Saturday, November 29, 2003

At Least They Didn't Say "World Class"

While I was on hiatus, the Commercial Appeal published their plan to be "the best 21st Century paper in the country." It is, sadly, a rather unfortunate and strange plan. Let's take a closer look:
# Tells the story of Greater Memphis through the master narratives that make us unique.
This, to me, is really disturbing. For a better understanding of what "narratives" means, go to The Rhetorica Network and click here. He explains things better than I could in this short space. Basically, using narratives means having a pre-existing template that they facts to be reported are fit into. You see this all the time on the morning and primetime television shows. "Plucky child overcomes misfortune." "Good person struck by terrible disease; poignance ensues." Things like that. I'd love to know what the CA's narratives are, as they express the bias that the paper will be bringing to their future reporting. I guess we'll just have to read closely and puzzle it out for ourselves. Should keep me busy here!
# Actively engages and interacts with our current readers.
This has manifested as lots of reader comment in the paper, something I have trouble with. I don't read the CA to know what readers think. I want access to places and people I would never otherwise have. Usually this translates into reporting on government, the property/banking/developer cabal, and the offices of big business. I would otherwise never know what goes on there, if newspaper didn't report it. I can ask any doofus what he or she thinks of the paper.

The new "Readers React" features and the brethren are just more, and more focused, Letters to the Editor. What might be more valuable, and is something that's not happening much so far, is for the people addressed by readers to reply! Break the wall of opacity at the Glass Fortress and let some light in on how the CA does things, how decisions are reached, what discussions they have and why. That's what I want to know.

What's also happened is that every by-lined story now has an email address and phone number to reach the writer. That's good, but how much time is spent talking with readers and is lost to doing original work?
# Vigorously seeks new readers among Gen Y, African Americans and suburbanites.
What does this have to do with being a better paper? In that it broadens the scope of coverage and range of issues, that's good. If it translate into a broader array of columnists, with a broader range of opinions, that's good too. But this is phrased as "increase circulation," not "increase relevance." Read it closely.
# Reports from the center of issues and offers readers ideas of "what they can do."
"The center?" Where's that? Does this mean inserting themselves into stories, ala "Amber's Army?" What have we heard from that endeavor lately? How do you report from the center of "Social Security?" "Downtown development?" "Urban sprawl?" See what I mean?

As for offering readers ideas of what they can do, is this to be part of straight news reporting? The who, what, when, where and why? Or does this mean on the editorial and columnist front? Who offers the ideas? Who selects whom to ask? Who gets left out of the discussion and under what guidelines and circumstances?

This is perilously close to advocacy, to taking a position, something the CA claims to abjur as a matter of professional ethics. I personally think this cornerstone of modern journalism needs to go. Regular readers of the CA already know that the paper takes positions all the time, working against those it perceives as opposed to it, while claiming to be fair and neutral. It's time the CA simply announces its biases and preferences openly, so readers know what to expect going in, like papers used to do before the Fifties. Instead of claiming to float above, dispassionate and disinterested, which we know is false, plant your feet on the ground, say "Here." and defend yourselves and your assertions.
# Presents stories in a visually exciting way.
Translation: lots of photos, especially of readers.
# Attracts and keeps talented people and finds the right jobs for them.
The snarky guy in me wants to make this say, "Get on the team or we'll shuffle you out." I'm sure it's just the usual corporate rah-rah, though.
# Rewards and encourages a constructive, innovative culture.
More corporate rah-rah. "Think outside the box." "Speak up without fear or favor." "Increase profits, get a bonus."
# Acts ethically and works closely with all newspaper divisions to build the business.
"Acts ethically" with "all newspaper divisions" or with the community? How is that defined?
# Integrates new media into core operations.
The CA has started on that with the, nee GoMemphis website, though the layout is ad-dense and slow to load on dial-up. Updates only happen on a small part of the main page, though; othewise the paper simply presents the next day's issue all at once. For example, during the Dyersburg hostage crisis, the paper was woefully off the mark. The only update they presented came from the Associate Press. Why they didn't have reporters on the scene, sending in short items to go right to the front page, or to a special page prominently linked from there? That was missing a golden opportunity for pulling in new readers and for getting ahead of the curve.

The paper has begun to adopt blogs, but the three so far are pretty dire. Only Blake's Blog shows signs of "getting" the whole blog thing. The rest is old-think slapped with a new technology paint-job. They really need to study those newspapers which seem to "get" blogging and the "constant-update" ethos of online newspapers.
# Builds our brand around high standards of fairness, accuracy and usefulness.
Oh boy. That's why this blog exists -- to counter their lack of fairness and accuracy. "Rock-throwing mobs" anyone? Their treatment of Duncan Ragsdale and the woman who tried to organise the anti-FedExForum petition drive? The Ford family vendetta?

"Usefulness" is a difficult thing to quantify. For me, in-depth coverage of the local government and political scene is useful. Sports and recipes aren't. There are plenty of outlets for the latter, but where else can I find the former? Other than the Memphis Business Journal, who covers business?

I suspect usefulness is a mushy concept based around "touching our readers lives" or some such pabulum. No disrespect to Jon Sparks, but what purpose, exactly, does the "CA Eye" column perform? Daily dose of humor? "Fresh Eyes?" Long features about someone overcoming adversity? I dunno. It just seems to push out the "real news" to me. The part of the Metro section devoted to State and non-Memphis reporting has been getting smaller and smaller this year. I really hate to see that. It's as though we're being cut adrift, disconnected from the non-Greater Memphis parts of our neighborhood.

For all the bias and partisanship and favoritism of the old regime under Angus McEachran, it was lots and lots of hard news. The "new" CA is becoming a lighter-weight affair. Lots of name-checks and people pictures in a paper scream, "Buy lots of copies for your family and friends!" That, to me, seems a cheap tactic to build circulation, not quality. The major hard-news regular columnists are gone (Thorp, Wade Branson and Locker) to leave us with lighter folks like Kelly, Thomas and Waters.

I fear the CA is trading quality for social popularity. Dumbing down for being liked. The new direction is making it easier and easier for me to simply skip a day of reading. I don't fear I'm going to miss something any more. It matters less and less.
America The Beautiful

I've posted before about how we shouldn't have a National Anthem. It would be far better for a diverse and constantly changing nation like America to simply let a whole lot of patriotic songs exist together, serving various needs and communities as the occasion requires. Songs that fade in relevance can disappear and new songs that speak to the current generation, or that have an attachment to a particular event, can rise.

One example, though I don't especially like it, is Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The USA." It's patriotic and speaks very clearly to a large swath of the country. But, we've already got a bunch of songs already set, an official bureaucracy of patriotims, so it tends to get deprecated in official settings.

Anyway, all this was brought on because I ran into the lyrics for "America the Beautiful." They speak so clearly to what America is going through right now. And rather than mark a military event, as the "Star-Spangled Banner" does, it celebrates the land and the people and our ideals, exalting all that makes America great. Originally a poem by Katharine Lee Bates that was twice rewritten, it was later set to music in the form we know it today.

In this time of war, the third stanza is particularly appropriate:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self the country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrims feet,
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America ! America !
God shed his grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life !
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!
Someone Tell Fleming

I stumbled across an interesting thread over on FreeRepublic today, a long and rambling post looking at the possibility of a large-scale Al-Qaeda attack in the near term. The actual content is very disjointed and poorly presented, not being organised in a chronological way, nor grouped particularly clearly. But it is information rich, containing a lot of further details from stories the major American media usually filter before they present it to us.

Then it hit me: someone needs to make sure Mike Fleming (Memphis talk radio host, for the out-of-towners reading this) sees this! He's already on a paranoid tear about the Constitution being thrown out for martial law in the soon-come "100,000 dead" Al-Qaeda super-strike. [Scroll down to "Mike Fleming Really Is An Idiot" if the link is bloggered.] Ol' Flemmy would have a week-long theme with this stuff!

I'm not sure how trustworthy the FreeRepublic stuff is, since I've not heard of the source before, but if reliable, it's a trove of background stuff we usually don't hear. And it makes for worrying reading, to a point. The number of near-misses and almost-worked plans it documents is pretty scary.

I'm of the opinion that an Al-Qaeda strike will be in one of three forms:
A) A bio/chem attack that maybe kills a couple of hundred. (I apologise for the emotionless tone of this.) It'll be in a major city, one of international significance, but in a public place like a train or subway station. Maybe a government office.
B) A dirty bomb (i.e. conventional explosives wrapped in radioactive material) in a major city. No guesses on the number of dead, though the effects of something like this will linger for years and slowly reveal themselves.
C) A car bomb near a government office or military facility. Maybe a few or a few dozen dead, but a real media scare as they liken us to London and the IRA and most especially to Israel and the Palestinians. Minimal real damage, but major media fear-mongering. The major media will go beserk, regardless of the severity of the first attack, likening America to Israel immediately. No matter how normal Americans handle it, which I suspect won't be as bad as we might fear today, the rest of the world will see ABC/CBS/NBC/CNN/NYT/WaPo hysteria and take that for our response.

