Monday, December 31, 2007

On Studying Latin Again

I am teaching myself Latin once again. My brother has long been trying to persuade me to take it up and, having experienced the sharp rules of the language, I can see the appeal. Nonetheless, my position that our youth, at this point, are not mentally developed enough to understand Latin before the mid-teen years has not changed and, while it may help to improve students' skills in mathematics and, to some degree, English, I believe that they will have little hope of understanding the language of ancient Rome and lingua franca of medieval Europe unless education in America (including classical and/or Christian schools) becomes more rigorous (which I doubt will happen.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Worst of the Millennium (So Far)

I don't really believe in "best" and "worst" lists, but since I don't really feel like going to the trouble of writing a thought-out post at the moment, I want to list the worst movies of the millennium to win or come close to a Best Picture Oscar. These are, in general order of release:

1.) Chocolat (2000)

2.) Gangs of New York (2002)

3.) Chicago (2002)

4.) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

5.) Seabiscuit (2003)

6.) Sideways (2004)

7.) The Aviator (2004)

8.) Crash (2005)

9.) Babel (2006)

The supreme worst of the worst goes to "The Hours" (2002). This movie was atrocious.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some Random Thoughts on Polical Labels and Religious Discourse

I hear many people (mostly pastors) saying that God is not a Democrat or a Republican. It sounded good once, but, by this point, I think that the sentence has been used to the point of tedium. I've even heard some people imply that God is a member of Ralph Nader's Green Party. I actually wouldn't mind having a third political party in America. They could call themselves the Federalists because, like "Democrat" and "Republican," it sounds respectable but doesn't really mean anything. For example, I doubt that most Democrats have a problem with republicanism or that most Republicans have a problem with democracy. And yet, they still claim the titles. Just a few thoughts to digest.

Trivia: To what religious denomination does Ralph Nader belong?

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Blog of Imanginary Being

I don't have much time for a post so I'll make a note of a curiosity I encountered a few days ago.

While performing a search on "The Daily Dish," the blog of the gay, libertarian journalist Andrew Sullivan, I saw that he placed Mark Driscoll within the mainstream Religious Right. This was an old post, indited about a week before the 2006 elections, and Sullivan warned against the dangers of allowing the Religious Right (referred to, somewhat oddly, as "Christianists" on his blog) to have more power. My beef with his post is that he should choose to single out Mark Driscoll, who, while a Calvinist, appears to be more or less apolitical, writing against theonomy and being particularly critical of the Christian Reconstructionism of John Rushdoony. Driscoll, on the contrary, fits generally within the megachurch movement, closer to men like David Hybels and Rick Warren (whom Sullivan appears to admire) than James Robison and Jerry Falwell. What I am curious about is if Sullivan, as a journalist, bothers to research the areas of his prejudice or if he is a journalist in the same way that I am. In other words, a quote-shopper who doesn't particularly care about objective reality.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

An Unhealthy Alliance: Supply-side Economics and Keynesianism

N. Gregory Mankiw, a Keynesian economist and former adviser to President George W. Bush, has, for the past three-and-a-half years, taken staunch criticism for his support of the president's tax cuts. Many of the people who argued that he compromised his economic principles to appease his boss would probably consider themselves Keynesian. (Paul Krugman is one such example.) If they want to argue that the tax cuts were probably not the best plan in as far as they widened the national deficit, creating a debt that will take generations to pay off, I would agree. But the argument that Dr. Mankiw compromised his principles are, according to my limited knowledge of economics, fallacious. I would expect Dr. Mankiw to advise the tax cuts not in spite of his Keynesianism, but rather because of his Keynesianism--Let me try to explain.

It is true that Keynesians strongly believe that the government has a valuable impact on the economy which should be exploited to the fullest degree, but, unlike certain libertarians would have us believe, Keynesians do not fundamentally and unequivocally believe in raising taxes in every situation. On the contrary, Keynesians believe that there is a time for raising taxes and a time for cutting them. During a recession, the textbook Keynesian solution for reinvigorating the economy is Expansionary Fiscal Policy; in other words, a Keynesian economist asserts that in these troubled times the government should simultaneously increase spending, to get people working again, and cut taxes, to increase expansion in the business sector.

With this in mind, let us consider the situation in late 2002, when Dr. Mankiw supported President Bush's tax-cuts. At the time, the country was ending its second year of recession, following the panic that had been brought about by the 9/11 attacks. Unlike his critics assert, Dr. Mankiw did not fall for the supply-side myth that the tax cuts, in the long-run, would increase government revenues, but, in keeping with his Keynesianism, endorsed the tax cuts hoping that they might galvanize economic growth. Arguably, they did. By the end of 2003, even with the war in Iraq, the U.S. market value had reached another all-time high. But our deficit had expanded, too, and it continues to expand. So much so that Alan Greenspan has expressed regret for his support of President Bush's tax policies, stating that he had hoped that the Republicans would have been more "conservative" on spending.

My main point is not to vindicate Dr. Mankiw for his actions. In retrospect, I would not have supported the tax-cuts if I were he. The point is that Keynesians and supply-siders, despite the disdain they often express toward one another (interestingly, in a 1998 textbook, Mankiw once referred to certain supporters of supply-side theories as "charlatans and cranks" though he removed the phrase in later editions) are actually much closer than they are willing to admit. Who knows? Perhaps one day they will be considered members of the same economic school.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Material Objects and What They Mean

Somewhat strangely, I am writing my 26th post on the 25th day of the month. This is to say that I am writing on Christmas. I hate working on Christmas, but I want to have at least one post every day. So here are a few notes on the Christmas season:

Recently (meaning within the past fifty years) Dr. Seuss, Pope Benedict and a new documentary called "What Would Jesus Buy?" have protested the materialization of Christmas. I understand where they are coming from. Nothing is more important about Christmas than remembering the birth of Christ--that's what Christmas is for, actually--and something about some rich man somewhere getting some friends some presents which are all the same just seems wrong. But I think that the critics of Christmas--as is--should devote more attention to distinguishing between material goods and materialism.

