Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Plamegate Rides Again: Early Peek At New Film

Thanks to the movie website Corona Coming Attractions, there’s an advance review of the new film Fair Game, based on the book by Valerie Plame, the CIA case officer who was “outed” by the Bush Administration when her husband called the president a liar in The New York Times in July, 2003, for claiming Iraq was acquiring nuclear weapons material.

Wilson’s Op-Ed piece led to a firestorm in Washington, an admission by the White House that it had exaggerated the claim in Bush’s State of the Union address during the run-up to the war, and a series of investigations that resulted in convicted felon Scooter Libby not going to jail thanks to his pal Dick Cheney.

The rest is history – and now a movie.

A test screening for Fair Game, which stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, was held a few days ago and someone at Coming Attraction caught an early cut of the film:

"Fair Game is really a tremendous, thought provoking film. It's based on the same titled memoir by former CIA Agent Valerie Plame, who of course worked for the agency as an undercover spy until her husband wrote an op-ed piece declaring that the Bush White House lied about Sadaam Hussein's efforts to buy yellow-cake uranium from Niger. Naomi Watts plays Plame (and as shown at the ending, really looks a lot like her), and plays her wonderfully. The story is set up through a sequence at the beginning showing her in action in the field, and in the CIA headquarters being completely dedicated to her job. She loves what she does for her country even at the price the travel and the secrecy puts on her family life.

"She's married to former Ambassador Joe Wilson, played by Sean Penn in what very easily could (and should) be his next Oscar nomination. Wilson is a man in turmoil almost from his opening scene, dining with friends who think they know everything about the world. They don't, Wilson doesn't, but he certainly knows more about the Iraq situation than they do and is glad to tell anybody about it who will listen. His expertise gets him looked at (through no suggestion of his wife) and requested of by the CIA to take a trip to Niger to investigate reports that Hussein was looking to buy uranium from that country, which Wilson was a leading expert on. He agreed, made the trip, found that there was no possible way that a purchase of yellowcake was made, and reported that back to the government. The administration, as we now know, chose to ignore this report, and used the incorrect intelligence as a key basis in its case for war.

"This destroys Wilson, who starts to speak up in the press, and the leak of his wife's identity was made. We're led to believe that the order of the leak was made by Karl Rove to Scooter Libby (played by a hilariously serious David Andrews), and the rest is history. Plame's career is destroyed, her marriage (and life) nearly go along with it, and a major investigation into corruption in the Bush White House is launched, ultimately leading to the fall of Libby.

"The film clocked in at roughly 1:50, and paced tremendously well. There was a side-plot they spent a bit too much time on involving an Iraqi family and Plame's valiant efforts to save them from the invasion, but that was really the only downfall of the film. Watts is excellent, at least as good as she was in Eastern Promises, and Penn is as good here as I've seen him. It's directed by Doug Liman who did an excellent job of it, and I believe he also served as DP, so kudos to him as I often forgot the camera was even rolling. Truly a wonderful human drama with political suspense that should interest anybody no matter how they vote. 9/10 (stars)."

Fair Game does not have a scheduled release date and often films are edited heavily based on audience comments at advanced screenings.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Confessions Of A Techno-Luddite

As the weekend arrived, The New York Times carried a semi-sneering piece on the tiny and ever-dwindling number of people who still refuse to have a cell phone. It cites a study done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project that finds more than 85% of all Americans now have a mobile; the Federal Communications Commission says cell phones caught on faster than either cable TV or home computers.

While Pew concludes that cell “refuseniks” generally are less educated and poorer than people who have them, it concedes grudgingly there is “a subset of adults who resist cell phones simply because they do not want them. They resent the way (cells) disrupt face-to-face conversation. They savour their moments alone and prize the fact that no one knows how to reach them.”

Exactly. Roughly 5% of Americans without cells simply don’t want one. People like me, and Gregory Han.

“It’s a luxury not to be reached when I’m out and about,” Han, a 34-year-old Los Angeles-based writer-editor, tells the Times.


The paper has a Toronto bureau but no one called me for the story. If they had, I would have been delighted to explain why I am a complete techno-Luddite: Not only do I not have a cell phone, I don’t own a BlackBerry, pager, PDA, laptop, digital camera, Webcam, iPod, iBook or, for that matter, iAnything, cordless phone, home network, WiFi, Wii, Skype, Kindle and whatever else took the world by storm yesterday. I don’t download music, movies or porn from the intertubes. I don’t bank, direct deposit or buy on-line, and avoid ATMs. My e-mail includes an instant message feature but I never activated it. For that matter, I’ve never sent a text message, visited a chat room, had a Facebook page or Twittered; no one cares that I’m leaving for lunch now or that I’ve just returned.

