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Archive for December, 2005

Step 1: Cause the Strike. Step 2: Make Up Effects. Step 3: Blame Someone Else

[ 5 ] December 28, 2005 |

Julia Speak, You Listen.


Going For Brokeback

[ 0 ] December 27, 2005 |

Once it was decided that my visiting family would be seeing a movie on Christmas Day I was resigned to sitting through The Family Stone or some such, but everyone in my family wanted to see Brokeback Mountain (partly, admittedly, because it was filmed in Alberta. And, of course, Albertan conservatism is kind of a strange brew; when k.d. lang came out it didn’t really seem to cause much of a ripple, but when she came out as a vegetarian…that’s when the sign on her hometown was covered with graffiti.)

The most salient thing about the picture is that it represents the return to form of an immensely gifted director, although (as some have anticipated) Lee’s sensibility certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. Lee’s rhythms and lovely photography and attention to period detail hit me where I live when he’s on, and this picture works almost as well as the The Ice Storm. I don’t understand claims that the movie is cliched or melodramatic, unless these terms are defined so that they encompass pretty much any movie about problematic romantic relationships. Whether a movie that uses archetypes about thwarted desire and romantic bad faith deserves these labels depends on whether the story feels organic and character-driven, and this one does. And it will also rise and fall on the acting, and while Gyllenhall and (especially) Ledger deserve their hosannas, Williams and Hathaway give the movie a surprising jolt of soul. And, as always, Lee gets consistently good performances across the board, and is especially skilled with teenage and child actors who bring so many other movies to a halt. But while the context of a major Hollywood film matters, it is certainly true that the movie is not really subversive. As Anthony Lane noted, it’s neither particularly gay nor a western–McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show being the obvious antecedent–and nor (may the saints be praised) is it another self-conscious attempt to “demythologize” a genre that has been alleged to have “lost its innocence” almost as frequently as America itself, but I don’t really see that a problem; I don’t see much point in attacking the movie for not being another movie. (And the upside is that it’s not the policy brief in favor of gay marriage or whatever that its anti-aesthetic critics have evaluated it as.)

It’s a very fine movie, and should be seen, but it is certainly flawed. While I can’t go along with the claim that it gives off less erotic heat than a Merhcant/Ivory picture without having seen the latter (I find it hard to believe that it’s even theoretically possible), it’s true that some people will find it too tasteful by half (or maybe by the full one), and I don’t entirely disagree. (Mickey Kaus and his constantly-under-perceived-siege heterosexuality will be happy to know that in the patriarchal tradition of Hollywood there’s more female than male nudity in the film. Perhaps Kaus, who seems to think that attraction to the stars is the only reason to see a movie, can explain why this ratio is so high, and why a majority of the male nudity seems to involve Harvey Keitel.) The scene where Ennis Twist is fired is more explicit than it needs to be–it’s the one lapse where the film tells you what to think instead of dramatizing–and the final twist for Jack Twist does justify the charge of melodrama. Overall, though, I think these are fairly minor quibbles; certainly, it’s one of the best movies of the year.

It should be noted as well that my more politically and aesthetically conservative family liked it as well (which, of course, may hurt my argument more than it helps it, but I stand by it.) They also liked Sweeney Todd, which according to the expanding wave of anti-aesthetic criticism makes us objectively pro-cannibalism as well as pro-homosexuality. (I wonder what Stanley Kurtz thinks is worse?) I’ll have more about it after I see Doubt on Thursday, but despite being a Sondheim skeptic I can’t challenge the consensus about the current production; it’s flat-out masterful…


[ 0 ] December 27, 2005 |

Christmas is over, and we hold the field of battle.

Grow Up To Be A Debaser

[ 0 ] December 27, 2005 |

Tara McKelvey had a terrific article in The Nation recently about academics left and right–some of whom have been called “libertarians”–who have engaged in casual defenses of torture. She’s particularly good at identifying the idea, also so evident in the defenses of Bush’s illegal surveillance, that the nation’s toughness and manliness are somehow at risk if we don’t violate as many rights as possible (even if it requires repudiating long-held theoretical commitments) in the name of not-terribly-well-specified advantages supposedly gained in fighting terrorism:

Dershowitz may be more willing than most academics to talk about specifics. But a number of professors on the “torture circuit”–the talks, roundtables and debates on the subject that have taken place at universities, law centers and conferences over the past four years–have echoed his points. For these professors, the message is clear: Toughen up. In a debate with Physicians for Human Rights executive director Leonard Rubenstein in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 28, 2003, for example, Harvard Law School professor Richard Parker balked when Rubenstein said torture should be forbidden under any circumstances. “The idea that anybody would take an absolutist position seemed kind of absurd to him,” Rubenstein recalls.

Another Harvard law professor, Philip Heymann, with Juliette Kayyem, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, influenced Congresswoman Jane Harman’s drafting of legislation that would authorize harsh interrogation techniques under certain conditions. Harman discussed the proposal in a speech at Georgetown University on February 7 and was criticized by human rights activists. Quietly, the Harvard plan was dropped.

