Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Monday, July 31, 2006

Castro On the Ropes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion in a Sitcom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny stuff.

From Karnick on Culture.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Miami Vice Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Karnick on Culture.

Hex Appeal

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2006

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome

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

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

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

UN-Happy Extension

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

- Jean Paul Sartre

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

Here’s to the forthcoming six month extension.

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

Bystanders? Only In a Sense

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

- Jackie Chiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Microsoft Tries a Different Plan for TV on the Web

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

The cast of Arrested Development

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

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

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mass-Marketing Taste

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

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

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Shyamalan Out of His Depth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Karnick on Culture.

The Politics of Charlie Chan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Karnick on Culture.

George Dubya 43 Bushitler: Too Liberal and Idealistic

You heard it from the horse's mouth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, back to our regular program.

WFB also quoth:

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

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

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

This much we pledge---and more."

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

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

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

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

So be it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Beach Boys Credit War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beach Boys and SMiLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Moral Mathematics of Murder

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

So let's get to that part first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2006

Disney Returns to the Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Karnick on Culture.

Hollywood and Religion

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

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

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

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

From Karnick on Culture.

Stemming the Tide

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

My Semi-Retirement from TRC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Article/Chapter Bleg

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

A Repugnant Slur

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

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

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

Addicts Are Wrong, Not Sick: Psychiatrist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling Out Mr. Elliott: What Is a Christianist?

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

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

I thank you in advance.

Welfare for Colleges

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Case for Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane, who died yesterday, was a much better writer than the mainstream critics gave him credit for being. As is well known, his books sold by the millions, and he was the best-selling mystery writer ever in the hardboiled school. The AP story on Spillane's life and works provides a good introduction to the man and his most famous creation, the tough detective Mike Hammer.

Spillane's books were definitely not intellectuals' favorites, but they had much good in them. The stories in the best of his novels are taut, plausible though melodramatic, and involving. His prose was much better than critics gave him credit for—what they claimed to like in Hemingway and James M. Cain, they despised in Spillane. His characterizations were largely just functional, not the kind of morally ambiguous kinds the critics have preferred since World War II. But the characters did spring to life on the page, and the carried the stories well. The stories were what fascinated readers, and Spillane was a born storyteller.

Critics hated him, as is well known. He was unabashedly conservative in the pre-Reagan era when political conservatism was socially and culturally anathema. His books told stories in which the hero was a real hero and the villains were real villains. Nonetheless, it is not true that Spillane divided the world strictly into black and white, good and evil. The backgrounds of his books, including the subsidiary characters, suggest that behind the central conflict there exists a world of basically unheroic people just trying to muddle through life. And there is nothing to suggest that Spillane did not see the moral ambiguity of Mike Hammer's methods. Hammer was a rough guy, the postwar equivalent of Carroll John Daly's detectives such as Race Williams and Satan Hall. In Spillane's books it was perfectly clear that Mike Hammer did things conventional heroes would never have considered. But Spillane was all about results, and if you're on the right side, the right thing to do is whatever will get the job done. Sometimes, Spillane recognizes, the situation is so dire that moral niceties are not an option. That notion certainly resonated with Cold War U.S. audiences.

Mickey Spillane didn't care what critics thought, and he was right not to care. He was a storyteller, and a fine one indeed.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Bill Clinton's Moral Authority

Now it's a politico's job to be political, but when you start invoking morality in service of your politics, our secular polity stands athwart it, yelling, "Stop!"

So, OK. Our own Dr. Ben Zycher of the Cato Institute notes below that Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean invoked former US president Bill Clinton's "moral authority" on the current state of world affairs.

You could look it up. Or, wait, let's save you the trouble:

“If you think what's going on in the Middle East today would be going on if the Democrats were in control, it wouldn't, because we would have worked day after day after day to make sure we didn't get where we are today. We would have had the moral authority that Bill Clinton had when he brought together the Northern Irish and the IRA, when he brought together the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Bill Clinton, whose amateurish Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (stupidly, and falsely) confessed to all the world to killing a half-million innocent Iraqi women and children in the interest of "containment"?

Lesley Stahl: We have heard that half a million children have died [in Iraq]. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And you know, is the price worth it?"

Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price---we think the price is worth it.

