Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who Do You Trust?

What is it about conservatives? I'm constantly running into these weird conflicting narratives. Ideologies that seem to be in complete opposition to each other. One of the strangest is the Government vs. Private debate. It's no secret that it's accepted conservative dogma that the government is usually wrong and that it does more harm than good. Basically an overall distrust of government involvement, sometimes elevated to an almost paranoid level. Yet the same people who can't say the word 'government' without spitting, seem to have utmost trust in the conduct of the private sector.

I recently commented on a story related to the EPA and ended up in a 'conversation' with someone who seemed to believe that the EPA was following some grand "Obama Doctrine" and "Imposing their societal designs on free and prosperous people, dictating how we live, controlling our every movement in our personal life." Yet, on the other hand, "the Free markets are a wonder and transform society into a prosperous, innovative, imaginative society."  So while the government is bad and untrustworthy, trying to control our every movement, the free market is the panacea from which all good comes. At least according to more than a few conservatives.

Can they actually be completely missing the problem with this argument? Big Government is bad, yet Big Business isn't? Why is Exxon any more trustworthy than Congress? What makes General Electric more noble and honest? I think it goes back to my theory that perception is 9/10 of reality. We're bombarded by all the stupidity, the wastefulness and the corruption of our government on a continual basis. The news trumpets it and comedians mine it for laughter. But with big business, it's different. Unlike the President, the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, most of us have no clue who's heading up Bank of America or Wells Fargo. Go up to any random person on the street and ask them their thoughts on Brian Moynihan, Jamie Dimon or Vikram Pandit and note the blank expressions.  Yet these men run the top three financial institutions in the country (B of A, JP Morgan Chase & Citi Group respectively) with combined assets approaching six and a half trillion dollars!  Functionally, these are three of the most powerful people in America, yet few even recognize their names. Add to that the fact that when a business does something wrong you rarely hear anything about it. Just about every financial firm has been fined repeatedly, even over just the last few years, for wrongdoing and outright fraud, yet they are usually able to finagle a simple fine without actually admitting any wrongdoing. This is something that boggles my mind, actually. And the fine is usually far less than what the company made by using those shady practices in the first place, thus providing no incentive to do the right thing in the future.

So naturally, we perceive business as being more upstanding, because Conan O'Brian hasn't done many jokes about Goldman Sachs latest $22 million fine. You see the joke is that they conspired to  . . . never mind, it's not really that funny actually. I understand that we like to look up at these money making machines in awe, but simply being successful doesn't make you trustworthy or moral. In fact, I've been lectured on more than one occasion by someone telling me that I shouldn't expect corporations to make moral decisions! So if they can't be expected to do the right thing for anyone but themselves, then why would you extend them such trust? The only thing Citi Group can be trusted to do, is make money. And it's that very laser focus on profit, above all else,  that should inspire extra oversight and not extra latitude.

Look, I don't have any special trust in government but contrary to the conservative narrative, government does do some things right. Scenic gems like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are protected and remain open to any American to enjoy, without being draped in mansions and sprawling resorts. Criminal plots are stopped and their perpetrators removed from the streets by the FBI and Federal Marshals every day.  American seniors are able to get basic health insurance, rather than facing the gauntlet of private providers, because of Medicare. Rivers don't generally catch fire anymore and companies can't release known toxins into the atmosphere since the EPA was signed into being by that liberal icon Richard Nixon. We have few outbreaks of food born illness since the FDA started setting standards for food preparation, and when they do occur they are quickly tracked to the source and dealt with.

Government can be overbearing. It can be wasteful. It can be corrupt, but it also performs many services that we all take for granted. The free market also provides many invaluable services to individuals and the country at large, but it is also willing to ignore the common good and long term effects of their activities in the quest for profit. Neither is wholly good or wholly bad and neither can be trusted to operate without supervision. The Founders knew that about government and that's why they constructed the American system with interlocking checks and balances. We have to stay vigilant and do the same with big business, because they represent just as much of a danger to the nation as an overbearing federal government.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

NC Amendment 1

I currently reside in North Carolina and today I am furious with the people of this state. On Tuesday, elections were held. Mostly political primaries for various state and federal positions, but there was one other item nestled on the back of my ballot. It was a vote on a state constitutional amendment that was touted by its supporters as protecting traditional marriage. Primarily it was aimed as outlawing gay marriage, but that was not all it did.

