Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Un-Christian American Christian

So this post is just a gesture at a bunch of more interesting thoughts that one could have if one were less harried or smarter. But I'm throwing this out for what it's worth.

Left Behind Games, the people fixing to bring you video games about the world after the Rapture (based on the popular Left Behind books), insist that their video game is fundamentally (both basically and evangelically) Christian and teaches Christian values.

There's a lot to be said generally about the ways in which religions change over time without their practitioners admitting or even noticing the changes. There's a lot to be said in particular about the tragic and sometimes poisonous encounters between Christianity and market-driven modernity and about how "Christian-themed" video games designed to appeal also to non-Christian gamers are at once theologically ludicrous and entrepreneurially inevitable. And I might say something about that when what I have to say isn't glib. This is interesting but complicated stuff.

What I do want to say here is that I've always been fascinated by the way in which the fundamental break between Protestantism and Catholicism, at the level of doctrine at least, was over who had the right and duty to study God's word and monitor his or her relation to God. For Martin Luther and virtually every Protestant after him, that right and duty was the individual's, not the church hierarch's. The individual needed no intercessor and gatekeeper between him and his scripture, him and his God. So why is it that American fundamentalist Christians--who talk about the Good Book at every opportunity--don't seem to read it all that often?

Here's what I mean: Left Behind Games co-founder Troy Lyndon insists, "The game is designed to be a classic battle between good and evil." Left Behind Games President Jeffrey Frichner told Forbes that the game shows the choices people have to make when facing danger: "Do we just lay down and allow aggressors to kill us, or maim us or pillage us? I think most Americans would answer no. We defend ourselves. To remain faithful to the 'Left Behind' series, we couldn't make a game that didn't have that element in it."

There are intricate historical explanations for much of this, but I'm still fascinated that Frichner is basically substituting "American" for "Christian" and substituting the attitude of the US armed forces for the word of the Book. "Do we just lay down and allow aggressors to kill us, or main us or pillage us? I think most Americans would say no." True enough. But Frichner isn't pitching the game as "American." He's pitching it as "Christian." And so Christ's word's might be relevant here. The following are Matthew 5:38-40 and Luke 6:28-30:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.


Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.

I'd rather that everybody in this country (and in others) put being decent, fair, respectful, and compassionate above being from a given chunk of land. But I think it's fine to place being American above being Christian. Or vice-versa. I just wish people would stop pretending that they're the same thing.

Friday, September 29, 2006


I've been interested in Virginia Senator George Allen for awhile now. He was once thought by many to be the next Dubya -- he's the plain-taling son of a football coach who is a rabid conservative but who has the demeanor of some one you'd like to have a beer with. Basically, he's the type who could appeal to the Republican base without scaring the Republican fiscall conservatives and who could maybe even appeal to fiscally conservative Democrats who tend to either ignore the culture wars or who are willing to just cede that ground. Like I said, he's been considered another Dubya.

Until "Macaca."

Allen used that phrase to describe a young, Indian supporter of his opponent, Democrat Jim Webb. It blew up in his face. It's a racist expression, after all, that traces back to French colonialism. It means "monkey."

First, he said he didn't know what it meant. Then, he was just kidding and had made up a word on the fly. It did seem like the kind of gaffe that would blow over.

But Ryan Lizza at The New Republic had already revealed that, in his youth, Allen had a thing for the Confederate flag. In light of Lizza's work, which also seemed unimportant at the time (so he was a doofus in his younger years, who wasn't?) Allen's excuses and evasions seemed to fall flat.

Now, former associates are coming forward and saying that Allen used to make frequent use of the N-word to describe his darker-skinned brethren, some of whom played for the Washington Redskins, a team that his father coached.

Worse, there's talk that Allen, a sport hunter, once put the severed head of a doe in the mailbox of an African American family. That talks is so far unconfirmed. But... it has legs if only because it fits the profile.

As all of this was going on, Allen's mother revealed that she's Jewish by heritage and that she hid the fact from her family, including her son. Seriously, had Allen known about the heritage of wit and comic timing that he'd inherited, he could have quashed that whole story with two words: "Oy vey." But, Allen serves as proof that despite all of the great Jewish comedians, joke writing can only be learned and isn't inherited. Instead, he said: "To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don't think it's relevant. So I'd like to ask you, why is that relevant?" As if he were trying to defend something.

Is George Allen a racist or anti-Semite? Much as I loathe him politically, I'm going to take him at his word and assume that he isn't. But, it's 2006 and he doesn't even know how to talk about race. That makes him unfit for the Senate. We've been talking about these issues for two centuries now. Only the dimmest among us, or the least sensitive, have failed to learn the language.

This might seem a trivial topic, in light of tonight's Senate vote that has been sold as a compromise but that actually sanctions torture... but it isn't really light. Challenger Jim Webb now stands a real shot at unseating Allen, who is the better funded incumbent that some in his party saw as the next president. When Allen said the word "macaca," his whole facade of power was shattered. If Allen is defeated, and also effectively neutered as a possible presidential candidate, we're all better off. But, it is interesting to think about why and how this happened. If you agree with me that we can assume he's not really a racist, then you have to think that Allen failed as an observer of society. He couldn't grow enough in order to succeed in a culture that simmply demands more thoughtful and sensitive comments about race and religion.

