May 22, 2004

Original intent, dysfunctional democracy, and American Idol.

Kate Aurthur, writing in tomorrow's NYT, wants to correct the injustice that is American Idol: "[T]he votes have been so capricious, and have pushed the show so far from its stated purpose — to find the best unknown singer and make him or her a star — that even the panel of judges has disavowed the results."

I'm used to original intent arguments in Constitutional Law, but apparently Aurthur thinks there's some original intent that ought to govern TV shows. Like the usual original intent believer, she thinks she knows what the true intent is. She asserts: "all that matters is the voice." Really? I thought it was (to use the judge's expression) the "total package." She'd like to eliminate the people's vote and have only judges, as if some purer realm could be reached if we relied on judges. Put things in the hands of the judges because democracy is dysfunctional: that sounds like Constitutional Law too.

But why should anyone think a TV show should achieve justice? Half the fun is seeing the voting go haywire for one reason or another. The people who vote are expressing their love through excessive phone dialing. Note that they aren't voting against anyone. La Toya wasn't voted off, like the most interesting characters on the early seasons of Big Brother. Voting people off would be dysfunctional: Clay would have been voted off. La Toya left not because she was interesting, but because she was too cool and reserved to induce enough people to engage in overeager love-voting. So even if you want to engage in misplaced interpretive methodology, the show actually does achieve its original intent and the voting is not a dysfunction in need of judicial correction. The intent is to find an "idol," someone to love, and the voting method is a test of love.

Clintonisms.

Enough with the Bushisms and Kerryisms. Let's collect Clintonisms. I'm overhearing a TiVoed speech CSpan ran yesterday--Clinton is out and about promoting his book--and I hear the following proclamation:
"I am a convicted Democrat!"

Most of Clinton's speech, though, is amazingly fresh and compelling, especially after hearing so much Kerry and Bush. Clinton's reemergence as an author will draw a lot of attention away from Kerry and from everybody else, and from current events to the events of the 1990s. I'm not complaining. Let the best speaker be heard. Presumably, he will try to help Kerry, but his appeal is so dramatically stronger than Kerry's that it's hard to predict how well that will work.

Kerry's coy convention.

So John Kerry may have to act coy at the Democratic Convention and just hear that he's nominated and give a big speech about how he's honored to have received the nomination and leave out the big exciting "I accept your nomination" line. This is because, under campaign finance law, upon accepting the nomination, he takes on a $75 million spending cap.

Why did the Democrats schedule their convention 5 weeks before the Republican convention? The Democrats weren't fools. They just assumed their candidate would have submitted to the spending caps that apply to the primary season and would want to get to the $75 million earlier rather than later. But since Kerry opted out of the primary caps, what was predicted to be an advantage became a disadvantage, and now Kerry's looking for a way out. It does seem that Bush and Kerry should both start with the same amount of money at the same point in time. But then does Kerry get an unfair advantage by having his convention at an earlier point? Does the convention do something important to elevate the candidate in the public's eyes? We know there is always a bump in the candidate's popularity rating after the convention. But is it better to have the early bump or the later bump?

It's surprising really that anyone watches the conventions. But then again, I'm surprised people watch commercials. Or read the campaign mail. Yet apparently they do, because look at all that money that is spent on this low quality human communication. It would be better to watch the junkiest reality TV show than to consume this drivel. And we are expected to pay vast sums of tax money to produce this nearly worthless communication, and the candidates have to craft their campaigns to satisfy the law that comes along with the money, and we are expected to take into account whether this crafting is too sleazy as we judge a candidate's worthiness for the Presidency. So now, instead of talking about the substance of issues that Kerry will affect if he becomes President, we need to waste a lot of time talking about what we think about a big nominating convention with a nonacceptance speech.

So I hope Kerry does try to pull this coy maneuver, because it will help teach people to ignore the conventions. It might even make them reconsider their support for campaign funding and the complicated regulation that comes along with it.

UPDATE: Thanks to Instapundit for linking to this. (It produced an Instalanche that jammed the Sitemeter, so I'll have to check my "score" later.) Ideoblog also has linked, and I especially like the line "It depends on what the meaning of 'accept' is," especially since I was just wondering (see post just above this one) how well Kerry is going to do juxtaposed with Clinton.

FURTHER UPDATE: And thanks as well to Lucianne.com. Here I was expecting a quiet little Sunday, and suddenly all the Lucianne fans are here. Welcome, go ahead and look around.

May 21, 2004

Rainy afternoon mail: "Ann, please BREAK THE SEAL."

It is pouring rain again here. I need to get out of the house--must get supplies--but I would be drenched just getting to the car. My hedges are all overgrown from all this rain, and then with more rain the hedges are wet, and I can't get to my car without being well-swiped by wet hedge leaves. So I'm going through my mail.

I received a letter in the mail from the city telling me I need to hire a plumber to replace my lead service line. (Wouldn't it be easier to just drink bottled water? Are you kidding? You can't have lead pipes!)

And I got a letter from the Republican Presidential Task Force trying to get a donation by pretending to care about my opinion so they can set the Republican platform. This time they've made a big deal out of the fact that the survey is in a sealed envelope. It's an "official document" by the way. And it's in "a secure envelope to protect the integrity of [my] vote." (What's secure about a sealed envelope? [ADDED: I mean, the whole set of papers was already in a sealed envelope. What's the point of an envelope within the envelope except to play with my mind?]) Get this: "If for some reason you cannot participate in this crucial Survey project, please sign the outside of the secure, registered envelope--WITHOUT BREAKING THE SEAL--and return it to me [Senator George Allen] immediately so we can attempt to find another citizen to represent your district." The Republican Party never tires of sending me bizarre mail like this, seemingly in an effort (achieved long ago) to convince me they think their supporters are narcissistic idiots. So I represent my district, do I?

