Monthly Archives: February 2015

Do We Have A Contender For Michelle Bachman’s Replacement?

MichelleFioreNevada Republican assemblywoman Michelle Fiore made a bit of name for herself when she was quoted in the New York Times saying that “hot little girls” on campus need guns to protect themselves against rapists.  She did not say what ugly large girls should carry.  This was all in connection with a bill she sponsored that would allow firearms onto college campuses (because what could possibly go wrong with that?)

Now she is telling her constituents that cancer is a fungus that can be flushed out with salt water and baking soda.

Yes, she really said that.

Gonna keep an eye on this one…..

P.S.  The more you know….

RT @lizadonnelly: Meryl Streep responding to Patricia Arquette’s call for equal rights for women! #Oscars2015 @NewYorker http://t.co/mGtThw…

Patricia Arquette, hear you roar!

RT @pattonoswalt: All snark aside, this song by Glen Campbell is DEVASTATING. #Oscars

It’s a good night for crisis hotlines, tweets everyone. #oscars

RT @johnwilliamsnyt: If you haven’t seen “Ida,” it’s streaming on Netflix and is 80 minutes exceedingly well spent.

I picked Ida. Was I right? Yes!

Yay. JK Simmons. And my mom is right here.

Want left shark. #oscars

Oscar Time 2015

Hello?  Is this thing on?  This is my first post using a cellphone app. So bear with me.

Well, I had hoped for really good and interesting Oscar coverage this year, having seen most of the big nominated movies.  But more important family matters have arisen. Even if I had the time or inclination to do an Oscar post, I don’t have computer access.

So if I get to see the Oscars this year, I will probably tweet them. You can follow me there.  And be forewarned… I loathed Boyhood.  Absolutely thought it was uninteresting pretentious drivel.  This will be reflected in my tweets.

UPDATE: Or maybe not. Really beat. It’s been that kind of day.

Come one come all! Keep warm with your friends, great food, great drinks, and great music! ift.tt/1Jhvx9F

I’m really trying very hard to give a damn. ift.tt/1DK2iYq

I’m Jes A Girl Who Cain’t Say ‘No’…. Rape Culture and “Yes Means Yes”

Last September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law mandating that California universities take certain steps regarding their sexual assault policies.  Many of the changes are common-sensical, i.e., a student who is intoxicated or asleep cannot be said to have “consented” to sex.  (This might seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many people wonder about that).

But the law, which went into effect a couple weeks ago, is not without controversy.  Most notably, it contains a clause which states that there must be “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.”  It is more commonly known as the “yes means yes” standard, in which consent for sex has to be explicit. “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent,” the law says.

Libertarians, naturally, went ballistic over the law.  More government intrusion, they cried.  Now the government is regulating how students are supposed to have consensual sex, they screamed.

Many liberals agree that the law is intrusive.  But they are divided over whether the intrusion is good or bad.  As Ezra Klein at Vox puts it, “If the Yes Means Yes law is taken even remotely seriously, it will settle like a cold winter on college campuses, throwing everyday sexual practice into doubt and creating a haze of fear and confusion over what counts as consent. This is the case against it, and this is also the case for it.”

In other words, yes, it is a terrible law because it is intrusive, and yes, it is a good law because intrusiveness is the point.

It’s quite true that the law won’t stop rapists who will simply say (as they do now) that they had “affirmative consent”.  Instead of “he said, she said” fights over whether she said “no”, there will be “he said, she said” fights over whether she said “yes”, as critics point out.

And even a third criticism of the law is that it encourages harassment.  As some have quipped, if affirmative consent is the touchstone, then “50 Nos and a Yes…. Means ‘Yes'”  In other words, a “no” no longer ends the discussion.  But with the new standard, a women can be pursued and harassed until she submits with a resigned “yes” (if ever).

These are all valid criticisms.

But the intent of the law is to get college-age men to stop and think about whether they have consent.  They need to know that they can no longer rely on silence or ambiguity.  And while that may be a small step forward, I think there’s a good argument that any step is welcome.

That said, here’s my problem with the “yes means yes” standard: it assumes that men have a problem understanding “no means no”.  And I don’t believe that.  Neither do many others.  As Amanda Marcotte writes:

Men who have sex with non-consenting women know full well that they are having sex with a woman who doesn’t want it. No one rapes by accident. They just pretend, after the fact, that they didn’t know she was non-consenting in order to confuse the issue. See this classic piece by Thomas MacAulay Millar at Yes Means Yes, regarding research that shows that men have zero problem understanding the difference between someone saying “hell yes” and someone saying “I’d rather not”, even if those ideas are conveyed through “soft” language or even body language. The man who sticks his dick in a woman who is asking if she can go home now or trying to put her clothes back on or pulling her body away knows full well that she is not consenting. He is not confused. He just doesn’t care.

I think that’s probably right.  Most men are not stupid.  The myth of the “accidental rapist” — the guy who misread the lack of consent — is just that: a myth.  We get the clues when a woman isn’t interested.  We get them even if the woman doesn’t say the magic word “no”.  It’s just that bad guys don’t care about “no”.  And those same guys aren’t going to care about the lack of “yes”.

