Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Dodo Times

I should make it clear that I have never expected to read anything intelligent in TIME magazine. Literally, like, I went from being a kid who thought magazines were boring to a teenager who saw through the banality of the modern glossy press in, like, 18 seconds.

Can you blame me? Read this, from Joe Klein:

Absolutely amazing poll results from CNN today about the $787 (sic) stimulus package:

Absolutely amazing typo in your lede. Again, you get paid to do this, right?

nearly three out of four Americans think the money has been wasted.

Who is amazed by this result? How is that possible? What kind of Kevin Bacon fruitista freeze do you have to be sucking down to be astonished that most of America thinks the government pissed away its money?

On second thought, they may be right:

The arbitrary use of the colon has me worried. ':' is the new 'however'.

it's been wasted on them.

Insofar as they are still subscribing to TIME magazine, I am inclined to agree.

Indeed, the largest single item in the package--$288 billion--is tax relief for 95% of the American public.

Which has magically appeared into our paychecks, unbeknownst to us.

This money is that magical $60 to $80 per month you've been finding in your paycheck since last spring.

Wait, he's really using the word magical? Funny. But, per the above, yeah, we got nothin'. I must be the wealthy five percent. Good to know. My wife has been giving be guff about our yacht.

The next highest amount was $275 billion in grants and loans to states.

Which, people not being states, means nothing.

This is why your child's teacher wasn't laid off...

Your property tax dollars had nothing to do with it. They were spent on tacos.

and why the fire station has remained open,

In spite of the fact that your mayor bribed his rapey fire chief to go away, so as to save face...

and why you're not paying even higher state and local taxes to close the local budget hole.

But I am paying... This article... No sense... Blargh!

It turns out that what people are really upset about is all that wasteful money that has gone to political public works projects...

Oh, and the fact that the stimulus has done nothing to stimulate. You know, the whole bit about failing to achieve core functionality. People also get pissed when they order eggs and receive promises to replace the kitchen grill. Reason: They paid for (ihop)ing eggs.

except that the overwhelming portion of that money hasn't been spent yet.


Thereby negating everything you just wrote.

Remember all those "shovel-ready" projects? Well, they didn't exist.

That's confidence-inducing. Silly me, pretending to myself that this president is not completely full of shit. My bad. I'm not worthy of stimulus, so let's just give me back my tax money, howzabout?

The big jobs-creating projects like the rebuilt "smart" electric grid, major highways and fast trains will come on line during the next year.

In other words, don't even bother driving the Chicago 94 corridor until 2043.

(Although these projects might have gotten greater public support if they'd been chosen by a National Infrastructure Bank--a panel of experts, like the fed--that would have picked them according to their value added, rather than by the bozo appropriators in the Congress.)

Really, dumbass? You think? Also, I would have more respect for your crappy, sycophantic rag had you not been agitating in favor of the bozos for the last three-quarters of a century.

So, two thoughts:

Don't tax yourself, Joe.

1. The Obama Administration has done a terrible job explaining the stimulus package to the American people...especially since there have been very few documented cases of waste so far.

The president should sit down and explain that we should not expect much from the stimulus package, insofar as it is being administered by bozo appropriators. Then everyone will be on board.

2. This is yet further evidence that Americans are flagrantly ill-informed...

This from the most widely circulated current affairs magazine in history.

and, for those watching Fox News, misinformed.

Fox News has failed to make the case that the stimulus is being administered by bozos?

It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens.

So begins the only paragraph to which Joe Klein has devoted a modicum of thought, I assure you.

It is impossible to be a citizen if you don't make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government.

Which is comprised of bozos eager to not spend the money they extracted from you.

It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you're a nation of dodos.

Tuesday Musings

This is late because I was too into sports yesterday.

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Normally, I don't find videos of presidents doing stupid things to be all the hilarious. But Obama's teleprompter speech in a sixth grade classroom is pretty funny. He looks like a cat watching a tennis match. Next time, use index cards.

For quite some time, been saying that Obama's reputation as an outstanding speaker is largely unearned. He speaks with authority and confidence, in contrast to his often mumbly predecessor, but he cannot articulate big ideas and seems not to understand them.

The press seems to be hip to the game. The Washington Post lampooned his overreliance on the phrase "let me be clear", and the AP took a break from it's usual fashion consulting service to pen a piece critical of Obama's speechmaking.

What's my point? That I was right. That is all.

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So, Vikings owners are trying to use the team's success as a launch-pad for a new stadium. Everything that can be said about new stadiums has been said, but isn't this actually a spectacularly bad time to be discussing this?

We spent a billion dollars on two stadiums, neither of which is delivering the promised jolt to nearby businesses. The Vikings are actually selling out for once. So NOW we need to pay money to move the team to Anoka? Interesting argument.

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Obama is instituting a "spending freeze". You'll be seeing plenty of the debate during which Obama excoriated McCain for supporting precisely what he now proposes, so I'll spare you that. But isn't it a bit galling to simultaneously propose expensive healthcare and environmental proposals?

What is the strategy? Assume the Americans are dumber than molasses? Politics is a cynical business, but yikes.

David Frum has already labelled the spending freeze a "slushy". How can I keep this blog funny when gags get taken in minutes?

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I am saddened that my boy Mike Pence has declined to challenge Evan Bayh in the Indiana Senate race. As someone who opposed TARP and the stimulus, he would have had an excellent chance in a race likely to see low slum-precinct turnout. The Dems dodged a bullet, there.

