity should be fully focused on the most inept set of pundits and reporters in history. These clan makes Judith Miller seem like Edward R. Murrow.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Bud Lite Blows

Or at least one wonders if the bottle does, given their latest commercial. In it a young woman is asking her date/boyfriend about who he would save if she and another were going to fall off a cliff. He, of course, chooses her over the dog “buster” (in a riveting supporting role), and his mother, but not, alas, over a bottle of bud light. Now forgoing for a moment the reality that bud light, um, sucks, is why he wouldn’t save his girlfriend and then just buy a new beer. I hate to get too literal, but this level of silliness appears over and over again in beverage commercials.

I remember an old Heineken commercial where a man told a woman he loved her, just so he could have another drink from the beer the girl was blocking with her body. And there is the infamous Dr. Pepper ad where the guy chooses a Dr. Pepper over some other girl, with the Meatloaf ballad “I’d do anything for love.” The important lyrics here is “but I won’t do that,” which is share his soda. While these ads are funny at some base level, I have to wonder if the advertising execs repeating this theme over and over again are the biggest a-holes in the world or repeating these messages over and over again does get people to believe that beer and soda are more important than sex, love, family and friendship (more generally commodities are more important than people)?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Art as Propaganda

Mark Laita is a New York/Los Angeles artist who has just released a new book, "Created Equal." In the book he juxtaposes images of ordinary and famous people based on his journey across the 48 contiguous states over a 7 year period. He explains: "‘I photograph what I love about my country, which is the American. By that I mean the individual who is shaped from more than 200 years of liberty and independence missed with all the successes and failures that America has experienced in its short life. So here is a collection of these creatures. Tragic and wonderful, great and ordinary, they stand proud and ready for scrutiny.’” (  Look here for the images: He further explained in the original 2006 exhibit, "At the heart of this collection of portraits is my desire to remind us that we are all equal, until our environment, circumstances or fate molds us and weathers us into whom we become. America’s extremes seem to be getting more severe. The chasm between the rich and poor continues to grow; the clash between conservatives and liberals is stronger than ever; even good and evil seem more polarized. Created Equal attempts to remind us that we are all connected, no matter how separate our paths may be.” While I think the pictures are interesting and provocative, I am troubled by the racial dynamics of many, the underlying ideology he seems to be invoking and what appears to be a mocking portrayal of the ordinary and (extra)ordinary. Do we really need art right now that seems blatantly racist, tacitly sexist and celebrates the "American dream"? All art is implicitly valid in whatever it is attempting to do, but I find this trite and trivial and silly in its rather naive invocation of equality (while more interesting in exploring the increased polarity of American society).  

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Lunatic Fringe Goes Mainstream

Just whenI thought the tea baggers and Sarah Palin were the far right of the party, I learned crackpot ideas are back in the mainstream of the party (just kidding, they have always been there). Some examples . . .

Allen Quist, a Republican candidate seeking the nomination to go up against Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), has made a serious pronouncement: That the political battle against the Democrats is the defining fight of this generation, even greater than the fight against terrorism: "I, like you, have seen that our country is being destroyed. I mean, this is -- every generation has had to fight the fight for freedom. This is our fight. And this is our time. This is it. Terrorism, yes -- but that's not the big battle. The big battle is in D.C., with the radicals. They aren't liberals, they're radicals. Obama, Pelosi, Walz -- they're not liberals, they're radicals. They are destroying our country. And people all over are figuring that out."

A Republican candidate for governor in Idaho, who once joked about hunting President Obama, is calling for God to save the U.S. Constitution: "To think that we can save the Constitution without God's help when the government of the United States is corrupt is absurdity," he said. "We are in America's second Revolutionary War to save our freedom, which we paid for with blood. We need God's help and I'm not ashamed to ask for it."

And this from NPR: "Well, it's always politically difficult for Democrats when they are dealing with an issue like terrorism. It remained the Republican's only winning issue through most of President Bush's second term, and it's a particular problem for a Democrat who hasn't served in the military. But the policy problem is that it takes up a great deal of the administration's time, and will from here on out - particularly when the Senate Intelligence Committee starts hearings in a couple of weeks."

