Peace through victory - the American way.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Bogged down in a land war in Asia.

Since the run up to the war in Iraq opponents of the liberation have compared U.S involvement there with the Vietnam war. One of the arguments is that we are bogged down in a senseless land war in Iraq just as we were in Vietnam. Somebody is bogged down in Iraq but it's not the United States.

September 11, 2001, marked the day when America awakened to the Islamist threat that had been building since the Iranian Revolution. Since that day the United States has embarked on two wars on the Asian continent. In each instance, the United States and its allies defeated a terrorist sponsoring government and ushered in new democratically elected governments allied to the U.S.

The guerilla war in Iraq demonstrates that the victory there is not complete. Islamists from throughout the Muslim world have gone to Iraq to fight against the United States and its Iraqi and foreign allies there.

But the significant fact is not that Islamists continue to fight in Iraq. The significant fact is that since 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the Islamists have not done a single successful terrorist attack of any magnitude on the United States mainland.

Instead, all that Al Qaeda has mustered against the homeland is a videotaped statement by bin Laden released just before the U.S. election, in which he threatened Americans if they voted for a president who would continue the war.

In 2003, just before the Iraqi liberation bin Laden began to focus his attention on Iraq with a call for jihad against the "crusaders" there. Last year, Islamist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi openly declared his allegiance to bin Laden and at the end of the year, bin Laden named Zarqawi his emir in Iraq. This should not surprise as the two men share Salafist beliefs and opposition to the United States and its allies. Indeed, even before the Iraqi liberation Zarqawi was linked to Al Qaeda. Despite Saddam's supposed opposition to Islamists, Zarqawi was given refuge by Iraq before the liberation and while there he planned the assassination in Jordan of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in 2002.

So for the past two years Iraq has been the dominant battlefield for Islamists against the United States. What do they have to show for their efforts? First, they opposed Iraq's liberation and failed. Then they tried to start a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq and failed. Then they called on a boycott of Iraq's elections, which happened in large measure among Sunni Arabs, but which has subsequently begun to fail as Sunni groups who boycotted the election have had second thoughts about sitting out the election. In the wider arena, they declared jihad on democracy and witnessed a successful election in Iraq, free elections in Palestine, limited local elections in Saudi Arabia, and Lebanese pro-democracy demonstrators toppling their government in the run up to elections in May. Are we seeing a trend here?

Nothing is certain in war and assessing victory or failure is difficult while the fighting continues. As Georges Clemenceau famously said, "War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory." Notice how he doesn't say for whom the victory results. Still the strategic trend is looking better for the U.S. than it is for the Islamists.

And now according to this Associated Press story bin Laden "is enlisting ... Zarqawi ... to plan potential attacks on the United States." How bin Laden and Zarqawi will do this without a secure base of operations remains to be seen. But this is evidence that bin Laden is awakening to the realization that he has stumbled into a bog in Iraq.



Saturday, February 26, 2005

More Middle Eastern Instability, Oh my!

Now Hosni Mubarek is opening the next presidential election in Egypt to opposition candidates. Let's see, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia has local elections, Lebanon's throwing out the Syrians and moving to open elections in a month, and now Egypt. Instability is breaking out all over the Middle East. Oooo, scary. Hmmm. I wonder what could have prompted all that?



My two cents on million dollar baby.

This year's Oscar controversy involves Clint Eastwood's genre puncturing movie, "Million Dollar Baby." (If you still haven't seen the movie and don't want to know anything about its plot twist, STOP READING NOW.) The movie has become a battlefield in America's so-called Culture Wars between social conservatives and anti-conservatives because of the movie's depiction of a mercy killing and because the advertising sold the movie as a boxing movie, when it's not.

I must admit that I liked the movie until its final scenes. Eastwood's directing style is perfect for this story. His directing is static and upon reflection the movie feels like a play. Much of the action takes place in a gym, the stage where the actors perform. This has the effect of shining the spotlight on the acting and the characters and drawing the viewer into the story. Hilary Swank's acting is the heart of this movie with her portrayal of the strong-willed, tomboyish yet pretty, sincere Maggie Fitzgerald. The image that remains in the mind long after the movie is over is Maggie's, and Swank deserves recognition for this.

The story itself is not that interesting, for the most part, as it tracks by the numbers the rise of a female wannabe boxing star, played by Swank. We watch her overcome the benign sexism of Frankie Dunn, a crusty old gym owner and boxing trainer played by Eastwood, as she charms him into becoming her trainer by her dogged persistence. Then we get the obligatory montage shots of her training and the series of vignettes showing her meteoric rise to the top through knockout after knockout. Over all this, we hear the soothing narrative voiceover of Morgan Freeman, who plays Scrap, a former boxer client of Frankie's and his lifelong friend. And through it all we are shown the world of the boxing gym where the sport strips people down to their core so their character is revealed for all to see and where a person can find out what he or she is made of. As the sign in the gym, which appears in the background of many shots in this part of the movie, says "Winners will do what losers won't."

