Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Oscars Drinking Game

- by J.M.

This Sunday evening credible news organizations will take a break from reporting on the presidential race, the war in Iraq, and the faltering economy, and focus instead on red carpet fashion and celebrity gossip - so why should I do any differently?

Thus, in the spirit of pure frivolity, I offer the following drinking game for use Sunday night:

1. One drink whenever host Jon Stewart makes a self-deprecating joke. Ditto for every time he "mugs" for the camera.

2. One drink every time the music cuts off an award-winner's speech. Two drinks if the music actually stops so the person can finish.

3. Two drinks any time someone makes a self-congratulatory speech praising Hollywood as being "ahead of the curve" or otherwise displaying a lack of humor for absolutely no reason. Three drinks if it's George Clooney. Five if it's Sean Penn.

4. One drink for any reference to Javier Bardem's hair-style in "No Country for Old Men."

5. Two drinks if "Best Song" goes to a movie other than "Enchanted."

6. One drink any time someone mentions the writers' strike or the pending negotiations over the SAG contract.

7. Five drinks (and completely unearned bragging rights) if you've actually seen the winner in either of the "Short Film" categories or the "Documentary Short" category.

8. One drink every time you check your watch to see if the show is over yet. (Hey, you gotta make the time pass somehow . . .)

9. One drink if Jon Stewart mentions Mike Huckabee. Three drinks if he mentions Mike Huckabee, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O'Brien in the same segment. Five drinks if Huckabee shows up to present an award.

10. Three drinks if "No Country for Old Men" wins for Best Picture. (What are the odds the Academy actually bestows this honor on the Coen brothers? They've only made at least five of my favorite movies of all time . . .) Five drinks if "Juno" wins. (It's only been 30 years since a comedy won best picture.)

Edited to add: I have been reminded that "Shakespeare in Love" is considered by many to be a comedy (I consider it a "problem play," in keeping with its Shakespearean theme, but whatever), and it won Best Picture in 1998, so it has only been a decade since a "comedy" won Best Picture. "Juno" is still a long-shot, though, so go ahead and have those five drinks if it wins.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The First Gentleman

- by J.M.

"Outspoken, strong-willed, funny, gutsy and sometimes sarcastic."

These were the words used by the New York Times today to describe Michelle Obama. It's a flattering description, implying someone genuine and multi-dimensional. In the same article, the New York Times describes Ms. Obama as "forthright, comfortable in the trenches, and often more blunt than Mr. Obama . . . [providing] the campaign a steelier edge while allowing Mr. Obama to stay largely above it all." Ms. Obama is indeed considered by most to be an asset to her husband's campaign.

The media's coverage of Ms. Obama and the Obama campaign stands in stark contrast to the media's assessment of former President Bill Clinton during this primary season.

Pres. Clinton, like Ms. Obama, has actively supported his spouse's campaign. He has defended his wife against attacks from the Obama campaign accusing her of being a political insider, lacking the creativity necessary to bring about change. He has vigorously campaigned on his wife's behalf, emphasizing her experience, and, in one case, infamously calling Sen. Obama's narrative that he had accurately assessed the Iraq a "fairy tale." Like Michelle Obama, Pres. Clinton has been spirited, outspoken, and blunt.

So why has Pres. Clinton been criticized for his actions, while Ms. Obama has been praised?

Many felt his behavior was unbecoming as an elder statesman. Others feared his behavior indicated that he will become a "co-president" if his wife is elected to the White House. Questions were raised concerning Hillary Clinton's ability to control her husband. Last week, a chastised Pres. Clinton vowed to reign in his enthusiasm, stating, "I think the mistake that I made is to think that I was a spouse like any other spouse who could defend his candidate."

Whether or not the former President's behavior was appropriate or not, I believe we should grant the Clintons the benefit of the doubt. It is natural for spouses to enthusiastically support one another. The Clintons' situation - in which the potential First Spouse is himself a former President - is unprecedented, and the "rules" here are largely unwritten.

Moreover, the expectation that Sen. Clinton should be able to somehow "control" her husband is ridiculous and unwarranted, and exposes an insidious double-standard. No one worries whether Sen. Obama can control his wife, and if anyone dared to suggest such a fear aloud, he would instantly be labeled sexist. Yet the media freely wonders what Sen. Clinton's ability (or alleged lack thereof) to reign in her husband implies about her ability to control the government.

