Sunday, January 31, 2010

Please Don't Let There Be Any Midi-Chlorians : A Semi-Obsessive Lost Fan's Preview To Season Six

When George Lucas finally had the chance to craft the science fiction epic he really wanted to make, what we got were the abominations that were Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III, movies that would have never been made if not for the "Star" and "Wars" attached to them. Not content to fandom contemplate and enjoy the mysteries of the force, Lucas decided a more complete and scientific explanation was needed for the source of Jedi powers. So, as the first movie told us when we met the young Anakin Skywalker (who has to become Darth Vader), the force could be scientifically explained by midi-chlorians, microscopic lifeforms existing in all living organisms. Midi-chlorian concentrations were very high in Jedi, which allowed the Jedi to manipulate the natural world around them. In one fell swoop, Lucas had simultaneously ruined the mystery of the force and set his new trilogy on a trajectory toward all-around terribleness.

Midi-chlorians are worth bringing up in regards to Lost because as the hit ABC show enters it's sixth and final season, the writers face a balancing act in answering enough questions to satisfy fans, yet leaving enough mystery to preserve the show's legacy. The good news is, Lost honchos Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have no plans to go all midi-chlorian on us, as was noted by the New York Times in their preview of the upcoming season:

“To sort of demystify that by trying to literally explain everything down to the last little sort of midi-chlorian of it all would be a mistake in our view,” he added. (In “Star Wars,” midi-chlorians were life forms existing inside all living things; that the “Lost” creators might explain the real-world implications of their fantasy world by referring to another fantasy world is perhaps part of the reason that the series has lost viewers.)

So what will be answered this final season? It's a question I've had running through my head over the last several months as my wife and I endeavored to re-watch the entire series, from the pilot episode through season five's "The Incident." And the closer we get to the season six premier (which is Feb. 2nd), the more it becomes clear to me what needs to be answered (character mysteries and motivations) and what does not need to be answered (every mystery about the island). There's always been a bit of a debate amongst Lost fans as to whether it's the characters or the mythology that drive the show and with all due respect to the mythology nuts, it's the characters. The mythology and the mystery is vital to the story, but it's merely the backdrop on which the story's been told.

That's not to say there isn't more about the mythology and the mysteries of the island we need to find out. But to put it simply, it's not that we need to know what the smoke monster actually is, it's that we need to know what it's role is and why the smoke monster has done the things it's done. Lost is a long story, not an archeological expedition. Of course, some folks explain the character elements in such a douchey manner they may as well be talking about Grey's Anatomy. Take the aforementioned Times article:

As with the Harry Potter series, another fantasy that the creators often cite as inspiration, the end is likely to have more to do with character resolution than with the solving of mysteries like what exactly the island is. Does Kate, the sexy fugitive, for example, end up with Sawyer or Jack, the reluctant leader of the band of survivors? Is John Locke dead or alive? Will Hurley ever lose weight?

Before season five, I wanted Sawyer to wind up with Kate, but now, my hope is- and my guess is- that neither will wind up with Freckles. But come on ... And will Hurley lose weight? Wouldn't we rather learn more about why he speaks with his dead friends? And what's in that guitar case that Jacob gave him? I'm assuming we're going to get plenty of those sorts of answers, particularly in regards to our main characters. But the real interesting questions, the ones I figured it'd be the most fun to bring up here in the blog, are about our secondary characters and the pieces of their stories that remain unanswered. Here's a sampling of what I'm talking about:

# What's the rest of Faraday's story? We've twice seen the scene of Faraday crying as the footage of the fake Oceanic 815 being discovered plays on the tv, unable to remember why he's crying. We also know that Faraday somehow scrambled his brain in the years before he went to the island. So what I want to know is if there's more to his story. And how did he know so much about the Incident when he came back to the island in 1977?

# Why did Faraday's mother, Eloise, leave the island some time very soon after the events of the season five finale? I'm assuming there's plenty of back story about the complicated relationship between Eloise and Charles Widmore still to be revealed, but there certainly seems to be a lot more to Eloise's story.

# And to expand on that last bit, I've got to know if Eloise knows all she knows about the future from finding Daniel's diary in 1977 or if she has another source for her knowledge. (And in regards to that diary, it was Sayid, not Eloise who had it in 1977 when we last left our Losties.)

# I'm also curious to know if there's more to the Desmond-Widmore relationship. I always liked the idea that Widmore was so hostile to Desmond's relationship with Penny because he knew something about Desmond's connection to the island. Does Widmore know what Eloise knows? And that being said, what are his motivations -- and what are Eloise's?

# What's the deal with Christian and Claire and is there some greater connection between the Shepard family and the island? Was there a reason they introduced Jack's grandad last season?

# What do Jacob and the Man in black know? How much knowledge do they have of the future? And, obviously, why did Jacob make the connections with all our characters that we saw in "The Incident."

# What's the deal with Desmond being special and why don't the rules apply to him? Why in 2007 did he suddenly remember Faraday's visit to the hatch and what are the consequences of this manipulation of the time line?

# What about Jacob and choice? Jacob gives Hurley the choice to return to the island and gives Ben the choice of killing him?

# I've heard that amongst many other dead characters, Mikhail is supposed to make some sort of return this season. I'd love to find out how he joined up with the Others and why he (and many of the other Others) are so ruthlessly passionate in service of Jacob and the island.

