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

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

U.S. Media's Election Coverage—Biased, Sure, But Why?

It's Election Day, as you've probably heard, incessantly. The race for control of the U.S. House and Senate, between two political parties representing different sets of powerful, elite fatcats, is a close one, and hence the press coverage has been intense and hysterical.

Given that the story is the potential displacement of the Somewhat Left party (the Republicans) by the Rabidly Left party (the Democrats), Republican partisans have identified an excessive glee among the press, who are widely and accurately documented to be composed almost entirely of leftists, in documenting every misstep and failure of Republican politicians and candidates, and giving Derms a free ride even when they make entirely outrageous statements.

There have indeed been plenty of both—Republican idiocies and Democratic demogoguery—to go around, but it appears reasonable to observe that the preponderance of coverage has criticized the Republicans more strongly than it has done to the Democrats.

That, however, does not necessarily indicate a manifestation of widespread liberal bias among the press, argues Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. Kurtz says what the press really want not is not a leftist government but an interesting one:

After six years of almost uninterrupted GOP control of Washington, divided government would produce what reporters like best: conflict. A spate of investigations and subpoenas of the Bush White House, led by such new committee chairmen as John Dingell, Henry Waxman, Barney Frank and Charlie Rangel, would liven things up for the capital's chroniclers. Even the mundane prospect of the Democrats being able to bring their preferred legislation to the floor -- though most bills might never make it past the president's veto pen -- would give journalists a new script. Divided government may or may not be good for the country, but it's great for the Fourth Estate.

In retrospect, the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 was a godsend for journalism. The rise of Newt Gingrich, the government shutdowns, the Whitewater investigations, the Monica investigations, the overwhelmingly party-line vote to impeach Bill Clinton, all fueled thousands of stories about scandal and showdowns that boosted ratings and book sales.

One-party rule is, let's face it, rather predictable, especially with a Republican Congress that has basically gotten out of the oversight business during the Bush presidency. . . .

There surely may be some instances of liberal bias. Maybe the press made too much of Sen. George Allen's "macaca" moment, or wallowed too long in the finger-pointing fallout from the Mark Foley page scandal. At the same time, the press can't very well ignore the rising death toll in Iraq, which is also being cast as bad news for President Bush and his party.
I think that Kurtz is correct to observe that the press are indeed gleeful about the possibility of having new stories to write if the Democrats should take one or both Houses of Congress.

Nonetheless, it appears to me that this cannot be the press's ultimate motivation for skewing coverage to favor the Democrats. If the past six years have been anything, they have certainly been interesting. There has been plenty to write about. Yes, with the Democrats out of power there has been no great flood of horrendously asinine congressional investigations into allegations of perfidy in the executive branch, but the press have taken care of that themselves, after all.

Whereas the big congressional scandal hearing was a ridiculous investigation of the Major League Baseball steroid situation, nothing came of the allegations about the Bush administration illegally identifying a CIA agent to the public. That is a good thing, actually, because the allegations were entirely false. The revelation was in fact done by an opponent of the Bush administration. Congressional hearings headed by the President's enemies would not have changed that fact, but they would surely have destroyed the people falsely accused, as they almost did anyway thanks to the press's outrageously biased and out-of-control coverage of that entirely trivial matter.

The press have thoroughly taken on the adversary party role during the past four years, and they have done their level best to try and to convict the Republican Party of incompetence and malfeasance. (The Republicans, for their part, have done all they could to provide plenty of indications of each.)

The press haven't simply been searching for a more interesting story. They have indeed been trying to influence events and move the country further to the left. That is their right and prerogative in a society with a free press, but it is important that we not pretend that things are other than as they are.

The media's treatment of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress has been justified by the mistakes and misjudgments of each, but the press's treatment of the party currently in power and the runup to today's elections has indeed been motivated by a desire that the Democrats would win in order to institute a leftist government of the sort that the press overwhelmingly favor personally.

From Karnick on Culture.

Election Eve Report: Final Add

It's very late out here on the West Coast. Even later for you East Coasters, so late that you're now reading this tomorrow, and me, I haven't got even up yet.

As I write this, CNN is re-re-running their weeklong anti-GOP hit piece series, Broken Government. I predicted CNN would have a surprise for Election Eve, but not even I could predict they'd be so lame to just go with re-re-runs.

This Day in History, 2006: By the time the revolution was televised, everybody had gone to bed.


Monday, November 06, 2006

My wine, Jackie C., S-word, Blago's bishop

* On reading Sun-Times about Mike Ditka Wine:

Soon TBA: Jim Bowman Wine. Piquant and zesty, sure to rouse the laziest taste bud, and good for you too. Chockful of vineyard and crushing-floor vitamins. Grapes beaten down by bare-footed Venetians stomping to tune of "Figaro." Soon, at your nearest drug store or cheap-wine location.

* On reading Chi Fed of Labor endorsement ad (from people who HATE Wal-Mart) filling page 7, not linkable:

Union candidates don't wear glasses: Todd Stroger, heir to his stroke-disabled father’s Democrat fiefdom, namely the Cook County board presidency, is pictured unusually lens-free. Only two Republicans make an appearance, of 37 county candidates. Only Stroger has a pic, being the union candidate held most important by biggies with ad purse strings. The two Republicans are W. suburban Elmwood Park president Peter Silvestri for county board, and Jill C. Marisie running uncontested (so why the endorsement?) for judge. The latter is the late mobster Jackie (the Lackey) Cerone's granddaughter, for what that's worth. Her father, Jack P. Cerone, of NW suburban Des Plaines,

earned a reputation as a labor lawyer, fighting for union workers in numerous contract fights with Chicago city officials -- from the 1980s when he fought for Laborer garbage collectors and seasonal street cleaners to the late 1990s when he salvaged victory for the Decorators Union in a trade show row.

Thus the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, in a 10/22 story about his taking over a Pittsburgh brewery. He's a solid union man, to be sure.

* On reading about ex-Socialist now Green Party Ill. goober-natorial candidate Richard Whitney excoriated and warned against by Republican opponent Judy Barr T.:

He says he wouldn't shoot self in foot by volunteering his Socialist past but wouldn't deny it either. Has plausible defense: As young man with care for "working man," he fell for socialism, later rejected it. Which is a recommendation, if anything. His are "mainstream" ideas, he protests.

But what's not socialism-inspired about them?

1. Mandated wages -- as gross an interference in property ownership as the supposed mainstream will reveal

2. Higher income tax -- the more you earn, the more you pay

3. Universal tax-paid health care -- same-old same-old for all and consequent health care dilution.

Each is government-induced wealth distribution that undercuts overall prosperity.

* On reading about "Bishop" Arthur Brazier (consecrated by what other bishop, reporting to what presiding bishop or pope or even district conference?), distinguished pastor of black mega-congregation Apostolic Church of God on S. Side, telling members to ignore reports of corruption and vote for Gov. Blago anyway:

How would you Episcopals or Catholics or Methodists (or members of Congregation B'nai whatever) like that? Not very much, I ween.

Flicka Flick

Critics tend to look down on movies like Flicka, the new film based on the oldtime bestselling novel My Friend Flicka, which has been filmed a couple of times previously, about an adolescent girl who adopts a wild horse against her parents' wishes.

Flicka fails to undermine bourgeois values, show the family to be an outmoded and socially destructive phonomenon, attack free enterprise as an invitation to greed and exploitation, and demonstrate the superiority of personal autonomy and pleasure-seeking over selfish, socially destructive notions such as duty, honor, and decency.

Alison Lohman and Tim McGraw in Flicka

But that is what makes the movie most interesting and gives it a certain amount of moral complexity.

Flicka vividly depicts how individuals' desires can conflict with others' needs, but it comes down strongly on the side of duty, honor, self-sacrifice, and other such traditional notions. Alison Lohman plays Katy McLaughlin, a sixteen-year-old Wyoming girl whose family operates a horse ranch that is on the verge of bankruptcy. She finds a wild mustang horse which she wishes to tame and train, but her father objects.

Naturally, Katy decides to defy him in secret, surreptitiously working to make the exceedingly wild horse trust her. Meanwhile, her father and mother struggle to keep the ranch from financial ruin.