No way to predict, but I suspect option C, as it's the most simple to co-ordinate and relatively easy to carry out. It also will likely have an effect far out of proportion to the actual damages. And it can be repeated many, many times all across the country.

Again, please forgive me for the bloodlessness of this discussion and the seeming callousness. I can, for the purpose of this discussion, separate my real fear and anger from the need to look at things reasonably. I've always considered us lucky, in a way, for our enemies this time. When they attack us, it's not with striking fear into our hearts as their primary motive, but impressing the audience back home and around the world. Yes, they do want to destroy us, but more important, I think, is showing the folks they most want to dominate that they are a force to fear and submit to. No blasphemy intended, but in a way they want to be seen as Allahs-on-Earth: submit or die. If these attacks get rid of us good; if they get fundamentalist Islamic states, even better.

Remember, right after September 11, as the Christmas season approached and there were all kinds of rumors about attacks in shopping malls? That would have been a devastating thing to do to America. Malls would have deserted overnight and the economy would have been wrecked for months and years to come. But that isn't how the terrorists seem to think, based on what they've been doing around the world so far.

Imagine a car bomb, heaven forbid, on a Friday or Saturday night along Beale Street, here in Memphis. Major casualties and a fast end to outdoor gatherings. That might happen, but it seems more likely the bomb would be placed near a government office, as a statement. We're talking Al-Qaeda, not Palestinians. There's always a political and thematic point to the attack, not just simple fear.

One thing that occurred to me, when discussions of biological attacks came up in early 2002, was football games. Some games attract up to 80,000 people. Imagine, again heaven forbid, someone releasing an agent into or over that crowd, especially one that takes a few hours to take effect, ensuring a greater spread into the populace. The casualties there would be astronomical and the effects on the city involved might be terminal. I remember ABC's Nightline doing a program where they simulated the release of a biological agent in Atlanta. The scenario played out with tens of thousands of dead, and the government and emergency infrastructure was completely incapable of handling it.

Again, see, that's American thinking. We know what would cause major fear and disruption. But the terrorists are more (or at least as much) interested in playing to the folks back home. It doesn't occur to them to think like this. Their plans come from their cultural biases and assumptions. And thank God for that. They planned to hit the World Trade Centers because back home the towers represent American dominance and globalism. Smash the towers and you smash American hegemony. But they hit them early in the day, when there were fewer folks there, thereby saving tens of thousands of lives. Why? Because they wanted lightly-filled planes which their past experience showed were easier to control. Instead of 100,000 dead, which might have been a possibility, we only (only!) suffered less than 3000.

Sorry for the turn in the post there. I started out razzing Mike Fleming and ended up discussing apocalyptic scenarios. But we need to consider these things rationally. New Al-Qaeda strikes in America are a certainty, of that I'm sure. We should be ready. If that's possible.
OK, Credit Where Credit And All That

I'm still impressed by President Bush's surgical strike Thanksgiving Iraq visit. It's great in so many ways, not least of which is troop morale. Even if it was only a symbolic photo-op moment, it was still very meaningful to see the President serving food to the men as he did. Even symbolically, it's still a powerful message.

He did manage to upstage Senator Clinton's visit pretty well, which pleased the spiteful side of me, but you have to give the Senator her due for continuing on to Iraq for a multi-day tour of the country. I doubt Iraqis have a sense of who she is as Americans understand her, but she's still the ex-President's wife; that is, the wife of the guy who left them in their hellhole for eight years. It's still dangerous there, and it takes a certain amount of guts to go. That said, my Representative, Marsha Blackburn, went a couple of months ago to much less notice.

Buried in the story of her visit, though, was this nugget from her travelling companion, Senator Jack Reed:
"We're caught in a dilemma, possibly of our own making," Reed said. "A quick, hasty election might bring to power a person who doesn't share the values we're trying to encourage. But the more we wait, the more it looks like an occupation."
Hmmm, and somehow that manages to leave President Bush on the horns of a dilemma, doesn't it? Damned if he does, and then damned if he doesn't. Will the rest of the Democrats hear what Senator Reed is saying? Somehow, I doubt it.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Movie Review: Battle Royale

MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING! This review and discussion contains numerous spoilers. If you don't want to have the movie ruined before you see it, or you want to skip this post because it's really, really long, click here to go to the next post.

I've hesitated many times to post this review of the Japanese movie Battle Royale. Quite simply, it is one very shocking movie for many Americans. Not in what it shows on screen, which is surpassed by most Western slasher movies, but for what it is about. It's so controversial that it hasn't even had an official American release; it's only available as a British import of the Korean special edition! The Japanese studio (Toei) that made it refuses to ink a deal with American distributors for reasons unknown. Here in Memphis, I know of only two places where you can find it: Black Lodge Video and Midtown Video.

I hesitate because the film's reputation and circle of awareness has been so low-profile that it has escaped the attention of those who would profit from the media circus that would attend its raised profile. That's good; this is most definitely not a movie for the masses.

Having said all that, I'm sure your mind is racing, wondering what could be so terrible, so awful, that its fans want to keep it an open secret. Well, strictly speaking, it's not that horrible, except in the shadow of the Columbine student massacre as well as the school shootings of the time, which got a lot of media over-exposure. As the recent release of the video of Kleborn, Harris and friends taking target practice in the Colorado woods showed, there's still a sore spot, a raw part of America's psyche for some, that reflexively draws outrage.

Battle Royale is most assuredly a movie to make those folks howl. Made by Kinji Fukasaku in 1999, it was released in Japan with their equivalent of an "R" rating, prohibiting kids (the subject of the movie) from seeing it. The film was so successful that in two months it was recut into a "PG-13" version that went on to even bigger success. The director later filmed some more scenes, added some more footage, and gored up some violence to create a "Special Version" which had a third successful run. (This is the version available here.) It was unprecedented in Japan and I don't think anything like that has occurred here in America.

The film was the ultimate of its genre: films about the pressure of being a kid in contemporary Japan and the angry divide between generations. BR took that anger to the highest, most absurd level, and in doing so touched off an explosion of similar films, some of which are available in America now. In fact, the exploitation of kids in contemporary Japan is startling to Americans who discover it. It's the soil from which this film arises.

So, what's all the fuss? The film opens with some exposition about how, "in the near future," the Japanese economy collapsed and kids lost hope in the future and their parents' generation. Kids began to "boycott" school by the hundreds of thousands, and those who bothered to go were disrespectful and violent, making schools a dangerous place. The "Battle Royale Act" was passed by the Parliament in response.

Every year, the worst ninth-grade classes in the country were nominated by their teachers. A lottery was held and the "winner" was sent to an isolated island that had only the ruins of an abandoned small town, for the Battle Royale. Only one student would be allowed to leave the island alive.

The film cuts to a crush of reporters swarming around a military jeep inching its way along a jungle path, surrounded by soldiers. We see a small girl with her head bowed in the passenger seat. The reporters are trying to get a shot of her, talking about "this year's winner" in the Battle Royale (BR for short). The girl looks up. Her face is covered in blood, as is her nightgown and the small doll she holds. Her expression is breath-taking, a shocking mix of glee, pride and malevolence, the kind of expression I'm sure no parent ever wants to see on their child, it is so horrifying. It's a viscerally disturbing image, almost iconic.

Next we meet Class 3-B, a group of seventh graders. Well, we meet Noriko when she shows up for class and finds she's the only one there. Her teacher (perfectly played by Japanese screen legend "Beat" Takeshi Kitano), tells her sadly that the rest of the class has boycotted the day. In the hallway, a student (nobu) runs from another class with a knife and stabs Kitano in the ass! He drops the knife and Noriko picks it up. She won't give up who stabbed him, though we're pretty sure he knows anyway. We can see Kitano's earlier pleasure is now seemingly betrayed.

Kitano retires and we jump forward two more years. Now the kids are ninth-graders and its the last day of class. They are taken on a special school outing. The characters of Noriko, Nobu and Nanahara are quickly fleshed out for us. Along the way, the bus is gassed and the students black out. They wake up on BR island, in an abandoned schoolroom. Suddenly, helicopters descend and soldiers pile out, to swarm the class room, guns drawn. The students, naturally, are frightened and confused by all this.

