Amigo John Sayles

John SaylesOn this day in 1901, the television host Ed Sullivan was born. Like many of the people who made it big in the early days of television, he didn’t have much of a resume. He was a journalist in New York, writing mostly about the theater scene and the gossip associated with it. That led him to doing a radio show and led pretty directly to doing the television variety show Toast of the Town, which later became The Ed Sullivan Show. There isn’t a lot to tell from there. People remember Elvis Presley and The Beatles. But if you go back and watch the shows, they were pretty terrible. If you are old enough to remember guys who spun plates on sticks, then you have a very good idea of the caliber of talent that the show had. But it didn’t have great competition.

The actor Peter Finch was born in 1916. I don’t think much of him one way or another. Except, of course, for his great performance in Network. He had a very good career as an actor, but it also shows how dependent even excellent actors are on the parts that they get. Most actors have a lot more talent than they ever get to show. But anyway, Peter Finch will always be remembered as Howard Beale:

Other birthdays: academic painter Alexandre Cabanel (1823); the discoverer of gamma rays Paul Ulrich Villard (1860); boxer Max Schmeling (1905); cartoonist Al Capp (1909); computer scientist Seymour Cray (1925); actor Brigitte Bardot (79); actor Jeffrey Jones (67); comedian Janeane Garofalo (49); and actor Naomi Watts (45).

The day, however, belongs to the great filmmaker John Sayles who is 63 today. I don’t know much about his career. He started working for Roger Corman, who taught a lot of people how to make films on a budget. All of Sayles’ films are worth seeing, because he makes films about things that matter. Of particular interest are The Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, and Silver City, which I think made a lot of us feel better during the last years of the Bush fiasco. Here he is talking about his most recent film Amigo:

Happy birthday John Sayles!

Inequality for All

Robert ReichRobert Reich has a film out, Inequality For All. It looks really good. But I’m afraid it will be a while before I get to see it. Unlike John Dies at the End, Inequality For All is not available to stream. It is, however, getting better distribution. If I could get to Berkeley or San Francisco, I could see it. Nothing like this ever comes to Santa Rosa. That’s interesting, because Santa Rosa is a reasonably liberal town. But the only documentaries like this that make it here are conservative claptrap like Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America. Of course, that film disappeared almost immediately, indicating that no one here cared to see it. But the rich people who own our multiplex sure wanted to push it. But a liberal documentary about income inequality? Not so much.

In the trailer below, it is clear that the film combines the two things that I most love about Reich: humor and insight. It even includes a very short bit of video where Bill O’Reilly says that Reich is a communist. That’s a perfect example of the revolutionary use of language: make words meaningless. If Reich is a communist, what is Stalin? A double plus bad communist? But O’Reilly is right to fear Reich because he does stand for everything that O’Reilly has spent his career fighting against: equality, opportunity, justice. But it is more than just ideology; it is also style. O’Reilly is a bully who shouts and intimidates in order to get his way. Reich uses his considerable charm and enormous knowledge to make his points.

Unfortunately, raging on live television will draw 3 million viewers per night. Robert Reich has no such outlet. So it is great that this documentary is making its way around the country. Thus far, the reviews for it have been very good. Currently Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 93% fresh rating. So hopefully it will get some big awards and get a larger audience. I can’t speak for the film, but certainly Robert Reich deserves that. And so does the country.


I saw on the O’Reilly Sucks blog that last night he was pushing the most pernicious bit of false equivalence. He claims that both sides have their complaints, “So President Obama and the Republican leadership must sit down and hammer out a deal. Those who will not compromise will be hurting the country and the American people will know just who they are.” But that is the whole thing. If you say that it is acceptable to shutdown the government over an irrelevant policy, then you are siding with the Republicans. But of course, O’Reilly puts it in a way that sounds reasonable and even handed. Also note: Obama can’t negotiate with John Boehner. Boehner doesn’t have control of the Republicans. So even if it were the right thing to do, it would be useless.

Bill O’Reilly Kills Jesus

Killing JesusIf there is one man alive who I associate with the Prince of Peace, it is Bill O’Reilly. But I associate him as more the anti-Christ. I don’t say that because he is such a bad guy, even though he is. It is just that he is the most prominent rageaholic in America. At the same time, I know he considers himself a good Catholic. So I was very interested to hear that he was writing a book on the life of Jesus. What would his take on the subject be?

For those who do not spend much time thinking about Christianity, a book on the life of Jesus probably sounds strange. After all, isn’t that what the Bible is all about? Well, not really. First, there are only four books of the Bible that specifically talk about Jesus’ life—the four Gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. And they aren’t exactly what you would call histories. To begin with, they build on each other. First came Mark, then Matthew rewrote Mark. Increasingly, it looks like the theoretical Q document that Matthew and Luke supposedly used in combination with Mark didn’t exist after all. Instead, it looks like Luke is just a rewrite of Matthew. John, is mostly independent of those Gospels and comes out of the ongoing fight of the early Christian church to separate itself from the Jewish church. It is also the antisemitic Gospel, much beloved by Mel Gibson.

What’s also true is that like most of the rest of the Bible, the Gospels contradict each other. For example, in one, Jesus was crucified next to two thieves. In another, it was one thief. In the other two, it was none of them. What’s more, almost all of the stories in the Gospels are clearly didactic. They are little narrative designed to teach a lesson. This is why, for example, the apostles are such idiots. They never learn from one story to the next. As a result of this, there really is a need to have one story of the life of Jesus. The problem is, as Albert Schweitzer noted, pretty much everyone comes up with a “historical Jesus” that just so happens to be the Jesus they want.