Now, to be fair, the actual figure, according to Reason Magazine's Matt Welch, was probably only in the tens of thousands, or, in other words, somewhat less than the number of innocents lost as "collateral damage" in Mr. Bush's War, which at least has provided a puncher's chance of self-determination and the end of systematized exterminations among the Iraqi people.

Otherwise, if you want to believe that only the creative, brilliant and angelic Bill Clinton created peace in Northern Ireland instead of its people dictating peace because it was sick of war, all I can point to is the Israel-Palestinian question, where Clinton, somewhat to his credit, at the close of his second term got the then-current left-wing government of Israel to offer the closest thing to total Israeli acquiescence to Palestinian demands that was ever likely to be offered.

The Palestinians made no counteroffer. Unlike the people of Northern Ireland, they were, and are not, interested in peace. If they had wanted peace, there would be peace, Bill Clinton or no, just as there would have been peace in Northern Ireland, with or without Bill Clinton.

It would be easy to dis Bill Clinton's moral authority over the sad Monica Lewinsky affair: I thought, and think, that the GOP should not have turned such a failing of the flesh into a political matter.

However, Mr. Clinton's geopolitical record aside from his intervention in Kosovo (and in that apparently admirable military intervention, he might have killed more people than he saved) is checkered at best. If his butcher's bill in Iraq for his sanctions is as bad as it seems, he is morally negligent at least, and at worst, well, the gentle reader has already filled in the blanks.

The DRUDGE REPORT quotes Mr. Clinton as saying in 2002, after his presidency was already receding into the fond memory of at least some Americans:

“The Israelis know that if the Iraqi or the Iranian army came across the Jordan River, I would personally grab a rifle, get in a ditch, and fight and die...”


Well, Saddam Hussein paid rewards to Palestinian suicide bombers who purposely killed Israeli women and children, with no military target in mind and not even the excuse of collateral damage. We chickenhawks never expected you to actually crawl into a ditch to defend Israel against Saddam's Iraq, Mr. Clinton, but we might expect you at least today to endorse the erasing somebody who encouraged and enabled the butchering of Israel's people.

Which you haven't. According to you, the timing of the Iraq invasion wasn't right. It was a "mistake." But I do not know when the timing is right to stand up against the murder of innocents. Now, might be the answer.

Sorry, Mr. Dean, and sorry for your PR for your party. Bill Clinton is indeed the best of your ilk in the past generation of world affairs you have to point to, but his actions unfortunately were at best morally neutral, which is pretty much as high as you guys aim, and you confuse with moral authority.

To preserve civilization, to beat back entropy and chaos, if not genuine evil, neutrality will not be sufficient. You actually think that diplomacy could have placated the implacable murderers of the Party of God?

Mr. Dean, give me a ring. I've got a reality-based community I wanna sell you.


An apology for my extended absence is in order, due, and hereby tendered. Sadly it cannot be accompanied by an assurance of regular participation in the very immediate future. September 6th looks to be the target date for my return to Planet Earth.

This is the result of my allowing myself to be lured once again into retail politics. I have accepted the position of Campaign Manager for Jay Beskin, a candidate for County Commissioner in Miami-Dade County, District 4. There are thirteen commissioners and a mayor whose executive power is exceedingly thin. These folks control the disbursement of an annual budget of 7 billion dollars, larger than 11 States of the Union.

The race is non-partisan, both being Democrats. It also turns out to be non-ethnic in this instance, both being Jews. The issues are multifarious and quite interesting, though largely local in hue.

A story that everyone can understand is the one I have dubbed (playing off the Bridge to Nowhere story in Alaska) the Train to Nowhere. The county decided to run a train in Miami Airport to speed folks from one terminal to another. They promptly shelled out the cash for the train to a company in Japan, but - oops! - the track won't be ready for years.

"Come to find out," as we say down here, trains cannot just sit in warehouses. They rust and become unusable unless taken for periodic rides.

So it is that Miami-Dade County pays $54,000 a month to a company in Japan to take the train on rides around and around the track. They signed a two-year contract, since no one projects completion of the track before that time.

Choo choo! Ka-ching ka-ching!

The election, as you may have divined, will be September 5th. Wish me luck. Unseating an incumbent is no mean task.