All this is not to say that there isn't something troubling about the continuation of a political dynasty: if Sen. Clinton is ultimately elected President, it will mean that after her first term there will have been either a Bush or a Clinton in office for nearly a quarter-century. That's a legitimate concern - Sen. Clinton's ability to control her husband is not.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Practicality of Hope

- by J.M.

There is no denying that Sen. Obama has tapped into a longing - particularly among young voters - for something new. Beginning in 2002, before his election to the Senate, Sen. Obama repeatedly voiced his disapproval of the imminent invasion of Iraq. (See, e.g., here, here, here, and here). He has rejected campaign contributions from federal lobbyists and political action committees (PACs) (although the Clinton campaign has noted that he does accept contributions from state lobbyists). He's a fresh face, blessedly divorced from political dynasties such as the Clintons and the Bushes. He has an unforced sense of humor, on full display when he danced with Ellen, challenged Stephen Colbert to a "grit-off," and referred to himself as "skinny but [ ] tough." And he has a widely acknowledged ability to inspire - even his adversaries, such as Gov. Huckabee, recognize this gift. This is, in fact, Sen. Obama's greatest asset - the inspiration he offers to a weary, frustrated citizenry.

"Mr. J.M." (who, upon request, shall remain at least somewhat anonymous) is a committed, passionate supporter of Sen. Clinton. He admires her tenacity, her record of accomplishment, her grace under the extreme pressure of the publicity surrounding her husband's misdeeds. He is the sort of person who is not easily swayed by abstract notions of "change" and "inspiration" - he needs proof. Particularly after two presidential elections in which personality or "likeability" (who would you rather have a beer with?) played a large role.

I share much of Mr. J.M.'s admiration for Sen. Clinton, but I am not nearly so skeptical of the benefit of inspiration. If there's one thing this country could use right now, it's a little hope and optimism. A little stimulation to engage politically and philanthropically. Particularly among Democrats - stung by the results of the 2000 election, defeated by the results of the 2004 election, and disappointed by the performance the Democrat-controlled Congress after the 2006 mid-term elections - there is a craving for someone new, optimistic, and willing to challenge the status quo.

Many of Sen. Obama's proposals are impractically idealistic. But there is a value to his idealism nonetheless. Whether or not his proposals are supported by the Congress, whether or not he is able to bridge party lines, I do not doubt that Sen. Obama will actually speak out against the policies and rhetoric of the radical right that has enjoyed an unprecedented stronghold over all three branches of government. For far too long moderates and liberals have been largely unwilling to challenge the administration, for fear of being unfairly labeled "un-American" and "un-patriotic." As the nation shifted further and further to the right, traditional conservatives like McCain (a fiscal conservative who has steadfastly supported the war in Iraq) were identified with the "left," while moderate-Democrats such as the Clintons were labeled "radicals." Sen. Obama, unlike those entrenched in the politics of the past 20 years, has fought back, undaunted by labels. He has offered new solutions representing a radical departure from the policies of the current administration, rather than compromises with positions that were ill-informed from the beginning.

The vitriol spouted by many Obama-supporters against Sen. Clinton is completely at odds with Sen. Obama's message of hope and inspiration. It alienates potential supporters who otherwise view Sens. Obama and Clinton as relatively equal in experience. Sen. Obama himself nobly proclaimed, "I will create a working majority because I won't demonize my opponents." His supporters should heed these words, embrace his idealism, and trust in the power of his message.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Passionately Moderate

- by J.M.

"Pick a side!"

So we've been told by politicians, pundits, editorialists, and others who seek our allegiance by stripping complex issues of all nuance in order to shove them into a simplistic "us vs. them" formula. Republicans have shunned McCain because he dared to challenge the party-line on tax-cuts for the wealthy, among other excesses. (Need I point out here that there is currently a war that is contributing to the national debt at a rate of approximately $ 275 million to $ 300 million per day? No? Okay, then, let's move on.) NOW-New York's president Marcia Pappas recently criticized Sen. Edward Kennedy of betraying women with his endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama. (Aside from the obvious fact that both Sens. Clinton and Obama represent a radical departure from the typical white male candidate - and who's to say that combating sexism is more or less important than combating racism - I didn't realize that Sen. Kennedy had permanently alleged his allegiance to Sen. Clinton as the representative of women everywhere. My mistake . . . I guess.) The Bush administration has repeatedly (and outrageously) claimed that anyone who disagrees with its policies is an agent of terror. President Bush has literally stated, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" - a sentiment echoed by Mitt Romney last week as he withdrew from the race, implying that a vote for the democrats would be a surrender to terror.