Kitano returns and explains they are this year's BR selection for worst class. The students seem never to have heard of the Battle Royale, one of many strange points in the movie that aren't explained, but which I'll cover later. When Kitano notes that their present teacher objected to their selection, his bloody body is wheeled in by soldiers. (How did Kitano, retired for two years, get to nominate his former class?) One student expresses discomfort with the whole idea and gets a knife in her head from Kitano. This is only the first of many, many more shocking deaths in this shocking film.

Kitano explains: every student has been fitted with a collar with a tracking device and an explosive. They have three days in which to kill each other so that only one remains. They decide who that one is by their actions. If no student dies in a twenty-four hour period, the collars explode; if a student wanders into one of a constantly changing number of "danger zones," the collars explode. If three days elapse and more than one student has survived, the collars explode.

Nobu objects violently and Kitano activates his collar. Nobu runs around the room, screaming and angry, begging for helpas the other students try their best to avoid him. His collar explodes and a spray of blood ends Nobu. The other students are stunned. Their new reality is sinking in.

One by one, the students are given a backpack with one weapon (everything from a pot lid, to a GPS system, binoculars, a crossbow, knives and guns of various types, to automatic rifles.), food, water and a map. Each student runs a gantlet of soldiers into the woods. The Battle Royale is on.

That's only the first twenty minutes. The rest of the movie follows the students (mostly Noriko and Nanahara, Nobu's friend) as they try solutions. Some commit suicide immediately, trying the only way they know to defy the game. One waits outside the school and tries to kill the others as they come out. But he's a boy in far over his head, as the movie makes clear, and quickly dies.

Some girls call out from a field for a truce, and participation in a cease-fire. They're gunned down, too-easy targets. Some go solo; others pair with friends and boy/girlfriends. Some get the ugly spirit immediately and start killing, doing what the adults want or unleashing their own demon.

Many of you are no doubt already outraged. The whole concept is unquestionably tasteless and revolting. Kids murdering kids for the entertaining revenge of adults? Teacher/student relations carried to an absurdist extreme? It's important to note, though, that this movie doesn't glorify the violence, nor does it make miniature adults of the kids.

The kids in the film are supposed to be fifteen, along with two older ringers put in the game to "make it more interesting." They are played by actors who range in age from fifteen to twenty-one, who look the part. And, most important, they act like ninth-graders. This is the film's saving grace and what makes it a powerful, if disturbing, experience.

For example, shortly after being sent out, we see a group of the class thugs, the ones who play at being "hard" and "tough," as they bring one of the captured ringers to be taunted and bullied. It's just like watching any playground bullies pick on the weak kid, until the ringer manages to grab one of the rifles. In seconds, all of the bullies are dead. The last one pleads for her life, uncomprehending, before she is gunned down. It's shocking, that swift transformation, the horrible arc from play-bully to real, dead, kids. The juxtaposition is meant to slap you hard and that it does. We see, in the starkest of terms, the connection between child play-acting, mimicking adult behaviors to try them on, and the real thing.

Even the two kids who suicide stun. At first, the girl goes despairingly on in language any soul-tortured teen will recognise, showing her boyfriend how this is their only path. It's the romantic dream of a meaningful death, until they actually leap on camera. At the last, too-late moment, the boyfriend realises his mistake. It has the aura of realness that utterly drains any romance from it and shows the pointless futility, the instant surrender, starkly.

In another later scene, a group of girls have taken refuge in a lighthouse, nursing a now-wounded Nanahara (seen as a good guy by all the girls). They gather in the kitchen and are chattering away as fifteen year old girls will, bustling around the kitchen preparing lunch, rushing in, out and about the room. One of the girls is afraid of boys (who can blame her now?) and uses her weapon (poison) to try to kill Nanahara. But it all goes wrong and one of the girls dies instead. Fear flames on, bickering breaks out, names are called, tempers rise and soon the girls are making the kind of threats you'd expect. "You were never part of our group!" "Everyone thinks you're crazy!" "Ugly!" "Bitch!" Before you can blink, they've grabbed their guns and rifles and have opened fire. In a short gunfight, punctuated with girlish screams and cries, they're suddenly all dead. Again, the swift, sharp jump from kid-fight to gun-fight is stunning.

There's the class athlete, who is chased by the boy who loves her. He quickly moves from wanting to save her, to wanting to kiss her, to threatening to rape her. One of the stone-cold killer students stumbles in and kills him, then mortally wounds the athlete. She then is chased off and the athlete runs into the boy she loves, who doesn't love her. As she's dying, she asks, in the way a fifteen year old will, if he ever loved her and would he pretend to just until she dies. He then runs off and... well, let's just say it's a grim ending for him and others, too.

One group of boys, clearly meant to be the tech geeks and gamers, launch a plan to subvert the game and survive. But when they run into the boy stone-cold killer, their gamer macho disappears in a hail of bullets. Again, the juxtaposition speaks: kids who have found an adultish competency in a kid's pursuit try to take it into the real world, with pointless results.

This, more than just the killings and deaths, is what powers the movie: the shock of seeing kids -- not the reverse-aged young adults of Hollywood or the too-smart little grown-ups we're used to over here -- acting and talking like age-appropriate kids, dumped into a cross between Lord of the Flies and The Most Dangerous Game. The stakes are the highest, the game unrelenting, the play brutal, success uncertain and fragile. Kids are the ultimate pawns of vengeful adults. This is one of the movie's themes.

There's also the impersonal hand of the soldiers and the glee with which Kitano the teacher taunts the kids as he announces new danger zones and recites the daily death toll. There's a sense that the kids are being punished, but as they all die but one, it's senseless. It serves no purpose, as the kids don't seem to be aware the game exists. The movie even mocks this game frame with a running death toll, listing the dead by number, name, gender and order of death, and giving a countdown of the number of kids remaining. It resembles a score graphic from ESPN or a reality show. But it's not cheesy; it only heightens the tension.

This film has several flaws. The production values are very high, almost Hollywood; the sets spectacularly believable. But the script and the plot have holes that are often either unexplained (like the kids not knowing about BR) or left for the viewer to puzzle out (like who tricked who, or who knew what, in the unclear ending). I can't really spoil the actual ending, as much as it needs explicating, but it will undoubtedly take the average viewer a couple of sittings and some discussion with others to untangle the complex and ill-depicted wrap-ups. There are even websites to explain it for you, that's how Japanese-indirect it is. Because of the speed of the pacing, the kids also have a tendency to blur, which is only exacerbated for many American viewers by the too-similar-looking Japanese cast in their school uniforms.

The actors in the movie are, for the most part, fantastic. Beat Takeshi brings a rumpled, off-hand cruelty to his character while somehow making him sympathetic. The student actors frequently make their characters real people with only moments on-screen. The kids who make it near to the end manage to convey their own youth realistically while still making us believe they have what it takes to survive that far. There's not a single actor who stands out badly; it's a sharp ensemble.

The American viewer isn't helped by subtitles ( can handle it; c'mon!) that stumble occasionally and then turn into Engrish of a particularly hallucinatory kind by the time of the "Requiems" that close the film. I'll let you find out for yourself; some are hilarious and some are baffling in the extreme. It even took me, a Japanophile, a couple of viewings and a lucky find of a transcript to figure some things out. But please don't let this annoyance stop you.

There's also more than a bit of "Japan-ness" in the movie that Americans not familiar with their culture may be confused by. In the early schoolroom scene, Kitano shows the students a videotape to explain things. It's a laugh-out-loud funny take-off on Japanese commercials and training films where a perky young woman, in camo short-shorts and cap with glitter sprinkled on her face, uses a sing-songy voice and mannequin movements to lay the BR out. You can see some vidcaps of this, and other scenes from the film here. The video parody is bizarre enough, but seeing Kitano clap along and encourage the students to join in doesn't make sense to Americans unless you know that this kind of group participation is the norm over there. The film is brutally parodying this part of the adult world as Kitano mocks the students.

[Side note: The Snowblood Apples site above is an excellent review site for some truly amazing Japanese and Korean movies. Well worth your time to browse around. Some of the movies mentioned are available at video stores locally. I know Midtown Video will soon be getting Suicide Circle, which opens with fifty-four Japanese schoolgirls in school uniforms throwing themselves in front of a train. It covers similar ground to BR in its study of the disconnect between the current generation of schoolkids and adults. Poker Industries has a gigantic library of Asian films well worth perusing, available at deep discount prices. Beware though: many are strange, sexual and violent.]

The web of relationships is another important part of the films -- those between students, between the various students and cliques, and between adults and kids. It is, in fact, the heart of the movie: adults unable to control lash out at the kids they've abused; the kids, not yet able to handle the adult world for real, ape the adult behaviors they've seen. We are led to believe that several people might have rigged the game at various stages for their own agendas -- revenge for the past, love, grudging respect. It's both complex and subtle, in the Japanese way. The climax and resolution are so open-ended that it's spawned discussion boards at several places.

