NPF: A BRIEF HISTORY OF BIRTHERISM

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 29th, 2011 by Ed

As inane as the manufactured controversy over Obama's constitutional eligibility to serve as president might be, it does give me a rare opportunity to dust off the "Presidential Trivia" tag and take a walk through some obscure history. Whee!

Much of what has been said about Obama over the past three years bears an eerie resemblance to the case of Chester A. Arthur, who battled doubts about his eligibility and citizenship throughout his career on the national stage. What is certain is that Arthur's father William was a British citizen in 1829 when Chester was born. If, as many totally-not-racist birthers are suddenly claiming this week, having a non-citizen parent negates natural born citizenship, then Arthur indisputably was ineligible to serve (William Arthur was naturalized in 1843). Beyond the question of his father's citizenship, it was also alleged that Arthur was born in Canada. While generally believed to be false, the claim is at least plausible. William Arthur owned a farm 15 miles north of the Vermont-Ontario border. And Chester's birthplace was given as Fairfield, VT, which is within maple syrup-spitting distance of the Canadian border. Does any evidence prove the claim that Arthur was born in Canada? No. Is it plausible, given his father's Canadian property and the fact that Fairfield is practically in Canada? Sure. The combination of A) a non-citizen father and B) a disputed birthplace make Chester Alan the likely choice as the president with the most complicated or ambiguous citizenship status.

Several men who ran for president but failed to win would have raised very interesting questions regarding eligibility. Charles Evans Hughes, who lost to Woodrow Wilson in 1916, was born a dual citizen on account of a British father and British laws that automatically conferred citizenship at birth despite the fact that Hughes was born in New York. While his status as a person born in the U.S. is beyond doubt, Hughes' election would have raised the complex question of whether someone born into dual nationality can be "natural born" for the purposes of the Article II requirements. George Romney (yes, Mitt's dad) ran in 1968 despite being born in Mexico in 1907 to parents who had not set foot in the U.S. since 1886. However, his parents retained U.S. citizenship and never obtained Mexican citizenship, thus he would most likely have been eligible if the matter was litigated. Regardless it is not difficult to see how a case could be argued against him. Barry Goldwater and Herbert Hoover's VP, Charles Curtis, were born in AZ and KS, respectively, before either were granted statehood. Territorial residents had birthright citizenship in most cases, so this is little more than a historical curiosity.

What is particularly funny about the to-do over Obama's birth is that of the people running in 2008, he actually had the least complex citizenship status. John McCain was born in the unincorporated Panama Canal Zone territory, where upon birth an individual was a U.S. "national" but not a citizen (similar to territories like American Samoa or Guam today). His parents were both citizens and he was born on a military base where they were stationed, so the circumstances strongly suggest that he was a naturally born citizen rather than a foreign national born to people who resided (in any permanent sense) in a foreign country. However, it was only a law passed in 1937 that retroactively declared everyone born in the Canal Zone after 1904 a natural born citizen. Despite all the fuss, most interpretations of USC Title 8, 1401 would grant that McCain met the criteria regardless of the retroactive law of 1937 because his parents were both U.S. citizens – and on an active duty military deployment.

Oh, and of course none of the first five presidents were technically eligible since they were British citizens at birth, one and all. But what's a grandfather clause or two among friends?

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THE PRESIDENT…IS A…N(*RINGING BELL*)

Posted in Rants on April 28th, 2011 by Ed

(Warning: post contains language that may be cause for offense. More so than usual.)

It has been a two year exercise in frustration attempting to figure out what is going on inside Barack Obama's head, and few of his decisions have been more puzzling than the one to release his "long form" birth certificate more than three years after Wingnuttia started drumming up conspiracy theories about his birthplace and citizenship status. Despite the clear legal validity of his short form birth certificate (which is all most of us have, and which in Hawaii loudly states, "This document serves as prima facie evidence of birth in any court proceeding"), a large segment of the American population remained skeptical that such a black potential secret Muslim could really have been born in the U.S. of A.

The release of the "long form" accomplishes very little for Obama with the possible exception of making Donald Trump look like a jackass (although he and his supporters are declaring "victory" for making Obama release the document, irrespective of the fact that said document proves conclusively that he and all of his supporters are all fucking morons). It accomplishes so little because Birtherism is not and never has been about Obama's birth certificate, and it certainly hasn't been about facts. "Not a natural-born citizen" is little more than gussied up Newspeak for "nigger", and there is no practical distinction between "Where's the birth certificate?" and "Go back to Africa, you black SOB."