The family conflicts in the film are highly plausible and presented with great realism and persuasiveness. Even though we never believe that the family will be torn apart (this is, after all, a film geared toward children), we do see and understand how easily that can happen but for the strong values and leadership of both parents, played superbly in the film by Maria Bello and Tim McGraw. Flicka never skims over the frustrations of family life, which makes its treatment of the conflicts, and their ultimate resolution, that much more affecting.

The theme of freedom is strong in the film, and it is explicitly connected to contemporary political concerns in a nonpartisan, general way, which works very well. One can see an influence of the great Hollywood director Howard Hawks behind the film, with its strong female characters, thematic conflicts between the individual and the group, love for the American West, assertion of the value of individualism and political and social freedom within a conservative context, and the evident sheer joy in hard work and personal accomplishments.

As those familiar with the book or the previous film versions will be well aware, several other difficulties and conflicts arise, and all ultimately works out as it should. In that way, too, Flicka resembles a Hawks film. Ultimately, it does have a couple of sappy moments—when, for example, unhappy events tend to happen during rainstorms—but overall it's an interesting, morally engaging film that merits more credit than most critics are likely to give it. Let's hope audiences make up for it.

From Karnick on Culture.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Deep Meaning of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat

Naturally it's tempting for critics to see Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as a satire against political correctness, as Peter Suderman has gamely attempted to do on National Review Online. When something gives us pleasure, we really want to believe that it is good. But that's simply not the way things work, and it is certainly not the way Borat works. Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian who wrote and stars in the film based on his HBO TV show, makes no attempt to tie the film's vulgar humor to American "political correctness" codes or any other political meaning.

On the contrary, the film is simply a string of jokes based on the grotesqely ignorant central character's lack of decorum regarding bodily functions, presumably as a result of his being brought up in a primitive, poverty-stricken country in southwest Asia.

What the movie really delivers is lots of jokes about sex, defecation, sex, religion, sex, mental deficiencies, sex, cruelty to all creatures less powerful than oneself, sex, ethnic prejudice, sex, and sex. Borat simply is not political, and there is in fact nothing useful that we can learn from it, despite critics' attempts to shoehorn some meaning into it.

On the contrary, Cohen's jokes about rape, for example, are funny and politically incorrect, but they manifest a lack of decorum, they don't stand back from it and make a point about manners and morals. What point, after all, could those particular jokes make? That some people don't take rape seriously enough? That is not a point worth making, and I don't believe for a moment that Cohen is attempting to do so. He's just being funny.

Still shot from Borat movie

And the film is very funny indeed. It's just a string of dirty jokes, and most of them work pretty well, if the audience with whom I saw the film is any indication.

Yes, we do see, in absentia, the value of manners, decorum, and the flush toilet, etc., but that's not really a lesson for most people, nor does it have anything to do with political correctness codes. It's just funny.

There is an interesting moment late in the film, an extended reference to the film comedy team Laurel and Hardy. I think that the comparison is apt. Although Borat bases its humor on subject matter that would not have been acceptable during the era when the great comedy pair made their movies (and is probably not exactly acceptable even today), it is clear that its makers had the exact same goal as the people behind the Laurel and Hardy movies: to make people laugh, and nothing more.

And there's nothing wrong with that. It's good to have a nice laugh once in a while. We shouldn't have to make excuses for that. And that's good, because there is no excuse for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. And I doubt that Cohen wants anybody making excuses for him. So I won't.

From Karnick on Culture.

The head's the thing . . .

. . . followed by the lede (opening sentence).  They sell stories.  So editors look to heads and ledes.  Advice to them: send your copy desk to word school.  Put them to reading verse, including blank verse such as this from Poetry for October:

Look! I bear into this room a platter piled high with the rage my mother felt toward my father!  . . . .  She — 

just kept her thoughts to herself.  She just —

followed him around the house, and every time he turned a light on, she turned it off.

Look.  If that’s not to your liking, have them read E.B. White or Joseph Addison.  Whatever you do, promote language, so that your front page does not have this for a head:

Economy's political sway shifts

followed by the (not) clipped and biting:

Seemingly positive numbers don't guarantee boost to party in power

Look, it’s not an ax murder, salable on its face.  It’s the economy, and I won’t, a la James Carville, add “stupid.”  Or is it?  Look to the lede:

With so much change sweeping America's workforce, the Republicans are discovering it is not necessarily easy to gain political traction from a generally favorable economy.

Is this what you call punching up the news?  Are discovering?  Not necessarily easy?  Political traction?  Reader, pay attention.  Your mind wanders.  It’s your daily Trib before you.  Wake up.  The second ‘graf, a logical enough follow-through:

The October jobs report showed unemployment fell from 4.6 percent to 4.4 percent, while employers added 92,000 non-farm jobs to their payrolls. Also, the government revised upward the number of jobs created in August and September.

Unemployment down, new jobs, more than we thought!  We’re getting somewhere now, except for punching down the news, which is not that the report showed something or government revised something, both subjects of their sentences when they should be add-ons: according to the report, the government said, etc.  Does the writer, William Neikirk, think the news is that a report showed or government revised?  If so, he’s been too long in Washington, whence this story comes.

Anyhow, we haven’t yet got to the good part, as apparently understood by the writer and contained in the third ‘graf:

But structural changes that have roiled the job market in recent years have changed the meaning of these numbers for many Americans, particularly less-skilled workers who are finding it more difficult to remain in the middle class.

Is this the lede he wishes he could have used, describing as it does the cloudy lining of the silver cloud?  It’s as if Neikirk couldn’t bring himself to blare forth this excellent pre-election news. 

Maybe that’s what makes his exposition weak and flabby.  He may be conflicted, poor fellow, desiring but not quite willing to announce to his readers that this excellent economic news doesn’t matter, because this year it’s not the economy (stupid), which it used to be when Democrat James Carville said it was.

"Broken Government"---CNN Slimes GOP (file under: Dog Bites Man)

CNN ran an admirably comprehensive hit job on the GOP this week. If CNN is where you get your news, no sane person could refuse to vote Democrat across the board this Tuesday.

The series was called Broken Government. Do follow the link. And then they ran a marathon of the whole deal Friday night, with more reruns to come this weekend. (Management didn't want to be left out either---it's a team effort.)

Didn't watch the whole thing meself because I went out, but it wasn't fit to leave on to keep Middie the Wonder Dog company. (She's an independent.) Even Jeff Greenfield, the closest thing to a centrist on the network, rounded up disaffected conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and, regrettably, Bill Buckley. Hisself.

Broken Government? With "Broken Government," "Where the Right Went Wrong," and "Do Nothing Congress" titles on the bottom right of your screen at all times---gee, tell us how you really feel, CNN. Oh yeah, and one called "Two Left Feet." Tell us how you think we should vote on Tuesday, CNN. Or why not just call the whole shebang Bush and the Republicans are Total Toejam and be done with it?

Now, admittedly, talkradio has been a nonstop Republican ad of late. But they don't pass themselves off as news. By contrast, their own website describes their own partisan propaganda as "CNN 'investigates.'" Investigates, my eye. Trolls, mebbe. Polemicizes, certainly. The only hope for the GOP on Tuesday lies in the fact is that fewer people watch CNN anymore.

The honest consumer of the news of the day must shudder to think what they have planned for Monday. Just stop calling yourselves a News Network, is all I ask---just dispense with the pretentions to actual journalism. At least when O'Reilly and Hannity come on Fox News Channel, I know I'm getting the op-ed page, and so does everybody else.

As for Mr. Buckley, I'm sure his criticism is accurate and that he was happy that in his dotage the establishment media asked his opinion once again after a long absence from the public eye, what with his retirement as National Review pontiff and the cancellation of his TV show Firing Line. (I do hope he didn't volunteer himself as a quisling in the defenestration of his own dear GOP.)

Because the question CNN neglected to ask Mr. Buckley, and neglected to ask at all during this cornucopia of political cant is, Can the Democrats Do Better?

As I'm becoming fond of saying, anyone who thinks things can't get any worse has no imagination.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Arnold Tries To Screw Us. Again.