Obviously this could go on, but rather than pose more questions to which I have no good answers, I thought it would be fun to end with some guesses, my own theories as to some of the mysteries to be revealed this season. If you're not into that sort of thing or you'd rather not spend time theorizing about new episode titles (really, just the premier), then you best stop here, but there are no spoilers here.

# The season premier is titled "LA X" an obvious reference to the destination of Oceanic 815, where Jack and company hoped to be landing safely should their plan in "The Incident" succeed ... or is it? The moment I heard that title, I knew something had to be up. Because either Jack's plan to change the timeline worked or it didn't and if it did work, the one direction the writers can't take is pressing the reset button. You simply can't take away our characters experiences and change the past (or future?) so that they never met. what if Juliet setting off the bomb really does make it so the plane never crashed, only, it doesn't change the current circumstances of our characters. So our characters who were still alive when the bomb went off flash off the plane- ten of them, making them the Los Angeles Ten, who mysteriously disappeared in midair. That group would have to include Sawyer, Jack, Kate, Jin, Sun, Hurley, Claire ... and maybe Sayid (does he survive his gun shot wound?), maybe Rose & Bernard, and maybe Michael & Walt (the only two other than the Oceanic 6 to make it off the island). I like this theory because it's one way that we could get all the supposedly dead characters who are supposed to be returning this season.

# I liked this last theory until a few days ago when I considered the Comic Con news (which supposedly featured video clips of some of our characters lives had the crash never occurred) and another interview with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse where they once again confirmed that on Lost, dead is dead. Lindelof and Cuse have also stated that they're done with flashbacks and flashforwards as narrative devices. My worry is that we may get a series of "what would have happened" type narratives, but that seemingly goes against this other little bit from that same New York Times story:

If the creators are not saying, they do promise one other thing. While the ending of the series will almost certainly provoke some debate, it will not be of the type created by, say, the black screen that ended “The Sopranos” or the “It was all a dream” or “It all took place in someone’s imagination” endings of “Newhart” or “St. Elsewhere.” And like David Chase, the “Sopranos” creator, they do not plan to answer questions after the finale.

Yeah, we're not exactly talking about the ending here but Lost has never been one to highlight moments not specifically relevant to the plot and our character's development.

# My brief Richard Alpert theory is as follows. My assumption had always been that Alpert's perennial long life was some sort of gift. But going through "The Incident" the second time, Alpert's comment that he's the way he is "because of Jacob" struck a different nerve with me. What if Alpert's long life is not a gift, but a punishment. Just as it goes with most tales of unending life, the truth is usually darker than our desires. And then there's Alpert's status as advise- however wise he may be, he can seemingly never be the leader. Hardly the position of one who's been given a gift.

# A minor theory on the rules that seem to prevent some of our characters from killing one another. We know that Ben and Widmore can't seem to kill each other. Ditto Jacob and the man in black. A podcast I enjoy had a listener point out that maybe Jack and Locke can't kill each other either. In season three, Locke couldn't shoot Jack to prevent him from calling the freighter. And soon afterward, early in season four, Jack actually does try to shoot Locke, only to have his gun malfunction. The real interesting theory is what if the relationship between all three of these opposing characters is basically the same, with each character representing opposite ends of the same coin, or the black and the white, if you will. It plays nicely into this idea that we really don't have good and evil at play here, but forces like Jack and Locke in opposition.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Will Wilkinson on the Citizens United Reaction

I know, I know .. but you know how there are some issues where you can agree to disagree and other issues where there's just right and wrong? This is one of those issues where I can't escape the conclusion that either 1- many progressives are just willing to censor speech or 2- that many progressives are just working with flawed logic. Expect a few more posts. Meanwhile, Will Wilkinson had a very good comment on the subject in his blog :

The anguished cries of left-leaning folk over the Citizens United ruling seem to me to be emanating from an alternate universe, so bizarre are they. This was a case about whether the state can suppress the distribution of an unflattering documentary about a powerful political candidate produced by a small group of private citizens. The crazy thing to me is that anyone ever thought that such a rule was not in blatant violation of the First Amendment. The extra-crazy thing is that four Supreme Court justices evidently think this kind of state censorship of political speech is hunky dory. I’m going to chalk up some of the freakout to this week’s spectacular pileup of disasters for progressives. Sorry guys. I know it’s been rough. But I have to say I was taken aback by the vehemence with which people I like and admire have insisted that the state must selectively silence political speech. I didn’t realize that this was such a profound point of disagreement. As I see it, these regulations have accomplished very little other than to protect the interests of powerful, entrenched incumbent politicians against public criticism.

Wilkinson's follow up is also worth the read, as are the comments of both posts.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

And Then Some Folks On The Left Are Just Big, Bad, Nasty Censors

I've been trying to be as unbiased and as nice as possible in analyzing the reactions to the Citizens United campaign finance/free speech decision, but this here , which I received in my e-mail from the activist group CREDO Action, has me convinced that some folks really are just interested in squashing the speech they don't like. I don't know much about the group, nor do I remember why I'm receiving e-mail from them, but their petition expresses support for a number of House bills sponsored by Representative Alan Grayson:

These include:

1. The Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act (H.R. 4431): Implements a 500% excise tax on corporate contributions to political committees, and on corporate expenditures on political advocacy campaigns.

