Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Reading

What Barack Obama Said: As predicted, the Orcosphere is still making a big deal out of the “bitter” comments that Sen. Obama said in San Francisco. It’s interesting to note that this is not the first time he’s made the point. Here is a clip from the Charlie Rose show on PBS that is from November 23, 2004, right after Mr. Obama was elected to the Senate from Illinois.

He’s basically making the same point he made last week, and that is that the people in the middle class care more about the kitchen table issues such as health care for themselves and their family, they have become skeptical about what government can do for them, and they find solace and comfort in the ordinary things in life that appeal to all of us; friends, family, and community. And after being given big promises with no delivery by both parties, egged on by the raging voices of talk radio — who don’t give a damn about them any more than anyone else — it’s not surprising that they’re cynical about the candidates regardless of who they are.

Take Your Gun to Work Day: Carl Hiaasen says there can be advantages to the newly-passed law in Florida that allows employees to have guns in their vehicles at the workplace.

Happiness is a warm gun in a steaming hot car.

After years of wimping around, Florida lawmakers finally passed a law that will allow you to bring your favorite firearm to work, providing you leave it locked in your vehicle.

Last week, the Legislature approved the Preservation & Protection of the Right to Keep & Bear Arms in Motor Vehicles Act, otherwise known as the Disgruntled Workers’ Speedy Revenge & Retaliation Law.

In the past, deranged employees who wanted to mow down their boss and colleagues had to drive all the way home to fetch their guns. It was the waste of a perfectly good lunch hour, not to mention the gasoline.

Soon, however, any simmering paranoid with a concealed-weapons permit will legally be able to take his firearms to work. If a supervisor rebukes him for surfing porn sites, or a co-worker makes fun of his mismatched socks, he can simply stroll out to the parking lot and retrieve his Glock or AK-47 (or both) to settle the grievance.

There will be no long ride home during which he might reconsider what he’s about to do, no time lost rummaging through closets in search of ammunition and clean camo fatigues. Everything he needs for instant revenge will be waiting right there in his car, whenever the urge might arise.

Sissy liberals and even conservative business leaders say the new law is a recipe for mayhem, but they have no faith in the competence or judgment of Florida’s gun owners.

Concealed-weapons permits have been issued to about 490,000 residents, not one of whom could possibly be volatile, schizoid or even slightly unreliable. The standards are too exclusive, requiring a gun-safety course, a pulse and a rap sheet free of nasty felonies.

The business lobby and state chamber of commerce had successfully fought the new gun bill for three years, citing many violent workplace shootings committed by unhinged employees around the country.

At last, though, the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist have bowed to the wisdom of the National Rifle Association. While there was no public demand for bringing firearms to office buildings, malls and other workplaces, the gun lobby recognized the urgent need — not to mention the obvious convenience — of having loaded weapons in the parking lot.

The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Durell Peaden, a Republican from the Panhandle town of Crestview, located on Route 90 between DeFuniak Springs and Milton. This must be a perilous stretch of highway, with robbers and thugs lurking behind every billboard — why else would Sen. Peaden have taken up the cause for putting more guns on the road?

It’s true that, statewide, crime statistics show that few motorists are randomly assaulted on the way to or from their jobs. And it’s also true that you’re far more likely to be accosted by someone who disapproves of the way you change lanes than by someone who wants to steal your Blackberry.

But don’t be confused by facts, and don’t be afraid to be afraid.

Millions of Floridians innocently drive to work unarmed every day. If there’s terror in their eyes, it’s only because our highways are crawling with maniacs who don’t know how to drive.

Fortunately, the Legislature and the NRA are here to remind us of a larger, unseen menace. Without a firearm in the vehicle, commuters are easy prey for marauding dope fiends, muggers and carjackers.

The new law isn’t perfect because of the aforementioned requirement that you can’t take your gun to work unless you have a concealed-weapons permit.

Not to worry.

The law prohibits your employer from inquiring about your gun permit — and the list of Floridians who have one is secret. In other words, feel free to lie to your boss, because there’s no way he or she can check it out. The NRA thinks of everything.

Business lobbyists are threatening to go to court and challenge the law, which they say will make the workplace atmosphere more dangerous. They might be right, but danger cuts both ways.

Say a discontented employee runs out to his truck and gets a pistol. Once he stalks back into the stock room and begins shooting, what do you think is going to happen next?

His co-workers will dash out to their own vehicles, grab their own guns and start firing, too. Somebody’s bound to hit the crazy bastard eventually — and, then, problem solved!

So, the new gun law was written with built-in checks and balances. It fiercely protects the Second Amendment rights of potential snipers, and also of those unlucky souls who work side-by-side with them.

May the best shot win.

Thumbs Up, Roger Ebert: A.O. Scott welcomes back a recovering Roger Ebert and looks at the state of film criticism today.

A recurrence of cancer of the salivary gland in the summer of 2006 might have left him unable to speak — a problem recent surgery failed to solve — but he has hardly lost his voice.

For his loyal readers Mr. Ebert’s resumption of reviewing (April 1 happened to be the 41st anniversary of his debut in The Sun-Times) is a chance to pick up an interrupted conversation. For those who labor beside or behind him in the vineyards of criticism it is an incitement to quit grousing and pick up the pace.

