Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Some Arguments Are Self-Refuting: Roman Polanski Edition

Robert Harris, from his op-ed in today's NY Times defending Roman Polanski:
Of course what happened cannot be excused, either legally or ethically.
Right. The crime -- which Harris, as is all-too-common among Polanski's defenders, never mentions -- is that Roman Polanski raped a child. Rape, as has been noted, in three separate ways -- rape because she was too young to consent, rape because she was drugged and unable to consent, and rape because she said no. Polanski plea-bargained to the first of the three in order to avoid trial on the entire set; but it all, y'know, happened. Any one of the three would make it rape.*

So this "cannot be excused" -- including legally. Inexcusable.

Which renders the rest of Harris's op-ed utterly moot. If something cannot be excused, then all the excuses offered in practically every other sentence of the op-ed are besides the point.

(In addition to the Salon story linked above -- which I think is the "if you're only going to read one" for this particular issue -- I also recommend this and this, both via these posts, which also contain more sensible points and relevant links.)

I am frankly really shocked at the number of people coming forward to defend a man who has admitted the drugging and raping of a 13-year-old-girl. I kinda thought the underlying facts of this case would scare people off. But there are an awful lot of defenders out there.

Of course, I shouldn't be shocked by the number of filmmakers and writers coming forward to defend Polanski; being a great artist has no relation to being a decent person -- exhibit A here being Polanski himself. But I am shocked nevertheless.

(The basic point in regards to the art/morality connection in this case was well put by Scott Lemieux: "...evaluations of Polanski's art should be kept distinct from his crimes, but this cuts both ways -- the fact that he's produced great art shouldn't give him immunity for a severe violent crime.")

And yeah, like a number of others, the obvious connection which occurs to me here is to the war-criminals in the Bush administration. A rapist shouldn't serve his sentence because he's an important filmmaker, or it was decades ago, or it would politicize art; orderers of torture shouldn't be prosecuted because they were important politicians, or we need to look forward not back, or it would politicize politics. Being unable to return to or leave the U.S. (respectively) and having their reputations sullied are sufficient punishment -- at least for those sorts of people.

Now, I believe in grey areas, and that the law is hardly always just. But I would like to think that torture and rape are two of the areas which we can pretty much all agree are, well, inexcusable.

Yet two large crowds have come forward to defend the perpetrators of these crimes. Half of each crowd would be offended to be compared to the other; another large chunk are simultaneous members of both camps. But the common thread here is that people who aren't just the little people should be allowed to get away with torture and rape.

Because being an artist, or being a high-ranking Republican politician, or simply being a member of the well-connected set, are licences to commit any crimes. Even those.

How can people think this way? What leads people to defend these things?

It's Chinatown.

* I admit there are grey areas in statutory rape laws -- two kids having consensual sex being the prime example here -- where the law and morality are at odds. Even absent the other factors, this -- a 40-year-old man with a 13-year-old girl -- isn't close. With the other factors, bringing it up would be a joke if it weren't so damn evil.

Update to footnote: Two links to over-thought, excessively analyzed, pretentiously-academic-about-common-subject posts that any reader of this blog should like (you can tell from my adjectives that I'm jealous as hell and wish I'd written 'em). Firstly, this explanation of why the grand jury testimony is important to consider even though it's one-sided and one should normally be wary of such things for precisely that reason; and secondly -- and while they're both good if you read only one read this one -- this post about the meaning of statutory rape, which talks about Wittgenstein, famous cognitive psychology experiments and the sort of intellectual slippage that might cause (some of) Polanski's defenders to defend someone who has committed so vile a crime. Who knew that the route to understanding Polanski's seemingly clueless moral defenders was through Wittgenstein and violations of gricean maxims?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dollhouse: The Good Parts Version (a guide)

"When she was good,
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid...."

The first episode of the second season of Joss Whedon's tv show Dollhouse aired tonight, although I haven't seen it yet, because it doesn't go up on hulu until tomorrow sometime (and we don't get broadcast tv).

But in case anyone wants to catch up on Season 1 before watching Season 2 I thought I'd outline for you the good parts version. Because, far more than any Whedon show to date, Dollhouse is really uneven.

Hell, even Whedon & the rest of the Dollhouse crew admitted as much in talking up episode 6, saying that that was when they finally got it right -- stopped telling the self-contained and silly stories of the week (possibly pushed on them by the network executives in a highly misguided attempt to make the show accessible rather than good) and started to tell their overall story.