2. The Public Company Responsibility Act (H.R. 4435): Prevents companies making political contributions and expenditures from trading their stock on national exchanges.

3. The End Political Kickbacks Act (H.R. 4434): Prevents for-profit corporations that receive government money from making political contributions, and limits the amount that employees of those companies can contribute.

4. The Corporate Propaganda Sunshine Act (H.R. 4432): Requires publicly traded companies to disclose in SEC filings money used for the purpose of influencing public opinion, rather than for promoting their products and services.

5. The Ending Corporate Collusion Act (H.R. 4433): Applies antitrust law to industry PACs.

6. The End the Hijacking of Shareholder Funds Act (H.R. 4487): This bill requires the approval of a majority of a public company's shareholders for any expenditure by that company to influence public opinion on matters not related to the company's products or services.

The scary thing about nearly all these proposals is the interchangeable use of the terms "political contributions" and "political expenditures" and it's either stupid or downright dishonest for those terms to be lumped together as part of a response to Citizens United. As I've detailed from day one, nothing in the recent Supreme Court decision has any impact whatsoever on the existing restrictions on political contributions. Citizens United was about political expenditures, which as you may recall can more simply be described as "speech." And any way you slice it, a 500% surtax on political speech, so that every dollar spent would cost you five dollars in taxes, certainly smacks of censorship to me.

What's also interesting are the various proposals that would place restrictions on what corporations can do outside the sphere of promoting their products and services, requiring specific SEC filings and the approval of majority of shareholders. It's interesting because this extends speech regulations beyond the electoral realm all the way into the field of charity. If these bills were to pass, and a company wanted to do some sort of promotion with the Red Cross, there would be these additional hoops to jump through. I don't know if these ultimately amount to restrictions on speech, but the it's sort of crazy that you'd want to make it harder for corporations to be involved in charity.

Money, Speech, and Corporations

I'm coming back to this back to this because it's an important debate, the outcome of which underlies our understanding of freedom, democracy, and natural rights. As I mentioned in the last post, those on the left are furious that, 1- corporations have rights, and 2- that speech is money. On the surface, these are very persuasive complaints, but it doesn't take much digging to show that there's not much of a logical, strong philosophical basis to ground those arguments. My last post on the subject linked to Glenn Greenwald's various hypothetical on the subject and what I've got here is one more all-inclusive hypothetical involving abortion rights (based on Eugene Volokh's discussion on the Volokh Conspiracy) along with some other major points.

First abortion. Eugene Volokh points out that sure money isn't speech, but money isn't abortion either. Money is necessarily tied up with almost everything we do because that's the nature of the world we live in. Saying you can't spend any money on speech or you can't spend any money on abortion has the same practical effect of banning the right in question. We can apply the same logic to corporations. If corporations have no rights, than what would be a problem of a ban on all abortions performed with corporate resources?

In terms of corporate rights, the fact of the matter is that corporations are organizations of people and not simply inanimate objects. The idea that corporations have no rights is facially absurd and I would just invoke the 5th and 14th amendments here. If corporations have no rights, than they are not entitled to the Constitutional guarantees of due process and could have their property and assets seized by the government at any time and have absolutely no legal recourse.

What many on the left would like is for the rights of corporations to be limited by the government, but there is no Constitutional basis for distinguishing corporations from other groups of individuals. I suppose one could argue that the logical basis for making a distinction would be that corporations are profit-seeking organizations, but this wasn't a distinction in the campaign finance laws which applied to both for-profits and non-profits. Furthermore, if the basis for such a distinction is the profit motive, than such logic could be extended to individuals as well. It makes little sense that groups of individuals engaged in a profit seeking enterprise could have their speech rights limited, while individuals acting alone would be free to speak in furtherance of their profit seeking activities. The slippery slope here is that any speech in furtherance of one's own economic interest could logically be restricted under this argument.

I've been trying to come up with a reason some progressives are as upset and frustrated about the decision as they are and I finally have some ideas. The problem is that many folks on the left, including perhaps the dissenters on the Court, have mistakenly entangled Constitutional notions of equality with the Constitutional protections of free speech, primarily because the speech were dealing with is directly related to the election of our government officials. This notion of one man, one vote has been extended in to the realm of electoral speech, where large expenditures on electoral speech are truly feared by the left.

Ultimately though, free speech has zero connection with voting rights or any Constitutional protections of equality. Put aside the question of money for a moment and consider that each and every one of us have various capacities of persuasion. The power of speech of a mentally impaired person is not the same as that power for Barack Obama or a writer for the New York Times. And just as obviously, each and everyone of us have different financial resources and different standing from which to disseminate our speech. Speech is inherently unequal and nothing- not laws or Fairness doctrines can ever gives individuals equal powers of persuasion.

So yes, some people are more convincing than others, people have access to different sorts of soap boxes to disseminate their speech, and financial capacities to disseminate speech are drastically different. And there's nothing wrong with this. To return to it's classical liberal roots, free speech theory developed because of the ability of rational people to discern the best speech in a free market place of ideas. Given the opportunity, good ideas would win out over volume and the danger of bad ideas drowning out good was not a real concern. But even if it were a concern, the real problem is that there's no fair way to restrict the volume of speech. It's easy to place restrictions on those who want to buy tv ad time, but what about the newspapers and media outlets that already have access to millions of ears?