The most prominent part of this amendment would ban gay marriage by using the now familiar blather about "defining marriage as between a man and a woman." This wasn't the only thing it did, but we'll get to that shortly. One of many things about this amendment that is idiotic, goes to the fact that gay marriage is already illegal by law in the state of NC. Which begs the question of why there needed to be an amendment to the state constitution to double secret probation ban it? Is that like installing a second deadbolt to give extra protection from the rampaging horde of homosexuals who are coming to make you marry them?

I will never understand this. Oh, I get why homosexuality makes some uncomfortable. That's a no-brainer! It's different and doesn't fit our Hollywood spun fantasies of romance and marriage. But so what? A lot of things weren't 'normal' until they were. And at the end of the day, this had very little to do with heterosexual couples. The gay community isn't trying to force straight people to be gay! Allowing gay marriage will have no effect on your straight relationship at all. This isn't really about preserving the so called "tradition of marriage". A tradition that at times, not so far in the past, was as much about property, alliances and preserving the family name as any modern idea of romance. That's right, this noble tradition also brings with it a history of female subjugation too. But we prefer to forget those inconvenient facts, don't we?

This whole issue has less to do with preserving some fantasy ideal of marriage and more to do with ostracizing people you don't like or that make you feel uncomfortable. I understand that homosexuality can be uncomfortable to some and even offensive. But so frelling what?! There are all sorts of things that offend me, including that sanctimonious, glassy eyed, smiling blonde bobblehead who I watched babble gleefully about the passage of Amendment 1 Tuesday night. But, while the idea of administering therapeutic shock therapy did flit through my mind, I never thought that I should fight to outlaw her right to stand there and spout idiotic statements. You see I have this crazy idea that all Americans are created equal and that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Radical, I know. Come to think of it, I must have read that somewhere.

But, as I hinted at earlier, this amendment was more far reaching than just continuing to treat gay Americans as less worthy. It also contained language that I doubt many who voted for it even looked at. They just heard that it banned gay marriage and in their rush to limit the rights of their fellow citizens they failed to notice what else its passage would do.  But don't listen to me. Here's an excerpt from a paper on the potential legal impact of this amendment written by four professors from the UNC School of Law. Emphasis is mine.

"Taken as a whole, the bill’s language is sufficiently vague, and its scope significantly unclear, that it would enmesh our courts in years of litigation to untangle its appropriate meaning. Moreover the eventual result of judicial interpretation of the Amendment would be uncertain. It could, however, be interpreted to upend completely the very minimal legal rights, obligations, and protections now available to unmarried couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex."

Such as . . .

"The Amendment could prevent courts from enforcing private agreements between unmarried couples, and end-of-life arrangements, such as wills, trusts and powers of attorney executed by unmarried couples; unsettle current custody law; invalidate rights and protections currently provided to unmarried couples under North Carolina’s domestic violence laws; undercut municipalities’ decisions to recognize domestic partnerships and undermine private employers’ efforts to attract top employees to North Carolina by providing employee benefits to domestic partners. It certainly will spur litigation, discourage same-sex and opposite-sex unmarried couples from living and working in North Carolina"

So congratulations North Carolina! Not only have you redundantly banned gay marriage, but you have likely stripped the legal rights and protections from heterosexual unmarried couples as well! Do you feel proud and more complete as a human being now that you have not just kept in place restrictions on those icky gay people but also removed protections from ALL unmarried couples? What other group can you think of to strip of rights? Anyone . . . Anyone?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Movies

About a month ago I was looking for something to watch one evening and found myself scrolling through the PPV movie listing. I ended up choosing the 2011, big budget re-make of 'The Three Musketeers'. It follows at least ten other big screen adaptations of the original novel, stretching back to the early days of film. Not too surprising, since the excellent book by Alexandre Dumas has everything a moviegoer could want in a film; adventure, action, heroes, villains, honor, suspense, cloak & dagger politics (with real daggers!) and even a touch of romance. Now I'd seen the previews for this rendition before its release and had been a little leery of what looked like some over the top FX and stunt work, but thought, "why not? It's only $5."