Yes, materialism is a problem. I don't think that we ought to love inanimate objects in the way that we love people; you can quote me on that. And while I think that receiving is a charitable action in the same way, though perhaps to a lesser degree, that giving is, I do not think that it should be the only part of the Christmas experience that we value. (Oddly enough, it is the people who do not go to shopping malls to enjoy only receiving.) But giving is an act of charity, and, while we ought to give spiritual gifts as well as material, material gifts are also things to be valued. They are, in a sense, an expression of affection, much in the same way that money is an expression of labor. For this reason, while some people may moralize about materialism, I am not discouraged. Of course, it may be true that people buy to distract them from the true meaning of the holidays, but the fact that they are buying for others, rather than themselves, is a marked improvement from what is experienced far too often. And for this reason, I think people crowding into shopping malls during this time of year, on communal rather than cultural grounds, is something to advocate, not to condemn.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Road to Serfdom

I finished The Road to Serfdom yesterday. Friedrich A. Hayek's book caused somewhat of a controversy when it was first published 1944, especially in the British parliament which, by the time that it had gained notoriety, was led by Clement Atlee. Reading the book now, one can see why it was controversial then.

Stated briefly, the book is an attack on statism. Its primary thesis, written more or less plainly on the back, is that social planning cannot be reconciled with democratic liberalism. The specter that haunts the book is Nazi Germany which Great Britain was fighting when the book was published. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson which the book can teach us today. In an age when some university professors (somewhat oddly) claim that fascism is the most extreme form of capitalism, Dr. Hayek produces a strong rebuttal. National Socialism, in fact, was embraced by many of the former followers of Karl Marx's ideas and is the end result of socialism once socialism has proved insufficient. Dr. Hayek notes that the ideological roots of fascism were laid long before Hitler was elected; they could even be traced back to before the first war. However, if you believe that the government should sustain the environment, provide workers' unemployment insurance and subsidize the people's health, this book will not necessarily offend you, for Dr. Hayek argues that such undertakings are acceptable if they allow market forces to iron off the rough edges. Though a liberal, he is not an extremist and believes that the government does have a role in the economy. He merely argues that it should be, more or less, passive, providing a framework in which the free-market can operate. For Hayek, this is acceptable as long as the government does not prohibit freedom of enterprise. In short, while the book is still valuable, if it is read today it is unlikely to offend any Republican or Democrat who possesses ideological substance.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Still Watching: Two Overlooked Movies that Deserve a Little More Attention

I have two movies that I want to talk about. Usually when a critic does this, there is some connection, thematic or otherwise, for him to discuss these films in the same context; but, in this case, I can make out no real commonality other than both are by great directors, both are concerned with manipulation, both include at least one metaphor comparing people to horses, and I saw both movies within the same twenty-four hour period.

The first of the movies in "The Color of Money." So that you know, it is a 1986 movie directed by Martin Scorsese, the cinematic genius behind "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas" and "The Departed." (His most overrated movies to date are : "Mean Streets," "The Age of Innocence," "Gangs of New York" and "the Aviator," though "Raging Bull" could also, arguably be categorized with these others.) "The Color of Money" is widely considered to be Mr. Scorsese's worst movie and, of all of them, it is probably the only one that no one knows about. But, as will be made plain, this rejection is unjustified.

Few movie-fans (or at least few that I know) remember the movie "The Hustler," the somewhat tragic story of a pool player named Fast Eddie Felson, but you hardly need to know this story to see Paul Newman resume the role, decades later, with perfect confidence. Newman's role (which won the 1986 award for Best Actor) is quiet and rarely poignant--the cynicism and professionalism with which Mr. Newman imbues the character makes it hard for the audience to feel sorry for him--but his performance is never less than convincing and, what's more important, the old hustler manages to seduce the audience while conning others also.

Mr. Newman's Eddie is the right guide to the underworld of Nine Ball, not only for the audience but also for his protege Vincent Varia (Tom Cruise) a kid with a cocky attitude, a "sledge-hammer break" and a silly haircut. This is not Tom Cruise's best performance, by any means, but he dispenses of heavy dose of the energy that would later inform his greatest roles (think "Jerry Maguire" and "Collateral".) Furthermore, Cruise is capable of holding his own against his veteran companion; in fact, much of the movie is devoted to Eddie trying to tame Vince and make him into a first-rate conman as they drift from nine ball game to nine ball game, culminating in a tournament in Atlantic City (by that point, the two have parted ways and Eddie is playing once again.)

