Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Carousel of Nostalgia

My kids love to view, and print, photographs whenever they are at home. We went through hundreds of pictures with T the past few days, dating all the way back to when he was a baby. His favorites this go-around were photos of him at the Alexandria, Louisiana, Zoo. A caught on to T's fascination with photographs when T began returning to St. Mary's with dozens of prints every time he came home. A now has me printing photos, and A has had me drive past his old school and a few other places he used to love but hasn't cared about more recently.

This clip expresses my kids' nostalgia for photographs and drives past the old places better than I ever could. As I've already written, I just finished the first season of this show on DVD this past week. This is one of the final moments of the season, and it was on my mind when T and I were looking at photos. The kids' nostalgia habits were also on my mind when I was watching the scene, and I almost got a little weepy.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mad on TV

I finished watching the first season of Mad Men the other day. I love everything about this show. It is extra-stylish and fabulously written, acted, and produced. On its face, it's a drama about the freewheeling advertising industry on Madison Avenue (hence, "Mad Men") in the early 1960s, with career-obsessed, promiscuous, unfaithful husbands, and emotionally repressed, deliberately ignorant (as the law defines that term), long-suffering, passive-aggressive, pre-feminist wives. Who said the sexual revolution started with the hippies? Thanks to the show being on AMC, the sexual aspects of the storyline are not shown explicitly, though there is one hilarious shadowboxing scene in one episode, where a janitor sees the shadows of two characters going at it through a frosted office window. Also, as DW pointed out, there is very little strong language used in the show. IOW, any gentle readers who are concerned about such things can actually watch this show without waiting for it to be sanitized a la The Sopranos on A&E.

Underneath its glittering surface, Mad Men about how we restless Americans are to a certain extent able to invent and reinvent ourselves however we choose and present ourselves to different people in different ways, sometimes genuine and honest; sometimes cynical and dishonest; sometimes all of those things at once. Don Draper, the main character, has actually invented Don Draper from someone else of very humble origins, and has become very accomplished in the cynical advertising industry. He's an astonishingly complicated and comparmentalized character with massive flaws and hidden insecurities, arguably the most fully realized character in television history. As a viewer, you can't help but love him, even when he's catting around while his terrific wife is depressed, lonely, and isolated at home. There is also a strong theme of longing for approval and validation in the show--particularly men seeking approval from other men--and that theme is played with great subtlety by several of the main characters. I can't wait to get to Season Two to see how these characters develop. I may have to download it from iTunes to tide myself over until the DVD set comes out next July.

You know your show has arrived when it is parodied on The Simpsons.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Article 1
1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.
Article 2
1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

--United Nations Convention Against Torture
Each component of the definition emphasizes that torture is not the mere infliction of pain or suffering on another, but is instead a step well removed. The victim must experience intense pain or suffering of the kind that is equivalent to the pain that would be associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure, or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body function will likely result. If that pain or suffering is psychological, that suffering must result from one of the acts set forth in the statute. In addition, these acts must cause long·term mental harm.

--Office of Legal Counsel, United States Department of Justice, John Yoo, author

Jane Mayer, a reporter for the New Yorker, chronicles the Bush Administration's weird obsession with physical forms of interrogation (colloqually known as "torture") in The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Became a War on American Ideals. The story is scary, not only from a humanitarian standpoint but also from the standpoint of an attorney who gives a hoot about the constitutional structure of the U.S. government.

Vice President Cheney initiated the process that resulted in a network of secret prisons and secret torture on September 11, 2001, when he held a videoconference with some of the lawyers who established the dubious legal framework for the Bush Administration's torture program. Cheney's general counsel, David Addington, was the ringleader of the lawyers. He was assisted by John Yoo at DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel and William Haynes, general counsel at the Department of Defense. Yoo in particular was important as the advisory opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel are binding on the Executive Branch. These three lawyers frequently met with then-White House general counsel Alberto Gonzales, who is portrayed as weak-willed and pliable in Mayer's book. Although Cheney was the mastermind of the torture program, he had the enthusiatic support of President Bush, then-CIA Director George Tenet, and then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. Attorney General John Ashcroft was appalled, and he was deliberately kept "out of the loop," even though John Yoo was his employee. Secretary of State Powell was equally appalled. However, neither man resigned over the matter.

Cheney, Addington, Yoo, and Haynes operated from an underlying theory that the President has near-absolute power in his tole as commander in chief, with no oversight by, or interference of, the Legislative or Judicial Branches of government--one memorandum went so fas as to claim that the President may initiate military attacks against terrorists inside the United States, regardless whether innocent third parties may be killed or injured. They also operated from the belief that traditional interrogation tactics were insufficient to extract accurate information from terrorists, and that torture was required to obtain this objective. Everything I've ever read about police techniques suggests that torture results in information that is almost never accurate, and the FBI opposed torture largely for that reason. On the advice of Cheney's group of lawyers, Presidnet Bush nullified the Geneva Conventions as to suspected members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and redefined torture to exclude most forms of torture. They also worked at coming up with a location where the U.S. could house terror suspects outside the legal jurisdiction of the U.S.

