Sunday, September 27, 2009

The GOP Has a Black Friend and They Want Everyone to Know About It.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meaningful Health Care Reform Will Happen When Unicorns Fly High and Free

Last week's presidential address to a joint session of Congress was a veritable clinic in public speaking. It has become trite to lavish praise upon Barack Obama for his mellifluous eloquence, but the speech had everything: policy details, emotion, grace, a steadfast tone, a twinge of ferocity, and a heartfelt homage to Edward Kennedy - the modern-day Congressional watchdog for the poor and dispossessed.

Despite the fact that Dixie-can Rep. Joe Wilson missed the memo about not turning the House floor into a Yuma town hall meeting - sans firearms and ankle holsters - while the President's speaking, Obama's speech may go down as one of the most consequential Congressional addresses of the past half-century. Or it will completely sink into obscurity, alongside George H.W. Bush's scintillating 1989 joint session address in which the then-commander-in-chief ramped up the heat by tagging Dan Quayle to head a "Task Force on Competitiveness." We'll check back later to see how that one's working out.

But despite Obama's dogged assertions during his speech that a health care reform bill will be brought to full fruition on his watch, I sincerely doubt that it will significantly improve a shattered system, for several big reasons:

First and foremost, our country's biggest impediment toward real reform of any kind is political inertia.

Politicians are notoriously skittish souls, constantly straining to justify their existence by pandering to their ill-informed, reactionary, or just plain change-averse constituencies. Some deem this set-up thoroughly acceptable and argue that political leaders adhering to the people's wills and whims is paramount for a healthy democracy. Somehow, though, I don't think Thomas Jefferson had this in mind.

(By watching many of these gatherings on Youtube, I think I've discovered the modern right-wing permutation of the Jedi Mind Trick, otherwise known as: "What ______ is doing right now is exactly what Hitler did. The evidence is out there. Go ahead and read up on it, and you'll see it's true.")

Okay, so let me just get this straight: you get to make the psychotic claim, and then I have to do the research? Great. Totally unfair, especially since these lunatics never once tell you where one can find all the copies of Hitler and Obama: Basically the Same. By the way, don't try Costco - out of stock.

Based on the existing constructs of our government, there's actually every reason to believe that the framers of the Constitution were at best ambivalent about the masses' ability to lead themselves. The fact of the matter is, we Americans often do not know what's best for us in a political context, all too frequently granting our emotions primacy over our own best interests. I submit to you Exhibit A. And in Louisiana, a place where much of the population goes without health insurance, guess who public enemy number one is? You guessed it: That commie bastard from the country of Hawaii who's lobbying for universal coverage. From The New York Times:
Though nearly 22 percent of the state's adult residents have no health insurance - one of the highest rates in the nation - pollsters and political experts say voters in the state are overwhelmingly against Mr. Obama's health care proposals.
As individuals, whenever politics is concerned, our judgement can't ever be completely trusted; in large groups, even less so. When election time rolls around, we frequently vote for the wrong candidates. We vote for people we "trust," the ones who aren't too pedantic or professorial - people we want to have beers, catch ball games, or hit "juice bars" with, as opposed to policy wonks like Al Gore, John Kerry, Bill Bradley, or even Hillary Clinton, whose wild fantasies would no doubt entail a 24-hour all-access pass to the Library of Congress archives.

Lawmakers, in their slavish devotion to our childish whims, pander to mechanisms known as tracking polls, which doesn't exactly make for creative problem solving or visionary lawmaking. So, that a full-fledged discussion regarding alternative methods of solving the health care crises - such as adopting a more preventive approach - is completely absent from the current debate should come as no surprise.

Still, this was supposed to be different. With a champion of social responsibility (right-wing translation: fascist) and progressive values (homos, baby-killers) in the White House and clear majorities in the House and Senate, this bill would be The One: A landmark piece of legislation that would pass in a timely manner while maintaining its overall integrity, as submitting to the GOP's political whims, whose unwavering support of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries would render any bill virtually useless, would be largely avoidable.

So that even a modicum of dialogue regarding preventive care, single-payer, or any other progressive approach is absent from any of the pending legislation is further testament to Democratic ineptitude - as if anyone alive during the W. Bush administration needed more proof.

Think about it. As recently as this past March, journalists and pundits were writing the epitaph for the GOP, implying that its self-imposed Crazy Uncle Joe-Mumbling-in-the-corner-about-how-they're-all-taking-over image was effectively rotting the party from the edges inward, rendering it irrelevant in a new age of post-racial post-partisanship.

But then we discovered something else: Much like their Republican rivals, many centrists in the Democratic party seemed to possess a strange affinity for the always warm, fuzzy, and fluffy health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Why might that ever be?

Top Democratic party recipients of health insurance industry donations (2005-2008):
  • Senator Max Baucus (Mont.)..........$413,000.00
  • Rep. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.)...............$104,000.00
  • Rep. John Dingell (Mich.)...............$180,000.00
Baucus' situation is especially horror-inducing, since he chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for producing the Senate's version of a health care bill. So you probably don't have to rack your brain wondering what his stance on a public option might be.
Nor was there much evidence that establishing non-profit cooperatives - Baucus' alternative to the public option in legislation proposed by the House and by the Senate health committee - would work to compete with private insurers and bring costs under control.

