March 31, 2011

It’s Sci-Fi – Deal With It

In the words of the Clarkesworld reader, let me tell you a story . . .

It’s a story that takes place on Earth, but it’s not quite our Earth.  On this other Earth, medical breakthroughs in the 1950s and 1960s dramatically increased the average human lifespan over 100.  They also allowed for human cloning, which was used to create children who were raise for one purpose – spare parts.  The story I want to tell you is about a small group of those children as they grow up.

Just based on that, what genre do you think this story falls into?  I mean, c’mon, you’ve got alternate history, major leaps forward in medical science, and clones, for fuck’s sake.  If this ain’t science fiction, nothing is.

It also probably sounds familiar.  Michael Bay made a movie with a similar idea, The Island, which, aside from Scarlet Johansson, had little to offer aside from the usual dumb action science fiction clichés.  In other words, the main characters learn they’re in a dystopia and try their best to fight the power.  It was better when it was Logan’s Run.

That idea also describes (in broad strokes) Never Let Me Go, by British author Kazuo Ishiguro.  Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of the Day, in addition to the original screenplay for Guy Maddin’s odd, mournful, and wonderful The Saddest Music in the World.  So, he’s not exactly Arthur C. Clarke or Phillip K. Dick. 

However, regardless of Ishiguro’s pedigree, he’s written a sci-fi novel.  And the 2010 movie adaptation of it, directed by Mark Romanek, is a sci-fi movie.  In that way, he’s a bit like his countrywoman P.D. James, who stepped outside her usual mystery genre to pen a dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men.  That, too, was made into an excellent film, directed by Alfonso Cuaron.  Although many writers tend to stick to one genre (or one genre per pen name), crossovers aren’t all that unusual.

So why do so many people, when talking about Never Let Me Go, try their best to deny that the book/movie is sci-fi?  Sarah Kerr, in her review of the novel in the New York Times, wrote that the:
so shocking – in such a potentially dime-store-novel way – that it's hard to believe at first that it issued from Ishiguro's desktop.
She continues:
[i]s he setting up house in a pop genre – the sci-fi thriller – in order to quietly upend its banal conventions . . .?
In other words, what the fuck’s a literary heavyweight like Ishiguro, who won the prestigious Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day (Never Let Me Go was, itself, shortlisted for the Booker), doing slumming in genre fiction?  It must be to “upend its banal conventions,” right?  Couldn’t be he wanted to use the freedom that sci-fi provides to ask delicate, though provoking questions about the human condition, could it?  ‘cause, you know, that’s never happened.

The same attitude came from Romanek with regards to the film.  In an interview, he said:
I wasn’t making a science fiction film.  I was making a love story that had a science fiction context.  Science fiction is sort of between the lines of the love story.  So my thinking on it was that I wasn’t making a science fiction film.  I wouldn’t describe it as a science fiction film that’s sort of pedestrian science fiction, I would describe it as a love story where the science fiction is this subtle patina on the story.  The science fiction-y things that we could have done that might have been more overt, like futuristic buildings or this or that gadget, I mean.
Sorry, Mark – you were making a sci-fi film.  The story uses medical advances that are well beyond known science to ask tough questions about life, death, and what it means to be human.  Just because you don’t explain the tech or have shots full of a gleaming futurescape like something out of Blade Runner, doesn’t mean it’s not sci-fi.  In fact, some of the same questions are asked by Blade Runner itself – would anybody argue with a straight face it’s not sci-fi?

The miscalculation in this, is seems to me, is in thinking that sci-fi is about stuff – technology, gadgets, spaceships and the like – rather than people, which is the purview of “serious” literary writers and movie makers.  But all literature – hell, all art! – is about people, in the end.  Even the hardest of hard sci-fi, like Rendezvous With Rama or “The Cold Equations” are ultimately about fantastic science impacting human beings.  The hard truth of "The Cold Equations" means nothing without the human cost, after all.

The distinction between The Island and Never Let Me Go isn’t genre – it’s approach (and, arguably, quality).  Where The Island goes for the obvious, Never Let Me Go is more thoughtful, less flashy, and, in the end, more deeply disturbing.  To be fair, however, The Island probably makes for a more “fun” viewing experience, so choose whichever fits your tastes.  It’s all good, as they say.

What really rankles me about attitudes like Kerr and Romanek is that it attempts to wall off certain works from the genres they so clearly fall into, because the genres are the purview of  “low” art or “entertainment.”  That’s a distinction without a difference.  Quality, or what readers/viewers perceive as quality, wins out in the end regardless of genre.

It’s also staggeringly elitist.  Genre stories about cloning and associated issues aren’t worth shit when they’re walled off in Analog or what have you, but when a “serious literary” writer wants to explore some interesting issues, it’s brilliant.  She can come in, slum around a bit with us hacks, and then leave to enlighten serious readers.  No need for the well heeled to sully themselves with the pulps.

In the end, of course, none of these petty genre squabbles really matter.  Once a book or movie is released, it’s out in the world.  Whatever the creators or the critics say, it is what it is.  I’d just appreciate it, as a fan and writer of the genre, if folks could just lighten up and admit they’re making sci-fi.  It’s not the end of the world, ya’ know.

UPDATE:  George R.R. Martin gets at the same attitude I'm taking issue with in an interview at the New York Times Arts Beat blog, talking about the forthcoming HBO version of Game of Thrones:
Q. Is the fantasy component of 'Game of Thrones' still a hurdle that it has to clear to reach a wider audience?

A. I suppose you could call it a hurdle to some extent. But on the other hand, I’m 62 years old and in my lifetime I’ve seen an enormous change in this. When I was a kid, reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction, it was considered, like, total trash. Teachers would take away the books from me in school – this is Heinlein and Asimov they were taking away – and say, well, it’s good that you’re reading, but you should read a real book, not this [stuff]. Science fiction and fantasy have both gotten considerably more respectable and certainly the audience has gotten larger. In literary culture, you see writers using science-fiction and fantasy tropes. In many cases, they’ll say, 'I’m not writing science fiction or fantasy – it may look similar, but it’s not.' There’s still that little thing: 'I don’t want to be put in a cave with the geeks.'

March 30, 2011

Run, Newt, Run!

I’ve never had much use for Newt Gingrich, either his politics or his ethics.  But when he was the vanguard of the GOP in the 1990s, you at least had to respect his smarts.  Sleazy Newt may have been, but he wasn’t dumb.

Which can only mean that the past decade or so has wreaked havoc on his brain or he’s trying to out-pander the rest of the 2012 GOP presidential field, which is no mean feat.  First, we had his laughable “explanation” for his serial adultery, which basically boiled down to “the country gets me hard” (Priapisms for Patriots?).  Then we had his ludicrously quick flip-flop on Lybia, made necessary by the current First Commandment of the GOP (whatever Obama does is wrong).  Now there’s . . . well, there’s this (via & via):
I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.
Ahem.  One would think it obvious that a “secular atheist” could not, by definition, be a “radical Islamist.”  You could have secular Muslims, of course, but they’re hardly “radical Islamists” in any meaningful sense.  So is Newt really that dumb, to get such diametrically opposed concepts confused?