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Had a chance to hit up La Sirena Gorda, the fish taco emporium in Midtown Global Market. One of the best cheap meals I've had in a long time. The ceviche, in particular, was splendid, but the tacos are best of breed as well.

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Victory 44 has a new chef, and putting a more innovative spin on their existing menu. Most of what I had was good (the cheddar ale soup is a standout), though a chicken cordon bleu deconstruction did nothing for me. Why deconstruct a dish that is so blah to begin with? The prices have stayed low, but I'm not sure there is a market for this kind of innovation in North Minneapolis.

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Finally, if you live up north, pay a visit to Kim Anh in Brooklyn Park. It's located by Lemongrass, one of the best Thai joints in town. It's a solid pho and banh mi stop for folks who don't want to drive all the way to Jasmine Deli.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday Musings

Vikings Victory! Everything is amazing except for things that are not Minnesota football, most of which is awful.

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A brief PSA. If you want to give to an organization that is really doing work in Haiti. Like, feeding people, saving lives, educating... No politics or BS... Visit www.filltheirplate.org

There are opportunities to give of your time and money. Do so, if you feel so inclined.

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On Facebook, a friend of mine asked this: "in what world is Glee better than The Office or 30 Rock". Answer: This one.

This is a country that is predisposed to reject art as hubris. We despise talent, and worship mediocrity. Gone is the fundamentally American ideal of aspiration, the notion that one can learn from the great to become great. In it's place, the notion that everyone is great.

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In related news, Avatar won the Golden Globe for best drama.

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Want to adopt a Haitian baby? Great idea! Not so, says idiots. Per the Guardian (UK):

The Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS), a US advocacy organisation, said it had received 150 enquiries about Haitian adoption in the last three days. Usually there are 10 a month.
Great! Let's use this as an opportunity to find loving homes for babies at risk of death.

"Bringing children into the US, either by airlift or new adoption during a time of national emergency, can open the door for fraud, abuse and trafficking," JCICS said in a statement.
OH. MY. F(IHOP)ING. GOD.

Let me get this straight. People with large and welcoming homes, who can (by way of biology) make children at their leisure, are subject to bureaucratic red tape, in their endeavor to adopt the poorest, most vulnerable babies on Eart. All because they might be fraudulent?

Let me refresh the short memory of the idiots at JCICS. There was an earthquake. These children are starving to death. Their parents are dead. They will be too unless they can be helped.

Here's what's happening, here and abroad. Thousands of well-intentioned (but talentless) college kids graduate with meaningless degrees and a desire to help people very hard. Alas, they also want jobs that will pay them $40k per year, along with fancy benefits. All the costs associated with adoption go to these idiots. A child drop would render them inessential. This is job preservation, at the expense of human life.

The odds of a child being exploited are real, but pale in comparison the relative certainty of death in Haiti. That the JCICS is willing to put forth a statement condemning these kids in the name of their own careers makes me sick.

I know... Nuance, nuance, nuance... But I have a point...

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So Scott Brown might actually defeat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts. I'm not holding my breath, but I'll make this observation. Per genetics, in-breeding leads to retardation.

Now, Martha Coakley is not retarded, but she is unpleasant, unintelligent, and inarticulate. In political terms, that's as close to disabled as it comes. Martha Coakley reminds me of the librarian at the public library who makes you leave a computer station after 15 minutes, even if there is nobody waiting for the computer station.

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On Haiti: Every time there is a natural disaster, you can expect Pat Robertson to gloat theologically. That's what he does.

You can also expect left-wingers to sift right-wing commentary for signs of indifference to the Haitian plight. How is this substantially different? Citing others for politicizing a crisis is the same as politicizing a crisis.

Case in point: Sojourners, which has devoted a half-dozen posts to criticizing Pat Robertson, but not a single one to encouraging people to support Haitian relief or encouraging the government to do the same.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Brian McLaren and the primitive brain

Brian McLaren is leading the charge to end thinking with the primitive brain. What is the primitive brain? The one that thinks and believes things that Brian McLaren does not think and believe.

Parker Palmer, in a beautiful and important essay

In other words, an essay with which McLaren emphatically agrees. Palmer's excerpt reads as follows:

Parishioners flock to preachers who see the anti-Christ in people who do not believe as they do.

This seems like a good time to remind my readers that the head of McLaren's organization has accused George W. Bush of being the anti-Christ in his best selling book.

Christian voters support politicians who use God’s name to justify ignoble and often violent agendas.

Christians vote Republican, is what the author means to say here.

When the primitive brain is in charge, humility, compassion, forgiveness, and the vision of a beloved community do not stand a chance.

Implicitly declaring yourself to be above the use of a lesser brain function does not constitute humility.

In response, McLaren muses...

This primitive brain, he explains, snaps us into the fight-or-flight reflex. That reflexive reaction to danger has great survival value when you’re trying to escape from a saber-toothed tiger or when you are trying to bring down a mastodon to feed your clan.

Brian McLaren should stay away from the fields science and psychology. Not his gig.

But the primitive brain isn’t so helpful when you’re in the middle of a tense conflict with your spouse, or you’re negotiating with a high-strung teenager.

Let's all take time to thank Brian McLaren for spelling this out.

Or dealing with terrorists.