I saw in the paper today (somewhere) that Bush has already spent over $100 million on his campaign. But isn't most of the money just spent trying to get more money? Anyway, according to this letter my money is "urgently needed" because the Democrats have over $400 million "from liberal billionaires like George Soros, from personal injury trial lawyers, from Hollywood elites and from Big Labor to finance their scorched-earth strategy." (What scorched-earth strategy? Trying to win elections?) They need me to "help level the playing field" because "the Democrats' momentum is surging." Ugh! I hate the tone of desperation. Can I be on a special mailing list for people who want to hear reasonable arguments?

If I send them enough money I get to be a "Platinum Member" and then I can get three things: "a ceremonial American flag" (as opposed to what? a functional one?), "a distinctive lapel pin" (not just any lapel pin... and just assume I wear a suit and have lapels), and, my favorite, "an embossed membership card" (oh, "embossed," that's what will push me over the line here).

If I don't break the magic seal, they want me to sign the envelope and mail it back to them in a postpaid envelope. Great way to drain away your campaign funds, paying for the return mailing of bogus "official" documents. I suppose somebody thinks imposing a sense of obligation is going to increase the chance that I'll do the survey, which will increase the chance that I'll give them money. If I really hated them, I'd put over an ounce of papers in the envelope and mail it to further drain their funds. But I'm one of those moderate, undecided types, so I do nothing.

Madison on a bicycle racing day.

State Street was blocked off today for USCF national championship racing.

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Strangely makeshift safety was provided by duct taping old mattresses to various poles and things that bicyclists might slam into. Nobody slammed into anything, but the mattresses made you keep thinking about it.

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Some nice street musicians were playing:

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And they were encouraging generosity with an image of Gandhi:

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Surrealism was visible, surrealistically, through door glass:

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More cheerful artistic manifestations could be seen:

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And one rock idol from the past advertised her upcoming visit, loomed over by the neon image of another rock idol from the past whom we will forever miss.

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My experience with the comments function.

One of the downsides to having comments on a blog is that you may end up with lots of entries with zero comments and that makes your site look desolate. But I find it funny that there is one entry that got comments: this one. I think it says something about human nature that commenting was activated by the combination of a familiar children's story, politics, and the problem of what constitutes an analogy.

Marijuana and website ugliness.

Why are all the websites dedicated to the legalization of marijuana so ugly? The ones concentrating on medical marijuana like this one, this one, and this one might be trying to send a message of disassociating themselves from recreational use. But it is certainly possible to design a simple and elegant website that conveys a serious and scientific image. The websites that advocate legalization more generally are also amazingly ugly. See here and here. These groups too may want to present a serious, policy-oriented image: their arguments are all about the wastefulness and oppressiveness of enforcement efforts, certainly not the aesthetic pleasures of drug use. That last link is to Norml, and it looks very sober indeed. (Scroll through their "comics" section here.) I'm sure in the early days of Norml their materials were much livelier and frankly psychedelic. I see why it's not a good political strategy to do that anymore, but do they have to be so ugly?

Stanley Fish and the good old ivory tower.

Stanley Fish, in an op-ed in today's NYT, says the search for truth should be the university's only mission. Our job as academics, he says, is to interpret the world, not to change it. He's disagreeing with people who assume it is the role of academics to "consider civic responsibility as an explicit and important aim of college education" (former Harvard president Derek Bok) and "provide students with the knowledge and commitments to be socially responsible citizens" (the Association of American Colleges and Universities).
The idea that universities should be in the business of forming character and fashioning citizens is often supported by the claim that academic work should not be hermetically sealed or kept separate from the realm of values. But the search for truth is its own value, and fidelity to it mandates the accompanying values of responsibility in pedagogy and scholarship.

Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else's job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world by forming moral character, or fashioning democratic citizens, or combating globalization, or embracing globalization, or anything else.

My university is openly dedicated to the opposite notion, so dedicated to it that for a long time we've called it "The Wisconsin Idea":
The Wisconsin Idea shows the concept of a preeminent research university functioning as an ivory tower to be hopelessly outdated and wildly inaccurate.

Now, what Fish is most concerned about, however, is academics engaged in partisan politics, especially if they subvert the search for truth in the process. But he's probably taking his desire for a return to the ivory tower too far. Some of us would enjoy the ivory tower only too much, and there is plenty of self-interest on the part of academics who want to return to it. But the search for truth? Yes, let's do that again.

Getting old, with Nick Hornby.

Can someone explain to me why the NYT saw fit to print what looks to be the longest op-ed of the year on the subject of looking for good rock music to listen to as you get older and older? That is, I think that's the point of this seemingly unedited ramble by Nick Hornby. Is some high editor on the Times related to a member of the rock band Hornby is promoting in his piece that whines: Please let me be the new Jon Landau proclaiming that I saw rock 'n' roll future. (It's name, conceivably, is Marah.). Here's a snippet:
Youth is a quality not unlike health: it's found in greater abundance among the young, but we all need access to it. (And not all young people are lucky enough to be young. Think of those people at your college who wanted to be politicians or corporate lawyers, for example.) I'm not talking about the accouterments of youth: the unlined faces, the washboard stomachs, the hair. The young are welcome to all that — what would we do with it anyway? I'm talking about the energy, the wistful yearning, the inexplicable exhilaration, the sporadic sense of invincibility, the hope that stings like chlorine. When I was younger, rock music articulated these feelings, and now that I'm older it stimulates them, but either way, rock 'n' roll was and remains necessary because: who doesn't need exhilaration and a sense of invincibility, even if it's only now and again?

Oh, come on, isn't this drivel, devoid of any original thought? (Other than that hope might feel like chlorine, that is.) Surely, it could have be edited down! It's not exactly overflowing with ideas. Are they just so pleased to get a piece by Nick Hornby? Is there some sense that Hornbiness necessarily entails a flood of verbiage? It seems to me that if your problem is that you're getting old--he's turning 47--going all longwinded is not the best way to try to recapture youth, especially if the subject you've decided to blabber about is how old you're getting and how you remember how things were when you were young and oh these young people today, etc., etc.

May 20, 2004

Censorship as kindness.

