Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Alabama Shakes – "You Ain't Alone"

Eclectic Jukebox

Plus Ça Change, Plus Le Krugman

Brad DeLong links a 2002 Washington Monthly piece by Nicholas Confessore on Paul Krugman, leading Krugman to remark, "Has it really been 9 years of pushing this rock up the hill?" DeLong says the piece is "worth recalling only because (a) the fanfare of the right-wing noise machine is the same, and (b) the honesty of the right-wing noise machine is the same." Here's part of the section DeLong quotes:

Krugman is regularly attacked by fellow pundits, most exhaustively by… Andrew Sullivan and… Mickey Kaus, each of whom inveighs against Krugman….

For Krugman devotees, however, the main appeal is his proclivity for writing things before it is okay to write them. Journalists may love to break news, but they hate to contradict the narratives that crystallize around particular politicians or policies. Late last winter, for instance, the established storyline on California's energy crisis was that Left Coasters had only themselves to blame: the state had passed a flawed deregulation law…. [W]hile the press gave plenty of column inches to the Bush administration's preferred spin--that environmentalists had stymied the construction of needed generation capacity--few reporters gave credence to groups like Public Citizen, who blamed the crisis on market manipulation by energy companies, many of them based in Texas and enjoying close ties to the administration. But Krugman, noting that economists had long worried about the vulnerability of California's trading system to price-fixing, argued that market manipulation was the obvious culprit; otherwise, he wrote in March 2001, the power company executives "are either saints or very bad businessmen." Krugman was ignored at the time. Twenty months later--following the collapse of Enron, three federal investigations into the California crisis, and a passel of indictments against energy company officials--Krugman has been proved right….

"He goes against the very basic thing that people and journalists want to believe about Bush: 'Say what you want, but the guy's honest,'" says James Carville, the blunt, flamboyant host of CNN's "Crossfire." "Krugman says, no--he's a complete fraud."

DeLong also quotes part of the big finale, but I wanted to present it in greater context (emphasis mine):

On balance, Krugman's record stands up pretty well. On the topics he writes about most often and most angrily--tax cuts, Social Security, and the budget--his record is nearly perfect. "The reason he's gotten under the White House's skin so much," says Robert Shapiro, a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, "is that he's right. None of it is rocket science."

So if dismantling the facade of lies around, say, Bush's tax cut is so easy to do--and makes you the most talked-about newspaper writer in the country--why don't any other reporters or columnists do it themselves? Because doing so would violate some of the informal, but strict, rules under which Washington journalists operate. Reporters usually don't call a spade a spade, unless the lie is small or something personal. When it comes to big policy disagreements, most reporters prefer a he-said, she-said approach--and any policy with a white paper or press release behind it is presumed to be plausible and sincere, no matter how farfetched or deceptive it may be.

Similarly, among pundits of the broad center-left, it's considered gauche to criticize the right too persistently, no matter the merits of one's argument.
The only worse sin is to defend a politician too persistently; then you become not a bore, but a disgrace to the profession and its independence--even if you're correct. Thus, in Washington circles, liberal Times columnist Bob Herbert is written off as a predictable hack, while The New York Observer's Joe Conason, who vigorously defended the Clintons during the now-defunct Whitewater affair, is derided as shrill and embarrassing. Obviously, conservative columnists and pundits aren't quite as averse to being persistent or shrill. But center-left journalists do not, to put it mildly, take their cues about what's acceptable practice from conservative pundits.

That's because liberal journalists and conservative journalists have different value systems. Most liberal pundits--E.J. Dionne, Ronald Brownstein, or Maureen Dowd--came up through the newsroom ranks, a culture that demands shows of intellectual independence from politicians, especially Democrats. Many conservative pundits, on the other hand--Safire, Tony Blankley, or Peggy Noonan--come straight from political careers, a culture that encourages intellectual fealty and indulges one-sidedness. Krugman is not a journalist by training, and he's never held appointive or elective office. But like conservative pundits, he doesn't feel bound by the niceties that professional reporters do. Hence the discomfort with Krugman's methods among center-left journalists.

"He is obviously a very smart guy, basically liberal, with complicated views, who once recognized when his own side was wrong. And at some point he switched and became someone who only sees what's wrong with the other side, in fairly crude terms," says Mickey Kaus. "The Bush tax cut is based on lies. But it's not enough to criticize a policy to say that it's based on lies. You have to say whether it's good or bad for the country." True, Kaus is probably Krugman's most vociferous non-right-wing critic. But even among those journalists and politicos who enjoy his column, it's not uncommon to hear the comment that Krugman might be a little more effective if he were just a little less rabid. "It is considered the appropriate thing to say at a dinner party that, while Krugman is very bright, he's just too relentless on Bush," drawls James Carville. "Because to accept Krugman's facts as right makes the Washington press look like idiots."