And it's all fine and dandy to separate the press from other large corporations (as Justice Stevens apparently did in his dissent), but there's no Constitutional basis for that distinction. There's a major problem with laws that say to Wal-Mart "you can't spend any money on political advertising which supports or opposes candidates for office" but then allow the New York Times and Fox News to make endorsements to millions of readers and viewers seven days a week. Freedom of the press is mentioned in the First Amendment, for sure, but there's not a single Supreme Court precedent that bestows on an institutional press special rights that don't apply to other groups or individuals.

The big point is this: There's no right to any sort of equality in regards to speech and it's not just that it's not in the Constitution or that it's a bad idea, it just plain doesn't work. We can pinpoint equality in the democratic electoral process with one man, one vote and you could even see how income inequality could be achievable by counting dollars. But as we've seen with these pernicious aspects of campaign finance reform, attempts to equalize speech invariably lead to censorship.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

New TV Power Rankings

These will be brief, but I did want to get going as shows have started up after the Christmas break. These rankings are through Jan. 24, 2010:

1. Fringe (At some point this season Fringe has eased into it's comfort zone as a show that's part X-Files, part Star Trek, and part JJ Abrams thriller. They've buckled down and focussed more on the characters and the creepiness factor to great success. Last week's episode, with the small town of people with hidden deformities was really classic sci-fi stuff.)

2. Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (I didn't expect too, but I really enjoyed the Plan, perhaps because it answered many of the questions left unanswered in the series. That being said, it also lays it out pretty clearly that unlike the Cylons, the Battlestar writers didn't really have a coherent plan- either that, or they did a terrible job of plotting it and foreshadowing in the first few seasons. Further expanding upon the revelations from the Battlestar finale, the Cylon Cavil's manipulative role in all of the Battlestar events is revealed. In some ways, it's not much different than Lost, where we've seen various layers peeled back and new motivations revealed years into the series. But the difference is, Lost always promised us mysteries, while Battlestar specifically told us that the Cylons had a plan, not that one evil Cylon had plan. Given the twists and turns the show took, it's always felt like a bit of a bait and switch that justified the somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the other Cylons. But for all the structural problems of Battlestar, scene-by-scene, the Plan is still a marvelous piece of work.)

3. Big Love (The season opener had me very worried that Big Love was getting ready to jump the shark (Ben's band and Roman's frozen body being hauled all over the place), but the last two episodes have been much better. Many fans hate the new Mad-Men like title sequence, but the drifting and falling we see from our main characters in that sequence has mirrored what we've seen in the story. Last episode we saw Roman in a dream sequence and, unfortunately, when Joey dug his body. Dreams and visions are good, dead bodies, bad. Got that writers?)

4. 24 (I really thought getting through this season would be a chore, so I was pleasantly surprised when the 4 hour opener was written well enough to keep up suspense. Plenty of interesting elements are in play, but it wouldn't take much for it to go downhill. We'll see, but for now, I'm rooting for this new Jack like never before.)

5. 30 Rock (It's not that 30 Rock isn't good, but I was tempted to put it behind Parks and Rec and Community. I can't really place it, but this season just hasn't been as good as the last.)

6. Parks and Rec (Parks and Rec may be in the process of exceeding the best of the Office, which is no small achievement. Last week's episode with Leslie's dinner party was a perfect combination of plotting, character development, and clever jokes. The only thing missing are characters with Jim and Pam like charisma, but maybe that's a good thing.)

7. Community (Just keeps getting better and better as the characters are fleshed out. And Joel McHale just is really charming, isn't he?)

8. Law and Order SVU (The one episode since the break featured a very different appearance from Lost's Naveen Andrews.)

9. House (I said back in December that we needed more Wilson and we've gotten more Wilson. If only the writers could just change up the pace on the medical mysteries and we'd really be rolling.)

Not Ranked:

The Office (A clip show? Really? The worst part was, placed in a row, the clips really undercut a show that had tried to ground itself in the real world. While Parks and Rec has shined by keeping things simple, the highlighting of every ridiculous incident in the Office only had me wondering how such an Office could possibly still be in existence.)

Caprica (Just haven't sat down and watched it yet and I'm hoping to get the wife along for the ride.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

More on Citizens United

While libertarians, some conservatives, and free speech absolutists have celebrated the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision, the reaction from Democrats, many progressives, and President Obama has been outrage and frustration at the presumed giveway to large corporations at the expense of the rights of ordinary Americans. Of course, as Reason's Matt Welch points out, it was ordinary Americans who were restricted by the previously existing campaign finance restrictions.

The plight of "ordinary citizens" is precisely the reason why non-Republicans like me (let alone many conservatives who refused to support John McCain) opposed the campaign finance laws struck down yesterday. When a law requires any group of two or more people who raise $5,000 for the purposes of making a political statement to adhere to a blizzard of federal regulations subject to fines, that law by definition chokes off the "voices of everyday Americans" that President Barack Obama, in his ridiculous reaction to the decision yesterday, expressed outrage on behalf of. Free-speech campaign-finance enthusiasts are willing to censor or chill those small voices for the greater purpose of attempting (and largely failing) to blunt the political activity of hated Corporations (or "Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests," in the words of a president who has been bailing out Wall Street banks and crafting legislative deals with health insurance companies and other powerful interests for a year now). What campaign-finance supporters are not willing to do, at least most of the time, is admit that they're making any tradeoff on political expression at all.