Speaking of art and The New Yorker, Gawker has been covering the story of an art exhibit at the offices of The New Yorker. It was supposedly an exhibit of censored art, but then the curators of the exhibit had a couple of the pieces removed as too offensive to be suitable for the exhibit. It seems pretty amusing: they censored the censored art exhibit. One piece they removed was an acrylic painting of Osama Bin Laden, another, which you'll see if you click on that link, is a rather untidy assemblage of dirt, bottles, coconut shells, and a skeleton. The creator of the skeleton piece wrote:
The explanation I was given for the last minute removal was that the management did not want to expose disturbing images and ideas to employees and visitors who thought they were coming to a "place of business", that, unlike visitors to an art gallery, their guard would be let down and they would be ambushed. I found this to be a hypocritical perspective coming from a magazine that sandwiched a photograph of a naked Iraqi prisoner being tortured between a cartoon and an article about knuckleballs.

So, in other words, if a general interest magazine provides a mix of writing and imagery, some very heavy and some light, it gives up the right to be selective about what sorts of large physical objects are left about in its hallways? Looking at the photograph of the piece, though, I see a more salient point. I think they were being rather kind to the artist by telling him this is simply too disturbing to have in the hallway of an office building. That left him his pride and gave him some outrage he could use to fuel further art production. He's responding to the reason they gave him when they broke the news to him that this thing would have to go. But look at the piece. Isn't it more likely that what was really on their minds was not objection to any shocking message, but a harsh judgment that this is an embarrassingly bad work of art that will detract from the rest of the show?

Horrific varnishing.

Calvin Tomkins writes in The New Yorker about efforts to restore the great Picasso painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The restoration is largely a matter of undoing previous efforts at restoration and returning it as close to the state it would be in if people had never taken any steps to try to preserve it. The primary restoration mistake had been to apply layers of varnish. This is a good metaphor if you ever want to argue against trying to solve perceived problems: a new alternative to "the cure is worse than the disease" can be "don't varnish a Picasso." Varnish not only doesn't provide much protection, it ruins the look of a well-painted picture:
Varnishing provides a more or less homogeneous surface. Picasso and Braque were after something else, a contrast of textures in contiguous areas of the painting which would enliven the surface and convey a new sense of depth. ...

[The restorer Michael] Duffy, a boyish-looking man who appears unfazed by his responsibilities, walked up close to the painting and indicated the vigorous, cascading brushstrokes that are now visible. “It’s that sense of somebody touching the surface that I think is greatly retrieved,” he said. Duffy dreamed recently that he came into the studio and saw that a corner of the picture had peeled back. “It was as if the figures were trying to come to life.”

(The New Yorker never fails to tell us what everybody looks like. What the hell difference does it make if Duffy's "boyish-looking"?)

Tomkins notes that Picasso did not varnish his own paintings. But that point should be made much more strongly. Picasso hated varnish. I can't locate this anecdote on the web, but I read it long ago and it made a great impression on me. Someone had acquired a painting by Cezanne, and everyone was raving about how wonderful it was. Picasso would barely even look at it and was quite disgusted. His angry comment was "Where is the hand of great Cezanne?" Varnishing had destroyed the painting. You could no longer see the brushstrokes, the life of the thing. And today, when you go to the museum, most of the paintings are underneath layers of varnish, giving them a vile, shiny surface that is not what was intended. You may as well stay home and look at photographs of some of these things, because the works themselves have been laminated. It doesn't matter so much in the case of paintings of artists who tried to create a slick surface and used varnish themselves to smooth over the brushwork, but even then, it is bad for there to be any more smoothing and slicking than the artist chose for the painting. Varnishing is really horrifically ugly.

Something in the way

he speaks, attracts Ralph Nader like no other candidate:
Mr. Nader said what struck him about Mr. Kerry was not so much what he said but "the way he says it," adding: "That's important. You don't want to have someone with a squeaky voice."

That's a bit odd but there are several ways to interpret it.

Theory 1: Nader really does enjoy the deep, sonorous voice. In this theory, he's also impervious to tedium and doesn't mind a heaping dose of verbosity. (Bonus feminist analysis: "Squeaky voice" is code for female. Those who go for authoritative-sounding voices are, intentionally or not, going to discriminate against women.)

Theory 2: Nader caught Kerry's "way" meme. Kerry is forever explaining what he would do as President by saying he'll do things in a different way. What will he do in Iraq? Maybe the same thing as Bush, but the way he will do it will be much better. Ask him for substance, and after some distracting introductory verbiage, he'll move toward what looks like an answer and it turns out to be another abstract reference to his way. So Kerry has a way about him, a way to make you think you know what he's planning to do and to believe he's competent by repeatedly saying the word way. Now, he's got Nader saying it.

Theory 3: In meeting with Kerry, Nader got a sense that Kerry was going to work with him and adopt some of Nader's positions. Kerry didn't say so, but Nader could just somehow tell. Other Nader statements support this theory: he said that Kerry was "much more open" to meeting with Nader than Gore had been. Nader joked that "[The difference between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gore] is the difference between a spruce tree and petrified wood... Gore was petrified wood. He was stiff as a board, he didn't want to have these kinds of meetings." In this theory, the "squeaky voice" add-on is another Nader-style witticism, and the real message is that Nader came out of the meeting believing Kerry was pliable and would yield to the influence of Nader. Here's more along those lines:
"[W]hen people in town halls applauded him talking about getting tough with corporate power, he responded .... Gephardt didn't ...The more he cuts the reins of his advisers, the better he's going to do ... His own instincts are less cautious than Bob Shrum's. And after a while, you should be able to follow your own compass."

This means Kerry has leftward leanings that show in private but that his aides are suppressing. But we can't trust Nader's compass readings. Theory 3 is what I think Nader meant, but maybe he is wrong to think that Kerry's wooing him really means that Kerry actually believes in Nader's positions, when in fact Kerry has plenty of other motivation to humor Nader. Nader's statement is mostly just more evidence of his own narcissism. Working with Nader, which Kerry seems to want or need to do, is going to be a bit tricky.

May 19, 2004

Colorful convergence.

Bicyclists converged on State Street today.

