Saturday, December 03, 2005

Moral Authority

Hanson (the man, not the mm-bop boy band) has some interesting thoughts on the torture debate in this country. He makes some good points, but his best point is also the simplest one, and one that, at the end of the day, is probably the number one reason for my own anti-torture stance.

Hanson, illuminate us:

The question, then, for a liberal democracy is not whether torture in certain cases is effective, but whether its value is worth the negative publicity and demoralizing effect on a consensual society that believes its cause and methods must enjoy a moral high ground far above the enemy's....

...we might as well admit that by foreswearing the use of torture, we will probably be at a disadvantage in obtaining key information and perhaps endanger American lives here at home. (And, ironically, those who now allege that we are too rough will no doubt decry "faulty intelligence" and "incompetence" should there be another terrorist attack on an American city.) Our restraint will not ensure any better treatment for our own captured soldiers. Nor will our allies or the UN appreciate American forbearance. The terrorists themselves will probably treat our magnanimity with disdain, as if we were weak rather than good.

But all that is precisely the risk we must take in supporting the McCain amendment--because it is a public reaffirmation of our country's ideals. The United States can win this global war without employing torture. That we will not resort to what comes so naturally to Islamic terrorists also defines the nobility of our cause, reminding us that we need not and will not become anything like our enemies.

I disagree with Hanson's assertions regarding the effectiveness of torture, and for his blanket reasoning that Europe and the rest of the world will judge the United States, no matter what it does. But essentially, I'm disagreeing for "moral" reasons. At the end of the day, I don't believe that my country ought to be torturing people. It's antithetical to our professed ideals.

We're better than torture. As Americans, we should be willing to sacrifice a little security for a little liberty, as Benji Franklin once said. Is that an easy thing to do? Of course not. It requires acceptance that, for an unseen, intangible ideal we would be willing to die. But isn't that sort of the defination of "sacrifice"? And isn't that precisely what our forefathers did when they founded this country?

Friday, December 02, 2005

California, Here We Come - Right Back Where We Started From

If this is wrong I don't want to be right.

From NBC 4:

A judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit claiming the Garden Grove Unified School District violated the rights of a high school student who was disciplined for kissing her girlfriend on campus, officials said Thursday....

Nguon, 17, filed the suit last September, saying she was unfairly disciplined by the district for kissing her girlfriend, also 17, while similar activity by non-gay students was ignored.

Nguon said she was suspended then forced to attend another school, even though there was no specific policy addressing displays of public affection in the school's student handbook.Nguon also said her rights were violated when Principal Ben Wolf revealed Nguon's sexual orientation to her parents.

"You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man's freedom. You can only be free if I am free."
-Clarence Darrow

"The only way to make sure people you agree with can speak is to support the rights of people you don't agree with."
-Eleanor Holmes Norton

"Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
-Eugene V. Debs

"Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will."
-Frederick Douglass

"None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free."
-Pearl S. Buck

"Girls who kiss are, like, totally hot."
-Mother Teresa

Politics Is Propaganda

There's an interesting article up on about the use of "propaganda" in Iraq.

Multimillion-dollar contracts cover paying Iraqi newspapers and journalists to get into print such stories about the war and the rebuilding effort...

The program came to light just as President Bush released his strategy for victory in Iraq. It includes the need to support a "free, independent and responsible Iraqi media."

Interesting stuff. I'm more concerned about the use of these tactics on our on soil, but the use of them in Iraq does raise some important questions, in my humble opinion.

1) Is a free press desirable in Iraq? After all, from what I'm able to understand (and, being a bear of very little brain, that ain't much) they sort of despise us there at the moment. Given the anti-American sentiment, and given the continued presence of our troops over there, a free press is pretty dangerous.

2) As a democracy, should we value a free press even when it will probably work against our own interests?

3) Bush's use of the word "responsible" is interesting. What is "responsible" journalism? Working under the current administration's own definitions, responsible journalism would most likely not include journalism that is critical of Those In Power.

4) By limiting or eliminating criticism, are we helping to create a free, independent and responsible media? Is it a regrettable but necessary interim step to push the positives in our agenda until we're out of there?

