Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Friday, September 29, 2006

Stigmatizing Stigma

In response to Christianity Today’s big question – How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? – Amy Laura Hall shares some thoughts about the use of shame in addressing the rising tide of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Her comments could not be more timely, and though directed specifically towards Christians, they are part of a conversation that transcends any partisan divide, and as such, is applicable to all members of society.

Now one need not accept Ms. Hall’s curious history of Christianity’s use of shame (forgive me if I do not accept Margaret Sanger and an unnamed Methodist clergyman as representative) to acknowledge that well-meaning people throughout history have employed it. So rather than focus on her contention that Christians should be moving more towards welcoming unwed mothers and their children, and away from stigmatizing them – as I fail to see how this might be countercultural - I’d like to look at whether there is any legitimate place left for shame in modern moral world.

Certainly shame is on the decline. Our collective lack of moral confidence and fear of the scarlet letter H (hypocrisy) make it a very rare occurrence indeed for someone today to criticize the decisions made by others. And yet, out-of-wedlock pregnancy is one issue that transcends these concerns, and is widely accepted by all sides as problematic. In her encouragement to the church to seek out unwed mothers and serve them, Ms. Hall reminds us that real lives hang in the balance, and that it is incumbent upon us to partner with God to turn even regrettable human choices to good. This is no doubt sound advice, redemption being foundational to the Christian worldview. That said, it is hard to see how such a response helps to move us forward in the broader issue of minimizing future unwed pregnancies. At the heart of redemption is the acknowledgment of sin, and it is not entirely clear from the following quote that Ms. Hall regards this as a necessary step.

This does not mean that Christians cannot say it would have been preferable had this young woman not shared herself intimately with a boy…

And it is here where we begin to see the limitations of pure kindness; what may in fact be the subtle absence of actual care. Promoting the good is easy enough to get behind, but don’t we also have a duty to confront that which is wrong? Is it love for the person that keeps us from necessary correction, or is it more likely that we are avoiding an inconvenient and difficult task? Confrontation has become out of vogue, as so many of its practitioners are less than attractive. Yet shame has a place, even if its implementation proves to be confusing and difficult.

Perhaps it makes sense here to consider where things have gone wrong with our use of shame. For many, shame is viewed as a sort of glue that holds society together. It is the tool that helps it promote its morals (and enforce compliance) among its members. Shame is justified on the basis that society has the right to discourage individuals from causing it injury. I believe that it is out of this understanding that shame is most frequently abused. In this view, members of society ascribe to themselves victim status, which then grants them permission to cast off any sense of responsibility to help those in distress while bolstering their own sense of superiority by devaluing others.

The use of shame in such a scenario is obviously less than satisfying. But what would happen if we shifted our focus so that we were primarily concerned with the well-being of the individual? Natural law, despite its universality, is not immune to the corruptions of the flesh. And so, we know that we will be faced time and again with the question of how to help the individual who has heard the case for moral behavior but finds it difficult to resist temptation? I submit that it is here that shame has its proper place, as it is useful in reinforcing the cost of moral transgressions. For what is sin other than a fundamental lack of understanding of the real consequences of one’s actions? Relationships based on integrity demand that we recognize and account for our nature, that we hate the sin while retaining our sympathy for the sinner.

The words, ‘You should be ashamed of…’, far from being the utterance of prudes, may be among the greatest kindnesses that we can extend to one another. Shame, or guilt, is the critical sensation that we are given to help shape our character so that we may reach our full potential. It is not something to be avoided or stigmatized. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us – with all the grace that we possess – to work to ensure that it remains a healthy presence in our lives. Without it, life would be completely unlivable.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Nielsen to Report Viewership of TV Commercials

I've written frequently about how technology is changing the media industry—both on this site and in articles such as today's piece on media consolidation on Tech Central Station—and one of the most significant events yet is about to happen: the Nielsen service is about to begin reporting on how many people watch the advertisements on commercial programs, in addition to the previous convention of reporting how may people watch the surrounding programs.

The first such ratings will be released on November 18 of this year.

This is a highly important change, of course, and it has TV executives understandably nervous. In a time when DVRs and the TV remote make it easy for viewers to zip through commercials without watching them or to switch back and forth among various channels to avoid sitting through advertisements, the companies that pay for TV programs are of course intensely interested in knowing whether the programs are actually delivering viewers to their ads and not just to the programs around them.

The effect of this new information will not be solely on television, by any means. Certainly advertisers have already attempted to lure viewers to watch their ads by creating amusing scenarios, little mysteries, and the like—as they have always done, but now more commonly and perhaps a bit desperately. That's old news.

The real significance will be if the ratings cause advertisers to decide that they are not getting the best return on their investments in TV programming and choose to migrate more to newspapers, magazines, radio, and especially the Web. That would depress television's profitability, though over the long run it would continue to rise as the overall economy contnues to grow.

What it would do most profoundly, I think, is raise the attractiveness of the web.

And what that infusion of money will do will be to accelerate the corporatizaion of the web, although it will still remain a more diverse medium than television, with a buy-in cost of basically zero for content providers (meaning all of us). More money will flow to web content providers, a much larger proportion of whom will not be affiliated with corporate giants than is currently the case with any other communications medium.

If that happens, this could be another great tidal change in the American mass media. The opening of the media into a wider range of voices will continue and accelerate, and although efforts by big government and big business to control the communications media will continue, the technological and social momentum will almost certainly be too much for them to overcome.

I'm betting that the effect will not be immediately obvious but that over time it will indeed be momentous.

From Karnick on Culture.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Evolution Of A Conservative: Strongholds And Salients

I'm principally a military engineer, for which reason (among others) my thinking tends in a military direction on susceptible subjects. Politics being the pursuit of power over others without the overt use of force, political philosophy qualifies as such.

Tactical analysis of ground-war situations seeks to discriminate between defensible and indefensible positions. The infantry can't be on the move all the time; when it's not, the positions it seeks to hold must be defensible, or it will be assaulted and possibly overrun. Though this sort of consideration is less emphasized in modern military studies, it retains a certain fascination for military historians, particularly those who focus on World War I.

One of the lessons of World War I is of the danger of salients to the side that holds them. A salient is a distinct forward protrusion in an otherwise smooth defensive line. Unless the natural features of the terrain dictate otherwise, such a bulge tempts a two-pronged converging assault -- "pinching the salient" -- to create a breakthrough. Such assaults were several times critical to events on the Western Front. The sole effective counteraction is to withdraw from the salient, smoothing the line to a uniform defensibility.

American conservatives, whose natural inclination is to defend that which they consider good, have several times in the past century tied themselves to positions on specific issues that had become indefensible because of larger cultural and technological changes. In sober truth, the larger changes have sometimes been deplorable, but such things are not easily reversed, and their effects on the enforceability of certain kinds of laws must be respected. For example, the ubiquity of the automobile has indirectly made laws against adultery, which at one time was a felony in every state, completely unenforceable. Changes in popular attitudes toward sexual pleasure have similarly vitiated the laws against (consensual) sodomy. Changes in popular attitudes toward intoxication have eliminated all serious possibility of enforcing the many laws about drug use. The list could be extended, but the point has been made.

When William F. Buckley defined the conservative as "one who stands athwart the gates of history crying 'Stop,'" he was principally thinking of the Communist tide and the seemingly inexorable advance of statist impositions through America's free-market economy, but topics such as popular sexual morality, drug use, and gambling were undoubtedly part of his concerns as well. During the decades immediately after World War II, the usual response to conservative plaints was to ignore them. Politically, intellectually, and socially, statist liberals were in the power seats. After the New Deal years, they appeared to be cemented into them. Even self-nominated conservatives such as Dwight D. Eisenhower were well disposed, in practical terms, toward the statist trend.

The conservative dilemma of those years was that not every position we wished to defend was defensible. Statist intrusions on the economy could be fought, though we did a poor job of it. The cultural milieu was a tougher nut. In time, technological advances plus the perfusion of American culture by hedonistic assumptions had made State enforcement of sexual and self-abuse morals, among others, impossible -- even self-defeating.

Many conservatives lament the surrender of those positions. Some of them have good reasons, too: many of the fruits of the Sexual Revolution, in particular, have left a bitter taste. But given the enveloping techno-cultural environment, such things are political salients whose defense is impossible. Stubbornness about them exposes conservatism to great damage with no practical prospect of gain.