Not on your life.  He knows his audience which, in specific was one of those rapture-ready mega churches and, more broadly, is the GOP primary base, which has always been more in the sway of the religious right than the electorate in general.  To that audience, “secular,” “atheist,” and “Islamist” all mean the same thing: evil.  They’re labels slapped onto political enemies.  Who cares if they’re accurate or not.

To be fair to Newt, he’s got quite a task on his hand to stand out a current GOP field of hopefuls that includes Michelle Bachman and Donald “Birther” Trump.  One part of me fears for the country when one of the major party’s hopefuls are so stupefying (and the incumbent’s no catch, either).  Another part of me thinks that, at least, the campaign will be full of lulz.  And they’ll just keep on coming:
Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, known as the 'Ten Commandments judge,' said he's considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
It’s almost enough to make me think there is a God.  And that She loves me!

March 29, 2011

Some Love for Mr. Stubblefield

How a band doles out songwriting credit has always interested me.  Genesis (for the most part) and Marillion, for example, tend to credit everybody on every track, even if the ideas that blossom into finished tracks can be traced to one or two band members.  At the other end of the spectrum, almost every Spock’s Beard song from the Neal Morse days were credited to him alone.  Regardless of whether the rest of the band gets some credit for arrangements, that recognition can be cold comfort down the road.

That’s because song writing credits are about more than properly recognizing a creative force.  It’s about who gets paid when the song gets played on the radio or TV or when a snipped of a song gets sampled for use in another song.  That’s the situation highlighted by this New York Times article about the great Clyde Stubblefield.

Stubblefield was James Brown’s drummer in the late 1960s (Brown saw him in a club in Georgia in 1965 and hired him on the spot).  Among other tunes, he played on a single recorded in 1970 (though not released until 1986) called “Funky Drummer,” which included a 20-second drum solo.  That solo, or parts of it, gets around:
If you’ve heard Public Enemy’s 'Bring the Noise' or 'Fight the Power,' you know his drumming. If you’ve heard LL Cool J’s 'Mama Said You Knock Out,' or any number of songs by Prince, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A., Run-D.M.C., Sinead O’Connor or even Kenny G., you definitely know his drumming, even though Mr. Stubblefield wasn’t in the studio for the recording of any of them.
It is, according to the article, “the most sampled of all beats” and became “part of the DNA of hip-hop.”  But for all the uses of his beats by others, Stubblefield hasn’t seen a dime, because the songwriting credit went to James Brown, only.  It’s improbable that Brown “wrote” the drums bits, at least:
'We just played what we wanted to play on a song,' Mr. Stubblefield said in a telephone interview last week, referring to himself and his fellow Brown drummer John Starks, better known as Jabo. (Brown died in 2006.) 'We just put down what we think it should be. Nobody directs me.'
I read once on the Freaks mailing list that the only parts of a song that mattered for writing credits (legally) were the chord progression, melody, and lyrics (if any).  That leaves an awful lot of what makes music interesting twisting in the wind.  Certainly, a lot of what made James Brown tunes of that vintage so good is Stubblefield’s funk.  Witness:

I can’t give the man royalties he might should have a piece of.  All I can do is give a shout out and a little love.  Funk on, Mr. Stubblefield!

March 25, 2011

Glad I Don't Get Paid Like This

The United States Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done. As such, he is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape nor innocence suffer. He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor—indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.
Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935).

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote briefly about a police department in California that was making a game out of drumming up arrests.  Now comes word of a scheme even more unethical, from Colorado, where a district attorney is paying bonuses to her underlings based on how many convictions they get:
Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers has created an unusual incentive for her felony prosecutors, paying them bonuses if they achieve a predetermined standard for conviction rates at trial.

The threshold for an assistant district attorney to earn the average $1,100 reward: Participate in at least five trials during the year, with 70 percent of them ending in a felony conviction. Plea bargains or mistrials don't count.
The perverse nature of this scheme, for an office full of people supposedly devoted to justice, rather than padding stats, is obvious, as another DA points out:
[Boulder County District Attorney Stan] Garnett pointed to the same American Bar Association directive for prosecutors as State Public Defender Doug Wilson did. In essence: Seek justice, not merely conviction.

"If you're to seek justice and yet your pay is based on the number of cases you take to trial or your conviction rate, then it clouds your discretion," Wilson said. "They have an incentive not to make a reasonable disposition if they need one more trial or another conviction in order to get a bonus."
The pronouncement from the Supreme Court in Berger couldn't be clearer.  Dangling money in front of someone to achieve something potentially contrary to their ethical duties is obscene.  No assistant prosecutor should ever be put in the position where he wonders about whether the push a case or not because he needs the money.

The title of this post is a bit of a joke, in a couple of ways.  For one thing, of course, I lose an awful lot of cases.  Such is the lot of a criminal defense attorney - it's not a profession for the easily discouraged.  For another thing, and more relevant to this discussion, however, I cannot accept a fee in a criminal case that is contingent on the result.  It's right there in black and white.  Not that it should have to be.

March 24, 2011


I've been working on a brief this week that involves the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court's 2008 decision in Heller.  In that opinion, Scalia, writing for the Court, dissects Breyer's dissenting opinion, particularly it's attempt to apply some sort of interest balancing test in such cases.  As Scalia concludes:
After an exhaustive discussion of the arguments for and against gun control, Justice BREYER arrives at his interest-balanced answer: because handgun violence is a problem, because the law is limited to an urban area, and because there were somewhat similar restrictions in the founding period (a false proposition that we have already discussed), the interest-balancing inquiry results in the constitutionality of the handgun ban. QED.
For reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the Second Amendment or Justices Scalia and Breyer, everytime I read that, I think of this:

I only hope the court doesn't think my argument is a load of fetid dingo's kidneys.

March 23, 2011

The Cost of Being Wrong

I'm in Richmond this week for a pair of oral arguments before the Fourth Circuit.  As it happens, one of the big news stories involved an innocent man walking out of prison:
It was an eventful 46th birthday Monday for Thomas E. Haynesworth, released on parole after 27 years in custody for crimes authorities now believe he did not commit.

Relaxing at his mother's home Monday afternoon in the Fulton area of Richmond, he enjoyed some shrimp fried rice, was nipped by the family dog, used a cellphone for the first time and got acquainted with some of his 17 nieces and nephews.

'It feels great, it feels great,' he said.
Haynesworth was convicted of rape, based on the eyewitness testimony of the victim.  As today's Washington Post explains:
When she identified Haynesworth, there was no doubt in her mind.

Then in 2005, the exonerations of five men prompted Virginia to launch a massive reexamination of DNA evidence in old criminal cases using the latest technology. Her attack was among them.

