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

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Help! The Kiwanis Club Just Hijacked My Airliner!

Our newish and welcomed commenter Francis W. Porretto quoth essays from his excellent blog, Eternity Road, here and here as to the nature of Islam and particularly Islamicism. (Those quoted in turn include at least one actual Muslim.)

Mr. Porretto illustrates why Islam, conceptually and historically, is a rare---indeed unique--- bird. It is both a religion and a politics---a comprehensive divine plan for mankind, according to its adherents. Just ask them. We appreciate the contributions of our other commenters, but one cannot discuss Islam and its relation to the current crisis without actually learning of Islam, and so we must. It is not the Kiwanis Club. We, the children of Rousseau (and the materialist Marx, let's face it), have been under the impression that one size fits all.

As human truth, that may be true at its most basic, and we hope it is, that human nature is universal and not, say, racial and particular. But as Aristotle points out (and even Rousseau would admit), acculturation and habit help create the human being, too. There has been a concentrated effort in the Muslim world over the last 50 years, both Sunni (the Saudis' evangelization of Wahhabism) and Sh'ia (the Iranian Revolution), to inculcate the worldview that I attempted to describe in my original essay below, if we can remember back that far.

(I'm fascinated by the etymology of the word "inculcate"---to put your foot on someone's throat. I believe it's accurate and probative in this case.)

It cannot be merely the luck of the draw that there were no Hindus arrested recently with a grand plot to bring down 10 airliners---Pakistani and Indian alike suffered identical indignities at the hands of the British raj. And the history of the United States is full of visiting like indignities on Central and South America, yet still they don't conspire to mass murder to any observable degree. Even Hugo Chávez just wants to tweak our noses (and perhaps we have it coming), not kill our wives and children.

The challenge of the present age is not a question of politics or economics---the answer must lie elsewhere. We must begin to look for it.

Buying Off the Bear

"It is a general rule of human nature that people despise those who treat them well, and look up to those who make no concessions."---Thucydides, c. 400 BCE

And that's the problem, as it has been since BCE: not history, not politics, but human nature. We of the touchy-feely West wish Thucydides were wrong. If only reason and good will could solve this. If only we could drop some Marshall Plan and a trillion or two on the Middle East and buy our way out of all this.

Even if the animosity between Middle East and the West is political, it is nearly 1400 years old, far beyond George W. Bush's or our own poor power to add or detract. And neither is Islam as a politics an easily reducible geographical problem, as it was when Charles Martel halted the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate into France in 732, or when the siege of Vienna by the Suleiman the Magnificent's Turks was finally lifted in 1529. (Yes, Islam as a politics got pretty damn far, and oh yeah, they came back on Vienna in 1683.)

Because in the semi-borderless flow of people to and fro in the 21st century, we cannot give political Islam want it wants. Which is everything.

The problem is no longer western imperialism, but that when Arab countries, the Arab street if you will, express themselves democratically, the results are enough to scare the bejesus out of any westerner, because they vote for Islamic authoritarianism and, frankly, war with the non-Muslim world.

This was the miscalculation of not just Bush and the neocons, but the West as a whole. We are largely materialists: we want peace, freedom, and prosperity.

But that apparently isn't what the "Arab street" wants, whether that street is in Karachi or London, and so, absent following Thucydides, we are left with trying to placate the implacable.

Our failure is in understanding the Muslim mind---peace and prosperity can only come with the "freedom" that is Islam, which means, literally, not "peace," but "submission." A fascinating philosophical dialogue between the West and Islam indicates that although the West has largely embraced Rousseau's rather rosy view of man and shunned Thomas Hobbes' view of human nature as craven and operating purely out of self-interest, Islam, even on the philosophical level, has not:

...the origin of the world “politics” gives us good insight into this difference. In Arabic the word siassa means “to care, to control.” On the other hand, for Anglo-Saxons, the word “politics” finds it origin in the Greek word polis (city), and means “to run a city.”

In the Muslim view, man, without guidance from the transcendent (that would be Allah, through the Qur'an, the only perfect rendering of the Divine Mind in human history), is no more than an animal, and that animal must be controlled. Shar'ia, the literal Law of God, is the only way it can be done. The best way to "lead us not into temptation" is to remove all temptation. Hence, the burka.

And so, per Thucydides, those who would compromise, who would treat those who transgress against God's Law well, surely do not possess Divine Truth. Only those who do not and cannot compromise with other men possess it. "Tolerance," which has been elevated to the highest of all virtues in the modern West, is the tool of the seducer, not of the righteous.