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I'm seriously considering

deleting my auxiliary blog, House of Althouse. For one thing, the free copy of iBlog I downloaded from Mac.com is telling me it has expired and now I need to buy it. I don't remember it being offered as a temporary thing. I could buy it, it's only $20, but this is giving me a chance to look back on my little experiment and think about whether I want to continue it. The main point of having the other blog was to experiment with iBlog, and I used my most frivolous material for that experiment. With iBlog, the entries appear on an internal page, so one feels freer to write a long entry. I like some of those entries, like The Mystery of the Saucer and the discussion of the spelling of my first name, which I never would have written that way over here. (I could have used the material, but it would have been much shorter.) On the other hand, I felt some pressure to toss an idea over there every day so it would remain fresh, and I don't really need any more feelings of obligation. Also, Blogger did that big update--though that didn't really change anything significant for me. But iBlog isn't all that much more convenient to use. So I'm leaning toward not buying iBlog and allowing the fall of the House of Althouse.

Nauseating weight loss methods.

Now you can buy a $400 device to attach to the inside of your mouth to disable yourself from taking large bites of food. According to the AP report "The ... chief executive [of the company that makes the device] says he lost 14 pounds simply by wearing it off and on over five months." (Nice research efforts AP!) For $400 you could pay someone to carp at you to take smaller bites. I'll bet many families have kids who would enjoy carping at their parents like that through the meal. I'm trying to think how I'd feel if I went out for a meal with someone and realized--maybe from their slurred speech--that they were wearing that bizarre, ultra-thick retainer as a way to lose weight. Answer: nauseated!

That reminds me: nausea is a great weight loss method. I think you could make millions if you could come up with a pill that makes people just nauseated enough to not want to eat anything. Not enough to ruin their day, but just ever so slightly nauseated! It would be much neater and more elegant (and cheaper) than bulimia.

Bush ≈ Goldilocks?

Instapundit likens Bush (in his efforts in Iraq) to Goldilocks. I hate to quibble, but as a student of both moderation and literary allusions, I just have to say: wouldn't Bush be Baby Bear? We're Goldilocks if we taste the options and decide we like the not-too-left, not-too-right view of how things are going.

What Fantasia is up against.

Here's a picture from the Honolulu Advertiser showing the organized effort in Hawaii to vote for Jasmine Trias last night: "We're like an 'ohana.' ... Regardless of how (she) performs, we back (her) up 100 percent."



UPDATE after the results show: Well, everything came out all right. I felt sure Diana would make it, and clearly Fantasia deserved to make it, and she did. So that's quite nice, and next week should be a great show.

Balancing Bushisms with Kerryisms.

Slate applies its Bushisms mentality to the other side. I start reading the new feature thinking Kerryisms are going to be just as dumb as Bushisms but much less snappy. And yes, it turns out the Kerryisms feature is all about pompous verbosity. If all you knew about the two candidates was this difference in the way they speak badly, and you had to bet on who would win, you'd be a fool not to bet on Bush. By the same token, I don't think Slate is going to sell many books full of Kerryisms. I used to think Slate's Bushisms feature was unfair and unbalanced, but seeing how boring Kerryisms are (and Gore-isms would have been), I now think the concentration of Bushisms is defensible in neutral editorial terms.

Odd Couples.

As noted yesterday, I didn't watch too many situation comedies after 1969 (Seinfeld and Sex and the City are two exceptions), so I was never interested in the TV show The Odd Couple. One situation comedy that I did watch, pre-1969, was Mr. Peepers, which was on in the 1950s. I was a very little kid at the time, so my memory is only of seeing it and knowing that everyone loved it. Tony Randall wasn't the star, but he was the star's sidekick, and the show made Randall popular. Maybe the attention to Randall right now could lead to a DVD collection of Mr. Peepers. I'd love to see that. People who remember loving The Odd Couple should want to see Mr. Peepers, because it featured two contrasting male characters. In Mr. Peepers they were both high school teachers. (I see the name of the high school was Jefferson, and Randall named his only son Jefferson.) Peepers, played by Wally Cox, was extremely mild-mannered and sweet, and Randall's character was brash and swaggering. Come to think of it, many great TV shows have been built on the idea of two characters who are the same sex but have very different personalities. I suppose it all goes back to Laurel and Hardy (or whoever they got the idea from).

What, no opinion about American Idol?

Hmm... yeah, I said last night that I watched it, and then I didn't say a thing about it. I'll say: that was the longest sustained note ever on AI at the end of All By Myself, and, since it was also the last note sung on the show, I think Diana will get the most votes, even though Fantasia did everything that a woman possibly could do to thrill everybody. [ADDED on reading the Television Without Pity recap: Actually, the song was Don't Cry Out Loud. Jasmine sang All By Myself. Do those two songs have exactly the same melody and attitude?] The show isn't about rational judgment about who is the better performer, but a test of some sort of irrational love, made so because multiple voting is permitted. It tests fan intensity. If everyone watching the show had one vote, it would be an entirely different show. You have to call, and you can call all you want. Who does that? Maybe the same people who buy CDs. Look at the pop charts: no way those people are the best singers.

Is Fantasia in danger of leaving the show tonight? Of course! It's the Hawaii factor, and the show has only itself to blame. It went out and did auditions in Hawaii, a very unusual thing to do and apparently a big thrill for the little state that must feel left out a lot of the time and so separate from the rest of us. Hawaii responded to AI's attention, and now its excitement has converged on one person. Hawaii's voting for Jasmine is unlike anything that has ever happened on AI. At least by last night, all the nonHawaiians were aware of this and could put a little effort into compensating. Tonight's show should be quite thrilling. But however it comes out, Jasmine will be the queen of Hawaii, and AI will put its starmaking machine to work on both Fantasia and Diana, who are this year's Ruben and Clay/Kelly and Justin. Two people always win, and the person in second place may be better off (as long as the person is a good enough singer).

So who did you vote for? I don't vote! I just blog. Does that make sense? Sure! I don't buy new pop CDs. Let the people who'll buy that stuff decide. I prefer to observe.

