The Mirth of Hollywood Money

(Paul Schrader says…)

In the case of Bringing Out the Dead, I was opposed to Nick Cage because the character I had written was about 27 years old and Nick can’t really, plausibly be less than 35 on the screen. I thought that this was really a young man’s thing going on here.

But it was a very tough story, in terms of Hollywood. Scorcese likes to take his time. He likes to spend money shooting. Last night they were doing a shot that I would do in a hour, and they were spending six hours on it.

That shows up on screen, but it costs money. So, a film that I could have made for 8-9 million dollars here in New York, they re spending 30-35 million. So financial justifications come into play, because you have to justify that 35 million dollars. Nick Cage, at the moment, gets around 20 million dollars a movie and he’s one of the highest paid actors at the moment. He s had a whole series of successes. But Nick read this and the idea of doing Schrader and Scorsese and a night in New York again – he agreed to do it for a million dollars.

That protected Marty. He knew that once he had Nick in his pocket for a million bucks, nobody would touch him. There wouldn’t be no studio interference, there wouldn’t be talk about changing the script, talk about having a different ending, or whatever.

So he opted to go with Nick, so that he could make the movie he wanted to make. If he went with an unknown, he would have had a lower budget or he would have had to make some script changes.

Paul Schrader, from an interview at Euroscreenwriters.

Some people don’t believe me when I tell them that I believe that the only reason Leonardo DiCaprio– the worst “name” actor of his generation– got a certain role in a “big” film like “The Revenant” was because his name, attached to a project, brings in millions of dollars of investment from the movie studios. Do I seriously think the movie studios would hire a bad actor for a good part in a movie by a great director because they want to ensure a return on their investment?

Well, when you put it that way.

Leonardo DiCaprio is not popular and famous because of his great acting ability.  He does something that always looks like acting but never actually is.  He grunts and moans and moves his mouth but he reveals nothing about the character he is playing that couldn’t be derived from a comic book drawing of him.  He certainly doesn’t reveal character the way Christian Bale, or Robert Duvall or Joaquin Phoenix or Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett does.  He is popular because he projects the kind of anesthetized de-sexualized appeal of gay men that adolescent girls adore and don’t feel threatened by.  He and Andrew McCarthy and Johnny Depp and Elijah Wood and Tobey McGuire are better actors,  I suppose, probably, than the cast of “The Brady Bunch”, but they really aren’t in  the same league as the others I named.  Watch DiCaprio with the alluring Kate Winslet in “Titanic” and ask yourself this: if I was Kate Winslet in this scene would I be worried about what Jack Dawson might do to me?

It’s a giggle.  He’s completely harmless.

All right– a certain segment of the population says, “no, I wouldn’t be worried, because I would want Jack Dawson to make love to me”.  But that is because the entire scenario, a rich, cultivated, young British woman, offering, in 1910, to pose naked for a strange little American boy, in an exclusive cabin, in the first class section of a ocean liner, is preposterous.  I’m not saying you couldn’t make it work– a real writer absolutely could– but James Cameron doesn’t have even remotely the skill required to do it.   Unless you accept the rest of awful cartoonish melodrama of Cameron’s “Titanic” as worthy of seriousness.

But DiCaprio is immensely popular with a large segment of the movie ticket buying audience.  He is so popular that his presence in virtually any professional production guarantee’s tens of millions of dollars in revenue.  Thus DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, as Howard Hughes, as Hugh Glass.  That’s why people refer to his character in the movie not as J. Edgar Hoover or Howard Hughes or Hugh Glass but as Leonardo.  Did you see when Leonardo fought with the bear?  Did you see when drew the portrait of the naked girl?  Did you see when he invented that big airplane?   Did you see when he nearly drowned?

And thus, Scorcese.

It is so common a practice, to give a prime role to celebrity actor rather than someone with real talent in order to lock in a big budget, that I look for it at the beginning of every big, serious Hollywood production, and even some independent films, even when the director is someone like Terence Davies, whose work I generally adore. We just watched his “House of Mirth”. Even with Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz in lead roles, it’s a gorgeous film, beautifully directed and scored; it’s thoughtful, delicate, subtle. And it has Laura Linney, a terrific actress, in the part of Bertha Dorset.

I really had no expectations about Gillian Anderson in the lead role. I thought, you never know– someone famous for her work on a slightly interesting but formulaic TV drama might turn out to be a good actress. Might. But she didn’t, and while it looks like she’s giving it everything she’s got and it looks like Terence Davies does wonders with what he’s given, she ends up reminding me of Lucy Ricardo.  And then you watch Laura Linney  for a few minutes and wonder why the hell she wasn’t playing Lily, and why Gillian Anderson was even in the movie. And the answer is obvious: Gillian Anderson was a huge star at the time the film was made (2000); she was a celebrity. She brought the money for an expensive movie.