So if the issue is removing ambiguity for consent, “no means no” works.  As long as “no” is said, that is, which brings me to an illustrative story:

Several years ago I spent a week in Costa Rica with a girl I was dating at the time.  One morning, she went down to the beach by herself.  Less than an hour later, she came back breathless with a harrowing story to tell.  As best I can recall, this is what she said happened: She was collecting shells on the beach when this “local” came along and started helping her.  There was some hugging involved, which she dismissed as cultural friendliness.  At some point, they left the beach to go up to the treeline, where they sat and talked (although apparently not much, since he didn’t speak English and her Spanish was limited).  He began to massage her arms; he began to massage her cleavage. Then he said something about going to get some weed, and he would come back and they would smoke it together and carry on.  So he got up to leave, and that’s when she made her escape (if I recall, he tried to cut off her escape, but she eventually found a path away from him).

Now, as an important aside, I should point out that this girl was a lecturer on the subject of self-defense for women.  She actually went to college campuses and held seminars about sexual assaults and how to defend yourself.  So you can imagine that I had a hard time understanding the details of her story.  How, for example, did things get to the point where he was massaging her arms?  Why didn’t it stop there?  Was he overpowering her?  (No, he wasn’t)  Did she say “no” verbally, or by pulling away?  (No, she didn’t).  What did she do as he was rubbing her chest — smiling?  (She hemmed and hawed)

I may have missed a fact or two, but the key point — which was made more clear when she retold the story — is this: she didn’t say “no”.  Not by words.  Not by subtle gesture.  Nothing.  And that (naturally) confused me, because my assumption was…. if she didn’t even TRY to say “no” in any way shape of form, and she wasn’t being overpowered, and she wasn’t drunk or incapacitated, and she does this stuff for a living, then it really looks like she must have wanted it.  And I (unhelpfully) accused her of that.**

She insisted that wasn’t the case.  She was thinking “no”, but fully admitted that she didn’t say  “no”.  She didn’t do anything to indicate disinterest.  Naturally, I asked her why.  She answered me with a string of excuses… “I didn’t because I didn’t want to be rude”; “I didn’t because the situation hadn’t gotten critical yet”, and even “I didn’t because I thought it was a cultural thing”.  On and on.  All kinds of reasons for her NOT to speak up.  All kinds of reasons to let him continue with his behavior.  What gives?

But it wasn’t to be my only exposure to the not-saying-no issue.  Another friend of mine teaches physical education to junior high girls and reports the same thing.  These girls go to parties and boys start to pay attention to them (which these girls, understandably, like).  But then the boys, being boys, get frisky, and maybe the girls get more attention than they are comfortable with.  But they don’t have the skills to say “no”.  Or even, “I like it better when we just kiss” or whatever.

So now, my phys ed friend does a unit in her physical education class on assertiveness — something different from self-defense (which, while important, only comes into play when you are in trouble). She teaches how to avoid trouble in the first place, i.e., how to communicate effectively to a guy that he needs to “downshift”… without severing whatever good time you might be having with him and without making a scene.

Others who work with girls in high schools report the same thing:

Our IMPACT Personal Safety instructors, who teach at private high schools around Southern California, see a majority of girls who, at the beginning of our boundary-setting lessons, don’t want to hurt the feelings of the boys who ask them out or initiate sex.

Some women never learn this.  We live in a society where men can be assertive, but if a woman asserts “no” — even in a polite subtle way — she’s cold and/or a bitch.  Some women don’t like to put on the brakes or “hurt someone’s feelings.”

I believe that was the trap that my ex fell into when we were in Costa Rica.  Smart as she was about physical self-defense in the face of a full-on assault, she was an amateur about being assertive in the face of an everyday unwanted advance.  She was trained (and taught) in a world of fight-or-flight; but was clueless in situations dealing with the more mundane situation of a guy coming on to her — a situation which could have been easily defused without fight or flight.  So what happened instead?  Rather than listen to her feelings which (according to her) were saying “NO”, she made excuses — bad excuses — for HIS behavior (oh, it’s his culture; oh, he’s being friendly; oh, don’t make a scene) — as if those things were more important than her discomfort about a stranger’s unwanted physical advances.  And THEN she found herself in bad situation (which, fortunately, she handled with aplomb).

So obviously, politeness is NOT more important than unwanted advances.  But many women grow up learning differently.  It is implicitly taught.

“Don’t make a scene.”

“Don’t overreact.”

“Don’t be that girl.”

We see this all the time.  Take a young woman who wants to go out to a bar with her girlfriends.  She wants to be friendly and gregarious.  She’s fine with meeting men, and striking up a friendly conversation with them.  But it often happens that….

there sometimes comes a point in a conversation with a man where it becomes necessary to draw the line and indicate that you are in no way, by any means, at all interested in pursuing anything further. There are also times when it is clear that friendly conversation is not in the cards (i.e., those men who substitute grabbing your hips and attempting to “dance” with you for a polite introduction).

That’s Alicia Lynn Eberhart at Luna Luna in an article entitled “Stop Saying I Have A Boyfriend” (a great read, including the comments).  The article goes on about the various “inventive” ways that women go about saying “no” without saying “no”:

If you do a Google search for “how to avoid being hit on at a bar,” you’ll get several articles with “helpful” tips on skirting conversation with men you are not interested in. The majority of these list pretending to have (or actually having) a boyfriend/fiance/husband as the number one method for avoiding creeps (second to “pretending to be a lesbian” or “pretending to be crazy,” a la Jenna Marbles). In response to my complaints about men creeping on me at dance clubs in college, an ex-boyfriend of mine used to get cranky that I refused to whip out this cure-all excuse (one of many reasons he is an ex).