'If there wasn’t DNA, I would still be saying he was the one who did it,' the woman said.
The DNA testing not only exonerated Haynesworth, but identified the actual attacker.

As the Washington Post piece points out, the wrongfully convicted aren't the only ones who suffer in situations like this.  Eyewitnesses, victims in particular, have their own particular kind of guilt:
'For so long, his face and his name were where I directed my anger,' the Henrico County woman said in a recent interview. 'That’s gone now. He’s not the name. He’s not the face.'

'Now when I hear his name, I feel guilt. Obsessive guilt.'
The more we learn about how memory works, and doesn't work, the more skeptical we should be of eyewitness testimony.  It's important to consider that victims like the one in this case or other eyewitnesses who ID the wrong guy aren't (for the most part) acting out of malice.  They think they're doing the right thing and accurate pointing out the bad guy.  They're not liars.  They were just wrong.

I wrote about another case like this, and the aftereffects, back on the old blog in 2009.

March 22, 2011

I Don’t Get This

The United States men’s national team is in camp getting ready for a pair of friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay.  With it being one of the FIFA-mandated international windows, the  roster is the closest it’s come since the World Cup last year to being our “A” team (injuries aside, dammit). 

But Bob Bradley is also pressing forward looking for new, young talent.  As a result, the roster includes two guys who, I admit, I’d never heard of until the roster was announced last week: David Yelldell and Timothy Chandler.  Both play in Germany: Yelldell, a goalkeeper, with second-division club MSV Duisburg, and Chandler, a midfielder/defender, with top-level FC Nürnberg.  Both have dual citizenship, meaning they can play for either Germany or the US.

The United States has a long and glorious history of taking players of foreign origin into the team.  Notables who started life as Yanks abroad include Jeff Agoos (born in Switzerland), Hugo Perez (El Salvador), Ernie Stewart (Holland), and Thomas Dooley (Germany).  In most instances, one of their parents was an American serviceman (or, in Goos’s case, a diplomat) and thus became citizens at birth.  Others, like Perez, became Americans the hard way.  Regardless, these guys are as American as a groan-inducing Lee Greenwood song.  Same goes for Yelldell and Chandler.

Which is why I don’t understand this argument over at Daily Soccer Fix at all.  It suggests that, somehow, we’ve outgrown the need for “passport players” or that their place on the roster is somehow an insult to “real” American players: 
And what if you’re name is Eric Lichaj, and you’re an American soccer player who grew up in Chicago, as American as Mickey Mantle. But now you must fight for your place on the team against a fellow who grew up in Frankfurt and wouldn’t know Mickey freakin’ Mantel [sic] from Mickey freakin’ Mouse?
Is this really a problem?  Is there a simmering rage among the native-born players that they’re missing out on some sort of birthright?  It’s close enough to the “they took ur jobbbs!” mentality to make me uncomfortable.

It’s also nonsense.  For one thing, as I said above, anybody who’s an American citizen, regardless of how they got that way, can play for the national team.  These new guys are a David Regis kind of case, being hustled through the citizenship process.  They’re already citizens.  They’re as eligible to play as I am! 

For another, it’s not as if other countries aren’t doing the same thing.  Star German striker Miroslav Klose?  Born in Poland.  Same with Lukas Podolski.  Chelsea defender Jose Bonsingwa plays nationally for Portugal, even though he was born in Zaire.  Hell, even the Italians have imported a forward, Giuseppe Rossi, from New Jersey!  Why should we be any different?

And finally, as much as it pains me to say it, we simply not good enough on the international level to turn away talent because they were born abroad.  We’ve produced several impressive home grown players (Donovan, Dempsey, etc.), but we’re not exactly awash in them yet.  Hell, the only country that can really be that selective is Brazil.  And we ain’t Brazil.

The bottom line is that even suggesting that guys like Yelldell and Chandler could be some kind of existential burden to the national team is silly.  Not only is it bad ethics, it’s bad soccer.  So welcome to the squad, gentleman – go kick some ass!

March 18, 2011

No Fight After All

Last week, I wrote about a guy in Michigan who, after posting a video on Youtube that appeared to show him signing bawdy songs to grade schoolers (and their edited in reactions), was grossly overcharged for producing child pornography.  At the time, there was talk of a plea in the air, and not it appears that a deal has been struck.

Emory pleaded guilty to a oddball statute that, while a felony, can be reduced to a misdemeanor if he doesn't screw up on probation.  I've seen situations where charges are, essentially, held in abeyance pending something similar (they then go away completely), but never something that worked like this.  I can only imagine the confusion these kind of charges cause when doing a criminal history calculation under the Guidelines.

The charge Emory pleaded to is not related to child porn and is not otherwise a sex offense, to he won't be required to register as a sex offender.  Still, 60 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and two years probation seems awfully harsh for what was, at worst, a prank done in poor taste.

Besides, as Eugene Volokh points out, it's not at all clear exactly how broadly that offense could be construed and whether it would survive close analysis under the First Amendment.  We'll never know, at least not in this case, since entering the plea extinguishes all those potential issues.

Still, I know if I were professional right-wing muckraker/serial fabricator James O'Keefe, I'd stay the hell out of Michigan.

March 17, 2011

Facing Reality

When I took the SAT, back in the last millennium, it was all bubble filling and multiple choice questions, just as Xenu intended. A few years ago they added an essay, which seems like a good idea to me. Being able to write well is a critical skill (says the guy who writes for a living - winning!) and one that we should focus on more. Besides, in my reading, the purpose of these essays isn't to determine a test taker's scope of knowledge, but just give him or her a jumping off point for the essay. It's about the writing, not the substance, in other words.

So, unless I'm really mistaken about something, I just don't get the kerfuffle over a prompt on this past week's SAT that *shock horror* referenced reality TV. Via the New York Times college blog, here's the full prompt:
Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular.

These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled.

How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?
It makes perfect sense to me. It’s a pair of semi-philosophical questions asked against the background of reality TV. It’s not looking for a summary of the last season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It’s not asking for a compare and contrast on the metaphysics of Snooki versus The Situation. Anybody should be able to write something based on what’s provided in the prompt.

It amuses me the number of people who object that the use of reality TV as a topic on the SAT because it somehow debases a standardized test. More amusing are the people who complain that, since they never watch anything as stupid as reality TV, how can they write an essay about it?

Look, I’m no fan of the reality TV boom. If it all disappeared tomorrow, I’d not miss it. And I know next to nothing about who’s on what show and doing what to whom. But I know what a force reality TV has been in the culture and the entertainment industry over the past decade or more. If someone is so out of touch that they aren’t aware of the entire genre, then writing a good essay for the SAT seems like that least of their problems.

But if you’re really that sheltered, that out to lunch, here’s everything you really need to know about reality TV, courtesy of Dave Chappelle:

Chappelles Show
The Mad Real World - Introduction
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story

Chappelles Show
The Mad Real World - Katie
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story

Chappelles Show
The Mad Real World - Sleeper Hold
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story

Chappelles Show
The Mad Real World - End
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story

March 16, 2011

The Stories of Stories

Any work of art – visual, musical, written – has a story behind it.  Sometimes, those stories are more interesting that the work itself.  The story behind the story trumps the story, as it were.  But does a compelling back story make the final product any better?  Should we like it more due to its tumultuous birth?

