9 Is Not a Lonely Number

9 filmA couple of years ago, when I first saw the movie 9, I thought I perceived in it a new kind of dramatic structure. Having just watched it, I see now that I was wrong. The film is structured as a number of clear sequences—seven or so (I haven’t studied the film). And as such, it is a pretty typical story structure. The only notable thing about it is that, as usual for animated features, it is much more tightly structured than most films.

Regardless of all this, it is a wonderful film—the kind of story that I am naturally attracted to. And it is beautiful to look out. There is more creativity in every frame than there is in whole Hollywood films. Take, for example, the funeral of 2 where the others send his body off on a boat in a body of water. Before he is sent off, however, the others put a coin over his eyes. That’s really wonderful: sort of Norse, sort of Greek.

What is wonderful about this film is the way that it uses archetypes. It has the Intellectual, the Hero, the Inventor. My favorite (as always) is the Mystic. There is an unfortunate unwritten rule that says the Mystic has to die at the end of the second act. See, for example, Lord of the Flies. But while watching the film, I had a sad thought. These stories are filled with interesting types of people, but in real life, most people are just slight variation on the Follower. And that especially applies to our so called leaders, who have all the originality of a Benny Hill rerun (with all due respect to the man).

I know that I’m coming off as elitist here. But I don’t think I am in fact elitist. There is just something about any society (and ours most especially) that kills individuality and therefore life. It makes most men of my age far too interested in professional sports and not at all interested in movie musicals from the 1950s. But that in itself would be okay if all that specialization of interest led to a deep appreciation. But it doesn’t. I think the vast majority of baseball fans have no more understanding (and often less) than I do. And that’s just sad.

No wonder I want to hang out with animated dolls like 6 and 2 and 7 and 5 and 9. They are all so alive.


For the record: I really like baseball. It’s about the only professional sport I enjoy watching. But even still, I would rather watch the minor leagues.

Hope for Democrats in 2014

Sean TrendeSean Trende over at Real Clear Politics has started the process of looking at the 2014 House elections. The article mostly concerns its title, Congressional Elections and the Sixth-Year Myth. This is the idea that the president’s party will lose big in the sixth-year midterm. To me, this myth is a little hard to understand. The House membership change for all the two-term presidents since FDR are as follows: -22%, -24%, -16%, -25%, -3%, +2%, -13%. I think people look at the big starting numbers and just go with it. To me, it looks like a downward trend: something that used to be that is no longer.

Well, that isn’t what’s going on. He showed (going all the way back to 1870) that in only one of the two midterm races, the president’s party loses big. It is very rare that it happens twice—in fact, it only happened once—to Grant in 1870 and 1874. Trende mentioned a number of reasons why this is, but one is by far the most important. And we know what it is. The biggest reason that the Democrats lost in 2010 was not Obamacare or any of that garbage. When Obama won big in 2008, he dragged a lot of House Democrats with him who were in marginal or even conservative districts. When turn-out was low in 2010, they all lost. So now in 2014, the Democrats hold very few marginal seats. So they will not lose big in the upcoming midterms. At least they won’t unless something dramatic happens.

Trend still thinks that the race favors the Republicans. He says the results will likely be somewhere between 5 Democratic seats up to 15 Republican seats up. The odds of the Democrats taking back the house (which would require that they win 17 seats) is very unlikely. In summary:

But we should also bear in mind that the fact that the Democrats got walloped in 2010 means that it would be highly unusual for factors to coalesce and create a really bad year again in 2014. This should put a damper on Republican expectations for 2014, and give Democrats some hope that they can make some gains…

And I’ll take that hope—especially coming from a conservative outlet like Real Clear Politics!

Jamestown Jane and the Cannibals

Jamestown JaneMeet Jamestown Jane. Or as her friends in Jamestown may have referred to her, Juicy Jane. According to USA Today, in a presentation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, her reconstructed face was presented as shown in the picture at the left. A lot of reconstruction was necessary, because she was apparently butchered for food during the a bad winter in 1609 when 80% of the residents of the colony died—mostly of starvation. Poor Jane had her skull based open to get to her high protein brain. No one can say whether she was specifically killed to eat or not. Regardless, pretty girl.[1]

This isn’t the first time that cannibalism has been associated with Jamestown. Accounts at the time claim that one man was put to death for eating his wife. I assume this is not a euphemism!

Reading about all of this made me wonder why it is we were all taught about the Plymouth Colony, when it wasn’t first. So I did a little research and came upon a bulletin board with a discussion of the issue. And I was shocked at the answers. Most people said we probably focus on Plymouth because the Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution. Well that’s wrong and right.

