Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Someone explain fact vs. fiction to Rush Limbaugh

Here's why Rush Limbaugh thinks Idris Elba can't play James Bond:
“James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming. He was white and Scottish. Period. That is who James Bond is, was.”

...

Limbaugh went on to compare the casting to the idea of George Clooney and Kate Hudson starring as Barack and Michelle Obama in a presidential biopic.

Rush? Buddy?

Barack and Michelle Obama are real people.

James Bond is fictional. That means he's make-believe.

Not real.

For some fictional characters, like Huckleberry Finn or Othello, race matters. A lot. For others, not so much.

In the "not so much" category we can include characters whose main attributes are saving the world, looking good in formalwear, drinking martinis and bedding any gorgeous woman who crosses their path.

You added, “[T]hat’s not who James Bond is and I know it’s racist to probably point this out.”

"James Bond" is whoever the movie producer says he is. You can push back by urging your audience not to watch the movie, but if you want more of a say, you'll have to buy the rights to the character.

You did get one thing right, though: your attitude is racist. You're batting .500, better than usual for you. Then again, racism is kind of your thing.

I think Elba would be wasted on a Bond film: he's a terrific actor who deserves top-notch scripts, and Bond films aren't exactly Shakespearian. As a terrific actor, though, Elba's entitled to do a movie for the payday now and again. I doubt The Wire or Luther have made him so rich that he can afford to turn up his nose at a blockbuster. So I hope he does get to play Bond, and makes a nice chunk of change out of the deal. It would be icing on the cake, of course, if Rush's head exploded as a result, but in the spirit of the season I'll refrain from hoping too much for that. (Though speaking of the season, I have to ask: Rush, you do realize that given the time and place, Jesus Christ almost certainly was a brown or black man? ... Oh my, do I hear splattering?....)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Colbert sheds The Report

I'm not going to summarize the final episode of The Colbert Report. A thousand others already did that, some of them (but surprisingly, not all) better than I could. I simply couldn't think of any better title for a post mentioning Willa Paskin's reflection on why Stephen Colbert, the performer, didn't kill off "Stephen Colbert", the character.

Her argument makes sense, although if Colbert the man had killed off the character, you can bet that he could have come up with a plausible (or at least funny) way of resurrecting the character if it were necessary.

As I mentioned, thousands of others have described the finale and/or their reaction to it and to the series as a whole. I'll confine myself to mentioning a few things that struck me only a day or two later.

Colbert wouldn't be human if he weren't a little sorry to say goodbye to the familiar surroundings of the past nine years, the place where he cemented his place in TV and pop culture history. He let that show for a few moments at the end of the episode as he stared into the camera. I've never seen him look so vulnerable or wistful.

After thanking "the Colbert Nation", he burst out with a disarming grin and a boyish, "That was fun!" It was obviously a completely sincere exclamation, and it gave just a taste of the warm and genuinely nice man who by all accounts lies beneath the Colbert character.

He continued, "Okay ... whew. Okay, that's the show. From eternity, I'm Stephen Colbert." Then he quietly put a bow on not just nine, but seventeen years of brilliance with one word. I won't spoil it; watch it for yourself. (Stay through the credits: not only is the theme music different (a Maureen Dowd piece might explain why), but there's one last recurring joke just before the very end.)

If you're cynical, you'll observe that Colbert got his cake and ate it too: he put his show to bed without having to kill off his character.

Maybe. But you know what?

The guy who pulled off one of the greatest long-running performances in TV history deserves it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Regarding The Interview, Sony couldn't win

Sony Pictures won't release the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview.

The movie's depiction of the assassination of North Korea's Kim Jong-un pissed off somebody enough to crack into Sony's internal computer network, steal 100+ TB of data, destroy much of the data in those computers, release embarrassing and/or sensitive internal messages and personal information to the public, then threaten to commit mass physical violence at theaters that showed the movie. (The North Korean government disclaimed direct responsibility but suggested that patriotic sympathizers might have been responsible.)

Sony, battered and demoralized by the onslaught, initially ducked the question of whether to call off the picture's release: it let theater owners decide whether they wanted to show the movie. Four of the biggest theater chains bailed out, joined by smaller chains throughout the U.S. and Canada. Faced with a lack of outlets, Sony had the excuse it needed to shelve the movie completely.