Another lunatic right winger, right? No this was long-time pundit Cokie Roberts. Just to refresh my memory, did Bush actually "serve" in the military, or escape doing his service in Vietnam and rarely even showed up for duty? And Cheney et al were war heroes too, right? Oh wait, that is another fiction somehow escaping the mainstream media. It was Kerry who was the coward and liar in the end. That's right. Whew, thank God we resolved that confusion.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Party of No: Part II

There is a good article in the Washington Post today, detailing the quandary of California and how it may foreshadow a continuation and amplification of the nation’s financial crisis: As author Klein argues, underlying the financial problems is a profound political problem, the unwillingness of Republicans to collect necessary taxes to provide the social services the state needs. California has a unique problem in that the passage of Prop 13 in the 70s limits the ability of the state to raise property taxes, the major source of income in many states (along with sales taxes). This is underlined by a Republican party that believes we need tax cuts when times are good and tax cuts when times are bad. Klein thus poses the question, "What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?" The party of no has succeeded as never before at backing their political and economic ideology under the guise of the financial crisis. Funding for schools, roads, social services, universities, healthcare, retirement, policing and all those services that fall under the rubric of “quality of life” are being cut as states teeter on the edge of bankruptcy and financial ruin.

Too many Americans continue to believe the Reagan line that government is not the solution, but the problem. They believe that markets and individuals are better able to solve our social problems. But as Herbert Hoover all but proved in the late 20s and early 30s, counting on the kindness of corporate and non-profit strangers to serve the needs of the larger society does not always (or even generally) work. The profound crisis facing America requires the government to intervene in areas like economic regulation, healthcare, support for American manufacturing (see the article in Harper’s:, economic stimulation and support for those suffering through the crisis and a host of other problems that have only grown in the past few years. Republicans continue to claim that government can’t do anything and that it will only exacerbate the problem and destroy America. But what’s really destroying America? And can we really count on those doing the damage to suddenly reform themselves and change? Ultimately the question is whether obstructionism (a strategy first used very effectively by Newt in the 90s) is good for much more than winning elections (if even that anymore)? If I could place a bet, it would certainly be on the short side.

Top Ten Films of 2009

Here is my list of the best films I have seen this year. I have missed some critically acclaimed films (including Hurt Locker, Capitalism: A Love Story, An Education, Crazy Heart, Precious and Departures, among a host of others) and base this analysis on not only on artistic quality but the entertainment value of the work. So here it is . . .

1) The Soloist: A beautifully rendered story of how a friendship between a writer and a homeless musician helps both to grow. Robert Downey Jr. is exemplary and Jamie Fox continues to impress with the range of his acting skills.

2) The Invention of Lying: This film received little press or attention and was attacked vociferously by conservatives for its damning indictment of religion. The film does suffer from lack of imagination at times, envisions a dystopian world not fully explainable within the contours of the plot and ends on a formulaic note. But I believe Ricky Gervais again shine and along with Ghost Town (2008) has shown his ability to translate his skills to the big screen.

3) Inglourius Basterds: Quentin Tarantino continues to display his talent at writing gripping dialogue and creating scenes that capture the drama and nuances of human interaction. This is a Jewish wet dream that succeeds at all levels, even with Tarantino’s continuing penchant for excessive, gory violence.

4) Men Who Stare at Goats: George Clooney has had a busy year and this overlooked film by director Grant Heslov is a wonderfully sardonic satire on the military and new age absurdity. The movie is quirky and sometimes goes overboard, but has some of the funniest moments of the year and an underlying message that we should more seriously heed.

5) Watchmen: This adaption of what many consider one of the greatest graphic novels of all times (by Alan Moore) is inventive, visually stunning and provides a powerful critique of American hegemony within a sometimes convoluted plot. Definitely worth a view, even with a cheesy love story and some excessively graphic violence.

6) Drag Me to Hell: Raimi shines here in his usual mixture of gore and humor, here backed by wonderful work from the perky Alison Lohman and truly terrifying Lorna Raver (as Mrs. Ganash). The nod to the ethical conundrums of corporate America and corrupt world of commercial banking serve as a clever backdrop to a highly entertaining movie.

7) Sin Nombre: This extraordinary debut by Cary Fukunaga captures the perilous journey so many make to cross the border, intermingling human devastation and struggle with a beautifully rendered backdrop seen from atop a train traveling North toward freedom and escape.