Though he has been dead for many years, Lee Atwater offers us one of the best explanations of Birtherism in a nutshell in describing the use of coded racial language in the 1980s:

You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can’t say (that)—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

The Teabaggers and Birthers have been fighting this accusation vociferously since the moment the conspiracy theory emerged, yet the release of the long-demanded Long Form certificate provides some of the most damning evidence against their feeble claims. IF this is really about a birth certificate, then the birth certificate should bring the "controversy" to an end. Instead, we see that Birtherism has no intention of being derailed by something as trivial as the document that its supporters have been demanding for three goddamn years. It will have no effect because the underlying cause of the phenomenon remains: to paraphrase the legendary scene from Blazing Saddles, the President is a n(*DING*). But of course Birthers don't think they're racists. A dog doesn't know what a "dog whistle" is; to them, it's just a whistle (much as to people in Cleveland, it is simply called a Steamer).

Why would Obama expect this new information to have any impact on his opponents? The more mainstream, non-lunatic conservatives have already rejected the issue (Birtherism appears to embarrass them, in fact) and the lunatics will simply trot out predictable excuses – "It's fake!" or any number of similar Moving Goalposts arguments. Rather than being satisfied, they will simply demand additional "evidence" which, if received, they will similarly discount in their haste to demand even more.

World Nut Daily, which has been unofficial Birther HQ for the last two years, has taken a different approach. After receiving the birth certificate they've been demanding for all this time, they have now decided that the birth certificate is irrelevant because even if Obama was born in Hawaii, his father was not a U.S. citizen and thus he cannot be "natural born" (according to the definition of "natural born" devised by WND legal scholars like Jerome Corsi and a collection of regular commenters in Freeper forums). Check out their new "headlines", noting that the "author" repeatedly referenced is Corsi, whose books are published exclusively on WND Press.

-Obama document still doesn't answer all questions
-Authors: Even Hawaii birth won't make Obama eligible
-President still has major legal issues following release of 'birth certificate'
-Author suggests disputed presidency won't survive publication of book
-Verdict: Birthers are (mainly) right: 'Sufficient evidence to reasonably conclude' Obama probably not eligibile
-Obama's day of reckoning could end his presidency

Translation, with deference Mr. Atwater: "Despite release of certificate, Obama fails to answer allegations of negritude."

WND honcho Joseph Farah humiliates himself further in the Washington Post, telling Steve Levingston that Corsi's book Where's the Birth Certificate?, which comes out in three weeks, has been vindicated. But he's not humiliated, nor is the cause he champions really set back by the new document. Once again, none of this has anything to do with a birth certificate. It has everything to do with a black president who has a furreign-soundin' name and a father from Kenya. This is about the politics of tribalism and blood, about how he is one of Them and not one of Us.

I fail to see what Obama has to gain from addressing these claims at face value. They can say "not natural born" or "secret Muslim" all they want – they know, just as we know, exactly what they really mean. And since the real, underlying issue can never be addressed in any way that will placate Birthers, what does it accomplish to respond to the coded language they use to make their racism sound acceptable in polite society?

SNAKE OIL AND PATENT MEDICINE

Posted in Rants on April 27th, 2011 by Ed

There's something impressive about fraud – the old fashioned kind, not the new Wall Street "we'll rob you blind and pay off Congress for protection" or the identity theft kind. I mean the 19th Century kind; a man rolls into town on a wagon, sells a bunch of bottles of McGillicuddy's #5 Elixir (guaranteed to cure the Vapors, Rheumatism, Sallow Complexion, and Female Complaints), and disappears before the customers realize it's essentially grain alcohol, cocaine, and poison. It required a combination of balls and showmanship that not many of us are blessed with. I'm not saying it's a good way to earn a living, but I have always been more than willing to tip my hat to a criminal with a particularly bold or ingenious methodology.

We don't see much of this anymore, mostly because A) modern technology makes people too easy to track down (and prosecute) once they leave town and B) modern advertising techniques are difficult to distinguish from a man in a top hat grifting out of the back of a covered wagon. Some of these sales techniques – promises of miracle products and cure-alls, untrustworthy looking touts with suspiciously white teeth, loud and repetitive sales pitches – live on today in infomercials and in things like the "dietary supplement" industry (aka Orrin Hatch's love child). But to see real, honest-to-god fraud that would make a Three Card Monte dealer blush, the "field" of education reform is the place to look.

