Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

So I saw Inglorious Basterds, because when Quentin Tarantino makes a good movie, it's hard to ignore it, because it's probably a damn good movie. Tarantino may be the only person in Hollywood who enjoys his own insecurities. Fortunately for the rest of us, his talent - and ego - are greater than his nervous tics and personality quirks, so he can actually channel his bizarre obsessions in artistically productive ways. It's also quite helpful that his tendency towards self-indulgence is matched by a dedication to the craft of filmmaking. And it doesn't hurt that he's supported by a studio executive - Harvey Weinstein - with just about the same level of talent, ego, insecurities, and dedication to the craft.

Watching Inglorious Basterds, you get the feeling that Quentin Tarantino wakes up on the wrong side of ridiculous a little more than is really healthy. But you also get the feeling that one thing that pulls him back to the sublime is his technical brilliance, and his extraordinary command of pure technique. The cinematography particularly stands out. Much as I admire most of Pulp Fiction, I found the camera work uninspired. Not so here; Tarantino knows exactly how and when to take risks, and then pulls them off. There's not really anything flashy; it is simply superb. The same can be said of the performances. There is already much discussion of an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Waltz as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa. He's certainly my favorite so far this year. I'm reminded of that old saying that the devil can be charming, and he almost makes you forget Hannah Ahrendt's observation that evil is banal. Until Tarantino cuts to shots of Hitler.

Brad Pitt won't be getting an Oscar nom, but only because he chose to deliberately go way over the top as Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of the Basterds. This is one of Tarantino's riskiest bets, and it mostly pays off, but it definitely inches the film towards the absurd.

But then almost every other performance drags it back to wonderful. Melanie Laurent is a marvel as Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jew who runs a cinema in Paris. Diane Kruger shines as a German movie star. Tarantino's Promethean confidence in himself does wonders for his performers. His confidence is justified in part because he's providing them with the verbiage. One reason Brad Pitt can pull off a Tennessee accent that makes Bo and Luke Duke sound like Yankee frat boys is that he's interrogating German prisoners through the pen of Quentin Tarantino. It's not quite as memorable as Samuel L. Jackson's discourse on foot massages - which is one reason he's a movie star today - but it's still in the context of a Tarantino script.

Unfortunately for me, it's a little too much of a Quentin Tarantino script. What would a Tarantino script be without constant violence, highly choreographed gunfire, bodies everywhere? A more interesting movie, would be my guess. It's very tempting to analyze and criticize and comment and scrutinize and debate whatever message is in the movie, but I'm going to resist, not least because I don't think Tarantino himself really cares that much about a message. He's still having too much fun impressing himself and us.

Sitting in a bar afterwards, drinking a blueberry martini, I said to Peter, the friend that I had seen it with, "I'll be really impressed with Quentin Tarantino when he grows up." "But he never will," said Peter. Which with I could not help but agree.

Tarantino's technical ability as a filmmaker has progressed dramatically. He was always a brilliant writer, and he is now a craftsman of the highest order. But he is still too clever for his own good. I judge movies by their endings; whether or not everything comes together is the test, for me, of whether or not the director has had a clue what s/he is doing all along. The ending left me a little cold; the revenge fantasy felt too self-indulgent.

I can think of two reasons why Quentin Tarantino should ultimately grow up. One, because he will eventually be able to make the best movie that he possibly can, which I don't think he has done yet, and two, because then he might have a chance of winning the Oscar for Best Director.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Difficult Hero: Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

I will miss Ted Kennedy. I will miss him for many reason; his leadership on so many good liberal causes, his support of Obama, his example of lifelong dedication to public service.

But Kennedy was a man of contradictions, some of which he only really resolved late in life, and those made him a difficult hero. He was a rich populist; a politician who fought for "the people," he was never really one of them. Born into high expectations, he achieved what few other Americans ever have, a status of legend, but he never reached his highest goal, the presidency. An eloquent and passionate speaker, in almost any other family in history he would be renowned as a great orator; but compared to his brothers, he was merely excellent; there are no great quotes from him that are embedded in the American cultural consciousness.

His family embodied the idea that with great power comes great responsibility; he, John, and Robert all accepted the burden of great responsibility. But the same family also seemed to believe that the same power granted rights and privileges that normal people did not have. In this sense they avoided responsibility. If they accepted responsibility in the political realm, they seemed to feel they could avoid it in the personal realm, giving themselves license to behave erratically, licentiously. If they worked hard, they seemed to think, then they were to be excused if they played hard, as well.

Ted Kennedy lived long enough that the vices he shared with his brothers - in his case, wine and women - caught up with him in a way that it never did with John or Bobby, but only, in their cases, because they, tragically, did not live long enough. We will never know if John's dalliances would have ever become a scandal; probably not. My grandfather, a conservative Republican, used to say that the only difference between LBJ and Nixon was that Nixon got caught. That was a crucial difference between Teddy and his brothers; he got caught.

But the most important difference was that he lived long enough to outgrow the burdens, expectations, and demons that he inherited with his name and his wealth. He was never as charming as John or Bobby, despite his intellect, political instincts, and oratorical abilities. But by acknowledging his limitations, i.e. that he would, at best, only be a senator, never president, he embraced his own abilities, and became a master of his domain like few others in history.

The ability to craft legislation is a difficult skill for the populace to appreciate, not least because it is hidden so well from even the most attentive eyes. We know more about what goes on in Congress today, with constantly updating blogs, but that also builds our sense of frustration, since we can witness the legislative process, but we are limited in our ability to influence it. So we must trust those who are so intimately involved with it.

Among all the accolades to Kennedy there runs a constant stream of testimony to his ability to shape legislation. That's great and wonderful, but I have to take it on faith. I can't see direct evidence of that, like I can see a home run being smashed, or like I can watch a great performance by an actress onscreen. I can see the results of the legislation after it has passed, but it takes a fair amount of effort and attention to detail to make the connection. Until all the eulogies, I doubt I could have listed any of Kennedy's signature legislative achievements.

But if I take evidence of Kennedy's great legislative ability on faith, it is a variation on my faith in American democracy itself. Which is both constantly being tested and constantly being rewarded. Damn those Founding Fathers; why did they have to make democracy such hard work? Couldn't they have made it easy? Of course not; democracy is no easier or harder than simply living on planet earth. Ted Kennedy knew how to get the most out of democracy as he knew how to get the most out of life. It's not a facile comparison; it is at the core of who he was.

Ted Kennedy was a man who inherited from his older brothers a tradition of soaring rhetoric, but learned how and why to sweat the details of American democracy. Then he learned how to sweat the details of the details, and then to connect those details to the big picture. He was born to wealth and privilege, and enjoyed it for himself, but worked much harder than he had to for people who had so much less than he did. He was a Harvard-educated, old-fashioned northeastern liberal intellectual when that was in style, and then when it went out of style. Then he survived long enough to see another Harvard-educated liberal intellectual become president.