There's been talk of an American remake, but somehow I doubt it. The world of Battle Royale is shocking to Japanese, but to Americans it is already our schools and our entertainment. A direct remake would be both impossible and would hit too close to home in our still post-Columbine world. What these kids do just doesn't happen in Japan; in America we see it all the time. In Japan, it's dystopia; in America, it's our world.

Besides, there would be the unavoidable tendency by Hollywood to glorify the violence on the one hand, to make the kids into attractive gangster toughs, twenty-somethings actors with impossibly buff bods playing them, or to turn it into a flat, preachy version of Lord of the Flies, with overblown music, limpid expressions, "important" themes and "serious" intent. There's a balance that's crucial in BR, one American viewers have to stretch to get; any Americanised remake would inevitably destroy that balance. (Compare Japan's Ringu with its American remake The Ring for an instructive lesson in our very differing cinematic methodologies.) Believe it or not, there's a modicum of humor in the movie as well, though it is often of the grimmest, blackest sort. This too is part of the balance I'm talking about, a slight leavening between the terrible parts serving to prevent them from blurring into one long, numbing murder spree.

The DVD I saw had some fascinating extras. There's a lot of behind the scenes vidcam stuff with the kids running around the set being the kids they are, as well as them interacting with the grandfatherly Fukasaku, even to staging a birthday party for him! There's some long takes as we watch the orchestra (all Western, oddly enough) play the classical soundtrack music in the recording studio. There's also some footage of stunt rehearsals. It's hard to follow, as it is all in Japanese, with Korean subtitles(!). You can also watch the "training video" by itself, which was a hoot, I must admit. And the enhanced gore that was added to the finished film for the "Special Version" is broken down into its component effects in a rapid-fire montage for effects buffs. Pretty neat to see, in a gory way.

Lastly, there is a Battle Royale II, amazingly enough. Made by the same production crew as the first, with some actors returning, it was nonetheless a disappointment. The tables are turned between kids and adults, and the film is much more explicitly political, which is part of the failure. There's a disruption of the adult/kid dynamic of BR; the kids fight back, instead of fighting each other, taking the movie from allegory to fantasy. Suddenly, an army of kids know all about the Battle Royale, where in the first movie it was a mystery to them. It was also more self-conscious of its cultural status and played to that to some extent, especially in a fashion awareness that served to undercut the message. Saddest of all, director Kinji Fukasaku died of bone cancer before completing the film; he foreswore treatment in order to make the movie, knowing it would kill him. His son made his feature-film debut by completing it.

If you're a media person reading this, on the lookout for the next thing to exploit, please go see Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which is now in sparse release, instead. It's a lightly fictionalised version of Columbine played deadpan and without glorifying anyone or anything. Violence erupts shockingly in the middle of the ordinary. The film doesn't push a viewpoint, letting the viewer make choices that can be unsettling. Which is the point. It's getting good, if tender, reviews. Elephant is right here, right now, current and accessible. Leave Battle Royale in the underground for the willing to discover.

Obviously, this film isn't for everyone. Maybe not even many, nor a few. If you are a parent yourself, it may shock too closely to your heart to stand. If you're overly PC or a bleeding liberal, it will offend on so many levels your head will spin. But those who don't mistake the violence for the point, who see the horror as the background of the kids' lives (several flashbacks in the film show the ugly home lives of some of the students, pointedly showing the hypocricy and abandonment of the adults), those who see the moments of fifteen year old behavior -- trying clumsily to cope with a violent, incomprehensible world without adult help -- as the foreground, will be bowled over by the film's message: parental neglect that doesn't prepare the kids for a violent world is flipped into violence in a neglectful world that no-one wants. Despite everything I've been saying, it's not a downbeat horror/death movie, but an entertaining, if gory, allegory of contemporary Japan. With the numerous caveats and warnings made above, I highly, highly recommend this movie.
Why? Because I Say So, That's Why

For reasons I cannot explain, I've reverted back to the old blog name, "Half-Bakered." As Number One Supreme Dictator For Life And Then Some of this blog, I'm exercising my prerogative.

No need to change any RTB links or anything. Just a whim on my part. Tomorrow I may change the name again to "Beet Souffle," or "Dumb-Ass" or something. Who knows?

That is all.
A Peek Behind The Curtain


She has a new post, November 26, that has an informative look at why news outfits do and do not honor news embargos. It's the second item. After that comes her view of some of the technical stuff involved in an on-camera interview with notorious State Senator John Ford.

Peggy's blog is always a worthwhile check-in for Memphis news junkies.
Update On UTK Hate Speech Incident

Adam Groves has an update on the hate speech incident at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville that I blogged about on Wednesday. It seems that the author of the infamous (my word of the day) email, Justin Rubenstein, has been suspended from the Issues Committee. At the minimum, this is what should have happened almost immediately after the whole affair came to light. Better late than never and I hope it's made permanent.

While you're at Adam's blog, scroll down to the next post, which is an excellent, link-rich, discussion of the possible replacements for retiring State Senator Ben Atchley. It boils down to local boy vs. Sundquist ex-disciple. Should turn interesting.
Terror Alert Level: Bert

I'm shamelessly stealing this from Chris. You can now find it in the column to the left, underneath the Weather Pixie. It's the Department of Homeland Security's Terror Alert Level chart redone with Sesame Street characters! Presently, we are at "Bert." Pray that we never reach "Elmo."
WKRP's Famous Turkey Drop Episode

Audio from the hilarious climax of the infamous (I should have said) episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, where the station manager dropped live turkeys from a helicopter onto a shopping center parking lot, is now available online! RealAudio is required.

Sadly, it doesn't include Station Manager Arthur (Howard Jump) Carlson's now-classic line: "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."
If Microsoft Built Cars

If Microsoft built cars, we might see things like this. I would add these:

21. Your car would occasionally not make right-hand turns. There is no explanation. You make three left-hand turns instead and accept it.

22. The dealership doesn't mention "Tires sold separately." You have already bought the car, so you go to the tire store recommended by the dealer where you learn they don't sell tires compatible with your car.

Spotted on Slashdot.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Hah! Take That!

I don't agree with his domestic "compassionate conservatism," which is looking more and more like Nixonian "please start liking me" politics, but when your President is willing to do this, you just gotta be proud.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Hillary Clinton must be fuming at being so dramatically upstaged. And terrorists all across the Mideast are smarting at the thumb they just found in their eye.

Ten Myths About Thanksgiving

Just what the title says. The article doesn't debase the holiday, but puts it into better perspective.

Hat tip to Alpha Patriot for the heads up.
But He'll Be Mad At Me!

Barry over at Inn of the Last Home blogs about an experience he had while shopping the other day. It should give us all pause. There are lots of adults just like that woman, throwing stuff at their kids, sating their desires while ignoring adult responsibility for their upbringing.

And, as Barry reminds us, these kids will be leading the world very shortly.

[If the link is bloggered, scroll down to the Wednesday post, "Another Brick in the Wall."]
He's Coming For Your Country Now

Many of you have no doubt already heard of George Soros, the multibillionaire currency investor. He was considered responsible for the currency market explosion in 1997 that staggered the economies of the SouthEast Asian "tiger" nations for several years. He's also the founder of the Open Society Institute, where he funnels his money into some of his pet projects. These include relaxed, Holland-style drug laws and euthanasia.

But more important is the work of the Open Society Institute in toppling governments through ground-up popular rebellions. He's done it in Slovakia, Serbia and now Georgia (the former Soviet state).

According to this story in yesterday's Toronto Globe and Mail, Soros was responsible for funding and training the leaders of the mass protesters who forced President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign.
It was back in February that billionaire financier George Soros began laying the brickwork for the toppling of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

That month, funds from his Open Society Institute sent a 31-year-old Tbilisi activist named Giga Bokeria to Serbia to meet with members of the Otpor (Resistance) movement and learn how they used street demonstrations to topple dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Then, in the summer, Mr. Soros's foundation paid for a return trip to Georgia by Otpor activists, who ran three-day courses teaching more than 1,000 students how to stage a peaceful revolution.

Last weekend, the Liberty Institute that Mr. Bokeria helped found was instrumental in organizing the street protests that eventually forced Mr. Shevardnadze to sign his resignation papers. Mr. Bokeria says it was in Belgrade that he learned the value of seizing and holding the moral high ground, and how to make use of public pressure -- tactics that proved so persuasive on the streets of Tbilisi after this month's tainted parliamentary election.
There's much, much more. Go and read the whole thing. It shows how carefully Soros and those he trained and funded worked. It also shows Soros reach and influence.

This should concern all Americans regardless of their politics, because Soros and his billions have set their sights on George Bush and America.

