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Oh, and that Other Thing…

[ 0 ] December 4, 2007 |

For the last two years, we have justified putting a missile defense system in Eastern Europe explicitly around the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. In addition to the extraordinary financial costs, this project has resulted in increased Russian hostility to the United States and to Russia’s neighbors. And are we now to believe that this expensive and unpopular system is justified by the need to protect Poland from Iranian ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads?

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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No Country…

[ 0 ] December 4, 2007 |

It’s not at all unusual for me to change my opinions of Coen brothers’ films on repeated viewings; I like The Big Lebowski and Intolerable Cruelty more each time I see them, while O’ Brother and Fargo have dropped (although not precipitously) with time. So with that caveat in hand, I’ll say that I liked No Country for Old Men more than Scott liked it.

It’s important at the outset to exclude the “but it was in the novel” defense; the Coens chose to make a movie from McCarthy’s weakest recent novel, and then chose to hold almost exactly to the text, so any flaws in the film can’t be blamed on the book. That said, I think what they’ve done is quite impressive, given that they managed to turn a mediocre novel into an outstanding film. Of course, a mediocre novel from one of the two or three best American novelists of his generation isn’t the same as, you know, a mediocre novel, but the point still stands; the Coens improved on the source material.

Scott and Roy didn’t care for the telling-but-not-showing elements of the film, including particularly the Tommy Lee Jones narration. I have more of a tolerance for this kind of thing (especially when it’s done well, and it can be done well or badly), so it didn’t bother me as much in the first place. In the second, I think that the telling-not-showing was part of the point. The Coens have experimented in number of films with unreliable narrators, from The Stranger in Big Lebowski to H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona. Tommy Lee Jones seemed to me to be part of that family; he has a limited grasp of what’s actually going on while at the same time conveying the image of the wise lawman. It’s not all that surprising that Jones is ineffectual, unable either to find the killer or to save the protagonist or his family. More important is the realization that Sheriff Ed Tom Bell experience isn’t novel, either; there’s nothing particularly new, important, or notable about what happens to him. This is an important part of the film; it runs counter to the “country’s going to hell in a handbasket” move that Ed Tom Bell wants to make, and contributes to the mythic quality of the landscape. It’s not just that I don’t think that telling-but-not-showing was the only way to make this point; I think that exposing the sheriff’s inability to do anything through his extended monologues was itself part of the point. And as Bell’s conversation with Deputy Ellis suggests, the strategy of making folksy commentary about events without actually affecting them in any way is in itself indicative of vanity.

But then again I love McCarthy, and my appreciation of Coen brothers films tends to vary over time, so it’s no certainty that I feel this way on a second viewing.

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What Would TR Have Done?

[ 33 ] December 4, 2007 |

So the British schoolteacher in Sudan — the teddy bear idolater — has been released and pardoned on charges of insulting Islam. Not having followed the case at all, I’m nevertheless delighted when the scales tip in favor of those undeservedly accused and convicted of violating bullshit laws.

All that aside, I think we can all be grateful that Thomas Smith, the National Review‘s house fabulist, wasn’t assigned to negotiate on behalf of Gillian Gibbons. Last week, Smith shook his fists in the air, hyperventilated about Sudan’s “insulting [of] the West,” and wished Teddy Roosevelt were alive to set things straight:

I can’t help but believe that if she had been an American — and Theodore Roosevelt (speaking of “Teddy Bears”) were alive today and in the White House — we would have dispatched a couple of warships to the Red Sea, threatened to land Marines, and flown jets low over Khartoum until she was released. And we wouldn’t have waited very long either.

Smith’s absurd declaration evidently drew huzzahs of approval from readers, including a Penn State professor of education who wrote that

I agree 100% with your take on what Teddy Roosevelt would have done with Sudan. The current British PM’s lightness of weight on this matter is unbearable. Had I been him, I would have notified the Sudanese that any harm brought to this woman would result in the loss of at least one mosque, preferably one filled with radical Islamist males.

Now, it’s not surprising that certain varieties of conservative would have man-crushes on Teddy Roosevelt. After all, he was a belligerent executive authoritarian whose dime-novel masculinity consisted mostly of shooting animals and complaining that he was surrounded by lady boys who lacked the will to get things done; he spent most of his presidency threatening other nations with war, yet he never had the prunes to initiate actual hostilities against anyone who might actually muster a defense; he detested Congress, and no more so when its members made any noises whatsoever about overseeing his foreign policy; he was a belated convert to the cause of women’s rights, a shift that came at the tail end of a life devoted to the proposition that women were little more than pods for the species; and he believed the evolution of white civilization required constant struggle against the barbarian hordes who lived beyond the borders and who — via loose immigration laws — threatened to spoil the nation from within.

