Monthly Archives: June 2008

Two ways of looking at National security.

When asked if the President can break the law, presumably in the interests of National security, incumbent Attorney General Michael Mukasey answered: The president has “the authority to defend the country.”  

Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, declared that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

Both of these quotations, though I’d heard them before, were called to my mind by Senator Chris Dodd’s recent speech on the retroactive immunity bill, which even most of the Democrats are about to let slide.  I myself was a bit unsure about the bill before reading his speech — I’d been told before that the wiretapping had only gone on overseas (not true) and wondered if the telecom companies could really be held liable when the Justice Department assured them that the presidential injunctions were legal.  Well, turns out that if this bill is defeated, that is exactly what would be decided in our courts of law — the way legality is usually determined in this country, last time I checked.  The bill, however, would exonerate the telecoms behind closed doors, barring access to the case for ever and aye.  And, as far as I can tell, would essentially consist of the (Democratic) congress voting “yea” to legality being determined by executive fiat.

A good classicist or historian would know that the Roman Republic, aware of the need to balance security and liberty, had an “emergency dictator” position that could last for a set number of years in a crisis to ensure authority and military coordination, and then expire.  But Julius Caesar, citing the dangerous times, decided that the position would have to be lifelong, thereby ending some 500 years of liberty from tyrants.  No, I’m not saying that George W. Bush is Caesar or plans to extend his term for life.  But the constant harping of the executive branch and its neo-con allies that the war on terror is “unprecedented” and therefore necessitates extraordinary measures, is not unprecedented at all — it is terribly, regrettably, and frighteningly banal.

Now, on a lighter note: the top movie of this week, Get Smart, is absolutely hilarious and takes a fantastically lighthearted view of the workings of federal security agencies.  I went to see it because I’ll watch anything with Steve Carell in it, and because the trailer was really funny.  I wasn’t disappointed, and was placed in the awkward, but even more funny, position of cracking up by myself in a movie theater.  

Highlights included the Vice President boasting about his “new pacemaker,” the president falling asleep during the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and The Rock stapling a piece of paper to a coworker’s head.  It’s great — one of the few recent comedies I’ve seen with a screenplay that is more witty than sophomoric.  So, especially if you’re sick and tired of hearing pompous talk about National security, go and see this movie.  It’s an apt and not at all bitter satire …  

Excellent article on Iran (and some incidentals).

I cannot recommend this article highly enough.  Just the thought of our soldiers having to go into Iran the way they went into Iraq (except Iran is larger and more powerful) has been making me feel sick for a long time, and this article (written by a real Persian who has served as translator to several Iranian presidents) strikes me as a solid, thorough survey of the issue that is completely opposed to war.  Also a nice, oblique “thumbs up” to Obama’s willingness to engage in talks with these regimes, which I had a hunch was a good idea but this guy really gives some geo-political reasons and precedents for why it would be a good idea.  And perhaps best of all, a full deflation of the idea that anything besides the current Republican battle frenzy is “appeasement” (again, I knew this was ridiculous but Majd puts it well and concisely).

In other news, I was back to the Deli again after a bizarre four-day weekend.  I was actually impressed with the new manager, and being impressed with the Deli is not a common occurrence for me, I assure you.  I mean, my first manager was fairly effective but barely literate, writing down anguished commands like “FLUFF CHESE’S,” “ONLY PS MEATS GOSE IN HERE,” or “DOT CHUBS DAILY DOT DOT DOT.”  She had a photograph of Duane “The Rock” Johnson thumbtacked to the bulletin board in the back room with a note reading THIS PICTURE WAS GIVING TO ME.  DO NOT TAKE DOWN.  I’ve wondered, from time to time, exactly what it had been giving to her, and when and why it stopped.  The second manager, a sweet and personable lady, was probably a humanities major at some time, judging by her utter lack of administrative skills.  I feel her pain.  She’s managing a Starbucks somewhere now, which is good, because she used to spend a lot of time drawing the Starbucks chalk advertisement signs (quite aesthetically, I must say) when she was supposed to be, I guess, ordering chicken (we were always out).

But now, under the current regime, we seem to be enjoying a Pax Meyera the likes of which I’ve never known before.  Things are stocked up.  Broken things are sometimes replaced.  Our manager wants us to work out our duties among ourselves at night instead of relying on the confusing, often hidden, often illiterate, “tour sheet” (no more “YOU!  Why didn’t YOU chisel the blood off this drain flume?  It was ON the TOUR SHEET!” business).

And and and.  Salman Rushdie’s new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, is magnificent so far.  I bet the luminous Padma Lakshmi would have stayed with him if she had read this book (probably a lie: no doubt the man is a total pain to live with, and probably the research he did on this book made it even more so  And she’s like six inches taller than him.  Poor guy).  Anyway, let’s just say that my tendency toward hero-worship is welling up once again, and the absence I’ve felt from him since Senior Novel days has only, as the adage says, made the literary heart grow fonder.  Go buy it.  Now.