Not A Joke

I see that the ineffable Howard Dean now is criticizing the Administration's Middle East peackeeping efforts---for all the wrong reasons, naturally---and is arguing that the Democrats would have far greater success, in part by utilizing the moral authority of... Bill Clinton. I am not making this up. More comic relief from Dr. Dean, worth his weight in gold.

A New Magazine by Christians Skeptical About the Culture

Salvo Magazine is the latest effort by the publishers of Touchstone. Salvo has an intellectual edge, like Touchstone, but is not devotional or necessarily religious at all. It is, however, a wickedly funny indictment of culture with some insightful articles along the way.

I’m telling everyone I can about the magazine because it has exceeded all my expectations. I wrote an article for it and promptly forgot about the project thinking it would be just another throwaway magazine, but Salvo is gorgeously rendered and makes the articles pop right out of the page.

You have to buy the mag or subscribe for four quarterly issues to see it, but I can assure you that the fake ads are worth the price of admission alone. Bobby Maddex has really accomplished something as editor of this magazine and I encourage everyone who wants to see more of these efforts to support it by subscribing for the first year.

President Newt

I listened to Newt Gingrich on a radio news program (not a conservative talk show, but plain news) discussing the current situation involving Israel and Syria last night. What struck me about him was that he speaks from a clear conservative viewpoint without sounding apologetic at all and comes off smart as a whip. This is a guy who is comfortable speaking without notes because he absolutely knows his stuff. He is a scholar and a hard-nosed politico, which is a combination one does not easily find, particularly in the GOP ranks. Perhaps most importantly, he has and has always had vision.

Conclusion: I think we have to seriously consider supporting this guy for the White House in 2008. He is probably the best of the best. Of course, supporting Newt would be uncomfortable for conservatives because he has clearly had sexual indiscretions and we don’t like those. I think if he can successfully deal with that issue via candor and repentance, then we may have something with Mr. Gingrich.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Open Letter from an Aspiring Democratic Party Voter

Dear Sirs and Madams In Charge:

You might have noticed that there's been a recent flare-up of violence on and from the borders of the state of Israel. I've noted many of you voicing some concern. Good on ya, mates.

Now, it's become a matter of faith among you that Bush Lies. I would not presume to interfere with anyone's faith. However, there's a whole non-governmental world of information out there for the serious consumer of democracy.

Looking for it is every citizen's duty, not to mention every congressmember's. If you don't, then shut up, and for godsakes, don't vote.

And if the Democratic Party can actually separate itself from the world left, which is entirely hostile to Israel and unwilling to face up to Islamism, then I could actually vote Democrat sometime soon.

But the left, and the (D) party itself, has been MIA in world affairs since Lyndon Johnson concocted that whole Vietnam thing. They have freed not a single soul from murder and tyranny, with the exception of Bill Clinton going into Kosovo (which was a cool thing, and done without the approval of that friend-of-tyrants the UN, I might add). Meanwhile, since Vietnam, it's been the (formerly isolationist) American right, aided by the alternately conservative and center-left UK and several other cool countries, that has been instrumental in freeing tens if not hundreds of millions.

My Dear (D)'s:

Are you leftists or are you members of the Democratic Party of Woodrow Wilson, Frankin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy? Because I honestly don't know anymore.

The left sat out the last quarter of the 20th century in the fight against tyranny and was always pretty useless except for helping to install collectivist tyrannies over autocratic ones. But before that, the Democratic Party of these here United States was freedom's fiercest warrior. I think what Peter Beinart's been trying to say is that the Democratic Party could lead the entire world against tyranny and murder, as it proudly did once, because the world left would lose its ideological and partisan excuses for its own impotence.

But first you gotta get real. 9-11 was in 2001. None of this is about Bush or even Iraq. It's not even about Israel. The Sudanese genocide is Islamicist-based. The largest non-Western democracy in the world is India, and they suffer deeply at its hands as well, as y'all might have noticed the other day. And the Norks are a threat to world peace only as far as they help these guys.