Who are exactly like my spouse. This transition is great. No need to elaborate.

Terrorism, contrary to what our political leaders sometimes tell us, isn’t insane.

Insofar as labeling terrorism as insane represents a category error, I agree with McLaren. That said, if terrorists aren't insane, then there is no such thing as insane.

It’s actually a demonically brilliant strategy of manipulating an opponent to react from the primitive brain. Terrorists aren’t stupid; they know that by tempting us to submit to the primitive brain, we will become stupid and easy to manipulate.

That strategy has paid off like gang-busters. Just look at how all of America is celebrating Ramadan.

More specifically, if your enemies know they can provoke you to fight or flee on their prompting, they can pull your chain and push your buttons so you will overextend, overspend, and over-react.

How does this benefit the terrorists? Why would they do this? Why would they care if we over-react?

By leading you to overspend again and again, little by little they render you increasingly vulnerable to economic indebtedness, recession, depression, collapse, and all the civil unrest that accompany them, further weakening you from within.

I should take the time to note that Brian McLaren is a liberal Democrat who supports vast increases in government spending, which would dwarf any military expenditures of the past quarter century, and the contributions to public debt thereof. He hasn't considered this paradox because he does not know what a paradox is, and does not care.

If this sounds familiar, then perhaps we’re waking up to see how we have been dancing to the fearful song of the primitive brain, marching to the drumbeat of reactivity, and playing stupid to the script terrorism. And perhaps we begin to see the ancient wisdom of Jesus’ words: those who live by the sword die by the sword, because sword-play submits you to the primitive brain.

And yet, Jesus was pretty cool with Peter having the sword to begin with. In McLaren's world, terrorists, who have been brainwashed into blowing themselves up for Allah, are sophisticated psychological experts, while the rest of us rubes act on our primal instincts. Uh, huh.

What would it mean to “let this mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus?” What would it mean to put primitive ways behind us, and mature from the primitive brain’s fear-driven reacting to the “more excellent way” of love-inspired living?

Apparently it would mean spouting banal platitudes in the face of a threat on our life.

What would happen if we stopped listening to the religious leaders who play to fear and instead began listening to those who lead us to higher ground?

To that end, McLaren just so happens to have a book coming out about how all Christians need to change in order to find higher ground.

The challenge isn’t easy.

It seems pretty easy.

As Palmer says, “Unfortunately, the fight or flight reflex runs so deep that resisting it is like trying to keep your foot from jumping when the doctor taps your patellar tendon.”

In other words, the reflex is like a reflex. That is the least illuminating analogy I have ever read.

Misguided religious leaders, of course, embed people ever more deeply in the primitive brain simply by wallpapering it with religious language. But wise religious leaders help people learn to open hearts and hands that have been clenched tight in fear.

As an example of a wise religious leader helping people learn, McLaren links us to his own songs. What an ass. That said, if you haven't had the chance to listen to McLaren's music, it's a pretty unique experience. As Parker Palmer would say, Brian McLaren is to bad music as Yoko Ono is to bad music.

Palmer challenges his fellow Christians, but the challenge could easily be adapted to people of all faiths:

Such is the virtue of peddling fluff.

President Roosevelt may have overstated the case when he said we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but he was conveying the truth that with every external threat comes a more subtle threat from within:

President Roosevelt imprisoned asian people simply because we were at war with Japan. So, apparently he feared fear, but also people.

we yield to the primitive brain and become puppets on the strings of fear.

Brian is employing the ubiquitous "we", here. He does not consider himself a puppet on the strings of fear. He is wise and creative. Listen to his song for more details.

So here’s the question: can the fear of fear challenge us to rise above fear?

Perhaps. The bigger problem is fearing that the fear of fear will outweigh the fearsome ways in which the fear of fearing fear make us into puppets who fear fear-fearing fearers who fear our fearing more than we fear.

P.S. If you’re a Christian who fears Muslims — or who knows others who do — a good first step in addressing fear would be to sign up for the Why Do You Fear Me? webcast coming up Jan. 28.

I fear webcasts.

Predictions for 2010

This year will not be like the last! Everything must change!

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R.T. Rybak will run for governor as the mayor who reduced crime in Minneapolis. This will become his downfall, as opponents are able to tie the inevitable increase in crime to Rybak's decision to take cops of the streets in favor of pretty fountains and buyout for lecherous lesbian firefighters.

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After some awkward posturing, Conan O'Brian is hired by Comedy Central (and not FOX), officially shifting the television game from network to cable TV.

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The Lions will draft well, to which sportswriters will respond by declaring the team a sleeper to grab a wild card spot. The Lions will not win a wild card spot.

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The Vikings will not win the Superbowl, and their fans will not win their battle to build a new stadium.

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Republicans will come within 4 seats of taking both the House and Senate.

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Clint Eastwood will direct his final film, which will be hailed as the best of his career, and will become the presumptive favorite in a strong class of Oscar nominees. Richard Jenkins will get an Oscar nomination for his role in a surprisingly watchable remake of Let The Right One In.

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Several restaurants will open, or restructure their menus, in a bid to appeal to a recession-induced appetite for giant portions of bland comfort food. At least one-quarter of these establishments will shutter their doors in 2010.

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Health care will come off the table, as the Democratic congress scatters to pass a flurry of largely symbolic legislation aimed at placating a new-found populism among the electorate.