The results were a wide-randing "rendition" program in which the CIA used a fleet of corporate jets to fly suspected terrorists to countries less squeamish about torture than Western democracies are; an in-house CIA torture training program; a network of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe; the Guantanamo Bay detention facility; and the supsension of the writ of habeas corpus for terror-suspect detainees. That the United Staes would engage in such a thoroughly reprehensible program is shocking; that members of the bar eagerly provided rationale for this program by subverting the structure, spirit, and letter of the Constitution they are sworn to support and uphold shames the legal profession. Mayer emphasizes just how far outside the mainstream Cheney's group really was by discussing how some CIA officers and conservative Republican DOJ attorneys who opposed the use of torture attempted to reverse some of the extremist policies. Almost as shocking as the program is the complete impotence of the coequal Legislative branch of the U.S. Government; it's as if the Democratic House and Senate were content to let the clock run out on the Bush Administration instead of raising holy hell. The coequal Judicial Branch, however, took a stand and issued three Supreme Court opinions regarding the procedural rights of Guantanamo detainees.

Mayer's book details the treatment of detainees, some of whom were actual terrorists, some of whom were not. The CIA was not trained in torture, so it hired a pscyhologist who, strangely, reverse engineered a North Korean program designed to elicit false confessions and employed it in hopes of obtaining true ones. Mayer references reports from the Red Cross and a retired CIA officer commisioned by the U.S. Government, both of which concluded that the interrogation techniques being used indeed constituted torture--and that this torture constituted war crimes. She also references reports indicating that the majority of Guantanamo detainees had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or terrorism; rather, they were extremist Muslims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless whether detainees were terrorists or not, IMHO, the United States should never, ever employ torture. It doesn't work, and it puts us on a slippery slope that slides down into the same moral muck and mire where Al Qaeda dwells.

The Obama Administration is likely to end the torture program; whether the new administration also ditches the Bush Administration's aggressive view of Executive Branch power remains to be seen. I seriously doubt that Bush or Cheney are likely to be prosecuted for war crimes--the U.S. is far too powerful for any other countries to risk that, and this country certainly doesn't need the distraction during a recession--but wouldn't it be hilarious for Obama to pardon them on his first day in office, with no further explanation?

Oh, the humanity!

Tina Fey couldn't have thought this up. Gov. Palin pardons a turkey, then, well, you have to see it to believe it. Tip of the hat to The Cajun Boy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sam Walton's Utopia

T has become obsessive about getting Incredible Hulk plush toys from the crane machines in Wal-Mart foyers. He generally has an adult manipulate the crane for him, but he has of late insisted on having a go or two at it himself, which is good for his hand/eye coordination and fine motor skills. The quest became personal for DW and I this past Saturday. We became obsessed as we tried to pull an Incredible Hulk away from the glass on the back of the machine, grab ahold of it, move it, and drop it down the chute. T stood beside the machine, jumping up and down and shouting “green! green! green!” and yelling in agony whenever DW had to go into the store to get change for another go-around. A couple of people looked around the corner into the machine nook to make sure I wasn’t abusing my kid. We moved the Incredible Hulk so that his head was lying on the edge of the chute, and T became increasingly excited and agitated. DW finally got the toy on the hook and over the chute--and then it didn’t drop! She had to insert another quarter and push the button immediately, and the Incredible Hulk was T’s. He opened up the baby seat on the Wal-Mart cart and placed the toy there, for a ride through the store. Victory!

A celebrated his 10th birthday on Monday, and he had a very happy time at home. We decided to put up our Christmas tree early this year and create a season for the kids, to compensate for the fact that Christmas Day sucks out loud for them because nothing is open.

Alas, I didn’t get the star up on the tree by the time A got home on Sunday, so I took him to look at the one true star in most North American households this time of year.

A also has a thing for the machines in the Wal-Mart foyer, but he likes to have me read individual letters from the logos. I mimic a mechanical voice as I say “c-o-k-e” and so on. I’m hoping that A may develop enough of an understanding that letters form words and words are powerful that he may learn to read, even if he remains without speech.

We had an odd mens’ room experience on the way back to Alexandria yesterday. I took A into the bathroom at a Wal-Mart, where he generally uses a toilet stall. Both of the stalls in this mens’ room were in use, so I made A stand next to me and wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, I had to take him over to use a urinal, and I changed his pull-up while he stood there (he has a bowel control issue, and it can injure his dignity to be seen wearing pull-ups, which we only use while traveling, so I wasn't happy about changing him in the middle of the mens' room). I wanted to tell the guys in the stall that they should do like everybody else and go log on the Internet if they wanted to spank the monkey, but that this was a most inappropriate venue for that activity. I mean, who takes that long to go, you know?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Where were you when you heard the news?