Most of the outrage from self-styled progressives has focused on two major points: 1- That corporations have free speech rights and 2- That money is speech. Liberal constitutionalist and civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald responds to those points here, pointing out that neither of those points were directly addressed by either the majority or the dissent. (Greenwald's initial post, which provoked an intense negative reaction from his readership, can be found here.) Greenwald also poses a series of hypotheticals to those who claim money spent to spread speech is not protected by the First Amendment:

Anyone who believes that would have to say that there's no First Amendment problem with any law that restricts the spending of money for political purposes, such as:

"It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money to criticize laws enacted by the Congress; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such laws, provided no money is spent;" or

"It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money advocating Constitutional rights for accused terrorists; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such matters, provided no money is spent"; or

"It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money promoting a candidate not registered with either the Democratic or Republican Party; all citizens shall still be free to advocate for such candidates, provided no money is spent."

Anyone who actually believes that "money is not speech" would have to believe that such laws are necessarily permitted by the First Amendment (since they merely restrict the expenditure of money, which is not speech).

Do you actually believe that? I don't even find that argument sufficiently coherent to warrant much discussion.

It would be like saying: "No person shall be permitted to use a megaphone or television outlet to advocate liberal views -- there's no First Amendment problem: megaphones and television outlets are just 'property, not speech'."

And a similar list of hypotheticals to those who would claim corporations have no Constitutional right to free speech

Do you believe the FBI has the right to enter and search the offices of the ACLU without probable cause or warrants, and seize whatever they want?

Do they have the right to do that to the offices of labor unions?

How about your local business on the corner which is incorporated?

The only thing stopping them from doing this is the Fourth Amendment. If you believe that corporations have no constitutional rights because they're not persons, what possible objections could you voice if Congress empowered the FBI to do these things?

Can they seize the property (the buildings and cars and bank accounts) of those entities without due process or just compensation? If you believe that corporations have no Constitutional rights, what possible constitutional objections could you have to such laws and actions?

Could Congress pass a law tomorrow providing that any corporation - including non-profit advocacy groups -- which criticize American wars shall be fined $100,000 for each criticism? What possible constitutional objection could you have to that?

In some ways, the response on the left to calls for free speech rights for corporations mirrors the response on the right to calls for due process rights for terror suspects. People on all ends of the political spectrum tend to get hung up on law as an abstract concept, forgetting the logical formulations from which law flows. Even if you vehemently disagree with the Citizens United decision, you still need to come up with a cogent and logical system for the protection of rights. You can't completely separate speech from money because money is what enables all but the most basic forms of verbal communication. And you can't completely separate corporate rights from individual rights because at it's most basic, the corporate form is an organization of individuals.

Freedom on the Roll

My political blogging since the fall has been light- in part because of my increasingly busy schedule and in part because of the political dead end that seemed to be approaching in regards to liberty. As the autumn progressed into winter, health care reform seemed all but inevitable and the vote before Christmas time seemed to cement our commitment to some form of legislative monstrosity in the health care sector.

But with the new year has come new blessings of liberty, slight changes in direction that have moved our nation once again in the direction of freedom. It started innocuously enough with Republican Scott Brown's unexpected and somewhat ironic victory in the Massachusetts special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. The victory restored the Republican's power to filibuster and by all accounts has signaled the end of this wave of health care reform as there would be no way to reconcile the House and Senate bills without getting it through the Senate once again.

And there was more good news this week as well, as the Supreme Court finally announced it's decision in Citizens United, overturning restrictive aspects of McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation on free speech grounds. I'm not linking to anything yet because the story is currently plastered all over every newspaper and news site and I haven't had a chance to read the opinion yet, which is supposedly 180 some odd pages. I'd like to be able to provide some legal reaction in the blog, but again, that will have to wait until I read the full opinion. What I'm most interested in at this point is the reaction to the decision from the left, which has been a mix of confusion and apocalyptic prophecies of corporate control of the political process.

I do plan on a number of follow up posts on the issue, but I did want to take a moment to briefly address these reactions to the decision. What the case was about, specifically, was Hillary the Movie, a anti-Hillary Clinton documentary put together by a conservative non-profit. The FEC blocked the release of the movie on theater screens and through cable on-demand services, leading to the litigation which eventually reached the Supreme Court. The threatening regulation was an aspect of McCain-Feingold that prohibited corporations (including non-profits) from electioneering communications within 60 days of an election. The Supreme Court decision with based on the simple notion that speech is speech and that this sort of political speech is precisely what the First Amendment was written to protect. Taking a different tact, the dissent questioned this protection of "corporate speech" and questioned where in the Constitution that such corporate rights were protected.

As I said, the negative reaction has fallen mostly into two camps, one of which is made of those who never really understood the issue in the first place. To those folks I have only this to say: This decision leaves limits on direct campaign contributions intact. Individuals are still limited in what they can give to candidates and corporations are still barred from donating to political campaigns. The issue before the Court was about speech made independent of particular candidates, or "uncoordinated expenditures" in the vernacular of campaign finance reform. What was at issue was the ability of corporations- and in reality, any organizations to speak out on candidates and campaign issues.