Soros has donated millions to and to the Democratic Party to fund efforts to explicitly defeat President Bush. Soros has said he seeks "regime change" because:
“America, under Bush, is a danger to the world....”
Don't forget that it was Democrats who for years blasted Republicans as the party of the rich, the ones who used wealth to manipulate American politics. This is true, by the way; both parties are guilty as all hell. It was why the McCain-Feingold Bill was passed -- to "reform" the way politics was done to remove the influence of money. But this is the first time I know of where one man with money and an agenda and the ability to have significant impact on the whole political structure with only minimal direct support, has tried this. It concerns me profoundly.

Now we have an ultra-wealthy man -- one man -- who wants to remake our government. He is willing to devote resources no one else can match -- international foundations with legions of trained provacateurs and professionals with prior, successful experience in several countries; more money than God -- to the effort.

If you're a Democrat who loathes Bush, that's fine. You're entitled to that opinion. But think what it means for Soros, an avowed transnationalist directly opposed to American sovreignty, to do as he wishes to America.

Go read about what's been done in Georgia. Even if you're sympathetic, imagine if a Saddam Hussein, or a King Fahd, or Communist China, decided to do the same thing.

We should be very, very concerned and this story needs a higher profile, fast.

[NOTE: Chris over at Signifying Nothing has also spotted this one. He has other links to more commentary.]
Music Geek Heaven

I was flipping channels this morning, looking for the news and weather, when I spotted a commercial for Target. A middle-aged man, balding with glasses, a short-sleeved shirt and tie, was playing drums on an empty white set with relaxed authority. Next to him was a young woman, her long blonde curls swirling as she flailed her own drums. It took me a moment, but sure enough -- it was Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick and Donna C. of The Donnas!

I've since seen it a few more times today. Very sublime moment for yours truly.
Mike Fleming Really Is An Idiot

Mike's found a new hobby horse of late, cobbled together from old pieces of cliche and some half-baked ideas he's picked up from the Web. It's taking him to a new low.

The roots go back to September 11, 2001. Right after the story broke, his employer, AM 600 WREC went with ABC television simulcast until they could pull their own team together. That became Mike Fleming and John "Bad Dog" McCormack (of WREG Rock 103). John immediately began to call for America to bomb the Middle East, before we had any idea what was going on. Fleming, on the other hand, came out of the gate asking listeners which civil rights they were going to give up to pursue the people responsible. It was absurd and premature, to say the least.

Well, last week, Fleming ran across this story, from the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI. In it, an interview with an alleged top Al-Qaeda lieutenant is translated. Abu Salma Al-Hijazi claims that at or near the end of Ramadan (which ended on Tuesday past), Al-Qaeda would launch an attack against America that would kill "100,000" people.
In regard to rumors about a large-scale attack against the U.S. during the month of Ramadan, Al-Hijazi said that "a huge and very courageous strike" will take place and that the number of infidels expected to be killed in this attack, according to primary estimates, exceeds 100,000. He added that he "anticipates, but will not swear, that the attack will happen during Ramadan." He further stated that the attack will be carried out in a way that will "amaze the world and turn Al-Qai'da into [an organization that] horrifies the world until the law of Allah is implemented, actually implemented, and not just in words, on His land... You wait and see that the balance of power between Al-Qai'da and its rivals will change, all of a sudden, Allah willing."
"You wait and see...." The words of every angry, impotent child.

As with many things at MEMRI, there's a whole, enormous grain of salt to be taken here. Middle Eastern newspapers operate far differently from American and European papers, in that boast, brag, false claims and all kinds of stretching are par for the course. Standards of impartiality, neutrality, even-ness, accuracy, etc. are not always observed. So, it's entirely possible that this Al-Hijazi was spreading propaganda through this newspaper and it was willingly complying.

But Fleming took it as gospel. Then, he mixed in this story from, a right-wing Republican news site that quotes retired Major General Tommy Franks:
Discussing the hypothetical dangers posed to the U.S. in the wake of Sept. 11, Franks said that “the worst thing that could happen” is if terrorists acquire and then use a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon that inflicts heavy casualties.

If that happens, Franks said, “... the Western world, the free world, loses what it cherishes most, and that is freedom and liberty we’ve seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy.”

Franks then offered “in a practical sense” what he thinks would happen in the aftermath of such an attack.

“It means the potential of a weapon of mass destruction and a terrorist, massive, casualty-producing event somewhere in the Western world – it may be in the United States of America – that causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass, casualty-producing event. Which in fact, then begins to unravel the fabric of our Constitution. Two steps, very, very important.”
Fleming took this to mean that martial law would be declared in the wake of an event like the "100,000 dead" MEMRI story.

If you go to the NewsMax main page and scroll the list of stories, you'll note a breathless sense of outrage and incredulity. Every Democrat slip or crack is an outrage. The tiniest bits of sugar get whipped furiously into a mountain of cotton candy. I used to read this site regularly, but got tired of the constant righteous fury. Fleming has been cribbing stories from them for years, sometimes reading articles word-for-word without bothering to mention NewsMax; recently, he was called on this on the air and has been better about his attributions.

He somehow stirred this all up and got a story: there will be a horrible mass murder and martial law will be declared, ending the Constitution and the United States. He's been running with it most shows ever since. It's silly, extreme hyperbole of the lowest type. Sadly, that's just what Fleming loves to truck in, because it's easy and guaranteed to get folks listening.

Cheap and lazy fear-mongering. Way to go, Fleming.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

UT Hate Speech Incident

Recently, a student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Sukhmani Khalsa, who is conservative and a Sikh, wrote in the UTK Daily Beacon about the lack of diversity in speakers being presented by the University-funded Issues Committee, which receives $90,000 to present speakers. He noted that the committee was failing its express mission to "examine the most pertinent issues in a creative and balanced manner."

Members of the Issues Committee traded emails discussing the article in blunt and unrepentent terms. Even vulgar terms. Unfortunately for them, a former member of the committee, another conservative who earlier resigned over just the same objections Khalsa had, was still on the email list and received every message. He made those emails public and touched off a firestorm.

Justin Rubinstein, one of the committee members wrote: "...if you see one of those ragheads, shoot him right in the fucking face." Others admitted the committee was liberal and saw no problems.

Adam Groves, UTK student, blogger and member of the Rocky Top Brigade, has been all over this incident. Read his blog for detailed reports and follow ups.

The story has taken all kinds of weird turns. It appears that the University will not be taking any action against the committee, or its members. At one point, Groves posted about a meeting between Rubinstein and the Student Judicial Board:
Today, I chated [sic] with a member of the Issues Committee who said that Rubenstein had met with Student Judicial Board judges. He characterized the chance that Rubenstein would receive disciplinary action after the meeting as "unlikely." The panel members reportedly characterized the email in question as a "joke" that didn't warrant any action on their part.
There are two points here. Did Rubinstein meet with the judges individually, in private? Wouldn't that be a violation or at least an ethical lapse? Or was this a formal hearing, in which case was it open to the public? Why or why not? Something smells wrong there.

Also, if you go to Groves' site, you can read the whole emails to get the context of the pull quote, which does serve to mitigate Rubinstein a bit. But imagine if he'd said "...if you see one of those niggers, shoot him right in the fucking face." Would he even have had a chance? Would he even still be a student at UTK? Wouldn't there be one hella uproar that would be major news? There is very definitely an appearance of different standards at play here, something which critics have latched onto.

The main critics, and the main camp keeping the story going, are the UT College Republicans. Their website is also reporting this story, and detailing UTCR actions in response. Quite honestly, they seem to be playing a very hard line on this story, but again, its a matter of appearance.

My snarky suggestion would be to make the phrase "shoot him in the fucking face" the new campus catchphrase. Whenever someone pisses you off you respond with that phrase.

Damn, my professor says I'm failing his class.
Awww, screw him! Shoot him in the fucking face!

My girlfriend's been giving me a hard time lately.
Hey, shoot her in the fucking face!

See how long before the campus PC police suddenly don't find it funny any more. Then call them on their double standard. Then demand action.

WMC TV5 Memphis has also taken up this story as well as the Shelby County Republicans. And, of course, Adam Groves has a wealth of links at his blog.

As Glenn would say, "Advantage, Groves!" Well done, Adam.
John Ford Explains It All For You

State Senator and perennial Memphis embarassment John Ford is once again showing his true colors. It's not enough that he waves guns at and makes threats to City utility employees who are unlucky enough to cross him. Nor that he's legend for speeding at up to 90mph along I-40 between Memphis and Nashville, again armed and willing to threaten State Troopers who have the misfortune to think that they should apply traffic laws to him. Nor that his complex marital problems seem to end up in local courts on a clockwork basis. Or even that, when the local child care scandal touched his interests, he alone was able to sit in on closed meetings with the Governor and State regulators.

