June 26, 2004

"Fahrenheit 9/11" is well received in Madison.

Highlights from the article in the Capital Times:
Tickets to the 7 p.m. show at Westgate Art Cinemas went on sale Tuesday and, according to the box office, had sold out by Wednesday. By Friday afternoon, the 1:30, 4:15 and 9:45 shows were sold out, and the theater had added midnight screenings for Friday night and tonight. ...

[A local resident] described herself as a "violent Democrat" and said everyone should watch the movie - including the president. ... "I personally feel very sad about the Iraq war," [she] said. "Every time they bring a body bag home I cry. This war needs to be talked about all the time." ...

[Another resident] waited with her 11-year-old daughter and said she was not worried about the film's R rating. "From everything I've heard, the violence isn't gratuitous," [she] said. "Kids are so exposed to war rhetoric, it's important for them to see what it's really like." ...

When U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, appeared in the film, the theater burst into applause ....

[A]n 82-year-old Madison woman, who asked not to be named because she was speaking "for more than just myself," wore a "God Bless Michael Moore" button on her right lapel and a John Kerry button on the other. The feisty activist said she promised her kids she wouldn't die until there was a good president in the White House.

This is all very Madison.

Larry McMurtry raves (literally) about Clinton's book.

Here's a typical passage (appearing in this Sunday's NYT Book Review):
The very press that wanted to discredit him and perhaps even run him out of town instead made him a celebrity, a far more expensive thing than a mere president. Clinton's now up there with Madonna, in the highlands that are even above talent. In fact, he and Madonna may, just at the moment, be the only ones way up there, problems having arisen with so many lesser reputations.

And somehow, vaguely, it all has to do with sex - not necessarily sex performed, just sex in the world's head. I doubt myself that Bill Clinton's sex life has been all that different from anybody else's: pastures of plenty, pastures of less than plenty, pastures he should get out of immediately, and not a few acres of scorched earth.

A Saturday walk.

This mysterious graffiti appears with the saying "Don't stop dreaming."

Grace Church on Capitol Square has a bubble machine going, and a little boy is inspired.

The Rainbow Bookstore is promoting peace, rebellion, and a parade:

Half of Madison is at the Farmers' Market, including this man with a marvelous shirt:

And this man with marvelous hair:

There are beautiful things everywhere.

The Presidential face.

John Kerry was in attendance at the event discussed in the previous post, and I want to give him credit for not drinking in the adulation and the glamour--or so I infer from this Billy Crystal wisecrack:
"You're the front-runner, you've raised $200 million — if you're having a good time, tell your face."
That's a pretty funny joke too. And it was smart of Kerry to say, later, "I just want you to know, I'm having a ball — I'm having fun and my face got told."

Democrats may want another Clinton, and Clinton's re-emergence this week has reminded us again of the strength of his charm. You can easily picture how Clinton's face would beam if he had been sitting at that Hollywood fundraiser. But pleasure-loving and a fondness for celebrities is not a requirement for the Presidency.

9/11 is not a punchline.

For a long time after the events of September 11, 2001, I avoided using the shorthand "9/11" to refer to what had happened. Recently, someone close to me heard me use the term 9/11 and said, "I thought you didn't say that." I admitted that over time, I'd gone to the shorthand. Didn't he use the shorthand? No, in fact, he never did. The profundity of what had happened was still present enough in his mind that he continued to say "September Eleventh."

This conversation came to mind when I read an article in the NYT this morning about a fundraiser that took place this past Thursday, in which "an A-list of Hollywood celebrities shared the stage in the architectural splendor of Disney Hall to raise a show-stopping $5 million for Senator John Kerry and the Democratic National Committee." It looked like Oscar night, the Times writes, with Billy Crystal "cracking wise about movies and politics, money and baseball." But a joke about Bill Clinton "fell flat." The audience, as the Times put it, "had paid too much ($2,000 to $25,000)... to laugh at itself."
Fun was to be had, sure, but at the Republicans' expense.

So Mr. Crystal fared much better when he recalled having met President Bush at Yankee Stadium during the third game of the World Series in 2001 and realizing, "911 is also his SAT scores."
I know brilliant comedians need some leeway as they search for new ways to share the important political insight that Bush is stupid, but 9/11 is not a punchline.

(If you can't remember how that night in Yankee Stadium felt at the time, and perhaps the image that comes to mind is the oft-shown clip from "Fahrenheit 9/11" in which Bush makes a comment about fighting terrorism and then returns to his golf game, read this.)

June 25, 2004


If there is one movie I have been hoping will be released on DVD, it's Slacker. Finally, it's coming out--in August--and, making it worth the wait, it will be a Criterion Collection DVD. This is cause for celebration at my house. Slacker is the movie that is most like my favorite movie, My Dinner With André. Both films are nonstop talk fests, but instead of two old guys sitting in a fancy restaurant talking about art and life through the entire film, Slacker takes us all around Austin, Texas, moving from character to character, mostly but not all young people, talking about art and life and conspiracy and politics.