Whether or not we agree with Hobbes' view of man, it makes no difference---Muslims do. And to them, it is the Qur'an, and only the Qur'an, that makes man anything more than a mere beast. Tolerance, or "improving man's estate," the materialistic and self-declared goal of the western Enlightenment, has as much meaning to Islam as offering a quickie or a new washer-dryer to the bear that's about to eat you.

Film Critics Under Fire

An article in today's Los Angeles Times observes that the reputation of the American film critic appears to be at an all-time low:

The new trailer for Paramount's upcoming numskull comedy "Jackass: Number Two" is full of quotes from reviews of the first movie. There's just one tiny twist: The studio uses the vitriolic reviews attacking the first film ("A disgusting, repulsive, grotesque spectacle" says an aghast Richard Roeper) to promote the new picture.

With a sly, leering note of triumph, the narrator intones: "Unfortunately for them, we just made 'Number Two.' "

All in all, it's been a rotten tomato of a summer for America's embattled film critics. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" broke box-office records left and right, despite a yowling chorus of negative reviews. M. Night Shyamalan cast Bob Balaban as a persnickety film critic in "Lady in the Water," then gleefully killed him off, allowing a snarling jackal-like creature to do the dirty deed. . . .

It's no secret that critics have lost influence in recent years. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that among 18- to 24-year-olds, only 3% said reviews were the most important factor in their movie-going decision making. Older audiences still look to critics for guidance, especially with the smaller, more ambitious studio specialty films. But during the summer months, with studios wooing audiences with $40 million worth of marketing propaganda, critics appear especially overwhelmed, if not irrelevant.

Groening cartoon: How to Be a Film Critic

The article goes on to suggest a number of reasons for this disdain for film critics, ultimately opting for the one thing that explains everything these days, the Internet:

The media have been full of stories questioning the relevance of print critics in an Internet era that has ushered in a new democratization of opinion. The prospect of babbling blogmeisters being the new kingpins of cinema has left many critics in a sour mood. Reviewing a collection of critical essays by the long-time Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, Time film critic Richard Schickel contrasted Giddins' work with "history-free and sensibility-deprived" bloggers who regularly "blurb the latest Hollywood effulgence." . . .

According to New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz, "younger moviegoers want the immediacy of text messages or voice mail. A review from one of their peers is more important than a printed review from a third party they don't know, which is how they would describe a critic."

When in doubt, blame technology. Certainly the changes in information delivery have altered the way we approach things, and even how we see them. In particular, the breakdown of media hierarchies—the declining influence of the top-circulation newspapers and three TV networks—has flattened the playing field and made it possible for a pajama-clad blogger to reach as many people as a large media organization, or more. That observation has already become a boring truism. However, the phenomenon surely has had an effect of "democratization," but it is interesting and important to note how the process works: it simply reduces a sense of authority and forces writers to earn their readers' attention with everything they write:

What we're seeing is not so much the death of criticism as the death of the culture of criticism, the culture in which a critic such as Pauline Kael — despite writing for a small circulation magazine like the New Yorker — could have a huge trickledown influence, not just with the chattering class, but with filmmakers and executives who hung on her every word, either in agony or ecstasy, depending on the verdict.

What today's film critics have to deal with that Pauline Kael didn't have to worry about is truly serious competition. Kael could pontificate her nonsense from her safe haven at the New Yorker, and her obedient claque of followers at newspapers and magazines around the country would duly parrot her views, and nobody could gainsay them because, as has been wisely said, freedom of the press is for those who own one.

Kael won her following through networking and bluster and because her worldview fit the tenor of the times perfectly. Her militant leftism, atheism, intellectual elitism, advocacy of hedonism, obsession with novelty and hatred of tradition and formulas, belief in the primacy of emotion over reason in the arts, and the rest of her odious, fatuous opinions were cultural Red Bull for postwar American pseudointellectuals. I'll write more about Kael some other time, but for now the important thing to bear in mind is that Kael was influential regardless of whether her reviews made any sense. (They didn't.) Kael's goal was nothing less than to contribute to social change by undermining what she saw as outmoded, irrational, bourgeois values.

The influence of Pauline Kael has been huge, and the smugness and elitism she brought to the world of film criticism have only begun to be eroded, largely by critics from the political right. Naturally, Kael's influential followers and their descendants are livid about it, as exemplified by the furious salvoes against Debbie Schlussel fired off earlier this year by Roger Ebert's web editor on Ebert's website.

