The Third Act of Wag the Dog

Wag the DogThe reason I was so late getting the birthday post done today was that I decided to watch Wag the Dog. I’ve been aware of the film since it came out. How can anyone interested in politics and film not be? But I never saw it, probably because I figured that it wasn’t that good. The idea behind it is just too good: political operatives stage a war to distract from a sex scandal. But it is exactly this kind of idea that Hollywood tends to destroy. And the fact that David Mamet wrote it didn’t thrill me. Although I think he is a fine writer, he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. Then again, it was directed by Barry Levinson, who is a good comedic director. Whatever, I hadn’t seen it until tonight.

I enjoyed the first two acts. It is very funny, but only because it is so outrageous. And it really isn’t about Washington at all. It is about Hollywood. And in particular, it is an hour and a half of making fun of the power elite in Hollywood and their narcissism. At the same time, all the characters have less depth than a situation comedy teenager. Dustin Hoffman as the Hollywood producer Stanley Motss is all narcissism and literally nothing else. Robert De Niro as the political operative Conrad Brean is all business all the time. I guess we are supposed to think he is mysterious, but really he’s just empty.

The funny thing about this is that the script was originally written by Hilary Henkin, sort of your typical Hollywood screenwriting hack (that is not an insult—she makes terrible films less terrible). When Barry Levinson came in to direct the film, he asked his old pal Mamet to rewrite the script. After the film was completed, Levinson asked the production company to give sole credit for the screenplay to Mamet. Understandably, Henkin didn’t like that, so she filed a complain with the Writers Guild of America (WGA). Not only did they say credit had to be shared, they said that Henkin had to get top billing. As is always the case with the WGA, they focused on which writer nailed down the structure. Levinson, acting like he knew nothing about screenwriting, complained that the only reason that Mamet’s final screenplay was close to Henkin’s was that they were both based upon the same book.

But he also bemoaned the fact that Mamet had created the two main characters: Motss and Brean. Oh, what an accomplishment! Mamet reached into the Hollywood zeitgeist and pulled out two cliches! I can just imagine how it looks in the script:

CONRAD BREAN walks into the frame. He is a man who wears a business suit. He has a beard. Sometimes he wears a coat when it is cold outside. Also a hat.

What’s especially funny about this is that the filmmakers are making fun of Hollywood and its insular and narcissistic ways, and here is Levinson acting it out in real life.

All of this would have been fine. As I said, the first two acts work. What doesn’t work is the terrible third act. Motss storms out because he wants to tell the world of the great thing that he’s done. So Brean has him killed. There is absolutely no motivation for any of this. It’s true that Motss makes noises throughout the film that he wants to expose what he’s done. But even he must know that were he to do that, it would ruin the art that he had created.

I have what I think it a much better third act. They are so successful at selling this fake war that it gets out of hand that the president actually has to go to war. At this point, Motss freaks out. He’s fine with creating an illusion for the people, but he doesn’t want to be culpable for an actual war. So he goes to a reporter but it is someone who is connected with Brean. Then Motss is killed just like in the actual film.

But I figure they didn’t think they needed for Motss to have any reason for getting killed other than his one defining character trait: narcissism. And Brean didn’t need to have any problems killing him because he’s just an automaton in a business suit (with a beard and a coat when it is cold). As for the politics, all it has to say is that the president is sold like a product. Well, maybe they should have given screenwriting credit to Joe McGinniss, because he wrote that back in 1969.

Grandma Can Paint!

Grandma MosesOn this day back in 1705, Rococo painter Matthaus Gunther was born. He did a lot of work; I’m not that fond of any of it, but he was definitely a great artist. The composer Francois-Andre Danican Philidor was born in 1726. Here is a bit from his opera comique version of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones:

Poet Elinor Wylie was born in 1885. The great director Elia Kazan was born in 1909. I do love his work, but I’ve come to terms with his testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the past, I didn’t know what to think about it. But I don’t forgive him for it because he never apologized for it. He was unrepentant to the end and so as a person, he was an asshole. But he directed a number of great pictures. Since I have to replace this scene in another article, here is the scene from On the Waterfront:

James Van Allen, known for his study of the magnetosphere, was born in 1914. Modern representational painter Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917. Buddy Holly was born in 1936. Here he is doing “Peggy Sue” on the TV box:

Folk singer Ronnie Gilbert is 87 today. Saxaphonist Sonny Rollins is 83. The hilarious and wonderful and beautiful Julie Kavner is 63. Here is a very funny scene from Hannah and Her Sisters:

Chrissie Hynde is 62. Here she is with The Pretenders doing “Kid” (well, it’s the music video but it is about the best thing I could find):

Actor Corbin Bernsen is 59. And great actor Toby Jones is 46.