So yes, in Smith’s hypothetical, Teddy Roosevelt probably would have howled madly about the savage African captivity of an Anglo-Saxon woman; he would have sprung wood at the thought of mustering and leading a rescue mission on her behalf; he would have scolded Gibbons herself for only breeding twice during her childbearing years; and he would have accused his peers of having eclairs for spines.

In other words, he would have fit in quite well at some of our finer outposts of electronic wingnuttery, and he would have sounded like a goddamned moron to boot.

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Fighting the Bad Fight

[ 4 ] December 4, 2007 |

We’ve all got to just face facts: we have lost the drug war. In a lengthy article in Rolling Stone, Ben Wallace-Wells tells us why. In short, after Escobar was killed, the US took its eyes off the ball, Clinton kicked out his academic and liberal “drug czar” and replaced him with a “tough” military man, and Bush ruined a good policy proposal with his swagger. And, well, here we are. A choice quote from the Rolling Stone article:

The real radicals of the War on Drugs are not the legalization
advocates, earnestly preaching from the fringes, but the bureaucrats
-the cops and judges and federal agents who are forced into a growing
acceptance that rendering a popular commodity illegal, and punishing
those who sell it and use it, has simply overwhelmed the capacity of

So given what we know, why is it that we are only inching — if that — toward implementing a more sensible drug policy? Yglesias and Brad Plumer are optimistic that change is on the way, modeled after successful pilot programs in several American cities. I’m not sure I’d be as hopeful as they are. Yglesias thinks that implementing drug policies that actually work (for once) might be politically popular. There’s definitely some truth to that, but a legislator (or executive) would have to get past all the “tough on crime” posturing to even get there.

If Hillary Clinton is any indication, the smart politicians — or at least the ones with smart people advising them — aren’t taking Matt’s advice just yet. Clinton said yesterday that she is against making the reductions in crack sentences retroactive. Admittedly this is not the same as saying she’s against some time-proven effective policing technique. But still. The five other Dems who appeared at the same forum in Iowa all favor retroactivity. Hillary talked a big game about getting rid of the crack-cocaine disparities in an earlier debate, but now she doesn’t think the disparity reduction is important enough to warrant retroactive application, even though thousands sit in prison serving what even she has acknowledged are unduly long sentences.

So we’re in dire need of new policy. And though there are some beacons of common sense in cities around the country, I’m not yet convinced that real change is ahead.

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The Beauchamp Retraction

[ 0 ] December 3, 2007 |

Franklin Foer has officially withdrawn his support for the reporting of Scott Beauchamp. I’m not terribly surprised with how this turned out, having thought from the beginning that the stories had a certain…Glassian quality about them. It still hasn’t been proven that Beauchamp has a Glass-like fabulist, but believing difficult-to-prove-or-disprove stories comes down to the reliability of the storyteller, and in this case it’s pretty clear that faith in his reliability isn’t warranted. The story probably shouldn’t have been printed, and it was also obviously a mistake to have his wife involved in fact-checking the article.

Having said this, I don’t see anything especially problematic with anything Foer did after questions were raised about the story. I think this passage is worthy of emphasis:

My colleagues and I placed calls throughout the military’s public affairs apparatus in Baghdad and Washington, hoping to set up back channels. We asked officials to provide us any conclusive evidence, even off the record, that would give us faith in the Army’s findings.

We never received this cooperation. But conservative bloggers who were fixated on this controversy–one arrived unannounced at TNR’s offices with a video camera, another later attempted to organize an advertiser boycott of the magazine–were treated differently. After we had posted an online statement explaining that we had been unable to communicate with Beauchamp–who, according to Reeve, was under orders not to speak with us–and pleading with the Army to make him available to us, General David Petraeus’s spokesman, Steven Boylan, told the Standard, “We are not preventing [Beauchamp] from speaking to TNR or anyone.” One of our editors called Boylan’s office on a near-daily basis to set up a phone call with Beauchamp; every time, they told us they were working on our request. After several weeks, we stopped hearing back from them. The Army later confirmed to us that it had, indeed, prevented Beauchamp from speaking.

If the Army has actually provided evidence to TNR that the stories were false, or were even allowing Beauchamp to speak freely, a great deal more of the criticism directed at Foer would be warranted. But that wasn’t the case. Given that Beauchamp wasn’t retracting his stories, and TNR was being prevented from effectively discerning their truth, Foer did the right thing in not saving himself by throwing his writer under the bus prematurely. (He’s also right, of course, that many of the arguments made against the article at the time were obviously specious.)

I also agree with Andrew Sullivanclaims that TNR published Beauchamp in the hope that the “piece would help turn people against those serving in the war” are beyond ludicrous. Leaving aside the fact that TNR‘s turn against the war has been pretty subtle — it doesn’t seem to involve supporting a withdrawal, for example — it doesn’t make any sense. First, if TNR wanted to publish a diarist who would undermine the war effort, publishing someone whose first story was about how a vicious militia cut out the tongue of a boy who was friendly with American troops seems like an odd choice. And secondly, nobody opposed the war because…American soldiers might make cruel remarks about a disfigured woman. I can understand why people defending the fiasco in Iraq want to make arguments about the valor or the troops rather than attempting to defend the war on its actual merits, but they really need to stop projecting.

