Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Senator Clinton on North Korea and "South Shi'ite-nam"

The latest news referring to North Korea:
North Korea affirmed Wednesday it would return to nuclear disarmament talks to seek a resolution of a U.S. campaign aimed at choking the communist nation's access to foreign banks.

Stepping back from further provocative moves after conducting its first-ever nuclear test three weeks ago, the North said it hoped to see a resolution of the financial issue at the resumed six-nation arms talks that it has boycotted for a year.
Obviously, North Korea's recent nuclear weapons test has significantly increased the degree of isolation between North Korea and China, thus inducing North Korea to return to six-nation talks to try and repair the damage.

The latest news referring to Senator Hillary Clinton:
"We did not face World War II alone, we did not face the Cold War alone, and we cannot face the global terrorist threat or other profound challenges alone either," she said.

Clinton also defended the idea of bilateral talks with nations that Washington has been avoiding, such as Iran and Cuba.
Notice that the moment six-party talks with North Korea are back in action, Senator Clinton calls for bilateral talks with enemy nations. It's almost as if Democrats are deliberately trying to sabotage the Bush Administration. Also notice the strange juxtaposition in a single speech of "We did not face World War II alone" with a call for bilateral talks with enemy nations. Isn't the whole point of building an international coalition against an enemy state that no one member of the coalition unilaterally negotiates with that enemy?

Senator Clinton also announced her support for one of the fashionable Democratic Party policies for Iraq (another such policy being the partition plan):
Concerning Iraq, Clinton blasted the administration's policy, and said the best policy instead would progressively redeploy US troops in the region, call for a regional conference to help discuss options and advocate for the creation of an organization aiming at guaranteeing a division of oil income among all Iraqis.
As I've pointed out before, this is basically the Democratic Party's Vietnam policy circa 1968 or so updated point-by-point for Iraq.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Conservative Rule #1: Don't take voting advice from Democrats.

The very first thing that any would-be conservative should learn about the contemporary Democratic Party is to never, under any circumstances whatsoever, take voting advice from it. The Democratic Party invariably offers up shamelessly self-serving electoral advice to conservatives and Republicans. Why would any conservative seriously consider voting advice from a political party that compares conservatives to Nazis or psychopaths on a daily basis?

So the big important electoral advice any conservative is likely to get from their fair-weather liberal friends this year is a nice lecture about how great and fun and character-building it would be for Republicans to lose everything. The Democrats are just begging for the chance to totally screw-over and destroy their own party by winning back Congress next week. What better way for a conservative to show a principled stand for conservative government than by electing as many welfare statists as he or she can?

A nice example of this type of propagandizing comes from a blog I had considered to be fairly rational until now and its cringingly obsequious "Eight reasons not to vote for the Republicans".

The post's reason 1 is the most ridiculous: Not much is really at stake. Of course a lot is at stake! We're talking about control of a branch of government here, not the Mickey Mouse club. Yes, it's true that there are currently no open positions on the Supreme Couty, but a Republican majority in the Senate also means a better chance of conservative nominees being confirmed in all of the lesser positions of government as well. You can also be sure that a Democratic congress would be eager to start cutting off funding for American troops in Iraq, assuming that it doesn't launch a two-year impeachment drive against the President first.

Reason 2 is actually a great reason to vote for Republicans. Remember 1992? Does any conservative in his or her right mind want another 1992?

Reason 3 is another great reason to vote Republican: Democrat Nancy Pelosi will be such an inept Speaker of the House that she's almost certain to totally screw things up by 2008.

Reason 4 is a little more subtle than the others. Here the argument is that the Republicans have shamelessly gerrymandered so many Congressional districts that they have become corrupt and insulated from their voting base of support. I'm willing to conceed that conservative or Republican voters might judge themselves to be "anti-gerrymander" voters first and foremost this year. One slight caveat to keep in mind is that Democrats have gerrymandered districts in both Republican and Democratic-leaning states, so some anti-gerrymander voters would have to vote Republican against a Democratic incumbent to "decline to participate in this rigged process."

Reason 5 goes back to the phoney-baloney again. Here the post suggests that:
Losing control of one or (preferably) both houses will provide an excellent moment of clarity. This will be the point at which rising figures in the Party can safely call for a new approach and new policies, citing the demonstrated outcome of the current approach and current policies.
A "new approach and new policies" sounds like a euphemism for "cutting and running" from Iraq. Taken at face value, this reason is meaningless. Of course candidates can safely call for a new approach and new policies. It happens all the time. Remember 1988?

