Monday, October 26, 2009

Week of 10/26/2009

Crazy As A Fox... (News, that is)
– by David Matthews 2

At the climax of the movie “Private Parts”, the semi-biographical look at the radio phenomenon that is Howard Stern, the radio executive that was trying to “coral” Stern got the latest listener research and was shocked to find that listeners who loved him and hated him continued to listen to his show for the same reason: to hear what he would say next.

Howard Stern, of course, is an entertainer. He’s a clown. He’s an audio jester. He makes fun of himself and other people. Nobody would ever confuse him with being anything else. You won’t see him on the Sunday talk show circuit talking about the federal deficit or on the financial channels talking about the rise and fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Commentators, of which I am one, are a different bird entirely. We ARE known for our opinions. Sure we can engage in some laughs at the expense of ourselves and others, but we’re better known our OPINIONS about current events. Our OPINIONS count. Our OPINIONS matter. It’s our OPINIONS that give us our measure.

So that’s why I seriously begin to wonder when a commentator goes off the deep end.

The movie “Network” is probably the best example of when a commentator goes too far. The movie gives a satirical look at a network anchor named Howard Beale. He starts out rather boring, the typical old news curmudgeon who is fired because of declining ratings. He announces the next night on the air that he plans on killing himself on his final night, and that sends ratings through the roof. He suffers a nervous breakdown, which he considers to be a religious epiphany, and begins a series of rants, including the legendary “I’m as mad as hell” rant. The network executives soon make the show to be all about HIM and all about HIS words, and people pay attention to what he has to say, even if it is crazy.

One has to wonder, though, if Beale didn’t announce that he was visited by God if people would still listen to him. Would the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” have been carted off to that magical place with padded walls and wraparound jackets and regular medications?

Beale was crazy; there was no doubt about that. His mind skipped town long before he became famous. But what kept Beale going was he empathized with the growing frustration of the masses. The continued feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that most people experience, especially when they turn on the evening news and they hear about a declining economy and terrorism and threats to end the world on a continual basis. Beale, the maniac that he was, tapped into that growing malaise and channeled it and got people to express it. That was the only thing that kept him not only employed, but also out of that place with the padded walls.

But of late I’ve had to seriously ask if that same pattern isn’t being repeated on some of the cable news channels with some of their so-called “rising stars”.

Mind you, I’m not talking about Stephen Colbert. I know he’s being satirical. I get the joke. That’s why he’s on Comedy Central.

I’m talking about people like CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Here’s an example of an over-inflated ego if there ever was one.

Once upon a time Dobbs was the anchor of a show called “Moneyline”. It was about money. Now, twenty years later, the show is still on, but it’s no longer called “Moneyline”. Now it’s called “Lou Dobbs”. Now it’s all about HIM and what HE thinks. It’s all about him promoting his books and his Twitter page and his radio show and whatever his pet cause is for the moment… which is usually immigration and bureaucracies.

But at least Dobbs is only hindered by narcissism. Sure he sees himself as being the only person in the world who can tell the truth about anything except for maybe the time of day, and his condescending arrogance can be unbearable at times, but he still clings to some semblance of sanity.

The same, however, cannot be said of some of the people at Fox News. Specifically of the talk show host who actually likens himself to Howard Beale… namely Glenn Beck.

Glenn Beck apparently operates in a delusional fantasy world, one where the Cold War never ended, and Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong is alive and well and has somehow taken over the United States under the guise of the current US President, flanked by Prohibition-era mobsters who wield baseball bats and carry out vendettas against all those who oppose his rule. He brings out charts and graphs to support his delusions, scribbles things on his chalkboard as though he was trying to cobble together some great Theory of Relevance, and not always getting the spelling right. He dissects sculptures in the same way that 1950’s holier-than-thou hucksters played rock music records backwards looking for hidden messages.

