Two executions

>> Friday, July 25, 2014

I read about an execution this week. 

The New Yorker has a lot of their content exposed and free-to-read this summer, part of a transition to what sounds like it will be a New York Times-style buffet paywall: read up to however-many articles a month for free and then if you want to go back through the line for another serving you have to have a subscription.  It's a good chance to glut while it's a free-for-all.

So I was reading an article about William Alexander Morgan, who I'd never heard of before, which is a bit embarrassing because some student of history I must be, to have not heard of one of the three non-Cubans who rose to the rank of Comandante in the Cuban Revolution, another being that guy from the t-shirts hipsters used to wear in college when I was a kid.  The New Yorker article is a pretty thorough bio by David Grann, "The Yankee Comandante", from back in 2012, and it's worth a read, because Grann's a solid writer, and he seems to have done his footwork, talking to Morgan's widow and others who knew him, and because William Alexander Morgan was a character.  That last bit, especially--Grann's piece is the kind of story where you start trying to cast the movie version while you're reading it, wondering who would direct, how you'd structure the story in the language of film, that kind of thing.

Morgan started his life by making a bit of a hash of it, getting into a bit of legal trouble as a teen, going into the Army after WWII (he apparently tried going during the War, but was too young) and getting himself dishonorably discharged for running off to visit his girlfriend, and ending up with Mob ties in the 1950s.  Seems he ended up as a gunrunner, and he was in Cuba in 1957 when, for reasons that may not have even been true, he decided to go up into the mountains where he joined the anti-Batista forces and reinvented himself as an action hero.  Convinced the guerrillas he wasn't a pro-Batista CIA agent provocateur, which is exactly what he looked like, taught them whatever fighting skills he learned in the Army, put his ass on the front line for them and suffered in the woods with them.

He wasn't a socialist, but neither were the anti-Batistas he hooked up with, nor were all the anti-Batistas communists or socialists; you may or may not realize it, but there's even some debate to this day as to whether Fidel Castro, who was commanding another revolutionary force on the island, was a communist or socialist at that point: his brother, Raul, was, and his main man Che was, but Fidel himself remained coy about ideology until after the Bay of Pigs invasion (my own hypothesis is that Castro was, at least up until that point, a pragmatist and opportunist, who probably would have been happy to be whatever brought in foreign aid, kept Fulgencio Batista in the Dominican Republic and the U.S. at arm's length, and shored up his primacy amongst the revolutionaries).

Morgan was a national hero in Cuba, a pariah in his homeland (his citizenship got revoked after the Batista regime, which the U.S. was in bed with, collapsed), but he ended up on Fidel's shitlist.  Possibly because he was an American, and some Cubans suspected Morgan was a double or triple agent even after he foiled an American/Dominican Republican/Batista counterrevolutionary plot in 1959; some people, here, there and everywhere, evidently still think Morgan might have been in cahoots with American intelligence, even though documents released through the Freedom of Information Act suggest the CIA and FBI independently decided Morgan was radioactive.  Possibly because Morgan was explicitly not a leftist, and whether or not Castro was, Castro's closest advisors and supporters were, and the Soviet Union was increasingly Cuba's meal ticket as the United States went a bit nuts over Batista's exile (even knowing that Batista was a total bastard and that Batista's Cuba was practically a fiefdom of American organized crime).  Possibly because Castro recognized Morgan as a viable rival; indeed, as Morgan slowly gave up on the hope that Castro was a non-ideologue or moderate, he started caching supplies in the mountains with an eye towards another possible revolt (I'm not sure you'd call it a counterrevolution, though Castro did, since Morgan sure as hell wasn't going to be inviting Batista back in).

Anyway, Castro had Morgan arrested.  And Morgan went to prison.  And then he had the obligatory show trial.  And then he went back to prison.  And then they hauled him out and stood him against a wall, and they shot him.  Grann writes:
According to a prisoner’s account, a voice in the distance shouted, "Kneel and beg for your life."

It was the last thing that Morgan could control. "I kneel for no man," he said.

One of the executioners shot him in the right knee. The Yankee comandante tried to stay on his feet, blood spilling around him. Then he was shot in the left knee. Finally, he collapsed, and was repeatedly shot in the torso and head. His face, a witness said, was "blown off."

"Many of the men in the patio were crying," the prisoner who had provided medicine recalled. "The rumbling, that almost rose to the pitch of a riot, was a tribute to William Morgan's popularity." [Morgan's wife, Olga] Rodríguez, sequestered in the safe house, did not yet know of her husband's death, but she felt a presence in her room. "I saw William," she says. “I felt him give me a kiss. No sound. Just the warmth of a kiss."

I have no idea how much of that account is true.  I don't mean that Grann invented it; I mean, for all I know this is what the prisoners told Olga Rodríguez when Castro's police finally caught up with her, the story she held onto for the years she was imprisoned in Cuba until she was (barely) allowed to flee to the United States in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.  It may not even be a story that was made for her, it might well be the story the political prisoners told each other, embellished, cherished, clung to for their own sakes and not just for the sake of the martyred widow.

Hell, it may be exactly what happened.

I'm pretty sure, though, that whether or not it's what happened, it's how Morgan would have wanted to die.  It's epic, so epic I'm not sure how much credence to give it.  I don't know how much credence to give any stories about Morgan in Cuba, really, because he seems to have been revered by the non-Castro revolutionaries, and maybe the myth outgrew the man; but it also seems like Morgan aspired to be that myth.  And if he didn't say, "I kneel for no man," if he didn't try to keep on his feet even after he was shot in the leg, well: I'm pretty sure that's what he meant to do (and, again, for all I know, he did do exactly what he meant to, maybe the whole thing is surprisingly true; obviously, I wasn't there).

Just suppose you could go back in time, and visit William Alexander Morgan in his cell at La Cabaña (it's a crappy form of time travel, I know, that doesn't allow you to travel to a point in time where you could be actually useful, but that's just the kind of time travel you get in thought experiments like this one).  And you could say to him, "Comandante, I'm afraid your ultimate execution for crimes against the state is a done deal, but you get a choice.  Option number one is, we take you to a nicer cell for quite a long stretch of months or even years until just about everyone except a few government officials forgets you're here, and then what we'll do is, what we'll do is we'll take you to a room where we'll tie you down to something like a dentist's chair.  And we'll have a doctor swab your arm and put a needle in.  There may be a couple of guys there to watch.  And at a predetermined hour--we'll have told you in advance what time--some anonymous guy will press a button, and you'll be sedated.  You'll just go to sleep, and maybe you'll have a nice dream about your wife.  And then after you're asleep, you'll get two more injections, one that will paralyze your muscles, and a third that will stop your heart.  You'll go to sleep, you'll maybe have a nice dream (if that), and then you won't wake up, and we'll bury you somewhere.

"Or--

"Or, option number two.  We take you out in the yard.  Not immediately, but soon.  We'll line you up in front of a wall riddled with bullet holes, and we'll tell you to kneel.  Which you may, or may not: if you don't, you may get to say something cool, something that states the code you lived your life by, and we'll shoot you in the leg.  And that's going to hurt, it's going to hurt terribly, but you're a pretty tough guy and you suffered some serious pain fighting beside your brothers-in-arms in the mountains, and maybe you've even been hurt that bad before.  So maybe you'll keep your feet, sort of, until we shoot you in the other leg.  And if you haven't passed out from shock, if you're still upright, or as upright as a man can be after his legs have been gunned out from under him, you can glare at us defiantly as we shoot the hell out of you, which is going to hurt, it's going to be the worst agony you've ever felt.  But maybe the last thing you're going to hear is the wailing of your brothers for the Yankee Comandante, as he's martyred to the vain hope of a free Cuba.

"Your call, Morgan."

C'mon, what do you think he's going to say?  Did you go and read the New Yorker story before you came back here?  Did you at least look at the Wikipedia entry I linked to?  Did you pay attention to my summary of his life, which was longer than I wanted but still far too short?

You think Morgan would have wanted to go out taking a final nap?




I read about an execution this week.

