Archive for October, 2008

Whatever happened to the antitrust movement?

October 31, 2008

Antitrust legislation is the single most important kind of economic legislation in a republic. As every important republican thinker since the 19th century has realized, an economy governed by price-fixers and monopolies is corrosive to self-government and the independence of the citizenry.

Of the two major candidates, Barack Obama is the only one, as far as I can tell, who’s made serious public statements on antitrust. Here’s what he said in May: “We’re going to have an antitrust division in the Justice Department that actually believes in antitrust law. We haven’t had that for the last seven, eight years.”

Back in January, experts thought Obama was just OK on antitrust, and that the “pro-market emphasis” at the University of Chicago had probably had some effect on him. (Oddly, the implication seems to be that antitrust law is anti-market, instead of pro-market as it certainly is.) That said, Obama has a pretty decent statement about the issue, and he seems to understand what’s at stake.

Despite that fact, the last president with a good antitrust record was, of all people, William Howard Taft. (Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, suspended the Sherman Antitrust Act with his National Industrial Recovery Act.) Needless to say, the current administration wasn’t enthusiastic about enforcing anti-monopoly laws.

It would certainly be nice to see this made a national issue again. As Ralph Nader rightly puts it: “The way to really deal with small businesses is to [enforce] competition policy. They never talk about enforcement of antitrust laws. Small business is the principle victim of monopolistic policies and price fixing. The Justice Department is asleep.”

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The president who lied.

October 30, 2008

Never in history had a sitting president been held in such low esteem by his fellow politicians. Washington establishment types, usually willing to look the other way, were appalled by the odor of scandal and corruption hanging over the White House. This president had broken the law. More appalling yet, he had deceived the people. He had lied on television and led the country into a crisis that was absorbing the attention of the entire country. He had disgraced his office and undermined the people’s confidence in the entire system of government.

So the politicians, for once, said. They were truly angry at the president’s “campaign of deception.” In fact, they couldn’t wait to impeach him. These quotes from the Washington Post speak for themselves:

The president, (said Chris Matthews) “has broken and shattered contracts publicly and shamefully. He violates the trust at the highest level of politics.”

“I’m angry at him,” (retiring Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton) says. “I’d like to kick his butt across the White House lawn.”

“This is our town,” says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Democrat to forcefully condemn the president’s behavior. “We spend our lives involved in talking about, dealing with, working in government. It has reminded everybody what matters to them. You are embarrassed about what (the president)’s behavior says about the White House, the presidency, the government in general.”

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin: “When you take the precious resource of a president’s ability to mobilize people and employ that resource into a campaign of deception . . . when you lie to the country, you are using your authority to undermine the presidency.”

“People felt a reverent attitude toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” says Tish Baldrige, who once worked there as Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary and has been a frequent visitor since. “Now it’s gone, now it’s sleaze and dirt. We all feel terribly let down. It’s very emotional. We want there to be standards. We’re used to standards. When you think back to other presidents, they all had a lot of class. That’s nonexistent now. It’s sad for people in the White House. . . . I’ve never seen such bad morale in my life. They’re not proud of their chief.”

“He came in here and he trashed the place,” says Washington Post columnist David Broder, “and it’s not his place.”

Muffie Cabot, who as Muffie Brandon served as social secretary to President and Nancy Reagan, regards the scene with despair. “This is a demoralized little village,” she says. “People have come from all over the country to serve a higher calling and look what happened. They’re so disillusioned. The emperor has no clothes. Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn’t quite as sordid as this.”

And the wife of a Democratic senator who declined to comment spoke on condition of anonymity. … Her husband, she said, thinks the president “lacks character and commitment. He’s very clear about it.”

“Americans will be hurt by his reckless behavior,” says Rep. McHale.

“The judgment is harsher in Washington,” says The Post’s Broder. “We don’t like being lied to.”

NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell adds a touch of neighborly concern. “We all know people who have been terribly damaged personally by this,” she says. “…There is a small-town quality to the grief that is being felt, an overwhelming sadness at the waste of the nation’s time and attention, at the opportunities lost.”

