Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is The Constitution The Problem?

Recently finished Politics: Observations and Arguments by the great New Yorker columnist Hendrick Hertzberg.

While the book consists of a compendium of columns written in many publications over the course of almost 40 years, certain themes find their way back over and over. One of the most striking is the idea that we owe it to ourselves to continually take a critical look at the core of our political system. Equally striking is the idea that as a nation we seem to be structurally (constitutionally, even?) incapable of taking even that step of self-examination.

First, we need to be able to look critically at the how the Constitution shapes our system. The basic problem is:
The more thoughtful critics of the system of government chartered by the Constitution point to two great flaws in it (which some regard as its greatest virtues): it is weak, and it is unrepresentative. ... The weakness is endemic and is probably ineradicable. Weakness is a function of the separation of powers... Unrepresentativeness is another story.
The unrepresentativeness is tied up in two bedrock constitutional mechanisms -- purely geographical representation in Congress and the use of the Electoral College to select the President. Hertzberg argues that both mechanisms are archaic and have outgrown their initial purposes and utility. So why do we still have them?

Well, because the second recurring theme is that there never seems to be any real chance that any meaningful change is likely to happen. Although there is every indication that the framers expected constitutional revision to be ongoing, 220 years of expreience have shown that the structural impediments to change are deeply imbedded within the document itself.
Because amending the Constitution is both difficult and dangerous, it has been only done three times on a large scale: before the mold had set (the Bill of Rights); after it had been smashed by civil war (the Reconstruction amendments); and at Progressivism's high tide (direct election of senators, the income tax, women's suffrage).
With the exception of the election of senators and the amendments to widen suffrage, none have dealt with the unrepresentativeness of the current election processes, and it is unlikely that any ever will. The hurdles in the way of amendments are too high, and the interests concerned with keeping the status quo are too powerful (although given the hurdles, they don't even have to be very powerful, mostly just interested enough).

The result?

The third theme that, like it or not, there are consequences for this inability to make significant changes.

On the one hand we've now wound up with a Congress that is essentially self-perpetuating. Incumbents can gerrymander the map of geographic districts to the point where we have elections in which less that 10% of House elections are even reasonably competitive. So a public which has been desparate for meaningful ways to show displeasure with the President's Iraq fiasco have watched that desire stymied all the way up to last week's capitulation (essentially) to Bush's desire to avoid accountability for himself and the Iraq "government."

Of course, the fact that this person is indeed the current occupant of the White House is due entirely to the persistence of the electoral college quirk in the Constitution (although as Hertzberg pointed out in December, 2000:
On the basis of the available evidence -- not least the ruthless determination of the Republican Party to use all the powers at its command, from the executive and legislative branches of the Florida state government to the five-person Supreme Court bloc (now exposed not as jurisprudential conservatives but as ideological and nakedly partisan ones), for the single purpose of preventing a fair count of the ballots of Florida's citizens -- it may now be inferred, pending the eventual recount by scholars and journalists udner Florida's freedom-of-information laws, that the president-elect (a suddenly Orwellian honorific) lost not only the popular but also the true electoral vote. Nevertheless, the election of 2000 was not stolen. Stealing, after all, is illegal, and, by definition, nothing the justices of the Supreme Court do can be outside the law. They are the law. The election was not stolen. It was expropriated.)
Without the electoral college of course, the entire fiasco would not have been necessary. Gore would have won by a much wider margin than either Kennedy in 1960 or Nixon in 1968.

Without the electoral college, maybe we still would have had an administration that consistently combined a startling degree of arrogance with a shocking amount of incompetence in fighting terrorism, in developing a coherent foreign policy, in the fair administration of justice, in showing respect for the environment, in developing an alternative energy policy, in showing concern for the future fiscal well-being of the country, in dealing with natural disasters, and in having an interest in the "Christian values" that Christ actually made mention of.

But maybe not.

Sometimes these dry-as-dust issues do have consequences.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

3 In, 3 Out

King Kaufman makes a possibly obvious but nonetheless important point in his recap of yesterday's European Cup final in Athens.

The first goal of the game, on a deflection by Filippo Inzaghi of a free kick by Andrea Pirlo in the last minute of the first half, got me thinking about a column the other day by Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune in which he gave a rundown of "The 10 worst things in sports."