Ebert vs. Schlussel

The absurdity of Ebert's assistant characterizing Schlussel and Ann Coulter as "pundits" is absolutely astounding. Ebert has made millions of dollars as a TV film pundit, giving his opinions on why he likes or dislikes this film or that, but let an attractive, right-wing female venture into the sacred territory of film criticism and we find that having thoughts about what movies actually mean is a contemptible thing.

That is the real problem with film critics today: Their complacency and lack of contact with either their audiences or their ostensible subject matter. When critics attacked Dead Man's Chest (which I thought was a terrific film), they didn't just disagree with the audiences. They were wrong. There is plenty of meaning in Dead Man's Chest, and the fact that the criticisms focused on superficial matters (such as the amount of money it cost to make or whether the film brought anything "new" to the series) shows a positively grotesque and unacceptable ignorance of the basic principles of the aesthetics of narrative art. Audiences clearly understood that Dead Man's Chest was well worth watching, even if most people could not have articulated the film's themes or deeper meanings. But they understood intuitively that the film was meaningful, for without meaning there is no comedy nor adventure.

A reasonably intelligent critic will recognize that narratives are all about testing and revealing the character of imagined human beings, and the sensible critic will approach a film or novel from that perspective, seeking out what it tells us about ourselves and how the aesthetics of the form are being used to achieve these things. In so speaking to us, films, dramas, books, and other narrative art cause us to identify with their characters, sympathize with them, puzzle out their motives, and critique their actions. Most major film critics today, however, still follow the Kael formula, seeking to foster social change by pushing their readers to films that will "challenge" them, meaning movies that will undermine the principles of the bourgeoisie. That is why critics push filmgoers away from movies like Dead Man's Chest and toward Brokeback Mountain. It's all about changing the world by changing people's minds.

Although often doing so in the guise of being neutral but highly informed consumer guides, film critics of today typically use their positions as platforms for criticizing the values and ideas their audiences hold dear.

That is why the public can't stand them.

From Karnick on Culture.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Thomas Kinkade Moves In

The Thomas Kinkade company reports that a new development in Columbia, Missouri, will feature homes modeled on the popular artists' paintings:

Thomas Kinkade- inspired homes will be featured in a new master-planned community in Columbia, MO, announced HST Group, LLC, the Northwest-based real estate development firm in charge of the project. About 100 luxury homes will feature architectural designs inspired by the artwork of Thomas Kinkade, the "Painter of Light(TM)" and world-renowned artist.

"The homes will be reminiscent of Thomas Kinkade's charming cottages that are found in many of his works," stated Rann Haight, Director of Architectural Design for HST Group. "We will also be concentrating our efforts on creating a village atmosphere and neighborhood streetscapes such as those found in Thomas Kinkade's painting, Lamplight Lane."

The 85-acre community, named "The Gates at Old Hawthorne," will be the second in the country to feature the Thomas Kinkade - Masterpiece Homes brand of design. The finished homes are anticipated to be valued between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Construction is targeted to begin in the fall of 2006 with the first home complete in July 2007. HST Group will design, build, and sell the homes in The Gates at Old Hawthorne.

Those are some expensive houses. This is the second Kinkade development. The first broke ground recently in Idaho, and the houses there are even more expensive.

HST Group has seen a tremendous amount of interest with its first community featuring the Thomas Kinkade - Masterpiece Homes brand. "The Gates of Coeur d'Alene" in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, broke ground in June 2006, and will feature five custom homes with designs replicating the look of manors and cottages found in Thomas Kinkade paintings. The luxury homes, which overlook Lake Coeur d'Alene, will be 5,800- to 11,000-square feet with values starting at $4 million.

What a "tremendous amount of interest" in five houses translates to is anyone's guess, but evidently Kinkade's plan to take over the world is beginning to work. Certainly what he and his paintings stand for is nice and pleasant:

"The Thomas Kinkade brand stands for the values associated with home and hearth, peace, joy, faith, family and friends. Partnering with HST in the creation of homes inspired by the artwork of Thomas Kinkade delivers on what collectors tell us inspire them most about Thom's work -- that they wish they could step into the world created in the painting. The Thomas Kinkade Company is pleased to align itself with such a visionary home builder," said Dan Byrne, CEO of The Thomas Kinkade Company.