The complaint I have most often heard about this movie is that Scorsese only made it so that he could also make "The Last Temptation of Christ." Translation: It has no signature elements and is merely a commercial franchise to make its studio money. Even the Academy Award does not seem to have redeemed it much. But Mr. Scorsese has a style that is well-suited to the chemistry of his two leads and, more generally, the game of nine ball. When the characters play, Scorsese often films the table from the white ball's point-of-view, as it collides with the colored balls in vigorous momentum; he uses jump-cuts and fast-motion (slow-motion also, at times) to vivify the game in a way that is so often lost in screen transmutations and when the balls crack together, the crack is loud and satisfying. Scorsese's voice has a cameo performance in the opening credits; using a voice-over to describe the rules of nine ball seems ridiculous theoretically, but his closing line "luck itself is an art" (followed by Robbie Robertson's score) is so memorable and is executed so stylishly executed that the credits do not only not stall the picture, but they add to it. Forest Whitaker also has a memorable and extraordinarily funny cameo role as a lab-rat/pool-hustler, but, after the movie ends, you are most likely to remember Paul Newman's memorable last line: "I'm back" before breaking a diamond of nine-balls. He certainly is, and the movie, even though it is largely ignored, is still here.

The other movie that I rewatched was "Eastern Promises," David Cronenberg's crime saga staring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. This movie, in spite of its critical acclaim, had not, from what I can tell, reached a wide audience even though it reached out to them. The first time I saw it was only two months ago in a Pullman theater; I didn't expect to see it on DVD until next February at least. It is a pity that the movie was not more popular because it was one of the best movies that I had seen all year, and it still is. (I think that it was even better the second time that I saw it.)

The story is not unlike others that Steven Knight, the screenwriter, has written. As A. O. Scott pointed out, all of Mr. Knight's scripts deal, in some capacity, with slavery. "Dirty Pretty Things," Steven Frears's 2002 drama, told a story of the underground organ-trade in Great Britain whereas Michael Apted's "Amazing Grace" (released earlier this year) chronicled William Wilberforce's efforts to abolish the African slave-trade in the early 18th century. But unlike the slavery of those two earlier movies, the slavery depicted in "Eastern Promises" is that of the sex-trade, an underground economy that subjugates both the body and soul.

The first of the film's protagonists that we meet is Anna, Naomi Watts's midwife, who delivers a child of a Russian girl who dies during the procedure. What starts as a search for the child's father becomes a fight for its survival as Anna digs deeper into the girl's past (and diary) to find that she was one of many Russian girls imported for prostitution and that the child is the product of a rape by a prominent Russian godfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The ambivalent characters of the story are Calil (Vincent Cassel), the godfather's drunkard son who bears some characteristic resemblance to Fredo from Francis Ford Coppola's classic pictures, and Mr. Mortensen's driver, a Russian gangster who is rising in the organization and has enough Russian pictures tattooed on his body to be a travel brochure. Mr. Mortensen (who is, unfortunately, best known as Aragorn in the "LOTR" trilogy) demonstrated that he was an actor capable of great depth, power and paradox in Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," but, here, his work is more alluring and enigmatic, and arguably better because his character is more consistent.

Mr. Cronenberg is a director who is very fond of shadows and intense colors, as demonstrated in movies like "The Fly" and "Spider" (yes, despite the titles, those are different movies). His colors and shadows are on display in "Eastern Promises" from beginning to end and serve the environments in which they appear well: the purple drapery and balloons of the house of Mr. Mueller-Stahl's character reinforces the secretiveness and unpredictability of their organization, as do the darkened rooms in which they hold council and listen to Russian anthems. But Mr. Cronenberg's favorite color is definitely red, especially because it is the color of blood. He is, with Brian De Palma, an affinity for blood splayed with a very broad brush and, in what has become the most famous scene in the movie, a knife fight in a Turkish bath where Mr. Mortensen wears nothing but a picture of the Kremlin, the cuts look rough and sound painful. One can only imagine what the newspaper would say.

But, taken as a whole, "Eastern Promises" is not a violence-saturated movie, even though it does have some violent scenes. The movie actually has more in common with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's masterpiece "The Lives of Others." Like that movie, this one displays a system which drains the individual of his or her soul but cannot insure that this loss is permanent.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Responsibility of Individualism

"To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behavior as individuals within the group."

-F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

Though Dr. Hayek is more concerned with the formation of politico-economic movements, I believe that this sentence applies to far too many religious groups also. I was reminded, specifically, of certain Episcopalian dioceses decisions to join African episcopacies instead of branching off on their own. (And I support the move of these American churches to break away from their progressive overseers in this country.) I must say that their decision to join a conservative congregation which is, arguably, as morally compromised is unfortunate, but, while keeping in mind the truth of Dr. Hayek's assertion, it is hardly surprising.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Art of Killing Things: Film Review

Last summer, as blockbuster after blockbuster rolled across the screen, I remember contemplating that, while some of these movies were certainly watchable, none of them possessed a charismatic lead of the same caliber that existed in the past. The only exception was Bruce Willis, who, in his mid-fifties, still inhabits the screen and carries the picture in his Die Hard series. But he does not have the same existential individualism, the imminent invincibility, of a John Wayne or a Clint Eastwood. Furthermore, Bruce Willis, like Harrison Ford, is an actor entering into the twilight of his career, though, with any luck, he still has one or two Die Hard's left in him. A month before, I had heard that a studio (I forget which) was planning another installment of Lethal Weapon, but that the plan fell through after Mel Gibson said he did not intend to return to acting. There are certainly some terrific actors who work within the action genre, the latest being Christian Bale in Batman Begins, but most younger actors look to expand their horizons beyond this genre and take on more acclaimed, if not more challenging, roles. (A word to the wise: if you haven't seen Christian Bale in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn, endeavor to do so.) All this is to say that, by the end of the summer, I had come to the conclusion that the conventional American action hero was dead and would be replaced by more human and fragile heroes (or protagonists, at least) like Jason Bourne.