Now, to be clear, I wouldn't particularly recommend Dollhouse to anyone who isn't already a Whedon fan. Why watch the quite flawed Dollhouse when you can go and watch the sublime Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog? -- shows that, while not without flaws, are overall the best TV made this side of The Wire. But if you are already a fan of those shows -- or if for whatever reason you don't want to watch them but want to try Dollhouse -- here's how to do it.

Almost the entire narrative arc of the 13-episode Season 1 was contained in 6 episodes. You can definitely tune in to the first of these episodes and get caught up right away. And if you just watch those 6, you'll be watching a very solid, interesting, thought-provoking show. Those 6 are:
1.06 - Man on the Street
1.08 - Needs
1.09 - A Spy in the House of Love
1.11 - Briar Rose
1.12 - Omega
1.13 - Epitaph One

Now I'm not saying you won't miss anything watching only those six. To the degree that there was anything good about the bad episodes of Dollhouse, it was the dribs and drabs of the overall story sprinkled about among otherwise mediocre-to-bad stories of the week. But those six are definitely the best, contain the vast portion of the central story -- and certainly are perfectly understandable on their own.

As of right now, four of those six episodes -- all but the first and the last -- are available on hulu for free. But they take down all but the most recent episodes, so tomorrow when they post the first episode of season two they might take down "Needs". Update: Season one is no longer on hulu, but you can by the show for a couple of bucks an episode at itunes or Amazon, or can rent/buy/netflix them on DVD.

("Epitaph One" isn't on hulu because, for various reasons that are too complicated to go into, it was never aired on U.S. tv, although it was or will be aired in most foreign markets; but it is probably the best episode of Season 1 (although it would make no sense without the other five listed) and should definitely not be skipped.)

I think five of those six episodes are very, very good. The one exception is "Omega", the end of the two-parter that was the conclusion as the show aired on U.S. tv. It's good, although in a number of ways it was a bit disappointing. Still worth watching since it is key to the overall story -- and, again, it's pretty good.

So if you haven't watched Dollhouse, and want to try it, watch those six.

The other seven... well, they vary from quite bad episodes with only a few good touches here and there to flawed episodes that have some genuinely good stuff mixed in with the failures. By common consensus, the first five episodes were simply a bad start to the series; the two later ones I am suggesting skipping were the more stand-alone-ish of the good half of the season. If you want to watch a few more episodes, then the ones I would suggest adding in first are those two -- 1.7, "Echoes" and 1.10 "Haunted". Not great, but both have some good stuff in them. If you want to try one of the five misfire episodes that began the show, I think the best of them was 1.4, "Grey Hour", which had some genuinely nice touches. But don't try it first; start with 1.6, "Man on the Street", to see what the show can do when it's good -- and if you're anything less than utterly committed to it (in which case this entire post doesn't really apply to you, does it) then stick to the six above.

As for season two -- who knows. So far the few reviews I've seen have been mostly positive if not overwhelming. If they can stick to the promise of episodes 6, 8, 9, 11 & 12, it should be a very fun show to watch. If they can match the promise of episode 13, "Epitaph One" -- and the only negative comments I've seen from reviewers of it have been expressed fears that they can do anything to match the promises and expectations set up in that fabulous hour of television -- it will be an amazingly fabulous show -- worthy of the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. (If not -- well, we'll always have Sunnydale.)

So if you've liked stuff that Whedon's done in the past -- try Dollhouse. It's good, when it's good. But stick to the path. You know what happens to characters who ignore that advice in stories, and it ain't ever pretty.

(PS: I haven't seen the unaired pilot, included on the dvd, which was scrapped for parts which ended up in many of the later shows in the season. But a number of things I've seen indicate that it started the show out at the level of these six -- only to have Whedon, possibly at the urging of Fox executives, back down to the level of the first five before crawling back up. But it's not apparently good to watch except as an outtake, since it went in a different direction than they ultimately went -- it's not part of the same story. Ah well.)

Update for Season Two (first half):

Of the ten episodes (out of 13 total) that have aired as of this writing (December 19, 2009), no less than seven would fit unproblematically onto the list above, i.e. every episode from #4 ("Belonging") on. Starting with episode four they got their act together and have made a solid show (i.e. it took them just long enough to get them canceled -- or, perhaps, it was the fact of cancellation that made them focus and tell the good central story they have to tell and not waste time with silly stand-alones.)

The second and third episodes of the season are solid stand-alones, comparable to the later-season stand-alones of season one -- i.e. good but skipabble. #3, "Belle Chose", is better than #2, "Instinct", if you're only going to see one. But if you're sticking with the main plot, skip both.

