Wednesday, April 23, 2008

American Idol - America Blows It

So far this season, the voting on American Idol hasn't been too unreasonable, but last week, the voters went totally off the rails when they booted Michael Johns, and tonight was one of those nights where we really wanted to throw a brick at the TV. Sending Carly Smithson home this week was just wrong, wrong, wrong. She totally deserved to be in the final three with the Davids. And this week of all weeks, when she totally rocked, and when a couple of the other performances were notably obviously weak. And neither did Syesha deserve to be in the bottom two. If there were any merit to it, it would have been Jason and Brooke in the bottom two, and Jason going home. I think Brooke is really talented and unique, but she's been losing her nerve lately. Last night, even after the false start, she just didn't connect with her song. (I think it was tacky that in the recaps and stuff, all they focused on was her false start.) But Jason, ugh. Simon was right, he was like some wedding singer being asked to sing a song he doesn't really know and doesn't really like. It was just painful. In general, while I think Jason's got a certain distinctive style to him, a lot of his performances are just kinda flat for me. He was awesome doing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" way back when, and his Israel Kamakawiwo'ole-style "Over the Rainbow" was good too, but there's been a lot of flat in between. It should have been Jason this week. Carly, we'll miss you, we'll download you, and hope to hear more of you!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

BOOKS: The Pillars of the Earth

I stayed up late the other night breathlessly finishing Ken Follett's gripping book The Pillars of the Earth. His sweeping story, set in 12th century England, and following the interwoven lives of a mason, a prior, and the dispossessed daughter of an earl, was absolutely fascinating. The plot was a rollercoaster of dreams, conflict, ambitions and intrigue, with unpredictable twists and turns. The characters were engaging, with several noble heroes, a few vile villains, and many other glimpses of humanity. And all set in a very vivid and multifaceted description of 12th century life, leaving me with rich pictures of life in a monastery, in a medieval town, in the royal court, in a local nobleman's castle, and in the villages and the forests. I came for a rollicking story in a historical setting, and came away with so much more. Not just with a history lesson in the early Norman kings of England and the Thomas Becket affair, and a contagious appreciation for the art of cathedral architecture, but a fairly complete lesson in medieval economy slipped in painlessly under the cover of a great story. I knew a nave from a transept before I read this book, but I learned much about the revolutionary advances from romanesque to gothic architectural style, and what it took to get one of those amazing structures built. But lessons aside, it was the story and the characters that kept me rapt. Though they weren't always the most subtle (by and large, the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad), the main characters were given a lifetime of depth, with the heroes at least having times of doubt, frustration, and some imperfections. Over the course of the story, which spanned a full generation or two, I got to know and love (or hate) the characters, and even stayed up late at night sometimes worrying about how they would resolve whatever situation the last page had left them on. And as I closed on the final 150 pages, there was simply no stopping.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Tears of Straw, Politics of Fear

In recent comments, Attorney General Mukasey appeared on the verge of tears recalling the victims of 9/11, while arguing for increased surveillance powers. On, Glenn Greenwald busts Mukasey for his astonishing claim of an unintercepted phone call that could have averted 9/11, and his total straw man argument. If there really were such a call, there's no reason the FISA warrant requirements would have interfered with its interception. It's unimagineable that Mukasey could be unaware of this. The far more plausible explanation is that he is deliberately being disingenuous, playing the 9/11 fear card to further the erosion of reasonable constitutional protections. As Greenward noted, this sorry episode reveals Mukasey to be no better than Gonzales in being willing to sacrifice the very Constitution that he has sworn to uphold, in the service of increasing the unaccountability of executive power.

The episode also made clearer in my mind the surprising resemblance between the executive styles of President Bush and Would-Be President Clinton. President Bush has shown himself eager to fan the 9/11-inspired flames of fear in order to expand executive privilege, power, secrecy, and unaccountability. We need to simply trust him with unaccountable secrets, or else another terrorist attack is inevitable. He does not advance his policies by sober and reasonable argument, nor by leveling with the American people about actual threats and sacrifices. He appeals to fear. "Fear the terrorists, trust me to make you safe, and meanwhile, you all keep on consuming as if we're not at war." That's the Bush message. Now I can't help but wonder, is Hillary "Who do you want to answer that red phone at 3am?" Clinton any different? Her appeal is also to fear. The whole "3am red phone" campaign was designed to appeal to fear. She wants us to blindly trust in her experience, and not ask too many questions. (Especially when her experience turns out to be largely imaginary.) She'd be fine with Bush-style unchecked executive power, as long as she's the executive. We've seen how much Clinton values transparency and accountability. She has yet to respond to Obama's challenge to disclose her tax returns and her earmarks. She's all for secrecy. And accountability? Not so much. In sum, if you'd like to see a continuation of the Bush policies of expanding executive secrecy while reducing accountability, and justifying it all by appeals to fear, then Clinton is your candidate.