Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Worst Movies of the Oughts

I don't generally make a habit of seeking out movies reputed to be awful (I'm kind of like this guy in that way), so I haven't seen any of the films that came in behind it, but it's hard for me to believe that Battlefield Earth was only the 27th worst movie of the past decade. I rented it with some friends back in college, when I was still into the idea of watching things because of the "so bad it's good" factor, and despite the spectacle of John Travolta in stilt heels and a Rasta wig belting out lines like "you must be out of your skullbone, puny man-animal!", that movie more than any other proved to me the existence of an entirely different kind of terrible. It was quite literally painful to watch - by the time the end credits mercifully rolled, I had a pounding headache from listening to the soundtrack, and my neck hurt from trying to follow action that was almost entirely filmed, for some reason, at a 45 degree angle. That other people who suffered through the experience of watching Battlefield Earth could find 26 movies made in the past ten years that were WORSE than it was (2.6 such stinkers per year if you're keeping track at home) makes me shudder.

Other notes:

1.)The list seems to be dominated by movies from three genres - action, lowbrow comedy, and thriller. There's no doubt that these genres do contribute more than their fair share of crap to the cinematic cesspool, and I realize the list was compiled merely by ranking films according to which had the lowest Tomatometer score, pretty much precluding anything put out by a highly-acclaimed filmmaker from "charting". Nevertheless, my own list would include a few prestige epics, Oscar bait dramas, and ill-conceived indies as well. Crash and Eyes Wide Shut would be strong contenders for my own top-10 list of the worst movies I've seen this decade, but since one won an Academy Award and the other was directed by the great Stanley Kubrick, there's no chance they'll receive the accolades (decolades?) they deserve on this sort of list.

2.)Dependable crapmeisters like Uwe Boll, Larry the Cable Guy, and the "(insert movie type here) Movie" guys unsurprisingly feature prominently on the list. But where's Michael Bay?

3.)Unfortunately for them, acclaimed performers like Robert de Niro, Ben Kingsley, and Diane Keaton also show up - De Niro twice. In fact if there's one thing that this list reminds me of, it's that good actors make bad movies with surprising regularity.

4.)Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li (#44) was really bad (it was the third part of a Trans-Pacific triple feature, for the record), but according to the list it's not even the worst video game adaptation of the '00's. Ouch.

5.)Producers should probably avoid pairing Lucy Liu and Antonio Banderas in another movie for at least a decade.

The full list is here.

Next, We Light The Sears Tower With Iran's Colors To Honor The Ayatollah Khomenei's Birthday

I've got to agree with the protestors on this one - we should not be doing anything to honor the current government of China beyond what is demanded by the protocol of international diplomacy. We cannot help but deal with the CCP, as it rules arguably the world's second most important country and its cooperation is necessary in dealing with the global financial crisis, trade, North Korea, Iran, and almost every other pressing international issue. And as we cannot deal with it without respecting its power, we must respect its power. But lighting one of our iconic buildings with its colors on the anniversary of its takeover of the country does more than express respect for its power - it is a tacit endorsement of its legitimacy. Given that this is a regime which has imprisoned, killed, and tortured millions of its own citizens, forcibly occupies and oppresses the homelands of several non-Chinese peoples, conducts its foreign policy in a fashion determined solely by glaringly amoral self-interest, and continues to restrict the rights of its citizens to freedoms of speech, assembly, conscience, and religion, nobody ought to be endorsing its legitimacy.

Whoever made this decision - boo to you.

Unhinged Right Watch

This column imagining a military coup to prevent Obama's "Marxist takeover" of the U.S. is quite a hoot - an entertaining mix of febrile right-wing fantasies and Tom Clancy-inspired thriller clichés. If there's one thing I'd forgotten during the years of the Bush Presidency, it's just how loony the extreme right can be.

Unfortunately, the possibility that another Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph may be out there, nursing similar delusions and plotting his or her own response to the "Obama problem", makes it hard to laugh without simultaneously grimacing.

Is Nike Trying To Expand Its Sportswear Empire Into Dogfighting?

I happen to think that Michael Vick deserves a second chance. He has paid his debt to society by spending two years of his prime in federal prison and being driven to bankruptcy, and he has stated his contrition and his willingness to atone for his crimes by doing charity work and advocating for the humane treatment of animals. Personally, I am not yet convinced of his sincerity, but if as a society we really believe in redemption, we ought to give him a chance to prove it. Furthermore, I don't have a problem with him returning to the NFL. I would have preferred it had it not been with the Eagles, my favorite team, as I don't like the cognitive dissonance that comes with rooting for people who have done despicable things to succeed, but again - if we really believe that felons can be rehabilitated and become productive members of society, we ought to afford them a chance to employ their talents to produce for society in whatever capacity they are best able. For Vick, that's as a football player, so - give him a shot.

All that said, this is too much. Nike signing Vick (who has yet to accomplish much on the field in his NFL return, incidentally) to an endorsement deal sends a really terrible message - that if you fall from grace, you won't have to work to redeem yourself and make it back to the top if you were talented and glamorous enough before you screwed up. That forgiveness is pro forma if you make the flimsiest and most cursory attempt to make amends. I suspect the rush to strike this deal is partially a result of America's cultural obsession with redeeming lost souls, and partially simple corporate greed on Nike's part, but I think we really ought to wait a bit longer to see how Vick handles himself before restoring to him his lost laurels. Getting out of prison was the first step of a long climb back to respectability, and he's still at the bottom of the mountain - not the top. If - and I hope this is not the case - it proves that Vick has not actually changed, I hope Nike's business suffers mightily as a result of their haste to embrace him.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Petition to Hollywood Polanski Sympathizers: Drop Dead

A group of more than 70 Hollywood directors, incensed that law enforcement officials in the U.S. would have the temerity to have the great Roman Polanski arrested for absconding from justice before he could be sentenced for a crime he admitted to committing, have signed a petition demanding his immediate release. And I quote:
"It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying
homage to one of the greatest contemporary film-makers, is used by police to
apprehend him."
Oh the humanity! This event was used by police to apprehend Polanski because he is a fugitive from justice. If a person is a fugitive from justice, and the police know where he or she is or will be, they are obligated to apprehend him or her. It doesn't matter if the person is attending a wedding, or handing out soup to poor people at a soup kitchen, or watching their kids' little league game, or even being feted at an "international cultural event". Furthermore, his standing as one of the "greatest contemporary film-makers" is utterly, totally irrelevant - something I don't think these people would have trouble seeing were he wanted for drugging and sodomizing one of their children. Polanski is an admitted rapist who has not paid for his crime. Plain and simple. The gall behind this press release is unbelievable - what these people seem to be demanding is nothing less than a different set of rules for themselves, special obeisance from the law for the new, self-appointed creative aristocracy. The lack of commitment to liberal principles of egalatarianism and equality before the law is repugnant, particularly from a group of people who enjoy hectoring the common man with ill-informed left-wing agitprop nearly as much as they enjoy making movies. Generally I think the right's bashing of Hollywood celebrities as self-righteous, pompous, hypocritical, libertine windbags out of touch with mainstream American values is overdone - but I've got to say that in this case such criticisms are dead on. At least it's nice to see that Woody Allen has declared solidarity with his fellow jailbait-craving sniveling dirtbag.