The season opener ("Vows") is complicated: unlike any of the season one episodes, it mixes some key (and awesome) overarching plot material with a pretty blah story-of-the-week plot; basically, the B-plot belongs solidly on this list, while the A-plot belongs solidly on the skip-it list. If you want to watch the B-plot, the way to do it is to hone in on any scene with Amy Acker ("Dr. Claire Saunders") while fast-forwarding past any scene with Eliza Dushku ("Echo") -- with the possible exception of the last ten minutes or so. Otherwise, just watch the whole thing and remember I warned you.

So the current, updated list is:
1.06 - Man on the Street
1.08 - Needs
1.09 - A Spy in the House of Love
1.11 - Briar Rose
1.12 - Omega
1.13 - Epitaph One
2.01 - Vows (*B-plot only*)
2.04 - Belonging
2.05 - The Public Eye
2.06 - The Left Hand
2.07 - Meet Jane Doe
2.08 - A Love Supreme
2.09 - Stop-Loss
2.10 - The Attic

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Kirby, Marvel, Copyright and Moral Claims: Scattered Thoughts

Thoughts on the copyright reclamation by the heirs of Jack Kirby, sparked by this post by Alan David Duane.

(In reading the below, remember I'm neither a lawyer nor a policymaker nor even one who has read the relevant legal documents; I'm going by a (semi-informed, but distinctly) layman's readings of the news stories about them. If that doesn't interest you, bail now.)


The heirs of Jack Kirby have filed a notice of copyright reclamation in the case of superheroes he had a hand in creating for Marvel in the early 1960's, characters such as the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and even Spiderman (who was created by Steve Ditko more than Jack Kirby).


It's important to remember what's going on here. Kirby's heirs aren't suing anyone -- at least not yet. They are filing a notice of reclamation. They are able to do this because of the odd nature of our current lengthy copyright system.

Until 1976, copyrights were good for 56 years -- an automatic 28 with a single optional renewal. In 1976, Congress extended that period -- first to 75 and then later to 95 years (oversimplifying but in essence). This was not only prospective, applying to works copyrighted in 1976 and later, but retroactive, applying to old works too.

But this created an odd situation for those who had sold their copyrights prior to 1976. What they'd sold was copyright as it existed then, i.e. the 56 year term. What to do about the extensions for sold copyrights? Should they belong to the original owner (on the grounds that they only sold the existing copyright of 56 years and not any more), or should they belong to the new purchaser (on the grounds that the purchaser bought the copyright and the extension doesn't affect that)?

(Note that this is also a different legal situation than the one involving DC/Superman/Jerry Siegel's heirs.)


This entire debate is distorted by a broader misconception in our culture about the relation of worth and wealth to merit and effort.

It is a strong cultural myth in our society -- an essential undergirding of one of the two major political philosophies of this country, and an almost-as-important one for the other -- that people who get rich deserved it. They worked hard, or had a good idea, and therefore they made it. Conservatives tend to (implicitly) assume this is the end of the story: if you work hard and/or are smart, you'll get rich; if you're poor, it's your own damn fault. Liberals, in contrast, recognize unfairness and randomness to a degree, so they tend to say that people can work hard and stay poor. But neither side tends to see the fact that wealth is at least a much a matter of chance and luck as it is of merit or effort.

The reason we don't like to see that, of course, is that it upends the supporting intellectual assumptions of most of our society: if the rich are simply lucky, then the enormous favor they receive is unearned and unfair.*

This is never more true than when we are talking about intellectual property.

I'm not (repeat, not) saying that artistic merit has no relation to how well a work does. But it's been extensively argued on theoretical grounds, amply seen throughout history and shown in controlled laboratory studies that merit is, at best, a necessary but not sufficient factor. Harry Potter may have been a good series of children's books -- but there are a lot of other books that are equally good (as I've had children's librarians say to me); J. K. Rowling may have been good, but she was mostly very, very lucky.

However true this is of the success of original works, how much more strongly true is it of intellectual properties** which have success in derivative works!

This distorts our discussion in numerous ways. In part it leads to people saying things like
I won't argue with anyone who tells me Herb Trimpe is unlikely to return to Marvel and create a blockbuster, breakthrough character that generates millions of dollars, no matter what sort of compensation deal is in place.
...which implies that the talent and effort of Herb Trimpe (who was the first man to draw (although he did not create) Wolverine) was a major role in Wolverine's becoming a breakthrough character. This is not because of what Herb Trimpe did or didn't do.*** It's because time and chance -- and broad social forces such as create a market for characters such as Wolverine -- and, above all, fashion are what made Wolverine worth what he's worth today.

