"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Culture and Population

The eminent poet and philosopher Frederick Turner provides some big-picture, civilization-level cultural commentary in an excellent article in TCS Daily today, thinking about why some societies die out and others manage to hang on or even thrive.

Turner's thesis: that people who have a sense of life beyond themselves tend to have children and build for a future they will probably not live to share. After demonstrating that birth rates, not environmental or social catastrophes, best explain population declines such as those of ancient Rome and contemporary Europe, Turner writes,

If we eliminate all external causes for population collapse, what is left is people's own reproductive choices. The reason people stop replacing themselves is, I would argue, cultural.

What, basically, persuades people not to have babies even when they have the political, social and economic stability to do so? Among the eras and nations where this phenomenon occurs or occurred one basic characteristic stands out: the loss of a transcendent future. What I mean by "transcendent" is some ideal or love or hope or faith that rises above the interests of the self, the practicalities of expected income, the security of predictable outcomes, and the lifetime of the individual. What I mean by "future" is that it is an ideal, love, hope, or faith that extends beyond the present and is not satisfied with an instantaneous and eternal reward in the now.

Religion is the way that humans attempt to put into language, stories, art and ritual their guesses about such things. As a species whose major and unique specialization is language, we are meaning-seeking beings, and when the buck of meaning has been passed around the various contents of the world about us, it ends up usually in the plate of religion. One hypothesis about demographic collapse that might be worth checking out is that it happens when a nation loses its religion.

Turner points out that human beings spend on religion an astonishing amount of time and energy that could be devoted to more direct pleasures:

[W]e might well choose the long golden afternoon of a culture in which the pleasures of food, gardening, education, lovemaking, sports, hobbies, art, fashion, and conversation would conduct us sweetly to a drugged and painless ending. We would be experts in enjoying the moment to the full. We could choose our sexual lifestyle. We would be living in a culture in which the opportunities, perspectives and pleasures of the two sexes would be fully shared and virtually indistinguishable. We might be as happy as any being can be that has a built-in dissatisfaction with the accustomed.

"Trevelyan at Casalunga", Marcus Stone illustration for He Knew He Was Right, Chapter 84Yet we don't do that—not here in America, that is, or at least not most of us. Although birth rates of native-born Americans are lower than in the past, they are still much above those of Europe and other developed nations such as Russia and Japan, which are well into population shrinkage that will increase in pace over the coming decades—to be replaced, it seems likely, by immigrants from poorer nations with faster birth rates (although it is important to note that birth rates in poorer nations are decreasing rapidly as well). Turner contrasts the two attitudes and their likely future in the final words of his article:

I believe that it is possible to have a high and reflective civilization whose transcendent love, faith and hope burn as hotly as that of the mullahs, and in which one can still hear the lovely din of a schoolyard at recess. But if I were still a European, as I once was, and not an American, as I now am, I might not be so sure.

As the immensely wealthy Louis Trevelyan says in Chapter 92 of Anthony Trollope's novel He Knew He Was Right, "The world must be populated, though for what reason one does not see." That is the European mind today, and that of the Russian, the Japanese, the Canadian, and nearly all the world's wealthy nations.

Turner is right. As long as we retain our belief in a transcendent order, we will continue to thrive. If we ever lose that, we risk ultimately losing everything.

And that is why the culture is so bloody important.

From Karnick on Culture.

A Program I Will Never See....

As I've pointed out before, in the Omniculture, everything happens. A particularly vivid current proof of that is the Fuse Network television program Pants-Off Dance-Off, "the only naked dancing game show on television," as Fuse describes it. The content is exactly what you might expect, given the title: "ordinary" people strip off their clothes, to the accompaniment of rock music, before the hungry cameras of an obscure music video channel. The participants are nonprofessional, and their naughty bits are tastefully covered with video "towels" when the ecdysiasm is complete

The venture doesn't sound particularly constructive or even interesting, but the reality is that whatever one might choose to put on TV or the net, somebody will watch. Of course, a good sophist could make the case that a program like Pants-Off Dance-Off does good by breaking down unfair socially constructed ideas of beauty, but a good sophist can make a case for anything. The fact remains that in the Omniculture, everything is permitted, but not everything is good.

From Karnick on Culture.

Cease Fire: It's National Brotherhood Week

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

---Tom Lehrer, "National Brotherhood Week," c. 1964

Re the current unpleasantness in the Middle East, I see everybody in the world except Israel wants a truce, a cease-fire. War is so danged messy. Can't we all get along?

But no talk of peace, is there? No one offering it, no one suing for it. Because when you want peace with Israel, you tend to get it. (You could ask Egypt and Jordan.) Cease-fires are for suckers, let's face it. Israel is Charlie Brown, the Arab/Muslim world is Lucy with the football. Land for peace? Peace for peace? War for peace?

Doesn't matter. No peace.

Modern Israel (post-1948, that is) for perhaps the first time in its history is without a strong leader, righteous peacenik or dirty warrior. Its people, on their own now, left, right and center, have come to the conclusion after 2000 years or so of nonstop persecution, mere survival can be the Jewish people's only realistic goal.

Today's Jews and their grandparents, fathers and mothers learned during the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler that non-Jews will never really protect them. To fast forward to the present day, there are/were "peacekeepers" in Lebanon per UN Resolution 1559, and Hizbollah brought in their rockets anyway.

Even in 1983, during the Reagan administration, after Hizbollah blew up 241 American servicemen who were in Beirut to get Israel's back, we, the US, fled immediately. The Jews, as they always have been, were on their own.

And neither will the "moral high ground" or the good will of "world opinion" help Israel a whit, because it hasn't at any time in their history.

Leaving the moral tut-tutting that the luxury of our living rooms affords us (living rooms on which no missiles are presently falling), the morality of the real world is that you don't let your children die while you fish for a diplomatic solution. Israel is quite aware of the morality of a comfortable chair thousands of miles away. But they are unwilling to sacrifice their children to it.

Nor is it reasonable to expect them to do so. This isn't about your morality, and it's not about mine. It's simply human nature to protect one's own, and any attempt at moral calculus that doesn't accomodate human nature is useless abstraction. Israel simply doesn't care what everybody else thinks, and I for one cannot blame them.

Because everybody hates the Jews. You could look it up. We all do what we must, and what we must do first is survive, and especially ensure the survival of our children. Anyone who doesn't understand that knows nothing of human beings.

Abraham was asked by his G-d to sacrifice his child Isaac to Him. The difference in understanding between the Torah and Hizbollah, militant Islam, etc., is that Abraham's G-d, in Genesis, duly appreciated the offer, but didn't accept it.

Because that would be inhuman. Sacrificing your own life and sacrificing your child's are two very, very different things.

Oil's Well That Ends Well

When I left government service to join Fred Smith's free market merry pranksters at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, my first assignment was an analysis of the costs and benefits of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration and development.

The benefits were obvious then. The costs were either overblown or fictitious. That was 1989. ANWR is still closed.

This morning I wake up to the news that BP Amoco is taking Prudhoe Bay offline in the wake of a small spill and concern about corroding pipeline. The shutdown takes 400,000 barrels per day out of production. The markets respond with a 3% price rise in a matter of hours. Energy is already talking about tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Now I'm not complaining about the market reaction. That's what markets are supposed to do, and when an event is such a surprise that it can't be priced into the market gradually, then spikes are the natural result.

What I can't reconcile with today's events are the arguments we've been fed over the past 17 years that opening ANWR would have no meaningful effect on supply or price. We've been told, over and over, that ANWR would only produce six months supply at current consumption levels, or reduce our reliance on imports by a few percent.

Yet the lower limit projection for ANWR production is 650,000 barrels per day, more than 50% higher than today's Prudhoe Bay disruption. The mean projection is about twice that. And we're supposed to believe, simultaneously, that when Prudhoe Bay shuts down the effect is so extreme that we need to tap the SPR, and if ANWR were online our energy markets would be unchanged?

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Disaster or Not?

Dean Barnett, blogging over at Hugh Hewitt's new site, suggests that the idea that a Lamont victory over Sen. Joe Lieberman would be a disaster for the Democratic Party is nonsense. In one sense, I'm inclined to agree. Even to the degree that Lamont beats Lieberman and thus emboldens the peacenik side of the party [for lack of a better word], it's not clear what will change all that much. The Dems' 2004 Presidential nominee has already thrown his hat in with that side of things (though no doubt he has a few spares to throw in other directions should the political winds reverse) and of the prominent Democrat politicians (as opposed to policy advisors) that I can think of, only the Clintons seem to be resisting that trend. I mean, if they get Lieberman, who else are they going after?

