Thursday, May 29, 2008

Barack Obama might not make it to November.

Republican presidential nominee presumptive John McCain may not have entirely solidified his base as of yet, but he is doing the next best thing by making his presumptive general election opponent, Barack Obama, look like an idiot. An example of this came just this week when McCain invited Obama for a joint trip to Iraq this summer:
Republican John McCain on Monday sharply criticized Democratic rival Barack Obama for not having been to Iraq since 2006, and said they should visit the war zone together.

"Look at what happened in the last two years since Senator Obama visited and declared the war lost," the GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting told The Associated Press in an interview, noting that the Illinois senator's last trip to Iraq came before the military buildup that is credited with curbing violence.

"He really has no experience or knowledge or judgment about the issue of Iraq and he has wanted to surrender for a long time," the Arizona senator added. "If there was any other issue before the American people, and you hadn't had anything to do with it in a couple of years, I think the American people would judge that very harshly."
This attack on Obama is absolutely devastating. The accusation here is that Obama is not only completely wrong on Iraq, and not only deliberately misleading the American people about Iraq, but that he is deliberately misleading himself(!!!) about the conditions in Iraq by refusing to visit. McCain's position, on the other hand, is entirely enviable. Essentialy, McCain is saying that conditions in Iraq have improved in the last two years, that anyone who can be bothered to care about his own country's actions would have to be a total fool not to recognize it, and, as is well known, that it was McCain's visible and staunch leadership that contributed greatly to the success.

There is another reason for the joint trip, of course. McCain is suggesting that if Obama visits Iraq on his own with nothing but his sycophantic Democratic allies, Obama will just lie about what he sees there. You can't trust Obama to tell the truth unless McCain comes along to keep him honest.

As you might have expected, Obama is at least smart enough to realize that all of this is true, which is why he might visit Iraq this summer, but not with McCain:
Barack Obama is considering a visit to Iraq this summer, his first since becoming a presidential candidate.

Obama revealed his plans to The New York Times. He has been under criticism from Republican rival John McCain for failing to visit Iraq since 2006. Obama also declined McCain's invitation for a joint trip, saying he didn't want "to be involved in a political stunt," according to a report Wednesday on the newspaper's Web site.
It should be no surprise that Hillary Clinton is not quitting the presidential nominating process given that her chief opponent, if elected, would likely be the single most-inept foreign-policy president since Franklin Pierce.

The single most fake-looking Tudor portrait ever

Showtime's miniseries "The Tudors" chose the "I could snap your neck in a second" pose for their iconic image of the English King Henry VIII. Suffice it to say that the real King Henry VIII would have never been caught dead being painted in the ready-to-throttle mode; his real preference was for the "package shot" (notice the conspicuous absence of a "muscle shirt" in the historical portrait).

Monday, May 26, 2008

Liberal Guilt (Possibly part I)

Ron Rosenbaum has written a deep meditation on liberal guilt at Consider his starting point for the discussion:
When did "liberal guilt" get such a bad reputation? You hear it all the time now from people who sneeringly dismiss whites who support Obama's candidacy as "guilty liberals." There are, of course, many reasons why whites might support Obama that have nothing to do with race. But what if redeeming our shameful racial past is one factor for some? Why delegitimize sincere excitement that his nomination and potential election would represent a historic civil rights landmark: making an abstract right a reality at last. Instead, their feeling must be disparaged as merely the result of a somehow shameful "liberal guilt."
Here Mr. Rosenbaum hurts his case by conflating the two distinct emotions of guilt and sincere excitement into one. Sincere excitement that an African-American man has won a United States Presidential election is, in my view, entirely natural and justified. I think that both conservatives and liberals can agree on this point. However, this emotion is also the exact opposite of guilt.

We thus come to a line that runs through every human heart. Is excitement over a single electoral victory enough to dispel guilt over the failures of the past? We might as well ask if doing happy things can keep us from feeling sad or if succeeding at work can keep us from feeling inadequate. The best answer to the question that I have, on the face of things, is "maybe". Here Mr. Rosenbaum inadvertantly suggests that "maybe" is much to optimistic an answer:
Since when is shame shameful when it's shame about a four-centuries-long historical crime? Not one of us is a slave owner today, segregation is no longer enshrined in law, and there are fewer overt racists than before, but if we want to praise America's virtues, we have to concede—and feel guilty about—America's sins, else we praise a false god, a golden calf, a whited sepulcher, a Potemkin village of virtue. (I've run out of metaphors, but you get the picture.)
There are two ways of interpreting this passage that lead us to the same conclusion. It might be suggesting that it is correct for the individual American to ascribe to himself culpability and thus guilt and shame for acts of other individual Americans that could have no possible association with himself. Another way of interpreting the passage is to see it as suggessting that it might be correct for the individual member of the American demos to ascribe to himself culpability and thus guilt and shame for acts of the American demos as a whole that could have no possible association to himself.