The fight that will follow over the ownership of the Fantastic Four isn't quite like a fight over a lottery ticket; but it's far, far closer than anyone is granting in this discussion.


There is a third party to every legal battle over intellectual property, one which has neither lawyers nor lobbyists on its side. Thanks to the recent intellectual growth of the copyleft movement, it has some advocates; but their position is largely based on reason and fairness and the public good, and is therefore extremely weak. But it is the most important party nonetheless.

I speak, of course, of the public.

Intellectual property -- a misnomer, really, since there is no thing to be owned -- is a government-enforced monopoly restricting freedom of speech. It restricts your ability to say what you want to say, in person or print or on film or in comics -- if what you want to say is, for example, "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure of the windowpane; I was [REMAINDER DELETED DUE TO DMCA TAKEDOWN NOTICE]" It equally, and even more indefensibly, to your ability to tell an original story -- if that story is about, for example, Superman or Spiderman.

There are reasons for so limiting speech -- which is why the power to do so is explicitly granted in the Constitution -- but given that it is limiting very basic human rights, the power is moral only insofar as it is necessary to accomplish its stated ends. (Whether or not it is legal is a separate matter.)


The moral case for creators' rights is both essential and irrelevant to the Kirby-copyright issue.

It's irrelevant because neither party has a very good moral (as opposed to legal) claim. On one side we have Kirby's biological heirs; on the other, the corporate descendents of the companies he worked for. Neither set of people had much to do with the effort or talent put into these characters; they are fighting for an inheritance, and like any fight for inheritance they are fighting for things they may have title to but don't in any moral sense particularly deserve.

But it's essential because it was only because of the (perceived) moral rights of creators that copyright was extended in the first place.

If the case before Congress had been that companies wished to extend their intellectual monopolies to make more money from them, then even that bribery-pliant group of sellouts would have a hard time justifying such a vote. So it was all talked up in terms of the struggling, lonely dreamer, hoping to turn his or her talent into a win for his or her heirs.

This was a fiction, of course -- as much of a fiction as the notion that estate taxes hit small farmers rather than wealthy businessmen, and a fiction of the same kind, i.e. a propagandistic one designed to hide the true beneficiaries of public policy. But in terms of the copyright extensions passed in the 1970's, and then again in the 1990's, and then again whenever Mickey Mouse next threatens to go out of copyright, it's an essential one. Without this fiction, the extra value that came from the copyright for years 57 - 95 of an intellectual property simply wouldn't exist -- or would, rather, be held by the public and not by anyone in particular.

This is why you can't say of copyrights what you'd say of, for example, real estate. If you sell a house in a poor neighborhood, and then it becomes trendy, and the owner therefore (through luck) becomes rich, you can't complain that you didn't know its worth when you sold it. But no one seriously doubts (pragmatically if not morally) the perpetual property rights to real estate.****

Whereas the purchasers of these monopolies, which have become valuable only due to chance (and the efforts of thousands, morally and artistically indistinguishable from similar efforts which led nowhere), have any chance of extending them at the expense of the public only by appealing to the moral claim of their creators.

Marvel wants to argue that, for the good of people like Jack Kirby, it must have the right to hold a monopoly on his creations -- against, in this case, his actual heirs. They need the appeal to Kirby's rights to win the broader public debate, and need to squash that same appeal to win the narrow legal one.

The myth that wealth is earned is necessary to make us think that the financial windfall is significantly due to Kirby's talent in the first place, and that this fight over a lottery ticket is a fight over who really deserves it -- blinding us to the real answer, no one.


Artists can't threaten to withhold their next breakthrough character from big companies if they're not fairly compensated, because they have almost no say in whether they can create one. They put their effort and talent into what they make; but what makes it valuable is fashion, and the efforts of others, and luck, and a host of other factors.

Companies have extended copyright based on a myth of the individual creator -- who they are trying to screw over at every other moment so as to make money for themselves.

Of course artists should be fairly compensated for their work -- and there is, as I have said, a very strong pragmatic argument for copyright, one I don't disagree with (assuming that said copyright is, as provided by the U.S. constitution, "for limited terms"). But the vast wealth at stake here is irrelevant to that right, since it is all-but-irrelevant to that success.

And of course companies should be able to get funding to make (say) movies, and then profit from those endeavors. But they want more than that; they want to maintain a public monopoly on the ability to tell stories about certain characters who, for whatever reason, have caught the public's imagination, so that not only can they make and profit from stories about their characters, but so that they can ensure that theirs are the only stories about those characters that are there to be told.