Privately, many in Establishment Washington would like to see (the president) resign and spare the country, the presidency and the city any more humiliation.

“We don’t want to hang him,” says Gergen. “There’s a sense that we all want to clear this up. And there’s a maddening frustration that the political system doesn’t have a set of penalties for this kind of activity.”

“The founding fathers let us down,” adds Beschloss.

“He shouldn’t get by with it,” says Baker.

“His behavior,” says Lieberman, “is so over the edge. What is troubling is the deceit, the failure to own up to it. Before this is over the truth must be told.”

As you might have guessed, these quotes are not about President George W. Bush. They’re about President Bill Clinton.

They’re from a notorious Washington Post story from November 1999, which quoted a number of Washington insiders at length about their outrage at the president. They weren’t offended that Clinton had had an affair, they explained. That was his business. They were all simply outraged that he had lied. The idea that a president might lie to the country about anything was simply intolerable to them. It was so intolerable that they simply had to impeach him.

Note that no one dared suggest that there might be more important things than impeaching the president. The opposing party didn’t claim, for example, that impeachment was “off the table” because they had more important things to attend to, even though polls showed that Americans overwhelmingly didn’t care much about the Monica Lewinsky scandal and didn’t think it was worth removing Clinton from office. What was at stake, members of both parties insisted, was the credibility of the presidency. Americans just couldn’t have a president who didn’t tell them the truth.

And that’s why the next president was careful to always, always, always tell the truth.

Of official stories and sales pitches.

October 29, 2008

Matthew Yglesias has this to say in regard to another blogger rightly pointing out that Kagan is rewriting the truth:

…if you think back to 2002 and early 2003 it was commonplace for supporters of the war to observe that Bush wasn’t making the “right case” or the “real case” for the war. It was always, in other words, understood among readers of Washington Post editorials and Tom Friedman op-eds and The Threatening Storm, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard that the official sales pitch was just that — a sales pitch aimed at the rubes — and not the real argument.

Too true, and someting that’s often forgotten. Yes, we’ve since learned beyond all reasonable doubt that Hussein didn’t have any dangerous weapons. But the evidence was there for anyone who wanted to see it in the way the administration kept changing its pretext for war. Were we going there for humanitarian reasons, to uphold the authority of the United Nations, to protect the United States from nuclear assault, or because Hussein was allied with bin Laden? Unfortunately, far too many serious people got suckered in by the “humanitarian” take and treated Bush’s mendaciousness as a mere detail. It’s been said that democracies have more trouble waging wars than any other type of government; however you want to run them, though, it’s a safe bet that you can’t do it by deceiving the electorate and hoping no one notices.

This is why there are conspiracy theories.

October 29, 2008

John McCain isn’t a neocon; he just happens to believe all the same things. Just look at what his foreign policy adviser, Robert Kagan, told Der Spiegel:

SPIEGEL: Isn’t it true that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld took advantage of the outrage over the 9/11 terrorist attacks to strike Iraq? Is it even possible anymore to deny that the war was based on manipulation, exaggeration and flat-out lies? […]

KAGAN: In retrospect, we have to admit that Washington could have waited a while longer. That’s a different question. But I think it’s about time we moved beyond this silly conversation and these absurd conspiracy theories.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Kagan believes these things. He also believes that the Founding Fathers were neocons and that the Civil War was America’s “first experiment in ideological conquest.” We’ve seen a lot of right-wingers try to justify the Iraq War by arguing that it was part of a noble American tradition; Kagan, I believe, is the only one willing to justify it by arguing that the entire American tradition was as grubby and mendacious as the Iraq War.

Is it any wonder that people resort to bizarre conspiracy theories when people like Kagan exist?

The real America.

October 26, 2008

According to Sarah Palin, it’s in “these small towns” like Greensboro, North Carolina, where she opined Oct. 16 that the real America was to be found in the hearts of “very patriotic” and “pro-America” folks in America’s heartland. As she put it: “This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom.”

Since when are courage and kindness virtues exclusive to small towns? (For that matter, is Greensboro, the third-largest city in its state, really a small town?) Those brave firefighters and ordinary folks whose courage we rightly admired on Sept. 11 were from New York, so presumably they don’t count. Then there’s that weird us vs. them stuff popping up in the unlikeliest way — “fighting our wars for us”? If Palin wants to divide and conquer, she’d better get it straight who “we” are.

