Thursday, November 29, 2007

We're Not Worthy

Last night I saw No Country for Old Men, about which I had heard some good and bad things, and so hadn't rushed out to see, though I am a Cohen Brothers fan. Then a friend with good film judgment told me it was great.

It has gotten some pretty bad reviews, but then again so did Miller's Crossing. Like that great film, it is set in a seamy milieu, is very violent, and focused around a character who lives by his own very idiosyncratic (and perhaps mad) code. Like Miller's Crossing it features wonderful performances by everyone including the fabulously and yet very plausibly beautiful Kelly MacDonald whom I first noticed in a plaid jumper, when she played Renton's jailbait girlfriend in Trainspotting. Here she is wholly tranformed into a Texas redneckette and she nails it. What is it about those UK actors? They can actually....act.
No Country also has some really stunning photography. It made me want to go to Texas. Unlike Miller's Crossing it doesn't have a Hollywood ending, that is to say, no orgasmically satisfying comeuppance are gotten. I suspect some disliked it for this.
In virtually every case I found that what others pointed to as fatal flaws in the piece, I rather liked as offbeat touches. The whole thing worked quite wonderfully, if oddly.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Banality of Evil, part 666

A story in today's Times is like something out of a made-for-TV movie -- the villainess of the piece perpetrates an act of deliberate, yet totally pointless save for the sadistic thrill, evil. A 47-year-old woman spends weeks posing on-line as the internet 'boyfriend' of her troubled 13- year-old neighbor, just so she can totally crush her (The coup de grace: “The world would be a better place without you.”) which she does, so effectively that the girl hangs herself with a belt in her closet.

Here's the money quote:

The police learned about the hoax when Ms. Drew filed a complaint about the
damage to the foosball table. In the report, she stated that she felt the hoax
“contributed to Megan’s suicide, but she did not feel ‘as guilty’ because at the
funeral she found out Megan had tried to commit suicide before.”

Kind of astonishing that there is no criminal penalty for this sort of thing. I would bet large amounts of money that the Drews are big Bush fans.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bull for the Gullible (Now More Correct!)

Correction: Ooops! I learn from my commenter that I have unfairly impugned the reportage of Dan Zak. It seems I myself had it wrong about Paul Ekmann's on-line course, which does retail for $199 and not $49.95 as I so snottily asserted. I guess this reportage is trickier than it looks, and maybe shouldn't be undertaklen without fact-checkers and editors and such. From now on I'll confine myself to fulminating.

No word as yet as to why the Post team couldn't come up with any lies by living Republicans to illustrate the article.

Perhaps it used to be that journalists felt a duty to tell the truth, or even, as the cliché has it, to “speak truth to power,” but clearly, in the day of 500 cable-channels and corporate consolidation of all the mass media, the M.O. of the “journalist” is more ‘selling bull to the gullible’. In the heady days Woodward and Bernstein the Washington Post organization might have actually investigated unindicted co-conspirators like Karl Rove; today they put them on the payroll. Now that the watchdogs of the democracy have become the ladogs of the kleptocracy, journalism has devolved into the broadcast of whatever fluff will distract the public, crowding genuine revelation off the pages and screens while masquerading as reportage, and above all, carefully avoiding offense to the corporate overlords. In perfect illustration of this degeneration, an otherwise utterly banal piece in today’s Washington Post achieves a form of distinction as the quintessence of today’s lazy, mendacious – and worst – cowardly journalistic practice.

Somehow it is fitting, in this Post-Ironic age that the article should be entitled, The Truth About Lying. It is by staff writer Dan Zak, whose name would live in infamy along with those of Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, if there were any justice in the media world, and if this botch hadn’t been slathered onto the lowly, infomercial pages of the Sunday Source section. Still, it and its sidebars and cutesy illustrations are big, big Big! – taking up a full page and a half of valuable column-inches in a “leading paper”. But it wasn’t just size that caught my attention.
Decades ago I discovered the invaluable writings of Paul Ekmann, a social psychologist who studies lying; now I’m no longer surprised at how often his work gets dumbed down for middlebrow consumption by journalists. (He must be one of the most interviewed professors in all of American academia.) So when I saw the Source headline I cringed, suspecting that he’d be misused yet again; still, I had no idea how badly. Zak’s woeful treatment of the subject has two theses, one embedded – ‘We are all liars.’ – and one baldly stated, ‘Detecting lies is easy.’ In service of the first notion, Zak undertakes a standard Orwellian denaturing of terms. He redefines lie as any departure from absolute candor. Thus, QED, everybody lies:

“How are you,” a co-worker asks.
“Fine, thanks,” you say, when in truth,
you’re not fine.

