American Myth and Escape Plan

Escape PlanAs I noted this morning, I went to see Escape Plan with my brother. Given that it is a Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, I expected it to be terrible. It wasn’t. I found it more engaging than I expected. It is a prison break film, and as such, there was much more actual plot than one normally gets in these things. Still, there was much to dislike. It had far too much exposition. The plot is straight out of a comic book. And it still had a lot of unnecessary action. But it is certainly one of the better films that either man has been in—not Rocky or Terminator 2, but watchable.

Thematically, what’s wrong with the film—and for that matter almost any Hollywood film—is its focus on the individual. Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a guy who consults with prisons by breaking out of them to show their weaknesses. He ends up in—Of course!—a prison that can’t be broken out of because of a double cross.[1] In the movie, Breslin is helped out by Emil Rottmayer. But that’s just because Schwarzenegger plays him. In general, the American film is the rugged individual defeating the system. Frankly, we’ve regressed from an artistic standpoint.

For example, Breslin has his business associates who are shown to be worried about him. But they are impotent to help him. A more reasonable plot would have them rescue him at exactly the time that he gets out himself. This approach seems to have fallen out of favor, just like the bomb being diffused with one second to go—and for the same reason: it seems awfully contrived.

Most of my day was spent working on a technical project that isn’t going terribly well. And this evening, I found myself having an anxiety attack. I decided to stop working and watch what has become my “go to” film when I am anxious or depressed: Romantics Anonymous. It is true that I have a huge crush on Isabelle Carre. And I very much identify with the Benoit Poelvoorde character. But I don’t think that’s why I return to it again and again.

The main characters are far more individualistic than any character that Stallone (or Schwarzenegger) has ever played. But it is only through the help of those around them that they find happiness. She has her support group and he has his employees. The individuals need help from their community in order to thrive. And in Romantics Anonymous, the community is celebrated. It is sad that we rarely see this in an American movie.

[1] The plot is entirely predictable and a glance at my notes during the movie show. But here is something to remember: the villain much be introduced in the first act of a movie. Normally, the villain is introduced in the first 5 minutes. This usually means it will be someone close to the main character. These days it is normally the character who seems too boring to be suspected. Anyway, it is all related to Chekhov’s notion, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Pat Robertson’s Shamanic Mission

Pat RobertsonI don’t think people appreciate just want an amazing man Pat Robertson is. Because he is cloistered away at the Christian Broadcasting Network, he has been allowed to simultaneously become a national figure while having the same old crazy beliefs of a regional phenom. There is his Bible approved weight-loss shake. And his claim to be able to leg press 2,000 pounds. And his claim that all good Christians should be in favor of assassinating Hugo Chavez. He’s a colorful guy!

But the big thing with him is faith healing. I find the fiction of faith healing really interesting. It is the most bizarre form of magical thinking. It is useless for broken bones. Just ask the Christian Scientists! And there’s that whole thing about God never re-growing limbs. It seems if the ailment is obvious, God is absent. But when it comes to things like cancer which come and go, God is right on it!

Well, yesterday, Brian Tashman at Right Wing Watch noted, Robertson: Mother Who Can’t Heal Son’s Deafness Must Be Doing Something Wrong. A mother named Debbie wrote to him, “My son is hearing impaired and cannot hear at all. I have prayed for his healing; it seems as if God is hearing-impaired. What am I doing wrong?” The title of the article makes it sound like Robertson shames the mother, but that clearly isn’t his intent. But it is a shaming thing to say.

As cultures advance, they tend to move from belief in magic to belief in prayer. There is a clear reason for this. If you have a shaman who can do miracles, he is either successful or he isn’t. If he dances for rain and it doesn’t rain, everyone see him for the useless pretender that he is. But praying to God provides the ultimate out. If you pray for God to heal your son and he isn’t healed, it isn’t God’s fault. God’s there; he hears you; it is just that you aren’t worthy.

But Pat Robertson had some ideas. First he said that she should “rebuke” the “spirit of deafness.” But if that didn’t work, “Try something else.” He and his co-host then laughed. To me that said, “If you try enough things, eventually something will work and you can credit God with it.” And if nothing works, maybe you aren’t worthy, or your son isn’t, but regardless, God works in mysterious ways.

