Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Because the disaggregation of the review process means that the Franken people are uncoordinated in their approach to challenging or allowing ballots. In Republican-leaning areas, at least so far yesterday and today, the Franken campaign has approved essentially all of the absentee ballots, in keeping with Franken's very consistent message that every vote should be counted. In Democratic strongholds, by contrast, the Coleman people are under no such obligation to principles or ethics, and as such they have no particular incentive to allow any absentee ballots at all. In consequence, what may very well happen is that the Franken campaign, striving for a consistent, politically salable, and above all correct position in the matter, could end up giving away its roughly 50-vote lead. It could well end up that only absentee ballots cast in Republican areas of the state ever get counted at all, and that these could very well reverse Mr. Franken's lead.
The one ray of sunlight in this matter is that most of the 1,600 absentees are located in Democratic areas, anyway, and even in Republican-leaning parts of the state, the absentees seem to be slightly favoring Mr. Franken. The Uptake is covering the story live, including simulcasts of all press conferences, etc., and including the absentees that have already been agreed upon by all three necessary entities, at the moment Mr. Franken's lead is unofficially at fifty votes--up four from the start of this process. Still, there have been 18 ballots presented in Republican-leaning Sherburne County, and 15 of those have been agreed upon by all three entities. That's an awfully small sample to work with, but it does raise some grave concerns about the extent to which Mr. Franken's principled stand could cost him the whole race.
("The Key Grip")
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Monday, December 29, 2008
Despite all the very impressive, color-coded trend analysis suggesting a relatively easy Obama victory, the reason Clinton won the New Hampshire primary is that, by the time of Obama's big win in Iowa, many swing-Democrats in New Hampshire had already voted. Simple as that. No upset to it: She won by fewer than 8,000 of over 200,000 votes cast, a margin that would have left her desperately explaining-away an unexpectedly close finish, had she not already lost in Iowa, and by the time Obama won in Iowa Clinton had already amassed that winning margin in New Hampshire from absentee ballots--cast at a time during which this accomplishment didn't count as an upset because she was still the frontrunner.
The difficulty this poses for progressives comes in the form of implications for future electoral scenarios in which a bad-guy (like McCain) carries an early lead into the last few days before an election, and then stumbles in his handling of a crisis (like the Lehman meltdown) after it's already too late for persuadable voters to change their minds about him. Our love affair with early voting, in other words, carries an enormous sting in its tail: the potential to disenfranchise people who cast their ballots before a crucial piece of information is made known.
All of us writing and reading this column love early voting because it reduces the likelihood of Republican funnybusiness on election day; Democrats by the very nature of their ideology tend to be found in more densely populated areas with comparatively few polling places, comparatively understaffed by comparatively undertrained and undercompetent poll workers. This makes Democratic voters a much easier target for the fat-white-guys, mostly off-duty cops and firemen, to cage through intimidation at the precinct level, combined with stalling tactics accomplished through under-populating these precincts with machines, at the state level. In case you missed it, there's no great mystery in the story of how John Kerry lost Ohio in 2004: It was stolen from him by a Republican secretary of state.
But for all its high ethics of increased voter participation and decreased likelihood of shenanigans, the consequences of early voting have not been fully considered by the left--and indeed probably won't be until a scenario unfolds in which the "wrong" candidate wins due to insurmountable early momentum. When that happens (but almost certainly not until), it will occur to rather a great many more people than it has so far that early voting is, by its very nature, unconstitutional. Don't get me wrong, it was great for us in 2008--but at the end of the day it's still unconstitutional. And when the day comes that it goes badly for us, we'll have only ourselves to blame for failing to recognize it in advance.
As an example of just how badly things can go, consider the most recent election for City Commission in the sleepy little community of Lake Wales, Florida, wherein a certain John Paul Rogers enlisted the support of a prominent member of the African-American community to canvass that area of town for absentee ballots--only to have it emerge later that he was a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Kulx Klan. Mr. Rogers' election is presently being challenged in court by a local resident, but his resources are limited, and without conclusive evidence of massive administrative malfeasance by the city it is unlikely that a court packed with judicial conservatives will side in favor of the appellant.
The Help America Vote Act, passed shortly after the 2000 Presidential election cycle, was (in the manner of so many ostensibly beneficial changes to the law in this country's recent past) a boon to the manufacturers of a handful of esoteric products or services--in this case touch-screen voting machines. And the passages in that legislation that spoke to streamlining the processes by which a state may allow early voting were, as it happens, just enough to engender Democratic support for what was in point of fact a pretty lousy piece of law. As with so many other examples of legislative bait-and-switch from the political right, the benefit to the middle class was front-loaded and obvious, while the benefit to the wealthiest among us was far less evident and far more substantial. I get to drive 100 or so people to the polls in 2008; the CEO of Diebold gets a blank check with which to black-box any close election in a Republican-governed state, forever.
But the real tragedy of early voting is that it has so efficiently placated the political left in this country into ignoring the far greater outrage in how we conduct our elections: the fact that election day itself is not a national holiday, and that, as such, not everyone can vote because not everyone can get enough time off to do so. Early voting is an effective treatment of this problem, but not a cure. The cure is to hold national elections on Veteran's Day--a recommendation explicitly called for by former Presidents Carter and Ford as part of their comprehensive review of American voting procedures, carried out after the debacle in 2000.
Representative democracy always moves slowly, and always doubly so in a country as big and self-divided as ours. It took a fiasco like Florida'00 to bring our Senators and Congressmen to the point of assessing how easy or hard it was for ordinary people to register their preferences for candidates, and to try to fix it. Now, sadly, it will take a scandal of Lehman/Paulson proportions--timed for just the perfect moment in late October--for those same Senators and Congressmen to get it right.
("The Key Grip")
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008
First, permit me to level the playing field with a brief review. Unlike Florida, Minnesota has a very explicit recount procedure with very explicit guidelines for the process of determining the intent of a voter. With paper ballots featuring those horrid bubble-in circles invented in the 1950s, the state is left in a close election with a pile of questionable ballots that could mean the difference in the outcome--ballots that weren't read by the machines but only because the clear intent of the voter was subverted by the lack of flexibility in the technology's ability to intuit that voter's wishes. A bubble which was checked instead of filled-in, for example, represents a clear preference for one candidate over another, but won't be read by the machines as a vote for that candidate. Therefore, when the race is close enough, the state of Minnesota carries out a hand recount of all ballots to determine if the counting of such ballots are sufficient to change the outcome.
It should be said in fairness that there is an obvious beef with such a practice--namely, that individuals who fail to complete their ballot in a manner that is sufficiently proper to be counted by the machine, have failed to follow the directions and should not have their votes counted. The problem with making such an argument is that the law of the state of Minnesota has already been crafted with the contrary opinion in mind: voters who clearly preferred one candidate over the other should not be disenfranchised because, for example, their bubble didn't stay inside the lines.
Since most of these ballots tend to favor Democrats, it would be the job of the Republican in any disputed recount to make this argument--and it's no small comment on the inherent fairness and validity of Minnesota law that the Coleman campaign has made no such effort. They've argued several other points of law, about which much more anon, but they have filed no brief, in any court, anywhere, claiming that the very idea of a hand-recount of improperly bubbled-in ballots is a violation of their constitutional right to equal protection (which was the argument by which the Bush campaign successfully halted the hand-recount of all the ballots in Florida in 2000).
The difference comes down, improbably, to a question of state's rights vs. equal protection--neither of which would seem to have anything to do with tabulating the results of an election. In Florida, when the State Supreme Court ordered that all the ballots be re-counted by hand, there was no existing law or even a set of accepted clerical procedures, for doing so, and as such the Bush campaign could argue that the hand re-count would be tantamount to re-writing the law of an election, after the fact, to change its outcome. Indeed it's worth noting that the Bush people freely and explicitly acknowledged that the hand-recount in Florida would have reversed their win, and in fact argued that it was for this reason that the US Supreme Court should stop the process before a positive margin for Vice President Gore became widely accepted among the general public.
In Minnesota, by contrast, the law for hand-recounting ballots--down to its specific clerical procedures--has existed ever since the early days of optical-scan ballots, and as such the US Supreme Court would have to impinge the right of the state of Minnesota to carry out its elections however it wants. This is, as the Coleman people must surely have known all along, a much steeper hill to climb, and in the end would almost certainly have resulted in a ruling against them, rather than for.