Now... if he still manages to win... well... then we have to start seriously questioning just what it is that Virginia wants and what it is that its voters think and believe. That would be a very uncomfortable thing to have to ponder.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Doesn't Seem Vague to Me

So, over the last month or so, Pres. Bush (and Tony Snow) have been sparring with reporters and Republican Senators over prisoner treatment. The particular impetus for this round is Bush's claim that Common Article III of the Geneva Convention is too "vague" and requires "definition." I honestly didn't pay too much attention to this debate--it seemed to me that if Colin Powell, John McCain, and Lindsay Graham all defied their party's President to say leave the Geneva Convention alone, that's what we should do. I'm just generally in favor of not torturing people. It makes people hate us and doesn't get reliable information.

And now they've struck a compromise that seems, well, a little vague. Bush says it respects his position, his opponents say it respects theirs. So I'm not sure that it does anything except retroactively (unconstitutionally?) exempt interrogators for violating US human rights law (if not the Geneva Convention).

And so, in an attempt to understand this, to see whether Common Article III's provisions against "cruel treatment" and "outrages upon personal dignity" are any vaguer than, say, our own Constitution's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment," I went to the Geneva Convention, prepared to wade through page after page of Common Article Three.

But there was no need for that. The entire thing is 272 words long (about 3/5 the length of my portion of this post.) And while it's probably about as vague as the US Constitution, its English is actually of a more recent and therefore more straightforward vintage. If Bush can insist on wanting strict constructionists (i.e., people who stick to the supposedly transparent letter of the Constitution) for the Supreme Court, then surely he himself shouldn't have much trouble being a strict contructionist about the plain language of the Geneva Convention.

And, if he really believes, as he's said over and over in recent speeches starting with his address to the UN, that war in Iraq is part not of a clash between civilizations but a clash for civilization--for democracy, decency, and human rights against Islamist extremism, then probably should pay very close attention to the clause of Article III that prohibits "the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples." If the general worldwide hostility--including from our allies--to Guantanamo, to extraordinary rendition, to secret detention, and to coercive interrogation is any guide of what "civilized peoples" think, maybe we should stop. When struggling for civilization, it helps to uphold the standards of civilization.

Anyway, posted below is the entire text of Common Article III. Decide for yourself whether it's too vague to stand on its own:

Art 3. In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
(2) The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.
An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict.

The Parties to the conflict should further endeavour to bring into force, by means of special agreements, all or part of the other provisions of the present Convention.

The application of the preceding provisions shall not affect the legal status of the Parties to the conflict.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

"At least I tried..." - Clinton on bin Laden

Read this amazing transcript from Bill Clinton's appearance on Fox News. The interviewer, who had promised him that the first half of the interview would be about Clinton's charitable work decided, on the second question, to ask him why he didn't do more to capture or kill Osama bin Laden before 9-11. I have no problems with a journalist straying from the promised course of an interview -- Fox's Chris Wallace had a rare chance for a long talk with Clinton and the question is legitimate.

But just read how Clinton laid the smackdown on him for it, via Atrios.

Let's be honest here -- even after the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, the embassy bombings that followed and the attack on the USS Cole, almost nobody who was interested in politics during the 1990s was obsessed with Osama bin Laden and, certainly, almost nobody predicted anything like 9-11 would have ever happened. Still, given that Osama was decidedly not the big issue of the 90s, Clinton and his administration were on top of the matter. Clinton even reveals that he had drawn up invasion plans for Afghanistan and that he was ready to go through with it but that the FBI and CIA wouldn't even confirm that the USS Cole attack was al-Qaeda related. That lack of confirmation restricted Clinton's ability to use enough troops to properly pacify Afghanistan -- a country that had, as we all know, fought off the Soviets for more than a decade. My only quibble here, and my big criticism of Clinton, is that we were giving aid to the Taliban throughout the 90s and that's something we shouldn't have done, even if they had no connection with al-Qaeda, because the Taliban was a horrible dictatorship.

My criticism aside -- I take real issue with Wallace bringing up the fact that our withdrawal from Somalia somehow emboldened Osama bin Laden because Wallace doesn't present the full history of why we were in Somalia in the first place and what led to the terrible spectacle of "Black Hawk Down." Clinton didn't put our troops into Somalia. George HW Bush did that, while he was a lame duck who had lost the election to Clinton. Clinton inherited that war. I don't honestly believe that Bush 41 sent troops to Somalia in order to hurt Clinton -- the two are far too cordial for me to believe that Somalia was a "going away present." But, the fact is, even if he was well intentioned, as Bush 41 tended to be in his foreign policy, he sent us into a chaotic civil war and he didn't have a plan for dealing with it. Clinton should have brought the troops home right away. But, as he says in the interview, even if he'd done that, before one of our helicopter pilots was killed and had his body dragged through the streets, Osama would have reacted the same way by calling us cowards.

I know I'm going long on this post (yet again) but between ABC's docudrama and this interview, I see conservatives trying to blame 9/11 on Bill Clinton. They're doing that because the current conservative president is unpopular and down in the polls so far that Clinton, even at the height of his troubles (they tried to impeach the guy, remember... actually, they did impeach him but he won) was never so loathed as Bush is.