As with others of his ilk, Beck suffers from the typical persecution complex. Everyone is “out to get him”… or at least everyone who doesn’t subscribe to his fantasy world. Sadly that’s par for the course for today’s neo-con talking heads. They can pretend to be brave, claiming to be willing to “take a bullet” or “take a beating” from the thugs that only they can see, all in the cause of getting what they claim is “the truth” out.

Also as with others of his ilk, Beck projects his faults onto others. This is actually a defensive tactic, since calling the other person a slut and a whore prevents them from calling you out for actually being one. OTHER people are “polarizing”. OTHER people are “tyrants”. OTHER people are causing trouble. OTHER people are lying. OTHER people are bigoted and racists. Not him. NEVER him.

Even sadder to note: Beck actually YEARNS for America to go back to the time just immediately after the darkest days since Pearl Harbor. He has a hard-on for September 12th, 2001… back when America was scared and huddled in fear looking towards “daddy government” to protect them. “Daddy government” of course under the firm control of conservatives and neo-conservatives, not under the current tenure.

Now I want you to think about the most personally tragic, shocking, horrific event either in your life or in the life of someone you know. Think about when you were attacked, or robbed, or in a car accident, or when a family member died. Now imagine being told from a stranger that you should be consciously RELIVING that moment all the time. As someone who knows first-hand about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I would be sorely tempted to dish-out some trauma of my own to anyone who would suggest I should consciously CHOOSE to relive those tragic events!

And yet this is what Beck wants America to do! That’s why he’s obsessed with “9/12”.

In Beck’s delusional fantasy world, America’s founding fathers apparently never owned slaves. He believes that “progressives” used to be called “tyrants”, and eventually “slave owners”. Once again his deluded mind fails to recognize that the very concept of freedom, never mind the kind of democratic republic our government was meant to become, was a clearly PROGRESSIVE concept! America’s founding fathers were not “conservative” in any sense of the term as we use it today. The real “conservatives” were the ones in London, sitting at Buckingham Palace and Parliament, sending soldiers across the ocean to secure what they pompously declared was “their property”, which included the colonists themselves.

Beck also believes that certain freedoms have vanished since January. Freedoms like free speech, free press, freedom to assemble, freedom of work, freedom to make a profit, freedom to make medical choices…

I know what you’re about to say… “Hey, wait a minute… there is no freedom of work, or to make a profit, or to make medical choices in the Constitution!” You’re right. There isn’t. But they’re all there in Glenn Beck’s fantasy world. Or they were… until Obama/“Mao” came in with his hypothetical gangsters, and then all of a sudden those “rights” were “gone”.

Makes you wonder when the people with the butterfly nets and the wraparound jackets will be showing up, huh? Well, don’t hold your breath on that.

Because let’s get brutally honest here… it’s all AN ACT!

The crying on camera? Please! That’s Vick’s Vapor Rub placed just under the eyes. The “us-versus-them” “Red Scare” mentality and rhetoric? Walter Winchell. The charts and graphs? Ross Perot, not to mention a few actors in those old atomic testing films best made famous in the movie “Atomic Café”.

But when you look at Beck’s history, you begin to see someone who is desperate for attention. You see someone who has a long history of doing anything and everything to get people to recognize him, be it on radio or later on cable television. That certainly explains his zany antics.

Is he crazy? Sure. Crazy as a FOX! As in the Fox News channel.

And that’s why Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp group will stick with him through all the talk about boycotts and withdrawing sponsors… because as long as Beck continues to play the “Zoo”-style antics that he first honed on morning radio, he gets people talking about him, and if they’re talking about him, he brings viewers to News Corp’s cable news channel. Boycotts don’t last, and sponsorships are a dime a dozen to big corporate news services, but viewers are gold.

Sadly for Beck, though, the attention he seeks is fleeting. And for someone who likens himself to Howard Beale, he probably should remember what happened to Beale when his ratings started to slide that one final time. Then Beale wasn’t even given the luxury of a two-week notice.