True, virtually all civil people do engage in such locutions; but to define that sort of deflective verbal tic as lying, is to expand the concept infinitely, unto meaninglessness. We are not all liars. Most people tell an occasional lie, but there are many people who try valiantly to tell the truth any time it matters, and there are many others who lie reflexively, often without the slightest awareness or compunction. The former are honest people; the latter are liars. To equate them, as Zak’s terminology would, is to abandon a crucial distinction, perhaps the crucial distinction, without which honor and ethics are themselves meaningless.

But one can hardly expect Zak to be sensitive to nuances of language; for he has written this:

…How do we cut through the thick crust of deception and drill our way to the
hot, molten core of

It’s easy. With training and practice.

Leaving aside for now the planet-sized ineptitude of the metaphor (an issue itself not wholly irrelevant to mendacity), we should wonder at his basic assertion: ‘Detecting lies is easy, with training and practice.’

This seems to contradict most of those interviewed for the article: "Don't trust your impressions," Ekman says of trying to detect concealed emotions. "They'll probably be wrong based on stereotype. Judging by demeanor is very difficult to do." Also this alleged ‘ease’, I would guess, doesn’t really square with most adult experience; moreover Zak seems to ignore the way lie-detection is richly depicted in history, philosophy, literature and legal doctrine as being one of most diabolically vexing problems we face. Surely there are many people in law enforcement and intelligence, with abundant training, practice and life-and-death motivation who find the truth anything but “easy” to determine.

But even though he’s telling us something he knows, or ought to know is untrue. Zak isn’t really lying here. He’s not really asserting anything; that’s just not a mood in the Advertese he speaks. He’s just infotaining us, and doing so in the factoid/merchant-booster spirit of the Sunday Source section. He’s mostly touting the services of sometime Fox News personality Janine Driver, who, billing herself as the “Lyin’ Tamer” sells, for $55, a two-part class “The Truth About Lying: Detecting Deception.” She must be an authority, it seems, because:

“She frequently pops up on Rachel Ray and the Today show to demonstrate her
ability to “read” people.”

How does Driver tell when people are lying? Basically you pay close attention, or as she puts it:
“The number one thing is to norm them.” explains Driver. “What is their normal behavior, and when do they deviate from that?”

In a sidebar, Truth Be Told…, Zak apparently distills such wisdom of Driver and the other lie experts he consulted, but the advice he offers for sleuthing out the truth seems about as vague as that of the store-front mystic. It may be hard to argue with, but it’s not much to go on either. To detect a lie: “Keenly observe the whole picture: a person’s speech, body language and facial expressions, as well as the context in which they occur…..”

If this isn’t good enough, you can go on-line and get the Micro-Expression Training Tool for only $49.95. [Falsehood alert! Erratum! : This is compete crap; what Zak says about the price is true : (Zak says it’s $199, but then again, you can’t expect today’s Post reporter to actually check.)] This tool is laboratory-proven to help you detect lies among test subjects on video, though perhaps not when, as in real life, you yourself have to decide whether to trust, or perhaps divorce or convict.
To detect “concealed emotion” – which is apparently related somehow to lie detection, Zak says one should look for such signs as,

1. Acting less positive, pleasant or cooperative.
2. Pausing frequently in
speech, stumbling over words or speaking indirectly.
3. Looking or sounding
4. Telling less-compelling and less-detailed stories, or stories
whose “facts” change. You may note a lack of logical structure, or that they
don’t sound involved in the story. There may be a certain distance between
story teller and the story...

These certainly reminded me of someone in particular, but not Zak apparently. In another illustrated accompaniment he instances Big Lies, Big Consequences. He prefaces this section with an explanation about how even Churchill lied, even Jimmy Carter, about plans for military rescue of the Iran hostages. This is perhaps to underscore his earlier point: we’re all liars. Certainly Zak commits a bit of a whopper:

…Here are five cases of marquee lying. Note: We are not equating the
gravity or consequences of these disparate acts, but simply looking at famous

Now, it seems to me that when you devote exactly the same amount of newspaper space to each instance of a phenomenon, you are in fact positing a rough equivalence, especially if you load the language in certain ways. Zak’s Big Lies include: Hitler’s pledge not to invade his neighbors, Nixon’s denial of Watergate involvement, journalists’ fabricates stories, Enron fraud, and most pointedly (halfway between the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the $40 billion dollar bankruptcy and illustrated with a photo dead-center), “Clinton’s Denial.”