Conservatives are playing the "blame game," that they so hated when they failed to save lives on the gulf coast after hurricane Katrina. They want people to believe that Clinton somehow let 9/11 happen and that Clinton is responsible for it.

Honestly, and he kind of admits this in the interview... Clinton is somewhat responsible. He did a lot to stop or curtail bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but he's willing to admit that he didn't do enough. On that point, he's actually being too hard on himself, though. The public was not clamoring to invade Afghanistan before 9/11. It would have been an unpopular and divisive decision for Clinton to make. I wish he had done it, though. He'd have sent enough troops and wouldn't have let Osama escape into Pakistan -- a country that I've long warned is not our ally and that is demonstrating that fact, by the way. Just look at how well Clinton handled Bosnia -- another move I disagreed with him about. He sent the proper amount of troops and he didn't get us into a quagmire and he captured Slobodan Milosevic. If Clinton had invaded Afghanistan, he'd have done it the right way.

I say it's already time to stop blaming Clinton for 9/11. I don't blame Bush for it either. I only blame the people who hijacked planes and turned them into bombs. But, as much fun as it might be to ask Clinton why he didn't get Osama before 9/11, it's much more fun and more relevant to ask Bush why Osama escaped our forces at Tora Bora and why he's still at large today. If the cons want to blame 9/11 on Clinton and the Democrats, they should at least be held accountable for their post 9/11 failures.

Friday, September 22, 2006


in our divided country, we are. Now hearing calls for "centrists" that can win officeand eventually lead the u.s. Away from partisan warfare.

Am on a blackberry, so this will be short:

The middle ground between two extremes is NOT always right.

Consider the bankruiptcy bill, supported by both parties... Either an individul debor is entitlev to the same rights that a company has (in dealing with creditors) or an indoividual doesn't. There is no compromise there... It's a "yes" or "no" issue. But on that bill, "centrist" democrats like joe lieberman and joe biden decided to "compromise," by supporting legislation that made life harder for the individual borrower while protecting the rights of corporate borrowers. The "centrists" on the Dem side actually supported a very old and controversial Republican idea, but they framed their support as a "compromise."

Look, the middle road isn't always right. Sometimes, one side has the right priorities and the other doesn't - in that case, a compromise tends to take the worst parts of the accurate idea and the worst parts of the fantastical notion and, somehow, it results in a failed government program while the compromisers that encouraged it in the first place aren't held accountable.

Fair warning: I'm an economic liberal and a social libertarian. That means I believe that a man has a right to snort coke off of a hooker's ass, but also that the hooker has a right to both free health care and a lving wage.

90 percent of the country disagrees with me.90 percent of the counmtry (btw... Made that 90 percent figure up) is out of sync with me on one issue or another, usually to the point where we can't even politely debate.

Fine by me. Except that people are wrong some times. Consider "intelligent design," which is an idea that purports to bridge the gap between evolutionary theory and christian creationism... intelligent design not only fails to explain human evolution and is incompatible with the world as we understand it, but it obviously contradicts christian theology (because genesis doesn't leave a hint of room for any evolutionary theory, even one guided by god, since adam and eve are clearly set in a fully formed and evolved planet.)

Not trying to have a theological debate here, only want to point out that "middle ground" notions not only challenge more extreme ideas but that they also don't lead to any sort of truth.

In politics right now we're being told by people like david broder that we should embrace the middle, the moderates, the compromisers and negotiators. Sounds nice. But an idea isn't rightjust because it splits the difference between two sides. Intelligent design is a good example of an idea that is a compromise but that not only fails to conform to visible evidence but attacks both sides of the debate in a manner that cheapens them all

Moderates in 2006 or 2008? Gag me. We don't need compromise right now. We need leaders with convictions who have the cajones to shepherd their ideas through our partisan morass.

I say... Don't worship the centrist. A true centrist will always use a compromise to betray you.

Instead, support candidates and business types who know that a democratic victory in november will change the country for the better.

We can do better interms of picking a government than we have up until Now.

We're in the home stretch and the repubs are acting vulnerable. I suggest we go on the attack and that we reject those compromisers who obscure the truth.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Beware the Illuminati

So astronomers have just given an appropriate name to the celestial object that kicked off a kerfuffle in the scientific community and eventually got Pluto demoted from planetary status. The new "dwarf planet" (which is larger than Pluto) was tentatively named Xena but has since been renamed Eris, after the goddess of discord.

It's a good name. We should withhold the name Xena for a real planet, preferably one with a closely orbiting, plucky blonde satellite.

A Perverse Discussion

Back when we were debating rather than fighting the Iraq war, Colin Powell invoked the often-mocked "Party Barn" analogy to warn us that we'll be responsible for the war's outcome and might not be able to just pull our troops out quickly. Now, The New Republic and DLC Blogger The Bull Moose have decided to criticize people who want to bring our troops home as being inconsiderate of Iraqi interests and unwilling to face the moral implications of a withdrawal.