Along the same lines we have this little nugget, courtesy of eminent criminal justice scholar Whoopi Goldberg:

"I know it wasn't rape-rape. It was something else but I don't believe it was
rape-rape. He went to jail and and when they let him out he was like, 'You know
what, this guy's going to give me a hundred years in jail. I'm not staying.' So
that's why he left."
Actually Whoopi, yeah, it pretty much was "rape-rape", as you'd know if you'd read the case details. But leaving that aside, what exactly demarcates "rape-rape" from "rape" from what Polanski did in your mind? If I were to ply a thirteen year old relative of yours with Qualudes and champagne, and then proceed to force her to have oral and vaginal sex despite her repeated protests, and finally sodomize her, again against her will, would you consider that "rape-rape", or just plain old "rape"? How about if I used champagne but no Qualudes, and left out the anal sex? Maybe that's just "ra-rape", or "rap-rape" at the worst. If I did to your putatitive relative what Polanski did to his victim, how many years in jail would I deserve? If I feared the sentence would be too lengthy for my liking, and I jetted off to Europe before it could be handed down, would that be okay by you?

I hope that the Swiss authorities don't cave, and at this point I half-want to see Polanski dragged back to the U.S. in chains, just so I can enjoy a bit of well-deserved schaudenfreude at the expense of these people.

Say what?

Some climate change activists are fretting because global temperatures have not continued to rise as predicted over the past four years. What happened to rising global temperatures being an imminent threat to human civilization? The activists say that they are concerned because plateauing temperatures create a sense of complacency that makes strong action on greenhouse gas emissions difficult, and perhaps this is so. I can't help but wonder, though, if there isn't, deep down, some anxiety that what climate change skeptics have been saying - that permanent global warming, if it is indeed happening, is due to something other than human activity - might turn out to be true. If that were the case, pretty much the entire scientific community, not to mention every major international environmental organization and Al Gore, would have some serious egg on their faces. Whatever their devotion to truth and rationality, scientists are no less vulnerable than the rest of us to the assorted biases, reasoning errors, and blind spots of human cognition, nor the associated failings of pride and intellectual vanity.

I'm not a climate change skeptic per se - I do think the theory climatologists have articulated about the role of human activity in rising global temperatures makes sense, and there is certainly evidence of rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I do, however, find the more outlandish predictions of doomsayers - New York and other coastal cities inundated by rapidly rising sea levels, regular super hurricanes laying waste to areas in the tropical storm belts, etc. - rather dubious. And I am not convinced that we won't at some point discover that climate change is driven to a greater extent than we currently suppose by things over which we have no control - astronomical cycles, changes in solar activity, etc. Scientific theories that were once widely credited have after all proven wrong before, and more than once. Theories are particularly likely to prove inaccurate in areas of inquiry in which it is difficult to gather data or falsify hypotheses - such as the study of the climate of an entire planet. As the prophets of climate change have staked much of their credibility on the correctness of their diagnosis of this problem and the urgency of their proposed solution, it would hardly be surprising if they found any observable trend which threatened to undermine their claims highly upsetting. Nevertheless, if they are truly concerned for the planet, they ought to be happy about the possibility of their hypothesis being incorrect - after all, if they're wrong, we're avoiding a global cataclysm, and all we'll have to give up for it is a few bruised egos.

The motivations of politicians in regards to this issue are, I suspect, somewhat different. I find it hard to believe that at least some of their sense of urgency in regards to seeking action on climate change NOW derives not from concern for the African children who will starve as a result of the Great Drought of 2050, but from the fact that at the moment they have the opportunity to create a massive, byzantine federal bureaucracy, with all the opportunities for pork, cronyism, and political backscratching that entails. After all, the starving African children of the future are rather an unreliable voting bloc compared to newly minted government employees in your home district, being non-American and juveniles and yet to be born and all that. If the current public perception that climate change is an imminent crisis weakens, the opportunity to create this second class may pass.

If we're going to attempt to reduce carbon emissions (and I think we should, for several reasons), an across-the-board carbon tax is the way to do it. This would require a much smaller bureaucratic apparatus than cap-and-trade or similarly complex administrative schemes, and as it would continually provide revenue said apparatus would be partially if not fully self-funding. It would also allow the markets to work unfettered on answering the question of how to reduce carbon emissions, and save individuals and businesses everywhere a lot of paperwork and lost productivity. The fact that it's a simple resource based tax would it relatively easy to enforce, with none of the special pleading or graft that will undoubtedly occur in an auction for government carbon permits. In short, the carbon tax would accomplish much of what we want, with lower overhead costs and less likelihood of perverse unintended consequences, and if climate change or fossil fuel depletion turn out not to be the threats they are currently perceived to be, it would be easy to alter the tax or abolish it, which methinks would not be the case with an entrenched federal bureaucracy. Granted, a carbon tax wouldn't create opportunities to hand out political patronage, provide government pencil-pushers a hammer with which to distort or profiteer from economic activity, or create additional loyal voters and special interest lobbies, all serious issues for your typical distinguished Congressperson. But hey, no proposal is perfect.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Polanski Redux

I've already thrown in my two cents on the Roman Polanski situation, but the reactions I've seen to it from various people deserve further comment. The French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterand, has declared himself outraged that such a talented artiste could be persecuted and "thrown to the lions" by a sexually puritanical, fascistic U.S. justice system. Let me not mince words with my rebuttal: Fuck you, asshole. Maybe you think it's okay for sleazy old men to DRUG and RAPE CHILDREN, or maybe you just think it's okay for them to get away with DRUGGING and RAPING CHILDREN if they're rich, famous, well-connected, and happen to have directed some well-regarded movies. If so, by all means enact laws in France that legalize RAPING CHILDREN. Then declare that day "National CHILD RAPE Day" and let the merrymaking and CHILD RAPING begin. In our country, popular consensus holds that is morally wrong to RAPE CHILDREN, so we've made a law against CHILD RAPE. When someone RAPES A CHILD, he or she is arrested in accordance with the law against RAPING CHILDREN. In this particular case, the sleazy old man in question DRUGGED AND RAPED a CHILD in our country, so he's going to have to face justice under our system, in which it is illegal to DRUG AND RAPE CHILDREN. This case is not analogous to those of Oscar Wilde (who was persecuted for the "crime" of being gay) or that of Alfred Dreyfus (persecuted, in your country I might point out, for the "crime" of being Jewish). So stop making odious comparisons and apologies for a man who RAPED A CHILD. Let me close by reiterating the thesis statement of this paragraph: FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE.

