Same as the Old Boss

Like a lot of people, I have been willing to cut President Obama a lot of slack. A vast network of incompetence, abuse, and secrecy can’t be turned around over night. But I am increasingly disturbed by clear signs that Obama, perhaps in the interest of finding “common ground”, is not making the changes he was elected to make.

The latest of these (see the link, above left) involve yet another case in which Obama, apparently terrified that Americans will find him inadequately ruthless, refuses to stop abuse, torture, and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. He thinks that one of these detainees, after release, will conduct an act of terrorism and the Republicans will gleefully make the case that only assholes like Dick Cheney can stand up to the forces of darkness. Even worse: it might look like George W. Bush was right.

It’s not an isolated incident. Obama has refused to release photographs showing more prisoner abuse in Iraq. He hasn’t changed U.S. policy to Cuba, or Iran, or North Korea. He supported the amnesty for telecoms that violated your right to privacy at the behest of Homeland Security. He won’t reveal new details about who the government is spying on without warrants or how often they do it.

The photograph issue is a telling point– during the campaign, Obama argued that transparency and honesty would ultimately increase respect for America around the world. He can’t now argue that circumstances have changed. He can’t argue that he has new information that he didn’t have during the campaign. He can’t argue that there is a risk to American soldiers that did not exist during the campaign. The only thing that changed is that Obama now has the power to do what he said he would do. He promised something. He didn’t deliver.

Just another politician? It’s beginning to look like it. The style is different, yes, but so far Obama has not staked out a path that is substantively different from what we could have expected under McCain, or even Bush. What we have now are the same policies, but provided with more thoughtful, coherent explanations.

He is also trying to block investigations into the Justice Department’s procedures for authorizing torture during the Bush Administration. In other words, so you tortured a few Arabs? Big deal. We’ll just let bygones be bygones and let those evil lawyers and judges go on their merry ways while the victims of their actions lay shattered and broken in their prison cells.

Finally– his economic “reforms” leave in place most of the lousy structures and policies that created this massive economic disaster in the first place.

Is this what the majority of Americans– more than ever voted for Bush– wanted? Is this what they voted for? What is going on here? Do they have a right to feel betrayed?

Bush, with a razor thin margin of votes, took the U.S. into a disastrous war, violated the constitution, and destroyed the economy. Obama, with a substantial majority– won against a moderate Republican– seems afraid to do anything he promised the voters he would do.

The world is crying for a dramatic gesture from this government that things are different.

So far, things seem mighty same.

The story in the New York Times.

Obama prides himself on his ability to build consensus, to seek common ground, to forge compromise. Since the Republicans pride themselves on the fact that they are always so right that they don’t need to listen to anybody else (which is not to say that some Democrats believe the same thing), this is a win-win situation for conservatives. I fear that Obama’s health care proposals will be so compromised by this process that they will fail, which will allow the Republicans to proclaim that it was always a bad idea.

* Note: while some liberals can be as doctrinaire as conservatives (and conservatives love insisting they all are), it is also true that a core liberal belief is that there is some value in all points of view– precisely the kind of moral “flexibility” Conservatives say they detest. Can’t have it both ways: which is it?

More Compromises:
On Detainee Rights

“Second, Democrats learned never to go to war against the combined forces of corporate America. Today, whether it is on the stimulus, on health care or any other issue, the Obama administration and the Congressional leadership go out of their way to court corporate interests, to win corporate support and to at least divide corporate opposition.”
David Brooks, NYTimes, June 30, 2009

Yet another depressing story.

Added July 24:  It should be noted that a few days after the above comments, David Brooks complained bitterly that Obama was pursuing the radical agenda of the left wing of the Democratic party and not giving adequate respect to moderation and compromise.

Okay Brooks, which is it?

The Orwellian Camera

On one of the new Sony digital cameras, you can choose a setting that will prevent the camera from taking a picture unless it detects a smile on the face of your subject.

We have reached the ultimate of the nanny corporation: telling you when to take a picture, when someone’s face is worth of immortalization, when you will be suitably charmed by the results.

As cameras get better and better at basic tasks, it becomes more and more difficult for professional photographers to distinguish themselves from a reasonably astute– and cheap– amateur.  In the world of art, this incubated the developments of expressionism, cubism, and abstract art.  If anyone (with a camera) could create a reasonably accurate image of a face, then what makes a work of art “valuable”?  Something you can’t do with a camera: expressionism.

