First David Brenner Tonight Show

David BrennerI just heard that David Brenner died. He was 78 and had been suffering from cancer. I loved him when I was a kid but he’s fallen off my radar since then, although I would occasionally see him pop up. His act hadn’t really changed at all. And he was hugely influential. He was a critical part of the move from the old story-focused stand-up comedy of people like Shelley Berman to the observational humor that to a large extent is still with us.

Brenner didn’t start in comedy until late in life. He had been a documentary filmmaker into his 30s. In 1971, at the age of 35, his stand-up career took off after performing on The Tonight Show. And, in fact, he appeared on the show more than any other person—almost 160 times. Here is his first appearance on the show. It is a bit dated, but still quite funny. It made me laugh out loud a few times:

The Fatal Flaw in And Justice for All

All Judtice for AllI was just washing dishes and it hit me: I know what is wrong with the film And Justice for All. Now understand, it isn’t a bad film. Not at all. But really, it ought to be a great film—or at least close. And it isn’t. It is about an important subject and it provides a surprisingly accurate representation of the legal system. It has interesting characters. And it is totally geared to Al Pacino’s strange form of acting. So what is the problem?

If you haven’t seen the film, the central conflict is between Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino), who just wants to see justice done, and Henry Fleming (John Forsythe), a heartless judge who hides behind technicalities to punish defendants without a care for the fact that they might be innocent. So far so standard: Fleming is totally typical of judges and Kirkland is a typical movie hero lawyer. About halfway through the film, Fleming is accused of brutally raping a young woman and Kirkland is blackmailed into representing him. Right before they are to go to trial, Kirkland learns some information that indicates that the judge may in fact be guilty.

So Kirkland confronts Fleming who emotionlessly admits that he did it. The core of the scene and the character is that Fleming simply thinks that there are those little people on whom he passes judgement. And then there is himself who of course is moral regardless of what he does. People don’t judge me; I judge people! And therein lies the problem with the movie: that one two minute scene.

Fleming’s character is not real. At that point, he becomes nothing more than a movie villain. But this isn’t a James Bond film. It’s all right for Kirkland to be a bit too pure. He’s the audience surrogate. But the film is supposed to be realistic and have something to say about our society. So Fleming has to be believable. And it would take so little. Unless we are to believe that Fleming is insane, he would know that one doesn’t brutally rape young women. He would have to find a way to justify what he had done in his own mind.

I’m sure there are many ways that one could do that. What I think is most obvious is that Fleming would say, sure, he got a little out of control. But one doesn’t let one little “mistake” ruin a great career. Right? He’s one of the good guys! And that would be particularly poignant, given that Fleming was directly responsible for the death of an innocent young man. And he did not care in the least.

As the film stands, we just have to assume that Fleming is a psychopath. And actually, I’m more than willing to believe that a lot of well respected judges are psychopaths. But that isn’t very interesting. What’s more, I don’t believe a psychopath would admit his guilt. There just isn’t an advantage to it. Regardless, it is a fun film with this memorable courtroom scene, that I still find affecting:


A much more interesting (but less commercially successful) film could have been made if the filmmakers had avoided genre. Then they could have left the audience to decide on Fleming’s guilt while pushing the balance of evidence against him. Of course, that would ruin the great courtroom scene. But then, it would be a totally different film. And there’s nothing wrong with genre.

Sly Stone and Family

Sly StoneThere are a number of good and interesting people born on this day. Last year I talked about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s notable for being the only liberal on the Supreme Court. I know, you probably think there are four liberal members of the Court. But there aren’t. It runs like this: one liberal, three moderates, two conservatives, and three (for lack of a better term) fascists. Just saying. And truly, I had to stop myself from talking about David Cronenberg today. He’s one of my favorite film directors. Videodrome and eXistenZ are two unquestionably great films. That’s two more than almost all film directors have made.

The great musician Sly Stone is 71 today. Back in 2011, there was a whole bunch of news that Stone was homeless and living in a van (Down by the river?) in Los Angeles. That does not appear to be true. But there is no doubt that the business side of the music business has been bad to him. He is such a great talent, and it speaks to what a terrible society we are that he’s gone so neglected all these years. We should treat him like a king.

I still listen to Sly and the Family Stone’s album Stand! all the time. There really isn’t anything better. Here is “Everyday People” performed live on The Ed Sullivan Show:

Happy birthday Sly Stone!

Poor Entrepreneurs and Bad Incentives

Martin LongmanMartin Longman wrote a very insightful article over at Political Animal, What’s Really Offensive About Paul Ryan’s Remarks. It is mostly about his actual experience working for ACORN in the “inner city” North Philadelphia. His job was to hire and train young people in the area to work in a voter registration drive. And not surprisingly, he found people eager to work.