On the other hand, it's also hard to see where this might stop. It's true that Lamont's candidacy is buoyed mostly by Lieberman's support of the Iraq war, but that's not the whole of it. There's also Lieberman's "moderation" on social issues (he at least seems troubled by the same things that trouble social conservatives, even if he rarely votes differently than the more liberal members of his caucus), and his willingness (sometimes recanted) to consider things like school vouchers, an end to affirmative action, etc. I just don't know - but read Barnett's post and see what you think.

ABC Family's New Direction

The current catch phrase for the ABC Family Channel is "A New Kind of Family"—a sure indication that the old kind of family channel wasn't making it. The channel has bounced around over the years, having been started by televangelist Pat Robertson in the 1980s. After building it into a solid ratings machine, Robertson sold the channel to Fox. Rupert Murdoch's people clearly had no idea what to do with it, and the station lost both viewers and its identity. Fox then sold it to Disney, which changed the name to ABC Family and created a mix of reruns (lots) and new programming (a little) evidently aimed at teenage girls and their moms in the American heartland. The movies and series had a heavy Eisner-era Disney feel, which is to say simultaneously snarky and smarmy. Not the sort of thing any reasonably sophisticated person would enjoy.

Some Falcon Beach actressThe current approach of the network is to get a little bit more adventurous in terms of program concepts. With Eisner gone, Disney has moved back pretty much exclusively into family fare at the movie studio. ABC Family looks to be going in a slightly different direction. Think of it as the Hallmark Channel with a bit of an edge.

Their self-description is humorously earnest and politically correct:

ABC Family is television for today's families –- connected by birth or by choice, diverse and multicultural, mirroring our changing attitudes and lifestyles. The movies, hits, holidays and originals of ABC Family feature relatable characters and coming-of-age stories, reflected with heart in the comedy and drama of the experiences of today’s families.

Fortunately, the actual programming does not seem to press this already cliched notion of multiculturalism too openly. Falcon Beach, for example, is a rather silly knockoff of the WB's sexy-teenager genre.

Kyle XY promo shotThe new series Kyle XY, by contrast, has an interesting premise reminiscent of Fox's John Doe series of a couple years ago. As in the Fox series, in Kyle XY a young man (in this case an adolescent rather than an adult) suddenly turns up naked and without any memory of his past. In the present case, he joins a typically quirky American TV family, and thus begins the challenge of identifying exactly who and what he is. It's an interesting premise, and the writing and producing do it justice. A few episodes have appeared on ABC Family thus far, and Disney has run the show on the main ABC TV network as well, a wise move that should create more interest in it.

Three Moons Over Milford promo shotPremiering last night was a new program on ABC Family, Three Moons Over Milford. This one has an equally interesting premise: it looks at life in an idyllic small Vermont town after the moon has split into three pieces after being struck by a gigantic meteor.
Scientists have concluded that a big chunk will inevitably strike the earth at some point, destroying all life on the planet with the possible exception of the cockroaches, and that it will probably happen very soon. How people react to this doomsday scenario reminiscent of evangelical interpretations of Bible prophecies is supposed to reveal much about those persons' character.

Elizabeth McGovern is the central character, a once-wealthy mom whose husband has left to pursue his dream of climbing the highest mountain on each continent, and whose inattention to business has driven their corporation to the brink of bankruptcy. In the premiere episode, the daughter of McGovern's character accidentally fulfills every child's dream of buring down the local public school, and a good deal of other plot and character arcs are set in motion. The idea that people will reveal their true selves as death approaches is probably a sound one, and the show seems willing to purse the matter without being overly cute or portentous. A new kind of Family Channel indeed.

From Karnick on Culture.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Fringe Phenomena in the Omniculture

Another hugely successful "fringe" phenomenon (see my Lollapalooza post immediately below) is the Edinburgh Fringe, which Reuters characterizes as "the world's largest and most irreverent arts festival." According to the Reuters story, this "fringe" phenomenon is a big business and highly influential on the culture. The festival's director "said the Fringe has sold about 20 million tickets over the past six decades 'and we hope this year to top the million mark again which we have done for the last three years.' "

Edinburgh Fringe performer

A common theme in this year's program reflects some current concerns, but with a typically quirky approach. As the Reuters story reports, the Edinburgh Fringe

. . . celebrated its 60th birthday on Sunday with religion the big theme being tackled this year by playwrights and comedians.

Fringe performers revel in controversy and 2006 should be no exception with "We Don't Know Shi'ite" about British ignorance of Islam and "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years."

"It is the most amazing barometer of world politics," said The Scotsman newspaper's theater critic Joyce McMillan, reflecting on the Fringe which last year tackled the subject of terrorism head on after the London suicide bombings.

Fringe director Paul Gudgin, overseeing 17,000 performers at the three-week festival of anarchy, said "I find it endlessly fascinating how a thread like this emerges.

"It's either about what is happening with radical Islam or reflects interest and concern over the influence Evangelical Christians seem to be having in the United States," he told Reuters.

The Edinburgh Fringe festival is another of those "fringe" phenomena, like the Lollapalooza Festival, that become part of the mainstream culture and redifine it, as is the way of things in the Omniculture. Another truth about the Omniculture is this:

In the Omniculture, everything happens.

The Edinburgh Festival is a fine example of this principle. As Reuters notes:

Wading through the Fringe program is a stamina test in itself, but picking the quirkiest title of the year can be fun.

Leading contenders are "Afternoon Tea with a Transvestite" and "Sit: The History of the Chair" but it is difficult to top "How To Explain The History of Communism To Mental Patients."

The reality of the Omniculture is this: If something hasn't happened yet, it will.

For a summary of what the Omniculture is all about, click here.

From Karnick on Culture.

Lollapalooza in the Omniculture

The Lollapalooza festival of "alternative" music is drawing huge crowds in Chicago this weekend. Reuters reports:

Thousands of concert-goers, mostly in their 20s, returned to Chicago's lakefront Grant Park on Saturday as the three-day music festival Lollapalooza resumed after drawing more than 50,000 people on Friday night.

Billed as one of the city's largest music events ever, the festival is expected to draw about 150,000 people by the time it ends on Sunday.

I put quotes around the word alternative because the very popularity of the music indicates that it is a mainstream part of the culture, no longer—if it ever was—some sort of fringe phenomenon. Scheduled performers such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, the Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, and Manu Chao are anything but obscue, and 130 music acts in total are scheduled to perform at the festival.

It's a great example of what happens in what I call the Omniculture, where the counterculture continuously becomes the culture. If you want to know what is going to surround you tomorrow in American culture, look at what is on the fringes today.

From Karnick on Culture.

Paris Joins Abstinence Movement

Here's a fascinating tidbit for you. The twenty-five-year-old actress/model/allegedlyunwillingpornstar/crazyrichgirl/humancuriosity Paris Hilton has decided to swear off sexual activity for a year. E! Online reports:

IParis Hiltonn an interview for the September issue of British GQ, the star whose oeuvre includes The Simple Life and One Night in Paris set out to dispel rumors that she's a sure thing when it comes to taking relationships to that next level.

"People think I sleep with everyone, but I'm not like that," Hilton told the magazine. "Kissing is all I do.

"I'm not having sex for a year. I've decided. . . . I'll kiss, but nothing else." . . .

The hotel heiress, who seems to change boyfriends faster than shoes, appears excited about the effect her vow of chastity could have on her personal life. . . . [S]he sounded as if there's some method to her madness--she has thought this one over and knows exactly what she's doing.

"I feel good about it," the 25-year-old told GQ. "I like the way guys so crazy when they can't have sex with you. If he can't have you, he stays interested. The moment he has you, he's gone. Unless he is really in love with you."

She went on to say that, as far as she knows, she only plans to walk down the aisle once and that, when she goes on dates, she prefers to be treated "like a princess."

It's interesting to see a such a prominent and highly . . . experienced young lady decide to become a renewed virgin. It is quite possible that this resolution will last only as long as anything else Miss Hilton has done, but we have to give her credit for thinking about the subject a little. One doubts that it will really strenghten the chastity movement among the nation's young people, but stranger things have happened in this world.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, August 04, 2006

MTV Turns 25, World Continues Turning

Cover art for Video Killed the Radio StarMTV turned 25 this week, and your intrepid correspondent has contributed a few thoughts to a National Review Online symposium on the deeper meaning of it all. Most of the comments in the symposium are fairly light, but there are some interesting facts to be gleaned and ideas to be pondered.