One of my favorite blogs has a good comment on a phenomenon that has always fascinated me. It points to the prevalence of fast talking, silver tongued con artists failing in highly paid positions at the helm of failing school districts…then "failing upward" into an equally high paying gig in some other city and repeating their performance. Since urban public school districts are usually a complete disaster, you can see the natural allure of some out of town savior – "Superintendent Chocolate Jesus", as BJ delicately puts it – promising the moon and dazzling the desperate locals with bullshit.

The scam is essentially self-perpetuating, as these Ed.D.-bearing swindlers have mastered the many ways of convincing a new mark school district that their magic potion works. How hard is it to be creative with definitions to make the graduation rate look better? Not very. How hard is it to create a shiny, polished presentation of some Big Plan with an Inspiring Name ("Achievement-gasm 2020!!!!111!!!") with some fudged examples of past successes? It isn't. How hard is it to fudge aggregate student performance numbers? Why, not at all! Just look at Oprah / Beltway Media Insider / Bush / Obama darling Michelle Rhee, the high-profile union buster and "school choice" advocate who achieved remarkable improvements in performance at some failing Washington D.C. schools…using the miracle pedagogical technique of having administrators erase students' incorrect answers and replace them with correct ones on standardized tests. The sheer genius of it. It boggles the mind.

Despite the fact that any semi-reasoned analysis must conclude that there are no quick, cheap, or easy answers to the morass of failure in which the American educational system currently resides, parents and politicos continue to take a short view and seek miracle cures. It's understandable; if my Billy is getting a bad education now, I'm not interested in hearing about a plan that will improve the school in 15 years. So for the foreseeable future this will continue to be America's highest profile, most financially rewarding swindle, making a small group of ballsy scam artists shuttling among the halls of power in Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Buffalo, and every other major city dealing with the reality of urban decay and a public school system that redefines catastrophic failure.

SEE NO EVIL

Posted in Rants on April 25th, 2011 by Ed

Two seemingly unrelated tales of Christian conservative leadership in the United States.

1. Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy, was on Christiane Amanpour's Sunday show making a tremendous ass of himself by plastering on his Most Serious Face and talking nice about Donald Trump. Forgive my manual transcript here, but the statement is approximately:

Graham: "Trump, when I first heard that he was getting in, I thought this has got to be a joke. But the more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, you know, maybe this guy's right."

Amanpour: "So he might be your candidate of choice?"

Graham: "Sure. Yes."

This comes after 5 minutes of Graham pontificating about living in "the time of the Antichrist" and about the moral decline of America, the cure for which is apparently Donald "Mr. Morality" Trump – an ambiguously religious (variously reported as Catholic, Presbyterian, Protestant Reformed, etc.) man-whore with a taste for 20 year old Eastern European girls and serial infidelity.

2. Foreign Policy ran an interesting piece about the staunch support for Ivorian dictator Laurent Gbagbo from key U.S. Christian conservatives, notably OK Senator James Inhofe (who has his own mission organization in Africa, where he has made more than 25 trips since being elected). Gbagbo, who transitioned from democratic reformer to typical African "big man" after losing an election, is an evangelical Christian whereas the declared winner is Muslim. But actually Foreign Policy forgot to note that Gbagbo is a Christian…with two wives, one a Muslim he married in an animist ceremony. Inhofe sure does like his fellow Christians, up to and including overlooking bigamy (not to mention the crimes Gbagbo has perpetrated in office, of course).

I haven't the slightest problem with people being atheists, bigamists, man-whores, evangelical Christians, or anything else they so choose. I can respect the hell out of a deeply religious person – provided there is some small nod toward consistency rather than the "buffet style" (pick the plates you want and ignore the rest) attitude toward religion and morals that is so common in this country. If Franklin Graham is a humorless, moralizing Christian, then be a humorless, moralizing Christian. Don't be one 98% of the time and sing the praises of Donald Trump the rest of the time. If James Inhofe wants to preach to "the natives" or whatever in his spare time, so be it. But don't lecture us about our moral failings if, for reasons of economic, political, and military expediency, you're willing to overlook the fact that your SuperJesusPal Laurent Gbagbo has two wives. OK? OK.

