The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

Talking About Movies

If you are me (which I know none of you are, but still, indulge me), the first week of the year is an exciting time, wonderful time. Not because of resolutions or returning refreshed and renewed or any of that rubbish. No, it’s because of the journalistic feature I most anticipate each year: Slate’s Movie Club.

This year, Slate house critic Dana Stevens opens by writing something about abortion that seems calculated to provoke comment from Ross, and also requests a defense of Zodiac and David Fincher. Seeing as how Fincher is my favorite working director, and I put Zodiac in my top 3 films of the year, I’ll probably have something to say about that soon. But for now, go forth and read.

Michael Gordon

Matt has just praised Michael Gordon for his smart and tough questioning of John Edwards.

It’s not just an interesting interview that casts Edwards in a good light, but really in a lot of ways shines a light on how political reporting could be made about a thousand times more useful to readers — Gordon knows what he’s talking about and eschews softballs, but at the same time he’s respectful like he and his audience would actually like to hear John Edwards explain why he’s changed his mind about Iraq over time rather than use the question to nail him to the wall.

This reminds me of a brief exchange I had with Brad DeLong, a scholar I very much admire, about … Michael Gordon. I stuck up for Michael Gordon (my original post has been lost in the move, but will hopefully return at some point), and Brad thought I was doing it for the wrong reasons.

To put it bluntly: when a story by Michael Gordon appears, I can’t tell whether it is accurate, whether Michael Gordon’s sources are lying to him (and he is letting them do so by not blowing them when they do so), or whether Michael Gordon is lying to us. Gordon would deserve the benefit of the doubt if I were confident that he was trying his best to inform rather than misinform us. I am not. And Reihan shouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt either.

Brad is entitled to his opinion. He is a tremendously smart guy. But again, I think Gordon is exactly the kind of reporter we risk losing in this massive economic transition: a deeply knowledgeable investigative journalist who knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t always get it right, obviously, but I have no reason to believe he has somehow set out to deliberately misinform the public.

Omar Loves to Dance

“Oh indeed.”

Michael K. Williams, better known as The Wire‘s Omar and also the cop from R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, apparently loves to dance.

I was always dancing. I came out the womb dancing. But before I became a professional dancer, I was 23 years old, working for Pfizer pharmaceuticals and going to BMCC — a.k.a. the thirteenth grade. I had a very turbulent teenage life — drugs, rehab, all that crap — and that was my way of getting my life together, going to school, getting a job. And then here comes Janet Jackson flashing her ass across the screen, talking about Rhythm Nation — I went crazy. I set off to become a Janet Jackson dancer. I wore the tour jacket, the Doc Marten boots, all that. She inspired the shit out of me.

I mean, seriously, who didn’t spend several years of their misspent youth on tour with Rhythm Nation? My only hope is that Michael K. Williams’ scar didn’t come from a traumatic stiletto blow to the head from “Ms. Jackson” herself, delivered on account of Williams’ “nastiness.” As it turns out, I have many connections to the Borough of Manhattan Community College and I love to dance, so I found this particularly affecting.

Gilded Rage

Recently, The Economist published an unusually astute review of Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal. Krugman offered a surprisingly unconvincing reply, which was pretty thoroughly demolished by The Economist‘s Free Exchange blog. I think it’s precisely because no one questions Krugman’s richly deserved reputation as one of the great economists of his generation that he was so careless and even disdainful. But the funniest part is that Krugman relied, somewhat bizarrely, on the hyperbolic words of journalist Robert Frank, the author of Richistan and the man behind the Wall Street Journal‘s Wealth Report blog. Because Frank was painting in broad strokes in order to produce an entertaining book, he talked about the rich as though they lived in a parallel country, “evidence” that Krugman, who dismisses detailed studies on consumption, considers dispositive.

Here’s the thing: Robert Frank seems to agree with The Economist.

We can all marvel at or complain about the mansions, Jaguars, jets and clothing of the rich. Yet most Americans live material lives equal to or better than the rich of yesteryear. Despite the best efforts of luxury marketers to convince us that driving a Jaguar is 10 times better than driving a Hyundai, or that flying Netjets is 100 times better than flying Jet Blue, the differences are tiny compared to those who can’t afford to fly or drive at all.

So along with incomes and net worth, we should all add consumption to our accepted measures of inequality — even if it’s not popular in certain political circles.

My guess is that Krugman will now dismiss Frank, his source, as an extremist hack.