He was a flawed man in a flawed system. If he achieved any kind of redemption, it was because that is possible in our system. Our failures as a country are a source of our guilt, but our successes as a country are a source of our salvation. And the same is true of our failures and successes as individuals. Ted Kennedy had sources of guilt in his personal life, but he found redemption in his political life.

He was a man capable of changing himself and a man who changed the country, working in a system that simultaneously creates opportunities for reform and demands respect for tradition.

I will miss Ted Kennedy, now most of all, when his goal of universal health care is so close, and his skills are so urgently needed. Conservatives will miss him, since they are now short one iconic liberal bogeyman for their scare-tactic fundraising letters. Too bad for them!

To borrow one of his brother's great phrases, when Ted Kennedy passed the torch to a new generation, he could be justly proud that he had kept it burning so well for so long.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Healthcare Reform: The End Game Begins

The healthcare reform debate has been going for a long time. Months in this Congress, years in the country at large. Negotiations are ongoing in the Senate Finance Committee, among the so-called "Gang of Six." President Obama is starting to get frustrated, and may go it alone, i.e. pass a bill without Republican support. That might be difficult, but it's possible.

Some liberals, progressives, and Democrats are nervous. Some aren't. I'm in the "not that worried" camp.

What we are watching now is equal parts flash and substance. There are strong, profound philosophical difference motivating the parties, and those differences are particularly pronounced in this debate. Government vs. free market; communal concern vs. individual rights; profit motive vs. co-ops and the "public option." Some of these are simply irreconcilable differences that come down to contrary worldviews. People like Max Baucus and Charles Grassley are trying to bridge those differences, but that is hard work.

But we are also watching a great deal of the politics, and the politics is far more interesting and obvious than the policy. For some of us, it's a game, and it's fun. Who's up, who's down, who has the better strategy, who made what mistakes?

But the politics are also far less inspiring, and far more discouraging. We are seeing compromise and gamesmanship. Most importantly, we are watching a few very powerful people bluffing.

Obama holds most of the cards, and the Republicans know it. He can pass some kind of health care reform without them; he can also pass some kind of healthcare reform with them. They, of course, want to force Obama to pass a healthcare reform with them. They want to do that because it will weaken him politically, partially by pissing off his base, but also because they honestly want some things in this bill.

What the Republicans don't know, and what terrifies them, is how Obama is going to play the end game. He is still a popular president. He is still an incredible and inspiring speaker. He is still a very charismatic leader. He has a great organization out there in the country drumming up support, gathering signatures. He still has many allies in Congress with their own organizations and teams out there fighting for their versions of the bill.

What really and truly terrifies the Republicans, so much so that many of them don't even realize it, is that they don't know which of their political weapons is going to work against Obama. They've dropped their biggest bombs, they've thrown as much mud as they can. The "death panel" claim is easily their most serious charge - the government is not only not going to help you, it's going to kill you? Some people believe that. But Democrats are not giving up fighting against it, and eventually they will win on that issue. Eventually the idea that the government is sponsoring "death panels" will be ridiculed as an absurd, extremist idea, because that's what it is.

Democrats did not take the "birther" mania seriously for a long time, but now they have spent some time and energy fighting it, and Orly Taitz was exposed as a flake and a crank.

Through all of this, Obama has looked calm and cool and collected, like he always does. Some people mistake that for lack of strategy, or aloofness, or lack of fighting spirit. But that's only in contrast to the previous administration, which worked by conniving, bullying, and subterfuge. Obama is playing it somewhat straight, because that's the way he is. He is making the strongest argument he can for the best bill he thinks he can get through Congress. Obama's problem, of course, is that he doesn't know what the best bill is that he can get through Congress.

I think Obama is going to surprise - and terrify even more - the Republicans in Congress by playing hardball at the end. He will rally the troops, like only he can. He will claim that he has been patient with Republicans, that he has listened to their concerns, that he has tried very hard to work with them, but that now is the time for decisions to be made. "Now is the time!" Imagine Obama leading a crowd with that rallying cry.

One of Obama's greatest weapons is the GOP failure to solve this problem for so many years. The absolutely last thing any Republicans want is to be reminded of is the squandered opportunities of the Bush years. Republicans do not want to be held accountable for the failures of Bush, but Obama is in a position to do exactly that. All he has to do is call the Republicans obstructionists who never offer solutions, even when they have the opportunity and the power. Obama's reputation for bipartisanship will come in very handy, because he will come across as a reluctant partisan warrior. He would much rather prefer to work with Republicans, but if he has to go it alone, so be it.

Obama is very different from the Republicans in one key respect: Obama is not afraid of his base. Obama may not agree with the Kossacks on everything, but he is perfectly comfortable using their energy and their talents. When the time comes, he will rally those troops. And he will not have to worry about whether or not rallying the base will alienate middle America. The Republicans, on the other hand, have to be scared to death of rallying their base, because they cannot control their base, and the followers of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin have the potential to seriously alienate independents and the few moderate Republicans left.

So the end game begins. It's not quite a rope-a-dope; Obama is not feigning weakness. But neither is he telegraphing his strategy. Nor has he started deploying all of the weapons in his arsenal. He is keeping extraordinary strengths in reserve.

He can keep those strengths and those weapons in reserve because he is not afraid to use them. He is patient because he knows that he will know when to start the fight. He will know when to move. And then he will move very, very decisively, and very quickly. And that has the Republicans very, very afraid.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Whale Watching in Santa Barbara

I'm posting this just for fun. The LA Times has an article about whale watching off the Santa Barbara coast. Apparently this is a particularly good year for whale watching, because the humpback and blue whales are here at the same time, which is unusual. Also, krill are close to the surface, so the whales can be seen opening their mouths and scooping up a bunch of krill.

I'm also posting this as part of my campaign to reward the LA Times when it does something right, particularly on its Website. There's a good video associated with the story. I've been critical of the LA Times for not doing enough with video on its Website - hello, this is the filmed entertainment capital of the world - but this time, they got it right. It's a very good video, basically a mini-documentary. Good job, LA Times. I'm not even going to post it on this Website, I am going to encourage readers to actually click on the link above and watch it at

Lutherans Allow Gay and Lesbian Priests

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which I am a member, voted today to allow congregations to choose priests who are gay.

Way to go, Lutherans!

I'm a member of my Church Council, and attended a Synod Assembly in June, so I know how intense the debate over this is in the church. Conservatives are very upset about it, but liberals are thrilled. The church will undoubtedly lose some members over this, which is very unfortunate. There will be something of a schism.