The most recent crop of conservative thinkers and pundits have dramatically de-emphasized old-style "State moral conservatism," which the past century's technological and cultural changes have so greatly undermined. Most of these voices are moderately to strongly in favor of decriminalizing drug use; they have little to say about gambling or premarital sex. From a political perspective, this is to the good, and not only for tactical reasons. To harp on such things made their predecessors look unattractively priggish, which weakened their ability to reach the broad national audience on subjects about which it was still reachable.

None of this should be taken to imply that the older "moral conservatism," shorn of its explicitly political aspects, was in any sense wrong. It had become unenforceable -- indefensible -- in a practical sense. Doggedness about it, even when conservatives are in power, would require the weakening or outright retraction of Constitutionally guaranteed rights of great importance, but would not materially improve the chances of success. It would also drain the vitality from initiatives toward greater economic liberty premised on those rights.

Conservatives have begun to learn to beware the policy salient and concentrate on the stronghold of defensible principles. More is necessary, but well begun is half done.

More anon.

ABC Rethinks Saturday Nights, Shuns Babysitters

Saturday night has long been a desert on television because the networks and cable channels came to the conclusion that nobody worth chasing for advertisers is at home then. Hence they largely programmed cheap shows that had a chance of appealing to babysitters.

Much of the Saturday night programming in recent years has been replays of theatrical movies which most people have already had several chances to see in the theater and on other cable channels, magazine programs about murderers, and reruns of shows that had appeared earlier in the week. That's why the nets run those three-hour marathons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit on Saturday night.

Of course, such a choice becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If purveyors program only for teenage girls, then teenage girls is the audience they are going to get—if that.

That's why it's interesting to see ABC trying something different, running college football on Saturday nights.

Michigan State's Ervin Baldwin (51) celebrates his second-quarter touchdown on an interception against Notre Dame during a college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006, in East Lansing, Mich. At left is Michigan State's Demond Williams (9). (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

The games they've chosen so far this season have been good ones, and last night's Notre Dame-Michigan State matchup turned into an "instant classic," as the announcers aptly described it.

Notre Dame went into the game under intense scrutiny after their loss last week to Michigan, and the Irish got behind early and stayed there nearly all the game. Heavy winds and driving rain roared into the stadium throughout the second half, making it immensely difficult to mount a passing attack on offense, which made it even tougher for ND to score points and mount a comeback.

On top of all that, the wind direction actually reversed at the end of the third quarter, when the teams switch goals, so that the Irish had the wind against them the entire second half of the game, instead of being able to move with the wind in the last quarter.

In the end, however, the Irish stormed back as their defense finally managed to put some pressure on Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton, and the ND offense finally kicked into gear as QB Brady Quinn started to show better throwing accuracy and/or his receivers managed to run their routes more accurately.

In the end, the Irish won 30-27 on a 27-yeard interception return for a TB by ND cornerback Terrail Lambert.

Notre Dame's Terrail Lambert intercepts a Michigan State pass and returns it to score the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter a 40-37 college football win over Michigan State, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Notre Dame didn't look like a potential national champion by any means, but it was a great game—and it certainly was much more interesting than another episode of 48 Hours Mystery.

It's good to see ABC try this, and it seems to me that it will be a good thing if the choice proves successful.

From Karnick on Culture.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Offending Christians OK at NBC, Bothering Atheists Not an Option

Yesterday we noted that NBC is leaning toward including Madonna's mock crucifixion scene when it airs her concert special in November. Catholic and Orthodox church organizations have protested the aging pop star's inclusion of the scene in her concert shows, and they will undoubtedly view a decision by NBC to run it as an insult to Christians.

As noted yesterday, NBC is probably going to run the scene, and there will probably be complaints from Christians.

NBC will undoubtedly be willing to endure any controversy and in fact expect to benefit from it.

Not so with atheists.

NBC is airing the Christian program Veggie Tales, but it has censored out all refernces to Christ and Christianity. According to the AP report,

Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber always had a moral message in their long-running "VeggieTales" series, a collection of animated home videos for children that encourage moral behavior based on Christian principles. But now that the vegetable stars have hit network television, they cannot speak as freely as they once did, and that has got the Parents Television Council steamed.

The conservative media-watchdog group issued a statement Wednesday blasting NBC, which airs "VeggieTales," for editing out some references to God from the children's animated show.

"What struck me and continues to strike me is the inanity of ripping the heart and soul out of a successful product and not thinking that there will be consequences to it," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council. "The series is successful because of its biblical world view, not in spite of it. That's the signature to `VeggieTales."'

The references to Christ and Christian values offended the network's broadcast standards, the AP story reported:

Two weeks ago, NBC began airing 30-minute episodes of "VeggieTales" on Saturday mornings. The show was edited to comply with the network's broadcast standards, said NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks.

"Our goal is to reach as broad an audience as possible with these positive messages while being careful not to advocate any one religious point of view," she said. . . .

All programs set to air on NBC must meet the network's broadcast standards, said Alan Wurtzel, a broadcast standards executive. "VeggieTales" was treated the same as any other program, he said.

"There's a fine line of universally accepted religious values," he said. "We don't get too specific with any particular religious doctrine or any particular religious denomination."

Veggie Tales DVD cover art

The program's creator/producer, Steve Vischer, said he understands the network's position:

"VeggieTales is religious; NBC is not," he said. "I want to focus people more on `Isn't it cool that Bob and Larry are on television?' "

What NBC thinks is cool is something a bit different: grabbing a particular audience of impressionable young people without offending powerful anti-Christian advocacy groups such as People for the American Way and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

To get uncensored copies of the Veggie Tales programs, click here.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Tribune Co. Joins Reversal of Media Consolidation

The nascent but distinct and ongoing reversal of the corporate consolidation of the U.S. media received another boost yesterday with the Tribune Co.'s announcement that it is willing to sell any or all of its 11 newspapers and 25 television stations.

The Tribune Co. announcement follows hard on the heels of the selloff of a dozen newspapers by Knight Ridder, which was the nation's second-largest newspaper chain (after Gannett).

“The restructuring of these partnerships frees the company to move quickly to pursue strategic alternatives to further enhance shareholder value,” said Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons. “Under these terms, all shareholders benefit.”

The firm's newspapers have been hit hard by competition from the internet, as the New York Times reports:
The media business has been in turmoil as readers, viewers and advertisers have shifted their habits and turned to the Internet. Newspapers in particular are facing a slump in circulation and little growth in advertising revenues while at the same time facing rising costs.
The competition has depressed the media giant's stock price, and the only thing that has raised it, interestingly, has been the increasing recent rumors that Tribune Co. would divest itself of some of its holdings:
Tribune shares, like those of other public media companies, have weakened significantly over the last few years, falling 36 percent since 2003, when Mr. FitzSimons took over. But the stock has risen recently as speculation has increased that it might sell some assets, and it shot up 4.4 percent yesterday.
As reported earlier on this site, the corporatization and business consolidation of the U.S. media, which began in the 1960s and caused much anguish among leftist critics and media analysts, was in fact a positive thing that actually increased competition in American mass media. And as I noted in in the post cited at the head of this paragraph, it was always very likely that the consolidation would reverse once it became necessary in order for media firms to make themselves leaner and more effective at responding to competition. This, too, will increase competition and will ultimately be a good thing, as I suggested earlier.

The current de-consolidation, then, is a response to competition and will itself create greater competition.

That is how markets work: brilliantly.

From Karnick on Culture.

NBC to Air Mock Rock Crucifixion?

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

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

OK. . . .

NBC will probably air the scene. E! Online reports:
NBC President Kevin Reilly told several weeks ago that the scene will probably stay put because Madonna "felt strongly about it" and considers it a highlight of her show.

"We viewed it and, although Madonna is known for being provocative, we didn't see it as being ultimately inappropriate," Reilly said.
This was a foregone conclusion, really. The scene is obviously a central part of the show, and the network would be subjected to widespread scorn if it deleted it. They wouldn't have bought the program if they weren't wiling to air the scene.

As to what it all means, I suspect that most of the audience will get the message Madonna is trying to send in her usual unsophisticated, unsubtle way: that religion is all about caring about other people and doing good works.

That sounds nice on the surface, but it is very bad theology because it considers only half the story—the part about loving God with all one's heart, and all one's soul, and all one's strength is missing, and it is the foundation for the message about loving one's neighbor as oneself.

Nonetheless, I doubt that the scene will have any real effect on what people think about the Almighty, one way or the other.

From Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hugo, Ghoul

Yesterday's peroration by Hugo Chavez at the United Nations was historic. His referring to President Bush as the Devil is more than a sideshow, a vaudeville act or a burst of insanity. It is a precedent. No one has ever ratcheted up the hostile rhetoric to that plateau. Nobody. Not even wacky old Baroody from Saudi Arabia with the two-hour rambles. And it is never good when folks stop trying to put their best face on in public.