That second camp of negative reaction has focussed mostly on the corporate right of speech. And I'll have more to say on this in coming days, but as a practical matter, I think this focus distorts the broad scope of the law in question.

Take a typical election where two candidates from the major parties are vying for one elected office. Say one party's candidate is the incumbent who has managed to raise double, triple, or even quadruple the amount of his amount. In the months leading up to the election, the big money candidate is able to bombard the tv and radio airwaves with campaign commercials, while his opponent is limited by a more restrictive budget. The supporters of the small money candidate, both corporate interests and individuals, would be severely restricted in terms of what they could do in terms of supporting their candidates under the old laws because of the restrictive nature of McCain-Feingold's ban on electioneering. Non-profits may have a vested interest in the support or opposition of various candidates, but under the old law, they were forbidden from weighing in publicly in the same forum as candidates. Take for example non-profits that support abortion rights, or alternatively the right to life. Such non-profits could have a strong interest in the outcome of an election, but under the old law, they were legally prevented from speaking out.

To this line of reasoning, some folks may answer, "ah ha, so why not just ban corporate spending and allow other, non-corporate groups their right to free speech?" The problem is, that's not a practical solution. If non-profits were allowed to to speak out and corporations were not, corporations could simply funnel money into non-profits for the purpose of speaking out on campaign issues, destroying any rationale for such a distinction in the first place. However you try to work it, you can't limit what corporations spend in speaking out on elections without necessarily limiting the ability of non-corporate groups to speak.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

24 and the War On Terror

While 24 spent much of it's last season confusing it's terror drenched fantasy with the real world, there seems to be an unrelenting persistence of fear from those in the real world whose perceptions of terror seem to stem straight from the television set.

I don't intend for this post to be long, but there's a lot that needs to be said, both about 24, which failed to make my top ten list for the decade, and about the real world reaction to terrorism. What's blown my mind is the sheer volume of fear I've heard the past few weeks over the radio, tv, and internet. My initial reaction when I heard of the botched attack was, 1- yet another incompetent terrorist, 2- yet another example of government incompetence, and 3- yet another example of individual's acting courageously. At no point did I feel as though I should be more concerned or more worried than I'd been.

The terrorists of 24 are truly frightening. In season 4, a group of radical Islamic terrorists blew up a train, kidnapped the secretary of defense, hijacked the internet, melted down nuclear power plants, shot down Air Force One, and nearly succeeded at firing a nuclear missile at Los Angeles ... all in one day. In season 6, there were terrorist attacks in numerous American cities and a nuclear bomb was set off in Valencia California. And in season 7, a small armed group of African war criminals invades the White House and holds the President hostage. Seasons 6 and 7 also featured a ridiculous debate over civil rights, torture, and anti-terrorism tactics. It was a debate relevant to our reality in dealing with terrorism, but seemed almost trite in a world where so many monstrous things had happened. The amazing thing about 24-world wasn't that it took so long for Jack Bauer to face a Congressional inquest, but that democratic institutions and civil liberties had survived at all.

And it's this world of fantasy that many supporters of drastic action in regards to terrorism actually reside. I've pointed out before that plot-wide, many of the latter seasons of 24 faced the problem of "terrorists with unlimited funds." The amount of money required to carry out all the attacks of season 4 in particular would have been astronomical. If real world terrorists had access to such fortunes- and if they actually had the ability maneuver such funds through worldwide financial institutions- then they might begin to approach the level of 24-world terrorists. But in the real world, the lack of attacks on American soil and the failed attacks on air lines should be seen as an indication of the reach and power of Al-Queda and similar organizations. As devastating as 9-11 was, it was not an attack that required particularly large sums of money or a very intricate coordination. The fact of the matter is that terrorism by it's very nature is a sort of last refuge and what we see is low budget, decentralized, and limited. Television may have given us the gift of fear about sleeper cells, but the utter lack of any attacks on American soil since 9-11 is indicative of just how few terrorists there are in our midst.

As I mentioned in posting on the Fort Hood attack, terrorism is relatively easy to accomplish. Just as there are limits in our ability to stop some sick kid from shooting up his school, there are limits in our abilities to stop some maniac from blowing up a bus station. If there were tons of real, honest-to-God terrorists amongst us, they would have blown something up by now.

This is not to say that our intelligence community shouldn't keep working- They should, and I can't think of a better use of intelligence and law enforcement than in prevention of terrorism and preparedness in terror response. The larger point is about privacy and security- what do we want and what rights shouldn't be given away and about our political leaders who insist that this is the most serious threat our nation faces. I don't doubt the evil that's out there, I just have a problem with the fear, particularly when it seems to me as though the threat isn't all that different from school shooters, similar sorts of mass murderers, and serial killers.