Ignore what the Bushies say. Read up on your own. Pick up a Qur'an. Find out who Sayyid Qutb was. Find the backstory on the siege of Vienna. Join the real reality-based community. I'm starting to think Beinart's right, and it's why I object to the prevailing argument that all the left has the power to do is whine about Gitmo and the privacy rights of phone calls. Not that we don't need moral watchdogs, but what I'm hoping is that the claims are true that the Democratic Party (and liberalism) are not synonymous with "the left," which is by its own account capable only of protest, not action.

Until you advocate some action, any action, to liberate human beings from murder and tyranny, I must continue to vote for the other side. But it could be Beinart's right and that y'all are the only ones who can do what needs to be done, if only with well-chosen, sincere, and passionate words. The world, mankind, and civilization need you right now, today. There are millions of lives at stake here, and you can be the difference. You are called now not to "goodness," but greatness.

If you accept that call, I will vote for you. Promise.


I was in a hospital waiting room yesterday listening (unavoidably so because of volume) to a few women discussing the difficulty of having borne children prior to marriage to men who promised they'd marry them and then disappeared. All in all, highly confirmatory of my own views on the subject, particularly since these ladies talked about how they wished they could take it all back and do it differently, withholding sex until a family had been legally formed.

Despite my ideological agreement with what they were saying, I was a little disturbed by the exceedingly frank tone of their conversation. The talk got fairly graphic at a few points, which doesn't bother me too much, but I kept wondering how some of the older folks felt about it. There was a time when you simply wouldn't have talked that way around strangers and I think it might be better to regress to that point.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


I see that the Soviets, oops, Russians and others are condemning the "disproportionate" nature of the Israeli response to the Hamas/Hizballah/Lebanese/Syrian/Iranian acts of war.

That raises the obvious question: Disproportionate to precisely what? If it is disproportion to the narrow acts themselves, taken out of the larger context, well, maybe and maybe not. But is the Israeli response disproportionate to the need for long-term deterrence of Arab terror? I think not; indeed, it is too mild by far, so far.

Does the World Really Need Superman Returns?

Having cleared the decks of a few things, I finally got around to seeing Superman Returns. It's reasonably entertaining and worth seeing. What I found most interesting about it was how much Christ imagery and other references to Christ there were in the film. Certainly, the presence of Christ references in the Superman saga is nothing new, although that was an aspect of the story that was not emphasized in Superman: The Movie, Superman II, and the two dreadful sequels that everyone would prefer to forget. In Superman Returns, the Christ imagery returns as well and is greatly emphasized.

I won't bore you with countless examples, as anyone watching the film with any attention at all will ascertain many such, but I will observe that the central question of the film, "Does the world really need Superman?" is presented as a newspaper story, in a way quite deliberately reminiscent of the famous Time magazine "God Is Dead" cover story of the 1960s. Lois Lane, the jaded author of the Pulitzer-winning story titled "Does the world really need Superman?", talks to the hero about that very question, giving the answer she gave in the story, and interestingly phrasing it as, "The world doesn't need a savior."

In answer, Superman slowly ascends with her into the heavens and looks down on the world below, listening to the arguments, worries, and anguished cries of the multitudes of people below. (This moment gains further power from its resemblance to the scene in Bruce Almighty when Bruce hears millions of people's prayers simultaneously.) Superman looks at Lois and says, "You wrote that the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear people crying for one."

Of course, the film is no allegory, and Superman is no precise Christ figure. He apparently has had an affair with Lois in the past and fathered a son with her, and he requires help from humans in order to avert his own death in the film. However, such differences are what make the Superman mythos more interesting and rich in its implications.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion

June 30 was the 100th anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration, and in celebration the Manhattan Institute put together several essays looking forward to another century of Beltway food and drug meddling. The five authors are, with one glaring exception, exceptional. Click here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Teaching vs. Scholarship

Stuart Buck points out that the traditional view of teaching v. scholarship (that good scholars make for good teachers) is likely not true (or likely not often true) but that teaching might make for better scholarship:

No matter how intensely you study a particular subject, if time goes by without regular review, it's easy for the details to slip from your memory. But teaching a course inherently requires regular review -- not just of your own scholarship on a given subject, but of everything else that is relevant to that subject. If you're going to stand in front of a group of people and explain a particular legal subject, you have to know the ins and outs of all the important cases/statutes/commentary. It's not enough to know this stuff "on paper" -- you have to know it stone cold, so that you can answer practically any question that students might throw your way.