The cooperatives "seem unlikely to establish a significant market presence in many areas of the country," the nonpartisan budget office concluded.
Baucus - with his predilection for acting, looking, and legislating exactly like a Reagan Republican - may be a problem, but he's far from the biggest. Enter the serial parasites of politics, the GOP, and their largest recipients:
  • Sen. John McCain (AZ.)..................$546,000.00
  • Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.)...........$425,000.00
  • Rep. John Boehner (Ohio).............$257,000.00
  • Rep. Eric Cantor (N.D.)..................$249,000.00

McCain vehemently opposes a public option of any kind, as does McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, and Boehner, the House Minority Leader, and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor. Cantor's the GOP's rising star for this week, at least until he's either a. caught on tape soliciting a hooker in downtown Bismark or b. discovered to be a practicing Jew.

And then there's Washington Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, which is sort of like saying she's the one in her party least likely to scream "I AM THE LIZARD KING!" before dousing herself in pig's blood and, finally, taking a dump in the middle of the Senate Chamber during a heated floor debate. A backhanded compliment, to say the least.

Snowe has the distinction of receiving over a million bones in campaign contributions from the health care industry throughout her career, which is even more cringe-worthy if you know that she's the swing vote on the Senate Finance Committee.

In other words, if you believe money talks in politics (and what evidence exists to suggest otherwise?), now would be a good time to bid farewell to a public option (beyond the existing and thoroughly socialist medicaid and medicare programs), unless, of course, you foresee Obama and his coterie of timid allies ramming a bill through both Houses - which, considering the stakes, would be wholly appropriate at this point. But, again, it won't happen. From Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece "Sick and Wrong":
The president and the Democrats decided not to press for the only plan that makes sense for everyone, in order to preserve an industry that is not only cruel and stupid and dysfunctional, but through its rank inefficiency has necessitated the very reforms now being debated. Even though the Democrats enjoy a political monopoly and could have started from a very strong bargaining position, they chose instead to concede at least half the battle before it even began.
Now about preventive care...

...Designing policy around challenging individuals to exercise self-discipline and restraint remains politically unfeasible. You may as well call Americans a bunch of pork-fried fat-asses, which is exactly what we are. Over the past decade, obesity rates have skyrocketed, accompanied by across-the-board increases in Type-2 adult onset diabetes (which, alarmingly, is increasingly plaguing young children), hypertension, heart disease, colorectal cancer, and liver, kidney, and pancreatic failure. Why? Because we are a nation of lard-lusting sugar junkies. To hell with the pundits who claim that America has lost its zeal for producing anything of import. Where else but in the good ol' U.S.A. can you find - and find someone willing to eat - one of these?

In a country with such an historically over-the-top contempt for the perils of "street drugs," is there any question that regularly indulging in things like ham dogs can be as dangerous as mainlining black tar heroin? It's probably more addictive, too. Oh, I've seen my share of indy movies in which gaunt hipsters shoot up in grimy bathroom stalls, but not once have I ever had the impulse to do so myself. And it has nothing to do with the "Just Say No" skit put on at my former Hebrew School (which was, quite disappointingly, performed in English).

How many of us - myself included - would take a massive chomp out of that Ham Dog goodness if it were sitting on a plate in front of us right this second, all warm and steamy and meaty? Uh, Alex, what is one-hundred percent?

As humans, we have yet to evolve beyond our proclivity for overeating - especially foods that are typically high in sugars and fats. Five thousand years ago, this made sense. We were subsisting off the bounties - or lack thereof - that the natural world had to offer, and the ability to store fat was a boon, enabling us to survive lean times. When available, we gorged on fruits, as they contain massive amounts of disease fighting vitamins and minerals. From David Zinczenko, author of The Abs Diet:
Since he first stood upright, man has also had a craving for sweets...Without our sweet tooth, we would have been happy to eat nothing but wooly mammoth and buffalo meat - the original Atkins program. But nature saw to it that we craved the foods that would make us healthy.
Sadly for us, the same biological rules still apply. Except now we're drowning in mass quantities of fatty, sugary, and synthetic foods, overproduced by agribusiness, over-processed by the food industry, and conveniently packaged in super-sized portions for our consumption. From Paul Roberts' 2008 The End of Food:
Food companies, although they no longer deny that larger portions are a key marketing strategy, vigorously resist any suggestion that these larger portion sizes actually encourage consumers to eat or drink more - a denial that has to qualify as one of the most laughable claims in the entire obesity debate. Not only have numerous studies shown that large portions always induce greater consumption, but it would be hard to understand why else the food industry would offer them. Given that consumers register the value of food primarily by eating it, if bigger portions didn't increase consumption and thus cause consumer to feel they were getting greater value for their dollars, no food company would bother offering larger portions in the first place.
Some of Obama's more lucid opponents (not the ones breaking into unbridled sobbing fits or threatening to douse themselves in kerosene) claim that all of the current proposals lack a deficit neutrality, meaning any of the health care plans, as currently proposed, would further burden the nation's ballooning federal deficit.

Perhaps. But, according to Berkley professor Michael Pollan, author of the groundbreaking An Omnivore's Dilemma, who penned this op-ed in Thursday's Times:
We're spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.
That's a shitload of Ham Dog eatin'.

