Saturday, January 21, 2006

Comment Promotion: GM Cars

It's the weekend, so I thought we'd continue the Car Talk (apologies NPR). Here are the last two comments on the GM quality thread. ChETHB had several interesting things to say about his GM driving experience and Kathy follows up with some thoroughly delightful prose on her own history with the brand. Beware "the Golden Bitch." And no, that doesn't refer to Kathy. You'll see.

ChETHB said...

Just had to weigh in on this one since I became an auto enthusiast in the mid-50's -- IMHO, the quality of GM vehicles was without equal during that time period.

I worked in a gas station summer of 1959 and had the opportunity to look very closely at many different cars - GM vehicles were the best.

I believe this trend continued until, perhaps, the late 60's, based on my experience. For example, my new 1968 Chevelle SS396 rattled like a bucket of bolts as I took delivery and drove it away from the dealer. Sadly, I traded in a 1963 Impala SS that had zero rattles at 95,000 miles and got in excess of 18 mpg on the highway. With a high performance engine, I still never got below 13 mpg in that 1963 Impala and that was with some impressive hotrodding. The 1968 Chevelle (hindered no doubt by EPA regulations) never exceeded 11 mpg and generally got 6-8 mpg in the city.

I was still firmly in GM's corner (although shaken) until the mid-70's when they began to introduce small cars that were shoddy junk. It was pretty much the same with the other members of the Big 3. After the oil crisis in 1973, Americans were clamoring for nice, smaller, fuel efficient vehicles. Detroit provided cheaply-made, small, junky vehicles - shoddy interiors, very few options, no luxury appointments, and so forth.

The Japanese, on the other hand, after having been soundly beaten down with their initial introductions to the US, went home, did their homework, and came back with small, fuel-efficient cars that had the luxury appointments that Americans wanted and expected. The rest is history. Detroit, and especially GM, continued producing the kinds of cars that Americans didn't want and in addition, allowed their quality to sag lower and lower.

In summary, I think GM could have maintained their superior position had they simply responded to the market. Instead, they continued their view that they knew best what the customer wanted and consequently, their market share has continued to slide as the customer finds what he wants in the Japanese and European vehicles. The unfortunate part is that hundreds of thousands of Americans are directly or indirectly affected by the poor state of GM's business acumen.

I think all the different car names and models are an attempt to stuff one bad apple under the rug and replace it with something new, all the while hoping that the customer doesn't realize that it's the same thing with a different name. I generally agreee that the newer American cars have been significantly improved over their predecessors. I drive rental cars occasionally and have noticed that the current American offerings have seen considerable improvement. These are basically new cars so I have no impression about the reliability and maintenance requirements.

I can offer a final commment, however. When I get home from a business trip, it is always refreshing to crawl behind the wheel of my Acura and drive away. Unfortunately, I don't believe that GM currently builds a comparable vehicle.

Kathy Hutchins said...

"I believe this trend continued until, perhaps, the late 60's, based on my experience. For example, my new 1968 Chevelle SS396 rattled like a bucket of bolts as I took delivery and drove it away from the dealer."

This comports with my experience as well. My very first car was a 1967 Chevy Camaro, straight 6 230, purchased in 1974 (for $795.00 cash. Would that such things were possible today, eh?). It had none of the features American consumers would demand today -- no a/c, power steering, power brakes. It did have a radio. I drove it hard, and often stupidly, for six years, put something like 120K miles on it, turned around and sold it to a kid in Texas for $1200.

It was a great car, but unfortunately in 1967 you could no longer count on a GM product's quality from specimen to specimen. My younger sister's first car was also a 1967 Camaro, purchased in 1976, one of the souped up Super Sport models with a 350 V8, power everything. It was a piece of junk from start to finish -- electrics, hydraulics, finish work, seals -- the car was such a constant headache we called it "The Golden Bitch." I spent so much time giving that pile of manure jump starts I should have applied for a tow truck license.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Who Said It?