Well, out here on the left coast, it's Arnold 24/7. And four, as in the next four years, since he is in the process of dismantling the Democratic nominee, Phil Angelides, a man who never has encountered a public dollar that ought not be used for political advantage, or a tax increase that ought to be opposed.

Anyway: Arnold will win Tuesday by 15-20 points. You would think therefore that he might help the down-ballot nominees running for Lt. Governor, Controller, etc. Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zip, zilch, zero. Indeed, Arnold is trying to sabotage the candidacy of Tom McClintock, a truly principled man in a tight race for Lt. Governor. Arnold doesn't want a man of integrity across the hall, in that it would make him look ever-smaller by comparison. And so yesterday Arnold told some reporters that McClintock is "totally wrong" because he opposes Arnold's porkfest of bond proposals on the ballot. This utterly gratuitous slap at McClintock illustrates the one central, overridding truth about Arnold: He cares about Arnold, and nothing else.

Obama Besmirched

Illinois’ own Sen. Barack Obama is on the hustings these last days before Nov. 7, and so he’s in the news for that.  But he’s in it in Chicago newspapers for taking a favor from the state’s currently best known indicted political insider.

Chi Trib’s John Kass explains it pithily here, following on yesterday’s Chi Trib reporting. Sun-Times’s Mark Brown explains it here.  Upshot is, O. dipped a toe into corruption of the sort he condemned in Africa or didn’t know what he was doing, either of which tend to smudge the image that attaches to a presumably idealistic newcomer with “the flawless, unlined visage of a carefree young movie idol.”

There’s another matter, his falling into line with the presumably non-idealistic old-timers when it comes to local politics, specifically his failure to endorse a fellow Dem reform candidate in the primary last April followed by his endorsement of the feckless, reportedly hapless son of an old-timer now incapacitated and unable to run.  Chi Trib’s Eric Zorn gives this the attention it deserves.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

New Hand on Deck

Today marks the debut of our newest crewperson, Jim Bowman, and we're pleased as punch to have him aboard.

Jim's a former reporter and religion editor for the Chicago Daily News and columnist for the Trib. He's also written a number of books on corporate histories as well as two on religion: Priests at Work: Catholic Pastors Tell How They Apply Church Law in Difficult Cases and Bending the Rules: What American Priests Tell American Catholics.

No kool-aid drinker, he. Jim himself is an ex-Jesuit who's now married and is a father of six who's spent a fair amount of time fighting their miseducation in the Oak Park (IL) school system. He's best known on the blogosphere as the gadfly known as Blithe Spirit who regularly catches a wee bit of liberal bias at Chicago Newspapers, The Blog. He'll keep the blog open for business (he'll certainly never run out of material), and we'll link to it on this page under "More From Our Crew."

You don't mess around with Jim. Word up.

Although he writes that he has not yet achieved his goal of becoming a superlative human being, he seems A-OK by me. We're sure you'll enjoy his sharp pen and good cheer, and to Jim we offer a warm and hearty welcome, matey.

The Cardinal is for Burning?

Euros and Democrats blame us for our bad image abroad, but so does at least one prince of the church. That’s Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who told a seminary audience in Chicago a few days ago:

“The world distrusts us not because we are rich and free. Many of us are not rich, and some of us aren't especially free. They distrust us because we are deaf and blind, because too often we don't understand and make no effort to understand," he said.

"We have this cultural proclivity that says, 'We know what is best and if we truly want to do something, whether in church or in society, no one has the right to tell us no.' That cultural proclivity, which defines us in many ways, has to be surrendered, or we will never be part of God's kingdom."

He has talked this way before. In September, 2002, at a downtown club luncheon sponsored by Lumen Christi Institute, a U. of Chicago campus organization, and the Catholic Lawyers Guild, he fingered the U.S. government as the enemy.

Church leaders could one day be prosecuted for refusing to ordain women and bless homosexual unions, he told this audience, adding that he hoped they would be with him when he went to jail. The going-to-jail scenario is something he could not have imagined two years earlier, he said. He did not say what changed his mind, except to identify it with a pattern of expanding domestic "police power."

Overseas, in his 12 years (1974–86) as a Rome-based world traveller for his religious congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate — something he mentioned also in the recent sermon — he felt welcome as a Catholic, except in communist countries, but suspect as an American. In the U.S. he found the opposite was true, he added, not explicitly excluding Chicago, where being Catholic is definitely not a disability. Indeed, he finds it "hard sometime to be both Catholic and American,” he said, enunciating quite an extreme position.

Americans' "cultural blindness" to the resentment others feel will destroy us "as a nation," he said. Other nations resent us because we "oppress them," he said, or they think we do after "50 years of intense communist propaganda. Be that as it may, "we can't impose our way of life" on others, he said, without specifying how we attempt that, and "we live in a fool's paradise if we don't realize" that.

In his recent comment, he said, “There aren't many places where I can say that, there aren't many places where I would want that to be said for me, and I wouldn't want to be quoted outside of this context.” But the alert and energetic religion writer for the Sun-Times, Cathleen Falsani, was in the congregation taping him, and two days later he was front-page stuff in a city where the front page has special meaning. How naive can a prelate be to speak to a church full of people as if it were just us chickens?

He had apparently felt that way at the Union League Club in 2002, where in the middle of the chickens was a fox in the person of an old, old religion reporter who took notes, for gosh sakes.

And he did so also in remarks a few months ago at a gathering of philosophers at U. of Chicago, where he offered "a strange, Manichean interpretation of twentieth-century history" as understood by a writer in left-leaning Commonweal Magazine. The writer objected to George’s “conflating spiritual and political power in a way that will prove unhealthy both for the church and for the world.” George had said secularization of Europe had started with Woodrow Wilson’s attempting to make the world safe for democracy and in the process excluding Pope Benedict XV from the peace talks.

It’s an interesting enough point, but more interesting is why George goes off on tangents, conflating, to seize on a handy word, his role as religious leader with geopolitical commentator.

Finally, there was George’s bizarre order issued in June, 2002 from an Oak Park pulpit that cameras should be removed and pencils should be put down by reporters, whom he likened to communist spies.

Two months later a Chicago priest, lashing out in a sermon against critics and news reports of his leadership of a home for troubled youth, quoted George: “This is the time, this is the season, for picking on Catholics,” telling the priest, “John, they're coming after you.”

Why stop at him? I think the cardinal would like us all to be very careful.

The Future of Christian Cinema

In commenting on our discussion of Christian cinema (see Karnick on Culture), some visitors brought up a couple of interesting points. One is that any kind of Christian movie ought to be acceptable to both critics and audiences, and the other is that the economic realities of making Christian films today require a more encouraging stance than Barbara Nicolosi and I seem to have taken regarding Facing the Giants.

Clearly both these observations are well-intentioned, but I think that adopting these recommendations would greatly harm any nascent Christian cinema, rather than helping it.

Let's examine them individually.

First, the premise that any kind of Christian cinema ought to be good enough for Christians, with the implied corollary that any Christian film is at least better then what Hollywood puts out, ignores an imporatant reality: what is on the surface of a film does not always reflect what it all actually means. Many Hollywood films and TV programs, despite their often shabby surfaces, carry meanings that Christians should find quite appealing. If you have any doubts about this, click on the "Movies" and "Television" categories on this page and take a look at some analyses of Hollywood products showing how easily they are misinterpreted if we concentrate solely on surface imagery.

The other side of this issue is the fact that an openly Christian movie can carry underlying messages and assumptions that are at best dubious, as in the Left Behind series (especially to non-Evangelicals), or are outright false, as appears to be the case with Facing the Giants.

As Michael Simpson notes in his comment on my immediately previous post, the message of Jesus Christ is the very opposite of "hack sentimentality," as Michael so aptly characterizes this kind of Christian cheerleading.

Hence, it is clear that the ideas behind Christian films should be approached with the exact same attitude toward which we look at the ideas behind mainstream cinema. Let's call it enlightened skepticism.

