Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"9-1-1, What is your emergency?" "My doll is dying." "We'll be right there, sir."

Maybe I'm not the best candidate to enjoy "Lars and the Real Girl," a sickeningly sweet fantasy about a town full of people who have nothing else to do but enable a delusional loner's fantasy that a full-size doll is his girlfriend.

But, honestly, things take place in this movie that belie the basic rules of modern society. If you're making a film that takes place in the real world, how can you expect anyone to buy that when someone calls 9-1-1 because he believes his doll-girlfriend is dying, EMTs would attach a respirator and drive the doll to the hospital in an ambulance. Isn't that, like, a grossly irresponsible (not to mention expensive) use of medical resources? I'd love to see the insurance claim for that. And isn't it illegal to call 9-1-1 if you don't have an emergency involving a real human being?

Furthermore, and this is just a piece of advice from me to the women of the world: If you have a friend who is planning to date said delusional loner just as soon as his doll "dies," tell her to re-think the qualities she looks for in a man. That guy is probably not going to be the best life partner. Even if he's no longer dating the doll, he probably has a few more issues he needs to work out before he's ready to be in a relationship with a living breathing woman.

I know, I know, I'm a stickler for tiny little details. But I'm just saying.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Getting real about gridlock

Two recent opinion pieces about how to overcome partisan gridlock, one by a respected ex-senator and one by a young blogger, are a clear illustration of the two modes of thinking on the issue. Unfortunately, only the assinine one is currently reflected in our political campaigns (especially a certain candidate of "hope" and "change"), while the intelligent and realistic one doesn't have anybody on board.

Sen. Bob Graham (whom, I should note, I like a lot for being wise enough to vote against the Iraq War resolution on the grounds that it would distract us from fighting Al Qaeda) is the author of the assinine piece in the Washington Post.

Here are his "steps" to fixing partisan gridlock, followed by a dose of reality:

-"Each presidential nominee should commit to appointing a truly bipartisan Cabinet that would include the most qualified people available, regardless of their party affiliation."

Unlike say, running FEMA, many cabinet positions aren't just about technical competence. A president should reasonably expect his or her cabinet will be made up of people who agree with his values and policy prescriptions. Should Hillary Clinton appoint an HHS secretary who doesn't believe in national healthcare? Should John McCain name a defense secretary who's against the Iraq War? The best they could do is moderates from the other party for some posts, and that won't make the hard core partisans feel better. I recall that Bill Clinton appointed a moderate Republican as his defense secretary and that didn't exactly make the late '90s a bipartisan panacea.

-"we would also press both major-party nominees to lay out specific strategies for reducing polarization and reaching bipartisan consensus on our agenda of national challenges."

Reduce partisanship by forcing candidates to describe how they would reduce partisanship. Brilliant!

-"Congress must restore and modernize the campaign finance reforms enacted after Watergate."

A fine idea, though how does this reduce partisanship? Doesn't that have to do with reducing favors owed to special interests?

-"The media must insist that future presidential debates each focus on a single issue."

Also a fine idea. And also nothing to do with reducing partisanship.

-Political parties must fundamentally reform the dysfunctional presidential primary system.

An excellent idea. But, ummmm, see my response to the last two. Are Iowa and New Hampshire voters more partisan than other states?

-"Our citizens must be educated to use their powers for effective participation in the political process."

You probably think I made that one up. But no. An ex-senator really wrote that.

Compare that to Ezra Klein's much more astute diagnosis in the L.A. Times this past Sunday, which directly takes on "fairy tale" (to borrow a phrase from someone who's been an ass recently) analyses like that of Sen. Graham:

Gridlock is not something the president of the United States can solve.... It happens live on C-SPAN every day of the week. It's a function of the rules of the Senate, where 40 senators can refuse to end debate on legislation and thus doom its chances of passage. Because of the undemocratic nature of the Senate, which gives Montana as many senators as California, those 40 senators can represent as little as 11.2% of the population.

But it's not up to the president. There are a variety of fixes for a filibuster-happy minority. The media, for example, could start accurately reporting the cause of the gridlock, shaming the relevant senators and increasing political pressure to compromise. The voters could eject politicians who refuse to compromise, laying down an electorally enforced preference for a functioning government. The Senate majority could change the rules, essentially eliminating the filibuster. Groups such as Unity '08 could arise and, rather than wasting everyone's time with idle fantasies of ever more dreamy executives, could campaign against Senate rules that are undemocratic and hostile to progress.

Klein hits the nail right on the head. Sure, a less partisan president than George W. Bush should be nice. But so long as a determined minority can have their way in the senate, how can we possibly expect there to be no gridlock?

My only gripe with Klein's analysis is that eliminating the filibuster doesn't really fix the problem. Sure, senators representing 11.2% of the population couldn't block legislation. But since you would only need 51 senators, instead of 60, to pass a bill, an even smaller minority than it takes now could pass deeply unpopular legislation.