And she concludes with:

So what can we do? I think the solution is simple–we simply stop using excuses. If a man is coming on to you (and you are not interested–if you are, go for it, girl!), respond with something like this: “I’m not interested.” Don’t apologize and don’t excuse yourself. If they question your response (which is likely), persist–”No, I said I’m not interested.”

I think any discussion of empowering women has to take this approach. California’s Yes Means Yes standard is fine if only because it makes men “tune in” and puts them on notice.  And it is probably fine for women who, sadly, are unable to say “no”. And it’s fine on college campuses, but you can’t make that a real world thing.

More importantly, as Thomas MacAulay Millar writes, men DO know when women say “no”, even when women use subtle clues.  If that’s true — and I believe it is — then all women have to do is learn how to say “no” without making excuses or making apologies.  And ideally, I think that’s what we want — empowered women who know they CAN say no instead of passively acquiescing to men treating them in ways they find objectionable.  Men should be held accountable, which means that women have to hold men accountable as it is happening.

The bad men are counting on the fact that women won’t make a scene.  They are counting on the fact that women won’t be impolite.  That’s how achieve their conquests in the first place.”

UPDATE: It’s been suggested that when it comes to the Costa Rica woman, or the female students of my gym-teacher friend, that I am blaming the victim.  I’ll cop to the plea of being an unclear writer at times, and if this is one of those times,then I apologize.  I won’t edit what I’ve written, but I will add this update.

This post is about the rape culture.  I discuss empowering women, and what we teach our girls.  In doing so, and by focusing on women’s behavior, I certainly am not saying or even implying that women in general – or any woman in particular — bear responsibility for the culture we have, or the situations in which women find themselves.  Anyone who knows me knows where I stand on these issues.  Still, let me not mince words and reiterate: the men/boys discussed here are responsible for their behavior.  They are the ones accountable.  The victims described here are just that: victims — women and girls placed in a position that they should never have to be placed in, and it goes all the way from boorish behavior at a bar to outright physical assault.  We talk about women saying “yes” or “no” or doing THIS or doing THAT, but that does not and should place responsibility (and its cousin, blame) on any woman for what she does (or doesn’t do) in those situations.  The men are responsible and (as I stress) they KNOW what is going on.  They are not clueless.  Period.  Full stop.  If you are reading this differently, then chock it up to my poor writing abilities, and nothing else.

** I wasn’t going to mention this, but since my ex has made it a personal issue, thereby ignoring the whole point of the post, I’ll inform whoever reads this that there were many other factors at play during this time. Any pre-judgment of my actions is just as unkind and ill-informed as any pre-judgment of her actions. I will also add this: when it comes to integrity, infidelity, and infidelity-blaming, a person who does not occupy the moral high ground would be wise not to throw stones.

Wait a minute. This movie is about non-procreative sex? Those previews were VERY misleading!! ift.tt/1Mdf6u6

Wait a minute. This movie is about non-procreative sex? Those previews were VERY misleading!! ift.tt/16SNc5z

The Muslim Terrorist Victims?

So here’s what happened:

Williams Out

Brian_Williams_1005It sucks right now to be NBC’s Brian Williams.  And this news story about the news just demonstrates how stupid the news has become.

The NBC newsman was suspended Tuesday night for six months amid charges that he misremembered or conflated wartime incidents he reported on from Iraq and Israel. He has also come under scrutiny for possible conflations in reporting from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Williams told stories that, among other things, misrepresented his proximity to danger or death. Some have called his reportage “humble-bragging,” trying to enhance his reputation by focusing on supposed duress.
The main misremembrance, for which Williams apologized last week, pertains to a 2003 incident in Iraq. Williams said that the Army Chinook he was riding in was forced down by a rocket-propelled grenade — except that his helicopter wasn’t the one that was hit.

Then in 2006, while covering the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Williams initially reported on MSNBC that he was flying at about 1,500 feet and could see two rockets launched from about six miles away.

A month later, the story changed when he told Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart that rockets passed 1,500 feet below his helicopter. Then in 2007, he told an audience at Fairfield University that the rockets sailed just beneath him.

In the New Orleans incident, Williams reported that he saw a corpse floating down the street from his hotel window. But Williams was in the Ritz-Carlton on the edge of the French Quarter, where there was little to no flooding.
These are conflicting statements, to be sure, but were they malicious or intentionally misleading? Or, are they just stories that get better in the retelling, as humans tend to do

The answer is the second.  Our recollection of traumatic events is often flawed in some part because fear alters the brain and memory. Whether one is hit or not, surely the terror of flying where rockets are near can magnify and distort events.

But more importantly — and incredibly, I think I’m the only one who actually has said this — these misremembrances only reflect upon Brian Williams the man or Brian Williams the celebrity.  In other words……WHO CARES?  Will people TRUST Brian Williams again??? Are you serious with that question???