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Mac will suffer a backlash, as budget-conscious consumers refuse to pay a premium for products that only work with proprietary software and hardware. The two-year contract becomes a mere formality, as companies eager to upgrades allow consumers more flexibility.

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Norm Coleman will make noise by re-considering his decision not to run for governor. Brett Favre comparisons will abound. He will run, and he will win.

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What do you predict?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Assessing my New Year's Predictions

Fair's fair, so before issuing predictions for 2010, I thought I'd take a step back and review my 2009 predictions for content and accuracy.

"This will be the first year that a substantial number of papers go entirely online."

This was nebulous enough that nearly any results renders it true. That said, it appears papers are content to fold up shop rather than embrace new media. Suit yourself.

"As a result, paleomedia types will request a bailout, which they will receive in exchange for vastly expanded federal regulations governing content."

They requested it, but didn't get it, with the exception of some earmarks. Obama really needed to lock this down during bailout season. I'm glad he didn't.

"Obama will appoint some damn czar."

He has.

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"Nothing Israel does will satisfy the leftist anti-semites who control the UN and the EU."

Nothing Israel did please the UN and EU. Further, Israel has essentially lost the U.S. as an ally.

"Realizing this, Israel will beat the sweet piss out of Hamas."

Nope. C'mon guys, get it in gear. To paraphrase Jason Robards: "A girl could beat up Hamas".

"Obama will punt on the issue, and be praised for his patience."

Replace Israel with Iran and Aghanistan, and this is right on the money.

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"The Lions will draft well, and numerous sportswriters will again make them the sleeper pick to win their division. Two weeks into the season, those same sportswriters will be talking about how obviously bad the team is. The Lions will not win their division."

Jackpot!

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"A white woman and/or homosexual male will be killed in Northeast Minneapolis and/or Longfellow, causing the cities ruling class to actually care about the city's crime. R.T. Rybak will face a tough, late challenge in the mayoral race"

No, though I'm going to revamp this one for 2010. Seward is getting pretty close to Stuff White People Like Territory. Like, you can see that store from the Pizza Luce.

"Also, the failure of the amply funded Minneapolis school system will make national news a la Kansas City in the mid-1990s."

Swing and a miss, which isn't to say the Minneapolis school system didn't fail.

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"A number of restaurants will close in Minnesota, but most of these will be chains, new openings by holding companies, or flat out crappy restaurants. Overall, good food will be more abundant and more affordable."

With a couple of exceptions (such as the poorly located Mairin's Table), this is pretty much what happened. As an added bonus, farmer's markets are thriving.

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"The transition to Blu-ray will be very slow, and the core technology will ultimately be remembered as a stepping stone to a better technology that incorporates the internet in a user friendly way. Early adopters will have essentially wasted their money."

The transition has been slow, and Netflix seems to hold the key to the disruptive technology that will render Blu-ray irrelevant. I'll give myself a 7/10 on this one.
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"Al Franken will be a bigger embarassment to Minnesota than Mark Dayton and Jesse Ventura combined."

As humiliating as Dayton, maybe, but not Ventura.

"This, in tandem with the bad economy, new taxes (for which most people won't remember having voted) and the above-mentioned city problems will push the state further into the red column."

This is almost certainly true, and the early crime boom in 2010 isn't likely to change the trajectory.

"Mitigating against this phenomenon, an increased portion of our population will head to the Dakotas in search of jobs, higher quality of life, and fewer taxes. At least one "big name" company will relocate to South Dakota. 3M will threaten to follow suit, but will get a deal from the state to remain."

True, in small doses. Moreso, those who migrated from SD to Minnesota are migrating back. In a state with one of the lowest unemployment rates, the jobs are sure to follow.

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"Julia Roberts will find critical plaudits for yet another crappy performance in a decent movie. The accumulated ire welling within the public consciousness will foment, though, with the release of some Oscar-preening chick drivel."

Nope. But Amy Adams is doing her damndest to become the next Julia Roberts.

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"In spite of his inaugural snub, Jim Wallis will be Barack Obama's Father Coughlin. The left-wing Christian movement will gain traction as the popularity of associating big government ideals with pseudo-Christian rhetoric continues to sway public opinion in traditional red states. The emergent movement will ride these coattails, ceasing to resemble Biblical Christianity in any shape or form."

Nope on swaying traditionally red states. Yes on everything else.
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"Obama's inaugural will be hailed as the greatest in history. It will also be utterly banal."

It was a banal, though the press actually called him on it.
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"By next year's Oscar season will be the best in years, as filmmakers stop making message movies (Milk, W, Syriana, Babel, All the Returning Soliders are Dead or on Meth Part 4) and return to making good ones."

Disastrously wrong.

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"Card check will pass, and the Eastern European mafia will get a foothold in the United States. Democrats will regard the latter phenomena as a coincidence."

Wrong. I can't believe how ineffective Obama has been. The problem, I think, was starting with Cap and Trade, the most controversial item on the agenda, then leaving it to simmer.
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"Barack Obama will sign some legislation in favor of gay marriage or abortion. In order to appear moderate, he will accompany this with the arbitrary decision to reignite the drug war. His base will be pissed, for obvious reasons."

He did the former, but seems to have no interest in appearing moderate.
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"A right wing counterpart to Dailykos and Democratic Underground will emerge, featuring posts and discussions by angry and hysterically irrational conservatives. It will be embarassing to most conservatives the way Dailykos isn't for Democrats, as paleomedia will finally notice the blogosphere."