So it seems logical to me that eliminating the obesity epidemic by incentivizing Americans into adopting healthier, more active lifestyles would keep any of the current Congressional proposals financially solvent.

But for an assortment of reasons, this isn't an option. While Pollan and Roberts maintain that both agribusiness and the food industry are the main culprits responsible for thwarting a meaningful shift to a healthier America, I often wonder if maybe we're just victims of our own obstinance and rapacious excess, too set in our ways to significantly modify our atrocious eating habits and too lazy to elevate our heart rates for 30 sustained minutes a day. In other words, the average American is Jabba The Hutt with a gun rack.

And would corporations continue to market and sell this and this and these if millions of Americans weren't slobbering all over their double-butts to devour them? Living in a so-called progressive enclave myself, I'm frequently confronted with restaurant waiters who blanch upon my ordering of a side of mixed veggies without the melted butter drizzle and Subway sandwich makers who pause to steel themselves after I order my turkey sandwich, no mayo on top.

"So, you want it beneath the meat?"
"No, just hold it altogether."
"And put it on the side?"
"No. Eliminate it."
"And substitute Russian dressing?"
"No. Hold the Russian dressing, too."
"And put it on the side?"

That's when I wonder: am I the only person who's made this request all day? All week? Ever? Am I that guy? Am I an annoying healthy food extremist, or has the rest of the of the world just collectively surrendered to their inner fat kid?

And let me just clarify that the response I typically receive from food service employees, such as the young woman at Baja Fresh who paused dramatically upon my request of a fish taco, sans aioli sauce (which is code for chile powder, ketchup, and a base of full-test mayonnaise - and nothing says vive Mexico quite like tilapia slathered in Helmann's), suggested not a peevish dismissal in the form of an eye roll, exaggerated sigh, or bitch slap, but rather a sense of utter panic, the type of which, hypothetically, might envelop a candidate for the second highest office in the world upon being asked which newspapers she reads - when in fact she's never read one. Deep, profound panic.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Alaska isn't a foreign country. But, apparently, Hawaii is.)

(IMPORTANT NOTE PART II: Mike Campbell's dry swallow at the 1:39 mark of the video is epic.)

And suggesting to Americans that they should do both would probably amount to political suicide for the poor sap who proposed it, opening the flood gates to further allegations of fascism, naziism, and giving rise to an angry network of Twinkie brigades that would descend upon each state's Capitol in protest of their God-given civil right to morbid obesity.

Which is tantamount to that chain smoker, sitting on the outside patio of the coffee shop getting indignant over the fact that someone nearby has just politely asked for him to extinguish his cigarette: They just can't see past the fact that their self-indulgence has immediate adverse effects on the lives of others. And, remember, regardless of whether you're for or against a public health insurance option, at this moment, those of us who make an effort to live healthy lifestyles are paying the freight on the fattest Americans in the land. Remember, when a diabetic has his leg amputated, the physician gets to sing this little ditty while policy holders across the country watch as their premiums skyrocket. From the June 25th edition of The Economist:
Most doctors in America work on a fee-for-service basis; the more pills they prescribe, or tests they order, or procedures they perform, the more money they get - even though there is abundant clinical evidence that more spending does not reliably lead to better outcomes. Private providers everywhere are vulnerable to this perverse incentive, but in America, where most health care is delivered by the private sector rather than by salaried public-sector staff, the problem is worse than anywhere else.
Although I don't have a fundamental problem with sharing the wealth and pain when it comes to taxes and costs, why not give individuals financial incentives to live healthier lifestyles, rather than waiting for their blood-glucose levels to shoot into orbit? The following is my proposal from a previous post:
The feds would disburse a series of tax rebates to individuals doing their diligence to improve their health. Join and attend a gym at least three times a week? Tax break. Improve your BMI? Tax break. Sustain a healthy BMI for a year? Tax break. Lower your blood pressure or bad cholesterol? Tax break. Etcetera. And each of these actions would be eminently measurable when linked to a national database.
But because patients who are at risk of contracting serious diseases are seldom dealt with until their ailments have reached critical proportions, more invasive - and expensive - procedures and longer hospital stays become necessary, adding further financial strain to individuals, taxpayers, and the overall health care system.

Which brings us to yet another seemingly inexorable burden on the health care system: over-treatment. Again, from The Economist:
The trouble is that many Americans are understandably happy with all-you-can-eat health care, which allows them to see any doctor they like and get any test that they are talked into thinking they need. Forcing people into "managed" health schemes, where some species of bureaucrat decides which treatments are cost-effective, is politically toxic; it was the central tenet of Hillary Clinton's disastrous failed reform of 1994.

But to some extent it will have to be done. There is solid evidence to suggest that by cutting back on unnecessarily expensive procedures and prescriptions, anything from 10% to 30% of health costs could be saved; a gigantic sum.
But don't blame the doctors for this; blame the system. Like every other industry that employs human beings - be it law enforcement, education, firefighting, sales, politics, diamond mining, or custodial arts - there will always be a segment that egregiously exploits their status, sometimes using the most immoral methods imaginable. Whether or not a significant number of physicians are consciously trying to game the system is immaterial to the real problem, which is that such a system of fee for service exists in the first place. From Dr. Atul Gawande's lauded New Yorker piece "The Cost Conundrum":
Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later?
Gawande would certainly know, as he's tethered to such an irreparably flawed system, witnessing much of the waste and mismanagement firsthand.

