Saturday, January 31, 2004

On Mel Gibson's Latest Flick  

Chances are that Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ" is a terrible movie, because most films on religious subjects are. Even a filmmmaker as brilliant as Scorcese couldn't pull it off.

However, what I've heard about Gibson's effort definitely intriques me, esp. the use of dead languages and its apparently brutal realism. So maybe it's a good film after all. Regardless, Gibson certainly has hired the world's best publicist who's made it into a must-see event, although for all the wrong reasons. I mean, he even snookered the Pope, the poor fellow, into endorsing it, sort of.

But as Hitchcock used to say, it's only a movie. Gibson may be an anti-semitic bastard, but he wouldn't be the first or the last decent artist that was (Wagner and Stravinsky come to mind immediately). To judge art on the "virtuousness" of the artist, or the lack thereof, always seems a little weird to me.

Now, if "The Passion" is truly a work of art, then it will be as morally ambiguous as all other works of art. It very well may have anti-semitic subtexts but there will be other themes that complexify it and cause viewers to question the meaning of these prejudices and bigotries. On the other hand, if it turns out that "The Passion" is primarily an anti-semitic screed, or a thinly disguised one, chances are it will be less than effective as art and will simply disappear. The least of its problems will be its hateful agenda.

None of this has stopped people from getting worked up over its anti-semitism. But all of us who will see it are adults, after all. Presumably, we've learned the difference between the truth of a work of art - the way it composes and modulates its content with its artifice to approach the ineffable - and the truth of history and science, which insists upon empircial data, reliable witnesses, and reproducibility. If we haven't learned the difference, if we don't know how to approach and evaluate a serious artwork - and by all accounts, "The Passion" is a serious attempt, at least - it is not up to Gibson or the ADL to teach us or to enlighten us. That is our own job.

I might hate "The Passion," both aesthetically and culturally; odds are I will as I've rarely liked any of his films. But Gibson has every right to make whatever he wants and to show it without censorship and without a gratuitous epilogue saying that he doesn't mean to offend anyone.

Naturally, when dealing with a medium like film, where art meets finance in ways that are arguably more interconnected than in any other genre, there are complexities and nuances which cloud judgements of film as purely auteur driven artwork. If you write a poem, after all, how much will that cost? A few sheets of paper, a pencil, not much else. Film, on the other hand, is by far the most expensive artistic medium to date. Artistic ideas are easily, in fact usually, made servant to the buck and that leads to all kinds of mischief. That said, I think it is still the case that if an error is to be made, it should be on the side of letting the work speak for itself, as the author of the work intended.

[UPDATE:] On the other hand...When you read crap like this, it kinda shakes one's confidence a little about how sensible it is to let Gibson release without objection something that can embolden such fools to speak up. For if defending Gibson's artistic rights get mistaken for approval of even a single of Gibson's wacko beliefs...well, then we got some problems.

Perhaps the best solution is to be sure that "The Passion" plays on a double bill with this immortal masterpiece of the vicissitudes of religious faith.

[UPDATE:] It is instructive to read, vis a vis the brouhaha over the film (not the film itself, but the controversy), this confidentiality agreement which preview attendees are required to sign. You can praise "The Passion" all you want but you are not allowed to criticize it.

In other words, the high dudgeon, the defenses, the numerous articles everywhere are not part of an attempt to begin a serious discourse about the meaning of The Passion for Christians and non-Christians but merely part of Gibson's brilliantly orchestrated publicity campaign, creating the perfect kind of buzz for "arty" projects that are usually the kiss of box office death: intense word of mouth. The purpose of such a campaign is to maximize first weekend sales, before actual word of mouth by dispassionate viewers can negatively affect the box office.

In other words, Gibson is not worried so much about "accuracy" or "being true to his artistic vision" as he is about losing his money if the film sucks and then bombs.

Since Gibson has not paid me to write about his film - and my opinions can't be bought in any event - I see no reason to flack it further. The film stands or falls on its value as art, not whether it is good history or a vital tool in the furtherance of good interdenominational relations, which film is not obligated to be and in fact, given the nature of film art, never can be. So the present controversy is not a serious one, but a jury-rigged one, part of a cynical publicity campaign which has snookered some very sincere people in selling tickets for something they haven't seen. Therefore, there is every good reason to ignore both the pre-critics and the pre-praisers.

And, given the intensity with which Gibson's pr folks are working, there is every good reason to believe that the film probably blows. But to find out if that's true, we'll have to see the movie, which becomes less and less an appealing prospect the more Gibson hypes it.

[UPDATE] Salon goes into some of the marketing strategies behind the movie.

