Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Senate

The U.S. Senate was once home to some of the most eloquent speakers, finest political minds, articulate debaters, and renowned national leaders and opinion-makers in the country.

Today, the U.S. Senate is a laughingstock.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is predicting the Senate will grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies as Congress takes up reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). . .

"I think we will prevail," Rockefeller said on Wednesday, adding that he hoped the Senate will finish the bill by next week. The FISA legislation expires in February, and both President Bush and GOP congressional leaders have demanded new legislation be in place by that time.

"It's a pretty bad idea to appear cocky," Rockefeller noted. "I am not pessimistic."

So, even though the chamber is controlled by Democrats, the fact that "both President Bush and GOP congressional leaders have demanded new legislation be in place by that time" means that Rockefeller and his Democratic colleagues must hasten to satisfy these demands and surrender whatever principles or interests they were elected to represent in order to ensure the Republican meanies won't say bad things about them...for a few minutes.

Yes, as Tim Tagaris notes at Open Left, our U.S. Senate, and its Majority Leader, who is finally taking a stand against automatic filibusters, albeit against those from his own party, are "A never ending reservoir of inspiration.."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

War is Peace

I think this passage from 1984 represents religious fundamentalism as much as it does any totalitarian government:

"Even the humblest [church] member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph.

In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war [on Christmas, on the family, on marriage, on Christianity] is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist."

Where Obama Comes Up Short

While I believe there are sound policy, electability, and visionary rationales for preferring Obama over the other Democrats running, there's no mistaking that Obama has largely been a non-factor as a U.S. Senator.

For all practical purposes, Obama has served in the U.S. Senate for two years, the last year being devoted to his presidential campaign. And while the typical rejoinder to the lack of experience argument is that such non-Washington credentials accents rather than diminishes his potential for real success (especially given the bad experience we've been acustomed to these last many years), it should still be said that the U.S. Senate is, or is meant to be, a place where national debates take place, and in which the public can be educated and be given access to the democratic process. The Senate represents America's premier forum for hashing out the differences, conflicts and aspirations of the national polity through the gathering and participation of America's finest political minds and most respected national leaders and spokesmen. But Obama's brief, and rather quiet, stay in the Senate has not been an example of the best the Senate has to offer (although neither have the presences of Edwards or Clinton for that matter).

Two Maddening Primary Myths

Two myths I frequently encounter in blogland are (1) that the policy positions of Obama and Clinton are not that different and that (2) Obama and Clinton are about equal in terms of their electability.

Hilzoy, Jonathan Chait, and the Anonymous Liberal do a pretty fair job of challenging the second position.

As to the first point, even my sparse attention to policy details during this campaign reveals some rather startling distinctions between them.

There's a flip side to this of course, as one could point out Obama's allowance of anti-gay ministers to officiate at his events, his favorable remarks regarding Ronald Reagan that sent much of the left blogosphere into a tizzy, his use of the term "crisis" to describe Social Security's financing, etc. So the slate isn't completely clean on Obama's side.

But Obama's stances seem to me to represent the biggest break with the past as well as the present state of policy discussions, both foreign and domestic.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"There Will Be Blood"


Well, there's not a lot to spoil, really. Don't get me wrong, the movie had good acting, mostly from Daniel Day Lewis, and the story was somewhat interesting.

But the title of the movie is misleading and the slow, rising tension among the movie's characters and situation that I suspected was building to an oil-blood-gushing conclusion fails to materialize. There is a violent end to the flick, but it's rather anti-climatic.

One of the problem areas to the film is that it contains too many diversions and plotlines largely left hanging or left to end abruptly and unimportantly.

Many of the tensional relationships in the movie also fail to go anywhere. One point of conflict concerns the desire of Daniel Plainview (Lewis) to purchase, or to at least run an oil pipeline through the property bounds of a local, the only villager who hadn't sold out to Plainview when he began drilling in the fictional Little Boston (a geographic anachronism as the story is set in the deserts of California). It appears the hold out is not going to deal and that this relationship will end violently, perhaps setting spark to the movie's cataclysmic finale.

But the hold-out villager is more than willing to deal--provided Plainview gives his heart to Jesus Christ, is baptized, and joins the town's little church.

Ah, the church. The church is led by Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), his name no doubt an allusion to the famous preacher Billy Sunday. You might think Sunday would be a bit young to play the part of charismatic church leader(particularly since Dano was last seen as a rebellious, sullen youth in Little Miss Sunshine). Sunday's aims never seem quite clear. He's quite religious. And he has an obvious interest in the financial stakes involved in his town's oil claims.

But he also has a twin brother, maybe, by the name of Paul. And it was Paul who led Plainview to the town, but who afterwards apparently never reappears, leaving the viewer not sure whether Eli was Paul or what ever happened to Paul anyway. We get some idea of that later in the movie and in the life of Plainview when the aging, ailing oil tycoon refuses to come to Sunday's aid and reimburse him for the oil proceeds the preacher feels is due him in this now, his time of trial. When Dano's Sunday pays his final visit to Plainview 16 years after the movie's main events he doesn't appear to have aged a bit.

And there is a son, or an adopted son of Plainview's, who the oil man takes on when the child's father, a co-worker of Plainview's, is killed in a drilling accident. The boy, H.W., eventually loses his hearing in another oil blast, and after rehabilitating at a deaf-school, presumably in the East, H.W. returns home and later marries a sister of preacher-man Sunday.

In the mix is a Plainview "brother" who comes upon the scene and is taken in by Plainview as an aid-de-camp. But later in a drunken fit of rage, Plainview kills him upon finding out that the man is actually not a brother, or even half-brother, but a friend of a man who claimed to be a brother of Plainview. Too bad, the fake half-brother seemed like a decent, if down-on-his-luck, sort.

Along the way, in perhaps the movie's seminal self-explanatory passage, Plainview tells the fake brother that he doesn't like people much, that he's extremely competitive and only longs to be able to get away from the largest share of mankind.

Among the more interesting aspects of the movie are its first ten minutes or so that contain no talking, and most of which revolve around Plainview's early mining for silver adventures during which he labors mightily to retrieve from the earth the value that will someday provide a suitable return for the time and effort he has put forth to extract it.

That image is symbolic of the movie's viewers, who linger anticipating that the various angles and twists of the movie will lend themselves to a fullfilling return, after months and years of faithful application.