Saturday, August 24, 2002

Terminus is in Tremendous Pain. It's not even 2:00pm on a Saturday afternoon and already my weekend has been crazy. I'm not exactly sure what happened last night, but boy am I feeling it now. This is the worst hangover I've had in at least a couple of weeks. Still, it ws all worth it.
Kiss Ben Stein's Ass. You know, I've always kind of liked Ben Stein, despite his politics, but this column is just witless. It doesn't have a point, and it doesn't have any jokes that work. Really bad column, which really disappointed me when I saw the by-line. He probably should have gotten Jimmy Kimmel to help him with it.

And come on, does anybody even remember "Turn Ben Stein On" anymore?

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Safire's At It Again. Sounding like the broken record he is, William Safire is again talking up an al Qaeda - Saddam Hussein connection in an attempt to justify an unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Good luck.

First of all, I don't know anything about what he's talking about, so as far as I am aware, he may be absolutely spot on. But he has absolutely no credibility with me, so I'm not going to take his word for it.

But let's stop and assume for a moment that I did. Even still, I don't buy it. It's not enough to justify this country invading another sovereign nation without provocation. [You may notice that this position varies a great deal from a previous "agnostic" position that I took on the invade Iraq question. That is not an inconsistency, it is a development.] On one hand, Safire seems to have this quaint notion that the United States should attack anyone who is a terrorist. I can't think where he got this idea from. I mean, he might have heard it in some Presidential speech before the full Congress, but it certainly isn't evident anywhere in our action foreign policy, as practiced. Do I think it's okay for Saddam to try to assassinate leaders of the Kurdish opposition? No. Do I think it constitutes a threat to this country? No. Do I think it's a good thing for Iraq to have chemical weapons? No. Do I think it's a good thing for Pakistan to have nuclear weapons? No. Do I think we should invade Pakistan and "regime change" Musharraf's ass? No. Do I think he would deserve it under the "get Saddam" doctrine? Yes, clearly.

I think it's great that we are hearing some actual arguments for taking out Saddam. It would be nice if those arguments were coming from the White House, but I'll take what I can get. Now, it would be nice if those arguments were internally consistent, and consistent with the broader foreign policy goals of the United States, but again, I'm asking the impossible.
Incompetence Writ Large. This is priceless. Politically, it's really not a big story, but it shows in livid detail the egg all over Bush's face. Apparently, and not for the first time, Bush has decided to grant exemptions on his steel tariff policy, in order to prevent a trade war with the EU. Well done, Bush. Announce a policy that you don't believe in, that your political base doesn't believe in, and that everyone will immediately view as a naked political ploy. Then, totally capitulate to the EU, which should really get your base energized, and slink off into a corner to have a good cry. Nice one.

And the hits keep coming.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

How About That! Only a few moments ago I was responding to a very thoughtful comment on this very site about foreign policy and U.S. commitment to democracy around the world. What do I then find in today's New York Times but a brilliant editorial by Thomas Friedman making very much the same point. The U.S. uses democracy as a bludgeon to attack enemies like Yassir Arafat and Saddam Hussein. Yet, in countries we count as our allies, we are perfectly willing to tolerate grossly anti-democratic behavior. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. This is one reason why the U.S. has such a severe credibility gap in the Middle East. We have nocredibility in the Middle East. At least not since Clinton left (and, to be fair, we probably didn't have a whole lot then either).
We'll Take the Bad With the Good. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) lost her Democratic primary yesterday, and as such will soon be retiring from the House of Representatives. That's the bad news. The good news is that Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) also lost his Republican primary. The story, from the Associated Press, is here.

I trust Bob Barr requires no further discussion here.

As for Cynthia McKinney, I really don't know much about her. I know that she showed a great deal of courage very early in the 9/11 political aftermath when he vocally criticized Bush's Afghanistan policy, as well as Bush himself. I also know that the conservative counter-attacks against her were way out of proportion with what she actually said, some of which has since been shown to be true.

