Friday, September 30, 2005

Indictments and Politics

In today's LA Times, Jonathan Chait starts his column with a point that is three-quarters correct. He writes:

WHEN A POLITICIAN is enmeshed in scandal, it usually has little to do with the regular way he conducts himself in office. Despite all the heroic attempts by President Clinton's critics to make promiscuity or lying a metaphor for his presidency, most of what he did had little to do with bedding interns.
The same goes for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's alleged insider trading or Karl Rove's alleged uncovering of a clandestine CIA officer. Frist or Rove may be bad people, but these alleged crimes are not an outgrowth of their everyday behavior.
The indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is another matter entirely. It's hard to imagine how DeLay could function without at least coming very close to breaking the law. His indictment is an indictment of the whole way the Republican Party operates. The central theme of DeLay's tenure has been to break down barriers to greater corporate influence in American politics.

This final point -- that DeLay's illegal acts are not essential, not accidental to his political style and success -- is the main one that Chait is making, and he is, of course, correct: DeLay is part of a nexus of corruption that has turned the Republicans into little more than a vehicle for corporate welfare and political corruption -- one of its central remaining tenets (unlike, say, reducing the size of Government, which their recent record has turned into a joke, and which DeLay recently declared a finished project). Chait is also right that Clinton and Frist's scandals have little to do with their political records.

But he's wrong about Rove. Rove's crime is precisely "an outgrowth of [his] everyday behavior." Rove's stock-in-trade has been reprehensible, irrelevant character assassination, an attempt to distract from policies and stir up his base (can you say "Swift Boat"?). Of course, he usually doesn't do something illegal (as opposed to merely immoral) while doing this -- so far as we know. He almost certainly doesn't usually destroy key assets in America's defense against terrorism while making (irrelevant) attacks on his clients' critics' character. But the basic act -- sleazy character assassination -- is a direct outgrowth of what Rove has done, the essential ingredient of his success. Further, as others have argued, his so-called genius is, in large measure, a willingness to ignore ethical boundaries -- which can lead to practical success, albeit of a noxious sort.

DeLay's indictment reveals a corruption at the heart of the Republican congress (and since I haven't had a chance to say it yet, can I just say: Hurrah!); and it is essential that Democrats make this connection. But Rove's actions -- which, now that Judy has decided to sing will hopefully lead to his imminent indictment -- are essential to Bush's political success: sleaziness employed to distract from disastrous policies that would otherwise be unpopular. If and when that indictment comes, we need to make that connection as well.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Other Reasons I Love Firefly (Part One)

Other reasons, you say? Was there a previous post in the series? No. It's just that if I were to list the main reasons I love the show, they'd be some version of the obvious ones, the reasons why I'd recommend the series to anyone (or, really, any fiction to anyone): it's superbly written, wonderfully acted, with nine characters who grab you and won't let you go -- subtle and insightful, graceful and humorous, exciting and fun. It jumps from humor to horror to action to drama and back, often in a sentence. In other words, it's just great fiction, in the form of great television. That's why you should watch it, if you haven't.

But there are other reasons I love it too -- idiosyncratic reasons. These aren't the reasons I'd push it on anyone. They're just small things or particular twists that add to my particular love for it. Without the wonderful writing, acting, characters and stories, they wouldn't mean anything. But on top of a great show, they're a marvelous garnish.

Some of them are more substantial, some less. I'd hoped to start with some of the more substantial ones -- but I think I won't get around to it before Serenity opens. So instead I'll start with a minor, but extremely delicious, reason I life Firefly: the Chinese.

The future history of Firefly imagines that the U.S. and China formed an alliance and colonized space. Thus the future is bilingual -- including all nine of the main characters, no matter how little education they have ("If I wanted schooling, I'd have gone to school.") Chinese writing is all over -- signs, the name of the ship, art in the captain's cabin. A danger message the ship broadcasts in one episode is given in both English and Chinese. It's not that a big deal is made of it; the world created by this alliance is simply bilingual -- being bilingual is just standard in the culture (which is historically quite reasonable, actually: many cultures have had a wide degree of bilingual; America's monolingual nature is arguably the exception rather than the rule).

And the characters speak Chinese -- regularly, in the show. This Chinese tends to be phrases that the viewer can not understand without any interruption of understanding (it's not subtitled) -- thus the most frequent uses are curses, ranging from the simple (哎呀, "damn") to the absurd (大象爆炸式的拉肚子, "the explosive diarrhea of an elephant"). Besides these, the Chinese phrases are things like "thank you" (谢谢) or "little sister" (妹妹) -- stuff you can easily 明白 from context, even if you don't know a single word of Chinese. (Though if you're curious, all the Chinese used in Firefly, visual and oral, is translated here.)