UPDATE: Nice interview by Virginia Heffernan with Simon Cowell in today's NYT. He says bluntly that Diana will win. Funniest statement: "Could I sit there and listen to these kids sing in a concert? I couldn't stay there for two minutes. I couldn't think of anything worse. [Even a Clay Aiken concert?] Are you kidding? I wouldn't last a minute." Also, I love the cynicism. He thinks the contestants invoke religion only to gain votes, and he thinks that's obvious, and you're a bit of an idiot if you don't realize it. And he thinks dragging out one's child is a "gruesome" maneuver that's more like a politician than a pop star. (Yeah, politicians are gruesome, compared to pop stars, aren't they?) Then there's this priceless interchange:
HEFFERNAN Maybe Fantasia's cynicism adds to her serpentine appeal.

COWELL I'll try to think of it that way. With Fantasia there is an element of unpredictability about her, in how she performs, in what she says when she answers you back. There's a hint of madness there, which is good.

"Serpentine"? Yeah, I'll try to think about what the hell you might be trying to say there too. Fantasia is somehow snakelike?

May 18, 2004

A collection of Tuesday thoughts.

I stayed away from the law school today. The weather looked a little threatening, and I had some exams to grade at home. I had a 1 o'clock appointment that got me out of the house, and later I went shopping for the perfect reading chair, which I didn't find, and stopped on the way home at the Starbucks on University Avenue, with my bagful of exams. Starbucks had a big sign near the door pushing its summer drinks, but I got a cappucino and picked a comfy chair only to realize they had the fireplace going full blast. It was a bit much. I moved to a cooler nook and graded some exams, then went home, curled up in my home comfy chair and watched American Idol, took a hot bath, and curled up one last time in bed with my laptop, my remote control, and a novel. That was Tuesday!

Goodbye to Tony Randall.

Tony Randall has died. I didn't watch the TV show "The Odd Couple" (I stopped watching sitcoms, pretty much, in about 1969), so I looked over the list of films he was in. I was about to say, I don't like any of them! What a lot of bad movies! Then I saw this. That was good and his character was hilarious. He was always funny on David Letterman too, where, I see, he appeared more than anyone.

New Interpretation of Soprano's Dream.

Now I've rewatched the episode of The Sopranos I wrote about yesterday, and I have also been reminded that they are still doing another season (something I'd previously read they were not). Since there is to be a final set of 10 episodes next year, that affects what this season's pay off can be. It doesn't mean Tony can't get killed, though. It's shocking to kill off a lead character early (Psycho is the classic example), which might make it a good plot idea. Godfather II went on and was quite great without Marlon Brando. Also, since Gandolfini has been troublesome, that makes killing his character compelling for non-plot reasons. Let Buscemi take over!

So here's my interpretation of the dream and new prediction. In the dream, two key things happen to Tony. First, he's being instructed to do something (the phone call at the beginning, the constant pointing), which appears to be to kill someone. Second, he's constantly experiencing impotence (he doesn't have a gun, the gun malfunctions, Christopher takes his Toblerone, he loses his teeth, the coach who's chewing him out has a big cigar). I think the person to kill, based especially on the way he is driven up to the house in the car of death, is Carmela. When he is in the house with Carmela, he's on a horse, which she disapproves of. His being on the big horse obviously represents having sex (there are several other incidents in the dream that combine riding a horse and having sex). The horse is another one of the many phallic symbols in the dream. But here he is successfully riding the horse and approaching his wife: but she turns him away. In his real life, his horse was burned to death, and in this episode, before the dream, his girlfriend is badly burned. So the horse represents both sex and death. One could say the dream means he must either kill or get back together with Carmela. In the dream, there is also the idea of another man doing the murder instead of him. His cousin (Tony/Steve Buscemi) arrives at a scene and shoots a man before Tony Soprano can, so I think there is a good chance that cousin Tony will arrive at the scene and kill Carmela before Tony is able to. Tony will have a failure of will, as he had 20 years ago, when his impotence left his cousin to do a crime without him, to his endless shame. His failure as a man is tightly interwoven with the story of cousin Tony, so the key role in the end for cousin Tony makes sense.

The appearance of Annette Bening in the dream reinforces the prediction that Tony will try but fail to kill Carmela. Bening appears in the dream as herself. Other movie stars appear in the dream, but on a TV screen, in their roles--most notably, Gary Cooper, in High Noon, who is the model of a man who has some killing to do and does it. Bening appears in person, at the restaurant, and interacts with Tony. Now, clearly, Bening is most associated with the movie American Beauty, which has a marital breakup at its center and ends with the shooting death of the husband. In the end of American Beauty, Bening drives up to the house with a gun--she's got herself a gun--yet it is someone else who gets there first and does the shooting. Now this might mean that Carmela is going to be the one who tries to kill Tony, but I think all of the impotence symbolism in the dream suggests Tony will go to kill Carmela and cousin Tony will end up shooting her. It's hard to believe Carmela will die, but it would be very shocking, and there could be a great death scene. Emmy for Edie Falco. Oh, what the hell: let Tony die too (or instead). The new season: it's all about Steve Buscemi, the new boss, who hung an I'm-the-boss plaque on his wall in this episode.

May 17, 2004

Tennessee v. Lane comment #2: Justices Scalia and Ginsburg present an old conundrum.

There is an interesting face-off between Justices Scalia and Ginsburg in today's opinion. Justice Scalia is critical of the §5 (Fourteenth Amendment) test stated in the cases (the requirement that the statute be a "congruent and proportional" remedy to state violations of Fourteenth Amendment rights):
[L]ike all such flabby tests, [the Court's §5 doctrine] is a standing invitation to judicial arbitrariness and policy-driven decisionmaking. Worse still, it casts this Court in the role of Congress’s taskmaster. Under it, the courts (and ultimately this Court) must regularly check Congress’s homework to make sure that it has identified sufficient constitutional violations to make its remedy congruent and proportional. As a general matter, we are ill advised to adopt or adhere to constitutional rules that bring us into constant conflict with a coequal branch of Government. And when conflict is unavoidable, we should not come to do battle with the United States Congress armed only with a test (“congruence and proportionality”) that has no demonstrable basis in the text of the Constitution and cannot objectively be shown to have been met or failed. As I wrote for the Court in an earlier case, “low walls and vague distinctions will not be judicially defensible in the heat of interbranch conflict.”