Almost as disturbing as the spectacle of one morally degenerate Frenchmen making excuses for another, but more surprising, is the degree to which Polanski's apologists elsewhere have attempted to downplay the magnitude of his crimes in their efforts to defend him. Case in point: the Orwellian attempt to re-brand what he did as "unlawful sex". He drugged a 13 year old girl, then repeatedly forced himself on her despite her continual pleas for him to stop. That is not merely "unlawful sex". That is RAPE. R-A-P-E. Given the age of the victim, the use of drugs to incapacitate her, and the fact that she repeatedly and clearly objected, it likely meets the legal definition of aggravated rape. Let's call a spade a spade. Even more disgusting? Apologies for Polanski like this one making arguments of the "she looked older", "she was asking for it", and "her mother pimped her out" variety. Really? Is this the flower of feminism, Huffington Post? I can't help but think defenses like these would be (rightfully) decried by the likes of Joan Shore were the rapist in this case a Sigma Chi frat brother, Greenwich investment banker, scion of the Bush family, or some other emblem of WASPy male Republican privilege. Apparently misogyny, patriarchal exploitation, and sexual violence are still okay, as long as you're a European sophisticate whose art is beloved of cosmopolitan latte-sippers everywhere.

As I said in my previous post, I'm sympathetic to the wishes of the victim in this case to be left at peace rather than being forced to once again re-live a painful part of her history by the spectacle of a celebrity court case. If the case were dismissed out of respect for her wishes, I wouldn't be outraged. But it is absolutely beyond the pale to attempt to defend or excuse Polanski's actions - talented artist and charming conversationalist or not, the man is scum and committed a horrible crime. Anyone who attempts to deny that has forfeited any claim to moral or intellectual credibility.

P.S. - Salon, to their credit, has a pretty comprehensive takedown of all the garbage being peddled by Polanski's defenders.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

With Friends Like These...

Hot on the heels of Jimmy Carter blathering about motivation to the Obama Presidency being motivated largely by racism, Bill Clinton has decided to join the chorus of Democrats saying asinine things. Clinton has declared that his erstwhile bête noire, the fearsome "vast right wing conspiracy" that framed him for draft dodging, forged a bunch of fake documents implicating him in shady real estate dealings, bribed Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey to accuse him of sexual harassment, and programmed the Manchurian Bimbo, Monica Lewinsky, to seduce him before planting his semen on her dress, is now out to get Obama. Their sinister agenda? "Wanting him to fail". Horror of horrors! It's not as if we live in a democracy - you know, that quaint form of government in which, if someone whose policy goals you vigorously oppose is elected, you're allowed to declare your opposition to them and attempt to prevent them from being realized. Obviously conservatives who don't agree with Obama's agenda didn't get the memo that states that failure to approve of the Dear Leader's plans with sufficient enthusiasm has now been deemed Thoughtcrime. Perhaps a mix-up at the post office prevented timely delivery of their magical unity ponies. Whatever the problem, there's no need to worry - Bubba's on the case.

Obama's one of the few partisan politicians I genuinely like. I voted for him and haven't yet regretted that decision, despite the fact that I disagree with him on many issues and he has enacted policies of which I disapprove. Nevertheless, I want him to fail at many of the things he is keen on trying, not because I am part of a conspiracy, but because I think that they are bad ideas and I am opposed to them. This is the way democracy works. Only a malignantly narcissistic egomaniac like Bill Clinton would see members of an opposition party wanting a President to fail as some kind of sinister force. Well, unless the opposition party in question is the Democrats and the President is George W. Bush. In that case wanting the President to fail is a patriotic duty.

For once, it appears we don't have such a malignantly narcissistic egomaniac in the White House. Obama has at times responded to his opponents forcefully, but he has not imputed base motives to their opposition or implied that it is tantamount to disloyalty. Unfortunately for him, with high-profile loose cannons like Carter and Clinton rattling around the Democratic ship, he doesn't have to for the tone of political debate to continue to sink ever lower.

The Curious Case of Roman Polanski

The Academy Award winning director/notorious lecher has been arrested in Switzerland on a warrant issued for his admitted statuatory rape of a 13 year old girl in 1977 (rather a dumb move there, Roman, to book your flight to Zurich without first checking to see if Switzerland shared France's lenient attitude toward sexual immorality or reluctance to extradite criminal suspects to the U.S.). The thing is, his victim doesn't want the case to go forward, and understandably so - it's perfectly easy to see how a high profile court case in which her name will be bandied about in the press and the details of her long-ago victimization recounted again and again will only bring additional and unnecessary pain and hardship for a woman who's long since processed the trauma she suffered and moved on with her life.

I am of two minds about this case. On the one hand, I think that Polanski is a scumbag who has for far too long escaped justice for his crime, and I'd like to see his debauched, shriveled ass spend the rest of its time on earth rotting in a dank prison cell (and perhaps being violated by a large, tattooed cellmate, just so he can know what it's like to be on the other end of that stick). On the other, I sympathize wholeheartedly with his victim's claim that carrying out justice against him will cause her further harm, and her wish that the case should therefore be dismissed. Rape is a crime that raises a very thorny question in regards to the philosophical underpinnings of our justice system. It is a crime of violence, and like all crimes of violence it does victimize society by fostering anxiety about personal safety. Furthermore, it's the sort of crime very likely to be committed repeatedly by the same offender. As such it is hard to argue that the state does not have a legitimate interest in punishing it, and doing so harshly. However, unlike assault, armed robbery, or the like, rape is a deeply personal crime as well - an assault on the victim's autonomy and volition that is likely to cause significant and lasting psychological harm extending far beyond the heightened anxiety that victims of other sorts of violent crimes might experience. Forcing a rape victim to re-live the experience undoubtedly retards the healing process, but that is precisely what our justice system requires in order to mount a successful prosecution. In order to punish an offender for harming his victim, and ensure he does not harm others, the courts must compound the harm he has done. When we consider furthermore that character assassination of the victim is an extremely popular tactic for those defending accused rapists in court, and that being a known rape victim carries a social stigma that is hard to erase, it is little wonder that many victims conclude that pressing charges is more pain and trouble than it's worth. Two imperatives of the law - punishing offenders and protecting innocent people from harm - come into conflict here, and it is not at all clear which should receive priority.

In some cases of interpersonal victimization (adultery and the like), we have decided that the rights to privacy and dignity of the individual are paramount, and consequently removed the government from the equation. In others, e.g. child abuse cases, prosecution is generally pursued even if victims are reluctant to press charges. And in still others, we leave it up to the victim to decide. In most such instances, that's not a very difficult decision for a majority of people, and even if it is - as is often the case with domestic violence - it's relatively easy to argue that by declining to press charges a victim endangers nobody but themselves. This is not so with rape, which is more similar to robbery in its randomness - if a rapist is not charged for raping victim A, there is a not-insignificant chance he will target victim B. It is therefore necessary to lock him up to protect potential victims. But how do we weigh the government's need to protect its citizens from the predations of violent criminals against the right of an individual not to have painful personal experiences laid bare against his or her will?

Our current answer to this question - to handle rape much as we do a bar brawl, and leave it up to the victim to decide - leaves me deeply unsatisfied. For me, sympathy for the wishes of a rape victim outweighs desire to see the offender suffer for the crime, but I find it unacceptable to contemplate letting people with dangerous and violent criminal proclivities go unpunished - particularly when I think about the possibility of someday having a daughter who might fall victim to one of them. I can't help but wonder if rape is one instance in which our "civilized" legal regimen really hasn't improved all that much on the model of those hunter-gatherer tribes who deal with rape in an eye-for-an-eye fashion by letting a victim's male relatives hunt down and kill or otherwise punish her rapist.