You can grapple with those interpretations as you wish, but if you accept either of them, then you are going to have some serious problems with achieving redemption. The reason should be clear: if you accept personal blame for the actions of others, then there is no possible way that your personal actions can achieve redemption for yourself. Voting for Barack Obama might make you feel better, for a while, but it won't rewrite history for you and it won't change your memories.

At this point, Mr. Rosenbaum's article jumps the rails:
Guilt is good, people! The only people who don't suffer guilt are sociopaths and serial killers. Guilt means you have a conscience. You have self-awareness, you have—in the case of America's history of racism—historical awareness. Just because things have gotten better in the present doesn't mean we can erase racism from our past or ignore its enduring legacy.
Here Mr. Rosenbaum compounds a rather drastic error that he alluded to in the previous excerpt. In reality, guilt is most definitely not good. The emotion we should be correctly be experiencing through historical awareness is not guilt but empathy. Our ancestors committed some titanic crimes, but some of them also achieved some precious knowledge about the human condition despite the horrendous cost.

Of course, by treating the problem of historical guilt as an individual emotion, I've managed to exclude a big chunk of liberal opinion upon the subject, namely, that none of our current problems would be in existence if it wasn't for those damn conservatives. I'll leave this aspect of the article aside for a future part II.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

More cultural decadence

I saw some remarks about the new Indiana Jones film that made my weekend (hyperlinks in original removed):
Sure, I said Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a fun afternoon diversion, but that doesn't mean it wasn't total crap. I love Indy, and I loved the "alien skull" premise of this film, and yet the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. The ending felt like bad TV. And no, it's not cool or neato that Indy was able to survive a nuclear bomb blast by hiding inside a refrigerator. I can believe that he might escape a giant zooming rock by the skin of his teeth, but a nuclear bomb? That stretches the bounds of credibility so far that I'm not having fun anymore. I'm just feeling condescended to. Plus, as many io9 commenters already noted, the CGI ants were crap. Swarm of ants = good. Swarm of ants so fake they look like a batch of angry M&Ms (and not the good kind you can drink with the Carl Brandon Society) = crap.
Spielberg and Lucas obviously have Indiana Jones conflated with MacGyver after abandoning the film series for 19 years.

Actually, it seems like Lucas might be responsible for this because it fits his M.O.: "borrowing" key plot elements from other successful science-fiction franchises. For example:
  • The original "Star Wars" trilogy borrowed rather extensively from the novel "Dune". A good list of the borrowings is presented here.

  • The planet Coruscant in the "Star Wars" prequels consists of one planet-wide city, akin to planet Trantor in the "Foundation" novels.

  • The starship crash landing on Coruscant in the beginning of "Revenge of the Sith" looks a lot like a similar crash landing in the film "Pitch Black".

  • That aliens had contact with the ancient peoples of Earth is a key premise of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull". It is also a key premise of the most popular television show in the history of the science-fiction genre: "Stargate SG-1".

Putting ancient aliens into the latest Indiana Jones film also fits another recent Lucas M.O.: s**tcanning the religious overtones of his original breakthrough blockbusters. Merely stating the word "midichlorians" should suffice to prove this point.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Yet more evidence that American culture is slipping into decadence

Apparently it pays off handsomely to take a cherished part of American film culture and to wreck it by remaking it. The latest example is that the cable channel A&E has remade the science fiction classic "The Andromeda Strain". The problem is that the original film is apparently too boring for a contemporary geek's attention span, so they have to sex up the plot with crazy stuff that isn't in the original. According to the wikipedia plot synopsis, the producers of the remake decided to throw in such crowd-pleasing details as having someone fall into a vat of radioactive cooling fluid. There's even a frickin' wormhole plot twist involving a space station at the end (damn you, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine")!

The irony is that the remake has certainly adapted enough of the original plot to qualify as a remake while ditching the visual style of the original, despite the fact that the original is mostly distinguished by its visual style. In the original, we have a rich evocation of the American technocratic mindset. The main characters are, for the most part, middle-aged, non-glamorous career researchers; these are exactly the type of researchers with the career eminence to lead a major, crack research effort. The technology, consisting of the dot-matrix teleprinters and ASCII mainframe terminals of the day, reminds us that even the most advance tools of a generation ago were recognized as both indispensible and primitive even then. There is also the emphasis upon government formalism evoking the days of "the men in the gray flannel suits" when government planning was considered the trend of the future.