Which brings us to my final point. The failed Christmas day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, is to be tried in civilian court, fanning the typical flames of outrage. And I'll be honest, I can see the pros and cons of both utilizing the criminal justice system and in treating the failed bomber as a war criminal. The real issue- and the real problem that remains- is unchecked power of the executive branch to define the issue. So maybe Mutallab would have been a war criminal for George W. Bush, but for Barack Obama, he's a criminal defendant. For those who care the least bit about the rule of law this should be deeply troubling. There's nothing wrong with the terrorist, war criminal label so long as there's some sort of articulated legal basis for the label. What we have now and what we've had for nearly a decade is a situation where the President has unlimited authority in naming terrorists who don't deserve the protections of the Constitution and the criminal justice system. I've been making this point since 2004 and it's one liberals, conservatives, and libertarians of all stripes have failed to address. Terrorism doesn't fit in traditional legal rubrics, but a decade later we still have nothing new to work with.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Top Television Programs of the Decade

I've written in this blog before about the golden age of television and as the decade comes to a close, it's become more than apparent that television has surpassed film in terms of cultural relevance. The tv shows you're watching (or what you're catching up on) has become more of a conversation starter than what films you've seen. It's not that movies don't matter anymore, but it's hard to deny their cultural prestige has declined. With the increased freedom given to creators in television, there's simply far more that can be done with the 10-14 hours a television show may have for a single season than with the 2 to 3 hours you get in a film.

For the record, my top two films of the last two years are Pixar "kids" movies, Wall-E and Up, both of which were far more imaginative and compelling than virtually anything else I've seen in the later half of this decade. But I'll have no top ten film list for the simple reason that I haven't seen enough movies. Part of my problem is that the great films never seem as great as they're supposed to be, but that's a story for another time. For now, here is my top ten list of the television shows of the decade. Now, for television connoisseurs, you'll notice some big names are missing, most notably the Sopranos. It's simply because I haven't sat down and watched the entire series yet and what I haven't watched isn't on the list. That being said, I've seen a fair share of the Sopranos and I'd have trouble believing it's a better show than the Wire or Mad Men, no matter what other critics might say.

So without further ado, here is my top ten list, with some of the tough cuts listed below.

1. The Wire: The Wire isn't just the best show of the decade, it's the best television show ever and a work of fiction that is already a modern American classic. With a vast cast of characters, the Wire was a five year critique of the drug war, but more than that, it was a long form tragedy about the failure of institutions at all levels and the tragic impact of those failures on individuals. Far too many "dark" television programs make the mistake of equating bad behavior with tragedy, but for Wire creator David Simon, the tragedy starts with society. Individuals make plenty of bad choices along the way, but the creative setup leaves the audience's sympathies with the characters, with the drug dealers, the cops, and everyone in between.

2. Mad Men: Perhaps even better then the Wire in terms of pure construction, Mad Men is number two solely because it lacks the sheer scope of our number one. Mad Men is the story of Don Draper, creative director for New York based ad agency Sterling Cooper, but from the start it's been so much more. Don's entire life, from his marriage, to his persona, to his name, was as intricately constructed as any advertisement and for three years, Mad Men has given us the parallel stories of the disintegration of the life Don had created for himself and the disintegration of the 50's era cultural consensus. The tumult of the 60's was supposed to be as inevitable as Don's personal crises. Oh, and ... Mad Men manages to be an incredible tv show without guns, murder, violence, and fist fights.

3. Arrested Development: Arrested completes the "holy trinity" of the television shows of the last decade that were near perfect. The storyline of Arrested's three seasons would be compelling without the humor and other than the early years of the Simpsons, I don't think there's ever been a show quite as layered where joke after joke after joke is revealed through future viewings. As opposed to program's like Family Guy or other sitcoms where many of the jokes are simply throwaway lines, Arrested never wasted a bit of dialogue, always building on either plot or character. Plenty of shows have done selfish, but Arrested took it to a new level: 90% of the conversations between characters were not really conversations but the characters talking past each other, stuck in their own little worlds. This helped maintain the characters likability because when they did connect with one another, it actually seemed real. And maybe most importantly, Arrested gave us chicken dances, Gob's Final Countdown magic performances, the airport staircar, and the most timely treatment of the war in Iraq.

4. Lost: Let me just clarify something. Lost is my favorite show of the decade, perhaps my favorite show of all time, but unlike the top three, it is not flawless. There are some moments where the dialogue leans toward cliche and places (like parts of season 3 and 5) where the storyline is just plain clunky. But taken as a whole, Lost is a tremendous achievement, replete with compelling characters and more imagination than perhaps any other major series on network television. What other show could leave it's fans so in the dark about the direction of the show's final season, yet remain a popular phenomenon? In fact, Lost has managed to do something no other series has ever done: Creatively redefine itself while incorporating new characters at the start of each no season, building upon the characters and plot threads of previous seasons.

5. South Park: I wasn't going to rank South Park this high, if even at all, but then I watched ManBearPig the other night, the 2006 episode which skewered Al Gore and his global warming obsession, and I was reminded of the show's brilliance and timeliness. ManBearPig was first shown in spring of '06, right when an Inconvenient Truth first came out, but before it became a real buzzworthy topic. ManBearPig is symbolic of South Park's timeliness and cleverness, and how sometimes the show was so timely and so clever that it took a few years for the rest of us to catch on. And while South Park has had it's share of misses over the course of the decade, perhaps that's a testament to more of a credit to Trey Parker and Matt Stone than we realize. They don't do safe and they don't do easy and the television landscape is all the better for it.