In any case, regardless of how Polanski's case plays out, I hope never to see him in the U.S. again unless it's for a court date, and I won't be shedding any tears when he finally drops dead.

RIP William Safire

The longtime NY Times columnist is dead at 79. The vast majority of his career was before my time, but I read enough of him to see why he was so highly regarded, and to know that any fan of smart, prickly, libertarian-streaked conservatism or adroit use of the English language will miss him. One hopes that in the age of cable news and Twitter, when poor reasoning and ill-articulated prattle are more common than ever in the media, carefully crafted argument and precise use of language of the sort that were Safire's trademarks will not go by the wayside.

Question of the Day

Should Palinite Republicans oppose President Obama's plan to increase instruction hours in U.S. schools? After all, it gives his minions in the teacher's union more time to brainwash them.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Life Begins At 30

Well, I've hit the big 3-0, and surprisingly, it doesn't feel like the milestone I'd always thought it would be. Perhaps it's because I've already spent a lot of time contemplating the passage of time and where I was in life on previous birthdays (particularly the last few, on which 30 grew closer but had not yet arrived), or perhaps it's because I've matured enough that at this point the prospect of exiting my twenties no longer frightens me, but - that's how it felt - just another day that passed uneventfully. When I reflect back on my twenties, I see a decade that went really well on the whole, and left me with a wealth of experiences I will always recall fondly and deepened relationships with a great many friends and loved ones I will always cherish. I can't complain. And if the next decade is as happy as this one was, I will be truly blessed.

I had a five day vacation until Wednesday, and spent the majority of it hiking with my girlfriend and some friends in the fabulously beautiful Japanese Alps, which further distracted me from any sort of fretting about getting older. I will post pictures on Facebook and Flickr shortly (I hope). Please check my pages out if you wish to see them, and I'll be back to posting regularly shortly.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Gone Hikin'

For the next few days, I'm off for one final bout of outdoorsmanship for the season - a camping trip in the Japanese alps. I'll take lots of pictures, and post again when I get back.

It Takes One To Know One

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists that three American hikers who accidentally crossed into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan over a poorly marked border must be punished because they "trampled the law". I suppose if there's anybody in Iran who knows a thing or two about trampling the law, it's old Ahmadi, isn't it?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

List - The Ten Biggest Douchebags In Popular Music

Kanye West’s recent stunt at the Video Music Awards got me thinking of a conversation I had with my roommate on this subject a few months ago. For some reason, the recording industry seems to attract musically talented people and assholes in almost equal measure, which got us thinking - who ARE the biggest d-bags in music? Here, in no particular order, is the top-10 list we came up with, plus one special mention:

1.)Morrissey. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Smiths. They’re one of my favorite bands of the eighties, and there’s no denying that Morrissey was a big part of their greatness. That said, there's likewise no denying his douchiness. Firstly, there’s the lots-of-smoke-but-no-fire accusations of racism. Secondly, there’s the hypocrisy of a proselytizing vegetarian who loudly declares that “meat is murder” wearing leather goods because synthetic materials are “no substitute” for the real thing (I feel the same way about my cheeseburger, asshole). Then there’s his never-ending quest to wind up the public by making outrageous proclamations and declaring himself asexual, pansexual, or whatever-sexual every time he's interviewed. And finally, there’s the fact that his former bandmates all hate his guts and won't even speak to him, unsurprisingly since he's tried to freeze them out at every turn during and after the Smiths' breakup. His whiny, I’m-utterly-unloved-woe-is-me-waah-waah-waah lyrics are the icing on the cake.

2.)Noel and Liam Gallagher, formerly of Oasis. The self-applied Beatles comparisons were entertaining at first, insofar as they inspired “are they kidding?” meta-arguments about Oasis’ stance toward musical celebrity. As the band’s career has ground on through the years, however, the cement-headed adolescent churlishness and egotism of the brothers Gallagher has gotten harder and harder to endure. There’s no denying they do have some talent – a lot of second-tier alt-rock bands made it big in the 90’s, but few proved to have the staying power or knack for catchy hooks of Oasis. “Some talent”, however, is as far as it goes – they seem to be afraid of composing anything that has more than four chords, too many of their songs are bloated and self-indulgent, and their lyrics are poorly written even by the semi-literate standards of rock-and-roll, as Blender pointed out a few years ago. Certainly they do not merit nearly the opinion they seem to have of themselves, and their constant bickering, fondness for taking childish potshots at other bands in the press, and habit of carping about how people don’t get their genius (hint guys – maybe we don’t get it because it’s not there) are really, really tiresome.

3.)Kanye West – he assured his place on the list long before his encounter with Ms. Swift. He’s talented for sure – in my opinion he’s released some of the best mainstream hip-hop of the decade – but even in a genre in which egomania, crass materialism, and utter self-absorption are prerequisites for the job, his egomania, crass materialism, and utter self-absorption stand out. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” was the all time low point – it takes a lot of balls to write a song about how you’re so talented and awesome you sell enough records to make it rain diamonds. Especially when you entitle it, apparently without any awareness whatsoever, with a name that to anyone who’s followed world events over the last ten years brings to mind civil war, child soldiers, mass rape, etc. And, then, to top it all off, when someone points out to you the offensiveness of what you’ve written, by way of easing your conscience you release a re-mix of the song with new lyrics declaring that yeah, it’s horrible that some African kid got his arms hacked off with a machete because of conflict diamonds and all, but hey, you gotta be real and keep blingin’it, because did you mention, you're awesome and you sell a lot of records? Thanks, Kanye. I’m sure that makes the war orphans feel a lot better.

4.)Puff Daddy – perhaps Kanye’s only real competitor for the title of “biggest ego in hip-hop”, he’s even more grating because he’s almost completely lacking in talent. He was the biggest star of the late 90’s and early 00’s in the genre (not coincidentally the lowest period in hip hop history) but I can’t think of a single great song that he performed or produced – and apparently he wasn't in the habit of writing them either. In addition to being thoroughly full of himself, there was no boundary of taste or decorum he wasn’t willing to cross to further his career – not even exploiting the death of much more talented collaborator Notorious B.I.G. by ripping off the Police in that awful tribute single.

5.)Adam Duritz of Counting Crowes – a douche of the whiny, well-off white suburbanite variety. His band was wildly popular for a long period, and when he wasn’t busy making music or counting his money he was shagging some Hollywood starlet or other, yet all he could sing about was how much his life sucked and how people didn’t understand him. I even heard him quoted once as saying he couldn’t write about other people, because “it’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you spend so much time getting your own to fit”. Waaah waaah waaah. I feel for ya’, buddy. Now drop the guitar and get yourself a shotgun.