The solution, obviously, is to fundamentally transform the senate some it better represents population. The fact that California gets as many senators as Wyoming is deeply offensive to the principle of one person, one vote. Obviously that's unlikely to ever happen, but it sure would be a better use of Unity '08's time and money than trying to elect a moderate Democrat just because he labels himself an independent.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The "Celebrity Rehab" - "Surreal Life" circle of Z-list celebrity life

Here's the scary thing about VH1's "Celebrity Rehab," which I fully admit I enjoy watching: Two of the "characters," (which is what they call the people on this "reality show" on its website) were previously on "The Surreal Life." The rest of them besides Chyna and Brigitte Nielsen, let's be honest, certainly could have been on there, and probably will be in the future.

So in the case of Brigitte and Chyna, we have two people were on a TV show that implicitly encourages heavy drinking and drug use so that the "celebrities" will act as insane as possible on camera. Brigitte even admits on "Celebrity Rehab" that she was drunk the whole time she was on "The Surreal Life." You'd have to be to start a relationship with Flava Flav, wouldn't you?

So basically, first VH1 encourages z-list celebrities to get drunk or high for the sake of a TV show... and then it encourages them to get sober for the sake of a TV show. Possibly to sober them all up enough so they can appear on "The Surreal Life" again. Now that is what I call corporate synergy.

Talking God and such

just a discussion in the comments

Thursday, January 03, 2008

How dare David Simon write "The Wire" from his perspective? OR Why pundits chouldn't critique TV

With all due respect to Matt Yglesias, if there's any worse role for a professional blogger-pundit, it's critiquing "The Wire" because its "vision of the bleak urban dystopia and its roots is counterproductive to advancing the values we hold dear."

Critique it as a TV show, sure. But "The Wire" is a super specific show about a specific place and specific institutions, filtered through a few people's (and especially one person, David Simon's) perspective. If you don't know a lot about Baltimore, urban poverty, the drug trade, police, etc., I don't think you're in any position to criticize the "vision" of the show.

However, I highly recommend reading Matt's post and then scrolling down to David Simon's very cogent response in the comments.

Yglesias' critique suffers from the same problem, though to a greater extent, as that of Mark Bowden, also in The Atlantic. As a former Baltimore Sun reporter, Bowden is in a better place to criticize the way the show portrays its subjects. Especially this season, when reporters and editors at the Sun are characters.

The thing is, I'm sure Bowden is right that David Simon is using the show to "exorcise some personal demons" and is in the process being unfair to some specific people at the Sun who will recognize themselves in the show. And Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, whom Bowden quotes, may have some sort point when he says that the show has left out "the decent people... God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism," though I personally think there are plenty of decent people on the show.

But honestly, my reaction is: Who cares? Nobody except those who worked with David Simon at the Sun are going to relate the newspaper characters in "The Wire" to real people. And nobody (in their right mind) thinks the "The Wire" is portraying every single type of person who lives in Baltimore. The characters may seem real, but they're fictional. And most of us know when we're watching a fictional TV show.

The problem is that Yglesias and Bowden take "The Wire" to task because its gets so many details right, but then isn't "realistic" enough to them in its overall scope or agenda. I was actually flabbergasted that Yglesias wrote "But part of what gives The Wire such great power is its creator's conviction, wrong though it is, that his tragic vision constitutes telling it like it is." Just as ridiculously, Bowden writes "This bleakness is Simon’s stamp on the show, and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness."

Wrong. Any intelligent person recognizes that David Simon and his writers are human beings with opinions who choose what to include and what to exclude, which stories to tell and which to ignore. I write short comedy for TV and the Internet and articles about video games for newspapers and magazines, but even I know that "evenhandedness" makes for bad fiction and is just as impossible as writing a truly "objective" newspaper article.

I think inherent in this critique is an assumption that people will take "The Wire" as gospel. Like somehow people are going to start adopting David Simon's world view whole hog just because he has realistic slang. Don't worry guys: If I decide to become an urban reform advocate after watching "The Wire," I'll do a little of my own reporting first.

David Simon isn't shy about expressing his political views, such as in the aforementioned comment on Matt's post. If Matt Yglesias and Mark Bowden don't agree with his views, fine. By all means, use the show as a jumping off point for a debate. But criticizing "The Wire" and its creator because it/he has the audacity to be deadly accurate in the details while telling a story from a biased perspective is proof that when you create something as brilliant as "The Wire," the only complaint critics have left is that you didn't tell the story the way they would have if they were you.

TV's two best shows are back OR I am a demographic of one

the wire + wife swap

I am probably the only person in America to be super excited that both "Wife Swap" and "The Wire" are back on TV this week, but I'm not ashamed to say it: those are my two favorite currently airing shows.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on the first seven (of 10) episodes of the fifth and final season of "The Wire" and, once again, the show is tremendous. A few of the characters in the newsroom are a bit simplistic, but the plot is so compelling and develops in such compelling and powerful and, at times, hilarious ways that I hardly care. Most impressively, as always, "The Wire" manages to make some really powerful points about the way politics and business and just plain culture work in urban America without ever becoming didactic.