Reason 6 is pure liberal wish fulfillment:
The architects of the current Party hegemony need to be fully discredited. Rove and company have been at the forefront of an astonishingly cynical Party strategy. Does it not pain you to hear the plainly idiotic slogans of this bunch – Democrats will lose the war on terror (you mean we're winning?), your taxes will go up, and your son will be gang pressed into the Gay Mafia. It's sad when a Party has no real strategy beyond caricaturing its opponents. Telling, too.
This is the argument (most notoriously advanced by Andrew Sullivan nowadays) that Democrats are just Republicans who care a bit more about the poor and minorities and women, and that the only reason why American politics isn't one big happy song is that evil "Rove and company" (who are so self-evidently evil that they should just fall on their swords right now).

Reason 7 boils down to making the elections a referendum on Iraq. Also, notice how reason 7 nicely dovetails with the suspicious euphemism of reason 5 ("new approach and new policies")while also blantantly contradicting reason 1 ("not much is really at stake"). Reason 7 is obviously the key message of this whole exercise: that Democrats will really stick it to President Bush over Iraq if they ever get their hands on real power again. But hey, conservatives just might relish a chance to vote for two years of partisan warfare waged by a Democratic party that's been howling for REVENGE against President Bush since November 2000 .

Finally, the anticlimactic reason 8 goes back to the argument that losing builds party character, although in reality losing really just builds losers. There is a minor point for conservatives to notice here: making a stand on the moral high ground of conservative principles will take some of the sting out of the amazing non-stop Democratic-Party triumphalism that will be all over the mainstream media if the Democrats recapture Congress.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

My critique of "The Conservative Soul"

Andrew Sullivan invited readers of his book "The Conservative Soul" to write their own critiques of it. After reading the book and mulling over it for some time, here is what I came up with.

Think of "The Conservative Soul" as a repackaging of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy for a twenty-first century mainstream audience. Like Objectivism, "The Conservative Soul" divides humanity into the rational and irrational, here called conservatives and fundamentalists. Like Objectivism, "The Conservative Soul" rests such policy prescriptions as it ventures to make essentially on the basis of keeping the rational conservatives in charge of the government at all times. And just as practically no person ever born or ever likely to be born is an Objectivist in the Randian sense -- Objectivism conceeds that only as many as two true Objectivists have ever lived -- the book's author admits that even he has succumbed to the temptation of a fundamentalist thought on occasion.

Of course, like Ayn Rand and her insistance that people could only be truely rational if they were chain-smoking cigarettes like Howard Roark, "The Conservative Soul" has it own unconscious inconsistencies. A nice example is its observation that government tax increases are uniformly a bad thing (my boldface):

Domestically a conservative will seek to ensure that the freedoms enshrined in a written or unwritten constitution are protected. That is his first task. If a government starts to attack individual liberty, invade personal privacy, increase his taxes, or burden him with regulations, a conservative will resist.
Resisting tax increases is thus a conservative imperative, except, of course, when President Bush is doing the resisting, in which case not resisting tax increases is a conservative imperative (my boldface):

It soon became apparent that [President Bush's] tax cuts were simply a matter of faith, unrelated to any empirical context or consistent rationale.
"The Conservative Soul" also exhibits the same willful ignorance of opposing points of view and historical events that in Objectivism made anyone with a vaguely liberal political bent akin to being a "Stalinist". For example, truely conservative doctrines about the law -- doctrines believed in by actual lawyers -- are treated as Orwellian abuses of language, such as the author's implication that judicial activism is just some kind of homophobic Right-wing smear phrase:
Judges -- many liberal, some conservative -- were described as "activists" or "extremists" if they applied their state constitution's guarentees of equal protection to gay couples.
Long standing historical trends such as geographical voting patterns are also attributed to nefarious short-term machinations, such as when the author implies that the Red State/Blue State divide was actually created by Republicans in the 1990s:
In a much milder fashion, the appropriation of religious groups for the political base of the modern Republican Party immediately and progressively divided the United States into "blue" and "red" states, between "Godless" and "God-fearing" regions.
But mere tinkering with the electoral game is child's play compared to an accusation of pure monarchism against President Bush:
[The President's legal Advisor John] Yoo works at one of the most prestigious think tanks in the United States: the American Enterprise Institute. He is absolutely sincere in believing that the executive branch can override any domestic law, any international treaty, and any moral boundary if necessary to protect national security. In a war on terror that stretches decades into the future, the new conservatism allows for a president with no checks at all on his own power as commander in chief.
Left unsaid is the fact that the presumption that military necessity works in exactly this way has been the default view of the president's role as commander in chief since the founding. The key to the equation is military necessity. Literally nobody to the political right of Michael Moore thinks that the President is ready to take over American society and rule as a dictator from the White House to defend the United States against the Third World terror threat. What people do think is that a sufficiently dire threat to the United States -- a Dalek invasion of Earth bent on mass extermination perhaps -- would be necessary for any extreme measures by the President to be justified on the basis of military necessity. As conservatives are fond of saying, the Constitution does not oblige a nation to commit suicide when faced with total annihilation.