Of course this isn’t the movie world, nor is it Beck’s fantasy world. If anything he’ll probably spend his down time like he spent his previous down times… struggling to stay relevant, saying anything to get attention, but eventually he’ll end up being the last thing he will ever expect to be: forgotten.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Week of 10/19/2009

When the Bough Breaks
– by David Matthews 2

The video wasn’t up for very long. Those kinds of videos usually aren’t. The major news services didn’t even bother to mention it. But the websites that were looking for such a video found it and copied it and reposted it on their servers so their viewers knew what was being said.

It had no music with it. No background noises, no voice narration, just a simple visual message. It was a relatively cheap video, the kind you could make with readily available Windows software.

The message was directed at a group of political leaders. All of them, by no coincidence, Democrats. They were all told they had until October 15th to step down, or else they would supposedly be forced out.

Obviously the deadline came and went. So far nobody has tried to make good on the threat. And hopefully nobody will.

But this was just the latest in a series of threats made against Democrats that went beyond just the hate-filled rhetoric brought on by partisan sour grapes over last year’s election. Not too long ago someone posted a Facebook poll asking people whether or not the President of the United States should be assassinated. It was taken down and is still being investigated, but the rhetoric has certainly escalated.

It was hard to believe that it was just a scant fifteen years ago that this level of hate… and yes it IS hate… reached a point to where a couple of people took it upon themselves to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing not only men and women, but also innocent children. In their twisted minds they believed this act would spark others, and still more others, until the whole country imploded in nasty bigoted riots and anarchy.

That obviously didn’t happen. In fact just the opposite occurred. When faced with the sheer horror of the violence, Americans aligned themselves AGAINST the people behind the bombing. There was no civil war; there was no anarchy.

And yet one has to wonder given the outright animosity that has been generated of late if we are not too far off from something like it happening again.

It doesn’t take too much to push the buttons of a person riled up into a frothing rage, whether it is the passion of watching a really intense sporting event, the mechanizations of a political movement, or just a long string of perceived personal injustices and stresses. The sources may differ, but the reactions are still the same. When driven to rage, all it takes is just one seemingly insignificant event to turn that rage into an explosion of violence.

So the question is… if you’re getting people riled up enough to do something stupid, why aren’t you speaking out on the truly horrific?

I understand what the point of the conservatives and neo-conservatives is on this. I know WHY they’re stirring the hate-pot and bringing it to bubble. I know they want people frothing angry instead of being compliant of the stuff going on. They want the faithful focused on 2010, because they think they can repeat the results of the 1994 mid-term elections if they do. They do this because they really have nothing else they can offer to counter what the liberals are doing. Their political horses are either diseased or have broken legs.

But you would think after what happened that they would have a better handle at figuring out the difference between almost a boil and boiling over, wouldn’t you?

They only have to look back to their own party’s history, back to the very FIRST GOP President, to see where this unchecked hate leads.

If you ever get the chance, look up the name Mary Surat, the first-ever woman executed by the United States government for her involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Her connection to the murder was tedious at best, and yet the government, and indeed the masses themselves, were so outraged over what had just happened that they didn’t CARE whether or not she was a woman. They had just finished a grueling civil war and they wanted blood for blood. They wanted the message to be expressed loud and clear that the people behind the assassination of the president were going to PAY. And there were quite a few people who did end up paying for it. Some, like Mrs. Surat, with the hangman’s noose; others with prison sentences.

You can remember what happened after Oklahoma City as well. Tim McVeigh, the man who actually carried out the bombing, was put to death for his premeditated mass-murder. His accomplice is rotting in a jail cell.

This should be a WARNING SIGN for the GOP and those within the con and neo-con circles who are continually stirring this cauldron of venom soup. You would think they would know better, wouldn’t you? After all, they are the ones who carry themselves as though they are the MASTERS of history, as the self-professed CHAMPIONS of heritage and of days long ago. You would think that with their obsessive fixation of the past that they would REMEMBER things like the Whiskey Rebellion and Shays’ Rebellion and what happened to those who stirred those pots up until they boiled over.