Failing this argument, the Coleman campaign has been left to the piecemeal business of trying to preserve the fragile lead they had at the beginning of the hand-recount through individual challenges of ballots as true representations of the intent of a voter to cast his or her vote for Mr. Franken. By initially challenging a large number of such ballots, the Coleman operation created the illusion that their lead was widening during the hand recount, but the Franken people quickly wised-up and retaliated, leading to a mini-tsunami of frivolous challenges, the bulk of which were subsequently and unilaterally withdrawn by each of the two campaigns before they could incur the disfavor of the State Canvassing Board. With the bulk of the remaining challenged ballots ruled upon by that Board yesterday, the 22nd, Mr. Franken had reversed the initial margin against him. Unofficial tallies from a variety of sources showed him with a 48-vote lead.
It's difficult to overstate the desperation of such a moment for the Coleman campaign. Knowing that the majority of the remaining un-counted ballots--most of them absentee ballots that were initially disallowed for clerical reasons not the fault of the voter--will favor Mr. Franken if counted, the Coleman people couldn't base their hopes on arguing to have those votes counted or disallowed, since a closure of the matter today would certify a 48-vote Franken victory. He couldn't make back his deficit from further counting in pro-Democratic constituencies, and he was at a deficit, at that moment. The only viable path left for Mr. Coleman was to find technicalities on which to strip some votes that have already been logged for Franken.
And here at last we come to the point of today's column: There are, it happens, a series of so-called "duplicate ballots" that the Coleman campaign will argue (hasn't yet, as these words are being written) were actually counted twice. If Coleman could prevail in this argument and have those votes taken down, it's plausible (though, interestingly, not automatic) that he could recover a very slim lead. As to whether or not that will happen, semantics play a big part in one's perception of Coleman's chances for success here.
The term "duplicate ballot" in this context is just about the least fortunate figure of speech in the history of colloquial conversations about matters of law. Under some circumstances in Minnesota a voter is allowed to cast their vote in a format that doesn't read in the machines--such as a ballot cast by e-mail. In these cases, the relevant county clerk generates a paper ballot that will read in the machines, and reads that ballot into the machines. Hence the term "duplicate ballot." The Coleman campaign will argue that over 100 of these ballots--all of them in profoundly Democratic-leaning Hennepin County--were actually counted twice--once in their original form, and a second time after the duplicate had been generated by the country clerk.
I won't leave you hanging in suspense any longer; the argument is pure rubbish on any number of grounds. To begin with, a county's only reason for generating a duplicate ballot is if the original ballot won't read in the machines. There's no way for both ballots to be counted, or else there wouldn't be two ballots in the first place. Second, the Hennepin County clerk has an excellent brief, laying out point-by-point the errors in the Coleman campaign's reasoning and indeed even reconciling their own tabulation against the specific claims being made in the Coleman brief, with no change in their count. Third, and certainly most ironically, it was the Franken campaign that initially planned to challenge duplicate ballots--and found themselves shouted-down by the Coleman campaign for their inability to recognize the folly of such a challenge.
At the end of the day, win or lose, the Coleman campaign has officially turned to forced disenfranchisement as its only remaining path to victory. My own personal guess is that the State Supreme Court will find no compelling arguments in the Coleman brief, and will rule in favor of the current tally. There are approximately 1,600 absentee ballots for which the two campaigns have been ordered by that same State Supreme Court to determine a mutually acceptable process of tabulation--and there is no apparent scenario by which the Coleman campaign can prevail when held to a reasonable standard of integrity by the other side like this. Either the two sides will fail to agree and none of the 1,600 ballots will be counted (in which case Franken is the winner), the two sides will fail to agree and all of the 1,600 ballots will be counted (in which case Franken is the winner), or the two sides will come to some improbable agreement about how to count the 1,600 ballots (which wouldn't happen unless it ensured that Franken will emerge the winner, since otherwise he wouldn't agree).
It's been a long road for Franken--to say nothing of those of you who've bothered to read this recap of the situation, here--but the long and the short of things at this hour seems to be that Al Franken is the next Senator from the great state of Minnesota.
UPDATE: The process by which the 1,600 un-counted absentee ballots will be reviewed has been publicized, and it does leave a glimmer of hope for Coleman. As ordered by the State Supreme Court, each of the 1,600 sealed envelopes containing uncounted absentee ballots must be reviewed by all three of, (1) a representative of the Coleman campaign, (2) a representative of the Franken campaign, and (3) a representative of the county that initially rejected the ballot. It is still the case where all three entities must agree a ballot is improperly rejected before it is opened. The county official, Franken and Coleman. If any one of the three disagrees they must fill out a form on WHY it was properly rejected. That reason is then sent to the voter and the voter then has recourse in the court system.
What this implies, presumably, is that Coleman could argue in writing why every apparent Democratic-leaning absentee ballot should not be opened, gambling that (a) many of those Democrats would not appeal their ballot rejections, and (b) the Franken campaign wouldn't retaliate by challenging every single Republican-leaning absentee ballot. These two things, added together, aren't as unlikely as they first sound: Coleman could easily fan a credulous media into believing that Franken's objections are pure-retaliatory, cowing his team into backing off--and the Democrats whose ballots are challenged will only have any initiative to fight their ballot rejections if Franken hasn't been bullied into conceding, before they even get their day in court. It's a longshot sequence of events, to be sure, but it's plausible enough to render my earlier confidence in the final outcome a bit premature.
("The Key Grip")
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008
It happens that, over the past two days, a large and diverse assortment of reporters, anchors, news-talk hosts, and miscellaneous minions of the mainstream press, have been going way, way, way out of their way to explain to us that, in "Arab cultures" it is considered the height of disrespect to throw a shoe at somebody's head. This impulse started out genuinely well-meaning, since it is both true and conceivably interesting that certain cultures reserve the display of the sole of a shoe for especially marked acts of discourtesy. But friends, that isn't what our typically lazy and credulous wire-plagiarizers have been saying. Oh no: They've been saying that it's considered impolite to throw a shoe. At someone's head. In certain cultures.
I don't know about you, but I think I'll die a happy man without having visited any more cultures where throwing a shoe at the other guy's noggin is an accepted means of saying hello. After all, I've already spent one week in Boston.
("The Key Grip")
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Sunday, December 14, 2008
I had in my company a “guide”—a sort of hired valet that a western traveler in Cambodia ends up with before properly asking for him—named DaVann, whose job was ostensibly to determine what it was that I wanted or required, and make it happen. In reality most Cambodian guides spend most of their time pitching a series of practiced itineraries through the most frequently visited stations on the local tourist circuit, among them the Toul Sleng (“S21”) interrogation facility, the killing fields of Cheoung Ek and, perhaps somewhat improbably, a pay-to-play firing range where, for the modest sum of $300, the interested westerner may blow up a live, full-grown cow by means of rocket-propelled grenade. Not much of this was going to happen, this day, with this head—and some of it wasn’t going to happen at all. “Where we go now?” said DaVann, a toothy grin pasted on the back of the question as he leaned across the table to chuck me on the shoulder."Coffee," I said. "Please," I added. "Hurry."
Now, if recognizing the preciousness of certain taken-for-granted daily amenities is the first cliché of developing-world travel, then surely the juxtaposition of things too hard to come by, against things too easy, is the second. In Ban Lung—a dusty town of barely a thousand people in the remote northeastern jungles of this war-ravaged country—it is possible to book same-day travel on not one but two different airlines, to and from the capital, for fifty bucks, but it isn’t possible to get a hotel room with a working air conditioner. On the island of Ko Chang, in the Gulf of Thailand, it’s possible to buy pizza, rent movies, obtain a cash advance from a credit card, make a satellite telephone call, and have six stitches sewn into one’s arm after crashing one's rented motor-scooter, but it isn't not possible to have laundry returned at the end of the day that isn’t wringing wet. Under the circumstances I might have been forgiven for thinking coffee a tall order—given that I’d been offered none since crossing into the country. But for DaVann, this was the easiest command he’d been given in a good while.
“Okay!” he literally shouted, thumping the table as he rose—and just like that, trailing a festival of dust and un-muffled motorbike exhaust, he shuttled me off—down one of the town’s countless unpaved side streets, and straight to the front door of a dingy and half-lit storefront about a dozen blocks to the seedier side of town. As we idled up, DaVann described the place in exactly this way, saying, “Okay! We stop at Vietnamese coffee shop, okay!”