Thoughts on Russia and a Cold War revived.

October 26, 2008

For anyone whose memories of the Cold War are as dim as my own, it was shocking to behold the oligarchs’ fierce, and very successful, campaign to portray Russia’s “invasion” of Georgia as “unprovoked.” Unsurprising, perhaps since reducing all of world history to Munich 1938 has been their chief rhetorical instrument of warmongering since — well, since World War II. What the oligarchs want — what they so desperately need, with Bush’s war mangling their prestige and their power with every passing week — is a revival of the old Cold War. Not a feeble, deflated “war on terror” — a war that, by its very definition, is no war at all — but a perpetual enemy and a perpetual pretext for warmongering nationalism.

The citizenry, as always, is helplessly dependent on the sickly advice of its betters. Rick Shenkman, author of the recent “Just How Stupid Are We,” thinks this is all to the good: “…voters have proven time and again that they cannot fulfill their responsibilities acting on their own. They must be members of a mass group (political party, labor union, etc.). They need to take their cues from people who have 1. studied the issues and 2. can tell them which candidates will best look after their interests.” Leave the politics to the professionals, sayeth the professionals, and leave to us the task of running your imperial republic!

Who can fail to recognize, in the recent spate of books deploring the ignorance of our citizens and their patent inferiority to our wise and noble intelligentsia, a sinister plea for tyranny untrammeled and unchecked by pitiful “inefficient” democracy? Who can fail to recognize it as the grunting resentment of ideologues who long to run the economy themselves, free of interference? Who can fail to hear the echo of the Stalinist gangsters the ideologues so hypocritically pretend to despise?

Americans are not eager for war with Russia, do not even despise Russia — much to the ideologues’ indignation and the oligarchs’ frustration.

Glenn Greenwald is angry, but not surprised:

Since all of the major candidates accept the deceitful premise about what happened — that Russia’s “aggression” against Georgia was “unprovoked” — nobody refutes it, and Americans thus assume it is true. And: Americans are alone in this world in being lied to about what happened. Virtually the entire rest of the world — at least the rest of the world that is affected in some way by Russia and Georgia — has access to the truth. But here, not only is the lie not debunked, it’s not even discussed or debated (with some rare exceptions). The propaganda is just asserted to be true by the political establishment and thus accepted by most of the citizenry, and then becomes the unchallenged foundation of all sorts of dangerous, militaristic policy orthodoxies that nobody is free to dispute (upon pain of being ejected from the political mainstream).

Of course, the original Cold War was built on a lie as well — Truman’s astonishing assertion that “a breach of the peace anywhere in the world threatens the peace of the entire world,” and his determination to provoke Stalin at every turn. The Soviet Union, for all its crimes, was not aiming to rule the world in 1947 (just as Russia is not aiming to rule the world in 2008), and it wasn’t for nothing that Truman, in Sen. Arthur Vanderburg’s words, set out to “scare the hell out of the American people” in order to get his Cold War and his nationalized Imperial Republic.

Of course, Stalin was much worse than Truman — unimaginably worse. But we err if we imagine that Truman foisted on us the CIA, the National Security Act, NSC-68, and the war in Korea out of the goodness of his heart. He did it to crush a republic and flatten it forever beneath the iron rule of the oligarchs. And he was very successful, since no prominent public man dared challenge the Cold War for 20 years.

Walter Karp, as usual, tells us what every other historian won’t:

We are “the strongest nation on earth,” the new President boasted on Labor Day, 1945. Then why, Americans rightly wondered, was the strongest nation on earth simultaneously so weak and so vulnerable that it had to dominate the world just to be safe? Because “America must behave like the Number One World Power which she is,” replied Senator Arthur Vandenberg, foreign policy leader of the Republican Party, begging the question in the safety of his diary. “The position of the United States in world affairs,” noted a typical official statement, “is based on the premise that our security and welfare are intrinsically related to the general security and welfare, and upon an acceptance of the responsibility for leadership in world affairs which is called for by that premise.” Alas for “world leadership,” this kind of high-toned sophistry, reeking with dishonesty in every cant phrase, could neither move a people nor subdue a republic.