He proposes a test that would permit §5 statutes that governed how Fourteenth Amendment rights are enforced, not statutes proscribing additional conduct, beyond what the Constitution standing alone proscribes, except with respect to particular states that are shown to have a "history of relevant constitutional violations.”

Justice Ginsburg responds:
It seems to me not conducive to a harmonious federal system to require Congress, before it exercises authority under §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, essentially to indict each State for disregarding the equal-citizenship stature of persons with disabilities. [Here, she cites Scalia's proposal.] Members of Congress are understandably reluctant to condemn their own States as constitutional violators, complicit in maintaining the isolated and unequal status of persons with disabilities. I would not disarm a National Legislature for resisting an adversarial approach to lawmaking better suited to the courtroom.

So, both Justices indulge in a little institutional analysis. Justice Scalia is worried about the limitations of courts: they need clear rules to maintain the will to stand up to Congress and the appearance of principled legitimacy. Justice Ginsburg is worried about the limitations of the legislature: it won't do well perceiving and calling attention to constitutional violations. Ah, it's the old conundrum: are you more concerned about a court tinging over into behavior more associated with a legislature or a legislature asked to behave in a way that seems to resemble a court's work?

I suppose if you think Congress, unconstrained, is likely to do a good job of identifying social problems and designing good remedies, you will want to give Congress more room to maneuver—especially if you don't think there is anything particularly positive that the states might do with their court-protected autonomy. But if you are more skeptical about Congress, you won't mind making its work encroaching on the states quite hard and enhancing the ability of the courts to protect state autonomy.

If you can't take a strong across-the-board position about such matters, however, you should like the congruence and proportionality test the Court actually applies: it's flexible enough to allow the decisionmaker to find a way to validate the §5 statutes it finds most appealing. Just be prepared to hear carping about " judicial arbitrariness and policy-driven decisionmaking." (I'm sure Justice O'Connor is.)

Tennessee v. Lane comment #1: Rehnquist can't complain.

The Supreme Court decided today that Congress has the power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to permit individuals to sue the states for damages if they fail to provide access to judicial proceedings, as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The 5-person majority consisted of four members of the Court who always vote against state sovereign immunity (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) plus Justice O'Connor. I expect to read press reports saying that somehow O'Connor is governed by fuzzy emotions that caused her to abandon her usual pro-state stance and find in favor of the plaintiff who was forced to crawl up a staircase to attend a judicial proceeding. But in fact, Justice O'Connor was voting for the same position she took in Hibbs, last summer's Familiy and Medical Leave Act case, which was written by Chief Justice Rehnquist. In Hibbs, Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas dissented. Today, the Chief Justice joins the Hibbs dissenters and even writes the principal dissent. But his words ring awfully hollow after the position he took in Hibbs. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority today, is quite right to throw the Chief's own opinion back in his face.
We upheld the FMLA as a valid exercise of Congress’ §5 power to combat unconstitutional sex discrimination, even though there was no suggestion that the State’s leave policy was adopted or applied with a discriminatory purpose that would render it unconstitutional. ... We approved the family-care leave provision of the FMLA as valid §5 legislation based primarily on evidence of disparate provision of parenting leave, little of which concerned unconstitutional state conduct. ...

Now Rehnquist asserts that "the FMLA was 'narrowly targeted' to remedy widespread gender discrimination in the availability of family leave," but little if any of that gender discrimination amounted to a violation of a constitutional right (as the right against sex discrimination is delineated in the case law). Before Hibbs, it wasn't enough that there was a serious social problem that Congress had undertaken to remedy: it had to have a remedy framed as a cure for the violation of a constitutional right. The Chief Justice tried then and now to portray Hibbs as preserving the §5 test applied in the Court's earlier cases, but it didn't, as Justice Kennedy amply demonstrated in Hibbs. Since Rehnquist's own opinion in Hibbs took the bite out of the §5 doctrine, he has no basis to complain about what the majority did today, which was to see what really happened in Hibbs.

Gay marriage message of the day.

Here.

Those moral-superiority feminists and the leverage they provide.

Barbara Ehrenreich addresses the topic that it seems everyone will need to talk about forever: the assumptions of feminism and the reality of women in the military. She writes in the LA Times (link via A&L Daily):
Even those people we might have thought were impervious to shame, like the secretary of Defense, admit that the photos of abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison turned their stomachs.

The photos did something else to me, as a feminist: They broke my heart. I had no illusions about the U.S. mission in Iraq — whatever exactly it is — but it turns out that I did have some illusions about women.
The stomach/heart contrast may have some (slight) literary merit, but it is quite wrong to portray the nonfeminist photograph viewers as affected only in their stomachs. Many people who were not focusing on the question of women at all felt great pain in the loftier organ. Even if they didn’t think “how could women do this?” they surely thought “how could Americans do this?” “This is not America” has been the key idea expressed by members of the Bush administration.

Ehrenreich writes that “A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib,” but it is quite clear from her article that she never subscribed to this kind of feminism--“a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice.” She ties this naïve feminism to the pursuit of equality, as if those who think the basic goal of feminism is equality also believe that women are morally superior to men. She assumes those who favor equality do so because they want to reform institutions and believe women, in their superiorty, will bring reform by their magical presence. It would be naive to think that, but in fact, most people who favor the equality version of feminism (in other words, most Americans), favor it as a matter of simple fairness to the individual. We believe it’s wrong to discriminate based on sex! Thinking she has swept equality feminism aside--Abu Ghraib destroyed it!--Ehrenreich fancies herself in a position to replace it with the feminism that is entirely subsumed into an ambitious political agenda. [ADDED ON REREADING: This agenda is, in Ehrenreich's words "the struggles for peace and social justice and against imperialist and racist arrogance."]
What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. Women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a feminism that teaches a woman to say no — not just to the date rapist or overly insistent boyfriend but, when necessary, to the military or corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself.

In short, we need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them.