A sexual indiscretion was exacerbated by a perjury charge and by the fact that
the man involved was the president [sic]. You probably still remember Clinton’s
lie verbatim: “I did not. Have. Sexual. Relations. With that woman [sic],” he
told the American people.

All the other lies here, of whatever size or significance, are related in bland generalities, not labeled perjury and rendered in trendily lurid typographies, so perhaps this lie is journalistically equaller than the others.

I found the article eerily similar to, in fact, maybe a sort of condensation of one which Malcolm Gladwell published in New Yorker (August 5, 2002.) Gladwell too interviewed Ekmann and they apparently reviewed the video of Clinton’s lie, the good doctor explaining, with 20/20 hindsight, just how we could tell the Big Dog was lying. Maybe he gave Zak this spiel too (or maybe Zak just read Gladwell’s recent anthology). Back in 2002, I wrote both Gladwell and Ekmann wondering why all trace of Republican lying had been so very painstakingly excluded from the article; I never got an answer from either, but I have my own theory: this administration is demonstrably more hostile to the truth than any in America history, and so, more hostile to truth-tellers. Saying the obvious, straight out, “The President and his subordinates lie constantly and obviously,” is to risk the dangerous ire of the Bushies, and their irregulars: the Ditto-Heads, Swift-Boaters, and of course the Pioneers on various media Boards of Directors. This possibly is why President Bush’s truly amazing, Snidely Whiplash repertoire of tics, stammers, scowls, growls, sputters, malapropisms and slips doesn’t remind Ekmann, Gladwell, or Zak of anything. But certainly George W., when pressed, will start “acting less positive, pleasant or cooperative,” start “pausing frequently in speech, stumbling over words or speaking indirectly,” start, “Looking or sounding tense” and continue,

Telling less-compelling and less-detailed stories, or stories whose “facts” change. You may note a lack of logical structure, or that they don’t sound involved in the story. There may be a certain distance between story teller and the story...

Certainly too, innumerable figures in this administration have been captured telling well-documented lies on video. It might be worth studying Bush’s mannerisms as he told us about what “the British have learned” about the famous Nigerian yellowcake. Then too, when Vice President Cheney, told Tim Russert that “Saddam has reconstituted nuclear weapons,” or perhaps when later he told Russert that he never told him that, those videotapes might be worth consideration. Or if one doesn’t really want to go there for whatever reason, one could examine the tapes of Ronald Reagan denying any “arms for hostages” deal in Iran-Contra, or George H.W. Bush claiming to have been “out of the loop” on the same conspiracy, or perhaps Caspar Weinberger’s perjury, wherein he gave his superior’s lies the “bodyguard” of his own. Somehow none of these ever seems to come up when such “journalists” discuss Big Lies, and yet some of these untruths have had considerable historical importance.

How much journalistically safer then, and yet sexier, all around, to revisit Clinton’s lie about That Woman, than to worry about the kind of fib that squanders trillions of dollars or ruins millions of lives. I predict rapid advancement for lowly Dan Zack at the Post, and in the ranks of American journalism as a whole.

(I also posted this as Diary on DKos, but I'm repurposing it here partly because the link-feature at DKos Diaries is for shit.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

When Presidents Do It, It's Not Tyranny

George Bush makes mantras of the words "freedom" and "democracy," which is to say that he makes them meaningless syllables useful for thought-stopping. In case we needed any further proof, the Washington Post has this to say:

Bush yesterday offered his strongest support of embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, saying the general "hasn't crossed the line" and
"truly is somebody who believes in democracy."

Bush spoke nearly three weeks after Musharraf declared emergency rule,
sacked members of the Supreme Court and began a roundup of journalists, lawyers
and human rights activists. Musharraf's government yesterday released about
3,000 political prisoners, although 2,000 remain in custody, according to the
Interior Ministry.

Of course Bush would love to do all that too, and much much more, but only in the name of liberty. Insofar as he understands the concepts, he despises them.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Vote for the Colonel!

Apropos Clarence Thomas, and black Republicans in general, someone once said, "A black man voting for a Republican is like a chicken voting for Col. Sanders." Truer words have ne'er been uttered. Nonetheless, people like the just-benched U. S. Attorney, Rachel Paulose, known for her political witch hunts and Bible-thumping management style, and also her standard "conservative" victimized self-image, continue to vote, lie, obstruct justice, suborn perjury, railroad the innocent (and much much more) for the GOP. Add her to the list: Clarence, Colin Condi, Alphonso Jackson, Claude Allen, Lurita Doan, and well, just about any black person sell-out enough to throw in with the the GOP crime syndicate in their desperate attempt to achieve the picket-fence respectability so long denied them -- on the cheap. Soooner or later such people prove to be scum.

