THE LIGHT SWITCH OF LEADERSHIP

Here’s my latest at newyorker.com:

“[President Obama] is the most ill-prepared person to assume the presidency in my lifetime. This is a guy who literally is walking around in a dark room trying to find the light switch of leadership.” –Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, at a Republican dinner in Lexington, Kentucky.

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Read the entire article here at newyorker.com.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON AURORA

After a screening of Killer Joe at the Jacob Burns Film Center last week, the eminent director William Friedkin (left, with Janet Maslin) had an interesting comment about the influence of films in the Aurora shootings. Disagreeing with comments that Friedkin’s capable contemporary Peter Bogdanovich made in The Hollywood Reporter (“Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It’s almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. . . .Today, there’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. . . . The respect for human life seems to be eroding.”), Friedkin didn’t think movies were to blame for events like Aurora. “Go back to the Leopold and Loeb case,” he said. “Cold-blooded killers–they said they were influenced by Nietzche. The Manson killings were supposedly influenced by The Beatles; they wrote `Helter Skelter’ on the wall. Mark David Chapman was supposedly influenced by The Catcher in the Rye. James Holmes told the police his favorite movies were Star Wars and Dumb and Dumber. These are excuses.” Personally, I don’t know why both of these men can’t be right. The excessive violence in movies does coarsen people’s expectations, but to blame movies, or any other art form, for events like the Aurora shootings is simplistic.

Friedkin had some amusing comments. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, he called Killer Joe “a kind of a Cinderella story”, in which the ingenue is waiting for her Prince Charming; one wonders if the appearance of a can of pumpkin filling in the final scene is a subtle reference. kind of hommage. He easily admits that the film scene has passed him by. “When I came out to Hollywood in the late sixties from Chicago, I met all these great directors like Billy Wildee, George Cukor and Richard Brooks, and they hated all the movies that my generation thought were so terrific. Well, now I’m one of them. If I were going into film today, I would go into computer generated imagery. That’s the future of film.” He said that in casting the title role, he considered a lot of leading men, including Tommy Lee Jones and Billy Bob Thornton (“the hard-bitten types”), and was very interested in casting Kurt Russell (“He finally dropped out; he said that if he took this part, it would be the end of his relationship with Goldie Hawn.”) Friedkin eventually saw McConaughey on a talk show, and began to think that maybe the role would be better played by someone young and handsome and charming. “Matthew read the script and was at first appalled. Then he came around. He knew all these people growing up.” Friedkin also made a funny reference to McConaughey’s mother: “Her dream is to appear in a remake of The Graduate, with her in the Bancroft role and Matthew as Benjamin.”

As for the movie, well, I have to say I was pretty entertained–stupid people, wild violence, over-the-top humor. Matthew McConaughey and Thomas Hayden Church were pretty wonderful, and the whole thing was kind of amazing spectacle. But I must say, after seeing films from Quentin Tarantino, and Martin McDonagh, and now Friedkin, I’m thinking that I’ve seen this pseudo-intellectual, postmodern, blood and yucks act enough for a while. It’s no longer cutting edge, dangerous territory.

Come on, boys–what else can you show me? Bogdanovich in his comments seemed so square when he wondered how come we don’t make films like From Here to Eternity and How Green Was My Valley. But good strong dramas, with honest feelings and heart? Maybe that could be the new cutting edge.

TOO MUCH MINORITY NON-RULE

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised that if the Democrats retain a majority in the Senate next year, he will push for filibuster reform. This is good to hear, since the filibuster–not the all-night talkathons that we used to have when I was a youngster, but the requirement that 60 votes are necessary to cut off debate and amendment on a bill–is one of the most pernicious and anti-democratic causes of the political gridlock which now pertains. It is especially good to hear from Reid, since he is the chucklehead who prevented reform in 2010.

The filibuster, as we all know, is one of the Senate rules that protects minorities from what is often perceived as the more emotional and psychologically deranged House of Representatives. But let’s face it, the Senate really makes a fetish out of minority protection. First of all, it’s very structure promotes minorities; giving every state two senators substantially rewards the residents of Montana and Wyoming, and impoverishes the voters of California and New York. Allowing 41 Senators to stop legislation theoretically creates a situation where the senators from the 20 states with the lowest populations, plus one, can stop everything. Given that the population of the 20 states with the fewest people is around 32 million people, that means that things can grind to a complete halt at the behest of a little over ten percent of the population. Even for a body that likes to protect minority rights, that seems excessive.

How excessive is the 60% rule? I thought it might be amusing to apply it to something we’re all familiar with–sports. In most sports, a simple majority rules. If you’re on the team that scores the majority of the points, you win. But what if you were required to win with 60% of the points scored?

So far this year, the New York Yankees have a record of 59 and 39. Let’s call that the House of Representatives League. In the Senate League, however, the record is different. In those 59 wins, the Yanks have scored only 60% or more of the runs just 41 times. Of course, in those 39 losses, their opponents have topped the magic 60% total only 23 times. So in the Senate League, instead of a 59 and 39 record and a .602 win percentage, the Yanks would have a 41 and 23 record, and a whopping .640 win percentage. This might seem pretty good if you’re a Yankee fan, but you have to consider that what you also have is 34 games with no resolution. More than a third of the schedule would just be wasted time–even though one team or the other had a majority.