She was at least serviceable in “House of Mirth” and the movie survived her shortcomings. Not so with Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar” or, ridiculously, “Aviator”. How far can Hollywood push the idea of using a celebrity to play parts for which they do not seem remotely suited? DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover?  Are you fucking kidding me?  As Howard Hughes?  Are you nuts?  Why not Churchill? Why not Jesus?

(Oh my god! I just discovered that they have actually cast DiCaprio as the lead in a remake of “The Great Gatsby”. Wow.)

Renee Zellweger as Brigit Jones? Can she even do the accent? Can she even handle a role that is as light as a feather in a film that consists mostly of gas?

Tom Hanks as anything? (Although, he is at least improving as an actor, as evidenced in “Cloud Atlas”.)  We all love Tom Hanks– I want him to be my neighbor.  But he cannot act.  Ringo is a better drummer than Hanks is an actor.

This is the Hollywood disease. Actors are chattel: an investment, a product to be promoted and placed where-ever opportune, and exploited for as long as possible, even when you have to have a 70-year-old romancing a 20-year-old.

Well, that’s not entirely unrealistic: I just a picture of 82-year-old Robert De Niro holding his 18-month-old daughter.

God forbid you should have to go through the expense of introducing a new actor, promoting him, getting him onto the talk shows and into the gossip columns, getting his picture out there, his story, his rugged perpetual 5:00 shadow. It’s an investment, like fork-lifts and aprons and saucers and pig-iron.

As for real acting: it’s something best left to young, independent directors to uncover, in young, unknown actors.   Watch the film “Winter’s Bone” with Jennifer Lawrence before she was famous.

Watch her now.

It’s sad.


Dr. Robert Sadoff and Jeffrey MacDonald

“I see no evidence for psychotic thought progresses either present or underlying, no evidence for hallucinations or delusions. He does not reveal evidence for serious psychoneurotic disorder with poor self control. He does not show evidence for a longstanding characterological disorder or a sociopathic personality disorder with acting out processes. He denies the use of drugs of any type, which could have stimulated an acute toxic psychotic state, resulting in loss of control and explosive violence.” Dr. Robert Sadoff quoted in Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Errors in regard to Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was later convicted of murdering his wife and two young daughters in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, February 17th, 1970.

That statement should be disturbing to all of us.

Firstly, if you believe that Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his wife and two daughters on February 17, 1970, then you have an allegedly reputable psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff, offering a ridiculously inept misdiagnosis of a violent psychotic killer, a man who stabbed his own daughter with an ice pick and battered his wife’s head with a club of some kind and stabbed her 21 times with the same ice pick and then devised some preposterous story about drug-crazed hippies conducting a Manson-like slaughter in his home to tell the military police investigators.

No symptoms of any “characterological” disorder, according to Dr. Sadoff.

But if you believe MacDonald was railroaded, Dr. Sadoff’s comments are no less disturbing. Are you blown away by his scintillating use of pseudo-scientific jargon? Just what is a “characterological disorder”? Is this something you can measure or calculate based on anything other than a conversation? A conversation which is an exchange of words which is judged by man with credentials and then presented to the public and the courts and the investigators as some kind of scientific conclusion?

Is there a necessity for the phrase “longstanding characterological disorder” or for the phrase “sociopathic personality disorder with acting out processes”? What if Dr. Sadoff just said this:

“Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald seemed like a nice guy. I liked him. He didn’t yell or get angry or threaten me in any way. I thought he was swell.”

Ah, you say. No court would accept that as “expert” testimony. It would have no authority, no cachet. The attorney’s would not nod their heads knowingly or consult their table of characterological disorders to see if all the criteria were met.

Dr. Sadoff would probably admit that he is not God. He does not see into anyone’s mind. He does not have any special gift for un-encrypting the myriad complexities of nuance and suggestion and subtle inference and implication and allusion and random snatches of impulse and vocabularic irregularity (if he can make up words with dubious meanings, so can I). He had a conversation with Jeffrey MacDonald. He knows no more than any smart person could possibly know from a conversation with a suspected killer. He merely knows how to produce psychology theatre and, unfortunately, many people are convinced that there is a secret script that can be decoded by magical people with degrees and certificates.


Remember the Idiots at the Alamo

It will be placed in a Mylar sleeve, mounted between sheets of antireflective plexiglass, placed in a crate and transported from Austin to San Antonio by a fine arts shipper with an escort of state troopers. It will be displayed in a custom-built case that will filter most ultraviolet light. Officers known as Alamo Rangers, private security guards and plainclothes off-duty police officers, will patrol or stand guard. The project will cost more than $100,000, the majority of which will be private donations.