Senator John McCain certainly realized what was going on just a little too late in his failed run for the White House last year. Granted, he consciously tethered himself and his campaign to the Bush Imperium, which at that time was in the last stages of its Titanic-like submersion, and his campaign really had little else to go on that differed from the same-ol’-same-ol’. But, even then, I think he still was operating under the delusion that this problem was limited to just one confused little old lady that didn’t know or didn’t bother to check out to fact-check her chain-mail. I would like to think that if he DID know that he would have done something to try to bring civility back to the table so it wouldn’t make the GOP look like a bunch of latecomers to the Reichstag fire.

Let’s get brutally honest here… the GOP hierarchy needs to take ownership of this boiling cauldron, and they need to bring it under control BEFORE it boils over into something they won’t be able to step away from.

There is a difference between spirited objection and out-and-out insurrection, if not domestic terrorism. This is the party that CLAIMS to be all for law-and-order. They should KNOW that difference and should be the FIRST ONES to point it out and not crying “persecution” when other people do it. This is the party that CLAIMS to champion personal responsibility. Well it is high time that they PRACTICE WHAT THEY PREACH!

Remember what happened after the Ford Theater. Remember what happened after Oklahoma City. More importantly, remember what the sentiment was of the people behind those incidents the day BEFORE them. Your people are AT THAT MOMENT NOW!

You still have a choice at this point. Exercise it, before you forfeit it as well as forfeit any control over the outcome afterwards.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Week of 10/12/2009

Never Mind Exit, Let’s Have An End Strategy!
– by David Matthews 2

One of the easiest ways to ruin a good story, whether it is a movie, a book, or a TV series, is to have a cheap ending.

That’s what the people behind “The Sopranos” did. They had no way they could really end the series after all the things that went on. So they just went to black in the middle of the Soprano Family sharing a basket of onion rings with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in mid-chorus.

There are several cheap endings that have gone down in history. We have the “everything was just a dream” ending. We have the “everything was a virtual simulation” ending. We have the “last-minute turnaround” ending. We have the “I’m back from the dead just in time” ending. My personal favorite of cheap endings is the “Who would have thought it” ending, best made by H.G. Wells in “The War of the Worlds”.

Either way, these kinds of endings usually exist because the situation has become so overwhelming that there is no right way to resolve things. The situation is too dire, the enemy is too powerful, the odds are just stacked too much against the hero to win… the audience is on the edge of their seats just WAITING to see how it all turns out… and they punt! And the audience then says “we wasted our money ON THIS???”

Yeah, many a good story has been lost because they couldn’t come up with a decent resolution.

What bothers me, though, is when the same holds true to the real world.

Take, for instance, the Cold War. Did you know that this was the first-ever conflict that America entered into without ANY kind of real objective to FINISHING it? Sure there were flare-ups in places like Korea and Vietnam and Grenada, but those were all considered part of the overall LARGER conflict that was the Cold War.

But what was the GOAL of the Cold War? To keep the Soviet Union from taking over the world? They couldn’t keep their own people FED! The greatest gift you could give a Soviet family in the 1980’s was an 8-pack of toilet paper! The military industrial complex for both sides were on automatic, cranking out bombs and missile and weapons of mass destruction. They saw only TWO options. One involved mushroom clouds and a radioactively-dead planet. The other involved a non-stop game of brinksmanship.

George Orwell’s concept of a state of eternal war and eternal conflict best characterized in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was nightmarish when he wrote the story in 1948, but I don’t think he would envision that the United States and the Soviet Union would bring that very concept about and make it last forty years, much less have designs on making it last indefinitely. And if the Soviet Union did not collapse under the weight of its own failures then that is EXACTLY what we would be in the middle of today!

But that really explains the kinds of problems we are in today with our current conflicts.