6.)Sting – Artistic pretension, I have met thee, and thou art a mediocre middle aged bleach-blond adult contemporary musician from England. The Police were a great band, but not because Sting’s lyrics were all that profound. Nevertheless, he seems to have really taken seriously the idea that he’s some kind of messenger from the realm of pure aesthetic bliss sent to our world to lay bare the emptiness of working in a cubicle, and living in the suburbs, and stuff. That attitude might be tolerable if he’d made a decent record in the last twenty years – unfortunately, he hasn’t. His New Agey obsessions with tantra and the like don’t help, nor does the sanctimonious tone with which he lectures the press about respecting his family’s privacy, while simultaneously parading himself before the paparazzi and letting anyone with earshot know about his sexual proclivities. He also likes to carp about music critics – who, after all, get paid to do it – criticizing his music, and having the temerity – gasp! – to dislike it. Perhaps going solo went to his head, or perhaps he was always this bad and Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers held him in check – who can tell?

7.)Bono – I love U2’s music – they’re one of the bands that really got me into rock and roll – and unlike a lot of celebrities who prattle self-righteously about social issues, he puts his money where his mouth is and really does try to help the children. That said, he’s got a messiah complex that’s difficult to stomach at times, and sometimes I wish he’d just go away.

8.)Lars Ulrich of Metallica – Ulrich had a right to take issue with services like Napster that made it easy for people to download his music illegally, but coming out in the press and essentially declaring that poor college kids who nabbed a free digital version of “Enter Sandman” were taking food out of his kids’ mouths was a pretty douche-y way do it. Then, he refused to shut up about it and went on a courtroom and public relations crusade against music piracy, culminating in a legal action against Napster forcing it to ban users who had downloaded Metallica’s music (but only Metallica’s music – apparently its okay for other millionaire musicians’ kids to starve). The fact that he comes across as a needy whiner in the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster doesn’t help.

9.)Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit - sure, his band made a career of churning out a juvenile, obnoxious and pretty thorough-goingly awful hybrid of hard rock and hip hop that combined the worst aspects of both genres. That alone is not enough to put him on the list, however. He makes it thanks to his incessant boasting about his prowess at 1.)nookie, and 2.)fucking people up. It's a shame using his brain and shutting his mouth aren't on the list of things he's good at.

10.)Scott Stapp of Creed - Ridiculing the music of Creed, the bane of rock radio listeners everywhere for a short period in the late 90's and early 00's, is too easy. It's not so much shooting fish in a barrel as in a shotglass. But for a guy who liked to bellow about how much God and Jesus loved him, and how important it was to him to lead the life of a good Christian father, Stapp did an awful lot of sinning. His habit of assuming crucifixion poses in the band's videos elevates him to douchedom of near sacrilegious proportions.

(Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award) – John Lennon. In keeping with a theme of the list, he’s perhaps the ultimate example of someone who was both a great musician and an utterly shitty human being. He was controlling and abusive of his wives and girlfriends even as he cheated on them with impunity - it takes an almost incomprehensible degree of sexual egocentrism to put a subtle boast about one's extramarital exploits ("Norwegian Wood") and a psychotic death-threat against a woman who even thinks about stepping out with another guy ("Run For Your Life") on the same album. Lennon was also neglectful of his children, particularly his first son Julian, and a dick to his bandmates. As talented as he was (and he was the most talented of the Beatles – no small feat), he was desperately insecure and jealous, begrudging people around him their successes for fear that they might upstage him. And, just as he is arguably among the most influential figures in the development of modern rock music, he is inarguably the most influential figure in the development of the insufferably-preachy-rock-star complex. Without treacly message songs like “Imagine” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” it’s possible we wouldn’t have had to listen to “Heal The World” or put up with Bono’s more obnoxious antics. For this reason alone, if I ever get the funds to open up a Douchebag Musician Hall of Fame J.L.’s the first inductee.

Any other suggestions?

Someone get Jimmy Carter a muzzle

Is Jimmy Carter a courageous advocate of racial equality, or a senile old man? The fact that Carter repeated his claim that opponents of President Obama are motivated by racism after Obama himself rather pointedly downplayed the role of race in opposition to his policies begs the question. The instances of hateful speech Carter cites - of people likening Obama to Hitler, or claiming he should be buried alive with Kennedy - are indeed beyond the pale, and have no place in civilized political discourse. They are not, however, substantively different from similar things said about George W. Bush by irate liberals. For Carter to suggest that these sorts of comments, unhinged though they may be, are motivated by racial animus, without any proof thereof, is inflammatory and irresponsible. It is also deeply unfair. Congressman Joe Wilson behaved in a boorish and uncivil manner when he heckled Obama during the healthcare speech, and was rightly rebuked for it; given that he has never exhibited any sort of racist behavior in the past, and that he has since apologized for his outburst, it is tantamount to slander for Carter to accuse him of being a bigot.

It is certainly true that there are still racists in America - but I think the country has gotten to the point where the racist vote is such a small portion of the electorate that any mainstream politician who exhibits racial prejudice is likely to lose more non-racist votes than they are to gain racist ones. This seems to be true even in the south - after all, many people attributed George Allen's stunning defeat in the Virginia Senate race in 2006 to his "macaca" moment. While race is undoubtedly a factor for at least some people who oppose Obama's agenda, it should not be assumed that if one despises the policies of the first black President one therefore despises black people. If it is, we have not come as far as I'd like to think we have. I find it reprehensible that people like Rush Limbaugh are willing to resort to open race-baiting in the name of ratings - it inflames prejudice and poisons the political discourse. I don't think it's any less inflammatory or toxic for Jimmy Carter to intimate that people who are a tad too strident in their rhetorical opposition to government-run healthcare belong under the same white tent as the local Klan wizard.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keep your hands off my friends' cigarettes

I see that New York busybody-in-chief, er, mayor, Michael Bloomberg, as is his wont, is hot on extending a smoking ban again, this time to publicly owned outdoor spaces such as parks and beaches. The logic being, of course, that everyone in a public place has a right to clean air. Guess what? If that's the case, then, as William Saletan points out in this article, we ought to ban smoking on private property as well, not to mention lighting the grill and driving cars.

I wasn't wildly enthusiastic about Bloomberg's 2002 ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, but at least in that case a sound argument could be made in favor on the grounds of public health. This is different. There is no evidence that secondhand smoke in outdoor places causes harm to other people, and even if there was, there are numerous ways to deal with the problem short of intrusive government restriction of private behavior. I hate smoking. I think it's a vile habit, I can't stand the stink of burnt tobacco, I feel an immediate and overpowering need to shower after I return home from spending time in a smoke-filled place, cigarette butts are my least favorite form of litter, I consider ashtrays fouler than toilets, and a smoking habit is one of the few things that's always been an unnegotiable and immediate deal-breaker for me with the opposite sex. And yet, people smoking on the beach or at the park has never bothered me. Truthfully, I can't even recall an incidence of it happening, but if there was one, I probably just moved to a different spot elsewhere in the park or a bit further down the beach, the same way I'd respond if I came across someone in one of those places who was talking too loudly or playing music I didn't like.