It got me thinking about what some of the best things in sports are. I'd have to give it some thought to come up with a list. Hey, I'm told you readers love lists, so maybe you can chime in with your ideas. We'll write some future column together, and I'll collect the paycheck! OK? OK!

But one of those best things in sports has to be the first goal of a big soccer match. Is it possible for human beings to be any happier than, for example, Milan's fans, not to mention the players, were Wednesday after Inzaghi shouldered that ball home? To say the fans were delirious would be like saying that crowd in Times Square was mildly pleased with the end of World War II.

I think I know exactly what he means, but particularly from the other team's point of view. In recent months I've become something of a fan of the English Premier League, and so it was with at least a small amount of rooting interest (for Liverpool) that I sat down yesterday to watch a TIVOed version of the game (unlike any other sport, watching a TIVOed soccer game is possible, since unless I actively search it out there is no chance of seeing or hearing the outcome).

Liverpool looked to have the edge through most of the first half, controlling the play and outshooting Milan. But as will happen, one mistake had a huge cost. A foul just outside the box gave Milan a free kick which was shouldered in for the first goal.

That goal had exactly the effect that Kaufman discusses, as well as to effect of a feeling of dread that the Reds suddenly faced a giant hill. That first goal in a game at this level truly does completely change the literal feel of the game. In the blink of an eye, it goes from taut to desperate. A sense of desperation that eventually gave way to reality as Liverpool became the third of the three EPL semifinalists to go down.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fightin' Crime, Remembering Nothin'

I know that Col. McCormick isn't there anymore, but if the continuing embarassment that is the Attorney General of the United States starts engendering editorials like this even in the Chicago Tribune, then you can bet that he's got something of a credibility problem.

Not that the brain-dead "Number 1 Crimefighter" would even notice.

At a hearing last week before the House Judiciary Committee, he evaded precise answers and professed a poor memory, while insisting that the decision to sack the prosecutors was utterly sound. The apparent administration hope is that by denying and stonewalling, Gonzales can not only save his job but eventually exhaust all interest in the matter.

This is not good enough. Serious charges have been leveled that undermine public confidence in federal law enforcement, and they have not been convincingly rebutted. To continue to try to shrug off the issue will only deepen suspicions that this administration has taken justice out of the Justice Department. ...

Because of these developments, public trust in the department is in serious jeopardy. The president and the attorney general now have the burden of demonstrating that the administration acted properly in this episode. So far, they show no sign of being able to.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Music Biz: 2007

Great article by Clive Thompson in today's NY Times Magazine about the changing economics and sociology of the music business in the age of the internets.

The focus of the article is Brooklyn's own Jonathan Coulton (although the tale of OK Go's viral video dance explosion and the Hold Steady's bar band über alles story are examined as well).

While the accounting details of how he makes a living with no label, no publicity machine and no radio airplay (outside of the odd NPR story or appearance -- does that even count as radio airplay?) are interesting...
By the middle of last year, his project had attracted a sizable audience. More than 3,000 people, on average, were visiting his site every day, and his most popular songs were being downloaded as many as 500,000 times; he was making what he described as “a reasonable middle-class living” — between $3,000 and $5,000 a month — by selling CDs and digital downloads of his work on iTunes and on his own site.
...as are the retail aspects of his self-marketing approach...
his fans do not want merely to buy his music. They want to be his friend. And that means they want to interact with him all day long online. They pore over his blog entries, commenting with sympathy and support every time he recounts the difficulty of writing a song. They send e-mail messages, dozens a day, ranging from simple mash notes of the “you rock!” variety to starkly emotional letters, including one by a man who described singing one of Coulton’s love songs to his 6-month-old infant during her heart surgery. Coulton responds to every letter, though as the e-mail volume has grown to as many as 100 messages a day, his replies have grown more and more terse, to the point where he’s now feeling guilty about being rude.
...what was most interesting to me was the way his webcentric career has allowed him to geomarket his real potential money-maker -- his live shows.
When he performs, he upends the traditional logic of touring. Normally, a new Brooklyn-based artist like him would trek around the Northeast in grim circles, visiting and revisiting cities like Boston and New York and Chicago in order to slowly build an audience — playing for 3 people the first time, then 10, then (if he got lucky) 50. But Coulton realized he could simply poll his existing online audience members, find out where they lived and stage a tactical strike on any town with more than 100 fans, the point at which he’d be likely to make $1,000 for a concert. It is a flash-mob approach to touring: he parachutes into out-of-the-way towns like Ardmore, Pa., where he recently played to a sold-out club of 140.
As long as you're willing to overlook the fact that the song may be unsuitable for younger or more sensitive listeners, check out Coulton's paean to the sun-kissed carnal delights of the First of May.