That there is no check on the President's power as commander in chief is also totally false. The whole point of the Constitution is checks and balances on every branch of government, after all. But this is a false argument for another reason. Every nation ever made may be confronted by a person with the ruthless to acquire power and to exercise it without restraint; every nation is vulnerable to the possibility of a powerful individual that cannot be held in check by the combined efforts of others. The ultimate check on power is the ability of some humans to collectively enforce restrictions on the use of power by other humans, and until the United States consists of only one person and lots and lots of computers, this check on power will be in place.

As this critique suggests, you would be correct in inferring that "The Conservative Soul" portrays the current President Bush and other fundamentalists with the same level of respect and fairness that "Atlas Shrugged" gives to its moochers and looters. The exception is that, perhaps out of an extraordinary exercise of doubt, the author quite suprisingly admits that his entire analysis of the contemporary fundamentalism's drive for monarchical power in America is absolutely wrong:

Evangelical and Catholic fundamentalists have largely engaged in America in completely legitimate and democratic activity: voting, organizing, campaigning, broadcasting, persuading. Even where they disagree with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, they do not question that Constitution's legitimacy (although a few have indeed walked to the bring of declaring the United States an illegitimate "regime" because of the court's rulings). They constantly use religious language to defend their political positions -- but so did Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. The political methods of the new fundamentalists are overwhelmingly democratic ones.
Even the arch-fundamentalist George W. Bush is conceeded to be somehwat closer to your average vote-mongering politician than a monarch-in-waiting:

The narrow election of George W Bush in 2000 -- an electoral victory that nonetheless left him with considerably fewer votes than his opponent -- was the moment the new fundamentalists had long been waiting for. In the primaries, John McCain's surprising surge in New Hampshire forced Bush to an even closer alliance with the religious right than he might otherwise have preferred.
Obviously those democratically legimate, Constitution-respecting fundamentalists had committed something similar to the crime of "aligning fundamentalist churches and populations with a single political party" instead of happily rendering themselves politically impotent by supporting two rivals equally.

In the political sphere, once we subtract out all of the author's contradictions, misrepresentations, and amazingly devastating concessions, we are left with nothing more a set of the author's personal moral choices -- private, consensual, adult sex good; government torture bad -- along with a set of recipies for deciding who is sufficiently agreable with the author to merit the rewarding "conservative" mark of approval.

Do you support tornados, Hugh?

Talk radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt, in a massive favor to anyone who has been comtemplating a critque of the book "The Conservative Soul", had the book's author Andrew Sullivan on for an interview. After listening to the transcript, I have to agree with Hewitt's post-interview analysis:
In short, I think the book is an attempt to pass off easily exposed half truths and worse as objectively true assertions of fact in the service of a political agenda that Andrew Sullivan passionately wants the country to embrace but which it refuses to do. His anger throughout the interview stemmed, I have to conclude, from the sudden appearance across the microphone of a host who had read the book in detail, could call out its many flaws, and who refused to be diverted into non-book related subjects which required no defense of his own written words.
On a related note, the site's audio clip of James Lileks discussing the weather proves once again that Lileks is da man!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Same-sex marriage arrives in New Jersey

Analysis of the New Jersey state supreme court's ruling via The Volokh Conspiracy (hat tip: Instapundit). In a show of respect for the legislature, the court ordered that the people of New Jersey have 6 months to decide on the name of their new same-sex marriages. As the old joke goes: you can call it a "same-sex marriage"; you can call it a "civil union"; if you wish, you can even call it "Fred".