Right idea. Wrong medium. Glenn Beck and Teaparties are close enough for partial credit, though.

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"The Bill Richardson fallout will be more damaging to the Dems than they expect, as now the New Mexico governor's litany of past transgressions will be brought to light, and average voters will wonder how this schmuck became a leading light within the party."

Why did I think anyone would give a damn about Bill Richardson? This was a stupid prediction.

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"The Republicans won't use the filibuster very often, though it will seem like a lot."

This was my best prediction of they year. They haven't used it at all, but have been accused of being obstructionists nonetheless.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Making Fun of DailyKos

Some person called Matate99 got a bite from the ol' satire bug, and has produced an incendiary piece profiling the typical Republican male. It's pretty awful. Let's dig in.

Title:

Joe Repubican 2030...A day in the life

I'd say Matate misspelled Republican, but liberals delight in finding endlessly clever (cleverly endless?) permutations of the word Republican. So this is either a lame-brained typo or a riff on the word "pubic".

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water to prepare his morning coffee. The coffee perks him up and gets him ready for his morning.

Matate has devoted his first two sentences to explaining how one prepares coffee, and the effects of its consumption. Riveting.

He then gets into his car and drives to work. The traffic on the highway is backed up but it's ok. Homeland Security is searching all vehicles before they cross over the river for bombs. Its a small price to pay after the great Golden Gate Bridge bombing of 2015.

This does not reak of prescience. For starters, world-reknowned bridges tend to occupy very liberal cities. Joe Republican doesn't have to worry about bridges, since he lives in one suburb and works in another. I just made this piece funnier. On accident.

When he gets to work he parks his car in lot far away from any of the office buildings and begins to walk. Its a small price to pay after the car bombing spree that Al Qaeda went on in 2022. At least the streets are clear of cars and he can walk down the boulevards.

How would this tactic help prevent car bombing? Does Allah forbid driving through roadblocks and over grass?

Before he makes it to his building he is stopped by a Homeland Security agent for a random strip search.

Or, alternately, he could just present his employee badge.

While at work he is interrupted by his companies security guard to check and see if he has any weapons hidden on him or in his desk.

Or, they could just require employees to present their badges. And if the employee happens to be Muslim, and starts talking about how killing infidels might not be such a bad thing, the company can promptly fire that person. I mean, unless the ACLU gets in the way, but we're talking about Joe Repubican, not Harvey Liberal.

Its a small price to pay after the over-worked under-paid accountants at Big National Bank went on a shooting spree in 2020.

Banks will almost assuredly have metal detectors, under the author's scenario.

When he is done he goes to the mall.

Like all Republican males do after a long day at work.

There he is put through another strip search before entering. Its a small price to pay after the North Korean terrorists set off a bomb in the Mall of America just last year.

I find it hard to believe that America will have eschewed the simplest solutions in favor of, hasty, arbitrary and intrusive... Oh, right.

While at the mall he sees that night's football game on TV.

Weeknight football will be popular by 2030, apparently. Maybe this is a Sunday, because Repubican Joe has to work seven days a week to make ends meet, all because of Repubicans.

There are no fans in the stands as that was banned.

That or he's watching the Lions take on the Jackrabbits (expansion team added in 2015). Daunte Culpepper is STILL filling in for an injured Matthew Stafford.

After receiving another random strip search he purchases the new movie that just came out. He can no longer see it in a theater as they have all been shut down. Its a small price to pay after Hezbollah set a bomb off in a theater back in 2027.

Has Matate ever heard of Israel? 'Cause they have ways of aggressively monitoring... Oh, wait, they were wiped off the map after Obama ignored Iran's nuclear bomb production in 2013.

When he gets home he sits down in front of the TV and sees that there has been another terrorist attack.

Repubican Joe does not have a smart phone, for some reason.

Joe screams at the TV, "What is this countries problem? We need to send in more troops, build thick cement walls around all churches, and ban gasoline tanker trucks. What a stupid idea...trucks loaded with gasoline."

When and where have Republicans been clamoring for these heavy-handed security tactics? Matate is parodying a meme that really doesn't exist. If anything, the dude should be screaming about the fact that a North African was given access to a gasoline tanker truck.

It's the unwillingness to create different security strata for different profiles that necessitates comprehensive approaches. Or at least that's what Repubican Joe would argue.

He shakes in head and gets angry at those sissy liberals who allowed this to happen.

Wait, that's the end? That was abrupt.




Wednesday, January 06, 2010

November Politics

(ed. note: You can also find this post on the Alexandria blog, a bi-partisan political hoedown of sorts... Go see, and if so inclined, feel free to comment here and there).

On its face, a midterm election seems to follow a simple rule. If the majority party is unpopular, it loses seats in Congress, a fate that almost certainly awaits the Democrats this November. Only, it’s complicated, and both parties would do well to consider the terrain before they endeavor to exploit it.

First of all, while the Democrats qualify as an unpopular majority, the Republicans have failed to parlay voter disenchantment into zeal for their platform. A cynic (or a political opponent) would argue that they have no platform.

The above will set the tone for hotly contested elections. Republicans will frame the debate around unpopular Democratic legislation and (depending on the region) attach their Democratic opponents to Barack Obama. Democrats, conversely, will argue that their Republican opponents have no ideas and propose no action. Individual candidates will tread water, hoping for a scandal to bring down their opponent.