What's more, you have to know the subject well enough to explain it to beginners. I think that this requires more in-depth knowledge than merely being able to converse with other "experts." When you're talking to beginners, you have to understand the topic well enough to boil it down to the basics. You can't get away with casually genuflecting in the direction of some abstraction on the assumption that everyone else will know what you're talking about.

I think there's something to this. At least for political theory (my field), the best scholars are those who can work their way through a problem and bring to bear a wide range of analytical tools and concepts. There's a place, of course, for the detailed study of what Locke thought about parental relationships, but if you're trying to think about how we ought to understand (and capture in law) such relationships, you're better off if you can draw from a wider range of thinkers and histories. Scholars who teach widely seem to me more likely to do that.

That said, it's still worth noting that when research universities have great teachers it's because they want to be great teachers, not because there's any particular incentive in that direction. For most, teaching is something they "get through" in order to do their "work" (i.e. research and writing). Most try to find ways to minimize the amount of work they have to do for the classes (Ever had a course where the students were doing presentations the last four weeks?) and the better scholars get rewarded by having to teach fewer classes. Until the incentives change, teaching will always be a sidelight, not the main event, at research schools.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Psych 101

The premiere episode of the new USA Network mystery-comedy series Psych, which ran last Friday night, was . . . pretty good. It wasn't nearly as good as the premiere of Monk a few years back—though that is a very high standard to reach. Psych was fairly amusing, and in fact LOL funny at times. The characters, however, are not very interesting, and the mystery was very weak, especially for a premiere episode. The puzzle centered on a kidmapping, but there wasn't much mystery to it, and the solution was a real cliche of the form—entirely predictable. Not a good way to begin a mystery series.

Other than James Roday's lead character, Shawn, the characters are all obvious refugees from other mystery programs: the skeptical/worried sidekick, the tediously suspicious cops, the gruff police captain (female in this case, but predictably hard-edged), the snotty suspects, etc. Shawn's relationship with his ex-cop father (played well by Corbin Bernsen, though the actor is given very little to work with) is fairly interesting, but it is left largely undeveloped. Many things about the script seem rather undeveloped, alas.

The writers did take great pains to establish exactly how the protagonist came to have such great powers of observation. That, however, may actually be something of a mistake. Usually, we don't really care why the detective is so insightful; it is enough that he or she is a genius and that we get to go along for the ride. With Monk, of course, a good deal of the fun is in watching him flounder through life while blasting through puzzling mysteries, and we appreciate the ironic truth that the very thing that makes him a great detective makes him a very unhappy person. This gives the program an inherent tension and drama, to go along with the comedy it creates. Psych attempts to recreate this aspect of Monk, but there is a big difference: whereas one feels great sympathy for Monk because of his mental problems, Shawn's continual optimism and snarkiness in Psych tend to defeat any sympathy we may wish to feel for him due to his strained relationship with his father. We know that Shawn must crave a better relationship with his father, which could make for some good drama, and comedy as well, but Roday is rather too successful at hiding it under his character's Mr. Fun persona. Shawn's blithe surface appears too often to be what he is really about—and such superficiality in a character defeats audience identification and sympathy.

When Psych finally gets into the mystery story, the program becomes more interesting, but it spends too much time trying to emulate Monk's quirkiness. That's a pity because the concept—a detective who is so insightful that he has to pretend to be a psychic in order to keep police from thinking he has actually committed the crimes he is trying to solve—is perfectly brilliant and doesn't need any additional quirkiness. The program's creators should trust the concept and cut the nonsense.

