Friday, September 24, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Vacuum Energy rating: one star
Background information on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is available at The Internet Movie Database

Here is the perfect "Saturday afternoon" movie! "Sky Captain" has all of the necessary ingredients for carefree pulp-fiction in the style of the old "pulpies" from the Golden Age of comics: there is a hero and his sidekick, a "swell gal" tagging along, exotic locations, aerial dog-fighting, dinosaurs, energy rays, giant killer robots, a meglomaniac scientist and Germans. There's nothing better than a quick trip to the good ol' days when you didn't need superpowers to fight evil, just good people, backing you up.

The film starts with a conspiracy involving disappearing German scientists, one of whom just manages to contact plucky gal reporter Polly Perkins before vanishing into the chaos of a massive robot invasion of New York City. Of course, everyone in New York City knows that only a graduate of the Luke Skywalker School of Fighting Big Clunky Robots can win this battle, so the call to Sky Captain goes out within minutes. Sky Captain just happens to be in the area in his specially-modified propeller-driven fighter, and true to form he manages to force the robots to retreat within minutes of attacking them.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg since the entire world is under seige by killer robots stealing their natural resources. Only mercenaries like Sky Captain can get their own personal military forces destroyed in a robot sneak attack, thus forcing him to track down the robot headquarters alone. Or nearly alone, since Polly's brief conversation with that German scientist gives her an excuse for tagging along to aggravate the hell out of Sky Captain (aka Joe) for the rest of the movie (don't get me started).

The only real problem with "Sky Captain" is that it takes its comic book antecedents too seriously. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; no director in his right mind wants to make the sequel to "Batman: The Movie" from 1966 for example. But it tends to get a little annoying, especially when the 1930's radio sets have to send out visible spherical pulses of energy when they are transmitting signals. The movie even has an artificially grainy texture to suggest a cheap comic book printing, although it seems suspiciously more useful for covering up defects in the computer graphics. Perhaps the low point of the adventure is when Sky Captain and company end up in Shangri-la after a near-death escape from near-certain doom. For God's sake, Shangra-la is not a big deal anymore! Even MacGuyver has been there!

An interesting point that does pop-up in "Sky Captain" is the nostalgic appearance of the British Empire as that benevolent monarchy based on integrity, fortitude, and gravitas. The last third of the movie basically plays out like a propaganda film for Britannia, although it works here since this is exactly what we'd expect from something out of the 1930's in the first place.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Judicial Activism

Doing Things With Words has a new post on
judicial activism and mob rule. A paragraph which I think summarizes one of his key arguments is that, in reference to the views of Alexander Hamiliton (author's boldface),
This speaks directly to the heart of the matter. Obviously, if the FMA passed, the FMA would become part of the "established form," and it would be impossible for the judiciary to overrule it. If they attempted to do so, that would be judicial activism. However, Hamilton clearly expresses the sentiment of the founders in saying that the judiciary must protect the rights of the people even when the majority would have them do otherwise. Therefore, cases like Lawrence v. Texas, Roe v. Wade, and so on - which conservatives deride as creating new rights - are, at least potentially, examples of the court doing precisely what it was intended to do.
This is an argument that I find persuasive, and it does encapsulate a point that a lot of conservative pundits try to ignore when writing about judicial activism. The big flaw in this type of defense of judicial activism is that the judge will not be any more or any less susceptible to the misguided use of power than any other government official. I am sure that all judges, and even the activist ones, will be the first to admit this point. After all, why else would judges bother to offer written justifications of their rulings if the legitimacy of their rulings was above question?

Legitimacy is not necessarily going to be a stumbling block for the judicially activist judge. The accord that a judge's rulings make with the best interests or sentiments of the body politic is as much a source of legitimacy as the soundness of the judge's reasons for his rulings, and a defense of the true rights of that body politic may presumably have a rock-solid grounding in reason as well. It is those rulings where a judge admits a need for legitimacy but can only provide it on unreasonable terms where we should be suspicious that a misuse of power is talking place. We all know the symptoms that someone is attempting to claim a false imprimature of reason for a bad idea: naked appeals to authority, reasoning ranging from specious to ridiculous, and deliberate obfuscation of the facts. I suspect that it is the tendency of certain activist judges to insult the intelligence with their legal justifications that is the source of the use of the phrase "judicial activism" as a pejorative.

A second aspect of the argument presented by Doing Things With Words that I find a little less persuasive is the notion that conservatives who decry judicial activism are interested in some form of mob-rule or unlimited government power. Is there any reason why legislators and executive officials cannot be just as interested in the rights of the minority or setting forth the limits of government as judges? Is there any reason to believe that serious conservatives who decry "judicial activism" aren't just as critical about "legislative overreach" or "executive tyrrany"?

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Philosophy and the political campaign

The philosophy blog Doing Things With Words has a great recent post about the role of philosophy in politics and political discourse (hat tip: Parableman).

Personally, I think it's undeniably true that a solid understanding of philosophical reasoning would be an asset for a candidate for president to possess. The grossly negative ramifications of wishful thinking, unwarranted assumptions and sloppy reasoning being used to govern a modern nation-state makes reason the critical tool of responsible politicians. Unfortunately, as much as we would wish otherwise, unreason in suchs forms of propaganda, political "horse-trading", and bureaucratic group-think are always going to exist in any kind of political system. Another asset that a candidate for president will have to possess is the ability to apply these irrational tendencies of human nature towards a higher, rational purpose.