“You speak Vietnamese?” I asked, climbing off the bike.
“Enough,” said DaVann, winking.
“They speak Khmer?”
DaVann grinned at me—not as meanly as I might have thought. “Not much,” he said.
Having been rent repeatedly and tragically by wars, first brought upon it by outsiders and then of its own internal and vastly more gruesomely efficient designes, afterward, Cambodia is these days essentially a colony of Vietnam. In December of 1978 it was invaded by the nascent military power in the region, officially for the purposes of ending a series of opportunistic border incursions but really for the purposes of ending the rump genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge. As with most such supposedly noble military campaigns, however, matters got significantly more complicated when Pol Pot and his followers quit the capital city in March of ’79 and melted into the jungle:
The Vietnamese, following the playbook of their Soviet benefactors, simply didn’t leave. Today one out of every seven residents of Cambodia is actually Vietnamese, not just in terms of ethnicity but in the sense of holding Vietnamese citizenship and caring not a whiff for Cambodian immigration policies. Over half of the businesses in Cambodia are owned by Vietnamese. One, single Vietnamese woman owns twenty-five percent of the real estate of the entire country. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, carries a Vietnamese passport, and his ruling party, the “Cambodian People’s Party” or just “CPP” is staffed at its highest levels entirely by Vietnamese civil servants, many of whom go “home” to Vietnam on weekends. It wouldn’t be surprising that tensions sometimes run high between the two groups—and that I might therefore have thought twice about being driven by a Khmer guide to a Vietnamese shop. Never mind: Coffee had been promised when we got there.
In the event, no one at the shop paid us the tiniest heed—in fact I eventually had to walk to the counter to place our order, though by all accounts, this was business-as-usual. DaVann assured me that Khmer patronize businesses owned by Vietnamese every day. So, we did just that: the two of us idly sipping our coffees, not really paying much attention to anything, including each other, for some time. Personally, I was enjoying the shop television, which at that moment was showing “Die Hard 3: Die Hard With a Vengeance,”—this particular copy having been dubbed into Khmer and then subtitled, absurdly, back into English.
I was particularly taken with the way the reverse-translators were handling the delicate subject of all the adult language in the picture. During a tense moment in the first reel, when Bruce Willis said to Samuel L. Jackson, “No, I wasn't going to call you a N———, I was going to call you an asshole,” the English subtitles in our local copy of the film reported the line as, You know, I was just thinking that you aren't a very nice person. This was such great fun that I might have been content to sit there and watch the rest of the picture, but for the strange sounds I kept hearing outside on the patio. Throughout my first and second cups of authentic Vietnamese brew, whenever the explosions and translated expletives of the movie abated long enough to permit it, I continually noted the voice of a young, attractive-sounding female, calling out similar-sounding phrases in an obvious, telegraphed sing-song. To wit:
“bee - YONN - bee - HIGH!”
“bonn - bee - SOTT!”
“TONE - bee - HIGH!”
…And so on. After about twenty minutes of this—just as arch-villain Jeremy Irons’ character was quoted saying, I have always respected your elders, but today you shame them with your dishonesty—I leaned over to DaVann, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “what the heck is that?”
“What the heck is what?” he said, earnestly. “The movie? Isn't it American?”
“Yes, yes,” I said, shaking my head, “the movie is American, and—may I say—it’s plenty terrible enough without you guys helping to make it worse. What I meant was, what the heck is that lady yelling about?”
Consider my surprise when it turned out that she, and about a dozen other people, turned out to be playing a Vietnamese gambling game so arrestingly similar to bingo that I see no reason to refer to it by its local name. The cards, the funny little wood discs with numbers painted on them, the money piled in the middle of the table—it was as immediately recognizable as bingo could ever hope to be, when stripped of the bulky highlighters and the mashed-potato smog of a thousand forlorn cigarettes. It had come to this, apparently: I'd spent close to twenty-four hours locked inside of aluminum tubes the size of a guest bathroom, and here I was sitting in Whapeton, North Dakota. These people were playing bingo.
It goes without saying that we split the cost of a card. And we won—on the very first play, we won. The woman calling the numbers lifted the ashtray and handed us the enormous pile of money underneath, beaming at us as DaVann slowly and methodically divvied up the loot. We won, we won—well, we won about a dollar a piece, actually, but it surely felt like a lot of cabbage when dispensed in the form of quasi-worthless Khmer currency, fresh from a community kitty that hadn’t been ours a moment or two earlier.
I tucked my half of the booty in my pocket and called it quits—watching with mild discomfort as DaVann played his share down the toilet, one fifty-riel note at a time. After watching about a dozen games, sneaking peaks at the crazy movie translations from time-to-time, the shop proprietor suggested that I draw the numbers. Now, I don't speak Khmer and I don't speak Vietnamese. I don't speak French, either, but that hasn't stopped me from thinking that I speak French, so we agreed that this would be the language I'd use to call the numbers.
The two of us were lucky to get away with our lives.
See, the problem is, the stakes are pretty high to these folks—fifty riel may be barely more than a cent to a westerner on holiday, but to the typical person in Cambodia, it's like a five dollar bill, proportionately speaking. You put some oafish American klutz who claims to speak French in charge of calling the numbers, he calls even one of them incorrectly—and you don't get your money. Tends to piss a person off. And frankly, you would be amazed how easy it is to confuse swah-sont seesse (66), with swah-sont sez (76), when placed under that kind of pressure. I was amazed by this fact twice.
Once we were a safe distance away from the angry mob chasing us, we settled back down at our established favorite haunt for dinner. Two days in the city, and already I was a regular. Indeed, DaVann, the waitress and I were chatting idly—as old friends—when a campaign van pulled up, its bullhorn booming out the garbled election promises of the CPP. This was the summer of 2003, and the country was at the time deeply distracted with the earnest and important work of putting itself through the sham of a rigged election. We watched in muted fascination as scores of young volunteers in matching T-shirts disgorged from the back, then watched with something not unlike astonishment as the youths fanned out in a quietly disciplined and ominously efficient manner to wallpaper the neighborhood with leaflets. One of the canvassers, a twenty-something female with a degreed-looking way about her, pranced over to our table and tried to hand me a brochure.
Managing a polite smile I waved my hand at her as she approached, saying, “I'm not Khmer citizen.”
“It's okay,” she said, smiling, “you can vote anyway.” She said this without a whiff of humor or irony. You can vote anyway.
“But I won't be here,” I said, wondering how a ballot from an American on vacation would be counted in such matters—and not certain I wanted to know the answer.
“Still okay,” she said, by this time sitting in the chair next to me and grinning. “You take absentee ballot to America, you mail back, we count vote.”
“But I don't know anything about Khmer politics,” I said, thinking this the decisive resolution of the matter. The girl's smile only got wider.
“Neither does anyone else,” she said.
I took the leaflet.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Having been told by the friend that the 9:10 showing could easily sell-out, and that if that happened we would be going to the 10:05 showing (which I hadn't understood wouldn't be up to me, incidentally), I hurriedly logged on to Fandango, found that there were two tickets available for the 9:10 showing, clicked two or three "yes" buttons, and received a confirmation page, explaining, among other things, that I'd forgotten to change the billing credit card for my Fandango account, and had instead just stuck a $21 charge at the back of a multi-thousand-dollar, below-rate balance transfer--a vantage from which it may ultimately end up costing me several times the purchase price in accrued interest before it is ultimately paid off.
Heaving a sigh I wadded the confirmation page into my coat pocket and dashed across town to the "Regal Butler Plaza" cineplex, having laid-in an extra fifteen minutes for the inevitable tug-of-war with the service staff over the fact that I'd long ago cut in half the correct credit card, and therefore couldn't insert it into the machine. By the time we finally settled the fact that I was indeed who I said I was, and that these were indeed my movie tickets, it only took the helpful high school student behind the counter an additional five minutes to figure out that I'd driven myself to the wrong movie plaza: the movie was instead playing at the "Regal Royal Park," a fractious eight-minute drive away, with only nine minutes before showtime.