Around the fishbowl.

I decide to walk back from the café to my parking garage a different way, not down State Street, but around past Riley's Wines of the World, which has a surprising number of youngish men crisscrossing its small parking lot. It is Friday afternoon at about 3, and serious drinking is in the offing. I notice a yellow electrical box with a washed out "Buscemi" sticker on it, so I get out my camera.

With the camera in my hand, I find this neon sign photographable. Apparently a large alcohol-filled vessel is available here.

Some guys inside the bar see me taking the picture and yell at me to take their picture. As I aim the camera at them, one calls out to the other "Say sex!" If you're not from Wisconsin, and when you think about Wisconsin you think of cheese, just remember when drinking guys are getting their picture taken on University Avenue in Madison, they don't call out "Say cheese!"

They seem pretty happy to get their picture taken, and I say, anticipating an artistic composition: "Thanks, I really like that Cheney's in the picture." They respond enthusiastically, but without acknowledging the artistic potential of having Dick Cheney in the picture. I move on and decide to photograph the Black Cat tattoo and piercing parlor, which I think has chosen its location well along this bar-studded strip of University Avenue.

The cat tries to hypnotize you into making a decision you may some day regret.

Think about the young person who looks in this window and decides yes, I want to be pierced and tattooed. Is a ceramic gnome reassuring? And how about that photograph? What is it? A leg? And who could you possibly impress with that ghastly image? Some of the other photos in the window show piercings surrounded by worrisome redness.

As I near the parking garage, I see another yellow electric box with another faded sticker. The advice is to "curb your consumption," but it's not meant to chide the alcohol consumers who frequent this part of town. (It's a "Buy Nothing Day" sticker.)

What we might find funny.

The Black Table (via Throwing Things) has a nice "entirely subjective list of major influences to what We Find Funny." The first thing on the list is "Bill Cosby, Himself" and the description was enough to make me go over to Amazon and pre-order the DVD (to be released in August). Amazon tells me "Customers who shopped for Bill Cosby, Himself also shopped for": The Passion of the Christ, Kill Bill Volume 2, and Hellboy ("a moodily effective, consistently entertaining action-packed fantasy, beginning in 1944 when the mad monk Rasputin--in cahoots with occult-buff Hitler and his Nazi thugs--opens a transdimensional portal through which a baby demon emerges, capable of destroying the world with his powers"). Who are these customers?

UPDATE: When I wrote this originally, I thought it was absurd that anyone could be interested in all four of these DVDs. (Of course, I knew Amazon wasn't claiming the same person was interested in all four.) The weird thing is, now that I've written that, I realize that I am interested in all four movies. Regular readers may attempt to guess which of the four movies I went to see as soon as it came out. The other three, I've never seen. Answer: here.

Speaking of synonyms ...

the official term for Clinton's 957-page autobiography is "tome." Oh, and I like the way Google helpfully asks me "Did you mean: clinton 'my life' time," because it reminds me I don't have time for a tome.

Gore and "brownshirts."

As discussed by James Lileks (via Instapundit), Al Gore is calling his internet critics "brownshirts." Quite aside from the general inadvisability of calling your political opponents fascists, you'd think that if Al Gore wanted to call someone a fascist, the last synonym he'd pick from the thesaurus would be "brownshirt," considering that he was famous for literally wearing a brown shirt. I'm just distracted into thinking about that whole Naomi Wolf/alpha male business again. He's lost control of his imagery in more ways than one.

Blogger spellcheck humor.

The Blogger spellcheck suggests changing Instapundit to "Instability." Oh well, it doesn't recognize "Blogger" or "spellcheck" either. I'm a fan of spellcheck humor, because the suggestion for Althouse--in Microsoft Word, anyway--is "Alehouse," and that seems like fun. Blogger's spellcheck, on the other hand, goes for "Although," which is apt enough, I suppose, for a hairsplitting lawyer and political fencestraddler like me.

The Calabresi apology.

I see that Judge Calabresi "apologized 'profusely' yesterday for remarks he made last weekend at a lawyers convention comparing President Bush's election in 2000 to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini":
Judge Calabresi said that in his off-the-cuff remarks he was trying to make "a rather complicated academic argument," but he understood that they had been taken as an attack on President Bush. In a letter that contained no less than four apologies, he said he was "truly sorry" for "any embarrassment" he might have caused the appeals court. He did not, however, renounce the views he expressed.

Instapundit and How Appealing have noted the apology.