Nobody outside North Korea is happy.

The film’s collapse stirred considerable animosity among Hollywood companies and players. Theater owners were angry that they had been boxed into leading the pullback. Executives at competing studios privately complained that Sony should have acted sooner or avoided making the film altogether. To depict the killing of a sitting world leader, comically or otherwise, is virtually without precedent in major studio movies, film historians say.

And some Sony employees and producers, many of whom have had personal information published for the world to see, bitterly complained that they had been jeopardized to protect the creative prerogatives of Mr. Rogen and Mr. [Evan] Goldberg [with Rogen, the film's co-director].

On the superficial Hollywood-buzz side of things, Kevin Polowy's "Hollywood Slams Controversial Decision to Shelve 'The Interview' " sums things up as well as any report. It quoted tweets from various Hollywood celebrities.

Judd Apatow: “I think it is disgraceful that these theaters are not showing The Interview. Will they pull any movie that gets an anonymous threat now?”

Daman Wayans, Jr.: “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just do exactly what they say.”

(Incidentally, are Apatow, Wayans and the other critics ready to cover the theater owners' legal bills if anything happens?)

So, yeah. I think that about covers who's pissed. Now: how did this happen?

There are a lot of ways to chew on this mess.

Working backwards: were theater owners too quick to bail out?

The multiplex operators made their decision in the face of pressure from malls, which worried that a terror threat could affect the end of the holiday shopping season.
And:
Once the hackers threatened physical violence, the film’s cancellation became almost inevitable, even though Sony spent a day steadfastly maintaining its plans for the release and premiere. Since the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings in 2012, Cinemark had fought lawsuits with a defense that said the incident was not foreseeable — a stance that would have been nearly impossible with “The Interview.”
I'll get back to this issue at the end.

What about Sony? Should it have killed the movie in the script stage, mindful of the unprecedented killing of a sitting world leader?

Put yourself in the shoes of Amy Pascal, co-shair of Sony Pictures Entertainment and chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment Movie Group. Your job is to make movies that make money. This project lands on your desk. The executive summary reads:

Seth Rogen's and James Franco's characters are sent to kill Kim Jong-un.

PLUSES: (1) Who doesn't despise North Korea? (2) Rogen's and Franco's movies have made a lot of money.

MINUSES: (1) The lawyers normally go apeshit when we use real people, especially living real people. However, we're talking Kim Jong-un (see PLUSES (1)). (2) If we nix this pic, Rogen and Franco will never work with us again (see PLUSES (2)). (3) If we push too hard to change the script, Rogen and Franco might never work with us again (see PLUSES (2)).

Enjoy.

What would you have done? Bear in mind that you're on the hook to shareholders at the end of the day, and that the fallout might not have stopped with losing Rogen and Franco: other talent might decide to turn up their noses at working with Sony out of a sense of solidarity with Rogen and Franco, or as a stand against perceived censorship.

Should Rogen and Franco have been smarter or less controversial about this script? Maybe. On the other hand, the same perception of self-censorship that undoubtedly gave Sony Pictures' management pause undoubtedly was on Rogen's and Franco's minds, too.

I'm hearing "cybersecurity" experts talk about this as a national-security threat, which seems to me a gross overreaction insofar as it gives the impression that Sony's problem is the nation's problem. It's not. Sony Pictures put itself in a bad position because it ignored information security. The extent of the break-in is in large part the fault of Sony Pictures' management's failure to take infosec seriously, and if Amy Pascal or anyone else is going to lose her job, that should be the reason. (Incidentally, Slate published a piece by David Auerbach that argues the crack-attack was an act of "cyberterrorism" and that claims, "In terms of security, Sony Pictures wasn’t terrible, but just average. It’s likely that comparable amounts of damage could have been inflicted on many companies via the same vectors of attack." That's depressing.)

That said, if this fiasco puts a fire under Congress' ass to take critical infrastructure protection seriously, good. We're twenty years overdue.

Now, let's get back to the theater owners and the owners of the malls where many of the theaters are located.