NY Times, October 3, 2012

The document in question is a letter from William Travis sent from The Alamo in the days just before Santa Ana arrived with the Mexican army. It is a relic and this hysterical worship of it is ridiculous. Travis writes “Victory or death!” Rick Perry repeated the phrase, with a straight face, when he ran for president last year.

The purpose of the security precautions, with the “Alamo Rangers”, off-duty police, and private security guards is to try to convince you and I that there really is something very, very important about this letter. There really is. It is so sacred, so holy, and so monumental, that nefarious persons all around the world would take it if they could. It must be guarded by very straight-faced armed men. It must be transported in a special vehicle with an escort of state troopers.

The board that overseas the archives commission was not impressed with these precautions and warns that it might not approve the transfer of the document to San Antonio to be displayed, in February, at the Alamo.

Lt. Col. William Barret Travis was an idiot.

Travis sacrificed something of infinite value– his own life– for a brief and bloody flip through a fringe way-station on the path to manifest destiny. The fight was not about freedom: it was about taking land from Mexico on behalf of American speculators and slave-traders. These people were not fighting for freedom of religion or expression or the right to vote or join a union or put up a Christmas tree. They were fighting to perpetuate a land distribution system that allowed a select few to accumulate very, very large swatches of land through trickery and deceit so they could resell it to “pioneers” at inflated prices. The pioneers could then use slave labor (illegal in Mexico) to farm their lands.

They always cry “freedom, freedom” and they always take your gold, your oil, your wheat, your children, your drugs, your land. They cry “freedom, freedom” while protecting your pimps and casinos. They sing glorious praises of freedom, freedom, as they sell you out to Exxon or IBM or Shell.

General Sam Houston didn’t think much of the Alamo in terms of strategic importance– for reasons that became obvious– and chose to abandon it. This was a perfectly rational, sound decision. He wasn’t surrendering to Santa Anna: he was conducting a strategic retreat so he could regroup his army and fight again another day, on better terms, and with less needless sacrifice of lives. Houston was an oddity for military commanders in his day: careful, prudent, cautious. He eventually prevailed, at San Jacinto, but he took some heat in the meantime.

Needless? Texas, you may not know, was a part of Mexico in 1821 (it was originally part of the Spanish colonies). The United States negotiated a border with Mexico which confirmed Texas as Mexican territory. However, American settlers ignored the agreement and violated the treaty by moving into the territory. Santa Ana, in the meantime, had rescinded the Mexican constitution and made himself dictator.

Eventually, the American settlers organized, formed an army, and declared independence. One of the reasons? Mexico had outlawed slavery.

The Battle of the Alamo took place February 23 – March 6, 1836. The decisive battle of the war was fought shortly afterwards in San Jacinto.  The Mexicans were badly routed there and Santa Ana capitulated and signed a new treaty. He had been captured dressed as a common soldier, but was given away by his own men when they acknowledged him as “presidente”, apparently.

In 1845, Texas, having completed the charade of independence,  was granted statehood.

The monument in San Jacinto says this: “Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world…” It would have been fun to sit on the meeting that chose that phrase. I would have liked to hear their ranking of “decisive battles of the world”.  Come on– tells us.  Waterloo?  Stalingrad?  Marathon?  Gaugamela?  Metaurus?

Houston, as I said, didn’t think it was smart to defend the Alamo against a vastly superior force. He sent James Bowie to the fort to remove the artillery and destroy the entire complex. It was Colonel James Neill who decided that the men under his command should honor his own ego with the sacrifice of their lives. Then he left.

Bowie, Travis, and Davy Crockett stayed. Travis and Bowie argued over who was in charge. Neill returned to settle the dispute and then left again. This was a wise decision.

When the Mexican army arrived, Bowie tried to negotiate a surrender. Yes, he did. Travis, mad for self-abasement and morbid glory, disagreed with Bowie and fired a cannon at the Mexican camp, and sent his own hard-liner to meet with the Mexicans.

The Mexicans, in any case, were not in the mood for taking prisoners. Apparently there is a kind of flag you raise if you intend to murder prisoners. They raised this flag.

Most of what you have heard about the Alamo since is blather. The Americans seem to think that out-killing the Mexicans from within a fortified compound was the most incredible awesomest achievement of any army anywhere in the entire history of the entire world. The movies and the bombast are intended to encourage today’s young people to sign up for more bloodletting when required, as when our oil supplies are in question.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

Privatizing Abuse

I am not a lawyer. I am a citizen. As a citizen, I vote for a political party at election time hoping that the party I vote for wins. The party that wins has a mandate from the voters to govern. We all generally accept that even if I didn’t vote for the winning party, I will respect the fact that this party has a mandate to govern. In the process of governing, this party can hire individuals to perform certain tasks and functions on behalf of the government. One of those functions is the justice system. The government can hire police who then have the authority to arrest a person if the police have evidence that this person has committed a crime. If convicted of breaking the law, a person may be locked up in a prison and guarded by other individuals hired by the government for that purpose. If you assault a police officer or guard– unless, as is sometimes likely, you have a good reason– you are essentially assaulting a legitimate representative of the government. These representatives of the government have the authority to use physical force if necessary to enforce the law.