It's certainly interesting to see this group of right-wingers' rather amused and unworried reaction to MTV, widely considered to be a powerful force of cultural change. Perhaps American conservatism is not so conservative after all.

For those interested in additional commentary on the state of popular music, I suggest my post, from earlier this week, on the rise of gloom, doom, and general depressingness in popular music.

In addition, the category entries at the right side of the main page of Karnick on Culture offer full lineups of articles in various subject areas, including quite a few on music.

From Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

How Soon We Forget, or: Never Heard About It in the First Place

It's all here.

The lies. The unsubstantiated justification for war. The bombing the bejesus out of civilians and infrastructure. Shooting old people. Creating more terrorist bastions.

Not Iraq or Lebanon---Kosovo. Clinton. A "good war." Amazing what you can get away with when (D) comes after your name. Another one down the memory hole.

I have a genuine affection for the far (far) left, in this case one John Pilger. Often clueless, always principled.

Mr. Moto Returns

Although 20th Century Fox is not exactly shouting it from the housetops, The Mr. Moto Collection, Vol. 1 is now available on DVD. In the series of Mr. Moto films from the late 1930s, Peter Lorre played the title character, a Japanese secret agent who solves crime mysteries. Lorre was absolutely brilliant in the role of the small, slight, unobtrusive, exceedingly polite master of jiujitsu and deductive logic. The films were made on B-level budgets, but the directors definitely got the most out of the investment. The stories were more action-oriented and hard-edged than most detection series of the time, such as the Charlie Chan films, and they hold up surprisingly well.

Still from Mr. Moto movie

Peter Lorre deserves admiration for his performance as Mr. Moto. Although he was very ill and fighting off the overuse of morphine to combat gall bladder pain, Lorre brought great charm to the character, which was lacking in the Moto novels of J. P. Marquand, on which the series was based. In the books, Moto is something of a mystery himself, as Marquand tells us little about him other than his doings as an agent, and he is always seen from other characters' point of view. Lorre's provision of greater charm and personality to the character worked well with the tone of the series, which was lighter than that of the books and was even sometimes rather tongue-in-cheek.

Mr. Moto DVD collection cover art

As is surely understandable, the series ended in 1939, and Lorre went on to give impressive, memorable performances in films such as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and Arsenic and Old Lace.

The Mr. Moto films are well worth watching and an essential addition to the collection of any fan of classic action mysteries.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Trivial Thought

Most of the discussion that I have seen on the Lamont/Lieberman primary election next week has focused on whether Lieberman in the end will hang on to win. That strikes me as the wrong question.

Suppose that Lieberman indeed does win the Democratic nomination, while Lamont receives, say, 45 percent of the primary vote. To my simpleminded way of thinking, that outcome---probably the worst showing for Lamont now plausible---would or will be a disaster for the Dems. Think about it: Almost half the Democratic electorate will have signed on with Moveon.org and its ilk. How would such an outcome be much better for Hillary and her attempt to straddle the middle than the alternative in which Lamont wins the nomination with, say, 52 percent of the vote? Bill and Hill are not fools: They know that a movement to the left forced by the imperatives of the primary competition for the '08 nomination will be an albatross in the general election.

Does it really matter whether Hillary and the other aspiring POTUSes are forced to pander to "only" 45 percent of the Democratic electorate rather than, say, 52 percent? I rather doubt it.

It seems to me that the rise of the Kos/Moveon/Sheehan/Moore wing of the Democratic Party is a looming monster for '08 Democratic hopes for the White House. And it is a serious political/policy problem as well for the Republicans, who will have more room as a result to avoid standing for principle.

The Fine Art of Thievery

The season-ending episode of Hustle, one of the very best programs currently on television, will be broadcast tonight at 10 p.m. EDT on American Movie Classics. AMC will begin cycling through all 18 episodes of the BBC-AMC co-production again on September 20, so feel free to drop in tongiht and see why I think this program is so good.

Hustle promo art

Hustle has a terrific mid-'60s feel to it, from the animated opening credits to the charming, rougish central characters (including Robert Vaughn of The Man from UNCLE fame) and on to the very concept of the program: a group of English confidence tricksters target deserving bullies and con them, to take away a bit of their money and as much as possible of their arrogance. The plots are tricky, sophisticated, and morally challenging, and they usually include a nice twist or two at the end. The con artists are likeable despite the questionable morality of their enterprise. Consider them to be avenging angels if if makes you feel better.

I'll write more about Hustle later, in particular drawing attention to the tradition of rogue heroes of which it is the latest noble installment. For now, watch and enjoy.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Conventional Wisdom

Violence, we are often told, is not the answer. It never works, and only leads to endless cycles of destruction. OK, that’s the argument from the hyper-pacifists, and [grit teeth] not really representative the mainstream Left. Lest I be accused of setting up straw men, here’s Kevin Drum making the case that conventional war is futile:

I believe that our fight against Islamic jihadism is analogous on a global scale to a counterinsurgency. To use the hoary phrase, we'll succeed by "winning hearts and minds," and conventional warfare just can't do that. In fact, it's mostly counterproductive: it won't succeed in killing the guerrillas and it will lose us the support of the local citizenry, which in turn will make the insurgency even more formidable. Lebanon is serving as a pretty good case study of this right now.

So conventional war is a bit of a drag, assuming you accept the part about it not killing guerrillas. What’s the alternative?

I believe it's fundamentally nonmilitary and revolves around engagement: trade agreements, security pacts, genuine support for grassroots democracy, a willingness to practice the same international rules we preach, etc. The idea is to slowly but steadily promote democratic rule, liberal institutions, education of women, and international commerce...

Well now, that sounds promising. Let’s see if we can put it into practice with a few test cases. Here’s Hussein Massawi, a former Hizbollah leader:

We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.

Not exactly the most inviting opening remarks, but I have every confidence that a Howard Dean would have worked day after day to find some common ground there. Perhaps they could trade notes on battle cry technique. Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!

Let’s move on to Iran. Here’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on nuclear proliferation:

Our answer to those who are angry about Iran achieving the full nuclear fuel cycle is just one phrase. We say: Be angry at us and die of this anger," because "We won't hold talks with anyone about the right of the Iranian nation to enrich uranium.

No doubt John Kerry would have built a coalition (Iraq) to determine that multi-lateral talks (North Korea) don’t work, and then gone on to convey that the he was now for being against the vote in which he might have been against being for Iran’s right to a nuclear program. You know, nuance.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that something gets lost in translation and Hizbollah continues to attack Israel. What then?

When military responses are necessary, they should be short, highly targeted, and designed to piss off the surrounding citizenry as little as possible. This will, needless to say, take a very long time and a lot of self restraint, but it won't succeed at all if every few years we set things back a decade with a conventional war.

Highly targeted sounds good, make ‘em pay a price for their transgressions, right? But what exactly do you target? You’re dealing with people who live for nothing other than the furtherance of their ideology. They literally have nothing to lose. Meanwhile, whose citizenry are you not “pissing off” with this approach anyway? Are Israeli civilians supposed to accept a never-ending stream of rocket attacks, bombs and kidnappings?

As much as we might like to tell ourselves otherwise, there is nothing to entice or compel Hizbollah to halt their attacks other than a shut off from their sponsors or the utter annihilation of their forces. They have calculated that the West is not willing (or maybe even able) to impose either option. Say what you will about these religious fanatics, but they understand the conventional wisdom.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Castro On the Ropes

During its dictator days, everybody around the Caribbean Rim called a rum & coke a Cuba Libre, a "free Cuba." A toast, a bit of a hope and a prayer.

After the Castro revolution toppled the dictator du jour, in Miami Cuban refugees from Castro sardonically ordered a mentira. "Lie." It has been 47 years since the first mentira was ordered.

Free men everywhere, and those who wish the blessings of liberty and thereby prosperity for others, wish Fidel Castro a speedy reunion with his Creator. We would not want to see him suffer, or not nearly as much as he has made others suffer. Free men are a bit hardheaded when it comes to freedom, but not spiteful.

Fidel, at age 80, has been rushed into surgery and has given the reins and whips of state to his designated successor, brother Raul. Temporarily, but we hope not.

