Keeping Abreast of the Cinema

Politics and economics and the rest of our usual fare seem far too dreary for such a mild spring day as today, so we might as well take time out to note an interesting development in the field of motion pictures. According to a report in London’s Telegraph, the steamy sex scene has all but disappeared from Hollywood fare.
The Fleet Street dispatch confirmed our own observation of the contemporary cinema. Although our theater-going virtually ceased way back in the four-dollar-ticket days, when we noticed that all the good movies had already been made, the advent of Netflix and other stay-at-home media have allowed us to indulge a purely sociological interest in the latest offerings to an extent that we have lately noticed a distinct lack of gratuitous sex and nudity. Having been regular movie-goers back in the ‘70s, when movie-makers felt obligated to insert a few bare breasts into even the most asexual plot lines, the frequent absence of such scenes is strikingly conspicuous.
More avid movie buffs will no doubt be able to cite numerous exceptions to this trend, and might even know the exact moment on the well-worn video disc to find them, but it’s certainly not like the old days when even such respectable actresses as Julie Andrews were routinely exposing themselves. In today’s cinema the actresses are more likely to be wielding actual bazookas rather than the slang variety, and shoot-outs seem far more common than sex scenes. This strikes the Telegraph’s correspondent as an odd development, given the continued popularity of sex, and it strikes us as doubly odd at a time when Hollywood is self-righteously embracing both the current gun control mania and an anything-goes sexual philosophy.
The Telegraph offers the expected economic explanation, citing the importance of an under-age audience that is theoretically excluded from any motion picture that receives an “R” rating. Although the theory is quite plausible, and backed up by quotes from suddenly censorious movie directors and producers, it overlooks a longer trend in the development of movies.
Since the advent of television, the movie industry has mostly devoted itself to offering something that can’t be found at home. In the ‘50s this meant the kinds of big-budget, wide-screen, Technicolor epics that wouldn’t fit on the tiny black-and-white screens that were then the state of the television art. The moral standards of the time meant the epics were usually of the Biblical or historical variety, and while such directors as Cecil B. DeMille could always find some fairly salacious passages of scripture or risqué episodes of antiquity the actresses always kept their robes on. Color television and mini-series eventually allowed television to compete on these epic terms, but by then the “sexual revolution” had come along to allow movies a degree of explicitness that still wasn’t allowable on the federally-regulated public airwaves. A natural public interest in what a famous movie star looked like naked could only be sated at the theaters, and Hollywood took full advantage. Cable television then negated this advantage, however, and much of its premium-channel fare was devoted to nothing but nudity and simulated sex scenes with all of that extraneous plot and dialogue and character development stuff dispensed with altogether.
Now that the internet provides easy access to an astounding abundance of outright pornography, with something for even the most arcane tastes, Hollywood has retreated back to the big spectacle gimmick. This time around the technology is even more extravagant, with Imax theaters that dwarf the old curtained Cinemascope screens and computer-generated special effects and seat-shaking sound systems that make Moses’ parting of the Red Sea seem a cheap parlor trick, with all of that extraneous plot and dialogue and character development stuff dispensed with altogether. It doesn’t make for very compelling viewing to anyone but that coveted under-age audience, but it doesn’t require a lot of complicated translating for the foreign markets and thus far it can’t be found at home.
Demur as we are about matters of sexuality, being of a conservative temperament both politically and culturally, we regard this latest development with some regret. “The Last Detail,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and numerous other films of the ‘60s and ‘70s took full advantage of the era’s license to make meaningful statements that were made worthy by their frank depictions of a licentious time. On the other hand, the Hays Code era of strict restrains produced an even more impressive body of work, and such ingenious filmmakers as Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges and numerous others took full advantage of the hated studio system to create meaningful statements that were made worthy by their sly innuendo and elegant subtlety.
That Golden Age of Hollywood isn’t coming back, though, and the current circumspection of the cinema doesn’t signal a return to traditional sexual standards but rather an admission that they are gone with internet wind, so it’s sad to see that the movie-going public apparently prefers special effects to good old-fashioned sex. We never really minded all those breasts, to be quite honest in a ‘70s sort of way, and we always found them preferable to seeing some guy’s brain get blown all over the extra-wide screen Better to have a well-told story of interesting and believable people, maybe even a profound shoot-‘em-up such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” or “The Professionals,” but apparently the kids aren’t interested.

— Bud Norman

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What’s the Symbol for Hate?