"Our opponents are our fellow citizens, not our enemies. Honorable people can have honest political differences. And we should strive for civility and intellectual integrity in our debates."

Hillary Clinton

Adolf Hitler

James Elliott

Karl Rove

The Great Narcissist Brando

Fellow Reform Clubber Tom Van Dyke kindly pointed me toward an excellent analysis of the career of Marlon Brando, by Nicholas Stix, at Mens News Daily. Stix correctly points out that (1) Brando was an immensely talented actor who accomplished several great performances and a lot of utterly atrocious ones, (2) the style of acting Brando pioneered was going to happen anyway, and (3) Brando's real stock in trade was not sensitivity but narcissism, and this played out in his personal life as well as in his performances.

Considering the basic impluse behind Brando's characterizations, Stix writes,

All the talk about Brando’s “sensitivity” is so much rot. The sycophantic “experts” who say that he played “sensitive” brutes are confusing emotional neediness with sensitivity. In other words, they can’t tell a narcissist from a saint.

Stix's observation that Brando's stock in trade was narcissism is a key point. Regarding Brando's influence on acting styles, Stix writes,

Since Brando’s death, we have been told that he somehow gave actors “permission” to be emotionally authentic. We have also heard, from Brando-apologist Richard Schickel, that it was the movies that let Brando down, beginning in the 1960s, rather than the other way around. Baloney!

A more intense acting style was coming into fashion after World War II, before Brando’s arrival on the Hollywood scene. Witness Kirk Douglas’ driven performances as boxer “Midge Kelly” in
Champion (1949), as “Det. Jim McLeod” in Detective Story (1951), and as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). And already in 1946, in It’s a Wonderful Life, note the embittered, emotionally raw quality of so much of Jimmy Stewart’s performance as “George Bailey,” a quality that characterized much of Stewart’s best 1950s’ work with directors Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. Something was in the air.

I have written elsewhere that what was "in the air" was the rise of anti-authoritarianism and personal narcissism throughout American society, and I think that Brando's ascendance, as Stix observes, was a powerful manifestation of that (and in fact I gave Brando as one of many examples of the post-World War II cultural change that led to what I call the Omniculture).

Stix also correctly accords credit to writer-director Elia Kazan for the rise of this acting style. I think that Brando's innovation in film acting was a mixed blessing at best, but would have been inevitable with the onset of TV anyway and, more importantly, the general rise in narcissism in the society. In Stix's discussion of the films of the 1960s and '70s, for example, change the word "antihero" to "narcissist" and you'll see it fits perfectly and in fact makes more sense (in that, for example, one's personal behavior can seldom be described as anti-heroic, as that is a dramatic/literary term):

Johnny Strabler was one of the early versions of what became the ultimate 1960s Hollywood cliché: The “anti-hero.” During the mid-1950s, in his brief career, James Dean would specialize in this type, in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause (the ultimate anti-hero movie title), and Giant, before dying in an automobile accident in 1955. Another then-famous anti-hero role was Paul Newman’s performance as Billy the Kid, in Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun, in 1958. (Though I admire much of Arthur Penn’s work, when I saw the movie on The Late Show about thirty years ago, I found it so dreadful, that I shut it off after a few minutes.)

In the 1960s, the anti-hero became the dominant shtick in Hollywood, as Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Newman and Redford, (and a few years later) Charles Bronson, and countless other actors would earn millions of dollars portraying anti-hero crooks and cops alike. (On TV, for a producer to sell a cop series, it had to be about an “unorthodox” cop.)

However, the anti-hero shtick did not help Marlon Brando. Brando’s problem was that, rather than seeing the playing of anti-heroes as a calculated career move, he adopted the anti-hero as his personal shtick. But if you really act like an anti-hero (i.e., a juvenile delinquent) in your personal and professional life, you become a source of grief to all who depend on you.