As to the second point, that Christian cinema requires encouragement, I submit that this is precisely what Barbara Nicolosi and I are both trying to accomplish. As I noted in my Weekly Standard review of Ms. Nicolosi's latest book, one of the contributors rto that volume correctly notes that
Christians are "of the lineage of Michelangelo, Raphael, Shakespeare, Lewis, Tolkien, and Caravaggio," and that "there was a time when Christians were the undisputed masters of art and literature." As many Christians have withdrawn into a "safe" religious subculture, "Mainstream culture has moved on without us, and the world of entertainment has coarsened in our absence."
If we are to encourage people to create art that is both fully Christian and of high aesthetic quality, we must be willing to criticize their products fairly and honestly. Otherwise, they will have no incentive to try to excel, and we will end up with dreck—and garbage with a Christian patina is still worthless.

We do artists no favors when we pretend that good intentions are more important than results. Yes, good intentions are laudable, and we may well acknowledge people's intentions. But it cannot stop there. Bad art is bad, and we should tell the truth about it. Nowhere does Scripture tell us to bear false witness about our neighbors, even if we wish to do so to spare their feelings. A lie is a lie.

Pretending that substandard work is in fact good is a sure way to destroy an artist. Think about it this way: if you were coaching a child at basketball, and their shot mechanics were wrong but they were trying hard, would you really say that they're doing it right? Even if they were badly missing all their shots? To do so would be a contemptible thing.

The same is true with artists of whatever stripe, and it is particularly important when trying to nurture new artists and forms. To pretend that they are doing just fine when they're missing all their shots simply ensures that they'll never make the big leagues. Instead of artists on the order of Michelangelo, Raphael, Shakespeare, Lewis, Tolkien, and Caravaggio, we will get complacent, pointless junk. And that would be worse than having no Christian cinema at all.

There is room in society for both high art and pop culture, and both have an important place and can be highly salutary in their effects. Yet both must meet quality standards if they are to have a good effect on people. And it is up to critics and audiences to encourage artists to try to reach the very highest standards in whatever form their work takes.

Our job as critics and consumers is to tell the truth, with our pens and pocketbooks. If we do that, the artists will find their way, and real creativity will flower. If not, the torrent of lies will kill them all.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Some folks have been wondering...

Good question. Perhaps this video can help...

Sorry about that. I've been busy trying to confront my existential anguish with a little artistic creation, and that's all I've got so far. (Such are the limits of the Self-Taught Man.) Now if you're willing to slum with a Scientologist, we can kick Sartre up a notch and take on our purposeless reality with a little funk (one reviewer assures me it is of the broken porch variety).

Nausea for the masses - with a beat you can dance to!

(For those who'd like to shout along with Beck at home - and in case S.T. is up for a review - here you go.)

A Bad Sign for Christian Cinema

Screenwriter and script analyst Barbara Nicolosi is extremely disappointed by the Christian-produced film Facing the Giants. I have not yet gotten around to seeing the film, but I suspect that Ms. Nicolosi is quite right. She points out that Facing the Giants is the cinematic equivalent of Contemporary Christian Music, bland nonsense meant to make Christians feel good and thereby bring in a steady stream of money from a highly defined market segment, what is known in the entertainment business as a cash cow.

In addition, Nicolosi argues, Facing the Giants is animated by a devotion to what is known as the Prosperity Gospel, a decidedly perverse notion prevalent among some Evangelicals, which holds that God wants believers to be happy and prosperous in this world (which is surely true to some extent), and that he will give believers such earthly success to the degree that they believe in Him and accept his promises. That is an absurd, unbiblical doctrine that is derived from Puritanism but puts an optimistic, positive spin on it. It is an idea, as Nicolosi notes, that utterly denies numerous direct statements in Scripture, especially the words of Jesus Christ himself.

In sum, the Prosperity Gospel is a very bad thing indeed, and it is clear that the story of Facing the Giants manifests it entirely. Given that even the film's defenders are not making any claims of aesthetic value for it, this surely suggests that the film is unworthy of people's admiration.

Now, not everything has to be great art, of course, but if a "message" film has a bad message and little to no artistry, it cannot be said to have much going for it.

As noted on this site earlier and as cited by Ms. Nicolosi in her article, the Fox studio has embarked on an effort to create low-budget theatrical films for the Christian market. The important question at hand is whether the model will be indie films that challenge current atheistic cultural perspectives or a bland and manipulative Christian Contemporary Cinema that uses religious tropes to snag an ignorant and complacent audience.

Right now we have no idea what the answer will be. As I noted earlier, however, Fox will undoubtedly follow the audiences' lead, giving Christians more of the type of film to which they respond with the most support, financial and critical.

The responsibility, then, is now most certainly with the audiences.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Let's Give John F. Kerry a Break

Well, sort of.

For the record and for those who have been on Mars (don't vote!), the 2004 Democrat presidential nominee said this to a college crowd:

"You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

Now, his defenders (the AP?) note that before that he apparently slagged off on our fighting men and women,

The Massachusetts senator...opened his speech at Pasadena City College with several one-liners, joking at one point that Bush had lived in Texas but now "lives in a state of denial."

I just can't locate his remarks in toto, so it's tough to tell if it was just a typical Kerry bad locution or a total non sequitur. (If the tired "state of denial" riff immediately preceded the "stuck in Iraq" part, which would help it make some level of sense, you'd think they'd have found it by now. All we get is ellipses...but that's admittedly a provisional suspicion.)

So if we're to believe that Sen. Kerry wasn't just having a draft-era flashback to when only those without college deferments fought our wars, the explanation must lie elsewhere. (Yeah, this is a Barney Greenwald here):

Sen. Kerry claims the whole thing was a joke gone wrong, and admitted to CNN he needs some remediation in joketelling. And that's the problem. After 35 years in the public eye, he still doesn't know his strengths and weaknesses, or the simple fact of rhetoric and political life that you can't be outright nasty and funny at the same time. (He has specialized in the former, but has been a lifelong failure at the latter.)

What Sen. Kerry claims he meant is that if you stay in school and get good grades and make an "effort to be smart," you won't have a foreign policy that results in our current difiiculties in Iraq.


Now John Kerry fancies himself smarter than George W. Bush, but his own grades weren't any better than Bush's. John Kerry is tragic because he makes an "effort to be smart," but he doesn't get better grades and simply isn't any smarter than the next guy, even when the next guy is elected president of the United States. (Twice.)

So the only way I can accept Sen. Kerry's explanation about his remarks not being an insult to our troops is that he was unwise and a victim of his own overcleverness, trying to miscegenate Bob Woodward's now-cliche with an unrelated speech on education. This I can buy: it's in character. When faced with calling John Kerry unpatriotic or simply a twit, I prefer the latter. I'm a uniter, not a divider. Twits are people, too.

Don't Vote!

The American Association of Retired Persons has a new ad campaign and a website called dontvote.com---the idea being to learn the candidates' positions on things like social security and health care before you cast your ballot.

These are good things, but I'd prefer people know the answers to easy ones like

which party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives (Republicans);
the name of the current U.S. Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice);
the name of the current president of Russia (Vladimir Putin).

The most informed folks read the conservative Weekly Standard and the center-left New Republic.

Next highest are listeners to the Rush Limbaugh show. You could look it up. All things considered, I would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book, but the aforementioned bunch would be my second choice.

(And BTW, anyone who can't answer those three questions should stay away from the polls on November 7. Go shopping instead.)

Friday, October 27, 2006

TVD Makes His Voice Heard

Just got a call asking me to participate in a survey.

"What's in it for me?"

"I'm sorry, nothing, sir."

"Well, is it about politics?"

"No, sir, it's about aluminum foil."

I said I was in favor of it, we both hung up, and went on with our evening.

The Crisis Of Federalism

"Control the coinage and the courts; let the rabble have the rest." -- Shaddam VI, Padishah Emperor (from Frank Herbert's Dune)

In his declining years, Thomas Jefferson brooded over the prospect of what was then called consolidation: the absorption of the prior powers and sovereignties of the states into an ever-expanding federal Leviathan. He foresaw the advancing usurpation of state and local prerogatives, prefigured by "the system of internal improvements:" the many public works programs of the early nineteenth century, for which no Constitutional authority existed. The contributions of Jefferson's own Administration to this process, masterminded in large measure by his Federalist Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, only became clear to him after his time in office. It was a major spur to his participation in the formation of the Democratic Party, which founders Martin Van Buren and Thomas Hart Benton hoped would restore the original Constitutional design.