All the way to the correct cineplex I grappled with the question of how I'd endure my friend's gleeful ridicule for my tardiness, without detonating like Vesuvius in front of fifty people. But I needn't have worried: When I arrived at the correct theater, the same friend--the friend whose idea it had been to go to this movie--was embroiled in a text-messaging conversation so heated and so unresolved that I literally had to take him by the shirt sleeve and direct him through the lobby to our theater--the way you would a blind, elderly man, despite the fact that this friend is almost neither of those two things. Once inside the auditorium, he stood stock-still at the base of the stairs, text-messaging, and instructed me to find us two suitable seats. But I needn't have held that against him, either, because there weren't any--except for two on the very end of the very, very, very front row.
Naturally, I was in no mood for a summer-blockbuster premiere that had somehow gotten lost on its way to the Fourth of July Weekend. Much less to sit next to a friend who then, just before the preview trailers were finished, tacked-on the final flourish of wondering if we should take our stubs to the customer service desk for a rain check, on account of the view. Naturally, in other words, this-here movie was scrolling its production credits across my eyeballs with significantly more than two strikes against it. What a surprise, then, that The Day The Earth Stood Still was such a disappointment? Well, do bear with me, please, because through the fog of all that displaced, unresolved anger, I did ultimately manage to form a thought or two that might inform the question of whether this film is worth the ten bucks it would take to sit with yappity strangers and absorb its content through hundred-and-ten year-old technology with chewing gum stuck to its floor.
To begin with, I'm sure I'm not the first person to come up with a joke about this being the perfect script for Keanu Reeves. Having forged a career out of not being able to act in anything other than muttered, mostly monosyllabic death-knells ("shoot the hostage"), Reeves finds himself cast as Klaatu, the emissary of a league of alien civilizations--a sort of "really big UN, but without the tacit green-lights to genocide" kind of affair--sent to Earth to pass the final, noticeably subjective evaluation on whether humans are capable of fixing global warming. And no, by the way, I didn't make that last part up.
At all events, the grim conclusion to which he quickly arrives is that the planet can only be saved if the humans on it, and their technology, are quickly and efficiently dispatched, and as such he spends the balance of the film speaking in muttered, mostly monosyllabic death-knells in the run-up to the big moment. Had he not done the exact same thing so consistently, in so many places where it hadn't belonged, this move undoubtedly would've seemed more like genius casting and less like a ninety-two minute caricature. As it stands, the whole notion of Reeves as a kind of Dirty-Harry-meets-ET, strikes the audience--more or less universally--as more than a little silly.
Jennifer Connolly makes what she can out of the stranded role she's been stranded with: that of Helen Benson, an "interplanetary biologist" (were the midterms hard?) who faces the twin-impossibilities of reaching the rest of the human race with the message of Klaatu's non-existent good intentions, on the one hand, and raising her deceased husband's irksome pre-teen child from a previous marriage, on the other. And no, I didn't make that up, either. Indeed it's less surprising that neither of these missions is believable, than it is that neither of them garners Ms. Connolly very much of our sympathies. Having paid our twenty-one bucks in tickets and service fees, and our subsequent eighty- or ninety in accrued interest over the next dozen years, we sit in our seats waiting for big things to go kablooey. This is the basic Faustian bargain of the blockbuster: We pay to see things go kablooey, we expect to see things go kablooey. We'll forgive almost anything else, as long as things are going kablooey. And what do we get instead? An imminently kickable child-actor, and the heavy-hand of Hollywood message manipulation on everything to which Ms. Connolly chooses to lay a comely finger.
After an opening fifteen or twenty minutes of serviceable sci-fi-style suspense and one or two moderately impressive CG shots, it is the kid, improbably, who emerges holding the short-straw of trying to steal the movie. But since he's a terrible actor in his own right--and since there is, after all, no such thing as a twelve year-old who gets away with shoplifting, at least on this planet--we in the seats are left once again to wonder why so many of the key lines spoken by a particular actor were routed to the screen and not the cutting-room floor. "My daddy would have killed him," mutters the annoying little brat, speaking of Reeves' Klaatu--to which the audience is left to wonder where the snot-nose's pop happened to be hiding during the principal photography for Speed.
Meanwhile Connolly, the supposed genius whose brilliance was important enough to merit closing-down highways to ensure her delivery into government hands, needs an improbable fifty- or fifty-five minutes to work out that "I'm here to save the planet," and "I'm here to save you" don't actually mean the same thing. For more than a few tense moments the audience is left to wonder if this Dennis-Kucinich-morality-play is about to slip seamlessly and effortlessly into becoming a Dick-Cheney-morality-play. Would we rather form a committee to reason-out Klaatu's feelings, or would we rather shoot first and ask the touchy-feely stuff later?
When the blow-em-ups get their comeuppance and the movie veers back to Al-Gore-would've-looked-humble sanctimony--it is the fact that we aren't relieved that stands as the truest testimony to just what a mess the filmmakers have made of this once-classic picture. At least if it had been a Dick-Cheney'esque message, we could've counted on better prurient entertainment. I mean, if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that wherever Dick Cheney and his believers go, things do tend to go kablooey. In this film, by contrast, there aren't even any truly impressive CG-effects until the whole thing is so close to being over, and we are all so far past caring about the painfully telegraphed ending, that we hardly notice them. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can almost hear the audience thinking as a collective alien consciousness in its own right, the nano-machines ate Giants Stadium. What else is on?
Oh, and a final word or two is also in order for one of the saddest aspects of the production: its waste of so many fine talents. The filmmakers found a role (believable or otherwise) for Kathy Bates, as a bellicose but ultimately reachable Secretary of Defense, in the style (perhaps) of Madeline Albright--and another for John Cleese, as a withdrawn and dottery but ultimately incisive Nobel Laureate in... something. These, together with lesser roles wasted on Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, Jon Haam, and John Rothmann, among others, leave us feeling the most unlikely sentiment of all, at the end of the picture: that a movie which was supposed to be about ending the ecological mistreatment of our one and only home, could have ended up, in the end, feeling so profoundly wasteful of its own resources.
The Key Grip gives this movie two bald heads. It may be good for a two-dollar session of weeknight self-anesthetizing, after it comes out on video. But for now it surely isn't worth the time and energy that went into making it, much less the time and energy that went into sitting through it next to someone who text-messaged all the way back to his car, afterward. Do yourself a favor and give it a miss.
"The Key Grip"
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Thursday, December 11, 2008
The obvious thing to do in response--as shouted to me at the top of his lungs by my exasperated friend at 0:53 into the film--was to make a list of my own. So here it is, folks: The twenty greatest songs of the past 1,000 years. Comments and controversy are, as always, welcomed and encouraged. (Note: In cases where the lyrics and music were written by different people, or the song was written by someone other than its most well-recognized performer, the two are separated by a backslash immediately following the title.)
20. Some Enchanted Evening (Rogers & Hammerstein, 1949). I'm an enormous fan of musicals, really can't get enough of them--provided that the musicals in question, are South Pacific. Sorry, Carousel fans; sorry, Phantom: there's really only ever been one musical, and that musical is, at the end of the day, a straightforward morality poem that could easily be summarized by the last two lines of its most unforgettable song. A lesson by which the rest of us could live the rest of our days and never be unhappy or conflicted, about anything, ever again, anywhere, ever: "Once you have found her, never let her go. Once you have found her. Never. Let. Her. Go." Take it from someone who knows.
19. Danny Boy (Rory Dall O'Cahan, 1622.) I've seen men who wouldn't cry if you dropped a ten-pound mallet on their pinkie-toe burst into tears before the lyrics of this song even get started. That alone would put it on the list, leave well enough alone the fact that its iconic power to evoke this very reaction, among these very such men, has become so ubiquitous that it has risen to the stature of a movie cliche. Trust me on very few things, but trust me on this: If you're watching a movie about a young guy trying to get a break, and there's a scene where some older guy is lying in a hospital bed, wanting to help the young guy get what he wants from some other old guy, rest assured that the healthy old guy will find himself in the next scene, standing beside the sick old guy's hospital bed, being serenaded with Danny Boy. ...And when the healthy old guy starts bawling like the fat sister at the wedding, that's your cue that the young guy will get his break. Roll credits.