I would like to stress that the judge is only apologizing for giving the appearance of likening Bush to Hitler and Mussolini and that the apology contains the suggestion that people failed to grasp his "complicated academic argument." I summarized the supposedly complicated argument in my post on Tuesday, and his apology does nothing to change my opinion that it is a bad argument. Moreover, the judge made a high profile public speech that took a strong position that ordinary people should vote against Bush to restore democracy. The position purported to rest on legal not political grounds. If you're going to make a legal argument for a political choice and you're ethically bound as a judge not to make a partisan argument, shouldn't you make the legal argument clear? I think I made the legal argument reasonably clear in my Tuesday post. I also think when you make it clear, you can see that it doesn't make much sense.

I'd like to see the judge or his supporters restate the legal argument in a form that allows the people he's trying to persuade to vote against Bush to understand what the purportedly nonpartisan reason for doing so is and to argue about whether it is a sound reason. You'd think someone who makes principles of democracy central to his legal argument wouldn't stop at saying his argument is complicated and academic.

[CORRECTION: The last paragraph incorrectly said "vote for Bush" and has been corrected. And yes, I was simultaneously asking for clarity and being confusing. Sorry. That was lame.]

Tornadoes in Madison.

It's official. We had tornadoes here in Madison on Wednesday night. They were just F0 tornadoes, but "[i]n the University Research Park, sheets of siding were strewn throughout the area like discarded chewing-gum wrappers." There was a touch down near Park Street just three miles south of campus. One resident said:
she heard the sirens go off and was heading for the basement of her Berwyn Street home when the storm hit, knocking down all three pine trees in her back yard, including one that hit the roof, and left her home without electricity.

"We never made it to the basement," she said. "I just heard a big crack, which was probably the tree" hitting the house. "We're still here and we can be thankful for that."

Hmmm.... I heard the siren and didn't bother to go in the basement. I used my usual approach of hanging out near the basement door, waiting to see if there is any big change in the wind. Maybe not such a great approach. I've heard that tornadoes avoid the lakes, so if you're living on the isthmus (as I am) you are safe. Don't take my word for it. It sounds like a ridiculous idea to me, but I've heard it. Even if a tornado had the sense to avoid lakes, wouldn't that make the isthmus its preferred path?

June 24, 2004

The fifteen minute eternity.

The AP reports (via Kausfiles) that Clinton interviewed that "he still feels sorry for Lewinsky and hopes she 'won't be trapped in what Andy Warhol called everybody's 15 minutes of fame.'" Well, that's nice of him, but I just wanted to point out that he's mangling Warhol's notion here. If you're famous for 15 minutes, after the 15 minutes, you're not famous anymore. It seems Lewinsky has the opposite problem: the inability to get unfamous.

Oh, okay, I'll take the inner child test.

Because everybody else is doing it. (Profs. Yin and Bainbridge.)

My inner child is ten years old today

My inner child is ten years old!

The adult world is pretty irrelevant to me. Whether I'm off on my bicycle (or pony) exploring, lost in a good book, or giggling with my best friend, I live in a world apart, one full of adventure and wonder and other stuff adults don't understand.

Take the Quizilla here.

How Reagan and Clinton learned to think.

Edmund Morris spins a theory in this week's New Yorker about how Ronald Reagan came to think the way he did. It all started with nearsightedness:
As a boy, “Dutch” Reagan assumed that nature was a blur. Not until he put on his mother’s spectacles, around the age of thirteen, did he perceive the world in all its sharp-edged intricacy. He did not find it disorienting, as somebody who had been blind from birth might. Perhaps his later, Rothko-like preference for large, luminous policy blocks (as opposed to, say, Bill Clinton’s fly’s-eye view of government as a multifacetted montage, endlessly adjustable) derived from his unfocussed childhood.
Clinton didn't somehow have fly eyes to correspond to Reagan's myopia, and both men are described as suffering from a lack of focus as a child, but somehow their ways of thinking came out completely different because of something having to do with their eyesight. I don't even get it as a silly, fake theory. I note that Reagan solved his eyesight problem by putting on his mother's glasses. You'd think the boy would from that develop a belief in taking steps to improve vision and see intricacy, not prefer the fuzziness. Or are we not to think of Rothko's paintings as fuzzy-edged? (But they completely are.)

Speaking of Presidents learning thinking patterns from their mothers, I was struck by this passage in historian Paul Johnson's essay about Bill Clinton on Best of the Web today:
Clinton's family background was unfortunate, to put it mildly, and there is no more to be said about it other than to applaud his strength in rising above it. His mother, Virginia Kelley, provided a clue in explaining how she survived her rackety life: "I construct an airtight box. I keep inside it what I want to think about, and everything else stays beyond the walls. Inside is white, outside is black. . . . Inside is love and friends and optimism. Outside is negativity, can't-doism, and any criticism of me and mine." Bill Clinton would not have been able to describe his defensive technique so clearly. But that is what he did, with great success. As a result, while never arrogant, he was always secure.
At least there, I can understand the theory. Whether any of this historian psychoanalyzing is true, I'm in no position to say. It can be pretty amusing to read.