We got ourselves into TWO wars. One was in Afghanistan, and that really was a conflict of necessity. The bad guys who hurt us in 2001 were there, being supported by the Taliban leaders who were running that oversized chuck of rock and poppy fields. We went over there, we rousted some terrorist leaders up in their caves, we chased out the Taliban leaders, we oversaw the creation of a new government and the election of new leaders…

And then… what? We pretty much left it hanging, that’s what we did! We kept some forces there but we then turned around and focused our efforts on Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

That doesn’t seem to make any sense does it? Leave one war hanging and then go fight another one, and then not really finish up that war, so we have to stay there as well. Keep our forces spread thin, keep putting soldiers in harms way, keep sending resources to those areas.

And yet it makes PERFECT sense when you realize what the ultimate goal has been for these two conflicts and you tie that in as well to the original Gulf War of the 1990’s.

Let’s get brutally honest here… our military industrial complex has been FIXATED on this concept of an ETERNAL WAR! They have been spoiled from the Cold War and they want to reignite that same feeling in the Middle East. That’s why they’ve been leaving things unfinished over there. Where’s Osama bin Laden? Our previous President said in 2002 that he didn’t know and he didn’t CARE where Osama is! He was more worried about Iraq. Catching Saddam Hussein? That was pretty much a fluke. We weren’t supposed to find him! It’s good that we did, but still it was contrary what we were doing for the past ten years, which was to play a glorified game of “Whack-a-Mole” with bombs.

The basic complaint with military conflicts since Vietnam has always been the lack of a good EXIT strategy. Well how about just having a good END strategy? We had clearly-defined objectives once upon a time, even in the wars we were talked into fighting like the Spanish-American War. We knew who the enemy was, we knew what we had to do, and we did it. We weren’t sidetracked or allowed to engage in “mission creep”, or, in our current situations, “mission neglect”.

Let’s take this from the position of writing a story. So why are we in Afghanistan? Because Osama bin Laden, the man who gave the order to bomb America, was hiding there along with his terrorist friends and his allies in the Taliban. Okay, so we send forces there, we hunt him down and hunt down his terrorist friends and hunt down his Taliban allies and we bring them all to justice, or we put them in a body bag, and then we GO HOME! End of story.

Simple storyline; easy to comprehend, easy to sell, easy to remember, and most importantly it is easy to gauge whether we’ve done what we set out to do.

So why is this so hard for the people in charge to figure out?

Listen, wars should never be considered some complicated never-ending money pit for the military industrial complex. The best way to make wars winnable is to make the objectives SIMPLE and to have an easy-to-understand END to them. And preferably an ending that does NOT involve mushroom clouds and radioactive dead zones. If people have to ask WHY you are still there, then you’ve LOST your objective, and you either get it back on track, or else you will have LOST the conflict. It really is THAT simple!

The truth of the matter is that all wars eventually become stories, because that is what history is. It’s up to the people in charge to determine whether that story will have a good ending, a bad one, or a cheap one.

And unfortunately for them, they do not have the luxury of saying it was all just a dream.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Week of 10/05/2009

Stating the Obvious
– by David Matthews 2

You know, I think I found out the secret to Michael Moore’s “filmmaking genius”.

First, find a subject that everyone knows about. Something that they can all recognize so you don’t have to explain too much about it. That’ll cut down on trying to explain WHAT happened and you can just say that it DID happen.

Second, find a villain. Make sure that everyone knows from day one that this villain is out there and that this villain is EVIL and they are powerful enough to get away with anything they want.

Third, find victims. Yes, victims as in PLURAL… because this is where most of your time will be spent. You need names and faces and pain. Lots and lots of PAIN. Physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain… and if you can show visible damage and suffering, then that’s gravy.

Fourth, host the whole thing as a quasi-fool. Be sympathetic and understanding around the victims, but also be sure to be buffoonish around the people you paint as villains. They need to feel that you’re impotent instead of important so they won’t be threatened as you’re exposing the truth. Be sure to make grandiose statements and gestures. Not only will they make great comedic fodder, but they will serve as great material for your film trailer.

Now take all of that and wrap it into a movie and then slap on a catchy title, and then you too can bring home an Oscar.