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Another Reason Not To Shop At Balducci’s

[ 51 ] December 3, 2007 |

As if the high prices and the fact that I have the greenmarket and Chelsea Market nearby weren’t enough, they go and totally misunderstand a basic tenet of Jewish eating. Exhibit A:

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy a good ham ‘n’ cheese sandwich on my Jewish holiday.

(via Eater)

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It’s Your Fault For Not Having a Penis

[ 0 ] December 3, 2007 |

Via Ann, Megan Carpentier finds that the “Medicare program spent $450 each on about 47,000″ penis pumps, although “Medicaid (which serves low income Americans) only covers abortions in the case of rape, incest or the health of the mother.” Although an amusing tale of government waste — maintaining erections is a legitimate medical problem, but they overpaid by hundred of dollars each — as Carpentier suggests, this story has a serious point.

Given the recent death of Henry Hyde, allow me to point out again that the constitutionality of the Hyde Admendment is a much more difficult question than it might seem on first glance. It is true that Americans don’t have to right to health care spending per se, but this doesn’t end the dispute. As Justice Stevens noted in his dissent in Harris v. McRae — which upheld the Hyde Amendment — “When the sovereign provides a special benefit or a special protection for a class of persons, it must define the membership in the class by neutral criteria; it may not make special exceptions for reasons that are constitutionally insufficient.” To take an obvious example, Americans also don’t have the constitutional right to a state-funded education, but when the state provides one it cannot provide one to white people but not black people. And as the fact that the feds are willing to shell out for dick pumps at $450 a throw makes clear, abortions are not excluded from Medicaid funding for a legitimate neutral reason, such as the procedure being insufficiently important or too expensive. It can’t be because it’s too dangerous, because 1)an abortion performed by a trained professional is safer than carrying a pregnancy to term and 2)the Hyde Amendment makes the procurement of unsafe abortions more likely. The Hyde Amendment does not have a justification related to the criteria of the program; its sole purpose is to obstruct the exercise of a fundamental right.

This raises serious constitutional problems. And while reasonable people can disagree about whether the policy is arbitrary enough to be unconstitutional, it’s certainly arbitrary enough to be awful public policy.

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A Defeat For Autocracy

[ 25 ] December 3, 2007 |

Hugo Chavez’s referendum has apparently gone down to a narrow defeat. This is a good thing for reasons that Randy Paul explains here.

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Today’s Dose of Shameless Racism

[ 16 ] December 3, 2007 |

Based on the assurances of an anonymous “expert,” K-Lo reassures the world that Thomas Smith is off the hook because Arabs are filthy liars.

[W]e “should have provided readers with more context and caveats” – the context that Smith was operating in an uncertain environment where he couldn’t always be sure of what he was witnessing, and the caveats that he filled in the gaps by talking to sources within the Cedar Revolution movement and the Lebanese national-security apparatus, whose claims obviously should have been been treated with the same degree of skepticism as those of anyone with an agenda to advance.

As one of our sources put it: “The Arab tendency to lie and exaggerate about enemies is alive and well among pro-American Lebanese Christians as much as it is with the likes of Hamas.” While Smith vouches for his sources, we cannot independently verify what they told him. That’s why we’re revisiting the posts in question and warning readers to take them with a grain of salt.

Well, I suppose it’s something that she didn’t refer to them as “sneaky” or “sinister.” But as long as she’s performing due diligence, Lopez should also be aware of Will Saletan’s recent discovery that black people are dumb — something the National Review might want to consider the next time they receive something from Thomas Sowell.

On the brighter side of the ledger, I’m glad to hear Lopez is at last considering the possibility that sources — particularly those connected to various states interested in compliant press coverage — might be able to foist almost anything on journalists and idiot warbloggers alike.

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Solemn Announcement

[ 32 ] December 3, 2007 |

All of our efforts to convince Davida that she really could be doing a lot better having been in vain, it should be noted that Mr. Robert M. Farley is about to become the second married member of our collective. I will have the solemn responsibility of Best Man; I may or may not figure out what that entails in the next two weeks. Information about the pending nuptials in Washington D.C. can be found here.

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A Real Making-Shit-Up Renaissance Man

[ 24 ] December 3, 2007 |

The guy who filed fictions in the guise of reporting from Lebanon is also the author of the seminal The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Intelligent Design. Of course he is! The title is a little redundant, though.

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Things that don’t sound like helicopters

[ 36 ] December 2, 2007 |

Breast-feeding infants:

I’m pretty sure everything that can be said has been said in re: the suckiness of Day By Day, but good god. Has Chris Muir ever been around real humans?

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