I'm excited that this may finally be the year "The Wire" gets decent ratings and maybe some Emmy love, given all the press it's getting. It also won't hurt that the main plot line involves a really amazing criminal issue that I could totally see drawing in the "Law and Order" and "CSI" crowd who would have found previous seasons too depressing.

As for "Wife Swap"... what can you say about a show that in its season premiere forced the mothers from the following two families to swap lives for a year?

-A woman with a 15 year-old daughter who has been competing in beauty pageants since she was 1 and never has to do a single chore, treats waitresses like crap, and has a decorated Christmas tree in her house all year long so that her parents can give her a new present every single day. The family eats out for every single meal and, most amazingly, Mom and Dad do their daughter's homework for her and aren't embarrassed to admit it. They even get the employees at their business to do some of their daughter's homework for her.

-A Quaker pastor who home schools her three daughters with a feminist-oriented curriculum and is seriously concerned because her middle daughter likes to wear make-up and wants to be a princess or a pop star.

Yes, it's formulaic and edited for maximum drama, not fairness, but it's still unbelievable that families like the first one even exist, let alone are so lacking in self-awareness that they would go on national TV. Seeing them interact is totally compelling. And while it's not "Frontline," it's hardly "Temptation Island" either. About half the time, families really do learn a few lessons and improve their lives. OK, I'm not as proud that I love it as "The Wire," but I'm definitely not embarrassed, even though most people who don't watch it probably think I should be.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Reason to give a second middle finger to the Iowa caucuses

As if all the reasons I outlined below weren't enough to hate the Iowa caucuses, the New York Times just ran an excellent story about how they don't even work well for the people of Iowa:

Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: the infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty...

“Just as nonrepresentative as Iowa is of the country, Iowa caucusgoers are nonrepresentative of Iowa as a whole,” said Samuel Issacharoff, who teaches election law at New York University.

And just as with everything else about our idiotic election system, there's no argument to be made in favor of the caucus that remotely justifies excluding soldiers and single parents and waiters. Here's the best anyone could muster for the Times:

“It’s magic to see people stand up and declare their support for a candidate, and it’s a community activity,” said Gordon Fischer, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

So that's why we elect people the way we do in the United States? Because it's "magic?"

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

It's time we all tell Iowa and New Hampshire to f*ck off

It's worth remembering as we move into the Iowa and New Hampshire caucus/primary in the next week how absurd and undemocratic the whole process is. To me, Iowa and New Hampshire always getting to vote first is similar to the Electoral College... I have never heard an argument in either institution's favor that wasn't preposterous on its face.

Taking a brief respite from horse race stories to acknowledge how insulting the first-in-the-nation caucus/primary are to the other 99% of us, the AP ran a story today noting that 53% of people think Iowa and New Hampshire have "too much influence on who wins the party nominations for president." (though I must admit I was surprised that 38% think it's "just right." and I'd be fascinated to know who, outside of people in IA and NH, are in the 6% who think it's "not enough").

The principle should be simple: one person, one vote. By always going first, the votes of people in Iowa and New Hampshire count more than everyone else's. It's just like the Electoral College, where the votes of people in smaller states count more than those of us in large states. Any argument in either institutions' favor is far outweighed by the fact that it contradicts the principle of "one person, one vote."

I am willing to grant the idea that having a few states go first, so candidates can introduce themselves and not have to compete solely in the national media, might make sense. But why does it have to always be NH and IA? This argument, from New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, is incredibly insulting:

"We have made it possible for the so-called unknown candidates to make their case without having millions of dollars in the bank. And in turn, we demand that candidates move beyond the rope line and scripted town hall meetings, and directly answer the hard questions from voters," he said. "As a result, the voters, the candidates and the political process all benefit from the New Hampshire primary."

That all seems fair, but why in the world can't people in any of the 48 other states do the same thing? Why can't we rotate which states go first every four years?

Are the rest of us less intelligence than the citizens of NH and IA? Less capable of taking politics seriously? Sure, it would be tougher to do retail politics in California or Texas, but over the process of a year, I'm sure the candidates could find a way to meet a lot of people. Any decline retail politics would be more than made up for by the benefit of everyone in America getting an equal chance to vote for their president.

Just as with the Electoral College, the arguments of those favoring it are transparently self interested and illogical. And, just as with the Electoral College, the short term incentives for everyone are to kowtow to the status quo. Unless and until there's a national movement by the other 48 states to insist the things change -- and no, everybody moving up their primaries in an endless game of chicken isn't a solution -- things will never change. Something akin to the national popular vote, which will hopefully some day end the Electoral College.

Regardless of who wins and loses in the next few weeks, I think it's really worth remembering how f-ed up the entire process is.