Forbes' Fictional Fifteen Fun For Family,Friends, Franz Ferdinand

Hola, amigos.

Forbes Magazine has an article on the fifteen richest people/anthropomorphic animals in fiction. It's cute. You can find it HERE.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bi**hes, Rub Your Ti**ies If You Love Big Poppa (Smurf)

Convinced that the website Rent Is Too Damn High was some sort of brilliant satire, I did a little reading up on site-founder, anti-semetic, and anti-rent-being-too-damn-high NYC activist Prince Jimmy McMillan - a.k.a. Jimmy Mack, a.k.a. Poppa Smurf.

Next time he goes to the store, Poppa Smurf won't need to do any shopping for crazy - he's all stocked up. And what's with the sunglasses? Is he "too damn high"?

From Daily Kos:
This guy has had a bizzare number of "incidents" that have gotten him press coverage over the years, including being tied to a tree and doused with gasoline...[in green is a selected quote from McMillan himself]

After someone tried to kill me I still continued to try and get New Yorkers attention to the growing problems in Housing Discrimination that had developed into the Rebirth of (APARTHEID) and what could be done to Stop this Rising RENT madness, and so many other Illegal activities going on in our back yard Brooklyn, by Climbing to the Top of the Brooklyn Bridge. There I was arrested, place in Kings County Hospital (Mental Institution) and was label a crazy man by NYPD. I am a Vet For Live I will not die without a fight. (Shot at on 3 different occasions on the streets near my home and in the door way of my home, Home broken into Documents & Video Tapes Stolen of investigations, Car Wrecked-later Stolen)
It gets crazier...

In 1993, he held police at bay with a "rambo-style" knife and demanding that the media broadcast his message.

From the Village Voice:

Those were just the latest adventures in a life that took McMillan from Vietnam, to a job as a letter carrier, and finally to being an actor, rent activist, Karate expert, and "Independent Private Investigator." Along the way McMillan says he has penned six books (A Vet for Life, Rent is too Damn High, The "Name" Negro Discovered, Murdered by the VA, The Road Less Traveled, and Standing in Line at the VA), worked as a bodyguard to Yankee Mel Hall, and composed a 1975 song titled "A Woman is Hard to Understand (1975)."

I love New York.
Sure, you midwestern types have your "family values," but we have Jimmy McMillan. New York: 1, All of You: 0.

Frankly, McMillan reminds me, not a little bit, of Wesley Willis; a schizophrenic singer/songwriter/artist from Chicago who penned such popular party tunes as "I'm Sorry That I Got Fat," "I Wupped Batman's Ass," "Kris Kringle Was a CatThief," "The Vultures Ate My Dead Ass Up," "Cut the Mullet," "Suck a Caribou's Ass," "Lotion," "I Broke Out Your Windshield," and "Fuck You."

You can listen to Mr. Willis' signature, inimitable stylings right HERE.

The War On Christmas

There've been some people complaining of late in the media about some sort of "War on Christmas."

Apparently, people are getting upset because the evil secularists in this country have been making a concerted effort to become more inclusive of the beliefs of others. The seemingly-innocuous, yet apparently-insidious "Happy Holidays" is an oft-cited example of how Christmas is being marginalized.

There are, as usual, two sides to this issue.

On the one hand, some of the stories that have been reported are pretty ridiculous. Take this one, for instance.

She asks [the post office employee] if they have any classic Christmas stamps and the man pulls out a couple of sheets of last year's Madonna and Child. Mom notices he doesn't seem happy and he says to her, "These are all I have and they'll be the last you ever see." Mom asks, "What do you mean?" He explains the USPS will not be issuing any more "religious" stamps.


Mom is momentarily stunned. She then raises her eyebrows a bit and asks, "Are you allowed to say 'Merry Christmas' to us?"

The man's face falls and he lowers his voice in answer, "No. We can only say 'Happy Holidays,'" he tries to smile at her, "But if you say 'Merry Christmas' to me directly I will respond in kind."