During a recent office visit, my own general practitioner disclosed to me about the incessant expectation to order more scans and procedures. In the past, he said, doctors often took a wait-and-see approach in dealing with a patient's burgeoning symptoms. But now, because of the lure of compensation, the prospect of legal reprisals from patients (settle down conservatives - medical liability lawsuits comprise only 0.5 percent of overall health care spending), and the fear that they will be ostracized by colleagues for taking the ethical high road (as apparently even the medical field is rife with bullying and douchebaggery), physicians are inclined to order superfluous MRIs and CT scans and to recommend expensive, invasive treatment procedures that ultimately prove ineffectual or even harmful to the patient.

And then, as I was getting up to leave, ol' Doc dropped the bomb on me (I'm paraphrasing): Why wouldn't I order an MRI every single time, he asked, if there's absolutely no downside in doing so?

Ponder them apples for a moment. Think about all the general practitioners throughout the nation. Now, assuming they all share a common mindset, how many hundreds of millions are being wasted on excessive MRIs alone? From The New York Times:
Even when doctors order costly treatments with serious side effects and little evidence of their being effective, as studies find is common, patients are loath to question the decision. Instead of blaming such treatments for the rising cost of medicine, many people are inclined to blame forces that health economists say are far less important, like greedy insurance companies or onerous malpractice laws.
Which is all the more reason to remove the burden - and temptation - that's inherent in the current system from the physicians' domain. Doctors are rigorously trained and highly skilled in the art of medical diagnoses and treatment; but they've yet to evolve past the rest of us when it comes to the nature of temptation. Also, in the gap of time that exists between my annual office visits, I want my doctor sharpening his talents - training his focus on new treatments, studies, and applications - rather than filling out hours of Byzantine paperwork, haggling with Aetna bureaucrats, or cutting lucrative kickback deals with Pfizer reps. Again, from Matt Taibbi's "Sick and Wrong":
There are currently 1,300 private insurers in this country, forcing doctors to fill out different forms and follow different reimbursement procedures for each and every one. This drowns medical facilities in idiotic paperwork and jacks up prices. Nearly a third of all health care costs in America are associated with wasteful administration. Fully $350 billion a year could be saved on paperwork alone if the U.S. went to a single-payer system - more than enough to pay the whole goddamned thing, if anyone had the balls to stand up and say so.
Furthermore, Americans seem just a tad too eager to project blame in this crises, be it unto the food industry for flooding the market with chin-proliferating eating options, the fat cats in Washington for feeding at the insurance companies' money trough, the pharmaceutical companies for profiteering at the expense of the sick and infirm, and the socialists for abducting and indoctrinating our president so that he could do their eternal bidding for evermore. But at what point should we ask ourselves what we're doing wrong - or, at the very least, question what we, as patrons of a wasteful system, can do to help trim costs so that there's room for everyone under the health care umbrella?

Problem is, at this point, there's simply no way a card carrying Democrat can make a case for frugal management and distribution of health care services, a la the Mayo Clinic, without piercing allegations from the right of care rationing - yet another jaunty Republican-recycled term from the Cold War era that evokes endless lines of defeated, stoop-shouldered, woolen-clad families, in sub-zero temperatures, awaiting a pair of rusty garden sheers so that they can take care of Uncle Yuri's growth before it grows to the size of a basketball.

(Judging from their growing reputation for intransigence and inaction, for most Republicans, no health care reform at all would be eminently preferable to what they dub "rationing.")

These are the nuts and bolts questions that need to be addressed and discussed in a controlled public forum, but they won't be because of all the piercing noise emanating from the right-wing lunatic fringe, which has controlled the tone, tenor, and yes, content of the health care discussion since mid-July. A 55-year-old redneck who bursts into rage-fueled tears, while standing two feet away from a prominent senator, makes for a much better TV news lead-in as well.

And by right-wing lunatic fringe, I'm referring to the preponderance of the entire Republican party: the sound and fury signifying nothing leadership; and the incendiary right-wing radio carny barkers, preying on the simple minds and base emotions of an ever-expanding sea of gullible reactionaries who have been waiting for this very moment so that they could have a reason - regardless of how misinformed, distorted, or flat-out wrong that reason may be - to channel their simmering rage at a young, black Constitutional Law professor with the audacity to assert his agenda.

And, yes, Jimmy Carter was more right than we'll ever know or want to admit.

The few moderate voices remaining within a party that was once noted for its proud patrician swagger have been muted by scores of paranoid lunatics. Crackpots like Sarah Palin, Mike Pence (the number 3 GOP House leader), Jim DeMint, Joe Wilson, and Chuck Grassley have eagerly assumed the mantle of screaming assassins in a party formerly known for its stolid, calculating persona. Pence, whom I can only hope was just thinking out loud when he said this, was quoted in the L.A. Times this past Sunday:
How we as conservatives respond to these challenges could determine whether America retains her place in the world as a beacon of freedom, or whether we slip into the abyss that has swallowed much of Europe in an avalanche of socialism.
Mr. Pence, you receive zero points for being both unoriginal and clinically insane. And, if you're not insane, then you're just being a total demagogue d-bag - take your pick. (You know, it must be real nice to have a job where you can say whatever random asinine shit that pops into your head at a given moment...SOCIALIST! NAZI! TOAST! GUMMY BEARS!)