Some have claimed that the crack-attackers' invocation of "9/11" in their threat of physical violence against movie theaters sent everyone into a panic. I think the New York Times piece got to the heart of the matter when it mentioned the Aurora, CO theater shooting, or more specifically, the legal fallout. However, I'm not going to criticize the theater or mall owners. Their response was and is rational under the circumstances.

The problem is that the American public expects perfect safety, and is willing to sue if it doesn't get it.

Don't get me wrong. If earlier generations hadn't screamed bloody murder we'd still be faced with a host of workplace-safety and consumer-safety problems: our food would be tainted, our cars dangerous, etc., etc. However, raising Cain about easily preventable dangers that can be mitigated by companies that want to do business is one thing. Going nuts over a vague threat by anonymous crackers is something else.

It's brain-dead, is what it is.

Think for a moment. North Korea's animosity toward the U.S. is not new. Sanctions have crippled the North Korean economy for decades. If North Korea were able and willing to punish the U.S. with a physical attack on our shores, don't you think it would have done so by now?

I'm assuming the North Koreans aren't able to mount a credible physical assault on U.S. territory (yet: they're almost certainly working on it). Yet even if you assume they are able, they've clearly been unwilling to mount such an attack in the face of crippling sanctions. Would they undertake one as some kind of overwrought revenge against what by many accounts is a mediocre movie? They have to know that any such attack would be tantamount to suicide for the Kim government, because the U.S. wouldn't hesitate to strike back hard.

You might argue that the threat might be carried out by suicidal sympathizers not under the North Korean government's control. That seems exceedingly unlikely. No North Korean capable of carrying out the attack could have done so without government support or permission. Yet a North Korean would not be allowed to carry out, or even to arrange, a physical attack against the U.S. for the reasons I've already mentioned. And how many technically sophisticated crackers exist who sympathize with North Korea, yet aren't North Korean or working with the North Korean government?

Another suggestion has been made, that the crackers aren't supportive of Kim Jong-un per se but are outraged by the highhandedness of Hollywood breaking the taboo on portraying the killing of a living leader. That's a pretty weak argument. It's clear the crackers were motivated solely by the affront to Kim, not any more abstract or general principle.

So who exactly would carry out a physical attack?

"Oh, but if it's even possible, we have to do what's best for public safety." Well yes, in theory we do. On the other hand, public safety would be optimized if each of us lived in a bombproof shelter and drank only distilled water. In practice, every public-safety measure is a tradeoff between safety and the need to keep daily life going.

The thing is, Americans are too intolerant of risk and too invested in a 100%-safe environment. We scream bloody murder and we sue left and right when the environment isn't as safe as we think it should be (except when it comes to gun ownership, curiously enough).

Yes, a threat was made. How credible was it, though? Not very, if you think about it. The thing is, no one thought about it, or if someone did, he or she realized there was not enough upside to defy the threat. You get points for putting public safety first, not for doing business as usual.

The risk-reward equation weighed in favor of releasing the film, except that we, the public, are abysmally bad at understanding risk.

Yet if Sony had insisted on releasing the film, it would have been excoriated for any act of violence that occurred — because, again, we're too damned timid. In fact, that timidity likely would have kept a lot of people away from the movie even if it had been released. So all that militated against Sony standing up for free expression, however banal, and releasing it.

Sony couldn't win.

R.I.P. Richard C. Hottelet

The last of Edward R. Murrow's proteg├ęs died Wednesday morning (17 December 2014) at the age of 97.

Hottelet, as with his fellow "Murrow Boys" and Murrow himself, was known mostly for his work as a correspondent during World War II. I knew him from a different context, though: he was one of the memorable, iconic voices from my childhood. I was a strange child in that I actually enjoyed listening to the local newsradio station, which happened to be a CBS affiliate. Hottelet's was one of the voices that emerged from the speaker seemingly every morning. I was too young to understand anything he said (I knew some of the words but didn't have the context or sophistication to appreciate their meaning), but I knew that he was A Serious Man. He and his fellow stentorian voices (at the moment the only other name I remember is Douglas Edwards) exuded dignity and maturity. They likely contributed to my fierce desire to grow up, to be an adult and to shed the silliness of childhood.