That's hysterical and frown-inducing if it's true. I say if its true, because the story's been all gussied up in dramatic descriptions like "he tries to smile at her." Writing like this tends to indicate a certain willingness to bend fact.That said, forbidding an employee from uttering the words "Merry Christmas" is not only silly-sounding, its also quite possibly unconstitutional to limit the free expression of an employee's religion.

But on the other hand, post office employees work for the government, and there is a large and legitimate debate going on about the separation of church and state in America. As an employee of the government, promoting any one religion to the exclusion of others would violate the separation that some are in favor of.

I don't quite understand all the hubbub, myself. Why is saying "Happy Holidays" such a big deal? Bill O'Reilly helpfully explains that, without companies publicly advertising their well-wishes for a "Merry Christmas" and not a "Happy Holiday," our country will apparently fall into a secularized hell.

In the latest instance of decrying the purported "war" on Christmas, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly claimed that "it's all part of the secular progressive agenda ... to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square." He then added: "[B]ecause if you look at what happened in Western Europe and Canada, if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs, like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage, because the objection to those things is religious-based, usually."


I'm pretty sure that Christmas and Judaism are sort of entirely separate concepts, actually. So removing "Merry Christmas" from the public square wouldn't seem to have much of an effect on the peeps of Moses.

But look at what O'Reilly is saying here. If you take the focus off of Christmas, and refocus on the larger concept of wishing all religions a "Happy Holiday," you are not embracing religious tolerance, you are ensuring a slide into moral decay and social chaos. That tells me everything I need to know about Bill O'Reilly's respect for other religions, including Judaism.

Interestingly, Fox News has ornaments for sale on their website to help get your family in the Holiday...err...I mean Christmas spirit. The company site originally featured this description of their ornaments:

FOX News Channel Ornament Set - 3 pack - Product #:FOX21000700
Make your holiday tree really festive with a set of 3 ornaments from your favorite Fair and Balanced news channel.

Not long after several blog sites noted the irony of O'Reilly's employer engaging in such inclusive behavior, the description was changed to this:

FOX News Channel Christmas Set 3/pack - Product #:FOX21000700 Make your Christmas tree really festive with a set of 3 ornaments from your favorite Fair and Balanced news channel.

Think O'Reilly yelled at them?

(Fox info courtesy of Free Democracy)

Rent Is Too Damn High

Once in a while, life hands you a gift. Sometimes its a dollar on the street, or a smile from a stranger on a rough day.

Sometimes its a website. A website like Rent Is Too Damn High which, as of now, is my favorite website of all time.

I tend to prefer my humor in large absurdist chunks, and Rent Is Too Damn High definately qualifies.

As we all know, unintentional comedy is gold. So much more satisfying than satire. It's got the sweet-n'-sour, one-two-punch of hilarity and genuine discomfort.

Mosey on over to Rent Is Too Damn High when you need a little break from work today. Entertainment, thy name is Jimmy McMillan. I sympathize with Mr. McMillan's problem - the rent in NYC is, in fact, Too Damn High. I am less sympathetic of his apparent prejudices and his atrocious grammar and spelling. McMillan's yet another African-American with a mad-on for those of a Jewish persuasion, claiming that
"If You're Not Jewish, You Will Be Run Out of New York," and that Jews pretending to be Jews, yet in actuality, not being Jews at all (still following me?) are behind various unidentified schemes to bilk the poor out of decent housing. This is, of course, extremely offensive, yet I can't help but find the whole thing hilarious.

Best of all is the cd available to order on the site, which apparently includes such instant-classics as "Rent is too damn high," "Water dripping from my lights," "Your Monkey," "Come Here," "Must be Jelly," and "Single Life."

Pop on over and groove to the mellifluous beats of Jimmy McMillan.

(link courtesy of Mr. Nizzle, who can feel free to purchase the Rent Is Too Damn High cd for this author's Christmas gift)

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Little Gay Is A-Okay!

Rest easy all you "transitory" gay people. You're still welcome in the Roman Catholic church.

All of you "Deep-seated" gay people, however, are shit outta luck. Sorry.