And, of course, let's not forget the verbal Abstract Expressionism of the lovely Ms. Palin:
Is it any wonder that many of the sick and elderly are concerned that Democrat proposals will ultimately lead to rationing of their health care by - dare I say it - death panels? Establishment voices dismissed that phrased, but it rang true for many Americans.
By the way, new rule (with apologies to Bill Maher): Goys are no longer allowed to reference death panels, extermination camps, or Nazis every again. If you want to play the victim, you or your people actually have to be victimized at some point. And taking a hard tumbler off your ATV while chasing after thumper doesn't count. Nor are you a victim when the town issues you a cease and desist for when you and your buddies forge a makeshift Octagon out of 2x4's, deflowered bed mattresses, Gorilla Glue, and chicken wire - and engage in late-night Pabst-fueled mixed martial arts set to a pulsing backdrop of Billy Squier and Jackyl.

But I wouldn't be surprised if Palin's right about the term "death panels" resonating with many Americans, as we live in a country where Bill O'Reilly and his nightly adventures in shit flinging average five million viewers a night.

Ultimately, the denizens of big, square states are easily manipulated by whomever on the right barks the loudest, regardless if whether the message ever actually makes sense or not. Sprinkle a few catchy, anxiety-provoking buzz words into the equation and you instantaneously have yourself hoards of fear zombies, awaiting their marching orders. For old pros like O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Glen Beck, it's literally easier to do this than to hatch Sea Monkeys.

And it's unfortunate. Most of us have absolutely no idea how dire our situation can become at less than a moment's notice. We think we have sufficient health coverage, and that it'll be enough to weather the storm of illness or disease. But more than likely, it won't be. According to James Surowiecki, we "overvalue" what we already have, hence the reluctance to change. In other words, we humans are anxious little creatures with a predisposition for settling for the devil we know. From Surowiecki's piece in The New Yorker:
Behavioral economists have established that we feel the pain of losses more than we enjoy the pleasure of gains. So when we think about change, we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get. Even people who aren't all that happy with the current system, then, are still likely to feel anxious about whatever will replace it.
It's a tragic flaw that we are seemingly so thoroughly possessed by our reptilian brain - by our fears, immediate desires, and anxieties - and so easily given over to mob and bunker mentalities.

Because, if right this moment, millions of Americans flooded the streets and, instead of withering under a sea of right-wing mendacity, demanded that health care in the U.S. become inherent to our civil rights, as much as voting, schooling, and getting a fair shake in a job interview, it would happen next week. But we won't. Because what if we get arrested during the protest and miss several days of work - and, as a result, get fired? Then we lose our health coverage, right?

Oh, shit...

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Communists Set to Invade Houston

No B.S. It says so right here.
President Obama's plan to deliver a speech to public school students on Tuesday has set off a revolt among conservative parents, who have accused the president of trying to indoctrinate their children with socialist ideas and are asking school officials to excuse the children from listening.
If only. Maybe then we can get some real health care reform up in here.

But applying the word "socialist" to any person, place, or idea that in some way runs counter to the right-wing conservative agenda has quickly become a comfy verbal crutch for conservatives, like saying "death tax." "flip-flopper," or "tax and spend." From The New York Times:
The Republican Party chairman in Florida, Jim Greer, said he "was appalled that taxpayer dollars are bing used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology.
Like I've said, the GOP is rapidly becoming the party of Crazy Uncle Ned In The Basement Fiddling With His Scanner And Homemade Pipe Bomb Kit.

But many Americans - and most conservatives - still insist on ignoring the fact that, to some extent, we've lived in a society that embraces many components of socialism for decades (yes, even under Reagan), and that a just, civilized society calls for it.

Also, that certain portions of the nation's economic sector are socialized doesn't necessarily require us all to wear our hair like this, or change our flag's emblem to this, or to accessorize with one of these - or even to switch the national anthem from "The Star Spangled Banner," to "We Labor to Produce Grain."

What it does require is for us to accept the notion that there are certain areas of the economy that should be completely off-limits to profiteers. And I think that when most of us introspect, we see the virtue in the prospect of a socialized economy.

In fact, I've always insisted that most conservatives like the thought of being conservative more than than the application. So let's see if I'm right.

Here's a quick quiz all of you conservatives can take while taking a break from fortifying your End of Days bunkers, just to ensure you're as right-minded as you've always claimed to be. It'll either reinforce your political beliefs or cast doubt on the person you've always conceived yourself to be, sending you into an abysmal and prolonged existential crises. So slather some Helmann's over a couple of slices of raw Wonderbread, grab a pencil, and answer true or false to the following questions:

(Again, this quiz is for conservatives only. So all you spineless cut-and-run liberals beat it - at least for now.)
  1. I currently receive my mail from the U.S. Postal Service
  2. I have one or more parents who have, at some point, received medicare benefits
Now remember, conservatives: Just put true or false. There's no need to justify, quantify, or expoundify upon your answers with disclaimers like, "But it ain't like we have a choice!" You do have a choice, and it's called moving to a godforsaken third-world country, where governments are in far too much disarray to provide social and civil services like these for their citizens. Oh, and when you get there, don't drink the water.