Biopics and Other Lies

Why You Should Never Trust a Hollywood Biopic

Most movie biographies– almost all of them, nowadays, in fact– are the result of incestuous relationships between the guardians and owners of copyrighted material and the film-makers. The guardians want a fawning tribute to their deceased or not so deceased beloved. The film-maker wants a hit movie. If it’s about Ray Charles, it’s got to have his music in it. Well, who controls the rights to that music? Right– Ray Charles’ family and heirs.

I am not talking about minor changes in order to fit the biographical narrative into a digestible 90 minute experience.  I accept time compression and combinations of different characters.  It’s the vanity stuff I object to, and the sliming of people in order to create a villain where none existed, to provide dramatic tension.

And I’m not talking about movies that were never intended to be biographical, “Amadeus”.  “Amadeus” is not about Mozart’s life; it is about the random kindnesses and cruelties of fate that awards talents to the unworthy and worthy without justice.

And I forgot the third leg of this unholy tripod: the audiences, which are more than happy to be deceived about their heroes.  Johnny Cash did drugs because of a childhood trauma.  David Helfgott was a great pianist.  John Nash’s wife stuck with him through thick and thin.  Oskar Schindler lifted a steam locomotive.  Elton John’s father abandoned him and never supported his musical career.  A record producer rejected Freddie Mercury’s (awful) “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

The Hollywood argument that you have to fictionalize because, well, you just have to, is utter bullshit, and there are a handful of Hollywood biopics that prove the point, including “I, Tonya” and “The Pianist”.

All parties to the charade make all the correct noises about “authenticity” and “warts and all” without the slightest intention of letting anyone else decide which warts deserve exposure and which might better be left in the dark. The audience, indulged in with a few carefully chosen scenes of debauchery or alcohol abuse, are convinced that the movie is telling it all. The actor hopes to get a chance, like Reese Witherspoon, to realize their life-long dream of becoming a country music singer!

Bring it on, Reese! I just hope that Dolly Parton, sitting in the audience, didn’t feel that her career achievements were in any way diminished by the fact that Reese Witherspoon only required a few months to render a creditable counterfeit.


I Walk the Line
(2005, d. James Mangold, Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon) More honest than most, but formulaic as hell.   Carefully calibrated so that you don’t judge Cash too harshly for his drug use.  And I really do hope that people don’t get the impression that this is what Johnny Cash and June Carter really sound like.

Coal Miner’s Daughter
(1980, D. Michael Apted, Sissy Spacek) Loretta Lynn has consistently claimed she was married at 13. In fact, county records show she was fifteen when she married Dolittle Flynn.

Buddy Holly Story
(1978, D. Steve Rash, Gary Busey) Cheese please: This film shows Holly writing a score in the studio– Holly could neither write nor read music. And where did the fourth Cricket go?

(2004, D. Taylor Hackford, Jaime Foxx) The state of Georgia never banned Ray Charles.

(1994, D. Iain Softley, Stephen Dorff, Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, Scot Williams) No Lennon-McCartney originals were used, or harmed, in the making of this otherwise intriguing production. One of the better biopics of this bunch.

(2000, D. Ed Harris, Ed Harris) Ed Harris, Ed Harris, Ed Harris, Ed Harris….

Beautiful Mind
(2001, D. Ron Howard, Russell Crowe.) Omits any mention of his subversive period, his alleged homosexuality. And Nash didn’t see things– he heard voices. And his wife did leave him.

Great Balls of Fire
(1985, D. Jim McBride, Dennis Quaid) Conveniently ended in 1959, before the suspicious deaths of two of Lewis’ wives.

Schindler’s List
(1993, d. Steven Spielberg, Liam Neeson) That ridiculous last scene— Schindler weeping and wailing that he could have saved more if he had only sold his rings– never happened, and insults his memory. Spielberg just couldn’t help himself– just in case you didn’t get it, he has to clobber you over the head with just how slobbering beautiful Schindler’s actions seem to day. They were beautiful– but shameless ham-fisted scenes like this only raise doubts about the integrity of the rest of the movie. Schindler’s wife, shown fondly appreciating him in the film, actually left him. The book, incidentally, was originally marketed as fiction– the author took some true events and “fictionalized” them for whatever reason (possibly because he was unable to verify his information to acceptable journalistic standards). It was only when Spielberg decided to make a movie that it was rebranded as “non-fiction”. What changed? Spielberg’s desire to give the movie more gravitas.