But the far more important fact is that a very old wound has been healed, and much pain can now be put behind us. We aren't completely there yet: the ELCA still does not recognize gay marriages. But we can now say: Welcome one step closer to the center of the church, gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

Quote of the day

"[T]here's only one list of filmmakers more prestigious than the list of the filmmakers who've won the Palme d'Or, and that's the list of directors who haven't."

-Quentin Tarantino, who won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for Pulp Fiction.

Finally, Some Substance on Health Care

It has taken a while, but we finally have some substantive discussions going on about health care. A real, honest-to-goodness Canadian writes in The Denver Post about the differences between the US and Canadian health care systems (thanks to my Uncle Lenny for forwarding it to me). Bottom line: Canada spends less money for better health. She takes apart all of the myths about the Canadian system. My response is simple: ADT (About Damn Time). Most of the stories and myths about Canadian health care that I've heard are strictly anecdotal, the "I heard about this one guy who came to America because he couldn't get the surgery that he needed in Canada" variety. So it's nice to see some myths debunked.

Of course, many conservatives will dismiss this out of hand, but it will also give liberals more ammunition, make them more confident, and maybe even convince a few independents. Probably the strongest point in the piece is the one about doctors not needing any kind of pre-authorization to practice the medicine that they think is appropriate.

I have a question for conservatives about health care in Canada. Supposedly lots of Canadians are unhappy about health care in Canada, and they are coming to the United States. Where exactly are all these Canadian? Presumably they're coming across the border to Seattle, Detroit, Buffalo, and other border cities. Can we please get some statistics from conservatives proving that Canadians are coming to the US en masse for health care? Because if we can't get those statistics, I'm going to call it a myth.

Next, Patrick Appel, who is performing quite ably in the absence of his boss, Andrew Sullivan, writes a superb post about malpractice insurance and tort reform. This is another bogeyman of the right, largely derived from anecdotal evidence: there are too many frivolous lawsuits from ambulance-chasing lawyers, and the result of all those lawsuits is that malpractice insurance rates are going through the roof, which drives up health care costs. Maybe not so much.
Malpractice payments account for less than 1% of the nation's health care costs each year. Since 1987 medical malpractice insurance costs have risen just 52% despite the fact that medical costs have increased 113%. The size of malpractice damage awards has remained steady since 1991. Adjusted for inflation, the average malpractice payment has actually decreased since then. The number of payments for malpractice judgments of $1 million or more has never exceeded one-half of one percent of the annual total number of malpractice payments dating back to 1991.
The specific subject of the post is tort reform in Texas, which was supposed to solve the problem by limiting the size of malpractice awards. It hasn't, and there hasn't been the promised reduction in health care costs. The basic idea, which we also have in California, is that certain awards for damages in these suits are limited. The idea is that if the insurance company only pays out $250,000, instead of $5 million, malpractice premiums will decline. It hasn't worked out that way. The unintended consequence is that it is now more difficult for some patients to sue, because it's not worth it for the lawyers to sue, since there is a cap on how much money they can make.

I've always thot that the solution to absurdly high malpractice awards is to implement a better solution for disciplining doctors. Appel quotes a reader who wrote in with stats about how many doctors are disciplined. It's not much. Physician, heal thyself.

We owe Sarah Palin and the other wackjobs on the right a big thank you, because their ranting and raving have finally brought these arguments out of the woodwork. Rationality will eventually prevail, but it takes longer to deploy calmly constructed arguments than it does to throw out insane lies and bizarre innuendo. Palin, Glenn Beck, et al. have a slight advantage in this debate in terms of timing, because it takes them no time whatsoever to make something up and throw it out into the public discourse. Liberals, on the other hand, have to take the time to actually think and research and write. Fortunately, liberal arguments end up being much more persuasive, at least to people willing to listen to them.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where Were the Tea-Baggers During Bush?

Wendy Kaminer at The Atlantic asks a good question: "What Constitutes A Police State?" Lots of the people protesting against Obama are making the bizarre and absurd claims that he is trying to impose some kind of a police state. This would be laughable if there weren't so many of these people, and they weren't so serious. The fact that many of them are carrying guns is also a little worrisome.

But where were these people during the Bush administration?
Driving civil libertarians crazy is probably not a goal of this month's town hall protesters, but it may be one of their signal achievements. Having openly applauded, tacitly supported, or simply ignored the Bush/Cheney national security state and the unprecedented expansion of unaccountable executive power, the right wing now defends freedom against the spectre (and it is only a spectre) of universal health care?
Of course, the real threat from Obama is that he might affect their God-given right to all the health care they can get, and their right to buy and keep all the guns that they want.
How do the town hall protests define repression? Apparently it comprises any government regulation perceived as a threat to any constitutional right or federally mandated benefit that the protesters enjoy.
All of this is fairly obvious to me, but it's nice to see it all put together in one piece.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

That's How It's Done

Barney Frank is my hero of the day. I've always admired the fact that he is perfectly willing to use his superior intellect and encyclopedic knowledge of politics, process, and policy to just dismantle his opponents. He understands that sometimes politics is about listening, engaging your opponents, and compromise, and sometimes it is just about beating them. I'm a big fan of respectfully participating in civil dialogue, and I have been disappointed on countless occasions by my fellow liberals' refusal or inability to thoughtfully consider conservative or Republican arguments.

But there are limits to how long you can keep turning the other cheek when the other side insists on slapping you in the face. There is a time to disagree without being disagreeable. Conservatives doe not consider this to be one of those moments. So liberals are starting to recognize that there is a moment to be dismissive and argumentative, and this is one of those moments. There is a time to listen, and there is a time for flat-out ridicule. This is a time to be harsh, and call idiots what they are.

Obama himself is, as always, calm, cool, collected, and rational. I still think there are lots of Republicans and conservatives who are worth listening to, and who are capable of responding with intelligence and grace. But the inmates have taken over the asylum, and demagogues are framing the debate on the other side.

This is how it's done:

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Assholes and Idiots Theory Redux

For my 1,000th post, I wrote about something I like to call the "Assholes and Idiots Theory." The original post is a little long, so I thot I would provide a condensed version.

The Assholes and Idiots Theory is quite simple, and says that in every political party, movement, coalition, or sufficiently large organization, there are a certain number of assholes and idiots, and that one of the duties of the leaders of that party/movement/organization is to contain the assholes and idiots. The Assholes and Idiots Theory makes no distinction as to ideology; there are just as likely to be assholes and idiots on the left as on the right.

Assholes are people who believe that they have the right to impose their will on other people, regardless of how those people feel about it. Assholes tend to be addicted to anger; they're usually furious about something. They also tend to blur ethical or legal lines when trying to impose their will. One reason that there seems to be so much anger on the right now is that the last administration completely failed to contain either the assholes or idiots. Of course, the reason why is not hard to figure out: Bush & Cheney didn't contain the assholes or idiots in the GOP because, of course, they were both. They didn't just not contain the assholes and idiots: they appointed them.