May I recommend …

I just read Barack Obama’s Father’s Day speech, and it is quite good.  Liberals, in their quite just desire to see the end of repressive social pressures and cultural norms, can sometimes overlook the fact that we humans are both determined and free, that there is nature as well as nurture, that sometimes your troubles really are your own fault.  Obama clearly shows himself here as a true centrist: he completely avoids this potential liberal blind spot, urging fathers (in this case) to cowboy up and be there for their families, something that conservatives have been (also justly) calling for for decades.  But neither does he assume that all problems are just the business of those who have them, resorting to the conservative default that personal problems should lie well under the radar of the general polity and be cured by some mysterious updraft of capital.  Here’s a nice quote that sort of sums up this truly bi-partisan (or a-partisan) oration:

Yes, we need more cops on the street. Yes, we need fewer guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. Yes, we need more money for our schools, and more outstanding teachers in the classroom, and more afterschool programs for our children. Yes, we need more jobs and more job training and more opportunity in our communities. 

But we also need families to raise our children. We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child – it’s the courage to raise one. 

Not bad, eh?  I really recommend the whole text.  It seems to be aimed exactly at the point where red and blue states intersect, and not in an insincere or bet-hedging way.  I keep liking this guy more and more.

An inconvenient movie?

Well, despite the ghastly reviews, I went to see The Happening, the sixth feature by thriller director / guru wannabe M. Night Shyamalan.  Last time I gave him the benefit of the doubt, contra the critics, I was horribly disappointed by the stilted, weird, anti-climactic Lady in the Water.  So let’s just say that my expectations weren’t very high at all.  

Actually, though, it wasn’t so bad after all, at least not to me; then again, I don’t have very exacting requirements for much “plot” in the movies I enjoy, and I think the lack of dense plotting and a “twist” were part of what irked critics most.  So don’t trust me, necessarily, unless you enjoy the sorts of things that I do.

For me, the best part of Shyamalan’s films has usually been the shooting: he’s willing to give long, patient shots that build suspense slowly, in a kind of Hitchcockian way, something most MTV-generation directors simply don’t have the attention spans to pull off.  For this feature, he teams up again with long-term collaborator Tak Fujimoto, and once again, most of the shots are classy and suspenseful, in a sort of art-horror way that I like.  However, the death of one character is blatantly foreshadowed by means of a cheap slow-mo shot of him driving away in a car that is worthy of a 1980s sentimental music video.  Most unfortunate, but it was the only major technical gaffe I noticed.

I may be wrong, but I think that the acting problems that some critics noticed are mostly script problems — Shyamalan writes all of his own movies, which has worked for some, but in this director’s case, not so much.  It’s as though he doesn’t stop to think about how people really talk, instead focusing on the “message” he wants to get across.  So there always has to be a big “conversation” (“Do you believe in … signs?”) in which someone ponderously just happens to start discussing spirituality, the unknown … you know, a more intimidating Eckhart Tolle or something.  This time, it’s a high-school student talking about forces of nature that will never be explained, which in a movie with the most vague title since 1982’s The Thing, is all too predictable.

So if Zooey Deschanel does little more than act confused throughout the whole movie, it’s at least partly the stilted script’s fault.  She also does the Mel Gibson “let me open my eyes as widely as possible for dramatic effect” thing (viz. Gibson’s Hamlet) — but let’s face it, her eyes are objectively a lot cuter than Mel Gibson’s.  Mark Wahlberg, who is becoming one of my favorite actors, is more than adequate as a leading man, but is also sort of forced into just “acting confused” for a lot of the time.  Maybe just a horror film convention (“Oh my god, where is it?  I think it’s in the … bushes!).  They both shine, though, in the few humorous moments and the “we’re gonna die so let’s renew our flagging love for each other through a speaking tube” scene.  Better than it sounds on paper.

Enough of that.  A lot has been made of the first R-rating this director has garnered, but I’m not sure what the big deal is.  Yes, there are a few gruesome suicides.  But they’re only shown for a few seconds each and are absolutely nothing on anything in, say, the work of Tarantino.  It’s a horror movie, guys.  

And then the inevitable brouhaha about environmentalism.  Again, I’m not sure why this is a big deal.  Wasn’t there a big global-warming blockbuster just a few years back?  And then Al Gore’s really quite excellent An Inconvenient Truth got an Oscar, something that the Shyamalan thriller is certainly not going to do.  It seems like a rather small blip on the climate-change radar screen.  And although the idea is seems rather silly to me — plants have been lying down and taking it from us for centuries, and no doubt will continue to do so — a movie in which plants get their comeuppance seems pretty timely to me, actually, and that counts whether you’re a climate-change believer or not.  Even the most fundamentalist conservative can’t really think that blacktopping the planet and belching smoke into the formerly blue sky is actually what was intended, by God or nature.