But the paintings are so exaggerated in their presentation, they tend to make their subject matter seem a bit silly and weird. Kinkade makes Norman Rockwell look like a psycho by comparison. Still, people certainly like Kinkade's paintings, so his intense evocations of simplicity and striving for transcendence obviously serve some powerful need in modern-day Americans. Kinkade is important not so much for his actual aesthetics as for the values he sells.

From Karnick on Culture.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Hold 'Em Or Fold 'Em

Well, now, I've poked my head above ground briefly, and I see that the jackbooted thugs, aka the federal government, have arrested some Brit in a U.S. airport during a layover between the UK and somewhere south of the equator. It seems that this poor soul is, or was, the CEO of some online gambling site, and gambling is a terrible thing, unless conducted by the government itself or one of its interest-group allies, and the existential threat from the Islamic fascists is too trivial to merit a shift of resources by the federal nannies, and, boy, am I happy to see my tax dollars at work.

But something's missing. Can't quite put my finger on it. I bet, in a manner of speaking of course, that it'll come to me. Wait! I see it! Something I've never seen before! It's the ineffable Bill Bennett, moral conscience of a great nation, with his mouth... closed! Not a word about federalism. Not a word about the rights of adults to use their own resources in a manner that they see fit. Or, alternatively, not a word about locking the gambling scoundrels up to teach them a lesson. Not a word about, in a word, anything. Oh, wait, I remember: It was Bennett who was happy to see untold thousands put in the hoosegow for their vices (green grass, so to speak) while he made excuses for his own (the green felt tables). Come on, Bill, speak up. Enlighten us with your wisdom. Save us from evil. Prevent us from becoming the Great Satan.

What a coward and hypocrite.

Ramsay's TV Nightmares

TPromo shot of Gordon Ramsayhe two-hour, season-ending episode of the Fox TV program Hell's Kitchen airs tomorrow night beginning at 8 EDT. It's a reality program in which a dozen contestants vie to become the head chef of a multimillion dollar Las Vegas restaurant that is in the process of being built in a new resort.

The program stars English celebrity chef enfant terrible Gordon Ramsay, and the gimmick is that Ramsay verbally abuses the contestants as they try to cook dinners in his Los Angeles restaurant named Hell's Kitchen. Nearly all the contestants are grotesquely unsuitable for any work at all, and, frustrated by their ineptness, Ramsay spews profanities and calls his charges stupid donkeys and says that they should be working in a garbage dump and other such choice criticisms. Ramsay is loud, angry, obnoxious, and most important of all, he's right. These people are incredibly complacent, sloppy, lazy, ill-mannered, ignorant, self-indulgent, and blithely unaware of the most basic standards of achievement and decorum.

It's rather compelling television, for what Ramsay is asking these people to do is simply to work hard, learn, and accomplish what they set out to do. Their failure to do so is often quite mindboggling—if you were competing to win the job of managing a multimillion dollar restaurant, you'd think you would try to learn a little bit about how restaurants operate and venture to do exactly as the head chef tells you, right? Not these people....

Ramsay is clearly not from any sort of privileged background himself, and therefore there is no excuse for any of the contestants not to work hard to do exactly what he has done and rise above their origins.

Ramsay has appeared on several programs on British television in recent years, and the difference between his British programs and the American one is quite revealing. In the English programs, including Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, several episodes of which are running on BBC America this afternoon and in the coming weeks (schedule here), Ramsay visits poorly run restaurants and advises their owners on how to make them work. Typically that includes simplifying the menu, getting the staff to work together as a team (which often involves snapping the head chef out of an utterly demoralized condition), matching the style of food to the location and restaurant's history and decor, using food ingredients economically, and generally looking at ways of making the place run profitably.

The show, it should be clear from this description, focuses on teamwork, a characteristically English concern, and on improving entrepreneurship, an area in which Britain is not nearly so strong as the United States. Hell's Kitchen, by contrast, concentrates on development of personal character and skills. This, too, makes sense. Entrepreneurship is certainly a strength of American society, but our education system is very poor, and concerns about personal character have been at the forefront of the national discussion in recent years. The snotty, overly self-confident, or lazy contestants are eliminated quickly, and the ones who remain are those who have a bit of talent for the job and who begin at least vaguely to recognize that Ramsay's standards of quality are unlike anything they have ever experienced or, in some cases, even imagined. To be the best, Hell's Kitchen makes clear, you have to try to be the best. Coasting won't get it done.