Every now and then during our drives about town we will spot a bumper sticker on another vehicle exclaiming that the motorist loves Obamacare. A heart-shaped symbol substitutes for the word “love,” as if scanning the four letters would take too much time out of our busy days, and of course there’s no room at all for an explanation of this uncommon affection.
Which is a shame, because we’d love to hear these proudly Obamacare-loving drivers state their reasons. It was easy enough to understand the enthusiasm back when the so-called Affordable Health Care Act was being pitched to an unwary public, and it was going to provide coverage to every single citizen and perhaps even a few non-citizens while allowing everyone who was satisfied with their existing plans to keep them, somehow help the employers who would suddenly be stuck with reams of new regulations, and cost the public treasury a trifling $980 billion, and lower everyone’s premiums to boot. Only the hard-hearted skeptics didn’t love that, but now that they’ve been proved right in every regard those bumper stickers are hard to comprehend.
By now those drivers should know that at least four million of the uninsured will choose to pay a fine cheaper than insurance and remain uninsured, at least seven million people with insurance will be forced off their plans whether they like them or not, employers are hoping to reduce their newly imposed costs by limiting workers’ hours, the Congressional Budget Office’s estimated tab after the budget gimmicks expired has now swelled to $1.85 trillion, and in the latest bit of vindication for the skeptics a Society of Actuaries report says the price of an insurance premium will continue to rise for most Americans. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius admits that at least part of the rise is directly attributable to Obamacare, telling a group of reporters on Tuesday that “These folks will be moving into a really fully insured product for the first time, and so there may be a higher cost associated with getting into that market.”
The secretary was quick to add that some people will see their insurance costs go down and that subsidies will be available for many lower-income Americans to help them with the cost of their newly-mandated coverage, and others with a heart-on for Obamacare will no doubt find other silver linings. There seems to be an awfully dark cloud within those silver linings, though, particularly for the now-quite-lower-income Americans who will be paying both higher premiums and higher taxes as a result of the subsidies, and Obamacare’s more realistic fans are already talking about the latest round of revisions and refinements. We anticipate that they’ll find all the problems are caused by the pesky remains of a free market insurance system and that even more government control is required, and if the problems persist they’ll prescribe more of the same.
Some conservatives have argued all along that Obamacare was meant to fail to such an extent that the public would at last demand a full-fledged single payer system such as can be found in the more fashionably socialized countries. They’ve been dismissed as paranoid right wing crackpots, of course, but we knew quite a few left-wingers who giddily espouse the very same theory as the reason for their support of the bill. Those who love Obamacare for its faults tell us that fully government-run health will be wonderful, but they’re hard-pressed to explain why something that’s so obviously a good idea can’t be sold to the public without mucking things up first, and they don’t seem to have planned for the possibility that a public fed up with higher premiums and worse care might turn to Republican congressional candidates disinclined to go the Swedish route, but they’re the only ones who seem pleased with the way things are going.

— Bud Norman

It’s News to Us

We’ve been sifting through the news all day in search of something to write about other than homosexual marriage. The other media have been excitedly reporting on the oral arguments the Supreme Court held on the matter, all somehow avoiding the obvious double entendre, but the hearing didn’t include anything we haven’t heard before and trying to predict a decision based on the justices’ questions is always a mug’s game.
There were plenty of other stories, as always, but nothing that could divert the public’s attention from the homosexual marriage debate. Stocks rose again, and the radio news briefs said it had something to do with a lower unemployment number and a recovering real estate market and somebody making a profit on something, but elsewhere we find evidence that the economy remains infuriatingly sluggish. Some putatively non-partisan analysts at the Congressional Budget Office have concluded that the country won’t see anything close to full employment for at least the remainder of President Barack Obama’s time in office, but the timing is surely coincidental and hardly newsworthy.
Economies are suffering even in places where Obama isn’t president, and Europe seems in particularly bad shape. The Cypriots who were foolish enough to put their hard-earned savings in a local have endured “haircuts” of up to 40 percent of their holdings, and now one of the grandees of the European Union is warning that savers in Spain, Italy, and other countries should expect a similarly close shave. No such plans are contemplated here, yet, although there’s no telling what it make take to maintain the president’s generous vacation budget.
The Middle East becomes ever scarier, with Israel taking military action against Syria after attacks on its soil, the United Nations pulling out of that war-torn country, and the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency shipping arms in to assist the rebels. Meanwhile, persecution of Christians has increased in Egypt, whose Muslim Brotherhood leadership is the recipient of more arms from the United States, and the rest of region seems to be its usual troublesome self. It would be newsworthy only if the Middle East weren’t becoming scarier, though, so the lack of attention being paid is understandable.
Gun control remains a hot topic, to the point that all the celebrities are now weighing in. Comedian Jim Carrey, who has somehow parlayed a second-rate Charlie Callas imitation into a formerly successful movie career, has apparently “spoofed” gun-owners as sadistic redneck finds and thus upset some of the dwindling number of people who pay attention to him. The debate doesn’t seem to be going well lately for the gun-grabbers, what with Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed assault weapons ban being dropped for lack of even Democratic support, and their media cheerleaders have been reduced to racist slurs against the gun rights advocates.
There was more, of course, but the big story on Tuesday was the homosexual marriage debate. None of the stories seem to know how many men and women will be getting married if it comes to pass, and of course there’s no knowing how many of them will pop up in the inevitable stories about homosexual divorce, but it must be a huge number of people who will be affected.