The obscenity and nightmare that is communism is almost over. It was conceived by Marx and Engels way back in 1848, believe it or not, and then took over 50 years to enter reality as the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. About seventy years later, the Soviet Union at last requested the needle, to put itself out of its self-inflicted misery.

I went to school and lived for awhile in Miami, to where the best and brightest (and admittedly privileged) of Cuba fled after his revolution. They started again with nothing or next to it, and turned a backwater vacation spot into one of America's major cities.

But the most extraordinary people I met there were those who escaped by hook, crook or by raft in the decades after the din of rebellion faded. Osvaldo learned to cook pizza, saved enough to open his own shop, and fed me most every day right after I got out of college. It was damn good pizza.

If you met him on the street, or at a cocktail party, where he'd probably be serving the fare instead of sharing it with you, you'd think him quite an ordinary man. Osvaldo was anything but, and achieved far more than I, and likely you, ever will.

I think perhaps he and many others will leave Miami for their homeland when the time is right, and help build the New Cuba.

And I think it'll turn out to be a good place. A very good place.

Perhaps soon we'll be ordering Cubas Libres again. In fact, I think I'll mix me one up now, in anticipation of the occasion. Godspeed, Fidel. Emphasis on the speed part.

Religion in a Sitcom

Sunny in Philly promo shotThose who complain that Hollywood seldom depicts religion as a normal and good part of films' and TV's central characters' lives are correct that the incidence is much lower in the media than in society as a whole. This is another reminder that it's important to be careful what you pray for. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which runs Thursday nights on the FX Channel at 10 EDT and is available on ITunes, follows the lives of four post-college slackers who run an Irish bar in the title city, and religion, specifically Christianity and more specifically Catholicism, keeps popping up in the characters' lives. The overall tone of the show is fairly spicy, and the humor is both funny and often deliberately edgy, but the treatment of religion is pretty realistic given the characters' situation. It is also both irreverent and basically positive.

The religion the principal characters were taught as a child in working-class Philly often comes up in conversation as they discuss, for example, some of their more shameless schemes. In addition, situations and characters with religious significance arrive on a regular basis. Last Thursday such a character arrived in the form of a priest who had served as the butt of the gang's practical jokes during childhood and adolescence. He provides a conscience figure in response to another of the gang's awful schemes, and then provides a further lesson as one of the group, a young lady on whom he once had a crush, brings disaster on him.

The episode concerns a scheme by the group to make money from donations by Christians after a water stain shaped like the Virgin Mary is discovered in a back room of their bar. Both the scheme and the situation go rapidly downhill from there, and it is all very funny. Yet the wrongness of their quest is never in doubt, and one character's religious qualms about the scheme keeps the story firmly grounded.

In this zany, backhanded way, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia depicts Christianity in a basically positive way even as it plays mercilessly with its conventions and surfaces.

And as I said, it's definitely funny, as when would-be conman Charlie, pretending to be an evangelist, addresses a small group of pilgrims sitting in the bar:

"Here's a confession: I'm in love with a man. What? I'm in love with a man. A man called God. Does that make me gay? Am I gay for God? You betcha!"

Funny stuff.

From Karnick on Culture.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Miami Vice Blues

The way to make a great genre film is not to try to "transcend the genre," as is the temptation for so many ambitious filmmakers. On the contrary, the way to make a great genre film is to make a genre film and just bring great creativity and insight to it. That's what makes Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo one of the greatest Westerns of all. Hawks's film does what Westerns do, but it does it better than the others. Hawks doesn't try to add extra significance to the story, but it takes on great meaning because of the superb plotting, excellent characterizations, and surehanded visual presentation. The same is true of Hitchcock's best thrillers, Ernst Lubitsch's greatest comedies, and Frank Borzage's most moving dramas. They're great because each embodies its form at its best.

Miami Vice stillWould that Michael Mann had been content to do likewise with his film version of his 1980s cop show Miami Vice, now playing in theaters. In great contrast to the TV show, which was both serious and fun, the film version is extremely serious, and not fun at all. In fact, it's really rather boring. Most of the film is shot in near-darkness, as is the fashion with cop films lately, under the extremely mistaken impression that gloomy visuals will somehow impart significance to the wooden actors scowling at us.

The story is exceedingly simple, yet the film takes well over two hours to play out, as Mann drags out scenes in an evident attempt to force the viewer to ponder the significance of the situation. This is a mistake because the significance is already there, in that the cops are trying to stop drug pushers who kill lots of people and sell addictive drugs to poor slobs who would otherwise be entirely free of the need for them. That is significance enough, and we don't require any further reasons to care. In addition, while we're sitting through these long scenes, the characters confront very few truly difficult moral choices, and it is obvious what the characters will decide to do, well in advance of their actually doing so.

The greatest weakness of the film is precisely in the area where these more ambitious efforts are always claimed to be superior to more ordinary efforts in the field: characterization. The Crockett and Tubbs of the TV series had a few standard effects they would do, but there was some variety to them. There were occasional laughs in the show, for example, and the two lead characters seemed to have fun driving the fastest cars, riding the sleekest speedboats, wearing the coolest clothes, and pursuing the most beautiful women.

The program was a great example of the Swingin' Heroes style of crime program. Miami Vice was more serious in intent than Hart to Hart, for example, but the effect was the same: they made doing good look really cool. Crockett and Tubbs looked cool, acted cool, and were cool, and it seemed as if it would be fun to be them, as long as you didn't get killed or get tortured too often or lose too many loved ones.

In the Miami Vice film, by contrast, the two central characters (and all the others) are perpetually somber and seem to take no joy at all in life. Instead of making their situations more important to us, however, the flatness of the characterizations keeps us from caring very greatly about the people on the screen. Director Michael Mann takes such great pains to make the film important that it loses its interest for us and becomes little more than an overproduced by-the-numbers genre film, the very thing he was trying to avoid.

Sure, it's watchable, and it's reasonably entertaining, but Miami Vice could have been so much more—if only it's creator had been content to let it be a lot less.

From Karnick on Culture.

Hex Appeal

I'm ambivalent about the BBC-TV series Hex, which runs on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. EDT on BBC America. Yes, it can be seen as a ripoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as it is set at an elite English boarding school and deals with spiritual warfare surrounding and involving the student body of oversexed teens and their clueless and/or evil overseers. Christina Cole as Cassie in HexAnd yes, the premise of the program is based on a mixture of Christian theology and odd bits of superstition, other religions, and simple chaos. Plus, the first few episodes are rather slow going, with a good deal of unnecessary meandering and chitchat. Plus there is a heck of a lot of venery going on, all of it outside of marriage, which many religious people don't like to see on their TVs.

Nonetheless, the show is interesting and entertaining. Cassie, an attractive but shy young student, finds out that she is descended from witches and is at the center of a plot by demons to bring back the Nephilim, a race of giants mentioned in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 6:2) that was created when human women mated with demons (as one understanding has it). This is an actual Biblical concept, and Hex presents it in a fairly straighforward manner, while of course sticking to the most melodramatic and exciting way of seeing it.

The story line, as mentioned earlier, is basically about spiritual warfare seen from an essentially Judeo-Christian point of view with the addition of ghosts, embodied demons, juju mumbo jumbo, and other spicy bits. As such, it's sometimes a bit of a muddle spiritually and will cause fits for some of the more literal-minded fundamentalists, but ultimately the producers' hearts and minds seem to be in the right place, and it's worth watching and sticking with.

At this point BBC America is about halfway through the 18 episodes that have been shown in Britain so far. (First-run showings in Britain concluded last December.) BBC America will be showing a marathon of Hex tonight beginning at 9 p.m. EDT. The channel's website does not specify which episodes will be running, so you'll have to tune in to find out. It's definitely worth a try, as the series can be interesting, provocative, and entertaining.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome

Today marks the TRC debut of Matt Huisman, whom we proudly add to our crew of contributors. Matt's a mid-Westerner, and lives in the real world: a professional man, a corporate exec, husband, father, deep thinker, and all-around good guy.

I've personally been a fan of his writing for awhile now (he has graced our comments section from time to time), and we're all honored he's agreed to stretch out a bit with the longer form of our mainpage.

Cheers, Matt, and go get 'em, tiger. (Oh, I see you already have...)

UN-Happy Extension

Everything began to spin and I found myself sitting on the ground: I laughed so hard I cried.

- Jean Paul Sartre

One can only laugh at the sight of the name…the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). But the laughter turns to tears as you read, point by point, the UN’s own pathetic Fact Sheet about their efforts in Lebanon since 1978.