Not much, because I just couldn't handle it anymore.  And because, contrary to what some people will tell you and what you may think, it doesn't matter any more than any of the other executions that go on in this country, even the ones that don't take two hours.  That is, I don't want to disparage a man's death, which is an awful and terrible thing--but a man's death is always an awful and terrible thing.  Even when his last words are that he kneels for no man.

Arizona killed a guy named Joseph R. Wood III, and he wasn't a Cuban war hero who boldly fought to bring down a corrupt and repressive torturer and executioner named Fulgencio Batista and began laying plans to fight Fidel Castro when it started becoming clear that Castro was merely going to be a different kind of totalitarian nightmare; Wood was a guy convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and her dad, all the way back in 1991, and for all I know he really did it, and for all I know it was horrible, and for all I know he didn't deserve to live (which isn't exactly the same thing as deserving to die, you know).  But apparently Arizona decided to try out some relatively novel procedure for killing guys--I don't know if they were able to get a real doctor to perform it, but I'm guessing they weren't, seeing as how medical boards have lately decided that killing patients might be a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.  And so it took two hours for Wood to die, and apparently it was noisy, and it may have been painful.  If any of that matters.

Because I kind of don't think it does, is the thing.

I mean, I can say this about the Wood execution: it's probably clarified to me that I've been mostly citing the wrong Constitutional amendment for all the years I've opposed the death penalty.  I'm sure that executing prisoners is barbaric, don't get me wrong.  But state violence is inherently barbaric, isn't it, even if you feel some kind of pragmatic obligation to engage in it.

You'd like to think that civilization is pacitropic, if you'll let me coin (I think) a word: that we grow away from violence and into becoming, increasingly, a creature that is clever enough to solve problems through application of reason.  And if state violence is required, if it just can't be avoided, you hope it'll be humane.  Maybe I'm presuming a bit here, thinking we're not barbarians or we don't want to be: I'm assuming that if we could unerringly kill terrorist cell leaders by pressing a button that causes them to magically die in their sleep, we'd do that instead of sending in heavily-armed drones that occasionally blow up weddings and funerals, because we want to take the terrorist cell leader out of circulation, the goal isn't to make the guy suffer and occasionally maim and kill civilians while we're at it; that the weddings and funerals are collateral damage, accidents, and not the goal.  And that if we could get a terrorist cell leader (let's assume he hasn't hurt anyone yet, he's just starting out and there aren't other justice issues at stake yet) to just quit by, say, talking to him, we'd do that, right, instead of just blowing him to bits and possibly taking out his neighborhood while we're doing it; because the objective is we don't want him to be a terrorist, not that we like the blood in the streets.

I hope I'm right about that.  (And if I'm not, what's it to you that Joseph Wood took two hours to die and may have hurt some while he was doing it?)

But, like I said, I've probably been quoting the wrong amendment.  What I probably meant to say, and maybe have said by accident now and then, was that I'm pretty sure that whether or not the state executes you has more to do with what color your skin is, and what color your alleged victim's skin is, and where you live, and how good your lawyer was, than it has to do with the nature and quality of the acts you supposedly committed that the state might be killing you over.  Which is basically a Due Process and Equal Protection issue.  If we could magically guarantee that every person sentenced to die really and truly deserved it... well, how do you finish that sentence?

I mean, if someone deserves to die, does it matter how they die?  And if there's inevitably doubt about whether or not they deserve it--I don't just mean doubt about whether they did it, which is already a huge problem, but also doubt about what's just and fair and merciful--does it matter whether the death is humane?  "Well, we don't know with utter certainty if this guy really killed anyone, but a jury thought he did, and then the jury decided he should die for it even though this other guy over here did something that sounds a whole helluva lot worse, and he only got life in prison for whatever reason--but at least he died in his sleep and didn't feel anything."

That probably makes sense to somebody.  I guess.  I'll be honest, I sure don't see it.

But, anyway, if you were already against the death penalty, I don't see how the execution of Joseph R. Wood makes you more against it.  It was already bad enough that Arizona was going to kill him.  They were going to kill him worse than?  I wasn't going to feel better about the execution if he went fast.

Meanwhile, if you're in favor of the death penalty, maybe you're glad Wood might have suffered.  He deserved it, right?  Was convicted of a brutal double homicide, had it coming to him?  You probably would have watched.  Probably should have been forced to watch all of it, then, without piss breaks.  But I'm sure it would have gladdened your heart.  Birds sing, sun breaks through the clouds, another miserable bastard bites the dust, I guess.  An eye for an eye, maybe it was too good for him.

It didn't matter, anyway, how he died.  It mattered that he did, whether you're for or against, and how he did is really just a detail.

But maybe there's a grey area in between those poles.  You're for the death penalty, if it's fair and merciful.  You're only against it because you're not sure it can be, otherwise you have few scruples about state violence.

William Alexander Morgan.

What I mean is, what would have been any better about the Yankee Comandante dying with a needle in a vein?  He got the death, I think, he would have wanted.  It was barbaric and bloody and cruel, if the account is going to be believed, with taunting executioners, a vicious maiming and unsuccessful attempt at a final humiliation, and then a fusillade of bullets that, more than likely, caused anything but an instantaneous death.  Maybe a bullet pierced the brain or the heart--we're told his face was shot off--but it's pretty likely he lay there on the ground--unconscious, I'd expect, but maybe not--bleeding out.  Killing a man is pretty hard.  Sometimes it takes as long as two hours, I hear.

And maybe you're thinking this is a cheap shot: a public trial in American courtroom is a lot different from a show trial in Castro's Cuba, right?  Well, I hope so.  Emphasis on hope.  Because I'm not sure some American capital trials are that much different; longer, maybe.  With more plausible pretenses.  But.  You know.  There's racial bias, and some prosecutors like hiding evidence, and some defense attorneys are morons, and some judges don't know the law, and sometimes juries get a little crazy, and even under the best of circumstances there are mistakes; memory is fallible, "scientific" tests aren't always reliable and accurate (especially under field conditions, where crime scenes are often exposed to weather and public traffic)--sometimes they turn out in retrospect to not even be all that scientific, hence the quotation marks.  But you're probably right.  Most of the time.  Well.  A lot of the time, anyway.

Hopefully more often than not.

But gosh, what if Morgan had had a fair trial, instead of a show trial?  Well, maybe crimes against the state shouldn't be capital offenses.  He was kinda sorta plotting what might be called treason, sure, and treason is historically a capital offense in many countries, even modern ones.  Maybe merciful and civilized states ought to be lenient, though, and not use lethal force unless they absolutely have to.

Or did I say that already?

But Morgan probably wanted to go out like that.  Not that he wanted to die, which I imagine he didn't.  But if he had to, he probably wanted the violent, hideous, gory death.  Did anyone ask Wood what he wanted?  Probably not.  I guess it doesn't matter.  I guess we don't let convicted criminals, however they're convicted, make those kinds of choices.  But it does make any kind of debate over whether Wood should have had a "cleaner" death seem a little, I don't know, silly, maybe?  Maybe he would have preferred the two hour death.  Or to be shot in the legs and then into little pieces.

I don't know, to die as he lived?

I guess the point is that the fact an execution may have been botched or otherwise cruel seems to me a little beside the point.  I have no idea whether it's more cruel to make someone sit in a cell for twenty-three years until they're eventually tied down in a lonely room and put to sleep like an elderly housecat, or more cruel to allow someone to strut out in front of a firing squad, give them a chance to tell you to go fuck yourself in so many words, and have them die on their feet.

There's worse things that could happen.  You could be sentenced to death in the first place.





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The Speaker started a joke which started the whole world crying, but didn't see that the joke was on him

>> Monday, July 21, 2014

We're not going to sit idly by while this president chips away at the very foundation of our democracy, which is why the House is now initiating legal action to compel the president to follow his oath of office and faithfully execute the laws of our country.

While the president would like you to believe that this is some kind of Republican stunt, let me be clear – this isn't about Republicans versus Democrats; it's about protecting the Constitution.

And when I heard the president respond to our plan with a lighthearted, "So sue me," – I was extremely disappointed.

This is no joke, Mr. President.
Cincinnati Enquirer, July 15th, 2014.