They swear to it. And they swear that they will serve the constitution and the laws of the state — not the will of any political party or business or church.

I have never understood why it is believed in some quarters that  such authority can be transferred to a private company. I have never accepted that this can be done, that it can be legitimate in the strict sense of the word, or that we owe the slightest respect to the “authority” supposedly held by any such individual.

In fact, I think I do understand. It is a lie.

In my humble opinion, a private company cannot be given the authority that is normally vested in the government. A private company cannot have the legitimacy to enforce public laws and statutes because a private company is fundamentally exactly what it is: a private company. It does not have a public mandate. It was not elected. It does not swear allegiance to the constitution or to the laws of the nation.

The employees of this company cannot be responsible both to their employer and to the government. They are paid to provide a profit-making service to their employer. They are not paid to “enforce the law”. That is ridiculous– they don’t get fired if the law isn’t enforced. They get fired if they fail to help the company make a profit. They are not accountable to elected representatives of the people: they are accountable to shareholders. If an employee of one of these companies violates the constitution by using force to detain a citizen, he doesn’t get fired; he gets outsourced.

In my opinion, the government cannot contract out it’s own mandate; it cannot sell it’s legitimacy. It cannot attach it’s authority to anybody but itself. No moreso than it can sell the nation out from under your feet to the highest bidder, pay itself huge bonuses, and retire to the Cayman Islands.

A government cannot outsource it’s own constitutional accountability.

Imagine, if you will, that an election is held, and, say, George Bush wins the election. He has a mandate to govern. Suppose he says, now that I’m president, I’m going to appoint James Dobson to the presidency. And then suppose James Dobson goes around issuing orders, raising taxes, dumping people off welfare and Medicare, and appointing justices to the Supreme Court, and ordering the arrest of witches. Would a court uphold a trial of a witch because James Dobson is the president of the United States and has the authority to order the arrest of witches? No. Not, of course, without a good deal of corruption.

In my opinion, anyone imprisoned in a privately owned facility that the government has contracted with to hold prisoners, has a legitimate right to use force against the staff of that prison, for the staff are kidnappers. A prisoner could rightfully say, I will respect the right of a police officer or a duly appointed state official to arrest and detain me. You are not a police officer. You may not use force against me. If you do, I will charge you with assault.

We do “allow” soldiers to kill during wartime. You could argue that that right is dubious as well, but let’s humour the militarists for a moment and accept that there can be a legitimacy to a “war”, like, say Iraq (which was not an act of self-defense). What authority to kill they do have comes solely from the fact that they are representative of a nation that is legally at war with another country. No business entity can be in such a state. There is no legal framework for a business to declare war on a country. If a business did declare war on a country, it’s leaders and owners would be arrested as… .terrorists, actually. At the very least, they would be regarded as criminals.

Do the privately contracted individuals carrying out military duties in Afghanistan have any legitimacy? How can they possibly have the right to kill people when they do not represent the government?

You probably think, I’m sure the top legal minds in the country have had a look at this issue before the government went ahead and started contracting out all these services and functions. You might be wrong. The move to privatize prisons and war and other government functions was largely driven by (corrupt) political ideology. (I say “corrupt” because, over and over again, this outsourcing ends up being a financial bonanza for well-connected private firms and don’t save the taxpayer any money at all– look at Blackwater.)

I would also note that the Supreme Court in the U.S. no longer has much authority itself: it’s dominated by a bunch of hack Republican appointees who virtually never vote against the party line.

Junk Science in Court: Bite Me

If you were charged with a crime in the U.S. and put on trial, would you assume that the forensic evidence introduced in court against you would at least be based on some kind of sound, factual, scientific research? Think again.

Frontline recently ran a documentary on the “science” of fingerprinting, bite mark analysis, and other forensic “sciences” and demonstrated rather convincingly that many courts will allow testimony by self-styled experts that has no basis in any substantive research whatsoever.

The most dramatic examples were related to two men who had been in prison for ten years or more for assaulting and murdering three-year-old girls. In both cases, the men were the former boyfriends of the girls’ mother. In both cases, an orthodontist who claimed to be versed in the science of bite mark analysis testified that scratches on the little girls’ bodies were actually bite marks that could only have come from the suspects, to the exclusion of everyone else. In each case, this testimony was the bulwark of the prosecution’s argument. In each case, the judge allowed the testimony. In each case, the man was convicted. In each case, DNA analysis– which is founded in real science– eventually exonerated the men, and the real killer confessed to the crimes.