The day, however, belongs to the great American primitivist painter Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who was born on this day in 1860. Better known as Grandma Moses, she is the best known artist of the movement for a very good reason: her Yankee charm is overwhelming as you can see in this painting Bennington:

Bennington - Grandma Moses

Happy birthday Grandma Moses!


I am more fond of her contemporary Bernard Frouchtben. In fact, I own one of his paintings through a weird twist of fate. It is unfortunately in very bad shape but I hope someday to be able to spend the thousand or so dollars it will take to restore it. I should really write an article about Frouchtben. He deserves it.

Was There Really a Chemical Weapons Attack?

Ghouta VictimsI haven’t given much thought to the intelligence that supposedly shows that the Assad government launched a chemical weapons attack or even that there was a chemical weapons attack. Certainly I’ve noticed that the words coming out of John Kerry’s mouth sound very much like what the Bush administration was saying in the lead up to the Iraq War. But then as now, it didn’t matter to me. Then as now, the intelligence is simply being used as a pretext for an attack taken for other reasons. But it looks like the intelligence now is as shaky as it was then.

At Truthout, Gareth Porter wrote an amazing article, How Intelligence Was Twisted to Support an Attack on Syria. Most of it consists of the unclassified summary of the intelligence assessment that was made available last Friday. Porter points out a number of slippery statements intended to deceive—to make the intelligence look better than it is.

Take, for example, the following claim, “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the UN inspectors obtaining evidence.” But it turns out that the evidence did not come from the United States or the UK, but rather by the Israelis. What’s more, the Israelis released the information to the press themselves. This created that wonderful echo chamber effect we saw in the lead up to the Iraq War. It’s not just the United States that has this information, it’s the Israelis too! None of this means that the information is wrong, but the way it is being used indicates that someone is pushing this war rather than letting the information speak for itself.

What’s more, the context of this intercepted communication may be exactly backwards from what the White House is pushing. This was supposed to be “panicked phone calls” fom the Syrian Defense Ministry to the chemical weapons unit. They seemed to want to know if it had really happened. In addition, the Syrian government let UN weapons inspectors in almost immediately after they asked. So at very least, these communications indicate the the situation is not clear. But it could certainly be the case that the Syrian command didn’t know about a chemical weapons attack or even that there was no chemical weapons attack.

There are other dubious aspects of the report. One of which is the fact that the chemical weapons unit had been in the area before and through the time of the attack. But it, like all of the information was reported by intelligence sources as neutral. It was only when Kerry began screaming for war that suddenly neutral information became “telling.” For example, there was no intelligence to indicate that the chemical weapons unit was doing anything related to a chemical attack. Could they have been preparing a strike? Of course! But there is no indication that they did. So just like in Iraq, the government seems to be distorting the evidence just the make their case.

By far the most troubling aspect of the article is the information it discloses about uncertainties in the very fact of a chemical weapons attack. In addition to the administration’s labeling as chemical weapons victims all the pictures of corpses without obvious physical signs of death, the videos of survivors don’t indicate chemical weapons:

The symptoms of a nerve agent attack are clear-cut: Soon after initial symptoms of tightness of chest, pinpoint pupils and running nose, the victim begins to vomit and to defecate and urinate uncontrollably, followed by twitching and jerking. Ultimately, the victim becomes comatose and suffocates in a series of convulsive spasms. The symptoms shown in dozens of videos of victims being treated in medical centers in Ghouta, however, are quite different. In an interview with Truthout, Dan Kaszeta, a specialist on chemical, biological and radiological weapons who has advised the White House on those issues, pointed out that a nerve gas attack would have been accompanied by a pattern of symptoms that are not shown in the videos posted online. “There should be more or less universal vomiting,” Kaszeta said. But he did not see any vomiting or evidence of such vomiting on the clothing or on the floor in any of the videos he saw. Stephen G. Johnson, a chemical weapons forensics expert at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, noticed the same thing. “Why aren’t more people vomiting?” he asked Truthout in an interview.