Schwarzenegger's smoking tent.

I'm glad there are smoking bans in various public buildings and I wish people wouldn't smoke, but I can't help admiring Governor Schwarzenegger's stylish way to continue smoking cigars: as the NYT reports, he's got a "Bedouin-style smoking tent ... set up in the courtyard of the State Capitol ... decorated with rattan chairs, orchids, a humidor, a mirror, floor fan and books written by Mr. Schwarzenegger." He does "much of his private business" in this 5-by-15-foot tent, which reflects his belief that "Success requires a combination of discipline, optimism, humor, a willingness to share credit and good cigars and an ability to cut back-room deals." When life gives you a smoking ban, set up a smoking tent is Schwarzenegger's version of when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. The Times develops a sinister angle, quoting the governor likening public governance to Hollywood contracts:
He defended his practice of negotiating key sections of important legislation and the budget behind closed doors or in his smoke-filled tent.

"For the public you write agreements and then you have another agreement they put in the safe that no one is seeing - the thing with all the perks and the percentages because they do not want to break the mold and all of a sudden now here's a guy who gets instead of 15 percent, 20 percent in the gross. Then that'll be kept in the safe.

"Or that I get instead of a 30-foot trailer, a 40-foot trailer. That could break the mold and then every star wants a 40-foot trailer. That is then in the safe, that is never in the agreement, O.K.?"

June 23, 2004

The Big Bang was completely silent.

But you can listen to it anyway.

It's a political thicket out there.

Reading about American constitutional law, one frequently sees the words "political thicket" (in the context of cautioning against courts becoming involved in political matters). Felix Frankfurter started it in 1946, in Colegrove v. Green, and the image has stuck. Even though I've taught the cases that fret about the "political thicket" for years and have always paid attention to Frankfurter and his idiosyncratic way of expressing himself, today was the first time I ever stopped to wonder why he wrote "thicket" instead of "jungle," the plant-based image ordinary English speakers would use (as in the cliché "it's a jungle out there"). Frankfurter often picked a fancy word where a common one would do, so no reason more than that is needed, but it occured to me that "thicket" is more descriptive of the American landscape and therefore an apt way to refer to American politics. Now I'm thinking that the name of the case, Colegrove, made him picture a thicket, so I will have to continue to ponder the enigma of Felix Frankfurter.

I looked up how many times the Supreme Court had written "political thicket" (16), "thicket" (53), "political jungle" (0), and "jungle" (27). Checking to see why a Justice had used "jungle," I ran into this choice Stevens quote (speaking of apt landscape images): "[I]t borders on the absurd to suggest that Antarctica is governed by nothing more than the law of the jungle."

"Jungle" does, however, easily beat "thicket" in the stock phrase "law of the jungle": the Court has used "law of the jungle" four times, but never "law of the thicket."

Three signs.

Today started out lively with a two-hour class about the political question doctrine--with a room assignment screw-up to cut the seriousness of it all at midpoint. Then things got dreary as I spent the next three hours looking for some old letters that could either be in any one of the many places in my office where I engage in my real world paper filing practices (piling things on horizontal surfaces) or in one of the several computers in my office. I did find some of what I was looking for and got two side benefits: 1. my office became incredibly neat, and 2. our tech guy hooked my second-newest desktop unit, whose monitor had died, to my newest desktop. It's now easy to reach back into the documents and emails of the years 1999-2002 that didn't seem important enough to transfer to my newest computer when I first set it up. It's a little like going up into the attic and rooting around in the papers up there.

(Actually, I haven't gone into my attic in many years, even though all it takes is opening a door and walking up an ordinary staircase. I used to find a bat flying around my house from time to time. The insane hijinks that took place when we used to try to capture one of these creatures would take several pages to describe. Let's just say rabies shots were involved! Finally, I had a bat guy--a bat man--out to the house to solve the problem, which he did. I came to understand that the attic was the source of the problem, and I haven't gone up there since, even though there aren't any bats up there anymore.)

But the point is: I haven't found today very conducive to blogging, so let me photoblog. Here are three signs: a paper poster (for Cinematheque--the UW's film series), a classic neon bar sign, and a nice example of the home-style painted-on type.

Writing a great memoir.

I see Slate's Summary Judgment used brackets in the middle of the Clinton "My Life" title in pretty much the same way I did in that last post. I wouldn't have done it if I'd seen that they had done if first, but I hadn't seen it. It is a pretty obvious device. Sorry for any lameness ... lackluster lameness. And I had a bad link too (fixed now). Sorry.