I would suggest that Brando didn't change at heart after his twenties, which Stix argues. On the contrary, Brando just did what he could get away with at all times, and after his great run of early '50s performances he could get away with much more. His career is indeed a tale of great talent often wasted, and it is a cautionary tale about the consequences of narcissism both for others and oneself.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Homnick Does Elder

Reform Club contributor, American Spectator regular, and Jewish World Review columnist Jay Homnick was the featured guest today on the nationally syndicated Larry Elder Show. (Elder happens to be my favorite talker and his flagship station is here in Los Angeles, so it was a great kick to hear Brother Jay as I was driving home.)

The topic was Jay's recent AmSpec piece, where he reveals his eyewitness testimony about how Senator Chuck Schumer got his start in the politics biz with his plan to drive blacks out of a section of Brooklyn. After a 30-year silence, Jay says he decided to speak out only after Sen. Schumer's recent attempt to connect Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito with racist sentiments.

If Alito's casual membership in a group in 1972, whose magazine said some untoward things calls into question his fitness for the court, what does that say about Chuck Schumer, the mastermind of a political plot against blacks in 1974, and his fitness for the U.S. Senate?

We may never know. Elder found it remarkable (but par for the course) that so far, there has been zero interest in Jay's testimony (aside from a feeler from a cable opinion show and Elder's people themselves) from the American press. That is perhaps the most interesting angle: when Bob Livingston went after Clinton on adultery, it wasn't his own dirty laundry, but really his hypocrisy that cost him not only the Speakership of the House, but his entire congressional career.

Now, that was fair, I think. Whither Chuck Schumer? Surely in this day and age, active racism is more egregious than merely diddling the help or doing blow. Where is Katie Couric?

Jay was great, of course, and got in a line that broke the host up (and a subsequent caller)---that now that she's so tough on Iran, the other senator from New York, one Hillary Clinton, shall henceforth be known as The Battleaxis of Evil.

Elder States Man

This is a heads-up for Clubbers. I'll be on the Larry Elder Show on KABC in Los Angeles at 8:05 Eastern time.

It streams over the Internet at

Kids' Stuff

It seems that the most logical and commonsensical movies these days are those directed at children. Increasingly, moreover, kids' films are also among the most insightful into social realities. The Incredibles, for example, comically places litigiousness and a concern for individual responsibility at the center of its story. Sky High observes how the American education system suppresses children's natural creativity and ambition. The two Shrek films are full of satirical jabs at modern society.

It should be little surprise, then, that the new film Hoodwinked, based on the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, actually deals with issues such as intellectual property and piracy. In this cheeky version of the story, Granny has a snack-food empire that is threatened by an unknown intellectual-property thief who has been stealing recipes from businesses all around the forest. Beginning with an incident at Granny's house—where Red is menaced by the Wolf, disguised as Granny, when the lumberjack bursts in and all are carted off to the police station so that the authorities can set things straight—the film moves on to a Rashomon-style investingation in which each of the various characters involved in the central events gives their version of the story.

Comical allusions abound in the subsequent flashbacks that look at the central events and place them in context, as is appropriate for a film dealing with intellectual property theft. We see references to Star Wars movies, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Mission Impossible, The Matrix (all too inevitably, alas), and much more.

The use of a Rashomon-style narrative form, however, does not induce any doubts about the human search for truth, as it does in Kurosawa's film. The makers of Hoodwinked treat the central story as a puzzle-style mystery, with the investigation being led by a suave detective, a long-legged frog named Nick Flippers, based on Nick Charles of the Thin Man novel and movies. As a result, the effect of the film is exactly opposite that of Rashomon, for in Hoodwinked everything has a cause and it is indeed possible for humans to know the truth.

Naturally, everything turns out well at the end. The thief is identified and taken into custody, Granny has been revealed as a swinging elderly babe, Red is given a chance to throw off the chains of her all-work-and-no-play lifestyle, and the forest's economy is able to get back to normal. On the whole, an interesting and surprisingly mature treatment of the issues.