I do not understand this impulse, this inability for our self-appointed evangelists and moral guardians to apply their belief systems consistently rather than making exceptions whenever political points are to be scored or advantages are to be had. Do they not see their hypocrisy? Do they see it and not care? Do they see it and think we're too stupid to see it? This American brand of TV bible-thumping and neo-theocracy arguably is no more or less hypocritical than other major religions. However, with the Mormons or the Vatican one must at least do a little digging to find the rank hypocrisy. People like Franklin Graham think nothing of laying it out in the open for all and sundry to see. If Pope Benedict goes on TV to endorse Rudy Giuliani and lavish praise on George Tiller I'll retract that statement.

HEGEMONY

Posted in Quick Hits on April 22nd, 2011 by Ed

These 10:00 PM EST games in Vancouver are going to be the death of me, but the sting is lessened considerably by Roberto Luongo's annual mental breakdown in net for the Canucks. At some point in every series he will surrender a garbage goal; thereafter he goes to pieces and approximates a human sieve.

I will try to honor the No Politics rule sometime on Friday. For now, however, please do take 15 minutes (It's Friday, right? You're not working) to read this excellent take on the current state of U.S. foreign policy and the "democratization" of the Middle East. Do yourself a favor and do not look at the author, lest its baggage lead you to reject the argument out of hand.

The whole Washington Consensus thing worked when we were half of the global economy. Now, not so much.

DOOMSDAY CULTS

Posted in Rants on April 21st, 2011 by Ed

Do you ever get the feeling that some non-negligible share of the polarization and disagreement over issues in our society results from people being contrary simply for the sake of being contrary? When we establish that the world is round, someone has to argue that it is flat. When we see two planes hit the World Trade Center, someone has to argue that they were actually holograms to cover up a controlled demolition. I don't even think people who say this kind of thing believe it; they just get off on trolling and watching other people get riled up.

My theory is not well developed yet it might come closest to explaining why we are now seeing economists and people in the banking industry coming out of the woodwork to argue that refusing to raise the debt ceiling, thereby forcing the Treasury to default on its obligations, is a good thing. This "pro-default" "movement" (which must remain in quotes until enough of them appear to justify using the term) consists of either people who are dumber than a bag of doorknobs or the economics equivalent of a doomsday cult. They should probably be off in a field somewhere praying for Hale-Bopp to strike the Earth and bring about the apocalypse.

In the past few days alone Bank of America's Jeffrey Rosenberg and the Cato Institute's Jagadeesh Gokhale have thrown caution to the wind and booked two first-class cabins on the USS Retarded. I can't do this as much justice as Mike or the finance folks could, but I'd like to draw your attention to two of Mr. Sokhale's points:

In contrast, the current prospect of a technical default, from failing to increase the debt limit, would not be due to any real national insolvency. Given today's low interest rates, the federal government could easily raise the resources needed to meet today's contractual government obligations.

In other words, the government can just borrow money to pay the obligations it will default on because it reached the debt ceiling and therefore can't legally borrow any more money. Are you sure this guy is an economist? He worked for the Federal Reserve? No way. Prove it.

Given its purpose is to avoid a real future crisis, by bringing to heel run-away spending on entitlements and other wasteful government programs, here's an opportunity for experiment: Would a debt-limit "crisis" beget better fiscal policies?

After the global economic meltdown, famine, and societal collapse it might.

How might investors really view this ersatz U.S. debt crisis? If some lawmakers' refusal to vote for increasing the debt limit without also passing prudential fiscal policies resulted in a technical U.S. default, it would demonstrate their significant political strength.

By cutting off our nose we will be sending a strong message to the rest of our face.

Might that not actually induce investors to buy long-term U.S. debt — reducing long-term interest rates and improving the U.S. investment climate?

You win, Jagadeesh. Yes, defaulting on its obligations will convince people to buy long-term Treasury debt. We must improve the "investment climate" by reducing long-term interest rates…which are at historic lows right now.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. 2+2 = 5.

LIVIN' THE DREAM

Posted in Rants on April 20th, 2011 by Ed

It is more trouble than it's worth to find and post either of the following clips (which would doubtlessly require linking some sketchy video site that bills itself in Cyrillic as "the YouTube of Kyrgyzstan") so you rely on my descriptions and I'll rely on your memories.