Yes, it is.  It's totally a joke.  Which is why I've been wondering if I should even publicly react to it.  And, yeah, it is some kind of Republican stunt; it's just that it's a little hard to grapple with what kind of Republican stunt, because it's such a stunning bit of dumbness.

Because, see, first of all: if you're in the House of Representatives and you sincerely believe the President is failing to "follow the oath of his office and faithfully execute the laws of our country," then it's probably time to have a long, hard and serious look at whether that doesn't constitute the commission of "high crimes and misdemeanors" under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution.  I mean, it's admittedly not cut and dried, because one of the many, many deficiencies of the Constitution is that the Founders were intentionally vague about the impeachment clause, and "high crimes and misdemeanors" is an expression they calculatedly chose for its vagueness.  Does it mean actual high crimes, and actual misdemeanors under the law, like assault or larceny, or is it a term of art referring to things like accepting bribes, or does it mean nothing and everything like Gerald Ford once said?  You can argue about it all day, if you really want to.

Although, as a practical matter, the fact it's vague and you can argue all day is exactly why the Boehner can do it if he really wants to.  The argument's there, right there in the open for anyone to see it, that dereliction of duty and abuse of authority count as "high crimes and misdemeanors," and it's really left to the person who says they don't count--assuming, you know, there really is dereliction and abuse--to make the Constitutional or historical case that they aren't.

Of course, Boehner doesn't actually want to impeach the President, see?  This is the thing.  He knows damn well that the trial would happen in the Senate, where the Democratic majority would toss the Bill of Impeachment.  Assuming he could get the Bill of Impeachment, which isn't even a certain thing with the Republican majority in the House.  He knows he'd be setting an ugly precedent for the next time Congress and the President weren't getting along.  He knows that even with the President's plunging ratings, the President is popular enough for an impeachment sideshow to generate really bad optics for the GOP, that it would look exactly like a partisan hackjob (which is exactly what it would be, of course).  He knows it would be a sideshow, and that even some Republicans would consider it nothing more than a distraction, quixotic at best and irresponsible at worse.

Indeed, this is why I, myself, am getting to where I'd welcome impeachment proceedings.  Because we ought to just get all this ugly shit out in the open where we can see what we've been smelling the past several years.  Because if the House Republicans are going to steam and screech and pop rivets on the edge of supercriticality, let's just get the blinking meltdown over with, already, or whatever it is that needs to happen so we can shut the reactor down and send in a hazmat crew to spray out D.C..  I'm tired of the sound and fury of these idiots, signifying nothing, and I'm ready to just have all these crazy uncles in Congress committed where we can ignore them between obligatory Christmas season visits and the occasional sending of cards.  That's three metaphors in as many sentences, do you get the picture?  I'm all for impeaching Obama, not because I think he's actually committed any impeachable offenses I'm aware of, but because it would pretty much blow up the most useless Congress of my lifetime so we could start over, it would get these sad fucks to shoot their wads and shut up, it would clear the air and maybe (just maybe) we could all get on with our lives.

(Probably not, but I'm trying to be sunny.)

The second thing would be that the House certainly has plenty of things they can do short of impeachment, while they're at it.  This gets a little baroque, I imagine, because you can have a situation in which the House is passing legislation to force the President to implement certain policies, only to have it stopped in the Senate or vetoed by the President himself, which makes the whole business a bit quixotic on the part of the House, but it's the way our government was designed.  Also, the silliness here is actually even more baroque and absurd than that, since some of the laws the President supposedly isn't implementing are schedules connected to the Affordable Care Act, which the House has been trying unsuccessfully to roll back or revoke: so, where the situation I described a sentence ago is kind of the abstract political scenario, the real and pragmatic scenario is that if John Boehner were serious about forcing the White House to implement the ACA on schedule, they could (for instance) author legislation giving the President more resources to do it, which I'm sure the Democrats in the Senate would pass and the President would sign off on.

Which gets to the third and fourth reasons this whole lawsuit thing is a lousy joke, which is that the House doesn't have standing to file a suit like this to start with, seeing as how they can't really claim any recognizable injury the courts have the power to address, and even if they could get their suit past a motion to dismiss for lack of standing, they'd lose on the motion to dismiss because the case involves a political question that American courts traditionally leave to the other branches of government.  It's a separation-of-powers issue: courts do what courts do, and expect legislatures and executives to do what legislatures and executives do.

This isn't a law blog, and I'm quite sure you can find other commentators who will explain this better and at greater length.  The quick-and-dirty, if you don't want to follow the Wikipedia links in the previous paragraph, is that you can't just file a lawsuit in an American courthouse for any old thing; and among other things that you may need before you can file your lawsuit, one is that you have to be an injured party (or at least be extremely likely to come to some foreseeable harm as a consequence of what someone else did), and another is that your issue needs to be a legal one, that is to say it has to be something a court is qualified to hear.  A legislative body passing a law and then getting upset (or pretending to get upset) because it wasn't implemented as it was supposed to be can't cut it as grounds for a suit, because (1) the injured parties are the people actually affected by the law, and (2) a legislative body has remedies through the political process--they can repeal the law, or amend it, or repeal it and pass a "better" one, etc..

In sum, "sitting idly by" is exactly what Boehner is doing with this whole silly thing.  Or almost idly: it's that form of goldbricking where you try to look very busy while you're doing nothing and you know damn well you're doing nothing, and anybody who knows the least thing about what you're supposed to be doing knows damn well you're doing nothing.  And while Boehner doesn't strike one as the brightest bulb on the Xmas Tree, I'm reasonably certain he knows enough about his job to know what he's doing is stunt politicking, and even if he somehow doesn't, any lawyers he's talked to surely remember standing and political questions and justicability from their 1L years of law school well enough to scratch their heads and say, "Mr. Speaker, I'm pretty sure you can't do that."  (It's such a no-brainer, I find myself wondering if a lawyer who files this suit is exposing himself to sanctions, honestly.  It's been twenty years--twenty years!!--since I took a CivPro class, and I still remember Rule 11, Ken Broun beat it so deeply into my thick skull.  Thou shalt not fucketh around with Rule 11, lest Rule 11 fucketh around with thee.)

It's a joke, it's a stunt, if you expected anything more of them it'd be a pity.




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The Moon Yaps "Lisbeth"

>> Monday, July 14, 2014

 (This one's for The Handsome Camel himself.  Sorry.  I am so, so sorry.)

"I want you to know, I'm not like other girls," Professor Van Niekerk said.

"I--I didn't think you were, sir," Lisbeth replied.  "I--I have to admit I, um, I never thought of you as a girl at all."

He admired her.  He couldn't help himself.  She was an admirable woman, a lush body that was curved in all the right places.  That is, she wasn't a hunchback, for example.  She had an ample bosom and wide hips, and an ass that just would not quit (not even if it had an offer that included pretty good benefits).

"Right," he replied.  "I'm glad you noticed that I'm not a woman.  You, of course, are a woman.  And I am a man.  A more elemental relationship than the one between a professor and his star pupil.  A primal relationship, the most basic and fundamental relationship there is.  The one between woman and man, I mean.  Universities weren't invented until, what, the Middle Ages, so obviously the relationship between a woman and man predates that.  You know what I'm saying, don't you?"

Lisbeth put a finger to her red, full lips, and chewed on the tip.  She inhaled, filling out her ample breast, and exhaled, flattening her stomach so that the curves of her hips, breast and buttocks were exaggerated.  Also, she had nice thighs, which seems worth mentioning just so we can be clear that she was extremely attractive and the good kind of curvy (if you're a woman).

But she wasn't just putting her finger to her lips in a seductive, sexy pose so that her curvaceous body could be described; she also had a line of dialogue.  "I don't understand," she said.  "What are you trying to say?"

Professor Van Niekerk stood.  He was a man of low-average height, rotund and bearded, with grey in his full, mussed hair and in his beard.  He looked a lot like a somewhat short, fat lawyer but was, in fact, the foremost English professor in his field in the world, and had never been to law school nor taken the Bar.  His really intense, emerald eyes blazed.  "You, my darling, my sweet, my love!" he exclaimed.  "Haven't you seen the signs?"

"The signs?"

"The way I look at you in class!"