In some cases, the academics have crossed into government service. In The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, co-editor Karen Greenberg, executive director of NYU School of Law’s Center on Law and Security, says many of the people on the “path to torture” have affiliations with the academy, including, most famously, John Yoo, who served as attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and helped draft memos that outlined a strict definition of torture. Yoo studied at Harvard and got a law degree from Yale. He has taught at the University of Chicago Law School and is now a professor at UC Berkeley Law School, Boalt Hall.

In an essay titled “Torture, Terrorism, and Interrogation” in Torture: A Collection, edited by Sanford Levinson, Richard Posner, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, agrees with Dershowitz, writing that “if the stakes are high enough torture is permissible.” Interestingly, Posner seems to think torture is more acceptable if it takes place far from home. “Torture is uncivilized, but civilized nations are able to employ uncivilized means, at least in situations of or closely resembling war, without becoming uncivilized in the process,” he writes. “I suspect that this is particularly true when the torture is being administered by military personnel in a foreign country.”

And, alas, even professors at CNUY are implicated:

A CUNY professor goes further. Philosophy professor Michael Levin is the author of “The Case for Torture,” a 1982 essay he continues to defend. “Perhaps the most terrifying moment came when an urbane American academic [Levin] argued the case for torturing not only suspects but even their infant children, if it would induce them to talk,” writes Robert Shrimsley, reviewing Channel 4’s “Is Torture a Good Idea?” in the March 4 Financial Times. “With his cheery evocation of such appalling techniques, Michael Levin…was a living personification of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.”

Profoundly depressing, but important, stuff. In a related note, I think that the administration should issue an executive order compelling all faux libertarians to sign the Posner Waiver

Parochial Boxing Day Bloggin’

[ 0 ] December 27, 2005 |

I believe this would make this year’s tally white hats 4, black hats zip. (Well, to be fair, the Neckbreakers are 0-3-1.)

In better news, the lack of stereo has been solved in a satisfying manner, with the crappy bookcase component system (and Sony home audio products in general) avoided.

“The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need…”

[ 0 ] December 26, 2005 |

In addition to being funny, DeLong’s anticipatory satire of Charles Krauthammer actually has a serious point: would Krauthammer, or any of the large number of conservative pundits who have endorsed the Yooian theory that the President’s Article II powers trump all other legal limits on the executive’s authority where “national security” is involved, have any principled way of not supporting the legality of the President’s actions if he decided that the 22nd Amendment was a luxury the country can’t afford during the War on Terra? After all, the Court used a similar logic to permit the President to engage in a clear violation of the 14th Amendment during WWII, and the most popular conservative blogger who writes a significant amount of original content has already written a book defending the decision. And that’s the problem with this reasoning: there’s no logical end to it. Even if we were to assume for the sake of argument that the President’s illegal wiretaps haven’t created any substantively major violations of civil liberties, the reasoning being used to pretend that they’re legal is incredibly dangerous. (And, of course, since the program isn’t transparent or subject to judicial oversight we have no basis for making this assumption.)

And while I don’t, of course, think that Bush actually would try to stay on for a third term, we actually have recent Republican precedent for such a thing: Saint Rudy trying to stay on past the expiration of his term through a legally dubious informal arrangement with the other candidates.

Glenn Greenwald has more.

Should Well Enough Be Left Alone?

[ 0 ] December 24, 2005 |

I welcome Dave, the fan who introduced me to the show (and put the cool poster in our office) to append comments, but I must admit viewing this project with some measure of apprehension. It’s hard to replicate the spirit of a series this long afterward, I would think. Its life was its own. (Although admittedly one must be more optimistic about this than the film project, assuming that Simon West is still at the helm…)

Happy Festivus!

[ 0 ] December 24, 2005 |

Light blogging as I ferry the visiting family around NYC (and, really, who’s reading now anyway?), so happy Christ/ukah tomorrow to all of LGM’s readers and critics!


[ 0 ] December 23, 2005 |

Fred Kaplan has a good column on Pentagon budget priorities:

Earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England signed a directive declaring, “Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission. … They should be given priority comparable to combat operations” in all Defense Department activities, “including doctrine, organizations, training, education, exercises, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and planning.”

At the very least, this directive—which amounts to an official acknowledgement of the Iraq war’s mistakes—will require more military manpower if it’s to be a statement of policy and not just a smattering of nice words.

And yet, according to a story by Tom Bowman in the Dec. 21 Baltimore Sun, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is planning to cut the Army’s forces by 34,000 troops. That would entail eliminating one active-duty brigade and six National Guard brigades. (The latter aren’t trivial; nearly half the U.S. combat units in Iraq come from the National Guard.)