Monday, October 23, 2006

This is your brain. This is your brain on Roman history.

It suddenly occured to me one morning where the trend of rappers wearing hooded sweatshirts originated. Observe (in responsibly non-hotlinked fashion) that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

A really great reason not to abandon Iraq.

See if you can spot a trend here:
  • The Korean Civil War of 1950 to 1953 cost the United States roughly 54,000 deaths before the military situation was stabilized, but the United States to this day maintains forces in South Korea.

  • The second phase of the Vietnamese Civil War during the years 195 to 1975 cost the United States roughly 58,000 deaths. The war ended when the United States removed its troops and cut of support to South Vietnam, leading to that country being conquered by North Vietnam.

  • The 2003 invasion of Iraq has cost the United States roughly 3000 deaths as of this writing. A prominent anti-war faction is already calling for United States troops to be withdrawn from Iraq, and that faction considers that the money spent on stabilizing Iraq since 2003 might have been better spent on Americans schools and health care.

We've gone from a pledge of support for South Korea that's still going strong after nearly 60 years, to a pledge of support for South Vietnam that finally fell to pieces after more than a decade of holding things together, to a pledge of support for a democratic Iraq that started falling apart from basically the moment people started getting hurt.

As you can see, the real question isn't whether United States troops should be withdrawn from Iraq, but how much worse the next conflict is likely to be if the United States doesn't stay the course now in Iraq.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Right-wing blogosphere and its discontents

One thing that's easy to notice about the political blogosphere is the Right/Left divide over the political role of blogs. The major Left wing blogs tend to focus on relentlessly recruiting Democratic voters in the hopes of electing a Democratic majority to Congress someday soon. The major Right wing blogs tend to focus on creating an "alternative" media to the mainstream media of NBC/ABC/CBS/New York Times/etc.

The Right-wing blogosphere's conception of itself as a "media" outlet has its advantages, mostly arising from the fact that the mainstream media is both ultra-liberal and surprisingly inept. A big chunk of the Right-wing blogosphere, after all is said and done, is powered by the ability of any common person to open up any "Section A" of any day's "New York Times" and find some egregious piece of biased reporting. And internet phenomena involving prominent liberals, such as the "Rathergate" scandal, have earned the Right-wing blogosphere an honorary place in the liberal conspiracy theorist's "Republican noise machine".

On the other hand, a standing joke for the Left-wing blogosphere is that Right-wing blogs are basically useless for delivering votes to Republican candidates. An exemplary case in point is the website Instapundit. Instapundit is one of the most visited Right-wing blogs -- Right-wing only in the negative sense of not being explicitly left wing -- and is more aligned with a Libertarian philsophy instead of a Republican or Conservative one. Thus, Instapundit occasionally regurgitates self-defeating libertarian lunacy in the guise of the "alternative media" consensus.

The last year's most notorious example of libertarian lunacy is the PorkBusters campaign against out-of-control government spending. Don't get me wrong. The latest battle in the 230-year war against needless political spending is certainly a good thing as far as it goes. But the real problem with government spending is not pork but the welfare state mentality. Republicans and Conservatives could have really used some political cover for reduced spending through entitlement reform from an independent source of public opinion such as the internet. The primarily libertarian-leaning Right-wing blogosphere, sensing that the Republican-controlled congress was vulnerable on spending, characteristically decided to stick it to Republicans on behalf of the welfare-statist Democrats instead.

The current example of libertarian lunacy in the Right-wing blogosphere is encapsulated by Instapundit's now-infamous "GOP pre-mortem", which has been widely interpreted as the internet's conceeding a Republican disaster in the upcoming elections. The damage here is so bad that Republican media figures from Rush Limbaugh on down furiously attempting damage-control. But again, this shouldn't be much of a surprise since libertarians are always saying "Republicans deserve to lose; Democrats don't deserve to win". Why would any Republicans with any sense at all bother to go to their fair-weather libertarian friends for political advice and expect anything different?

And then there is blogger Andrew Sullivan, who apparently believes that the great Solon of the modern day conservative movement is Democratic Senator John Kerry. Since I'm plugging away at his book, we'll save that topic for another post.