Here’s to the forthcoming six month extension.

Update: In case you’re looking for a few more laughs…or was it tears…I forget which sometimes…here’s more.

Bystanders? Only In a Sense

They were innocent bystanders. Now, you just think about that term. Innocent. Bystanders. Because that's exactly what they were. We know they were bystanders, nobody's disputing that. So how can a bystander be guilty? No such thing. Have you ever heard of a guilty bystander? No, because you cannot be a bystander and be guilty. Bystanders are by definition, innocent. That is the nature of bystanding. But no, they want to change nature here. They want to create a whole new animal - the guilty bystander. Don't you let them do it. Only you can stop them.

- Jackie Chiles

The bystander, of course, has little to fear by way of public opinion. In fact, they have never had it so good. No one blames them for events that are unforeseen and beyond their ability to control. The bystander is incontrovertibly innocent.

Now these days, such blamelessness is a hot commodity, and the lack of available moral certainties has turned bystanding into a growth industry. The demand for innocence is so strong that it has evolved from something beyond one’s control to something that can be willed into existence. One need only withdraw from the events around them - call it the pursuit of active indifference - to qualify.

Some may object, thinking that only the Relativists are involved here. But the innocent civilian is a universal truth. Think for a moment of the civilians currently caught up in the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. All of us instinctively question the morality of any invasion that will involve collateral damage deaths. (At least, we do when it’s the Israelis who are attacking.) And we don’t just question, we seriously constrain our military options in large part because of this concern.

But for all of our questioning, the one thing we never do is question the legitimacy of the innocence of those civilians. (Interestingly, this is not true of our opposition.) I bring all of this up because I’m just not satisfied with the reaction to Tom Van Dyke’s wonderfully challenging post “The Moral Mathematics of Murder”. In the comments section, he throws out the following:

I'm peeking in the door that Ward Churchill opened, that in this day and age, the possibility exists that there are no civilians.

I suppose we could debate the infinite levels of complicity to be found among the populations of the Lebanese, Japanese, Germans, etc. But I can’t fight off the notion that any moral right to protection that might be claimed by these people is done so on the cheap. When the stakes are low, you are welcome to your indifference. If you’re Alec Baldwin, you’re not required to move to France just because the wrong guy wins the election.

But there are times when life forces you to make a call. While it may be unfair to equate the Lebanese civilians who have allowed themselves to become de facto human shields with Hizbollah operatives, it is not a stretch to say that they are aiding and abetting criminals. And it is here, in the knowledge of who and what one is allowing to happen on their turf, that the pretense of the innocence falls by the wayside.

So here’s the question again. If it is agreed that the removal of Hizbollah is good, on what grounds are the Lebanese civilians owed special protection vis a vis the Israeli military forces that will make this removal happen?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Microsoft Tries a Different Plan for TV on the Web

Computer software giant Microsoft is about to bring free, commercial television to the Web, AP reports. Several online sites have experimented with offering commercial programs commercial-free on a pay--per-view or pay-to-download basis. Most notable among these, of course, is ITunes. What Microsoft is about to do, by contrast, emulates commercial television while improving convenience, by providing content for free but on an on-demand basis to consumers. The programming will be paid for by advertisement revenues rather than direct fees.

The cast of Arrested Development

The effort will begin with three episodes of the Fox comedy Arrested Development, the AP report notes. This marks the first time the program has been made available online. Microsoft has acquired exclusive "portal syndication" rights to all 53 episodes of the program for three years.

Arrested Development was canceled at the end of the just-passed television season after three years. The G4 network will air the program on basic cable beginning this fall.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mass-Marketing Taste

Actress Scarlett Johansson appears at a news conference to announce her partnership with an athletic apparel company in New York July 25, 2006. REUTERS/Jeff Zelevansky (UNITED STATES)Britney Spears

The Reebok shoe company has announced that it has signed young actress Scarlett Johansson to sponsor a new line of "retro-chic" footwear and clothing, Scarlett "Hearts" Rbk, E! Online reports. The shoes will reportedly take advantage of the starlet's "Old Hollywood-style glamour," as E! breathlessly puts it. A respect for stylishness seems to me a very nice thing, although mass-marketing such a thing would seem a sure means of defeating the purpose, given that originality and expression of a strong, interesting personality were the hallmarks of that old-style Hollywood glamour. That is the sort of thing money cannot buy.
That said, a move from the Britney/Christina Desperate Slut look to a more stylish, presentable look based on Ms. Johansson's more tasteful approach would be a welcome change indeed.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Shyamalan Out of His Depth?

The critics have largely savaged M. Night Shyamalan's new film, The Lady in the Water. Many seem to be so annoyed by the film's depiction of a snotty newspaper movie and book critic as to be constitutionally unable to appreciate it at all. If so, they are being astoundingly petty. The film has much to recommend it.

Still from Lady in the WaterYes, it's a bit slow at times, and the plot often seems something of a shaggy dog story. However, Lady in the Water also contains some very moving scenes depicting characters' great longing for love and meaning. That is something Shyamalan has always been very good at providing, and it characterizes his films at least as strongly as the plot twists, imaginative ideas, and suspense scenes for which he is better known. That is a very good thing and not at all common among current-day filmmakers. In this way Shyamalan reminds one more of Hollywood Golden Era directors Sam Wood and Frank Borzage than of anyone today.

As you probably know, the film tells the story of a water nymph who appears in a Philadelphia-area apartment complex and sets in motion a series of events from an ancient Korean bedtime story which Shyamalan has invented for the film. The future of the world hangs in the balance, and multitudes of people's lives will be changed greatly for the better if the characters succeed, and much for the worse if they fail.Lady in the Water poster There are malevolent creatures out to stop the nymph from her appointed good works, and some lawkeeper critters who are apparently asleep at the switch through most of the story.

The film includes numerous allusions to spiritual concepts, and the story as a whole— with its premise that humanity is in the midst of a great battle among beings we cannot ordinarily see—suggests an interesting consideration of the Judeo-Christian idea of spiritual warfare. Yet it's not at all heavy-handed; Shyamalan includes enough quirky humor to keep the proceedings on an even keel, and his ability to elicit convincing performances from his cast remains strong.

Lady in the Water depicts a world in which human beings are buffeted about by forces we cannot usually see, but in which our choices are meaningful and intensely important and every person's life has a purpose and great meaning. The inclusion of a snotty film and book critic is therefore not a snide, angry slap at the writer-director's critics—or at least not only that. It is a critique of people who claim life has no deeper meaning and that everything is determined by events outside human control.

Although far from perfect, Lady in the Water does successfully convey that meaning, and that is an accomplishment indeed.

From Karnick on Culture.

The Politics of Charlie Chan

My current piece on National Review Online is about "The Business End of Ethnic Politics," telling how the Fox companies' treatment of the charming Charlie Chan films of the 1930s and '40s shows the increasing tendency of corporate America to find it necessary to give in to political protesters:

Political correctness has largely fallen out of the news, but it is just as prevalent as ever. In fact, it has spread from the capitol buildings and campuses to corporate conference rooms, as businesses increasingly bow to pressure from ethnic, sexual, and political groups. Even old B movies and American heroes aren’t safe from the strictures of today’s culture czars.

This is all too evident in the fate of Charlie Chan in recent years. . . .

[W]hy haven’t you seen Charlie Chan on TV lately? As I reported in National Review Online in 2003, the company that owns the TV rights to the best of the Chan films, Fox Movie Channel, refuses to show them and won’t license the rights to anybody else. The reason the network gave at the time was that ethnic groups had complained:

Fox Movie Channel has been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers. Fox Movie Channel realizes that these historic films were produced at a time where racial sensitivities were not as they are today. As a result of the public response to the airing of these films, Fox Movie Channel will remove them from the schedule.

Fox has decided to release four Charlie Chan films on DVD, finally, but the bad news is that the quality of the presentation is not that great and Fox refuses to mention them at all on their website. Clearly, they have dumped these on the market in virtual secrecy, hoping to make a little money from the series fans without enraging the ethnic political interest groups. That's sad and ugly. My conclusion:

I suppose we might be grateful that these films are being released on DVD at all, however secretive and slovenly the presentation, but the travails of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto tell us a lot about the way the culture and corporate America work today, and it is not a happy message. Increasingly in the business world as well as in the political and educational realms, the current American elites are willing to take conservatives’ money, but not their advice.