8) A Serious Man: The latest from the Coen Brothers is a relatively muted morality tale of the struggles of a Jewish professor challenged by a series of ethical quandaries that threaten to tear his life apart. Michael Stuhlbarg does a wonderful turn as a modern-day Job, trying to do the right thing as a student attempts to bribe him, his wife starts sleeping with his best friend and the whole of his life unravels before him.

9) Avatar: Though at times cheesy in a relatively predictable and formulaic script, the film is a visual spectacle that moves the field of cinema forward (see below for full review).

10) 500 Days of Summer: This quirky romantic comedy succeeds even with clear shortcomings and failures. The indie characters are a bit too comfortable, a bit too materialistic and a bit too much like those hipsters that only play at bohemia. Yet the asynchronous narrative, the charming work of Zooey Deschanel and the nod to nerds like me that love obscure (and popular) cultural references, make it a satisfying venture.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Party of No

Republicans have shown an adroit tendency to enact the material instantiation of postmodern ideas in the past decade. First was the recount of 2000, where they used revisionist and deconstruction discourses to disable democracy, callously arguing that a recount would undermine the will of the people and that machines were clearly superior to humans. They reinvented their own history (including that of Bush himself) to now claim that recounts were somehow unconstitutional and for maybe the first time in their history became strong anti-federalists (or federalists in the parlance of the constitutional convention), arguing that the Supreme Court should trump state power, leading to one of the most partisan and absurd decisions in recent jurisprudence (lest us forget Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dred Scot decision). Since then they have enacted a series of language games that have been very effective in winning popular support for their deleterious policies including changing the inheritance tax to the “death tax,” advocating a “war to protect the peace,” rearticulating that war when no WMDs were found as the exportation of liberal democracy, speaking of 911 and Hussein together so often most Americans came to believe Saddam himself planned the attacks, claiming global warming as a plot by liberals to destroy capitalism (based on scientists who are almost invariably funded by oil companies) and an endless list of other examples.

This tendency has continued with the recent debates on healthcare, including absurdist complaints about the government advising people to die and blindness to the long-term effects of taking no action. Cheney et al have rewritten the history of the “war on terror” ( and have even convinced some that the current financial crisis is either Clinton, or more humorously, Obama’s fault. The most interesting aspect of their new strategy might be a nod to Adorno’s idea of the negative dialectic or Derrida’s perpetual critique. The Republican Party argues against everything Obama attempts to do, demands modifications to all major bills, and then still votes in unison against them. And interesting article by Fortune columnist and famed Reaganite Bruce Bartlett calls them out of this position of imminent critique: He argues that current Republican obstructionism to the estate tax reauthorization is yet another example of negation as strategy.

The Republicans believe they can regain power simply by following the lead of the lunatic fringe and pundits like Limbaugh and Beck, becoming the obstructionist party of negation alone. The problem is the media irresponsibly reports their attacks without adequate accountability to the line between what they say and what they do and this strategy could succeed. The blurring line between fact and fiction is where the party resides today, in the desert of the real. Yet can we govern from this position? What will be done about the continuing financial crises, the rising costs of healthcare, the worsening position of too many Americans, the growing disparity between rich and poor, the looming environmental catastrophe, the continued irresponsible behavior of corporate and financial leaders and the declining economic prospects of America in the world? The market remains the answer to too many of these Reagan acolytes. And yet it is the same market that has caused all of the problems enumerated above. Negation alone cannot make the world a better place, particularly when that negation is only of change. You can never enter the same river twice, but Republicans seem to think they can damn that river and then reverse its course, returning us to a utopian past as fictional as their revisionist history. They claim the superiority of their position based on being realistic and pragmatic. But how pragmatic is existing in language games? If we continue to follow their lead, we end up in a literal desert of the real – America slowly marching toward its ultimate demise (with the whole planet to follow at some future date). Let us hope that a more authentic realism, intermingled with a healthy dose of idealism, stands in their way.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)

Up in the Air is receiving rave reviews. George Clooney is winning renewed accolades as the cynical corporate traveler Ryan Bingham, Vera Famiga is up for a number of awards and director Jason Reitman, of Juno (2007) and Thank You for Smoking (2005) fame, has another quirky hit to add to his resume. The film has been nominated for six Golden Globes, won the Austin Film Critics award and Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Screenplay, National Board of Review awards for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor and Clooney garnered the coveted New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, among a host of other nominations and awards. Critics love the film and it already has created serious Academy Award buzz. But is the film worthy of this collective encomium?