Of course, both these guys supported the war in the first place, so they're more than willing to argue now that we have to stay the course no matter what people might be feeling in 2006. The Bull Moose even argues that we should permanently increase the size of our military and that we should increase our military presence in Iraq.

While I agree that we certainly owe a moral debt to the Iraqi people, I'm struck that neither of these commentators mention that our government might also owe a debt to its own people.

They don't mention deaths and injuries suffered by our troops, who were used improperly to wage a war of choice. They don't mention the negative impact of all of this war spending on the U.S. economy, or the negative impact of the war on oil prices (which have hurt US consumers) or the negative impact of the war on our own security (because we've been forced to focus on Iraq while other more immediate threats have gone unchecked).

They say that whether or not you wanted this war in the first place you should be willing to live with all of its negative consequences now, and that you should even be willing to have our government commit more to the war.

That's true perversity.

You can't discuss the U.S. government's obligation to Iraq without also discussing the U.S. government's obligation to U.S. citizens.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hollywood 1934? Or Just Made for TV Drama?

One more quick post on The Path to 9/11 and then (I hope!) I'm done.

Fact one, ABC's foreign promotional materials are apparently describing The Path to 9/11 as "The Official True Story." So it's getting harder to buy Disney's and ABC's claims that "it's just drama." (Especially since the trailers beginning with "The Official True Story" plastered across the screen also contain one of the more clearly invented and defamatory scenes arguing that Sandy Berger had a chance to take out bin Laden and didn't give the order.)

Fact two, fact one is why reponsible lefties are so up in arms. It's true that if you poke around the comment boards on lefty sites (e.g., ThinkProgress), you find a lot of lefties who are indignant at the mere possibility that there would be a movie with a right-wing point of view. They have, as a friend of mine put it, apparently so completely bought into the right-wing claims that liberals control the media that they're horrified to be reminded that, um, we don't, never have, and never will.

It is, the current administration notwithstanding, a free country. I have no problem with TV and drama with various right-wing slants coming out of Hollywood. I have no problem with their appearing on network TV. 24, for example, continues to be a lot of fun, even though it often feels like a sustained recruitment campaign for Torture University ("TU. Where students find the truth... with electrodes.") I do have a problem, though, when networks go out of their way to package obviously slanted, substantially invented, and likely defamatory material as "the official true story." Especially when they do it two months before a crucial election.

A lot of conservatives are saying, "We had to put up with Fahrenheit 9/11, so just shut up and take it." There's some emotional justice to that--those lefties who are offended that other people get to air their opinions should remember that your being offended isn't necessarily anybody else's problem. Of course, conservatives should also remember that a lot of conservative groups did fight to have F9/11 pulled of of theaters and that their pressure worked in a lot of places. Turnabout's fair game, no?

But mostly conservatives should remember that Michael Moore and his distributors never pretended that F9/11 was based on anything but Moore's own research and analysis. Moreover, since his movie actually was a documentary rather than a dramatization, it was pretty clear just by looking (even on mute) which footage was of events that had actually happened and which ones were speculative reconstruction or interpretation. With a complete dramatization like The Path to 9/11, everything is on the same film stock, with the same lighting, etc., and it's impossible to tell as you watch what scenes are faithful to 9/11 Commission report and which ones contradict or distort it. You have to actually read the entire report to tell. Which, again, would be fine if ABC were admitting that the filmmakers had done more than condense certain episodes or invent representative character--if they weren't billing it as "Based on the 9/11 Commission Report."

In 1934, Upton Sinclair was mounting a very strong campaign for the governorship of California. He was running on the End Poverty in California (EPIC) ticket (this is the Great Depression, remember) and looked like he could actually win. The Hollywood studios (almost certainly on the instuctions of legendary producer Irving Thalberg) put out a newsreel that ran before a lot of their features. It contained interviews with various voters. Lots of sober, uber-American middle-class folk were not planning to vote for Sinclair. Sinclair voters appeared to be mostly wild-bearded folk saying stuff along the lines of "I vill vote for that Upton Sinclair becus he is goink to make this whole diffrint kind uv country and is a vriend to the people likes I." All this footage of half-socialized Bolsheviki immigrants planning to vote for Sinclair--released months before the election--hurt Sinclair badly.

Turned out later, of course, that all the interviewees were actors. The whole thing was a put-up job, apparently motivated in large part by studio owners' fears that union-positive Sinclair would support the actors, writers, directors in unionizing the Hollywood open shop.

The final cut of The Path to 9/11 hasn't aired yet. It may turn out to be a vaguely unreliable dramatization. (Especially if the recent controversy has forced some edits.) It may turn out to be fun to watch. It may turn out to be Hollywood 1934 all over again. We'll see soon enough.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Good News

It's hard for a leftie to be cheerful these days. Sure, one can get excited about the prospect of the Dems taking back some part of Congress (or at least the possibility of moderate Republicans starting to fight Bush on his crazier ideas now that he isn't very popular anymore). One can be grateful that Bush is finally having to retreat on torture, detention without trial, pretending that Saddam and al-Qaida had anything to do with one another before the invasion. That's nice. But most days that doesn't feel like progress. It feels like we're starting to shovel in the back-hoe holes that this administration's been digging in our backyard. ("Hey, honey, now if Fido falls in, he'll only break his leg! He'll be so happy to see this when his vertebrae heal!")