This is boilerplate. The Democratic line is not likely to garner substantial victories, but serves to dampen enthusiasm, thereby averting a shift of power in the House and Senate. The Republican mode will ensure the picking of low hanging fruit. It’s a gentleman’s agreement by proxy, a message war that keeps long-term incumbents safe and secure.

Democrats are already hunkering down for a lousy November. The party is shedding non-viables (Dorgan, Dodd), sticking to its message (“we do, they don’t”), and trying to pass as much legislation as quickly as possible. The party has more or less reconciled itself to a minor bloodletting. Not that it has much of a choice. Incumbents are tethered to the legislation they produce.

But this is not a boilerplate election. Republicans are the minority party, but they still have the stink of incumbency. Pointing at all the lousy legislation Dems have passed only reinforces the fact that congress is a bankrupt institution. This is not an ethos that drives voters to the polls.

Instead, Republicans should look to the Karl Rove & Rahm Emanuel playbook of 2004 and 2006. In a 2004 election that felt like a war referendum, Democrats nominated John Kerry largely because he had served in the military. Ceding this ground would have lent a certain moral authority to his candidacy. So Rove went at it.

Most remember the 2004 campaign for the notorious Swift Boat ads. It’s worth noting, however, that the ads ran infrequently, and in select markets. It became a major story only because Kerry was already on the defensive about his war record. His campaign clearly wasn’t prepared for criticism of his war record, as evinced by Kerry’s bizarre claim that he retrieved medals after throwing them over the fence in an anti-war photo-op. As a result, Kerry couldn’t tout his greatest, most relevant asset to his candidacy.

Chastened by an inept 2004 campaign season, the Democrats employed a similar tack. They could have settled for modest gains by running against George W. Bush, but Emanuel went swinging for the fences. Noting that Republicans were perceived as the “moral values” party, they embarked on a campaign centered around unearthing scandals and producing them at opportune times.

Mark Foley was hardly a major player in DC, but his sexual misgivings symbolized a party that was hypocritical about sexual perversion. Ted Haggard’s scandals were introduced at a time when American Evangelicalism was at its peak of political power. The Jack Abramoff story was a gift that kept on giving; if Republicans are for small government, what were they doing with that guy? The Macaca incident seemed to symbolize a party that we aloof, and even uncivil. The Republicans responded with a bunch of treacly ads about how we all knew it was time for change. Indeed.

As primary season ends, and campaigns ramp up in earnest, Republicans should heed the lessons of Rove and Emanuel. How? They should portray the Democrats as the do nothing party.

The Democrats best argument for re-election is that they have tackled the issues Republicans have been afraid to touch. And yet, what does the average swing voter get out of the health care bill, other than a $100 million tab from the state of Nebraska? Not much, and you can scarcely argue that health care has been “reformed”. What about the environment? No progress. Just a dead bill floating in the water.

The TARP and stimulus funds did nothing to address the foreclosure crisis. There weren’t enough shovel ready projects to go around. And didn’t Obama promise to cut taxes at some point?

And that’s just domestic issues. What about Afghanistan? Status quo city. Iraq? Nothing new. Iran? Nothing at all. Yemen? Well, we shipped them some terrorists. North Korea? Waiting for Kim Jong Il to die is not a policy. Obama having beer with a cop he insulted on network television is not a policy.

Keep in mind that while Obama will have had less than two years to bring change we can believe in, the Democratic Congress will have had four.

The argument is counterintuitive, but quite accurate, as political smears go. Democrats have been afraid to pass bold initiatives because they didn’t want to face the political consequences. The last thing they expect is to have to face political consequences for their inaction. After all, aren’t the tea partiers yelling for them to stop? They’ll laugh off the accusation.

And do so at their own peril.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Top Ten Movies of the Decade

No, not this decade, the last one...

Some notes about these films. First of all, they are MY top ten movies. This is not an attempt to predict which films will be most influential, or which films have the most academic merit or whatever.

There are some films that deserve mention, but didn't make my top ten. Those include Requiem for a Dream, Far From Heaven, Signs, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Band's Visit, Monster's Ball, Ratatouille, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Children of Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Hours, The Savages, Adaptation, and George Washington. Those were on my short list, and you should see them if you haven't.

But see these first:


10. The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson is sort of the goldilocks of directors. Some of his work, notably Rushmore, comes off as too cold, pitching its darker registers adrift in a sea of irony that loses the viewer. Elsewhere, as in the life Aquatic, he reaches for sentimental cloudbursts that are jarring and arbitrary.

The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson at his finest. Weaving together his signature stylized style with the solipsistic intensity of his sad lunatics who themselves treat major life decisions as set pieces. This is grand melodrama and character study all in one.

Favorite scene: A drug addict, played by Owen Wilson, is confronted by two friends. The action is upstaged by the presence of two hilariously absurd paintings. They seem to provide cover as Wilson proceeds to sneak out the back window after confessing an addiction to (of all things) mescaline.

9. Kill Bill, Vols. 1 & 2

Originally intended, and best viewed, as one complete project, the Kill Bill films demonstrate that Tarantino is capable of making films that no-one else ought. His films are stylistic exercises; post-modern reflections on how film communicates that succeed by evincing a mastery of, well, what films communicate. The film’s characters exist in our collective consciousness, and his films draw upon our own referential landscapes to provide the drama.