Idiots are people who believe that they are smarter than reality, and that their ideas about how the world should work are absolutely right, whether or not there is any empirical evidence to support it, and even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Assholes and idiots tend to oppose compromise. This does not mean that people who oppose compromise are automatically either assholes or idiots; far from it. There are often very good reasons of principle and policy to oppose compromise on specific issues. The trick for leaders is knowing when people are opposing compromise out of principle or for good reason, and when they are doing so because they are either assholes or idiots.

People who are assholes and/or idiots will almost never admit to it. Which is why containing them is so difficult, but also why it is so important.

There are several strategies leaders, particularly presidents, use for containing assholes and idiots. Reagan had great credibility as a conservative, so he could compromise without completely alienating his base. Also, despite my strong feelings at the time, he was a decent human being, and not all that stupid. Clinton mostly contained the assholes and idiots because he had some credibility as a liberal on social issues (particularly race and feminism), and because he was just a damn good politician. Clinton also made it clear from the beginning that he would be willing to criticize those on the left. This was why the "Sister Souljah" moment was so important. Not that Sister Souljah herself was either an asshole or an idiot. But by criticizing her, Clinton read the public right; he angered some liberals, but not enough to lose them when it came time for the election, but he also scored points with moderates.

The assholes and idiots seem to be out in force on the right these days, although I see it that way because I'm a good liberal. Obama's strategy for containing the assholes and idiots among his opponents seems to be to stay calm and collected in contrast. Not a bad strategy, when your opponents are yelling and screaming. The most effective, but most expensive, weapon against assholes and idiots is time: idiots are eventually exposed as deeply wrong and in conflict with reality, while assholes eventually alienate too many people to have a base of support. Obama doesn't have much time in the health care debate, but he does have another three years before the next election. Which is crucial, because there is one crucial ingredient in using time to contain assholes and idiots. It is not enough that they prove themselves wrong. You have to prove that you are right. Which means that you have to be right.

Health Care: Who Will Take Care Of You?

One basic divide in the health care reform debate is a simple question: who will take care of you? Will it be the government, your company, your family, you, your doctor, your insurance company, or something else? How you answer that question defines where you stand on this issue. If you think government is or will be more capable of taking care of you, you're probably in favor of the "public option," and you're probably a liberal Democrat. If you think the government will completely botch your health care, and let you rot and waste away, but you trust your company or your insurance company, you're probably opposed to Obama's plan, and in favor of the status quo.

This is one thing I haven't heard from Obama, and that I wish I did: his plan is about giving you the option to choose who will take care of you. If you think your insurance company will take care of you, great, stick with them. If you think the government can do a better job of it, then we want to give you that option. Obama and his minions, like Kathleen Sebelius, do keep on repeating the line about "choice and competition," but it's starting to sound like a cliche. Here's how I would sell it: we believe in giving Americans the greatest possible freedom to choose who will take care of them. Liberals deserve their choice, conservatives deserve their choice.

The hard part of the sales job, but one of the most rewarding, would be reminding people that the reason they have any freedom in the first place is because of their government. Freedom is not something that you just wake up to every morning; it has to be fought for and won, and it has been. By the government of the United States of America. This is the same government that gives its citizens freedom of speech, of assembly, and of religion.

Conservatives like to think of freedom these days in terms of how far they can distance themselves from government; freedom means being free of regulation, of "Big Brother," etc. This would be a good time to remind them that it is government that gives them their freedom in the first place, and that doing so requires a great deal of hard work, and an equal amount of deep and difficult thinking.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ignoring the Whole Foods Boycott

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal about health care reform. Many liberals were upset about some of his ideas, and are proposing to boycott Whole Foods.

I actually agree with this right wing commentator, that a boycott of Whole Foods is ridiculous. Full disclosure: I worked at Whole Foods for several months. I was only there on probation, I was never fully hired. But I liked it, I still admire the company, and I still shop there. I realize that the prices aren't the most consumer-friendly, but I love the atmosphere, and their mac and cheese is to die for.

I object to the boycott of Whole Foods for one reason: I object to the idea of boycotting a company over the expression of ideas of one of its employees, even if it is the CEO. I make a clear distinction between the expression of ideas of one of a company's employees, and the company's practices. I have no problem boycotting a company over the practices of the corporation as a whole. For example, if I ever have an opportunity to boycott Blackwater, I'll probably do it in a heartbeat. But, then again, I seriously doubt I will ever have the opportunity to even consider spending money with Blackwater, so that's mostly besides the point.

For me, this is a test of tolerance. John Mackey is perfectly free to express his ideas. I don't agree with all of them, but some I find somewhat intriguing, like this one:
- Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines. We should all have the legal right to purchase health insurance from any insurance company in any state and we should be able use that insurance wherever we live. Health insurance should be portable.
That makes sense to me. One of the biggest problems with healthcare right now is the consolidation of the healthcare insurance industry. I'm all in favor of more competition here. He also endorses Medicare reform, which I might agree with if he had provided any kind of detail. His ideas mostly run to the conservative side of the argument, which is not surprising for an Op-Ed in the WSJ, but is somewhat surprising for someone many of whose customers are dyed-in-the-wool liberals. This article may be reasonable from a political perspective, or at least not extremist, but maybe not such a great idea from a marketing angle. But just on the basis of content, I don't see much worth boycotting here.

Beyond the content, boycotting Whole Foods because the CEO wrote an Op-Ed you disagree with is just childish. A boycott is the LBO (large blunt object) of a debate - it's a baseball bat as opposed to a scalpel. If you're claiming to have a superior argument, the best way to prove that is to present a better argument, which would presumably be a more nuanced one, as well. There's not much subtlety in a call for a boycott.

A boycott is also a terrible idea tactically, because it deprives you of the opportunity to engage the other in a meaningful debate. You are therefore depriving yourself of an opportunity to prove the other person wrong. A boycott should be a weapon of absolutely last resort, when all other reasonable means of persuasion have failed. It should not be the first thing that comes to mind. It is, unfortunately, a great example of a knee-jerk reaction.

I think Mackey's great mistake here is that the article just isn't very well-written. He starts out with a quote from Margaret Thatcher. Again, not surprising for the WSJ, but also again, a great way to piss off the kind of people who shop at Whole Foods. Doesn't this company employ PR people? I can see giving the man points for principle, if he's willing to alienate customers to air his true beliefs, but I also think that's a fairly stupid management practice.

He touts Whole Foods' approach to health care. All well and good, and expected from a CEO. Pat yourself on the back for treating your employees well - that's what CEOs are supposed to do: promote the company. I didn't stick around long enough to partake of the health insurance, but that's just me. I do remember that the employee stock ownership plans were quite popular.