Throughout most of the 1980s McDonald's ran a popular commercial emphasizing the positive role its restaurants played in the local economy, particularly by offering entry-level job opportunities. A black teenager in a McDonald's uniform walked home from work through an inner city neighborhood with a sense of pride on payday. His neighbors all smiled at him, the implication being that they were proud of him for working hard. The commercial was unbelievably corny and actually pretty offensive, combining paternalistic sentiments (more than a few "White Man's Burden" vibes here) and the insulting implication that everyone in town would be thrilled that the kid was flipping burgers instead of, you know, slinging crack or one of the other pastimes black people were allowed to have on TV in the 1980s. Dave Chappelle, bless his crazy heart, made this point and followed with an excellent parody of the ad; in the Chappelle version the young man is dumped by his girlfriend because he "smells like fries", mocked by the neighborhood for having a crappy job and wearing the lame uniform, and chased by thugs who applaud his employment because his regular paychecks give them an attractive target to rob.

The ribbing is well deserved; sure, it's great that McDonald's is a source of employment, especially for high school kids (who end up working way too many hours while in school, but that's another story) and in areas without a lot of economic opportunities. Nonetheless we must bear in mind that a job at McDonald's is a job at McDonald's: minimum wage, no benefits, lousy work, and few if any useful skills gained through experience. In its effort to pat itself on the back and burnish its public image Mickey D's exposed itself to the universal truth that no one really wants to work there. It's just a thing you do when you're too young to be employed outside of food service or on hard times as an adult and badly in need of income. I would never look down on someone for working there, but…it's not the sort of thing one gets excited about or celebrates, you know?

Maybe that is what is so heartbreaking about this blaring headline on CNN: "McDonald's Hiring 50,000 Workers Today." This is supposed to make us feel good, but I do not feel anything positive about the prospect of 50,000 adults, many of whom were gainfully employed until recently, obtaining jobs originally designed to be given to 16 year old boys with no particular skills. Don't get me wrong, the individuals interviewed in that story along with all of the other 50,000 hires will be materially better off with the job than without it, and the reduced burden on underfunded social services always helps too. Yet I can't get around the underlying issue – McDonald's? Seriously, this is what we're doing now? The article semi-hopefully (I think) announces that "food service jobs have been one of the fastest growing segments of the job market, accounting for 63,500 jobs added, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics."

So we are directing unemployed adults, many of whom have education and skills that could more productively be used in their areas of expertise, queuing up for jobs dunking fries and mopping bathrooms at fast food joints. I applaud their work ethic as much as I worry about what this spectacle says about the state of our society. Good to know that when the middle class has been completely outsourced the service industry will be there to give us a job manning the drive-thru window.

MAGICAL PONIES SHITTING GLITTER

Posted in Quick Hits on April 19th, 2011 by Ed

I'm a little spent from the Atlas Shrugged opus on Monday so I will confine myself to a brief question today.

Obama has caved (stop me if you've heard that one before) and accepted the right-wing frame of the budget debate, thus the argument is no longer Austerity vs. Keynesian Growth but juvenile bickering over how to pursue austerity. This creates the necessary usual illusion of choice and debate in a political system that operates in a shockingly narrow intellectual and ideological envelope. As usual the right gets what it wants and all of the fuss amounts to rearranging deck chairs.

So remind me again how austerity is supposed to help. As Mike asks and I have asked before, let's say we have a magic wand that balances the budget for us; then what? What is the benefit? Do interest rates fall? They're already insanely low. Does unemployment fall? If so, how and why would we expect that? Are there businesses out there that want to hire but won't because of the budget deficit? This is what I get from the statements by Paul Ryan and like-minded conservatives: If we cut spending it will restore "confidence" to "the market" and suddenly the economy will start growing in leaps and bounds.

Phase One: Collect underpants / cut spending
Phase Two: ???
Phase Three: Economic growth / profits

I am sick to death of hearing about the deficit and austerity-as-panacea arguments that punt on the issue of what this is supposed to accomplish entirely. To hear Mitch McConnell tell the tale, we will cut entitlement programs and then, I guess, somehow, everything is just going to be better. Magical sparkleponies will appear in your front yard shitting glittery, low fat (but full flavored!) frozen yogurt with your favorite toppings.

See, it's not really the ends that matter to the right, because the means – cutting taxes, gutting the welfare state, etc. – are the ends.