General George Marshall would speak of “the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country,” but the overwhelming majority of Americans, unenlightened by higher education, did not understand that “history” told their leaders what to do. “No sudden cultural maturation is to be anticipated in the United States,” lamented a political scientist named Gabriel Almond as late as 1950, “which would be proportionate to the gravity and power of its newly acquired international status.” The only thing Americans want to do, complained Averell Harriman, our ambassador to Moscow, is “go to the movies and drink Coke.”

“Bipartisan foreign policy is the ideal for the executive because you can’t run this damned country any other way…. Now the way to do that is to say politics stops at the seaboard-and anyone who denies that postulate is a son-of-a-bitch and a crook and not a true patriot. Now if people will swallow that then you’re off to the races.” Thus Dean Acheson, explaining how to muzzle a free-people and stifle their freedom.

Are liberals any fun?

October 26, 2008

I’ve often thought that conservatives seem to have a lot more fun than liberals. In my first semester at college, in a class called “The Press and Society,” we watched Manufacturing Consent (1) (we also watched This Is What Democracy Looks Like, Outfoxed, and Control Room — in retrospect, I feel sorry for the freshman Bush supporter who once loudly vented her frustration at our professor mid-lecture). The documentary included an old clip of him sparring with William F. Buckley over U.S. foreign policy. Even though I probably agreed more with Chomsky than Buckley, I couldn’t help but sympathize more with Buckley, whose playful detachment from the argument seemed much more attractive to me than Chomsky’s drip-dry seriousness. It planted a suspicion in my mind that I’ve had trouble shooing away: Is it more fun to be conservative than liberal?

Watching the clip now, I think I was right. For some reason, liberals and leftists rarely come off as fun. The 40s/50s era FDR/Truman liberals tended to be horn-rimmed eggheads (Adlai Stevenson, Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger). As for the ’60s-era leftists, they’re either insufferable flakes (Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey) or humorless Maoists (the New Left, the SDS crowd, that annoying roommate of yours). So, with a few borderline exceptions (Gore Vidal, who’s more of an Old Right conservative; Hunter Thompson, more or less a left-leaning libertarian), I can’t think of any notable liberals or leftists I’d like to hang out with. (Obviously I don’t include neoconservatives — I can think of few people I’d enjoy hanging out with less than Norman Podhoretz.) Whereas conservatives, from Buckley to Evelyn Waugh, almost always seem to be having a good time.

As Dinesh D’Souza put it, in a passage he seems to have recycled over several books and articles:

I remember some of those early dinners at the (Jeffrey) Hart farmhouse. We drank South American wine and listened to recordings of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Robert Frost reading his poems, and Nixon speeches, of comedian Rich Little doing his Nixon imitation, George C. Scott delivering the opening speech in Patton, some of Winston Churchill’s orations, and the music from the BBC version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. There was an ethos here, and a sensibility, and it conveyed to me something about conservatism that I had never suspected. Here was conservatism that was alive; that was engaged with art, music, and literature; that was at the same time ironic, lighthearted, and fun.

And why shouldn’t they have fun? They’ve got a fully formed way of looking at the world, and one that they more or less agree on. Liberals, meanwhile, have no single intellectual history to look back on, make careers out of disagreeing on trivia and minutia, and feel it’s their duty to avoid offending anyone except conservatives. No wonder they’re so uptight.

Of course, I’m not a conservative. My heroes are republican eccentrics with bad hair (Abraham Lincoln, Robert La Follette, Eugene McCarthy, Ralph Nader). All of them tend to irritate liberals (who think Lincoln a gutless moderate, prefer the first Roosevelt to La Follette, prefer Bobby Kennedy to McCarthy, and think Nader gave us Bush). But I imagine they’d be more interesting to hang out with.

1. I can’t resist noting that there is, in fact, another Noam Chomsky documentary that is billed as, I’m not kidding, “the best Noam Chomsky documentary since Manufacturing Consent.” Clearly, a new genre to be ranked with the “Police Academy” sequel and the Elvis movie.