From the NY Times, belatedly:
A new Vatican document excludes from the priesthood most gay men, with few exceptions, banning in strong and specific language candidates "who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture.' "

The document appears to allow ordination only for candidates who experienced "transitory" homosexual tendencies that were "clearly overcome" at least three years before ordination as a deacon, the last step before priesthood. It does not define "overcome."
Seems simple enough to me. If, by simple, you mean the exact polar opposite of simple.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Right Brothers Offer Poignant Social Commentary

I'd posted The Right Brothers' song "Bush was Right" as an example of bad art, not of politics I disagreed with. It's a terrible song, with simple lyrics and a stolen melody.

But I don't think much of these guys' politics, neither. Take "You Can't Racial Profile," a catchy little number off their new album:

You know, I've never seen a grandma strap a bomb on, either. I have, however, seen Timothy McVeigh kill hundreds in Oklahoma City and Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris storm through their school shooting students. To the best of my recollection, none of those folk were "olive skinned." Terrorism is a philosophy, not a genetic trait of any one particular nationality.

Conservative Corner

It's been pointed out that, if this blog is supposed to be moderate, politically speaking, then I should be more willing to highlight conservative thought. Seems fair enough. Here's Andrew Sullivan's email of the day:

I certainly agree with Zalmay that stakes are high in Iraq – precisely because we’ve put all of our chips, so to speak, on this wild gamble in the Middle East. But Bush has nobody to blame for dwindling public support but himself. This is a President that refuses to acknowledge that there is such a thing as “the American people” and that he is accountable to them. And he shows no signs of this changing. Every significant speech is made to cherry-picked crowds at military academies. Scott McClellan’s briefings have become unintentional comedy sketches. And his surrogates just buzz and strafe Sunday morning talk shows every so often to parrot the same useless talking points. Imagine how much public opinion could be shaped and how much criticism could be defused if he simply addresses the American people to tell us what 'the course' that we must supposedly 'stay' is. What IS the mission? How many Iraqi battalions being independent and battle-ready will it take before we can at least begin to draw down? When can we expect this to occur? What is he doing to draw the Sunnis more into the political process and away from the insurgents? What is he doing with neighboring nations like Iran to stop their meddling and to seek their help in securing the borders? There are countless other questions – the answers of which could be used to explain in detail our progress, our plan, and a clear direction for America in the Middle East.

But when he is silent and hiding away from his critics, it’s only reasonable for people to begin to assume that he has no progress to report, no plan, and no direction. It would be sad if the hard work of people like Gen. Casey and Zalmay is all for naught because their boss was too much of a fool to explain the rather significant benefits of what they're now doing in Iraq.

And here's Sullivan's response, which I agree with 100%:

There are times when I wonder if the president is capable of such an address. And the reason I say that is that any candid, credible discussion of where we are now would require an acknowledgment of a series of previous misjudgments and errors. I don't think Bush is psychologically capable of this. It requires nuance, self-criticism, an abandonment of Manichean rhetoric, and a political decision to unite the country rather than dividing it. All these things he has so far refused to so. Alas, I see no evidence that he has changed, or is even capable of change. And so we stagger on.

I couldn't agree more. Were the President able to lay out credible reasons for the course of action he's chosen, I'd be much more inclined to consider his arguments with a degree of respect. Do I think that we were led into war for reasons that constantly shifted? Do I believe this was done because Bush, et al, reallllly wanted to get us into there, WMD's or not? Yes, I very much do.

And when the President won't pony up and lay out the truth for us about it, people like myself, who already distrust government without accountability, are going to ascribe motives to those actions that are less than honorable. Because if they are honorable, why wouldn't the President want to engage his critics in substantive debate or, at the very least, give his critics an answer that didn't sound so much like stubborn refusal to acknowledge the value of these questions?

The Hammer of Kraut Strikes!

I'm grateful to Mssr. Nizzle for having introduced me to Mr. Krauthammer, a conservative columnist of far-greater intellect and reasoning than myself. I thought I'd post thoughts regarding his recent column on torture, an issue that's taken up no small amount of virtual and actual ink these past months.

Krauthammer's the sort of conservative I can get behind - someone who isn't snidely dismissive of alternative arguments, and who takes a respectful, measured tone when addressing points of contention. Big ups for that, Hammer. His assertion that torture should never be used on field combatants is one I agree with. His subsequent assertions about terrorists, however, provoke a certain amount of disagreement.