I was wrong. There is one actor left who is both fully American and primarily an action star; that is Will Smith. Perhaps the possibility of this did not occur to me because I had not seen most of the action movies in which he has appeared (I never went to I, Robot) and those that I had seen convinced me that he was merely a B-actor wandering around in Hollywood's wild, wild west. Upon seeing I Am Legend, I recant.

Don't get me wrong; this is not the best movie of the year. If you haven't seen it in the multiplex, I would definitely recommend going, but it is not as essential that you see this as others (No Country for Old Men, for example). Nevertheless, Will Smith does do an outstanding job playing "the only living boy in New York."

The premise for the movie is almost Gothic: a disease has killed off 90% of the worlds population and left the majority of the rest (along with a number of animals) as cannibalizing mutants who scrounge around at night in search of human flesh. This leaves the Smith's hero, Dr. Neville, the day to scrounge around with his loyal German shepherd in search of a cure. There are also other things which must be attended to: plants that need watering, manikins that need talking to, and deer that need chasing. It is during these moments of solitude when Smith is at his best in this film, and this film is as good as he has ever been. Telling a story where only one man speaks for the first half is obviously problematic, but Mr. Smith is such a lively and endearing performer that the audience almost forgets that he is all by himself. Rest assured that, while he is alone, you are unlikely to be bored.

Mr. Smith is probably the movie's best feature. This is not to say that Francis Lawrence, the director, is a hack. On the contrary, he does more than a passable job with his jiggling, hand-held cameras, especially in darkened corridors and opaque warehouses; his style in this movie leaves distinguishes his work from other directors who might merely have done something manageable. But, like Alfred Hitchcock, the father of all horror directors, he at his best before the monster is revealed and he reveals his monsters too early. The zombies that appear in I Am Legend are perhaps the most underwhelming in film history. They are about as realistic as a zombie that you might shoot in a video-game.

Also, Mr. Lawrence's style, while perfect for reflecting Neville's loneliness, is less apt for dealing with more than one person. When Neville finally meets an uninfected girl (played by Alice Braga) and her younger brother, Mr. Lawrence and his screenwriters--Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman--fail to develop their relationship. Given my limited knowledge of the novel on which this is based, I know that this is consistent with the 1971 version "The Omega Man" in which Charlton Heston had Smith's role and Rosalind Cash played his love interest; this is to say that both films involve interracial friendship. It would have been more interesting if Neville and his potential love interest had decided to found an orderly utopia in the midst of the chaos. It would almost be a Walkabout sort of a moment. This makes it all the more unfortunate that their relationship is never anything more than platonic. At one point in the film, an uninfected refugee who saves Neville's life says something like "you're not yet used to people" and it is unclear to me whether she is referring to the protagonist or the director.

In spite of these drawbacks, I Am Legend is a movie worth watching and, even if you do not care for the narrative itself, seeing Mr. Smith carry the film is rewarding enough. There great actors who can confidently play action heroes, but there are not so many action heroes who are also great actors. Mr. Smith is an exception and never more so than in I Am Legend.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Joe Lieberman for Vice-President?

As I understand it from reading the "New York Times," Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has decided to endorse John McCain. In case you're from another planet, Joe Lieberman is New England senator who is liberal on almost every domestic and economic issue, but is quite hawkish on foreign policy. He is an independent Democrat and was a member of the Democratic Party until last year, when he was defeated in the state primary by Ned Lamont (one of the most notorious dunces to run for office), but kept his seat (thank goodness for independent parties.) It's surprising, I suppose, that Sen. Lieberman should endorse a Republican, though not Sen. John McCain, given that he and Lieberman are very good friends (last year, during the great unpleasantness in Connecticut, McCain said that Lieberman was "one of the most decent men" that he knew.) But my guess is that Joe is aiming higher. You may remember that he has run for vice president once (in 2000) and president also (in 2004). Unfortunately, due to the fiasco in 2006, this pretty much undoes his option of running for president as a Democrat; but Lieberman knows that he won largely because Republicans and other conservatives--including William F. Buckley--through their support behind him. For this reason, Lieberman may be thinking that he could make a viable VP candidate. He would also greatly increase the Republican chances of victory; he is Jewish, but orthodoxly so and is capable of speaking religious language; he supports the surge in Iraq and has continued to assert that it is working; his position on stem-cell research (he once said that it was the first thing he would fund, should he ever become president) will not even be an issue, because, thanks to God and scientific innovation, stem-cell research no longer appears to be an issue. David Brooks, for one, has already fantasized about a McCain-Lieberman presidential ticket as the most representative of American centricism (if that isn't a word, then it should be) and moderation. The only problem is that, while Joseph Lieberman may make a viable vice-presidential candidate, he will never get the nomination for the presidency in the Republican Party. Vice President Cheney took Sherman's oath of office "If drafted I will not run, if elected I will not serve" (or something like that), and, if he does have his eye on the office next to the Oval Office, Sen. Lieberman should consider practicing these same words in front of the mirror.

The Worst Christmas Ad in the History of the Planet

For those of you joining the program, this is the season of Christmas ads. Not just Christmas adds, but political Christmas ads. Not just political Christmas ads, but Christmas ads which are supposed to appear to be apolitical. The first of these was Mitt Romney's (actually being played more around Thanksgiving) featuring the sixty-year-old former governor reading a story to his grandchildren in a video that could have been lifted from the 1950s. Then there was Ron Paul a few weeks later, who ripped off Gov. Romney's ad by "taking time off of his campaign" to wish everyone, in a very cheesy grin, a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Mike Huckabee soon followed with his "stick-it-to-the-man" style, here demonstrated by mentioning Jesus. (Not that I have any problem with celebrating Christmas as the Birth of Christ; after all, that's what it's about, but the problem is that Mr. Huckabee's fishing pole is bated for evangelicals and his hunting rifle pointed at Mr. Romney.) Then there was Barak Obama's "Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays"--I suppose that his aids thought "happy Hanika and delightful Quwansa" was a bit heavy-handed. But the prize of them all was Hillary Clinton's. She ought to get the Golden Raspberry Award, not only for worst ad, but also for worst actress.