"I'm sorry, I was taking notes."

"The way I hold doors for you!"

"Oh.  I guess I thought you were doing that for the other one hundred and seventeen students in ENG 102."

"The way my heart beats when you pass near!"

"My... hearing's not that good... most of the time."

"The notes I've sent you!"

"I did notice the comment you wrote on my midterm essay on John Dryden.  But I thought you meant 'Fuck me' in the sense of 'This is terrible,' not in the 'Fuck me' sense."

"But I gave that paper an A-triple-plus!  Even when you left out the 'y' in his name!"

"Yes sir, that confused me, so I thought it better not to ask."

"I wrote you a sonnet on the back of one of your exams!"

"No you didn't."

"Alas!  That must be why David Hammond who sits to your left has been giving me such dreamy looks since I returned your class' papers to you on Wednesday!"

"David Hammond sits to my right."

"I meant your left facing you!  Oh, please, I cannot take more of this!  You're a young woman, and everything is new, and I am an old man, and have done so much!  I can teach you more outside of the classroom than any student learns of life within!  By which I mean I'd like to bed you and criticize your technique!  Let me criticize your technique, Lisbeth!  Let me critique you between the sheets!"

Lisbeth appeared startled.  "But I can't!  I can't sir!"

"Don't worry about the ethics board, I have tenure!"

"It's not that, sir.  It's just that I'm not like other women!"

"I know, Lisbeth!  I know!  It's why I want to take you!  Your curves!"

"No, you don't understand!  What time is it?  I have to go!"

She turned, then, but Professor Van Niekerk grabbed her by the wrist.

"Don't go!" he shouted.  "I can't bear it if you go!  I might have to bring down your average if you break my heart!  Let me teach you!  In bed!"

"No!  No!  No!" she cried.  "It isn't that!  It isn't just that!  It's mostly that, but it's something else, too!  I must be home before it happens!  Before--"

"Before what?" the Professor yelled.  "Before this passion overwhelms us, you voluptuous vixen, you!"

"I am cursed!  Let go of me!  I am cursed!"

"Cursed with beauty!  Cursed with youth!  And passion!  And tits!"

"Yes!  No!  Cursed with--no, it's happengrrrrrrrrrr!"

The room was suddenly flooded with light as the full moon rose over the tall buildings outside the window.  Professor Van Niekerk felt Lisbeth's wrist pop and twist in his hand.  Her fair, smooth skin suddenly bristled with soft fur and her long, sexy fingers shrank into tiny paws studded with short, sharp nails.  She was shrinking before his eyes, contorting and twisting as she shriveled.  Her beautiful, round face sprouted fur and jutted out, her nose becoming small, black and moist.  Lisbeth's arms and legs contracted into her body, which lost its feminine splendor and became barrel shaped.

Professor Van Niekerk let go of her foreleg and she dropped to the ground.  Although well-mannered and known for their desire to please, Lisbeth came from a vocal breed and she began to bark and jump at the Professor, but not very high because of her squat legs and low ground clearance.  He backed away, and Lisbeth's herding instincts came to the forefront: she began to nip at his heels, and he backed into a chair and fell over.

It was suddenly too much: the moon-madness was upon Lisbeth now, and she charged forward as fast as her stout little legs would take her, burying her brown-and-white muzzle in his throat.  Professor Van Niekerk wanted to laugh at the way her adorable, fuzzy little face tickled his chin, but then her tiny canines tore into his skin.  Shouting, he threw the small dog off of him and rolled over, but she was energetic and resilient, and hopped on him and pressed the attack, biting and barking until the old man's heart weakened and faltered.

"This is ironic," he thought with his last thoughts.  "Had I brought forth my clan's ancient enchanted Lucerne hammer, Clonngenhommer, from its resting place in the Hallowed Isle of Mirrorlake, I could have fought off this vile lycan-" and then he died before he could think "-thrope."

Lisbeth stood over his body, sort of half on and half off, her short rear legs scrabbling for purchase whenever she put her forepaws on the dead man's large belly.  She began to yap at the full moon, visible through the window beyond the vast urban nightscape of the great city.  She felt a primal urge that the old man could never have fulfilled, and she wondered where she could satisfy the need trembling through her body.  Possibly in a dumpster, if she could reach the doors, or in a trash can if she knocked one over and the lid wasn't tightly secured.  It would be nice to roll in something.  Yes.  Yes it would.


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Some quick thoughts on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, having only read about half the majority opinion and skimmed the rest of it

>> Monday, June 30, 2014

I have to be honest: it's hard to care.  Is a 5-4 opinion saying that Hobby Lobby, Mardel, Conestoga Wood Specialties, and others can claim a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act (PDF link) really surprising?  Not at all.  Not in the least.  I mean, c'mon.  I'll bet there are more surprises in the new Transformers movie.  In fact,

(1)  This wasn't the first thought I was going to lead off with, but what the Hell.  Isn't this opinion just another confirmation for the natural-born cynics and those of us who have lost our civic religion that the Supreme Court of the United States is just another political body recapitulating the political divide in this country between the 49-51% of the country that believes in one cluster of things incoherently defined by convention as "Republican" and the 49-51% of the country that believes in basically the opposite of whatever and is incoherently defined as "Democratic", regardless of actual (if any) political affiliation and with little regard, conventional wisdom be damned, to actual ideology (hence all the "moderate" Democrats who would have been loyal Republicans in Eisenhower's day, and quite a few "libertarian" Republicans who would have been draft-card burning hippie radicals in RFK's day (yeah, I'm looking at you, Reason crowd), not to be confused with the "libertarian" Republicans who would have been pro-German apologists in Heinz Spanknobel's day (and I have no idea how that's supposed to work, except some people are apparently immune to cognitive dissonance).)
 
You know, right, that that entire windy parenthetical is why I'm so exhausted these days.  If you want to blame the paucity of blog posts on anybody, there's one place you can start.  I'm finally all but exhausted by politics, exhausted with excuses for liberals who are really conservatives, conservatives who are really idiots, idiots who are really trolls, trolls who are really unreconstructed cryptofascists... probably it loops around back to itself Ouroboros-style and eats itself, but I'm too tired to follow the snakescales back around and down our collective throat.
 
But.  Anyway.  Yeah, so is this the most American Supreme Court ever, or what?  None of the reactionary old men from the waning days of the Gilded Age, holding back the New Deal for our time, nope.  None of the harrowed veterans of the Second World War, moderate conservatives turned crypto-progressives having spent the years 1936-1945 staring into the abyss until the abyss not only stared back, but blew them a fetid kiss reeking of dead bodies and Zyklon B, knocking them back headlong and reeling clasping hands with the New Frontier on one side and the Great Society on the other, neither, no sir, no ma'am.  A Supreme Court that looks neither forward nor back but always down at the feet, and sometimes the footsie shuffles left and sometimes the footsie shuffles right, and sometimes the footsies just shuffle round in a widdle circle.

Oughta just add another Supreme Court Justice to the bench so they can all be tie votes forevermore from now on.

(2)  But I wasn't going to lead with despair for the Republic, aw, Hell no.  I was just going to go ahead and blame religion, because isn't that the elephant in the room?  As in we have it?  No, I'm not saying all religion is evil or all religions believe the same thing; why, shucks, if they all believed the same thing, that would simplify it, wouldn't it, and we wouldn't have any problems in the first place.

You know why we have this Hobby Lobby issue, right?  No, it's not because of women and their complicated plumbing.  No, it's not because men just can't be bothered to be responsible for their johnsons.  It's not because of misogyny or patriarchy or whatever.
 
We have this decision because the Supreme Court used to say that the government couldn't do anything that violated somebody's exercise of religion unless it served a compelling interest.  Which I guess was kinda okay in that it mostly let people be people, which I guess is basically a good thing.  Only, see, then what happened is some Native Americans wanted to use peyote in their traditional rituals and have jobs and collect unemployment if they got fired for using peyote in their traditional rituals--and, well, see, the Great White Lord in Heaven knows we can't have Native Americans doing Native American things, because, what next, maybe they'll want all that land back or something.  So, you know, what the Supreme Court did was say that it was tough shit that these Injuns wanted to do their hokum teepee rain dance bullshit, because Federal Drug Laws.
 