What Jefferson foresaw is today's reality, though not by the route he feared would bring it upon us. Rather, the nationalization of political discourse has caused the great majority of Americans to eschew participation in their local and state political processes. The "big issues" -- i.e., the ones treated seriously by the Old Media -- are utterly divorced from local politics, as one would expect of matter of war, fiscalism, national tax rates, border control, and so forth. Thus, the Old Media have led the citizen away from the level of political involvement in which his participation is most likely to have an impact, and toward the level at which his votes and his efforts are so diluted as to be all but meaningless.

There's a "connectedness problem" here. The federal government and its policies really do have a greater impact on the typical citizen's life and well-being than state and local governments do. Nor is it merely a matter of income tax rates. For example, local property tax rates in my locale, which are about two-thirds for support of the government-run schools, have quadrupled in the past twenty-five years. Yet this hasn't produced a tax revolt -- because the federal tax code allows homeowners to deduct their state and local tax payments from their federally taxable income, and because the past quarter-century has seen a dramatic decline in the cost of mortgage money, thanks to the manipulations of the Federal Reserve Board.

All that to the side, it remains the case that citizen-participants, themselves uninterested in attaining office, can have the greatest impact at the county, municipal, and state levels, but today are almost completely disengaged from developments at those levels. Even I, as politically conscious as anyone I know, cannot name the candidates for the Town Council, the local State Assembly district, or any of the candidates for state or county judgeships.

In consequence, we have this:

...it is a settled conclusion among seasoned observers that, Congress apart as a separate case, the lower legislatures -- state, county, and municipal -- are Augean stables of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance from year to year and decade to decade, and that they are preponderantly staffed by riffraff or what the police would define as "undesirables," people who if they were not in influential positions would be unceremoniously told to "keep moving." Exceptions among them are minor. Many of them, including congressmen, refuse to go before the television cameras because it is then so plainly obvious to everybody what they are. Their whole demeanor arouses instant distrust in the intelligent. They are, all too painfully, type-cast for the race track, the sideshow carnival, the back alley, the peep-show, the low tavern, the bordello, the dive. Evasiveness, dissimulation, insincerity shine through their false bonhomie like beacon lights....

...Senator Estes Kefauver found representatives of the vulpine Chicago Mafia ensconced in the Illinois legislature, which has been rocked by one scandal of the standard variety after another off and on for seventy-five years. What he didn't bring out was that the Mafians were clearly superior types to many non-Mafians.

Public attention, indeed, usually centers on only a few lower legislatures -- Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois -- and the impression is thereby fostered in the unduly trusting that the ones they don't hear about are on the level. But such an impression is false. The ones just mentioned come into more frequent view because their jurisdictions are extremely competitive and the pickings are richer. Fierce fights over the spoils generate telltale commotion. Most of the states are quieter under one-party quasi-Soviet Establishment dominance, with local newspapers cut in on the gravy. Public criticism and information are held to a minimum, grousers are thrown a bone and not many in the low-level populace know or really care. Even so, scandalous goings-on explode into view from time to time in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Missouri, and elsewhere -- no state excepted. Any enterprising newspaper at any time could send an aggressive reporter into any one of them and come up with enough ordure to make the Founding Fathers collectively vomit up their very souls in their graves. [Ferdinand Lundberg, The Rich And The Super-Rich, published in 1968]

If Lundberg is correct -- and I believe he is -- then government at the lower levels, however insignificant we might deem it due to the treatment it receives from our dominant media, has become indistinguishable from organized crime. Yet state and local power-brokers, as a group, determine who will ascend to the federal stage. Here in New York, they came close to sending both Nelson Rockefeller and Mario Cuomo to the White House.

Is it still the case that a career in politics at the federal level must gestate at the state or local level? If so, how can we stand still for this? If not, what prospect is there for returning to the Constitutional scheme of federalism, or for restoring any degree of effective citizen control over government at any level, given how dilute our influence has been made -- and kept -- by federal machinations?

Beckwith Tenure: Another Brief Out of Retirement Post

I transitioned out of the Reform Club to blog for American Spectator and Southern Appeal, but I was happy to see Christianity Today pointed to our coverage of the Francis Beckwith tenure controversy in their short mention of Beckwith's victory in the tenure fight.

Keep watching for more in this space. You never know what's going to happen with TRC.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

WaPo Page B-10 Local Weather: Hell Freezes Over

At least, that was the first thought to cross my mind when I read this morning, on page A-16, that the Post is endorsing Republican Bob Ehrlich in the Maryland governor's race.

They couldn't come right out and say that Ehrlich has been a good governor, though. To inoculate themselves against the foreseeable outrage this endorsement will call forth from the battlements of Takoma Park and Chevy Chase, the editorial drips with needless snark. The criticisms probably require a local's knowledge to decode: for instance, the "childish blacklisting" of Baltimore Sun employees David Nitkin and Michael Olesker followed a long history of malicious misreporting by this pair. (The Sun tried to whip up a constitutional tempest in this Annapolis two-cup teapot, but were slapped down in quick order by the district court and the 4th Circuit. By the time the Sun lost its appeal, Olesker had already left the paper under the cloud of a plagarism charge.) And the description of Martin O'Malley's recent mayoral performance as "creditable" borders on obscene. Despite the superficial gentrifying of the Inner Harbor and a dandy new ballpark, Baltimore remains a basket case -- probably the worst managed and most dangerous large city on the East Coast.

For sheer unbridled cheek, however, nothing rivals the Post's assertion that in 2002, Ehrlich ran on little more than a "sense of entitlement." He was the underdog in a race against the incumbent lieutenant governor, an innocuous underachieving cypher by the name of Kathleen [cough]KENNEDY[/cough] Townsend.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Jonathan Creek Arrives

Alan Davies as Jonathan CreekToday, at long last, Jonathan Creek comes to DVD in the United States. This excellent British TV mystery series was shown in the UK from 1997 through 2004 and has been seen on BBC America and some PBS stations in the United States. (BBC America still shows episodes occasionally late at night.) There were about two-dozen episodes produced, most about an hour long and three done as 90-minute TV movies.

The series is a rare TV entry in the "impossible crimes" form, and was a real delight for those who like a whacking good detection puzzle.

The title of the program refers not to a place but to the series' main character, a designer of illusions for a celebrated professional magician. Caroline Quentin as Maddy Magellan and Alan Davies as Jonathan CreekIn each episode an assertive young female (Caroline Quentin in the first three seasons, and then Julia Sawalha in the last two) drags Jonathan, played superbly by the comedian Alan Davies, into a mystery involving murder and some apparently magical occurrence. For example, a person will disappear from a room that is locked and observed at all exits, or an elderly woman appears to be able to predict deaths through her dreams. Jonathan investigates reluctantly and not at all intrepidly, using his knowledge of stage illusions to solve the cases and identify the killers.

If this sounds as if it might be a bit arch and old-fashioned, rest assured that it doesn't play out that way on screen, as producer-writer David Renwick makes certain to place at the forefront a strong view of the fascinating mess that is contemporary Britain. Hence the series combines the appeal of both the traditional and the new.

For more on Jonathan Creek, read my National Review Online article here.

For more information about the DVD release, click here.

From Karnick on Culture.

Monday, October 23, 2006

GOP Ad "The Stakes": John Conyers vs. Barry Goldwater

That's the controversial GOP ad that everyone is, and will be, talking about for some time to come, submitted for your consideration.

Reliable but not insane lefty Mark Kleiman, Professor of Policy Studies at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research (no surprise there), offers a strong set of counterarguments, the failed attempt at tongue-in-cheek notwithstanding. The man has a point: the GOP ad is running against bin Laden, yet it's manifest that Bush didn't capture bin Laden, and hasn't exhibited much interest of late in doing so.

But I don't see much difference between the GOP's ad and Kleiman's blog post. In fact, I think Kleiman's counterarguments would make for a fine, and unobjectionable to me, Democrat ad. Bring it on.