As appropriate and necessary as outrage and worry have been for the past six years, it's exhausting being outraged and worried all the time. I don't know how the all those guys from the Christian right do it. Heavy drinking? Clandestine sex orgies? Power naps? Yoga?

Probably not yoga.

So I'm taking a break today and doing a round-up of stories that make me feel a little more cheerful.

First: the ozone hole over Antarctica seems to have stabilized and may even be shrinking. Scientists are hoping that it could heal in about 60 years. This is good news in its own right and sort of encouraging about global warming: at a certain point, people took a hard look at the facts, said, "This is unacceptable," and wrote some laws. They worked. Cool.

Second, the (second-ever) Millennium Prize for technology was just given to Japanese inventor Shuji Nakamura. Nakamura has been doing work on low-energy LEDs and (separate) blue lasers that, among other things, could replace conventional lightbulbs and help sterilize drinking water. The LED lightbulbs take so little energy that they could be powered by small solar panels. This would make it possible for a lot of poor and rural people in (for example) Africa to either get electric light and other people to go off the grid. Nakamura is even giving some of the prize money to help that happen. Again, this is just cool in itself. And it's cool for those of us looking to cut down on foreign oil and on greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, some of the stuff we put in space is still working--well beyond expectation or even hope. The space shuttle doesn't seem to do more than get delayed, and the international space station occasionally seems doomed to become the largest unrecycled metal in orbit, but Voyagers 1 & 2, launched about 30 years ago, are still traveling away from Earth at something like 42,000 miles an hour
(a million miles a day!), beaming back information. Voyager 1 is over 9 billion miles from Earth, and, if it holds up, might make it into truly interstellar space within a decade. Meanwhile, NASA's Opportunity rover is crawling across Mars's southern hemisphere and is within spitting distance of Victoria Crater, which scientists are calling a likely "treasure trove." Neither the Voyagers nor Opportunity were ever expected to work anywhere near this long. But there they are. This is heady stuff (especially for those of us who still vaguely expect Voyager 1 to be rescued by a planet of intelligent machines and to meet up again with Kirk and the gang.)

Fourth, and perhaps the most heartening in a small, dumb way, Danish newspaper Information has published reproductions of six cartoons from the new exhibit in Tehran mocking the Holocaust, but there haven't been riots in the streets of Copenhagen or Tel Aviv or Palm Beach. Admittedly, the Israelis have shown their capacity to overreact in recent months, but it's still kind of nice to know that in some parts of the Western world, people have a vague respect for free speech rights and an awareness that retarded opinions alone aren't sufficient reason for violence and calls for holy war. As the editor of Information said, the cartoons are "are tasteless but predictable" and, by themselves, "they're pretty harmless." (Contrast this with the response to the cartoons of Muhammad in Jyllands-Posten several months ago that gave a bunch of cynical bastards and thuggish hotheads the opportunity to turn predictable and acceptable boycotts and resentment into riots. Your intrepid bloggers commented on that here, here, and here.)

That's what I got today. Anybody else heard anything good?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

More "Path to 9/11"

[ThinkProgress, btw, has been giving good coverage of The Path to 9/11.]

My local ABC affiliate just e-mailed me a response (at bottom) to my letter expressing doubts about The Path to 9/11. It's ABC's boilerplate response (which, for whatever reason, ABC didn't send me when I e-mailed them).

As you can see, ABC's stance is that "The Path to 9/11" isn't a documentary but rather a dramatization. Obviously, there's a big distinction between drama and documentary, but whether you call it "docudrama" or "dramatization," there's an important ethical obligation to get your facts right. When you tell somebody you're "dramatizing" an event, you're telling them that you're going to make the facts emotionally compelling; you're not telling them that you're going to make the facts up.

It is of course possible to make compelling and enduring art by playing fast and loose with the facts. All of Shakespeare's history plays do so. But it's also possible to make compelling, enduring, and unethical art by doing the same. For example, in 1915 D.W. Griffith did so with The Birth of a Nation, one of the first feature films shown in the US (or anywhere). It was such a virtuoso piece of technical filmmaking that helped shape Hollywood production for decades. It was also a virulent piece of anti-black propaganda (based on a novel by an avowed Klan sympathizer) that basically blamed the Civil War and the turmoil of Reconstruction on ignorant negroes and scheming mulattos. Despite its many artistic merits and its historical significance, it's a deeply sleazy movie.

I have no objection whatsoever to compressing characters, dialogue, and scenes in order to make the movie of airable length. But I will object if it turns out that the makers of The Path to 9/11 have compressed all Democrats into weasels or pansies, all Muslims into murderous animals, all reporters into bin Laden's downfield blockers, and George Bush into a leader who didn't sit staring blankly at a picture book for fifteen minutes after his aides told him about 9/11.

Once again, I'm withholding judgment until the program airs. But I'm suspicious. Very suspicious.

Oh, and not for nothing: Scholastic has been deeply suspect in all this. They've been promoting the drama and affiliated supplementary materials as teaching aides. ABC, if it wants to be lame, can try to hide behind the "it's just a dramatization" line. But if you're selling educational tools, you've got no business doing that. None. And, if ABC is insisting that the movie is purely entertainment or art (and therefore not bound by the norms of accurate documentary) it shouldn't have its logo plastered all over the Scholastic promotional materials.