I see Clinton is getting a lot of grief for writing a boring book. But what did people expect? If you want to read a great memoir, read a memoir by someone who is in a position to follow the number one rule for writing a great memoir: tell your story without a trace of personal vanity. You have to be willing to make the character that is you look foolish, mean-spirited, selfish, petty, and everything else. There is simply no way that Clinton or any other political figure can follow this rule. So if you want to read a good memoir, read Augusten Burroughs' "Running With Scissors" or Mary Carr's "Liars' Club." If you want to read about grand historical events, don't read the story told by one of the key figures. How could that possibly be good? It would make more sense to read this as a memoir of the Lewinsky-impeachment events.

June 22, 2004

"My [Lackluster] Life."

Nina records the complete inactivity surrounding the huge stack of Clinton books at the big Borders bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin.

UPDATE: Sorry for the wrong link earlier. It's good now. Scroll down for the picture of the lonely stack of tomes.

That Calabresi remark about Hitler and Mussolini.

Prof. Yin invites me to comment on "Judge Calabresi's intemperate remarks" at an American Constitution Society convention (paraphrased as "President Bush’s rise to power was similar to the accession of dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler"). He says he's asking me because I've written before about wanting rational, civil public discourse and because I have not come out in favor of either candidate--I'm genuinely undecided. I kind of think he's asking for my opinion partly because I asked for his opinion of the "Joe Schmo Show," which seems so much more frivolous.

You might well wonder why I didn't jump at the Calabresi remark before. Maybe it's because I've gotten used to hearing remarks like it. I've certainly heard lawprofs (and Calabresi was a lawprof) call Bush a "war criminal." I've posted a photograph I took of a flyer seen around campus showing Ashcroft with a Hitler mustache. And certainly when Bush v. Gore came out, I heard endless denouncements of it from lawprofs who were really exercised about it in a way that struck me as unhinged or that would have struck me as unhinged if I weren't already used to hearing people heating up the atmosphere with passion and anger but still continuing to do the conventional law school work in a competent, sensible way. I don't like it, but I'm pretty jaded about it. Like Prof. Yin, I think that style of argument (like the Moore style of documentary) appeals to people who are already committed to your side and makes other people not want to listen to you at all. People interested in rational arguments will choose not to engage with you, which you might wrongly read as agreement, leading you to become complacent about the correctness and persuasiveness of your beliefs. But you miss the opportunity to persuade people who don't already agree and you lose touch with how they think about things. You may wind up thinking that people who don't agree with you must be ignorant or ill-willed. Now you're in the end stage where you're calling people stupid and fascist.

Was there any sense to the larger point Judge Calabresi was making? Shorn of overstatement, his point (as I can gather it from the news article) is: since Bush barely made it into office, he ought to have been especially restrained in his exercise of power; Bush has nevertheless acted quite boldly, in a manner similar to FDR, who was elected by a wide margin; therefore, everyone, regardless of their usual political preferences, should want to defeat Bush in order reassert democracy. Let's think about this argument in light of 9/11. Should Bush have said, I'm sorry, but since the election that led to my Presidency ended in a dead heat, I need to acknowledge the principles of democracy by acting with restraint? The election was in fact a dead heat, but there could only be one President. The process ended with Bush holding the office, and at that point he was bound to shoulder the great responsibilities of the office. Democracy doesn't demand that the power of the Presidency rise and fall with the margin of victory. That would be quite dangerous. I could see arguing that Bush had a special responsibility to seek bipartisan support, but it seems to me that he got that support for the two wars, the Patriot Act, and so forth. Yet even if he hadn't, if he had determined that bold action was required in spite of partisan opposition, and he acted boldly, he would not deserve to be voted out of office for subverting the principles of democracy, only to be criticized for not doing a better job of obtaining bipartisan support, which would be an appropriate factor in anyone's decision to vote to reelect him. It makes little or no sense to impose some sort of special punishment in the name of democracy, based on what happened in the past, because there's nothing more democratic than voting for the candidate who is most likely to do what is best in the coming Presidential term.

I can't help thinking that Judge Calabresi and his American Constitution Society audience would not have taken the same position about Presidential power if the election had fallen out the other way and Gore had become President.

UPDATE: My response to the judge's apology appears here.

"Fahrenheit 911" and theaters.

I see the Michael Moore film is opening in Madison on Friday, playing in the very theaters where a significant documentary would normally play, yet the local paper still found someone willing to assert that the film is being suppressed because it's not playing in the biggest, nicest theaters in town:
"This is not a small art film. This is not an indie film," [the local citizen] said. "It's a major film by a major production company that's got a full-page ad in the New York Times and big feature stories in almost every major newspaper in the U.S."

"Anything less than a big screening is an attempt to minimize it," she said. "Censorship of this kind really has no place in American society."

Oh, please. The theater in question is where "The English Patient" played and where similar high-tone films have been placed regularly for years. [ADDED: It's where "Pulp Fiction" played.] "Super Size Me" is playing there now. I like the more modern, stadium-seating theater better too, but it's hardly censorship when a private business decides to fill that theater up with action films and family fare. But if you go for theories like that, you'll probably enjoy the Moore film.