For 100 minutes or so the movie safely explores the territory of the underdog champion genre and the triumph of will. Then Maggie's neck is broken in a title fight and she becomes paralyzed from the neck down and ends up helpless in a hospital bed, hooked up to a respirator because she can't even breathe on her own. The final 35 minutes are where all the action is and where the movie ultimately fails.

In those final minutes it's all downhill for Maggie and Frankie. As Maggie pleads for him to end her life, he seeks counsel from his priest, and from his best friend on what to do. Then, at the very end, he kills Maggie with an overdose of adrenalin that stops her strongly beating heart.

What is to be applauded about this movie is the same thing that offends. It's a tribute to the movie's creators that they chose to make a movie that busts through the cliches of genre and explores real life consequences. What is not a tribute to this movie is the single-dimensional way it frames the question of what to do about Maggie and how it cops out in the end.

Throughout the movie we have been shown that the only thing Maggie finds worth living for is boxing. The father she loves is long dead. All that's left of her family are white trash, exemplified by her welfare cheating mother. When Maggie comes into some money she buys her mother a house only to have the mother complain that owning the home will cause her to lose "my welfare." When Maggie is lying paralyzed in her bed her family comes to convince her to sign away her assets to them. Her mom goes so far as to put the pen in Maggie's mouth so she can sign.

Maggie's condition is awful. She has bed sores, she loses a leg due to gangrene, she's utterly helpless and she is a shell of her former self. All that is left is her indomitable will, but for this fight she has turned that will to suicide. After biting her own tongue so severely she almost bleeds to death the medical staff must sedate her to keep her alive.

Weighed against the awfulness of Maggie's existence and her will to die, is Frankie's relationship with his priest. That relationship is barely developed in the movie even though we are told that Frankie has attended Mass with this priest every day for 23 years. All we see of it in the first part of the movie are a few scenes. The first two scenes are jokes. Frankie, apparently a lifelong Catholic, is seen asking the priest first about the doctrine of the Trinity and later about the Immaculate Conception. These are questions that no longer trouble the typical long time Catholic.

The Immaculate Conception reference is a bad joke at that. Most non-Catholics think the term refers to the belief about the Virgin Birth and that Catholics believe Jesus' conception was immaculate because there was no sex involved. It plays into the whole uptight Catholic myth so the audience can snicker at that. In fact, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception maintains that Mary was conceived without the Original Sin of Adam and Eve on her soul. (Hey, Catholics don't call these things mysteries for nothing.)

There is one scene of significance between Frankie and his priest in the first part of the movie. That occurs when the priest hectors Frankie to write to his daughter, a grown woman alienated from her father by some event the movie never reveals. We learn that Frankie has been following the priest's advice for years with only failure to show for it. All his letters are returned to him unopened.

Thus, we wonder why Frankie bothers to seek the priest's advice about Maggie. His relationship with the priest is not significant, Frankie is a doubting and immature Catholic, and the one serious piece of advice the priest has given him is unrealistic. But he is a Catholic and when faced with a crisis a Catholic will seek the advice of his priest.

Yet the priest is in the movie to provide a straw man. The relationship is there only to provide a cheap foil when Frankie needs some real advice. The priest clearly cares but he says nothing to Frankie that is rooted in real life. The essence of his advice is to walk away from Maggie. Maggie, the woman who has become Frankie's surrogate daughter. As if Frankie could do that. He tells Frankie not to kill Maggie because if he does he will be lost forever. This might be true but it is not helpful because Frankie already feels lost and it is simplistic.

The movie would have done better to deal seriously with the moral dilemma facing Frankie by allowing the priest to give the more sophisticated answer found in the Catholic Church's teaching on euthanasia.

If it had, the priest would have told Frankie that it would be wrong to kill Maggie because every life has value, especially the lives of the disabled, who deserve special respect. That rather than helping Frankie to end her life she should be helped to live as normal a life as possible. The priest could also have helped Frankie understand that in some situations it can be appropriate to discontinue extraordinary medical procedures where the result is a natural death but that Maggie's decision to die should only be implemented if she made it while competent and able.