Let me put it this way — if Brian Williams got on TV and delivered the news — NOT his personal experiences, but the news — would anybody doubt him?  If he reported:

President Obama’s has sent draft war powers to Congress this morning.  The proposed legislation would repeal the 2002 Authorization for Uses of Military Forces which gave broad powers to the President (Bush, then Obama) after Sept. 11 attacks.

…. would anyone think he was LYING?

And not for nothing, but Jon Stewart is right.  If the media had exhibited this much scrutiny on Bush & Cheney & Rumsfeld, and held them accountable for their lies — which is what the media should be doing rather than eating its own — we would have saved thousands of lives.

I hate this Brian Williams story.  On the other hand, he would make a great replacement for Jon Stewart.

UPDATE – Ed Gilgore gets it, too (or rather, doesn’t get it):

So remind me again why the Brian Williams saga is supposed to be a big deal to anyone other than him or his embarrassed employer? No, I don’t like to see anybody lose their job—or for that matter, to be suspended without pay for six months—but I’m guessing Williams won’t be missing any meals. Is his admitted lie some sort of blow to the Fourth Estate? Only if you have a very, very old-fashioned regard for the glorified news-readers we call network anchors. Fact is, it’s not even clear if or how Williams’ lie or lies affected his network’s coverage of Iraq or of Katrina, unless you are going to join the doomed and nasty cause of those suggesting the latter was no worse than a bad thunderstorm.

Some conservatives are giving the old heave-ho to the claim that Williams is a“liberal” trophy whose downfall should be greeted by lusty cheers from Real Americans everywhere. But there was nothing especially ideological about the self-aggrandizing fibs Williams told to make himself part of the “stories” he was telling, and as WaPo’s Aaron Blake noted yesterday, he has not been especially demonized by conservatives up until now.

My own indifference is probably attributable to the fact that I almost never watch network news, and have certainly never been “influenced” by Brian Williams so far as I can tell.

Stewart Out

There will be time for eulogies and retrospectives, especially since his departure date is still unknown.  But the news that Jon Stewart is leaving the helm of The Daily Show after 17 years comes as a shock, even if it is to be expected (he clearly has been restless this past year).  Stewart made The Daily Show.  It will go on, but it won’t be the same.

No, She’s Not Hiding

So, this happened this morning:

FROM: RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer

TO: Interested Parties

RE: Hillary’s Hiding

We’ve noticed it. You’ve noticed it: Hillary Clinton is hiding.

Potential Republican presidential candidates are out in public, speaking to voters, and sharing their ideas. But Hillary Clinton is nowhere to be found.

Well, we do know she tweeted.

Hillary’s only public appearances in 2015 have been in Canada. And in the previous year, almost every public appearance she made came with huge speaking fees—a quarter million dollars or more and, of course, a private jet.

As some of you have experienced first hand, when reporters are actually permitted to cover Mrs. Clinton, they are mistreated and even followed into the bathroom.

Why would a would-be presidential candidate behave this way? Because she’s made a strategic decision that the only way to ensure she is the Democratic nominee is to make everyone think she’s inevitable. The last time she had to face voters and actually compete for the nomination, she lost to a newcomer. She doesn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

As her poll numbers show, when Hillary is campaigning, she’s much less popular. What’s the only way not to seem like she’s campaigning? Go into hiding.

And it goes on for a little more, but you get the idea.

Well, I think I’ll fire off a memo of my own.

FROM:  The Ashford Zone

TO: RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer

RE: Your memo re: Hillary’s Hiding

First of all, who sends a memo to “Interested Parties”?  That’s….. stupid.  (I apologize for not thinking of a better word than “stupid”, but it really fits the bill).

Secondly, Hillary Clinton is not hiding.  She’s appearing at a Silicon Valley conference for women in a few days.  Then in March, she has at least four appearances. First up, she’ll receive an award at the 30th anniversary gala of Emily’s List, the powerful Democratic group that works to get more pro-choice women elected to office. That’s March 3.

Next, Clinton will be inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame at a ceremony in New York City on March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day. After that, Clinton heads to Atlantic City, New Jersey for a paid speech on March 19 to the American Camp Association, an industry group of summer camp professionals. Four days later, she’s back in Washington to present a journalism award named in honor of Robin Toner, the first woman to be named national political reporter for The New York Times.

I found all that out from googling.  Took me a couple minutes.  So, she’s not hiding.  What you mean is that she isn’t campaigning.  Which is true.  You know why she isn’t campaigning?  She simply hasn’t announced her candidacy.  Not yet.  Announcing comes first, then campaigning.  You see (and you know this damn well), right now, Hillary can continue to raise money.  Once she starts campaigning, that money starts to go away.  And financially sustaining a campaign that is running a non-competitive race is harder than you might think. Donors tend to think that a safe candidate doesn’t need their support.  So she’s being smart, while you are pretending to be… oh, what’s the word…. oh yeah, stupid  (again).

Finally, as to the “inevitability” of Hillary being the nominee, you DO realize that goading her on the RNC website with your silly memo actually ADDS to the notion that she is going to be the nominee? Right?  You’re actually elevating her to that level be claiming that she is “hiding”.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the story of a woman who might actually out-vile Charles Manson. ift.tt/1DRJnZu

Alabama and Gay Marriage

Well, you know we’ve crossed over when Alabama starts with the gay marriage thing.  An order from a federal judge allowing gay marriage was to take effect this morning.