Of course, the harder it is to get points in a sport, the more likely it is that a team can attain a 60% majority; after all, a 3-2 win meets the threshold, while a 4-3 win does not. In football, for example, scores are usually higher. The New York Giants played 20 games last year, including the Super Bowl, which they won. Their overall record in those games where one team or the other scored a simple majority of the points was 13 and 7; in games where a team had to score a supermajority of 60% of the points, the Giants were just 6 and 4, with ten games counting for nothing, including the exciting Super Bowl triumph.

It could be worse. In their march through the payoffs, the World Champion Miami Heat played 23 games. In the Senate basketball Association, they won none of them. Nobody did. Nobody ever got 60 percent of the score (although the Heat did get 59.2% of the points one night against the Knicks.

Welcome to the Senate League, where a lot of time, nobody ever win.

NIALL FERGUSON AND THE SHAGGY LEMONADE STAND STORY

This post was originally published on nymag.com. Click here to read it.

The economist Niall Ferguson had a piece in Newsweek the other day entitled “The Cure for Our Economy’s Stationary State.” As in his most recent book, the Harvard historian pointed out that the economies of the United States and Europe have lost their dynamism, while China is leaping ahead. The solution? More technological innovation, says Ferguson, along with “more free trade, more encouragement for small business, less bureaucracy, and less crony capitalism.” Especially less bureaucracy. “Question: if you want to open a lemonade stand in New York City, how long does it take to jump through the necessary bureaucratic hoops? The answer is 65 days (including a wait of up to five weeks for your Food Protection Certificate). That’s the kind of crazy red tape that development economists like Hernando de Soto used to blame for Third World poverty.”

Alas, I don’t know anything about Hernando de Soto, but I do recognize a lame journalistic convention when I smell one, and sure enough, the “65 days” Ferguson cites with triumphant specificity comes not from any academic institution or think tank or good government group, but from John Stossel, the moustachioed libertarian gadfly of Fox News.

Last February, Stossel got worked up because some excessively officious cops in Midway, Georgia, closed down a lemonade stand operated by two sisters, 10 and 14. Appalled by this lack of common sense, Stossel decided to see what it would take to open a lemonade stand in New York City, and he had a high old time making the city seem stupid for requiring him to have a fire extinguisher and to take a food-preparation course and get his tax payment arrangements properly set up. In the end, Stossel did not actually complete the exercise; had all the inspections been conducted as scheduled, he says that the exercise would have taken — ta daaa — 65 days.

Of course, it’s absurd to suggest that lemonade stands would need regulation, and the vast majority come and go without the heavy hand of Big Government crimping anyone’s entrepreneurial style. (Stossel himself set up a stand on Sixth Avenue in front of News Corp. headquarters before his approval process was completed, and the police ignored him.) What made the exercise seem so ridiculous, of course, is that the tendentious Stossel was obviously completing the program that a full-fledged restaurant would have to go through: food-preparation courses for chefs, regular Health Department inspections, and a fire extinguisher on the wall. And 65 days doesn’t seem like an excessive amount of time to complete the process.

Ferguson, meanwhile, cites the 65 days like it was written at the bottom of the tablet Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. A reporter’s gimmicky stunt now has the imprimatur of a Harvard historian. And Fox News still loves the lemonade gimmick, interviewing two little girls about their lemonade stand as part of the Barack Obama “you didn’t build that” faux-troversy.

In the meantime, let’s declare a moratorium on lemonade-stand regulation. The drag on the economy just isn’t worth it.

While we’re waiting for that to happen, let’s keep an eye open for that magic “65 days” figure to show up again. Bedbugs are easier to kill that a juicy factoid.

THE STOIC

Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, is an unbelievably uplifting film. It tells the story of Sixto Rodriquez, a man who lives in Detroit, who was a singer-songwriter of some promise forty years ago. He made two albums that received excellent reviews, but which did no business in the USA. It’s impossible to see why; I’ve never heard of the man, but these were my prime record-buying years, and this was exactly the sort of stuff I would have gobbled up. But for whatever reason, the records disappeared–except in South Africa. There, his records were huge, and Rodriguez became something of a countercultural figure, beloved by anti-apartheid students. But because of cultural boycotts caused by apartheid, South Africa was cut off from the rest of the world, Rodriguez had no idea that he was a star, and his fans in South Africa, hearing no new material from the singer, believed he was dead.

The movie is the story of his rediscovery by some intrepid fans, and his resurrection as a performer. It turns out that Rodriguez was living his life in Detroit, working as a construction laborer, participating actively in the life of his community, raising three daughters. Denied the life of a famous artist, he shouldered the life of a man. After we saw the film at the Jacob Burns Film Center, Rodriguez appeared with director Bendjelloul. Now 70 years old, Rodriguez was soft-spoken, charming, modest–pleased that his life had taken this turn, but not overly impressed with his new-found fame. Instead, I was impressed with his spirituality, his grace, his stoical wisdom.