Evangelicals Know Their Message Is Not Wanted  

So they're pulling a bait and switch, disguising Christianist propaganda as something it isn't:
'I wanted it to look like a sports magazine,' said Mr. Reese, who coaches at the University of Minnesota at Morris and hopes to turn his three-year-old site into a full-time ministry. 'It's a little covert. I know that religion or Christianity is a turn-off with a great part of the population. I didn't want to shove it in people's faces.'
"A little covert," the guy says. Is that like being a little pregnant?

Anyway, there's a word for this kind of a scam. It's called fraud. And if they solicit money, it's a crime.

12 Killed In Iraq Including 3 US Troops  

One of the most violent months of the war:
A car bomb targeting a police station in Iraq's third largest city killed nine people and injured 45 others Saturday, while three American soldiers died when a roadside bomb ripped through their convoy near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Witnesses in Mosul, Iraq's major northern city, said what appeared to be a suicide attacker drove through a security barricade in front of the police station before blowing up his vehicle outside the building. Officials confirmed a car bomb but wouldn't say if it was a suicide attack.

In Kirkuk, a homemade bomb exploded as a 4th Infantry Division convoy passed by about 25 miles southwest of the city Saturday, killing the three soldiers, the U.S. military said. The deaths raised to 522 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq conflict.

Seraphiel's Daily Cartoon Roundup  


The Times Gets Real On Diebold  

Finally, Diebold's catastrophically crummy machines rate the lead editorial. But they ran it in the Saturday edition, which is the least read day of the paper. Nevertheless, it's a step forward. The part about the locks is particularly amusing:
When Maryland decided to buy 16,000 AccuVote-TS voting machines, there was considerable opposition. Critics charged that the new touch-screen machines, which do not create a paper record of votes cast, were vulnerable to vote theft. The state commissioned a staged attack on the machines, in which computer-security experts would try to foil the safeguards and interfere with an election.

They were disturbingly successful. It was an "easy matter," they reported, to reprogram the access cards used by voters and vote multiple times. They were able to attach a keyboard to a voting terminal and change its vote count. And by exploiting a software flaw and using a modem, they were able to change votes from a remote location.

Critics of new voting technology are often accused of being alarmist, but this state-sponsored study contains vulnerabilities that seem almost too bad to be true. Maryland's 16,000 machines all have identical locks on two sensitive mechanisms, which can be opened by any one of 32,000 keys. The security team had no trouble making duplicates of the keys at local hardware stores, although that proved unnecessary since one team member picked the lock in "approximately 10 seconds."
And how does Diebold describe this disaster?
Diebold, the machines' manufacturer, rushed to issue a self-congratulatory press release with the headline "Maryland Security Study Validates Diebold Election Systems Equipment for March Primary." The study's authors were shocked to see their findings spun so positively.
Up Is Down. War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Salon Tears Perle A New One  

And boy does he ever deserve it. This is a review of his book, with David Frum, entitled with messianic confidence "An End to Evil:"
Here are some of the authors' policy recommendations:

Preparing to launch a preemptive attack on North Korea, after moving our troops out of range of their artillery and missiles.

Taking direct action to topple the regime in Iran, by providing aid to Iranian dissidents.

Being prepared to invade Syria, of whom the authors write, "Really, there is only one question to ask about Syria: Why have we put up with it as long as we have?"

Being prepared to invade Libya. "The illusion that Muammar al-Qaddafi is 'moderating' should be treated as what it is: a symptom of the seemingly incurable wishful delusions that afflict the accommodationists in the foreign policy establishment." (Now that those accommodationists in State have been proven right, don't expect an apology from the authors: They'll claim Qaddafi got rid of his WMD programs only because Bush invaded Iraq. All other answers, no matter if they're true, don't fit with their Manichaean, evildoers-respond-only-to-force worldview. Besides, those who are always right must never apologize. It is a sign of weakness, which our evil Muslim terrorist enemies (TM) will exploit with evil terror.)

Taking a superconfrontational line with Saudi Arabia, including letting them know that if they don't reform we would look with favor upon a Shiite uprising in their oil-rich Eastern Province.

Abandoning the Israeli-Palestinian peace process altogether. In a radical departure from U.S. policy, they say the Palestinians should not be given a state. Creating a Palestinian state out of the West Bank and Gaza, they write, will not bring peace to the region, because the Palestinians and other Arabs are only interested in vengeance, not justice. Instead, the Palestinians should "let go of the past" and content themselves with becoming citizens of the Arab countries in which they now live. The authors do not say what should happen to the 3.9 million Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories: Presumably they should either agree to become second-class citizens like the other Israeli Arabs, or leave.