But what’s that?  It’s Chief Judge Roy Moore (a state, not federal, judge) to the rescue.  If you don’t remember, Judge Moore is often known as the “Ten Commandments Judge.” When Moore, a devout Christian who often relies on Biblical scripture in his rulings, began his judicial career as an Alabama circuit court judge in the 1990s, he placed a Ten Commandments tablet he had carved himself behind his courtroom bench and began instituting prayer before jury selection.

Years later, Moore resurrected the Ten Commandments debate when he had a 5,200-lb. granite Ten Commandments monument commissioned and placed inside the Alabama State Judicial Building. Two lawsuits were filed, and by August 2003, a federal judge ordered the monument removed. Again, Moore refused, forcing his fellow justices to remove it instead and sparking thousands of protesters to rally in support of Moore outside the state judicial building. But they weren’t able to save his job. Later that year, a state judicial panel removed Moore from his post as chief justice.

And now, here he is again:

In a dramatic show of defiance toward the federal judiciary, Chief Justice Roy S. Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court on Sunday night ordered the state’s probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on Monday, the day same-sex marriages were expected to begin here.

“Effective immediately, no probate judge of the State of Alabama nor any agent or employee of any Alabama probate judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent” with the Alabama Constitution or state law, the chief justice wrote in his order.

The order, coming just hours before the January decisions of United States District Court Judge Callie V. S. Granade were scheduled to take effect, was almost certainly going to thrust this state into legal turmoil. It was not immediately clear how the state’s 68 probate judges, who, like Chief Justice Moore, are popularly elected, would respond to the order.

But, no.  He was thwarted:

Gay couples got married in Alabama on Monday despite a last-minute push from the state’s chief justice to stop them.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to block a federal court order from January requiring the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. In Birmingham, cheers and applause went up at the probate court as licenses were issued.

“We have large crowds generally on Valentine’s Day here,” Judge Alan King of Jefferson County Probate Court told NBC News by phone. “This is by far the largest crowd that I’ve seen. It’s a very happy occasion.”

Moore is not willing to give up the fight:

Moore, in a telephone interview with NBC News, insisted on Monday that the federal courts had gone too far, and had no power to order state probate judges to do anything.

“A lot of states in this union have caved to such unlawful authority, and this is not one,” he said. “This is Alabama. We don’t give up the recognition that law has bounds.”

“Once you start redefining marriage, that’s the ultimate power,” he added. “Would it overturn the laws of incest? Bigamy? Polygamy? How far do they go?”

The thing is, Judge, the federal court governing your state has addressed this “redefining marriage” argument and how bogus it is.  MANY courts have.  You lost.  You are a loser.  Get over it.

Moore, by the way, has no jurisdiction.  He’s not the judge of any case involving same-sex marriage.  Even as the Chief Judge of Alabama state courts, he simply cannot intervene in contravention of a federal court ruling.

Alabama has done this before, by the way….

3112102.0

Better Call Saul: A Mid-Pilot Review

better-call-saulIt’s probably not fair to review a new series based on half of the pilot episode, but AMC saw fit to split the pilot episode into two days, so they have nobody to blame but themselves.  Plus, it is pretty clear what Better Call Saul will be like just from Part One of the two-part pilot.

Better Call Saul has been billed as a spinoff of Breaking Bad, taking one comparatively minor character — hustler-lawyer Saul Goodman — and going back in time to follow his antics.

I admit to having some trepidation about the new show.  My concerns were two-fold:

(1)  Saul Goodman.  The Breaking Bad character Saul Goodman, for those three people who didn’t see the original Breaking Bad series, is an ambulance-chasing shady lawyer who worked out of a storefront on a strip mall.  The character as it appeared in Breaking Bad was largely comic relief and relatively minor (not appearing in the majority of episodes).  Worse yet, he was one-dimensional.  How could Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan hope to center a new show around that?

(2) Bob Odenkirk.  Odenkirk is a very good sketch comedy writer — one of the best — having honed his craft as a writer on Saturday Night Live, The Ben Stiller Show, The Conan O’Brian Show and Mr. Show with Bob and David.  He’s a fairly good sketch comedy actor as well (being the “Bob” in Mr Show with Bob and David).  But he’s not a strong actor, and not even a strong character actor.  He was adequate, I thought, as Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, but the role was not very demanding or particularly leveled.  Assuming that Vince Gilligan intended to round out Saul Goodman for Better Call Saul, could Odenkirk fill out that role?

There’s also the danger of being a spinoff of a wildly popular television show like Breaking Bad.  Unless you get the Breaking Bad cast back — particular Bryan Cranston — you’re not cooking with the same ingredients.  Even the fact that you’re putting it in the same state doesn’t matter — New Mexico in Breaking Bad is not the same as North Dakota in Fargo.  So it can’t be Breaking Bad, which might disappoint Breaking Bad fans…. but if Gilligan tried to make it Breaking Bad, the end product would probably disappoint Breaking Bad fans even more.

To their credit, Vince Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould (who actually wrote the Breaking Bad episode that first introduced Saul Goodman, late in Season Two) largely avoid those pitfalls.  Although it is a dark comedy like its parent, it is clear that Better Call Saul is trying not to be Breaking Bad 2.  In fact, the more it runs from Breaking Bad, the more successful it will become (I think).