But then he crosses the line in two places. First, he claims that there is no "right" to health care. That's a philosophical issue, not just a policy debate. Here he's opening himself up to the charge that, as someone who never has to worry about whether or not he can afford health care, he is denying to others what is available to him just as a function of his individual wealth. That makes him look heartless and cold. He writes:
A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This "right" has never existed in America
Apparently he missed the parts about the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the line about about how we the people came together in order to form a more perfect union to, among other things, "promote the general welfare." I'm not sure how he missed that last part if he claims that he read the Constitution closely - it is, after all, in the Preamble. Personally, I think helping our fellow citizens take care of their health, particularly when they themselves are unable to do so, is a key part of "promoting the general welfare" through a "more perfect union." Maybe I'm just a bleeding heart liberal.

Mackey's biggest mistake, however, was in the final part of the piece, when he mixes two things he so far hasn't, and really shouldn't: marketing his own company, and articulating his own personal political philosophy. He tells us that a key part of health care reform is eating healthy and taking care of ourselves. All well and good - except that he writes it in a way that - surprise! strongly suggests we would do well to shop at Whole Foods. So we should all be free to make our own choices, but we should also be responsible, and we should make our own choices about how to be responsible in a way that directly benefits Mr. John Mackey.

Someone call Ron Paul - he now has competition for Best Libertarian. Oddly enough, however, Mr. Mackey's libertarianism has a puritanical streak - everyone should do what they want, but they should listen to my advice about how they should live their lives. It seems like Mackey really can't decide whether or not he is a free-market conservative or a do-gooder liberal. Finessing that contradiction, of course, makes perfect sense for the CEO of Whole Foods - he believes in giving people the power to do the right thing for themselves, and he believes in his right to make a profit by doing so. It works perfectly fine as the guiding principle of a corporation. It does not work as the guiding principle of government, because government exists in large part so that we may do things collectively that we cannot do as individuals, and that we cannot do collectively at a profit.

I still have a great deal of respect for John Mackey as the CEO of a company. Well, maybe a little less, now that I have reason to question his politics/marketing savvy. But this is just one episode, and Whole Foods is still a great place to shop for certain things. But if I were Mr. Mackey, I would spend some good money on a better PR firm and a political consultant who has a good grasp of how to explain libertarian concepts, particularly to liberals, without sounding like a pompous, arrogant, self-serving jerk.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Meghan Daum on John Hughes: He Made Weird Normal

Meghan Daum eulogized John Hughes, the director who made several seminal 1980's movies about teenagers, including "The Breakfast Club" and "Sixteen Candles." She thinks a big part of his appeal was that he made it safe and somehow cool to be a little different, a little weird, a tad eccentric. And, of course, he talked about sex. But his movies were also about romance:
So what was Hughes' secret? Is it merely that his films offer an appealing timeout from the "Porky's"- and "American Pie"-style raciness that has since become the norm? In part, but I would venture yet another theory about their staying power and their innocence. Not only do Hughes' movies imply that teens can care as much about romance as about sex, they remind us of a time when you could be odd and be mostly left alone to deal with it. No extreme interventions or psychiatric diagnoses.

If the brooding, solitary Andie played by Ringwald in "Pretty in Pink" were in high school in 2009, it's hard to imagine she wouldn't be a candidate for anti-depression therapy. Likewise, if "The Breakfast Club," which is about five teens serving time in Saturday detention, took place in a post-Prozac, post-Columbine America, Ally Sheedy's mostly mute, kleptomaniac misfit would have undoubtedly been medicated, and Anthony Michael Hall's character would have received a lot more than detention for bringing a flare gun to school. As for Ferris Bueller, the kid obviously needed Ritalin.
Finding yourself, coming of age, figuring out who you are - eternal themes of art. But here's the thing about eternal and universal themes of the human experience: they need to be rediscovered and reworked for every generation, which thinks that it is discovering these ideas on their own. And then they go to college and realize that, no, other people have done this before. But they - and we - then have our versions of these journeys. And there ain't nothing that can take those away from us. Thanks, Mr. Hughes, and I hope your eternal day off is a good one.

Bill Clinton on DOMA and DADT

Bill Clinton is at Netroots Nation, the progressive activist conference. Good for him! I bet he's having a blast. Someone asked him about DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act, anti-gay marriage legislation he signed) and DADT (Don't Ask Don't Tell, the gays-in-the-military policy implemented at the beginning of his first term).

Clinton explained the politics that were going on at the time around gay rights issues, and it confirms what I have suspected, not only on this issue, but others as well: if Clinton did not advance a progressive agenda as much as some liberals would have liked (like, say, Ralph Nader), that was largely because he had to deal with a Republican Congress. If Clinton didn't make liberals happy, they should have been thankful that he was a firewall against much worse legislation being passed.

On DOMA, he makes a point I was not aware of: there was a real danger that Congress - both houses of which were, at the time, controlled by Republicans - was going to send a constitutional amendment to the states banning gay marriage. DOMA may be bad, but a constitutional amendment would have been infinitely worse, because it would have made gay marriage impossible in any state. So on gay marriage, Clinton may look like a bad guy for signing DOMA, but he was just making the best of a bad situation. Because if the Congress had sent that amendment to the states, it would have passed very quickly.

The New Love The Redesign, Search Engine Still Sucks

The Los Angeles Times did something right. They redesigned their Website, from top to bottom. I've only been there a couple of times, but I have to say that it looks great. It may even be better than, and that's high praise from me. It feels comfortable but comprehensive, and it looks like I can find my way from there to anywhere in the paper. I might actually start going there just for fun. That would be a major change; I really did not like the old So, kudos to the LA Times. It's nice to be able to take some pride in my hometown paper.

In the print edition, the LA Times is still struggling. I like what they have done with the Op-Ed page over the last several years; they've experimented quite a bit, which is good in and of itself, and now they seem to have found a structure that works, although I miss Joel Stein. So the print edition still struggling, but some parts are getting better.

However, a caveat: I still don't like the search engine on I have a standard test that I run on to see if it is working the way I want it to work. Their car critic is a guy named Dan Neil, who, for my money, is one of the best newspaper columnists in the country on any topic. He's the only car critic to win a Pulitzer. I like the fact that the LA Times has given him a second column, on general cultural topics. Good call.

My test is this: Dan Neil wrote a column on November 3, 2004, reviewing the Ducati 999R, an Italian motorcycle. I remember this because it's my birthday, and that was the day John Kerry lost the presidential election. He described the bike as evil on two wheels:
Its 150-hp V-twin motor runs on damned souls and is lubricated with the fat of unbaptized children.
I test by trying to find that article using the search function on This time around, I tried several combinations. Nothing. This article is less than 5 years old - it's not exactly archivable material. But you may have noticed that I linked to it, and quoted from it. How did I find it? Simple. I Googled "Dan Neil los angeles times ducati unbaptized children," and voila! There's the article. On So I can find this article using Google, but not the LA Times' own search engine.