The people in impoverished inner city neighborhoods probably work harder than people in nice upper middle class neighborhoods. What is certainly true is that they are more entrepreneurial. We see the same thing in poor countries. When a group of people have access to a lot of jobs, they don’t have to work as hard nor do they need to be as creative. Longman described what he saw:

I discovered over time that nearly everyone had a way of making money, despite the fact that they were officially unemployed. I learned about a shadow economy that encompassed more than a mere black market. There were the legitimate under-the-table jobs that aren’t accounted for in government statistics and are taken on day-to-day: unloading trucks, working as a construction laborer. There were the semi-legitimate jobs: using your car as an unlicensed taxi. There were the hustles: making DVD’s of movies with a camcorder, selling fake auto-tags for inspection and registration. There were other non-violent criminal enterprises, like selling stolen t-shirts and the like. Ironically, I found that the people who were the best at getting people to register to vote were the people who set their alarm clocks for early in the morning so that they could go out and work their hustle and make some money. They worked extremely hard, and when given something legitimate to do, they excelled.

Longman thinks that the reason they wanted these low paying jobs was that they were starved for “socially-approved work.” That may be part of it. But I think there is a bigger issue. The truth is that the kind of freelance or pickup work that is the mainstay of economically depressed areas doesn’t pay that much. What’s more, it is uncertain. And it is hard. Just having a minimum wage job at McDonald’s brings in more money and is a hell of a lot easier than getting up early and hoping you might make some money today.

What’s interesting about this is how incentives play into all of this. Incentives work the same for poor people as they do for rich people. But public policy (especially from conservatives) is almost always focused on positive incentives for the rich and negative incentives for the poor. So we are told that if we raise the top tax rate, people won’t work as hard, even though the top tax bracket only applies to a very small number of people (about two percent). On the flip side, we are told that providing food stamps for the poor provides an incentive that stops them from working.

Note how absurd this is. Affluent people have all kinds of extremely generous safety nets—both public and private—that protect them from failure. These do not seem to suck the life out of their ambitions. But according to the public policy prescriptions of people like Paul Ryan, the extremely meager safety nets we provide for the poor do just that. This is very much like a parent with a “good” child and a “bad” child. The “good” child is constantly encouraged with positive reinforcement. The “bad” child is only given negative reinforcement. The problem is with the parent and not the children.

Taking this analogy a bit further, it is certainly the case that in some circumstances the “bad” child will grow up to be successful. The parent can then pat himself on the bad for the great job he did. See! All that belittling and beating worked! This is the way policy makers behave. Some people claw their way out of extreme poverty, therefore the politicians claim it doesn’t matter. The rest must just be lazy!

The truth is that people are mostly just dedicated to a certain outlook. I admit: I believe in a guaranteed minimum income. I think it is immoral that a wealthy country doesn’t provide for the bare necessities of life. I would be for this even if I thought it took a little incentive out of the system. On the other side, Paul Ryan believes in a kind of social Darwinian ideal of society. The problem is that he won’t admit to that. He wants to take support away from the poor but claims it is some kind of tough love. It is anything but. And we can’t have a real debate when one side hides its real intentions.

The Paradox of Liberal Magnanimity

Ross DouthatMy colleague at The Reaction, Infidel753 wrote an excellent article over on his blog, Magnanimity in Victory? It is a response to Ross Douthat’s recent column, The Terms of Our Surrender. In that article, Douthat admits that social conservatives like himself have lost the same-sex marriage battle. But he asks for the victors to “recognize its power.” His argument is that we should be nice and allow conservative Christian florists to refuse to do business with LGBT customers.

Infidel753 asks a logical question, “What the hell makes you think you deserve any magnanimity in your defeat?” When I first read that, I thought that maybe he was being a little harsh. After all, we are liberals and being kind to the powerless is our thing. But then I read Douthat’s article. He predicted Infidel763’s reaction, noting, “Christians had plenty of opportunities—thousands of years’ worth—to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance.” That bit of minimization really bothers me. Douthat is a Catholic, as am I by birth. Certainly he must be aware of the church’s history with homosexuals. What he calls “intolerance” I call “murder.”

But Douthat’s main argument is that we ought to let people refuse to do business with LGBT people out of a sense of religious freedom. This I don’t see at all. No one is suggesting that we outlaw florists hating gays or being against same sex marriage. We are talking about outlawing the practice of florists putting signs in their window that read, “We don’t serve fags.” We are not talking about forcing Christians to bring lesbians into their homes. We are talking about outlawing public businesses from refusing service to “those people” whoever “those people” are.

I do think there is a limit here, though. Religious liberty does, it seems to me, apply to churches. Marriages are something that they supposedly consecrate. So I think it would be wrong to force a Baptist church to perform weddings that it did not want to. I think this falls under the same rights that allow preachers to spew out their anti-gay hatred from the pulpit.

But who exactly do these Christians think they are fooling? In forty years, almost all of them will be performing same sex marriages. At one time, churches supported slavery with Genesis 9:27, “May God enlarge Japheth, And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant.” They don’t do that anymore. All Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible they are going to follow. So eventually, they will get over their problems with the idea of homosexuality.

Infidel753 makes another excellent point about this. Even if we wanted to forgive all the bigotry of the past, what about that of the present? The truth is that same sex marriage is not yet legal throughout the nation. And even after it is, a large number of conservative Christians will work to turn back the law. We’ll just have to wait for them to die off. So by the time it makes sense for us to show magnanimity, there will be no one to show it to.