The brilliance of the pilot episode lay in the writing and direction.  Saul opens with a five-minute black-and-white sequence that looks like an art film. We’re in Omaha, Nebraska (my birthplace), where Saul relocated following the events of Breaking Bad.  (The scene is probably an inside joke, mimicking the movie Nebraska, which also starred Odenkirk).  Saul’s new identity is that of Gene, a balding, mustachioed, bespectacled sad sack manager of a mall Cinnabon. He’s also incredibly paranoid, with one eye constantly looking over his shoulder. When he gets home, he pops in a tape of one of his old in-your-face TV ads, ending with the catchy slogan, “Better Call Saul!”

The action flashes back six years prior to the events of Breaking Bad. We’re back in the familiar, colorful environs of New Mexico and Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk) is a bottom-rung lawyer begging for new clientele, whose self-described “A Law Corporation” rests in the back of an Asian nail salon. Aside from a trio of teen “knuckleheads” on trial for decapitating (and then sodomizing) a cadaver, his only real would-be client is his brother, Chuck McGill, a partner at the prestigious law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Chuck is on disability leave, but instead of collecting his share of the company—an estimated $17 million—he’s intent on recovering and reclaiming his former legal glory, much to Saul’s dismay.

Stylistically, Saul is a lot like the best of Breaking Bad (at least when Gilligan was directing).  Cinematically, it was fantastic, with low angles, high angles, and odd perspectives (including a nice scene taking place in the moguls of a skateboard park, which made you very aware there things were not — literally — on the level).  We remember a lot of the highly-charged scenes of Breaking Bad, but a lot of it was slow-paced, allowing tension to build.  Saul’s opening episode reminds of this.  Not every episode is going to be gunfire and explosions, and that’s a good thing.

10809832_422506794581658_1729523195_nAnd Saul — er. Jimmy — is now a three-dimensional character.  Still a slimy ambulance chaser, but now we see that he’s motivated by more than greed.  He’s concerned about the welfare of his attorney brother, Chuck (played wonderfully by Michael McKean, who one hopes to see a lot more of).  If anything, Jimmy is the inverse of Breaking Bad‘s Walter White.  Walter White was a good guy plummeting into the underground world of meth-making and meth-dealing, hence Breaking BAD.  With Jimmy, we see hints of the inverse — a con man lawyer trying to do the right thing (at least where is brother is concerned).  Could this be Breaking Good?  Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were, depending on where you go in the timeline, anti-heroes — it was uncomfortable if not impossible to root for them as drug dealers and/or sociopathic killers.  By contrast, Odenkirks’s Saul, sleazy as he might have been in Breaking Bad, at least had his limits — a man who kept himself a safe distance from the actual drugs and blood.  That alone might make for a better anti-hero — more convincing and compelling — particularly if, as Jimmy McGill in 2008, a lot of his motivation is justice for his brother.  Yeah, he’ll screw it up — after all, incompetence is at the core of Gilligan’s brand of dark humor.

Odenkirk steps up to the increased demands of his character, Jimmy McGill.  He already had a manic, depressed, negative energy to Jimmy/Saul and has great comic appeal (like a scene where he sees a long conference room desk and launches into a Ned Beatty from Network impersonation).  But, more importantly, Odenkirk was able to muster a little depth, particularly in the scenes with McKean.  I don’t think in the seasons to come (Saul has already been greenlighted for Season Two), he’ll be called on to do some, you know, heavy acting, and I doubt we’ll see him walk away with a lot of awards a la Cranston…. but that said, Odenkirk was able to deliver (so far).  Perhaps that is because Saul/Jimmy, even in fleshed out form, isn’t all the complicated, although his dilemnas might be.  For me, the jury is still out on Odenkirk, but I’m cautiously optimistic now.

The easter eggs and other gifts to Breaking Bad fans are fun (“Oh, look, it’s Mike as a parking garage attendant!” “Oh, that’s Tuco – remember him?” “Hey, isn’t that the same cafe where…..”) and maybe necessary to get Breaking Bad fans to tune in.  But they seemed a little heavy-handed, and will probably become a distraction before too long.  Again, Saul needs to find its own footing, and not ride on Bad‘s coattails or rely on Bad crossover links, even as easter eggs.  Hopefully, Gilligan understands this.

But so far — and again, we’re talking about only the first half of the pilot episode — the strength of Better Call Saul lies behind the camera, with the writing and direction.  That will set it above the many other fine shows out there, even in this “Second Golden Age of Television”.  One hopes that Gilligan and Gould will continue to nurture this show (Gilligan also has his hands in a new ABC show called “Battle Creek” so his time may be divided).  My understanding is that the second half of Saul’s pilot episode is frantic and crazy– in contrast to the deliberate slow boil of the the first half.  That should be interesting.  But I, like many, will be watching.

UPDATE (the next day):  After seeing the second part of the pilot I don’t have much to add, except that I’m becoming more convinced of Odenkirk’s acting skills.  The second part was not as frantic as I was led to believe, but it certainly wasn’t a slow boil either.  And it won me over for two simple reasons:

(1)  A wonderful tribute to “All The Jazz” one of my favorite movies.  It was basically a repeated montage of Saul doing what Saul does as a public defender, done to the strings of Vivaldi, and ending with him clapping and looking in the mirror — “it’s showtime, folks”.  Like Roy Schieder as Fosse does here:

(2)  The introduction of a new character played by Michael Mando — who was so wonderful (and evil) as Vic (Sarah’s ex-boyfriend) in Orphan Black

Be Careful What You Wish For….