I have to add that the name "Hottelet" fascinated me for years. Knowing him only from radio, I never saw the name spelled out. I puzzled for years as to whether anyone could really have such a "bumpy" name, a name that sounded like a cart rattling over cobblestones.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

When religion is evil

The Pakistani Taliban massacred 145 people on Tuesday. The dead included 132 children.

The Pakistani Taliban are the same bunch that tried to assassinate Malala Yousafzai because she advocated for girls' educations. They also have "burned or bombed over 1,000 schools". They wage war on education because educated people recognize how warped and irrational the Pakistani Taliban are.

They have very few apologists outside their own ranks. To those apologists, however, I say: no.

As in, there is no defense for what the attackers did.

Nothing can justify such a slaughter. Nothing. Certainly not the grotesque perversion of religion that they call their faith.

The Pakistani Taliban's "religion" is not compatible with civilization. It is irredeemably evil.

The barbarians who committed, aided, abetted and supported this atrocity must be treated like the rabid animals they are. They must be caged — or put down.

The real "don't ask, don't tell"

George W. Bush was not fully briefed on the torture that the CIA was employing on select prisoners.
The emails, memos, reports and other documents examined by the Senate committee collectively portray a White House that approved the brutal questioning of suspects but was kept in the dark about aspects of the program, including whether it really worked.
At one point the CIA, through Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asked Bush for permission to use "harsh techniques on Abu Zubaydah".
When Mr. Bush asked what kind of techniques, Mr. Gonzales replied, according to the book, “Mr. President, I think for your own protection, you don’t need to know the details of what’s going on here.” Mr. Bush agreed, saying: “All right. Just make sure that these things are lawful.”
I can see the CIA, and his senior staff, tacitly agreeing to keep Bush in the dark on some matters. What the above remark, quoted in 500 Days by Kurt Eichenwald, makes clear is that Bush was willing to be kept in the dark.

"Don't ask, don't tell" wasn't just a military policy, it seems.

Was this a resopnsible attitude on Bush's part? Is it ever a responsible attitude on any President's part?

My first instinct is to say no. I agree with Harry Truman that the buck stops at the President's desk. If I were the big man, I'd feel responsible for everything my administration did, so I would insist on knowing what my people were doing.

The counterargument, hinted at in Gonzales' ominous "for your protection", is that sometimes dirty work needs to be done but the boss shouldn't suffer for it. The feeling seems to be that the country will like the sausage but would rebel if it knew how the sausage was made.

As a cautious person I sympathize with the counterargument, but I think it misses the bigger picture. Who are we, if on the one hand we claim the moral high ground, but on the other, we torture people in ways that we insisted were war crimes when perpetrated by the Japanese in World War II? In fact, wouldn't we consider them war crimes if they were used against U.S. troops or civilians today?

Can the ends always justify the means? I'm not sure they can. We have to assume risk if we're to abide by our principles, or those principles mean nothing. And those principles aren't just ideals toward which we strive: they're the very essence of the soft power that makes other nations want to be on good terms with us. Without that soft power, the U.S. would be nothing more than another thuggish country throwing its military weight around. Much of the world already thinks that's what we have become.

That's not how I want others to think of us. That's not what I want my country to be.

That's why torture is wrong. That's why its defenders are wrong. That's why acknowledging our wrongdoing is essential. And that's why Bush's willful ignorance on the subject must be publicly declared an abrogation of his duty as President.

We have to reclaim our national soul.

Monday, December 15, 2014

This is why atheists are resentful

There are still bans on atheists serving in government in seven states. The U.S. Supreme Court declared such bans to be unconstitutional in 1961. Secularists are looking to remove the language from the states' constitutions.

Not everyone is on board with the effort.

Christopher B. Shank, the Republican minority whip in the Maryland Senate, said that while he believed in pluralism, “I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don’t care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive.”
There is an enormous blind spot in many people's minds that allows them to equate secularism with hostility to Christianity. Shank has that blind spot in spades. Moreover, he misses the point that the government of Maryland cannot speak for the people of Maryland on the question of whether those people "care about the Christian faith". Do you understand the First Amendment, Mr. Shank? You don't sound like you do.