(NOTE: All modern industrialized nations - except for ours - provide these socialized services in addition to providing their citizens with some form of government-sponsored universal health coverage.)

Now then. Let's continue.
  1. I have one or more children who have, at some point, attended public school
  2. I have, at some point, attended community college and/or a state university
  3. I am the current recipient of weekly garbage pick-ups
  4. If my house were to ever erupt in flames, I'd prefer a trained firefighter to put them out, as opposed to me with my 8-foot garden hose, hiked-up brown dress socks, wife-beater, and yellow sprinkler attachment.
  5. If given the choice, I'd prefer it if cops were given the responsibility for apprehending dangerous criminals, as opposed to, say, my cousin Richard.
  6. I believe in a strong military that must also follow strict codes of conduct
  7. I believe that all military veterans should have access to low-cost comprehensive health services
  8. I have, at some point in my life, checked out a book from a public library*
*I considered omitting this question, as only 1 in 4 Americans have read a book in the past year.

Finished, right-wingers? Good. Here's your key:

1-4 "True" answers: Say hi to your militia for me
5-6 "True" answers: Nobody else has to know
7-10 "True" answers: Please recite the following - I, (state your name), am a bleeding heart, tax-and-spend, Kucinich-loving, left-wing liberal socialist - with closed markets and big government for all.

It feels good bein' liberal, doesn't it? Or not.

But fear not, conservative parents. Your child will not be forced to endure one moment of Comrade Obama's insidious propaganda:
The schools will provide an alternative class for those whose parents object, a spokesman for the district, Lee Vela, said.
Will all Ted Haggard High students please report to The Hall of Creation. Juniors and seniors, please be seated beside the statue of Twelve Apostles grooming the brontosaurus; freshmen and sophomores, take a seat inside the Chamber of Abstinence. In lieu of listening to the president's subversive indoctrination, we will be showing today's educational video in five minutes, "Louis and Clark: Their Dark Journey Into Velociraptor Country."

One final note. We've all had to endure a puerile nonsense from conservative voices for the past month or so, as the health care issue has raged on. Within this thicket of irrational chatter has been allegations of socialism, fascism, the subversion of democracy, and the demise of our republic as we know it.

Fine. If some people think that by ensuring that slapping more stringent regulation on health insurance and pharmaceutical companies - along with offering a cheaper public alternative to these blood-suckers - is a slippery slope into turning this country into The Iron Curtain with Wall-Marts, then there's nothing I could ever write here that could convince them otherwise.

But what I would like to know is this: Where were the voices of rabid dissent when the previous administration was "subverting democracy"? Where were the raucous outcries, the town-hall gun crazies when virtually every member of Bush's cabinet claimed, as a pretext for invading Iraq, that Sadaam Hussein was part of the braintrust behind 9/11 and that he also possessed W.M.D.'s, including nuclear arms?

And why wasn't it a slippery slope to fascism when John Ashcroft used material witness warrants to arrest and detain innocent civilians?
Then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft violated the rights of U.S. citizens in the fevered wake of the Spt. 11 terrorist attacks by ordering arrests on material witness warrants when the government lacked probably cause, a federal appeals court said in a scathing opinion Friday.
Or when the Bush Administration hid behind the USA Patriot act so that they could circumvent the law in order to search citizens' homes?
Mayfield was released after the FBI admitted his fingerprint had been mistakenly matched with one found at the scene of the Madrid attacks. The FBI has described this as a rare mismatch of a fingerprint that reveals little about the Patriot Act.

But the government has admitted to Mayfield that his home was searched secretly under a special court order authorized for intelligence purposes. The American Civil Liberties Union says that the search amounts to an abuse of the Patriot Act: It was conducted as though it were an intelligence search, when in fact agents were looking for evidence to use in a criminal prosecution.
And are you aware of the total number of town hall meltdowns that occurred when the Bush Administration was offering up no-bid contracts for the Iraqi reconstruction to their cronies in the private sector? I'll give you a hint: It was less than one.

And how many of us had a say in whether or not to invade Iraq? Isn't it our tax money that continues to feed this ceaseless campaign? Is it socialism that every citizen is forced to pay for two dubious wars? Fascism? Tyranny? Or just stupidity? I wonder how many years of free health care $680 trillion would buy us. (Answer: Our children and grandchildren would be covered for life.)

And isn't it fascist when the government won't let us marry the person we love - even if it means that that person is of the same sex? Is that an assault on democracy, since it inhibits the civil rights of millions of American citizens? Or does it not count because they're fags? I propose that all the anti-gay marriage members of the Senate set-up town hall meetings in San Francisco, West Hollywood, and Fire Island to discuss.

So why is the Bush Administration above such allegations when what they were engaging in was so much worse? Or does it all ultimately have very little to do about policy and a lot more to do with not trusting someone with Obama's I.Q. and skin color?

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Reflections From a Fallen Jew

I unapologetically, unequivocally love Quentin Tarantino movies. I call them movies as opposed to films because the latter connotes a pursuit of high art, whereas the word "movie" conjures images of plush seats, surround sound, good guys blowing away bad guys, five-dollar boxes of Junior Mints, and irresistible popcorn drenched in chemically engineered butter "topping." In other words, movies are piles and piles of fun.