Republicans seemed bitter that the State of the Union Address wasn’t some kowtow by Obama, crying in his cups about the Republican Party’s success in the midterm elections.  But now that they control Congress, they don’t seem to know what to do.  This is a party that gets its energy from the rage machine, not from leadership. .At the Plum Line, Paul Waldman sums it up this way:

Ironically, the Republicans had a lot more power when they were in the minority than they do now. With a Democratic Congress, the administration set out an ambitious legislative agenda, which Republicans were able to obstruct and subvert as long as they stayed unified, which they did very well. But once they took control, the administration all but gave up on legislating (apart from unavoidable tasks like passing budgets to keep the government open), which leaves Republicans with no fights to wage apart from the meaningless ones they manage to concoct on their own. And they can’t even figure out how to win those. Winning Congress has put Republicans in a position where they have little choice other than to make things worse.

Bad Cop

This is a long post, but it warrants it.

It is an of just how bad our police are, even in a liberal city like Seattle.  Many of these examples appear to involve racism, white cops misusing their authority over African-Americans. Examples are often dismissed by police supporters over some ambiguity or another. What makes the following example so compelling is not the extremes of violence (none take place) but the clarity of the power dynamic, and the clarity of how easy it is for cops to misuse the power granted to them.

Arrested for Having a Golf Club

We learn that 70-year-old Air Force veteran (twenty years of service) and retired Seattle bus driver William Wingate had a daily habit of walking and using a golf club like a cane. He typically took a walk to pick a newspaper. Wingate was not unknown in the neighborhood. He had no arrest record. He was not using drugs. He wasn’t even wearing a hoodie. The day was sunny and clear, the video in focus and the audio clear.

But Seattle Police Department (SPD) officer Cynthia Whitlatch pulled over her patrol car, got out, and yelled at Wingate to drop his golf club. The incident was caught on her vehicle’s dash-cam video recording system. Unlike some recorded incidents, where what happened before the encounter was not recorded, in this case we have a full 1:40 on tape of nothing happening.

Officer Whitlatch insists that the recording instead would show Wingate swinging his golf club at her and hitting a stop sign with it. According to the Seattle Police Department, there exists no video to back up this claim.

Nonetheless, Whitlatch, standing behind her car, shouts at Wingate to drop his golf club 17 times, and claims that “it is a weapon.”

“You just swung that golf club at me,” Whitlatch yells.

“No, I did not!” exclaims Wingate.

“Right back there,” Whitlatch says back. “It was on audio and video tape.”

You be the judge.

The Video

(The action begins at 1:40 on the video, but the fact that nothing happens prior to that is important to understanding how wrong this all is)

If you don’t see the embedded video, it is also online here.

Welcome to the Judicial System

Eventually, she tells him he’s going to be arrested and charged with obstruction. She calls for backup. A second officer arrives and Wingate promptly hands over the golf club. Nonetheless, the officers went on to handcuff him. Police walked him down the street to the East Precinct, where the desk sergeant approved the decision to book Wingate into jail on harassment and obstruction charges.

While still handcuffed, Wingate had difficulty stepping up and into the back of the paddy wagon. On video, an officer can be seen sliding a stool toward the back of the vehicle, using his foot. Wingate spent the night in jail.

The next day, city prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges of unlawful use of a weapon against Wingate based solely on the arresting officer’s incident report. In that report, the officer stated she was “fearful of being assaulted by him.”

Wingate agreed to a plea agreement after being told by a public defender “If you sign this stipulated order of continuance, it will all be over, basically.”

Finally, a rational head entered the story. Two months after the arrest a municipal judge dismissed the case following public outcry that attracted both social media and a private lawyer.

Maybe It Was All Just a Mistake?

So maybe Officer Whitlatch just made a mistake. You know, pressure of the moment. Maybe on a bright sunny day she thought she saw an elderly African-American man swing a golf club at her, when no such thing happened. Maybe. But, as prosecutors say when they bring up a suspect’s past history in court, let’s look at the record.

Officer Whitlatch was one of 126 police officers who sued the government last year, at both the federal and city level, to block the Department of Justice–ordered use of force policies. The SPD is under a federal consent decree and is being forced to address the DOJ’s concerns over racial bias and its finding that Seattle police routinely and unconstitutionally use excessive force. Officer Whitlatch and the others claimed in their suit that the new policy will result in citizens and officers being “killed.” They said the regulations require cops to “under-react to threats of harm until we have no choice but to overreact.”

Whitlatch’s ex-girlfriend, who claims she spoke up because both she and her father were police officers, claims Whitlatch made racist comments about black people she’d encountered while on patrol and, in the spring of 2005, stole marijuana from police evidence that the couple then smoked together.

About one month after she arrested Wingate for his golf club, Officer Whitlatch took to Facebook to share some thoughts. While protests raged in Ferguson, Missouri over the police shooting death of African-American Michael Brown, Whitlatch wrote she was tired of “black peoples paranoia” and wrote of “chronic black racism that far exceeds any white racism in this country.”