As for the content of his message, and that of Ahmadinejad who preceded him to the pulpit, I took my scalpel to it in my patented way in today's The American Spectator.

Ironically, perhaps, their jabbering deflected attention away from President Bush's own address. The President said a series of horrific things that are neither accurate nor sensible. He declared that the Palestinians have been undergoing the "daily humiliation of occupation", which is total bullhockey. He also said that the Palestinian vote for Hamas was not a vote for terrorism but for reforming corrupt governmental institutions. That goes well beyond naive into Jimmy Carter-like duncish self-delusion.

And so yet another well-intentioned President bites the dust in the Arab-Israeli conflict, substituting wish fulfillment for sensible analysis. Something like the syndrome noted by the Wall Street Journal some years ago of people who visit the Wailing Wall and suddenly decide they are the Messiah or Elijah.

Patrick Henry Would Be Appalled

Y'know, I'm like many or most Americans these days in feeling zero responsibility if the factions in Iraq choose to fight each other until the last man, woman or child is standing. We gave them their freedom and even now spend our blood and treasure to help them keep it.

The war is over. This is now a mission of mercy, and yes, the dreaded nation-building, a distinction I deeply wish our president would make. We discharge any moral obligation every day and even if we packed up and left now, the US and the UK have nothing to apologize for.

Because the Kurdish people are free and thriving. And you know what, they're thankful to America. You could look it up. If the end result is freeing only the one-third or so of Iraq that has decent people in it, and which has taken the baton of freedom from tyranny and run with it, that is good enough. I heard a Kurd on the radio today reporting that five new universities have been built since Saddam's well-earned whacking, where before there was only one.

If the tyrants and moral cowards (yes, France, I'm talking to you) of the world hate us, and they do (and they should), as evidenced in the past few days by the pathetic circus that is the United Nations, we should wear their scorn as a badge of glory. You can judge a man, or a nation, by its enemies.

And when Patrick Henry exclaimed give me liberty or give me death, it was beyond his imagination that when both options are available anyone would choose the latter.

But if that's the way the other two-thirds of Iraq wants it, who are we to interfere?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Arnold and the Nice Sea Otters

More news from the Golden State. Governator Arnold has just signed a bill allocating some tax dollars toward saving sea otters. And how did this historic law come to pass? Well, the bill was promoted by Assembly Democrats Dave Jones and John Laird, the former of whom has a son "who cried upon learning that the threatened California sea otter population is not thriving." I am not making this up.

New York Times Redesign to Distinguish News, Opinion

The New York Times has implemented a fairly subtle redesign in its print editions today.

Henceforth the paper's news stories will have justified text, meaning that they have an even margin on both left and right. Stories that include any analysis or opinion will have a ragged right margin, in which most lines end before reaching the right side of the printed column.

The only exception will be the editorial pages, where the justified margins will remain.

The newspaper's editors say they do not expect the change to be obvious to most readers, but they think that it will have a "subliminal effect" in providing readers unconsciously with the critical distinction between news stories and opinion or analysis.


Noting that many readers had expressed confusion and dismay over the frequent inclusion of reporters' opinions in what were ostensibly news stories, and the resulting impression that the newspaper was surreptitiously trying to inculcate readers with a left-wing bias, the Times's "credibility committee" recommended the slight redesign.

From Karnick on Culture.

Competition on the Web

As noted earlier on several occasions in this space, big media companies are doing their level best to extend their current broadcast, cable, and satellite hegemony to the internet. Rupert Murdoch talked about his firm's strategy yesterday. News Corp's approach goes against the grain of current trends, which is for media firms to develop connections with internet portals.

Murdoch said that News Corp, the parent company of the Fox brands, is going to use a moden in which web surfers are expected to go directly to the firm's various sites. AP reports:

Rupert Murdoch told an investor conference Tuesday that he didn't see a need to distribute programming or other media content from his News Corp. conglomerate through Internet portals.

Murdoch, asked why he hadn't made deal with large aggregators of online content like Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news) or Microsoft Corp.'s MSN portal, said he didn't see that strategy as necessary for building Internet traffic.

"We're not sure the portal model is the way of the future at all," Murdoch told a conference sponsored by Goldman Sachs. "We think people are going straight to the sites."

Murdoch, whose acquisition of the hugely popular social networking site has inspired envy among other media moguls, cited the example of Yahoo's HotJobs employment site, but noted that Internet users might go to any number of other Web destinations that also carry job listings.

Given his history, I wouldn't bet against him.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Fox to Chase Christians

Still image from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeAs I wrote in The Weekly Standard a few weeks ago, the best way for Christians to affect Hollywood is not to protest but to go to more movies, make clear their love for the medium, and praise Hollywood for what it does right.

(Regular readers of this site and the author's other writings will know that I live by those words.)

Now Fox Entertainment is showing exactly how quickly and surely such a strategy can work. The LA Times reports:

In the biggest commitment of its sort by a Hollywood studio, News Corp.'s Fox Filmed Entertainment is expected to unveil plans today to capture the gargantuan Christian audience that made "The Passion of the Christ" a global phenomenon.

The home entertainment division of Rupert Murdoch's movie studio plans to produce as many as a dozen films a year under a banner called FoxFaith. At least six of those films will be released in theaters under an agreement with two of the nation's largest chains, AMC Theatres and Carmike Cinemas.

The first theatrical release, called "Love's Abiding Joy," is scheduled to hit the big screen Oct. 6. The movie, which cost about $2 million to make, is based on the fourth installment of Christian novelist Janette Oke's popular series, "Love Comes Softly."
The production costs for this film do not sound exactly stunning, but the picture is obviously an experiment and a way of gauging exactly what the market is for such films on a regular basis, as opposed to big-budget "event" films such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings series. That makes good business sense for Fox and is good for the Christian audience in that success will not be defined as huge box office grosses but by a much more modest standard:

FoxFaith films, to be based on Christian bestsellers, will have small budgets of less than $5 million each, compared with the $60-million average. The movies each will be backed by $5-million marketing campaigns. Although that is skimpy compared with the $36 million Hollywood spends to market the average movie, the budget is significant for targeting a niche audience, especially one as fervent as many evangelical Christians.
There appears to be a huge market out there for Christian programming, the LA Times, story notes:
For instance, "The Passion" grossed $612 million worldwide, thanks in part to its appeal to Christians. Another spiritual odyssey, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," took in $745 million globally. Most recently, Christians came out for this summer's controversial "The Da Vinci Code," which has brought in $754 million worldwide.
The risk inherent in sending out a stream of low-budget films is that Fox will conclude that Christians will watch any kind of crud as long as it includes a scene in which a major character "accepts Christ into their life," which is what Christian fiction today all too commonly consists of. Fortunately, the studio seems to be after something quite different from that:
"A segment of the market is starving for this type of content," said Simon Swart, general manager of Fox's U.S. home entertainment unit.

"We want to push the production value, not videotape sermons or proselytize."

Aesthetic quality and an understanding of the subject matter will be essential to the plan's success:
"If this is something Fox is doing only to exploit the audience — or if it's something they don't believe in or are doing cynically — then there could be problems," said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a box-office reporting service. "There isn't a huge turnout for these films unless they speak to what Christianity is all about. People want a guide to life and Hollywood has ignored that by saying nothing or dwelling on vices."
It makes great business sense for Fox to pursue a new and strongly defined audience as movie box office intake has been decreasing in recent years:
Over the last four years, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has quietly built a network to mobilize evangelical Christian moviegoers in an era of diminishing box-office returns. The network includes 90,000 congregations and a database of more than 14 million mainly evangelical households.
Other studios are watching and considering whether to follow suit:
New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story," scheduled to be released in December, tells the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter to give birth to Jesus. Legendary Pictures, which has a multi-film deal with Warner Bros., is planning to make a movie version of John Milton's epic 17th century poem about the fall of man, "Paradise Lost."
The latter sounds very interesting indeed, with its clear potential for grand drama and powerful visual imagery.

One hopes that Christians have learned—or relearned—that a customer has much more influence than a scold.

From Karnick on Culture.

Microsoft to Compete with YouTube

Microsoft is developing an online video-sharing service modeled after YouTube. The Seattle Times reports:

Hopping aboard one of the Internet's white-hot trends, Microsoft introduced a test version of an online video-sharing service Monday night, with hopes it will snatch users away from market leader YouTube and generate revenue through advertising.