There is a further lesson here. The contestants in Hell's Kitchen are learning to serve other people. As Ramsay continually points out, they have to concentrate on their work and nothing else while on the job, and they have to leave their egos outside the kitchen and serve. The only way to succeed in Hell's Kitchen is to recognize that you're not good enough yet and that your job is as a servant to others. Ego is not an option.

Fox's Hell's Kitchen is a variation on an earlier, British program of the same name starring Ramsay, and the difference is interesting. In the British version, Ramsay had two weeks to train celebrities into becoming Michelin-star chefs. It's something of a lark, of course, and the fact that his students are already celebrities means that the emphasis is on learning a new and unfamiliar skill set, not on developing the personal character necessary for worldly success. In the American version, the emphasis is strongly on the contestants' unsuitability for high-level work and on the amount of improvement they will have to make both in skills and, more importantly, in how they approach the job and life in general, before they can hope to make anything of themselves.

The entertainment attraction of Hell's Kitchen is in awaiting the next disaster and Ramsay's explosively frustrated reaction to it, but there is much more to this reality program, and much to learn about what it takes to make it in this world. As Hell's Kitchen shows every week, success is no accident, and those who want to get ahead have to pay their way like anybody else. The real success in Hell's Kitchen as in life in general, is for those who learn to serve others.

From Karnick on Culture.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Politics of Pop Culture Popularity

Dixie Chicks on Entertainment Weekly cover

There is a mad variety of entertainment choices available to the average American today, and celebrities would do well to remember that. Their popularity is always due in large part to a magical combination of talent (not always necessary in any great amount), guile, ambition (absolutely essential), and pure luck that creates a desire on the part of total strangers to welcome these people into our humdrum lives. The one thing that all celebrities have in common—the only thing they all have in common, in fact—is that a very large number of people like them, often for no readlly identifiable reasons.

Television network programmers know that this mysterious likeability is the number one factor in success in that medium, and it is true throughout the Omniculture. There are just so many choices out there that people can never be forced to accept something from someone they don't like. They can always go elsewhere.

That is why celebrities strive so hard to create and maintain a particular public image. And it is also why likeable celebrities do incredibly stupid things that make people cast them aside like yesterday's poop. They don't understand how fragile likeability really is. Apparently they entirely forget the lessons about human fickleness they should have learned indelibly in high school.

To wit . . .

Reuters reports that the pop country band the Dixie Chicks have changed their tour schedule to avoid "red states." As you'll recall, Natalie Maynes, the group's lead singer, said she was ashamed of being from the same state as President Bush, while onstage at a concert before thousands of people. Then the band appeared naked on the cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine with angry words scrawled on their bodies, then Maynes apoligized for criticizing the president, and then she took back her apology.

For some obscure reason, the band's fans decided they didn't want to support them any more and could do without their music. Reuters writes:

Country-pop trio the Dixie Chicks, still feeling a backlash for criticizing President George W. Bush, have been forced to mostly abandon the American heartland and Deep South on their latest tour

Facing lackluster ticket sales in many U.S. cities where radio stations had banned their music to protest the band's anti-Bush remarks, the Chicks' promoters have revised their tour with new stops in Australia and Canada.

Only four Southern U.S. cities remain on the newly overhauled 49-date concert itinerary posted days ago for the Chicks' "Accidents & Accusations" trek, their first major tour in three years.

Those four -- Nashville, Atlanta, Dallas and Austin, Texas -- were pushed back about two months to the end of the tour, now set for late November and early December.

Dropped from the original tour schedule released in May were 14 stops in the Southern and Midwestern regions that traditionally form the core of fan support for country music acts.

Cities stripped from the original itinerary include Indianapolis, St. Louis, Houston, Memphis, Greensboro, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida.

The band and its promoter, Concerts West/AEG Live, say the overall number of North American dates remains the same.

But there is no question the Chicks are spending a lot less time in Dixie than they did during their 2003 tour, when Southern stops accounted for nearly a third of the 57 cities they visited.

According to the band's representatives as quoted in the Reuters story, radio stations have cut back on free promotions of the Dixie Chicks tour, which has resulted in the slow ticket sales in several Southern and Midwestern cities. They say the drop in sales is therefore the stations' fault, and not any decline in the band's overall popularity.

Of course, when those stations were giving the band free promotion, market capitalism was a very good thing indeed.

And the fact that instant wealth and worldwide celebrity tempted a young woman and her satellites to think that she was more than just a stupid singer had nothing to do with it.


From Karnick on Culture.

Did Condi (and John Bolton) Get the Goods?