I got thinking about this because of the news, gleaned from Progressive Ears, that Capitol records will be releasing the material from the Beach Boys’ legendary Smile sessions sometime this summer.  If ever there was a work of art with a compelling back story, that’s it.

Smile was intended to be the follow up to Pet Sounds, which was a high-water mark technically and musically for American pop in the 1960s.  It was part of a famous game of musical one-upsmanship between Brian Wilson’s group and the Beatles (heading for Sgt. Pepper’s at the time).  Smile was designed as a sprawling epic concept album (“a teenage symphony to God,” as Wilson put it) soaked in American culture and history, stitched together using the same technique pioneered on “Good Vibrations.”  “Big fucking deal” hardly did the idea justice.

But it didn’t come off.  At least, not in the 1960s.  Smile as a conceptual whole disintegrated under the weight of Wilson’s growing mental problems and divisions within the band. It was ultimately shelved in May, 1967, just before Sgt. Pepper . . . was released. However, a lot of the material recorded for Smile showed up (in various guises) on subsequent Beach Boys albums. Nonetheless, the project as a whole was dead, yet took on a mystique and life of its own in the hearts and minds of fans.

Fast forward to February, 2004. Wilson has come out of his battle with drugs and mental illness. In London, he performs Smile in its entirety, with some new bits added here and there to fill in gaps in the original recording. That leads to a studio recording and, later that year, the release of SMiLE.

As one might expect when such a famous project finally sees the light of day (even if in slightly different form than originally intended), the reception was overwhelmingly positive. So much so that even though I’d never had any use for the Beach Boys in my life, I picked up a copy.

I was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed. Maybe I hyped it too much in my head. Maybe Wilson’s stuff just isn’t my thing (I go with that assessment). Maybe it paled in comparison to a milestone that was released in 1966, while Smile was still in development: Freak Out!, the first Zappa album, which I acquired around the same time. Regardless, what was reported as a groundbreaking work of staggering genius to me sounded more like an occasionally interesting, lushly recorded pop record with unfortunate tendencies to get bogged down in hokey music hall shtick. It just doesn't work for me (a result it shares in my mind with another much lauded classic - Kind of Blue).

But the more I read about Smile, SMiLE, and Wilson’s story the more I sensed that so many people were enamored of it for reasons that had little to do with music. The vibe I got from a documentary on the making of SMiLE, of which I admittedly only caught a part on cable one afternoon, was that everyone was so afraid that a negative reaction to SMiLE would have dire consequences for Wilson’s health that nobody would say a negative word about it.

As commenter Desdinova put it:
The more I learned about Brian as a person, as an artist, and as a studio magician, and about the dynamics within the band, the more I enjoyed these albums. It's a fascinating and tragic story, and knowing it made the music far more meaningful.
But should that make a difference?  Shouldn't the work, at the end of the day, stand on its own?  I can't get all high and might about it, but I tend to think so.  I'll admit that part of why I'm so fond of Brazil is the battle Terry Gilliam waged with Universal to get the film released in the United States, but I'd like to think that I was captivated by the movie itself before I learned about that.  But who knows?

At the heart of it, it seems somehow unfair to treat something like SMiLE or Brazil more favorably because the backstory connects with you.  Great art doesn't necessarily require strife in the making, after all.  But in the end, given that our reaction to art is primarily emotional rather than intellectual, I suppose it's inevitable.

March 15, 2011

Practice Makes Better

Per my brother, March is Music in Our Schools month. Given that, I wanted to share a little bit about a music teacher who had a great influence in my life.

I first met Lee McMillan in seventh grade, or 1987. He was the guest conductor for my first All-County Band experience, which meant he was responsible for taking a group of semi-talented, but unfocused, junior high school kids and molding them, over the course of a few days, into a performing ensemble. A daunting task, I now realize.

What I remember from those rehearsals is that, first of all, Lee was a funny guy. Not in a clownish, broad sense, but neither in a nasty, overly sarcastic sense, either. He had a natural way with people under his command and knew when to lighten the mood. The other thing I remember is that, when he made a threat, he kept it.

The opening number for that concert was Block M, a march by Jerry Bilik. Like most marches, it starts out in a way that requires everybody in the band to come in at precisely the same moment or it sounds sloppy as hell. We had severe problems getting it right. At one point, after running through the beginning several times, Lee said that if we didn't get it right that night, at the concert, he would stop us and we'd do it again. Most of us, self included, figured he wouldn't do something so obviously embarrassing.

You can see where this is going - we fucked up the beginning that night. He stopped us. We did it again. We nailed it on the second attempt. I can't remember if he explained that oddity to the audience or not, but it didn't matter to us. Point made.

Sometime after that experience, Lee, a clarinetist in his own right, became my private teacher.  I studied with him until I graduated from high school and, largely, put the horn down for years to come. Although I'm sure he taught me all sorts of technical things that became second nature so that I can't remember them, I remember more his general approach to music, as a player and a listener.

For one thing, there's the phrase that is the title of this post. The usual formulation is "practice makes perfect." Lee didn't like that, as it assumed there was some end point to practice. It came up in a lesson one time while we worked on the Mozart clarinet concerto, the cornerstone of the instrument's solo repertoire. It's the kind of thing that a player, like Lee, would return to and struggle with again and again through his life. I was lucky enough to play a passable portion of it to use as an audition piece.

I'd like to think I internalized the idea that "practice makes better." Not just because it's gently contrarian (although it helps), but because it recognizes that learning how to do something - anything - is an ongoing process. I'll never be the perfect lawyer, perfect writer, or perfect autocrosser. But I can keep working on each of them and keep making progress. That seems infinitely more hopeful that reaching some dead end somewhere. Of course, I hope I can say the same thing about practicing to be a better human being overall.

The other thing that I think Lee helped me out with, when it comes to being a consumer of music (or art in general), was to leave behind concerns about what other people thought of it.  Although I generally blame my brothers for introducing me to prog, the really weird outliers of the genre - Present, Magma, Thinking Plague - are Lee's fault. He not only fed me some cool and obscure music, both to play and listen to, but championed the idea that music is what you make of it, regardless of what anyone else says.

As with "practice makes better," I'd like to think that attitude spills over into other areas.I know it's true when it comes to books, movies, and TV. What I like and what I seek out often have little contact with what's truly popular. But I hope it's also true when it comes to things like legal or political arguments. The quality of an argument doesn't come from how popular the person is who says it or how many people buy into it. I try and judge those things on their own merits, as much as possible.

Lee stepped up to the podium as my band director on one other occasion. While I was a high school sophomore, my high school band director robbed a bank. He was arrested one day while we were getting ready for a big festival and had to dodge reporters on our way to the practice field. Lee stepped in a filled the breech until a permanent replacement was hired.