So basically, go and see it if you’re bored.  I give the whole package a B-, and advise Shyamalan to come see me in the writing center before attempting any more “naturalistic” dialogue …

Deli tales: — in which I give a man the gift of pants.

Why do I do it?  Why do I go back?  Am I that devoted to the luchre of this world?

Only a few things have changed: pizza is no longer sold all day, but is a lunch-exclusive.  The rotisserie is no longer self-cleaning.  (For those of you who don’t know: this is the fifth summer I’ve come back to work at the Deli of the local Fred Meyer [Kroger]).  But otherwise, all is well with the world of the deli, if “well” is the right adjective for a sort of combination of an oil derrick and a crematorium.

Needless to say, I’m not quite “on the ball,” because obviously I try not to think about work any more than I have to when otherwise occupied, say by graduate school.  It took me a while to remember the old routines, especially since the old role known as “pre-closer” has been replaced by something different, something that involves cleaning a row of four stainless-steel machines, each of which smells like flesh-smoke, simmering blubber, and dry-rub spices.  One of my co-workers helpfully showed me a super-cleanser today that will just “melt off that gunk,” provided I was not “afraid of getting a few chemical burns now and again.”  No, silly – who would be afraid of that?

So, played any good video games lately?  This is the usual salutation of one “Abraham” (not his real name) who works at the U-Scan cash register.  I’ve never claimed to be a gamer, because I’m not.  It would just be bad form.  But he keeps asking.  “Um, no,” I replied, trying to think of how to keep the conversation afloat.  “Too busy with school?” Abraham inquires, since apparently that is the only excuse for not plugging in to WoW for seventeen hours a day.  “Just trying to stay out of trouble,” I respond, apropos of nothing, and swipe my timecard.  

Yesterday I lost control of a big vat of Apricot Barbecue sauce.  I almost had it in its little cubbyhole when the unconquerable greasiness of the place took command and the thing flipped out of my hand, laid down a flat trail of sticky sauce, and then leapt into the air just in time to slime the entire pants-leg of my colleague, “Andreas.”  It was epic, tragic. comic.  They were so thoroughly ensconced in the viscid gunk that I had no choice but to buy the man a new pair of pants.  At least I got the employee discount.

I have a theory.  There is one thing that people want.  Yes, people have started wars over women and given their lives for money; but there is one thing that trumps all the rest.  What is it?  Ranch.  People freak out even before I have time to ask if they want ranch — “OH SWEET LORD DO YOU HAVE RANCH PLEASE TELL ME YOU HAVE RANCH AND NOT JUST ONE AT LEAST TWO OR THREE CUPS PLEASE GOD SAY YES –”  I’d like to conduct an experiment, one in which a person has to, say, administer an electrical shock to a puppy to get a cup of ranch for his or her extremely dry jo-jo potato wedges.  How far would they go?  How many would they kill?  My guess is that, considering the enthusiasm shown, all the furry creatures of the world would have to pay before the wife-beater crowd could be satisfied.

More to come as it appears, plus some more anecdotes of gaming from co-workers …

Academe vs. the Philistines of competition.

Today I found the latest issue of National Review (June 16 2008) on the dining room table, open to an article by John Hood called “Against the Cartel: How to reform higher education.”  The article certainly has some good points, particularly making a contribution to the fascinating debate of whether too many people are going to college: I don’t like to think that, because I have known people who were not instinctively intellectual who benefitted tremendously.  But just as much have I known students who didn’t even know why they were in the academy, when their only aspirations were to open a bakery, apprentice to a master carpenter, etc.  I agree with Hood that society shouldn’t ram these students into the four-year degree system, if they don’t want to go.

However: though Hood himself has a nice, clear prose style, undoubtedly thanks to his journalism degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the entire tone of his article denigrates the liberal arts and social sciences that “do little but restate the obvious and recycle the devious.”  Ouch.  As if we aren’t challenged enough by the daunting publishing industry to produce something “original,” now we’re both stupid and evil.  Funding these hooligans, he argues, is patently unconstitutional, despite the fact that the very founders of this country, with whose “original intent” we are to mystically commune, provided for federally funded public education in the Northwest Ordinance all the way back in 1787.  Oh wait, there is one exeption: 

The federal government does have a proper, constitutional, and likely indispensable role in funding some of the hard sciences, which often have national-security applications.  Conservatives need to push the government’s education policy in the right direction, rather than try to eliminate it altogether.