If you haven't seen the video, I suggest that you check it out on YouTube (typing "Hillary Clinton AND presents will probably get you there.) In summary, the commercial featured the New York senator wrapping Christmas parcels with her proposed policies attached to the cards ("Bring the Troops Home," "Universal Health-care," "Universal Pre-K," etc.) I reiterate: This was the worst holiday ad yet, and I've seen Mike Huckabee's and Ron Paul's.

The problem with this ad was that, where the other ads were at least pretending to be apolitical, this one had no such vibe. I think that what Hillary Clinton was trying to say with it was that we're all a family and that her platform is a gift to America, blah, blah, blah. But she only succeeded in making herself appear more soulless. A good holiday ad for her would have had her pulling cookies out of the oven; then maybe Bill could enter the room and say, "Oh, my favorite!" and she could have said that they were for her daughter and future son-in-law and he could have theatrically displayed his disappointment. This would have humanized her, or at least demonstrated that she has a personal life. Instead, she made a commercial which served to confirm what people had suspected all along: she has no life other than her political career.

Also, on this note, Hillary's commercial left people with a bad taste of Christmas spirit. People like hanging out with their families during Christmas (unless you're Rudolph Giuliani or maybe Hillary Clinton--and I doubt that the senior senator from New York or Joe Lieberman celebrate Christmas) as in the ads of Mitt Romney, Ron Paul or Barak Obama, but wrapping presents is a task which is associated with Christmas matters, not Christmas spirit.

To her credit, the senator did try to appear sympathetic for one moment when she searched for "Universal Pre-K," but her most personal moment was the least convincing moment in the entire video. Then come the Tim Burton-esque letters at the end wishing everyone "Happy Holidays". Would someone please shoot me?

Trivia Question: Who is the senior senator from New York?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What's Wrong with the National Review?

Congratulations to the National Review! In a year when Republicans haven't a clue whom to vote for, they've found their candidate: Mitt Romney. At this moment, I think that the former governor--in spite of being unpopular in his home-state of Massachusetts, changing his position on every major issue that matters to social conservatives, being a notably well-polished follower (as opposed to a leader) and, inconveniently, raising taxes during his tenure--is probably the most likely of candidates to get the nomination. I don't have any major gripe with this; he's a lot better than some of the other guys (think Fred Thompson).

But that isn't really what I want to consider. What I want to look at, instead, is one quote in the NR that I find particularly disturbing. In their endorsement article, the editors write "[while Romney] has not talked much about the importance of resisting ethnic balkanization . . . he supports enforcing the immigration laws and opposes amnesty" (1). "Balkanization" means "divide" according to Webster's Dictionary, but what the editors' sentence translates to, more or less, is that Romney is a viable candidate because he wants to keep Mexicans out of the country. If there is anything that I am most ashamed of in the conservative movement (in which I consider myself to be a moderate) it is our hostility toward immigration generally and immigration of people of color in particular.

Now that NR has flexed its paleoconservative muscles, reinforcing a stereotype that (if he did anything good) Karl Rove labored to overcome, we ought to ask where this racial strand in conservatism comes from. There have always been anti-immigrant tendencies in America. Benjamin Franklin, for example, thought that the German immigrants of the eighteenth century were some of the stupidest people whom he ever met; the early black-activist, Booker T. Washington, tried to build an uneasy alliance with whites by redirecting their hostility toward immigrant unions; and in the twentieth-first century, Tom Tancredo runs on a single issue platform trying, along with his plan to bomb Mecca and Medina, to tie together September 11th and illegal immigration.

Republicans certainly have racial baggage which is not easily overcome. But, if we are to continue to win in national elections and protect such rights like life, liberty and property, then we must build a coalition that does not seek to represent 12th century Europe, but rather 21st century America. All else being held equal, the only significant factor that would make Hispanics tilt Democrat as opposed to Republican is their economic standing, but as the Red state and Blue state coalitions demonstrate, economics does not always decide people's elections. People of the Midwest and South are not known for being particularly affluent, and yet they still consistently vote in the financial interests of the affluent (the opposite is also true.)

Furthermore, as Francis Fukuyama has pointed out, radicalism in this country has not tended to spring from minority groups, but rather from the white, intellectual, urban elite; the people who think they know what is in the best interests of the poor and minorities but are actually out of touch with them (this is why books with titles like What's Wrong with Kansas? get written.) The Republicans are losing a huge market gap by throwing the Hispanic vote to the Democrats; furthermore, with men like Romney and others of the right-wing elite, importing workers is at least fiscally advantageous. It is a pity, but if the Republicans cannot realize what may be their only opportunity not to alienate the Hispanic vote for two generations, then maybe they will deserve their defeat next fall.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Economic Theory and Economic Reality

Apart from size, can anyone tell me what is wrong with this picture?