Soapbox on MSN Video, released to a select group of test customers, is designed to allow anyone to upload and share original videos on the Web.

Microsoft hopes Soapbox will both enhance and benefit from its other Web services to gain an edge in the explosive user-generated video market.

"The key is going to be getting a lot of users," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "It's one of those services that becomes more useful as more people access it. The biggest challenge will be to get people to use [Soapbox] instead of YouTube or other services."

Microsoft has an existing audience of 465 million monthly users across its various Web properties and aims to integrate Soapbox with its blogging and instant-messaging services, among others.

To keep its ad-funded business growing, it needs not only to grow its audience but also expand each user's involvement with its services, said Rob Bennett, general manager of entertainment and video services for MSN.

This is part of the continuing trend of business giants and government to harmess the Internet, as noted earlier on this site, here, here, and elsewhere.

From Karnick on Culture.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Evolution Of A Conservative: Playing Defense

One must have something in mind when applying a label to oneself. A label subject to as many divergent associations as "conservative" makes this requirement harder to meet, but no less urgent.

My preferred interpretation stems from an article written by Lew Rockwell, that appeared in Liberty magazine some years ago. Rockwell was, at that time, setting forth on the ideological journey that would put him at odds with most other American libertarians and conservatives. Yet there were several observations in that article that ought to have been taken quite seriously by members of both camps -- indeed, by members of all American political designations. Central among them was this:

Western civilization, most particularly American civilization, is eminently worthy of preservation and defense.

The key words of that assertion are the three at the end: preservation and defense. The target of such efforts, by Rockwell's lights, should be our civilization and culture as a whole and in fundamentals, rather than any detail excrescence. Thus, the top marginal tax rate, whatever it might be, is relatively unimportant, but the rule of law, a justice system blind to identity and group affiliation, free speech, free markets, and an ethic of public decency must be upheld at all costs.

To me, this expresses the core of conservatism. A conservative seeks to protect the fundamental principles from which the nation he loves has sprung. He's willing to entertain detail differences about specific policies with his fellows. He'll argue reasonably with anyone who's in accord with him on the pre-eminence of those fundamentals. But he'll brook no assault on them; that's tantamount to treason.

A conservative is a defender.

Here is where the Libertarian Party has committed its most grievous misstep. Party spokesmen and candidates have interpreted the assaults of Black Tuesday, and other Islamic terror attacks on Americans and their interests, as arguments for an American retreat from the Middle East and a return to a non-interventionist foreign policy. The milder ones argue that Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were at best terrible mistakes; others claim that the expeditions exceeded the federal government's Constitutional authority. The question of what degree of political and military engagement with other nations would be best is debatable, but to argue that America had no right to respond to a terrorist atrocity on its own soil, thousands killed and tens of billions of dollars in property destroyed, puts its proponent beyond the pale for anyone who regards our civilization as worthy of defense.

Of course, Buchananites have taken the same position. They receive more tolerance from mainstream conservatives because of their premise: that our military expeditions have actually harmed American interests, and our ability to defend them, over the long term. Even so, the intimation that the best thing to have done was not to respond sits very poorly with the overwhelming majority of conservatives, sufficiently so that Buchanan is now considered unwelcome in mainstream conservative gatherings.

In the precursor to this essay, Tom Van Dyke counterpoised "conservative" to "progressive." Well, yes and no. Wholesome conservatism will embrace changes that are consistent with the fundamentals it seeks to preserve and defend, if those changes can be shown to yield net positive results -- progress -- by some widely accepted standard. Progressivism, historically, has been dismissive of such constraints. Its progenitors were fond of saying that "reality is inherently unfinished," and that a sufficient application of will and effort can transform it into whatever we want it to be. Such a doctrine vitiates the very notion of an enduring principle.

A classical liberal who upholds a set of fundamental principles is also a conservative, whether or not he chooses to style himself as such.

More anon.

Earmarks and the Constitution

Back from China, where, unlike California, capitalism and property rights actually mean something. Anyway, I notice today that Senator Jim DeMint argues that some 95 percent of all earmarks are listed in committee reports rather than in actual appropriation bills, that is, in actual law. And so DeMint argues that El Presidente W could simply refuse to spend, without need for an item veto.

Well, excuse me, but the last time I read the Constitution---Article 1, section 9, but who's counting?---it said something to the effect that "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law..." That means something rather different than DeMint's point: W has a duty not to spend, rather than merely the right not to do so. Of course, W, among his other virtues, seems to have forgotten that enforcement of the Constitution is his job; his casual approval of McCain-Feingold is all the proof we need. This apparently is what it means to be a uniter, not a divider.

Football Rules the Box Office

Promo shot of The Gridiron Gang movieFor the second time in th last month, a football film is the weekend's top box-office attraction. The Gridiron Gang, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, led the way in weekend receipts with an estimated total of $15 million.

The Gridiron Gang is another in a long line of sports movies that show how troubled individuals develop character by participating in sports, where excellence is the pursuit and achieving real, visible results is the only way to succeed.

An important aspect of these films is the leadership brought by a coach who has battles of his or her own to fight. Mentorship and the responsibility of each generation to train the next one are central concerns of such films.

Movies such as Invincible, The Replacements, Friday Night Lights, The Longest Yard, and The Ice Princess all pursue this approach, and the underlying concern is the same: redemption. As such, they can be quite moving despite their often formulaic story lines.

(In fact, a great deal of their power is the direct result of their formulaic nature, about which we will write more in due course.)

The Brian DePalma crime story The Black Dahlia brought in a lackluster $10 mil in its opening week, and attendance overall for the weekend was weak, off 12 percent from the week before.

The E! Online story attributes this to school being back in session and the large number of football games available to watch on TV. The first seems unlikely, given that in most places school started at least a couple of weeks ago, and few people attend classes on weekends (although some do actually do homework over the weekends).

The likely reason for the box office dropoff is the attraction of football. Several football games were in the top twenty rated TV shows last week, with NFL games at the 1 and 3 positions.

I think that's a good thing. If you're like most people, you'll get more enjoyment and learn more about life watching a football game than in watching most movies—and what you enjoy will be the pursuit of excellence and what you learn will be true.

If only more movies were like that.

From Karnick on Culture.

This Pope's a Funny Guy

“We would ask that violence and anger subside and that serious dialogue begin.

“We are therefore planning to invite several leading Muslim religious leaders to visit us here in the Vatican where we can have detailed and inter-faith discussions."

“After that, we would like Muslim religious leaders to invite us to continue the conversation in their holy places: Mecca, Medina, Qum and Najaf for example. Our Jewish brothers should be invited to attend, too. And why not add in people of faith from the Buddhist and Hindu communities?"

As if you didn't know Mecca and Medina are forbidden for non-Muslims to enter. And while we're at it, let's bring some Jews!

Benedictus, you slay me.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Evolution Of A Conservative, Part One: First Delineations

I've been piqued by S. T. Karnick's recent statements, in the comments to a couple of his own essays, that he's "not a conservative." Now, he didn't make it sound as if it were somehow an unworthy thing to be; he just stated that he wasn't one. Yet in the absence of those statements, what I've learned of Mr. Karnick's values and general political posture would have caused me to conclude that he is a conservative. You see, I share those values and that posture, and "conservative" (of the libertarian variety) is what I call myself.

Political labels are always at least a tad fuzzy. These days, they appear to be more indistinct than they've been since before FDR. But most people do label themselves one thing or another. One of the reasons has always been to provide others with a condensed guide to their positions. Another has been the psychic comfort that comes with group identification. It seems that despite the gray zones around all of today's conventionally labeled political poles, labels still serve those purposes to an extent sufficient to make them attractive to most Americans. Which compels us to ask:

  • If Pat Buchanan, Charles Krauthammer, George Bush, and my old friend Smith who thinks that no one except soldiers should be permitted to cross the border in either direction are all conservatives;
  • If William Safire, Mark Steyn, William F. Buckley and my old friend Jones whose favorite pastime is hauling his Uzi and his bipod to Central Park and killing drug dealers in the wee hours are all conservatives;
  • If Steve Forbes, Bob Dole, Ernest van den Haag and my old friend Davis who's called for a 50% tax on all profits and the outright confiscation of all estates are all conservatives;

...what does "conservative" really mean? Could it be that the word has been drained of all objective significance?

(Incidentally, the names Smith, Jones, and Davis are used above as pseudonyms for real persons. My friends form a rather diverse lot.)