Christopher Hitchens is recommending that people who don't like Moore, rather than idiotically trying to get theaters not to show the film, go in large numbers and make noise:
By all means go and see this terrible film, and take your friends, and if the fools in the audience strike up one cry, in favor of surrender or defeat, feel free to join in the conversation.

By the way, for what it's worth, my son John saw the Moore film in the same audience as Hitchens and notes that Hitchens sat alone in the middle of the front row and left very quickly afterwards. In case you're looking for insight into the ways of Hitchens. I see Lileks has some ideas on the subject.

"A sinister exercise in moral frivolity."

Christopher Hitchens has some choice harsh words from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911.
To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery.

Hitchens backs up this opinion with lots of details. Metafilter has a discussion going.

A small side point, compared to a lot of important political things, but which ought to matter to people who care about art, is that Quentin Tarantino appears to be a fool.

June 21, 2004

Two men who didn't want to say two words.

So today Larry Hiibel enters Supreme Court history, aptly taking his place alongside Michael Newdow in the same volume of U.S. Reports: they are two men who cared so much about saying two words and litigated their concern to the hilt and lost. Newdow did not like the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and Hiibel did not want to say his own name to the police. In both cases, it's both a very small thing and a very big thing. It's worth thinking about how we feel about people like this. Are they cranks who make a mountain of a molehill or are they heroes who stand up for the principle of the thing? To answer that question is to learn something about yourself.

Clinton and Rather on 60 Minutes.

Clinton is a charming guy. I have no criticism of his 60 Minutes performance in pursuit of books sales--other than that he needs to control his use of imagery (and not use words like "swallow" and "stain" to refer to things like his daughter's acceptance of his affair with Lewinsky and the significance of the impeachment struggle). But what is happening to Dan Rather? Did Barbara Walters tutor him on how to do celebrity interviews? At my house, we were laughing quite a lot at Rather. He was speaking in an extra-slow, extra-sensitive way that might have been appropriate for addressing a child or (if you're Barbara Walters) trying to lead a celebrity down an emotional path that might end in tears. Mr. President, look at this clip of your dead mother, which you've never seen before, telling you how proud she always was of you! Too cloying, too ... mellified.

UPDATE: Instapundit says this might explain Rather's weird demeanor.

Mellified man.

Yesterday at Borders, I got completely absorbed reading "Stiff," by Mary Roach. I happened to open it up in the middle, which is how I always judge books in bookstores. Apparently, a lot of people (most people?) start reading at page 1, but I figure the author has too much incentive to put good material on the first page. I want to see a more representative part of the book, so I open it up at random. Usually, I open in a few different places, and if they all seem interesting, I'll buy the book. I opened up "Stiff"--which is a book about cadavers, as you can tell from the cover--to a chapter called "Eat Me"--which, as you can imagine, is about cannibalism--and read about a little medicinal concoction called "mellified man." Well, that may have been the most amazing thing I've ever read about, and the author writes quite entertainingly about the subject. Really, just as an exercise in writing, this book is a marvel: how did Roach make so many things about dead bodies so interesting and so much fun? So, go pick up this book and read the part about mellified man or anything else. I'd try to say what mellified man is, but I can't put it as well as Roach. Let's just say it involves a lot of honey and 100 years.

June 20, 2004

The Aileen Wuornos documentary.

Speaking of documentaries, I recently watched the DVD of "Aileen - Life and Death of a Serial Killer" which is truly harrowing. I've never watched the film "Monster," where Charlize Theron, in heavy makeup, plays the role of Aileen Wuornos, and in fact, I've gone out of my way to avoid seeing it. When you make a movie with actors and the subject is a murderer, you are naturally going to be pulled toward a narrative account in which events and relationships provide the motivation. But watching the documentary, which includes a lot of footage of Aileen Wuornos speaking straight into the camera and appearing in court, you can clearly see that the woman was quite insane--and very dangerously so. The filmmaker, Nick Broomfield, is painfully sympathetic to her, as he believes she committed the first in her series of murders in self-defense. You can't tell whether he's right about that or not. I don't think he is. From what I was able to gather about her life prior to the first murder, she seems to have been severely troubled all her life. But it is impossible to tell what is true. She speaks of living outdoors year round in Michigan, sleeping in the woods with just a thin blanket all winter long. How could one survive such conditions?

You can watch this film and think about whether it is right to execute an insane person. The film relays that Governor Jeb Bush followed a procedure according to which three psychiatrists examined Wuornos (for 15 minutes) and determined that she was not insane. Of course, you're shocked that anyone could conclude she was sane, and the film leaves you to conclude that the government entirely abused its power by executing her. What you're not told, though, is that the standard the psychiatrists were asked to apply is whether she was able to understand what the reasons for the death penalty are and what its implications are, and it is actually easy to see that she did understand those things. It was quite unfair to Bush and the psychiatrists not to reveal that that was the question. Yet I think even knowing that this was the standard, you could end up thinking that it was immoral to execute her, though clearly she needed to be locked up for life.