What’s most interesting about this is that Robertson is going back to a very primitive approach to this kind of stuff. It seems very much like a shamanic thing. It’s very much the kind of thing that would have gotten him killed by the church a thousand years ago. Because this is not prayer. This is spell casting. And I think it is very telling of modern American evangelical Christianity. The movement is very confused theologically. And thus nothing is true and everything is permitted. As long as you claim that the power comes from Jesus.


To go along with the article, here is the Jim Carroll Band doing “Nothing Is True”:

H/T: Crooks & Liars

America’s Most Hated Family Update

TextBBC’s Louis Theroux had the stomach, once more, to talk with batshit crazy Shirley Phelps, her unfortunate children, and the seriously fucked up Westboro Baptist Church in his documentary, America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis.

If only Shirley Phelps could keep her crazy to herself rather than poisoning the minds of her children. Kids at risk can be removed from a physically or emotionally abusive environment, but with families like these all you can do is feel sorry for them and hope they never have children of their own.

Shirley Phelps and Her War on Sanity

Westboro Bastards

As a sentient citizen of the U.S., I am well aware of Westboro Baptist Church and the appalling, vicious hatred of its “ministry.” In this country that they scream God hates because of gay people, they are allowed, by law, to publicly propagate their twisted version of Christianity. That’s the price we pay for having the right of free speech. So, even though the very existence of these heinous people is abhorrent, we can’t shut them up. Or kill them. And that really annoys me. If I were inclined to be a card-carrying AAA (Armed Atheist Activist), this human cancer cluster would be my first — possibly only — target.

I came across this documentary today, The Most Hated Family in America, and it is infuriating. The matriarch of this family cult could be Ann Coulter’s missing fraternal twin — they don’t look alike, but in tone, attitude, ignorance, and density of hate, they are very much the same. Coulter’s only saving grace is that she isn’t breeding. Shirley Phelps-Roper has spawned eleven children whom she vigorously indoctrinates in fanatical dogma of irrational hatred.

I became an atheist based on rational thought. The disturbing and incredibly frustrating fact is that these people think they are being rational too. People like Shirley Phelps contradict themselves without any sense of the bizarre dichotomy of their own arguments. If someone is stunned into silence by the sheer absurdity of her hate-fueled “lines of reasoning” she thinks she’s won the debate. It never is a debate though. She and her herd, for all their smiling and smug self-assuredness, have no interest in hearing someone else’s point of view. There is no room in their minds for ideas that, deep down, they must know make real sense.

Ricky Gervais NEVER Sleeps

I don’t suppose it’s a secret (or important for that matter), that Ricky Gervais is one of the five people on the planet that I would pay to be stuck in an elevator with. Recently he tweeted something like “hard work never killed anyone, but why risk it.” To which I responded, “What if you’re only saying that to quell competition?” Unfortunately I think I may have tweeted it completely out of context which thoroughly undermines my squeak for attention.

One of his other tweets mentioned something he wrote for his blog:
Creativity is the ability to Play
. I read it and came to the conclusion that either he has had himself cloned or he never fucking sleeps. Jesus Christ. I’d call him a workaholic attention-whore if I didn’t value his very existence so much. Rather than let his superhuman prolificacy cause me to curl up into a sad ball of why-the-fuck-botherdom, I am trying to put a positive spin on his attempted encouragement.

I’m loving having a YouTube channel to dick around on. I know I’ve always dicked around, whether on radio, TV or at the Golden Globes, but with this it’s actually expected of me.

I discovered that this is the best thing about Twitter too. Just playing; mucking about for the hell of it. Although, I could technically count that as work. Dicking about should be tax-deductible for me.

Let me explain. Scientific studies of creativity have basically concluded that it can’t be taught, as it is a “facility” rather than a learned skill. Putting it very crudely, creativity is the ability to play. And, to be able to turn that facility on and off when necessary. This makes perfect sense to me. Everything I’ve ever written, created or discovered artistically has come out of playing.