Do I have to be polite when expressing myself about how I feel about these judges for allowing this testimony into their courts? This is not a matter upon which reasonable, educated people might respectfully beg to differ. These are witch trials that have no place in a civil society.

How far does it go? At the Casey Anthony trial a self-styled expert in smells testified that a container of smell– I’m not making this up– from the trunk of Casey Anthony’s car contained the smell of a dead body. Casey Anthony was found not guilty largely because she was able to raise $200,000 for decent lawyers by selling pictures of her with Caylee to People Magazine. Those lawyers successfully challenged a host of junk science evidence.

Now, there are rules about “expert” testimony. Prosecutors interviewed by Frontline didn’t seem aware of them. One of them declared that it was up to the jury to determine whether the smell evidence was truthful, relevant, or accurate. It is not. The Supreme Court has ruled that the judge is the “gatekeeper” for expert testimony and determines whether any specific evidence should be presented or not.

Furthermore, evidence will be deemed qualified if it has been gathered according to a scientific methodology which makes use of valid scientific procedures. One key element is falsifiability.

That said, some judges will permit both sides to present evidence on the scientific validity of certain procedures and expect the jury to sort it out. This gives an enormous advantage to the heavily resourced prosecution in most cases.

My own take on the Caylee Anthony case? I doubt we’ll ever know the truth. Casey Anthony is clearly a disturbed, unstable, delusional young woman, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is also a murderess. She could be. But we’ve seen enough wrongful convictions to know that people tend to fit the facts to the preferred narrative, not the other way around, and whacky, unstable people are particularly vulnerable.

Here’s the most compelling point in her favor: if the police and prosecutors really believed she was guilty, why on earth did they introduce so much whacky junk forensic science into the proceedings? If you were a prosecutor, wouldn’t you have dumped the “smell” science immediately as something that looked specious and stupid, and would ultimately weaken your case? If you really believed in your own case, with any kind of integrity or intelligence, why would you introduce so many dubious elements into your presentation?

The answer is that prosecutors and police believe that the court system is a bit of a game, and you do what it takes to win, and getting at the truth is merely a secondary objective. I think they see a kind of organic logic to the system, justice theatre, in which their goal is to lock up bad people when something bad happens. If a few innocent people get snagged along the way, so be it.

And if a particular suspect didn’t commit a particular crime but was busted for it anyway– it’s a small price to pay for a system which, they believe, ultimately “works”.

When I was very young, my brother came into our house one day and told me he needed help. He led me to the back of the garage where he had started a fire which was now beginning to lick up the exterior wall. He wanted me to help him put it out. We began filling small plastic buckets with sand from the sand box and throwing it on the wall. In spite of our efforts, the flames grew bigger and bigger, and I believe I was about to tell him we should get real help when I noticed he had disappeared. He had gone back into the house to tell our mom that I had started a fire behind the garage.

I denied it, of course. My mom stared at me and ask me if I was telling the truth. Everybody knows that if you are telling the truth, you won’t get nervous and giggle. I giggled. Busted.

Or maybe I wasn’t. I had a feeling that Mom wasn’t totally convinced. I don’t remember any big punishment other than having to stay in my room for a while.

We now know, I hope, that people giggle when they are nervous, whether they are lying or not. It was the bite mark of my childhood, a wrongful conviction based on spurious evidence. You might think it trivial, but I have never forgotten. I few years ago, I brought it up at a family party and my brother acknowledged that he, in fact, had started the fire. Within a year, the entire family seemed to forget that revelation and went right back to blaming me for it.

, and even to this day my siblings tend to remember that I started that fire rather than the fact that Ed finally admitted the truth years ago.

The Supreme Strippers

The Supreme Court, featuring the immortal Clarence Thomas, has just ruled– 5-4, of course, (Republican Appointees vs. Democratic Appointees), that the police may strip search an individual even if he has only been charged with the most trivial crime. And that is not an exaggeration: the justices were explicit. Overdue speeding ticket? Walking a dog without a leash? Litter? Literally, even the slightest offense.

I am amazed that five adults could conclude that the a strip search is a rather trivial price to pay for a procedure of dubious efficacy applied to people who just don’t seem likely to be much of a threat to law and order. Again, the justices were explicit: the police don’t have have to have any particular reason for believing that a suspect might be in possession of a weapon or other contraband. They can just do it. For fun, if you will.