The Best GOP Candidate

A recent article in the National Review Online said that Mike Huckabee would not be a sufficient presidential candidate because the GOP needs to give America "the best candidate they have." That, in light of their recent endorsement, is allegedly Mitt Romney. I would agree that Mike Huckabee is not the best candidate; but the problem is that the best candidate does not exist. The best candidate would be someone with Huckabee's moderate stance on immigration; Mitt Romney's efficiency on financial issues; Fred Thompson's secularism and platitudinous political philosophy; Rudolph Giuliani's leadership and John McCain's foreign-policy experience, environmental concern and conservative but diplomatic stances on abortion and gay rights. To bad that this isn't going to happen.

In Retrospect, Maybe Lindsey Was Just Not Prescient Enough

In 2002, Lawrence Lindsey lost his job as the Bush Administration's director of the National Economic Council because he told the Wall Street Journal that the invasion of Iraq would may be as high as $200 billion; today, we would kill to have the amount be that low.

Monday, December 17, 2007

In Praise of the Humanities

". . . the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and justice are virtues and excellences of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary, and at a leisure. Physiological learning is of such rare emergence, that one man may know another half his life without being able to estimate his skill in hydrostatics or astronomy; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears." (Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets)

Not Clinton-Obama but Obama-Clinton

I have always thought (and still think) that a Clinton-Obama ticket would be too exotic to be viable. But I made this judgment based on the assumption that Hillary Clinton will be the presidential candidate. This is not necessarily the case and, if not, Clinton-Obama may be an impossibility, but Obama-Clinton, on the other hand, may not. If Obama is the presidential candidate, then Hillary Clinton will seem like a reasonable, experienced balance to his novice status. Also, even though it would probably make her the oldest Democrat to run for president, should she choose to pursue the office in 2016, a vice-presidential candidacy would align her for the Oval Office in a way that returning to the Senate would not do, if Obama should win the election.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Problem with Mike Huckabee

I think that the reason Mike Huckabee is so popular (other than that he does not believe in Darwin, perhaps) is that he is more of a centrist than Ron Paul and doesn't appear to be a member of the establishment like Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. I don't think that the popularity will last. After all, it's like the Economist said, experience does count for something and Gov. Huckabee's tax policies are underdeveloped and poorly thought-out. No "fair-tax" will ever be implemented in this country (and it shouldn't.) It is unfortunate though, because Huckabee represents change in a way that Romney, Giuliani and Thompson cannot offer; he says that we have a problem now, and we do. At the moment, I think that McCain deserves another look, but I'm don't endorse candidates, I only (sometimes) vote for them.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Coen Brothers' New Masterpiece

Almost everyone claims several times during his life that the book was better than the movie, but I have the rare privilege tonight of asserting that the movie is better than the book. The movie that I mean is "No Country for Old Men," Joel and Ethan Coen's screen adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name.

It may seem strange, to anyone who has read that novel and seen the movie, to assert that the movie is superior when it is, more or less, a literal adaptation. There are a few episodes which are abbreviated (I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if they appear on the DVD as "Deleted Scenes") and some of the characters' back-stories and musings have been left out of the final script. But, while there is some trimming and stream-lining, there are no significant additions. Most of the dialogue is lifted from the page.

Furthermore, the Coen brothers have not failed to exploit all of the story's cinematic potential (and it is certainly one of the most cinematic literary novels written in the past decade.) The story could not be more intriguing to a movie fan. "No Country" is, in a sense, a chase film catalyzed when the ostensible hero, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin in an understated yet poignant performance) comes across a drug-deal gone sour . . . and a bag with two million dollars in it. Llewelyn does not make for a particularly charismatic hero; he has a conscience, though it is severely flawed, but the characteristic that is most striking to the audience is not his stupidity; it is his humanity. Tommy Lee Jones represents the film's voice of wisdom and reason as Sheriff Bell, whose declinist views remind one, in some ways, of the Prophet Jeremiah. But the performance (if not the character) who stays with you long after you have seen the film is Javier Bardem's Chigurh, the maniacal killer who is ambiguously hired to retrieve the suitcase but is more interested in taking lives. Mr. Bardem demonstrated to some degree that he was capable of intimidation in Michael Mann's excellent crime thriller "Collateral" (in which he played an unforgiving organized-crime boss), but in "No Country" he takes his place above--not among--the great villains in film history. Chigurh is by far more creepy than Anthony Hopkins or Brian Cox ever were playing Hannibal Lecter and just as evil.

Because of their phenomenal cast, the Coen brothers' accomplishment have no need to change the structure or the plot of McCarthy's novel, because they can animate them in ways that McCarthy's prose is incapable of matching. I don't mean to slight McCarthy, for he is, unquestionably, the greatest contemporary American novelist. But his prose is of a spirit better suited for the historical than the contemporary novel. Common tropes of his prose--short, clever dialogue; absence of apostrophes; extreme objectivity--conform to the mythological portraits which he has painted in revisionist works like "Blood Meridian" and apocalyptic novels like "the Road," but in a contemporary "No Country" (actually set around 1980) the dialogue has a tendency to be deadened because its surrealism does not match the realistic setting. For this reason, it is all the more to the Coen brothers' credit--and to the credit of their outstanding cast which includes a host of excellent supporting roles--that they are capable of transliterating McCarthy's dialogue while making it realistic. When Chigurh tells a gas-station attendant and potential victim that he might come back after dark, the disgruntled man responds by asking what the point is: "we'll be closed then." He's frightened, and the audience not only senses it but is frightened with him.