The net effect of the original visual style is to emphasize modernity, or at least the impression of late-1960s modernity that the film thought was going to impress its audience. This point seems to have escaped the notice of some of those involved in the remake (hyperlink in original removed):
Apparently star Andre Braugher isn't a big fan of the novel, "Crichton's book doesn't hold up to the test of time and so not much happens. When you go back to 1968 and read that book it's anti-climactic, period, so this is a re-telling of the story with the same premise." Let's hope fans of the novel aren't rankled too much by that. As long as he's nitpicking, he might as well say that the 1971 film based on the same novel doesn't hold up that well either. What's going to make their version so much better?

He's very stingy with the details, and basically only tells us that he's playing the military man who is brought in to deal with the situation, while Benjamin Bratt plays the "hot-headed scientist" who is trying to track down the virus. Does Benjamin Bratt have any roles where he isn't hot-headed? According to Braugher, the film will have some elements of Sphere in it (please dear god, let him mean the novel and not the awful movie version), and promises that the virus won't be benign as it is in the novel, but will be "malignant and on the loose."
This point of view seems to be that people seem to love the original film for some inexplicible reason completely unrelated to the low action level, but of course everybody knows that movies with little action couldn't possibly be any good, therefore the remake should have nothing but credits-to-credits, non-stop action. This is cultural decadence.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Senator Lieberman looks for answers.

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Senator Joe Lieberman poses the question of how the Democratic Party went from FDR and Truman to Obama:
How did the Democratic Party get here? How did the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy drift so far from the foreign policy and national security principles and policies that were at the core of its identity and its purpose?
Here Liebermen essentially points to those "darn kids" of the Vietnam era as the cause of the shift:
This worldview began to come apart in the late 1960s, around the war in Vietnam. In its place, a very different view of the world took root in the Democratic Party. Rather than seeing the Cold War as an ideological contest between the free nations of the West and the repressive regimes of the communist world, this rival political philosophy saw America as the aggressor – a morally bankrupt, imperialist power whose militarism and "inordinate fear of communism" represented the real threat to world peace.
In a very limited sense, the 1960s protestors are right and Senator Lieberman is wrong about the causes of this shift in the Democratic Party. The cause for the shift in the 1960s was that the old foreign policy establishment had dramatically failed, with the Vietnam War being the most obvious symptom of that failure. The cause of this failure of the old foreign policy establishment was a blunder -- a blunder of such world-historical, geopolitical stupidity that its equal may never yet be achieved.

The source of the blunder was Truman. If you would have asked him, circa 1946, to name the one man who posed the most dire threat to United States interests in Asia, he would have immediately mentioned Stalin. This answer is certainly correct. However, if you were to ask him to name the man who was next most dire threat to United States interests in Asia, his answer would have been somewhat odd: Ho Chi Minh*! Yes, you read that correctly. President Truman and his Democratic Party literally believed that Mao Zedong was going to turn China into one big pro-American happy-land, but that an obscure, s.o.b. communist rebel leader in some tiny little country in the middle of nowhere had to be stopped at all costs.

The principle error in Asia that Truman made is the notion that there are "no enemies on the Left", except that Truman applied the principle somewhat more inconsistently than the 1960s protestors and their successors wished. That Obama believes in "no enemies on the Left" should be abundantly clear by now.

*By the way, not stopping Ho Chi Minh's ambitions in Vietnam would have pissed off France quite a bit. Even in the 1940s, losing France's approval was a major American no-no.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Barack Obama is a communist.

The lastest remarks from America's leading socialist thinker:
"We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK," Obama said.
Actually, we can do these things because they are called rights. We still have rights in the United States, Senator Obama!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A vote for Obama is a vote for class warfare

Given that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are the two biggest clowns to be put in charge of Congress in decades, the mainstream media has been making sure to keep them well hidden this year. Unfortunately, Nancy Pelosi will occasionally do something so stupid that the press is practically forced to report on it. This time, it's yet more silly games being played with the latest war spending bill:
Conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats blocked a vote last week over Democratic leaders' attempts to add an additional $51.8 billion over the next decade for veterans education to the $183.8 billion war funding tab. They insisted on finding a way to pay for the new benefit without simply adding to the deficit.

"What we're talking about is a one-half percent income tax surcharge on incomes above $1 million," said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a leader of the Blue Dog group. "So someone who earns $2 million a year would pay $5,000. ... They're not going to miss it."

