Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trading Freedom For Security

Listening to the radio while driving home this evening, I caught a quote that really struck me:
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down. Up: man's old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
Hearing this, how could I not think of warrantless wiretapping, the suspension of habeas corpus, and other such trades of freedom for security that our present administration has sold us. A bit further in the same speech, the speaker warily quoted a Senator who said that the President "must 'be freed,' so that he 'can do for us' what he knows 'is best.'" That Senator was concerned that the President was "'hobbled in his task by the restrictions of power imposed on him by this antiquated document [the Constitution].'" The speaker was clearly alarmed by the expansive power sought by the President's ambitious programs, and completely skeptical of an Administration that says "just trust us to make the decisions about what's best for you".

Expressing such ideas today gets you labeled a soft-headed leftist at best, and probably unpatriotic and anti-American. But that speech was made in 1964, and the speaker was that well-known anti-American leftist Ronald Reagan, stumping for Barry Goldwater.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Which Party Has A Plan?

In a press conference this morning, President Bush said "I think the coming election is a referendum on these two things: which party has got the plan that will enable our economy to continue to grow, and which party has a plan to protect the American people."

Fair enough. Let's first consider which party has got the plan that will enable our economy to continue to grow. We can judge the Republican plan on their record, since they control the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. While the Republicans disparage the Democrats as big spenders, it's hard to imagine how anyone could outdo today's GOP in spending. A recent Heritage Foundation analysis warned that the Senate was on track to bust FY 2007 discretionary spending caps by $32 billion. (Makes me wonder what happened to the "discretion" in the discretionary spending.) Congressional earmarks ("pork") are at an all-time high. Agriculture, which is booming and in no need of help, is getting even bigger subsidies. Essential federal departments like Health, Labor, and Education are getting their budgets increased. (And you thought the GOP wanted to eliminate the Dept of Education?) And under the Republicans, entitlement spending commitments have been increased beyond any Democrat's wildest dreams. We don't know what the Democrat's economic plan is, or if they even have one, but it couldn't possibly be worse than the Republican plan.

So on to the President's second question: which party has a plan to protect the American people? Like the plan we didn't have for cleaning up Iraq after sacking Saddam? (The President couldn't even stay the course on "stay the course".) Or like the plan we don't have for preventing Iran from going nuclear? Or like the plan we don't have for dealing with the already-nuclear psychotic despot in North Korea? Or the plan we don't have for securing our ports or our borders? The President was rather brash to even use the word "plan" in connection with national security. And we're supposed to trust our President's judgment when he obstinately refuses to stop backing the singular most incompetent Secretary of Defense this country has ever seen? (If there's one "course" that should not be "stayed" as we are "adapting our tactics", it is Rumsfeld.) Once again, the Democrats are a big unknown, and may or may not have any ideas, but one thing we can see for sure is that the Republicans don't have a plan.

Thanks, Mr. President for clarifying the decision to be made on November 7. If it's a referendum on which party has a plan to enable our economy to grow and to keep us safe, then we clearly cannot be voting Republican.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LA Times Held For Ransom?

This week, the Los Angeles Times debuted a new layout design for the newspaper. I use the term "design" loosely. When I first beheld this typographical travesty, I thought I was looking at a ransom note. You know, where the kidnapper cobbles together a message by cutting out letters from a newspaper in aLL diFfeRent foNts. Instead of articles neatly arranged on a front page, there were various headlines competing for attention with a mix of LARGE and bold, serif and sans-serif, in a garish jumble with colors and photos. It's true that our society has changed to demand greater quantities of information in more complex composition (witness our TV screens these days with messages scrolling along the bottom, translucent logos in the corner, and superimposed animated pop-up ads), but that doesn't mean that style is dead. The "new" LA Times looks like the result of a desktop publishing amateur who's just discovered fonts and colors, and run amok with them.

We've heard about the staff cuts at the paper recently. Perhaps the new management thinks it can sack professional layout designers and replace them with a hack intern who knows his way around Adobe PageMaker? Then it dawned on me. Maybe it really is a ransom note. From the staff to the corporate overlords, with a horrified public looking on. The demand: don't cut the staff to the bone, to where professional quality is harmed. And the threat: that our city will never see a nationally-respected newspaper again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Extreme Home Makeover: Waiting Edition

Extreme Home MakeoverSeveral weeks ago, my officemate got a notice at her house that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition might be doing their thing on a house up her street. The letter was expressly non-commital (your neighbor *may* have been chosen) so as not to give away the surprise, but it warned that her street may be blocked off and filled with construction crews for a week. Well, it turns out her neighbor was indeed chosen, and the Extreme Home crew were coming to Redondo Beach. It's been very fun having this happen so close to the office, and getting the daily updates. They literally work round the clock putting a whole new house together in less than a week, and it's a great feat of logistics to make it happen. They do unusual things like preassemble large sections of the roof in a staging area, and then lift them into place with a crane. I stopped by several days into the construction just to check things out. The street was closed to cars, but you could walk in and look from across the street. There was a small crowd there most of the time, checking out the progress and hoping to catch a glimpse of somebody. I got to see Paige, the blonde who always wears the pink toolbelt, walk by.