Since I'm not a lawyer or policymaker, but simply a citizen with opinions on public policy, I can say that I support neither Kirby's heirs nor DC/Marvel. I think that, 56 years after their creation, all works should be in the public domain. The supreme court, alas, disagrees -- which seems to mean little more than their unwillingness to open the can of worms of recognizing that our current Congressional system is so poisoned by legalized bribery that no judgments of Congress (or the President, or really the Courts) can be understood as representing the public interest save incidentally. They said it was Congress's call to make -- which would have been a reasonable argument if Congress wasn't bought and paid for by the stakeholders on one side of this particular issue.

But the Congress was bought and paid for, and the Court was unwilling to enforce the rights of the public. So what we are left with is a debate over who should get to steal from the public the winnings of a lottery.


To anyone not convinced by all of the above:

I have one more argument for my position. It's a knock-down, irrefutable, overwhelming argument, such that if you heard it you could not even begin to imagine disagreeing with me. It would, in fact, revolutionize your thinking on every aspect of this issue.

But since this set of concepts can, as it happens, only be expressed in metaphorical terms as an X-Men story, I'm not legally allowed to share it with you until the X-Men go into the public domain.

Until then, you'll just have to trust me.

Update: Now cross-posted at Alas, a blog. Thanks, Amp!


* Incidentally, the consequence of this argument isn't necessarily a socialist economy, which I wouldn't actually favor; there are extremely strong pragmatic grounds for favoring the retention of a capitalist system and, as part of that, a robust set of property rights. It's just that such a system should be supplemented by a far stronger redistributory state (in a tax-for-social-goods-sense) than is true of the U.S. today; and also (and this is almost as important) that the public culture and debate should recognize the preponderance of luck in the outcomes of economic lives.

** What a vile phrase.

*** Although in fact I think that Wolverine's blockbuster status has far more to do with Chris Claremont, and to a slightly lesser extent Frank Miller, than it does Herb Trimpe or Wolverine's creators -- although Claremont and Miller have even less legal claim than do Wolverine's originators.

**** Except the bible, of course, which wanted everything reset to zero every fifty years to ensure justice (Leviticus 25:13). What socialist commie pinko wrote that, eh?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Quote of the Day

RENAULT: And what in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
RICK: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
RENAULT: Waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
RICK (shrugging): I was misinformed.

-- Casablanca (1942)
(Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Poem of the Day: Not Waving But Drowning

Not Waving But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

-- Stevie Smith (1902 - 1971)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

He's Ugly and Stupid and Nobody Likes Him

Max Baucus.

Baucus is the cornerstone of the Republican plan to destroy not only the chance for Universal Healthcare, but even its reputation, by, as Atrios aptly summarized it, "'point[ing] out that the bad ungenerous bill they encouraged Dems to put forward is, in fact, a bad ungenerous bill."

Pretend to negotiate, turn the bill into a piece of crap, and then turn around and say it's a piece of crap -- quite a strategy. But it wouldn't have worked without the help of destructive idiots like Baucus.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Idle Thought of the Day

The process of artistic growth -- particular an increase in sheer technical skill -- is at odds with the desire for consistency in style and surface across an artistic work.

For shorter works, obviously, this is less of an issue -- one of the many reasons beginning writers are encouraged to write short stories. You learn a bit, finish a piece, and apply what you've learned to the next. In the idealization (almost certainly rarely if ever achieved in real life, like the straight line through the vaguely-linear scattershot of data points), each story is better than the next.

But for a longer work -- the kind that takes years to create -- it's more difficult. Here, if you get better -- and again, I'm thinking primarily of sheer technical skill here -- you get the odd situation where the ending is better done than the beginning. Oh, you can go and rewrite the beginning... but it's time-consuming, and it's a process that lends itself to indefinite extension (although the point of diminishing returns surely kicks in somewhere). Sure, if you've done a lot of shorter works first this is probably less of an issue (although I suspect that artists rarely work so long on a short scale that it's not an issue at all when they turn at last to the long). But what if you are drawn to longer works, for whatever reason? Then it's a bit of a dilemma -- or at least a problem.

The State of the Health Care Mess As Obama Prepares His Speech very well (and wittily, and accurately (hence, extremely depressingly)) encapsulated by Matt Taibbi's article from last week, "Sick and Wrong", now posted online (via). Taibbi has been publishing bits and pieces on his blog over the last month or two, but having it all in one place is very powerful.