Would that we could say the same about movies aimed at adults these days. For those who are sick of watching sensitive men moon over distant, emotionally disturbed women, or hikers tortured and killed by strangers in the wilderness, or young adults out on benders and venery hunts, or modern-day cowboys whose love dare not speak its name, or tendentious dramas about the evils of corporate America, or repressed individuals who throw off the shackles of conventionality and learn to follow their impulses—or much of the rest of the wonderfully mature and sophisticated movie fare of our time—today's movies aimed toward children may be just the thing.

Judging by their output, it appears that today's Hollywood believes that true maturity, intelligence, and decency are kids' stuff. Apparently they have studied their Jean Jacques Rousseau well but not wisely.

Superb Analysis of GM's Troubles

Over at my much beloved American Spectator, automotive columnist Eric Peters has an excellent analysis of what is troubling GM. He suggests that the company makes too many models in too great a variety, particularly given the company's market share.

I think he's right, at least in part. There are other reasons. I've become a Honda man all the way. So is everybody in my family. We are the type of people who would typically buy American, but the quality issue drove us over to Honda.

I still remember my first car, a 1980 Ford Mustang Ghia (everybody asks what Ghia means -- I don't know, like GT, I guess). That car looked good, had decent power, but just felt kind of loose and lazy in an undefinable way. The best way to describe it is to say that when I got my next car, a 1986 Honda Accord, I could immediately feel miles of difference in the quality, responsiveness, tightness, solidity, etc. of the car. It was just better. I moved on to my grandfather's Caprice Classic (can't recall the year, but still boxy). It drove like a sofa on wheels. Comfy, but didn't feel as good as the Honda.

The conviction settled in my mind, deservedly or not, that the Japanese imports really were better cars.

It is my suspicion that millions of Americans had the same experience in the 80's and early 90's and made the same long term call.

When in the market for a car a few years ago, I test drove a Ford Ranger. I was shocked by how solid and tight it felt. It felt like quality. It felt like a Japanese import. I didn't buy it because I still didn't trust the car to last like a Honda. Reading Eric Peters' article, I think it is possible that the American cars are much better made today.

The bottom line is that I suspect that general queasy feeling about American cars is just as much to blame for GM's troubles as Eric Peters' thesis about an excessive diversity of models.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Thread for Comments on Munich Review

I haven't been able to post a comment to S.T. Karnick's Munich review below, so I figure others might be having the same problem. Consider this a thread for posting comments on the film and/or Karnick's review.

For my part, I find myself encouraged by the review. I have been avoiding the film because of exactly the conservative critiques Karnick mentions. I'm glad to hear there is no such obvious agenda at work. When I queried my parents about the film, they likewise disavowed the presence of any moral equivocating between the Israelis and the terrorists in the story.

As usual, the quality of the review is excellent. They don't call him the world's greatest living . . . or perhaps I should say, I don't call him the world's greatest living film critic in the English language™ for nothing.

Bare Bones Reporting

What is the process, one is led to wonder, that editors employ to determine which stories run with pictures and which run without photographic accompaniment?

A mystery, one suspects, better left for the ages. (The underage, perhaps.)

Spielberg's Munich Mistakes

Conservatives have written very critically about Steven Speilberg's Munich, saying that the film essentially posits moral equivalency between the terrorists who arranged the kidnapping and eventual killing of innocent Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games and the agents whom the Israeli government set on the trail to kill the organizers of the atrocity. Spielberg's public statements support the notion that he sees a connection between the events of the film and U.S. involvement in Iraq, and does not approve of the latter.

Upon viewing the film, however, I think that these critics are wrong and that the film is not an allegory for the Iraq War, Spielberg's public statements notwithstanding. Furthermore, I do not believe that Spielberg intended any moral equivalency between the two sides, but instead that he was simply exploring the questions and letting the viewers come to their own conclusions. As a spectator, there was no doubt in my mind that the Israelis were right in what they were doing. Others will undoubtedly draw other conclusions, but I think everyone would judge the situation based on the beliefs about justice, retribution, etc., that they held upon entering the theater. I think it entirely absurd to believe that Spielberg's film would change a person's fundamental thoughts on such matters.