“W”: Reviewing the reviews.

October 21, 2008

I hadn’t planned to review any movies here, but the reviews of Oliver Stone’s “W.” are so maddeningly dense — raves and pans alike — that I can’t resist commenting.

Let’s begin with America’s Newspaper of Record. The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis eschews discussing the actual film in favor of waxing professiorial:

The story repeatedly shifts between scenes of the younger Bush meandering through his life, and the older Bush navigating through the early stages of the Iraq war. This shuttling across time and space undercuts the drama — the story doesn’t so much build as restlessly circle back — but it puts into visual terms Mr. Stone’s ideas about the present and past being mutually implicated.

You can hear Dargis puffing up her own — quite ordinary — response like a balloon here. The first sentence is clear as day, and the second sentence dissolves a clear enough idea into demented academicspeak. The movie does indeed “shuttle across time and space,” as do all movies except Edison one-reelers and all those Hitchcock films that take place in cramped apartments. God knows what “present and past being mutually implicated” means. It’s one of those things that film students write in caffeine-inspired final papers at 2 a.m. because they know it’s the sort of thing film teachers gobble up (or at least nod knowingly at).

Because the film spends so much time on the pre-presidential younger Bush — first glimpsed marinating in vodka in 1966 — and ends sometime in 2004, more than a year into Iraq, it can’t help feeling like a prologue to a more involved story.

Pop quiz: Who would you rather see a movie about, the George W. Bush of 1966-2004, or the George W. Bush of 2005-to-the-present? Thought so. (Incidentally, I think what Dargis meant to write was “no more than a year into Iraq,” which would have properly placed the emphasis for her point. Maybe it’s because they have to churn out their product in a hurry, but almost every critic I’ve read on this movie has garbled at least a sentence or two.)

On one of the movie’s most important scenes, the scene of Bush meeting with wounded soldiers in a hospital:

The intrusion of real horror is bluntly effective, though there is something at once morally and structurally suspect about the use of such images in any fiction entertainment, no matter how high-minded and well intended.

Let’s break this down. First, note that Dargis finds the scene nothing less than “morally suspect.” That’s the kind of charge they used to throw at, I don’t know, embezzlers. Did Dargis find the scenes of the Confederate wounded in “Gone With the Wind,” or the carnage in “Saving Private Ryan” or Stone’s own “Platoon” equally “morally suspect”? All of those movies were marketed as entertainment (except possibly “Ryan,” which was marketed as an affirmation of Steven Spielberg’s moral stature), despite the fact that real World War II and Vietnam veterans undoubtedly sat through them. (1) Does Dargis simply wish to parade her own superiority to Oliver Stone by suggesting that she, for one, would never be so gauche as to include wounded Iraqi soldiers in a movie about the Iraq War? (2)

Dargis tries to keep the reader from realizing the implications of that plainly ridiculous response by also calling the scene structurally suspect; that it is in the second, more important position is to remind you that she, as a Serious Film Critic, is more interested in the “structure” of Stone’s film than anything as insignificant as, say, the performances (none of which get a mention here, except for an offhand pan of James Cromwell’s wonderful performance as George H. W. Bush). But why in the world is it “structurally” suspect? How can a scene even be “structurally” suspect? Did it simply interfere with her notion of what she thought the movie should be like?

Enough. Let’s move on to a somewhat better critic, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon. Zacharek’s review is approximately twenty times better than Dargis’s. For one thing, she can write:

“W.” is more enjoyable and more effective when it’s crazier, more exaggerated, like a Christmas Pantomime. In casting and directing his actors, Stone seems to have followed his baser, truer instincts: He allows them plenty of wickedness, providing space for their performances to blossom in marvelous, insightful, almost expressionistically joyous ways. There’s Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell: The incredulousness on his face, as his cronies embark on engineering a war he knows can’t be won, says more than a hundred lines of dialogue could. Richard Dreyfuss doesn’t miss a single insidious detail in his portrayal of Dick Cheney, right down to the way he peels back his lower lip to reveal those tiny Chicklets of evil masquerading as lower teeth. Thandie Newton is frighteningly perfect as Condoleezza Rice; she wears a constant sneer, as if she were perpetually haunted by the smell of rotten eggs. Scott Glen doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld, and so he instead pulls the performance straight from inside. When he utters lines like “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war,” they come from the heart — and that right there is terrifying.