Limbaugh and the death panel lies and so on are just an aside in this piece -- as, for that matter, are most of the Republicans. Taibbi focuses on Democratic incompetence and succumbing to bribery have gotten them in the position of most likely doing the worst possible thing -- pushing a bad series of harmful proposals that will be called reform (so they can say they did something) which actually make the situation worse. And since facts on the ground do matter, Republicans will be able to run against it and win. As Taibbi says near his conclusion:
All that's left of health care reform is a collection of piece-of-shit, weakling proposals that are preposterously expensive and contain almost nothing meaningful — and that set of proposals, meanwhile, is being negotiated down even further by the endlessly negating Group of Six. It is a fight to the finish now between Really Bad and Even Worse. And it's virtually guaranteed to sour the public on reform efforts for years to come.... "It's going to give universal health care a bad name."
-- which, for the insurance industry executives who have done so much to get us where we are now, may have been a big part of the point.

John Nichols has a nice little piece of wishful thinking up about how it's not too late, but it's about as convincing as, well, the idea that any piece of reform strongly supported by insurance companies will do any good.

My guess (and I'll try to write this up in fuller form if I can find time (don't hold your breath)) is that Obama's chance of being a great president was blown in the first few months of his administration, when he spectacularly failed at seizing a unique cultural moment in which a host of coincidental factors (the utter collapse of the Bush presidency and the consequent exposure of conservatism's consequences, Obama's own political talents and inspired campaign, and the terrible shape of the country on the day he took office which cried out for real reform) gave the opening to make a strong case for liberalism of a type not seen since the heyday of the Great Society. If he had seized that moment -- and I think use of the bully pulpit would have been the key move here (which he frittered away on bipartisanship with the minions of Rush Limbaugh (!)) -- he could have done something deep and transformational for this country -- and been a great president.

He blew that. Maybe he'll get another chance -- some crisis or issue which he could handle well -- but I think the odds are he let the great president train leave the station without boarding.

Perhaps we'll find out tonight whether or not Obama is going to piss away his chance at being a good president. At the moment, I'm guessing the odds are high.

But who knows. Say what you will about him, the man can give a speech. Maybe he'll pull it off.

Still, as Taibbi says, the health care reform effort has "amounted to a referendum on whether or not we actually have a functioning government." He ain't optimistic -- but I fear he's right.

So read Matt Taibbi and weep -- but do read it.

Monday, September 07, 2009

From the Files of Things That Make Me Grit My Teeth: Implied Lies

...such as in this claim from Ross Douthat's latest column:
Our move toward physician-assisted suicide springs from the same quest for mastery over mortality that leads us to spend nearly twice as much on health care as any other developed nation.
His column isn't about health care primarily, it's about physician assisted suicide, but the staggering dishonesty in this sentence is hard to get passed. (And in truth, I suspect people are more swayed by casual and implied deceits than by direct ones -- far more effective to lie as Douthat does here, in passing, and by assuming the falsehood you wish your readers to swallow.)

The notion that we "spend nearly twice as much on health care as any other developed nation" out of a "quest for mastery over mortality" is so ludicrous, so dishonest that it's hard to know where to start. Maybe with this: it's flat-out false. We don't spend that much for that reason, since we actually achieve less "mastery over mortality" -- that is, we live worse and die younger -- than in countries with better health care systems. Or, at the very least, if you want to claim that we're doing it for that reason, you have to recognize that we're achieving the opposite of what we're aiming for. But we spend twice as much... and get worse results, because health care works better with one of the universal systems that all other industrial countries have.

Douthat implies that we spend twice as much to get better results -- but that's not true, and he has to know it: we spend twice as much to get worse results. We won't change because of vested interests in the status quo, that are willing to let vast numbers of citizens go uninsured (how much mastery over mortality do they have?) and the rest get bad quality insurance, rather than give up some profits. But his claim makes no sense without the implication -- again, the false implication that he must know to be false -- that we spend twice as much and that's a good thing, we get better results. If he acknowledged that we spend twice as much for a crappy health care system -- certainly compared to countries with good ones like France and Germany, although apparently we even get worse results (by which I mean: less mastery over mortality, i.e. people die younger) than countries with weaker ones like Canada and England -- then his sentence would make no sense.

So he's just lying.

Douthat's claim is not only mendacious but pernicious, spreading lies about why we have a bad system which are themselves part of why we have a bad system. We don't spend too much out of some supposed "quest for mastery over mortality" (a bit of Douthat's cultural conservatism that, rather than any respect for truth, caused him to write such nonsense), but because conservatives have been demagoging health care systems that are not only cheaper but also better than the U.S. system for decades (e.g. single payer). We spend twice as much because conservatives have, since Harry Truman's day, spread lies and deceit about the nature of government-paid-for health care. Lies and deceit such as they spread when they opposed Medicare -- pretty much the precise same lies and deceit that they are using now to attempt to derail Obama's (pretty half-assed at best from a liberal point of view, but better than nothing) health care initiative.