So I thought it would be fun to check out the "big reveal", and be there to yell "Move that bus!". We had heard it was going to happen around 2pm today, though we also had heard they were behind schedule. And we'd heard they expected a big crowd and due to limited space, you'd want to get there hours in advance. Well, I couldn’t spring loose from work until 2:30pm, but I figured I just go over there to see if I could get in. I parked a couple of blocks away and tried walking in the bottom of the street, but that was closed off even to pedestrians and I was told to walk around to the top of the street. A 10-minute walk later, and I'd come around the top, and realized it wasn't too late, people were still streaming in. As you got anywhere near the house, there was already quite a crowd sandwiched on the one side of the street between barricades on the street and barricades trying to keep us off of the neighbors' lawns. (I think all of the neighbors in the immediate vicinity were promised new landscaping, since many of them offered their yards as staging areas, and got fairly trashed.) I was able to get a spot about two houses down. The big Extreme bus was parked perfectly blocking our view of the house, and on the other side of the street, a couple hundred volunteers in official blue T-shirts and hard-hats were mostly milling around. And the crowd of spectators was estimated by the local news at 2000. Sure felt like it from all the jostling. We barely had room to raise our hands.

The chosen family is a husband and wife with a baby daughter, both of them LAPD Gang Unit, and the wife had got shot in pursuit of a gang-banger and is now paralyzed from the chest down. Hers was a big story in the local community when it happened earlier this year, and so the community was thrilled to see this family get repaid for their sacrifice in this way. And of course the LAPD turned out in large numbers. (I later heard that Chief Bratton was there too, though I didn't see him.) The uniformed officers lined both sides of the street making an impressive entrance route. And at some point, the big bus pulled away, and they decided instead to use a big black LAPD Bomb Squad truck to hide the house. Fortunately, after the bus pulled away, we had a relatively clear view of the house.

We kept hearing rumors that the family was coming home at 4pm, and then 4:30pm. We got excited at one point when we saw a limo up the street start to come down our way, but then we realized they were just practicing camera shots. We got to watch as the limo pulled up in front of the truck, and Ty Pennington opened up the limo door. And then closed the door again, the limo backed up, and then did it all over again. Countless times, the policemen got called to attention, but then nothing happened. One of the production guys lead the crowd in practicing the "move that bus!" shout, and giving big cheers. (I think they filmed all that for stock footage of cheering crowds to be spliced in later.) At 5pm, somebody who seemed to be in charge told the crowd that the limo had just taken off to get the family, and they'd be here in 15-20 minutes. Then at 5:20pm, we were told they be there in 20 minutes. At some point, Ty came running up and down the street just to wave to everybody, and all the girls screamed and swooned. (Well, some of them may have been close to swooning anyway, as we'd been standing there for hours.)

We thought they would want to film the big reveal while they had sunlight nicely illuminating the west-facing house. It was dark by the time the family finally arrived around 6:15pm, but they had enough flood lights to make it look like daytime. And when the family got out of the limo, we couldn't really see anything from where I was, with all the other people in the way. A woman with a couple young daughters had been standing near me, and I let one of the girls climb up on my shoulders so at least she could see, and we could get a bit of a play-by-play. Eventually, we got to shout our line -- "Move that bus!" (even though it was a truck) -- and the truck pulled away to much cheering. I'm sure the family's reaction was all very dramatic, but I won't get to see that until the show airs (Nov 26).

So was it worth it to stand in a crowd for 4 hours (the last 30 minutes with a 7-year-old on my shoulders), just to catch a sidelong glimpse of TV in the making? Somehow, even though the view will be much better just watching it on TV, it was fun just to be a small part of the experience. And of course, to get to shout 100 times: "Move that bus!"

Monday, October 16, 2006

FILM: The Queen

Having just seen Her Royal Highness in person last month, we found Dame Helen Mirren's performance as The Queen to be especially phenomenal. On the heels of an acclaimed portrayal of Elizabeth I, Mirren has now veritably transformed into the virgin queen's namesake ERII. The film spins an intriguing behind-the-scenes tale of the clash of traditional British "stiff upper lip" values with the modern response to the death of Princess Diana, as newly elected PM Tony Blair delicately coaxes the out-of-touch monarch into a necessary break with tradition. While the film certainly has its bias (it's impossible to resist the tidal wave of emotion following Diana), what gives it its interest and its complexity is where it gives glimpses of insight into the Queen's point of view, and shows her some sympathy. We get to see a Queen whose instincts and breeding have served her well for decades get slapped by the realization that she no longer knows her subjects as well as she thought. And we get to see a thoughtful illustration of a woman whose whole life has been incredible luxury but also unrelenting duty dictated by tradition. Michael Sheen was also superb as the young Tony Blair, a bit flustered by his first meetings with HRH, but gingerly urging her to what he knew to be the right course. Blair comes off smelling like a rose, with his adept political instincts tempered by an idealism brought into focus by contrast with his antimonarchist wife and his cynical staff. That alchemy makes him a brilliant bridge between tradition and modernity, embracing the latter while respecting the former. Prince Charles comes off sympathetically, with a heart if not a spine, while Prince Philip gets no sympathy, coming off as a cantankerous and short-sighted old codger. The characters of the Queen Mother and Cherie Blair both added interesting dimension to the story. The splicing in of actual footage from the public events was used to good effect to make the story feel more real. And the inside glimpses of royal family life, along with the breathtaking scenery on the Balmoral estate worked to underscore the isolation of the royals. (Having just been in Royal Deeside, we especially appreciated the scenery of that breathtaking countryside, and we also recognized a number of the sites - like Castle Fraser, which in real life is not exactly adjacent to Balmoral.) This engaging drama was a surprisingly welcome respite to the "October doldrums", typically a seasonal dearth of any good films.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