BATTLEFIELD: TRAIN – AN ATLAS SHRUGGED MOVIE REVIEW

Posted in Rants on April 17th, 2011 by Ed

(Hi. Skip to the last paragraph if you're pressed for time.)

Most adults have had the experience of sitting through a live performance by small children wherein the low entertainment value is offset by the fact that among the performers is one's child (or grandchild, etc.) What would otherwise be excruciating is kinda cute because, well, look at little Billy! That's our boy. Now imagine that you have been dropped into a random grade school full of strangers and you must sit through the same Christmas play. None of the children are yours. It is two hours long. And it consists of children reading excerpts from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and instructional manuals from various home appliances. You've just watched Atlas Shrugged, and it didn't even cost you $9.

In fairness it did not cost me $9 either. For the first time in my 32 years I sneaked into a movie without paying, as it was clearly in my rational self-interest to do so. To financially reward the people who made this…thing…smacked a little too much of altruism. It turns out I paid precisely the right amount for this rush job of a film, the production quality of which falls somewhere between an infomercial and the pilot episode of an original series on the SyFy Network. This film was made in just a few months for very little money in 2010 after 40 years of "development hell" because the film rights were about to lapse; the owner wanted to get something from his investment before it was too late. Believe me (and every other reviewer), it shows. Nearly the entire film consists of two actors standing or sitting in a room talking to each other filmed in basic Shot-Reverse Shot or, even worse, a single camera at a totally flat angle. Director Paul Johansson's lack of directorial experience – which consists of a few episodes of a TV show called "One Tree Hill" – is painfully apparent and totally inexcusable.

I emphasize this because I intend to review the film, not Ms. Rand's philosophy. I'm afraid the Randroids pelting the internet with love for a film they probably haven't seen – note Rotten Tomatoes' 10% critics rating compared to an 86% "user" rating – are unable to make this not-so-fine distinction, as if admitting that the film is shit would discredit their idol (They are also attempting to claim that the film is being "suppressed", which I suppose is true in the same way that the distribution of Baby Geniuses 2 was "suppressed"). In most instances – The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Lord of the Rings, etc. – hardcore fans of written work are brutal on film adaptations thereof, more than eager to disparage the movie and catalogue the ways in which it fell short of the original artist's vision. Not so with Atlas, apparently. If I loved a novel like Objectivists love Atlas Shrugged I would be mortified to see such a shitshow released on the big screen bearing the same name. But if I loved a novel as horrendously written as Atlas Shrugged I very well might like movies this bad. More to the point, if I adhered to a cult-like philosophical movement that simultaneously celebrates the individual and tolerates absolutely no criticism of The Way and The Great Leader, I would follow all of the other lemmings off the cliff and applaud this film too.

I must address one common yet undeserved reviewer criticism: poor acting. I contend that these actors did as well as anyone could expect given the limitations of the source material; large portions of dialogue are lifted verbatim from the novel. Rand is to realistic dialogue between compelling characters what the Battle of the Somme was to military strategy. I'd like to see an actor who can perform well while delivering lines like "I know the metal will work; I studied engineering in college." Honestly, a few of the actors – Graham Beckel (Ellis Wyatt) and Edi Gathegi (the guy who was "Big Love" on House, here playing Eddie Willers) – were quite good. Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins couldn't have made this work. Acting was not the problem.

The director is. It is his responsibility to overcome the limitations of the source material, and in this case the limitations are legion. He must realize that Dagny Taggart (a transparent stand-in for Rand, of course, played here by a gorgeous blonde irrespective of the fact that Rand looked like Joe Pesci) has the sex appeal of a burning orphanage. He must realize that the Taggart-Rearden "romance" is only romantic inasmuch as Rearden does not forcibly rape her or throw acid in her face upon what their lawyers deem satisfactory completion of coitus. He must realize that a story set in the future emphasizing the crucial role of trains in the economy is patently ridiculous. He must realize that endless dialogue about motors and the forging of metal and the minutiae of running a railroad are incomprehensibly boring. And the director must do something about all of these flaws – perhaps deviate from the source material enough to make the characters do and say something that an actual human might consider saying or doing. Thus at their cores the film and novel share a fundamental flaw: they are incredibly, soul-crushingly, and unprecedentedly boring. The director's solution was to spice up the endless drudgery of scenes of two characters sitting in chairs talking about steel, legislative politicking, or trains by…showing montage scenes of railroad track being laid. Seriously.