Lies and deceit like those Douthat is now spreading in the New York Times.

He probably phrased this lie in such a way as to make it fly under the radar of a factual correction -- he can always claim that it's a matter of opinion (itself false) -- but he is spreading lies here. His own deceit, and those of his ideological fellow-travelers, are in fact the factual situation which he claims to explain -- why we spend twice as much.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Other Graphic Novel of the Year, Coming Next Month

The graphic novel of the year, of course, is David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. This isn't my judgment, since I haven't read it yet (for the usual reason), but I have a copy and am looking forward to doing so, since I preordered it as soon as I heard about it -- basically, they had me at "Mazzucchelli". (I'm a fan of his from way back.) But everyone else seems to think it's the graphic novel of the year, and I bet they're right.* I'm looking forward to this one -- one reason I haven't read it yet is I want to find the time and space to do it properly. (Which means it might be years, I suppose, until I get to it...)

But then there's the other graphic novel of the year, which I just saw (here, via) is actually coming out next month: the long-awaited, much-rumored adaptation of the book of Genesis by none other than R. Crumb.

Now, I'm not quite as unmitigated a Crumb fan as I am a Mazzucchelli fan. I'm certainly convinced that Crumb is a brilliant draftsman, with a fine eye for social detail. But I'm not sure he's the best writer ever. As I've said before, my favorite Crumb comics are those where he's working from other people's works -- his collaborations with writer Harvey Pekar, his adaptations of Kafka and others, and so forth, plus little oddities like his 8-page piece on Philip K Dick, and of course his short history of America. Because in general, his more characteristic fare leaves me somewhat cold (however well drawn).

But it seems to me like adapting Genesis is the task that Crumb was born for. First, it's an adaptation, someone else's words (I believe that he is incorporating the entire text -- based on but not strictly adherent to Robert Alter's translation -- into his work), which as I said are the places where I think that Crumb really shines. While Bible adaptations might have, at first blush, an awkward air of the classics illustrated, stories-for-kids to it, this isn't necessarily so at all: there have been absolutely brilliant comics adaptations of biblical books published recently, and I'm sure Crumb will do as good a job (albeit in an entirely different way). And of course Crumb isn't going to pretty up the stories the way that children's adaptations' do; on the contrary, I think it's central to Crumb's project that putting the often violent, often sexual (often in a disturbing way) words of Genesis into images force us to confront their meaning in ways that we can avoid when reading all-too-familiar words. As Jeet Heer writes in his piece on the book:
As he did in earlier adaptations, [Crumb] embraces a volatile, often abrasive text soaked through with lust and blood.... The completeness of this version is important, because, as Crumb rightly complains, every other comics adaptation seems to have been streamlined and modernized, often to make the shocking old stories palatable to readers, especially kids.... Unlike these bowdlerized versions, Crumb’s doesn’t hide the fact that the holy book is filled with stories of incest (Abraham marrying his half sister, Sarah; Lot being seduced by his daughter), frenzied bloodlust (God’s various acts of mass murder, the terrible slaughter of a village after a young boy seduces Jacob’s daughter, Dinah), and general unsavory behavior (the theme of fraternal violence that runs from the story of Cain and Abel to the concluding saga of Joseph and his spiteful siblings). Images can cut deeper than words, especially when those images are executed by so psychologically alert an artist as Crumb. It’s one thing to read about the daughters of Lot seducing their father in a desperate attempt to repopulate their tribe after the destruction of Sodom; it’s quite another to see Crumb’s depiction of the sodden Lot, his eyes in a daze, straddled by a zaftig Amazon who looks vaguely troubled by her reproductive mission.
So like Asterios Polyp, I expect this one to be great.

But I have a bit more to go on here. Reading excerpts from an independent fictional architecture like Mazzucchelli's graphic novel can give you a sense of the style, but not much more: it's a narrative whole that needs to be confronted as such, and an unfamiliar narrative that one needs to encounter on its own terms. A biblical adaptation, on the other hand -- while doubtless having ongoing themes and an overarching artistic coherence that adds much to the work when read in its entirety -- is easier to read in bits and pieces. The original text is episodic; for a great many of us, the stories are deeply familiar, so that we can mentally place them in context without much trouble -- in fact, many of us are used to reading the text in bits and pieces anyway. And so on.