The $1 million income level would apply to couples. Individuals would pay the surcharge on income exceeding $500,000.

The idea earned support from House leaders at a late afternoon meeting of top Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Certainly Speaker Pelosi must be delighted that the so-called "conservative" Democrats are engaging in open class warfare on her behalf. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to realize that she is killing her own bill by indulging them:
Democrats will try — as they have unsuccessfully in the past — to force the troops home. The bill would require that troops start leaving Iraq within 30 days of its enactment and set a nonbinding goal of withdrawing combat troops by the end of December 2009. It also would require that any troops deployed into a combat zone exceed the Pentagon's peacetime standards for being fully trained and equipped.

However, both of these provisions are expected to fail in the Senate and be stripped from a final bill the House is to approve this spring.
Remember, with a President Obama in charge, there will be nobody left to prevent the Democratic Congress's ultra-extreme liberals from launching a total war on their class enemies.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

"Iron Man": Random thoughts

I went to see the newly released "Iron Man" tonight, and I was impressed. Random thoughts about the film will accumulate here.
  • First, this is definitely not a feminist film. The main character, playboy billionaire weapons contractor Tony Stark, has the amazing talent of turning practically any women who crosses his path into a slut or a stripper.

    The anti-feminism also pops up on a meta-level as well. Lead actress Gwyneth Paltrow spends the entire movie being made up to look like Kirsten Dunst, an actress about 10 years younger.

  • "Iron Man" is also a profoundly conservative film, but not necessarily for the reason that you might have expected. At the start of the film, Tony Stark is motoring along in an armored convoy of humvees in Afghanistan having just demonstrated an advanced new weapon system to the United States Army. Stark's convoy is ambushed by the local terrorist forces who, as fate would have it, are equipped with huge supplies of weapons manufactured by Stark's own company. Stark himself is captured and nearly killed by the terrorists; only his own ingenuity and the assistance of an unlikely ally allow him to escape. When Stark finally escapes and returns back to the United States, he publically announces that his company will discontinue the manufacture of weapons system. Privately, Stark begins work on a personal set of unstoppably powerful battle armor to enable himself to kick terrorist butt with a vengeance.

    Media critics have observed that this is fairly conservative as it stands: an American responds to being "mugged by reality" with a mixture of personal self-improvement and ruthless vengeance. On the other hand, the movie is actually much more profoundly conservative than this. Consider the paradox of Stark converting his multi-billion dollar company to purely peaceful activities while building a battle suit for his exclusive use that is orders of magnitude more militarily powerful than anything Stark had ever built before. The conclusion we are forced to draw is that Stark has not renounced weapons contracting so much as he has renounced mass weapons contracting.

    In other words, Stark is really renouncing the democratic principle as a component of modern warfare. He creates an immensely powerful suit of armor, but like a medieval knight, he reserves its use for those he feels have the moral enlightenment and the personal discipline (namely, himself) to use it responsibly. Stark is also more than willing to take the war to the terrorists despite the rather explicit wishes of the American demos that the Afghan terrorists be treated as class allies.

  • Moving on, the next thing to keep in mind about "Iron Man" is that Tony Stark is practically indestructable for a big portion of the film. While wearing the Iron Man armor, Stark manages to survive small arms fire; .50 calibre machine gun fire; a hit from an artillery shell; a collision with an F-22 at Mach 1; ascent to low Earth orbit with nothing except a metal helmet over his head; and levels of G-forces that would have liquified his skull in real life.

    The one major injury that he doesn't seem able to instantly regenerate is a shrapnel wound directly to the heart. In a typically ironic comic book twist, Stark manages to survive but is left with a fist-sized cavity and a flux capacitor where his heart used to be.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A self-refuting blog post

Last week, Andrew Sullivan quoted a reader who asked the question:
And would strong support of Obama be a sort of repudiation of Black conservative Republicans, who have had the courage to completely repudiate black victimhood-speak?
Sullivan's response was:
Agreed. And this tension is partly why Shelby Steele cannot bring himself to back Obama. But Obama has definitely pushed the boundaries against victimology within the context of the black Democratic caucus. And that has to be a good thing all round in the end.
This argument is about as racist as an author can be without throwing around pejoratives. It is also self-refuting: if Barack Obama really is as enlightened on racial issues as Andrew Sullivan claims, then Obama would certainly never expect Black conservatives like Shelby Steele to vote for him out of a sense of racial solidarity. Even Andrew Sullivan's own "conservatism of doubt" argues against his position here: shouldn't a conservative of doubt admit the possibility that Shelby Steele really is a sincere political conservative?