One step forward, yay! Still waiting for the next step. Newspapers complain that they can't make as much money from the Web as they can from their print editions, and some are threatening to force users to pay for content on their Websites. Here's a hint about how to make money on a newspaper Website: get the basics rights. Execute well. Make sure the damn thing works the way users want it to.

Best. Pie. Chart. Ever.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rummage Sale Treasures

I set up my church's rummage sale a couple of weeks ago, which meant a couple of things. One, it meant that I spent a Thursday with some very cool people sorting through an interesting collection of stuff to sell, wondering just exactly how much to charge for a pair of cowboy boots with a funky flower pattern, and two, it meant that I got first dibs on some good stuff. For example, I got my hands on a DVD that I think, it could be argued, is one of the coolest DVDs currently for sale on the planet earth, if not the coolest.

Yes, I am going to make you click to see it.

A Completely Unsurprising Political Development

The House Judiciary Committee has released emails pertaining to the U.S. Attorney's scandal of a couple of years ago. To absolutely no one's surprise - no one, of course, except the hardest of hardcore Republicans - Karl Rove was, in fact, intimately involved in the decisions, particularly the decision to fire David Iglesias.

Rove denies it, but Karl Rove would find a way to put a positive spin on the apocalypse.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

35 Years Ago: Nixon Resigns

35 years ago today, Richard M. Nixon announced to the country that, because of Watergate, he would resign the presidency. Watching this video, it's amazing to see how studiously he avoided taking any kind of responsibility. He says that he doesn't have a political base in Congress, that the country needs a "full-time president," and a "full-time Congress," that he has never been a quitter. But at no point does he take any kind of responsibility. I suppose that's understandable, because admitting that he had done anything might have been tantamount to admitting guilt in a criminal trial. But he also seems to believe very thoroughly that he hasn't done anything wrong. This is from the LA Times.

A Sitcom, Venture Capital, Music, and a Piranha: Financing Woodstock

Peter Aspden, who writes the Culture column at the Financial Times, takes a look back at Woodstock. Being the FT, he focuses on how it was financed. I'd never heard this, but apparently a couple of guys wanted to write a sitcom about venture capitalists, but they needed material. So they put an ad in the paper for people with crazy ideas for new businesses, and met a guy named Michael Lang who wanted to put up a recording studio in upstate New York. The rest, as they say, is the history of one hell of a party. Aspden compares Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" with Guernica, which is certainly a thot-provoking idea. This, however, is my favorite part:
“We had a pretty conservative banker who was not used to lending to rock ’n’ roll festivals. Next to his desk was a fish tank containing a piranha and another tank containing goldfish, and as he put a goldfish into the piranha’s tank, he’d say, ‘Everybody repays their loans here at the National Bank of North America.’”
Not really an image you associate with the whole peace-and-love vibe at Woodstock . . .

Mel Martinez Resigns - Culture Before Ideology

Mel Martinez, US Senator from Florida, resigned his seat, the day after he voted for Sonia Sotomayor to join the Supreme Court. He had already announced that he would not run for reelection in 2010. Senators don't decide to retire on the spur of the moment - this was a long time coming. Gosh, ya think maybe he stuck around just long enough to vote for Sotomayor? Hmmm, maybe.

He was elected in 2004, so he didn't even serve one term. Kind of like another Republican I can think of, from the opposite corner of the country. Simon Rosenberg has a nice capsule review of Martinez's career in the Senate (via Kos). George W. Bush appointed him as chair of the RNC to try to woo the Hispanic vote. He lasted less than a year in that job. Somehow not surprising.

John Ridley in HuffPost thinks Martinez's timing was meant to send a strong signal:

It's very, very hard not to see the timing as a statement. Not just against the Republican's attempted debasement of Sotomayor, and by association the Hispanic narrative in America. Martínez's move, too, can been seen as another accomplished person of color -- following Colin Powell -- flipping a metaphorical middle finger at all the Republicans have devolved into.
Family and culture are apparently stronger than ideology for Martinez. As they are for most people. Business ties are also presumably stronger. I know next to nothing about the man, but if he's from Florida, I can guess that that's where most of his contacts are. Many of those contacts are, presumably, Hispanic, and my guess is that he has been hearing some strong opinions from fellow Hispanics in Florida. He was probably facing ever-more pressure to make a choice between his party and his friends and family. By resigning the day after his vote for Sotomayor, he makes it as clear as possible that he was waiting for that vote to resign. Which, of course, means that he wanted to make a strong statement about where his allegiance lies. It ain't with the GOP.

Healthcare Reform: Latest Battle Of The Culture Wars

I haven't been blogging much about healthcare reform because it has felt overwhelming. It's an all-or-nothing proposition. Part of my feeling has been that this healthcare reform bill will set the stage for other reform efforts. This establishes the framework, but there will be lots of opportunities for changes later on.

Now that we are in the final stages, it feels like a good time to step up to the plate. The policy details are out there and are being hashed out in Congress, mostly the Senate Finance Committee at this point.

Outside of Washington, the debate is getting nasty, with some very loud protesters from the right shouting down their opponents. The right is arguing that these people are just upset. Andrew Sullivan noted the lack of attention to detail in these protests:

Look: if these people were yelling: "End the employer tax break!" or "More Cost-Controls!" or "Malpractice Reform!" I'd be more sympathetic. But this is blind panic and rage.
The protesters don't care about the policy details of healthcare reform because for them, this is not about healthcare reform. This is the latest battle of the culture wars.

Conservatives have lost just about every battle of the culture wars since the 1960's. They lost the battle over civil rights; a black man is now president. They lost the battle over feminism; a woman was a major-party candidate for president. They are losing the battle over immigration and assimilation; a Hispanic woman was just confirmed for the Supreme Court. They have lost the battle over abortion. They have lost the battle over separation of church and state, particularly in the classroom. They have lost the battle over gay rights, and, although they have won most of the battles over gay marriage, they will lose that battle over the long term. They have lost the battle over traditional family structure and sex in general. They have lost the battle over basic cultural norms. They have lost the battle over environmentalism.

About the only battles conservatives have won have been over gun control, crime, capitalism vs. socialism/communism, taxes, and lower regulation. But Democrats have largely given up trying to win the gun control debate, crime is down, and no one has cared about the capitalism/communism divide for years. Conservatives are still winning the battle over taxes, but it's turning out to be a Pyrrhic victory, as deficits are soaring and states can't balance their budgets. Lower regulation led to a loosening of standards, which allowed financial predators to take advantage of too many consumers, and wreaked havoc with financial institutions. Conservatives lost the foreign policy culture wars - diplomacy vs. "peace through strength" when Bush & Co. completely botched Iraq. There's still free trade, but that's not popular with anyone right now.