And speaking of "Conservativism" as projective, self-blind disorder: Earl Paulk, leader of an Atlanta megachurch, now in hot water for perjury, having denied on the stand father a child by his brother's wife. It seems a paternity test suggests the good reverend was lying.

Bet any amount of money he was a Newt Gingrich man all the way.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

No More Fords.

So David Leitch, general counsel to Ford Motors, is leading the charge to fund Alberto (No Ass Left Unlicked) Gonzales' criminal defense. You might have thought that Ford has seen enough red ink lately.

I drove a Bronco for years, loved it. Hondas from now on. Tell Ford about it here.
Pictured: the Pinto under actual usage conditions.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Problems of Evil; Or, Some Moral Conundra

It has long seemed to me that a wholly contrarian argument can be made for faith, something like: we approach God not through truth, but through that other indisputable good, freedom. Faith allows us to transcend by invlolving what is best in man. Thus, any fool can believe the obvious, the plausible; it takes a real free-thinker to believe the absurdities (like say, the Holy Trinity).* Of course, certain churls might counter: Any coward can believe a pretty story about heavenly rewards, unconditional love, et cetera; it takes courage to face the truth, to see 'nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.'

In any case, it is certain that the Devil is more plausible than God; he seems to be (you may note this theme elsewhere in the blog) manifest infinitely more often in human acts and affairs. That is perhaps why devils are so often represented in our myths, our fictions; they seem to lend verisimilitude. Indeed, I can very nearly credit the operation of an Evil Genius in history, in the way good intentions and ostensible boons are so often and so perfectly perverted, in the way efforts to undo evil so consistently broadcast it exponentially. It strongly implies or conjures a spectral being, Evil, whose one love, one mission, is the perversion of the Good. And certainly it seems that evil's genius which operationalizes its useful concepts, more properly the prisoners of impotent infernal fantasies, and causes them to be mirrored, with the predictable travesty-inversions, in the real world.

For instance: the Clarence Thomas nomination, a perverse affirmative action, predicated in the President's outright lie, itself a perfect travesty of meritocratic promotion, "He is the best qualified at this time." Thus did George H.W. Bush -- in what doubtless seemed an irresistably "sweet deal" (as his son Neil might put it), a deal recommended to him, like Iran Contra, by the suckerbait "win-win" imprimatur of the Devil -- further toxify political discourse; add poison to race-relations, sully the Supreme Court and quite literally "justice" in the person of a lecher perjurer and, most crucially, a resentful hack, incapable of disinterested judgment; besmirch the charitable intention of affirmative action with its worst-case operation, and degrade the concept and even possibility of meritocracy. If there is a Satan there was much jubilation in Hell that day.

Another instance: When a dominant political party's power is predicated in its appeal to voters who imagine that people of a certain ethnicity are morally inferior to themselves, and therefore are deservedly disenfranchised, exploited or even exterminated, then if a person of said scapegoated ethnicity provides assistance, comfort or cover to that party, he or she demonstrates, at best, a very flexible conscience, and more often operationalizes two favorite racist concepts: the hypothetical moral inferiority, and race treason. Very often such people will prove prodigiously corrupt, callous, and hypocritical. See: the aforementioned Clarence, Colin, and Condi, and this creep: NRO's Delroy Murdoch, a pro-torture black man with the conscience of a Klansman.

* The contrarian's faith dovetails nicely with several other of my pet theories. As Kierkegaard was wont to observe, the power of a creed springs abundantly from its inwardness. If it arises within or along with our individuation, our self-synthesis, it resonates much more for us, within us. It may then be essential that it be arbitrary or even contrary. It is like a hobby or a sports affiliation, which is much more intrinsic to selfhood (though wrongly regarded as trivial) than say, a profession or avocation, because its choice is not apparently militated by practciality or circumstance, rather it is chosen against circumstance. (Red Sox fandom, for instance, being much more powerful that Redskin boosterism.) Remember, it is often the ostensibly trivial that is crucial. Or as Wilde put it perversely: Only the superficial do not judge by appearances.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Conservatism As Neurosis: Exhibit 6,746

Andrew Sullivan, the Bareback Bear, who though HIV-positive has been known to cruise gay web sites soliciting unprotected sex, just posted a battle-cry, calling for all the Clinton Haters to pile on. And why? Because the Clintons are sexually icky. Say he:

"Another term of the two of them could well lead to the same kind of sexual scandals that distracted and near-paralyzed affairs of state in the 1990s. If you don't believe that, then you simply haven't grasped the depth of Bill Clinton's needs and compulsions and Hillary Clinton's life-long enabling of them."