For that, they go to the very people who would most like to destroy them.

For more details and a complete explanation of the situation, read the full story here.

From Karnick on Culture.

George Dubya 43 Bushitler: Too Liberal and Idealistic

You heard it from the horse's mouth:

I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology — with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses by Congress.

Well, if Wm. F. Buckley says it, it must be true.

However, except for former Speaker of the House Newton Gingrich, who did it during the relentlessly rising dotcom economic tide/tsunami of the later 1990s, no Republican politician in WFB's lifetime ever significantly slowed increases in domestic spending.

Not even Ronald Reagan. Because even after all this time, Americans like The New Deal.

Lyndon Johnson's Great Society? Americans learned to not be so crazy about it, mostly because it introduced a dependency on the government and replaced the individual's self-sufficiency. But I've poked through the charts, and it did immediately lower the national poverty rate by a lasting 10%. (Attempts to expand its reach fell flat from 1970 on.) But a permanent 10% dent in the US poverty rate was a pretty dang good accomplishment.

And so on to Iraq, the elephant in everybody's living room.

It's been no state secret that WFB has been sour on Iraq for quite some time now. I meself at the podiatrist's office today (dang, my feet sure hurt) pulled out the good doctor's most recent waiting room magazine, a March 2006 issue of Time, a kinda MSM souvenir issue, sentimentally commemorating 3 American years in Iraq.

WFB was quoted first in answer to "Was it worth it?"

No. Emphatically no. Were we wrong to undertake what we did? The objectives were sound, but our reach proved insufficient to realize them.

OK, I hear that. Looks even worse since March. WFB is hereby anointed as an unimpeachable member of the reality-based community. Down by three in the 7th and you tell us we're losing. Thanks for the update, mate.

The situation in Iraq sucks. We may have overestimated the power of human decency after tyranny is eradicated.

From WFB's most recent interview with the mousy yet beguilingly foxy Thalia Assuras, on whom I developed a severe crush some years back on her Ellerbee/Olbermanish snarkfest at 4AM on ABCWorldNewsWhatever when they thought nobody was watching:

>>>>>>>>>>¡Alto! Point of order here---

Thalia. Mouse. Fox. Journalistic ├ťberprofessional. Goddess.

And she wore glasses back in her ABC days. Be still my lustful heart. Down, boy.<<<<<<<<<<<

OK, back to our regular program.

WFB also quoth:

There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush. I don't believe his successor would re-enunciate the words he used in his second inaugural address because they were too ambitious. So therefore I think his legacy is indecipherable...

Indecipherable. I had a little sneaky fun with our commenters with this quote awhile back:

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge---and more."

Pretty laughable in the face of the reality of the 21st century. I playfully attributed it to Dubya, but it's actually from John Kennedy's first (and only) inaugural address. You could look it up. But let's face it, Dubya could have said it, and nobody (not just here) blinked twice when I attributed it to him.

But not even JFK believed that idealistic crap. The last one who did was Woodrow Wilson. Maybe Abraham Lincoln before him. That's about it.

Oh, yeah, and Harry Truman, who started but didn't finish the Korean War. History seldom reveals its alternatives, but the difference between North and South Korea is one of the few object lessons that history has ever yielded us.

There's a disconnect here between me and WFB. Reagan voted for Truman, and FDR, too. But WFB & me both voted for Reagan. I think I might be too liberal and idealistic. Perhaps Ronald Reagan was too.

So be it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Beach Boys Credit War

In a comment on my SMiLE post immediately below, our fearless leader Tom Van Dyke points out that Beach Boy Mike Love has sued for greater credit for the band's songs. I, too, had heard about this, and here are my thoughts on the issue.

Mike Love was given co-songwriting credit on numerous songs by the Beach Boys, almost always in collaboration with Brian, who contributed all the musical composition in those efforts. Take a look at the credits on the CDs, and you'll see that this is true. It is certainly possible that Mike Love may have contributed to some songs without receiving credit, though even if that did happen, it would have been the fault of the group's manager, Murry Wilson, who was the (abusive) father of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson and uncle of Mike Love. No one in the band was able to stand up to Murry until around 1967 or so.

That said, I am extremely skeptical of Love's claim that he deserves even more credit for the group's songs. (I have read several books about the band's history, FYI, and seen the many documentaries about the band as well.) Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the lyrics for SMiLE, received credit for his contributions, as did Gary Usher and Roger Christian, who wrote lyrics for many of the band's songs through 1966, and Tony Asher, who wrote nearly all the lyrics for the Beach Boy's gorgeous Pet Sounds album. If Mike Love contributed to more songs than he received credit for, why were these outside writers properly credited and Love, a full-fledged member of the band, not? That doesn't make sense.

My assessment is that Mike Love is trying to take greater credit than he deserves. Brian has refused to fight him on this, consenting to let Love receive the credit—and money—he is seeking. Brian is an entirely nonconfrontational person, and it is clear to me that he would rather give his cousin the money and undeserved credit rather than fight him for it.

Of course, Mike Love should get whatever credit he has earned for any songs to which he may have contributed, but it is not at all true that he was vital to the band's success. It was drummer Dennis Wilson who was the surfer and contributed the surfing terms for the early songs, and Brian could easily have done without Love's lyrics entirely, using other talented lyric writers instead of his cousin, as he did when his musical concepts finally progressed too far beyond what Love was capable of writing about, specifically with Pet Sounds.

This is important because the Beach Boys are an important part of our cultural history, and credit (and blame) for the band's works should be allocated correctly. Mike Love's lyric writing ability has always been decidedly pedestrian and grossly inferior to that of the other lyric writers Brian worked with. Love was a barely competent singer with an unattractive, nasal voice, little range, and an astonishingly limited ability to convey emotion. In sum, he was extremely fortunate to be able to ride the coattails of his musical genius cousin, Brian.

None of this, of course, is meant to criticize Mike Love as a person. From what I have read about him, he has been a fairly decent person in most ways, although he has had his pecadilloes as have we all. In addition, I would never disparage the Beach Boys' early lyrics or Mike Love's part in the band, but without Brian, the Beach Boys would have been less important than the Hondells and Jan and Dean. Without Mike Love, they would still have been the Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys and SMiLE

During the dog days of summer, all real Americans enjoy a bit of a pep-up by listening to the Beach Boys, the nation's great rock and roll band. The Beach Boys have definitely been through their ups and downs, but many of their songs have entered the pop culture pantheon, and have well earned the accolades. Led by primary songwriter, producer, and arranger Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys synthesized rock and roll, early American music, folk, and other influences into a sound all their own, as Wilson's great genius for melody, harmony, and counterpoint made lyrically simple songs such as "California Girls," "God Only Knows," and "Good Vibrations" into works of stunning beauty that were easy to understand and enjoy.

In the mid-1960s, however, Brian had a nervous breakdown, while he was hard atSmiley Smile cover art work on what he intended as his true masterwork, SMiLE. With lyrics by the undeniably talented hippie wordsmith/songwriter Van Dyke Parks, the album was to be, in Brian's words, "a teenage symphony to God." After Brian's breakdown, however, work on the album stopped, even though it had been nearly finished, and the group released the rather disorganized and puzzling replacement Smiley Smile and moved on.

Tantalizing pieces from the original SMiLE lineup, however, appeared occasionally on the band's subsequent albums, making the unreleased album a great legend of lost popular art: an album of songs such as "Heroes and Villains," "Good Vibrations," "Cabin-Essence," "Vegetables," "Our Prayer," and "Cool, Cool Water" would have to be an astonishing thing, the group's fans supposed.

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE album cover imageBut it was almost forty years before we got to hear it—in 2004 in a version credited to Brian Wilson and performed by him and his current-day touring band. And it really was great, as I stated in my review of the recording for Tech Central Station.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder what the album would have sounded like as performed by the Beach Boys in their prime, with Brian's youthful voice—his voice has coarsened over the years because of tobacco use, drug abuse, etc.—and with the vocal performances by the orignal band. The group, after all, had sung together since childhood, and was composed of three brothers, one cousin, and a longtime friend, and as a result their voices blended together beautifully. Given the tremendous vocal harmonies and counterpoints Brian had created for SMiLE, and the fact that some of the songs were originally written to be sung by Brian's now-deceased brothers Carl and Dennis, it was interesting to conjecture how the album would have sounded with their contributions.