Johansson shares Rand's appreciation for subtlety as well, as if the audience would not be able to identify the Bad Guy if not accompanied by villainous music, played by a physically repulsive actor, and spouting cartoonishly evil dialogue like "A federal tax! Will be applied to Colorado! To equalize the nation's economy!" (Also, what?) The politicians/lobbyists/etc are monstrously evil caricatures of every cheap stock villain in the Hollywood thriller universe: the fat, greedy lobbyist; the vain politician; the slimy, quasi-criminal union boss; the incompetent bureaucrat. With decent writing and acting, an audience can be told that the Heroes are Good without parading them around in halos or that the Villains are Bad without making them strum their fingers together and laugh evilly in the manner of robbers in a low budget Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

Counter-intuitively, then, the problem with this adaptation is that the film is very faithful to the novel, and the novel is probably the most poorly written work ever to be considered important. Ayn Rand may be your favorite philosopher, but she is an appalling writer. Her novels call into question whether she ever met another human being let alone spoke with one. With absolutely no understanding of how narrative, plot, character development, or exposition work, Rand produces fiction that sounds like it was written in Urdu and translated into English with the least reliable free online translator available. The few pleasant libertarian-objectivist types I have known over the years have admitted in candid moments that her fiction, while containing themes and ideas they found life-changing, borders on unreadable. How could a film be better? Thousand-page collections of obtuse, solipsistic monologues do not a good movie make.

Let me describe one key scene from the film's final act wherein Rearden and Taggart are attempting to track down the inventor of a revolutionary electric motor. Johansson handles this "quest" portion of the story with a hacky montage, essentially turning the last 15 minutes into an episode of Scooby Doo. After a series of events leads them to the abandoned Twentieth Century Motor Company factory (where blueprints for the amazing engine are hidden in a secret passageway…Velma and Shaggy had to move a bookcase to find it) the two pore over the diagrams. Then, in detailed, technical dialogue right out of a User's Manual, the characters listlessly trade lines describing how the motor works. As they walk around the factory Taggart wonders aloud what could have happened to TCMC. Rearden notes that they "flattened their wage scale, paying each according to his needs and not his ability" which quite naturally, Taggart responds, led to "the managers and more skilled workers leaving." Yes, Hank agrees, "and the ones who remained behind couldn't run the place."

Remember, these two just fucked. They are supposed to have great passion for one another. And in the span of 90 seconds they have read us an engineering blueprint and part of a fundraising pamphlet from the Von Mises Institute. This scene captures everything that makes this movie an insufferable experience of unpleasant length.

Battlefield: Earth is still my favorite film in the "so unbelievably bad you have to see it to believe it" genre, and it shares many similarities with Atlas. Both are cynical efforts to extract money from the wallets of blindly devoted followers of a patently silly belief system / cult of personality. Battlefield: Earth was made with the confidence that Scientologists would pay to see it no matter how bad it was, and I am afraid that the same motives underlie the decision to rush this sloppy, amateurish version of Atlas Shrugged into theaters. It ends with the disappeared Ellis Wyatt announcing in voiceover that the has gone Galt, emphatically stating "DON'T try to find me…I am ON STRIKE!" which caused the theater to erupt in an impromptu round of applause. The small crowd of office managers and dentists and petty bureaucrats so enjoyed identifying with the great Producer for two hours before heading home and preparing for another big day of running Northeast Georgia's fourth largest supplier of plumbing fixtures or filling out forms in the Office of Administrative Technicalities at the (public) University. And the cynical bastards who made this sad excuse for a film knew that no matter how much it sucked, society's frustrated, impotent petit bourgeoisie – lawyers, secretaries, cubicle dwellers, engineers, and assorted other educated, angry white people – would gladly hand over the price of admission for that brief thrill of feeling like society would give two flying shits if any of them joined Mr. Wyatt "on strike."

Atlas Shrugged: Part I is as good as anyone could expect a film based on the fiction of Ayn Rand to be. Shit begets shit.

NPF: CAMEO SHOTS

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on April 15th, 2011 by Ed

This doesn't look right, does it?