From the Hammer-that-is-Kraut:

The norm, however, is how the majority of prisoners at Guantanamo have been treated. We give them three meals a day, superior medical care, and provision to pray five times a day. Our scrupulousness extends even to providing them with their own Korans, which is the only reason alleged abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo ever became an issue. That we should have provided those who kill innocents in the name of Islam with precisely the document that inspires their barbarism is a sign of the absurd lengths to which we often go in extending undeserved humanity to terrorist prisoners.

I'm going to have to disagree with the Hammer here. Referring to the Koran as "precisely the document that inpires their barbarism" shows ignorance of the teachings of Islam. In point of fact, the Koran and its teachings deplore the actions of men that would take innocent life in the name of their cause. That terrorists have chosen to pervert the meaning of their religion to justify terrible acts is not the fault of the Koran any more than the lynchings of black men, or the persecution of gays is the fault of the Bible.

Islam is a peaceful religion, just as Christianity is. And just like Christianity has its fringe elements - people for whom the Bible gives license to discriminate, injure, or murder one's fellows - so does Islam. This does not render the holy books themselves the inspiration for mad acts, any more than listening to Marilyn Manson creates high-school killers.

Additionally, M.C. Hammer's assertion that the only reason there were alleged abuses involving the Koran at Guantanamo was because we'd given them the books to begin with is curious. It's a little like saying that the Indians shouldn't be upset that we took their land from them - after all, we contracted to let them have it in the first place. Abuse is abuse is abuse as Gertrude Stein and Gary Freedman might say. But enough of me...let's return to Mjolnir, discussing when terrorism would be permissable to him:

Third, there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let'stake the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Let's dissect this statement in two parts. First, let's discuss the supposed "easy pieties" of John McCain and those who oppose torture. If anything, the "easy" thing to do in a time of war is to torture. It's far more difficult to decide, for moral, ethical, philosophical, political, and yes, religious reasons, not to do so.

Second, the hypothetical that the Hammer produces here reminds me of an old moral question that my friends and I would ask while wasted in college. Namely, suppose that a stranger has strapped you to a chair and told you that if you press a button, one thousand people whom you've never met will die in a place you've never heard of, or seen. If you don't push the button, a loved one will be murdered in front of your eyes. WHAT DO YOU DO?!?!

Interesting to consider? Absolutely. Likely to happen? Err...not really. But being the intelligent guy that the Hammer obviously is, he anticipates this line of reasoning by arguing that this situation does occur, often enough to warrant a term for it. I can't claim knowledge on whether or not this is true, so let's assume it is.

Even if this DID happen, its highly unlikely that torturing the suspect would reveal the location of a nuke. Its been proven through unfortunate real-world testing that torture as a means of extracting information does not work the way we'd like to think it would. It tends to produce false information. People will say anything, do anything, to make torture stop. McCain has illustrated this by telling a story from his own captivity about being tortured for certain valuable names. He wanted the pain to stop, but he was loyal to his country, so he gave them names - specifically, the lineup of the Green Bay Packers.

If we're dealing with fanatics - the sort of people who will kill themselves for a higher cause - why on earth should we believe that the application of pain will make them betray their cause?

But don't take my word for it. Here's the U.S. Army's take:

Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear. However, the use of force is not to be confused with psychological ploys, verbal trickery, or other nonviolent and noncoercive ruses used by the interrogator in questioning hesitant or uncooperative sources.

Toture seems attractive, I believe, because it is a simple answer. Hell, who wouldn't bring the pain to a murderous terrorist if it meant you only had an hour to save NYC from a dirty bomb? If the evidence showed that torture was effective in the extraction of information, I'd be agreeing with the Hammer here.

But torture isn't simple, and the proposal to allow it only in certain instances still creates more questions than answers for me.

How does one define a terrorist? How does one define the severity or the immediacy of a terrorist act? Who decides how much time has to be left before we start in with the pliers and the dry-ice? If an hour is an acceptable amount of time to allow torture to prevent violence, what about four hours? A day? A week?