We can't hear an entire performance of SMiLE by the Beach Boys, but ITunes has created the next best thing: a playlist of the Beach Boys' performances of SMiLE that have been released on the band's albums over the years. Several songs were released as tracks on the original vinyl albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and quite a few more were released on the various remasters and reissues during the past few years, and also on the superb Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys boxed set. (The latter, by the way, is a must-have recording.)

For more on this interesting musical artifact, see the full article on Karnick on Culture.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Moral Mathematics of Murder

With all the handwringing about Israel’s “disproportionate” response to hundreds of rockets (and thousands more in wait) being fired willy-nilly at its civilian population from over the Lebanese border, almost absolute silence in some quarters about Hizbollah itself.

So let's get to that part first.

As Alan Dershowitz reminded us the other day, you hide behind a civilian while you're shooting up the place and the civilian gets killed in the return fire, it's you who hold the moral (and legal) responsibility. Your intended victims have the right to shoot back---in the real world, self-preservation is always justified. (In fact, a fellow named Beccaria inveighed against capital punishment because even a justly condemned man has the right to fight for his life. An elegant argument, that.)

Theories of "just war" have been thrown around, too. Hizbollah has not a prayer of defeating Israel. Therefore, according to Just War Theory, Hizbollah has initiated an unjust war. The news coverage by the Arab media and the US press has highlighted the misery of Lebanese civilians, but war cannot be fought without mistakes or even criminal acts by the warriors, even the "good guys." Such is the nature of war, and of human beings.

But it was Hizbollah who loosed these remorseless dogs of war, and let's be clear, this is war. Ten thousand rockets pointed at Israel's civilian population make it so. The moral and legal responsibility is Hizbollah's.

That is (or should be) the easy part. However, the water gets deeper in a hurry.

It was Ward Churchill who opened a Pandora's Box that none of us really want to peer into. People are going to die. Civilians are going to die. The question is who, and whose.

A difficult moral case arises when a civilian population lets murderers operate freely in their midst. In Lebanon, Hizbollah has public offices, holds marches to cheering crowds, and certainly didn't move thousands of missiles to the Israel border without anyone noticing. And if Lebanese choose to live in apartments above Hizbollah headquarters, that's hardly Israel's fault either.

The fact is, Hizbollah is quite popular in southern Lebanon and nobody lifted a finger to stop them taking over for all practical purposes.

If there's a sniper in my neighbor's window killing my family, I'm taking him out even if I have to blow up the place, unless the sniper took the occupants hostage, which, for the sake of this illustration, is not the case in southern Lebanon. The "innocent civilians" there watched Hizbollah bring in 10,000 rockets with which to murder the Israeli civilian population. To maintain otherwise is naïve or disingenuous.

"They're Israel's problem," they must have thought. Guess again. They're yours. That's how it works in the real world. If it's my family or yours that is to die, sorry, you're out of luck, because you let the murderers in your front door.

Lebanon's civilian population brought this on themselves, and are morally complicit (indeed many are members of Hizbollah themselves, another inconvenient truth).

If Hizbollah starts launching rockets at Israel, and they have, Lebanon takes the consequences (and Israel has been good enough to drop leaflets warning of impending attacks, which of course the Hizbollah murderers do not).

I should be past being appalled at the moral cowardice of some of the more Enlightened folk in the West, who can only work up a decent indignation for Israel failing to meet the highest of standards and barely a word for the bad guys who have no standards at all. On the scale of moral outrage, Hizbollah is a 9, Israel a 2. Talk about "disproportionate."

I am past being surprised, but not yet jaded enough to be past being appalled.

There is also a confused moral calculus that somehow Israel's civilian casualties should be somewhat "proportionate" to Lebanon's. Utter rubbish.

The civilian deaths at Hiroshima were a great human tragedy, but not one fresh-faced Iowa GI was morally required to give his life to avert it, nor was President Truman obliged to sacrifice his own people. (Ironically, there are fresh-faced Iowa GIs voluntarily risking and giving their lives at this very moment to protect the lives of civilian Iraqis from Hizbollah's murderous cousins.) Perhaps Japan's individual civilians were in a sense blameless, but not as blameless as the Iowa GI.

The Japanese warlords, and Hizbollah, brought it on. The people of Japan and Lebanon let it happen.

Not one Israeli child should be asked to die at Hizbollah's hands. And for those who sit back and moralize in the comfort of a peaceful country, expecting those in mortally besieged ones to let their children die for your tut-tut morality, well, imagine a sniper just shot some of your children dead from next door. He has unlimited ammunition and is targeting more of them.

No, I don't think you are able to imagine that. It's far too real.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Disney Returns to the Family

The Walt Disney Company is returning to its roots as a purveyor of family-oriented entertainment, World Net Daily reports:

Famed family-film maker Disney is headed back to its roots, with confirmation yesterday of cuts of 650 employees that will include a phase-out of its R-rated movies.

Oren Aviv, newly appointed president of production at Walt Disney Pictures, told the Hollywood Reporter that the company's coming productions will be along the lines of "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Chronicles of Narnia," "National Treasure" and "Miracle."

"If it's a great idea and it's done with quality and care, then it qualifies to be a Disney movie," he told the newspaper.

The studio, which founded its greatness on the classics for families and children, had branched out in the 1990s to grasp R-rated projects with its Touchstone and Miramax labels. Touchstone was created to deal with more mature themes, and is expected to remain but be significantly smaller, generating only two or three films a year. Miramax handles independent and art-house films and now operates separately from Disney. . . .

Now, Aviv told the Reporter, he will see to it that what the company brings to its audience is something the whole family can enjoy.

"That to us has always defined a Disney movie, and that definitely hasn't changed," he said.

From Karnick on Culture.

Hollywood and Religion

The relationship between religious believers and Hollywood has always been a tense thing, and it has reached a height of openly hostility in the past dozen years or so. In this conflict, both sides are to blame, I note in "Battling Babylon," my article on movies and believers in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, but it is incumbent upon people of faith to make the first move.

Religious people, I note, too often “tend to count up the number of images they don't like in a film while failing to see the real meaning of the stories. ‘Sometimes,’ another writer [in the anthology under review] observes, ‘it will serve the Truth to have the bad guys get away with murder.’ After all, Scripture itself depicts numerous horrible actions. The events depicted in a film are not all-important; what counts is what they mean.”

Before complaining about movies, people really must to try to understand them: “Christians should become more attuned to the real, often subtle, meanings behind various works of art and should be far quicker to praise the persons responsible for these good works. In that regard, Christian media critics can be immensely valuable—and to increase their influence, they should make every effort to push themselves into mainstream media outlets.”

You can read the full article in the July 3/July 10 edition of the magazine or online here.

From Karnick on Culture.

Stemming the Tide

I was extremely pleased earlier this week when President Bush vetoed a bill providing for increased federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. (Although I was not so pleased that this was his first veto; there have been plenty of worthy predecessors.) The veto has, of course, provided an occasion to organize a parade of the usual half-truths, cynical manipulations, and inept science journalism that have plagued this issue for twenty years.

What I have not seen widely reported (aside from some great work by KJ Lopez at NRO), and what I find much more revealing, is that on the same day the Senate passed the measure they already knew was doomed, they also passed an alternative bill sponsored by Rick Santorum that provided funding for adult and cord blood stem cell research -- and that the House derailed this effort at the eleventh hour at the behest of Mike Castle, R-DE. How long will ESCR supporters be able to deny potentially life-saving treatments before Nancy Reagan understands that she's backing the wrong horse, so to speak?

Here's the dirty little secret of the stem cell controversy: the researchers who want to investigate the properties of embryonic stem cells are not interested in them because of their therapeutic potential. They are interested in embryonic stem cells because they are curious about basic questions of cellular biology, which have no immediate applicability to human health.

Now these researchers would certainly not be the first to overplay the practical potential of the lab work they want the federal government to pay for. That's the way the grant game is played, I've played it myself, and I'm not holding researchers in any particular low esteem because they're playing it now. But where is the skeptical watchdog press here? In any other instance the shouts of Cui bono? would be deafening.

The supporters of ESCR can try to make a case that it's the federal government's job to subsidize this curiosity; it's not an argument I will ever buy, because the destruction of innocent human life is per se wrong in my world view, and no utilitarian calculus can ever justify it. But let's stop parading the paraplegics and Parkinson's patients for the cameras, shall we? It's dishonest, and it's cruel.


I'm delighted that Hunter Baker will be posting on the American Spectator site in future, as he will add what I see as a very important perspective to their daily news coverage: the relationship between law and religion. Hunter is a strong writer and thinker in this field, and I look forward to regularly reading his contributions there.