18. All Shook Up (Elvis Presley, 1957). The King of Rock n' Roll actually has a bit of a problem when it comes to this list--and that problem is tempo. Google the phrase "greatest Elvis Presley songs," or "best Elvis Presley songs," or any other variant thereof, and what you'll soon discover is that the top place-holders in these amateur anthologies are songs that should be sad, but which Presley still had to sing at a pace you could dance to down at the soda fountain. Return to Sender would be a vastly superior song than All Shook Up, in almost every conceivable way, except for the nagging little detail that our desperately opining letter-writer is imparting to us his tale of woe in four-eight time! Presley sounds manic, indeed almost happy about the whole thing. (And who knows, maybe he was.) No such shoulda-been-sad song could possibly aspire to Millennial greatness. Toss out all the overwrought nonsense (Suspicious Minds and In The Ghetto, to name just a sampling), and you're left with All Shook Up. ...And here's the thing about that: It's still one of the twenty best songs of the last thousand years, without preface. That's how good this guy really was.
17. Hava Nagila (music: Bukovina trad./words: Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, 1914). You can have fun at just about anybody's wedding. Some are more sombre than others, some are more formal, some are just turgid and nutty. But if you've never sat in the audience while persons of the Jewish faith sang this song and danced around a bottle on the floor at the reception, well, sorry, you've just never really been to a wedding. By the way, as soon as the song is over the father of the bride is put in a chair and hoisted high over the heads of the four strongest young men in the room, who then proceed to twirl the old guy like the pull-string on a children's toy. Somebody pass the Digitalis before the staff has to dial 9-1-1.
16. I Feel Fine (Beatles, 1964). Simple messages are often the best, but sometimes those messages aren't as simple as they first seem. Norwegian Wood, for example, is widely thought to be a play on words; the listener is apparently supposed to hear it as, "Knowing she would." Other times, the message has no hidden meaning beyond that which the listener brings--and occasionally those songs rise to superlative stature for that very reason. With the line, "I'm in love with her, and I feel fine," we are meant to think nothing in particular. And then we go away for a while, we shave, we do the dishes--and finally it hits us: No, actually, those two sentiments don't constitute an automatic redundancy. Yes, I'm in love with her. And, yes, I feel fine. Not like those other times, when being in love with "her" made me feel like a stooge.
15. I Hear a Voice a Prayin' (American Spiritual, c. 1860.) First of all, I have a confession to make: I didn't want this song, in this slot; I wanted Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Trouble is, after watching a couple of hundred YouTube videos of Swing Low, I finally gave up. All the easy-to-find renditions are either way too fast, way too affected, sung in way too high a register, by people way too white, or some combination of all of these. All of this rocking back and forth and clapping hands has about as much business in Swing Low as would an accordion and a kazoo. To do this song justice it must be sung as if its performance were the only lingering distraction from a daily routine so horrible as to make untimely death (which is what the singer is hoping for, make no mistake) seem like a breath of fresh air. In the meantime, it's probably the fifteenth-greatest song of the past thousand years, but I'm not going to put it in the list if positively nobody on the face of God's Green Earth can pull his head out of his insecurities long enough to stop trying to be smarter than the songwriter and sing the damn thing right. ...What was I talking about, again?
14. I've Got You Under My Skin (Cole Porter, 1931 / Frank Sinatra, 1956). Yeah, yeah, yeah--You would've picked New York, New York. You would've picked Lady is a Tramp. You would've picked My Way. Thing is, if you're looking for the quintessential Frank Sinatra experience in a single song, you'll have to find three things in it when you get there: First, it has to have those big, brassy backup players that swell up halfway into the song; the trademark instrumental interlude that must have made the early years of Las Vegas seem like a children's theme park for adults, back when it wasn't just a children's theme park for children, the way it is now. Second, you've gotta have fun listening, instead of wading chest-deep through Frank's unflattering (and undeserved) overwrought self-celebration. And third, the song has to be an intimate picture of Frank, saying just the right things--a dash of vulnerability, a hint of smug self-confidence, just a smidge of driveway stalker tossed in on a larf--to get some smoking-hot showgirl to take her pants off. This would be that song, folks.
13. Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones, 1969). I'm a sucker for big emotional shifts in my music, especially if the stylist has managed to front-load the shift, turning it into a piece that's all about anticipation--not unlike the rickety death-march to the top of an old wooden roller-coaster. There's something coming, it's big, and we're just along for the ride. Paint it Black by the Stones does this. Eminence Front by The Who does this. John Lee Hooker's Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom does this. But by far and away my favorite example is Gimme Shelter. By the time Mick starts singing, the fact that he's finally delivered on the promise of the lengthy and yet at the same time palpably nervous introduction means we don't actually have to care whether we can make out what he's saying, or not. Which--admit it, now--you can't, anyway.
12. Lorena (Henry D. L. Webster, 1856). I could've picked a bluegrass song for this list. I could've picked an iconic song from the American Civil War. I could've picked a song with haunting simplicity and a touching, un-selfconscious affection--a song in which a man shows no qualms about pining for his departed love. I could've picked a song that had drifted slowly across moaning battlefields of unspeakable carnage at nightfall, or one that had careened across crowded, dirt-floor taverns full of men of low character in the small hours. I could've done each of these things. So I did.
11. Subterranean Homesick Blues (Bob Dylan: 1965). Best. Music. Video. Ever. Oh, and the most-copied, into the bargain. I remember seeing Dylan (on television) playing at the Live Aid concert in 1984, and thinking, "Wow! That guy's still making music???" Point being, it'd only been twenty-one years since he started at Newport, at that time; it's been twenty-four years, since. And he's still making music. I'm just gonna say "yikes," to that.
10. Carmina Burana: O Fortuna (Anon., early 13th cen. / arr. by Carl Orff, 1803). What makes a great song, anyway? I suppose it has to have a memorable tune, at the very least. It has to be efficient--though not necessarily short--and it has to carry at least the potential to appeal to a wide range of audiences. No polkas will ever show up on anyone's list of the twenty greatest songs of all time. But really, how many thousands upon thousands of musical selections would pass such a coarse filter for selection? To qualify as a truly great piece of music, it would seem, the song in question has to be inescapably evocative, in some way: There must be no doubt, whatsoever, that what you'll be doing for the next four minutes is sloshing around inside whichever subset of yanked heartstrings the song-stylist had in mind for you. And you will travel a long way through your local used-CD store before you get lucky enough to find a single piece of music as inescapably evocative as O Fortnua. Even now, after it's been done to death by Hollywood, I defy you to listen to it without getting goosebumps.
9. Truckin' (The Grateful Dead, 1970). Your choice of the ninth-best song of the past thousand years may be better than my choice of the ninth-best song of the past thousand years. But my choice of the ninth-best song of the past thousand years has extra pot, and she's passing it around. End of argument.
8. Shenandoah (American traditional, early 19th cen.). Dancing around the living room in your sock feet is fun; locking arms with three drunk buddies in a bar and spilling your beers all over the place as you sway back and forth is fun; sometimes even crying your eyes out is fun. But every once in a while, you gotta put on your black tails and stand on a riser and do your tiny little part in producing something that's both achingly beautiful and has nothing to do with you. Shenandoah is an amazing piece of music, to be sure, but that isn't what it's about. It's about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It's about excellence. It's about dressing up and doing your job. Call me a dinosaur, but it seems to me we could use a little more dressing-up and doing our jobs, these days. And when it's just right--when the parts come in at just the right moment, with just the right dynamics, it's one of the most excellent creations mankind has ever conceived. Mark this down as a bankable statement of fact: On the occasion of my memorial service, if four people should bother to show, I want them to come dressed-up and ready to sing this song.
7. These Boots Are Made For Walkin' (Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra, 1966). There weren't a lot of strong female role-models in 1966--certainly not strong enough to threaten to "walk all over" a cavalier boyfriend, and certainly, certainly not whose last name was Sinatra, growing up in that house. Never mind the paralyzingly seductive vamp, never mind Ms. Sinatra's ingenious flattening of the key phrase--tossing it away as the matter-of-fact observation that it surely was. Never mind the song's ability to burrow deep into your brain and squat there, more or less forever. These Boots is, for its time and place and the brutally womanizing patriarchy in which its singer grew up, nothing short of miraculous. I don't remember off the top of my head what was the unofficial theme-song for the entire feminist movement but, gosh, those bra-burnin' sandal-wearerin', Bella-Abazug-votin' mamas sure could've done worse. Walk all over me all you like, ladies. I promise I'll be good.