A CNN commentator (I can't remember which one) said that Barack Obama's election was one of those moments that people will remember where they were when they heard the news. I've always thought "I remember where I was when I heard that . . ." is hokey, but I was in my living room when Jon Stewart reported the news on Comedy Central. Notice Stephen Colbert's frantic attempt to keep from bursting into tears on the set. At the time, I thought it was part of his act, but, on second viewing, it appears that he was genuinely overcome by the news.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

And now for something completely different

President Obama. Wow! He managed to weave elements of MLK's Mountaintop Speech and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address into a victory speech that showed a sober, serious President-Elect to the American people. I've thought highly of Barack Obama since I heard his 2004 DNC speech casting aside the notion of a polarized, red state/blue state America, then later read The Audacity of Hope.

Obama's race had nothing to do with why I pressed the box next to his name yesterday, and it didn't really dawn on me until I saw enormous lines at African-American precincts and watched the spontaneous reactions to his speech last night that his election is an Historic Event in capital letters. I really don't care how it makes the United States look to the rest of the world, but, as a white Southerner who grew up in a virulently racist family, it sure is nice to know that a candidate with an African-American heritage could be elected President of the United States a relatively brief 40 years after Dr. King saw the proverbial mountaintop.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Judgment Day

Your humble correspondent arrived at his polling place at 5:30 a.m. The doors opened at 6:00 a.m., and your working boy was done by 6:20. The photo is the line for his precinct, which is one of three that votes at the mall. The line was much longer, and the people at the back probably had about a two hour wait.

Anybody want to play the prediction game? Here's mine:

Obama--52% (338 electoral votes)
McCain--46% (200 electoral votes)

I played with an interactive map this morning, and there is a plausible way to get to a 269-269 Electoral College tie. It looks rather unlikely, but it's something that would be very fun to see.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Dexter, Si se puede!

I couldn't help but laugh last night when the twisted serial-killer drama Dexter used a presidential campaign slogan as the title of an episode that aired two nights before a presidential election:
Anyhow, in last night's ep., assistant DA Miguel Prado enthusiastically assists Dex in a kill, giving our hero access to a prisoner he has wanted to gut for a very long time. Miguel continually referred to himself and Dexter as "we," making the campaign slogan title appropriate.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The id of the American Male--drill baby drill

Your humble correspondent gave into temptation last night and picked up American Movie Classics' dramatic series Mad Men on DVD. I'd not seen any of the show, as the first season aired opposite Burn Notice, and we don't have tivo. I suspected that Mad Men would appeal to me, as several members of the production team of The Sopranos are involved in the show. Still, holy crap, this show is great!

Mad Men is all about the Freudian id and ego of the well-off American male, during the early 1960s--a period when the uninhibited desires of men pretty much had free reign--and the fallout that the male id had on the more inhibited women of the same period. The show is set in a glamorous Madison Avenue ad agency, in a time when the advertising industry was viewed as sexy and hip (except maybe when Darren Stevens worked there). The ad industry in Mad Men cynically sold an illusion of happiness, even if the product was toxic (cigarettes in the first episode, which made me think of the movie Thank You For Smoking). There is a ton of overt sexist aggression and a fabulously politically incorrect amount of cigarette smoking. There are glimpses in Season One of some of the social changes that were to come about later in the '60s (the Pill, for one, and a few strong female character), but only glimpses thus far.

One thing that hit home was the deluded version of happiness that the agency was selling. How many of us have looked around at our relative prosperity, good educations, decent careers, and otherwise pretty good circumstances, yet felt somehow empty and unfulfilled? It's like our inner, subconscious selves are out of alignment with what our conscious minds tell us we are, and even more out of alignment with what we show of ourselves to the rest of the world. Classic Jungian neurosis, I suppose.

The central character is advertising artist Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who has a lovely wife and family and a house in the suburbs. Yet, as an artist, he has a bohemian side, so he has an artiste girlfriend in Greenwich Village. He also puts the make on a female department store, to whom he is attracted by her strength and her understanding of his detached, nihilistic worldview.

In terms of intelligence and production values, this show is on the level of The Sopranos and Dexter. DW agrees, and she noticed that the sexual content of the show is PG-13 at worst, even though there is a ton of skirt-chasing going on. I noticed that Season Two of Mad Men will be ending this week. I look forward to picking that up on DVD also.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Hanging by a thread?

Gov. Sarah Palin offers a singularly unorthodox interpretation of the First Amendment. I don't think Harvard Law School will be calling her in to substitute teach for Laurence Tribe anytime soon. That said, I'll confess to having a degree of sympathy for Gov. Palin, who appears to be in way over her head and doesn't know it. I'm not saying she's stupid (though her First Amendment analysis certainly is); she just isn't ready for the role she's been cynically put into.