However, I do think that Spielberg was wrong to do the film this way—for dramatic and aesthetic reasons. Throughout the film, we repeatedly see the Israeli agents agonizing over the morality of their task, and discussing it in anguished terms. This is silly. Those who took the job must have had some qualms about it, to be sure, but they must also have known that what they were doing was essential. Nothing is accomplished, in dramatic terms, in their discussing it further, especially on the childlike level that the screenwriters handle it in the present case. Once the agents set out on their path, the only real moral drama is in their attempt to get the job done without endangering innocents. Spielberg includes some of that, but it is overwhelmed by the overall moral-rightness question.

This is particularly damaging to the film's effect because Speilberg and his writers, in what can be seen as deference to the overwhelming importance of these issues, fail to create interesting characters. (Papa, played by Michel Lonsdale, is the only character in the film who is capable of surprising us, which is the most important indicator of whether a character is real or just a cardboard cutout.) A filmmaker captivated by issues cannot exercise the artistic freedom necessary to create real characters and real drama. In addition, the central story—the hunt for the terrorists and schemes to kill them—is the sort of heist-film material that absolutely requires quirky characters because the story elements are so predictable.

One can imagine, then, how compelling this film would have been if it had been directed by a more intelligent, sophisticated filmmaker such as Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) or Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, etc.). Both of these directors were masters of the art of making stock characters into full-bodied, complex, interesting people, as the films mentioned here exemplify. One could easily see, for example, the Israeli bombmaker in Munich as being much more interesting if his relationship with the group leader, Avner, were more like that of John Chance (John Wayne) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan) in Rio Bravo, with the bombmaker complaining, "First you say I didn't use enough explosives, now you say I use too much! Nobody can ever please you. That's it—I'm going back to Israel!" Likewise with the intellectual guy, the easygoing blonde chap, and the other stereotypical characters at the center of the film. And that is especially true of Avner, whose home life, pregnant wife, and descent into paranoia do nothing to distinguish him in our minds as a unique individual.

A contemporary example of the approach I am suggesting is in the television program NCIS, in which characters dealing with disastrous situations—such as the potential hijacking of a train full of spent nuclear fuel rods that could be turned into a giant "dirty" bomb—have quirky personalities that affect how they act, and which make us like them and feel even more intensely the desire for them to succeed.

If Speilberg did not want his audience to pull for his characters to succeed, then he should have chosen another subject, because this kind of film—a "characters on a task" story—absolutely requires audience sympathy for the central characters. We need not approve of everything the central characters do, or even approve of the task they have set out to accomplish (as in heist movies, in which the characters are setting out to steal other people's property), but we must at least have some reason to identify with them and sympathize with them. Spielberg gives us very little of that in Munich.

More interesting characterizations would not have made Spielberg's film less serious; it would make it more compelling for us, as we could more easily see the characters as real people, identify with them, and care about what happens to them. The failure to fulfill his aesthetic obligations, not political ones, is Spielberg's real mistake in Munich.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lost but Well-founded

Somewhat overlooked in the sad tale of the dozen miners was the truly heroic - some would say saintly - character of their dying moments, as reflected in the notes they penned. Their thoughts were only to assuage the fears and pain of their families. The scene was redolent of Balaam's pronouncement: "May my spirit die the death of the righteous..." (Numbers 23:10)

Over at The American Spectator, I composed a brief paean to their lives and deaths.

Herewith the merest foretaste:

"Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor."

This was a very solid group of men; we need to mourn them and learn to appreciate more those that remain. They work hard and are not wont to complain. Nor do they come home and spew a gospel of resentment. Instead, they live a friendly small-town existence with strong religious affiliation: no atheists in that foxhole. Look at the beautiful letters that they left their families when they sensed that death was near. No bitterness, no complaint, just love and reassurance to parents, spouses and children. What does it tell you about the character of a person when his primary concern in his dying moments is to mollify his loved ones with the image of him passing painlessly?

Rest in peace.