Now, Hillary is probably going to do for America what Janet Reno did for Florida. Still, Mr. Sullivan, who counts himself a very high-toned Christian, while also being a walking argument for forcible HIV quarantine, is on about "needs and compulsions" of others. Way to throw stones Andy!

Futher proof that today's "self-described conservatives" are really afflicted with an extreme projective disorder and very often sociopaths as well.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Yellow Elephant

Well, it seems Republicans are not so poular these days. My benighted home state of Virginia returned control of the state senate to the Democrats, and the Dems also picked up some wins elsewhere, particularly in Kentucky.

In Alexandria, where I currently reside, a fat sleazebag by the name of Mark Allen ran a dirty, expensive, slick campain for delegate, but realized being a Republican might hurt him, so he went out of his way to disguise his affiliation. His giant yard-signs were yellow with Democrat Blue script, and GOP was apparently on none of his literature or on his website. He still lost, 62% to 38.

Asshole. Good riddance.

Trial by Combat

Can we really understand the mind of a movement conservative, or is it irreducibly nouminal to those of us who believe in things like truth? It is clear that the Bushies, insofar as they think about truth at all, locate it in the antiquated hopdgepodge of legend, myth, propaganda, rationalization and nonsense that comprises the Bible, and various other texts strip-mineable for talking points. Truth doesn't occur subjectively in their world. They don't tell the truth; if cornered they turn up their hands and ask, "What is truth?"

In much the same way, or perhaps in an extension of this, they don't believe in fairness, objectivity or impartiality. They realized a key victory when the "Fairness Doctrine" was done in, when the TV and radio outlets no longer had to alot equal broadcast time to opposing views. After all, who could fairly adjudicate such a balance? It's much better, they argue, to let the wisdom of the Darwinian marketplace dictate content -- except when critics of the corporatist agenda are popular; then it is best to cancel their shows, blacklist their records, boycott their sponors, et cetera.

Another pernicious aspect, possibly the most pernicious aspect of this world view is the fact that they don't believe judges or prosecutors should or even can be impartial, therefore they have no duty to try. What should happen, in the Bushie view, is that the people (informed by Fox News, and guided by God) should choose a decider, who then gets to appoint judges, cabinet secretaries, prosecutors, et alia, who will promote his own agenda, regardless of whether that agenda was espoused to the voters who chose the decider, or conforms with the laws. After all, the laws are designed, in theory, to operate fairly. And fairness, like truth, is not a vaue in their Winner Take All universe.

We are ruled by sociopaths.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Twhat's In a Name?

Recently I've been on about the psyche of the self-described conservative, and I must admit that nearly every day brings fresh evidence for my hypothesis that the whole movement is just a hypercompensating reversion to the Cult of Masuculinity. Jane Hamsher wonders here at length about the strangely numerous closet cases tumblingout of the GOP. I'll add to this a retiterated speculation that many "conservatives" like the role, precisely because it is so counterfeit. The things embraced by the Ditto Heads, anti-intellectualism, mouth-breathing superstition, trillion-dollar rolls of the geopolitical dice, micromanaging of private morality, et cetera, et cetera, are so completely antithetical to any historical sense of "conservative" in history as to make that self-identification a falsehood. It's an act that they semi-consciously put on, half aware that they are not the thing they pretend to be. I suspect that there is a transgressive charge in this synthetic identity -- rather like the cross-dresser's, or perhaps more precisely like that had by the self-styled macho man who secretly wears women's panties through the workday.

If ever there was a textbook example of a chest-beating manly-man, with a whole lot of unresolved gender-indentity issues, it is fascist blogger Kim du Toit. His Pussification of the Western Male, recently in the running at Washington Monthly for Worst All-Time Blog Entry, is the quintessence of this self-blind delusionality. As I already said elsewhere, it would make fine foddder for a psych Intro Lecture. Even the densest sophomore would be hard pressed to miss its brute dysfunction. I would title the lecture Boy Named Sue Syndrome. I am somehow reminded of an article I once read in one of those crappy airline magazines about how your name if your destiny. We can only imagine what happened on the schoolyard to a lad named 'Kim do Twat'.

But a tip, for real, consistent smug crapulosity it's hard to beat Keith Burgess-Jackson, who used to bill himself as the Anal Philosopher, which might provide the fodder for Lecture 2: Reverse Autism: Irony-Impairment and the Self-Blind. Lecture 3 in the series: What is a Hindrocket?