(2a)  Which, you know, reminds me, another reason we have this Hobby Lobby issue is because of the War on Drugs.  Thanks again, irrational policy of criminalizing the behavior of consenting adults and/or treating addiction issues as a legal problem instead of a public health issue!
 
(2a(1))  Oh, which also reminds me, yet another another reason we have all this bullshit going on is because of Richard Nixon, who declared war on drugs in 1971, and was probably disappointed when Henry Kissinger informed him that secretly bombing "drugs" on Christmas was, like, super impractical.  Especially considering all the drugs in the White House, although, honestly, those were, like, pills, booze, and Elvis Presley's urine, you know, stuff white people get dopey on, and what Nixon was really hoping they could schedule a B-52 flyover on was the kind of stuff Mexicans, black people and hippies use, like, you know, weed and heroin and shit like that.

But I'm mostly pointing this out because the least-true thing that ever came out the side of Dick Nixon's mouth wasn't, "I am not a crook," it was, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," because we'll always have Richard Nixon to kick around.  Look, the man was bent, like a boomerang, and the harder you try to throw him away the faster he spins back around to hit you in the head again.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is Richard Nixon's fault.  That's the kind of cutting-edge, one-of-a-kind probing analysis you occasionally come back to Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets for.  You heard it here.  Feel free to drop that wisdom on anyone you see at a cocktail party next weekend.  "You know, this is ultimately because of Richard Nixon.  Fucking Nixon," you'll say, and then you can toss down your martini and shamble off to see if they have any more of those pigs in a blanket out.

(back to 2)  So after these Native Americans were told their religion wasn't enough to trump the laws because it wasn't, like, you know, one of those real religions like Baptists and Presbyterians and even Catholics and some Jews have, Congress decided that was bullshit because this was the 1990s and everybody loved Dances With Wolves (especially if they'd never actually seen it, in which case they would have noticed it's really plodding and irritating, like its director).  So Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and then, a few years later, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which basically said "Nuh-uh!" to Employ­ment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (the Supreme Court decision that said fake religions don't count) and gave the Native Americans their faith back (having signed these bills into law, Bill Clinton was much less forthcoming with giving back all the millions of dollars in overdue and promised payments the Bureau of Indian Affairs owed Indigenous Americans, which, you, know, arguably might have been more useful than giving back their 'shrooms; but hey, baby steps! Right?).

And dumb libs like me rejoiced, saying, hey, what a victory for autonomy and freedom of conscience and Native People's rights and stuff, scarcely realizing that the United States Supreme Court, much like the shark in Jaws 4: The Revenge, would swim a very long way and wait a very long time to bite the wife of the guy who blew it or another shark just like it up.  Which is what happened this term of Court, in case you couldn't figure out where I was going with that stupid analogy to a dumb movie you're not going to admit you caught in the middle on basic cable one night and actually watched through to the end because insomnia and can you believe that's Michael Caine.  It's okay if you don't get the analogy, really, it seriously isn't you, it's all me, it's a lousy comparison.  And yes, that was Michael Caine and he's admitted he just needed the money.  No idea what Lorraine Gary's excuse was.  Gambling debts, probably.  Or something like.

But that's what this is, anyway: Jaws - The Revenge, with the SCOTUS gleefully--I mean, seriously, if you read half of Justice Alito's opinion like I did, the glee just wafts off the monitor and cloys like some hippie's exercise of religious freedom--just gleefully saying (in so many words, Alito doesn't actually, you know, come right out and say this): "Hey, remember when we said Indians couldn't take 'shrooms for church and you Congresspeople said hey yes they can because we're restoring their religious 'freedom', but you wouldn't just fix or cancel the drug laws, you just wanted to make us look like douchebags?  Well, here's what we're doing with your restoration act, you jackholes, we're going to use it to castrate your healthcare law.  Restore this, Dr. Wankenstein."

And then he does a little jig.  I mean, I'm pretty sure that's really going to be in the bound version of the opinion, a little self-rendered series of Justice Alito in the margins, dancing a little jig on a grave labeled "Congress Dummies".  I hope he can draw better than Scalia.  Those semipornographic doodles in his margins are just embarrassing.  No one knows what those are supposed to be.  I'm not even sure they're semi-pornographic, it's just that that one looks suspiciously like a flaccid penis.  It's possibly supposed to be a circus elephant.  But who knows?

(2, again, because I probably fell off the beam three 'graphs ago)  So if you're not blaming Nixon, blame religion, because if the SCOTUS hadn't taken a piss on Native Americans twenty years ago, and if Congress hadn't "fixed" it with these goofy vague remedies, and if we just treated all religions with equal respect or contempt or just had one religion like all those countries we usually hold in contempt or if we had no religion at all, this would all be a non issue.  But since we have differences of religion that we're supposed to respect even though at some level nobody really does (okay, now I'm just being a grouch, don't take that part too seriously), well--there you are, right?

(3)  But this also wouldn't be an issue if the Affordable Care Act wasn't stupid and America wasn't stupid.  You know what would have kept this whole thing about employers providing insurance that covers birth control to their employees from being a stink?  Single payer healthcare.  You know what will never happen in this country because we're a bunch of goddamn morons?  Single payer healthcare.

We're fucking stupid.  This is your fault.  Not you specifically.  That's the editorial "you" by which I mean people who aren't actually reading this blog post but who could be if they were sufficiently literate.  So by "you" I mean somebody else, not you.  Sorry if that wasn't clear.  Anyway, with that out of the way, you're an idiot.  Still not talking about "you" you, I'm writing about "you".  "You" who isn't reading this.  We hate that guy.  That's the editorial "we", meaning "me".  Not "we" me and you.

Here's how lowdown and dumb this great nation of ours is: because we have this dog-eat-dog, every man for himself, hands off I got mine Jack mentality, nobody has healthcare.  So some employers, over the years, decided they could offer healthcare as a "benefit", which for various tax reasons and so on ends up being cheaper than actually giving those employees a raise.  And then, somehow, that "benefit" went from being a "bonus" to simply being what people expect from a job, and now we have this fucked-up system where where you work determines whether you can avoid dying without declaring bankruptcy to do it.

I mean, to heck with deciding whether or not to declare healthcare some kind of basic human right or anything: it's just a stupid way to manage things, or "manage" them in scare quotes because it's hard to imagine how anything could be more screwed up than employer-provided healthcare.  Hell's bells, no insurance at all and everyone out-of-pocket for themselves would be a more equitable system of providing healthcare, albeit a system of questionable merits and dubious justice.

But this is what we've got, and this is what the Affordable Care Act effectively ratifies by using the stupid system we have instead of one that was less broken (or, heavens forbid, one that actually worked).  And I know, politics and the "This is a Big Fucking Deal" and don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good; I not only grok all that, I've said it myself.  I've said myself that the ACA is better than nothing; of course, now that I think about it, I'm not actually sure that's true.  I think I've contradicted myself by saying, in the past, it's better than nothing, and then saying, in the wake of Hobby Lobby, that it's worse than broken; it's possible it's both.

At any rate, it pretty much puts every patient in the country at the mercy of their bosses' ideas about WWJD.

(4)  And speaking of that, here's one more thing you can blame: corporate personhood.  Because if corporations are people, why couldn't they exercise religions?  And you can scoff the way Health and Human Services apparently did in their brief, and wonder where DuPont goes to church and what does Viacom pray for, and will Disney ever go away on Mission?  But you know what?  Fuck HHS if they thought that this SCOTUS wouldn't extend religious freedom to corporations the way they extended freedom of speech.

And is that the Supreme Court's fault?  No, it's not.  This one is your fault, and mine, and I do mean ours and not the editorial versions of pronouns, I mean actual you and actual me, because corporate personhood is something that our states established and our Congress endorses and ratified.  Delaware will never tell all the companies that have incorporated there to take advantage of the tax structure and incorporation laws that they aren't "people" anymore, something the legislature could do there with a few penstrokes put to a vote.  And your state won't, either, because your state wishes all the corporations incorporated in Delaware would move their corporate HQ and relevant paperwork to your state.  And Congress won't change the Dictionary Act to clarify that corporations may be peoplelike for certain purposes but aren't people at all for anything else, so that won't happen, neither.