Their domestic policies are equally arresting:

Requiring all residents to carry a national identity card that includes "biometric data, like fingerprints or retinal scans or DNA," and empowering all law enforcement officers to enforce immigration laws. The authors admit that such a card "could be used in abusive ways," but reassure us by saying that victims of "executive branch abuse will be able to sue." Those who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear!

Encouraging Americans to "report suspicious activity." Apparently alone among Americans, the authors lament the demise of the TIPS program.

Changing immigration policy so that the U.S. can bar all would-be visitors who have "terrorist sympathies." The authors define "terrorist sympathies" so broadly that this would rule out a high percentage of visitors from Muslim or Arab countries.

Reforming the CIA to make it more hard-line on the Middle East. There can be no argument that American intelligence desperately needs reform. But after the yellowcake scandal, after the Valerie Plame leak, after the lies and distortions and creation of special offices to cook evidence, for Bush hard-liners to trash the intelligence community and the State Department takes some chutzpah.
Go read the rest of the review, but wait until it's remaindered, if you feel you simply must have the book.

Shuttle Investigator Will Review Hubble Decision  

The head of the board that investigated the Columbia space shuttle disaster has agreed to examine NASA's decision to cancel any missions to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope, agency officials said on Thursday.
If you haven't already, be sure to sign the Save the Hubble petition.

Seraphiel's Daily Cartoon Roundup  



Not only is he right on the facts, he is 100% on target emotionally. We have become so inured to Bush's corruption, incompetence, and serial lying that we lose sight of the fact that the only rational response to the latest scandal should be unmediated outrage:
George Bush promised to bring honor and integrity back to the White House. Instead, he got rid of accountability...

So where are the apologies? Where are the resignations? Where is the investigation of this intelligence debacle? All we have is bluster from Dick Cheney, evasive W.M.D.-related-program-activity language from Mr. Bush — and a determined effort to prevent an independent inquiry.

True, Mr. Kay still claims that this was a pure intelligence failure. I don't buy it: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has issued a damning report on how the threat from Iraq was hyped, and former officials warned of politicized intelligence during the war buildup...

In any case, the point is that a grave mistake was made, and America's credibility has been badly damaged — and nobody is being held accountable. But that's standard operating procedure. As far as I can tell, nobody in the Bush administration has ever paid a price for being wrong. Instead, people are severely punished for telling inconvenient truths. And administration officials have consistently sought to freeze out, undermine or intimidate anyone who might try to check up on their performance...

These people politicize everything, from military planning to scientific assessments. If you're with them, you pay no penalty for being wrong. If you don't tell them what they want to hear, you're an enemy, and being right is no excuse.

Still, the big story isn't about Mr. Bush; it's about what's happening to America. Other presidents would have liked to bully the C.I.A., stonewall investigations and give huge contracts to their friends without oversight. They knew, however, that they couldn't. What has gone wrong with our country that allows this president to get away with such things?[emphasis added.]
I wish I could answer you, Dr. Krugman. As I've blogged, I think there is an intellectual and educational crisis, a failure to recognize really bad ideas at their earliest stages of influence. But it's more complicated than that. Because the scandals of the Bush/Iraq War, Plamegate, the war profiteering in Iraq, et al. ad nauseum are not about a failure to recognize wrongdoing, but about a lack of motivation to speak out against injustice, lying and criminal behavior. As to why a people that has as its founding creed an eloquent manifesto denouncing such moral transgressions would abrogate its responsibilities now, I simply have no answer.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

New Study On Diebold Voting Machines  

Diebold's security sucks, according to the report:
Electronic voting machines made by Diebold Inc. that are widely used in several states have such poor computer security and physical security that an election could be disrupted or even stolen by corrupt insiders or determined outsiders, according to a new report presented today to Maryland state legislators.

Authors of the report — the first hands-on attempt to hack Diebold voting machine systems under conditions found during an election — were careful to say that the machines, if not hacked, count votes correctly, and that issues discovered in the "red team" exercise could be addressed in a preliminary way in time for the state's primaries in March...

The authors of the report said that they had expected a higher degree of security in the design of the machines. "We were genuinely surprised at the basic level of the exploits" that allowed tampering, said Mr. Wertheimer, a former security expert for the National Security Agency.

William A. Arbaugh, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland and a member of the Red Team exercise, said, "I can say with confidence that nobody looked at the system with an eye to security who understands security."
[Emphasis added.]

Bush AWOL Timeline  

Since it's in the news, figured I'd post this Bush AWOL timeline from Mother Jones. We report. You get outraged.