It's true that the GOP ad uses an ominous shorthand for things like Democrat opposition against the NSA eavesdropping thing, but Kleiman uses a similar shorthand---"men who hate our freedoms." It's not like this is a break from from his usual even-handed civility. Mark Kleiman is an unabashed partisan, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Now, opposition to the NSA program is red meat for the left/Democrat, but the party as a whole doesn't want to run on it, because it polls badly, and well they know it. And so, the issue is reserved for party functions and the occasional public innuendo. Democrats, especially in communicating with their irreplaceable left (see Nader, R., c. 2000) must now content themselves with code and innuendo.

So, the GOP uses their own (admittedly hamhanded in this case) innuendo to present the meme that Democrats largely oppose things like the NSA program, a meme I believe is accurate.

In the end, we all know what we're all talking about here, don't we? Don't we?

Technique and demagoguery have their uses, but there are underlying facts to things. For instance, Willie Horton was a convicted murderer with a sentence of life without parole and Michael Dukakis (for whom I voted anyway) did support the program that furloughed him, and Horton did commit rape and robbery on his misbegotten field trip.

Democrats on the whole do oppose the NSA program, and I imagine virtually everything about Gitmo and coercive interrogation, too, all three of which memory sez enjoy majority support in the US. I see no indication that a Democrat congress would not move against what I think are useful if not essential anti-terrorism tools. You want to inspect cargo containers instead? (I saw on the Discovery Channel that if laid end-to-end, the containers on a single supercargo ship would measure 30 miles.) Fine, run on it. Inspect away.

The current GOP ad, "The Stakes," purposely cribs from the LBJ campaign (which was headed by secular saint cum "journalist" Bill Moyers, by the way) and its infamous 1964 anti-Goldwater "Daisy" ad, where the little American girl picks the petals off a flower until her ass gets blown up in a nuclear holocaust presumably of Goldwater's making.

Was that unfair? I dunno. Goldwater had refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the Vietnam conflict, and had been quoted as saying, "Let's lob one into the men's room at the Kremlin."

In your heart,
you know he's right.

---Goldwater campaign slogan

In your guts,
you know he's nuts.

---Johnson campaign barb

Goldwater was largely an unknown quantity. He's still a bit unknown to me. He had a lot of sound principles and theories, but it was Einstein who said, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice." Goldwater's ideological support for "states' rights" led him to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Plus, Goldwater seemed kind of weird, and his nomination acceptance speech didn't help much: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice...Let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Sounds scary, defending extremism. Could America at that time be sure that Barry Goldwater wouldn't get us into Armageddon, and that even with 20/20 hindsight, can we say he would have been better than LBJ and the latter's escalation of the Vietnam War and his often-maligned Great Society?

Or that Western Civilization, not to mention America, would have been better off with George McGovern than with Richard Nixon's self-inflicted disgrace and replacement by the unelected Gerald Ford?

Anyone who says things can't get any worse has got no imagination.

I simply do not agree that the problem of militant Islam is a simple matter of law enforcement and that we are not in a war. Militant Islam has already declared war on Western Civilization. You could look it up.

And just on this specific, but also on general principles, I think John Conyers, Ted Kennedy, and Howard Dean are nuts, and there is far more evidence they're nuts than that Barry Goldwater was. And these aren't mere opinionators like Mark Kleiman---these people are the heart of the leadership of the Democratic Party. I might even be OK with Mark Kleiman as Speaker of the House, but God, not Nancy Pelosi.

Things are what they are, and these are the stakes. The GOP ad is little more than innuendo, but since the Democrats are running on nothing but criticism and innuendo, fire meets fire. And I wouldn't be surprised if the GOP and the evil but talented Karl Rove decide to pull the ad or let it fade away, point made, and the opinionosphere can talk about it from now until Election Day.

Unfair? Mebbe. Perhaps true, not to mention effective? Somebody should ask Bill Moyers if he regrets running the "Daisy" ad. Not bloody likely.

It asked a very good question for its time, the most important one.

Enchanting Within Limits—Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige"

The latest movie about magic and magicians, The Prestige, opened this past Friday to middling reviews but good box office, winning the weekend by an estimated $1.1 million over the number two attraction, Martin Scorcese's The Departed.

Actors Hugh Jackman (L), Christian Bale (C) and Michael Caine, stars of the new drama film 'The Prestige' about two rival magicians, pose at the film's premiere in Hollywood, California, October 17, 2006. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

The movie is worth seeing if you don't expect too much. The filmmakers have clearly tried very hard to make it both entertaining and meaningful, but The Prestige just barely manages to achieve either of those goals.

The plot is complex, the characters' motives are often fashionably murky, and the cinematography and visual effects are ambitious and largely diverting. The sets have the cluttered, dirty look that is now common to these period films, in a clear reaction against the tidy, stagy approach once common to Hollywood, the BBC, and PBS's Masterpiece Theater but now largely gone from all three (cf. the most recent theatrical film version of Pride and Prejudice and last year's PBS adaptation of Bleak House).

The main performers—Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine—use every bit of their formidable charisma to keep the viewer interested, and Rebecca Hall also puts in an excellent performance. (Scarlett Johansen, on the other hand, brings nothing special but her looks.) The central premise—a war between two magicians to create the ultimate illusion—is a very promising idea.

Unfortunately, instead of having fun with this, the director and co-screenwriter, Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) takes it all way too seriously, working feverishly to explain the Meaning Behind It All while failing to creat a pair of central characters whom we could wish to be around for a couple of hours. Both Jackman's and Bale's characters are willful, absurdly ambitious, self-important, egotistical, and, well, rather silly. Given the characters' unpleasant personalities and the fact that neither of them is attempting to contributes anything of value to society, it really doesn't matter much which one of them wins. And that is the death knell for entertainment value in a film with a conflict between two people as its central premise.

But it's fun to watch nonetheless, as Nolan is very good at getting us from one plot point to the next, and the fractured, chronologically out of sequence narrative keeps us guessing not only what's going to happen next but what's happening now. Skilled movie watchers will be able to anticipate all the big surprises, but it's still fun to see somebody try to enchant us.

Although Nolan's weakness as a creator of characters (also a problem in his other films) ultimately limits the film, The Prestige does at least succeed in enchanting us a bit with a fun guessing game. But it could and should have been so much more.

From Karnick on Culture.

America's REAL Top Sleuths

TV "Best of" lists are usually at best arguable and often fatuous, but the Sleuth Network's program on America's Top Sleuths is an especially annoying addition.

The comments of the "experts" on the 90-minute program aired recently are nearly uniformly unoriginal, wrong, or both, and the program is thoroughly dull and silly. Its contribution to the public's knowledge and understanding of the film and television mystery genre is absolutely nil, and in fact probably negative. After watching the program, an individual who knew nothing about the subject would know even less that is actually true than they did before.

The choices of greatest detectives, voted on by visitors to the Sleuth Network website, were limited to American film and TV characters. Even so, the final list mysteriously omits many of the most important mystery characters in those media. The bias toward detectives who blunder along without actually doing much thinking is clear.

Peter Falk as Lt. ColumboAlong with a few who actually belong—such as Sgt. Joe Friday, Lt. Phillip Columbo, Jim Rockford, Jessica Fletcher, Thomas Magnum, etc.—the list includes a large proportion of dubious choices. These include Maddie and Dave of the TV series Moonlighting, who may be amusing but are hardly sleuths at all; Detective Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue, an utterly uninteresting character; Lt. Tony Baretta of Baretta, a thoroughly routine tough-guy bore; and Det. Lenny Brisco of Law and Order, who is a likeable fellow as played by the late Jerry Orbach, but certainly not an interesting or unusual detective character.

From the movies, Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs is wrongly included (does she do any thinking at all? and couldn't they have provided her with a personality?), as are Riggs and Murtaugh of the Lethal Weapon movies (come on!).

Sam Spade (specifically, Humphrey Bogart's version from The Maltese Falcon), Harry Callahan (of the Dirty Harry movies), Irwin Fletcher (of Fletch), Harry Drebin (of the Naked Gun movies and TV show), and Marge Gunderson (of Fargo) are at least somewhat justifiable choices by virtue of being actual characters, but hardly a one of them ever does any real thinking.

The list of great sleuths not included is in fact much more impressive than the list itself.