The internet is a creative conduit for civil discourse: there really ought to be a group created to monitor the Supreme Court justices at all times. It should be coordinated on Facebook or a private website. People can volunteer and take turns following the five justices around, taking pictures and video (which can then be posted to the internet) to make sure they aren’t doing anything illegal. These volunteers should absolutely observe the letter of the law. Hoo haw! Make way for the new “reasonable”!

At what point do you think a Justice might complain that he doesn’t like being followed or observed or recorded or spied on? What right would they have to complain? It is perfectly reasonable to infringe a little on someone’s privacy in order to accomplish a greater good. It is clearly in the interests of the citizens of the United States to make sure that their Supreme Court Justices are not doing anything to besmirch the reputation of the courts.

One of the rationales for this ruling is that the court should not interfere in the practice of law enforcement unless absolutely necessary because that would be “judicial activism”. Like repealing legislation enacted by a duly elected congress. Like Obamacare.

Another reason given– this one is a real gem– is that any of these people arrested and strip searched might turn out to be Timothy McVeigh or one of the 9/11 hijackers. And…. so, a strip search might have revealed that McVeigh was packing 2 tons of explosive fertilizer? He might have been planning to blow up the prison? A strip search would have stopped him?

Or Mohammed Atta might have had a box-cutter hidden under his scrotum?

And he might have littered or jay-walked just prior to boarding the aircraft?

That would surely have tipped authorities off to the plot…

It should surprise no-one that Chief Justice John Roberts ruled the way he did: this is the man who ruled that it is not unreasonable for a large policeman to take down a child and handcuff her for eating a French Fry on a subway platform.

Hurray for Death Panels: I Mean it!

By the Republicans definition, any attempt to prevent people from choosing expensive but ineffective treatments, is a “death panel”.

It is a tribute to how badly outfoxed on public relations the Democrats have been: the public associates “Death Panels” not with congressmen determined to prevent them from accessing health insurance, at a sustainable cost, but with the Democrats who want to provide it. That is an amazing accomplishment.

As far as I can tell, the Republicans greatest concern about health care is the rising costs. It has been rising, rising, rising for fifty years under the Republican system: private insurance. Did I say the Republicans are concerned about these rising costs? Yes they are. They have a solution. Do nothing. As Ross Douthat in the New York Times admits, the conservative solution to the uncontrolled cost of health care is “modest reforms that would help the hardest-pressed among the uninsured”. Isn’t that inspiring? That covers a multitude of nothings.

As the health care industry expands to meet it’s central dynamic: we are a society that looks at itself in the mirror and says, “we believe life is more valuable than money”. Therefore, if someone’s life needs saving, we will spend as much as necessary to save it. The health care industry understands this. There is no reason why they should ever find cheaper, more efficient treatments: it is contrary to their fundamental interests.

It is not contrary to the real interests of the government and the people they represent to place some reasonable controls over how much should be spent on any particular disease or injury. But it’s something all the parties have to agree on or else one particularly stupid or ruthless party can exploit the fact that most people appear to refuse to believe what they see. An unfortunately large percentage of the population can be led to believe that one party can provide all the health care they want and need without bankrupting the country while cutting taxes.

So I’ll bet more than a few rational Republicans — if any are left– regret the choice of the word “death panels”. Because they have attached the phrase to the idea of limiting the relentless increase in health care costs. Because the potential cost of health care is infinite. The last twenty years of astonishing increases have proven it.

Come on, Democrats! Seize the term and turn it on the Republicans! They are the party that doesn’t want you to have affordable health insurance. They are the party of war, of unregulated industry, of tort reform: they are the Drop Dead Party.

The Republican approach will inevitably lead to a system where only the rich can afford proper treatment. By the Republicans definition, any attempt to prevent people from choosing expensive but ineffective treatments, is a “death panel”. Any attempt to limit treatments performed on people who are going to die soon anyway is a “death panel”.

Do you want to be the politician who tries to explain to the American people that too much health care is provided to people in the last few months of their lives, and that this is making the whole system unsustainable?

Here’s the naked truth: what the U.S., and most western countries need or already have, is something the Republicans have labeled as “death panels”.

As Douthat correctly noted, health care costs rise at astronomical rates. New treatments come on board constantly, new drugs, new techniques, and pharmaceuticals and doctors and hospitals charge enormous sums for these goods and services. Unfortunately, all this new technology has had the opposite effect that it had on computers: medical costs have risen steadily. Why? Really, in a nutshell, because people will pay anything to get better. Anything. Whatever it costs. People will sell everything they own to pay for it because nothing you own matters to you if you’re dead. And the medical industry knows it.

There really as an infinite amount of money we can spend on health care. Unconstrained, it will eventually consume most of the financial resources of the entire nation.

The health care industry also knows that people don’t go shopping around the cheapest cancer surgery, to see if they can get a discount. They don’t turn down an incredibly expensive operation just because they also have cancer and failed kidneys and diabetes and a heart condition, because they are 80 years old, or because they are Republican.