There you go… I just saved you seven dollars in box office costs and fourteen dollars in popcorn and soda if you were so inclined to watch Moore’s next movie instead of waiting for it to air on the premium cable channels or come out on DVD.

I remember watching Michael Moore’s first movie “Roger and Me”. I spent most of the time wondering why I even bothered to watch it. Calling it “Roger and Me” is like calling the whole “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy “Frodo and the fourteenth Orc”.

If you haven’t seen it yet, basically it was about people suffering and corporate executives getting rich. There I just saved you some Netflix money.

In fact you can apply the same formula to all of his previous movies.

Bowling for Columbine”: people getting killed while gun makers get rich.

Fahrenheit 9/11”: paranoid people making themselves sick worrying about fear while politicians get powerful and contractors get rich.

Sicko”: people getting sick and dying while insurance executives get rich.

And now we have the upcoming “Capitalism: A Love Story”, which will deal with corporate executives getting rich while average Americans lose their jobs and their homes and their pensions.

But the sad part is that this “love story” is something that has been going on repeatedly. Take “AIG” and substitute “Enron”. Take the banks and substitute the Savings and Loan companies. Take Wall Street and substitute the automakers or the insurance companies. It’s really all the same argument. Corporations get fat and wealthy, average people lose their livelihoods. The “Great American Dream” has become “The Great American Robbery” and there’s NOTHING that can be done about it!

And really that’s probably the most annoying part of Moore’s movies! He spends a LOT of time showing misery and despair, showing wealth to the point of encouraging schadenfreude, and at the end of it all he just LEAVES us all hanging. Why bother? All I have to do is turn on the cable news channels and wait for one of them to air their “special” on the whole issue and see the exact same thing without the comedic overtones!

At least when Bill Maher did “Religulous” he pointed out the weird wacky things that people DID NOT know were going on in the name of religion. Sure he did so with some comedic and condescending overtones to them, but these also weren’t presented as problems in need of solutions like Moore has been fixated on.

And then when asked what SHOULD be done, Moore sits back and smiles and says “oh I’m just a humble filmmaker… I’m not a politician… I don’t know what needs to be done… I just think that something needs to be done.” Right. That’s like Harold Hill from “The Music Man” sitting back after singing about the “evils” of billiard halls and saying that he was just a humble instrument salesman.

Let’s get brutally honest here… Michael Moore is apparently the master at stating the obvious and making some coin off it as well. And unfortunately for the hard-working American, this is NOT what we need!

We KNOW what’s been going on in this country. The air-fluffed ego-driven media has been very good at showing the misery of the masses and the fortunes of the elite. We KNOW who the bad guys are in this matter! We KNOW how things got this bad!

That’s not to say that there are some people who NEED to know these things. For instance, the studio executives need to know why we’re not showing up at the movie theatres anymore for that ten-dollar barrel of popcorn and half-jug of soda and are instead hitting up for free movies. The company executives overseas who make those really cheap appliances probably also need to know why we’re not going to be too quick to buy that HDTV that will expire right after the warrantee does. Certainly the people who can afford to be at the Cannes Film Festival on a regular basis would like to know what happened to “The American Dream”, but I worry that they won’t get the message. I’m sure they would be wondering what happens at the end and why the greedy executives and the corrupt politicians weren’t being chased like Frankenstein’s monster by the torch-wielding villagers. The short answer to that question is that (1) we can’t afford the torches and (2) Frankenstein’s monster did not have an army of soldiers and attorneys to protect him from accountability.

Documentaries, of course, don’t have happy endings. Just that the film is DONE with is usually considered the happy part. And because this kind of stupidity and insanity is repetitive, it guarantees that Moore can continue the formula for ever and ever, painting greedy executives as bad guys and showing suffering middle-class Americans as the victims without EVER wanting to resolve things afterwards. And in fact if there WAS a just resolution to this kind of inequality, then it would pretty much end Moore’s filmmaking career.

And then who would be making that much-needed documentary on our school systems entitled “Stupid: Is We Learning Yet”?