Anything that issues from the snail-like UN leaves a trail of slime, so I'm sure that its latest Lebanon resolution leaves plenty of slipperiness for the slippery. For those so inclined, the nits-and-bolts analysis is best left to places like the excellent Belmont Club.

But I liked what I heard in our Secretary of State's address before the UN Security Council. Even though she apparently had to clear it all with France.

First, a pathetic UN force of 15,000 (all UN "forces" have been pathetic post-Korean War) will join the pathetic 15,000-person Lebanese Army in creating a demilitarized zone in southern Lebanon. So far, so good.

But what truly legitimizes a state or government, in principle and in fact, is a monopoly on the use of force. There will be an official embargo on all arms and war materiel entering the country that aren't approved by the Lebanese government. That's the good part. No more Iranian missiles to be imported by Hizbollah while the government and citizenry throw up their hands---a true first step in making the Cedar Revolution, which cast out the Syrian military presence and asserted Lebanese self-determination, a sovereign reality.

We, the West, have fallen into a moral/legal/political sinkhole since the Second World War. Whether we like it or not, the West, as claimant to being the conscience and moral arbiter of the "civilized world," has de facto accepted the proposition that a people is liable for the actions of its regime. Hitler set his terror V-2 rockets upon the British people; the Empire of Japan killed, raped and enslaved the civilians in its sphere of domination indiscriminately.

The Allies, namely the UK and US, responded with the terror bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, and much more. The velvet glove of reason and its morality was off. In the end, there is only survival, a human truth that Thomas Hobbes stumbled upon.

Accordingly, the West has not technically declared war since World War II, because declaring war is now by our own precedent an acknowledgement and admission that we have entered into a death struggle, where there are no civilians and we are all combatants.

Of course, al-Qaeda and Hizbollah have already declared war. The West's only solution to its moral problem is to link them to statehood. Israel, whose moral tradition is far more linked to ethics than religion, is quite sanguine with the Palestinians electing a Hamas government. A crime committed by Hamas is a crime committed by the Palestinian people. Modern Israel, as a people and a nation, has been under that constraint for its entire existence, so placing Lebanon and the nascent (and inevitable) Palestinian state under that same hammer simply levels the playing field. A state and the people in it become liable for the crimes committed under the cover of their roof.

And so, even if the Bush/neocon experiment of shtupping democracy on Iraq has failed in creating a beacon of peace and freedom, it hasn't failed as an experiment in shtupping self-determination and moral responsibility, and their consequences, on the Arab/Muslim world. You play the game (and no one can avoid playing the game), you pay the price. Plausible deniability, and protestations of innocence, are dead.

On first blush, I think Condi and Bolton did damn OK.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Governor Of The Northern Province: Books: Randy Boyagoda,Nw

My friend Randy Boyagoda has published his first novel, Governor Of The Northern Province. Go and buy and enjoy.

NYC Fringe Festival

The New York International Fringe Festival opens today in the city that never sleeps, kicking off 16 days of theater in 20 venues. It's an offshoot of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which I wrote about recently in these pages. As I've noted earlier on this site (here and here), an interesting and essential aspect of the Omniculture is that "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."

Confirming this tendency of the counterculture to become the culture, the New York Daily News reports that "the Fringe Festival didn't start out as a breeding ground for the Great White Way. The Present Company, a nonprofit Off-Off-Broadway organization, began hosting festivals in Scotland in 1966 in order to showcase unspoken talent."

But the fringe has become increasingly absorbed into the mainstream:

Since then, the Fringe has exploded into a world-famous phenomenon, much to its founders' surprise. "To last 10 years as a cultural institution in this city is very impressive," says Lasko.

An important element of that absorption has been the effect on the Festival's content. With big theatrical producers, critics, media, and financial interests prowling the venues, the Festival has become a very effective place for playwrights and producers to audition their wares before people who can help them enter the real mainstream, moneymaking world of culture. That means that many of the plays presented will be not much different from what is already making money on Broadway and off. Or perhaps not at all different. For example, the Daily News story lists the following offerings the writers find most interesting:

"The Bicycle Men," a musical about an American who crashes his two-wheeler and ends up in a wacky French town.
Why we're psyched: It won a Fringe award for excellence a couple years back.

"Faded," about a tabloid reporter on the trail of a scandalous photo of a U.S. President and a sex goddess. (JFK and Marilyn Monroe, anyone?)
Why we're psyched: The author, Robert Dominguez, is a Daily News staffer.