I would say no. It is a relatively successful send-up of corporate America today, the alienation and emptiness of contemporary society, the heartlessness of technology gone wild and the true human costs of layoffs and corporate downsizing. Yet it does so from too safe a distance and with a muted humor and cynical ending that seems to undermine the ideological force of the whole film. It has a number of funny moments, intermingled with a lot of corny jokes and a saccharine love story that is too intent on reinforcing the theme of the dehumanizing effects of corporate profit-seeking to really inspire my interest. The people laid off in the film, with a few exceptions, are real people who have recently lost their jobs and who were recruited through the classifieds and told to treat the camera like those who just fired them. This leads to some compelling and funny moments, but in other cases the heaviness of these moments seems ill-advised given the failure of any of the main characters to actually change in any meaningful way. When we learn that one woman who threatens killing herself in fact does so, the heartless boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is more worried about the legal ramifications than the dead women. Bateman does do a wonderful job as a detached boss, intent on embodying the worst excesses or corporate America today. These moments do deconstruct how the corporation has dehumanized us and led the whole of society to lose its way, but for me the film suffers from a dullness that undermines the otherwise effective morale.

In fact the plot, based on the novel by Walter Kim, seems to revolve more around the dehumanizing nature of firing by technology in comparison to the personal touch of sending someone like corporate downsizer and empty shell Bingham to do the job. The approach is based on leading these workers to see their termination as the opportunity to lead better lives (in case we miss the point, the discussions between Bingham and the other workers at makes it clear that their services are about limiting backlash to the companies doing the firing). Bingham travels 290 days doing this job, living in hotels and eschewing any meaningful personal relationships. His apartment is without any personality, he is alienated from his family (until he saves his sister’s wedding) and his only relationships appear to be the superficial ones that one has with a bartender, co-worker or one-night stand. That is until he meets Alex Goran (Vera Famiga) who he quickly develops feelings for. She seems to be pushing him toward something more meaningful, just as his livelihood is jeopardized by newcomer Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), fresh out of the Ivy League and in some ways even more heartless than Bingham.

The two go out on the road so he can teach her the ropes of firing others effectively and to challenge her not to implement the telecommunication technology she wants to use to replace Clooney and the other company agents. Along the way, she pushes Clooney to contemplate how meaningless his life is – including the rather heavy-handed “What’s in Your Backpack” lectures he occasionally gives to convince others to eliminate “meaningless” personal relationships from their lives. As the story unfolds, Natalie and Ryan, of course, grow as human beings, though both suffer losses and heartbreak along the way (I don’t want to give away too much). In the end, the question is how much have they really grown? Particularly for Bingham, has he really found a way to reconnect with the world and find meaning in his life? Many will assume that he has and that the film is funnier and more meaningful than I found it. I found Clooney substantially more compelling in Michael Clayton (2007), and have rarely found Famiga to be much more than a pretty, saturnine actress with little personality or charm. Anna Kendrick certainly shines and Bateman does a wonderful reprise of his Michael Bluth character from “Arrested Development,” though here without a pesky heart to stand in the way of his affectless humor.

It seems at some level as if Reitman lost his will in the end, and decided to find some humanity in this inhumane world, though without the happy ending the audience is rooting for. In his desire to avoid the formulaic we are left cold, not only from the unsatisfying denouement, but from actors who, for all their accolades, seem to give performances that are too muted, too uninspired, too, well, alienating in their individual alienation. Clooney has developed the power to carry a film on his charm and charisma alone, but here it fails as he attempts to crawl into the body of his converse – a man who protects himself from the world by literally flying above us at a safe altitude. Just like his dank, sterile apartment, the film suffers from too dour a view of humanity. You might find it as some surprise that I would still recommend the film, but I do. It is worth a viewing for the underlying message and to watch huge ambition confront the challenges of serious critique within the Hollywood formula. But it is, in many ways, a lovely failure to observe. (B+)