Now, since none of the actors really spoke Chinese, they speak it pretty badly -- even I can hear that sometimes, and I don't speak a word of Chinese! (Well, one word: 谢谢.) It's possible that anyone who actually knew Chinese would be driven crazy by this -- possibly even to the point of finding the show unwatchable. Though certainly some fans of the show on the net know Chinese; but then, those who hated it and turned it off are unlikely to hang out on Firefly sites! (Strangely enough, though, in the Serenity comics (a three-part series comprising a single story which takes place in the six-month gap between the final episode of Firefly and the start of the film Serenity) the characters appear to speak it perfectly. The benefits of having letterers do it rather than actors, I suppose!)

The show also, to its credit, tries to mix a Chinese aesthetic with a western one ("western" in two senses: broadly in the sense of Western Civilization, but specifically in the sense of the old U.S. West, as the show is envisioned as a space western (a notion which, before I'd watched it, turned me off -- it seemed utterly silly, the sort of thing mocked decades ago in print SF -- but which Whedon makes work very well.)) This is noticeable in the visuals of the show -- costumes and sets -- as well as the show's music, for example. The show tries to be deeply bicultural, albeit extrapolated into the future and mixed with other things as well. And it does pretty well, I think.

But what I love is the use of the language. It's spread to Firefly fandom, unsurprisingly, so that (e.g.) the Firefly podcast, The Signal, has a regular feature "How to Speak Chinese" translating bits of Chinese used on the show. The advertisements for Serenity all have Chinese in them, so I'm hopeful that this will not get discarded in the film (although none of the snipets of dialogue from the trailer have any Chinese in them -- but I'm betting that they thought this would scare off audiences and omitted these deliberately.)

Why do I like this? Well, I'm a language geek, who -- despite an utter lack of any aptitude for them -- loves languages. And in particular I've for some time been fascinated and enticed by Chinese. I think the script is beautiful, the language fascinating and wonderful -- and likely to be increasingly important. So while, as a language geek, I'd probably think it was neat to have any language routinely used in the show (for instance, I always liked that Red Dwarf takes place on a bilingual ship which uses English and Esperanto -- although that's all in background signs; the characters don't generally speak it, although in one episode one tries to learn some, with hilarious results), the fact that Firefly uses Chinese in particular just warms my heart. I just love it. I like when the characters use it; I like seeing it in the background. I like having an excuse to learn little scraps of the language. I like the idea of a bilingual future, and that it's an English/Chinese one. I like seeing Chinese on Firefly websites, using it on message boards and in emails to Firefly fans without an additional excuse. I've loved having an excuse to include some Chinese in one of my posts on this website. It's just cool -- and one of the other reasons that I love Firefly.


Haven't been attempting much recently...

...and I don't know when that'll change: I'm in for sort of a hard fall, for various reasons.

I still hope to complete some of my posts about Other Things I Like About Firefly before Serenity comes out on Friday. But it looks like I may not. (Update: Except that, of course, writing this little non-post inspired me to do at least one. Funny how that works.)

In the meantime, though, following the lead of Lance Mannion, I've decided to meme myself. Here's the meme:

1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

Well, if I've counted properly, my 23rd post was When A New Planet Swims Into His Ken, and it's fifth sentence (not counting the epigraph) was "This is apparently because the announcement was premature -- their hands were forced since someone had hacked their website and would, they feared, preempt the announcement." Just for clarity's sake, the post was about the discovery of the tenth planet, and the fourth sentence was "Details seem sketchy so far."

And that's all I have for now.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

One Thing I (Already) Dislike About Serenity

As I said in my previous post, I haven't written too much here about Katrina because I have been, for the most part, too heartsick to do so. Still am.

So instead I will turn to a happier topic: a movie I'm looking forward to. The movie in question is Serenity; it is the movie which is based upon -- continues the story of -- the wonderful, sadly-aborted TV series created by Joss Whedon, Firefly. So to celebrate the forthcoming resurrection of this tale in a new medium, I will start a series of posts about what I liked about Firefly.

(In case anyone out there hasn't heard of it, Firefly was a TV series produced by Joss Whedon, executive producer of those other wonderful series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Only 14 episodes were made before the show was canceled -- and they were run out of order, so the show was never really given a chance. But it sold very well as a set of DVDs, so now a movie of the show, called Serenity, is coming out on September 30 -- watch for it! And if you haven't seen the show, check it out.)