The Dysons

America’s first family of polymathic excellence, the Dysons, blow my mind with their thoughts on Edge‘s big-think annual question: What have you changed your mind about? Why

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The Fantasy-World McCain Presidency

Ramesh asks

I wonder what would have happened if McCain had won the nomination in 2000. I think he would probably have won the general election. He wouldn’t have cut taxes as much as Bush, but he would have prosecuted the Iraq war better and left the Republican party in better shape. Would he have nominated judges of the caliber of John Roberts and Samuel Alito? I’m not sure.

Perhaps it’s obvious that I’m a McCain admirer. I think the world would be a far better place had McCain defeated Bush in 2000. I also think, contra Matt, that McCain is not a reflexive hawk. My sense is that he would have sought regime change in Iraq, but that he’d be far more responsive to arguments for restraint stemming from questions of preparedness and the extent of the coalition. Our failure to adequately reassure the Turks, for example, had obviously negative consequences for our ability to control Iraq. As someone deeply informed on military and, yes, diplomatic matters, McCain wouldn’t have behaved so cavalierly. Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, as McCain certainly has a longstanding reputation as a short-fused loon.

Because of McCain’s reform orientation, perhaps his tax cuts would have taken the form of coalition-expanding tax reform. Kevin Hassett is hardly a Bolshevik, and he was McCain’s chief economic advisor. As for the judicial nominees question, I always imagine that McCain would have nominated someone like Luttig. (Silberman is too old.) But who knows? I can also imagine him nominating a Maureen Mahoney, the better to preserve bipartisan comity. And imagine the stars that would have emerged during a McCain presidency, the talented younger Republicans who would have come to the fore and the Democratic defectors. Some McCain Democrats would surely have become McCain Republicans. Candidate recruitment at all levels might have been stronger, thanks to the broader partisan realignment, the McCain majority, that Brooks and Kristol imagined in 2000. Granted, it is just as easy to imagine a Republican base that would remain fiercely antagonistic towards McCain’s efforts, which may have led to intraparty strife — or the marginalization of the most recalcitrant elements of the base. (Hurray!)

In Comeback, David Frum offers another scenario: Gore defeats Bush in 2000 (or rather, Gore defeats Bush indisputably) and Giuliani defeats Gore in 2004. This suggests a fascinating alternate history, in which a very different post-Reaganite Republican party emerges. Untainted by Bush’s incompetence, a Giuliani-led party in 2004 could’ve been pan-ethnic, pro-market, forward-looking. Or it could have been something far less pleasant.

Despair and The Wire

I’ll have more to say on this elsewhere, so I don’t want to get too into the details, but though I agree that The Wire doesn’t provide a particularly sharp critique of capitalism, I don’t quite agree with Reihan when he calls The Wire “an elaborate, moving brief for despair and (ultimately) indifference.” The show is indeed unrelentingly dour in its outlook, and anyone trying to predict the trajectory of any of its plot arcs is best served by the sticking to the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished. But for all the show’s cynicism, I’m not sure that it really serves as a call to indifference. Simon’s an angry man, for sure, but he’s also a fierce humanist, one who is intent on exposing the pettiness and weakness inherent in the human spirit, but also determined to embrace people anyway, despite their failings. Sure, the show plays as a furious lament over America’s social breakdowns, but much of that outrage comes from its very sincere, heartfelt belief in the great value of every single person – a belief that, truly held, seems to me to be anathema to indifference.

Forced Out of Politics?

Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: the infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty. — NYT

The Times manages the appropriate — all snark excluded — balance between fact reportage and wistful discomfort with the caucus regime. The logic of equality pressures us toward something that politics, to work well, cannot deliver: equal suffrage, every issue, every election, every time. We can’t but grow irritated with Iowa when we hear of active-duty citizens who can’t impact a vote that will probably be decisive in shaping the general election — citizens whose votes would count hugely if they could devote the time to caucusing. But without doubt the baby sitter that would enable (both) parents to caucus without worrying about their children is not the sort of good that politics itself should provide. Indeed, when we face a civic duty we hate, like jury duty, we proudly and eagerly point out that we can’t afford the time off, and we get off the hook, too, and rightly so. But when a civic opportunity appears that stokes our envy, not our pride, our same obligations taste sour.

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Against Huckabee for Veep

Following on Noah, I still think Pawlenty or Giuliani (ego notwithstanding) or perhaps Mark Sanford would be a better choice, particularly since Huckabee has become a highly polarizing figure, deservedly or not. More (much more) below.

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Ramesh Ponnuru wants to know why I think McCain-Huckabee is “obvious”; commenters on my predictions post want to know why I think the same of Obama-Webb. So: here’s why.

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