Stephen Nachmanovitch said that, “Creative work is play. It is free speculation using materials of one’s chosen form.” Basically mucking about with the stuff you have in front of you. Experimenting with it, seeing what happens, and keeping the stuff you like I guess. In fact Scott Adams said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Now I don’t know which I feel more inspired to try: dicking around on Twitter or start making “art” with objects within easy reach. He ends by comparing Twitter to a public restroom bathroom stall which is brilliant. And I say brilliant, not because I think he shits diamonds, but because his observation is accurate and pithy.

Everyone is famous on Twitter. Everyone has their platform. There are downsides to this and sometimes the internet seems like everyone is just emptying a drawer out of the window, but that’s freedom of speech. You can’t censor things based on quality. Nor should you. To each his own. I’ve been critical of this sort of non-regulation in the past and I think I described forums and chat rooms as graffiti. Well maybe Twitter is just another big toilet wall, but there’s as much clean space and spray paint as you’ll ever need. What are you going to do with it? Create something or destroy someone else’s picture?

Create or destroy? That’s a tough one. If only I had the power to create a tweet that would destroy all the assholes on Twitter.

I found this image on the site of the young man who made the 15 Things to Never Say to An Atheist.

Odds and Ends Vol 3

Odds and EndsI will be out for most of the day. So this is it until the evening. Savor it. Luckily, this edition of Odds and Ends at least has a couple of fun items. And the Walmart story is especially great. We live in a really screwed up nation.

One of the things I will be doing today is going to see Escape Plan with my brother. I have an open mind about. But what are the odds? It is a Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. I expect that tomorrow night I will write another apoplectic review. So fun times ahead!

  1. Heritage Action has a “scorecard” websites where they rank all the current members of Congress. It’s actually a fairly good resource for liberal voters. If the score is low, the politician is good. But beware! Heritage Action is so conservative that Darrell Issa only got a 65% rating. Paul Ryan got a 69%. Even crazy and stupid Louie Gohmert only got a 90%. What could he have done to displease Heritage Action?! My “blue dog” Democratic representative Mike Thompson got 9%. Senator Dianne Feinstein got 4%. And my hero, Senator Barbara Boxer got 0%.

    Heritage Action: when nothing less than pure evil will do!

  2. JMF sent me to this amazing creation from Banksy. I like the symbolism of something beautiful growing out of the 9/11 attacks. Of course, this is America and so we did exactly the opposite. You mean terrorists killed a bunch of innocent American civilians? Well we should kill a bunch of innocent foreign civilians! It’s so terrible. But the image is beautiful:
    Banksy Twin Towers
  3. If you’re like me, you’ve learned to stop worrying and love our corporate overlords. But if you aren’t quite there, then you should really enjoy this story. Last week, Will alerted me to an article on Huffington Post, Walmart Worker Says He Was Fired After Helping Woman Fend Off Attacker. According to the article, Kristopher Oswald, a 30-year-old worker at a Michigan Walmart store was fired for helping a customer who was being attacked. “Oswald says he was on break about 2:30 am Sunday when he saw a man grabbing a woman. He says he asked her if she needed help and the man started attacking him.” But apparently, this broke company rules and so he was gone.

    I’ll admit it: I was skeptical. I figured there might be more to the story than the guy was letting on. So I let the story sit. But today I saw a new story from CBS News, Wal-Mart says Kristopher Oswald Can Have Job Back, After Firing Him for Trying to Help Assault Victim:

    Brooke Buchanan, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart, told CBS News’ Crimesider that after reviewing all the facts of the case, the company has determined Oswald had good intentions when he wound up fighting with the woman’s alleged attacker at around 2:30 am Sunday outside the Hartland Township store.

    I’m sure that’s true; it certainly can’t have anything to do with all the bad publicity. Thus far, Walmart hasn’t been able to find Oswald. But they’ve left messages on his machine.

    What I find interesting here is how quickly, and apparently without thought, Walmart fired this young man. This is indicative of a economy with a high unemployment rate. This is the other reason why the power elites in this country want the Federal Reserve to concentrate on inflation and let unemployment get high. When unemployment is high, businesses have their pick of employees and don’t even think twice about firing good employees. It is despicable. Sadly, it is also common.