ABC sez:
"The Path to 9/11 is a dramatization, not a documentary, drawn from a variety of sources, including the 9/11 commission report, other published materials and from personal interviews. The events that lead to 9/11 originally sparked great debate, so it's not surprising that a movie surrounding those events has revived the debate. The attacks were a pivotal moment in our history that should never be forgotten and it's fitting that the discussion continues."

In addition, the following disclaimer will air throughout the movie:

"The following movie is a dramatization that is drawn from a variety of sources including the 9/11 Commission Report and other published materials, and from personal interviews. The movie is not a documentary. For dramatic and narrative purposes, the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and
dialogue, as well as time compression."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Paved With Bad Intentions?

The leftist blogosphere and various Democratic groups are up in arms about ABC's upcoming docudrama, The Path to 9/11 (scheduled to air Sept. 10 & 11). A lot of people seem to think it's election-year hatchet-work by filmmakers who ignored the 9/11 Commission report and then used "Based on the 9/11 Commission Report!" as their tagline.

It always aggravates me when people react hysterically to art and entertainment that they haven't seen, so I'm trying to give ABC the benefit of the doubt. The blogosphere might be overreacting. (When has that statement ever been untrue?)

But the problem with a one-off like this one is that if you wait until you've seen it, the damage is already done. And given the election-year timing and the mainstream credibility the show will get from being on ABC, that could be substantial damage.

So I've resorted to the deadliest weapon in the arsenal of the radically inconsequential: letter-writing. Below is a copy of a letter that I sent to the president of Disney (ABC's parent corporation). Feel free to send letters of your own (or just copies of this one, though it's always nicer if a letter is personalized) BEFORE the show airs. You'll note that I didn't say that the show is reputed to have a right-wing bias. If that's important to you, make sure to add it. I was trying to take the high-road--I don't think 9/11 should be a cheap partisan issue for anyone. There's enough blame, shame, and heroism to go around.

(You can also, as I did, send pretty much the same letter and e-mail to Disney (, to your local ABC affiliate, and to ABC [Anne Sweeney, CEO, ABC, Inc., 500 S. Buena Vista Street, Burbank, CA 91521-4551.])


Mr. Robert Iger, CEO
The Walt Disney Company
500 South Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521-4873

Dear Robert Iger,

I write you regarding the docudrama The Path to 9/11, currently scheduled to air on ABC Sept. 11.

Obviously, I haven’t seen the program yet, but reports from advance screenings are disturbing. I’ve heard a great deal of credible worry that the show is biased and factually inaccurate. It’s my understanding that at least one member of the 9/11 Commission has already said precisely that.

9/11 was a traumatic and deeply important moment in our recent history, and both ABC and Disney should know better than to deal with it sloppily, much less dishonestly. I urge you, Anne Sweeney, and everyone else ultimately responsible for the content of Disney production and broadcasting to reexamine The Path to 9/11 scrupulously.

If it fails to meet the standards of accuracy and impartiality appropriate to the subject matter, then please don’t run it. In this case, dead air would be better than irresponsible programming.

Not only would irresponsible programming be bad for the country, it would be bad for Disney and for ABC. It would call into question the fairness and reliability of ABC’s news programming, and it would almost certainly create a backlash against ABC and Disney in general. In fact, if this docudrama proves to be election-year hackwork, I and many others will agitate for a boycott of Disney products.


Jon E.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Stop it with "Islamofascism" Already

Bush just compared Osama bin Laden to Hitler and Lenin.

For the past months (and especially in the past few weeks) every time this administration has to defend the war in Iraq and its failure to catch bin Laden, its members chant HitlerHitlerHitler and intone some high-sounding nonsense about the lessons of history. Their contempt for history and the good sense of American voters is astonishing.

In order to demonize everybody who disagrees with him as a panty-waist appeaser, Bush keeps insisting that there's no way to negotiate with al-Qaida and that the best defense is a good offense.

First, no elected official--hell, no halfway responsible blogger--is saying we should negotiate with bin Laden. The man's a homicidal loon. So that's a straw man.

And right now, while we technically are on offense, it's a bad, bad offense. In 2003, rather than going after bin Laden (he's Hitler, remember? he's Lenin) we went after Saddam Hussein (the prince of Liechtenstein).

So, right now, courtesy of Head Coach Bush and Offensive Coordinator Rumsfeld, we're at war in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. Bush's "good offense" is the military equivalent of playing lacrosse offense during a basketball game. In the parking lot outside the arena. The day after the game.

Does the Army Support its Own Troops?

MSNBC is reporting that the Army seems to be putting Raytheon's profit margins ahead of troop survival.

The Israelis developed and are now deploying a new system that intercepts rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). The system was extremely successful in US military testing (it intercepted and destroyed 29 out of 30 RPGs, and when it "missed" the 30th, it merely hit the wrong end of the RPG). It's affordable (as weapons systems go). It could save the lives of a lot of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who come under RPG fire. The Pentagon wants to buy it. The Army doesn't.