Still, her constituents have spoken, so there's not much I can say about it one way or the other.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

The Truth About Class Warfare. There's nothing in Paul Krugman's latest coluimn that left-wing bloggers and blogreaders won't already know, but it's an excellent column none the less. Especially since The New York Times tends to get just a couple more readers than I do. For those of us paying attention, the hypocrisy of the Bush administration has been plain to see, and we've been commenting on it constantly. But Krugman's column is for the others out there who don't read MWO or TPM or Joe Conason on a daily basis. Those people need to know that this administration has priorities that are inimical to the well-being of middle and lower-class America. It needs to know the Huge Bush Tax Cut for the Wealthy of 2001 is choking our budget, and that Bush is easing the pressure by targetting cuts at programs that really matter. All to protect the tax giveaways to the wealthy, and the donor/cronies. Krugman talks about mine safety and veterans' benefits, but their are so many other examples. Like prescription drugs benefits. Remember that the Senate Republicans (under instructions from the White House) balked at the Democrats' prescription drug benefit plan because it was too expensive, even though it was less expensive than the the permanenet repeal of the Estate Tax they had just the week before tried to push through.

That's the kind of hypocrisy we're up against, and the kind of twisted priorities. Molly Ivins made the case recently that, despite vociferously attacking the Democrats for it, it is really the Republicans who have declared class warfare, by systematically redistributing wealth up. By cutting programs which help the middle and lower-classes in order to fund tax cuts for only the wealthiest of all the wealthy, that is class warfare. That's what happening. The lower classes are toiling to feed the fat cats. It may be ugly, and it may be a politically radioactive thing to come out and say, but it is the truth.
The Bond Project: Goldfinger. The third film in the Bond series should be immediately familiar to most audiences. For one thing, the film was an enormous success when originally released, which cemented the Bond franchise as a tremendously popular cultural phenomenon. As such, it is one of a short list of films that has truly entered into the collective cultural consciousness, for lack of a better term. More specifcally, it is the first Bond film to follow what we know as the essential Bond formula. This is why I referred to Goldfinger as the first true Bond film.

That having been said, there is little that is actually new in Goldfinger. The pre-title sequence is a holdover from the previous film, although this time it is completely irrelevant to the main plot, which establishes the usual pattern from that point onward. Later, all of the regulars are seen. We have Felix Leiter, marking the first of several return appearances for this character from Dr. No. We have a gruff and impatient M giving Bond his assignment, and a firm dressing down for his unconventional methods (more on that later). We have the romantic repartee between Bond and Moneypenny. For the first time, however, we have Bond visiting Q Branch to receive his equipment. Q Branch appears to have been inspired, more than a little bit, by the brief "SPECTRE Island" scene from the previous film. This film, however, is the first to introduce the humorous animosity between Bond and Q. Perhaps animosity is the wrong word, but there's a distinct sense of impatience from both of them.

As with the previous film, Goldfinger boasts a very strong story, let down quite a bit by it's plot an script. I feel this film is a vastly over-rated entry in the series, though it certainly is pretty good. The major criticism I have, which is often mentioned by commentators, is that Bond really does very little to actually save the day. But there are deeper, and subtler problems at work than that.

Consider the death of Jill Masterson. Famously, Miss Masterson was killed by what Bond calls "skin suffocation". Every inch of her body was covered in gold paint. This was done by Odd Job, Goldfinger's hilariously mute henchman/caddy (his only line, repeated several times, is "Ahhh!"). But more interesting is the reason why it was done. Acting entirely without orders, Bond decided to get involved with Goldfinger directly at a very early stage, before he even knew why MI6 was interested in him. In revenge, Goldfinger had his lovely assistant Jill murdered. The real target, of course, was Bond. But this was merely a warning to Bond to back off, and a convenient way to get rid of a disloyal subordinate.

The point of all of this is that, in a sense, Jill's death was entirely Bond's fault. M was direct enough to point this out to both Bond and to the audience, but the matter was quickly dropped. Bond acted rashly, and his hubris resulted in an innocent girl's murder. Had Bond responded with a slightly more overt sense of guilt, this fact could have made for a fascinating angle in the relationship Bond later has with Jill's sister Tilly. Of course, that relationship was so brief and inconsequential anyway, it might not have made much difference. What we have, though, is a wasted opportunity. I truly new angle of Bond could have been revealed through this story, but the filmmakers went another way.