(5)  All of which is a long way of saying there's no point in complaining about this bullshit, because what you're smelling is the fecund stench of inevitability piling up around your shoes.  Corporations are people and Congress passed a specific law protecting the religious liberties of people because that's something we're all supposed to care about?  That makes the politically-driven result of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby math, not judicial activism or what you'd like to call it.  Heck, it makes the dissenting opinion basically wrong.  And that "religious act" can be not paying for the insurance you need?  Sure, why not?  A better question is why the Hell is your boss paying for your insurance in the first place?

Why isn't it something administered by the government, using the taxes you pay?  Why is this even a thing in the first place?




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The penitence of sons for the sins of their fathers

>> Tuesday, June 10, 2014

At Durban in 2001, [Sir Hillary McDonald] Beckles remembered the "surreal theater" of the black British Baroness Valerie Amos leading a phalanx of historians and legal scholars into the conference, and making three major arguments: first, that since the slave trade was not "illegal" under British law until 1807, it was not technically a crime, and could not be subject to legal restitution; second, that the slave trade was a "joint venture" between Europeans and African leaders, limiting British culpability; and third, that even if the slave trade could be termed a crime, it was a crime whose reparation was "too large be imagined." (Here Beckles shared his own 2001 reply to Baroness Amos: "I have a very large imagination.")
The Junto, A Group Blog on Early American History, June 5th, 2014.


Read the whole post, and also (if you haven't already), read Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations", which is possibly the most important thing anybody will write this year.  Karp provides a useful context for Coates' piece and the larger conversation we ought to be having--the Transatlantic Slave Trade wasn't just an American atrocity--so long as the general doesn't eclipse the specific; that is, we have an obligation in the United States to address our own Original Sin regardless of what, if anything, the international community does about their own assorted historical roles.

My jaw did drop when I got to the Baroness Amos quote, though, and I felt obliged to add my own two cents: if that's an accurate reflection of the Baroness' views, it's mind-boggling.

Karp follows with Sir Hillary's rebuttals:

Beckles laughingly rejected these arguments—any argument against reparations that rested on the letter of eighteenth century law, he said, could be safely dismissed; and the role of Africians [sic] the slave trade was undeniable but did virtually nothing to diminish British guilt. Could the presence of "local collaborators" in any other historical context be used to exculpate the chief instigators and beneficiaries of such horrific crimes?

--but it seems like Sir Hillary may have missed a specific, historically recent, example of just how shallow the Baroness' argument is: by her lights, the Nuremberg Trials should never have happened. 

After all, genocide was not "illegal" under German law until after the War ended and was not technically a crime, it was a joint venture between Germans and various collaborators in occupied lands, and you could certainly argue that the Holocaust was "a crime whose reparation was 'too large to be imagined'" (indeed, when West Germany and Israel entered into a reparations agreement in 1952,  the primary opposition within Israel to the agreement was that reparations were inconceivable).

The fact is that the ex post facto nature of the Nuremberg proceedings was such an obvious and primary objection to the legitimacy of the tribunal that the Nazis on trial had to be denied recourse to it as a defense.  Nor were the defendants allowed to argue the prior bad acts of their own prosecutors, e.g. the Americans' Indian Removal, or the Soviet Great Purge.  The unfortunate fact, pre-Nuremberg, is that genocide was a novel concept--the word didn't even exist until 1944--and that international law of the immediately preceding years was that there was no international law applicable to wholly internal events, no crimes of universal jurisdiction, what happened in Germany (or occupied Poland) stayed in Germany.  And if the Allied victors wanted to change these rules after the fact, what gave them any moral right to do so?  Certainly not the Anglo-American legal tradition, at the very least.

Legally speaking, the strongest charges against the Nazi regime concerned their treatment of prisoners of war  Morally speaking, the Allies were aghast at what they found in the concentration camps they liberated.  But horror isn't a legal principle; indeed, quite the opposite, the reason a people of laws write the rules down in advance and put them where everyone can see them is so that we don't capriciously punish because of our gut reactions (and fail to punish because of our hypocrisy).  Where the slaughter of POWs was concerned, the Nazis had agreed before the outbreak of War to be bound by the 1929 Geneva Convention.  The rules were written and posted and everyone had agreed anyone could enforce them.  Where the massacre of six million civilian nationals of Germany and occupied territories were concerned, however... a different situation.

And yet this isn't a defense of poor, railroaded Nazis; quite the opposite, in fact: it's almost self-evidently clear that the Allies were under a moral obligation to say and do something about the horrors the Nazis introduced to the world, and to take the Holocaust as an awakening and a point from which to say that the rules would be changed, must be changed, could never again be what they had been and that this was such an important threshold for human civilization to step across that if the future repercussions must extend into the past, so be it.  It was wholly insufficient to say, "Well, you've committed crimes against humanity itself, but I guess you didn't know anyone would be mad about it so, just don't do it again."  It is right to worry about ends being used to justify means, and about the dangers of rationalizing one's actions based on one's good intentions, yes, and to be self-aware of the issues and problems involved in depriving horrible people of basic legal rights for the sake of establishing a more fundamental moral principle; but that doesn't mean it was wrong to do so at Nuremberg, nor does it mean that it would be wrong to do so again for the sake of similarly profound principles connected to similar historic atrocities.

I don't know that there's much to be said about Baroness Amos' remaining arguments against British (and/or American) culpability in the slave trade except more of the same.  The Nazi regime wasn't allowed to shift blame to their Polish proxies at Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz et al., and apologists for the Nazis who have tried to do so in subsequent decades have largely been unsuccessful.  One doesn't even need to spend much time pointing out that whatever atrocities may have been committed by Poles were orchestrated by Germans: it ought to be enough to say that there is plenty of guilt to go around and nothing novel in the idea that ringleaders, co-conspirators, accessories, and accomplices are all culpable alongside their agents, underlings and associates.

Then there is the fact that West Germany indeed did enter a restitution agreement with Israel after WWII.  In "The Case for Reparations", Coates wrote:

Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.

I think that nails the crucial takeaway.  There's no dollar value that can be rationally assigned to all the suffering of the Holocaust, six million dead and millions more tortured, starved, enslaved, and abused.  Nor has the state of Israel ever had a monopoly on the victims of all that suffering; not all who emigrated to the state of Israel after WWII were victims of the Holocaust, nor did all the survivors of the Holocaust choose to emigrate there.  But the fact that West Germany acknowledged guilt, that the acknowledgement was accepted by Israel on behalf of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and that there was something more than mere words proffered (though words are important): these are important things.

It might not be enough for those countries who participated in and benefited from slavery to apologize for it and try, in however crude a way, to make some kind of amends to somebody for it.  But if that proved to be the case, the fact that it wasn't enough wouldn't be a very good reason for not doing anything at all.

It wasn't really enough to hang a bunch of Nazis, not really--it didn't bring anyone back from the dead, it didn't return lost years of suffering endured to any survivor.  But it did acknowledge something had to be done.  It wasn't really enough for West Germany to pay out around 3.5 billion marks--no resurrections, no returns of time and health and joy.  But it did acknowledge something terrible had been done by one group of people to another.  These things do matter.


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Eazy e

>> Thursday, May 29, 2014

Folks, I need some legal help.  I know, I know--I'm a lawyer, and why does a lawyer need legal help?  Same reason a general practitioner in medicine might need a brain surgeon.  Same reason the flight attendant can't just step out in front of the passengers on a plane and say, "Hey, everybody please stay calm, but does anyone here know how to operate any kind of vehicle whatsoever?"  I do my thing and I like to think I do it well, but I'm not an intellectual property specialist.

And I need to file a trademark.  On this:

e

"What?" you incredulously ask.  "The letter 'E'?  You want to trademark the letter 'E'.  VanNewkirk, you've lost your mind.  You've gone insane in the membrane.  You're playing without a full deck, you're truly gone fishing, you are all kinds of metaphors for bugfuck crazy.  We knew it would happen someday, and boy did it ever.  Trademark a letter!  Pish!  And posh!  Trademark a letter of the alphabet, as if!"