STAGE: Doubt

Saturday afternoon, I had the pleasure of seeing Doubt, the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning drama by John Patrick Shanley. Friends had raved about it when it was here in Pasadena over a year ago, and of course it was very well received in New York. I can only pile on the accolades, and say I'm grateful that the whole original cast and production came back to Los Angeles for a victory lap. Shanley's play is galvanic, theatre at its best. It's an hour and a half with no intermission, which is just as it should be, since the intensity of the play builds up and doesn't let you go. Cherry Jones deserves her Tony for her portrayal of that rock of certainty, Sister Aloysius, rigid in her traditional ways, a "block of ice" (as Father Flynn describes her), but prepared to march to hell for what she believes is doing the right thing. Chris McGarry is flawless as Father Flynn, shifting seamlessly between apparent guilt and innocent victimhood with a finesse that left us wondering at the end. He's the pivotal character that engenders suspicion without certainty, the aim of Shanley's masterful script. Adriane Lenox (who also won a Tony) is powerful in her role as the mother of the student, initially demure but belying an inner strength that shows breathtakingly by the end of her scene. Lisa Joyce rounds out the excellent cast with her idealistic novice, wanting to have faith in everyone and learning that she can't. If you have any chance to see this play, don't hesitate. Go.

As a postscript, I couldn't help but think about Sister Aloysius as I was reading about Jeff Trandahl, the Clerk of the House of Representatives who was responsible for the congressional page program, apparently tried repeatedly to stop Foley's misbehavior, and eventually resigned. A "strict disciplinarian" too.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

No Excuses, Taking Responsibility

All sorts of typical Washington double-speak coming out in the wake of the Foley page scandal. Foley's attorney has insisted that "Mark offers no excuses", yet he's done nothing but offer excuses. Not traditional excuses, of course, but the great excuse of our time: self-pathologizing. Despite clenching shut the closet door for years, now Foley admits to being gay. (As if that's an excuse for being creepy.) And he's also come out as a victim of sexual abuse as a child. (Amazing the timing of those recovered memories.) And of course there's the drinking problem. Self-confessed alcoholism has become the get-out-of-blame-free card de jour. Just ask Mel "I don't hate Jews, it was the whisky talking" Gibson. Sorry, Mr. Foley, but these pathetic ploys to transform disgust into sympathy are rather transparent (not to mention an insult to self-respecting gays, child abuse victims, and genuine self-acknowledged alcoholics).

And then there's the GOP leadership, topped by Dennis Hastert, who accepts full responsibility. Just not the blame. His latest excuse (they've been evolving) is that he only became aware of the most explicit IMs last Friday. So, the ones he heard about a couple of years ago were merely, what, exactly? This is sort of like saying "Back when, I only saw some smoke coming out from under the door. But I didn't realize the whole room was on fire until somebody else opened the door and showed me." There are really only two possibilities here. The leadership saw the "smoke" coming out from under the (closet) door, opened the door, saw the fire, closed the door again, and prayed it would just stay contained. Or they saw the smoke, and looked the other way, not even bothering to open the door. One is only marginally worse than the other. At this point, the most charitable thing one could possibly believe about Hastert is that he's an incompetent manager who missed clear danger signs that should have been followed up on. And even that most charitable assumption is reason enough to step down. (Kudos to Tony Blankley and the Washington Times for holding the high line against their own party on this one.)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Proposition 83A - For Our Children's Safety

Here in California, we have a Proposition 83 on our upcoming ballot that will restrict registered sex offenders from living within 2000 feet of any school or park, and requires lifetime GPS monitoring of them. I think in light of recent events, we need to modify the proposition. My amended Proposition 83A would stipulate that all current and former priests and Congressmen would be required to list their residences in a public registry, would be prohibited from living within 2000 feet of any school or park, and would also have lifetime GPS monitoring. I think we have a right to know if a former Congressman or priest is living in our neighborhood and might come in contact with children. Congressmen and priests are known risks, and we should have law enforcement monitoring them on GPS at all times. We just can't take reckless chances. We must do it for the safety of our children.