Apart from the wonderful cast though, the Coens never fail to deliver on the fearful or suspenseful elements of the story. Directors of horror should take note. In an age in which filmmakers increasingly confuse ketchup with suspense, the Coens (and their technicians, it should be noted) understand that less is more. The beeping of transponder in "No Country" recalls Ridley Scott's brilliant blip-on-the-computer-screen sequence in "Alien" twenty-eight years ago. The gunshots are loud, but it is the anticipation of them that grips the audience; there are shoot-outs in the streets, but it is the empty streets which seem the most threatening.

Beneath this veneer of violence and horror lies a more complex message consistent with the themes of McCarthy's novel. It is, in a sense, a tragedy, even though it is not the tragedy of a person but of a society, dissipating as its people begin to lose their sense of personal connection and charity. In a way, it is a tale about the conflict between the forces which try to bind and break society apart. The ending may seem pessimistic and abrupt, even unfinished. But perhaps this is part of McCarthy's and the Coens' point. "No Country" has no sequel, but the story continues, even today.

On "The Dark Knight"

I just saw the theatrical trailer for "The Dark Knight" on YouTube. You might want to wait till you see the trailer in the theater or until someone posts something of better quality, but, from what I could see (which wasn't much), it looked like Heath Ledger could be a better Joker than Jack Nicholson was. From what I could deduce from the preview, he brings a much darker disposition to the role, kind of like Ian McKellan's Richard III to Lawrence Olivier's.

Name Change

Due to a request from my brother, the name of my blog has been changed. I like Dostoyevsky more than I like Wallace Stevens anyway, and I thought it was sort of cute to change the name to "Notes from the Underground" given that I actually do work at a place called the Underground.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thompson? Class-Card? Why?

I saw a recent online article that read something like "Huckabee and Thompson Playing the Class Card against Mitt." One can hardly imagine why Fred Thompson would do so. His father may not have been the CEO of a Detroit car company (he may have only run a dealership), but it isn't like Fred Thompson's story is a Dickens-esque, rags-to-riches narrative. His father may not have been rich, but his father-in-law (by way of a shotgun wedding) could apparently pay for him to go to Vanderbilt School of Law. Thompson may have had a part-time job on a factory floor, but he's the only person I can think of whose financial situation was improved by getting someone pregnant.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thoughts on a Campaign Add

I noticed that Ron Paul had a new campaign commercial disguised as a season's greetings on YouTube. Someone (probably one of the members of his cultish following) taped him singing "Deck the Halls" in a red sweater with his clan, though it is difficult imagining Ron Paul as a patriarch. I think that he was trying to copy Mitt Romney's campaign add, "Our Home," which is also available on YouTube, but Paul's add came off more like a parody. I should also note that Mitt Romney's wife is a better public speaker than Congressman Paul. Still, I must note that the guy's folksiness is kind of cute.

The Education of James Banks

I am visiting the dentist today which bring back old memories. Primarily, how I decided to drop out of high school. I've told this story to so many people by now that I might as well publish it on my blog. Here's how it all happened:

When I was fifteen years old, my father recommended that I take my GED during the next year and start attending the Univ. of Idaho. At that time, I decided against it, but it did cement in my mind that more options than a high school diploma existed. (In retrospect, I cannot remember why I demurred, but it is a decision which I somewhat regret. I could be graduating next semester if I had done this.)

After deciding to continue high school, I lingered for about two years, never seriously considering dropping out until one day that I visited the dentist and, somewhat fatalistically, had my mouth cleaned by a very annoying, chatty nurse. She asked me what grade I was in and I told her that I was beginning my junior year. "How old are you?" she asks. Seventeen. She then said, with the air of a political analyst, "You must have been held back." I mumbled that my birthday was very recent. (Which was true, actually, although I should note that I was a few months old for my high school class.) By the time that the dentist came into the room, he asked me what I was planning on doing in the near future and I said, "I'm going to the University of Idaho next year."

In reality, when I started attending the University of Idaho, I had no idea that I would not end up returning to high school; I had almost no confidence at the time and at least considered the possibility that, within two months, I would be sitting in a high school class once again hoping to redeem myself for graduation. My parents were very supportive, as were most of my teachers (though I know one person who told me that s/he had the feeling that it was a big mistake.) But, looking back now, I think that dropping out of high school was the best thing that I could have done and, in some ways, it turned out to be a blessing while I was a freshman in college. It was useful for core science, for example, because it is in your junior year, not your senior, that you learn chemistry.


I had my first final yesterday and I have my last final tomorrow. Those are the only two finals that I have which is to say that I love being an English major. Still, I could use prayer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On Status

I heard just the other day that, in the Middle Ages, any profession involving blood was anathema. Hence, barbers and cooks were among the lowest of jobs in society. (Barbers bled ailing people.) Interestingly, both of these disciplines are a personal hobby of mine. I suppose in the Middle Ages, I would have had a similar social status to that of a bubonic plague rat.

The Monsters Are the Critics: How the "New Yorker" Kaelled the Art Form of the Twentieth Century

When movie critics talk in this day and age, they always assert two contradictory things: (1) contemporary movies are far too prudish and censored and (2) movies were far better fifty years ago, during the golden age of Hollywood. True, they also believe that the 1970s were a highpoint in their own way, but the 80s seem to be, universally, the least popular decade of movie-making for everyone and the 90s and 2000s, while satisfactory, do not stand out. Of course, as with most other phenomenon, there is a reason for this, an occurrence that brought us from there to here: Pauline Kael.