Making things even more difficult for Psych is its seemingly advantageous position following Monk. The latter program's season premiere was as excellent as we might have expected it to be. The concept—an actor playing Adrian Monk in a movie follows the obsessive detective as he attempts to solve a mystery—is the kind of thing that can be disastrously cute, and the producers managed to avoid that and present a solid mystery with the show's usual level of engaging comedy and serious moments that we have come to expect from this impressively intelligent and consistent show.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Closer and the Next Stage for TV Cop Shows

In the comments area of my Monk/Psych post below, a reader mentioned the TNT series The Closer, an unacknowledged Americanization of the long-running British police procedural TV program Prime Suspect. In The Closer, now in its second season, Kyra Sedgwick plays a police detective and homicide team supervisor who solves crimes while stumbling charmingly through a rather bumpy personal life. It's a good show, made appealing by Sedgwick's excellent performance. She's quite likeable as the protagonist, and her various problems are handled by both herself and the program's writers with a fairly light touch. The most recent episode, which premiered last Monday night, was particularly satisfying. Unlike most episodes of the program, it had a solid puzzle with several suspects, and the viewer had enough info to solve the crime by the time Brenda was ready to reveal the killer. Most of the appeal of The Closer lies in the non-mystery elements, but having a good mystery made this episode really sing.

There's no reason a police procedural or hardboiled story can't have a good puzzle, as the works of Cornell Woolrich and Fredric Brown make very clear in the hardboiled realm and which the Midsomer Murders and Dalziel and Pascoe series in both books and TV make abundantly clear. (Both of the latter are produced in Great Britain.) I, too, like to see TV moving away from what I called in my NR roundup of the last TV season shows about Saving the World, One Creepy-Looking Corpse at a Time. It has become a very tired genre, and the cop show will begin to fade away soon if the networks don't bring new life to it with an approach more sanguine and less sanguinary.

Monk Returns, Psych Begins

The USA Network mystery-comedy series Monk returns this evening, at 9 p.m. EDT, an hour earlier than in previous years. In my view, Monk is one of the best programs on television: it's funny, always has strong plots and interesting characters, and upholds values I consider quite laudable. When Monk deals with traditional Judeo-Christian religion, it does so respectfully, another thing I like about it, and it does so subtly, without being the slightest bit preachy, which makes the treament palatable for those who don't share that faith. I own the pilot movie and first three seasons on DVD, and I do watch them during those long, sad months when the show is on hiatus. (There are only about a dozen new episodes per year, running for about six consecutive weeks at the beginning of the year and then in July and August.)

Following Monk tonight (at 10 EDT) is the premiere of a new mystery-comedy series, Psych. This one looks like it could be a real winner. James Roday (an actor who has appeared mostly in independent films and theater productions) plays Shawn Spencer, a brilliantly insightful young man from a long family line of detective police officers. Tragically, he's not a police officer himself, because he is too much of a free spirit to be able to hold a job. (Exactly the opposite of Adrian Monk, you see....) In order to save himself from prison, however, thanks to some clever plotting by the scriptwriters, Shawn is forced to pretend that he is a psychic, and that he gets his information about crimes from the Other World instead of from its real source, his "extraordinary powers of observation and deduction," as the show's website puts it. Think: Sherlock Holmes with a crazy sense of fun. In light of his success as a "psychic," Shawn opens his own detective agency with partner and comedy straight man Gus. As the program's website puts it, "He's putting his skills to good use." True to TV's formula for success, Psych sounds both similar enough and different enough from Monk to be a good concept, and the individuals involved in making the show have very good track records at this sort of thing, especially creator/writer/executive producer Steve Franks.

USA's previous attempt to follow Monk with an eccentric detective—a remake of the English series Touching Evil—failed, and in my view it happened mainly because the program's tone was inconsistent and largely too different from that of Monk. Like its BBC predecessor, Touching Evil dealt with extremely grim subject matter, but the producers tried to spice it up a bit by making the lead character a bit kooky and increasing the prominence of a bizarre subsidiary character whom they made more zany than in the British original. Although Jeffrey Donovan did an excellent job of portraying the lead character, Detective Dave Creegan, and Pruitt Taylor Vince was fascinating as Cyril, the attempt to make an extremely grim show more pleasant didn't work. It's as if they had tried to make Adrian Monk the central character in Criminal Minds. Better to try something else.

Psych looks like a better fit both in its central concept and as a companion program for Monk. If the values Psych upholds are as good as the show's description suggests, and if the stories are as strong as those of Monk—which is of course very difficult to achieve on a regular basis—this program could be very good indeed. I have . . . a feeling it will.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

College Admissions

Tufts has decided to bring in some additional tools to help it decide which students it ought to admit, using interesting essay questions to get a sense of applicants' "creativity." Unlike some other admissions reforms, Tufts isn't avoiding using SATs and GPAs, but trying to augment those. From the report here, there doesn't seem to be much to dislike. I've long thought that the real barrier to universities doing admissions better is simply one of resources: there aren't enough admissions officers or people involved in admissions to treat each application individually. Tufts, according to the article, has about 25,000 applicants - it's hard to see how you can give those anything more than just a cursory glance and surely it's one of the reasons why standardized tests are so popular.