Monday, October 16, 2006

An extraordinary set of coincidences

Some very interesting events have been happening in the course of the 2006 elections. Consider the following:
  • Six weeks before the elections, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez deliver heavily publicized anti-Bush speechs at the United Nations. Aside from the God-talk, these speeches are largely indistinguishable from the Democratic Party's day-by-day anti-Bush rhetoric.
  • North Korea detonates its first nuclear weapon a month before the elections; this event is immediately exploited by Democrats as proof that Bush's North Korea policy has failed.
  • It's now three weeks away from the elections and Saddham Hussein is confident that "the hour of liberation is at hand" for Iraq. It goes without saying which American political party is more than eager to end the occupation of Iraq.

Call it coincidence if you wish, but it certainly seems like the World's Dictators Club is expecting good things to result from Democrats retaking Congress this year.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The next challenge

Andrew Sullivan has challenged his readers to critique his latest book with the sharpest criticisms and responses to be posted on his blog.

The book is titled "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back". From what I've read so far, it reads like the exact polar opposite of a foundational work of the modern conservative movement: "Witness", by Whittaker Chambers.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Deplorable history but brilliant art

A new American textbook is discovered to contain appalling comparisons of President Bush and the United States to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. As history, this textbook is absolutely crazy. As art designed to "win hearts and minds" in the Middle East, it's quite brilliant. Consider the article's quotation from that textbook which states:
"Like Bush and the neocons, Hitler and the Nazis inaugurated their new era by destroying an architectural monument and blaming its destruction on their designated enemies."
In the United States, that is a vicious lie. On the other hand, the Middle East loves the Nazis! Adolf Hitler is their favorite Westerner ever. If you really wanted to make President Bush look like an arrogant jerk in the Middle East, you should be comparing him to liberal-leaning types like Lawrence of Arabia or Senator John Kerry, not Hitler.

There's also this quote:
"The architects of the 9/11 myth were trying to preserve the very empire they so efficiently destroyed. The US empire, and especially its Iraeli [sic] outpost, were doomed in the medium-term anyway, with or without 9/11."
We all know that America was the victim and not the perpetrator of 9/11, but the image of a ruthless American president who is willing to do anything to prop up the Empire is a big selling point in the Middle East. Sure, the jihadis and the Osama bin Ladens hate America, but what really ticks them the hell off is that the current crop of Muslim leaders don't seem to have any balls like Bush does. When President Bush is shown on Arab television cringing from a scathing verbal harangue coming from, say, Jacques Chirac, the "Arab Street" thinks to itself "this man does not have a penis". But show President Bush breaking his foot off in Saddham Hussein's ass and the "Arab Street" tells itself "Bush, we hate you, but... You da Man!". Besides, telling the Arab world that Israel is America's "nuclear capo" only reinforces its image of the United States as the global "Godfather", so to speak.

Again, the easiest way to convince the Arab world that America is for losers is to portray President Bush as just another do-gooding liberal. The Arab world hates liberalism. Why? Because the various Arab nations have spent the last 100 years or so watching liberal regimes around the world immediately crash, burn, and get replaced by fascists or communists. Practically every nation in Eurasia -- including the Ottoman Empire that most Arab nations used to be part of -- has a failed liberal regime in its past that almost immediately began weakening itself until the point where a dictator of some kind toppled it. The big exception to the rule of liberalism as national "death wish" is that dreaded Anglo-American empire: for some reason, the United States and Great Britain can happily elect liberals over and over again and still kick butt around the world. Arab states view being invaded by the United States as bad enough; being invaded by the United States then saddled with a democratic regime that puts the local versions of John Kerry and Tom Daschle in charge of national security is every Arab state's worst nightmare.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Libertarian Democrat

The great and mighty kos himself explains that libertarian democrats don't want to destroy private enterprise; they just want to make private enterprise better(author's italics):
The problem with this form of libertarianism [i.e. "traditional" libertarianism] is that it assumes that only two forces can infringe on liberty -- the government and other individuals.

The Libertarian Democrat understands that there is a third danger to personal liberty -- the corporation. The Libertarian Dem understands that corporations, left unchecked, can be huge dangers to our personal liberties.