At Least 7 US Soldiers Killed In Afghanistan  

A little unclear what happened:
Seven American soldiers in Afghanistan were killed and three were injured in an explosion today in one of the single most-deadly incidents involving American forces since they invaded the country in 2001, the United States Central Command said.

An interpreter was also killed in the explosion and another American soldier has been missing since the incident, which occurred near Ghazni around 3 p.m. local time, about 60 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul, the military reported.

The soldiers were working 'around a weapons cache' when the explosion occurred, the military reported.

Just In Time For Elections, US Plans Spring Offensive To Capture/Kill bin Laden  

The Pentagon is planning a new offensive in the 2-year-old Afghanistan campaign to stop remnants of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terror network, officials said Wednesday, even as a second suicide assault on foreign troops in Kabul in as many days killed one British soldier and injured four.
I love that word "remnants." Sounds to me like they're pretty big remnants.

Seraphiel's Daily Cartoon Roundup  


Save the Hubble Petition  

As you know, Bush's Mars boondoggle has led to the cancelling of the Hubble telescope repair trips, which dooms one of the greatest instruments ever constructed by scientists to a premature death. Sign the Save the Hubble petition here and spread the word.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004


No. God, No.
A well-placed source says that the president will “most likely” drop Dick Cheney from his re-election ticket and his first choice for a replacement is former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“The issue of Cheney’s health will probably be given as the reason,” says the insider. “There’s a short list of possible replacemen
via BuzzFlash

As long time readers know, I have, nightmares about a Bush/Rice ticket, but a Bush/Giuliani ticket is also pretty awful. After all, we had to deal with the guy and he was awful, except on 9/11/01 and for a few days afterwards.

[UPDATE:]Jim Lobe also wonders whether Cheney may be given the boot:
While Democratic rivals battle for the presidential nomination in a succession of gruelling primary elections, Vice President Dick Cheney appears to be fighting to secure his spot on the Republican ticket behind President George W. Bush.

The vice president, whose moderation and 35-year Washington experience reassured voters worried about the callowness and inexperience of Bush during the 2000 campaign, is seen more and more by Republican Party politicos as a drag on the president's re-election chances in what is universally expected to be an extremely close race.

The reasons are simple: instead of the moderate voice of wisdom and caution that voters thought they were getting in the vice president, ongoing disclosures about his role in the drive to war in Iraq and other controversial administration plans depict him as an extremist who constantly pushed for the most radical measures.

He is seen as not just an extremist, but also a kind of 'eminence grise' who exercises undue influence over Bush to further a radical agenda, a notion that was furthered by the publication of a recent book about former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, who described Cheney as creating a ''kind of praetorian guard around the president'' that blocked out contrary views.

In addition, Cheney's association with Halliburton, the giant construction and oil company he headed for much of the 1990s and that gobbled up billions of dollars in contracts for Iraq's post-war reconstruction, is growing steadily as a major political liability.

Tax And Spend, Tax And Spend  

Via THE FULCRUM comes this very interesting table of spending, liberated from the Wall Street Journal.

Some observations:

1. Bush has increased domestic discretionary spending more than any other president since 1965, including Johnson.
2. Bush's spending spree is more than 3 times Clinton's rate.
3. The top two spenders were both Republicans, but heavy domestic spending increases are essentially evenly distributed evenly between the two parties, although Reagan's decrease, while small, is striking.

The Fulcrum has some good analysis from the WSJ. Go read.

[UPDATE: Edited slightly for clarity. Thanks, BF!]

McNamara: Iraq Is Similar To Vietnam  

I guess he should know:
He decided to break his silence on Iraq when I called him up the other day at his Washington office. I told him that his carefully enumerated lists of historic lessons from Vietnam were in danger of being ignored. He agreed, and told me that he was deeply frustrated to see history repeating itself.

"We're misusing our influence," he said in a staccato voice that had lost none of its rapid-fire engagement. "It's just wrong what we're doing. It's morally wrong, it's politically wrong, it's economically wrong."

While he did not want to talk on the record about specific military decisions made Mr. Rumsfeld, he said the United States is fighting a war that he believes is totally unnecessary and has managed to destroy important relationships with potential allies. "There have been times in the last year when I was just utterly disgusted by our position, the United States' position vis-à-vis the other nations of the world."

On Monday night, we heard the United States at its very worst with George W. Bush's caustic State of the Union address, in which he declared, over and over, that America is serving God's will directly and does not need "a permission slip" from other nations since "the cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind."