Monday, May 05, 2008

From "How dare they?" to "All's fair..." in two weeks.

The Daily Dish, April 22:
To say that someone who self-describes as a Christian is actually an atheist or a Muslim is a form of McCarthyism, but because it rests on no facts at all, and mere suspicion, and indeed denial of what the candidate himself says in an area only the candidate can truly know, it's something slightly different. McCarthy at least himself believed that his targets might have been (and some indeed were) Communists. Bill Kristol doesn't actually believe that Obama is a Communist. But the threat of a non-Republican non-fundamentalist Christianity emerging in national political discourse is so dangerous to Kristol's coalition that the Big Lie is necessary. McCarthy, one needs to remember, had more respect for the truth and was far less cynical than Rove.
The Daily Dish, May 5:
This YouTube is surely as damaging as anything Jeremiah Wright has said. Yes: Wright was Obama's pastor for twenty years, and McCain has no real personal history with [John] Hagee. But McCain sought out Hagee's endorsement, has appeared with him in campaign settings and has said he is "pleased" and "very honored" to have his endorsement. Blaming Katrina on New Orleans' "sinfulness" is more specific than Wright's "chickens". McCain needs, I think, to denounce and reject his support: [YouTube hyperlink in original]

Saturday, May 03, 2008

"Cloverfield": random thoughts

I finally watched the film "Cloverfield" the other day, so here are some accumulated musings about it.
  • The film "Cloverfield" is about a giant-sized monster that attacks Manhattan island. Perhaps the single most pathetic aspect of the film is that the producers consider the monster to be a newborn baby of its species rampaging across the city in a desperate bid to call out to its mother (i.e. sequel bait). This seems to reflect a particularly American version of the Japanese monster film; recall that the American-produced "Godzilla" had the Godzilla monster laying eggs in the Manhattan subway tunnels. Contrast this with the Japanese version, which eventually reached the point where a human speaker of "monster-sprach" could talk to Godzilla and try to convince him to help humanity instead of destroying it.

  • Another rather pathetic aspect of the film is that the United States seems to have lost its ability to innovate solutions to these types of monster problems. Back in the 1950s, when Americans were confronted with a monster attack they would scientifically aproach the problem of finding an effective counter-measure. Americans would first try shooting it, and if that didn't work, then they would try freezing it, lighting it on fire, electrocuting it, hacking its computers, or using sonic attacks. When the monster of "Cloverfield" turns out to be immune to automatic weapons fire, artillery fire, and arial bombardment, the United States decides to escalate to "Extra bomb-the-hell-out-of-it super arial bombardment". Good luck with that.

  • The next thing that one notices about "Cloverfield" is that the main monster drops off little parasites that look like they were born on planet Klendathu. The parasites also happen to have a contagious bite that can infect a human with what appears to be a form of super-fast acting, extra-strength ebola virus that causes a massive abdominal rupture in a matter of hours. In real life, this is practically impossible. Life forms as closely related to humans as pigs and chickens are barely able to communicate infectious diseases to humans; giant wacko monsters that have been sleeping under the Atlantic Ocean for millions of years are just not going to be able to pull it off.

    Of course, we don't actually see the massive abdominal rupture on screen. Manhattan island might be expendable, but that PG-13 rating certainly wasn't.

  • The main characters of "Cloverfield" for the most part live like models out of a magazine. In other words, they so banal as to be almost unworthy of mention. The only exceptions are Marlena (i.e. Ebola Girl, see above) and Hud, who seems to be perpetually chased by the monster to the extent that one suspects that the monster has invaded Manhattan for the sole purpose of hunting him down.

  • The banality of the main characters also means that the movie plays like a two-hour infomercial for the monster. The few remaining humans serve as canon fodder for defining the monster's abilities for comparison with other monsters.

    In order to make their 84-minute monster showcase a bit like a real film, the producers include a series of "Tarantino Moments": a moment in which in which the slow motion threat of physical death confonting a character makes even the most ludicrous dialogue seem to have a psychological weight entirely out of proportion to it's literal meaning. All such Tarantino Moments in "Cloverfield" fail rather spectacularly for the simple reason that "Cloverfield" is absolutely incapable of creating the suspense required to make such a moment work. The major events of "Cloverfield" are as utterly non-suspenseful as could possibly be imagined (yes, you can even predict the exact moment when the first random bad-thing happens). So whenever we reach a brief lull in the action that would be a perfect time for a Tarantino Moment, the effect is spoiled by the certainty that absolutely nothing unfortunate will happen to the characters in the meantime.