A century ago, a European observer of our society, a certain Herbert George Wells, wrote in his book The Future Of America that "All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another," by which he meant what we would call classical liberals. Wells, a socialist, was hostile to classical liberalism, the dominant political posture of the time. He saw it as the principal obstacle socialists such as he, the Webbs, and the Bloomsbury group would need to surmount to achieve their vision of a just society. This makes his observation all the more striking for the time it was made: the heyday of the Progressives, the muckrakers, and the Benthamites, not one of whom would have endorsed the principles of classical liberalism without first registering heavy qualifications to all of them. More, within fifteen years, the United States would go to war in Europe against powers that had not attacked it, Prohibition would be fastened onto the necks of Americans nationwide, and major elements of the program laid out in The Communist Manifesto would be incorporated into federal law.

Gentle Reader, all of that happened in a nation whose favorite nonfiction author was classical liberal titan Herbert Spencer. Let that sink in for a moment. Clearly, "liberal" had at least as much fuzz around it then as "conservative" does today. So "conservative" isn't the first widely used political label to suffer from a certain indeterminacy in specifics.

I've long been of the opinion that "liberal" and "conservative" more suitably designate particular attitudes of welcome or unease toward large social and political changes than coherent political philosophies. Neither term's adopters command a significant consensus about core principles. The political postures of conservatives, in particular, vary greatly and often contradict themselves on specific issues. Yet "conservative" is at this time the most commonplace political self-assessment in America. It must mean something to the persons who use it.

More anon.

Art That Bites

Artists in the twentieth-century increasingly operated on the insight that it is vain, stupid, and boring to paint a beautiful and emotionally moving portrait of a landscape or person or pieces of fruit or a scene from the Bible or a war fight or a group of local burghers gathered for their nightly guarding of the town, and that those who did so were captives of bourgeois values whose work spread false consciousness and destroyed souls (and by the way, there is no such thing as a soul).

An example of repugnantm, soul-destroying, false consciousness, painted by Dutch artist Vermeer

This phenomenon has been well documented over the past couple of decades in books such as Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word and in the excellent culture magazine The New Criterion.

Of course, for most people the best response to such things is to ignore them and, when they cannot be avoided, ridicule them.

A Los Angeles art show this weekend shows that the anti-art, anti-bourgeois, anti-social art movement is still strong.

The show, called Barely Legal, is put on by Banksy, a British prankster and graffiti artist, whose work pushes what passes for serious art today into open absurdity. It is the reductio ad absurdum of modern art, which is not much of a reduction at all.

Unfortunately, the show is not meant to satirize the contemporary art world but is in fact simply a cheesy and self-consciously ludicrous manifestation of it.

Banko's installations have a clear "anti-capitalist" (in the words of the Reuters article quoted below), anti-bourgeois message. Too bad, for he really does seem to have an ability to create mildly amusing if decidely unimaginative faux contemporary art scenarios.

Reuters reports:

A live Asian elephant, painted in pink and gold, stands in a makeshift living room.

Giant cockroaches swarm over copies of Paris Hilton's pop CD. A dummy angel wearing a gas mask and a white parachute flaps in the blue skies.

Even in free-wheeling Los Angeles, they'd never seen anything quite like this.

British graffiti artist and prankster Banksy opened his first Los Angeles show on Friday in an obscure warehouse in industrial Downtown, bringing his subversive humor and anti-capitalist message to a city better known for wealth and self-obsession.

"Barely Legal," a free three-day event billed as a "vandalized warehouse extravaganza," opened with the excitement and puzzlement that has come to be the hallmark of the elusive "guerrilla artist."

Banksy keeps his identity secret but has built up a cult following in Europe over the last four years, placing his work in top museums, zoos or on the streets.

"It is really amazing. I think he is hilarious," said Los Angeles graphic designer Manny Skiles, 30, who has spent two years following Banksy's work mostly through the Internet.

Banksy's works show about the usual level of imagination evident in these contemporary art scenarios, which is to say, very little:

On one wall, a stencil art picture shows bush hunters in loincloths raising their spears at empty supermarket shopping carts. On another, a masked street anarchist with a thrown back arm prepares to hurl -- a bunch of flowers.

But the placid pink elephant takes pride of place. Tai, 38, looms large in a room decked out with a sofa, a television, rugs on the floor and a man and woman sitting reading obliviously on the couch. It is titled "Home Sweet Home."

"We are sitting on the couch not seeing her. From what I understand, the elephant is a symbol of all the world's problems being ignored," said Kari Johnson, Tai's caretaker. Johnson said Tai lives on a private southern California elephant ranch and has appeared in several commercials.

This is all highly reminiscent of much 1960s hippie "art." And the "artist's" politics are just as nuanced and deeply informed as those of his '60s prankster predecessors:

Banksy, as is his custom, was not around to discuss his show, which followed a prank at Disneyland this month in which he placed a blow-up figure dressed in orange Guantanamo Bay prison overalls beside a roller-coaster ride.

Last month, Banksy placed remixed copies of Paris Hilton's debut CD in stores across England. He gave them titles such as "Why Am I Famous?" and "What Am I For?"

In the "Barely Legal" show, the fake Hilton CDs are displayed in a plexiglass case alongside photo-shopped pictures of the hotel heiress and live cockroaches.

What this world needs is an installation that makes appropriate fun of all this nonsense. Banko could be just the one to do it, if he could only get past his own idological complacency. That, however, is one thing that he, like his contemporaries, appears unlikely to challenge.

For extensive coverage of this topic and others, go to Karnick on Culture.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Bush "Snuff" Film Premieres in Toronto

Death of a President depicts imagined assassination of President George W. BushJames Pinkerton of Tech Central Station went all the way up to Toronto for the city's annual film festival this year, and he has brought back an excellent article on one of the most vivid manifestations of Bush hatred seen so far, the film The Death of a President. In an article appropriately and only slightly hyperbolically titled "Snuff Cinema," Pinkerton writes:

Five years after 9-11, it's apparent that we all aren't getting along. And the political left is throwing plenty of mean punches. A case in point is that new Bush snuff movie, "Death of a President." Some might say that "snuff movie" is too strong a term -- but how else to describe a movie that clearly revels in the prospect of George W. Bush's being assassinated? . . .

"Death" is a pseudo-documentary that purports to show what happens to America in the year after President George W. Bush is assassinated on October 19, 2007 (stock market nerds might note that 10/19/07 is the 20th anniversary of the 500-point stock market crash, for whatever symbolism that's worth).

A few points about the movie: First, it has a "big" look. As film-society types would say, "Death" is fluent in cinematic language; it brings one into the action, it's well paced, the music enhances the mood. Interestingly, the film was made for a mere $2 million; if so, such a large movie on such a small budget could only be possible for an offshoot of a big network, such as More4. The parent company, Channel 4, used its own deep resources to acquire archival footage and to help out on the slick special optical effects. So "Death" looks like a theatrical release, not a made-for-TVer.

Pinkerton sees extremely sinister motives at work here:

In the 12th century, King Henry II grew distinctly weary of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket. "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Henry asked, and the next thing he knew, four loyal knights did just the ridding Henry was hoping for. Now fast-forward nine centuries: Is it really all that hard to believe that the "Death" filmmakers hope that somebody gets a "bright idea" to rid the world of a troublesome president?

For my full, extensive article on this and its very interesting implications, go to Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Get Your Red Meat Before the Store Closes. . . .

The rumors are flying, that the left-wing radio network Air America is about to shut down. The New York Post reports:
All-liberal, all-the-time Air America is denying intense rumors that the ratings-challenged radio network will declare bankruptcy this week and attempt to reorganize to stay on the air for the November elections.

A high-level source told The Post that Rob Glaser, the Real Networks founder who rescued the 2-year-old network from its first financial crisis, "walked away last week" and took his moneybags with him.

Earlier this week, as first reported in The Post, Air America laid off six people and shuffled its on-air lineup - including deleting Jerry Springer and returning him to independent syndication.

Radio Equalizer, a blog that closely monitors Air America, claims the lefty net hasn't been able to pay its Associated Press bill and that staffers "have been bracing for the worst possible news."

Late yesterday, Air America spokeswoman Jaime Horn denied rumors of doom.

"If Air America had filed for bankruptcy every time someone rumored it to be doing so, we would have ceased to exist long ago," Horn told The Post. "No decision has been taken to make any filing of any kind."
From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Are We Winning the War on Terror?

I dunno.

Iraq seems to sink deeper into fratricide. Afghanistan seems to be getting hairier.

But are we losing the war on terror? No way. These people are incapable of holding a single square mile of turf anywhere on this earth unless we let them. Radical Islamis mocked the US about the Iraqi city of Fallujah, saying the US would get its comeuppance there especially after we withdrew for aesthetic reasons the first time.