— Bud Norman

Rock On, Joe

Times are tough for the humble civil servant, what with that “sequester” cutting a full $44 billion out of the scheduled growth in the federal government’s $3.8 trillion budget, but at least Vice President Joe Biden is sleeping well.
One would hope so, at least, given The Weekly Standard’s recent revelation that the veep racked up a $585,000.50 hotel tab for one night in Paris, as well as a relatively economical $459,388.65 bill for lodging on a slightly longer stay in London. The totals include accommodations for Biden’s sizeable entourage, to be fair, but throw in a $321,655 bill for Biden’s limousine service that the dogged reporters of The Weekly Standard also uncovered and it’s still the sort of expense account that would have raised eyebrows even at The Who’s record company.
Such rock-star extravagance is characteristic of the Obama administration — . to say that the First Family lives like royalty would understate the matter by many millions of dollars, given that no European country indulges its kings and queens with anything near the funding provided for the presidential lifestyle — but it is somewhat surprising for a second-rate opening act such as Biden. Not that we’d want such a eminent official of the United States government staying in the sort of hotel that budget-minded businessmen favor, although the bed would likely be just as soft, the courtesy bar just as well-stocked, and the pay-per-view pornography offerings just as titillating, but we would have expected someone of a mere vice presidential stature to be a bit more conscious of public relations.
The administration is still lamenting the supposedly devastating effects of the recent slight slow-down in the rate of federal spending, after all, and blaming such outrages as the end of guided White House tours for the kiddies on the psychotic stinginess of those darned congressional Republicans and their crazed fixation on fiscal solvency. They’re still clamoring for ever-higher taxes on the wealthy, too, having recently won re-election on the argument that the other guy was too rich and out-of-touch to identify with the common folks, and Biden’s “Regular Joe” shtick is a big part of the class envy campaign, so a million dollar hotel bill is not what the political professionals call “good optics.”
Biden probably figures that it will go unnoticed by everyone outside The Weekly Standard’s already-angry readership, though, and he’s almost certainly correct. Anyone old enough to remember the brouhaha that ensued when Nancy Reagan bought some pricey dinner plates for the White House with private funds be astounded at the lack of interest in Biden’s high living, but that was a different time and an administration of a different party.