These days, however, there's a good market for journalists willing to be a little relentless when it comes to the Bush administration. Of course, Krugman, like any good economist, knows that in most markets the biggest profits come from having some sort of monopoly. But monopolies don't endure; competitors always arise. Right now, when it comes to analyzing the intellectual underpinnings of the Bush administration, Krugman has no competition. But as is usually the case, it might be better for everyone else if this particular monopoly didn't last.

Pretending that Krugman only criticized the Bush administration's dishonesty without critiquing the quality of their policies is laughable, but this is Mickey Kaus we're talking about. Still, what I really appreciate is that Confessore gets the social dynamics at play. (I have a few posts in the works on this stuff.) Unfortunately, those corrosive dynamics are still rife in Beltway chatter and political coverage. That's why Krugman remains disliked in some quarters. He'll show, for instance, that "austerity" still remains the "wise" economic solution among an influential political elite, in defiance of basic macroeconomics, the history of the Great Depression, tons of recent data, and their own failed predictions. He noticed that all the people praising Paul Ryan's fraudulent plans don't understand them if they've even read them at all. Most political chatterers don't do policy analysis; they judge by cosmetics, and by the reactions of the people they admire (certain other pundits) and the people they dismiss (hippies, etcetera). As we've explored before, the Villagers believe things because they are fashionable, not because they are true; they form their opinions according to social norms and not empirical truth. The less that political progress depends on instilling humility in our shallow punditry, the better; the vanity of the chattering class is one of America's few endless resources.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

V.D. 2012

Ah, Valentine's Day. I'll go ahead and link my 2008 rant, 'The Death of Twue Wove,' a.ka. 'The Grinch Who Shanked Cupid,' since I can't really top it. (Sorry for the dated political references.)

However, many of the "some e-cards" on relationships and Valentine's Day are pretty funny. You could almost tell a tale with them (and another graphic or two).


The implicit relationship contract:

The breakup:



I'm also amused by the ones on the internet, social media, Newt Gingrich and um, white people.

Finally, in recognition of twue wove and all its human flaws and small joys – as opposed to shallow, saccharine, commercialized cheap sentiment – here's one of the truly great love poems:

Sonnet 130
By William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Gingrich and Citizens United

Newt Gingrich has complained mightily about pro-Romney SuperPACs paying for anti-Gingrich ads. In a recent Fox News interview, Gingrich said, "I think that people ultimately don’t want to have a candidate that tries to buy the presidency with attack ads." He's also complained that the ads are inaccurate, most memorably in early January on CBS, when he said Romney was "somebody who will lie to you to get to be president, will lie to you when they are president.” Gingrich complained about the ads in several of the endless Republican debates, as he did here, in early January:

(As several observers noted, Romney lied here – he said he hadn't seen the ads, then went on to describe one and defend its accuracy.)

To anyone familiar with Gingrich's career, his complaints about someone else's lies and unfair attacks are laughably hypocritical. The same goes for his complaints about 'buying the presidency,' not only for his long-standing demonization of regulation and government in general, but because of his specific cheerleading for the Citizens United decision that made the SuperPAC attacks possible.

On 1/21/10, the same day the Citizens United decision was issued, Gingrich was invited to appear on NPR to argue the "pro" side (Fred Wertheimer argued the "con" side). Gingrich wound up giving one of my favorite bullshitting performances of all-time on the network. Follow the link to hear the whole thing, but here's the best part, when host Melissa Block pushed back on one of Gingrich's claims (emphasis mine):

BLOCK: You say that campaign finance restrictions are anti-middle-class. I'm curious how you see this ruling as helping the middle class, as opposed to giving a lot more power to big business. The president said today this is a major victory for powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.

Mr. GINGRICH: Well, the president was elected in part by labor unions who massed their resources of people, who have no choice but to have their money taken out of their dues. The president spent money that was donated through to a variety of organizations, including MoveOn.org, by very, very rich people.

Now, all I'm saying is you as a citizen ought to the right to complain about your incumbent congressman, or your incumbent senator, or your incumbent president - and you should not be constrained by the government, you should not risk criminal proceedings. And that's what the Founding Fathers wrote. That's why the First Amendment has the right of free speech and it has been I think stunningly perverted by the kind of regulations we've had over the last 30 years, and they've been profoundly wrong.