6. Empty Chairs (Don McLean, 1971). This was a tough one for me, for some of the same reasons that I had trouble picking a Sinatra song, or a U2 song, or a Rolling Stones song. Clearly McLean is a virtuoso song stylist but, equally clearly, neither one of his two most iconic songs is this one. Granted, Empty Chairs isn't a spontaneous elegy to Vincent Van Gogh. Granted, Empty Chairs isn't a sprawling, almost impossibly expansive fever-dream about the untimely death of Buddy Hollie, either. On the other hand, the very thing that frustrated me about Thompson's list was its insistence on paying tribute, and not so much on actually picking those that he felt were the best. And Empty Chairs is the best Don McLean song, period. What it lacks in complicated time-signatures and florid impressionist imagery, it more than compensates for with its de facto preeminence in a strangely under-utilized subgenre of love song: the I-wish-I-hadn't-taken-her-for-granted song. "And I wonder if you know / that I never understood," pines McLean in the chorus, in strains so chastened and heartsick that you can't help wonder who the inspiration was for the whole thing, "that although you said you'd go / until you did / I never thought you would." We should all be so lucky to hit on an idea so simple and yet so desperately important in our everyday lives. Once you have found her, never let her go.
5. Poliushka Pole (Lev Knipper / Viktor Gusev, 1934). During his concert, Thompson told a joke about the difference between heaven and hell: "In heaven," he grinned, "the British great you at the door, the French are the cooks, the Germans are organizing everything, and the Italians provide the entertainment. In hell, the French great you at the door, the British are the cooks, the Italians organize everything, and the Germans provide the entertainment." It's a good joke, to which I offer this friendly amendment: In hell, the Soviet Government would sanction the music--while in heaven, choruses of ordinary Russian soldiers would sing it all. Forgive my pink diapers, do, but every time the swell comes in at the end of the twelfth measure of this ode to the joys of collective farming, the hair on my arms still stands straight up. It's just an amazingly stirring piece of music, made incomparably more so by the fact that we don't know the dreadful lyrics. Of everything on this list, from the Rolling Stones to Irish folk tunes and back, Poliushka Pole was the very first song I thought of when I set about to tackle this project. That's not hyperbole, folks. Oh, and if you're looking for an honorable mention in the department of stirring Russian folk tunes, you could do a lot worse than this.
4. The Christmas Song (Mel Torme and Bob Wells, 1944 / Nat King Cole, 1946, 1946, 1953, 1961). So, why this song and not White Christmas? How could a list of the twenty best songs of the past millennium not include anything sung by Bing Crosby, or written by Irving Berlin--much less snub a song that happens to be both at once? Because this song is better. To begin with, White Christmas is an utterly depressing song. Most people don't know that, because most people don't really bother thinking about the lyrics--but in fact, the premise of the song is that a young man is stuck someplace far away from his family and friends over the holidays, and doesn't even have the literal cold comfort of snow, to brighten his spirits. It's no accident that White Christmas was the song used by Armed Forces Radio to signal the remaining American servicemen in Vietnam that Saigon was about to fall. (Excuse me while I slit my wrists.) The Christmas Song, by contrast, evokes every last one of all our most cherished and heartwarming holiday images--through a device no more clever or mysterious than simply listing them, one at a time. Oh, and something else: Nat King Cole was a vastly better singer than Bing Crosby could've been on the best day he ever had. There, I said it. Sue me.
3. Bad (U2, 1984). Not everyone is a fan of U2, especially now that they've put themselves through the license-induced shredder of half a dozen reinventions in the past ten years. "They've gone from being U2," a friend of mine once wrote, in a music review, "to being a parody of U2, to being a light-techno ripoff of U2, to being a U2 retrospective, to being a U2 cover-band." But love 'em or not, this raffish lot from Dublin has done as much to place their stamp on modern popular music as any single act in the history of modern popular music. They've sold more records than the Beatles. They play to bigger venues than the Rolling Stones and they've somehow managed to become more sanctimonious than Crosby Stills and Nash. But as with so many other acts listed here, it is this very success that sows within itself the seed of a genuine quandary: How to pick just one U2 song? It had to be ubiquitous, which ruled-out One Tree Hill (my first choice), and its lyrics couldn't openly invite ridicule among the non-believers, as in With Or Without You--which, I just have to say this, is quite possibly the stupidest set of song lyrics in the history of number-one records. It couldn't invite pretension from its audience (Sunday, Bloody Sunday) and it didn't want to be a Jimmi Hendrix tune before it grew up (Bullet the Blue Sky). It had to be stirring, in only just that very particular way that Edge's borderline wacka-chicka guitar playing manages to be, making the hair on your arm stand straight up in spite of itself. It had to be a full-on, adult-portion U2 experience. It had to be a great tune, it had to have a great concept (okay, I get it now, so don't leave?), and it had to have one of those classic, out-of-breath-but-not-energy denouements that Bono loves so much, at its end. I don't know about you, but me, I'm wide awake in America--and I'm not sleeping.
2. Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd, 1975). I'd argue for this song if all it had going for it is the clever radio-then-with-us introduction; I'd argue for it if all it had were the lines, "Did you exchange / a walk-on part in the war / for a lead role / in a cage?" And I'd go straight to the mat for it, and argue all night on its behalf, if all it had to show for itself was that tendency among single men of a certain age to start locking arms in the back booth and swinging their beer mugs when Gilmour finally finds his way to the title verse. Call it a three-for-one sale, I guess.
1. Funiculi, Funicula (Peppino Turco/Luigi Denza, c.1880). The act of listening to modern popular music is very often little more than exercise in pretending to be miserable about the problems of the world. Teen angst, a relatively new staple in American bourgeois culture, has taken on a marketing mystique all its own--leading to the improbable image of fabulously wealthy musicians in their early twenties, sitting in semicircles on MTV soundstages and acting as if their lives couldn't possibly get worse. But in all our lives, there comes a moment when depressing music no longer seems quite so grown up, anymore. Yes, the world has troubles--yes, people have been and will continue to be unkind to us. But in the end, most of us come to accept that the true sign of maturity isn't so much in being able to diagnose the wrongs of the world, as to steer a center course between apathy and self-destruction. Il faut cultiver nos jardins, as Saint-Exupery would have it--we must all plant our own gadens. That's why the top spot on my list is reserved for a song so joyful that I cannot imagine anyone listening to it without smiling, regardless of whether he knew the words. Regardless of whatever else was going on in his life at the time. Regardless of whether it would make him look uncool to smile, or not. Only one song I can think of manages this: Funiculi, Funicula. And that's what makes it my choice for the single greatest song of the past thousand years. We must all plant our own gardens; why not sing a happy tune while we do it?
So, there you have it. The twenty greatest songs of the past thousand years, according to your humble columnist. Post whatever comments you may have without sanction or abridgment, please-- or, send me a private message to firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to submit an entire list in reply. And despair not: if nothing else comes of all of this, at least my friend may finally look forward to being able to see his movie.
("The Key Grip")
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008
The definition of an oogedy-boogedy Republican is, roughly, someone whose religious/moral convictions (one might say hypocrisies, at this point) renders him or her an undesirable face for persuading the low-information middle of the virtues of the conservative movement. Think Haley Barbour meets Jerry Fallwell with a dash of Grover Norquist thrown in, and you've got the three-headed monster of oogedy-boogedeyism pretty well nailed. Or you could just pull up a press-pool photograph of the current President and skip the trouble of hybridizing the view, I suppose. At all events, the collapse in popularity of the modern social-conservative movement, it is argued, is the result of the fact that the oogedy-boogedies have alienated the persuadable middle. This established, the path back to Republican power is supposedly self-evident, in the form of decreased oogedy-boogedeyism. It's a compelling and articulately rendered argument; it only has one small problem: It is unambiguously wrong.
The modern social-conservative movement, as it happens, is the principal benefactor of Republican power over the past forty years. Many people like to think that modern conservatism began with the Reagan revolution in 1980, but in fact the first truly modern Republican was the first Californian who ran for President on a platform of hating media bias and railing against big government, all while manipulating live television addresses and running up a tab in Vietnam even bigger than Lyndon Johnson's--Richard Nixon.
It was Nixon (or perhaps his campaign elite, which we forget were very elite indeed before they started firebombing Brookings Institutions and vandalizing psychiatrists' offices), who first saw that the Republican brand wouldn't win enough votes in any nationwide election on a simple platform of defending the well-to-do from excessive taxes.