— Bud Norman

Madison Avenue and the Hipsters

The Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ improbable success in the early rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual championship basketball tournament recently prompted us to tune into prime-time network television for the first time in many years, and the experience has left us struck by the ubiquity of hipster culture. It’s not so much the tattoos and over-sized shorts and tonsorial strangeness of so many of the players, although that is a jarring contrast to the clean-cut and defiantly old-fashioned cagers we recall from the days of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, but rather all those unshaven young fellows with their shirts hanging out who populate the advertisements.
Our limited television viewing is usually devoted to the late-night fare on the low-budget ultra-high-frequency stations, where the programming is dominated by ancient sit-coms and the advertising is mostly on behalf of bail bondsmen, thrift stores, pawn shops, workers’ compensation lawyers, and other businesses catering to a lower-class audience that can’t or won’t shell out for cable’s over-priced fare, so this development took us by surprise. Madison Avenue’s enthusiastic embrace of what used to be called the “slacker” type also seemed somewhat counter-intuitive, as we would not expect the proudly unambitious sorts portrayed in the spots to be the likely consumers of the pricey goods being pitched. Having fashionably disheveled youngsters in the fast food and beer commercials make some sense, as those products are easily affordable by the low-paid denizens of parents’ basements, but it is a most baffling development that these days even most slovenly youngsters are apparently well-equipped with the latest electronic gizmos, sporty cars, and retirement investment plans.
Perhaps the target audience for these high-end advertisements is not the latte-sipping bohemian but instead the hard-working and dutifully conformist company man who quietly yearns for the supposed freedom of the skate-boarding and panhandling youngsters he passes by on his way home from a grueling day at the office. Simply buy our product, the ads seem to promise, and you too can be a youthful rebel and strike a blow against mindless consumerism.
This theory would explain the presence of Iggy Pop, of all people, in an advertisement for Chrysler automobiles, of all things. Pop was once the epitome of punk rock menace, prowling the stage of seedy venues with his emaciated and scarred torso proudly bared as he sang his anthemic “Lust For Life,” snarling its memorable refrain of “Of course I’ve had it in the ear before,” but that was before the punk rockers starring in today’s commercials were born. Only someone edging in the Chrysler demographic is likely to have the slightest idea who Pop is, much less recognize his weathered visage in an advertisement too cool to mention his name, and his tacit endorsement can only be meant to suggest that his equally well-heeled contemporaries can reclaim some of their lost rebelliousness by purchasing a car once stereotypically associated with middle class suburbia. Although we retain a certain fondness for Pop’s music, and cherish memories of Wichita’s original punk rock band, The Lemurs, performing a heartfelt rendition of his “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the ploy leaves us even less interested in owning a Chrysler.
We are disinclined to judge people by their apparel, and indeed are in no position to do so, as the dress code here at The Central Standard Times is notoriously lax, but this celebration of hipster culture has disquieting political implications. Several American cities have banked their futures on an economic theory of the “creative class” which holds that a town can do without an industrial base or noisome children so long as it has enough espresso bars to attract the cool kids, a notion so convoluted  that even its most famous proponent is now expressing doubts about it, and even such a stalwart base of rock-ribbed conservatism as Wichita has devoted a couple of city-subsidized neighborhoods to the hipsters. Worse yet, if the hipster is held up as a social ideal it cannot benefit a Republican party that is routinely and properly associated with its office-working, lawn-mowing, child-bearing antithesis Liberal politics is as essential an accessory to the modern hipster as rectangular spectacles, three days of stubble, and an ironic sense of humor. Perhaps it should also be pointed out that Chrysler was bailed out by Obama, with the bond-holding retirees and politically-unconnected dealers getting the worse of it, so Chrysler might enjoy some hipness after all.
Still, we find some hope out there for the squares. The Wheatshockers’ board-banging forward Carl Hall has shorn his dreadlocks and gone with a slightly Urkel-esque buzz-cut ‘do for the tournament, and now his team finds itself in the “Sweet 16” with a good chance at making the “Elite Eight.” It might be mere coincidence, but we doubt it.