Finding Neverland
(2004, D. Marc Foster, Johnny Depp) This one might take the cake– J. M. Barrie’s relationship to the Llewelyn children was problematic– all of them, later in life, had very ambivalent feelings about Barrie– to say the least. The boy for which Peter is named threw himself under a train at the age of 65, detesting his association with the play. Two of the other children died under suspicious circumstances (possible suicides). But this version makes him look like a lovable saint. Who owns the rights to “Peter Pan”? The Great Ormond Street Hospital. Would they like you to think ill of their cash cow? Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, incidentally, was not a widow when J. M. Barrie began visiting and monopolizing her children. Barrie himself was married earlier but never consummated the marriage.

(2005) Since Capote is long dead and he didn’t sing, more honest than most.

The Rose
( 1979) Disguised biography of Janis Joplin. It is an utterly depressing world we live in if it is to be believed that Bette Midler can supply anything remotely resembling even a facsimile of Janis Joplin’s singing performances. You owe it to yourself, if you have to seen this movie, to purge your soul with a viewing of an honest-to-god performance by the real Janis Joplin.

The Doors
( 1991) Oliver Stone’s bizarre and often tiresome portrait of Jimmy Morrison has at least one virtue: it isn’t unduly flattering. And it has a relatively impressive performance by a very committed Val Kilmer. There is a moment: the live performance of “Light my Fire” at least gives you something so lacking in most of these biopics– a moment in which you might actually apprehend what it was that made the artist great in the first place.

Shine ()
Where do I begin?

Marie Antoinette
My goodness– and we all thought the Queen was plotting, right up to the end, to bring in Austrian armies to put down the revolution!  Well, she was.

Farewell My Queen
The exception: an exquisite antidote, though slow-moving, paean to the roles of Antoinette’s servants and sycophants in the last days of the Louis XVI regime.

42 (Forty-two)

The myth is this:  the Brooklyn Dodgers with the rookie, Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, were playing in Cincinnati on May 13,  1947, one of the most southern cities in the league.   Robinson was being subjected to horrible, incessant abuse, name calling, death threats, mockery, when another Brooklyn player, an esteemed local named Pee-Wee Reese, walked up to him and put his arm around him to send a message to the fans: we are brothers.  Don’t abuse my friend.  There is even a bronze statue memorializing the event in New York at the Brooklyn Cyclones home field.

It didn’t happen.  It was first reported by a pitcher who said he saw it while he was warming up in the bullpen to pitch in the first inning.  The records show that someone else was pitching the first inning.  No newspaper of the time reported the incident.  Pee-Wee Reese was a lifelong friend of Robinson’s and certainly behaved honorably towards him but Eddie Stanky is the one who threatened to fight Philadelphia players who were harassing Robinson.

An incident like it may have happened in 1948, in Boston.  Maybe.  But if it did, it wasn’t reported until 1952, well after the “experiment” (breaking the color barrier) had been widely regarded as a success.


Jesus Biopic:

When Hollywood made King of Kings in 1960, it decided it couldn’t be too careful with the first talking film about the Son of God. Test screenings were held for carefully selected representative preview audiences to garner their reactions to the film. Would audiences find the idea of a celluloid Christ shocking? Would they be offended at the idea of Hollywood packaging and glamorizing the story of salvation? Would they be appalled at the vivid scenes of Christ on the cross, one of the most sacred images of the Christian religion?

Friday, January 24, 2020


Why Obama Won’t Propose Single-Payer Health Care

It Took a Nixon to Open the Door to China

Why on earth has Obama and the Democratic leadership ruled out the “single-payer” model, the one Canadians love so much?

I’m sure he wants Americans to believe that he is not a fanatic, a radical, who intends to impose a socialist regime on the country. I’m sure he knows that this perception is ridiculous. I’m sure he knows that the insurance industry and some doctors’ organizations and conservative talk radio and Fox News and the Republicans will spend millions and millions of dollars to try to convince Americans that Canadians hate their health care system (in spite of some studies that show up 97% of Canadians would not trade our system for theirs) and that Canadians are dying in unparalleled numbers because we can’t get doctors or treatment (in spite of our longer life expectancy) and that our breast implants are not as firm or ample as good old all-American breast implants.

So why has Obama rolled over on this one? He’s afraid of a brutal, divisive fight. He wants to be bipartisan. He wants to unify America.