The only official excerpt published in English, that I've been able to find, is the eight-page excerpt published in The New Yorker -- which, alas, is not officially online (the link above just tries to get you to subscribe). A blogger has posted it here, although who knows how long that will get past the copyright police. There's also a photo of a two-page spread of the issue here, but it's hard to see well and doesn't represent the project in a fair way.

But if you read French, there's a lot more online -- and this requires a fairly low-level knowledge of the language, at least for those who are familiar with the original text (normally I'd need a dictionary and a fair amount of time to read a text like this, at least well; but here, with the English text so familiar, it is quite easy to read quickly without any assistance.) A French journal, Télérama, is publishing a bunch of large chunks of it. (via) So you can go ahead and check out Crumb's versions of the stories of Adam and Eve, The Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, the Binding of Isaac and several others. It's great stuff; check out this page from the destruction of Sodom:

It's a great time for the graphic novel. And Crumb's Genesis, like (if reputation is anything to go by) Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, are two of the reasons for it.

Update: I've now read Asterios Polyp. I may try to write up my thoughts later -- hopefully after another reading (or two) -- but the brief version is: it's fabulous. If you're reading it -- no, if you're rereading it, too much distraction (& possible spoilers) for a first reading -- check out these annotations (via, which links to a lot of other resources too.)

*I only hope it's success means that someone finally reprints Mazzucchelli's stories from Rubber Blanket #1 & 2 in some accessible form...

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Quote of the Day: Heather and Bob's Wedding Edition

And what his chiefe end was of creating woman to be joynd with man, his own instituting words declare, and are infallible to informe us what is mariage, and what is no mariage: unlesse we can think them set there to no purpose: It is not good, saith he, that man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him. From which words so plain, lesse cannot be concluded, nor is by any learned Interpreter, then that in Gods intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of mariage.

-- John Milton

Friday, September 04, 2009

Another Example of How the Alteration of a Single Word Can Produce an Entirely Different Poem

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
Nintendo, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night...

-- Apologies to Alan Ginsburg

And this doesn't even get to the line
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burn-
ing their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall,
where it really gets good.

(This sort of game can be endlessly multiplied, of course. My wife, for example, suggested that a better version would be created by swapping in "iPhone" instead of "Nintendo".)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Two Big Comics PDFs

In the last week or so, two long-time bloggers have published some of their work in pdf form; anyone who's interested in comics should check them out (and possibly some others of you for the first one; read on...).

Andrew Rilstone -- a fabulous writer who's works I've had occasion to recommend before -- just published a... well, what would you call it? Ebook? Booklet? Zine? I'm not quite sure. But it's called Who Sent the Sentinels?, it's 60 pages long (formatted for printing if you feel like it) and it's composed of a series of short essays which add up to an extended analysis of Watchmen, both the comic and the movie, with a lot of interesting things to say about earlier comics (particularly Marvel during the era of Stan Lee (which Rilstone has written about previously)). I don't know if I'd go so far as Eddie Campbell and say that it was "the finest analysis of Watchmen that I have so far read," but it's pretty damn good, filled with insights, and very well written to boot. (Although I could have done without the first section, frankly... or at least with less of it. Maybe I need to reread it.) Anyone with an interest in Watchmen -- which, properly, goes far beyond people with an interest in comics -- should check out Rilstone's fabulous work. The post to download his work is here; this is a direct pdf link. (Perhaps I should note I haven't seen the movie yet, and don't plan to, so my reading of his work is based mostly on his reading of the comic; if you know the movie, you'll have a different take on it. Doesn't matter; it's a fabulous whatever-it-is.)

The second pdf is of somewhat more specialized interest, but really anyone who is interested in comics should check it out. Alan David Doane has been blogging and writing about comics for a long time now, and among other things he's interviewed a very large number of top comics creators over the last decade. He's just collected a decade's worth of interviews into a single 291 page (!) ebook, nicely formatted, and available for free at his blog (this is a direct pdf link). I haven't read them all yet, but they're fascinating to browse, and the odd line dating the interview (e.g. Bendis, "...I'm doing a little arc on Daredevil...") adds to the charm of the thing. If you are interested in interviews with comics creators, check it out.

Finally, while it's almost certainly a coincidence, it's hard not to pause on the fact that two big, important pdfs appeared so close upon each other, and wonder if this is a format poised for future growth as far as free-internet writing goes. The pdf book does seem (for odd psychological reasons having little or nothing to do with practical access) more substantial than a series of blog posts.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Sometimes Truth Accidentally Slips Through

"[I]t’s unusual only because we so rarely hold large corporations to the rules."

-- The New York Times, August 31, 2009

(Well, ok, the article is quoting someone -- Professor Katherine Porter of UC Berkeley -- but still.)