Who could possibly care whether anyone is leaving for lunch? And I don’t want people to interrupt me when I’m eating.

“Cell refuseniks are making a statement that they control their availability,” John Horrigan, research director at the National Broadband Task Force, speculates.


Little Protest

Maybe Horrigan is right, but I’m also making a different statement, a tiny protest that’s probably as effective as telling Lou Dobbs that immigrants are good for America: Just because technology lets you do something doesn’t mean you should or that it’s even a good idea.

Apparently, people like me are such an oddity that the on-line edition of the otherwise august and totally sober Columbia Journalism Review made note of the Times’ article.

It’s true, we are an oddity. When people ask for my cell number, they’re aghast when I explain I don’t have one, offering my old fashioned land line instead.

“No cell phone?” comes the incredulous reply. “Seriously? How do you survive without one?”

I survive just fine but Sheila Shirazi admits discarding friends who go without, telling the Times, “I don’t have the time and energy … to coordinate with somebody who isn’t mobile.”

Ms. Shirazi isn’t unique.

A few years back, a woman I was mildly interested in seeing dumped me during our first dinner together because I don’t have a cell. Over the decades, I’ve been rejected by women for countless reasons, good and goofy, but never because I refused to tote around a small piece of gadgetry. On Seinfeld, Jerry once stopped dating a woman because she ate peas one at a time; my fledgling romance was nipped-in-the-bud and died for about as rational a reason.

Get Serious

OK, I admit snatching at technology when it’s useful. I never grasped Dewey’s decimal system for library research at school but I mastered the art of crafty searching and rummage around on Google numerous times every day.

And I do see value in having a stand-by cell phone for some people: Those travelling lonely roads by themselves. Kids, so they can reach a parent quickly. The sick and disabled to get help quickly. Critical care doctors.

But come on.

I’ve followed tweeners through malls who were on cell phones the entire time. What could they be talking about? The Gap has a sale? Joey likes Deirdre? The math test was really hard?

I’ve eaten in spiffy boittes where everyone at a table was “celling” so why did they bother eating together? Hong Kong has it right: Most restaurants demand mobiles be turned off and checked with the maitre d’ before being seated.

I’ve ridden trains where cell phone users were forced to shout over the track noise, making everyone else in the car unwilling participants in the call.

I’ve sat in offices where the person across the desk wore an earpiece cell phone so I never knew if they were speaking to me or to the phone.

It’s a losing battle, I realise, my fight against cells and other techno-stuff. The 5% of us who don’t always want to be instantly connected to everyone else are like Dutch boys with our fingers in the dikes. We may stop one small leak but waves of water are washing over the top, drowning us in a sea of gizmos and gadgets.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Yet Again, The Army Fails Its Troops

Like politicians, institutional bureaucracies know the best way to bury bad news is to release it late on a Friday afternoon.

This is exactly what the Pentagon did in the waning twilight last Friday when investigators publicly unleashed a searing, 325-page report on the string of shootings last May in a combat stress and mental health clinic in Baghdad’s Camp Liberty that left four soldiers and one sailor dead. After repeatedly reaching out for help, Army Sgt. John Russell stole a gun from an MP, walked into the clinic where he had been treated briefly an hour earlier and opened fire.

The PR ploy worked. The report was ignored over the weekend by virtually every media outlet except Stars and Stripes. No doubt the Pentagon was relieved because the report tears a strip off the Army for not giving commanders in Iraq – and, by extension, Afghanistan – the necessary tools, training and guidance to handle at-risk soldiers.

So, once again, the Army fails to support its own troops and, worse, it’s failing and flailing over the same basic issue in 2006 that dragged the Army kicking and screaming into 21st century after it was criticized for punishing soldiers who sought mental health help during or after war zone duty tours. Supposedly, the Army changed its policy and began actively encouraging all personnel to get treatment without fear of retribution.

OK, so soldiers and officers can go for help without risking their career. The problem is the top brass didn’t bother to tell field commanders – from sergeants to senior officers – how to spot a troubled trooper or what to do with them when they suspected a problem.

A staff member on the House Armed Services Committee, who is not authorised to speak with reporters on-the-record, told me on Monday, “We have no idea how to budge the Army into doing something positive that actually works” when it comes to dealing with either enlisted personnel or officers who are suspected of having mental health issues.

“(Senior officers) come before the committee and say all the right things,” this staffer continued, “but it looks like they forget all about it the moment they walk out of the hearing room.”