CIVIC VIRTUE?

There is an article in the Times today by Sarah Maslin Nir about “Civic Virtue,” am immense marble sculpture by Frederick MacMonnies. First unveiled in 1922 in City Hall Park, the statue, depicts a broad-chested nude man representing Virtue standing above two vanquished naked women representing Vice. From the beginning the statue, whose main, triumphant figure has been given such nicknames as Rough Boy, Fat Boy and Cave Man, earned howls of criticism, derision and protest. Feminists objected to its depiction of women, prudes to its depiction of nudity, and art lovers to its existence. Before long the statue was exiled to Kew Gardens, where it has sat outside Borough Hall for the last 70 years, popular if only among the youngsters who dived from the figures into the surrounding pool.

The Times reports that there are now signs that the little-loved statue may end up in Brooklyn, in Green-Wood Cemetery, where several of MacMonnies’ relatives are buried, and where another work of the artist can be found, and where its neighbors have never been known to be very local in their complaints.

This exile would be preferable to the usual alternative that has been proposed, which is to demolish the thing. But I have a different idea. The problem with “Civic Virtue” isn’t what it looks like; it’s what the thing is called. I wouldn’t hide or destroy the thing; I would rename it “Smug Self-Satisfaction,” and erect copies around the country. Maybe put one outside Eric Cantor‘s office, for example.

BURNING BANKS


I must say I kind of love this painting by Alex Schaefer, a Los Angeles artist. I really appreciate this peacefully anarchic protest. According to the website at Hive Gallery, where this and other paintings in this series are being exhibited, “Alex wants us to “get over our apathy”…to let the regulators, economists, bankers know “that we recognize the problems.” And that the federal bank is made up of “monsters and racketeers.” Hear, hear!

“RESPECT THE LOSS”

According to an article in The Hill this morning, seven states–Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina and Wisconsin, all headed by Republican governors–have decided to opt out of the provision in the Affordable Health Care Act that expands Medicaid. Another eight–Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, all of which except Missouri have Republican governors–are leaning that way. If it weren’t for the fact that some real people are going to continue to suffer hardships unnecessarily, this would make for an interesting experiment. Who will fare better, in terms of health, in terms of economics, and in terms of politics: those governors and states who take the money, or those who leave it on the table?

There are too many variable to make a good prediction, to be sure, but it says here that the Republicans will suffer. It feels too much like what Pete Wilson did in California in 1994. As an article in the current issue of The Economist reminds us, Wilson, a capable, savvy Republican governor in the conservative Reagan mold, “pushed aggressively for a law to deny public services and benefits to California’s growing number of illegal immigrants. This tarnished the Republican brand among Latino voters, many of whom might otherwise have been well disposed to a party with a pro-business, pro-family message.” As the article points out, no Republican currently holds statewide office in California, and no Republican has been elected to the Senate since 1988. Only 19 of the state’s 53 congressmen are Republicans, who have also lost their majority in the state assembly. Latino voters, obviously, remembered who tried to help them, and who sought to stigmatize them.

Yes, arguing by historical analogy is a fool’s game, but I can’t see how this decision to opt out is going to lead to the big Republican restoration. Quite the opposite, I believe. The poor, the working poor, the working class who are always just a prolonged illness or injury from a place on the welfare rolls–they are going to know that people like them in some states are a lot better off than they are, and the explanation for their suffering and anxiety will be obvious. The Republicans might have a shot, of course, if Joe Stalin was still parading ICBMs through Red Square or Osama bin Laden was still treating us to performances from Club Tora Bora, but there is nothing happening right now that is going to enable Republicans to Booga Booga the electorate into voting for them. They can’t pull a misdirection. The party that wants to deny health care to the working poor is the party who wants to preserve tax cuts for hedge funds operators. Their candidate is the multimillionare Mitt Romney, who famously said that he didn’t “care about the poor” because the poor would be taken care of, a covenant he has entrusted to lipless Mitch McConnell, who wants to repeal the health care act and replace it with something in which insuring 30 million uninsured people “isn’t the issue.”

When Terry Francona was the managing the Boston Red Sox, he was asked his reaction to some early season defeat. He wasn’t inclined to put too much weight on any one game, he said, but you did have to “respect the loss.” What a great phrase. There are reasons why a team loses. Sometimes it’s a fluke, sometimes it’s bad luck, sometimes it’s an uncharacteristic failure at an inopportune moment, and sometimes the other guy cheats. But game in and game out, the outcome has to do with one team’s weaknesses and the other team’s strengths, and until you understand that–until you respect the loss–the loser will just keep losing.

The Republicans lost the election of 2008, they lost the health care debate in Congress, and they lost last week in the Supreme Court, and still they do not respect the loss. Now a bunch of their governors are going to opt-out of expanding health care to the working poor just to make sure that everyone grasps just how un-American they are. Well boys and girls, welcome to the Hotel California.