6. Big Love: I've enjoyed Big Love for three years, since my wife and I first watched it during it's first season when we had a free HBO trial, but prior to last year, I probably wouldn't have placed it in the top ten. Last year however, the numerous plot threads of the first few years collided in a veritable dramatic perfect storm, making me comfortable placing the polygamist drama in the top ten. Like Mad Men, Big Love is just so different from everything else on the air- no cops, no lawyers, no doctors, and unique for HBO, no swearing. Despite the connotations of polygamy, Big Love also boasts the strongest cast of female characters on tv, providing support for the axiom that behind every great man, there's one or maybe several great women.

7. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: I've heard Sunny described as Seinfeld for the next generation and that description, while apt, may not really do the show justice. While the Seinfeld characters were notoriously selfish and self-interested, the Sunny cast took these qualities to a new level. But more importantly, each member of the Sunny cast showcased an unprecedented complete lack of self awareness. But as opposed to a show like Curb, where the conflict often seems forced, Sunny stories always tend to evolve organically. The season three episode, "Sweet Dee is Dating a Retarded Person," remains the funniest half hour of the decade.

8. Freaks & Geeks: Technically, half of the show's brief run was in the fall of 1999, but if we're talking about cultural significance, Freaks and Geeks was a fortuitous program, ushering in a new style of humor and storytelling and launching the careers of Judd Apatow and his young stars. So yes, it was a trailblazer, but no, that's not the reason why it's in the top ten. The run was brief, but the show was awesome, perhaps the best depiction of adolescence we've seen on the small screen. It was funny and relatable, with the 1980 setting serving to preserve the show's shelf life rather than date it.

9. Battlestar Galactica: Perhaps no science fiction show has ever been so polarizing, as there are those who loved Battlestar from start to finish and those whose criticisms grew as the show's run continued. But as to why Battlestar belongs in this top ten I have only this to say: For all the haters out there, Battlestar was compelling television, compelling enough that the haters (which included me at times) stuck with it to the end, just to see what was going to happen next.

10. Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld: I know everyone will disagree with this pick, but it's my list and I've decided this number ten spot should go to something different. I've seen several other "best of" lists that feature the Daily Show or the Colbert Report, but Red Eye took that blurry distinction between news and entertainment to a new level. Not only is it on Fox News, but it has all the trappings of the typical news and opinion type programs: The host has a monologue, there's a roundtable discussion, and they actually cover real news events. But unlike the scripted news shows on Comedy Central, Red Eye is mostly off the cuff and it's left to the audience to determine what comments are serious and what comments are jokes. There's justnot another show on tv that can claim to have really given a voice to musicians, comedians, authors, and politicians and can claim to be home to regular appearances to both sitting Congressmen and fully costumed member of the sci-fi metal band Gwar, Oderus Urungus.

The Tough Cuts:

Carnivale: Simply put, the mystical depression-era HBO series was brought to an end before it's time. The set up the first season was compelling, but the ending was rushed, leaving far too many questions unanswered.

Six Feet Under: It'd be difficult to say that HBO's second big hit (after the Sopranos) wasn't well done, but for however well done it was, it was, at times, equally as difficult to watch. Six Feet was ultimately darker than Battlestar Galactica in terms of the self-destructive nature of it's characters and the plotting tended to reflect the characters bad decisions. It was worth watching, but I'm not sure I'd want to do it again.

Pushing Daisies: It only lasted 22 episodes, but it was worthy of consideration. So unique, so charming, so clever, but the first season was shortened by the writers strike and the show never got a real shake.

Malcolm In the Middle: The most underrated show of the decade, perhaps the most underrated comedy ever. If you appreciate comedy without a laugh track, you owe Malcolm a debt of gratitude.

Dexter: I love it, but Dexter has it's flaws. The writers are very manipulative with some of the thematic elements (such as this season when baby Harrison's cries or silence would signify Dexter's alternating frustration or harmony with his new family. And while some of the minor characters (like Deb) are stellar, others remain underdeveloped.

24: If this was a list of the most influential shows of the decade, 24 would make the list, but other than the first season, I'd have trouble calling any other season great. Seasons two and three were pretty good, but from season four on, the plotting has been utterly unbelievable. Sure, the first few seasons had their rough patches (Terri's amnesia season one, everything with Kim season two), but none of the last four seasons has even managed to tell a cohesive story.

Firefly: I'd love to include the cult favorite, but Firefly didn't last long enough to reach it's full potential. Even including the episodes on the DVD set which never actually aired, the characters never had the opportunity to be fully fleshed out.

Curb Your Enthusiasm: There are plenty of critics to whom Curb would be a no-brainer top ten pick, the logical follow-up to the previous decade that had been dominated by all things Seinfeld. But while I've always enjoyed Curb and the episodes tend to be well constructed, but what is this world where everyone else is as much as an argumentative ass as Larry David?

The Office: My wife made quite a case for the Office, based on the high quality of it's first few seasons and it's trailblazing presence in the comedy field. But the decline over the past few seasons has been too noticeable and the characters have seemingly suffered "Simpsons syndrome" in their inability to evolve.

30 Rock: Oh so close, but this past season has begun to make me think that the show still doesn't quite have a handle on it's brilliance. It can be laugh out loud funny, but I fear that it sometimes sacrifices plots and character for jokes.