How do we know that the man being held actually has the information needed? How do we know that the man's beliefs are not as strong, or stronger, than McCain's? How can we be sure that we won't get the lineup of the Green Bay Packers in response to our efforts?

On a more speculative level, what about recent expansions of thePatriot Act, created to combat terrorism, into areas of drug-related crime and other decidedly un-terroristic activity? If we're applying legislation to these people designed for terrorism, then doesn't that make them terrorists? Should we be allowed to torture a drug dealer because his agents are at this very moment distributing illegal, physically and mentally damaging substances to children and adults?

K to the Hammer's position is reasonable as hypothetical, but problematic in the practical. He says that only carefully selected persons should be able to order and carry out torture, but who decides they're qualified? Who appoints them? Is it the Executive? Krauthammer rightly denounces Bush's use of secrecy, but if its Bush, or any other executive with an agenda that appoints these operatives, then how can we be sure that the rules Krauthammer has proposed are adhered to?

All of this is not to say that the Hammer does not make good points. His ultimate assertion that torture should only be used in two exceptional situations is, ultimately, not an extreme position. He makes some good, reasoned arguments for why, in some exceedingly rare instances, torture can be effective. He also points out inconsistencies in McCain's position that I was, quite frankly, unaware of. I had been of the impression that McCain's legislation would make the Army Field Manual the standard to operate by. I'll obviously need to do some more reading, and I'm grateful for the new info. But my biggest problem with his argument is that it assumes too much nobility in our political system.

Politics as they should be is one thing, but with all due respect (something a man of his intellect should be afforded) Krauthammer doesn't spend enough time considering politics as they are. Everyone has an agenda. Persons in power cannot, ultimately, be entrusted to wield that power with impunity. The Founders knew this and, I suspect, so does Krauthammer.

The problems raised by torture outweigh its potential benefits by a significant margin, and its for this ultimate reason that it seems more beneficial in the long run to prohibit its use.

This, of course, is a black and white stance in a world that I've always argued exists in a series of grey shades. Hammer-time shows his intelligence by asking the reader whether the use of sodium pentathol or sleep deprivation should be considered torture, and I can't say that I'd call it such, but it certainly can be, and pretty easily. This is a tough question, and at the end of the day I'm glad to admit that the answers, if they exist, will be reached only after much of this sort of thinking has been done.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Right or Left, Your Song Still Sucks

Far be it from me to suggest that politics should not play a part in artistic efforts. However, it strikes me that the artistic efforts of self-described "Right Wingers" suffers from a certain lack of nuance, emotional charge, and originality.

I wish this wasn't the case, believe it or not. There should be a place at the creative table for everyone's beliefs. But I can't help but shake my head in bewilderment/annoyance/incredulity and laugh at efforts like these:

Bush Was Right, by The Right Brothers

Freedom in Afghanistan, say goodbye Taliban
Free elections in Iraq, Saddam Hussein locked up
Osama's staying underground, Al Qaida now is finding out
America won't turn and run once the fighting has begun
Libya turns over nukes, Lebanese want freedom, too
Syria is forced to leave, don't you know that all this means

Bush was right!
Bush was right!
Bush was right!

Good gosh almighty that's terrible. It's not terrible because of what they think, it's terrible because of how they put those thoughts across - by ripping off Billy Joel and penning lyrics on a third-grade level. It's bad art.

But don't take my word for it. Take a listen for yourself.
Hear a barely-disguised vamp on "We Didn't Start The Fire" HERE.

That Dog Won't Hunt

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham resigned Monday after admitting he took $2.4 million as part of guilty pleas in a case that grew from an investigation into the sale of his home to a wide-ranging conspiracy involving payments in cash, vacations and antiques....Authorities said Cunningham steered defense contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to the people who bribed him.

From Carolina Journal Online:
Former First District Congressman Frank Ballance received a four-year prison sentence yesterday for his personal usage of state money, which he had obtained in grants for his non-profit organization when he was a leader in the State Senate.

Over at Oliver Willis, Mssr. Willis is claiming that the admitted crimes of Rep. Cunningham are somehow different than those of Congressman Ballance, and I couldn't disagree more. Corruption is corruption, whether your party affiliation is Democrat or Republican. To claim otherwise is, in my opinion, disingenuous.