Now, Sir Wilfred Robards, played by Charles Laughton in Billy Wilder's superb film adaptation of the Agatha Christie play is English, so I suppose we can excuse that otherwise egregious omission. But consider the following by no means comprehensive lineup of American detectives from film and TV who didn't make the list. (And I'm sure I'm forgetting some good ones; suggestions welcome). Most of these are characters who actually think at least once in a while, and nearly all of them have interesting personalities and are quite likeable.

This turns out to be a much more interesting and appealing group than the great majority of those on the Sleuth TV list:

Thin Man poster art

Tony Shaloub as Adrian MonkAnd now to the utterly unbelievable omissions, detectives who are truly interesting and unique, and whose stories involve real mysteries:

What an absurd travesty the Sleuth Network list is!

From Karnick on Culture.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Evolution of A Conservative: Should It? Can It? Will It?

Classical liberal attitudes about government have much in common with those of the American (i.e., constitutionalist) conservative, yet the self-nominated conservative tends to ask himself somewhat different questions about a proposed action of government:

  1. Is the proposed action properly authorized by the relevant constitution or charter?
  2. Given the context, does the government possess adequate power to make the proposal plausible?
  3. Can we expect the unintended consequences of the action to be bearable -- that is, given a "reasonable" extrapolation from present conditions, are they likely or unlikely to negate the gains expected from the action?

Many a good idea founders on one of those shoals.

Question 1 is central to the operation of a constitutional order. Granted that there have been liberal polities that have "done without" a formal constitution, such arrangements strike me as excessively dependent on the character and judgment of the governors. The American system, which sprouted from the soil of a revolution against such an order, emphasizes its constitutional foundation, even when the constraints imposed by the Constitution appear to stand in the way of a good idea, for it prevents the implementation, by well-meaning enthusiasts, of a far greater number of bad ideas.

Question 2 is often seen as a matter of practicality -- "how many guns do we have?" -- but is often more germane to constitutional constraints than to the weight of enforcement power. If the enforcement of a proposed law would transgress some constitutional guarantee of private rights, the state lacks the effective power to enforce the law without undermining its overall legitimacy, no matter how many guns it has. The War on Drugs is an excellent example of this sort of legitimacy trap.

Question 3 is one that applies to all human action, but which deserves particular attention from governments. The prevalent liberal attitude -- classical or social-welfarist -- is that a good idea deserves to be acted on: that if the Constitution and enforcement power permit, not to act to uplift society or ameliorate suffering is a form of political nonfeasance. The prevalent conservative attitude is that society is a complex web of relations and tensions, interference with which will have side effects and incentive effects that might not be easily damped, and that these should be pondered at least as deeply as the predicted gains from the proposal. That attitude militates toward a degree of caution about political and social change unappreciated by persons who don't share it.

No one is as smart or knowledgeable as he needs to be to redesign society. "In all societies, some description must be uppermost," wrote Edmund Burke. Therefore, the conservative, sufficiently aware of his limitations and of the history of human error to be humble, proceeds tentatively and with circumspection with even his best notions. For there are many things that, once done, one cannot undo; to set forth rashly on a scheme for re-engineering one's nation is to court disaster on a scale that could blot one's name for centuries to come, no matter how good one's intentions.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Madonna's Crucifixion Reported Cancelled

The American Family Association has announced that NBC TV has decided to delete the mock crucifixion scene that was to appear in a concert special starring rock singer Madonna. As reported on this site on September 20,

NBC TV is pondering what to do about rock singer Madonna's upcoming TV special on the network. A video of the middle-aged pop star's latest concert will be broadcast on the network in November. The problem: Madonna sings one song, "Live to Tell," while suspended on a cross, bound by silver cuffs and wearing a crown of thorns.

Madonna crucifiedCatholic and Orthodox church groups have protested the spectacle. Madonna defends it by saying that it is not "anti-Christian, sacrilegious or blasphemous." She says that in fact Jesus himself would be just like her if he were here today: "It is no different than a person wearing a cross or 'taking up the cross' as it says in the Bible. Rather, it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and to see the world as a unified whole. I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he would be doing the same thing."

At that time, I cited an E! Online article reporting that NBC would probably air the scene, quoting NBC President Kevin Reilly as telling TVGuide.com "several weeks ago that the scene will probably stay put because Madonna 'felt strongly about it' and considers it a highlight of her show."

NBC has apparently changed course under pressure from groups concerned about the scene. As the AFA's "Action Alert" put it:

AFA supporters have won a great victory! The efforts of AFA Online supporters has forced NBC to cancel a scene in the upcoming Madonna special in which she mocks the crucifixion of Christ!

More than 750,000 AFA supporters emailed NBC asking for the scene to be deleted from the special which is scheduled to air in November. NBC saw a potential loss of $25,000,000 and decided to edit out the scene.

We were effective because we stuck together and combined our voices. Our supporters not only emailed NBC, but they also called their local NBC stations. Those stations contacted NBC and the network listened. The scene is gone!

From Karnick on Culture.

CSI Gets Religion Big-Time

CSI star William PetersonReligion is all over the place on network TV series now. Many programs just can't seem to resist bringing it up, and the treatments are typically fairly sympathetic though by no means without nuance or sophistication.

For example: following up on last week's interesting comment at the end of the program, in which CSI team leader Gil Grissom suggests a sense of moral decline in America (see my article of last week on that episode), this past Thursday night's episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation moved thoroughly into spiritual and religious territory.

The story concerns the investigation into the death of a woman found crucified in the sanctuary of a Catholic church, having been beaten previously and strangled by a rosary. Much suspicion is directed toward a Catholic priest and an automobile dealer, both of whom have known the woman since high school. The priest, it turns out, was having an affair with the woman.

The church holds some very unhappy secrets, you see. But the episode is no slam at the church—it is instead a fairly sophisticated look at how flawed human beings try to live out their relationship with God, and how those who don't have such a relationship get on without it.

The events of the story bring out the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of some of the central characters in the series. CSI Sarah Sidle makes it clear that she is pretty much of an atheist, though not adamant about it. Detective Brass shows himself to be very unsympathetic toward belief in God.

Marg Helgenberger (as Det. Catherine Willows) and William Peterson (as Det. Gil Grissom) of CSI: Crime Scene InvestigationThe two central characters of the show, however, are both shown to be Christian and in fact Catholic. Early on in the story, detective Catherine Willows—a former stripper and the daughter of a mobster—who is one of the team leaders, lights a candle in the sanctuary, makes the sign of the cross, and says a prayer for her father. Shortly thereafter, in a conversation with Sarah Sidle, Grissom states explicitly that he is a Catholic, though of a non-churchgoing sort who attaches intense spiriitual significance to everday life—suggesting something of an early-Church point of view, a very interesting and laudable approach to Christian faith and worship.

Earlier, in a rather startling moment at the crime scene, Grissom said to Brass, "Christ died for our sins. I wonder whose sins [the murdered woman] died for?"

This bald statement of the central tenet of Christianity is rather a departure for Grissom, who has never shown adherence to this faith before in the program, to my knowledge.

While expressing a strong faith in Christ, Grissom shows a healthy skepticism toward the church and its human failings throughout the episode. In addition, Grissom interprets the events and spiritual implications of the story events with impressive astuteness.

Gil Grissom has always been the emotional and moral center of the team, and this explicit embrace of Christianity suggests an interesting new direction for the show. It could be a one-off, of course, but that seems unlikely given the explicitness and directness of the religious treatment in this most recents episode, and in any case the knowledge of Grissom's and Willows's spiritual backgrounds will continue to color our perceptions of the show.

From Karnick on Culture.

Murder City, and an Unorthodox TV Detective

Promo shot for BBC TV program Murder CityI've been watching the British ITV mystery series Murder City since it began a few weeks ago on BBC America, up to its season 2 finale which ran last Thursday night. (BBC America has shown all 10 episodes of the program's first two seasons in weekly installments.)

The show is a rather typical police procedural program in most ways. As the BBC promo site notes, the series "stars Amanda Donahoe (L.A. Law, The Madness of King George) as tough, methodical detective, Susan Alembic, and Kris Marshall (Love Actually, Doctor Zhivago, My Family) as Luke Stone, her highly creative, unorthodox junior partner."