And yet, most of them suck. Hard.

Collectively, we see the suck coming from miles away; some of us silently (or not), snarkily berate the litany of overexposed superstars who preen for the camera throughout the rapid-fire tumult of their movie trailers.

Ooh, another Natalie Portman RomCom in which she's the quirky, smoking-hot would-be girlfriend who redeems a nebishy, aimless young man who just so happens to be played by no other than...Michael Sera! Of all the people! You don't fucking say?!

And I swear to the Jeebus, if I hear one more He was a runaway from the streets; she just wanted to run away... I will never, ever buy a fourteen dollar medium-sized popcorn again. You hear that, Mr. and Mrs. Loews?

Add that to the endless parade of sequels, re-makes, and re-hashes from the same tired genres and it's a miracle that people even bother to go to the cineplex anymore.

But that doesn't mean the good old-fashioned mega-blockbuster doesn't still have its place in modern film, providing it offers a different take on a familiar genre. Sadly, cineplex movies rarely offer anything we haven't already seen a million times or more. And yet, we go in droves.

We pay money to see high-concept movies like G.I. Joe or The Incredible Hulk, hoping in vain to get a new take on a beloved superhero. But the CGI effects leave me cold and the trite storylines even more so. In the end, it just inspires nerds like me to pine for my beloved stack of Marvel mint-condition Incredible Hulk comic books, which years ago (and by years ago, I mean yesterday) enveloped me in a world alternately grotesque, enchanting, and disturbing.

In the end, most big-budget films prove to be little more than glorified vehicles for mega-stars, offering us far less action, suspense and titillation than one could get from loitering about a 99 Cent Store parking lot, awaiting the next full-blown girl fight to break out over the last pack of expired Luden's.

And it seems that Tarantino is keenly aware of this, employing his considerable talents as a movie savant to corner the market on films that seamlessly fuse together an otherwise incongruous array of genres, images, characters, and film scores.

Who else but an insane genius would conceive of scoring plucky "Stuck In the Middle With You" over a pivotal scene in which a dutiful cop gets his ear sawed-off by a homicidal gangster with a straight-edge and an affinity for one-liners?

Or how about having yet another murderous gangster doing The Twist with the wife of his underworld kingpin boss, in a 1950s diner, as Buddy Holly and Ed Sullivan impersonators look on...

...While, in the exact same film, his jheri-curled partner finds himself, post-redemption mode, in a greasy spoon amidst a Sergio Leone-styled Mexican stand-off against Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two newlyweds poised to pillage every customer in the establishment.

Others may attempt these genre-bending mash-ups, but Quentin is the master. It can be argued that David Lynch does virtually the same thing, though his films ultimately leave many a filmgoer irritable or flummoxed: A typical Lynch film is glacially-paced, manically self-conscious and artistically precious. Which would be fine, save for the fact that they're also boring as snot.

Watching a David Lynch film is sort of like when one of your friends calls to tell you about the craziest/scariest/funniest dream they've ever had. To them it's the craziest or scariest dream ever; to you it's just one disjointed, monotonous strand of boredom. Basically, David Lynch is that friend, except instead of calling us in the middle of dinner to tell us about his lame dream, he gets to make $30 million movies about them.

Conversely, a Tarantino hodgepodge is nothing of the sort. The pacing of his films - save for the phlegmatic Jackie Brown - are relentless, even in scenes where, seemingly, little else occurs beyond some bouncy dialogue and sleepy camera pans. Sure, you might have to listen to a handful of goons prattle on about "tuning out" after Madonna entered her "Papa Don't Preach" phase, or about how a foot massage is the next closest thing to sex. But such moments leave behind miles of tantalizing cues and clues about theme and character and are often tacitly embedded with obscure pop culture nuggets and incisive commentary on the human condition. And if someone gets their head blown off in the process, all the better.

Tarantino will be the first to acknowledge that he's made a career out of gleaning all the most kick-ass qualities from the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, the blaxploitation film movement, Saturday afternoon Kung-Fu Theater, and cheesy B-movies from the 60s, 70s, and early 80s - throwaway movies that were churned out on the cheap and then quickly cast aside by most audiences and critics. But Tarantino studied them, becoming a devoted student of exploitation cinema, and subsequently imbued his films with their best qualities. In some cases, as in Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, the Kill Bill series, and From Dusk 'Till Dawn (which he wrote but was directed by Robert Rodriguez), he even borrowed their actors.

Inglourious Basterds has most of the telltale signatures of your typical Tarantino film: Crackling dialogue; slow burning tension leading into explosive displays of stylized violence; strong, tough female characters who are not to be fucked with; pulsing testosterone; and a genre mash that includes significant elements from traditional Hollywood war films from the 40s and 50s, Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, and "guys on a mission" movies like The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen.

As I've said, genre bending and mashing is how Quentin rolls, whether one thinks he goes overboard or not. Personally, I do and I'd argue that he should've eased up a bit this time around. While I greatly admire him as an artist, Tarantino has shown the stubborn tendency to repeat himself. Since making Pulp Fiction, a cinematic earthquake that supercharged filmgoers and greatly inspired a generation of aspiring indy and action filmmakers, he's become infatuated with his own considerable talents.