But before I begin that series, let me list something I don't like about Serenity.

Now, I should make clear that I haven't actually seen the movie yet -- primarily because it isn't being released in the U.S. until September 30. That isn't quite decisive, actually -- there have been an unusual number of pre-screenings of the film, so I know people who've seen it; but none of those pre-screenings, for some reason, were held in the teeming metropolis of Ithaca, New York. So I haven't seen the film.

But yes, I already have a complaint:

It's too short.

Don't get me wrong. I'm delighted that Universal gave Whedon a chance to make a film of Firefly -- that that story, those characters, that universe will continue. I'll list some of the reasons why I am glad in forthcoming posts on this topic. And I'm fairly sure, given the reactions I've heard about to the pre-screenings of the film, both from friends and on the web, that I'll love the film. It sounds terrific.

But damnit, I don't want to see a film of Firefly. I want to see the next season of Firefly -- better yet, six more seasons. This is not simply irritation that I'll get two hours of entertainment rather than twenty-two, or a hundred and thirty-two. It's also that, frankly, I think the basic story involved would be a lot better as a TV show. Joss Whedon has said that what gets sacrificed in a film is character moments; in many ways, this is obvious. TV does slow development of character very well, just by the nature of its structure. A lot of facts about these characters, a lot of dangling plot threads and outstanding questions, would be wonderful answered slowly, over the course of many episodes. Whereas in a film -- or even a series of films -- they will be answered with a bang, if at all. The universe is so complex, the characters so rich, that it really ought to have been a TV show -- no surprise, since after all it was designed as one.

One example -- not even one example, since it is the basic structural fact that gets to the heart of the matter. In the 'making-of' feature that's in the DVD set, Joss Whedon talks about expanding the number of characters from five to nine, because a deeper and more complex ensemble would be better for TV. And so it would; but if he'd started out to make a film, I'd bet he'd have stuck with five. Again, don't get me wrong: I wouldn't want to sacrifice any of the nine. (For that matter, my vague impression is that Book has a small roll in the movie -- which I for one will be sorry about if I'm right.) But nine characters are simply too many for a movie to handle well. The only way you'd do it is if the movie was based on a pre-existing source -- such as Lord of the Rings (which never would have been made in anything like its actual form if it were an original movie: apart from the number of characters, which would have unquestionably been cut, can you imagine them bothering with the sizes of the hobbits? Or creating a CGI character with such a big role (given the technology of the time)? And so forth.) Or Firefly. Oh, it's not impossible: original film scripts (i.e. not based on anything else) with that many characters have been made. Gosford Park comes to mind, which had a lot more. But it's difficult, especially in an action movie, which is what Serenity appears to be. (Whedon originally intended Firefly to be mostly a drama.) So while I'm glad the pre-existing show forced his hand on the number of characters, it doesn't quite fit the medium.

I expect that I'll have to eat these words in a few weeks, at least to some extent, since I expect, as I said, to love the film. And I have sky-high hopes that Whedon will, in fact, manage to deal well with so many characters, such a complex place. But I suspect that on some level, no matter how great the film is, I think I'll always be sorry that it didn't stay on the air as a TV show.

Enough griping: the next installment will list some of the other reasons I like Firefly. (Huh? Other reasons? You haven't listed any yet! -- Stay tuned, Noble Readers: the answers to that question will come soon.)

Four Years Ago

Four years ago our country was attacked.

At this juncture, I find it hard to separate out my feelings about that monstrous crime from my feelings about the hideous uses to which our so-called government has put it, rhetorically, since it occurred -- waving it around like a bloody shirt to justify unrelated wars, attack political opponents and all manner of other things. The horror of the murdered innocents is primary, of course, but I also feel a horror at what my country has become since -- a country which tortures as a matter of policy, a country ever-less free, a country which even today is hosting a revolting spectacle that Matt Yglesias properly described by invoking Milan Kundera's notion of "totalitarian kitsch".

One of the standard complaints about Bush is that he passed up a tremendous opportunity to unite the country: if instead of exploiting the murders for cheap partisan gain he had endeavored to unite the country -- had asked for shared sacrifices, put aside crude partisanship, and so forth -- what good he could have done! If he had finished the war against Al-Queada rather than draining resources from it to fight an unrelated, long-desired war against Iraq, how much safer we might be! If he had, in short, reacted with greatness -- truly acted as if 9/11 had changed everything instead of simply saying it did while acting as if it had changed nothing... But, of course, he did none of those things: merely one of a thousand sins each in itself sufficient to confine him to hell, should such a place exist.