Well, we turned half of it into ash, and as for the rest, people can live there if they want.

As persistent as cockroaches are, they can never take over. They can never win. Unless we do nothing, of course. There might be a best way to kill cockroaches, and maybe we haven't found it yet. But you just keep stomping, and life goes on.

A National Scandal: Brad Pitt, Beloved Sweetheart Angelina Tragically Prevented from Marrying!

The great Mr. Matt Huisman has given his opinion on this subject below, but for those who cannot get enough of it, here's my take.

Actor Brad Pitt and actress Angelina Jolie, tragically kept apart by government editsI am regrettably rather late in mentioning the actor Brad Pitt's enlightening recent comment regarding why he has not yet married the acclaimed actress Angelina Jolie, a subject which he believes should have an important effect on the nation's political process.

USA Today reports the tragic, earth-shattering news:
Brad Pitt, ever the social activist, says he won't be marrying Angelina Jolie until the restrictions on who can marry whom are dropped. "Angie and I will consider tying the knot when everyone else in the country who wants to be married is legally able," the 42-year-old actor reveals in Esquire magazine's October issue, on newsstands Sept. 19.
I think he's referring to domestic animals here, but I'm not entirely sure, as he has refrained from providing specifics. In any case, let's get together and change the laws to Brad's liking so that he and Angelina can move in together and have kids and whatnot, OK?

It's little enough to ask a country to do, after all, for such an important person.

From Karnick on Culture.

Media Consolidation Reversing?

Numerous writers and analysts have pointed out that large media conglomerates' purchases of movie studios, magazines, and book publishing companies have had a deleterious effect on the quality of production in these media by forcing them to bring in higher profits than were historically attainable.

I suspect that the decline of American education has had a much more important effect on the quality of popular culture in the past half-century, but there were always two additional interesting questions regarding media conglomeration that needed to be asked and seldom were.

Question one was whether these two industries would remain as appealing to corporations as they had become during the 1970s and the two decades thereafter.

Question two was whether the decline in quality and increasing sameness of product from corporatized major publishers and film studios would cause a rise in competition from independent producers and publishers. And if the latter happened, might not the answer to question one be that the big corporations might wish to unload some of these firms?

That does appear to be the case, with the well-documented rise of independent media productions, proliferation of new magazines (which has slowed only in the past few years), and increasing success of university presses, small book-publishing houses, and other such ventures.

We are seeing some signs of a reversal of the media consolidation of the past couple of decades.

In today's news, for example, The Wall Street Journal reports that Time-Warner is jettisoning numerous magazines "as it looks to prune its portfolio of smaller, less-profitable titles."

This move is significant because it includes very popular titles such as Popular Science, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Skiing, Parenting, and Babytalk. Of course these will all be sold to other big investors, because they are still worth a lot of money, but this looks to me like part of what may be a continuing devolution to a more reasonable scale of organization for these publications.

Equally significant in today's news is the announcement by the New York Times Co. that it is selling off its television stations:

"The decision to explore the sale of our broadcast stations is a result of our ongoing analysis of our business portfolio," said Janet L. Robinson, president and CEO. "These are well-managed and profitable stations that generate substantial cash flows and are located in attractive markets. We believe a divestiture would allow us to sharpen our focus on developing our newspaper and rapidly growing digital businesses, and the synergies between them, thereby increasing the value of our Company for our shareholders."

The stations that comprise the Broadcast Media Group are:

  • WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa (NBC);
  • KFSM-TV in Ft. Smith, Ark. (CBS);
  • WHNT-TV in Huntsville, Ala. (CBS);
  • WREG-TV in Memphis, Tenn. (CBS);
  • WQAD-TV in Moline, Ill. (ABC);
  • WTKR-TV in Norfolk, Va. (CBS);
  • KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, Okla. (NBC);
  • KAUT-TV in Oklahoma City, Okla. (MyNetworkTV); and
  • WNEP-TV in Scranton, Penn. (ABC).

Leftist critics complained about the corporatization and consolidation of the media as an unwelcome phenomenon in the '70s and thereafter, and they were correct to point out that there would be deleterious effects.

Market-oriented analysts simply replied by saying that the consolidation would be good because people wouldn't do it if it didn't make sense.

That was not the correct response, however. People do stupid things, and corporations do stupid things too.

The sensible response should have been that the media consolidation that began in the 1960s was most likely part of a societal and technological transition that would ultimately work toward everybody's benefit, as free markets typically do over the long term.

And that appears to be what has happened and is happening today.

Contrary to the leftists' claims, competition among media providers actually increased during the period of consolidation, as a simple glance at the current media landscape should make abundantly clear. In response to that competition, big media companies are beginning to divest themselves of some of their media holdings in order to make themselves leaner and more effective at responding to competition, as the New York Times statement makes clear.

That process will increase media competition further, and will create increased capacity for variety, efficiency, and customer satisfaction in our communications media.

That is what markets do, and it is always to the good in the long term.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Whither Justice In Transaction?

As our technologies have ramified, certain aspects of knowledge have become more, not less, problematical. Much of this stems from the recognition that a new device or practice can have long-range effects that might not be visible in the near term. Much of the rest arises from the entirely excusable ignorance of the average citizen about, well, just about everything.

The extremely simple legal environment of the nineteenth century was founded on a set of extremely simple principles, which are no longer honored. One of these, the doctrine of assumption of risk, undergirded all commercial transactions. It made it possible for employers and employees to contract for any sort of labor, under any sort of conditions, and for vendors to sell potentially harmful products to customers, without fear that a lawsuit might reverse their a priori agreements to indemnify / hold harmless. But assumption of risk came under heavy fire in the early twentieth century, and began to be displaced by the doctrine of informed consent: the principle that a man could not be bound by a contractual agreement of any sort unless he had been fully informed of all the pertinent risks and had explicitly consented to them.

Informed consent has been taking a beating these past few decades, mostly because of Calabresian "legal positivism" and "deep pockets" liability theory. In essence, the prevailing view in American civil courts today is that, given the complexity of technology and society, no one is sufficiently well informed of the risks pertaining to anything to enter into a binding agreement to indemnify or hold harmless any other involved party under any conceivable set of circumstances. In consequence, such agreements, wherever we may find them -- and they're more numerous than one might imagine -- are considered "flypaper," and are dismissed or rewritten by judges at whim. The same is true for every sort of contract, for, once accepted, the assumption that only judges have the insight required to write a binding agreement knows no bounds.

The rot in our tort law proceeds directly from this absence of contractability. Without the ability to enter into a binding contract, persons desirous of transacting with one another must commit to a sequel of infinite uncertainty. Each is at the mercy of the intentions and character of the other. Under these circumstances, the most valuable thing a man can have, the sole protection he can offer a would-be partner in commerce, is an unstained reputation...the very thing one can most easily lose in a milieu where law is infinitely luxurious and infinitely elastic, slander is commonplace and usually escapes punishment, and no standard of proof can free a man from the invidiousness of the lumpenproletariat or the Fourth Estate. It puts one in mind of a passage from Atlas Shrugged:

Rearden, that evening, his coat collar raised, his hat slanted low over his eyes, the snow drifts rising to his knees, was tramping through an abandoned open-pit coal mine, in a forsaken corner of Pennsylvania, supervising the loading of pirated coal upon the trucks which he had provided. Nobody owned the mine, nobody could afford the cost of working it. But a young man with a brusque voice and dark, angry eyes, who came from a starving settlement, had organized a gang of the unemployed and made a deal with Rearden to deliver the coal. They mined it at night, they stored it in hidden culverts, they were paid in cash, with no questions asked or answered. Guilty of a fierce desire to remain alive, they and Rearden traded like savages, without rights, titles, contracts, or protection, with nothing but mutual understanding and a ruthlessly absolute observance of one's given word. Rearden did not even know the name of the young leader. Watching him at the job of loading the trucks, Rearden thought that this boy, if born a generation earlier, would have become a great industrialist; now, he would probably end his brief life as a plain criminal in a few more years.

However, few legal scholars -- Thomas and Epstein are exceptions -- are willing to consider returning even to an informed-consent standard, much less the sterner assumption-of-risk rules that governed the Nineteenth Century.

From where is the next fundamental principle of justice-in-transaction to come? Will it be some product centuries in the making, slowly turned by jurists from Blackstone through Holmes on the lathe of our legal system, or will it arrive all at once, a jewel unearthed by a single brilliant mind in a flash of unprecedented insight, as the theory of property rights occurred to John Locke?