"The Fan Tan King," a musical about a Chinatown gambling bigwig.
Why we're psyched: The book is by C.Y. Lee, who wrote "Flower Drum Song."

"Perfect Harmony," a mockumentary about a high-school a cappella group.
Why we're psyched: The high-school musical has never been a trendier genre.

"Only a Lad," a musical about a punk teenager accused of murder.
Why we're psyched: The score is based on songs by 1980s rock band Oingo Boingo - which gave us film composer Danny Elfman.

"Don't Ask," about an affair between a U.S. Army private and his superior in Iraq.
Why we're psyched: Several hot topics in one.

"Infliction of Cruelty," about some dark doings at a family reunion.
Why we're psyched: Secrets. Lies. Vengeance. Good times.

"Walmartopia," a time-tripping musical set in 2036 about a single mom who goes up against the world's largest corporation.
Why we're psyched: We dig an underdog story - even one that sounds this weird.

"Oblivious to Everyone," about a trashy Paris Hilton wanna-be.
Why we're psyched: Paris-bashing is always a kick.

"I Coulda Been a Kennedy," about an ambitious family scheming to get a kid into the Oval Office.
Why we're psyched: If only to see if there are bad Boston accents.

The Daily News story reports that "Tickets are $15 each at (212) 279-4488 or fringenyc.com, which has a complete schedule."

From Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Stone's World Trade Center Movie

World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's film about the 9/11 attacks, is really about just one aspect of the events of that day. As has been widely reported, World Trade Center tells the story of two New York City Port Authority policeman who went into one of the Twin Towers, as part of a team of five, and were buried in rubble when the first tower collapsed. They survived the subsequent collapses of two other buildings in the seven-building WTC complex, and were rescued after enduring a long time pinned under the heavy debris while gravely injured. The rescue was the result of heroic and courageous efforts by many people whose desire to help others overcame their personal fears and self-interest. That, of course, is exactly what the two policeman and their comrades had done as well by going into that obviously dangerous disaster site.

The film is very skillfully made and is quite moving at times. It is probably best described as a disaster movie of very high quality.

It could have been more. The film resolutely avoids dwelling on the deeper causes of the disaster, downplaying the people behind the 9/11 attacks and the fact that they deliberately did this to innocent strangers. The film shows with apparent sympathy a Marine who decides to go to war against the perpetrators of the atrocity, and there are other occasional, fleeting references to the fact that the collapse of the Twin Towers was the result of a deliberate act of mass murder, but director Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff keep the focus firmly on the men in the rubble, their loved ones, and their rescuers. That keeps the film on the positive side of things, showing how good people live their lives and give of themselves to serve others. And to concentrate on that story is certainly the filmmakers' prerogative.

In addition, the film includes a large amount of Christian imagery and actions that add weight and context to the events of the story. That is all to the good.

However, the full story of 9/11 also involves the other side of things, a story of people who want the world to be their way regardless of what it takes to force it into their intolerant, hateful mold, who resent others' success and happiness, who actively work to hurt innocent people and are willing to give their lives in order to bring death to those they hate. That is the other side of the 9/11 story, and it is in fact what set in motion the events that brought out the love, hope, faith, and heroism of the people at the center of Stone's story. It is the side of things that makes the foreground events so much more meaningful. We bring that story to the theater ourselves, but World Trade Center would have been much more than a highly impressive disaster film if Stone and Berloff had been willing to bring out that contrast themselves.

From Karnick on Culture.

Democratic Party Advertisement: Weasels Wanted

I'm not a fan of weasel words. I think a man or woman should say what he or she thinks straightforwardly. Still, there's something we admire called statesmanship. Temperance, prudence, wisdom.

If I were an officeholder of the Democratic party, I might be tempted to say something like this:

"I congratulate Ned Lamont on his primary victory over Joe Lieberman, and I hope he becomes the next senator from the Great State of Connecticut.

As a committed member of the Democratic Party, I would vote for him.

But neither can I stand against Senator Lieberman, who's now running for re-election as an independent. My friendship, admiration, and respect for his conscientious service to our country, despite our disagreement about the Iraq war, forbid me to work for his defeat. And so, I will place my trust in the people of the state of Connecticut to make the right decision.

May the best man win."

Of course, only after the smoke had cleared (and not before), opportunists like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid didn't miss a beat, gleefully jumping on Joe Lieberman's grave as if boogie-ing to a Gary Glitter tune. Do You Wanna Touch Me There? Vultures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton predictably maneuvered themselves to Ned's side just in time for his victory speech.