This time, Nashville's Phil Williams of News Channel 5, WTVF, did an investigation of abuse of State-paid FedEx shipping accounts used by legislators. He found that:
The Memphis Democrat has spent almost $2,200 in the past year to overnight packages by FedEx. That compares to $18,000 spent a year for all 132 members of the legislature.
That's right, the average was $136 and he managed $2200. It gets better:
Billing records show that Ford's office has allowed his ex-wife Tamara Mitchell Ford to repeatedly use the state's FedEx account. Included are more than a dozen overnight packages she shipped at state expense to her family in South Carolina.

And that's not all. Taxpayers also paid for her to FedEx packages to court officials in Alabama where she faced DUI charges, packages to a resort in Orlando, even to overnight her credit card payments to American Express....

The senator himself also keeps the FedEx trucks running, overnighting packages to lots of constituents named Ford: Joseph Ford, Kemba Ford, Michael Ford, Michelle Ford, Maxine Ford.
When called and questioned, Ford had this to say:
"Don't call me today, tomorrow or ever -- you understand?" Ford says. "Don't call me back. If you do, I'm going to consider it harassment and file charges against you."
Classic Ford threat and bluster. During their investigation of the child care scandal mentioned above, the Commercial Appeal's Mark Perrusquia attempted an interview that failed with such spectacular obscenity and threats they printed the entire thing for their readers.

Memphis television station Channel Five WMC took up the story today and even managed an on-camera interview with Ford. It's more classic Ford:
"Once you're elected, it becomes part of your salary package. It's no longer so called vis-à-vis taxpayer dollars.... The fact that I may send something to a relative. They're my constituents also.... When I get something from Neiman Marcus.... Generally, it was something I sent back. They sent the wrong thing. Put a fed-ex and send it right back."

Why not use a personal fed-ex account?

"This is my personal account. I can do that."

Why rush a package back though? Why not send it regular..?

"Because I wanted to. That's my prerogative.... By the way, who's to say that J-Crew and Neiman Marcus was personal? I haven't told you that. Well was it? I'm not going to answer that question."
It's like a Saturday Night Live skit. From the present unfunny era.

John Ford is everything we should fear in an elected official. He uses the office for personal enrichment and sees it as "his" office, not a public trust. He uses the power and connections of his office for himself and his friends. His sense of entitlement is beyond boggling.

To the rest of Tennessee, I can only tell you that many of us in Memphis, though obviously not most or he wouldn't be re-elected, are deeply ashamed of this man. Please forgive us.
Bounce Back Blowback?

Summerstorm 2003 did a world of hurtin' to this city. Business especially took a big hit, either from direct storm damage (like Ike's on Union, which was destroyed) or as many people suspended shopping to take care of their problems. The City Council wanted to do something, being politicians who must be seen "doing something." The answer was "Bounce Back Memphis". (Scroll down and choose the September 17th link in the "In The News" box.) Of course, being politicians they couldn't help but note that the City lost $1.7 million in taxes. I thought Rainy Day Funds were to cover just such eventualities, but apparently I'm mistaken here.

You can find the "Bounce Back Memphis" logo all around, but as the City's press release notes, Clear Channel has signed on. There's been a public service announcement showing on ABC24 WPTY that's amusing. Brian Tiegland sells the message, but the "merchants" they show on camera are Beale Street and Peabody Place, a couple of downtown tourist traps! And part of the City's hard-sell do-or-die downtown rebuilding effort.

No mention of the countless little businesses affected -- like the many businesses along Madison that were decimated by MATA's trolley construction which have so far escaped the City's concern. Nor of all the businesses along Union, Cooper, Poplar, Jackson and Summer Avenues that were hurt. Nope, it's Peabody Place and Beale Street, already recipients of City and County largesse.

Gotta help that downtown bounce back, y'all.

Monday, November 24, 2003


I sat down to do some blogging before an early bed and was only able to get out the two posts below before something at Blogspot went kerflooie. I ended up losing a bit of time and now I have to turn in. Sorry.

The next couple of days will be busy for me, doing some chores before the holiday and just general business insanity on the days before and after Thanksgiving. I'll keep posting, but I'm not sure how much you'll get.

See ya tomorrow.
What Might Have Been

It's hard to imagine such things nowadays, in our cynical, security-conscious world. It's also hard to imagine how fragile is history, that world-shaking events can turn on a single, conscience-stricken decision. After watching John Hinckley's long journey since trying to kill President Ronald Reagan, it's hard to imagine any presidential assassin being released into the world, especially one as dangerous as Richard Pavlick:
On a bright Sunday morning nearly 43 years ago, a ramshackle Buick crept through the posh streets of Palm Beach, Fla., toward a sprawling, Mediterranean-style mansion.

At the wheel was a disheveled, silver-haired madman. His aged right hand rested near a switch wired to seven sticks of dynamite.

Inside the two-story stucco home was his target - president-elect John F. Kennedy - readying for morning Mass.

Richard Pavlick stopped a short distance from the house and waited, unnoticed by U.S. Secret Service agents outside.

It was decades before today’s proliferation of suicide bombers, but Pavlick’s plan on Dec. 11, 1960, was as simple: ram the president-elect’s car and detonate the dynamite.

Pavlick’s suicide note had been written to the people of the United States, reading in part: "it is hoped by my actions that a better country ... has resulted."

The mansion’s door opened. Mr. Kennedy emerged.
Pavlick, it turns out, was motivated by anti-Catholicism and rabid anti-Kennedy anger, believing Joe had bought his son's election in 1960.

Pavlick's story is only starting in the short bit above. There's much, much more and it only gets odder.

Imagine no Kennedy mystique, no Camelot, no One Hundred Days, no New Frontier, no vigah. What would Lyndon Johnson, not inheriting Kennedy's escalations in Vietnam and his Bay of Pigs embarrassments, have done in Vietnam? With Krushchev? Johnson was no friend of blacks, despite the Civil Rights Act. How would he have dealt with segregation, in a different climate? Would his dark, controlling side have come to the fore? Would such a heinous assassination have hastened this country's slide down the road of Sixties disillusion?

It all turned on one man's compassion for a wife and two kids.
Our Daily Lesson

History is full of inventors who had their inventions stolen from them by greedy companies protecting profits. Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the television, was nearly one such victim, at the hands of RCA.

Now comes word that yet another tale of history we thought we knew isn't true. Turns out that Alexander Graham Bell didn't invent the telephone. He missed it by thirteen years.
FOR more than a century, Alexander Graham Bell has been credited with inventing one of the world’s most ingenious and profitable inventions. But astonishing new evidence unearthed in the archives of London’s Science Museum reveals that successful tests on a German telephone, created 13 years before Bell’s, were suppressed, allowing the Scot to retain his position as the father of modern communications.

Previously unseen documents show how a series of experiments in 1947 on a device developed by Philipp Reis, found that it could work as well as Bell’s design when amplified. Using a modern receiver, the engineers found the German’s 1863 transmitter, a system written off by history, could transmit speech and that Reis’s receiver would also “reproduce speech of good quality but of low efficiency”.

But the file also reveals that the tests – carried out on a number of the museum’s telephone exhibits in 1947 to coincide with the centenary of Bell’s birth – were considered so controversial that they were ordered to be kept secret by Sir Frank Gill, then chairman of British firm Standard Telephones and Cables (STC).

According to the documents, STC was at the time locked in talks to win a lucrative business deal with the American Telephone and Telegraph company (ATT), which had evolved from the famous Bell Company, and Gill thought it commercial suicide to have the results made public.
There's more, of course. Read the whole thing.

The Memphis City Council District Five race was decided while I was on hiatus and as suspected it went to Carol Chumney, the vapid Democrat grind. (You remember grinds from school, don't you? The humorless drones who studied real hard every day, read all the textbooks, aced all the tests, never spoke up in class, never had an original thought but could repeat everything they'd learned? Yeah, Chumney.) The election result was as expected, but there are some fascinating things to note in the numbers.

Over on Blake's Blog, he made some predictions that largely were ill-founded, and I addressed them briefly in his comments. I'll expand those thoughts here.

If you look at the results of the October election, Democrat Chumney got 6578 votes to Republican Flinn's 5207, or 59% to 41% (leaving out votes for the other three candidates for the moment). But the number three finisher, with 4479 votes, was fellow Democrat Jim Strickland; the next in line after him, with 528 votes, was environmentalist Mark Follis.

Although it's an over-broad generalisation, we can not-unreasonably assume that Strickland's and Follis' voters are far more likely to fall to Chumney than to Flinn. Flinn's appeal is largely based on three things: his personal charm, his Republican affiliation, and his "outsider" populist image. None of those would seem to hold strong sway to the voters who must now redecide their vote in the runoff.