To cite an old, and far from naive, feminist saying: "If you think equality is the goal, your standards are too low." It is not enough to be equal to men, when the men are acting like beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into.
This is not a new version of feminism—as the existence of an old saying shows—but the same expropriation of the power of feminism in the service of political goals that are not very appealing at all to the many people who easily support equality feminism and can easily continue to do so despite the role of women at Abu Ghraib. Women are individuals, capable of good and evil, who deserve to be treated fairly as individuals. There is nothing naive about that at all. It strikes me as quite a bit more naive to think that Abu Ghraib is going to excite women about your "infiltrating" and "subverting" project.

UPDATE: Ehrenreich's position is similar to one discussed here earlier, by Debra Dickerson.

Drudge judgment... Kaus judgment.

So the president of the Iraqi Governing Counsel is murdered, the Supreme Court comes down with a series of important cases on the power of Congress, and Drudge thinks the thing to run above the title is the unfortunate picture (with admittedly funny pun) of John Kerry's daughter unwittingly teaching the world's women a lesson in the effect of strong flashbulbs on seemingly opaque fabric. Anyone who thinks she did this on purpose--such as Mickey Kaus--really needs to talk to more women.

"It's congressional power day!"

So SCOTUSblog reports: "Three cases in which congressional power was upheld against constitutional challenge, including one case (Hood) in which the SG did not even participate because of his conclusion that the statute was constitutionally indefensible."

The case I'm most interested in is Tennessee v. Lane, involving the Americans With Disabilities Act and the scope of Congress's power under the 14th Amendment (and its power to deprive states of their traditional sovereign immunity and make it possible to sue them for past damages). The Court had begun to constrain the meaning of this power back in the mid-1990s, but it's commitment to a new severity wavered last year in a case (Hibbs) that found the Family and Medical Leave Act within that power. I have an article coming out in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review on the subject (with a lot about Hibbs), and I will have a lot to say about Lane. So come back later for more about Lane (and the other congressional power cases).

The Interpretation of Soprano Dreams.

After a series of episodes tinged with foreshadowing, last night's Sopranos episode was wall-to-wall foreshadowing. But what did it all mean? We have to pick apart the lengthy dream, full of old characters and movie/TV references. This is an episode that you have to talk/read about and then rewatch retalk/reread and write about. HBO really is aiming to take over our lives. I've always found it hard to keep all the secondary male characters straight. I've just never cared enough about the complicated criminal ties, even though I know understanding this sort of thing would make watching the show much more fun as various connections pay off in plot twists. I often read Television Without Pity recaps and think: Oh, so that's why they went there/did that, etc. (Aaron pays attention, so we don't have to.)

But it's certainly fair to say there will be a bloodbath in the end. These midseason episodes are marking the time until that happens, holding back the tide of blood. The device chosen to mark the time in last night's episode was the long dream, and you don't really have to get suckered into analyzing it and talking about it, as they want you to do. But what better media experience is available to us right now to take our minds off the troubles in the news? Going to see golden actor boys hit each other with their shields in Troy? Wondering if the force that is Diana DeGarmo will really continue to gather strength until the tiny teen defeats the towering Fantasia? I think we might as well speculate about just how the anticipated bloodbath will play out. We know Tony will die in the end, don't we? So the questions really have to do with other things, such as who will kill him. I offered my choices on this subject last week. Today, I'm just going to predict that the bloodbath will take place in Artie's restaurant.

For one thing, the entire show began years ago with an episode centered on Artie's old restaurant: the dramatic action began with Tony's attempt to help his friend by torching the place to spare him the notoriety of having a mob killing occur there. So it would be nicely symmetrical to have the whole story end with a big mob killing there. For another thing, there have been many dark, foreboding scenes in the restaurant this season, suggesting a spiraling closing-in on the place. And finally, the restaurant was in the dream: Tony arrives late for dinner, loses another tooth, etc. Artie was in the dream car full of dead characters.

My Clue-style prediction: Janice, in the restaurant, with ... oh, I have no good ideas here ... a fork.

May 16, 2004

Safire isn't trying very hard.

William Safire has a nice discussion of the word "vitiate," which is a word that no one ought to use in normal communication (my opinion, not Safire's), but which has a term-of-art use in Congress. Bob Woodward's book recounts an incident in which President Bush's chief legislative aid used the word, causing Bush to say, "What the f**k are you talking about, vitiate?" After his discourse on the actual meaning of "vitiate," Safire has this to say about the President's use of the word "f**k" (which I ordinarily never write, but consider importantly quotable in this context):
In his account of this stupefyingly boring episode, Woodward -- who was obviously not present in the room -- quotes the president directly asking Calio what the word meant. In so doing, the reporter has the leader of the world's only superpower using a familiar expletive not in its literal verb sense, but in a slangy nominative similar to the usage that, when broadcast, causes great concern at the Federal Communications Commission. To my knowledge, nobody has called attention to this somewhat startling report, perhaps because the whole of Page 186 is so dull that the usual sharp eyes have glazed over.

Well, Safire is not trying very hard! Just Google the sentence Woodward quotes, and you'll get a list of mentions, beginning with the rather conspicuous article in Slate. ("Slate reads Plan of Attack so you don't have to.") The Slate article led me to discuss the quote, back here. I thought Bush was basically teasing Calio for using a ridiculous jargon word. The use of unnecessily odd words was a subject I had just commented on, after Justice Scalia used the word "reticulated" in an oral argument, and I saw Bush as someone who shared my opinion: you should have a good reason for using a weird word.

Anyway, Safire does do a good job of showing that Woodward didn't have much of a grasp on the word "vitiate," for reasons that are too boring to write, but have to do with the term-of-art use being "vitiate cloture," not "vitiate the filibuster." Safire goes on to reason that since Woodward must have misquoted re cloture/filibuster, there's a good chance he was wrong about Bush using the word the Times won't print. He's right that if there aren't known examples of Bush using the beastly old word, you ought to have a very strong source for your verbatim quote.