BLOCK: You're saying that this ruling affects the average citizen expressing his or her voice, as opposed to corporations being allowed to spend freely.

Mr. GINGRICH: I'm saying that it allows you to have a middle-class candidate go out and find allies and supporters who are able to help them match the rich. And able to help them match the incumbent. Remember, incumbents run with millions of dollars in congressional staff, congressional franking, congressional travel. And they have all the advantages of being able to issue statements from their incumbent office. And the challenger - the person out there who's the citizen who's rebelling, who wants to change things - is at an enormous disadvantage in taking on incumbents.

This will, in fact, level the playing field and allow middle-class candidates to begin to have an opportunity to raise the resources to take on the powerful and the rich.

It's hilarious to hear Gingrich search for words and come up with "allies and supporters" to avoid saying, "corporations." Yes, as we all predicted back then and have seen since, Citizens United allows corporations to fund their true loves, "middle-class candidates"… who doubtlessly will not beholden to those corporate interests. Never mind that many corporations oppose any form of taxation or support for the social contract, and have been eager participants the short-sighted conservative war on the middle class. Never mind that none of the presidential candidates can credibly be called "middle class" (and they're a rare breed in Congress, as well). Clearly, allowing mighty corporations unfettered spending is a victory for the little guy. Orwell would have a field day with this one.

Blue Gal makes another key point about why Gingrich deserves no sympathy – Newt and Callista Gingrich have appeared in Citizens United videos and have been paid by the company. (Gingrich, or NPR, really should have mentioned that during his appearance.)

In any case, Newt is now whining about a horrible change to our political system that he championed. He probably just assumed the big money boys would always back him. Karma's a bitch.

Citizens United has helped Gingrich somewhat as well as hurt him, since he's received backing from at least one wealthy donor. But so far, Romney seems to have a much larger war chest and more backers in the run-up to Super Tuesday.

I have to admit, I'm finding the karmic retribution aspect of the Republican primary season and all the in-fighting highly entertaining. In contrast, Gingrich's blatant racial pandering is disturbing. (I might write more on this later, but Chauncey DeVega has the subject well-covered.) However, Gingrich hasn't really turned people into racists – instead, he's pandering to pre-existing racist tendencies, and thus exposing an ugly, core element of the Republican Party's electoral strategy since Nixon. The danger is that ugliness may grow, and some members of the mainstream press are far too hesitant to call Gingrich out or at least pose the question. (Romney is more subtle if no less despicable with his similar, central strategy of continually attacking Obama as un-American.) While I'd like to see reliable poll numbers on such matters, I suspect that Gingrich's racial pandering will continue to help him with the conservative base, but would hurt him in a general election (and could not be entirely washed away).

Newt Gingrich is an extremely nasty man, and that's in fact his appeal to the base – they fully believe he will be a raging asshole to the people they've convinced themselves they hate. He hasn't been alone in the mud-flinging, though – at this point, conservatives have thrown to the wayside Ronald Reagan's "11th Commandment" – thou shalt not speak ill of a Republican. For all that, viciousness may be the one territory where Newt Gingrich can justifiably claim to be a talented visionary. As John Cole (and others) have noted:

The best argument for hoping Gingrich stays close in the race is the guy is just ruthless and will have no problem gutting any of the other candidates if he thinks it will be advantageous to him at that VERY minute.

It's just his nature. Plus, speaking of karma, it would be only justice if Gingrich, Romney and the rest of their hubristic, nihilistic gang would do to the Republican Party what the Republican Party has been doing to America for decades.

Mark Ronson – "A La Modeliste"

This is from the Re:Generation project. This particular tune is based on a playground song. Mark Ronson, who arranged it, is joined by Erykah Badu, Trombone Shorty, Mos Def, Zigaboo Modeliste, and members of the Dap Kings. He also dropped by KCRW.

Eclectic Jukebox

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Blogroll Amnesty Day 2012

The first weekend in February marks the observance of Blogroll Amnesty Day, when we celebrate small blogs by linking some of 'em. This event was co-founded by the much missed Jon Swift (who explained its origins here), and by skippy. (My most extensive post on the tradition was this one, back in 2008.) If you participate, make sure to e-mail skippy so he can include you in his B.A.D. roundup(s).

Remember, don't get too caught up in the "smaller" blog thing and relative traffic or rankings – the spirit is to link small-ish blogs.