The Next Steps

The next part is as predictable as day following night.

– Officer Whitlatch remains employed by the police department, albeit on desk duty. Whitlatch was not disciplined. She received counseling from her supervisor, a course of action that the department believes to be “an appropriate resolution.”

– The Seattle Police Department insists racial bias played no role in the incident.

– Wingate is suing the city for $750,000 claiming violations of his civil rights. Should he prevail, the taxpayers will foot the bill for the settlement.

Remember when Victoria Jackson was funny? Me neither. This would be brilliant if it were parody, but it’s not. Any… ift.tt/1EGUcS2

Scary Dashcam of Taiwan TransAsia ATR-72 Plane Crash

The wing clips the car in front, then goes into Taipei River.  Incredibly, 15 have survived.  28 dead; 18 still missing.

This isn’t the one making the rounds.  This is actually a more rare (but clearer) dashcam video taken from the car BEHIND the car whose dashcam video is making the rounds.

UPDATE: The Guardian is reporting that the taxi driver whose car was clipped by the plane suffered a head injury and concussion but was hospitalized with stable vital signs.

To Kill A Mockingbird II

I’m sadly not much of a reader, but I’ve been around for a long time and I have managed to read a lot during that time.  And by far, my favorite book is the one that everybody loves as their favorite…. To Kill A Mockingbird.  So it is nothing short of awesome that, after a 55 year-long silence, Harper Lee is publishing a sequel to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

From just a purely literary viewpoint, this is huge news. Imagine a new J.D. Salinger novel coming to light about Holden Caulfield 20 years later. That’s essentially the premise for Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman. I say “new” in quotes because, according to Miss Lee’s account,Watchman was written first and the flashback chapters about Scout Finch’s childhood so captivated Lee’s editor that he asked her to expand upon it. So, while Watchman was written first, she and her publisher decided to go with Mockingbird, which was actually a prequel.  Lee’s Go Set a Watchman manuscript then got misplaced and she thought it was lost until her attorney found it last year in a “secure location.”

The long-awaited second Lee novel will come out on July 14th and Harper’s publisher (also Harper) will come out with an initial print run of 2,000,000 copies.

At Least We’re Not Argentina

For all the political scandals this country deals with, it pales with what is happening in Argentina.

I’ll give the Cliff Notes version.

Back in 1994, there was a bombing of the 1994 bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association, a Jewish Community Center located in Buenos Aires.  85 people were killed and hundreds were wounded.  Following the 1994 AMIA bombing, a series of federal and international investigations were launched, though the case remains officially unresolved.

Albert Nisman had spent more than ten years investigating the case, and he had long believed that the Iranian government and agents of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, were behind it.

But in recent years, he had also become concerned that Argentinian government had conspired to shield Iran and Hezbollah from justice.  Specifically, he accused Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Argentina’s foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, of trying to shield Iranian officials from responsibility in the 1994 bombing so that Argentina could secure access to Iranian oil.

Nisman was supposed to provide details before Congress about his accusations against Mrs. Kirchner on January 19.  But on January 18, Nisman was found dead in his apartment.  The cause of death was a shot to the head, fired from a .22-calibre pistol that the prosecutor had borrowed from his assistant the day before. Nisman told his assistant that an Argentine spy had warned him that his life was in danger. The two main doors to the apartment were locked, and several bodyguards had been standing watch outside. Analysis of a third passageway, a small nook used to gain access to the apartment’s air-conditioning unit, revealed a footprint and a smudge, but nothing more. The door to the bathroom, where Nisman was found, was locked from the inside.

The news rocked Argentina.  Hours after news of Nisman’s death broke, protesters took to the streets with signs that read, “Yo soy Nisman,” to express their anger over his death; many accused the government of orchestrating it. The government, meanwhile, did little to dispel the suspicion. The next day, President Kirchner posted a rambling message on Facebook, which read, in part, “Suicide provokes … first: stupefaction, and then questions. What is it that brought a person to the terrible decision to end his life?”

Four days later, she was less philosophical. Nisman’s death “was not a suicide,” President Kirchner wrote on her Web site. “They used [Nisman] while he was alive, then they needed him dead.” The “they” in this case could have included government critics who wanted to frame the President; a rogue faction of the Argentine intelligence apparatus; the Central Intelligence Agency; or the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. The President’s public pronouncements are often soaked in paranoia. But in this case, the government’s line—that Nisman was manipulated, then discarded, by elements of the intelligence community intent on discrediting Kirchner—traded on widely held doubts about Nisman’s independence as an investigator.

Today, a 26-page document was found in the garbage at Mr. Nisman’s apartment.  It included arrest warrants for both President Kirchner and Foreign Minister Timerman.

There has been all kinds of little strange wrinkles here and there.  For example, the government’s erratic response to Nisman’s death was made worse in subsequent days. The journalist who first reported the death, Damian Pachter, left Argentina for Israel last Saturday, claiming that his life was in danger. Inscrutably, the government posted Pachter’s flight information to its Twitter account, and said that it was trying to protect the journalist. At this point, it’s an open question whether this behavior is a sign of guilt or mere haplessness.

In any event, it is outright bizarre.  Like House of Cards.