Big Time Student Athletes

For years the NCAA (National College Athletic Association) has been making excuses for the appalling graduation rate of Division I athletes. According to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), only 62 percent of athletes earn a degree. The NCAA recently disputed this figure, slightly. Whose figure is correct? Who cares? Both are awful.

The truth of the matter is that Division I athletes are generally engaged in gut courses and fail to meet even modest academic standards. Weight lifting, basket weaving and “communications” majors are hardly the basis of a liberal education. As B. David Ridpath, assistant professor of sports administration at Mississippi State University, bluntly says, “It’s too easy for colleges to water down their curriculums and let athletes take easy majors.”

Basketball programs had the worst graduation rate of any sport, with just 58 percent of players earning degrees within six years. At some colleges, only a tiny fraction of enrolled basketball players graduate, no matter how puny the academic requirements. Many of these athletes should not be in college at all. Far too many are there only to play basketball. In fact, student-athlete is an oxymoron. College means little more to many than the minor league from which they hope to land a pro offer. Yet only a very few “student-athletes” end up with one.

Graduation rates for Division I football players do not fare much better. Of the 56 Division I-A teams competing in bowl games this year, eleven had graduation rates below 50 percent. The University of Texas, whose football team went to the Rose Bowl and won the national collegiate championship, had a graduation rate of 31 percent according to DOE--40 percent according to the NCAA.

R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University and vice chairman of the Knight Commission admits that, “Far too many schools are reaping financial rewards for post season play, while they’re failing to graduate the athletes who have enabled their success on the field.” What he’s really saying is that administrators tolerates the educational travesty because of the money successful basketball and football programs bring.

There is some hopeful news: Eight out of the 17 men’s sports had graduation scores of over 80 percent. Lacrosse led the way with 89 percent of its players graduating. But no one would confuse lacrosse with big time football or March Madness.

The two sports that generate the greatest revenue and alumni zeal, football and basketball, are in a class by themselves. Coaches earning seven figure salaries are naturally far more interested in the ability of a kid to hit a three point shot or run the “50” in 4.3 seconds than whether they can do calculus. In Tempe, Arizona during the recent Fiesta Bowl, I was amazed at how many Notre Dame and Ohio State alumni traveled long distances to see their teams play. At least 100,000 fans jammed into Sun Devil stadium. There were parties all over town; the restaurants and bars were filled to capacity. The money and alcohol flowed.

The kids on the field were filled with emotion. But when the curtain comes down on college athletics, how many of them will end up in the pros? How many will be prepared for the next chapter in their lives? How many will have the skills of even the most rudimentary college education?

Alumni fans might think a little about this, the next time they pump their fists for the home team.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Bush Hit List

Well, say it three times fast.

We at The Reform Club occasionally promote worthy riffs from our commenters to the main board, and in this case, I'd like to promote our own Jay D. Homnick's complaints about our current White House Occupant to give 'em their own air:

1) Blew the relationship with Senator Jeffords and cost the Republicans a Senate majority for two years.

2) Left the same stupid wet-foot Cuba policy where refugees are repatriated if they don't make it to shore.

3) Has completely ignored the immigration problem; in fact, he has actually made the border patrols weaker. This is bad government and bad politics, not to mention dangerous.

4) Has continued a completely hypocritical policy of saying that the U.S. must never negotiate with terrorists while insisting that Israel must kowtow to terrorists and accede to their demands.

5) Has shown an almost comical level of disengagement from, if not downright ignorance of, the political situation in South and Central America, which is becoming more dangerous to the United States with each passing day.

6) Has not really made a move (not that Clinton did either) to limit our dependency on oil or to improve the terms under which we acquire it.

7) Has not had the courage to fight environmentalists over their stranglehold on the building of new oil refineries.

8) Has not figured out approaches to getting the middle-of-the-road person in America to see him as a "uniter, not a divider".

I'll add not vetoing anything, like the heinous McCain-Feingold, and after drilling in ANWR was scotched, not figuring out how to make fuel out of caribou. Additions encouraged. (For maximum effect, keep 'em Homnick-short.)