Seriously?  So the only reason the government would ever send out a grant for higher education, and I mean ever, would be to foster the creation of new military technologies?  Because it was my belief that the academy generally a). eschewed the merely pragmatic, b). democratically questioned the policies of government, and c). promoted humanitarian causes.  But military technology, though it’s a necessary evil, is a). 100% pragmatic and cannot participate in the aesthetic, b). is wholly created to serve the government’s most frightening power, and c). kills, maims, mutilates, and poisons.  Only a neoconservative would want campuses to be crawling with nationally funded “counterterrorism strategists” and missile technicians.  While we’re at it, why don’t we just replace a few “devious” ivory towers with columns of Cruise missiles?  At least the horrid, politically correct, gay-loving professors can’t kill anybody.  Sheesh.

Here’s another quotation from Hood, who remember has a journalism degree:

By weakening the connection between colleges and their consumers, subsidies enable much of the propaganda, political theater, and pseudo-intellectual twaddle that pervade American higher education today.  Private dollars tend to flow to the hard sciences, business programs, and other disciplines where practicalities militate against political bias.  Public dollars become handy resources to finance academic preening and political activism.

He’s not entirely wrong, you know — competition does favor the “practicalities” in higher education just as much as in other sectors.  Note to fiscal conservatives: just because people want to pay for it doesn’t make it right.  Otherwise, the Nintendo Wii would have to be judged superior to Salman Rushdie’s fiction.  And that, my friends, is a nightmare world.  Obviously, I’m not going to be tyrannical the other way and advocate the end of practical disciplines.  I’m aware that, at least in our current rat-race of a market society, these fields will always be better funded than mine.  All I’m asking is to survive, to have a chance to laugh at young national security specialists walking the hallowed corridors of the Halliburton Cheney WalMart Center for Counterterrorism from the dilapidated window of the Oliver H. Nobody Hasn’t-Been-Renovated-Since-1952 English building.  I just don’t want to be destroyed by zealous market-obsessed bottom-line-fanatics who find me irrelevant or downright evil.

One final word about the “tenured radicals” that Hood would like to drive out with the purifying whips of market dollars: I’ve known a lot of English professors, both at the universities I’ve attended and ones I’ve heard as guest speakers or at conferences, and plenty from departments like history, theology, political science, etc., and not a single one of them (even the most liberal) entered the department as a cloak for a sinister political agenda.  They enter because they love what they do.  If politics tend to follow that, it’s probably because these fields cannot help, by their very impractical nature, but eschew bottom-line thinking and focus on the “human” and “cultural” things that can bring us together.  Perhaps at the expense of super-efficient missile production.  Oops.

Please leave a comment detailing your financial portfolio.

Apparently, this is what anyone who aspires to be a political leader has to do now.  Mickey Kaus, of Kausfiles (available on Slate.com) just wrote a piece about the head of Barack Obama’s committee to search for a running mate, Jim Johnson, and his purported underhanded pecuniary shenanigans.  Now, I don’t know much about Johnson and feel no pressing motive for learning about someone who will presumably disappear as soon as the veep is anointed.  But Kaus’s view, that this fellow is a “palaeoliberal” and not at all the sort to remake politics as we know it, might have some validity to it.  Granted.

Objections, though:

a). Participation in rampant, sudden, trendy, overwhelming, utterly ubiquitous use of the verb “to vet.”  Where I come from, a “vet” is a doctor for animals, not some kind of hazing or trial by ordeal, presumably conducted by media moguls and/or “the American people.”  The uses of this odious little verb, and the origins of its trendiness, seriously need to be vetted by means of a LexisNexis analysis.

b). For the love of God, how much do you actually know about your friends’ finances??  Last time you sat down for a beer or a cup of joe with a friend or two, did you vet (argh) him or her about possible misuse of their comapnies’ stock?  About questionable benefits packages?  About whether they, in turn, might be friends with somebody who has an Italian last name who is connected to someone in the Mob?

No, I doubt it.  The most I can tell you about my friends’ finances is who can lend me cash if I need it, and whom I lend cash to when they need it.  Probably some of them have gotten some dubious funds, or will once they enter the reeling, chaotic world of fiduciary blah blah blah.  Do I care?  Really, no.  Unless somebody claps me on the shoulder and asks in a seductive whisper if I could help him route some funds through the Federal Bank of Tanganiyka, I’m not even going to think about your finances.

The point is, these things only come to light during major public campaigns.  With good reason: if one of our candidates were rotten to the core, well, I’d want to know about it before voting.  But if one of them shook hands with a man who knew Fidel Castro in the sixties?  Big freakin’ deal.  I don’t even mean this as a defense of Barack Obama.  Just a sort of private and absurd wish that people would act like grownups despite the election season instead of ransacking the closets of the most insignificant aides and flunkies in search of skeletons and copy.