More important, with the costs of human interaction mounting steadily in consequence of the mounting uncertainty of all dealings, what, apart from our sterling characters, shall we use in the meantime?

The Need for Moral Courage (ABC's Path to 9/11, Part 2)

Part 2 of the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11, which aired last night, was, if anything, more critical of the Bush administration's obliviousness to the threat of al Quaeda than it was of the Clinton admin. Yet I hear no complaints about it, nor any threats of censorship.

The film's critique of the Bush administration is basically that it didn't get up to speed quickly enough (which is rather to be expected when the enormous White House bureaucracy switches parties) and was too devoted to political correctness prior to 9/11.

Regarding the former, then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice comes off as manipulative and unprepared to run a big office. That may be true or it may not be, but it certainly does not suggest that she is responsible for 9/11. Hence: no harm, no foul.

Regarding the Bush administration's continuation of the previous team's concern for political correctness, throughout the narrative leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, a concern over "racial profiling" prevents the nation's defense and policing agencies from picking up and holding obvious terrorists. This was a huge error, of course, and was something many people had warned was posing a serious danger. Now we know.

In a very revealing scene in episode 2, a terrorist who has been taken in for questioning insists that the agency release him, stating, "I have rights!" The agents accept this and ultimately release him. This was a disastrous policy.

Fortunately, the notion that aliens have the same constitutional rights as citizens has been set aside, as it should, in the years since 9/11. I recommended this less than a week after that day, in fact.

The lesson to learn from this aspect of the 9/11 story is clear:

People without moral courage hate to make distinctions.

The making of distinctions is central to human reason and is a good thing that should never be suppressed. In real life, relativism is not an option. And, based as it is on relativism, hard multiculturalism is not an option.

An alien is a person of different status from a citizen, and that is a distinction that society must accept. Certainly vistors to our country should not be mistreated, but holding an obvious terrorist in custody for more than 24 hours is not an atrocity; it is simple common sense.

The other impression one gets from last night's episode is that the sub-agencies of the Bush administration had more than enough information to suspect that the 9/11 attacks were coming and could have prevented it by grounding all air traffic on that day. That appears to be more than a bit of a stretch, but it makes for compelling TV drama and fulfills the central purpose of a docudrama. That is, as I mentioned yesterday, "to tell a whacking good story through the use of historical events" and thereby afford us insights into human nature and the world around us, in addition to helping us understand the issues surrounding the matter at hand.

The big lesson to learn from The Path to 9/11 and the real life events that inspired it is the need for moral courage. A people without it is a people doomed to destruction.

From Karnick on Culture.

Brad Pitt: 'I'll marry when everyone can'

Oh dear. Is it already time for another installment of Hollywood’s social conscience?

Brad Pitt, ever the social activist, says he won't be marrying Angelina Jolie until the restrictions on who can marry whom are dropped. "Angie and I will consider tying the knot when everyone else in the country who wants to be married is legally able," the 42-year-old actor reveals in Esquire magazine's October issue, on newsstands Sept. 19.

One wonders what Mr. Pitt expects us to make of such a statement. Had he employed such a line to keep some mistress du jour at bay, we would simply smirk and move on. But since Ms. Jolie does not strike me as someone unable to get her way, I think we can safely assume that she’s in on the whole thing too. Far be it from moi to question their motives, but what exactly are a couple of millionaire divorcees who have been living together for over a year sacrificing by not getting married? Are they going to go Old School, and forswear sex until same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land?

Or is it more likely that, in an effort to keep the Billy Bush’s and Nancy O’Dell’s of the world from asking the same friggin ‘When are you two kids gonna get married?’ question for the umpteenth-thousand time, Mr. Pitt figured that throwing traditional marriage under the bus might be a classic Hollywood Win-Win?

Well played, Mr. Pitt. But I hope realize that you're not the only one with deeply held beliefs, and there are a large number of us that still hold traditional marriage to be sacred. Are you really willing to pay the price for your convictions? You don't need to work in Hollywood to be an activist, and we watch an awful lot of movies.

So I hope you'll hear me loud and clear when I pledge to never watch or buy some of your movies ever again.

Take that.

* I absolutely adored 'A River Runs Through It' - so there's no way I'm giving that one up. And people really seem to enjoy the 'Ocean's' series - so I still plan on seeing those sometime too. But the promos for 'Interview with a Vampire' always creeped me out, and given your disdain for marriage, you can definitely count me out on that one. Unless some friends want to come over and watch it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

My Own Private 9/11

At 7:46 AM Central Daylight Time on September 11, 2001, I was rushing my kids out the front door to the bus stop. It was a typical early fall day in the Upper Midwest: gray, chilly, and unpromising. I argued briefly with Rachel about wearing a jacket. I lost.

My husband was a 3L at the University of Minnesota School of Law; I was a research fellow in the School of Public Health. He had only been back in Minneapolis for a few days, after a Washington DC summer associateship at a large, well heeled downtown firm. We were anxious about receiving a permanent offer for 2002, but otherwise life was going about as smoothly as it ever seemed to go for us. We owned a little Arts and Crafts Tudor revival on the western edge of Minneapolis proper, next to a city park. Our neighbors were mostly liberal neo-urbanists with "Free Leonard Peltier" bumper stickers and bake sale flyers for Sara Jane Olsen's defense fund, but Minneapolis civic etiquette is largely live and let live and they overlooked our American flag/Fox News/Catholic school household's peculiarities as long as we kept our sidewalk shoveled in the winter.

John wasn't re-adjusting to a school schedule very smoothly, and I heard low-level radio snooze alarm warfare proceeding upstairs. I put a load of clothes in the dryer and headed towards the back door to leave for work when John barreled down the stairs, practically knocking me down and in obvious alarm. "Turn the TV on. The radio just said a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center."

We switched on Fox. I still don't know if we saw the second plane impact live at 8:03, or if they were already replaying it. John started surfing for news on the computer. I sat on the couch and stared for awhile. I was very shaken, but this was something remote, that was taking place hundreds of miles away. It certainly didn't seem a good excuse to miss work or school. No one on screen seemed to know anything concrete either, and it was still not absolutely clear that it wasn't some hideous accident. So after half an hour or so John started for the shower, and I fumbled for my purse. And Fox News reported that a plane had hit the Pentagon, and I yelled at John, and sat down again.

What seems strange now is that it took so long for it to sink in that this was not analogous to a hurricane or a tornado or even the Oklahoma City bombing. This affected the whole country. I was still thinking I needed to get to work. Our federal contract for Medicare data support had just been renewed, and Tuesday afternoons were my shift on the help desk. I still had no notion that the entire country would be paralyzed. So I left for work, now more than an hour late. In the few moments between the back door and the garage, the first tower collapsed. On the way to campus, local news announced that the university was closing and all students were being sent home. Evacuation of the 57-story IDS Tower, Minneapolis's tallest building, was under discussion. I thought it all sounded silly. This was happening in strategically important cities, not Minneapolis.

The parking lot was almost completely empty by the time I arrived on campus. I parked anyway, and walked to my office. The shuttle buses didn't seem to be running. The office was deserted. My boss was in Atlanta for a conference, so it wouldn't be surprising even under normal circumstances that the secretaries would bug out early for lunch. But none of the other faculty or fellows were around either. I sat down for my shift anyway, the radio tuned to KSTP and searching the computer for live news feeds.

No one called all afternoon. I was alone in the building. I kept picking up the phone to make sure the lines weren't dead. John called when the kids got off the schoolbus. They were a little spooked, but the school hadn't made a big fuss. They had held a prayer service. They knew something very bad had happened, but not exactly what, and were fuzzy on the where as well.

There were seven cars in the parking lot when I left work. The parking attendant was gone. Someone had tied an improvised American flag to the open gate. I stopped at the liquor store on my way up University Avenue. I was still trying to make the day normal; I stopped there every Tuesday and Friday. There was a radio tuned to the news. The employees looked worn and old, pale green under the fluorescent lights. I bought cider and wine, spent more than usual. I tried to chat up the cashier. She tried to respond.

I guess I made dinner that night. I made dinner every night. I guess I bathed the kids and read them a story and tucked them in. I did that every night. But I don't remember that. I remember seeing John Fund interviewed on Fox. John Fund, who is usually so brash and caustic, so snarky, so full of himself. John Fund looked out his window and saw people jump from the tops of the towers, and watched them fall, and his voice broke, and he couldn't speak any more. I opened a bottle of wine, watched the self-confident and unflappable public personae at a loss for words, and I got very, very drunk.