In my ideal world nobody would smoke tobacco, but I find the idea of the government attempting to enact that ideal by passing laws restricting the rights of my fellow citizens odious, no matter how widely shared by the populace or scientifically justifiable anti-smoking attitudes may be. That's doubly true when smokers are not bothering anyone else by pursuing their habit, which as far as my experience goes is the case here. Saletan quotes a NYC official who claims that smoking on the beach or at the park has "no redeeming value". Why doesn't he let the good people of New York, many of whom smoke, make that determination for themselves?

Denmark, Kingdom of the Slutty Blonde Sex Valkyries

Tourism authorities in Denmark have pulled an ad they had previously posted on YouTube because citizens complained that it implies that Danish women are ready and willing to have casual sex with tomcatting male tourists.

A few takeaways:

1.)The ad does more than "imply" the message in question - it pretty much flatly states it.

2.)It's obvious that despite their (somewhat deserved) reputation for irreligiosity, sexual liberation, and lax social mores, Danes don't enjoy being stereotyped as libertines or having their women marketed as disposable sex toys. Even in the most liberal corners of the world, social conservatism lives - after all, only 10% of Danish children are born out of wedlock, as opposed to something close to 40% in the U.S.

3.)There's an interesting double standard at work here, I think. This ad seems to have come under attack most from social conservatives in the U.S. (Fox News is all over it), whereas the most common liberal response I've seen is to laugh it off. If a poor country with a reputation as a destination for sex tourism - say, Thailand or the Philippines - attempted to market itself with a similar video implying its women were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to service foreign tourists, I suspect the liberal response would be very different. Sure, one can argue that because Danish women are comparatively much wealthier than Thai or Filipina women, they aren't as vulnerable to sexual or economic exploitation, and this is true in the sense that it's probable that very few Danish women are forced into actual prostitution by dire economic circumstances. But for those Danish women who don't wish to engage in promiscuous casual sex with random foreigners (of whom there are apparently many), is it really any comfort to know that they won't have to actually have sex with any of the American fratboys, English stag-doers, or other horny, obnoxious foreign men this ad attracts? Their sexuality is still being sold for money against their will. Sexual exploitation is sexual exploitation, full stop. There are only degrees of difference.

4.)There are some people working at this particular Danish tourism agency who should probably be in another line of work. Producing porn trailers, perhaps.

Those Crazy Jerseyites

Pollsters have gathered some interesting data on attitudes toward Barack Obama in New Jersey. Apparently, 8% of residents in the Garden State are convinced that Obama is the Anti-Christ, and another 13% aren't sure. Those numbers are even higher among registered Republicans (14% and 15%, respectively). 21% of those polled, including 33% of Republicans, are "birthers", believing that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. On the other end of the whacko spectrum, 19% of respondents, including 32% of Democrats, believe that George W. Bush had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. "Birthers" and "truthers" combined make up 37% of the electorate polled.

In my view, this is probably a reflection of the limits of polling as an apparatus for gauging public opinion - as has been well documented by people who study human communication, the same option can elicit vastly different responses depending on how it is presented. Furthermore, one cannot discount the "wiseass factor" - people are notoriously prone to lying to pollsters, and quite a few of my friends I suspect would tell a pollster they believed the President was the Anti-Christ just so they could laugh about it afterwards.

Assuming, however, that the results are somewhat reflective of real opinion, it's scary, because it means that we are attempting to operate a democracy in which 37% of the electorate (perhaps more - New Jersey had the lowest percentage of "birthers" of any state polled, though probably a higher percentage of "truthers") believe things that are, not to put to fine a point on it, absolutely batshit fucking insane. JFK-was-assasinated-by-the-Illuminati-the-Mob-and-Cuban-Agents-plotting-in-Area-51, tinfoil hat wearing insane. This is not because the beliefs that Obama is actually foreign-born or that Bush wished to let 9/11 happen so he could invade Iraq at the behest of the neocons are inherently as implausible, but because we have scads of contrary evidence that renders both notions implausible upon rational scrutiny. Believing something for which there is no evidence is one thing. Continuing to believe it when investigation has revealed nothing but masses of evidence to the contrary is another thing entirely. It's not a commitment to finding the truth. It's delusional psychosis. No democracy in which a third of the body politics consists of delusional psychotics can possibly stay healthy for long.

Ergo, I really, really hope that the data in this poll are correctly explained by my initial theory.

Quote of the day

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." - attributed to Mark Twain

This line came to mind as I was reading a news report about the ongoing investigation of the murder of Annie Le, the Yale graduate student whose body was found stuffed into the wall of a campus lab building, and the comments section that accompanied it. The police are being very tight-lipped about the details of the case, and rightfully so it seems to me - there's no reason to make evidence or other aspects of the investigation public until a suspect is formally charged - but that hasn't stopped an array of amateur detectives, psychoanalysts, and forensic investigators from the across the internets from engaging in all sorts of overheated speculation. Among the wilder theories that have been posited are that Ray Clark, the lab technician who is being interrogated as a person of interest in the case, had an unrequited obsessive crush on Le and couldn't bare the thought of her marrying another man, that Le was secretly cheating on her fiance with Clark and Clark became enraged when she tried to break it off, and that Le threatened to expose some professional foul up of Clark's and he killed her to keep her quiet. These theories have two things in common - they are 1.)sensationalistic and slanderous of the people involved, and 2.)outlandish and more than likely untrue. If there is one thing I've learned from reading accounts of real crimes, it's that they're rarely as lurid or spectacular as a typical episode of "CSI" or "Law and Order". And if there's one thing I've learned from reading things on the internet, it's that people will jump to all sorts of conclusions about the character, mindset, and motivations of people they have never met, or even spoken to. As someone who's suffered through a missing persons case - one that didn't have a happy ending, either - I recall that one of the most painful parts of the experience was having to listen to people who didn't know the missing person offer unflattering psychological theories about him. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for Le's family, fiance, and friends to hear her impugned as they mourn her death.

Turn off the TV set and put away the thriller DVDs, people. This is real life. Le doesn't deserve to have her name dragged through the mud by anonymous assholes on the internet, her loved ones don't deserve to have their suffering amplified, and Ray Clark, if he's not the one who killed her, doesn't deserve to be tarred as a psychopath. Wait until the facts are known to form an opinion.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Random link of the day

Question - what would Walden have been titled had it been written and published today? How about The Wealth of Nations? Here are your answers.

Is the publishing industry responsible for the recent trend of wordy, too-clever-by-half book titling, or are individual authors?


A petty burglar breaks into someone's garage, and gets hacked to death with a samurai sword by the occupant of the attached house. Quite a way to go out.