It is wrong in the sense that it is absolutely false that the Pilgrims came to Plymouth to get religious freedom. They left England because of religious persecution. And they went to Holland (in what is today The Netherlands) and got religious freedom there. But it’s a funny thing about religious freedom: those who give it tend to give it to everyone. There was a whole big world of ideas and the Pilgrims didn’t much like that. The kids were getting new ideas in their heads and the Pilgrims were (Gasp!) losing their cultural identity. So off to Massachusetts. And good for them! But don’t say they went to get religious freedom when it was exactly the opposite.

But I think these bulletin board people are correct: this myth is the reason that grammar school children throughout the nation are taught about the Pilgrims. But I hated this kind of nonsense even when I was a kid. In the second grade, I was taught that Columbus discovered America. In the fifth grade, I was taught, well, Columbus really didn’t discover America. And in the seventh grade I was taught that, yes, in terms of westward migration, Columbus really did discover America. Was that so hard? Did I really have to go through three iterations of the story?

As for the story of western invasion, why not Jamestown with its war, disease, and cannibalism? Those are all critically important concepts to understand about the founding the United States. And at this point, I think the kids would choose Jamestown if they were asked. “Hey kids, which story do you want: Thanksgiving turkey or Jamestown Jane? They’re both nice a juicy, if a tad gamy!” I think the answer is perfectly clear.

Update (1 May 2013 11:17 pm)

I forgot to add this clip of the Reduced Shakespeare Company doing Titus Andronicus:

[1] Obvious joke: “I wonder what she’d look like with an apple in her mouth?”

Small Business Will Love Obamacare

We Heart ObamacareThe mainstream media are only really interested in big (corporate) business. But it is always put forward as discussion of “small business.” There are a lot of definitions of “small business” so it isn’t hard for the media to call just about any company “small.” In fact, one of the more liberal-friendly definitions is: a company with fewer than 50 employees. That is a reasonably small company. But most companies that I’ve worked for had far fewer employees than that. And to my mind, the ultimate example of a small business is an owner-operated deli.

We have been told that these kinds of businesses hate Obamacare because it is going to cost them a bunch of money. But that’s just not true. In fact, these kinds of truly small businesses should be thrilled with Obamacare. It is quite simple. First, such businesses don’t have 50 employees so they are not required to provide healthcare. Second, their employees usually make something like minimum wage and are often not full time. So the employees will have their healthcare either mostly or fully funded by the federal government. This is equivalent to giving our deli employees a huge raise. And the deli owner gets happier and healthier employees.

Unfortunately, on the TV machine, we get our “small business” perspectives from Goldman Sacks and Walmart. In general, real small businesses are too busy and too poor to go around politicking. But most small business owners get their ideas about their best interests from these same TV frauds. However, the truth will out. And in a couple of years, most small business owner will wonder how they ever did without Obamacare.

Obamacare Is Bad for Republicans

New York Post ObamacareThis morning, I was reading Jonathan Chait about, The Obamacare Opposite-of-a-Train-Wreck Scenario. In it, he argued that even though next year’s implementation of Obama will likely have problems, these will be trumped by the fact that many millions of people will finally get health insurance. For a man who is too often mired in the middle, he is very blunt, “To the extent that the implementation brouhaha comes into any focus, it will shine a light on those people’s struggle to get needed help from the government. Republicans aren’t trying to get those people better help. They’re trying to screw them.”

As usual, I got to thinking about this. I remembered all of the brouhaha from conservatives about immigration reform. “We will be creating 11 million citizens who will all vote Democratic!” (Well, I guess they would say, “Democrat.”) I understand the concern and I’ve even argued that Republicans should not be fore immigration reform, given that they are unwilling to do anything else to court the immigrant vote. Maybe the Republicans are doing the same kind of calculation with Obamacare.

What am I thinking? We know that poor people don’t live as long as rich people. Part of that has to be due to the lack of good healthcare throughout their lives. By providing health insurance to everyone, the poor will live longer. The poor are overwhelmingly liberal. Therefore, Obamacare will make more liberals!

I know this sounds fanciful. And in truth, it is possible that the Republicans have not thought of this. There are, after all, a lot of reasons they hate Obamacare. The most fundamental one is that they think that the poor are morally inferior and they don’t believe in helping them at all. But Obamacare is clearly a good political strategy for the Democrats and poison for the Republicans.