Reminds me a bit of an infamous story where Don King started out on the heavily-favored Joe Frazier's side of the ring but had made his way to George Foreman's corner by the time Big George had totally demolished Smokin' Joe by the fifth round.

By comparison to the Don Kings and the current crop of Democratic leadership, give me a weasel over an opportunist anytime. Help wanted.

Word Up, Middle Eastern-style

Dear People of Lebanon:

The first sortie by our air force over your town isn't dropping bombs, but dropping this leaflet. We try to be good that way.

Congratulations on your latest attempt at democracy and self-determination that you called the Cedar Revolution, after your national tree. As you well know, Israel recently occupied your country for 20 years, but left of its own accord.

The Cedar Revolution kicked out the Syrian army. Good for you. Unfortunately, you let the stateless terrorist group Hizbollah into southern Lebanon, along with 10,000+ offensive rockets, all pointed at Israel.

That's unacceptable to us, and we hope you'll understand why. We know that you figured they were our problem, but we regret to inform you that Hizbollah is your problem, too.

Please leave town whilst we kick their ass.

Your Neighbor Israel, Which Has a Lot of Jews in It


Dear Jews:

Die. You are pigs and monkeys.


P.S.---Here comes a rocket or six. They should touch down a few seconds after you read this. Don't say you weren't warned.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Stone's WTC Disaster Flick

I know, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center opens today, but I'm busy working, so I'll just save that one for later.

Does that seem crass? Is it an obligation on my part, as a critic and, much more important, as a citizen? Is this like church?

WTC poster image

I don't think so. I was very impressed with the earlier theatrical treatment of these events, United 93. It showed in microcosm the struggle that was to come in the War on Terror, and it was very moving and intense.

Stone's film, however, strikes me as just another disaster flick, like Poseidon or Earthquake.

Earthquake poster imageHow can I say such a beastly thing? What is the matter with me?

As Debbie Schlussel points out in today's issue of FrontPage magazine,

Who caused the attacks of 9/11? Who hijacked planes? Who flew them into the Towers? In "World Trade Center," it's hard to tell. Nicholas Cage's cop rescued from beneath the ruins speaks of "the evil"; a Wisconsin cop twice mentions the "bastards"; And a marine speaks about the need to "avenge this." But what is the evil? Who are the bastards? What needs to be "avenged"? Stone deliberately whitewashes the clear-cut answer to these questions—extremist Islam's attack on Americans. . . .
"World Trade Center" is more notable for what it leaves than for its content.
There isn't a single mention of Islam. Or Bin Laden. Or Mohammed Atta. Were there really 19 hijackers on the planes? No mention of them in this movie.

As Schlussel writes,

this one is like "The Poseidon Adventure," with concrete instead of water. And Nicholas Cage instead of Shelley Winters. Some unnatural force caused water to sink the ship and the World Trade Center towers to mysteriously implode upon themselves.

What is missing from World Trade Center, and what makes it a disaster film instead of a serious drama that deals with its subject from all the important angles, is a strong sense of why the disaster happened. Oh, we all know what happened and why, but Stone is careful not to tell us who is responsible. In a serious drama, there are people on both sides of the central conflict, as in United 93, and we know exactly who these people are and why they're doing what they're doing. But in a disaster film, the central catastrophe is simply a given; it just happened, and the story is about how people respond to it.

That, as the producers of World Trade Center readily admit, is exactly what Stone's new film does. And that is why we have no obligation to rush out to see it, any more than we should rush out to buy DVD copies of Poseidon or Earthquake.

To be sure, there are lessons about human character to be drawn from a well-made disaster film. Some characters respond heroically, some just follow the leaders, some do stupid things that worsen the situation, and some actively resist what is clearly right to do. But all are simply responding to a catastophe for which no one is shown to be fully responsible.

In limiting the scope of his film in this way, Stone misses an important opportunity to draw a serious distinction that would place his heroes' actions in context. For people to risk their lives to help others is surely among the most honorable things we can imagine. And for people to give up their lives in order to kill innocent people is, by contrast, among the most dishonorable, despicable things possible. Stone refuses to make this contrast, and in doing so he limits the meaning of what the emergency workers did. That is a serious flaw indeed.

The emergency workers and police officers who rushed into the Twin Towers on September 11 are impressive heroes. We should continue to honor them. And it is good to be reminded of their sacrifices and why they made them. But going to see a disaster movie that leaves out half the story is no way to do so.

From Karnick on Culture.

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.