This is why the healthcare debate is so heated. This is not about healthcare. When conservatives scream about "government," they are screaming about liberals and what they feel is liberal control of government. Of course, since liberals actually believe in making government work properly, conservatives are justified in feeling that liberals have more influence over government. Funny how that works - people who take something seriously and want to improve it tend to have more faith in it.

Conservatives feel besieged because they have lost the culture wars on so many fronts. William F. Buckley famously said that the purpose of conservatism was to stand athwart history and yell "Stop!" But of course history doesn't stop, and to pretend otherwise is to set yourself up for constant disappointment.

Several commentators have pointed out the irony of older people, who are presumably on Medicare, a successful government medical program, protesting "government takeover of healthcare." They are not protesting government takeover of healthcare. They are protesting government, period. They are channeling years of frustration at losing so much ground to liberals in so many aspects of life in general. Years and years of built-up vitriol is spewing out over this one issue.

It doesn't help that conservatives haven't had a successful president since Reagan. They're frustrated that W. was such a failure, but they can't take their frustration out on him or the GOP, so they take it out on Obama.

It also doesn't help that so many conservative policies have failed. Cutting taxes is supposed to lead to higher economic growth, which therefore makes up for the taxes lost when they are cut. That's the original justification of supply-side economics, and it has been a miserable failure. Nation-building in Iraq? Uh, no.

The one thing that might make a difference for conservatives, that might make it easier for them to be civil when engaging in the debate about healthcare, would be if they had any good alternatives. But they don't. This just adds to the feeling of helplessness. It's impossible to deny that healthcare costs are spiraling out of control, particularly when the victims are so many business owners. But who are conservatives going to use as the target for their anger? Drug companies? Insurance companies? Those are supposed to be examples of the free market at work. They can vent at lawyers, a key Democrat constituency, and their penchant for suing for malpractice, but even taking on that won't solve every part of the problem with rising healthcare costs.

So they invent reasons to be angry. Sarah Palin makes the incredibly bizarre - even for her - claim that Obama's plan will result in government bureaucrats euthanizing her Down's syndrome baby. This is beyond ludicrous, but she apparently believes it. This has no relation whatsoever to reality. None. But this debate is no longer about reality for Sarah Palin and other conservatives. It's about trying to retain some shred of dignity as liberals win yet another victory.

The solution, and I'm sure Obama knows this, is to stay calm and cool. Let them freak out. Let them make fools of themselves. At some point a healthcare reform bill will pass. It won't be perfect. Lots of liberals will bemoan the lack of some feature or other. But it will pass, it will start to change how we deal with healthcare in this country, and then we will start to debate about how to change it.

One Reason I Am Cool

I can drive a stick shift.

Like Jennifer Hadley, I am grateful to my Dad for teaching me how. I am particularly grateful that he taught me how on a Porsche 944.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

More Cash For Clunkers!

In a move that surprised absolutely no one, the Senate passed a bill for additional funding for the "cash for clunkers" program. Way to go, Harry Reid.

The vote was 60-37, with only 7 Republicans voting in favor of it. You would think that the Republicans would jump on board with a successful and popular program, but I guess they think scoring points by voting against Democrats and Obama is more important. That's OK, we'll take those votes.

Sotomayor is confirmed!

Say hello to the new Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor.

She got some Republican votes, but that's another battle in the culture wars that the conservatives just lost. Get used to it, guys, there's a lot more where that came from. This graphic from the NY Times shows how polarized the vote was.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bill's Excellent Adventure

Talk about a sight for sore eyes. Lisa Ling, one of the journalists freed by our ex-President:
"Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea. We feared that at any moment we could be prisoners in a hard labor camp. Then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location and when we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton."
Bill Clinton in North Korea. That must have been a great sight. It's not an American diplomat, it's not Bill Richardson, it's not Jesse Jackson, it's not even Hillary Clinton. Seeing Bill Clinton standing there would have been the strongest possible signal that they were being released. American power has reached into the hermit kingdom and is taking care of you.

Suddenly you remember what it is like to be a citizen of the most powerful country in the world. Sometimes we get things right.

It's great to remember that Bill Clinton, for all his faults, still knows how to use power for doing good, and that that's what a President of the United States is supposed to be there for.

Once upon a time I believed very strongly in Bill Clinton, and I know that I wasn't wrong, but every now and then it's nice to get a reminder of just what I believed in.

Beautiful Balloons

This may be one of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen.

Were YOU Born In Kenya?!?!

You may have heard that there is allegedly a birth certificate for Barack Obama showing that he was born in Kenya. You may have heard that there are some serious questions about that birth certificate. But now you can generate your very own Kenyan birth certificate, so you can be just like Barack Obama!

Seriously. Go here:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Happy Birthday!

A number of years ago, I was hanging out with grandfather, when he said that he was finally ready to admit that he was "over the hill." He was finally admitting that he was an old man.

He was 89.

Why am I telling that story? Because that is the age that Helen Thomas, famous denizen of the White House press room, turned today. She shares her birthday with a more recent occupant of the White House press room, President Obama, who turned 48 today. They both had cupcakes:

One very nice birthday present came from the spouse of the President's Secretary of State. That would be ex-President Clinton, who negotiated the release of two American women reporters who were imprisoned in North Korea. This accomplished several good things: it gave Bill Clinton a bit of the spotlight, reminding the world that his North Korea policy was more successful than that of Bush's, and it made Obama look good, without doing much himself. Always nice to have those minor diplomatic victories.

No word on what Michelle got for the president, but I bet it was something very nice.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Birthers: Waiting for George Will

The birther insanity seems to be reaching some kind of fever pitch. MSNBC invited Orly Taitz, one of the key people behind the madness, to give her opinion. David Shuster and his co-host (sorry, I don't know her name, but she seems good) just took her apart. I forced myself to watch all 6:57 of it, because I am a firm believer in reading/watching everything that I link to, but I had to pause it and walk away from the computer. I'm linking to it instead of embedding it because I sure as hell ain't putting that on my blog. Have to admit, I kind of wish Shuster and his co-host would have let Orly go a little longer, I'm sure her fans now see her as a little more persecuted. If I were a mainstream Republican, I would be cringing at the thot that this fruitcake is showing up on national television. As a Democrat I'm thrilled, because just watching her shreds her credibility. She's like a cross between Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lyndon LaRouche. Is that an incredibly painful combination to even contemplate? Exactly.

So far Ann Coulter has denounced the birthers (really not linking to that). Doesn't seem to have done much good, as the video from MSNBC shows.