So, assuming -- again I don't think unreasonably -- that Chumney got even 80% of the Strickland/Follis voter set, she would have something like a 63% to 37% edge over Flinn. (10,582 out of 16,792 votes) That's what you should expect to see on November's results.

The actual final runoff tally was 6524 to 5314. That's a stiff drop-off in voter turnout; such is the case in weak elections like these. But the ratio turns out to be 55% Chumney to 45% Flinn! What happened? Chumney's 26 point theoretical became a 10 point reality. Clearly, she lost ground.

Yes, you can assume that a lot of the Strickland/Follis voters just stayed home. But then that means, in the head-to-head tally, Chumney's October 59% still dropped, to 55%. When you should expect her voters to turn out solidly, and for her to pick up some of the others, she didn't! Even in raw numbers, Chumney lost 54 votes between elections, while Flinn gained 107. Nearly double!

I hope Flinn's people have parsed these numbers, as I think there's a good, hopeful note in them for Flinn's future in politics. While I wouldn't want him for my City Councillor, I think he has a place in the local elected political structure. I hope he continues on and finds it. I think the message is clear that Memphians do seem to want him.

I also hope we see both a credible black female challenger and a solid Republican in the next District Five race. The black female will split a lot of votes off Chumney's base, opening up a chance for the Republican. We'll see. I just hope we survive the next four years of Chumney's dull earnestness.
Hey, Don't I Know You?

Hmmmm...Rush Limbaugh leaves the air five weeks ago; Half-Bakered disappears in another of his depression hiatuses (hiati?). Rush comes back this week, and so do I. A coincidence? Undoubtedly, though we've never been photographed together! It makes you wonder....

OK, maybe not. Hey! How you been doing? Happy to see you; glad you could stick around. (Gratuitous Bonzo Dog Band nod there.) I may be back. We'll see.

I've got a whole list of links and stories to catch up on, of course. I also have a whole bunch of films I want to tell you about. (BATTLE ROYALE!!) That's the down side of this past depression episode: I watched way too many movies. (BATTLE ROYALE!!) Way too many. But there's some you might be interested in and I'll tell you more later. (BATTLE ROYALE!!)

Thanks for sticking around. It's more than I deserve. I hope I make it worth your while.

During an email discussion with a reader last week, I realised that I hadn't even looked in on Jackson Baker's Memphis Flyer Politics column in quite a while. Baker is the namesake for this blog's original incarnation. I had grown increasingly frustrated with his constantly unchallenged propaganda efforts masquerading as sage political commentary until I finally reached the point where I thought something had to be done. Someone had to speak against him. This blog was the result.

As I noted to my correspondent, I thought that Baker had been phoning it in for a while and was finally not worth the time to read. I quit commenting on his column. But, out of curiousity and fairness, I thought I'd have a look in again. I was not disappointed!

[Long digression: Can someone at the Memphis Flyer please thump the idiot on the head who designed their website layout? Every major regular column is designated with an "articletype=" tag that never changes. Jackson Baker is "articletype=4." Bookmarking that link will take you to the most recent column. When that column is rotated out, it gets a new, long URL. However, there's no quick link to prior columns, so you must go to Search Engine Hell to find it. I tried entering "Jackson Baker Woodrow Wilson," which is the subject of the column I wanted to link. Got no results. Entered "Jackson Baker" and got a long, long list of everything he's written, listed in generic ways that don't inform you of what the link is. It's awful and user-unfriendly. It needs to change. /digression.]

Anyway, Ol' Jacko tries to compare Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to former US President Woodrow Wilson. He also tries to rewrite recent State history, and his own positions, to suit the new political landscape. It's an embarrassment.

Let us begin:
At the conclusion of World War I, Woodrow Wilson proposed the principle of "open covenants, openly arrived at" as a standard for international relationships. The concept has been little more than fodder for ridicule ever since.
Oops! Stop right there. Right away, Baker shows himself as an unschooled and ignorant follower of the Liberal tradition, which exalts Wilson and has worked very hard over the decades to erase his many horrifying deeds. If Baker knew the real history of Woodrow Wilson's presidency, he'd never have begun this analogy.

Wilson was an ardent internationalist in a strongly isolationist era. America had little stomach for the dangerous entanglements of Europe, fearing being drawn into their conflicts. We spent nearly all of the 19th century successfully doing that. As a nation seeing enormous immigration from that very continent at that time, and being composed of descendants of past immigrants, we knew well now dangerous that could be. Wilson was not to be deterred; the wisdom of George Washington and the Founding Fathers was good enough for him.

As World War One ground down into static trench warfare, chewing up men like a sausage grinder, Wilson was swayed by European leaders who needed American resources to continue their war and prevent German hegemony. America being isolationist because we came from German stock and had little interest in European wars, Wilson undertook to change American opinion. He created the Committee on Public Information, or the Creel Commission. It was the first and most successful of America's official propaganda agencies. One of the Commission members, Edward Bernays, even wrote a book about everything he learned, Propaganda, which is considered a classic textbook even today. Within a year, America went from proud German-lovers (Freud had just done a speaking tour of the nation to great acclaim. German heritage was equally as acclaimed as English, Italian or Hispanic is today.) to German-loathers, thanks to Wilson's efforts. The Creel Commission's work wasn't advertised (har, har), but their work is a cornerstone of every effort to control and manipulate public opinion since. It resulted in laws against the government ever having a propaganda arm ever again.

Even less so has the idea of candid and public handling of domestic affairs taken hold among Wilson's countrymen. Anybody with any experience in local, state, or federal governments knows that the real deals get cut behind closed doors and that what goes on in public debate is generally so much legislative window-dressing.
Shocking! I didn't know that! What a revelation! Seriously, this is how we got the US Constitution, through a Constitutional Convention that was kept strictly secret during discussions which largely consisted of finding acceptable compromises, deals. It's how business is done. Deal with it.

It was how things were done by Naifeh and Sundquist during the Income Tax Wars and Baker dutifully reported the situation then, not bothering to decry it. In fact, maybe he'd like to apply some of that philosophy to his brethren in the press, one of the most famously closed and opaque "back rooms" around?

But Phil Bredesen, the former Nashville mayor who's about to begin his second year at the helm of Tennessee state government, seems determined to change all that, acting to fulfill both the spirit and the letter of Wilson's dictum.
And here Baker steps in it. Comparing a modern-day Democrat to Wilson is dangerous stuff. You see, Woodrow Wilson was a pure, unapologetic, and virulent racist.

Under his administration, government was almost completely closed to blacks. He made no bones of his racism and it encouraged those around and under him. The rise of Jim Crow has major roots in this atmosphere and period. Under Wilson, America entered a period of such racist sentiment that, within a year, blacks all across the country were rioting against it.

Wilson arranged for a big, new movie to be screened in the White House. That film? Birth Of A Nation, the notorious hallmark of racist cinema. He labelled the film "history writ with lightning," a review that made it to various prints of the film. Is this really where Baker wants to go? It's understandable to want openness in government, but is this his best analogy?

Last year, the newly elected governor found that the state was $100 million in the hole, even after the enactment of an unprecedentedly large sales-tax increase the year before. Instead of gnashing his teeth or wringing his hands, Bredesen analyzed the situation and determined to do that which no prior Democratic governor (or Republican governor, either) had done -- slash state spending across the board. Except for public education or where judicial mandates prevented it, the governor insisted that each department slash its budget by 9 percent. Remarkably, even the Tennessee Department of Transportation, whose roadbuilding apparatus had always enjoyed sacred-cow status, came under the ax.
We'll have to parse this mess almost phrase by phrase, so monstrous is its ahistorical revisionism.

First, there's the sales tax increase shibboleth. Yes, we do have the nation's highest sales tax. It raised slightly more money, from every Tennessean and every other person who happened to purchase something while passing through our state, than the income tax "reform" that Baker touted, which would have raised slightly less money from only 40% of the citizens of Tennessee alone. We would have been in the same fiscal boat, but with a much smaller crew manning the oars, and working much, much harder at paddling. And as Bill Hobbs has been showing, the sales tax is recovering faster and producing more revenues earlier than the prophets of IT reform (Baker included!) ever admitted possible.

Baker then lauds Bredesen for budget cutting. This was a terrible surpise to every Democrat and the members of the press who thought Bredesen was going to dump his campaign rhetoric after his election and continue the IT press. Remember, this was the same group who had spent the previous year parroting the Naifeh/Sundquist "doom and gloom" and "Armageddon" scenarios that would result if we didn't get Sundquist's income tax implemented. Government would shut down and folks would be thrown into the streets to starve and die. It would be chaos and social collapse.

Ever member of the press was skeptical that Bredesen could follow through on his drive to cut the budget. But he did, despite their dire predictions, and proved them all wrong, I'm proud to say. And the State is still standing, business going on as usual.