As for my bank robbing director? He was convicted and sent to federal prison. Ironically, he was probably represented by someone working the same office I do now. Small world, and all that.

Lee also directed the Kanawha Valley Community Band up until his death in 2004.  I joined the band a few years ago, giving me not only the opportunity to play the horn again alongside by college room mate, but also along with two of my other music teachers: Bob Leighty, my very first band director (from elementary school!), and Donna Turner, my first clarinet teacher. 

Thank you to Lee, Bob, and Donna for the great influence you had on my life, and thanks to all the music teachers, band directors, choral leaders, and what have you working in the schools today.  Your impact will be greater than you would ever expect.

March 11, 2011

In Praise of Liner Notes

As the music world slides ever onwards towards being all digital, I continue to cling to CDs.  Yeah, I know, they're digital, too, but at least there's a physical product involved.  Something I can hold in my hand. Something you can read while you listen.  In other words, if I even have to go all digital, I'll miss the liner notes.

Liner notes, of course, are primarily treasure troves of geeky technical information about the album.  You get info like who played what (often in mind numbing detail - a good thing!) to who mixed and recorded it and, hell, sometimes find out who the lawyers are.  Details like the fact that the first Brand X album, Unorthodox Behaviour, was produced by Brand X and
Dennis Mackay (who was produced by Mrs. Mackay).
Occasionally, there's stuff in the liner notes that's just fun.  Like when IQ admits that Tales from the Lush Attic was
recorded far too quickly. 
Or when Ain Soph warns, in the notes to A Story of Mysterious Forrest, that
[t]he music of this CD is not dancing music, but basically music for listening to.*
Sometimes, there's helpful guidance for listeners in the liner notes.  In the notes to Brave, Marillion recommends that you
Play it Loud with the lights off.
(A good suggestion, that).  Or bands make a play for commercial endorsement.  The notes to Mogwai's EP+2 (which triggered this post) state that
Mogwai wear Kappa and Addidas clothing.  Representatives of Nike, Puma, and Umbro may contact them at the P.O. address.
Meanwhile, in the notes to The Joy Of Molybdenum by The Trey Gunn Band, drummer Bob Muller, after his bandmates list their "exclusive" equipment chimes in that his
equipment was exclusively purchased with his own money.
But when it comes to epic liner notes, ones that are truly great pieces of writing in their own right, the best are a pair of my favorite musicians: Mike Keneally and Dave Stewart.

Keneally occasionally graces his CD booklets with track-by-track descriptions and observations.  Take this blurb for Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," from disc two of Half Alive In Hollywood:
This is the soundman (or woman) test.  Most any soundman (or woman) who's spend more than three nights in a bar will add some kind of reverb or delay effect to the lead vocal as soon as they hear the opening riff to this song, and it was fascinating on tour to find out which ones made it.  The majority, I'm chuffed to report, passed with flying faders.
And I defy you to like an album whose notes start out:
Hello and welcome to our music, motherfuckers!  Play along!  Strap on a guitar or a drum or a sousaphone or whatever your tool of choice and improvise along with us.
That's from Guitar Therapy Live.

But the all time king of liner notes, at least in my eyes, is Dave Stewart, keyboard player extraordinaire and part of (at one time or another) Egg, Khan, Hatfield and the North, and Bruford, among others.  It's his time in National Health that I like best, spurred partly by Stewart's hilarious liner notes for Complete, a two-disc set containing all three of the band's albums.

In the notes to Complete, Stewart provides a quick and dirty history of National Health and its many permutations, throwing in many amusing anecdotes along the way.  My favorite involves the search for a drummer in the early days (before Bill Bruford was recruited).  It's too long to recount here, but this bit gives you a taste:
I guess the time signatures, which shifted constantly, were the biggest stumbling block - to me and the other embryonic Healthsters they seemed totally natural, but they reduced most of the visitors to our rehearsal space . . . to a flailing mess of uncoordinated limbs, quivering flesh and dropped sticks.
I ask you, when all music is reduced to digital files downloadable from the Net, where will such pearls of wisdom be dumped?  Along the side of the road, way back there, far enough that nobody will care anymore.  But some of us will miss them, at least.

* If that's not the best one-sentence definition of "prog," I don't know what is!

Judicial Understatement of the Day

From a case I found doing research today, US v. Henderson, 536 F.3d 776 (7th Cir. 2008).

Cops were called to a home to investigate a domestic disturbance.  Wife was outside the house with injuries.  Said husband, Henderson, was inside, there were guns in the house, and he had a history of drug and gun arrests.  Police, using a key provided by son (who arrived on the scene) entered the house.

As the court explained:
After a brief exchange, Henderson told the officers to '[g]et the fuck out of my house' - which the district court reasonably construed as an objection to a search.

By the way, the majority censored Henderson's statement, which the dissent did not, so I present it in its full vulgarity.  As I've said before, if you're going to send somebody to prison for years (Henderson lost this case, by the way), at least have the courtesy to repeat his words accurately (or not at all, if they're not relevant).  It's not like impressionable kids trawls the Federal Reports looking for exciting new ways to curse.

March 10, 2011

You Know, For Kids!

I'll be the first to admit, this does not sound like a really bright idea:
Mr. Emory, 21, an aspiring singer and songwriter, became a household name here last month when he edited a video to make it appear that elementary school children in a local classroom were listening to him sing a song with graphic sexual lyrics. He then showed the video in a nightclub and posted it on YouTube.

* * *

Mr. Emory, who had gotten permission to sing songs like 'Lunchlady Land' for the first graders, waited until the students left for the day and then recorded new, sexually explicit lyrics, miming gestures to accompany them. He then edited the video to make it seem as if the children were listening to the sexual lyrics and making faces in response.
That may be stupid.  Might be in bad taste.  It seems to be a pretty big breach of trust when it comes to the folks in the school that signed off on Emory's scheme.  It might even be funny.  But is it criminal?  Maybe, in some minor misdemeanor way, in violation of some obscure statute lurking in the Michigan code.  But the prosecutor in the case has gone way off the deep end:
Tony Tague, the Muskegon County prosecutor . . . charged Mr. Emory with manufacturing and distributing child pornography, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and 25 years on the sex offender registry.
Wait, what?  I've represented people charged with possessing and/or distributing child pornography and, without going all Potter Stewart here, I just don't see it in this case.  Nor does Emory's behavior appear to fall within the Michigan definition of Child porn, as summarized by Jacob Sullum over at Reason:
The statute that Tague accused Emory of violating makes it a felony to produce 'child sexually abusive material,' defined as 'any depiction...which is of a child or appears to include a child engaging in a listed sexual act' (emphasis added). A 'listed sexual act' is defined as 'sexual intercourse, erotic fondling, sadomasochistic abuse, masturbation, passive sexual involvement, sexual excitement, or erotic nudity.'
Emory's video, whatever may be said of it, doesn't show children engaging in any of those activities.  Indeed, as Sullum points out, even if the video is what it makes itself out to be, it wouldn't violate that statute.  In fact, I'm not sure how the prosecutor ever got a warrant to arrest Emory for that offense.  If he had to go through a grand jury (I don't know if Michigan requires a grand jury indictment for a felony charge), it's further proof of the old adage that a prosecutor could indict ham sandwich.