The next morning, I didn't just shoo the kids out the door to the bus stop. I walked to the corner with them. And I turned around to walk back to our house, and looked down the length of York Avenue. Every house was flying an American flag.

I sat on this post a long time, because the potential for saccharine self-indulgence is almost limitless. In the end, the pros seemed to outweigh the cons. The comments are open to anyone who wants to post a private reflection. No partisan bickering, please.

ABC's Path to 9/11: Analysis

Part 1 of ABC's The Path to 9/11 two-part docudrama aired last night, and reactions from political types were largely as expected.
This photo, supplied by ABC, shows Harvey Keitel who plays FBI counterterrorism expert John O'Neill, in a scene from ABC's miniseries'The Path to 9/11.' The two-part film is a dramatization of the events detailed in The 9/11 Commission Report and other sources which airs on Sunday. Sept. 10, and Monday, Sept. 11, 2006. Former Clinton administration officials criticized the miniseries, saying it distorts history so drastically that it should be corrected or shelved.(AP Photo/ABC, Peter Stranks)

Supporters of former president Bill Clinton complained about some scenes in advance copies of the program (which were altered before airing, to reflect their concerns), some on the political right were disgusted by leftists' calls for censorship and retaliation against ABC, and others on the right took what they apparently considered to be the high road, claiming that the film's condensation of certain events into dramatic scenes was outrageous. The latter included Bill Bennett, Bill O'Reilly, John Podhoretz, and John Fund.

Fund, in his Opinion Journal article on the film, even goes so far as to say that it is fundamentally dishonorable to make docudramas: "Their rules simply aren't good enough when dealing with events that are still fresh in the minds of so many. At worst, they can be used by ideological gunslingers like director Oliver Stone, who smeared the reputations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in paranoid fantasy films."

That seems to me to be a serious overreaction to this film, as indeed were the reactions of the Democrat opponents of the film. The rules for dramas are different from the rules for histories, and they should be.

It's a movie, people.

Everyone involved seems to have no idea whatever of the purpose of a docudrama.

For the rest of this analysis, click here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

New Film to "Speak Language of Sex" to Mainstream Audiences

Another item for our ongoing Everything Happens in the Omniculture department:

Shortbus, a film that is highly sexually explicit but allegedly not salacious according to its director, has received a distribution agreement to appear in mainstream theaters in the United States and elsewhere. It is not clear at this point how widely it will be distributed in the United States. Reuters reports:
Three months after John Cameron Mitchell showed his sexually explicit film "Shortbus" out of competition at the Cannes film festival, he said it had attracted distributors in dozens of countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan, France and Singapore.

"People are ready for change. There is a thirst for something different," Mitchell told reporters on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Shortbus" was set for its North American premiere before an October opening in the United States.

Mitchell aims to use sex as a metaphor to tell a story about people looking for solace and searching for something more in their lives in a post-September 11 world.

"What pissed me off was that it was ... generically identified of as porn," Mitchell said of his film. "We are not trying to do anything salacious here. That is just the language which we speak."

The film is graphic: Scenes include a man being whipped by a dominatrix as he masturbates and a straight couple having sex in a variety of positions.

But pornographic? Mitchell argues not.

"Porn is really to arouse. This film explores the other areas of sex," he said.

The story revolves around two couples, one straight and one gay, accompanied by a few other lonely souls.

From Karnick on Culture.

Does a Man Own Himself?

Who is the only Jewish winner of a Heisman Trophy?

---Fred Goldman.

That was the joke a few years back when O.J. Simpson was found liable in a civil trial for the wrongful death of Ron Goldman on the awful night of June 12, 1994. Father Fred won a judgment of what is now with accrued interest $38 million, which Simpson has never paid off.

Yes, he really did get the trophy, which was auctioned off for $382,000, the proceeds split with Nicole Brown Simpson's survivors, the only money they've seen. And so, he and the Brown family want to own O.J. Simpson, at least his public self, even his autograph.

Now, John Locke was very big on self-ownership, and it certainly was ludicrous when the copyright holder of the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog, Saul Zaentz, sued John Fogerty for plagiarizing himself.

But a public image has been recognized as a legal and commercial commodity entirely separate from one's private personhood. Such a weird world we live in.

A Los Angeles attorney, Bela Lugosi, Jr. (yes, that one), has become a specialist in defending the commercial rights of name and likeness for the estates, survivors and copyright holders of the famous. Lugosi, Jr. helped win a trial for the legal owners of the Three Stooges' images, so I guess he's pretty good.

I wish he'd been around a few years ago.

"If only I'd sent that blue dress to Dan's Dry Cleaners. I would've
got Osama bin Laden, and 9/11 would never have happened."

Bill Clinton™, Inc., ©2006 is a wholly owned subsidiary
of Paula Jones Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

More on The Path to 9/11

Our new friend Akaky Bashmachkin weighs in very thoughtfully on the controversy, and by popular demand, we gratefully promote his considerations from our comments section to the mainpage:

This, I think, brings up the question of just how much accuracy can anyone expect from any art form depicting a historical event. Hollywood is notorious for rewriting history in order to get a better story on film, but it isn’t just Hollywood that has done this over the years. In Henry V, for example, Shakespeare has his Chorus apologize to the audience for mangling the full course of his characters’ glory and for turning the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass. The play contains the battle of Agincourt and then follows the battle with the Treaty of Troyes, where in fact Henry fought the battle in 1415 and signed the treaty with the French in 1420. In 1942, Warner Brothers had Gary Cooper play the great Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees. One of the high points of that film is Cooper’s rendition of Gehrig’s famous speech at Yankee Stadium, the one in which he proclaimed himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Cooper gives a moving performance, giving the speech wonderfully, until you realize, as many people did at the time, that Gary Cooper gives the speech in his own Montana accent, whereas Lou Gehrig not only played for a New York team, he was born and raised in New York City, and spoke with a New York accent. And in the greatest of all historical fictions, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Tolstoy depicts Field Marshal Kutuzov as an earthy son of the Russian soil, almost a peasant military genius, not at all like the smooth courtier the actual Kutuzov really was.

So, what is the responsibility of artists when it comes to depicting actual events? I think that the standard in such a case must be that the producers and writers do their level best to be historically accurate. You do not have major historical characters say or do things they did not actually say or do. The producers should restrict compression of time and character to events and people not absolutely central to the story. If a historical character must deal with a fictional character, then it behooves the artist putting these two people together to have the historical character say or do nothing that would offend the historical record. In Shelby Foote’s Shiloh and in Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, for example, both authors made certain that they had their historical characters interact with the fictional ones in the places where the real people really were at the time depicted, and both men had all their characters hew closely to the historical record.

In the case of this film, if the charges of slanting are true, and I should point out that as I write this it is the Saturday before the film is broadcast, so I have not seen it yet, then at least some of the Clinton administration officials upset by this film have every right to be. Ms. Albright, for one, is a woman whose opinions on foreign policy I almost never agree with, but she has spent years serving this country faithfully and deserves better than to have someone basically accuse her of tipping off Osama bin Laden that the United States had launched a cruise missile strike against him. This, I think, is uncalled for and unnecessary.

As for Mr. Berger’s complaint, it strikes me that Mr. Berger is singularly lacking in irony here. A man who tries to distort the historical record by stealing documents out of the National Archives should be the last person on the planet to accuse others of trying to alter history. Still, his ire, and the ire of the Clintonistas is understandable; no one likes being accused of aiding and abetting a mass murderer, no one likes being accused of negligence and dereliction of duty. It is easy, five years after the event, to pick out the relevant intelligence from all of the background noise, to see the dots that someone should have connected, to see that certain policies harmed rather than helped those responsible for the day to day running of the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies. And yet, for eight years, these were the people responsible for those agencies.

What happened in New York on September 11, 2001 did not come out of the blue; it was the final blow in an ever-mounting series of attacks on Americans and American interests around the world. From the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 to the attacks on the Khobar towers in 1996 to the East African embassy bombings in 1998 to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, al-Qaeda and its minions hit the United States again and again, even, at one point, publicly declaring war on the United States. The Clinton Administration did launch missile attacks on al-Qaeda camps after these attacks, and did set up intelligence groups to track and locate bin Laden, but it is clear that they did not take the threat seriously enough and neither did the incoming Bush Administration in 2001. Both administrations dropped the ball when it came to this threat, both administrations refusing to take bin Laden at his word. Both administrations filed him away as a minor annoyance, a man capable of minor terrorist attacks that might get a few people killed but unable to harm any long-term American interest. Both administrations were wrong, and three thousand people paid for their mistakes with their lives.