This is good, physical writing — the way Zacharek shapes the last lines, talking about Glen “pulling the performance straight from inside,” as if she couldn’t help but associate Rumsfeld with the violent imagery of a horror movie, is poetry — and I wish the review itself stayed that good all the way through. But Zacharek is blinded by what can only be called liberal condescension. Halfway through her review, Zacharek pauses to remind us that she’s better than George and Laura Bush:

Because, as we all know — and as Stone reminds us — W has never been so hot in the book-learning department. Stone and Weiser use that fact to cut a small, fascinating window into the life of George and Laura Bush, maybe because, like many of us, they’ve often asked themselves, “Why?” That is, why would a seemingly intelligent woman, who’d worked as both a librarian and a teacher (and who, it appears, was far more politically liberal in her younger days), fall for a semi-literate Republican cowboy type? … But the scene is played in a way that underscores the joy and tragedy of so many human relationships: Sometimes sexual chemistry carries the day, even when the parties involved know better, which is perhaps, in real life, the case with W and Laura. (To those of you who may have lost your appetite after reading the words “W” and “sexual chemistry” in the same sentence, I apologize.)

As someone who opposed George W. Bush from the moment I heard of him, stayed suspicious when his speeches were getting compared to Churchill and Hemingway, and started calling him a “tyrant” around the time he started calling for Saddam’s head, I don’t feel much pleasure in saying this, but liberal condescension to Bush has resulted in some of the most nauseating, self-congratulatory writing there is. Calling Bush a “semi-literate Republican cowboy type” is, I suppose, just reflexive liberal condescension — it pops out of the writer the way words like “unholy” pop out of nerdy teenagers — but there’s something very ugly-sounding about that phrase “seemingly intelligent woman.” Ugly and bullying, in fact, in a way that we’re hearing from a lot of the McCain camp these days.

I’ve long wondered why everyone at the Village Voice feels compelled to write in this compressed, slangy, all but incomprehensible hipster-speak. I think I’ve figured it out: It gives you license to say anything you want, regardless of whether it makes any sense or not. That’s the only excuse I can think of for some of the articles I’ve read there. (3) And so J. Hoberman, in his mild pan of the movie, just babbles and babbles:

A simian slob, modeled on Andy Griffith’s raucous run-amok in A Face in the Crowd and given to bad-tempered pronouncements while stuffing his face, Brolin uses stupidity as a crucifix. He wards off sympathy as though it were a vampire. In directing Brolin, Stone is disinclined to give the devil his due.

This is so far from my own impression of Brolin’s performance that I have to presume Hoberman is reading his own dislike of the real-life Bush onto the movie. But even if I did agree, the paragraph is rife with other projections. How does Hoberman know that Brolin based his performance on Andy Griffith’s? (He doesn’t, and in fact the performances aren’t much alike at all, but talking about movies only in terms of other movies is a film hipster’s favorite disarm-the-audience trick.) As for using stupidity as a crucifix and warding off sympathy as though it were a vampire, that’s just VV-speak — the technique is to pile up metaphors and pseudo-points until they cover up the fact that you don’t have anything to say.

My favorite awful review, though, has to be this truly weird rave from Armond White of the New York Press. White comes off like a parody of a critic. His view of absolutely everything seems constructed entirely in response to some other view. In short, he’s literally a “reactionary.”

Striving for balance, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser shape a narrative that aims for artistic justice—reclaiming the high ground that was forsaken by Michael Moore and the fashionable trend of unapologetic media bias. …

Wait, wait — what is “artistic justice”? Is it the same as, like, historical justice? Or does it just mean that Bush deserves to have a respectful fictional touch-up just ’cause he’s a president and all? Never mind; White moves on without explaining. There’s a po-faced madness to his method.