For those of us who are just joining the program, Pauline Kael was the movie critic (she never used the word "film," thinking it pretentious) for the "New Yorker" magazine from 1967 to 1991. Some people argue that she is the most important critic of her generation and, while it is for worse rather than better, she has had an unquestionable influence on critics like A. O. Scott, Peter Travers and her successors over at the NYer, David Denby and Anthony Lane. Her reviews were even collected and published in book form (James Agee is the only other reviewer to have his reviews republished that I can think of.)

But before I expound on why this has done more harm than good, there are a few things which ought to be set straight. First, Pauline Kael never said or wrote "I can't believe that Nixon defeated McGovern, I don't know a single person who voted for him" even though this quote is often cited as an example of liberal/progressive ignorance. She may have been a number of things, but she was very much in touch with her times, which brings me around nicely to her significance. She was a film critic for the era in which she wrote (or, at least for the first decade of it.) It was an era in which Arthur Penn was making progressive movies like "Bonny and Clyde," "Little Big Man," and "Missouri Breaks"; when Francis Ford Coppola was directing the first two "Godfather" pictures; when Martin Scorsese gained notoriety for movies like "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver"; and when Robert Altman was developing his signature improvisational style in movies like "M.A.S.H.," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and "Nashville". (If you gagged me, hand-cuffed me to a chair and taped my eyes open, then maybe you would get me to watch a movie from Robert Altman's 70s period, but I refuse to do it willingly.)

Of all of the movies noted above, Pauline Kael was an early champion. For example, she got into a famous literary tussle with the film critic of the "New York Times" (whose name, I believe, was Brosley Crowther) over "Bonny and Clyde," a movie which she loved and he deplored. The result: she became the leading film critic for the "New Yorker" and he decided that it was time for retirement. Crowther represented the old school of film criticism, the type which might have seen something like "Lawrence of Arabia" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" as masterpieces, whereas Kael saw herself as a champion of the new school. These old movies, which were popular with audiences because of their straightforwardness, were not included in her new vision for cinema. (Incidentally, years later, when asked why he had not made a movie in decades "Lawrence of Arabia"'s director, David Lean, said that Pauline Kael was the reason.) She was constantly goading her readers to take on movies which were more challenging, movies which she found to be difficult. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the 1970s saw a significant increase in the market for foreign films.

At this point, it may seem that there is little to be regretted. The 1970s--while producing Altman's films and "Mean Streets"--did also see some flawed up unequaled masterpieces: Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," Coppola's "Godfather, Part I" and "Godfather, Part II," Terrence Malick's "Badlands," Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." But, on the other hand, it completely destroyed the film industry which had preceded it. The era of the epic--"Ben-Hur," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago"--was effectively over; film noir also, while occasionally emulated, was little more than a curiosity after 1970; the golden age of the western had come to an end. (The only westerns that were produced during the 70s were the revisionist hack-works of Arthur Penn; seriously, who watches those anymore?)

Because the above-mentioned genres describe, more or less, every popular movie that was produced before 1970 (with some exceptions, like "King Kong"), it was obvious that the studios would have to find some other means of attracting audiences. Improvements in special effects helped new genres, like fantasy, science fiction and action develop, but the 1970s also saw a significant bar-raise in movie violence. Not that I am totally opposed, one of my favorite movies is "Fargo" after all, but I feel no other emotion than offense when I see a movie like "Sin City" and note that the filmmaker believes me to be, like him, a sadistic pervert of sorts who enjoys watching prostitutes being cannibalized. In other words, the 1970s made violence into an artistic trope in cinema, instead of being a necessary evil. (I should note, also, that violence completely destroyed horror/suspense as a genre, because people forgot that spilling barrels and barrels of ketchup is not actually particularly scary.)

Pauline Kael's main contribution to this sorry state of affair was creating the rift between popular movies and cinematic movies. We see the cloud of her influence in every "New Yorker" movie review today, where David Denby and Anthony Lane consistently attack certain movies for one reason: they are financed by major studios and promote others for the converse: they are financed by "independent" studios. The industry which Kael and the filmmakers of the 1970s dismantled was, perhaps, imperfect. It did created movies like "the Sound of Music," after all. But "Lawrence of Arabia," to name just one example, has the sweep of great tragedy, more so than "the Godfather" even. Not that I am suggesting we revert to the 1960s rules and modes of film production. I am merely saying that I would have preferred to see where it would have gone and also, even if they did usher in a new era, I could have lived without Robert Altman and Arthur Penn.

I Have Returned

In the words of a great American, "I have returned" and with colors flying high. If you were wondering, dear readers (who probably don't exist in real life), my previous blog has been taken off the web as I am no longer Lord Jim (even though the name is still in the address) and I am now the Emperor of ice cream.

I will write a long post later on, but there are a few things which I should clear up for the few and the proud before the end of finals week. First, I thought that I made far too many endorsements on my last blog, switching my support from candidate to candidate indiscriminately; some of my endorsements were embarrassing too. (Yes, I did support Ron Paul briefly.) Less than a month from the first primary, I still can't decide who to vote for--should it be Romney, or Huckabee, or McCain?--it probably won't be Fred Thompson, but whoever it is, I am not going to be making any official endorsements on this blog. Not even in the main presidential race. I will speak about what I do or do not like about the various candidates, but I will never write "I officially endorse . . ." I also resolve (since it is that time of year) to speak less about economics on this blog and more about movies and books. That doesn't mean that I'm not going to talk about economics (it still is a hobby), but I'll try to make it as palatable as possible. I might include more layman theology (or theology for people, like me, who know nothing about theology) since this is another one of my pet hobbies. Also, expect lots of satire.

As for the rest, just hang tight (as I know you will), Merry Christmas and God bless.