A Very Gory Opportunism

Ex-everything (senator, vice president, sane person) Al Gore seized the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King Day to excoriate the Bush administration by comparing its wiretapping of terrorist phone calls to the government's spying on MLK's personal life in the '60s.

Mr. Gore forgot to mention it was not a power-mad fascist Republican, but modern lefty saint Bobby Kennedy who authorized it.

Must have been an oversight.

Source Material Addendum:
"At the outset, let me emphasize two very important points. First, the Department of Justice believes, and the case law supports, that the President has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes and that the President may, as has been done, delegate this authority to the Attorney General."---Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick, July 14, 1994


(Mr. Gore must have been out sick that day.)


This Niall Ferguson essay - essentially arguing that a failure to pre-empt Iran's nuclear ambitions will set the stage for a nuclear war in the near future - is both well-done and frighteningly plausible.

But it's worth remembering that there has never been real war between nuclear powers. The closest we've come to is the occasional shelling and raiding between Pakistan and India. (Hmmm....maybe China and the USSR, but I'm not sure China had nukes then or at least not more than a few). In any case, here's what seems to me a much more likely scenario:

The US draws down its forces in Iraq, beginning in 2006 and substantially completed by 2008. (Either we will be successful and will be able to draw down or the continuing instability will be exploited by the Kos wing of the Democratic Party to gain electoral success and force the withdrawal). If Iran's nukes are not pre-empted (and is there anyone who doesn't think the Iranians are trying to develop nuclear weapons?), then the Iranians will have achieved a strategic standoff with Israel. But I think they're still unlikely to initiate a nuclear exchange with Israel, simply because the Israelis have enough nukes to obliterate Iran (and, most importantly, its leadership). Rather, Iran will use the nukes as a way of making itself invulnerable to American and Israeli pressure and will then seek to establish itself as the *the* power in the Middle East. This means, first of all, exporting its Islamism to Iraq and Afghanistan, undermining their relatively pro-American regimes. Second, it means undermining the secular regimes in Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia and attempting to establish a pan-Islamic confederation that both controls a significant portion of the world's oil supplies and, with Iranian and Pakistani nukes, remains relatively invulnerable to international pressure. (The Europeans can't impose sanctions because they are too dependent on the oil and the US will be unable to move against the Iranians because the Europeans - and perhaps the Israelis - will not want to risk the obliteration of one of their cities).

What the nuclear arming of Iran threatens is not a hot war ala WWII, but another Cold War where a radical ideology backed up by the gun takes over a strategically crucial part of the world. Israel might end up as a new West Berlin, hemmed in by its enemies. Not a happy scenario.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

NFL Playoff Observations

I'll do like Rush and mix in a little NFL commentary with the politics.

(However, I'll avoid making a controversy out of the actual non-controversy that is the black quarterback. For the record, I think Donovan McNabb is outrageously good. On the other hand, I'm quite annoyed with Daunte Culpepper, my first round fantasy pick who sunk me completely this year.)

Here we go:

1. Denver running backs are less and less likely to get big free agent dollars to go elsewhere. Shanahan knows how to make RB's look good. He is better at coaching the run than anyone else in the league. That team simply does not need high draft pick RB talent to succeed.

2. Rex Grossman of the Chicago Bears has the palest skin I've ever seen on any player in the National Football League. He is even more pale than "Whitey" Sven Ivory, the former albino third string safety for those great Vikings teams of the 70's. The man borders on being gray. He may actually have the proverbial ice water in his veins which would explain the pallor.

3. Indianapolis deserved to lose their game. This was not the same squad we've watched dominate virtually without effort.

I think this is a case of a team that needed more adversity on the field and less off the field. There is no way Tony Dungy (clearly an NFL supercoach) could have continued in the same vein of stupendous success after his son's death. When Peyton Manning waived off Dungy's punt squad late in the third quarter, you could see a legend just ready to be born as the QB took over for his beleaguered skipper. Unfortunately for the Colts, the transformation was too late in coming. Had Manning taken the reins a bit earlier his team might have had a chance.