At the very least, the prosecutor appears to be having second thoughts, but can't do the right thing and dismiss the case due to outraged parents (of which he is one, by the way) and is looking for a way to hit Emory with something that doesn't "ruin his life."  Emory's defense attorney is on the same page, which is a little distressing, but I hesitate to second guess him without knowing more.

What this whole mess shows is, once again, the problems with leaving prosecutorial authority with elected officials.  The parents in this case are rightfully pissed off, but that doesn't mean they get to throw Emory in prison for decades. The prosecutor, whose responsibility is to the Constitution and to do justice, should step up and tell them that.  But it doesn't look like he will.

March 9, 2011

All You Are Is Wrong (Another Verse)

Last week's decision in the Phelps case continues to provide examples of commentators getting the background wrong in meaningful ways.  Stanley Fish has a column up at his New York Times blog in which he casts his lot in with Alito's dissent against the majority.  While Fish (like Alito) reaches the wrong conclusion, he at least deals with the case as it existed (unlike the subject of my post last week).

Unfortunately, Fish leaves a very wrong impression about an older case along the way:
Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter. He was also the lone dissenter in a case decided a year ago (United States v. Stevens) when the Court stuck down a statute criminalizing the sale of videos depicting kittens being crushed to death by the high-heeled 'spike' shoes of a dominatrix. The majority opinion in both cases was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, and the result in Snyder was predictable, given Roberts’s rejection in Stevens of 'any balancing of relative social costs and benefits' when it comes to free expression rights: they trump.[/quote]
I don't quibble with Fish's description of the Roberts v. Alito dynamic in those cases, but his description of Stevens is incomplete, at best.

Stevens was charged under 18 USC §48, a statute that was enacted as a result of the very stuff Fish pointed out (citations omitted):
The legislative background of §48 focused primarily on the interstate market for 'crush videos.' According to the House Committee Report on the bill, such videos feature the intentional torture and killing of helpless animals, including cats, dogs, monkeys, mice, and hamsters.  Crush videos often depict women slowly crushing animals to death 'with their bare feet or while wearing high heeled shoes,' sometimes while 'talking to the animals in a kind of dominatrix patter' over '[t]he cries and squeals of the animals, obviously in great pain.'  Apparently these depictions 'appeal to persons with a very specific sexual fetish who find them sexually arousing or otherwise exciting.' The acts depicted in crush videos are typically prohibited by the animal cruelty laws enacted by all 50 States and the District of Columbia.
But the language of §48 was quite a bit broader (citations omitted);
Section 48 establishes a criminal penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone who knowingly 'creates, sells, or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty,' if done 'for commercial gain' in interstate or foreign commerce.  A depiction of 'animal cruelty' is defined as one 'in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed,' if that conduct violates federal or state law where 'the creation, sale, or possession takes place.' In what is referred to as the 'exceptions clause,' the law exempts from prohibition any depiction 'that has serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.'
In fact, the videos Stevens was charged with distributing (not making) weren't crush videos.  Instead, they involved animal fighting (citations omitted):
Stevens ran a business, 'Dogs of Velvet and Steel,' and an associated Web site, through which he sold videos of pit bulls engaging in dogfights and attacking other animals. Among these videos were Japan Pit Fights and Pick-A-Winna: A Pit Bull Documentary, which include contemporary footage of dogfights in Japan (where such conduct is allegedly legal) as well as footage of American dogfights from the 1960's and 1970's.  A third video, Catch Dogs and Country Living, depicts the use of pit bulls to hunt wild boar, as well as a “gruesome” scene of a pit bull attacking a domestic farm pig.
The Court went on to concluded that the statute, as written, was fatally overbroad and rejected the Government's "trust us, we'll read it narrowly" attempt to preserve it (a low moment of Justice Kagan's term as Solicitor General).  As written, §48 simply covered too much speech that wasn't in any way involved with the sick shit that motivated the law in the first place.  Importantly:
the Government makes no effort to defend the constitutionality of §48 as applied beyond crush videos and depictions of animal fighting.
The Court specifically declined to say whether a statute narrowly tailored to deal just with crush videos would survive First Amendment scrutiny.

This may sound like legal nit picking, but it's more important than that.  Both the Phelps case and Stevens involved speech that most folks find despicable.  But in both cases it was impossible to do something about that speech (either bad it or hold the speakers civilly liable) without treading on the kind of important speech that most folks would agree can't be squelched.  That's the dynamic that's present in every First Amendment case. 

It's simply incorrect that in Stevens the Court "stuck down a statute criminalizing the sale of videos depicting kittens being crushed to death by the high-heeled 'spike' shoes of a dominatrix."  It struck down a law that went well beyond that.  By getting the details wrong about Stevens, Fish implies that the non-Alito Court is full of heartless automatons.  That's just not the case.

March 8, 2011

Did We Win, At Least?

Hey, guess what?  You and I missed VD Day!  No, wait, that doesn't sound right.  We need a more appropriate term for the day the War on Drugs ended.

You didn't get the memo?  Neither did I.  Neither did my clients who are in prison for doing no more than providing a product the market demands.  But who am I to argue with Gil Kerlikowske, former Seattle police chief and Obama's current drug "czar"?  It's been two years, after all (via):
Later, when I asked him whether the War on Drugs was a success, he did a double-take: Didn’t I know that one of his first acts as Drug Czar was to declare the War on Drugs over? Hadn’t I seen that?

No. I thought the War on Drugs was still on.

'The War on Drugs is over,' he said. 'We’ve stopped looking at it as a criminal justice issue alone.'
This master stroke, declaring victory by redefining terms, came in respected hall of international law, the Wall Street Journal in May, 2009.  That's it, the War on Drugs is over.  Simple as that.

Kerlikowske's verbal leger de main puts me in mind of a classic moment in Babylon 5, in which Captain Sheridan is conversing, over dinner, with a "political officer" sent to the station by the new regime to keep everybody in line:
John Sheridan: We have had some problems with the lurkers, but nothing - -

Julie Musante: Lurkers?

Sheridan: It's our version of the homeless. In many ways, we have the same problem Earth does.

Musante: Mmm. Earth doesn't have homeless.

Sheridan: Excuse me?

Musante: We don't have the problem. Yes, there are some "displaced" people, here and there, but, uh… they've chosen to be in that position. They're either lazy, or they're criminal, or they're mentally unstable.

Sheridan: They can't get a job!

Musante: EarthGov has promised a job to anyone that wants one. So, if someone doesn't have a job, they must not want one.