Institutional Problem

The report damns what is, as my dad’s father would say in a thick dialect as he kvetched about lukewarm soup at Plotnik’s deli in Milwaukee, “Oy, a farshlepteh krenk” – a chronic complaint.

In doing its investigation, the Army interviewed Russell’s fellow grunts, commanders and doctors to trace the events leading to the shooting. The report chronicles widespread failures – one after another, in Russell’s case – to implement the Multi-National Force-Iraq mental health policy. No one from non-commissioned officers to field commanders are provided direction to carry out preventive mental health measures, according to the report.

In a statement that is both disturbing and sad, Russell’s sergeant said, “What I don’t understand is from the time a soldier has been identified that they may have behavioral health problems, what do you really do with them?”


The Army report insists that majors through lieutenant colonels “require precise instruction in effective suicide and behavioral problem remediation measures to effectively support our behavioral health professionals,” the report states.

At the unit level, “there is no real conception of when to command refer a soldier for assistance.”

Leaders with Russell’s unit “admitted they lack the fundamental skills to deal with behavioral health issues,” and had no formal policies or procedures to guide them, according to the report.

It gets worse. The investigation says there is no clearly defined procedure to track and monitor the issues once they are identified. Russell’s commanders were not aware he had threatened suicide or that his immediate supervisors had removed the bolt from his gun.

Who’s In Charge?

In Paddy Chayefsky’s great 1971 film The Hospital, George C. Scott – a worn down and worn out physician – explains the inexplicable death of a patient by saying, “We just neglected him to death.”

In a sense, the Army neglected Sgt. Russell to death – and the deaths of five other people.

The report details how the Army tells units dealing with a potentially suicidal soldier to use the “buddy system” and “unit watch” without providing “even notional reference to describe” as to what the terms actually mean in real life. They have been common in the Army for years, but there is no Army-wide standard or instruction for how to carry them out. Russell was supposedly on “unit watch” in the days leading up to the shootings yet his unit had no guidelines on how to actually do this.

“We’re looking into whether there will be hearings on this,” the Congressional aide told me. “The problem is, it seems like no one is in charge when it comes to mental illness in the Army.”
- - - - -
I wrote this piece originally for the LA Progressive, where it appeared earlier today.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Everyone But Fox And The Taliban Applaud Obama’s Peace Prize

No sooner was it announced that Barack Obama won the 2009 Peace Prize, than I heard from Ann Aurelius. An old friend from high school back in Minneapolis, Ann is as Norwegian as Lutefisk and pancake suppers in a Lutheran church basement during a cold Minnesota winter. When Garrison Keillor talks about the people of Lake Woebegon, he’s talking about Ann.

“Cheeky Norwegians! Good for them!” Ann enthused in an early morning e-mail shortly after getting word. “The world needs shaking up! I think they realize that his fight for justice (including) universal health care is as much about world peace as ending wars and conflicts. Even beer in the Rose Garden to smooth out racial issues. Sometimes, it's not about the big things but an entire attitude.”

The head of the Nobel Committee didn’t say it any better.

Except for the lowlanders at Fox and the Taliban’s official spokesman, most of the world is applauding the move in Oslo. Beyond the usual tributes from Obama’s fellow heads-of-state, a think piece in The Independent explains why he may have won.

The Independent observes “… the Nobel prize has a long history of being awarded more for the committee's aspirations than for others' accomplishments … The prize is awarded to encourage those who receive it to see the effort through, sometimes at critical moments … The Nobel committee has the audacity to hope that he'll produce a record worthy of its prize.”

Agence France Presse is considerably less inhibited, saying the president “sensationally won the Nobel Peace Prize …” And across the Channel, Peter Beaumont of The Guardian writes what is on the minds of many today, noting that perhaps the prize was “awarded to Barack Obama for what he is not: For not being George W. Bush.”

And over at the Grande Dame of broadcasting, Paul Reynolds of writes, “The citation indicates that it is President Obama's world view that attracted the Nobel committee – that diplomacy should be founded ‘on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.’”

The Livid Right

I wonder if Fox News, The National Review and are happy that they have something in common with the Taliban: Each blasted Obama receiving the Nobel Prize as soon as the award was announced.

In fact, because of the time difference between Afghanistan, Norway and New York, the Taliban may have scooped Fox this morning.

Under the headline “Becoming Jimmy Carter Faster Than Jimmy Carter,” RedState’s Erick Erickson whined “I did not realize the Nobel Peace Prize had an affirmative action quota … but that is the only thing I can think of for this news …” Apparently not knowing anything about the peace prize, including how or why it is awarded, Erickson is saying the only reason a black president could win the accolade is because he is black. And the right wonders why progressives brand so many of them racist when they write or talk about the president.