Of course a movie is not a debate and its characters aren't debaters. Writers often affirm their characters' independence and say that they will say and do things that the writer never intended. But "Million Dollar Baby" is not that kind of a movie. This movie is not a character-driven movie where unforeseen events happen because the character caused the plot to take a different turn than the author intended. This is a plot-driven movie that is carefully crafted to bring about the fate that Maggie suffers.

So instead the movie stacks the deck in favor of killing Maggie, and Scrap gives the speech that tells Frankie it's the right thing to do. Why? Because Maggie has reached the end of her meaningful life. Maggie, at least, unlike most has dared to live, dared to try, has succeeded, and known glory and the accomplishment of her dreams. It is right for her to die now because she has accomplished her life's dream.

The moral code of this movie is that of a warrior. It is better to fight and live in glory and die then, than it is to fade away into a mundane existence. It is also the easy way out.

The hard way and the human way would have been to let Maggie live. This movie could not do that because, to a warrior, Maggie's life as an invalid would have reduced her to the same moral level as the family she had risen above. She would no longer be the fighter showered in glory and making her own way in the world. She'd fall from the heights to live her life on disability (her own "welfare"), totally dependent on others, and unable to do the simplest things for herself. An object for pity rather than adulation.

"Million Dollar Baby" stares that prospect in the face and blinks. By blinking the movie descends into its own sentimentality and the final scenes are drenched in it. First we are shown that Scrap's voiceover narration has been a letter he is writing to Frankie's daughter so that she will know what her father is like and understand him. Then we see a gauzy image of Frankie through a window sitting hunched at a counter in a rural diner where he and Maggie had stopped once to eat. It's a diner Maggie had frequented as a child, and it's a place Frankie told her he would one day buy and retire to and find the peace he has not known. The only scene missing is a fast forward to Frankie's death and his reunification with Maggie in heaven. You have to give the movie credit for leaving that scene out.


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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Who really needs a mayor and city council anyway?

Here's the short version of San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre's 21 page, 8 point plan to save the city from its financial crisis: "Make me the mayor."


Monday, February 21, 2005

Fibs, Darn Fibs, and Judicial Confirmation Statistics.

In today's Los Angeles Times, columnist Ronald Brownstein argues that President Bush should make a deal with Senate Democrats to break the deadlock over judicial nominees to the Circuit Courts of Appeals.

At this point, it's more important to establish a process that would allow future presidents to reach reasonable agreements with Congress on how to fill vacancies.

The solution may be no more complicated than reviving an idea that might seem quaint in this hyper-partisan era: making a deal.

Bush could quietly review his list of nominees with Senate Democratic leaders, drop a few they consider most objectionable and adopt a small number of choices they prefer (perhaps some of the blocked Clinton nominees).

In return, Democrats would accept the rest of his names. Then the two sides would agree to quietly construct slates for future vacancies that accept the president's predominance but acknowledge Democratic concerns.

Initially, Bush would surely resist that approach as an infringement on presidential prerogatives. But suffering a defeat on every third appellate court nominee hardly invigorates presidential authority.

Many Democrats might denounce such an arrangement as surrender. They might remember that another Democrat will be elected president someday — and will almost certainly face a Senate with enough Republicans to sustain their own filibusters.

To reach his conclusion Brownstein makes a misleading comparison between the confirmation rates of Clinton and Bush nominees.

The tension has come over Bush's appointments to the powerful Circuit Courts of Appeals. Bush nominated 52 appellate court judges in his first term; Congress approved 35 of them. That's prompted the GOP charge that Democrats are abusing the right to advise and consent on presidential appointees.

But Republicans blocked almost exactly as many of President Clinton's nominees. Clinton, during his second term, nominated 51 appellate court judges — and the Republican Senate confirmed 35.

The mistake Brownstein makes with this comparison is evident from the final six words of the previous quote, "... and the Republican Senate confirmed 35." It is misleading to compare confirmation rates between times of unified government when the president and the senate are controlled by the same party to times of divided government when the senate is controlled by the president's political opposition.

Why Brownstein makes the comparison he does is unclear but its effect is obvious. The comparison serves to delegitimize Republican complaints about Democratic opposition to Bush's judges and to legitimize the Democrats' tactics as simply more of the same old politics. Yet a comparison of confirmation rates between times of unified government and times of divided government reveals just how egregious Democratic treatment of Bush's appellate court nominees has been.

Fortunately, the internet provides just such a comparison in the form of a report of the Congressional Research Service available here. (See Table 12, pp. CRS-38-39.)