Hunter mentioned that he and I have been discussing a change in my blogging, too. As longtime readers of TRC will know, my greatest interest as a writer has always been in cultural analysis, and my duties at the Reform Club have all too often taken me away from that. In recent days I have returned to my pop culture roots in my posts on this site, and I have begun the process of setting up Karnick on Culture, a website and blog composed purely of my writings on popular culture.

I believe that there is real value in someone outside the main stream of cultural analysis offering criticism of the culture that is sympathetic to popular culture in general—that is to say, who is not a snob—but not enslaved to either a delight in or hatred of monetary power and the current celebrity cult, both of which are the common positions among writers on popular culture today. Such good-natured analysis is what I will be doing at Karnick on Culture, and I invite you to visit it often at http://www.stkarnick.com, which is now in full operation.

Hunter and I are now giving the leadership reins of the Reform Club over to the highly capable hands of Tom Van Dyke. Like Hunter, I will still be cross-posting items at The Reform Club—as long as Tom wants me to. There are some truly exciting changes coming to this site, which will make it more provocative, useful, and enlightening than ever. Hunter and I will still be around, but we'll each be sticking to the subject matter we enjoy most. In addition, some new writers will be coming on, and their contributions will move the discussions in new directions that regularly confront daily issues with the kind of thoughtful, more magazine-like analysis not found on other blogs. We all believe that these changes will make the Reform Club better than ever.

Please continue to visit us regularly, let us know what you think of the changes, and visit Hunter and me at our new homes.

My Semi-Retirement from TRC

I'm announcing my semi-retirement from The Reform Club today. I just began blogging over at American Spectator and am planning to consolidate my efforts over there. They gave me my start in the online journalism/punditry world. It is through work for them that I met S.T. Karnick, which has been one of the great privileges of my adult life. He and I started this blog together. Through it, I have met several wonderful people and have actually gained some professional opportunities in the bargain.

Thanks to my co-bloggers Sam, Tom, Kathy, Alan, Ben, Jay, Herb London, and "Michael Simpson."

I'm never going to forget listening to Rush talk about Alan for twenty minutes of million dollar airtime. Mind you, it wasn't for a Reform Club post, but I still felt privileged. Alan continues to have his townhall.com blowtorch.

Kathy had a period several months ago where I thought she was blogging as well as anyone in the game. I couldn't wait to see what she did next. She's been in semi-retirement lately, but maybe she'll reclaim some of the real estate I'm vacating.

Jay came to us after bowling me over with some of the coolest election commentary I've ever seen back in 2004. He also provided an extremely interesting Jewish perspective on the whole Darwin/I.D. question. In fact, he joined the blog via comment box writing on that very topic.

Tom got us mentioned in Newsweek's Blog Watch. Never mind that he was opposing me in my merciless campaign against the Harriet Mier's nomination! We brought Tom in after bravo performance in the comment room. Confidentially, I think he writes the most provocative posts of any of us.

At least one of Ben's accounts of international conferencing with the tragically hip crowd deserves to be anthologized somewhere. Tom Wolfe is calling!

Herb London looks more and more prescient as things in the Middle East continue their spiral into some sort of eschatological scenario.

S.T. Karnick is finally threatening to do more of the work that caused me to repeatedly acknowledge him as "the greatest living film (and television) critic in the English language (TM)." Look for him to break out in the pop culture area in 2006-2007.

And Michael Simpson, we barely know ye, but you are clearly a shrewd analyst of what lurks behind the ivy and what lives in the ivory towers.

I'll be back, but not so often in print here at the Club.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Article/Chapter Bleg

Off the top of your head, if you were going to assign for reading in a college class one article or book chapter that most effectively critiques the standard sort of left-liberal redistributionist theory of economic justice (say, that of John Rawls or Ronald Dworkin), what would it be? If it's good, my students will have you to thank for it. If it isn't, it's all my fault...

A Repugnant Slur

Hunter Baker points out a commenter's use of the term Christianist in a comment to a post below, and asked the purveyor of the term for a definition. I shall supply it, as I think it evident that the term was meant as an entirely repugnant slur comparing devout Christians to radical Muslims by using the term Islamist as a model.

The use of that term shows a monstrous ignorance of both Christianity and Islam, and it exposes its user as a vile slanderer and a contemptible coward.

When I wish to condemn someone, you see, I say it directly.

Addicts Are Wrong, Not Sick: Psychiatrist

Dr. Anthony Daniels, an English psychiatrist who usually writes under the name Theodore Dalrymple, has produced another excellent article, this time on drug addiction. Writing for the Times of London, Daniels' point in "Don't Blame Me, I'm Just the Junkie," is twofold: one, that heroin addiction is not mainly a producer of crime but just another wrong thing criminals do, and two, that the assertion that addiction is a sickness is incorrect and harmful both to users and society. Daniels writes:

The addict sees himself as a person who is ill, like someone with pneumonia, whom it is the duty of the “system” — the paraphernalia of doctors, nurses, social workers, drug counsellors and so forth — to cure. Until such time as the system fulfils its duty, the addict can continue in his habit, secure in the knowledge that he is not to blame, but the system that has failed to cure him. . . .

[I]n so far as there is a causative connection between addiction and criminality, it is that criminality — or whatever predisposes people to it — causes addiction and not addiction that causes criminality. . . .

It is not true that heroin addicts take a couple of doses and then find themselves enslaved. On the contrary, addicts usually spend a year or so taking heroin intermittently before they decide to take it regularly. It would be truer to say that they hook heroin, than that (as they usually put it, in order to deny their own responsibility) they are hooked by heroin. It is simply implausible to suggest that addicts become addicted by inadvertence or ignorance: the vast majority of the addicted come from backgrounds in which ignorance of history and arithmetic is perfectly possible, but not ignorance of the heroin way of life.

Is any great harm done by pretending that opiate addiction is a disease like any other? After all, a portion of mankind will always resort to mind- altering drugs to obscure the existential problems that confront us all. Certainly methadone when prescribed carelessly — as it is in Britain — is a dangerous drug, and can cause nearly as many deaths as heroin itself.

There is a more intangible harm, however, to the pretence: the existence of drug clinics sends a message to addicts that they are ill and in need of treatment rather than they have chosen a disastrous path in life. It conceals from people their responsibility for their own lives, a responsibility we all find irksome at times, but acceptance of which is the only basis of a meaningful life.

Daniels is not arguing that we should feel no sympathy for addicts. On the contrary, he is pointing out that the way to reduce addiction and its horrible consequences for users, their friends and familes, and society in general, is to recognize that drug use is ever and always a choice. That is a change in attitudes we should certainly strive to create. Daniels' article includes additional counterarguments against the current thinking regarding drug addiction, and you should read it in its entirety in order to understand his argument fully.

Calling Out Mr. Elliott: What Is a Christianist?

In a comment to a post below, Mr. James Elliott refers to me as a "Christianist." I would love to have the term defined so that I might know the full extent of my sinfulness as one not worthy to untie the sandals of John Dewey or some other great secular saint.

Please favor me with a definition and tie it to me since I am the one so labeled.

I thank you in advance.

Welfare for Colleges

One of the biggest non-stories that usually begins to pop up around this time of year is the "rapidly increasing cost" of a college education. (See this MSN story for a prime example. Headline:"Costs Soar at Public Universities"). The DLC, of course, has an answer: more federal money in return for limits on tuition increases. Now, I'm certainly no expert on the intricacies of federal education funding, and it might be that there are some good things in the proposal, but the idea that a university education is out of reach for seems to me faintly ludicruous.

According to the National Center on Education Statistics, average tuition in the US for four year, public universities was $5,038. (Private 4-year schools ran $17,777 and 2-year public schools ran $1,847). Some states are a good bit more expensive - Massachussetts is over $7,000, while New Hampshire is over $8,000 a year - but some are much lower, too: Georgia is less than $4,000 a year, Florida around $2,600, etc. (Note that I don't include room and board in the "costs", since whatever you're doing, you'll have to have a place to live and pay for food - it's silly to count that in with the "cost" of college). But to say that students can't afford those costs for a college education just isn't true. Even if you're a student with no help from parents or others, you can get yourself through college (even if you have to maybe take a couple of extra years to do it).

None of this is meant to defend universities per se, but merely to suggest that there just isn't an affordability "crisis" in American higher education.