Sheridan: Oh.  Poverty?

Musante: It's the same.

Sheridan: Crime?

Musante: Yes, there is some but it's all caused by the mentally unstable.  And we've just instituted correctional centers to filter them out at an early age.

Sheridan: Prejudice?

Musante: No, we're just one big happy planet.  Well, all right, there's the Marsies, but that won't change until they stop fighting the Earth rule.

Sheridan: And, uh w-when exactly did all this happen?

Musante: When we rewrote the dictionary.
Simple as that.  Now where's that "Mission Accomplished" banner . . .

March 7, 2011

Phillip Collins, I Absolve Thee

In a world where the media is absorbed as Muammar Gaddafi and Charlie Sheen try to out crazy each other, you might have missed an equally massive announcement from last week:  Phil Collins is retiring.


Well, he really means it this time.  Probably.  Plagued by medical problems that keeps him from drumming, Phil's decided to hang it up.  But that's not exactly news, to anybody who's been paying attention.  What is somewhat new is the depressing view that Phil thinks the public has of him.

After wondering whether "a great way to end the story" would be to "go on a mysterious biking holiday and never return," Phil goes on:
Surprisingly, it gets even darker from there, with Collins lamenting that years of 'Easy Lover' and 'Against All Odds' on the jukebox have 'made people ‘want to strangle’ him,' adding, 'It's hardly surprising that people grew to hate me. I'm sorry that it was all so successful. I honestly didn't mean it to happen like that.'
As the AV Club report points out, Phil' career batting average (particularly if Genesis is included) is really pretty good.  On the other hand, he has had the kind of over the top success that pisses people off.  According to the January issue of Classic Rock Presents Prog, Phil is one of only three performers to sell 100 million records as both a solo artist and as part of a band (the other two you might have heard of - Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson).

But I'll put that to one side, as I don't give two shits about Phil's solo career.  From a prog perspective he will always be an integral part of Genesis, as well as a guy who got dragooned into a lot of other people's projects (such as Brand X, Brian Eno, and Eric Clapton, not to mention solo efforts from Genesis alums Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Ant Phillips).  If he was shit, you'd think those guys would know.

Nevertheless, as a prog guy, I want to absolve Phil of a crime of which he has long been charged (hey, if the Pope can do it):

Phil Collins did not destroy Genesis.

There.  I said it.  That's not the popular narrative.  It usually goes that things started to go downhill for Genesis, somewhat, when Peter Gabriel left and Phil took over duties as front man.  The rot greatly accelerated when Steve Hackett left two albums later and the band soldiered on as a three piece, eventually becoming little more than Phil's backing band.

But the facts don't actually fit that perception.  I won't get into when things started going wrong - I've seen people argue that once Ant Phillips left things were grave and there's probably someone who things it all went wrong once John Silver went away.  But it's clear that the shifting direction of the band was due to all Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks as well as Phil.

For one thing, the two tracks that old Genesis fans generally see as the beginning of the end weren't Phil's doing.  "You're Own Special Way" from Wind and Wuthering came from Rutherford.  Phil's writing contributions on that album, on the other hand, were in the jazzier instrumentals and the brilliant "Blood on the Rooftops" (co written with Hackett).  Rutherford was also responsible for the lyrics on "Follow You, Follow Me," from  . . . and Then There Were Three, for which all three shared a music credit.  By the time the band was a huge pop machine (the self titled album), every song was a shared credit.

As you can see, while Phil might have been the face of the band as it shifted from pioneering proggers to world conquering pop act, the transformation was truly a group effort.  After all, Mike and Tony's efforts outside of Genesis aren't exactly evidence of a great unquenched desire to plum the proggy depths.  Phil's merely been a convenient fall guy.

And so, Phil, to the extent that it makes you feel any better about your career and being hated by the public, I absolve thee of the crime of ruining Genesis.  Go forth and sin no more, my son.

March 3, 2011

All You Are Is Wrong (Redux)

Last week I wrote about how it irks me when pundits pop off about Supreme Court cases without appearing to have a good grasp of the decision. Lo and behold, we got just such a case this week, as the Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit's decision that the Fred Phelps gang couldn't be sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress (and related claims) because of the First Amendment. The decision was 8-1, with only Justice Alito ruling against the Phelpsians.

Here's a quick summary of the facts:
The case involved a March 2006 demonstration by Rev. Fred Phelps' and some members of his family at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.

The protest at Snyder’s funeral -- one of many that members of the Topeka, Kansas church have organized, often (and in this case) bearing signs that read "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Thank God for IEDs," "God Hates Fags," "Pope in Hell," etc. -- was confined to a public area adjacent to the event. At their nearest approach, according to Chief Justice John Roberts' ruling, the demonstrators and the funeral party were separated by a distance of at least 200 feet.
The Snyder family didn't even learn of the content of the signs until they saw news coverage of the event.

The "all you are is wrong" commentary on this case comes from our local conservative pundit, Don Surber, from Charleston's Daily Mail. Surber sides with Alito (no crime in and of itself - Alito's wrong, but not laughably so), not to mention noted First Amendment scholar Sarah Palin, but gets it all wrong along the way.

First, Surber writes:
This was not about free speech.

The God Hates Fags pickets went unimpeded by the state.

This was a civil case in which a family harmed sought compensation for damages done by a corporation’s actions, albeit a tax-exempt corporation.

Actions have consequences.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not see it that way.
The implication being that, unless state criminal law or regulation is involved, the First Amendment just doesn't apply. That's an interesting theory, but one that's been rejected by the Supreme Court for decades. Just look at New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) and Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, probably the two most important private action First Amendment cases. They're not exactly of recent vintage. At any rate, Snyder's lawyers never made that argument, so the Supremes had no reason to reach it.

Second, Surber writes:
A jury found that indeed this protest disrupted the funeral and that church owed

This was a First Amendment case, but it involved the free practice of religion, not free speech.
Ironically, if, as Surber argues above, that the First Amendment has no bearing on tort law, it's unclear how it could be a free exercise case, either. That's part of the First Amendment, you know. Putting that to one side, however, Surber again advances an argument that Snyder never made, in the trial court or on appeal. Perhaps Surber should have volunteered his legal mind to the cause?

Furthermore, juries get it wrong sometimes. Verdicts aren't holy writ. If they were, I'd be a professional blasphemer, which, actually, sounds pretty cool. So the fact that a jury made a finding doesn't render the issue settled. Furthermore, the Supremes decided this case on the basis of law not facts. The question should have never reached the jury, so its verdict really is irrelevant, at the end of the day.

Surber continues along this line:
The oldest religious ceremony is the funeral, which is to honor the life of the departed, mourn the loss and pray for a better life on the other side.

The family of Matthew Snyder was not allowed to do so.

Fred Phelps and his followers denied the family that right to observe this religious ceremony in peace and privacy.
Given that the Phelpsians were on public land, not in the church (or on church property), holding signs that the family couldn't even read, how were the Snyders "denied" the right to do anything? The funeral went ahead and their son was remembered.