God's Cosmic Joke

Gotta love yet another "family values" blowhard Republican getting busted (or, in this case, busting himself) for cheating on his wife in a decidedly unwholesome fashion. While some foreigners may question Americans' preoccupation with our politicians' sex lives, I've got to say I love it, and hope it continues, because it's fantastic entertainment. There's no better farce than the spectacle of a cheating pol getting caught with, so to speak, his hand in the cookie jar, and the Kabuki ritual that inevitably follows. Vehement denials, uttered in mock outrage, followed by weasel-worded spin doctoring, followed finally by ritual confession and serial apology, in an attempt to gain absolution and a return to the voters' good graces, all of it unfolding in a narrative arc with the predictability of a Hollywood genre film. In this case, you can throw in a nice dash of graft and cronyism for seasoning. The shit practically writes itself. Tom Wolfe once referred to sex as "God's cosmic joke". I'd say that's a pretty good assessment. Nothing punctures the myth of the rational animal quite like a man with wealth, power, and connections (or, in the case of Bill Clinton, the fate of the world literally in his hands) setting it all on fire for the sake of smearing himself in another primate's smelly body fluids for fifteen minutes.

If there are any socially conservative politicians out there who don't multitask preaching self-righteous horseshit with having deviant extramarital sex with women of low virtue, would they please come forward?

Monday, September 14, 2009

RIP Patrick Swayze

I won't go so far as to say he was a great actor, because he wasn't, but he was always entertaining and never seemed to take himself too seriously. He was also by all accounts a really nice guy, something that should never go unappreciated or unremarked upon. I remember him when he was fairly young, and it definitely feels like he was too young to die.

Hopefully he's dirty dancing at the great road house in the sky. Goodbye, Mr. Swayze.

Question of the day

Is Silvio Berlusconi the worst elected leader in post WWII western history? If not, who tops him, and why? Be prepared to defend your reasoning.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Captain Obvious To The Rescue!

One of the things I've always found sort of cute about the field of psychology is the tendency of its practictioners to report their findings in the same logical, detached tone used by nuclear physicists to describe new subatomic particles, even when the results of their experiments are utterly unsurprising to anyone with a smidgeon of common sense or understanding of human nature. Case in point - the Dutch researchers who have "discovered" that men tend to get mentally discombobulated when speaking with an attractive woman. It would be one thing if the researchers were doing brain scans to try and tease out the physiological mechanisms that explain this, or determine whether testosterone-addled thinking affected some cognitive functions but not others - that might deepen our knowledge of the universe. As is, this study is like conducting an experiment to determine that most people perceive the sky as blue, or Hershey bars as tasting like chocolate - it doesn't tell as anything that anyone with half a semi-functional brain doesn't already know.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

No wonder the newspaper industry is dying

This has to be just about the worst sports column I've ever read. It's insensitive, tasteless and idiotic, sure, but perhaps worst of all, it's indicative of the pathologically skewed priorities that too many people in modern America have. I love sports. To play, they're fun, relaxing, and edifying to both body and spirit. As entertainment, watching a close contest in any sport is far more compelling than most of the formulaic scripted rubbish that comes out of Hollywood, the TV networks, or the record industry. Despite the fact that many athletes, professional and otherwise, are juvenile, narcissistic boors and not at all admirable people, what they do is fantastic entertainment. But it is just entertainment. For this columnist to write about sports as if they have any degree of consequence when considered beside truly important things like war or peace or opportunity or, in the case of Jaycee Dugard, human dignity, exhibits an appaling lack of perspective. It's commonplace for sports commentators to remark that these things are what really matters, that the troops fighting in Afghanistan are the real heroes, etc. I wish it were so that everyone acted as if they really believed that.

Margaret Thatcher, closet Machiavellian

So Margaret Thatcher, idealized as a champion of freedom by the neoconservatives, was actually a pretty cold-blood realist when it came to international affairs, even going so far as to oppose German reunification on the grounds that it would threaten Soviet security and de-stabilize the international balance of power. That's not to criticize Thatcher - it's easy to see from the vantage point of the year 2009 how wrong she was, hindsight being 20-20 and all that - but the story does underscore two key points about international affairs. Firstly, that nobody really knows ahead of the fact how history is going to play out, and that as we act in a fog of ignorance we should take a small-c conservative approach to making decisions and respond with skepticism to soothing visions of the sort offered by proponents of wild chimera-chasing adventures like the invasion of Iraq. And secondly, that no historical person, or movement, or idea, no matter how much true believers of whatever stripe may wish to embellish their memories of it in the aftermath, is ever "pure" or conforms to simplistic, ideological notions of how history works. For conservatives, this means acknowleding that their tendency to romanticize the past as a simpler time in which democratic leaders were stronger and less afraid to take courageously unequivocal moral stands is problematic, and their tendency to equate circumspection with cowardice in our current generation of leaders, even moreso.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Business intrudes

I have been quite busy with preparing lessons and studying Japanese for the past few days - nevertheless, I have been working on a long post about the experience of climbing Mt. Fuji last weekend which I hope to finish by the weekend. In the meantime, a random link of the day for South Park fans and computer haters out there.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The tangled libertarian web

This is an interesting post on the different strands in the libertarian movement. It strikes me that the distinction Manzi draws is essentially between dogmatic (liberty-as-ends) and pragmatic (liberty-as-means) libertarians. I definitely fall into the latter category - while I do value personal autonomy as a good in-and-of-itself, I do not think the set of cases in which the government has a legitimate right to restrict it is limited to laws enforcing contracts and prohibiting actions which directly and materially harm others. There are such things as collective action problems, for which solutions cannot be devised unless people are compelled to cooperate by government action. I don't think, for example, that industrial polluters would have cleaned up their act without government legislation forcing them to do so - as one look out the window at the smog-ridden skies in any of the industrialized regions of China will tell you, markets, being relatively localized phenomena with strong incentives toward self-interested behavior, have a very limited ability to exert pressure on companies to behave in an environmentally responsible way. I also find the tendency of more dogmatic libertarians to fetishize personal liberty as if it were always and everywhere the highest of civic goods rather problematic. There are certain situations where private and public interests are in conflict, and I do not see why the former should always win out. I am instinctually inclined toward the libertarian position on hotly debated topics like drug legalization and prostitution, but opponents of eliminating all restrictions on these behaviors have presented enough persuasive evidence that doing so would have a deleterious effect on society that I am forced to concede that they may have a point. In such cases I continue to argue for the merits of personal liberty, but do so cognizant of the fact that it is not the only consideration and that 100% personal liberty, 0% social consideration may not be the correct balance to strike. I think this sort of non-dogmatic approach is psychologically and politically healthier, as it allows us to adapt to changing circumstances, as well as more likely to result in meaningful movement in the direction of increased personal liberty - it's a lot easier to convince people that a relatively harmless drug like marijuana ought to be legalized if you're not simultaneously insisting that the effects of nasty stuff like crystal meth, which really does destroy peoples' lives and have a disruptive influence on communities, are purely a private concern. The role of libertarianism should be to limit government interference in the lives of citizens to situations where there is a clear and compelling rationale for it, and to make sure it is as unobtrusive as possible - not to oppose it entirely.