That sounds very ordinary, if course, and in most ways the program is indeed fairly conventional. The crimes are interesting, and there is usually something rather odd about them, but that is actually typical of cop shows today.

However, there is one thing that is a bit unusual about Murder City: Amanda Donohoe's "tough, methodical detective Susan Alembic" is actually much more interesting than that description suggests. An alembic is an apparatus that refines or distills something else. Susan Alembic's way of solving crimes is to take the tide of information that comes to her and distill it to understand what it really means. That's what all good fictional (or real) detectives do, of course, and the name is a good choice.

But where Alembic really shines is in her attitude. The grim crimes with which she's confronted do affect her emotionally, although they elicit considerably stronger reactions from her gawky, rather unstable partner and subaltern, Luke. Alembic is married, apparently happily so (and is very disturbed when a criminal suspect's flirtation with her becomes increasingly serious in "Wives and Lovers," season 2 ep. 1, and in particular her own vulnerability to it), and is a highly mature, sensible, confident, and optimistic individual.

These characteristics are unusual for a current-day TV police detective, to say the least, and especially so for a supervisor. Contrast Susan Alembic with Gil Grissom of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Mandy Patinkin's character in Criminal Minds, for example. Where the latter are grim and let the crimes disturb them deeply, Alembic is able to detach herself in a very healthy and exemplary way.

Promo shot for BBC TV series Murder City

Donohoe expresses these attitudes superbly in her vocal inflections and bodily posture: she sounds confident even when she may not be pleased with the way things are going, because she knows she's doing the right thing and therefore all will ultimately work out as well as possible, for she's not preventing it from doing so; and she stands with a posture that is somewhat jaunty and suggests a healthy dose of skepticism. Often she pulls her head back a bit as if to say, "Did you really mean that?"

Even more impressively, Donohoe's facial expressions are perfect: her raised eyebrows and typical half-smile suggest a person who knows and understands what's really going on behind the chaos around her, and who will not be beaten down by either the criminals or the departmant bureaucrats. The camera often reeals an actual twinkle in her eye as she watches another person speak. (The ability to convey thought while listening to another character is to me the mark of a good actor.)

A detective who smiles readily is a precious commodity on television today, and I certainly hope that in any further installments of Murder City this character will retain her charms. Alembic is something of a throwback to great detectives of the past such as Reggie Fortune, Lord Peter Wimsey, Lt. Phillip Columbo, and Banacek, and it would be a very good thing indeed to see more detectives of this sort both in television and in other media such as movies and books.

The final episode of season 2 ran this past Thursday on BBC America. No reruns of the series are scheduled as yet, according to the BBC America website, but the station typically repeats series fairly quickly, so you'll do well to check your listings for this one.

From Karnick on Culture.

Oliver Stone to Revisit 9/11 Aftermath

Oliver Stone, writer-director of numerous melodramatic films, several of which have had controversial political themes, has announced his plans to film Jawbreaker, based in part on the book of the same name by former CIA officer Gary Bernstein. The film will tell the story of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and hunt for terror chieftan Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Director Oliver Stone during a photocall at San Sebastian International Film Festival, September 28, 2006. In a follow-up to his recent 'World Trade Centre,' the filmmaker plans to direct a movie about the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and hunt for Osama bin Laden, Paramount Pictures said on Monday. (Pablo Sanchez/Reuters)

The announcement has brought forth some controversy, because Bernstein's book claims that U.S. troops could have killed or captured bin Laden in 2001 in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, but failed to do so because the Bush administration did not send 800 additional troops Bernstein requested.

That might suggest that Stone plans to do a hit job on the Bush administration in a film released just before the election to decide his successor. Stone, however, says his objective with Jawbreaker will be to "create compelling drama, not a polemic," according to Reuters News Service.

Lending credence to Stone's claim that he is not planning a left-wing polemic is his choice as screenwriter for the second draft of the screenplay for Jawbreaker: Cyrus Nowrasteh, writer-producer of the ABC-TV miniseries The Path to 9/11. Nowrasteh was criticized severely by the left and by prominent Democrats in particular, as they alleged that his assessment of the Clinton's administration's culpability for 9/11 was significantly greater than they thought justified. In the conclusion of the two-part miniseries ,Nowrasteh held the Bush administration to an equally high standard, but complaints from the right were pretty much nonexistent.

Nowrasteh's miniseries, that is, was quite fair, and he correctly refused to exonerate either the Clinton or Bush administrations. In watching the series it was easy to see what led to the tragic mistakes that ended up allowing the 9/11 attacks to occur. Nowrasteh and Stone seem to share a fairly realistic view of how flawed most politicians are and how quickly events can spin out of control. If the two filmmakers are as fair-minded as they were in The Path to 9/11 and World Trade Center, respectively, it might make some politicians uncomfortable but should be an interesting and reasonable treatment of the subject matter.

At least we can have some reason to hope so. With Stone, anything can happen.

For more on the Stone story, see the Reuters article on the announcement, here.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Secular Academics?

Not as much as you might think. A few interesting nuggets from this study. "Born-again" Christians make up almost 20% of the professoriate, but only 1% at elite institutions. Only 69% of professors at "religiously affiliated universities" claim a belief in God. Pretty interesting stuff.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The NC False Prosecution Scandal—and What It Means

Your intrepid correspondent went on record early criticizing Durham, North Carolina, prosecutor Thomas Nifong for his outrageous rush to prosecute three Duke lacrosse players accused of rape by a stripper. On May 3 I wrote my first words on the subject for the Reform Club site, as follows:
The recent case in North Carolina—in which a prosecutor rushed forward with indictments against two Duke University lacrosse players [a third would be indicted shortly after I wrote this] despite a complete lack of plausible evidence against them and openly disregarded undeniable exculpatory evidence regarding one of them, in order to court votes from people of the same skin color as the accuser during primary elections that were then just a couple 0f weeks away—was just one of the more blatant examples of prosecutorial misconduct in recent months.
Subsequently, I wrote in great detail about what I characterized as Nifong's outrageous railroading of the Duke players, in light of two excellent articles on the subject in National Review Online a month later, available here and here. I returned to the story several times, continually pointing out that Nifong had no case and was pursuing it solely as a vote-getting measure, knowing that it would fall apart eventually but hoping he could hold the line until the November elections had passed.

That is becoming an increasingly dicey proposition, as is evident in light of last night's 60 Minutes broadcast and several blistering recent criticisms of the press's unquestioning acceptance of Nifong's absurd claims, such as Kurt Anderson's influential New York magazine piece on the New York Times's obscenely credulous coverage of the case.

Instead of referring to it as the Duke lacrosse case or something of that sort, I continually referred to it as the "North Carolina false prosecution scandal." It is clear that events have continued to show this description to be the accurate one. On June 6 I called for Nifong's impeachment, the resignation of Duke University president Richard Brodhead (who collaborated in the public pillorying of the innocent men), and the prosecution of the accuser.

None of these things have come to pass, of course, but it is increasingly obvious that these measures are called for (even though Nifong's term is almost over), so I call for them once again.

The best coverage I've seen of the case is at Durham-in-Wonderland, where K. C Johnson, a history prof at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center has done yeoman work reporting regularly on the case since a couple weeks after its inception. I highly recommend it for those interested in all the sordid details of this prime specimen of prosecutorial misconduct.

For those who don't wish to wade through a full retelling of the horror that was the Duke prosecution, I'll summarize it briefly:
  1. A desperate prosecutor latched onto a non-case pregnant with racial, class, and sexual implications in order to boost his fading chances of winning his party's primary nomination to keep his job, with the vote just a few weeks away.

  2. Slavering over the salacious and politics-packed nature of the obviously false accusation, the largely leftist U.S. press corps leapt to convict the innocent young men through a trial by media, to feed the left's ongoing myth that powerful caucasian males continuously exploit women, "people of color," and those inclined toward unusual sexual practices in these here United States.

  3. Both the prosecutor and his bootlickers in the press were disgustingly wrong and should be horsewhipped and cast out of polite society.
From Karnick on Culture.