Not surprisingly, Fox has the wildest ideas.

Crazy Foxes

Tommy De Seno at is no more informed of the process than Erickson. He carefully catalogues Obama’s first 12 days in office – that’s when the nomination period ended – and other than “skipping church” three times and “release federal funding to pay for abortions in foreign countries,” Obama did nothing. De Seno brushes off ending torture as “re-affirmed Army Field Manual techniques for interrogations” and “expressed desire to close Gitmo” as mere trifled.

Hey, Tommy: The nominations may have closed Feb. 1 but that doesn’t mean the Nobel Committee tosses all of the names in a hat and draws out one in October. There’s actually a lengty consideration and deliberation process involved and, I’ve read, often heated arguments between committee members over different nominees.

Not so this time: The Nobel Committee announcement said the choice of Obama was unanimous.

That didn’t stop Foxtails commenting on De Seno’s posting from acting like idiots. Here are a handful of the hundreds of comments written, without fixing spelling, punctuation or grammar:

Martmann, North Carolina: i have a funny inkling that acorn is behind this travesty by the nobel prize committie acorn acorn acorn thats what they do for there former lawyer and teacher at there institution.

ataube439 Massachusetts: I didn't think Barack Obama hated the Jews enough to win the prize. Go Figure.

Kathykwny New York: Obama's arrogance will know no bounds now that he has this bogus honor. (He) would rather see us marginalized and subservient to dictators around the world. Congratulations, Mr. President! You have finally done it!

Wooptyone Wisconsin: “Way to go Ole and Lena...

Truthproject Colorado: Kudos to Fox Network for Not pandering to this administration. The Nobel committee has proven once again that they can not discern egos from ethics. I am glad that Mr. Obama is not my savior.

thom1 Pennsylvania: Is he the first person from Kenya to win this? just wondering?

I’m not sure how Fox friend “martmann” manages to wrangle his mind in enough different directions until it links ACORN and the Nobel Peace Prize but he’s convinced of it enough to write a comment for the entire world to see. Meanwhile, “Wooptyone” is busy making derogatory comments about Norwegians and “atyube439” is revelling in his anti-Semitism.

I don’t know whether this is sad or scary.

I do know that when a sitting American president is named a Nobel laureate – including Obama, only Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have been so honoured while still in office – it is a cause for rejoicing not just in the US but in the world. It also puts tremendous pressure on Pres. Obama to live up to the high standards and expectations the world has set for him.

Finding a near-term way out of Afghanistan would be a good place to start.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Was Jesus A Socialist?

According to Variety’s weekend tally of boffo box office receipts, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story took in nearly $4.9-million in its first weekend of national release. While far more people went nut up instead of shut up and saw Zombieland than screened what Time magazine’s Mary Corbliss called Moore’s “magnum opus,” enough tickets were sold to land his frequently biting, often hilarious and totally frightening indictment of free markets run amok at number six on Variety’s list of the weekend’s most popular films – rare for a documentary but common for Moore and beating Fame, The Informant and Love Happens while tying with Whip It in the process.

I went to see Capitalism at a four o’clock show Sunday afternoon, the second time I’d seen the picture. Living in Toronto, I was startled to see the theatre more than half-filled; although I recognised a few familiar faces from Democrats Abroad, the audience was Canadian and I didn’t realise my adopted country would be so interested in Moore’s ripping apart America’s soft but well-paid and stock option-laden underbelly. Apparently so: Last night, CBC NewsWorld aired Sicko uncut, Moore’s searing denunciation of the US health care system, in prime time.

Intriguing Question

I saw Capitalism again because I suspected I missed a lot when I screened it before the Toronto Film Festival. Then, it had me roiling with anger-bordering-rage like many people who watched it on opening night. In a mass e-mail Saturday morning, Moore wrote to friends:

“One manager … said, ‘It's a good thing we carry (candy) at the concession stand instead of pitchforks and torches! These crowds were ready to march over to the local Citibank and do something!’ Another manager said a crowd in the lobby formed around the little Chase ATM machine next to his popcorn stand and started to ‘yell at it.’"

Sunday afternoon I discovered I was right; I missed a lot and watched it more dispassionately.

What didn’t register at the first screening was the profound theological message Moore, a devout Catholic, wires into the film. He doesn’t do it in a way that even remotely resembles what the evangelical right does on a daily basis, treating God and Jesus like the personal Mr. Fix-It of believing evangelicals and, by extension, the world if it only accepted The Word The Way True Believers Know It.