Here's my list for this year, with some familiar suspects:

Cheyanne's Campsite: Currently covering Bill Moyers and the Gospel of the Penniless. (Must be a hippie.)

Evil Slutopia: Currently weighing in on the Komen scandal.

Mikeb302000: Covering gun control issues and other stories.

P3 – Persuasion, Perseverance and Patience: Scroll down for posts on Abraham Lincoln and the cartoon picks of the week.

Poor Impulse Control: Taunting us with recipes... and mime.

Welcome to Pottersville 2: Now with the subtitle, "Blogging Against Fascism!"

The Hunting of the Snark: Relentlessly fact-checking and skewering Megan McArdle (among other things).

The Non Sequitur: Examining logical fallacies in the news.

I also have to give a shout-out to Mike's Blog Roundup at Crooks and Liars, where every day it's Blogroll Amnesty Day (coincidentally, I just finished up another stint). Melissa McEwan at Shakesville does regular blog roundups and invites readers to link their pieces in those threads. Additionally, Thers of Whiskey Fire was nice enough to link the 2011 Jon Swift Memorial Roundup at Eschaton back in December. Given the origins of Blogroll Amnesty Day, that may seem ironic, or karmic, or whatever. Regardless, good will and good karma are always welcome, and participating in Blogroll Amnesty Day definitely tips the scales in the right direction. If you read this late, skippy plans to round up posts for an extra day or two this year, so don't be shy.

Finally, here's Blue Gal's video:

Enough From Me – What Do You Think About Me?

The 2012 Screen Actors Guild Awards were held this past weekend. You can see the list of nominees and winners here. As usual, there are some worthy recipients and nominees. (I didn't watch the entire show myself, just some clips, but I'm always glad to see good work recognized.) For Oscar watchers, the SAG Awards have some predictive value, since actors make up the largest block of Oscar voters. That said, I did find this panel of a slideshow web ad hilariously appalling:

"The only award show where every award goes to an actor."

Yikes. I hoped to FSM that this was the idea of some marketing person, and not anyone at the SAG Awards, but Backstage and several other sites use the same slogan in their coverage. (Google shows the phrase only appearing in recent coverage – older webpages featuring it are merely displaying recent feeds.) I don't see how this pitch can be read as anything else but, 'no awards for boring stuff.' Where's Jenna Maroney to sneer at all the little people?

You'd be hard pressed to find any film-lover who didn't appreciate good acting (even if their conception of it was highly atypical). Personally, I love and prize fine acting, and enjoy discussing the art and craft of it, especially how a particular actor approached a specific role, or scene, or line. Some actors are lovely people in real life and a joy to work with professionally. However, all those tales of diva thespians you've heard are, um, extremely well-founded. There's an old saying that Hollywood is high school with money. Actors are the popular, good-looking kids. One of the all-time best Oscar presentations was in 2010 for the screenplay awards, as Tina Fey and Robert Downey, Jr. sparred over writers versus actors, and Downey's topper was that filmmaking was "a collaboration – a collaboration between handsome, gifted people and sickly, little mole people." It was hilarious, especially because some actors actually think this way. Some view directors and everybody else as failed, wannabe actors. After all, they are the stars – who wouldn't want to be them? While some are indeed wonderful people, actors as a class are the most narcissistic, vain and self-absorbed people involved in show biz. (Certain producers, agents and directors can give them a run for their money.) Some of this self-absorption falls into the "occupational hazard" category, depending on what school of acting one subscribes to (it can be a delicate balancing act of insecurity and ego). Still, stories of actors (and pop stars) neither understanding nor caring about what everybody else on the set does are commonplace. Hell, they're also some of the most popular show biz stories (less so among the divas themselves). Some such tales are legendary, and even mostly true. Consequently, trumpeting an awards show as "the only award show where every award goes to an actor" betrays a lack of self-awareness and just feeds the beast. Sure, that's what Hollywood stars really need, reinforcement of their worst traits! Let's encourage the most narcissistic group in Hollywood to ratchet it up several notches! That's what the public needs, too, to be persuaded that all non-acting work in the biz is of piddling importance!

It's all reminiscent of what Jessica Alba said back in 2010: "Good actors never use the script unless it's amazing writing. All the good actors I've worked with, they all say whatever they want to say." (Ken Levine made short work of that.)