A number of specialists, including Kaszeta and Johnson, also noticed that personnel were shown handling the victims without any special protective clothing but not exhibiting any symptoms themselves. Paula Vanninen, director of the Finnish Institute for Verification of Chemical Weapons, and Gwynn Winfield, the editor of CBRNe World, a magazine specializing in chemical weapons, made the same point in interviews with AFP on August 21. The only evidence of such effects is secondhand at best: Statements issued the following day by both the spokesman for the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, Khaled Saleh, and the spokesman for its Washington, DC, arm, the Syrian Support Group, said that doctors and “first responders” had reported that they were suffering symptoms of neurotoxic poisoning. Saleh claimed that at least six doctors had died.

So chemical weapons experts don’t think it looks like a chemical attack. What’s more, the only direct claims of chemical attacks come from two second-hand sources with a distinct ax to grind. But it gets even worse.

Generally, in chemical attacks there are very few survivors: one for every ten fatalities. At first, the administration claimed this must be because Assad was diluting the chemicals in order to sneak it by the UN inspectors. But chemical experts noted that wasn’t very possible. The difference in concentration between having any effect at all and killing is very small. In other words: it’s kind of all or nothing. So since that approach didn’t work, the administration just bumped up the number of fatalities by an order of magnitude, which they also claimed included “426 children.”

The whole thing makes me think that there likely was no chemical weapons attack. God knows it isn’t hard to find lots of dead people in Syria these last two years. And I don’t doubt something terrible happened in Ghouta on 21 August 2013—which may even have killed 426 children. But was it a chemical weapon? It doesn’t look at all clear. But whether is was or was not, it is clear that the administration is pushing for this war regardless of the facts.

GOP’s Continued Debt Ceiling Demands

Debt Ceiling CartoonI’ve begun to think about trillion dollar platinum coins again. In particular, I’ve been wondering if President Obama is thinking about them. This is the idea that rather than raise the Debt Ceiling, the government can just mint platinum coins of arbitrary value. It is just an accounting trick, but then so is the Debt Ceiling. Basically, it is either the platinum coin (or a similar device to ignore the Debt Ceiling) or the government defaults on its debt, which will cause a crisis and hopefully that would cause the Republicans to finally raise or even repeal the Debt Ceiling.

At this point, I don’t have much confidence in the Republican Party. Too much of the party just believes that through Pure Force of Will they will be able to get what they want. By this thinking, any complaints that reaching the Debt Ceiling will be bad are just negotiating tactics of the Democratic Party. And many of those who do understand the danger think it is a good thing. One of the main issues with hitting the Debt Ceiling is that it will greatly increase the borrowing costs of the United States government. What does that matter to Republicans who want to cut spending for the sake of cutting spending? I doubt it occurs to them that doing such a thing would pretty much require raising taxes—but again, that’s where the Pure Force of Will comes in.

Yesterday, Peter Schroeder at The Hill reported, House GOP Says it Will Raise Debt Ceiling by Mid-October. That’s a deceptive title. All the article says is that Eric Cantor has sent a memo to GOP lawmakers saying that the House will vote to raise the Debt Ceiling but only if they get “fiscal reforms and pro-growth policies,” which is defined as balancing the federal budget in 10 years.

There are a few things to bear in mind about balancing the budget in 10 years. First, it is a stupid idea. There is no reason to balance the budget ever. As long as the debt level as a fraction of GDP is going down, all is well. That’s how we reduced the debt year after year until Reagan got into power. Second, cutting spending during an economic downturn like the one we are in is catastrophic. Can you say, “Bad jobs report“? Third, the Republicans are big on coming up with grand announcements about cutting the budget, but they never, never, never give specifics. When it comes to actual spending cuts, they can’t agree on anything. Here is the proposed 2013 discretionary spending:

2013 Discretionary Spending

See the problem? This takes me back to my childhood when it seemed that every politician everywhere was going to fix all of our funding problems by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse.” We still hear it today. The problem is that most government programs are really quite efficient. It turns out that “waste, fraud, and abuse” only gets you about 2% if you are lucky. Then you have to start hurting actual people—most of the time, rich people who will not only tell you but make you feel it during your next election.

So the question is whether Obama is going to do the right thing and use some loophole or technicality to avoid government default. The other option is to allow us to hit the Debt Ceiling and thus do grievous harm to the economy and also effectively destroy the Republican Party. At this point I’d love to see the Republican Party go away. As I’ve noted before, the Democratic Party really needs to be broken up into two parties: conservative and liberal. The United States is not served well by a revolutionary party. But I think that would not be sufficient consolation for the terrible effects on our economy. So I hope that Obama goes with the platinum coin. Or the Republicans may just kick the can down the road a few months again. And again. And again. But the problem with that is that they will eventually screw up. Republicans are not particularly good at governing.