It became obvious, less than two minutes into the very first scene that a mistake had been made. And by mistake, I mean the fact that the script had not been burned immediately thus saving us all from a foolish waste of time and money. To say the film was a disaster would be an understatement. But it wasn't just the stupid plot points and dialogue, it was the obvious attempt to take the core story and make it 'bigger' and 'bolder' so it could match recent action adventures like the Mission Impossible franchise. In fact, it felt like MI was exactly what they were trying to emulate. The fancy gadgets, many patently impossible for the 17th Century, the gratuitous use of elaborate slow motion action sequences and the 'elite team saves the world' plot all come straight out of the 21st century action playbook. Ironically, all the attempts to 'update' the production did nothing but destroy the things that made The Three Musketeers such a great story. I felt none of the brotherly camaraderie that marked the original story. It was just too contrived and too slick to allow any serious emotion to creep in. Without that, it's just hollow and mechanical.

I can't really lay too much blame on the actors, either. I'd say that it was actually pretty well cast, for the most part. But no matter the actor's skills, they couldn't make bad dialogue work or make the unexpectedly contemporary language and phrasing less jarring. It was as if the screenwriters randomly forgot in what time period the film was taking place and each time it occurred I was yanked out of the moment. Did Cardinal Richelieu just say, "yep"?! I lay the blame for this embarrassment solely at the feet of the screenwriters and the director. Suffice it to say that it was one of the worst, big budget Hollywood productions I've ever seen. I've seen worse films, but those were all 'B' movies so at least I wasn't surprised.

Contrast this disaster with, in my opinion, the best Three Musketeers adaptation, Richard Lester's two part, star studded production from 1973-74. Its cast list included Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain and others. It holds surprisingly close to the original text, hence the need for two parts which were dubbed 'The Three Musketeers' and 'The Four Musketeers'. They didn't try to make the time period more glamorous than it was, letting you see the grittiness of early 1600s Paris. It also eschewed attempts to update the story to fit modern standards and instead let you see the myopia and narcissism of the French and British aristocracy contrasted with the other levels of French society from servant to soldier to spy to Cardinal and King. It also had some top notch sword play. Not the silly, dainty slapping of blades, but real brawls. Fights that utilized numerous styles that transcended simple fencing. Put simply, it felt authentic.

What really stands out about the 70's production, in comparison to the 2011 version, is that it's not trying to be more than it is. There are no gratuitous explosions or superhuman feats. The Musketeers were master swordsmen to be sure, but they got injured and they fought dirty. The '70's films focused heavily on the core story of protecting the Queen from the Cardinal's machinations and D'Artagnon's ongoing attempts to protect his love, Constance, from Milady's revenge. The clash of England vs. France was an important but tertiary plot. Contrast that with the 2011 version's grandiose theme of laughingly unbelievable airborne DaVinci war machines and you see a prime example of one of Hollywood's biggest issues of late. If the movie is classified as 'Action', then it has to be huge and filled with pyrotechnics and special effects. The heroes have to be almost invincible and capable of inhuman feats. And worst of all, the plot and dialogue are all but an afterthought. I can't count the number of films I've seen that were mediocre, but that could have been great if they had really made an effort on the plot. Instead far too many filmmakers seem fine with 'good enough'.

I don't know if the situation is worse now than 30 years ago, but it seems that way. I think the late '80s and early 90's marked the beginning of the trend and the mastering of computer effects in the early 2000s only cemented the bad practices. Instead of the special effects and stunts adding flavor to the film, too often nowadays they are the film. I don't suppose this is likely to change anytime soon. At least not as long as these monstrosities generally make money. But it is a sad state of affairs to see so many action films become little more than big budget B movies.