Indeed, who needs writers, or awards for them? The scripts write themselves. Screenwriting must be easy, because everyone in Hollywood has written a script (including actors). Directors? Films direct themselves; each actor can ignore everyone else and do what feels right, including improvising the blocking; the cameraman will adjust. Sound? Well, actors don't need to be heard. Bring back the silents. Cinematography? Some would argue that the image is what makes a film a film and not a radio play, but that's just silly. Editing? Editors are the scumbags who cut into a brilliant performance. Let it run, uninterrupted, in a ten minute closeup. Music? It's not necessary. Who can remember the scores from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Psycho, The Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain, Tron: Legacy, or any score from Ennio Morricone? Visual Effects? Almost every one of the top grossing films of all time uses visual effects, but they're not really necessary. Production Design? My cousin Bob has a homemade alien spaceship in his backyard, we can use that. Makeup? Since when have you known an actress to want, let alone need, makeup before appearing before the public? Costumes? Well, they're not that important in "adult" films, so surely all those stodgy "costume dramas" can make do with less, too.

It's not surprising that People magazine, other gossip rags and late-night talk shows focus on actors to the exclusion of almost everybody else in entertainment. As a class, they're the prettiest and most glamorous, and American celebrity-watching is the same spectator sport as obsessing over a royal family. (There's also the schadenfreude, train-wreck appeal of some celebrities.) They are the public face for endeavors that involve (in Hollywood productions) hundreds of other people. Audiences form emotional connections with characters and the actors who play them. However, even Entertainment Weekly and similar outlets discuss directors and writers who aren't Steven Spielberg and considered "celebrities" themselves. While undoubtedly there is a group of moviegoers who only care about actors and neither understand nor care how this movie they love so much came to be, I have to wonder how large this group really is. I also have to wonder if this group was staying away in droves from the SAG Awards before, but will be lured in by this implicit promise of 'no awards for boring stuff.' (The ratings for 2012 were almost the same as for 2011 – a 2% rise, but also a slip in the much coveted 18-49 demographic.) Even relatively popular actors often can't "open" a crappy movie. A really big star can do this (that's in large part how stardom is defined by the studios), but even then, word of mouth and reviews quickly spread. Even among fans who are inclined to see everything that, say, Julia Roberts is in, they will distinguish between their favorites and the ones they feel aren't as good. (All but the most unreflective consumers have some sense of this.) Most Hollywood flicks of a certain budget level show technical craftsmanship. As for content, crap sometimes sells awfully well, but even potboilders are not all created equal, and there's also nothing wrong with a good popcorn flick (it's just not good when that's the only thing available). However, generally, a well-made popcorn flick with a big star will still do better box office than a poorly-made popcorn flick with a big star. Take that one step further – all the SAG Award nominees, which are in some cases quite popular or crowd-pleasers, do aspire to a much higher level of craft than "Ow, My Balls."

All this makes the SAG Award pitch an odd blend of pandering and snobbery. (Or, at least, an obsession with the cosmetic, and reflecting that high school mentality.) We actors know what you the people really want – US!

An actor friend of mine has said that he's never been on a (professional industry) set where the actors didn't have the easiest job. Acting can be grueling and emotionally draining. Prosthesis work or special rigs can make for a long day. However, in most cases (especially for stars on big productions) actors can hang out while everyone else is setting up the next shot. Stars have their trailers, their riders, and even have stand-ins so the DP can get the lighting right without asking the actor to be present. Some actors don't stick around for off-camera reverses shots in a given scene, and the script supervisor or someone else reads the lines. (Some actors insist on sticking around as a professional courtesy.) Basically, there's a small army of people there working non-stop to make the actors look good (using the term broadly; for someone playing a villain, "looking good," often entail being convincingly evil.)

The dynamics are much different, of course, on smaller sets and independent guerilla projects, where the lead actor may also be the production designer, or the director also is the field mixer, gaffer, dolly grip and script supervisor. (Those projects can also be much more fun.) Some high school and college theater programs insist that all their aspiring stars do some tech and backstage work, to gain a better appreciation for what everyone does. (On the flip side, some film programs insist on aspiring directors taking an acting class, since some have never done theater and are relatively clueless about the acting process.) Actors who get their success late in life tend to be cooler (not always), because they know what a crap shoot the game is. Likewise, working actors of the non-star variety can occasionally be deluded divas, but tend to be more grounded and pleasant to be around.

In any case, I hope the SAG Awards continue to honor good work, and I particularly like that they give awards for entire ensembles. However, that's also precisely why I hope they ditch that awful slogan. Theater, TV and film are highly collaborative art forms. Plus, as one of my directing teachers was fond of saying, "Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art."