Something Happened to Joseph Heller

Joseph HellerThe essayist and playwright Joseph Addison was born on this day back in 1672. King of Hawaii Kamehameha I was born in 1738. Writer and feminist Judith Sargent Murray was born in 1751. French Realist painter Jules Breton was born in 1827. American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux was born in 1855. Theo Van Gogh was born in 1857. The great painter Romaine Brooks was born in 1874. Jack Paar was born in 1918. Pacifica Radio founder Lewis Hill was born in 1919. And there are more, but I’m tired.

Judy Collins is 74 today. Rita Coolidge is 68. Director John Woo is 67. Unconscious plagiarizing songwriter Ray Parker Jr is 59. And director Wes Anderson is 44.

The day, however, belongs to one of my favorite novelists, Joseph Heller, who was born on this day back in 1923. Most people know him for Catch-22, but he was so much more. In fact, for those wanting to start reading him, I recommend avoiding Catch-22. I don’t say this because it is bad; it isn’t; it is fantastic. But there are so many characters and the plot moves along so fast that it is hard to figure out what’s going on. As I recall, I read the first 100 pages four times before I continued. I think his easiest novel is Something Happened. In addition to everything else, it is laugh-out-loud funny most of the way through. Of course, Heller was usually very funny, even when writing about King David. Anyway, if you haven’t read him, you are missing out.

Happy birthday Joseph Heller!

Selling God

Selling GodI just watched Selling God, ironically by Carl Christman. It is an amusing look at religion (primarily Christianity) as a product. What I think is particularly interesting about the film is that it really isn’t anti-religious. Over half of the interviews are with Christians of one form or another. Instead, the film is aggressively anti-fundamentalist. And it is liberal; one of the interviewees is Noam Chomsky. Basically, you aren’t going to see this film screened at a Baptist or Catholic gathering, but the Unitarians will doubtless combine it with a pot luck and have a great old time.

It is shocking how effective Selling God is. There is a repeated parody of a QVC ad for faith-based “Surpise Product” that is going to make your life better. It’s retail value is $666, but you can have it (if you act now) for only $499.99 (plus $9.95 for shipping and handling). If the product doesn’t work, it must be because you don’t have enough faith. This is the biggest problem with faith-based solutions. It is nowhere better seen than in AA, which offers almost nothing to people and then blames them when they don’t stay sober. It’s a tautology: working the program is how you stay sober, but if you don’t stay sober you weren’t working the program. So if drunks[1] don’t already feel bad enough, now they feel worse that they can’t make the magic incantations of AA work for them.

This gets to a fundamental innovation of modern religions: prayer versus magic. In older religions, priests offered magic, “I’ll cast a spell and the drought will end!” The problem is that you can tell if the spell worked or not. Prayer is so much better for religious elites. Now they can tell the flock, “Pray to God. If you do it right, you will be rewarded. If you aren’t rewarded, you must have done it wrong.” Thus, religions went from “let’s kill the incompetent priest for his crumby magic” to “I’m a terrible human being who God hates.” Is it any wonder that religion is so associated with guilt?

Selling God focuses on this aspect of religion, because it is a big part of the concept of religion as commodity. Except that just like the tired platitudes of AA, religion offers nothing but a context in which God is thanked for anything good that happens and you are blamed for anything bad. A good example of this is some video from The 700 Club, where Pat Robertson tells the TV audience that some fungal infection is going away. Of course, fungal infections do go away. And of the millions of viewers, some will see an infection go away, praise God for it, and (Hopefully!) send a check to Stage Craft Pat.

But like I said, the film is not anti-religious. Many people say nice things about religion. Even I think of checking out the local Unitarians. Churches can serve important social functions. My resistance to going to a Baptist church isn’t so much the religion, but the people. I don’t think they would accept me. They certainly wouldn’t accept my beliefs given that theirs are ossified dogma.

There were a couple of quotations in the film that stood out to me. The first was Romans 7:15. It is Paul going on about what a sinner he is, and it is hilarious. But I wondered if it wasn’t just the translation. So I went and looked it up in the New American Standard Bible, which is generally considered to be the closest to the original Greek. And it is just as bad there:

For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

When I do what I do not want to do why is it what I want that I do not want when what I want is the thing that is wanted by those who want what is not really what I want? And God said unto me, thou giveth me a headache. I want to think that the Bible is very much like The Illiad, but the truth is that much of it is not written that well.

The other quotation was from Martin Luther King:

Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.

And that’s a good summation of Selling God. Religion that brings people together, that cares about others, and that opens minds, is a good thing. Unfortunately, such is a very unusual religion.

[1] What’s the difference between an alcoholic and a drunk? Drunks don’t have to go to the meetings.