Why, you might ask, doesn't the Army want to buy it? As best as anybody can figure, the Army is opposed because buying the Israeli system might compete with a US-based program run by Raytheon to develop an American anti-RPG system.

The only problem is, the Raytheon system won't be ready until 2011 (at the earliest). The Israeli system is ready to go now.

If anybody out there is a constituent of a member of the Senate or House Armed Services Committee, please write a paper letter or make a phone call to say that maybe it's not cool for American soldiers to be getting killed for 5 years so that Raytheon doesn't have to get its ass in gear.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Resign, Rummy!

In New Jersey, a Republican candidate seeking to oust Democratic congressman Robert Menendez has called for Donald Rumsfeld to resign. Joe Lieberman, the "Connecticut for Lieberman" (that's the actual name of his party) candidate to retain his own senate seat has said the same.

I'm bad at predicting political events but I'll go out on a limb here: with more than 60% of the country now believing that the war in Iraq was a mistake and not worth the costs of lives and money, a lot of vehement pro-war supporters are going to turn on Donald Rumsfeld as a way to skirt the issue during the midtem elections. It just makes sense -- by attacking Rumsfeld, a candidate can attack the handling of the war without admitting to being wrong about supporting the war in the first place or having the criticize Bush directly.

I hope this tactic fails. Truth is, the war was the wrong thing to do. A different Secretary of Defense might have used different tactics and some of those tactics might have produced better results, but the war wasn't wrong because it turned out to be hard (critics of the war warned it would be hard well before we invaded) it's wrong because it's a war that we didn't have to fight because Iraq posed no threat to the U.S. If some magical Secretary of Defense had been in place who had a strategy that would have turned Iraq from dictatorship to democracy in three days with no loss of life on either side, it STILL would have been the wrong thing to do. It diminished our ability to handle Al-Qaeda, who had actually attacked us, and it diminished our ability to use the threat of force against Iran and North Korea, who are actually on a nuclear path, and it drained our economy of a lot of money at a time where we need cash in order to not only keep our government solvent, but to fund the government's promises to its citizens.

Don't mistake me -- Rumsfeld has really screwed up and he should have resigned a long time ago. But, Rummy is only part of the problem. Ill-conceived policies that come from the president are the real issue.

Never, ever, criticize a hostage.

Have any of you ever feared for your life? I haven't, I'm happy to say. I've had some scrapes and I've certainly felt wildly unsafe a few times, but I've never seriously feared for my life.

Columnist Mark Steyn, writing about two journalists (Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig of Fox News) abducted in Gaza writes, "The moment the men were released, the Western media and their colleagues wrote off the scene as a stunt, a cunning ruse, of no more consequence than yelling "Behind you! He's got a gun!" and then kicking your distracted kidnapper in the teeth. Indeed, a few Web sites seemed to see the Islamic conversion routine as a useful get-out-of-jail-free card."

Seems too cavalier a treatment to me. Hell, legend has it that members of the Knights Templar, in the Middle East during the crusades, actually practiced meditative methods of converting to Islam if captured without truly converting in their hearts so that they could talk their way out of captivity without losing their souls. Folks will just naturally, and rightly, do what they have to do to survive a life and death hostage situation. The impulse to say whatever in order to survive really is how Steyn mockingly describes it... but it's not funny.

Columnist Adam Graham actually wrote: "We may talk a good game about values, but when it comes right down to it, what matters most is not Democracy, is not truth, or our country, or God, but staying alive. With such an outlook, I question whether we will win this war."

David Warren at
was the first to tar these guys as "men without chests." He smeared them as: "Men without chests, men without character, men who don't think twice."

This kind of commentary leaves me dumbfounded. I know, I know, we all imagine that we'll be Hollywood action heroes if we're ever faced with a situation that could lead to the ultimate end. But I thought most of us knew the Hollywood fantasy for the fiction it is.

Like I said, I've never confronted a situation that screams "this is the end," and I never want to. I suppose we all hope that we'll handle something like that well, or even brilliantly. But none of us can claim we would, can we? I'll venture that most people wouldn't even dare make the claim. It's the kind of thing where you don't know what you'll do until you have to do it. The writers I've cited have made abig deal about the propaganda victory that the journalists handed to their captors when they converted on videotape. But complaining like that is the same as saying that they should have traded their lives and the happiness of their friends and family, in order to deny their captors what amounts to a television commercial. It's really a nutty way to think.

It's damned foolish to assume you'd know how you'd act in that kind of situation. If you've been there before, you might have more insight. But, if you've been there before, I'd guess that you'd say you'd claim ignorance and wouldn't promise anything extraordinary.

Two non-combatants were captured by hostile forces and told to convert to Islam. As far as I'm concerned, how they reacted is beyond outside criticism. They did what they felt was smart and proper. Their critics didn't even consider that what they chose to do was heroic -- they made a smart choice that helped get them out of that situation alive. I might never have been so seriously threatened as they were, but I've seen enough to know that their ability to live through something like that is worthy of respect.

Sometimes I think that the worst thing that this war, or any war, has done to our society is that it's empowered armchair observers to pontificate about either how they'd react under fire or what they expect from other people in danger. But, really, that kind of commentary is no more valid than me watching a Mike Tyson fight and telling the people around me how I'd knock the guy out (I'd feint left, jab, step in and... oh... nevermind.)