And I say, "Nuts.  Nuts, I say, and nuts, I mean.  That's not a letter.  That's a number.  That right there is Euler's Constant, a.k.a. 'e', a.k.a. the natural log (as in logarithm, not something that came out your butt, what are you, five?) and while it coincidentally looks like my middle initial, smartypants, it really signifies the limit of (1 + 1/n)n as n approaches infinity, approximate value 2.71828-et cetera, and trademarking letters that are numbers is totally a thing now."

No, seriously.  It's a thing.  Some jackass has trademarked π and evidently the USPO let him.

Okay, okay, it's a little more highfalutin' than that, you got me.  If you follow the link, he trademarked, π, period, as in:

π.®

See, the period is like the grace note in "Ice Ice Baby" that completely and totally differentiates it from "Under Pressure".   So what I really want to do, I guess, is trademark this:

e.


And then I can put it on stuff.  You know, stuff.  Like, you know, shirts, I guess.  And other articles of clothing, not just shirts.  Like... sweatshirts, for instance.  Or hoodies.  Or maybe wifebeaters.  I mean, there's a lot of potential here, and if you help me, you could get rich.

Or we could just harass Zazzle users, right?  Like, you know, send Zazzle a demand that they pull any merch that has our e. on it, because, like, maybe some of those people will, I dunno, license our number from us.  I think there's a plan for profit, here.  I mean, yes, basically my plan right now looks like, "(1) Trademark e, (3) PROFIT!" which sounds kinda familiar for some reason, but I think it's a sound plan.

Plus, you know, economists and biologists and people who track logarithmic exponential growth for whatever reason (oo!  I'll bet vampire hunters use e all the time!) probably put e on stuff: academic journals, government reports, whiteboards, chalkboards, backs of envelopes, cocktail napkins, etc., etc.--we might be able to get lots of licensing money from all those rich public university academics with their "tenure" and their "health plans" and their "working a part-time job during the summer but don't tell my students I waited tables all July"!  Ha!  We'll be milking it in!

So help me make this dream come true.  Riches beyond compare could be ours for the taking if you'll just help me fill out some paperwork trademarking the use of Euler's Number followed by a period on whatever the hell someone might want to put Euler's Number on.  This is totally a plan.  The world is our oyster.  Why, given enough time and a breeding population of bivalves, the world is our N0e(rt) oysters....

Help me out here, friends.  We can totally make this a thing.  Clearly.




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Godzilla, part two

>> Saturday, May 17, 2014

Here is where I thought I was going with Godzilla yesterday: I thought I was going to talk about the movie in general, and something about writing in particular, and I wasn't really planning on rambling on about how you're going to die at all.

So, right--the movie.

Is pretty, for starters.  I'm not entirely sure about the 3D, because I don't know if the problems I had with it during the first third of the movie were with the 3D itself or just with me.  I found myself perceiving a diorama effect during the first bit of the movie, everything looking kind of flat and stacked, but at some point it stopped bothering me, suggesting that it may not have been there in the first place and I was having a hard time adjusting to the 3D effects, is all.  Or it's possible it was present, there throughout, and at some point I began ignoring it.  It's also possible, I think, that the theatre we saw the movie in was having some kind of projector issue, because the Maleficent trailer before the movie looked worse than I would have believed possible (visually speaking, I mean; it literally looked terrible--the substance of it looks like it will be pretty much what you expect from a gratuitous live-action prequel about the villain from Sleeping Beauty that stars Angelina Jolie)If everybody saw what I saw, I hope it was the projector.  It's okay if it was just me.

But, anyway, once my brain adjusted one way or the other, Godzilla is pretty spectacular, breathtaking at times, even.  If Godzilla doesn't quite have the existentialist angst I rattled on about yesterday, I still have to hand it to the filmmakers that they were savvy enough to frame Godzilla that way.  Godzilla is treated as an elemental force, which is good, and (better yet), he's shot that way, shown looming up against and partially obscured by backlit clouds, as a ginormous wave in the ocean with a half-seen shadow of lizardskin deep beneath.  He's an epic beast, which does hearken back to Gojira (where we have to admit that Godzilla's appearance as a monster of light and shadow may have been as much a happy accident of Ishiro Honda's limited lighting budget as it was a conscious aesthetic).

A standout sequence that may be worth the price of admission all by itself involves the apt use of Ligetti's Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra, a piece familiar to science fiction fans for its harrowing use by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the parachuting soldiers, plummeting through clouds and into the smoke and dust of a ruined city, look like they're diving into Jupiter's atmosphere from space, which I have to imagine is exactly the association director Gareth Edwards was trying to evoke.  Well-played.  It's gorgeous and terrifying.

And carries more weight than most of the rest of the movie, which I guess is something we'll be getting to.

My friend Nate, one of the friends Scatterkat and I saw the movie with, is a Godzilla buff (in addition to being a proficient filmmaker and editor--the man knows movies); a Godzilla obsessive, even, and knows the franchise to a depth I couldn't hope to reach.  And he liked the movie, which I think is enough of an endorsement to full-stop say: if you're a Godzilla fan, go, see it, the biggest Godzilla fan I know on the planet endorsed it the other evening.  He did find it a little bit talky, though; I think--and I hope I'm not misrepresenting his views--he liked just about everything else about it.

I see what he's saying, though I don't quite agree; the original Gojira is a pretty talky film, but it doesn't slow the movie down any (I think Nate and I agree about this: when I mentioned it to him, he observed that Gojira is a half hour shorter than Godzilla, and I think we agreed that a half hour could easily have been cut from the latter).  For me, the problem isn't so much the amount of talk (aside from the film being too long overall, I mean), but who's doing the talking.  Unfortunately, although for understandable reasons, Godzilla decides pretty early on to sideline its most interesting actors to expository/spectator roles; specifically, we're talking about the wonderful Ken Watanabe and the equally-wonderful Bryan Cranston, though this is a movie that also fails to do anything at all with Juliette Binoche, who appears in what amounts to a cameo.

Watanabe and Cranston mostly run and gape at things, sometimes pausing in their running and gaping to turn to another character and announce some plot point that would really be nothing more than a speculative shot-in-the-dark if it came from a real person in the real world.  For instance, Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa (a nod to the scientist in Gojira; Cranston's character is named Brody in what I take as a nod to Jaws) knows an awful lot more about Godzilla's feeding habits and place in the primordial ecosystem than a man who has ever actually seen an animal in its natural environment not even once ought to know; that is to say, he jumps to a conclusion with absolutely no evidence for it and happens to be completely correct because that's what happens later in the movie.  I really need to say that this is all completely alright because this is a giant monster movie and that's the kind of thing you expect from scientists in these kinds of movies and I didn't actually have a problem with it even though it's bad writing; it's still fun, but the biggest problem with it is that it's kind of a waste to have someone as awesome as Ken Watanabe (or Bryan Cranston) intermittently showing up at various places and times just to infodump and vanish.  If anything, I sort of wish there'd been a bit more of Watanabe on screen pulling Godzilla Facts out of his ass, even though that's a double-edged sword since most of those Godzilla Facts don't actually make much sense even in the context of the film (e.g. for an apex predator, Godzilla sure wastes a lot of food).

Again, take that with a grain of salt, though.  A whole lick of salt.  Ken Watanabe's Godzilla Facts are silly, but that's okay because by the end of the movie there's a lot of Godzilla being awesome, which is a big part (if not the whole reason) you're at a Godzilla movie.  I guess I'm just letting you know what you're in for: sometimes, and not often enough, Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston show up and spout some random piece of bullshit about Godzilla, which turns out to be completely correct because Godzilla movie.

The scenes with Cranston or Watanabe don't drag that much, but the other talky scenes do, because Cranston and Watanabe are (like I just wrote) exposition and spectator guys who show up to stare at things with their mouths open or to demonstrate why they always win Trivia Night at the local wings place when Ancient Marine Cryptozoans is in play as a category.  Unfortunately, the actual main character is Generic White Guy, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I've only seen elsewhere in Kick-Ass, a movie I really liked but--I regret writing this, because it seems unnecessarily cruel--he's less memorable than Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz, or Christopher Mintz-Plasse (what's with all these hyphenated young actors?).  And Taylor-Johnson starred in Kick-Ass.  He was the title character.