  4. Jane Mayer wrote a very important article over at The New Yorker, Top CIA Lawyer Sides With Senate Torture Report. It involves the confirmation of Stephen W Preston to become the top lawyer at the Pentagon. His appointment has held up by hero Senator Mark Udall. Apparently, he only allowed confirmation after Preston admitted that he agreed with the classified 6,000 page report. Mayer explains:
    At its core is a bitter disagreement over an apparently devastating, and still secret, report by the Senate Intelligence Committee documenting in detail how the CIA’s brutalization of terror suspects during the Bush years was unnecessary, ineffective, and deceptively sold to Congress, the White House, the Justice Department, and the public. The report threatens to definitively refute former CIA personnel who have defended the program’s integrity. But so far, to the consternation of several members of the Intelligence Committee, the Obama Administration, like Bush’s before it, is keeping the damning details from public view.

    It seems that the CIA has been doing everything it can to suppress the report and claim that it isn’t true. But the CIA’s work has been well and long documented. Early on in the War on Terror, the CIA took over from the FBI, who actually knew how to conduct interrogations. It is a travesty that Obama continues to hide our wrong doing from the American people. It’s stuff like this that makes me question all my fairly positive views about him. If he can be this corrupt and, frankly, evil about drones and torture, maybe he’s the same way about healthcare and stimulus. Maybe he is playing 11-dimensional chess. It’s just he isn’t playing it with the Republicans; he’s playing it with us.

  5. Regular readers of this site know about the greatest work of satire in the 21st century, Billy Bob Neck. And if you’ve been paying attention, you know that he is the creation of the comedian Paul Day. Well, Day does a whole lot more than just BBN. An example is the following bit of “Gun and God” humor from his Facebook page:
    Good Savior With a Gun - Pay Day
  6. If you are on Facebook, you should definitely check him out; he puts out a lot of good stuff.

  7. Here is a late addition. Last night’s The Daily Show had a great opening segment on all the nonsense about the business media’s outrage about JP Morgan’s lawsuit. And then Aasif Mandvi did a great segment of voter ID. And then Jon Stewart interviewed Charles Krauthammer and it all fell apart. As usual, Stewart allows conservatives to come on and spout nonsense. Kruthammer said that life expectancies in America are now 80 years. That’s not true, but even the increases we have actually seen are among the more wealthy. Stewart just let it pass. Kruthammer said that Europe was going bankrupt because of welfare. That’s a totally false conservative canard. Stewart said nothing. Kruthammer said the Tea Party came about as a reaction to Obama’s excesses. That’s remarkable since it started just a month after he entered office. Stewart said nothing. In fact, the only thing Stewart did say was that Kruthammer’s conservatism seemed so reasonable but that it didn’t sound like that of other Republicans. Kruthammer is not reasonable. It’s the same thing that I always talk about: the difference between Kruthammer and Ted Cruz is tactics. Kruthammer said he was against shutting down the government, but only because it was bad tactics, not because he was against the reasons. Kruthammer compares the loons in the Republican Party to Alan Grayson. Stewart just lets him. Unbelievable. Stewart just doesn’t understand that soft spoken conservatives are the same as the ranters. Kruthammer said a lot more that was wrong. He said all kinds of things that were total distortions about Obamacare. I just couldn’t keep up with it. Once again folks: Speaking softly does not make you reasonable!

See you all this evening.

Conservatives Want Any Way That’s New

Matt YglesiasMatt Yglesias published a really good article yesterday, What Do Conservatives Like About Health Care in Singapore? He’s confused, you see, because he actually knows something about the Singapore healthcare system. And based upon that, conservatives ought to hate it because it is a far more intrusive and “socialistic” system than Obamacare. In fact, like almost all countries outside the third world, Singapore has a healthcare system that liberals would gladly exchange Obamacare for.