Indeed, Moore makes it plain that he has no use for Christians – including Catholics – who use “Jesus” as a banner to argue against everything from eliminating poverty, taxes, science, abortion, immigration, health care reform and illegal wars. But he poses an intriguingly serious question that reviewers – including me – almost entirely overlook:

Was Jesus a Socialist?

For people of other faiths, it might be more appropriate to ask whether Moses had a progressive agenda? Could it be that Mohammad was a lefty? For non-believers or those who question the whole idea of religion, the question might be put more aptly as, “Can anyone with an ounce of humanity in them think it’s alright to pass laws and enact regulations that allows stealing from the poor to give to the rich?”

Heavy Hitters

Moore trots out some heavy hitting priests – including two Bishops – to answer in the affirmative: Yes, Jesus was a socialist. Although I’m not religious and wasn’t raised in a religious home, let alone a Christian one, I took enough comparative religion classes to remember that stuff about giving to the poor, the fishes and loaves, rich men squeezing through needle eyes and all the rest.

Judaism is on the same page, even if pre-dates Christianity by a few millennia and there aren’t any Holy Ghosts rumbling around in its dark hallways.

The Old Testament legislates laws which are a sort of tax for the benefit of the poor. The institution of the sabbatical year was so "that the poor of the people may eat" as well as to cancel debts about which the warning was given, "If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother …”

Even the Quran insists that Moslems have a special duty to take care of the needy, the less fortunate and the downtrodden.

Come to think of it, it’s really only right wingers in the US – which often means Christian fundy’s – who’ve perverted religion to argue for small, ineffective government, tax breaks only for the wealthiest, health care only for the healthiest, food only for the fullest, good schools only for the smartest, and clean air or water only for those who pollute.

I’m not here to start an argument over how to interpret religions but rather to point out that Moore’s real issue isn’t that capitalism needs destroying but that it has lost way. It has wandered too far from its basic, religious roots in helping ensure not just economic and social equality but a levelling of the great breach that’s opened between the rich and everyone else.

Since many on the right keep insisting that “America is a Christian nation,” maybe it is time for them – for the nation – to start acting more like Christians. If Jesus existed – even as a historical figure and forgetting about the fairy tale of him springing from the womb of a virgin as god’s son – I’m convinced, like Michael Moore, that Jesus was a socialist.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Only Video Of Anne Frank Found, Posted On-Line

In a way, this is very unnerving.

The Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam just started a YouTube channel and one of its first uploads is a 1941 home movie of a wedding party leaving a building. As the camera pans around, Anne is seen looking out an upper floor window.

Not The Belly Of The Beast

This week, I re-enter the Canadian national health system for tests to see if my cancer returned since the last round of treatment ended six months ago.

For those of you in the States who might be starting to believe the Republican noise machine, be assured that I’ve not been on a waiting list or pleading my case before a death panel and, regardless of the outcome, I won’t be handed a staggering bill on my way out the door. The only inconvenience – besides waiting anxiously to learn the results – is that I couldn’t get an appointment when I wanted. I’d asked for Monday morning but am stuck with midday on Thursday.

Hardly a journey into the belly of the beast – apologies to Jack Abbott and Norman Mailer – as right wing lunatics keep insisting is the only possible outcome of a government-sponsored public option.

Yes, it’s personally unnerving and thoroughly unpleasant but at least I don’t have to worry about an insurance company pulling the rug out from under me because I’m denting its bottom line, forcing me into bankruptcy. Nor do I have to fret that whoever represents my riding in Parliament is a complete idiot like the grotesquely insensitive Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA). At a town hall meeting recently, he told a constituent suffering from years of clinical depression but can’t afford health insurance to pay for a psychiatrist to “go to an emergency room.”

Actually, the man did go to an emergency room – after he tried committing suicide.

As Georgia Liberal so aptly noted on Thursday, “Treating major depression is not a one-shot deal. That is like saying cancer patients should get treatment one night in the ER and it is all better.”

If only.

Oh, and in case Broun The Knuckledragger didn’t notice, people receive a bill for going to the ER. It ain’t free in the US which is why hospitals hire collection agencies, and sue patients who can’t pay, forcing sick people who are hapless victims of an awful system into bankruptcy.

Thanks Max Baucus and the ObstructaDems and the GOP and Fox and the medico-insurance complex. You’ve really done a number on America. The question for us is: Why are we sitting at home reading this instead of storming Washington demanding the change we voted for?