Budget pressures are forcing Rumsfeld to cut Pentagon spending by $32 billion over the next five years. But why is he taking his biggest whacks against the tokens of combat power—boots on the ground—that are, by his own admission, most vital? The Sun reports:

The manpower cuts stem from a decision by top Army leaders to sacrifice troop strength in order to provide money for new weapons systems and other new equipment, said defense officials, who requested anonymity.

So, not much has changed after all. We’ve been fighting a war that’s costing hundreds of billions of dollars. The Pentagon’s upper management at least says it realizes that “stabilization operations” (read: low-tech, high-manpower ops) are extremely important. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, leans toward this sentiment as well, having risen through the ranks in the Special Forces command. And yet, when it comes to setting priorities on how to spend money, the procurement chiefs—with their eyes on big-ticket weapons systems—still rule.

At this point, changing the shares that each service gets of the Pentagon budget is pretty much a non-starter. While it’s true that cutting a few F-22s and the DD(X) could help pay for additional Army personnel, to do so would break the back-scratching arrangement that the three services have constructed since the 1960s. The degree of political will necessary to make that happen exceeds what most administrations can bring, and, frankly, if the Bush administration couldn’t dent it, I doubt that anyone can.

That said, the position of the Army itself seems indefensible to me. Yes, I know that they really, really want FCS, and for some reason seem to think that it will help them in low-intensity operations. I can’t see how, but they seem to believe it. In the service of achieving this dubious goal, they’re willing to cut our capabilities for fighting a low-intensity conflict now, when we are, after all, in the middle of a low-intensity conflict.

Rumsfeld isn’t the only one to blame in this fiasco. The Army brass will also be responsible for the problems that these decisions create.

What We Already Know

[ 0 ] December 23, 2005 |

In one of the least surprising developments is history, an Alito memo in which he argued that Roe v. Wade should be overturned has been released:

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito wrote in a June 1985 memo that the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion should be overturned, a finding certain to enliven January’s confirmation hearings.

In a recommendation to the solicitor general on filing a friend-of-court brief, Alito said that the government ”should make clear that we disagree with Roe v. Wade and would welcome the opportunity to brief the issue of whether, and if so to what extent, that decision should be overruled.”

The June 3, 1985 document was one of 45 released by the National Archives on Friday. A total of 744 pages were made public.


Consistent with his previous writings, Alito said these arguments would be preferable to a ”frontal assault on Roe v. Wade.”

”It has most of the advantage of a brief devoted to the overruling of Roe v. Wade; it makes our position clear, does not even tacitly concede Roe’s legitimacy, and signals that we regard the question as live and open,” Alito wrote.

To address one of the spin-points we’ll be hearing as part of the Alito Kabuki, this is his personal before-the-fact analysis, not a brief where he was just putting the government’s position forward.

But it should be noted, of course, that this isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. Alito’s personal hostility to legal abortion rights is well-known and unambiguous. As an appeals court judge, in the only abortion case not decided on technical grounds or in which he was not bound by a clear upper-court precedent he ruled in a way that would maximize state power, and used a legal rationale that would not only increase the regulatory power of the state but would make challenging the regulations in court far more ornerous. His hostility to abortion rights couldn’t be clearer; it’s only people who want to maintain their bullshit-libertarian credentials or need to ram Alito through the Senate despite his unpopular views who are trying to pretend that there’s any serious doubt about his stance. This is one more piece of evidence added to a case that was already utterly clear-cut. If you support Alito, you either oppose or don’t care about reproductive rights, period.

Yet More!

[ 0 ] December 23, 2005 |

One of the things about writing for one of the 10,000 most popular blogs on the intarweb is that–in addition to the predictable crates of panties, requests for autographs, marriage proposals, and the like–is that one is burdened with requests to write about topics sadly neglected by the author but of intense interest to the audience. If I’ve gotten this email once, I’ve gotten it a million times: “Why can’t you blog more about hockey? You do it so rarely, and the comments threads get so long I feel lost! And would it hurt you to fire off the occasional post about abortion or unprincipled faux-libertarians?”

Well, who am I to ignore my readers? So you can see me lowbrowing Michael Berube’s place up, discussing the New NHL. I’m afraid my need to fill the space that would otherwise be consumed by doing something useful has trumped my labor solidarity.

As an addendum to my point about attendance, I’m not sure what the averages are; versus the previous year, the median attendance is down, but the median capacity filled is up. (Considering that there was a labor stoppage that killed a whole season, that’s pretty amazing.) The really interesting comparison is with the NBA: the NHL has a median attendance of 16, 820 and 94.5% capacity, compared with 16,925 and 87.5% for the NBA [whoops–edited!]. And this has generally been true: the NHL more or less has the attendance figures of the NBA–which I think would surprise most people–but can’t get Americans to watch on TV at all.


[ 0 ] December 22, 2005 |

Around these parts you’ll see very little positive press given to Christopher Hitchens, and for damn good reason. He can still write when he wants to, and can occasionally amuse. Granted, MSNBC/Scarborough mockery is like shooting fish in a barrel, but that doesn’t mean mean we can’t appreciate standouts of the genre such as this.

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