Libertarian Dems are not hostile to government like traditional libertarians. But unlike the liberal Democrats of old times (now all but extinct), the Libertarian Dem doesn't believe government is the solution for everything. But it sure as heck is effective in checking the power of corporations.

In other words, government can protect our liberties from those who would infringe upon them -- corporations and other individuals.
Generally speaking, internet commentary on the Kossian Libertarian Democrats seems to be viewing the concept purely as a trial balloon for some kind of "traditional" Libertarian/Democratic political alliance. The idea is that Libertarians are so fed up with conservatism that they'll gladly accept Democratic support on Libertarian social issues in exchange for Libertarian support for the welfare state. Given that a large faction of Libertarian voters only joined the party for the legalization of pot in the party platform, this isn't such a bad idea for an alliance. For the other faction of Libertarian voters who rank other considerations above sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the possibility of an alliance with the Democrats seems like a non-starter; although you never know if the Randian Libertarians might decide to start voting for the less irrational of two evils.

The other issue with the Libertarian Democrat idea is that it isn't a particularly clever or original one at all. In fact, it is nothing more than the classical New Dealer Democratic position of FDR/Truman style liberals (i.e. the "old time" liberals mentioned in the quote above). The old time liberals never saw themselves as welfare statists per se; they all saw themselves as good, old-fashioned, freedom-loving liberal Americans who just felt a bit more deeply about social justice than those pesky "economic royalists". And if elementary social justice meant nationalizing private-sector industries, the old time liberals would consider it.

Notice also that kos doesn't mention that one terrible phenomenon that good liberals have been crusading against since the days of Madison and Jefferson: inequality of wealth. Libertarians are generally stuck accepting large inequalities of wealth since even if all agents in an economy are purely fairly interacting with each other, some people are just a heck of a lot better at accumulating wealth than others. Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, think that inequalities of wealth are the one sure sign of the proverbial "going to hell in a handbasket". For kos to ignore inequalities of wealth in making his pitch is a sign that he is trying to "finesse" the issue.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Star Trek franchise and how to fix it

The latest gossip about the continuation of the Star Trek franchise is that a film "Star Trek XI" is in the works. This production will involve an entirely new production crew in order to avoid the jinx of the previous films in the series. The nominal plot is that this series will focus on Spock and Kirk during their Starfleet Academy days.

This seems like a really boneheaded idea to me, although to be fair, it does have the virtue of having been tried with a successful spin-off into a television series. Another film followed by a few seasons of television will at least keep hope alive for the Star Trek fan base.

So how does one "fix" the Star Trek franchise by coming up with a blockbuster hit Star Trek film? In my previous analysis of the Star Trek franchise, I blamed outdated cultural assumptions that had been grandfathered into the Star Trek canon for the failures of the franchise. The key to "fixing" Star Trek is to identify those assumptions and update them.

A good place to start is with the Star Trek franchise's ideal of good Starfleet leadership being based around a core of sensibility. This is dead wrong. Good Starfleet leadership should really be based on decisiveness. Consider that the typical Star Fleet captain portrayed from "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" on through the early "Deep Space Nine" era (where my Star Trek interest largely ended) is typically something of a Jimmy Carter-esque prisoner of events. For example, the final four movies based on the original series involved the starship Enterprise being captured once, surrendered twice, and blown up once (and not even appearing in one of the four films) , while these four movies had Captain Kirk exiled on Vulcan, exiled in Earth's past, captured by Sybok, and convicted and exiled to a Klingon prison planet. The decisive victor Kirk of "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" is largely the last real hurrah of Captain Kirk's brilliant career.

But suffice it to say that even the Captain Kirk of "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" excels in comparison to Captain Picard (i.e. the Colonel Blimp of Starfleet) and his successors. The only real exception being Commander Riker; various high-level Starfleet and Federation puhbahs have been begging Commander Riker to accept his own command since about season two of "Star Trek: The Next Generation". Giving now Captain Riker of the starship Titan a starring role in a new Star Trek film would be an excellent idea.

Another big problem with the Star Trek films is that the main "bad guys" are either massively imposing overmatches for the Enterprise (such as in films I, IV, VI, VIII, IX, and X) or somehow manage to take a mechnically crippled or compromised Enterpise by surprise (films II, III, V, VII). The classic Klingon "bird of prey" starship -- highlighted in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" for example -- looks like a dependable, workhorse technology by comparison. So another great strategy for a "Star Trek XI" would be Federation technology that doesn't suck!