Senator Kerry's position on the war with Iraq seems to be a case in point. In reality, Kerry has been stradling between two mutually inconsistent positions. The first position is the one suggested by Doing Things With Words:
Kerry's position is simple: he was in favor of giving the president the authority to go to war (which is what he voted for) but thinks that Bush misused that authority (and thus opposes the war itself).
The second position is that Bush is the monstrous president who can intentionally order American soldiers into combat without body armor to deliberately expose them to greater risk of injury, or who can willfully expose states with Democratic majorities to truely unnecessary terror risks in order to avoid dispensing federal funds to his political enemies. Certainly it is within Kerry's perogative to claim that he believed President Bush to be a trustworthy man who deserved to be granted an authority that he later misused, but it is not rational for him to claim that Bush was both to be trusted with the authority to go to war and to be vigorously opposed as a despicable criminal.

Kerry's position on Iraq at times may have been irrational in the sense described above, but it is not necessarily an irrational campaign tactic for the presidential candidate of a political party that is divided over the war on Iraq.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A self-refuting column?

A recent column by Susan Estrich offers political advice for the Kerry campaign:
Democrats need to stop complaining about the Kerry campaign, because the country is listening and they're taking it seriously. Former campaign managers and consultants with additional criticism, advice or lists of things that Shrum and Mary Beth Cahill did wrong can offer it all by phone.

The country is listening - it's hurting the candidate, making him look weak, which is the last thing he needs.
This is followed by some analysis of the Kerry and Bush campaigns beginning with
John Kerry is finally focused, and he sounds sharp. The polls, for those who insist on them, show the race tightening. What could distort his message is all this insider whining around the Kerry campaign about whether the campaign fought back when it should and who's really in charge - the kind of stuff that can only hurt you.
I know that this would technically depend upon whether Susan Estrich is a Democrat or not, but can I really believe any political analysis that begins with a happy-face sticker getting plastered over it's subject?

So lets ignore the first few sentences and move on. Most of the column is about the public debate among Democrats about the ability or inability of Kerry to respond to criticisms from the Republicans. That is useful and important criticism as far as it goes, although it avoids the deeper and much more damaging point that Kerry's present day troubles largely spring from being defined as a "flip-flopper" by his opponent. After all, what use is responding to criticism if everything you say is simply heralded by your opponent as further evidence of your political opportunism? The double bind of being defined as a flip-flopper, as Dick Morris mentioned noted this year, is that the only way to redefine yourself is to take a stand on one of the weak issues that made you start flip-flopping in the first place.

So what can the Kerry campaign, short of exercising the "Hillary option", do to redefine it's candidate as a bold politician willing to take an unshakeable stand when truth, justice, and the American way is on his side?

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The flip-flops pile up so fast you need wings to stay above them

Last week: How dare President Bush slime Kerry by making the slightest criticism of his war record?

This week: Bush snorted

Bonus feature: Kerry vs. Kerry, flip-flop #1,202. After making it half-way through a philosophical book on the subject of atheism, belief in God seems fairly irrational to me at present. On the other hand, after watching John Kerry's humiliating, inconsistent presidential campaign, believing in God seems a lot more sound than believing in Kerry.

Friday, September 03, 2004

The past presidents / chancellors game

I should really thank Andrew Sullivan for all of these great comparison posts. The latest is that President Bush is a mixture of Woodrow Wilson and Otto von Bismarck.

The comparison is so ridiculous that one hardly knows where to begin in criticizing it. The comparison to Wilson, whose name evokes memories of a democratic zeal that lulled the West to sleep during the rise of Hitler and Stalin perfectly matches the liberal argument that Bush's foreign policy "crusade" is just making the global terror problem orders of magnitude worse. The comparison to Bismarck allows one to tar the President with all of the worst aspects of German Authoritarianism without actually spoiling the game by shouting "You're Hitler!!!" And pardon me for my skepticism but the assumption that twenty-first century American homosexuals are a persecuted ethnic minority suffering a national policy of oppression akin to that inflicted upon European Judaism during the prelude to the Third Reich does not seem to me to be correct. Not everyone who is more socially conservative than Ellen Degeneres belongs to the kinder, kuche, kirche school of social order.

It seems to me that even Bush's paternalistic "nanny-state" governing is something of a success for the conservative movement. Let's face it, the persistent hope among small-government conservatives that one sufficiently tough conservative president could enact their entire program with a stroke of the pen is entirely fanciful. Realistically speaking, a true victory for the conservative movement would consist in moving the governing philosophy of the United States further to the Right.

President Bush may have run up some hefty deficits that his social spending and, to be fair to liberals, his tax cuts have exacerbated. What matters far more is the idea that taxes can be cut sometimes instead of being permanently ratcheted ever upwards or the idea that government social programs that can accommodate reforms are inherently superior to the monolithic spending programs of the past. Those ideas gaining a greater foothold in Washington during the Bush administration would represent advances for the conservative movement.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The President clarifies his remarks

Obviously, President Bush's remarks on the Today show monday were going to require some spin to correct. The next day, President Bush did an interview on the Rush Limbaugh Show, which published a transcript on its website.