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: 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.