To a football fan the faces are immediately familiar, yet the urge to adjust the monitor or simply ask "What in the hell are they wearing?" is strong. Your eyes do not deceive you and this is not a photoshop job. This is a rare two-for-one shot of one of my favorite obscure sports phenomena – the cameo appearance by famous players in uniforms that no one remembers them wearing. Often players who have long careers with a single team (or small number thereof) become so strongly identified with one uniform that, to the delight of trivia game hosts everywhere, no one can remember that Jerry Rice played a grand total of 9 games as a Seattle Seahawk (pictured here with Emmit Smith, closing out his career with an equally forgettable two season stint in Arizona). Even rarer is a glimpse of Rice in a Denver Broncos uniform during his brief training camp washout in the Mile High City.

Try these on for size:

No, that's not Idi Amin in a Supersonics jersey – that's Patrick Ewing, who played one embarrassing season in Seattle (and one in Orlando!) Below him are Johnny Unitas in his ill-advised final season cameo in San Diego and Pete Rose's half-season pit stop with the Montreal Expos. None of that looks right. None of it. Even Unitas's hair is wrong.

The most common explanation for the cameo appearance is when everyone knows an aged player is finished except for the player himself. So the team on which we remember him bids him adieu and he tries to hang on somewhere else. This is not always necessarily "obscure". Everyone remembers that Hank Aaron finished up with two seasons on the Milwaukee Brewers, Joe Montana wore a KC Chiefs uniform for a bit, and the Boston Bruins graciously traded 40 year-old Ray Bourque to the Colorado Avalanche so he might lift a Cup before retiring. But do you remember Joe Namath's ill-advised farewell in a Rams uniform? That NFL legend Reggie White came out of retirement to play a few games with the Carolina Panthers? Reggie Jackson's single season as a Baltimore Oriole? Wayne Gretzky's brief visit to St. Louis? Dennis Rodman's 10 games as a Dallas Maverick? Bobby Orr playing 23 games with a bone-on-bone knee and a Blackhawks jersey?


No. Also, drunk.

Cameos aren't just for washed up old guys though. Often a player will start with one team before being traded to achieve fame elsewhere. You know Lou Brock was briefly a Cub, but how about Ozzie Smith the Padre? Ryne Sandberg the Phillie? Phil Esposito (or Dominik Hasek!) on the Blackhawks? Brett Favre the Falcon?


What the fuck.

Multiple trades in a single season can also result in (un)memorable cameos. Mike Piazza played 1912 games in the Major Leagues…exactly five of them with the Florida Marlins (he also double-cameoed by ending his career with 83 ill-advised appearances in an Oakland A's uni). And what about Rasheed Wallace's single game for the Atlanta Hawks before being traded for the second time in two days? If only all trade deadline deals worked out as well as Randy Johnson's 11 games as a Houston Astro: 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA with 116 Ks in 84 innings. Holy shit.

Some players are multi-cameo stars. Paul Coffey is known as perhaps the best pure offensive backliner in NHL history, but he's not known as a Blackhawk (10 games), Hartford Whaler (20 games) or Boston Bruin (18 games). Rickey Henderson played on every damn team in baseball at the tail end of his career: you know he played 1/4 of a season on Toronto as a trade deadline acquisition, but raise your hand if you remember him on the Angels, Dodgers, Red Sox, or Padres. He looks about 65 in that Boston jersey. Jari Kurri won four Cups in Edmonton at Wayne Gretzky's side but played out the string elsewhere, including 14 games in New York and a single season in Anaheim (??) and Colorado. In 10 years who will remember Manny Ramirez's 17 at-bats as a Tampa Bay Ray, let alone his two-dozen games with the White Sox?

Oh, crap. I'm having way too much fun to stop. Running backs are a cameo gold mine, as they break down quickly but always think they have more left. "Name the famous RB's final team" would be a great trivia game on its own. You know Emmit Smith finished up in Arizona, but what about: Tony Dorsett (Broncos), Edgerrin James (Seahawks!), Franco Harris (also Seahawks!), OJ Simpson (49ers), Eddie George (Cowboys…and god was it sad to watch), Chuck Foreman (Patriots – I swear), Shaun Alexander (Redskins), Jim Taylor (Saints), Thurman Thomas (Dolphins?), Earl Campbell (Saints), Roger Craig (Vikings), and Eric Dickerson (Falcons). Good lord, can't any of you just retire?

Oh, and starting pitchers…don't get me started on old pitchers. We could be here all night. I might just have to another cameo post to accommodate all of the awesomeness. This is so much more fun than I thought it would be.

Who'd I miss? Other than Willie Mays in blue and orange, that is.