Unfortunately, I don't feel that nuanced libertarianism is well represented in contemporary national politics. The only libertarian figures with any degree of national prominence seem to be either "git yer stinkin' librul hands off mah guns n' money" antigovernment cranks (Ron Paul) or political sideshows (Arnold Schwarzenegger). And those two may be the last of a dying breed. The takeover of the GOP by the religious right has left up-and-coming libertarian-leaning politicians without a political home. Hopefully a few years of liberal excess and Republican electoral debacles will change that.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why I'm not a Republican

This blog post by disaffected former GOP bigwig Bruce Bartlett has me thinking about my own reasons for shunning the party. As someone with an instinctual aversion to statism and an inclination to believe that the free market is generally the best mechanism for creating positive social, economic, and technological innovations, I've never been comfortable with the sort of blunt-instrument big government interventionism favored by old school liberals, and certain elements of the Democratic coalition (teachers' unions, urban political machines, radical pro-choice militants, etc.) I find distasteful, if not actively loathsome. I'm the type of voter who ought to be right in the GOP wheelhouse. And yet, since I've come of voting age I've held my nose and voted for Democrats more often than Republicans. Why?

Many of my reasons are the same as Bartlett's. The contemporary GOP's naked partisanship and complete lack of ideological principle are part of it - for the party to declare reforming Medicare outside debate while simultaneously arguing that Obama's health care proposals will bankrupt the nation is disgraceful, and a first-order insult to the intelligence of conservative-leaning voters. The widespread pandering to the delusional paranoia of lunatics like the birthers, with their unseemly, racially tinged xenophobia, is also an issue. Both are primarily problems created by the pressures of electoral politics, however, problems that the Democratic party also has in spades.

The biggest reason I am not a Republican is that the modern Republican party is intellectually bankrupt. On domestic and foreign policy alike, they have failed to present anything like a coherent set of ideas for tackling the problems of contemporary America, instead choosing to robotically repeat Reagan-era slogans as if they were magic mantras. The problem is that while Reagan was an effective conservative leader for his time, 2009 is not Reagan's time. Domestically, the U.S. does not face the same problems it did when Reagan was elected. Taxes are low. Business is relatively unregulated. Cutting taxes and de-regulating, therefore, are not the winning ideas they once were. While the economy might be just as bad as it was in the late 1970's and early 80's, the causes and nature of the downturn are entirely different. We're now living, working, and doing business in a global, information-based economy. The government must be willing to provide a business climate and infrastructure which enable American companies to compete and thrive in that environment, and in some cases that may mean that more government spending is necessary. Government spending is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing - the idea that government spending in areas other than defense, law enforcement, and bare bones infrastructure must always and everywhere be opposed to tooth-and-nail is irrational, and increasingly obviously incorrect, dogma. The international situation is entirely different as well. Certainly the U.S. still faces threats, but none are as powerful, well-organized, or ideologically unified as Soviet-era communism was, and Reagan's admirably clear rhetoric denouncing the abuses perpetuated by the USSR and its satellites is out of place in the murky, multi-polar world in which we now live. Responding to the threat of militant Islam by announcing a "crusade" against terrorism and invading a Middle Eastern country was, and continues to be, a batshit insane idea. Promoting the idea of bombing a country like Iran, in which a domestically unpopular regime only hangs on to power by appealing to nationalistic sentiment and demonizing the West, is equally wrongheaded. The list goes on. The Democrats' ideas are often wrong and even more often compromised by venal politicking, but at least they have ideas.

I have a sneaking feeling that the Republican party will need to absorb a few more sound electoral beatings before the fact that they are no longer connecting with a majority of American voters begins to sink in. As someone who readily self-identifies as a conservative and considers a great many of the ascendant left's initiatives deeply problematic, I find this distressing. American politics needs a sane, sober, reflective, and intellectually sound conservatism. What it has is the contemporary Republican party. The gulf between the two has never been wider.

What about the Lions?

Peter King claims that the NFC North might be the best division in football this year. In the words of the immortal Bill Lumbergh, I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree there. It's true that the Packers were crippled by injuries last year and are a much better team than the 6-10 record they finished with indicates. It's also true that the Bears have upgraded significantly at quarterback by acquiring Jay Cutler, and that the Vikings have also upgraded, albeit less significantly, by signing the Man Who Wouldn't Retire. But to claim that this makes the NFC North better than, say, the NFC East, which put two teams in the playoffs last year and had three above .500, or the NFC South, which had two of the AFC's best regular season teams in Tennessee and Indianapolis, an injury-ravaged preseason contender of its own in Jacksonville, and a tough out in also-ran Houston, is ridiculous. Just a few of the problems I see with King's assertion:

1.)Chicago still lacks offensive talent. Matt Forte is an emerging star at running back, true, and Greg Olsen is a solid tight end, but the team's receivers are still sub-mediocre. And they're depending on oft-injured graybeard Orlando Pace to protect Cutler's backside. Something tells me ol' Jay is not going to put up the same numbers this year as he did last year with one of the best lines in football protecting him and arguably the best young receiving duo in the game catching his passes. And if he gets hurt? His backup is the immortal Caleb Hanie. Yikes.

2.)Speaking of da' Bears, some of their key defensive players are getting old. Brian Urlacher didn't have a great year last year, and as he's over 30 years old it might not have been a coincidence. Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye are also over 30. And Tommie Harris, while not old, is severely injury-prone. As good as they are on paper, I don't think they make it through the season intact.

3.)Brett Favre is 40 years old, and broke down like an old hatchback with a leaky radiator once the weather got cold last year. Why should I believe the same won't happen this year? He's already playing with a bad shoulder, and he bruised his ribs blocking in his second game back. Even if he doesn't get hurt, he's certain to throw a few costly interceptions - perhaps more than his oft-maligned backups would have. He's not the same quarterback he was ten or even five years ago, and at this point he may prove to be only a marginal improvement over what the Vikings had. And that's without even considering the circus atmosphere his arrival has created in Minnesota.

4.)The StarCaps case has yet to be settled. If/when the Vikings' star defensive tackles are suspended, their fearsome run defense becomes a thing of the past. Their pass defense wasn't that good to begin with.

5.)Brad Childress still coaches Minnesota. He did a great job as the Eagles' offensive coordinator, but he's a mediocre head man at best. That's going to hurt the Vikings at some point.

6.)Green Bay's defense is switching to a new system. They've looked good in the preseason, but as nobody gameplans in the preseason, anyone using preseason performance to judge regular season potential does so at his peril. History indicates that teams switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 rarely excel in their first year in the new defense, and I don't see any reason to think the Packers will be different.

7.)The schedule is tough. These teams play each of the others twice, and if they're all as improved as King thinks, those games become commensurately tougher than they were last year. Out of division, they all play AFC north powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and the defending NFC champion in the Cardinals. And their other NFC matchups - Atlanta and Philadelphia for the Bears, Tampa Bay and Dallas for the Packers, and Carolina and the New York Giants for the Vikings - aren't exactly easy street either.

8.)The Lions still play here. No division with a team coming off the first 0-16 season in NFL history deserves to be considered in a conversation about the toughest divisions in the league.

It's possible, as King says, that any of the top 3 teams in this division might go 12-4 - but far more likely that one will go 10-6 or 11-5, with the other two hovering around .500. Certainly, to claim authoritatively that this division has the edge over the NFC East or AFC South is absurd. But then, throwing out absurd assertions without much evidence to back them up is something of a Peter King specialty.