But Stone and Weiser don’t repeat the infamous New Yorker magazine Obama cover-cartoon transgression that confused satire, parody and mockery. …

Wait — so you’re supposed to keep those things separate? And does he think the “cover-cartoon” was a transgression? God, what the hell is he talking about?

Today’s political satire has distorted our sense of judgment. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live are not high points of our culture—no matter how many viewers mistake showbiz temerity for political principle. … Presenting Bush as a paradox, not a fool, makes W. more complex than current political serio-comedies like the snide Charlie Wilson’s War.

Reading White is like trying to drink a Coke after chugging three shots of espresso. It’s kind of exciting and it eventually makes you feel kind of slimy and disgusting. It’s exciting, for example, to see him slam The Daily Show (if twenty-somethings had playgrounds, this sort of talk would get you beaten up), but grouping it with, of all things, SNL, makes you pause. Does he mean, like, all SNL? Since 1975? Is he sincerely dismissing the entirety of American television’s most famous long-running comedy show and expecting us not to blink? Does he talk like this in real life?

It gets worse once White gets around to discussing what he thinks the point of the movie is:

…instead of uselessly second-guessing Bush‘s doctrine, Stone lets Cheney point out: “Your presidency is a fulcrum point in history.” The discussion where the test-phrase “Axis of Hatred” becomes “Axis of Evil” is only ludicrous if you want it to be; just as Cheney’s take on Iraq as an oil resource (“the fertile choke point of civilization”) argues American interest and necessity convincingly—except maybe to green peaceniks. These cabinet meetings clarify how power and empire work. As the director of a large-scale social and heroic history like the majestic, underrated Alexander, Stone understands America’s historic place as empire—despite whoever finds that concept dismaying.

For sheer credulousness, this is hard to beat. Does White know anything about politics? Is he willing to take any stance as long as it contradicts those of artists he hates? What does it mean to “uselessly second-guess Bush’s doctrine”? And why does he keep slipping in atonal, blandly out-of-place phrases like “large-scale social and heroic history”? And what is “despite” doing in the last sentence? Does he mean, like, “no matter who”?

In his review of Albert Goldman’s “Elvis,” Greil Marcus made one of my favorite ever critical observations. Goldman, Marcus complained, wrote in the “addled syntax of someone who dictates rather than writes.” Anyone who’s made it all the way through Goldman’s inadvertently funny 600-page book — rich in insights like “Myth is what we believe naturally. Truth is what we must painfully learn and struggle to remember.” — will probably collapse with laughter on hearing that. Reviews like White’s make me wish I were reading Goldman again.

Only the great Roger Ebert — writing in his usual flat journalist’s voice, echoing not the mind of the film scholar but the ordinary moviegoer when he uses phrases like “you won’t find out here” and “the movie doesn’t show them…” — came up with a take that remotely resembled mine. Next to the vaunting theory-tossing and vapid phrase-making of the other critics, Ebert doesn’t say much at all in his review, really — but, as usual, he somehow includes everything of importance.

What Stone did with George W. Bush was so radical that almost no critic seems to have understood it, let alone approved of it. He approached him with a sense of awe and discovery, as if no one had ever tried to tell this guy’s story before. He didn’t quite pull this off — leaving Sept. 11 and Florida out of the George W. Bush story is like leaving miracles out of the Jesus story — but he made the story seem remarkably fresh. The most common response to the movie I’ve heard is melancholy. This is a sad story. When the historians come to write this one in 20 years, they’ll think so too.

1. While I doubt any Civil War veterans attended the premiere of GWTW, I don’t doubt there were a few at the premiere of “Birth of a Nation” (1915), which came out closer to the end of the Civil War than “Ryan” did to the end of WW2.