The TDOT problem was one that Sundquist allowed and the press refused to pursue. TDOT chairman Saltsmann informed Governor Sundquist pre-emptively, when he heard rumors that the Department's one billion dollar bank account might be tapped for funds, or that the gas tax might have one penny diverted into the General Fund, that Saltsmann wouldn't allow it. Sundquist folded like a cheap paper towel and acquiesed to the road builders. Bredesen has shown antipathy to TDOT and the road industry, but so far hasn't really gone after them as he has gone after State bureaucracy. Maybe next year. Anecdotally, the road industry is ripe with corruption and undue government influence, but we have yet to see a single investigative piece by any State newspaper. I don't think we ever will, either.

Still, it was a case of a weak governor, Sundquist, prostrating himself before Big Money Interests and hooking his own political star to their security. The income tax "reform" was an effort by those who live off interest income (subject to the Hall Investment Tax) to shift that burden to the middle class in Tennessee, to bring in a tax structure that would allow them to benefit from shelters and every other trick of the accounting trade. Bredesen has shown no deference to that crowd and has bafflingly stifled all the old press and political voices that powered the IT drive. There were some very serious talks going on in that process, in back rooms and power restaurants around Nashville, that I'm sure Baker is privy to but declines to expose. Hypocrite. At least one Nashville television station did just that, but no newspaper has bothered to pick up on their lead.

How was Bredesen able to enforce his will? First of all, he had the support of his fellow Democrats in the legislature, who in the preceding years had rallied only unevenly to support Republican governor Don Sundquist's abortive tax-reform efforts. And it didn't hurt that Bredesen's actions were in conformity with the traditional "cut-spending" rhetoric of the General Assembly's Republicans.
First sentence, see above. That's what I'd like to know, too. Report what you know, Baker; don't "go along to get along." There's a huge story in the still unexplained about-face by Naifeh and his merry band of cronies when Bredesen nailed his colors to the mast and made them salute it. Could it be that Baker, and all the rest of the pro-IT press, wants very much to preserve some semblance of strength in the rotting Democratic ship?

The rest of the paragraph is a spectacular rewriting of the record. Democrats were a bloc in support of the Republican Sundquist, not "uneven." Naifeh used every trick in his Book of Thuggery to keep people in line, even up to the famous brow-beating he gave four legislators in a closed meeting, during an IT vote, to get them to change their vote. Baker reported it, with no sign of distress or outrage. It was the Democratic majority, with some misguided Republicans looking for scraps from the power table, that nearly got us the IT. Only a vociferous, unrelenting press of "horn honkers" and the work of committed Republicans like Marsha Blackburn and Curtis Person kept the vote total down. It had nothing to do with wishy-washy Dems -- Naifeh kept his horses in the corral -- but with nervous Republicans eyeing November's coming elections.

That election seasonwas a shock to Nashville. A lot of folks either avoided re-election campaigns or went down in flames that year, for their position on the IT. No question that that was a major factor in the sullen support Bredesen scraped together. He made it clear he wasn't kidding and wasn't going to change. There were new stark choices (support Bredesen's option or risk losing perks or office) to replace the old (support the Naifeh/Sundquist axis or risk losing perks and power). Bredesen's firmness and his shocking turn of the tables made the herd change direction.

But the key to Bredesen's success in budget-cutting -- which guaranteed that the scalpel was wielded judiciously -- was his insistence on carrying on his budget negotiations, line by line, department by department, program by program, in public. No private pork-barreling, no back-room back-scratching. It was unprecedented. Open covenants, openly arrived at, indeed: Wilson would have been proud.
"Judiciously?" It was a blunt nine percent, with few and specific exceptions. Departments that only months before had sworn to the public there was no fat to cut suddenly found it. But I've never seen any press reports on where and how that fat was found. I don't think it's been covered. Yes, it was open to the public, but the press that covers it did little to no detailed coverage. God knows the new, Peck-era Commercial Appeal has moved away from State-level political reporting. Perhaps Baker would care to share his sources? And, again, what he knows?

Ahhh, I give up. I just can't do this. It's painful and protracted. Baker shows himself for the old-style Liberal (capital-L) that he is, like the Wizard behind the curtain, by choosing Wilson. Wilson's image is a construct of the internationalists who adore him, the same folks who have championed the UN ever since its Franken-phoenix arose from the decades old ashes of Wilson's failed League of Nations. It's not reality by any means. Whatever debatable good he did internationally was blown domestically by his racism. Yes, America helped win WWI, but we deferred to Europe at Versailles, following the lead of the same idiots who brought the War, and set up the conditions that created WWII. Tens of millions of people died because internationalist American elites changed the landscape of this country to suit their Europhilia through the use of propaganda.

Same as Baker is doing, on his own small scale, today. No one will die, but his approach ensures that the same old crowd will cling to power at your expense.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Bloggery At The CA

A quick update on the blog situation at the Commercial Appeal. First, they are adding a new blog to the mix, GO. Its mission is pretty wide and vague:
It's about moving around in the Memphis area.

About getting from here to there in ways that are efficient, fun and interesting.

GO will post the latest news about mainstream and alternative ways of traveling from Point A to Point B.

GO will include stuff about the people who plan, engineer, build, maintain and beautify our roads, rails and trails.

And GO will showcase your insights, tips, quips and questions.
Ummm...yeah. Unfortunately, they fail to include an actual link to the blog anywhere in the article. Digging around finally turned it up, though. The first post was made almost two weeks ago, and is so far the only one. Typical CA bloggery, I'm sad to say.

Take a moment to read the comments to that post. The third one is a long announcement from a special interest group touting their existence and purpose. What I found most amusing is that they are a Federally funded organisation seeking to get more government spending for their programs. Ahhh, irony.

The other major CA blog, Blake's Blog is doing much, much better. While I was on hiatus, Blake began to post more personal and open-ended stuff, tales of college football obsessions and road trips. It's a great direction for Blake to take and I hope he continues in that direction. Sadly, he's still not getting comments, nor is he engaging much in talk with his commenters. Still, it's a good thing.

Finally, I discovered that the Commercial Appeal's website has a discussion forum! I'm not going to link to it; you'll have to scratch around like I did to locate it. Which is just as well because it's a terrible, terrible place, full of venomous back-biting and pointless wastes of storage. The admin tried early on to get discussion going on various ideas they wanted to try out for print stories, and to troll for free material to use in future stories. All that stopped pretty quickly when the goon squad took over. Ick. Avoid it unless you're the type who likes to slow down at accident scenes.
Let's Connect Some Dots, Shall We?

A couple of weeks ago, ABC 24 WPTY did a story about the City's shameful failure to follow through on its program to reimburse drivers whose cars are damaged by potholes on city streets. Reporter Jeni DiPrizio found that hundreds of requests filed had yielded only a handful of reimbursements. There was always some reason to decline payment. She did find, though, that Memphis City Attorney Robert Spence had gotten a reimbursement! (Unfortunately, there's no online version of the story, nor video archive available.)

Spence almost immediately filed a lawsuit for $3.5 million against WPTY and DiPrizio. He's alleging libel and slander. (Side note: the story states that he is no longer associated with his former law firm, and is "now in private practice." Is this simply some arcane requirement of city attorneys, to disassociate from potential sources of conflict, or does it mena what it implies: that Spence has a private practice even as he acts as the City's number one legal representative and advisor? I'd like to know.)

Anyway, Spence has been a busy man. Seems that back in August, just as the State Lottery Commission was seeking a law firm to represent it in West Tennessee, he and a partner formed a legal corporation and got the contract within weeks. Unfortunately again for Spence, the law requires the firm to have been in existence for at least three years. He had read the law as meaning that the principals in the firm had to have at least that much experience, not the actual firm itself. Oops!

The devil, as they say, is in the details:
Allan Wade, attorney for the Memphis City Council, and City Atty. Robert Spence formed their partnership in August for the purpose of working with the lottery. Wade said they joined the Waller-led consortium at the suggestion of lottery officials.

"Robert and I individually have more than three years experience, obviously," Wade said. "The issue of stability of the firm was what that (three-year requirement) was designed to address. . . . That was satisfied when they picked Waller and asked us to join that consortium."

The selection of Wade & Spence helped lottery officials toward the goal of 15 percent minority participation in the awarding of contracts.
A cozy arrangement, eh? The firm that gets the contract needs more blacks to satisfy the law. The City's Numero Uno legal eagle quickly slaps together an LLC and joins in, at the request of the State. Kinda like the old gay staple of the "beard," the woman who acts like the girlfriend to provide cover for the closeted gay.

It's a nice, cozy world that Mr. Spence lives in, isn't it?