That vision of manifest destiny, stripped of any larger view, has led down some unfortunate roads. The Iraq action, which would have been conducted in some form or another at some point under any imaginable government, would have been far better conceived if its executors had read Mr. McNamara's works instead of the Book of Revelation.

In 1995, in his memoir In Retrospect, Mr. McNamara published a list of the 11 specific mistakes he believed the United States had made in and around the Vietnam war that still had relevance in the very different political and military climate of the 21st century.

I have always been wary of comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. The circumstances are profoundly different, and the scale of conflict and death is nowhere near the same. Vietnam was a small nation engaged in a civil war that Americans misread as a Chinese incursion on all of Asia, while Iraq has been strangled by one of history's worst totalitarian dictators. The American mistake was its belief that the dictator's removal would be sufficient.

But to read Mr. McNamara's 1995 list today (see sidebar) is to read an uncanny analysis of the missteps of the Iraq campaign. He told me that this list has come to haunt him as he watches the Mesopotamian misadventure unfold.

Seraphiel's Daily Cartoon Roundup  


3 More Americans, At Least One Iraqi Killed In Iraq  

West of Baghdad
A roadside bomb exploded next to a passing U.S. military convoy west of Baghdad Tuesday followed by a second bomb when reinforcements arrived, witnesses said. Three American soldiers and two Iraqi civilians were killed.

A U.S. military spokeswoman said the casualties occurred in a "large explosion," but gave no other details.

He said three American soldiers and one Iraqi civilian were killed and several Iraqis were injured. Hospital staff, however, put the Iraqi death toll at two.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Max Rocks!  

A truly great video promo from the Clark campaign.

Seraphiel's Daily Cartoon Roundup  


Sunday, January 25, 2004

Andrea Yates: Attempts To Move Her To Mental Health Facility  

TalkLeft alerts us to attempts by lawyers and supporters of Andrea Yates to get her moved from a jail to a psychiatriac institution. If ever there was a miscarriage of justice, it was this case. It says something about Texas's sense of what sanity is that Andrea Yates was found guilty instead of not guilty by reason of insanity, Yates being a woman who had a history of psychiatric illness and who has heard voices and seen visions, a woman who drowned her kids because she thought Satan was in her and her children were going to Hell, who quickly "decompensates" -to use the jargon- if her anti-psychotics are stopped.

Hopefully, they will succeed, not so much for Yates's sake, for she is almost certainly so ill that she could never be released, but rather for the sake of the community's soul. To compound the horror of her crimes by witholding treatment that might alleviate some of her suffering is the height of gratuitous and mean-spirited cruelty. It is a blot on Houston, and by extension the US, that she is in jail and not in a hospital.

Kevin Drum Gets The Bush/Iraq War At Last  

Namely, it was about US domestic politics:
Apparently George Bush is now almost panicky in his desire to disengage from Iraq and get the UN in. The Washington Post reports today that at this point virtually any proposal from the UN will be entertained, but only under one condition:

"The United States told us that as long as the timetable is respected, they are ready to listen to any suggestion," a senior U.N. official said.

In other words, anything goes as long as we're out by June 30. The occupation has to officially end before next year's elections...

Treating Medicare or abortion as a partisan issue is one thing, but treating war the same way is quite another, and in the end it's George Bush who is largely responsible for convincing half the United States and most of the world that terrorism is little more than a GOP talking point. It's likely that someday we will pay a heavy price for this.
"Someday" has come, my dear friend. We just don't know it yet. Sadly, we will.

Bush's Poll Numbers Still Not Low Enough  

But at least they're heading in the right direction:
Overall, 52 percent of those polled by NEWSWEEK say they would not like to see Bush serve a second term, compared to 44 percent who want to see him win again in November. As a result, Kerry is enjoying a marginal advantage over Bush, a first for the poll. Forty-nine percent of registered voters chose Kerry, compared to 46 percent who re-elected Bush. In fact, all Democrats are polling better against Bush, perhaps due to increased media attention to their primary horserace: Clark gets 47 percent of voters’ choice compared to 48 percent from Bush; Edwards has 46 percent compared to Bush’s 49; Leiberman wins 45 percent versus Bush’s 49 percent; and Dean fares the worst with 45 percent of their votes to Bush’s 50 percent.

Koufax Awards  

I have a congenital dislike of prizes and awards and The 2003 Koufax Awards Finalists illustrate, in the happiest way possible, one of my most important objections. All the finalists are fantastic, many are my online buddies, how on earth could I choose one over another? Couldn't we just declare victory at this stage and all go home happy?

Seraphiel's Daily Cartoon Roundup  


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