Would it be ethical

to gratuitously insert my political opinions into my NYT Magazine ethics advice column? Here's ethicist Randy Cohen answering the question whether a fly fisherman who has decided fly fishing is immoral can give his equipment to friends and family:
If you forswore eating sweets, a morally neutral act, you could give away your pie pans. But were you to donate your muddler or soft hackle, your crystal bugger or filibustering condoleezza -- this last may not be an actual fly; I'm a confirmed indoorsman myself -- to other fisherfolk, you'd be abetting what you regard as misconduct.

A profound encounter with individualism.

Kim Young Ok was trained to be a singer in North Korea. The NYT reports:
She and the other student singers spent years perfecting the same movements and voice, so that the group would perform as "one mind, one body."

"The ideal," she said, "was to see one million people in a chorus singing the same song without a mistake.

"I think it's possible only in North Korea because we were trained since such a young age. It takes years to learn to smile the same way, to tilt the head the same way."

She escaped to South Korea, where she found a small ensemble to perform with ( "It's impossible for any North Korean artist to perform alone"):
In the North, her audiences were captive and she performed, she said, for honor. In the South, a foreign element - money - came into the equation.

"If our group is to survive here, we can't do anything without money, though, of course, money can't be our objective," she said before the concert here. "It became a crisis for me. I thought that only when our group is good enough will audiences pay to see us. So I felt I have to make extra efforts to survive." ...

"In South Korea, the audiences are spontaneous," she said. "If they don't like it, they'll just walk out. It they like it, they'll show their emotions. In North Korea, the audiences are mobilized, so they will clap systematically. They won't show their individual feelings, since to do that in the North is considered chaotic. In the South, the audiences show exactly what they are feeling at the moment. So I prefer performing here."

This is a very profound encounter with individualism. According to the article, though, the performing North Koreans, singing their traditional songs, seem quite strange to young South Koreans. A teenager--sounding like a character in Ghost World--comments: "It's funny ... This is hilarious."

The gay marriage amendment predictably fizzles.

Back in February, there was a lot of talk about amending the Constitution to stave off gay marriage. At the time, I wrote that there was no way the Constitution was going to be amended for this purpose and got into a few heated discussions with people who disagreed. My assertion was based on the extreme difficulty of amending the Constitution coupled with a belief that ordinary Americans will not like the idea of taking action against a group that has historically suffered discrimination. Here's what I said then:
[E]ven though the amendment is designed to deprive gay rights proponents of something they seek, the amendment effort provides them with new opportunities to portray the opposition in a negative light. I think Americans who have not taken sides or who may feel a bit shocked by what is happening in San Francisco will balk at the idea of an exclusionary amendment in the Constitution. The all-powerful moderate Americans will be affected by the argument that it's wrong to actively exclude the underdog and it's wrong to put something negative in the Constitution.

Today's NYT has a front-page article detailing the "tepid response" to the amendment among the very churchgoers who were supposedly going to "revolt" against President Bush if he didn't back the amendment. At the time, Bush made a brief statement backing the amendment but distancing himself from the bitter, angry tone of its proponents and asking people to show "kindness and good will and decency." Although people who didn't like Bush in the first place took the opportunity to denounce him—Rosie O'Donnell called his comments "vile and vicious and hateful"—I thought at the time that he was not interested in making this his cause. He has some feeling for conservative Christians, but he did not show any interest in expressing hostility toward a discriminated-against group. In that, he really had more in common with most conservative Christians than did the church leaders who pushed for the amendment. Those church leaders, according to today's Times article are "surprised and disappointed" by their parishioners' lack of interest in fighting off gay marriage. The church leaders now "concede that [the amendment] appears all but dead in Congress for this election year."

I hope people who believed gay marriage would work as a powerful wedge issue in the campaign will now acknowledge how wrong they were and take back any statements about how eager conservative Christians were to oppress gay people.
[O]pponents of gay marriage say they are puzzling over why such a volatile cultural issue is not spurring more rank-and-file conservative Christians to rise up in support of the amendment. They are especially frustrated, they say, because opinion polls show that a large majority of voters oppose gay marriage….

Some conservatives warn that the Christian leaders rallying behind the amendment may now face a loss of credibility. Their influence with evangelical believers is a subject of keen interest in Washington, in part because the Bush campaign has made ensuring their turnout at the polls a top priority. …

Gay rights groups argue that social conservatives in Washington overestimated the level of anxiety about gay marriage among their supporters. "Other issues are far more important to most Americans, including evangelicals — issues like the economy, jobs, health care, the war in Iraq," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

It's more than just that Americans are distracted by other issues. Gay marriage is actually the kind of issue that people would engage with if they really cared. Foreman is just bringing up the laundry list of issues Democrats want to talk about. I'd like to see people like Foreman acknowledge that ordinary Americans, including evangelicals and social conservatives, do not like the idea of excluding or discriminating against gay people. They may resist doing positive things, but they aren't interested in taking negative actions.

The Times article continues:
The amendment's backers contend that the reason people are not responding more vocally is that many grass-roots conservatives do not yet understand how same-sex marriages affect them personally.

Yeah, well, and they never will. People are showing their essential decency as they fail to "understand" it. They instinctively reject it. If they spent more time intellectually engaging with the complexities of the argument—which they won't, of course—they still wouldn't "understand" it, because it is simply not coherent or compelling enough to win over people who begin with the intuitive sense that it isn't very decent or fair to amend the Constitution to exclude gay people from marriage.
"The thing that we keep focusing on is, there is no place that people have voted for same-sex marriage," said Gary Bauer, a social conservative who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

This should not be a source of puzzlement for the amendment's supporters. Ordinary people don't want to do something positive, but they still won't do anything negative. It is a mistake in understanding human nature to think that not taking positive action reveals an interest in taking a negative action. It's not just that inertia is a powerful force; it is that most Americans take a tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude. They might not want to help the needy and oppressed all that much, but you can't get them excited about hurting them.

Adding comments.

I decided to try the comments function. I have had a lot of reasons for not turning this function on, but for no particular reason, I just decided I wanted comments. So go ahead and comment, even on the old ones. Blogger sends out an email when there is a comment, so if you decide to comment on an old one, I'll see it.