In 1968 the Republicans had lost seven of the past nine Presidential elections, going back to 1932, and Nixon's team ingeniously saw how simple the explanation was: the under-educated voters in the lower middle class didn't have to think too hard about policy, to vote Democratic. What Nixon needed was a campaign designed to allow those same people to vote Republican, instead, equally without thinking. In an era when whole cities were being burned they ran ads calling Democrats soft on crime; in an era when doors were first being opened to genuine racial equality they ran tradition-heavy ads aimed at white voters in the south; in an era when the federal budget deficit was exploding with every shell dropped over Pleiku they ran ads suggesting that everyone was going to pay higher taxes if we kept returning Democrats to power. It was a brilliant strategy, precisely because of oogedy-boogedeyism, and it has worked ever since.
The Republican playbook for my entire lifetime has been just this, and until now it has worked in every un-asterisked election of that period: '68, '72, '80, '84, '88, '00, and '04. Only in the aftermath of Watergate, and twice with the unwitting aide of H. Ross Perot in the nineties, have the Democrats managed to wriggle out of the unwinnable trap of winning voters away from oogedy-boogedy voting behavior, without talking down to them and risking dismissal as elitist. Just ask John Kerry.
Better yet, just ask Michael Dukakis--since this one election, 1988, probably serves as the best example of the playbook working to perfection. It happens that 1988 was my first vote, and I didn't know anyone who really wanted Bush Senior to be President, and yet I voted for him--along with rather a large assortment of other people who didn't like him either--precisely because the other guy's positions looked mealy-mouthed, weak, strung across a framework of tortured reasoning, and generally unprincipled. It was all a complete fiction, born strictly of playbook manipulation: drive up the other guy's negatives, shore-up your teetering voters (like me, at the time), push emotional hot-buttons, let everyone off the hook of really having to think too hard about all of this. They say you should never leap at the first opportunity to go to bed with someone, because that person will always be your first. To which I say, ain't it the truth.
Fast-forwarding to more recent times, when the Terry Schaivo matter was front-page news across the entire country (and nowhere more so than Florida). Many of my most politically astute friends couldn't figure out why the Republicans would be so "foolish" as to side with continuing care for Terry, when the general public was coming down 62-38 for having her life terminated with dignity--and I for one saw it as a brilliant move, precisely for its resonance with the oogedy-boogedies. As long as the Republicans could keep those people held together, it didn't matter if 62 percent of the public disagreed with them, because half of those 62 percent wouldn't vote, anyway; the opposition to oogedy-boogedyism was too disorganized.
Until the second term of Bush-II, that is. And here at last we come to the point: Low-information voters who might be tempted to reject oogedy-boogedy tactics are also, by that very combination of traits, extremely unlikely to drag themselves to the polls in an ordinary election cycle. The mistake the Republicans made, in the second term of the Bush-Jr. White House, was to give them an excuse to do so. Between the fruits of bone-headed deregulation of the financial markets, the shockingly ham-fisted response to Katrina, an all but universally discredited folly in Iraq, repeated and callous disregard for civil liberties and constitutional due process, and everywhere the smug impunity--not of oogedy-boogedyism at all, but of power--the current administration forgot that the oogedy-boogedy is about winning low information voters who would otherwise vote Democratic. Having made the mess too obvious, in other words, the administration made even oogedy-boogedy voting behavior pointlessly abstruse. The reason to vote for McCain was as clear as it had been to vote for Nixon; the reason to vote for Obama was even clearer.
Much will be written in the next few months and years about how the Republicans will win their way back to power in this country. Some will say that the Republicans have to move to the center, and those who believe this will throw their support behind someone like Mitt Romney or George Pataki. Others will say that a lack of fire in the belly of the oogedy-boogedies is precisely why Mr. McCain lost, and will throw their support behind a certain, turkey-pardoning Governor from the great state of Alaska. Both sides are wrong. The path back to power for the Republicans will be to disconnect oogedy-boogedy voting from the arrogance of power, by picking someone who can be oogedy-boogedy without actually scaring the shit out of everybody in the process. That's Bobby Jindhal, or, perhaps even more effectively, Mike Huckabee.
But something else has to happen if the Republicans are to return to power anytime soon, too--something that hasn't happened in the aftermath of elections that superficially look like the one we've just had. This vote that we've just finished casting looks, to your author and to a great many people smarter than he, like a "realignment election," in which people find new, low-information excuses to back the opposite party from the one they've been supporting up to that time. In this century, it's happened twice before: 1932 and 1968. And on both occasions, it took a lot more than decreased arrogance and a less scary candidate to reverse that election's effects.
Fortunately for us, the kind of opening that a Mike Huckabee would need, to reassert the success of Republican oogedy-boogedyism, seems unlikely to be handed down to him on a silver platter. Mercifully, the long-term prospects for Republican ascendance will for a time not rest with Huckabee, Jindhal, Romney, Pataki, or anyone else with an (R) after his or her name, but rather in the capable hands of a certain skinny guy from Chicago--a skinny guy from Chicago who will very soon be getting down to the very, very hard work of erasing all of the oogedy-boogedy playbook's diverse and ugly consequences.
("The Key Grip")
PS: I did promise you this would be a short column, didn't I?
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Tuesday, December 2, 2008
By far the biggest appointments announced so far are, on the domestic policy side, Timothy Geithner for Secretary of the Treasury, and, on the foreign policy side, Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. The Clinton appointment has of course roadblocked the recent coverage of the transition--dripping as it is with Shakespearean pathos and the veiled prospects of poor message discipline, in-fighting, leaks, and even the chance of fresh new scandals.
With this selection, Mr. Obama demonstrates once again that he is willing to take calculated risks on the political side of the ledger if the end-result is to channel the productive energy of a one-time rival in his favor. And if you hesitate to agree that this can be a very, very favorable strategy indeed, just go back and look at some of the things that were being written in late July about Joe Biden. Indeed the best part of the decision, from Obama's standpoint, is that whatever drama emerges from this move will redound to Clinton's detriment rather than his own. Obama's credential as a disciplined manager who evokes strong loyalty and all but leak-proof message control is permanently punched--while the reputation brought to the situation on the same scores by the Clintons is... well... not quite as distinguished. If Mr. Obama finds himself in the worst-case scenario of having to fire Mrs. Clinton, few will remember back to these past days and weeks as an invitation to question his judgment in picking her for the job.
But if the Clinton appointment is the one garnering all the news, the Geithner appointment is surely the one that tells us considerably more about just what sort of Administration the new team promises to be. Geithner is neither a liberal firebrand nor a Chicago-style political crony (the two things we were promised by the radical right to expect from Obama's inner circle). What he is, instead, is a uniquely qualified individual with a full resume aimed specifically at the job. As President of the New York branch of the United States Federal Reserve, Mr. Geithner's current position straddles the fence between the regulatory function of the Fed (all district banks regulate the banking activity in their districts), and the monetary policy side (since the New York bank, in particular, enjoys permanent standing on the Federal Open Market Committee, where the money supply is raised or lowered by simple majority vote).
The most visible of the Treasury Secretary's jobs in the next Administration will be to account for the bailout money that has been shoveled willy-nilly at the financial sector over the past few weeks, and to more prudently spend whatever of that money is left (which won't be much). But the ongoing job of the Treasury Secretary--to raise the necessary bond revenue to cover deficit-spending--is likely to become a significant challenge in the next four years, as both the Social Security Trust and the government of the Peoples' Republic of China find it increasingly difficult to purchase new bonds at the daily Treasury auction. Once this simmering crisis erupts onto the scene, perhaps within the first two years of the incoming government, Geithner's track-record as a cool head on the FOMC, and his proven credential as a proactive, outside-the-box thinker will serve us all, regardless of party affiliation. It promises to be a very difficult assignment, and essentially no one is as qualified to fulfill it right now.