The Kill Bill narrative is at once simple (Uma Thurman wants to Kill Bill, and does so) and beguilingly complex. The Bride is iconic because she was written as an icon. She serves as a travelogue of put upon female protagonists, and Uma Thurman’s esoteric features encapsulate each one, from Hepburn to Anime. In true Tarantino fashion, the character is (in the strictest sense) static and only changes as we learn more about her.

The dialogue is rich and glorious, an exercise in the importance of context. Tarantino’s gift of juxtaposition is unparalleled, though oft-imitated. Consider the discussion between the Bride and her first victim, in which they discuss the prospect of a knife fight under the stands.

Favorite Scene: A handsomely filmed ninja fight sequence, back-lit in royal blue so as to appear two-dimensional. It is at once jarring and reassuringly familiar.

8. Unbreakable

M. Night Shamalyan’s follow-up to the Sixth Sense was less heralded, but far superior. A brilliant deconstruction of the super-hero myth, the film follows a character (Bruce Willis) who suddenly realizes he is a superhero, and always has been. I have a soft spot for movies that create narrative tension in unconventional ways. This is an outstanding example.

It’s tough to believe now, given the forced Razz-Ma-Taz of his most recent works, but Shamalyan was once a very patient director. The thrills and chills of his best work are the product of a magnificent sense of timing. There is a scene where Willis tests his revelation by attempting to bench press more and more weight. This methodology is brilliant in the way it flows naturally from the character (we believe that the humble everyman would use precisely this test), and also in the way we slowly discover it with him.

And yeah, Unbreakable has a twist ending and, no, I didn’t see it coming. I key to pulling off a surprise ending lies not in making the conceit so esoteric as to be indiscernible (as most films do, particularly those attempting to tap into Sixth Sense mojo). Rather, it is to engross the audience in a plausible alternate reality, such that they have no compulsion to get a step ahead of the narrative.

Favorite scene: One of Willis’ gifts is that he has a psychic sense of good and evil, which he applies in the middle of a train station. Most directors would overplay the incumbent flashbacks and imagery, but Shamalyan pulls off the task of rescuing the scene from the histrionic abyss.

7. United 93

9/11, and the ensuing war, provoked a miasma of abysmal cinema In an attempt to force their ideology on their narrative, Syriana, In The Valley of Elah, and others sacrificed the essential truth of their narratives. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that a contextualized account of the events of about United Flight 93 should emerge as one of the landmark films of the new century. It is commendable more for what it doesn’t do than what it does do.

Unburdened by the “necessity” of showing us how conflicted and hypocritical our country is, United 93 is allowed to be what it is, a stunning piece of art. Like a Rembrandt, the film indelibly paints a picture of what life was like in that place, at that time. The history and context speak for themselves, and director Paul Greengrass gives them only a passing mention (the movie begins with a shot of the terrorists praying). The war on terror began with those men and women who took back control of the plane.

We know the stakes. The film makes them real and apparent to us all over again, as Greengrass leverages his extraordinary technical gifts to contend with the physical and temporal limitations. He can’t imply dominance with a clever camera angle. There are no grizzled policy vets to explain moral of the story; no starry eyed neophytes forced to choose between their convictions and their careers. Hell, George Clooney doesn’t even have an associate producer credit on this film.

Favorite Scene: “Let’s roll”. ‘Nuf said.

6. Brokeback Mountain

Those who dismissed the Brokeback as pro-gay agitprop missed the point entirely. This story of two men who find both comfort and discord within each other speaks to the deepest longings of the male condition. Ang Lee gives us a portrayal of two men that is, above all else, centered in truth.

One can hardly offer enough praise for Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance. He plays a man so unsure of who he is that he fails everyone, from his wife to his children to his gay lover. For him, Brokeback Mountain is a respite from failure, where he is unencumbered by the demands of a less-conflicted person.

Favorite Scene: While audiences remember “I wish I could quit you, Jack”, for me, the most haunting scene features Ledger, holding the jacket of his murdered lover. The look on Ledger’s face is one of a man who has come to the realization that he will never be known. It is the most heartbreaking scene in perhaps all of cinema.

5. Wall-E

By my lights, this is the best animated film ever made. Much has been made of the films wordless opening reels, but much should be made of them. They parallel the best stanzas in movie history.

From that point, the Pixar team gives us a profound snapshot of an American culture that has become unwilling even to take care of itself. The film contrasts the deepest longings of an adorable, um, robot with the passionless consumption of a freewheeling craft-bound population.

Wall-E is ABOUT something, but not in the preening, self-satisfied mode of the preachy blockbusters (I’m looking at you, Avatar), but in the sense that we should simply be better. This is a running theme throughout the best of Pixar’s films (Ratatouille, Up, The Incredibles), which, in addition to their epic visual delights, paint a picture of a society that has abandoned common sense.

Favorite Scene: Dancing. As the population aboard the ship finally awakens to its reality, the love struck, um, robots spiral through space to Thomas Newman’s gorgeous score.

4. Lost in Translation

Anyone who has spent extensive time in a foreign country understands how valuable the familiar becomes. Favorite songs, clothes, food and even catch phrases tether us to our unique sense of self. Enter Lost in Translation, which begins as a prototypical Bill Murray “fish out of water” story becomes a nuanced meditation on how our sense of distance forms and changes us.