Consider an alternative scenario, where a group exactly the same size as the Phelpsians did exactly the same thing as the Phelpsians, with one exception - their signs said things like "God Bless Our Fallen Troops" and "Once Warriors, Now Angels" or something like that. Is that still denying the Snyders their right to a private and peaceful funeral?

If not, you're dishing out the ability to speak based on what's being said. That's the primary evil that the First Amendment is designed to prevent. Content-neutral time, place, and manner decisions are a whole different ballgame and generally well received by courts. For what it's worth, per a footnote in the Court's opinion, the Phelpsians would not have been violating a Maryland statute enacting such restrictions for funeral protests, had it been in effect at the time.

Finally, Surber says:
We are Americans and we love to defend the right of unpopular speech.

But we seem to be slow to defend the rights of individuals to practice religion.
But, Don, it doesn't appear that you love to defend the right of unpopular speech. That's just what the Court did in this case (which, for the last time, had nothing to do with freedom of religion!). In fact, you appear to hold the line that a majority of Americans do - they love the idea of free speech, but are quick to chuck it when someone says something they find sufficiently offensive. But that's the whole point of the First Amendment, to protect the Phelpsians and the Skokie Nazis as much as it does popular and noncontroversial speech.

Or, as Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic puts it:
After the ruling, Margie Phelps, a member of the church who is also a lawyer, and who argued the case forcefully for years on behalf of Westboro Baptist, told CBS Radio News what she would like to tell the Snyder family now that they've lost their case. "This was a fool's errand. It was un-American as anything you could have done. That boy is still dead.... Now get down on your knees, mourn for your sins, repent and obey," cackled Phelps, the lawyer, the despised victor in a constitutional showdown they'll be talking about until the next military funeral case gets filed in federal court.

Like it or not, your constitution protects her. And if we all liked everything about what the Constitution promised, or required, or even permitted, it would be a greeting card or an anthem instead of a touchstone. It ought to be reassuring, not depressing, that the fabled document so clearly and roundly protects a creep like Phelps when he displays the sort of crap members of his family display when they shamelessly seek out opportunities for free international publicity.
The moral of the story, really, has nothing to do with courts, loud mouthed douche bags, or the mourning family.It has to do with the media.As others have noted, nobody really gave a fuck about Phelps and his gang while they protested funerals of AIDS victims.It was only when they started showing up at military funerals that most people took notice.

Which, of course, is just what they want.The Phelpsians didn't have anything personal against Mathew Snyder or his family - I doubt they gave two shits about them. They wanted a stage and the publicity that goes along with their brutally bigoted street theater. And, of course, they got it. The sooner the media realizes that and stops giving them what they want, I imagine they will sink into obscurity. We can only hope.

March 2, 2011

Quick Hits

A few bits of oddity from around the country . . .

Play Ball!  The Department of Justice is investigating the police department in Bell, California.  In the process, it uncovered a memo that laid out a little game the officers were playing (via):
A memo discovered in Bell police files appears to outline a game in which police officers compete to issue tickets, impound cars and arrest motorists.

Titled the 'Bell Police Department Baseball Game,' the memo assigns 'singles,' 'doubles,' 'triples' and 'home runs' to progressively more serious infractions, starting with parking tickets and moving on to vehicle impounds and felony arrests of drivers. 'Non-performers,' the memo says, are 'sent for minor league rehab stint.'
Nice.  Nothing like treating the rights of citizens as a game.  And I'm sure none of those officers ever stretched to turn a single into a triple, right?  New professionalism, my ass.

Keep the Change, Kid.  Occasionally, Cleveland does indeed rock.  A 19-year old was recently acquitted for assault.  Not too unusual, given the local DA's history of pushing bullshit cases.  This time, the jurors aren't just walking away (via):
Jurors are so convinced that a Cleveland teen should not have been charged with assaulting another teen that they've gone beyond acquitting him. A few are writing angry letters to police and intend to donate their jury pay to him. At least three jurors plan to give the $100 they received to sit on the jury to defendant Demrick McCloud, 19, if McCloud earns a high school equivalency degree. They took only 30 minutes to find him not guilty in their deliberations Friday.

Most of the jury could not be reached for comment, but three members complained of a 'sheer lack of evidence.'
Good for them, not just for trying to help the kid out ("a decent kid falsely accused," one juror said) but for raising hell with the local authorities about it.  That's the only way they'll learn.

Wrong Target.  Last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was punked by a New York newspaper who called him pretending to be right-wing financier David Koch.  Although embarrassing, I don't think anything in the call itself was really all that damning.  The real problem was that Walker was so quick to take the call at all.  So, in the wake of the scandal, what are the legislators of the Badger State going to do about it (via)?
A week after Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker received a prank call from blogger Ian Murphy, who posed as conservative billionaire David Koch, two Wisconsin legislators introduced a bill Monday that would ban prank calls, reports the Badger Herald.

Republican state Sen. Mary Lazich and Republican state Rep. Mark Honadel said their measure would forbid deceiving the call’s recipient into believing the caller is someone he or she is not.
And it has nothing whatsoever to do with Walker's embarrassment last week.  Sure.  And I've got swampland in Florida for sale. The penchant for politicians to go after the embarrassment, rather than the malfeasance, puts me in mind of . . .

South Park - is there anything you can't teach us?

March 1, 2011

The King's [Expletive Deleted]

I'll be honest.  In spite of the accolades it hauled in on Sunday, seeing The King's Speech is not high on my list of priorities.  It's the sort of uplifting high-class flick that tends to make my teeth itch, even if it's really well done (especially if it's well done, actually).  But now, I think I'll just let it go, as I've got no interest in supporting bowdlerization:
Despite director Tom Hooper’s strenuous objections, The Weinstein Company is moving forward with a proposed PG-13 edit of The King’s Speech, having just received an okay from the MPAA to release it to theaters as soon as it pulls the original, R-rated version.
Wait a sec - what could possibly be so edgy in that flick to justify an R rating?  Nazis?  Royal boobage?  Oh no:
Back then, the only thing that came between The King’s Speech and a PG-13 was a key scene where Colin Firth’s character lets loose with a string of cathartic profanities . . ..
That's right, folks - His Majesty drops the F bomb.  Over and over again.  Which, as South Park taught us, is the worst thing in the world you can do  in the eyes of the MPAA.*  So TWC has redubbed the scene to drop the number of fucks from five to two.  So remember, folks: two fucks, good; five fucks bad.

I'm not sure who pisses me off more.  Obviously, the MPAA and its rediculous ratings board deserves most of the blame.  But Harvey Weinstein does, too, for agreeing to change the film to make some more bucks.  "Fuck yous" all around, then.

*Alternately, This Film Is Not Yet Rated argues that it's worse in the eyes of the MPAA to show a woman actually enjoying sex.  Senseless, bloody violence is just peachy, though.  Either way, that's pretty fucked up, right?