In Godzilla, he's the main guy, and much of the movie shifts perspectives between he, in the role of GWG; his wife, Mrs. (or possibly Dr., I don't think it's clear) GWG (Elizabeth Olsen); and sometimes his son, GWG Jr. (Carson Bolde).  This is all coming off as snarkier and meaner than I ever meant to be with this, but one of Godzilla's biggest, primary, essential, least-forgivable problems is that much of the movie is focused on three blandly attractive people who aren't very interesting.  They aren't likable, but they aren't unlikeable, either.  The actors playing them are all competent and do what the script requires them to do, but mostly all the script requires them to do is show up.  Sometimes they are upset by something, and sometimes they have to run or hide.  Occasionally, something makes them happy or relieved.  Taylor-Johnson, Olsen and Bolde all successfully make the appropriate gestures and facial expressions and vocal changes necessary to convey their new emotional state.  But so what?

It's actually worse than that because it's pretty obvious pretty early that GWG has plot immunity, which sucks all the tension and drama out of every scene he's in, which turns out to be quite a lot of the movie.

Here's a fairly specific example of what's wrong with Godzilla, and it isn't a reason not to see the movie, and it's also spoiler-free, which is unfortunate and ironic because I'm about to describe a specific scene in modest detail.  There's a sequence towards the middle of the film, you see, in which it's very important for a nuclear warhead to be transferred to San Fransisco by train.  GWG gets himself tasked to this mission because he's the main character.  I mean that really is basically the reason he's there.  And so he's on this train, with the nuclear warhead, when it stops before a tunnel just before a bridge, because they need to check out the tunnel and the bridge before the train proceeds to enter the tunnel and cross the bridge.  And of course GWG is part of the team that inspects the tunnel and bridge, because he's the main character.  I mean, that really is basically the reason he goes into the tunnel and onto the bridge even though it kind of contradicts his plot reason for being there at all, which you'd think would be a reason to tell him to stay the fuck on the train.  But okay.  They go out onto the bridge, and things go very badly, and everybody except GWG gets killed, because GWG is the main character.  And he has plot immunity.  Eventually the bomb is transported to San Fransisco anyway, but by helicopter.

Now, this sequence is beautifully assembled.  I mean, beautifully.  The camera work is fantastic, the editing is perfect.  If you went to a con and saw this sequence, just this sequence, shown as part of a sneak peak at a panel featuring the makers of Godzilla, you would be excited.  By itself, this sequence is one of the best action sequences I've probably seen in the past several years.  It's the kind of sequence that Christopher Nolan, who is one of my favorite directors, would totally wreck in the editing room; the kind of sequence that Sam Mendes (the guy who directed Skyfall) would muck up by getting too fancy.  Gareth Edwards just nails it.

It's terrible.

In the movie, it's terrible.  It's one of the first sequences they should have cut.  I understand why they didn't, because it's beautiful.  Also, it probably cost them a lot of money.  But it's just awful.

Because, for starters, its mere existence betrays it.  This is the thing about Godzilla's writing that I really wanted to write about to start with, as opposed to the existentialism of Gojira.  The fact that this scene is in the movie at all is the reason I could tell you exactly what happened in even more detail, and it would still be spoiler-proof.  Because if nothing happened, they would just cut to the train rolling into San Fransisco: "Welcome to San Fransisco.  How was the trip?"  "Uneventful, sir.  Where's the monster now?"  You know everyone is toast the minute they show the train stopping at the tunnel entrance.  And you also know, at this point in the film, that GWG has plot immunity, mostly because you're still looking at him being blandly attractive on screen and having feelings about stuff.  So you pretty much know that some or all of the characters in this bit of the movie will die, but GWG can't be one of them.  And you pretty much also know that the warhead will eventually get to San Fransisco one way or another, because it's too Chekovian not to.

Which means this big and dramatic setpiece, while big (really big!) and dramatic--and brilliantly well-crafted, to boot--is completely meaningless and unnecessary.  Oops.

As a guy who sometimes pretends he's a writer, what this is telling me is that I should cut scenes like this from my own work, or, in the alternative, I ought to be George R.R. Martin.  The scene would work if I thought GWG was in any real danger (and cared), or if I thought the bomb would be irrecoverable (and necessary; I know I just said it was too Chekovian not to be, but you could also put it into perspective by coming at it the other way: if the bomb isn't necessary, why is it in this movie at all,* and we still don't care how this all turns out**).

Useful to think about, that.

As a viewer, it just means that I'm watching an action sequence that's much less exciting than it ought to be because the obvious fix was in from the first round.  (If you want to extend the professional fighting metaphor: Godzilla is a lot more like WWE than college boxing.***)

Which eventually brings us back around to what Nate was saying about Godzilla seeming talky.  It is, but that's really a part of the bigger problem with Godzilla being padded.  Which is not just GWG and Mrs. (Dr.?) GWG playing phone tag (which seriously feels like it's more of the film than it really is) and telling other characters that they have to go somewhere else or stay right where they are or whatever, but also entire action sequences that feel incidental to the whole project.  Possibly the only human-featured action scene that feels vital to the film in any way at all is that paradrop I wrote about earlier, which may be why it feels so exciting and awe-striking (aside from the brilliant use of the Ligetti piece).

Godzilla is fun.  I realize I'm mostly writing about the stuff that makes it less fun; that's probably because it's not just easier to write about, it's also more interesting.  There's a useful lesson (I think) in figuring out why the train tunnel/bridge sequence shouldn't even be in the movie at all.  There's also a bit of nuance (I think) in figuring out that GWG's plot immunity and overall mere GWG-ness makes for a less-interesting movie.  One thing I could have gone into, but won't (because this post is so long already) is that the writers' economy of characters sort of slips in their hands and cuts them: GWG implausibly ends up everywhere something happens, which keeps down on the number of characters the audience has to track (often a problem in disaster movies), but is also... well, implausible.  That's something else useful to chew on, anyway, if you're writerly-inclined.  If I were a filmmaker, I'd also consider the very real possibility that there are too many GWGs in movies, and maybe my film would be more interesting if I let Bryan Cranston (who is white but not generic) and Ken Watanabe (who is neither white nor generic) do some heavy lifting (not to mention, perhaps, a non-white and/or non-generic lady actor).

That's a logical place to bring up something I couldn't help thinking throughout all of Godzilla, I'm afraid: "I like this, but Pacific Rim was a lot more fun."  Granted, Pacific Rim ostensibly starred a GWG; it also co-starred Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba and Ron Perlman (who is a decidedly non-generic white guy).  Godzilla has a startling lack of diversity for a movie about a monster from Japan (there are a lot of Japanese extras and supporting players in the first third of the film, but all of them but Ken Watanabe disappear well before the halfway mark, and then I think there's one black guy in the entire rest of the film, who plays the movie's POCNIC (Person Of Color Not In Charge)), but that's not really the reason Pacific Rim is more fun; it's really just that nearly everything that happens in Pacific Rim feels like it's heading towards something, whereas much of Godzilla feels like it's trying to hold off on delivering a twenty-minute monster battle for as long as possible.

Ouch.  Okay, I'm looking at what I just wrote again.  Seriously, I liked it.  I really did.  It's not a bad way to kill two hours and you should go see it if you like giant monster movies and apocalypses.

I think that about covers it.







*Ironically, the bomb isn't important enough to be a MacGuffin.  Which seems weird at first, but if it still seems weird after you think about it, consider that the tricksy thing about a good MacGuffin isn't that it's actually unimportant, but that it nevertheless seems important.  To be a good MacGuffin, the nuclear warhead in Godzilla would probably need to be introduced earlier in the film, so that we could be convinced that we were supposed to care about it.

**Actually, there's a really awful irony about what I just wrote, but I think talking about it could provoke a legitimate spoiler complaint, which I've probably just lampshaded.  Sorry.

***And from what I hear, professional boxing is more like Godzilla than it is like NCAA boxing.







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