According to this report, which charts figures through 2003, the confirmation rate for President Clinton's appellate court nominees when Democrats controlled the Senate was 79.2 percent, 19 of 24; for Bush's nominees under Republican control it is 27 percent, 13 of 48. (To be fair, the Bush confirmation rate during unified government is skewed by 2001's defection of Senator Jim Jeffords, which occurred after the 16 were nominated. In 2001, none of Bush's 16 nominees were confirmed.) Removing 2001 from the mix provides a more accurate measure of the rate during unified government but still leaves Bush's confirmation rate at 40.6 percent, 13 of 32, a hefty 38.6 percent lower than Clinton's.

The confirmation rate during times of divided government under Clinton was 38.3 percent, 46 of 120; under Bush, 14.7 percent, 17 of 116, again considerably lower than Clinton's. (Bush's figure for divided government includes the 16 nominees that failed in 2001.)

These statistics show that Democrats have played much harder ball with Bush's nominees than Republicans ever did with Clinton's.

The political reality is that Democrats have not yet accepted Bush's legitimacy as President or their own status as a minority party in Congress. Brownstein's solution reflects that same flaw.

Bush campaigned hard in the recent election not just for a new term for himself but to maintain and strengthen his party's majorities in Congress. That effort succeeded in the Senate where the Republicans now control 56 seats. Brownstein's solution would undermine all Bush's efforts to increase that majority by having Bush cut out the Republican leadership and negotiate directly with a lessened Democratic minority for acceptable nominees, as if they were the majority party in the Senate.

Brownstein's solution might make sense if the American people had decided that Democrats should be the majority party in the Senate. But they did not. The voters chose to send Bush back to the White House and to increase the Republican majority in the Senate. A solution to the judicial deadlock that respected that fact would work with that reality rather than against it.



Saturday, February 19, 2005


California's state motto, Eureka, is rather ironic these days. (For those who don't know, Eureka means "I have found it.") The new California state quarter is supposed to be in circulation. It's available for purchase on the internet as a collectible already. (But why anybody would spend more than 25 cents on a normal quarter mystifies me.) So where are they? I live in California. I spend a lot of money. I get change back from cashiers all the time. I haven't seen a California quarter yet. Nobody I've asked has gotten one either. Did they get released back east and they're making their way west, much like the 49ers did and like most Californians have? Is that it? Is this a performance art stunt designed to emulate the historical settlement of California? I wonder if some of the quarters got sent to Spain, to Mexico, and to the Catholic Church for importation with new immigrants. Perhaps this exchange is happening at the border even now ... "Do you have anything to declare?" "Pues ......"



Thursday, February 03, 2005

Night of the Living Dims: Rule of Law Vindicated; Politics Keeps Rolling Along.

Ruling immediately after hearing oral argument the judge in the San Diego mayoral election lawsuit rejected the challenges filed by supporters of losing candidate Donna Frye. This blog predicted the result from the beginning. State law is very clear that a vote only occurs when a voter makes a mark in the oval provided for the candidate or write-in line. The state constitution also makes it clear that a voter has a right to have his or her vote counted so long as that vote is cast in accordance with state law. (See prior posts here and here.) Those Frye supporters who failed to mark the oval failed to vote and their rights weren't violated by not having their non-votes counted.

From the beginning these lawsuits had no chance of victory. Yet the attorneys vow to appeal the decision and keep this controversy alive. Frye has done nothing to put an end to this controversy and help the city move forward. In the linked article she puts more fuel on the fire with this answer to whether she would now concede the election: "Concede what? He's the mayor. Everybody knows [that more people] voted for me than for the other candidates."

In point of fact, more people did not vote for Frye than the other candidates. The two other candidates combined received over 60 percent of the vote. Frye's share of the vote was somewhere around 33-35 percent. Thus, her statement that more people voted for her than the other candidates is false.

If she meant that she got more votes than each of the other candidates then her point is even worse. Under the law, she did not get more votes than either of the other candidates. She got more than Ron Roberts but fewer than Dick Murphy. Her statement reflects her apparent belief that the people who wrote in her name but who did not properly vote actually cast votes for her. Her persistence in making statements along these lines demonstrates an unwillingness on her part to recognize the legitimacy of the laws that govern our elections.

Under the law, Frye lost the election.

The only way Frye could have been declared the winner of the election would have been if the registrar of voters and the courts had disregarded the law. Perhaps that's what Frye believes should have been done. Her insistence on claiming that she got more votes suggests that's exactly what she believes.

Frye ought to concede the election and admit that she got fewer votes than the other candidates in order to demonstrate that she accepts the rule of law. It's doubtful that she will.

As this blog has argued before the political strategy in play now is to keep the election controversy alive in order to undermine Murphy's political legitimacy as the mayor and set the stage for Frye's supporters to organize a recall election. (See prior post here.)

Don't expect this issue to go away any time soon.