Another interesting point is that Captain Kirk's career starts to falter and decline in "Star Trek III", which not coincidentally is the earliest reference to the Klingon peace negotiations that end up becoming a dominant theme of all post-Khan Star Trek fiction. This is a sign that the Federation, at least in the post-Khan era of the canon, has been largely abandoned for the Klingon Empire as a creative inspiration for the film and series producers. As Andrew Sullivan might say, this tells us something about ourselves. So another good idea for reviving the Star Trek franchise would be inventing a reason for people to be inspired by the Federation again instead of giving us yet another ultimately self-defeating Federation conspiracy theory (as in movies VI and IX).

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A post-modern pet peeve

A common story device that seems to pop up in a lot of contexts is the character who is experiencing unusual phenomena that suggest either that the character has developed some kind of mental illness or that some kind of bizarre circumstance is somehow mimicing the symptoms of mental illness. In a postmodern sense, it's easy to see the attraction of this kind of plot device. The author (or director or scriptwriter or whoever) of the story can either gratify or frustrate the audience's expectations by adjusting the ratio of "craziness" to "extenuating circumstance" accordingly. Of course, it's entirely possible to screw up the formula one way or another, and one easy way of doing that is through overuse. A canonical example of overuse is the television series "Star Trek: The Next Generation", which produced episodes in which

In hindsight, one is suprised by the fact that better defensive measures haven't been adopted by a crew that is fighting off alien mind games in a sizable fraction of its recorded adventures.

Another way of bungling a story involving a character who cannot decide if he or she is insane or not is to introduce a third option that precludes the other two. The example that I have in mind is the movie "Solaris". In this case, astronauts housed in a space station in orbit around an alien planet named Solaris are visited by apparitions that appear to be real people that have been recreated from the astronauts' memories. For example, the character Chris Kelvin awakens after his first night in orbit around Solaris to find himself in bed with his wife -- here seen alive and well -- whom he had previously believed to be dead.

One question that Kelvin finds himself confronted with is whether this entity is his wife, or is simply a fantasy version of his wife reconstructed from his imperfect memories of her, or is something in-between. A second question is whether Kelvin can determine the answer to the riddle embodied by Solaris before the mental strain of dealing with these apparitions incapacitates him. Unfortunately, the evidence that the film gives for answering these questions is rendered unreliable by a third possibility: that the drugs that Kelvin takes to remain awake at a critical point have themselves damaged his ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

An even more botched example involves the introduction of a fourth explanation which renders moot the previous three options. Here, the case I have in mind is the film "The Tenant". The story involves a shy young man who moves into an apartment previously inhabited by a woman who just recently committed suicide. At first, we have the familiar dilemma when the young man realizes that he cannot decide if he is merely being paranoid or if he is the victim of a subtle murder conspiracy involving his neighbors (thus leading to the suicide of the previous tenant). The film is relatively slow-paced at first, so halfway through the movie the action accelerates when the young man suffers some kind of presumably drug-induced hallucinatory delirium. Certainly the question of conspiracy versus insanity at the beginning of the film is rendered moot when the young man rather abrubtly appears to go bonkers because of this mysterious delirium. Then, as if this wasn't enough muddying of the waters, a final plot twist establishes that all of the previous events were in fact the product of an insanity that was totally different than the audience had previously been led to believe. As Roger Ebert described it:
There is then an ironic ending that will come as a complete surprise to anyone who has missed every episode of "Night Gallery" or the CBS Mystery Theater. It turns out that -- but never mind, never mind. It's been a long time since I've heard an audience talk back to the ending of a horror film. "The Tenant" might have made a decent little 20-minute sketch for one of those British horror anthology films in which Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price pick up a little loose change. As a film by Polanski, it's unspeakably disappointing.
Obviously a big drawback to this entire line of storytelling is the tendency of 20th century citizens of Western societies to immediately adopt self-medication as a solution to their problems. Star Trek: The Next Generation escapes this problem since the main characters are getting cycled through sick bay for either examination or treatment on an episode-to-episode basis in any case. The show assigned roughly 30% of its main character cast to support personnel keeping the other 70% alive and functional, after all.

Yet Another Ascension Post

I finally won a game of Nethack this week. Now I can never play this game ever again!