Removing the patently unConstitutional language from the offending states' constitutions would say nothing about people's attitude toward Christianity (or any other faith, not that Shank appears to have thought about that, either). It would say that faith and government shouldn't be entangled. That's no more — and no less — than we should all expect.

Like the fatuous resistance to removing the ill-considered phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, the resistance to cleaning up the unenforceable and discriminatory language from state constitutions is rooted in nothing more than reflexive and thoughtless prejudice against atheists (and secularists generally).

It's disgraceful that the ridiculously easy and necessary cleanup remains undone after more than half a century.

Enough inexcusable excuses. Enough stalling. In fact, just plain enough. Enough.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lindsey Graham on maturity

As noted by Talking Points Memo, "Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) managed to get under Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) skin with a speech Friday night bashing CitiGroup's deep ties to Washington and a provision in a government spending bill rolling back part of Dodd-Frank."

Here were the remarks TPM saw fit to quote from the Politico piece that was TPM's source.

"You have every right to vote no and argue to bring the bill down. If there’s something you don’t like, welcome to democracy."
and
"If you follow the lead of the senator of Massachusetts … people are not going to believe you are mature enough to run the place. Don’t follow her lead. She’s the problem.”
He was a condescending twit in the first case and a stick-figure caricature of an elder statesman in the second. Graham has no monopoly on petulant, unSenatorial behavior, but his shrill and would-be lofty criticisms of what he doesn't understand — the FBI, Russia's invasion of Crimea and Crimea again, to name but three that seriously irked me — are no longer funny. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. It's Graham who is the problem, not Warren.

Ted Cruz is clearly the Senate's reigning asshat (see here and here for just two reasons why), but second place is no longer a lock for James "climate change isn't real no matter what real scientists say" Inhofe. It seems like every time Graham opens his mouth, something stupid comes out.

Let me put it in simple terms for you, Senator Graham: you and your GOP colleagues pushed your far-right agenda too hard for even normally milquetoast Democrats to suffer. What you wrongly (and tellingly) interpreted as childishness was actually principled outrage. It's the same sentiment fueling protests across the country against police brutality of minorities. You had better pray that the masses don't make the connection between the different abuses you and your far-right cronies are perpetrating on them, or the GOP will be swamped in subsequent elections. Your regressive agenda hangs by the slimmest of threads, rhetorically speaking: it depends entirely on keeping the masses ignorant of its true impact. Your worst nightmare is a smart and persistent pol like Elizabeth Warren, who just might wake the public up.

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Why Poor People Stay Poor", Linda Tirado

Slate excerpted a section of Linda Tirado's new book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (no link because there's no seller I care to promote).

I don't disagree that individual initiative and self-discipline are needed to improve one's lot. However, what frustrates me is how many who preach that gospel think that's all you need. It's not. Lifting yourself up by your bootstraps has always required resources to make your gumption pay off, and the days when those resources came from the wilderness (i.e., essentially for free and solely by the sweat of your brow) are long gone for most of us. I can't emphasize strongly enough how much you need to read this excerpt, if not the full book, if you're inclined to wax sanctimonious about the "sinful" or "lazy" poor.

As Tirado makes amply clear, "It actually costs money to save money."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The homegrown defective airbags

Since I own a Honda vehicle, I've been paying a little more attention than I normally would to an automotive story that keeps bubbling up with worse and worse news. The Japanese company Takata manufactures airbags that have injured or killed a number of people worldwide. It seems that the malfunctioning airbags can explode and rupture, sending metal shards out — essentially making the airbag more of a grenade than anything else.

Not all of Tanaka's airbags are prone to this failure. However, as I learned in a New York Times article about a possible expanded Japanese car recall, "Problems with driver’s-side airbag inflaters have been found in units made in a Takata plant in LaGrange, Ga., that is now closed." And "problems with the passenger-side units involved the amount of propellant used and the way the inflaters were handled and stored, carmakers said. Those units were made in Washington State and Mexico."

How ironic, that this furor which is seemingly over Japanese cars has its roots in our own country. I guess we're back to the 1980s, when Japanese manufacturing was ascendant while American-made goods, notably cars, suffered from mediocre quality.