We'll Always Want Paris

Not a Banksy.

So Bansky, a UK "guerrilla artist," just replaced 500 Paris Hilton CDs throughout England with fakes. The fakes' songs are remixed, and their inserts have been changed--liner notes, photos, etc. They now ask questions like "What have I done?" and "Why Am I Famous?"

I guess if art consists of asking obvious questions that need asking (and that's actually a pretty good definition), this is art. But what interests me far more than the doctored albums is the response from Virgin and HMV, the big chains in which Banksy swapped out the CDs.

The corporations have decided to treat it like a cute prank. HMV's spokesman said, "I guess you can give an individual such as Banksy a little bit of leeway for his own particular brand of artistic engagement." Virgin's said, ""I have to take my hat off - it's a very good stunt."

I don't think I've ever seen a store basically admit, "We're each okay with losing almost $5,000 in potential sales because, frankly, we didn't deserve to make money off this shit anyway."

And yet, even though everybody--including the soulless profit machines tasked with pumping her crap into our ears--agrees that Paris Hilton's music (as Haydn put it) sucks hemorrhoids, the goddamn album still debuted at number 29 in England. I'd love to think that the Hilton family bought all of those copies to leave in the hotel rooms lieu of mints on the pillows, but I suspect that Britishers, like Americans, actually bought the damn things. And this in an age in which stealing the hideous album is easier than ever and--apparently--just fine by the people who stand to make a profit off it.

Something is deeply wrong with popular culture. Or shallowly wrong. But wrong, wrong, wrong.

A Tyranny of Experts?

Atrios has a good post here about liberal "technocrats." Though the technocrat term has been thrown around for a long time, I realized that I didn't actually know what it meant. After a scant bit of research, I was left with the notion that it's a way of thinking that values data and scientific analysis over "populism," in the political sphere.

I've always been warm to such ideas. Heck, I grew up reading Isaac Asimov who wrote a whole series of novels based on the concept of psychohistory, a science that allows people to predict what will happen to a culture. I've just always been into this kind of thing.

But what it means, as Atrios points out, is that society should follow the ideas of a few experts, preferably folks with advanced degrees or folks who have been annointed with chairs at universities or think tanks. It means bowing to data as if it tells people what they should want, while ignoring what they do want.

I don't mean to dismiss it offhand. In some cases, this approach has a lot of utility. Sometimes people, even in groups, want very stupid or immoral things. The U.S. once had a war, after all, because a bunch of people living there wanted to own slaves.

However, what we've seen during globalization has revealed that a lot of choices made solely on data, without a lot of regard for popular will, have also wildly backfired or gone badly. Developing countries have privatized essentiual government services (really essential, like water delivery) to the detrmiment of their citizens. In the U.S. we've seen five years of record corporate profits and high productivity and yet, stagnant wage growth.

Sometimes, I think, the populists are just plain wrong. Currently, in the U.S., people have touted anti-immigration policies that are popular among the masses and are yet misguided. Others have pursued anti-homosexual marriage agendas that are just as misguided but that also play to large masses. Politicians on both sides have pursued job creation strategies and globalization without regard to whether or not their constituents like the jobs being created or are making enough money at them. On the Democratic side and, I think, the technocratic side, house members support a proposal to make college tuition deductible if students choose to major in sciences and engineering, which is a good thing, but that leaves out students who might have other goals.

Both populism and technocracy have their flaws and can lead to disaster. Neither approach can be fixed because their flaws are endemic. Radical populism leads to mob rule that can be unenlightened and dangerous. Radical technocracy leads to detached and possibly tyrannical government. Neither philosophy can be fixed. To do so would negate them.

What we need is a= larger philosophy to guide them both -- perhaps the notion that our society should exist in order to enhance individual freedom with the awareness that heading too radically in that direction can, in fact, fail. That's basically utilitarianism, a social philosophy I've always had a soft spot for, though I find it sometimes too coercive (one of its foremost proponents designed prisons, after all).

At the moment, I think that the U.S. has swung too far towards technocracy, on both sides of the aisle. Our economy has encouraged people to not only specialize, but to defer to specialists. That has its obvious benefits.

But it discourages broad thinking, almost across the board. Our jobs and lives have become focused on issues so granular that we're losing sight of our wider goals and how to achieve them. I'm pretty much echoing the complaints of early 20th century surrealists and dadaists by saying that it's frankly unnatural for people to be treated as data points or machines that are part of some grand design. A damned good part of modern and contemporary art, literature and music is devoted to the tension between being an individual and being a part of something larger.

What worries me is that we're no longer even having this discussion. The data-minded folk get to present themselves (again, as Atrios pointed out) as being beyond politics and somehow above it all while the populists seem to be courting whims, even if those whims are really unhealthy fears.

Sod it all -- my shorter, funnier posts play better to everyone who reads this but doesn't know me personally (those who do know me suffer through out of a sense of obligation). Maybe this is just what happens to me when I decide "It's time to reread Plato's "Republic." But I do think there are issues in all of this that we're collectively ignoring, to our detriment.