I'm waiting to hear what George Will has to say about this, because he has to say something. This may be the one occasion I deeply miss William F. Buckley, Jr. I'm sure Will will be dismissed as an elitist who no longer represents conservatism (this despite his ardent support Ronald Reagan). But he just might provide a smidgen of cover for some normal, mainstream Republicans to start taking these people on. This is getting dangerous, because it seriously corrodes faith in the American republic to believe that the president is not a real American. Much as I hated Reagan, I never doubted even his patriotism. Someone needs to contain the assholes and idiots.

I don't know whether or not George Will has addressed this directly; I Googled a simply query and didn't find anything; I checked his recent columns for the Washington Post, nothing. I did come up with this great quote from Eugene Robinson:
Trying to analyze the "birther" phenomenon would mean taking it seriously, and taking it seriously would be like arguing about the color of unicorns.
Accountability lies at the core of democracy, but trying to hold people accountable who are completely nuts is a nightmarish process. I rarely agree with George Will, but he is a superb writer, and I respect him for his commitment to his principles. He has an extraordinarily low tolerance for fools. He's also a great fan of baseball. Please, Mr. Will, this is a moment when even those who disagree with you are asking you to serve your country: you've got to hit this one out of the park.

That's An Email You Don't Get Every Day

This morning, everyone in my office here in Los Angeles got an email from our Office Administrator with this in the subject line:

Yes, It Was An Earthquake

It was down in Baja California, about 360 miles south of the border, or about 500 miles south of LA, but it was a 6.9, which is a good-sized rattling. We're all fine here, and there are no reports yet of injuries or damages.

I feel a certain responsibility to report these things, given the title of this blog.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Let's Talk About Beer

Frank Rich writes today about the Beer Summit, President Obama, Sgt. Crowley, Prof. Gates, and Vice President Biden having some beers together at the White House. I agree with Rich, as I usually do. His main point is that powerful white people can't deal with the fact that this country is becoming increasingly diverse. Right.

But reading it, I realized I had read a great deal of commentary about the "Beer Summit," including some obnoxious defenses of Crowley from some right-wingers on various blog boards. What I hadn't done was read an account of the event itself. So I found the NY Times's live-blogging record of the event. The best quote of the day was from Gates:
“We hit it off right from the very beginning,” Professor Gates said. Laughing, he added, “When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy.”
Gates also looked to the future:

“I said we both had been cast as characters in other peoples’ narratives that we couldn’t control,” Professor Gates said. “If we take control of our own stories, we can take control of narrative.”
I feel an odd sense of relief reading that, because it's one of the only times in my life that an idea vaguely reminiscent of postmodern literary theory may actually prove to be useful. Gates puts it well, but he doesn't really sound like much of an elitist, Harvard professor when he says it. It's very helpful that he's right.

What would that narrative look like? It's not that hard to figure out, and Gates again explained it well:
“Through an accident of fate this guy and I are linked together,” he said, “and the question is how can he help end racial profiling and how can I help members of my community be sensitive to the concerns of the police? If we can do that, then James Crowley and I will have taken control of our lives and our peculiar experience together and move it out of a Tom Wolfe novel and into a positive impact.”
This began as a dispute, two men diametrically opposed, even violently opposed. We have heard a great deal of noise and angst and inflammatory rhetoric and denunciations of the other side (by both sides). All of that obscures a larger truth: both sides really do ultimately want the same thing. Cops, at their best, want to keep society safe. African-Americans, at their best, want to be safe.

The noise also obscures the fact that the two most powerful men involved in this drama - Gates and Obama - are African-American. This ended peacefully, almost comically. Those facts - that the powerful, elite men are black, and that it ended well - are indications of something good: there has been a great deal of progress on this front. The fact that it was a controversy at all is a positive sign, because it means that people are worried. The white cop really, really does not want to be seen as a racist. That's a good thing. The black man who was arrested was released quickly. That's a good thing. The present is painful because the past is painful. But the present is less painful than the past, and the future will be better because of the present.

But we are already in the future. The arrest took place on July 16, which is now last month. The narrative has already changed.

Naturally, there has been all kinds of discussion about what kind of beer each of them had, and the symbolism of those choices. Ta-Nehisi Coates linked to James Fallows, who linked to another post on The Atlantic Wire, which linked to an article in Slate that examined the history of beer in presidential politics.

None of which had anything to do with racial profiling.

I'm not sure if Obama intended this, but inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House had the great effect of shifting the conversation. Is it just me, or are many people looking for an excuse to talk about beer rather than racial profiling or elitist Harvard professors? Not everybody. Frank Herbert, to his eternal credit, does not let go of these topics. Talking about the beer rather is one way to talk around the history of racial profiling, rather than addressing it directly. But it's also a way to talk about what they Gates and Crowley have in common. At the very least, they both had a beer with the President and Vice President of the United States.

I'm not a big beer drinker, but I have learned a huge amount about it from my best friend from high school, who brews an incredible range of beers at a brewpub in Michigan. One thing I have learned is that there is a huge amount of - oh yeah, I'm going to use this word - diversity in beers, even more so today, with the proliferation of brew pubs and microbrews. Which diversity is appreciated by many, many Americans. Don't think I need to push that line of analysis much farther.

One fact that has been totally overlooked in this brouhaha is that there was a very significant development in this area - much, much more important than what happened in Boston - out here in LA recently. The LAPD had been operating under a consent decree, imposed by a Federal judge, which required the department to reform a number of its practices. The decree was recently lifted, because the judge decided that the LAPD had, in fact, changed for the better. It's not entirely gone; there is still some supervision, particularly on the issue of racial profiling. The ACLU is not completely convinced. But this is clear and concrete evidence that, in the country's second-largest city, the future has begun to arrive. Even without beer.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Idiotic Quote Of The Day

The NY Times has a nice, human-interest article about how Malia and Sasha Obama are spending their summers. Pure fluff. Guess what - Barack and Michelle Obama took their girls with them when President Obama went to foreign countries on state visits. This is called a "family vacation." Being the serious people they are, Obamas made sure that the girls got some educational value out of, for example, seeing slave quarters in Ghana. The Obamas will also be going to Martha's Vineyard. The Times, naturally, has to look for balance, so they found a columnist, Jonathan Baer, of The Philadelphia Daily News, who isn't happy with the Obamas' plans to go to Martha's Vineyard, which is a vacation spot fairly close to Washington, DC, and is much closer, and more convenient for a president to visit, than, say, Crawford, Texas. Nonetheless, Mr. Baer tells us that
“Those who view Obama as an elitist will have new ammunition,” Mr. Baer wrote.
I have to say that I agree with Mr. Baer that the Obamas are members of the elite. Of course, I happen to think that Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama are members of the elite of our society because Barack Obama is President of the United States of America. That tends to put a person - and their immediate family! - in rarefied company.