With this logic in place, there is no ceiling on medical expenditures, and eventually it will consume more and more and more of the economy, until it breaks. Or until Republicans, having created an unsustainable system, declare that no system is sustainable and announce their new policy for the uninsured: drop dead.

Most other developed countries simply negotiate what they will pay for particular treatments, which treatments will be available, and how much over-all spending will go into health care. What the Republicans call “death panels” are really nothing more than educated people trying to balance needs against resources, and so far it works pretty well in Europe, Australia, and Canada.

I have no problem accepting a system that declares that it will not spend an infinite amount of money on health care. I have no problem believing that we can still have a pretty good system that provides effective essential treatments for almost every illness. I accept that when I am 80 years old and suffering from all the ailments a typical 80 year old suffers from that I will not be a candidate for a kidney or heart transplant.

The only way to have a sustainable and effective health care system is with death panels.

The essence of the American debate was captured for once and always in this exchange:

Someone reportedly told Inglis, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

“I had to politely explain that, ‘Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,'” Inglis told the Post. “But he wasn’t having any of it.”  Huffington Post

Laura Ingall’s Doctor

When the Ingalls family came down with malaria, they were treated by Doctor George A. Tann, who may have saved their lives.

Forget all about him. In “Little House of the Prairie”, the Ingalls very, very kindly help the son of a former slave named Solomon find refuge and an education. Did that make you feel kind-hearted and virtuous? I’ll bet it did. I’ll bet you thought– those wonderful Ingalls– so progressive!

How would it have struck you if the African American had been the doctor who came to their house and actually lived with them for a time while treating their malaria? You would have thought– come on!

IN 1870!

Are you mad?

For those of you who can’t understand why some people just can’t love “wholesome” television or movie programs, this is why: TV refused to show you that Dr. George A. Tann was an African American doctor who treated the Ingalls for malaria.

It would have been disturbing in some way to a large portion of the audience. It would have been disturbing to a large number of potential customers of Wonder Bread to think that perhaps their attitudes towards race were not what they thought they were.

One of the most popular shows among the denizens of the Republican heartland.

So, is anyone surprised?

PBS’ Soundstage

When I was in college back in the 1970’s, the only decent music program on TV was Soundstage (earlier known as “Made in Chicago”), which presented relatively current, relatively serious artists like Harry Chapin, Arlo Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot, and Emmy-Lou Harris, in a one-hour format, no commercial breaks, no light shows, no lip-synching.

Okay– so they also presented– geez!– Burt Bacharach and the Bee Gees. It absolutely blows my mind that the same minds that would put together a program like this for Emmy-Lou Harris would think it was a great idea to give the Bee Gees an hour of rapt attention. The Bee Gees were worse than mediocre. They were aggressively mediocre. Their mediocrity pounded you on the face and stuck it’s waxy fingers into your ears and wobbled your head from side-to-side to scream at you that there is not a single interesting thing musically or intellectually in any of this noise you are hearing.

But then again, in 1976 Lightfoot appeared on Hee-Haw to lip-synch “Sundown”.

Anyway, two or three of my favorite shows are on PBS: the News Hour which is about the only television news program that I watch without getting nauseous nowadays (I know I’m mean but even Peter Mansbridge looks and sounds like a pharmaceutical salesman– think about it– doesn’t he always seem about to ask, “and how often should the patient take this dosage, Mary?”) and “Frontline” (documentaries) and “Inside Washington”. And “Nova” can be pretty cool thought it can also get annoyingly breathless at times. And cheesy.

But mostly, when they need money, they present John Sebastian presenting endlessly recycled clips of “Do You Believe in Magic” or the Mamas and the Papas singing “California Dreaming” on Hullabaloo, in bathtubs, or Peter, Paul, and Mary doing their farewell concert to end all farewell concerts at Carnegie Hall. Over and over and over again. And over and over and over again. And over and over and over and over again. I don’t think they have done pledge week once in the last 20 years without showing Peter, Paul & Mary singing “Lemon Tree” or Pete Seeger doing “Turn, Turn, Turn” and John Sebastian strumming his autoharp and creeping me out with that harmless, aimless expression, grinning and looking folksy and trying to make you believe that the 1960’s was a happy place of delightful experimentation and joyful frolics in psychedelic meadows of unicorns and marshmallows.

When it’s not John Sebastian and the 1960’s, it’s Victor Borge, Perry Como, or Harry Belafonte. Who runs this network?

It doesn’t make sense to me. The average age of the PBS viewer must surely be sliding ever closer to the grave– they will, sooner or later, require younger viewers to survive the next round of Republican attacks. To attract younger viewers, they have to start bringing in musical artists like Leslie Feist, Arcade Fire, Royal Wood, Bon Ivor, Conor Orbest, Wilco, please, anybody from the last ten or fifteen years!