I always thought that if a liberal Democrat took George Bush’s approach to the Iraq war and applied it to health care, the U.S. would have a single-payer, universal health care plan in a matter of months. Nobody wanted the Iraq war. Nobody thought it was a good idea. Nobody believed Saddam had anything to do with 9/11. Did that stop Dick Cheney? Not on your life. He just steam-rolled the idea through Congress and the Executive branch and refused to compromise or bend until he got his way. Above all, he threatened to paint every wavering Democrat as an unpatriotic wimp if they didn’t join in.

Now, if an idiot could do that with a bad idea– why can’t a genius like Obama do it with a good one?

To answer my own question: because Cheney’s opponents were intelligent, reasonable people who were not given to hysterics and mudslinging. They wanted to compromise. They wanted to seem even-handed and fair to President Bush.

Obama’s opponents are well-funded shrieking harpies who will lie and distort and stop at nothing to take political advantage of any issue.

Perhaps it is going to take a Nixon (or a John McCain?) to change America’s health care system for the better. (The story is that if a Democrat had tried to establish diplomatic relations with “Red” China the way Nixon did in 1972, the Republicans would have revolted en-masse and created a constitutional crisis of insane proportions. But Nixon, who was trusted by the conservatives, was able to achieve remarkable results because everybody thought that if old arch-cold-warrior Nixon thought it was okay, it must be okay.)

Why doesn’t labour approach the problem of influencing government the way conservatives do? What they would need to do is create a foundation (or several of them, each of which appears to be independent of the others) called the “Ruthless Capitalist Institute” or something, and find some stooge entrepreneurs to staff it and fund some stooge college professors (maybe at Oral Roberts University) to do “research” and then make presentations to Congress on how investors would make even more money if they employed only unionized labour.

The Cost of Death

From the Washington Post, June 11, 2009

In the final two years of a patient’s life, for example, they found that Medicare spent an average of $46,412 per beneficiary nationwide, with the typical patient spending 19.6 days in the hospital, including 5.1 in the intensive-care unit. Green Bay patients cost $33,334 with 14.1 days in the hospital and just 2.1 days in the ICU, while in Miami and Los Angeles, the average cost of care exceeded $71,000, and total hospitalization was about 28 days with 12 in the ICU.

Some differences can be explained by big-city prices, acknowledged Elliott Fisher, principal investigator for the Dartmouth Atlas Project, “but the differences that are really important are due to the differences in utilization rates.”

Much of the evidence suggests that the more doctors, more drugs, more tests and more therapies given to patients, the worse they fare — and the unhappier they become, said Donald Berwick, president of the independent research group Institute of Quality Improvement.

The kicker here is that there is evidence that the more treatment a patient receives late in life, the less happy he or she is.

I believe it. Anyone who has spent time in a hospital or nursing home can’t help but believe it.

Billions of dollars of health care spending in the United States is guided by a very simple and pernicious logic: don’t you love your mother? (Or father, or grandparent, or…). And if you love your mother, don’t you want to do everything possible to extend her life? Everything? Even if the odds of the treatment actually extending her life or improving her quality of life are not very good?

I’m sure some elderly people simply want to live for as long as they possibly can even if it bankrupts their families, but I don’t believe most of them want that. I think most people in their 70’s and 80’s accept that life comes to an end eventually and probably hope, more fervently than for anything else, to die in peace, close to friends and family, and without unbearable pain. They don’t want to spend their last weeks or months strapped to a bed with tubes going in and out of every orifice, nauseous, drugged out. And they don’t want pallid substitutes for pain killers because the pharmaceutical industry has succeeded in establishing a monopoly over drugs.

The average American works hard all of his life, buys a house, builds up his assets, sends his children to college, saves something for retirement, spoils the grand kids, and then, just when he thinks he’s survived the economic snake-pit of American capitalism, the health care system sinks its fangs into him and sucks him dry. If you want to leave something for your grandchildren, you need to drive your car off a bridge before you become incapacitated.

Perhaps one of the most depressing facts of American life is that the medical-industrial complex has managed to convince many Americans– and almost all talk radio hosts– that the cruelest, least fair, and least efficient health-care system in the Western World is actually the best. They stand there bankrupted and ruined, dropped by their insurance companies, buried under piles of arcane incomprehensible forms, denied critical treatments because their insurance companies simply refuse to pay out… and they look at us Canadians and go, “Oh my god! You have to wait three weeks for an MRI?”