The film is fascinating in the way it observes the two main characters (the other played by Scarlett Johansson) discovering each other. They do so out of necessity, ultimately clinging to each other in an attempt to contextualize their experience.

No film in the last decade recreates a more genuine sense of alienation. Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for her screenplay, which is a master class in the use of visuals to tell a story. In his best work, Murray is an actor who reacts to his circumstances. He speaks for the audience with a dry weariness that could be mistaken for deadpan. Tokyo, with its luminous cityscapes and claustrophobic streets, becomes a character in and of itself, defining Murray’s character and adding to his melancholy.

Favorite Scene: After an unfortunate run-in with a highly-automated treadmill, Murray swims in the hotel pool. The high ceilings and windowed walls are a towering presence. There he swims, small and overwhelmed in a seemingly never-ending pool. The scene sets the tone for entire film.

3. Let the Right One In

If not the best horror film ever made, certainly the most haunting horror film ever made. The film tells a story of a profoundly lonely Swedish boy (Oskar) who encounters an equally lonely girl his age (Elie), who turns out to be a vampire. Well, that description didn’t do it justice, did it?

I’m not sure what description would suffice. I’ll say this. By casting a sympathetic (pre-adolescent) girl as a vampire, the film is able to trim the fat of hackneyed sexuality from a legend that is, at its core, about the most substantial of human suffering.

The film is more interested in truth than lore. The various vampire trivia are introduced piece meal, and only as the narrative requires. There is more watching than talking (it’s a Scandinavian film, after all). Here’s a homework assignment. Observe the way Elie reveals her nature to Oskar, and the dialogue that results. Compare that to the approach of Twilight, the synthetic teeny-bopper flick released the same week.

It’s worth noting that, like Twilight, LTROI has legions of fans who compensate for their paucity with a special zeal reserved for great, unheralded films.

Favorite Scene: The (wordless) ending, which I will not reveal here. It is not a “surprise” ending, though it is surprising, insofar as it illuminates each event prior.

2. No Country for Old Men

I firmly believe that history will regard this film as superior to Fargo, which is saying something. The Coen Brothers bring us a profound discussion of fate and morals that uses each as a tool to paint a bleak world in which death seems as inevitable as it is.

No Country is notable for its lack of a musical score. Its absence makes us realize how much we rely upon aural cues to frame a situation. We are never told what to think, and must therefore always be thinking, and pondering the mess before us.

James Brolin is a terrible actor, a blank slate who never connects with the material. The Coen Brothers parlay this to their advantage, and Brolin becomes a sort of rogue counterbalance to the resolute Anton Chgur (played by Javier Bardem in arguably the decade’s best performance). We know what Anton will do. We do not know how the protagonist will react.

Favorite Scene: Anton Chgur confronts a convenience store clerk and asks him to flip a coin. This is Coen Brothers writing at its best, building a frenzy of subtext into colloquial dialogue. The two men are saying nothing, but talking about everything.

1. You Can Count on Me

It’s a shame that critics have forgotten this little masterpiece. You Can Count on Me gives us the two most plausible, real characters I have ever seen on film. The film tells the story of a troubled brother who comes to visit his sister and her son in the small town where they grew up. And that’s about it.

This is not a high concept movie, but a real one. There is not one false note (and I don’t take that term nearly so lightly as do other critics) in the interaction between the main characters, played by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. At first glance, she has her life together and he doesn’t. As the story unfolds, we see the manifestations of their shared tragedy (their parents die in a car accident in the film’s first reel), as well as their inner wisdom.

Over time, the brother becomes a sort of father figure to the son, and inevitably fails him, but so does the mother, and so does everyone fail each other. Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay flawlessly demonstrates the universality of family relationships, and how imperfect people struggle to make the easiest of decisions when they are confronted with their imperfection.
This is a flatly amazing film.

Favorite Scene: The brother and sister are reaching a breaking point in their frustrations with one another. At the precise moment at which most indy flicks veer into melodrama, the characters instead go to the rooftop to smoke pot, which leads to the most honest discussion I have ever seen on film.

49 Up*

It would be considerably odd to count a continuation of the Up series, arguably cinema’s landmark achievement, in this post, as it began in the 1960s. It would also be an atrocity not to mention it. For those who do not know, the Up series began as a BBC special, intended to highlight the discrepancies associated with Britain’s (then) rigid class system.

That “special” began when its subjects were seven years old. Since that time, director Michael Apted has caught up with each subject every seven years. Since that time, Apted, who began work on the project in his 20s, has become the successful director in his own right. Having shed its roots as a sociological experiment, the Up series has become a meditation on destiny. The film’s subjects are real people, who make the same mistakes and see similar triumphs throughout their lives.

The film has the (dubious?) distinction of having invented reality television. The Real World borrowed generously from Apted’s technique of splicing cutaway interviews with real-time action, and the films primed British audiences for the original Survivor.
That said, the series has captured lightning in a bottle, pairing one of the world’s great directors (he was a lowly production assistant for the first installment) with interesting and contemplative children who would grow up to be interesting and contemplative adults.

As important, the subjects (who are well known in England) have not attempted to parlay their fame into another career, rescuing this project from becoming a post-modern disaster. To witness the Up Series is literally to witness a once in a lifetime event.