TVD's Newswalk™: Food For Thought

One in an occasional series of shallow strolls through deep waters:

Norks Murder Whales

Well, Head Nork Kim Jung-Il shot off a big missile and hit the ocean. And what lives in the ocean? Cuddly whales, that's what, even though whales are too big to cuddle with.

Since pro-cuddlycreature activists have sued the US Navy into stopping using sonar in military exercises, it's only a matter of time before they train their righteous indignation and (rare, safe and legal) guns on the Norks.

Y'know, I love "Norks." It's vaguely insulting but not racist. Rhymes with "dorks." Norks. Norks. I love it.

I've been pretty mellow about the Norks, those proud members of the Axis of Evilers, a designation they took as a compliment. They're China's fault in the first place, and they're Japan's worry along with the Sorks'. Let the "international community" straighten 'em out.

(Nah, "Sorks" doesn't work. They're alternately supportive and annoying, but I'm proud of what they've done with the freedom that 54,246 young Americans bought with their lives. These things do not come cheaply. I wish they did.

South Koreans, then. Someday soon I hope, without further bloodshed like with Germany, it'll be simply "Koreans." Y'all owe us one, guys.)

I've mostly been worried about the Norks proliferating their evil goods, WMDs, to other likeevilminded folks. But if this launch is any indication of the quality of Kim Jung-Il's workmanship, what could be better than this enemy of mankind and cetaceans alike ripping off fragheads to buy porno and cognac? Almost worth keeping him in power, almost.

Yearly Kos Astonishes

I was astonished, anyway. Caught the video on C-SPAN of the now-annual confab of all that is good and righteous on the internet, The Daily Kos, the mega-lefty mega-blog that has used its powers of persuasion to defeat a number of heretical Democrats (Joe Lieberman may be next), although so far no Republicans.

They have not yet solved the equation that "unity" movements tend toward cannibalism. When you've got the blood fever, why try to kill and eat someone who might fight back when so many compliant and tasty morsels are so close at hand?

Ann Coulter became an infotainment superstar by supplying an unfilled demand for rhetorical violence on the right: your favorite blog, The Reform Club, for instance, is the model of decorum. But The Daily Kos has to give it away because the vitriol supply on the left far exceeds demand. (They do pick up a few bucks as a clearing house for freebies: Plato's Retreat for Liberals.)

Kosdom claims its average age is 45, and the C-SPAN video confirms it: these folks are genuine Leftover Left, women with long gray hag hair and men looking like they need a good scrub. I mean there was a guy with a magic-markered sign on his T-shirt, something about Plame and Fitzgerald. Cute and maybe even fetching before age 30, not so cute for grownups. Man, I used to be so jealous of the left. They were soooooooo cool.

It's not that the right wing aren't dorks, because we are, present company excepted. But the left's berets and Sartre and cigarettes and Che Guevera and other assorted nonsenses were da bomb in the olden days. You could always use radical chic to get some. The proletariat, exploited masses, the human condition, death to imperialism. Wham, bam, thank you, Karl Marx. But now, all these witchy women and stinky bohemians can get is each other. It ain't pretty, people.

And what's the ridiculous without the sublime?

Activists Announce "Troops Home Fast"

That would be Iraq. A hunger strike, sort of, although I understand you can take turns. Skip a lunch, save a life. Ringleader Mother "I'd Rather Live Under Hugo Chavez than Bush" Sheehan is too easy pickin's, although she should try living under Chavez' pal Castro in Cuba, where every single day's a revolutionary fast. But she's being joined by Dick Gregory, who's obsessed with not eating food and weighs about 68 pounds. I mean, what? It's like Howard Stern, Masturbating For Peace.

Norks, Dorks & Cindys on today's menu. Pass. Think I'll join the fast. Or does anyone know where we can get a good whale sandwich?