So, first we have a wonderfully enjoyable game of golf between hero and villain. This sequence is an absolute joy to watch, but it is a pretty roundabout way for Bond to get a homing device into Goldfinger's car. After the match, Bond tails Goldfinger to an airport, and then follows him to Geneva, Switzerland. After a brief and mostly pointless interlude with Tilly (the character could have been cut entirely from the film without hurting anything but the running time), Bond tracks Goldfinger to his lair, where he hopes to discover by what means Goldfinger gets gold out of England (Bond's appointed task). Conveniently, oldfinger just happens to be explaining exactly that to an associate of his just when Bond starts eavesdropping. This is a tried and true standard tactic of films like this, and it wouldn't be so disappointed if the same thing didn't happen again later in the film.

Next, we have some exciting action scenes, the end result of which is Tilly's death and Bond's capture. Then you've got the famous "laser" scene, which is a classic Bond moment if ever I saw one. But by this point, there is very little left for the film to do, so, it adopts a very leisurely pace. Bond is flown to America and taken to Kentucky (something of a come down after Jamaica and Istanbul, to be sure). Basically, this is where the film begins to fall apart. You have Bond escaping from his cell and wandering around trying to figure out what Goldfinger is up to. Fortunately, Goldfinger tells all of his America Mafia cronies exactly what he intends to do, while Bond listens. Very convenient, and since this is happeing for the second time in the same film, utterly unforgiveable. Worse, there is no reason for Goldfinger to even be having the conversation that Bond overhears, since he kills the Mafia people right after he tells them the plan. A hideously bad piece of plotting; one for the record books.

So, what does Bond do with this information. Well, he tries to get a message to Felix, but fails. Instead, he seduces Pussy Galore. I say "seduces" because I'm trying to be charitable. From the on screen portrayal, it looks disturbingly like a rape to me. Anyway, once Bond has sex with Pussy, she obviously decides to switch sides and takes it upon herself to tell the Americans about Goldfinger's plan. The Americans, always big fans of dramatic finishes, decide to wait until Goldfinger has already gotten into Fort Knox with and set the bomb before revealing that they were not dead after all. There's a fight, Bond tries to defuse the bomb, but fails in this too. The bomb is defused by another heroic American, and everything is right with the world. Oh, until that truly awful fight scene on the airplane, but the less said about that the better.

It's such a shame, because Goldfinger's plan is truly ingenious, and deserves a much better film. [Alas, it wouldn't get one. Practically the same story is used again in A View to a Kill, which is far worse a film than Goldfinger.] Of course, most of these criticisms arise out of a fairly close watching of the film. Bond movies are not meant to be studied carefuly, simply enjoyed for what they are. In that respect, the film actually succeeds admirably, which is why it is so highly regarded. It has all the elements of a shallow but ighly entertaining action movie. It has a souped up Aston Martin DB5. It has Odd Job. It has Pussy Galore. It has the "laser" scene. What else do you want? A good plot? A tighter story? That's just nitpicking, isn't it?

Honestly, I don't know if it is or not. Maybe I'm just being a stick in the mud, but I really do feel that if a movie can't stand up to close scrutiny, then it has no business being considered a good movie.

Bottom line: inarguably a classic of the series, this film marked the arrival of the Bond formula. Unfortunately, it demonstrates that there is little room in the formula for strong stories, strong characters, or strong plotting. The result is an enjoyable action film, with good stunts and special effects, but little real "meat".

UPDATE: Ed Hill's review of Goldfinger is here. The Bond Projects continues with Thunderball.

Monday, August 19, 2002

The Pattern Repeats. It's hard to argue with Eric Alterman today, but I'm sure a lot of people will try. Alterman contends that this country has been complicit in various atrocities around the world, particularly in Central America during the 1980s. [For a movie take on that situation, I urge you to see Salvador by Oliver Stone, which takes place in El Salvador in 1980 and is a shocking, true account of American complicity in state terror. It is a dramatic film, and not a documentary, so it shouldn't be regarded as the gospel truth, but as with all of Oliver Stone's films, the big picture is essentially true, while the details have been tinkered with to make a greater dramatic point.] The most disturbing thing about Alterman's post is that, he says, it's all happening again.