Also, Coulton provided the music to a series of John Hodgman's Little Grey Book Lecture podcasts that are musts for your listening device and can be downloaded here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


More spot-on commentary from Steve Chapman in today's Tribune.

He questions the bona-fides of the current Republican leadership (up to and including the Current Occupant), who can't even recognize their collective blindspot regarding the ongoing disaster in Iraq.
...when it comes to Iraq, Republicans insist we should be ready to pay any price in pursuit of a victory that has eluded us for so long. In their view, weighing the costs against the benefits, or acknowledging that we don't have a formula for success, is tantamount to appeasement.

What Republicans stood for in the past was a sober realism about the limits of our power and our good intentions. That spirit is absent today. They act as though slogans are a substitute for strategy. What they claim as steadfast resolve looks like blind obstinacy.

It's silly to say victory is the only option unless you actually have a way to achieve it and are willing to commit the necessary resources. The administration and its allies on Capitol Hill insist that this time, they know what they're doing. But they said the same thing at every point along the way, and if they had been right, the phrase "Mission Accomplished" wouldn't be a national joke.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Not So Disturbing...Disturbing

Just finished watching a couple of movies which really don't seem to have much in common -- except for a rather apparent desire to shock and disturb their viewers.

The first was Se7en, a 1995 serial killer tale directed by David Fincher. I seem to have a thing for coming upon Fincher's movies rather late. I didn't see Fight Club until earlier this year, and I still haven't seen Zodiac.

Fincher, for his part, seems to have a thing for mass murderers, moving from this one, through Fight Club and on to Zodiac.

In a nutshell, just in case there is anyone in the world besides me who has yet to see this movie, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt play a pair of mismatched homicide detectives on the trail of a serial-killing Kevin Spacey.

Spacey's character's conceit -- well, hell he's got plenty of those, starting with his nom de meurtre of "John Doe" -- is his desire to show the world in general and the city in particular (New York? Philly? Seattle? who knows -- any city where it consistently pours, even while the sun is shining) the errors of its ways by highlighting the particular sins of his seven (five? six? eight?) whackees.

In the end it seems as though John Doe's allusions of grandeur are really little more than the delusions of grandeur that Pitt's character dismissively labels them. In spite of Gwyneth Paltrow's unfortunate separation (and really, who didn't see that coming?), John Doe's blaze of glory hardly seems destined to light the fuse that will embolden all of society to clean up its act -- murderously, if need be.

Se7en appears to have pretentions of commentary on all sorts of societal ills, as well as cinematic allusions to most of the classics with which John Doe is obsessed. Shakespeare was probably the most apropos classicist, however, w/r/t this one -- "it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

It does look great, though, as is seemingly true of most of Fincher's movies (I say seemingly because Zodiac looks to be the best looking of them all, but, well, you know).

Then there's The Bridge.

Where Se7en desperately wants to display a disturbing side of life, The Bridge, inspired by a brilliant 2003 New Yorker article called "Jumpers," truly does. It is a documentary rumination on life, those who choose on their own to end it, and those they leave behind, all the while using the Golden Gate Bridge as the world's largest and most beautiful scrim.

The great bridge seems to tower over and within the psyches of the troubled residents of The City (and probably all of its other residents as well). Small wonder, as it is a thing -- in its combination of design, color, setting, ingenuity, size and sheer audacity -- unlike anything else made by man.

There are moments in this film, in keeping with its backdrop, that are quite literally breathtaking, when I gasped in shock. Were those moments, and indeed the film as a whole, exploitative? Possibly. Quite probably, in fact.

But the examination of how the individual and the infrastructure combine in a moment comprised equally of beauty and despair make it a true piece of art -- a thing that makes you look at the world through different eyes -- like the bridge itself.

The Bridge may well be worth hating, but it is absolutely worth seeing.