— Bud Norman

The Intolerably Tolerant

Tolerance is perhaps the most esteemed of all the modern virtues, to extent that any deviation from this sacred principle simply will not be tolerated. Examples of this seemingly self-contradictory state of affairs abound, but two recent new stories in particular seem to prove the point.
One is the controversy resulting from comments made about homosexuality by the singer Michelle Shocked at a recent concert in San Francisco. We’re ordinarily loathe to comment on celebrity matters, but a friend tells us that he went to his Facebook page Thursday expecting to find much exulting about the Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ upset victory in the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s championship basketball tournament and instead found nothing but talk about Shocked, and the flap does seem to illustrate a larger truth. Besides, we’ve long enjoyed much of Shocked’s music, and have a particular affinity for her song “Anchorage,” a bittersweet tale of lost friendship that always leaves us slightly teary-eyed, and we also find the whole imbroglio slightly amusing.
For those unfamiliar with Shocked’s oeuvre, who probably constitute a large majority of the reading public, she sings and accompanies herself on guitar in an “alternative” folk-rock style that is wildly popular with a certain sort of progressive hipster. Like most performers of the genre, she has long been associated with the sorts of causes favored by her audience and is generally assumed by her fans to be correct on all things political. Her most popular album had a cover photograph of her being hauled off in a headlock by police during some rally or another, her androgynous good looks and impeccable hipness have led to speculation that she is a lesbian, and although most of her music is personal rather than political she always been the most bien of pensants. One can well imagine an audience’s surprise, then, when Shocked took to a stage in San Francisco, of all places, and began an extended monologue against same-sex marriage.
Accounts of the concert differ, but all seem to agree that Shocked expressed concern that priests would be forced to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, seemed quite disapproving of homosexuality in any instance, and quoted Bible verses on the matter in both English and Spanish. Some reports even had her saying “God hates fags,” a phrase notoriously associated with the widely reviled anti-homosexual activist Fred Phelps, although most accounts agree that she only used the expression in predicting how her remarks would be reported. In any case, Shocked’s opinions sent much of the audience scurrying for the exits and the resulting publicity has led to the cancellation of shows at the Telluride Blues Festival and other venues. Shocked has since attempted some public relations damage control with a carefully worded apology, including a very clear denial of the notion that she believes God hates homosexuals, but she hasn’t yet recanted her opposition to same-sex marriage, and judging by the comments at our friend’s Facebook page and elsewhere nothing less than a full confession and conversion will suffice for most of her fans.
Although we can’t fully agree with Shocked’s remarks, mainly because we don’t know for sure what they were, we would have loved to have been at the concert. In addition to the opportunity to hear “Anchorage” live, the audience reaction would have been worth even the inflated ticket prices being charged these days. Anyone who has attended an “alternative” folk-rock concert knows that self-righteous political preachiness is an obligatory part of the performance, as the “artists” “bravely” “speak truth to power” with “controversial” opinions that they know everyone will agree with. It’s always the dreariest part of the show for right-wingers such as ourselves, and we remain hopeful that entertainers will once again demonstrate a respect for their entire audiences by sticking to whatever talent it is that drew an audience to their show, but it would have been great fun to see the look on the faces of the left-wingers who at last had to endure the same annoyance of having paid money to hear an opposing opinion.
Shocked should not be shocked, though, by the reaction. She’s been a member in good standing of the progressive community long enough to that it will not tolerate any dissent on this topic. A live-and-let-live attitude toward homosexuals will not suffice, as everyone must have the same up-to-date approving attitudes or be subjected to the most severe social stigma. Such uniformity of thought is imposed in the name of diversity, another of the most esteemed virtues of the modern age, and any number of publicly shamed dissenters can attest that it is imposed harshly.
We found it intriguing to read that Shocked’s views on same-sex marriage are informed by her Christian faith, which she reportedly acquired in the pews of a Los Angeles Church of God in Christ. That denominational detail seems most believable, given that the “COGIC” — as its adherents informally call it — stresses a deeply emotional and raucously exuberant form of worship that might appeal to someone of Shocked’s artistic temperament, and it also offers the best music in Christendom. The church’s predominately African-American membership holds reliably liberal views on most political matters but hews to a decidedly more conservative line on theology and sexuality, and one wonders if that might not create a dilemma for some of Shock’s newly outraged critics.
Race always complicates things, of course, and seems to evoke an especially intolerant streak in the progressives. A recent example comes courtesy of the Philadelphia Magazine, which has prompted by a controversy of its own by daring to publish a cover story about “Being White in Philly.” The article’s authors interviewed small sampling of white Philadelphians about their experiences of living in a majority back city, and came up with anecdotes that will surely be familiar to any white people who have ever discussed racial matters with other white people. Except for one older resident of a once-white neighborhood who spoke fondly of some neighbors while referring to others by a vulgar racial slur, all of the interviewees seemed relatively enlightened sorts embarrassed to confess their annoyance at the restrictive rules of racial discourse in America. Even such mild fare provoked howls of outrage from many citizens of the City of Brotherly Love, however, with a packed room of offended readers shouting all manner of accusations at the reporters during a hastily-arranged public forum.
Not satisfied with such public shaming, the city’s aptly-named Mayor Nutter then denounced the article and demanded that the city’s Human Rights Commission formally rube its publisher. One might think that freedom of the press is one of the human rights that a municipal commission would be most eager to protect, especially in a city such as Philadelphia, but the mayor helpfully explained that “the First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right.” An enduring cliché of the contemporary civil rights establishment is the call for a “frank dialogue” on race relations, but it seems that too much candor might exceed the constitutional limits.
This intolerance for intolerance severely restricts conversation about race, sex, and any number of other important topics, and that is a shame. We have no patience for gay-bashing or racism, but neither do we believe that this moment’s consensus of enlightened opinion represents an ultimate truth that cannot be questioned. Those who do not want to buy Philadelphia Magazine’s latest issue or attend Michelle Shocked’s next show should be quite free to act according to their own consciences, but they should spare us self-righteous claims that their efforts at censorship are done in the name of tolerance.