I've heard a lot of nasty sounding things about this Exxon Mobil/Indonesia business, but I don't know much about it. I'll look into it further.
The 9/11 Fallacy. There have been a whole mess of articles lately chiding the Democrats for not taking a stonger, more dynamic position on the question of Iraq. Harold Meyerson writes in this commentary that the Democrats lack leadership on the Iraq issue, and they had better get some pretty quick. He does a very nice job of laying out the specifics of the political minefield they are walking through. They're expecting a good election in November, and they are a little worried about doing anything to mess that up. Publically opposing the White House Iraq Policy is very, very dangerous. Especially since no one really knows what they're opposing (the White House has been very vague on exactly why war with Iraq is so important). Many Democrats feel that it's much better to go alone with Bush on foreign policy, but oppose him on domestic policy, which has been the post 9/11 strategy all along.

You can understand why they feel this way, but the upshot is that Bush was able to announce an unprecedented new military policy (preemptive attacks, possibly nuclear), which could have incalculable ramifications for the future of international relations and warfare, basically without objection. Whether or not attacking Iraq is justified, Bush's pre-emption strategy is not, and the Democrats have got to rack up the nerve to say that.

But, according to Peter Beinart in The New Republic, it's not enough to simply oppose Bush. The Democrats, he says, must come up with a their own brand new post-9/11 foreign policy to propose as an alternate to Bush's preemption plan. Brendan Nyhan takes up this idea when he says "Clearly, we need a new theory -- but do we need Bush's?"

As fascinating and instructive as these three articles are, they each of them assume a key point which is far from obvious to me. I remain unconvinced that we do need a new theory, as Nyhan puts it. Perhaps we do, and if so, preemption won't cut it, but first would somebody put forth some kind of argument for this? Everyone just assumes it. What is it about 9/11 that requires massive changes in the way we conduct foreign policy, in the way in which our armed forces are utilized? I don't see it. As we all know by now, 9/11 was absolutely preventable, if not for serious systemic flaws in U.S. intelligence agencies and other organizations, and if not for a serious bungling of priorities by the Bush White House. So, if 9/11 could have been prevented without unilaterally nuking the shit out of Afghanistan on September 10, how is that 9/11 proves the inadequacy of the old foreign policy?

It's the same argument that Ashcroft is using again and again and again. In the wake of 9/11, Ashcroft has expanded greatly the powers of Justice Department, even though the new powers would not have beennecessary nor sufficient to prevent 9/11 if they had been in place before. Democrats are happy to expose this fallacy in the area of civil liberties, but not in the area of foreign policy. Why not? It's the same fallacy.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

TPM is Having a Good Weekend. Take a look at Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo entries from yesterday. He's on a roll. He commented earlier in the week that it's very fortunate that the Bush Administration decided to start making some more high profile mistakes right after Marshall's article on White House incompetence came out. Well, he's crowing now, because Bush has more big blunders for Marshall to discuss, and discuss them he does (always getting in a little link to his article, of course, and why not?).

First Marshall tells us, in the post I've directly linked to above, about Russia signing a five-year economic agreement with Iraq. Wow. I mean, come on people: Wow. This looks very, very bad for Bush, especially given how close he is to Pootie-Poot.

As if that wasn't bad enough, scroll down and you'll see a much larger deconstruction of the $5.1 billion budget cut fiasco. Bush pissed off the firefighters, which is just not cool, and then tried to blame Congress.

This just in direct from the White House Press Office: "The Era of Responsibility has been indefinately postponed due to interference from Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden. It's not our fault. Honest."
41 vs. 43? Ever since Dowd wrote that nasty piece trashing Gore's recent op-ed, I've been suspicious of her, big time. Before then, I had never really stopped to think about her writing, or her style. She was on a recent streak of Bush bashing, so I liked her. But then the Gore attack column came out, and I cried foul, because the column was utterly devoid of content. It was sarky, catty, and intellectually irrelevant.

Now, even when she returns to bashing Bush, which I like, I still can't look at her the same way. Take today's column. It's sarky, it's catty, and it doesn't have much content. It does, however, make a connection that I had not made (shame on me). If Brent Scowcroft is publically criticizing the "Attack Iraq" crowd, then how must Bush the Elder feel about it? She also makes the point about Bush the Younger basing his entire policy on fixing Bush I's mistakes, which really must piss the old boy off, especially when they weren't really mistakes at all.

Anyway, it's a pretty good column for Dowd, because it tells me things that I didn't realize before. But that style of hers is really starting to grate.