There is at all events a desperate need for a fresh look at the question of regulatory oversight of the financial markets, and on this front as well, Mr. Geithner scores high marks for taking just the sort of pragmatic, centrist approach to such questions that the Obama appointments are receiving so much attention for in general. Clearly the Bush/Paulson approach has left the nation's financial system in tatters--but it's not obvious to even some of the most liberal thinkers on the subject that a return to the days of Glass/Steagall wouldn't exacerbate the problem by disincenting capital. It's a poignant thought to consider for the pro-regulation crowd that many of the best-performing securities during the current bear market would have been illegal before Glass-Steagall was repealed. However one looks at it, the Geithner nomination is a laudable, perhaps even brilliant decision. Call it two-for-two, if you must, though there have certainly been others outside the scope of this particular column.
Oh, and there's one last major element of aplomb to Mr. Obama's galaxy of selections made thusfar: Geithner, who might otherwise have had one of the most visible (and probably controversial) tenures in the history of the Treasury, doesn't like publicity. He's a wonk, just as all the district bank presidents in the Federal Reserve system are wonks. So how does a President who wants the most effective performance from such a key player, do his part to help ensure that's exactly what he gets? How about by nominating an ambitious, headline-hungry formal rival for Secretary of State?
("The Key Grip")
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Sunday, November 30, 2008
The film opens with a long take of the (unexpectedly?) beautiful Iranian countryside, in wide-shot--a tiny-looking International Scout making its way down a winding road only barely noticeable in an unremarkable corner of the scene, while the vehicle's four occupants, recorded in production sound instead of ADR, can be heard quietly bickering about whether or not they've misunderstood their driving directions. Even at this early juncture two things are inescapably apparent about the experience that this film will represent: First, our director sees no reason to explain himself--you know as much about who these people are and where they're going as anyone else, and no more than you're supposed to--and second, if you'll pardon the pun, this film is hardly in a hurry to get anywhere. Through a series of long takes shot at different angles along the route, this anti-scene of four guys gently squabbling about the proper turnoff continues for over five and a half minutes, long after the opening titles would have been over and done with, had there even been any.
Eventually the quartet finds their intended destination--a small village carved into a steep hillside and notable to our eyes as the sort of un-even-roofed hodgepodge that we'd be less surprised to find in desert Africa. Indeed after finding a young guide on the outskirts of town, our presumptive lead character (and the only one of the four whom we will ever see on camera throughout the film) makes his way literally across the tops of the earthen dwellings that will encompass his universe for the duration of the picture, hopping first up two feet to transit the next interval, and then down again.
Kiarostami devotes this opening reel of the film to establishing not just the film's tempo, but also its principal source of mystery--that these four obviously urban Tehranians have checked themselves into the closest local semblance of a guesthouse, apparently for the purposes of monitoring the health of an infirmed and elderly local, convalescing at the opposite end of the village. Throughout his long walk across the rooftops with the boy who will be his foil, our lead character--"The Engineer"--inquires repeatedly and with implied familiarity about the old woman's health, the boy's side-mouthed answers revealing either discretion or ignorance; we aren't supposed to know which.
I can think of no higher tribute to Kiarostami's achievement with this picture than that, by the time we actually discover what these four men are doing here and why they've taken so much interest in the health of an old woman, it no longer really matters to us anymore: Like the characters themselves, we've become immersed in the day-to-day rhythm of this at once surreally alien and improbably familiar little community. Its cranky restaurant matron, her semi-estranged and possibily philandering husband, the arrestingly pregnant and then arrestingly un-pregnant innkeeper, the hauntingly beautiful young woman who milks a cow in darkness so that their collective guests might enjoy just one more locally tricky little comfort from home.
The film is described by assorted critics as a mystery, and to that extent they're right: we are meant to wonder, of course, who these people are and how they came to find themselves in such a far-flung place with such a seemingly insignificant agenda (indeed at one point in the film the Engineer's three accomplices become so bored that they literally disappear, never to be seen again). But to describe the film with this single identifier is to entirely miss Kiarostami's point. There is mystery in life, of course, but it isn't the glamorous, maybe-they're-spies kind of mystery that we so often find ourselves escaping into at the movies; it is rather the mystery of mundanity--the strange shooting-script by which all of us on this homey little planet of ours seem to play out the same micro-dramas, the same rivalries, the same petty squabbles. The mystery in life is that it could contain so little real mystery, and yet seem so mysterious--so wondrous. So beautiful.
The Key Grip awards this film five bald heads, his highest rating. Highly, highly recommended.
("The Key Grip")
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Tuesday, November 25, 2008
If all is quiet on the right flank in Washington these days, it may just be that the Republican agenda-makers, especially on the domestic side of the ledger, have awakened to the bankruptcy of their ideas--but probably that isn't it. The far more likely scenario is that the right is lying in wait for the sort of substantive policy shifts that Barack Obama has already promised and already (during the campaign) been assailed for. Once the assault on these shifts has agitated their own base into a frenzy of disdain, Republicans can renew their time-tested formula of overwhelming the national agenda with catch phrases and vitriol, inevitably casting the Democrats in a weak light, despite the power and snatching away the independents.
It is worth considering how things got this way.
The modern discipline of economics is surprisingly neutral on questions of political discourse: Progressive income taxes may be defended on the principal of "diminishing marginal utility," by which a dollar taken from a wealthy person and given to a poor one has a net-beneficial effect on all of society's collective happiness, to pick one random but unusually topical example. Environmental regulations may be defended on the principal of "internalizing social costs," wherein the non-monetary repercussions of a firm's activities are converted into monetary ones through fines and regulations -- to pick another. Minimum wage laws may be defended as having negligible effects on the employment of unskilled labor, since the unskilled labor in question is already being used in its smallest possible quantities by the firms employing them, to pick a third.
And yet, as adaptable as the underlying principles of modern economic thought would seem to be to such progressive claims, the academy is at the same time populated by individuals so ubiquitously and inflexibly Conservative as to render them the frequent butt of both merriment and derision at the hands of their would-be colleagues in the other social sciences. "An economist engages someone else's ideas about the way the world works," wrote one columnist in a recent edition of The New Yorker, "the way a bulldozer engages a picket fence."
This phenomenon is largely attributable to the coincidental (and misguided) desire on the part of professional economists to be regarded as objective, physical scientists--more like chemists and biologists, and less like their messy-headed brethren down the hall in Psychology and Poly-Sci. If the practitioner has to be clean, then the practice has to be clean too--which in turn means that the rich (progressive) texture of policy debates must melt on contact with the paradigm, to prevent it from looking unresolved. The anguish of jobs lost to technological change, the qualitative detriment of polluted air, the elusive tabulation of the spoils of a war on poverty--all of these are matters dismissed with a smug wink and the back of a hand.
As the paradigm has polarized itself to the right, at the same moment in time and for the same reasons the rhetoric from Conservative Think Tanks has tailored itself to a world in which the cleanliness and simplicity of an answer is its highest virtue, existing in a perfect synergy with the rank-and-file's inability to regard a complex idea as anything but a threat. (Surely the good people at Americans for Tax Reform don't really intend for their government to be "drowned in the bathtub"? Surely Grover Norquist has been to enough school to know that bridges in the host city of the Republican National Convention will, absent a government that's just been drowned in someone's bathtub, fall unceremoniously down?) With such a de facto simple paradigm to claim as their own, the Norquists of the world have all the excuse they need to reduce a messy world to painfully simplistic causes that play perfectly with the low-information voters in swing districts, regardless of whether they genuinely believe anything they say, or not.
It would be tempting to presume a January 20th expiration date on such laments--to believe that some sort of corner has been turned. But the bitter reality of the matter is that Mr. Obama's performance was at its shakiest when he found himself confronted by a self-appointed Ohio foot soldier so perfect for the slick-sided provincialism of the modern conservative economics that he was drafted by the McCain campaign as its chief spokesman before the sun had set. It won't get any easier from there.
The Democrats will not win an economics argument in this country on the basis of raw numbers alone; they never do. Now that the battle has been won, the Democrats must take a big-picture approach to winning the larger war. Selling complex, messy ideas like progressive income taxes (to say nothing of the restoration of a modicum of governmental oversight) will require a fresh infusion of street-smart packaging to match such hate-button phrases as "death tax," a fire fought with fire, as it were. If the Obama Administration dismisses such efforts as quotidian (or, worse, elitist), or if it presumes victory before the fact on the strength of its mandate, they could surely suffer the same fate as wide-eyed Democratic Administrations in years past. The good news is that they're already winning this P/R battle with cool-headed, pragmatic appointments and centrist views. In other words, they're winning it the same way they won the election.
("The Key Grip")
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