The problems in our government are not limited to one party or another. They're endemic to politics as they're played in our nation's capital, and if one is to claim a desire for accountability then splitting hairs over congressman vs. state senator is to miss the point entirely.

Both men should be ashamed of themselves, and Mr. Willis should take a step back from his own party boosterism to recognize that a criminal act is a criminal act.

One Song Glory

I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard about "RENT," the musical. Sitting in my freshman year musical-theater appreciation class, one of my fellow students (Christopher Moses, a good guy, and a great singer) asked my Professor what he thought about the new "rock musical" on Broadway. While I enjoy musicals (and spent approximately four years of my life working in the theater professionally), I'm first-and-foremost a child of Rawk.

So, naturally, I went out, bought the cast recording, and promptly fell in love. Since then, I've seen the musical multiple times on Broadway, and watched one of my best friends assume the role of Roger on Broadway.

So it was with no small amount of excitement that my family and I hauled our turkey-bloated bodies to the movies this weekend to see the feature-film adaption of RENT. I left the movie theater elated, moved, and disappointed.

As a long-time resident of Alphabet City, the New York City neighborhood where RENT is set, it was a thrill to see some familiar, local haunts captured on camera. It was also bizarre to see my neighborhood recreated on soundstages and in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to have caught the original cast when they were on the stage, so it was a treat to see them given the opportunity to return to the roles they helped define. The music, produced by the man who produced Green Day's much-lauded American Idiot, was beefed up and made less tinny, more RAWK. Director Chris Colombus did an admirable job of taking a show that has existed on a stage and expanding its world outward into multiple settings.

So why was I disappointed?

In a word (or two), Jonathan Larson.

Larson was the creator/writer/composer of the show, and as any theater-geek worth their salt knows, he died just before his creation opened on Broadway. It's a sad story, yet its also typical of artists and their figurative children. And watching RENT, I kept thinking to myself, over and over, that Larson's memory was, in some ways, being seriously besmirched.

Because the RENT you'll see if you catch the movie is most definately not the RENT you'd see on Broadway. It's a different show. Vast sections of Larson's original musical score have been hacked out, rearranged, or altered, and Larson isn't with us to speak up and say that he approves or disapproves. While the majority of the major musical numbers remain intact, the incidental stuff is outta there. Somewhere along the movie production line, someone decided that audiences couldn't handle an actual rock-opera, so they've substituted awkward, stilted dialogue in place of Larson's lyrics and music. In at least one place, they've changed his lyrics to fit an altered time-line of events.

That's just wrong. RENT goes from being, for better or worse, a true opera on stage, to being a filmed collection of solid songs bookended by scenes of "acting" that break the flow of emotion and goodwill built up by the unfiltered emotional vulnerability and honesty that Larson's songs, and musical theater as a whole despite its many flaws, is so very good at creating. It seems disrespectful to Larson to have so significantly altered his work to suit the percieved appetites of the move-going public. It's a damn shame.

What was the thinking behind these changes? That audiences would not accept a full-blown musical? That thinking ignores the monumental success of the show as its existed for over ten years. Was it sheer creative hubris? Were the forces behind the film unwilling to make it unless they could contribute their own additions and substitutions?

Go see the movie if you haven't had an opportunity to see the show. For those of you in places were RENT on stage is simply unavailable to you, it will give you a taste of what is, in my humble opinion, one of the best musicals to have come out of New York in a very long time. But if you've a choice between spending your money on the movie, or on the experience of seeing it live, intact, and unchanged, then choose the stage. It's only there that you can get Larson's vision unfiltered by idiot studio execs and meddling creative types.

And most important of all, do not listen to the critics who tell you that the show is "dated." The issues at the heart of RENT - AIDS, the creation of family from friends, the omnipresent threat/promise of gentrification, the pain of living in an era that you don't understand, and that doesn't understand you - these themes are as relevant as ever. Critics seem to think that simply because the film is set before the millenium, that it is somehow less potent. But is any film about an earlier time in our country's history "dated" simply because it takes place in a time other than the one we're currently inhabiting?