This is nothing new. Conservatives are always talking about some other country’s healthcare system. It doesn’t matter what it is. Back in February, Aaron Carroll wrote, I Don’t Think the Swiss Health Care System Is What They Think it Is. That was about how the conservative healthcare wonks (such as they are) were all excited about Switzerland. For example, Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Avik Roy wrote, “While most Americans view their healthcare system as ‘free-market,’ Switzerland actually has the most market-oriented healthcare system in the West.” But alas, no. So I guess the next in line is Singapore.

All this is grasping at straws. As I’ve noted before, the Republicans really screwed up when they decided that their very own healthcare reform idea was too liberal. For some, I’m sure this is a good faith effort to find a way out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into. But mostly, it is just yet more cover. “We hate Obamacare. Let’s repeal it and then we’ll get that Swiss system. Or Singaporean. Or…” The weird thing about it is that they really think if they ignore our country’s healthcare problems long enough they will just go away. Eventually they are are going to have to face the problem, but in the meantime people are dying.

In the case of Singapore, the confusion seems to be that conservatives think that it is based upon Health Savings Accounts (HSA). These are the Holy Grail of conservative healthcare reform. The idea is that an individual buys a catastrophic insurance policy with, say, a $2,000 deductible. Then they put money in a special non-taxed savings account for a total of $2,000 per year. Then they pay for their medical treatment out of the account up to the deductible. If they don’t meet the deductible, they get to keep what is left over in the account. Thus, people won’t just run to the doctor, because they have an incentive. It really is the ultimate libertarian policy: perfect in theory, useless in practice.

Well, it turns out that part of Singapore’s healthcare system is called “Medisave, a compulsory individual medical savings account scheme.” But it isn’t really an HSA. It is more like Social Security, “Singaporeans and their employers contribute a part of the monthly wages into the account to save up for their future medical needs.” Yglesias explains, “As best I can tell, these Medisave accounts are deposited into the Central Provident Fund, a government-run investment pool, rather than constituting private savings as we would understand them.” Aaron Carroll sums it all up nicely:

Singapore relies on centrally planned and fixed budgets, for a lot of things. Conservatives hate those. The government keeps a real leash on buying new technology. Conservatives hate that, too. Singapore heavy-handedly controls the number of students and physicians that are licensed in the country. It also has some control over how much they can earn. It uses bulk purchasing power to spend less on drugs. It has lots of mandates. It has a government that has more involvement in things than you might expect.

What this means is conservatives will continue to call for anything but. They are willing to consider any healthcare system, as long as it absolutely positively cannot be done here. So even if Singapore had the perfect libertarian Holy Grail of healthcare, it would be abandoned as soon it became an actual bill in Congress. Conservatives only want perfection and that only exists in their minds. From a practical standpoint, that means they want to do nothing. Everything else is bloviating.

Don’t Let Moss Hart Come to Dinner

Moss Hart

It is another one of those days. There is no one I care all that much about today. So forgive me if this is short and uninspired.

On this day in 1804, the great physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber was born. Working with Gauss, he invented the first electromagnetic telegraph. He was something of a protege of Gauss and the two of them did a lot of work together. Weber continued to work on electromagnetism this whole career and the unit for magnetic flux is named after him.

The great actor F. Murray Abraham is 74 today. I’ve seen him in a lot of good films, but what I most care about is Amadeus, which is one of my favorites. He’s a good example of the fact that there are a lot of really good actors who never get the kind of roles where they can really show their stuff. Well, he got one of the greatest roles ever written. It’s clear that he understands that. And he nailed it. So did everyone in the film, but he had The Role:

Other birthdays: exactly the kind of composer who makes me say I don’t like Romantic period music, Ferdinand Hiller (1811); botanical artist Marianne North (1830); Russian landscape painter Konstantin Yuon (1875); Batman creator Bob Kane (1915); Rolling Stone Bill Wyman (77); and Marxist economist Stephen Resnick (1938).

The day, however, belongs to the great playwright Moss Hart who was born on this day in 1904. He is best known for a series of comedies that he wrote with George S. Kaufman. The most notable of which is the great, The Man Who Came to Dinner. He later moved to Hollywood where he became a successful screenwriter writing diverse films such as Gentleman’s Agreement and Hans Christian Andersen.

Happy birthday Moss Hart!