But I must admit that I put forward that criticism (unlike all the others) only half-heartedly: for I never believed it. Most liberal bloggers will tell of how, in the days following 9/11, they put aside their disdain for George Bush, put their trust in him, hoped for his success. Well, I didn't. Oh, I hoped for America's success: in the war against Afghanistan, in tracking down those who sought to do us harm, in limited the proliferation of weapons that they might do it with, in securing the homeland, as we quickly learned to call it. But not Bush. I already felt that he was utterly untrustworthy: viciously and pettily partisan, utterly incompetent, mixing cronyism and ideology in noxious combination. Rather than wish him well, I mostly feared for us that we were stuck with such a man at such a time.

Well, I have since been borne out: alas that I was! If the disaster that was Bush was clear on 9/11, it was utterly evident by November 2004 to anyone who bothered to look -- and may have become outright inarguable given Bush's criminally negligent handling of Katrina, and what it has revealed about our readiness to safeguard our citizens in the event of another terrorist attack (a readiness that was, let us never forget, the key element in Bush's reelection pitch). I have not written much about Katrina since the early days because -- frankly -- I am too heartsickened by the dead, too infuriated by the appalling response at every level. A thousand fine pieces have been written, but I will not bother to link to them here; I can't bear it. Most of you will have seen most of them anyway, I suspect.

In the first day or two after Katrina hit, there were a few calls, even from some normally level-headed leftists, not to "politicize" the situation. These calls were quickly discarded by all except Bush mouthpieces, as it quickly became evident that the situation was entirely political: the lack of preparation, the lack of response -- these are political matters. (Only those who see the political as petty -- only those, ultimately, who do not see it for what it is -- could fail to see that this life or death situation, like most, was and is political. Politics is about the most serious stuff imaginable: life and death, hope and despair, right and wrong, freedom and fear. Nothing is ever too important for politics: politics is about human life, which is as important as things get on this earth.) The calls to be non-political, now, are simply the Bush administrations weaselly way of trying to avoid responsibility for the nightmare they abetted -- indeed, for the nightmare abetted by twenty-five years of a poisonous rhetoric and philosophy which spoke ill of all government. And the left saw this, this time -- very quickly. Because, I think, of how Bush had handled 9/11 in the previous just-shy-of four years.

But in truth I wish that the left had reacted with as much furry and skepticism after 9/11. Uplifting it would not have been: but the country would have been better for it. Politics, ultimately, is not about inspiration but about policy: about what governments do. (To which inspiration may be key, of course. But it's instrumental.) If we had reacted with skepticism and not blind-faith, perhaps the patriot act would have been read by the congress before it was voted on; perhaps the tortures in the American gulag would have been met with fiercer resistance; perhaps the struggle against nuclear proliferation would have counted for more than scoring half-assed political points; perhaps the battle against Al-Queada would not have been shelved in pursuit of another. (In this last regard, let me recommend today's NYT magazine cover article by Mark Danner, who points out -- not in these words -- that while some have said we needed to invade Iraq when we did so that we fought Saddam on our terms and not his, what we ended up doing was fighting Osama on his terms -- terms that have led us to be loosing in the fight that most matters.) Most of all, if we had not had not abandoned skepticism for blind-faith in a faithless fool, perhaps we would have monitored matters, to ensure that our homeland defenses -- against any terror, man-made or natural -- were adequate and not neglected. Perhaps the people of New Orleans and elsewhere would have been treated as they deserved to be. Perhaps more of them would now be alive.

It is hard to properly commemorate the dead of four years ago when the bodies are still being drawn from the rubble of a newly ruined city -- rushing to find them before they can be devoured by wild animals. But ultimately, if they are utterly disconnected in their root cause, they are alike in the utter disaster of the government's response -- albeit a disaster that in one case took four years to see, and in another was evident within hours. Perhaps if we remember this -- and act on it -- we can struggle to make sure that when the next disaster comes (for disasters are unavoidable; only our responses to them are within our control), we are readier to meet it.

The dead of 9/11; the dead of Katrina. Rest in peace.


Friday, September 02, 2005

Great Minds Think Alike

A new meme is born. It has what Henry Kissinger once reportedly called the "additional advantage" of being true.