By the way, for the record, Troy Polamalu DID intercept that Manning pass late in the fourth quarter. It will be a permanent mystery as to how an experienced NFL referee could botch a call so badly. Luckily for the NFL and everyone involved, the Steelers won anyway which left the mistake moot.

4. The Carolina Panthers are absolutely legit. Anybody that can score that many points and drive the ball so effectively against an unreal Bears defense is destined for the Superbowl. I'm going out on a limb to predict the Panthers beat the Seahawks in a close one to go to Detroit.

5. The Steelers are going to beat the Broncos. Both teams play a similar style, but the Steelers are cresting at just the right time. The pieces are all in place. Roethlisberger gets to be Tom Brady this time. The Steelers defense will pick Jake Plummer off and score points in the victory.

6. I've learned to dislike Tom Brady. He always struck me as a winner, but this year the ugly side of the overcompetitive player came out in the QB. He complained too much about being written off at mid-season and spent too much time whining about not getting calls during the Denver game on Saturday. Hopefully, a spell of not being the champion will be good for him and restore Brady to class-act status.

7. Michael Vick is overrated. He is overrated. He is overrated. The man is the most elusive open field runner in the history of the game this side of Barry Sanders, but he is not a good enough passer. As a Falcons fan, I don't want to see him shoved into a pocket passer mold, but it would at least be nice to see Atlanta become a little more hospitable to free agent wide receivers. Right now the Peach City is the place where WR's go to watch their dreams die.

8. My crystal ball is cracked on Brett Favre. I could see him coming back for a couple of great years to quiet the critics, but I fell in love with his gutsy play years ago and am incapable of being objective.

Things that Don't Mix: Horror Flicks and Kiddies

I've been kind of keeping this to myself, but DP of Rock, Paper, Dynamite and Thomas Hibbs of NRO have rekindled the flicker of a particular thought in my brain.

As he discusses the horror film Hostel, currently a low budget hit eclipsing older releases Narnia and King Kong, Hibbs noted a distressing phenomenon:

Yet, the most depressing and horrifying thing about these sorts of films is, alas, not the explicit gore. It is the fact that at nearly every screening of a gruesome horror film I attend (from Massachusetts to Texas), I see parents in the audience with young children. That strikes me as a serious form of child abuse and a more convincing sign of the impending apocalypse than anything depicted on the screen.

I had the same thought a few years back when I went to see Blade 2 with Wesley Snipes. I was shocked to see several small children in the theatre who had been brought by their "parents" who were engaging in their own mysterious version of "parenting." It wasn't quite Kill Bill, but the film had graphic portrayals of bodily mutilation that took tatooing several steps up the cruelty scale and mass murder with blood hosing everywhere.

I don't need to see a study to know that the children exposed to this kind of film will become insensitive to violence, killing, etc. To use a more biblical expression, I'd say it hardens hearts. My own experience bears this out. As a teenager, my friends and I took advantage of the combination of video rental privileges and driver's licenses to rent every horrible thing we could get our hands on. The more a film pushed the border of tastelessness, violence, and sexual priggishness, the more likely we were to give it a viewing. I particularly recall a film that portrayed graphic serial rape of a woman caught in the wilderness Deliverance-style by a group of bad men. The first time I saw it I was shocked and shaken. The fourth time I was laughing.

After years of exercising more personal vigilance in my viewing choices, I've managed to recover my sense of shock at the depiction of outrageous behavior onscreen. I can only imagine how warped an individual's sensibilities can become after dulling the edge of the conscience on reels and reels of bloody, sex and violence-drenched celluloid (or digital media), particularly when the process begins with non-parenting parents initiating their toddlers into onscreen bloodsport.

This damage to the mind's facility for perceiving moral distinctions is the basic problem with total liberation of entertainment from social constraints. All the barrier-busting and fun-poking at stuffy taboo protectors leads to an arena with no-holds barred. What demons will wrestle in the virtual stadiums of the future? I'm not at all sure we want to know.