Not that any of us could hope to match his productivity. Nor could we entertain the comforting fantasy that the daunting quantity of the man’s work — four decades of something like six reviews a week, as well as festival reports, learned essays on classic films and the occasional profile — must entail a compromise in quality. As A. J. Liebling said of himself, nobody who writes faster can write better, and nobody better is faster. The evidence is easy enough to find: in the Web archive, in his indispensable annual movie guides and in a dozen other books.

It is this print corpus that will sustain Mr. Ebert’s reputation as one of the few authentic giants in a field in which self-importance frequently overshadows accomplishment. His writing may lack the polemical dazzle and theoretical muscle of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, whose names must dutifully be invoked in any consideration of American film criticism. In their heyday those two were warriors, system-builders and intellectual adventurers on a grand scale. But the plain-spoken Midwestern clarity of Mr. Ebert’s prose and his genial, conversational presence on the page may, in the end, make him a more useful and reliable companion for the dedicated moviegoer.

His criticism shows a nearly unequaled grasp of film history and technique, and formidable intellectual range, but he rarely seems to be showing off. He’s just trying to tell you what he thinks, and to provoke some thought on your part about how movies work and what they can do.

He is rarely a scold, and more frequently (perhaps too frequently) an enthusiast, and nearly always enlightening, in particular when he has brought calm good sense and moral conviction to overwrought debates about hot-button movies like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Other critics (Ms. Kael and Mr. Sarris most famously) have spawned schools, or at least collected bands of acolytes and imitators. Mr. Ebert — do you mind if I just call him Roger from now on? — has no disciples, only friends.

Petraus/Crocker Closes Out of Town: Frank Rich on a new documentary about Abu Ghraib and how the public is tuning out the horror of what’s left of the war.

The night before last week’s Senate hearings on our “progress” in Iraq, a goodly chunk of New York’s media and cultural establishment assembled in the vast lobby of the Museum of Modern Art. There were cocktails; there were waiters wielding platters of hors d’oeuvres; there was a light sprinkling of paparazzi. Then there was a screening. We trooped like schoolchildren to the auditorium to watch a grueling movie about the torture at Abu Ghraib.

Not just any movie, but “Standard Operating Procedure,” the new investigatory documentary by Errol Morris, one of our most original filmmakers. It asks the audience not just to revisit the crimes in graphic detail but to confront in tight close-up those who both perpetrated and photographed them. Because Mr. Morris has a complex view of human nature, he arouses a certain sympathy for his subjects, much as he did at times for Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary, in his Vietnam film, “Fog of War.”

More sympathy, actually. Only a few bad apples at the bottom of the chain of command took the fall for Abu Ghraib. No one above the level of staff sergeant went to jail, and no one remotely in proximity to a secretary of defense has been held officially accountable. John Yoo, the author of the notorious 2003 Justice Department memo rationalizing torture, has happily returned to his tenured position as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. So when Mr. Morris brings you face to face with Lynndie England — now a worn, dead-eyed semblance of the exuberant, almost pixie-ish miscreant in the Abu Ghraib snapshots — you’re torn.

Ms. England, who is now on parole, concedes that what she and her cohort did was “unusual and weird and wrong,” but adds that “when we first got there, the example was already set.” That reflection doesn’t absolve her of moral responsibility, but, like much in this film, it forces you to look beyond the fixed images of one of the most documented horror stories of our time.

Yet I must confess that, sitting in MoMA, I kept looking beyond the frame of Mr. Morris’s movie as well. While there’s really no right place to watch “Standard Operating Procedure,” the jarring contrast between the film’s subject and the screening’s grandiosity was a particularly glaring illustration of the huge distance that separates most Americans, and not just Manhattan elites, from the battle lines of our country’s five-year war. If Tom Wolfe was not in the audience to chronicle this cognitive dissonance, he should have been.

Mr. Morris’s movie starts fanning out to theaters on April 25. We don’t have to wait until then to know its fate. Sympathetic critics will tell us it’s our civic duty to see it. The usual suspects will try to besmirch Mr. Morris’s patriotism. But none of that will much matter. “Standard Operating Procedure” will reach the director’s avid core audience, but it is likely to be avoided by most everyone else no matter what praise or controversy it whips up.

It would take another column to list all the movies and TV shows about Iraq that have gone belly up at the box office or in Nielsen ratings in the nearly four years since the war’s only breakout commercial success, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” They die regardless of their quality or stand on the war, whether they star Tommy Lee Jones (“In the Valley of Elah”) or Meryl Streep (“Lions for Lambs”) or are produced by Steven Bochco (the FX series “Over There”) or are marketed like Abercrombie & Fitch apparel to the MTV young (“Stop-Loss”).

As The New York Times recently reported, box-office dread has driven one Hollywood distributor to repeatedly postpone the release of “The Lucky Ones,” a highly regarded and sympathetic feature about the war’s veterans, the first made with full Army assistance, even though the word Iraq is never spoken and the sole battle sequence runs 40 seconds. If Iraq had been mentioned in “Knocked Up” or “Superbad,” Judd Apatow’s hilarious hit comedies about young American guys who (like most of their peers) never consider the volunteer Army as an option, they might have flopped too. Iraq is to moviegoers what garlic is to vampires.

This is not merely a showbiz phenomenon but a leading indicator of where our entire culture is right now. It’s not just torture we want to avoid. Most Americans don’t want to hear, see or feel anything about Iraq, whether they support the war or oppose it. They want to look away, period, and have been doing so for some time.

Doonesbury: It’s gone!

Opus: Take two.