Jeffry Dubner:

These are the things, if nothing else, that government is here for. Liberals, who believe that good government can improve the our lot in life -- as Noam said, that "a robust, efficient government can mitigate, if not completely eliminate, much of the chaos and nastiness in the world" -- recognize that nothing but a powerful, central, active, federal government can do these things. Liberals identify the things that government needs to do and then find ways to fund them. Conservatives, on the other hand, think the government should be shrunk and stripped of power at all opportunities, and that taxes shouldn't be raised for all but the most obvious of social goods (if those). Even at a time when our nation is supposed to be at the highest level of disaster preparedness in history (and has the resources to), the governing conservatives didn't take steps essential to being ready for any massive disaster. If one good thing comes out of this tragedy, it will be the repudiation for decades of the idea that people who don't believe in government have any place running the government.

Kevin Drum:

FEMA was downsized and partially privatized because modern Republican leaders think that's the right thing to do with federal agencies. Budgets were limited for levee construction and first responder training because Republicans have other priorities. The federal government was slow to respond to Katrina because conservatives believe states should take the lead in looking out for their own needs. George Bush talks endlessly to the cameras about the private sector helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast because that's the kind thing conservatives believe in.
Liberals, by contrast, believe in a robust role for the federal government. We believe in sharing risk nationwide for local disasters. We believe that only the federal government is big enough to coordinate relief on the scale needed by an event like Katrina, and that strong, well managed agencies like FEMA should take the lead role in making this happen.
Both of these governing philosophies are defensible, but too often they seem like nothing more than opposing sides in an intellectual game. Katrina demonstrates otherwise. It's what happens when a drowning city runs smack into a conservative
movement that believes in drowning the federal government in a bathtub.

Tom Tomorrow:

I guess this is what you get when you elect leaders ideologically committed to the notion that government isn't good for anything.


We have two competing world views in American politics. The first says that government cannot help people. That government must be as small as possible, and exists only to provide security from external enemies. The other says that government can be a force for good and can help make people's lives better.
This week, we are seeing the effects of the lack of government. The American people are seeing what happens when the worldview is dominant. We've talked about the two disasters -- the hurrican itself, which was unavoidable, and the response to the hurricane and lack of leadership, which was.
We are seeing a third disaster -- the conservative world view itself, crashing and burning as reality meets ideology. Where government programs are slashed in the name of Norquist's drownable government, only to see an entire major city wiped off the face of the map as a result.

Matt Yglesias:

Liberals think there should be taxes, and that the revenue thereby raised should be spent on projects that will be useful. The GOP thinks there should be no taxes, programs should be funded if powerful interest groups want them to be funded, and the American military should mainly be used to conquer medium-sized countries that aren't threatening the United States. The result, naturally, is that useful programs wind up underfunded -- and that has consequences.

(and earlier:)

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Similarly, there are no libertarians in the aftermath of a giant, city-wide flood. Private charities have a huge role to play in these situations, but so does the government, not least to provide coordination.
Ezra Klein:

Government is failing. They're doing it obviously. And reporters and citizens alike are smart enough to extrapolate that if they failed here, they could do it again during a crisis that their hometown. Bush is discrediting small government conservatism by not mobilizing the private sector and he's highlighting the need for an effective big government to pick up the slack.
Rob Salkowitz:

It’s moments like this when you need a party in power that actually believes in the affirmative power of government to help its citizens, rather than the party that sees government’s role as protecting the property of the well-off from the predations of the underclass. It’s when the true ugly soul of American conservatism is borne out for what it is: a rationalization of selfishness and the hysterical denial of community. America is about to see what happens when the government is staffed by people appointed to their jobs precisely for their disdain for the whole notion of policy in the public interest. It’s won’t be pretty.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Lonely sits the city
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princess among states
Is become a thrall.
Bitterly she weeps in the night,
Her cheek wet with tears.
There is none to comfort her
Of all her friends...

All her inhabitants sigh
As they search for bread;
They have bartered their treasures for food,
To keep themselves alive. --
See, O Lord, and behold,
How abject I have become! ...

Her gates have sunk into the ground,
He has smashed her bars to bits...

My eyes are spent with tears,
My heart is in tumult,
My being melts away
Over the ruin of my poor people,
As babes and sucklings languish
In the squares of the city.
They keep asking their mothers,
"Where is bread and wine?"
As they languish like battle-wounded
In the squares of the town,
As their life runs out
In their mothers' bosoms....

My eyes shall flow without cease,
Without respite.

(1:1-2, 12; 2:9, 11-12; 3:49)