The most eagerly anticipated movie in years.

Not since "Waking Life" have I wanted to see a new movie as much as "Some Kind of Monster," about which there is a nice, long article in today's NYT Magazine. This film, which is a documentary about the rock band Metallica in group therapy, is directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who made the great HBO documentary "Paradise Lost," about three small-town Metallica fans who were accused of horrible, ritual-style murders. Metallica (a band known for guarding its music rights against on-line downloaders) allowed the directors to use their music free in "Paradise Lost," and the relationship between the band and the directors eventually led to the current documentary. It sounds like what "Let It Be" might have been if only The Beatles had been willing to let their real feelings show, like that one little part, the coolest thing in the movie, when George got snippy with Paul.
For the first 30 minutes of ''Some Kind of Monster'' (roughly three months in real time), you see a band whose members don't necessarily like one another, struggling with a record no one seems completely enthusiastic about creating. But then -- suddenly, and without much explanation -- Hetfield disappears into rehab. Ulrich and Hammett have nothing to do in the interim except talk to their therapist. This is the point where "Some Kind of Monster' starts to change; what it becomes is not a glorification of rock 'n' roll but an illustration of how rock 'n' roll manufactures a reality that's almost guaranteed to make people incomplete. Metallica's massive success -- and the means through which they achieved it -- meant they never had to mature intellectually past the age of 19....

[W]hen Hetfield returns to the band from rehab as a completely changed man ... the deeper issue of "Some Kind of Monster" emerges: Hetfield and Ulrich have spent their entire adulthood intertwined, but they've never been close; they've never needed to have a real relationship with each other. And that is what you mostly see over the last hour of this film: two middle-aged men fighting through their neuroses and confusion, earnestly talking about intimacy and emotional betrayal and how they feel about each other.
Actually, what it reminds me of a bit is The Sopranos: the big tough guy's in therapy talking about his feelings.

Read the whole article: it's written by Chuck Klosterman, who wrote "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto," which I highly recommend. And watch the movie trailer here.

The mellow side of Trent Lott.

Deborah Solomon interviews Trent Lott in the NYT Magazine:
How do you feel about gay men adopting and raising children?

It's so important that children have parents or family that love them. There are a lot of adopted children who have loving parents, and it comes in different ways with different people in different states.

"I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life/Go ahead with your own life, and leave me alone."

Is the title of Bill Clinton's autobiography based on the Billy Joel song with the same title? (Hey, Billy Joel should go all Ray Bradbury on Clinton.) The story of Clinton getting mad on BBC TV when pressed too much about Lewinsky made me think of the Billy Joel song, the way it connects the idea that it's "my life" with an entitlement to be left alone. (The BBC story, in the Telegraph, was linked by Drudge.) Should interviewers give Clinton a pass, out of respect for the Presidency, or should they take advantage of his eagernesss to promote the book and badger him with Lewinsky questions? I'd say they should press him with tough questions, but respectfully.
They will tell you, you can't sleep alone in a strange place
Then they'll tell you, you can't sleep with somebody else
Ah, but sooner or later you sleep in your own space
Either way it's okay, you wake up with yourself

Can Clinton help us love Kerry?

In today's NYT, John Tierney conveys an expert psychologist's advice to John Kerry. The expert is Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University, and the specific Kerry concern addressed is Clinton's charisma, which is going to shine upon us for the next week or month or so. Should Kerry, like Gore, distance himself from Clinton? Professor Westen says no, based on experiments inspired by the commercial, shown in the 2000 Presidential campaign, that momentarily flashed the word "rats" on the TV screen:
[One experiment showed] that people exposed subliminally to "rats" before seeing the picture of a politician tended to rate the politician more negatively.

"Subliminal priming can't radically change someone's opinion, but it can have an impact," Professor Westen said. "It won't make you drink if you're not thirsty, but if you are thirsty it could make you drink more. If Republicans had run the 'rats' ad enough, it's possible they could have influenced a small number of voters."

But what really hurt Democrats in 2000, Professor Westen said, was Al Gore's distancing himself from Bill Clinton. Although many voters may tell pollsters and focus groups that they disapprove of Mr. Clinton because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Professor Westen said, in their hearts they still like him.

The psychologists measured his appeal last year by flashing subliminal images of Mr. Clinton to people before asking them to rate their feelings toward Gray Davis, the then-unpopular governor of California. The people unknowingly exposed to Mr. Clinton's face tended to rate Mr. Davis considerably less negatively than did the control group, and the effect was especially strong among independent voters (as opposed to hard-core Democrats or Republicans with fixed attitudes about Mr. Davis).