I am never not astounded that Lawrence Welk is actually still shown on TV, on Sunday, PBS.  Really?  Seriously?  Who is running this network?

Penitence and the Brinks Robbery

Judith Clark: on October 20th, 1981, a group of radicals tried to rob a Brinks truck of about $1.8 million in cash. Things went wrong and two Brinks’ guards were shot and two police officers were killed trying to apprehend them.

Poor Judith Clark, the driver, was not smart enough to cop a deal. She was a true believer, and true believers do not compromise with the system. She went to trial. Her defense was that the system itself– of justice, of government– had no legitimacy, and therefore, did not have the authority to judge her.

She received 75 years as an accessory to murder.

The odd thing is that Judith Clark was just the driver. Almost everyone else who was involved, who carried and discharged firearms, is now out of jail. They cut deals. Not the driver. That is what passes for justice in our system. We don’t weigh all the evidence, analyze the facts, acquire knowledge and information– no, we cut deals.

But Judith Clark was not game. She refused to cut a deal and got 75 years. She had a 9 month old daughter on the day of the crime.

In an article in the New York Times on January 16, 2012, Tom Robbins interviewed some of the family members of the dead police officers. They feel that 75 years is not enough. They wish she could have been killed. Which is exactly the kind of feelings they accuse her of having, and which they believe make her a very, very bad person. To wish someone dead.

I don’t know how they feel about her accomplices, who escaped with lighter sentences and are now free to do whatever they please. I would guess they would want them dead too.

The illusion we all cling to– or don’t– is that she deserves it and they do not. I believe that what the families of the victims believe has more to do with language and culture and habit and the feedback loop of victimization and the culture of violent retribution, and has nothing to do with any kind of “justice”, of deserving, in any form whatsoever. I believe that wishing someone dead because they murdered your loved one means that you are not that far apart. Why did they kill? Because they wanted something and they thought killing another human being would get it for them. Why do you want them dead? Because it will bring your loved one back to life? Will it bring your loved one back to life? Will it give life to the dead? Will it keep someone else from dying? What do you really want when you want someone dead?

You can lock someone up for 75 years if all you want is to prevent someone else from suffering what you have suffered. But if you want someone else to suffer what you have suffered, then you want them to lose a loved one. You want them to feel what you felt.

You want them dead, then, Because then you think you will feel better. We have an array of euphemisms: closure. Justice. Whatever. All it cost for you to feel better is to kill someone. Failing that, yes, let’s just lock them up forever.

Who was killed? Brink’s Guard Peter Paige. Joe Trombino was severely wounded.

Police officers: Waverly Brown, Edward O’Grady.

Have you ever heard a victim’s family in the U.S. declare that they don’t know if a prisoner up for parole is genuinely sorry for what happened? “Honest– we don’t know. Let’s hope he is being honest when he says he is.”

I can’t remember ever hearing or reading anything like that. They all seem to think they do know, and they seem very sure of it. They are invariably convinced that the repentance is faked, to get out of prison. They seem to know this because they refuse to believe that they desire the harshest imaginable treatment of a person who might seem undeserving of their heartlessness.

They get really angry if the criminal does not apology and say that he should not be paroled because he didn’t apologize.  When he does apologize, they announce that they find the apology inadequate.  They should say,  in advance of all apologies, we say that we want an apology but if we get one we will find it unsatisfactory.

Do these same people believe that Newt Gingrich is genuinely sorry for cheating on his wife? Maybe not. Or that Michael Vick was really sorry he participated in a dog fight? Or that Billy Graham was really sorry about supportively sharing Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitism? Or that Eliot Spitzer was sorry for any reason other than he got caught. Or that Anthony Wiener was sorry he lived in a nation dominated by frigid hysterics?

We all fake respect for civilization and social and moral law every day of our lives. It’s a hoax we agree upon in order to have something called “civilization” and “society” and “culture”.

The important thing, really– the realistic thing to expect — is that convicted felons realize they benefit more by not robbing banks and killing police than they do by robbing banks and killing police.

So what is “sorry”? Too often what the families of the victims, and the police and the judges, expect from “sorry” goes beyond remorse for the actual crime: the penitent must express something that seems to reflect kindly on the families of the victims, the police, and the judge.

That’s the why, sometimes, the wrongfully convicted are treated more harshly than the rightfully convicted but astute criminal. The wrongfully convicted sometimes stubbornly insist on not confessing to crimes they have not committed.

More perversely– in the eyes of the justice system– they obstinately refuse to recognize their abusers as wise, kind, thought, devout, resolute warriors of justice and mercy.

The pricks.