I understand the pragmatism inherent in the "if you're not with us, you're against it" attitude. For one thing, it gets results. Especially in times of crisis, people respond to these ultimatums, fearing that the worst possible outcome is a probable alternative to that proposed by a trusted leader (whether or not said leader has actually earned that trust, and whether or not available intelligence, statistics, etc. actually support that conclusion). Moreover, it's simple: it reduces complicated issues that require extensive research (or, at the very least, a lengthy article) to comprehend into an easy-to-understand choice between right and wrong. The human brain is, in fact, predisposed to categorize information into readily accessed prototypes and heuristics. (See, e.g., David G. Myers, Psychology, 6th ed. Worth Publishers, pp. 358-64, 2001). The problem, of course, is that despite the appeal and ease of such an approach, the most pressing issues facing the U.S. in the coming years - national security, religious extremism, the economy, education, etc. - are much too complicated to be reduced to two diametrically-opposed sides.

Let's examine the war in Iraq, for example. Sen. Obama's supporters frequently stress that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, an argument they feel gives him an advantage over Sen. Clinton in the upcoming campaign against the Republican nominee. The argument becomes "voted against war" versus "voted for war." However, this conflict is one with little relevance to the present situation in Iraq, nearly five years into the war, where the issue is not whether or not to enter a war, but how best to extricate the U.S. from its entanglement in the Middle East. In fact, one of the reasons Sen. Obama opposed the war was that he recognized it would become an occupation without end. Thus, no matter the reasons for Sens. Clinton's and Obama's positions on the war in 2002 when confronted with false statements from the Bush administration and faulty intelligence, the public and the media should logically focus on which candidate has a better strategy for ending the conflict in Iraq. The answer to this question requires careful examination of numerous factors, among them, the safety of U.S. troops, the stability of the region, and the likelihood of success of any plan in the Congress.

Meanwhile, Sen. McCain has steadfastly supported the war in Iraq: in fact, "the surge" was largely his idea. Over the past year, numerous sources have indicated that the surge is working (see, e.g., New York Post, Reuters, Time Magazine). But in recent days, just as many sources indicate that surge gains will dissolve as the U.S. withdraws troops (as it will have to, given the cost). Again, who supported the surge is not as important a question as "what do we do now?"

"Us vs. them" does not allow for the sort of nuanced approach necessary to examine the current position of the U.S. in Iraq, the capacity of Iraqi forces to manage their own security concerns, the cost of maintaining troop levels, and the availability of quality care and support as weary soldiers return home. "Us vs. them" is similarly ill-equipped to handle questions of how to respect religious diversity while condemning crimes committed in the name of religion, and how best to stimulate the economy.

In law school, my Constitutional Law professor repeatedly stressed that democracy is hard work: it requires constant study, frequent meetings, and vigorous debate. At this juncture - with an almost-five-year war in Iraq, an ambivalent threat from Iran, a looming recession, a national debt in the trillions - we cannot afford to decrease our vigilance and allow our leaders, potential leaders, and media to divide the issues along meaningless lines, setting up dichotomies where none exist, pitting us against each other. We need to examine the practical ramifications of each strategy proposed, looking beyond the hyperbole and soundbites typically offered during primary season. While I firmly believe we should carefully consider a candidate's character rather than just his or her stance on specific issues, the only tool we have available to us in order to judge such character is each candidate's record of performance and behavior. We do the candidates and our nation's future a disservice if we fail to examine these records. Moreover, we need to look beyond whether specific initiatives and strategies were ultimately successful, and examine whether they were well-thought-out, constructed in cooperation with allies and adversaries alike, and advocated effectively. Only then can we be assured we are making informed decision, and not led astray by the power of emotion, media spin, and often unrecognized prejudice.

Democracy deserves nothing less.