2. Since “JFK,” claiming one’s superiority to Oliver Stone has been every snob’s way of declaring oneself above the rabble. The NYT’s Michiko Kakutani — one of those critics of whom it might safely be said that no one is clamoring for the collected works — once gave us this rendering of that snobbery: “The conspiracy-minded, fact-warping movies of Oliver Stone are regarded by those who don’t know better as genuine history, as are the most sensationalistic of television docudramas.” Since Stone has only made three films I’m aware of that even pretend to be historical dramas, and only one that concerns itself with conspiracies (I’ve yet to see anyone doubt the veracity of “World Trade Center,” and the most common complaint about “Nixon” was that it was too nice to Nixon), this “critique” seems based more on parodies of Stone (not that there haven’t been some funny ones) than Stone himself. What’s really disgusting about this moronic cliche is the implication that anyone who thinks there was some funny business going on in the Kennedy assassination ought to “know better,” since official lying in the American government is nonexistent.

3. I think a large part of this is due to the lingering influence of longtime Village Voice rock critic “dean” Robert Christgau, whose super-compressed reviews pretty much invented the modern album review. Christgau, at his best, is laconic and clever, but some of his followers write like they’ve writing the loudspeaker announcements for some sort of indie-rock version of NASCAR.

The future looks bright ahead?

October 15, 2008

With the race all but over, ambitious Democrats are already girding themselves for what most observers agree could well be the first era of lasting Democratic rule since the fall of Lyndon Johnson. The question of what Democrats would actually do if they got power remains an open one. Certainly they couldn’t get away with a Clintonish “centrism.” Nor could they knife their progressive president in the back; Obama is no Carter, and he’s not at odds with party leaders. Nor are the American people in the mood to be roused to international do-gooderism in the mode of Kennedy. Yet Obama will probably be a popular president, and the Democrats are almost certainly going to seize a majority.

This in an era when the people are more furious with corrupt business and corrupt government — closer to seeing the essential link between them, the fact that one cannot really exist without the other — than at any time since the brief public outcry that accompanied the Enron scandal (and which Bush permanently derailed by dragging the country into Iraq). Are the Democrats going to transform themselves into the reformist party of our dreams and make us forget about the last two years?

I suppose it’s always possible, but if we’re not vigilant, who knows what we might end up with. This Politico story hints at what might be in store for us:

Come next year, the new administration and the new Congress may be able to build an entire new bureaucracy to govern the economy for decades. Essentially, Democrats want to put some institutional permanence behind the sweeping executive actions taking place as the Bush administration moves to shore up banks and other financial institutions with Treasury’s new powers.

The same “executive actions” that so many Democrats — and a majority of the American people — bitterly opposed? What the American people actually want — what they would certainly cheer — is an end to the corruption and collusion that led to the financial crisis, an end to the tyranny of the faux free market and an end to the Washington/Wall Street alliance. But who knows? If we demand it, and hold our leaders accountable — not inconceivable in this day of the Internet and instantaneous news, when it’s harder than ever to hide the actions of the powerful and their consequences — it just might happen. Never say never.

The slings and arrows of an outrageous election.

October 14, 2008

One of the more entertaining sideshows of this remarkably entertaining election (seriously, I sat through ’00 and ’04 as a fully alert, news-addicted political junkie, and next to this one they were like watching toast burn) has been watching erstwhile Bush supporters twist themselves into a rhetorical tizzy over the spectacle of Sarah Palin being, well, Sarah Palin. Here’s my two favorites so far:

Andrew Sullivan: I don’t think Palin is dumb; she is just proudly ignorant, a cynical opportunist and a pathological liar.

Christopher Hitchens: “A deceiving and unscrupulous woman utterly unversed in any of the needful political discourses but easily trained to utter preposterous lies and to appeal to the basest element of her audience.”

Then, of course, there’s the unclassifiable crackpot:

Camille Paglia: Even if she disappears from the scene forever after a McCain defeat, Palin will still have made an enormous and lasting contribution to feminism. As I said in my last column, Palin has made the biggest step forward in reshaping the persona of female authority since Madonna danced her dominatrix way through the shattered puritan barricades of the feminist establishment.

You can’t make this stuff up. Of course, you might argue that it’s hard to tell what sort of person Palin actually is, since the McCain campaign’s scrupulously shielded her from any dangerous question-askers, to the point of all but trying to rig the vice presidential debate in her favor. Not that it matters too much, since this election’s pretty much in the bag, but it was nice to see see a lot of media types actually get pissed about Palin’s gutless Agnewing about the mean liberal press.