(I still maintain that the great Pulp Fiction is the third-best film of the entire decade, nipping at the heels of the breathtaking Species 2 and the Citizen Kane-inspired Harmacy.)

To that end, one of the few flaws of Basterds is Tarantino's insistence on reminding us that we are in fact watching a Quentin Tarantino film and that, regardless of how far he removes us from the worlds of Mia Wallace, Vincent and Jules, and Mr. Blonde, we need not fret: No matter what happens, we'll eventually get served at least several heaping platters of Quentin - just so we know that this thing isn't some sissy-Mary commentary on unchecked bigotry or the iniquities of war.

In one pivotal scene, fictional German actress - and British spy - Bridget Von Hammersmark rendezvous in a hole-in-the-wall brew pub in Berlin, with three of "The Basterds," each posing as an S.S. officer, to plot the mass killing of Third Reich luminaries (yes, Hitler too). Without giving too much away, the scene is a prime example of Tarantino's ability to choreograph suspense while simultaneously lending further insight into the characters. For instance, within the scene, we ascertain that one of the Basterds, Sgt. Stiglitz, a tough, virulent German Jew, with a notorious reputation for murder and mayhem, is, surprisingly, easily rattled under duress and yet somehow able to restrain his violent tendencies. We learn this through the subtlety of Stiglitz's physical cues: his shifting eyes, the burgeoning droplet of sweat on his brow, and his struggle to maintain his signature angry scowl whenever the camera has an occasion to spy on him. It's a chilling moment, of which Hitchcock would approve, as we eagerly await the Sergeant's breaking point.

Gradually, the scene devolves into gorgeously cataclysmic mayhem, punctuated by a Mexican stand-off, an homage to Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, as well as to both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. The device is slightly indulgent and completely unnecessary, as it ultimately saps the scene of any real emotional gravity by over-stylizing what could have been one of the more poignant moments of the film.

And, while I'm typically one to celebrate Tarantino's proclivity for graphic violence, his depiction of a relentless bludgeoning to illustrate the film's extermination of a cartoonish Adolph Hitler, played by actor Martin Wuttke, is both cathartic and deeply troubling. For one, as Seth Rogen rightfully muses in Knocked Up, it's nice to watch movies in which the Jews are kicking a little bit of ass for a change, as opposed to being portrayed as the eternal victims of intense ridicule, discrimination, and genocide. (I mean, I concede that blacks have had a worse go of it than us, but at least they got to root for Shaft. For years, our closest comparables were him and him. Great talents, yes, but not exactly empowering for an 11-year-old bully magnet living in Upstate New York.)

In real life, Hitler proved impossible to murder and, consequently, defile. By killing himself, he robbed the entire world of any modicum of justice and closure. Perhaps this is why killing him in effigy proves to be so perversely delicious. But I think it can be argued that the world doesn't deserve closure on a Satan incarnate like Hitler because of what he was able to accomplish by duping the masses into believing that he was a patriotic visionary as opposed to the apotheosis of evil.

But it's not Quentin Tarantino's obligation to set us all straight, nor is it part of his skill set. He's a professional entertainer, a story-teller, and among the most gifted filmmakers of the modern era.

And, in the end, if we can't learn what not to do from maniacal demagogs, it doesn't matter how many Pol Pot, Stalin, or Milosovic punching bags we set up in the basement; there will be another waiting to take his place, right around the corner.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Dick Cheney Back in the News

Dick Cheney is not a nice guy. But that doesn't necessarily preclude him from being an inadequate leader. The list of mean S.O.B.'s who were also stellar leaders is long and distinguished.

Unfortunately for Cheney - and the rest of the world - not only was he a notoriously cantankorous person, but he was also a train wreck of a two-term vice-president, influencing perhaps the most horribly calamitous series of policy initiatives of the past 50 years.

Exactly how much influence he had in the Bush Administration is debatable, though it's his most recent comments that lead me to think that Grandpa Angry had more sway than he should have. From The New York Times:
President Obama's decision to allow the Justice Department to investigate and possibly prosecute CIA personnel, and his decision to remove authority for interrogation from the CIA to the White House, serves as a reminder, if any were needed, of why so many Americans have doubts about this Administration's ability to be responsible for our nation's security," Cheney said.
Same ol' Dick, going with the Democrats are Sissy-Marys smokescreen, though I hear that still plays well in Abilene. Look, it's real sweet that Cheney claims he's still out to save us all from a concept (terrorism), but I'm not buying it. The guy's out to protect his own ass.
In Mr. Cheney's view, it is not just those who followed orders and stuck to the interrogation rules set down by President George Bush's Justice Department who should be sheltered from accountability. He said he also had no problem with those who disobeyed their orders and exceeded the guidelines.

It's easy to understand Mr. Cheney's aversion to the investigation that Attorney General Eric Holder ordered last week. On Fox, Mr. Cheney said it was hard to imagine it stopping with the interrogators. He's right.

Here's the thing with Dick Cheney: He must have that climactic scene from A Few Good Men on a loop, in which Col. Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, justifies his horrific misdeeds by ranting to the court that he exists to do the dirty work for which the rest of us have no skill, stomach, or will. Tragically for all of us, Cheney views himself in much the same way as the fictitious Jessup.
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Whose gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.

Thank God Cheney's no longer on that wall.

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Stop the Inanity. by Brock Cohen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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