"It was surprising that something as fleeting as three brief images of Clinton could affect people's gut attitudes toward a politician who was already as well known and unpopular as Gray Davis," Professor Westen said. "Clinton can bring out warm feelings in voters for Kerry the way that the late Ronald Reagan did last week for President Bush. For Democrats the mantra this year should be, 'It's the emotion, stupid.'"

Interesting experiments, but do these conclusions fit? In the experiments, as in the "rats" commercial, images were flashed too quickly to register in the viewer's conscious mind. What Clinton is going to be doing in the next week or so is about as far from that as you can get. If Clinton and Gray Davis shared the stage for an interview or if Clinton spoke for half an hour and then Gray Davis came up to speak, would we like Gray Davis more? Maybe, but I don't see the connection with the experiment. Doesn't the experiment have to do with slipping past the conscious mind?

The comparison to the recent glorification of Ronald Reagan is more apt, but not only is there no experiment testing the effect of that experience on voters' minds, but the Reagan funeral events were beautifully orchestrated rituals. Clinton lives and breathes and will be out and about doing interviews. One can only speculate about the effect that will have on our feelings for Kerry. Clinton is rather likely to say some things about Iraq and the war on terrorism that support Bush and contradict the general flow of anti-Bush emotion Kerry might hope for. I don't really see that the professor is offering Kerry-supporters much reassurance about the coming Clinton media-fest. But what are you going to do? Let's all watch Clinton now. It will be interesting. We just wallowed in the 80s, so let's wallow in the 90s. I don't know whether Bush or Kerry will benefit from the Clinton-fest, but we all benefit from the break from having to listen to Bush and Kerry. There will be time enough for the 2004 campaign in the fall.

By the way, can we please stop saying "It's the [blank], stupid"? But even if we are going to continue with "It's the [blank], stupid" slogans, "It's the emotion, stupid" would be a terrible one, because you don't affect people's emotions by announcing that's what you're trying to do. In any event, some unknowable component of decisionmaking is always emotional, but trying to make that emotion flow the way you'd like is another matter altogether. I'm glad experts are doing experiments about this, but what a disaster it would be if we actually learned how to control the voters' emotions. We'd have to abandon democracy, wouldn't we?

The mystery of the humps: learning to love the valley.

The previous post reminds me of something very important about doing well on law school exams (at least mine). Frequently, students interpret an exam question at the first hump on the Yin graph, that is, ignoring the difficulty. They may see the difficulty, but they know they can write a crisper, clearer answer if they pretend they don't. They think unless they can get to the second hump and work out the problem, they would be better off characterizing the problem simplistically, so they can handle it. But this would ensure a mediocre grade on my exams! Recognizing the difficulty and attempting to grapple with it may be the most anyone in the class is able to do. It may very well be all I can do. Holding back at hump 1--the timid, simplistic way of looking at the problem--will make half of the raw points for that question unavailable to you, while plunging into the difficulties and talking about why they exist could win you full credit or nearly full credit. I regularly reward the students who go into the valley between the humps. The state of confusion Prof. Yin describes would not be associated with a low grade on my exams.

There is a sort of confusion that befalls law students who are really trying to engage with the materials. When they talk to me about it, I always tell them to regard that confusion as an achievement on the path to understanding. The judges writing the cases attempt to gloss over the difficulties as they harmonize the precedents and weave the various legal principles together. When you are able to perceive the difficulties, you may miss the pleasant clarity you had before and want to resort to supplemental material as a solution. That would be like perceiving that you have a personal problem and dealing with it by getting drunk. The perception is a valuable thing, even though it is scary and painful. And now I'm talking about something more than doing well on law school exams. Don't you want to be the person who does not deny the value of your own perceptions?

I understand the law student who says: Well, let's just talk about law school and not life generally--I want to be the law student with the excellent grades who gets a great job. My answer is: I completely understand and respect that important interest of yours and that's why I write exams and grade them so that those two goals are not contradictory.

Prof. Yin's "two humps" theory.

Prof. Yin links to my "horrible law school outlines" post from yesterday and agrees, but anticipates that some students will respond with anecdotes about students they have known who did nothing in class all semester, then crammed with an outline and got a good grade, and students who went to class and tried to do things right and ended up with a bad grade. He has a theory and a "two humps" graph that you just have to go over there and read. It is probably true that you can try very hard to read and understand the cases and become quite confused. This is a scary feeling that puts you at a crossroads where you face an important decision: should I switch to a shortcut out of desperation to try to salvage my grade or will I work through this difficulty toward real understanding and intellectual independence? I wish applicants to law school could somehow be forced to give an honest answer to what they will do when they face this decision, so that seats in the law school could be given to the people who will go for the second choice.