So what would a truly awful person like Bill O’Reilly come up with in his new book, Killing Jesus: a History? I have no intention of reading the book, of course. I actually like these kinds of books. For example, The Historical Jesus: Five Views is an exceptional book, which presents views from the most liberal to the most conservative. But O’Reilly is no scholar and his book never would have been published if he weren’t a famous guy with a lot of fans who will buy any nonsense he sells. Still, I wanted to know, even if I suspected that I had a good take on what he would have to say. O’Reilly wasn’t going to present a hippy “love thy neighbor” Jesus; that was for sure.

Luckily, New Testament scholar Candida Moss, in an act similar to that of Jesus, suffered for the good of all of us: she read the book. Her review can be summed up in one sentence, “The single most consistent social teaching in the New Testament is that Christians must support the poor, widows, and orphans, but this hardly gets a mention in Killing Jesus.” But the truth is even more amusing. O’Reilly thinks that Jesus’ mission was to save the people from the evils of high taxes:

The basic argument of the book is that Jesus died because he interfered with the taxation-heavy Roman revenue stream. The reason the Jews eagerly anticipated the Messiah, writes O’Reilly, is, “When that moment arrives, Rome will be defeated and their lives will be free of taxation and want.” …

O’Reilly argues that Temple taxes and profits from the moneychangers were back-channeled to Rome. Thus when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers he “interrupted the flow of funds from the Temple to Rome.” …

Even if Jesus’ actions had been all about taxes, he died protesting a skeletal taxation system that privileged the rich. Wealthy citizens were exempt from most taxes altogether, non-citizens paid a flat-rate poll tax regardless of income, the property tax was 1 percent, and the money from taxes was used to build roads and fund the military. It’s not like the Romans did anything obscene like tend to the poor.

Moss discusses other things that O’Reilly gets wrong. She notes how he uses very late Christian traditions where it suits him. I recommend reading the whole article. But this bit about Mary Magdalene is particularly great:

Women do less well in O’Reilly’s Biblical world. Following Sunday-school tradition, Mary Magdalene is identified as the prostitute who anointed the feet of Jesus with oil. That’s not in the Bible. This is a fifth-century error that originates with Gregory the Great.

Unfortunate, especially considering that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ patron. Imagine opening your home and checkbook to support a fledging religious group only to have history remember you as a prostitute. Slut shaming: it’s not just a modern phenomenon.

O’Reilly has done the world a great favor with this book. A lot of liberals I know don’t understand how it is that supposed Christians can be conservative when Jesus was all about helping the poor. The answer is in this book. Any text can be read in countless ways. So people like O’Reilly just minimize anything that goes against what they want to hear. And then they focus on what they do want to hear. In O’Reilly’s case, he not only focuses on the moneychangers; he creates a back story out of whole cloth to turn the Prince of Peace into “Grover Norquist: Tax Reformer.”

GOP Demands Are Extortion

Debt CeilingThere is big outrage from Republicans after White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said Thursday that the White House was all for budget negotiations, “What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.” Republicans claimed that Pfeiffer was saying they were terrorists. That’s not really true. A terrorist just, for example, gets on a bus with a bomb and sets it off. This is more akin to a normal extortionist who goes into a bank with a bomb and says, “Give me all your money or I will blow us all up.”

Obama cheerleaders Steve Benen and Greg Sargent both accept the terrorist framing, however. And they think it is wrong for the administration to use such language. But really: aren’t we just splitting hairs regardless? Tea Party TerroristTo me, a suicide bomber who kills only one other person is every bit as much a terrorist as the guys who brought the World Trade Center towers down. And there is really no difference between these people who were set on killing people for some political goal and someone who is trying to extort money. After all, the tactic of terrorism is to create a generalized feeling of fear that something bad could happen at any time.

So I’m not sure that what the Republicans are doing is not a form of terrorism. Just look at the images that I’ve been using over the past two years to accompany articles about the Debt Ceiling. They all relate to extortion—the threat of violence if the Republicans don’t get what they want. But regardless of whether Pfeiffer implied that the Republicans were terrorists, his analogy is absolutely correct.

Boehner with Uncle Sam as HostageI understand the instinct among people like Sargent and Benen to keep the conversation civilized. But this is a mistake when dealing with extremists. It’s interesting that conservatives are the first people to ridicule anyone who tries to “appease” someone like Assad. That may well be because they understand well that they themselves can’t be appeased. The history of the last five years has shown very clearly that Obama only gets cooperation from the Republicans when he stands strong. When he shows any hint of weakness or any tendency to save them from themselves, they go for the kill. So it is a mistake for any journalists, but liberal journalists most especially, to treat these Republican extortion attempts as anything else.

Debt Ceiling NegotiationsI don’t understand how the current Republican demand for concessions in exchange for not crashing the economy is different from the bomb carrying bank robber. I’m open to correction. In both cases, however, each party does not want the bad thing to happen. But in order for that not to happen, one part must do things for the other that they would never do under normal (non-extortion) circumstances. It may not be terrorism (and Pfeiffer never said it was), but it is extortion, and it is wrong.