— Bud Norman

Gas-less in Gaza

Every executive has a story about a business trip gone badly awry, but President Barack Obama’s current visit to Israel might well top them all.
The trip began with the lowest of expectations, given that its ostensible purpose was to address the intractable conflict between Israel and its Islamic neighbors, which is so darned intractable that the even the very confident Obama seems to at long last have realized that his reputedly extraordinary powers of persuasion are unlikely to make a difference. For most of the past four years Obama has pursued an “even-handed” approach of antagonizing Israel with diplomatic snubs and talk of ’67 borders while obsequiously appeasing its neighbors with endless speeches about the glories of Islamic culture, a policy long urged by the international left, and thus far such even-handedness has succeeded only to the extent that the president is unpopular with both sides.
With Middle East peace as elusive as ever, Obama seems to have determined that at least he can salvage some standing with America’s traditional allies in Israel by making a long-delayed trip to the embattled country and enduring some chummy photo opportunities with its leaders. The Israeli leadership has happily obliged, which will suffice for the press to declare the trip a resounding success, but the process has been troublesome.
There was the symbolic tree that Obama planted in front of a phalanx of photographers, for instance, which made for a swell shot, and allowed Obama to note proudly that tree had been transported as his gift from America on Air Force One, but then the cheeky British press giddily noted that the usual rules against planting foreign plant life required that the tree quickly be dug up and quarantined. Even the American reporters were being uncharacteristically pugnacious, and during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the president was forced to laugh off a question about the complete lack of progress that has resulted from his past for years of leadership. Despite the outburst, Netanyahu was later overheard marveling at the “incestuous relationship” that the president seems to enjoy with the American news media. Then, of course, the car broke down. In a nicely metaphorical touch that even the most mainstream of news sources couldn’t ignore, the presidential limousine came sputtering to a halt after someone filled the tank with the wrong sort of fuel.
None of which is very consequential, although we suspect that if such bone-headed foul-ups had occurred on a Republican president’s trip the possible ramifications would have been more widely discussed, but thus far there is no indication that anything of consequence was achieved. The press can only speculate what was discussed in the important private meetings, and thus far the speculation seems to be that nothing of importance was agreed upon. Soothing the feelings of the Israeli citizens would be a positive development, but thus far the reaction from the Israeli press has been decidedly unimpressed. The feelings of American voters who take seriously the country’s longstanding friendship with Israel also needed some soothing, and Obama’s visit might help with that, but the final judgment awaits some news about what the two countries are going to do about Iran’s nuclear weapons program and other crucial matters.

— Bud Norman

The Celebrities are Revolting

As a general rule we pay no attention to the political pronouncements of celebrities. Film and television actors, pop music performers, comedians, models, and the various other sorts of beautiful people who comprise the celebrity class have no apparent expertise outside their fields of endeavor, after all, and these days they don’t seem to have much talent for anything at all.
Nonetheless, we were intrigued to read that Bill Maher, host of a cable television talk show of some notoriety, was recently heard on the program grousing about his high taxes. The comments came after his guest Rachel Maddow, the boyishly handsome left-wing news commentator, delivered a long rant about the Republican budget proposal complete with the obligatory sarcastic claim that “it says the big problem in America right now is that rich people do not have enough money, they need relief from confiscatory tax rates.” This prompted Maher to respond “You know what? Rich people — I’m sure you’d agree with this — actually do pay the freight in this country … I just saw the statistics, I mean, something like 70 percent. And here in California, I just want to say to liberals, you could actually lose me. It’s outrageous what we’re paying — over 50 percent. I’m willing to pay my share, but yeah, it’s ridiculous.”
The observation is hardly original, and indeed the statistics that Maher “just saw” are well known to anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to conservative arguments during the past many years of tax debates, but it is a hopeful sign when the likes of Maher are offering it. A formerly funny comedian known for his foul-mouthed blaspheming and smug self-certainty, Maher has evolved over the years from an idiosyncratic iconoclast to a drearily doctrinaire liberal who contributed $1 million to Barack Obama’s soak-the-rich presidential campaign and consistently toed the same redistributionist line that Maddow was predictably peddling.
This probably doesn’t signal that the celebrity class will soon turn to the Republican side, but it is yet another indication that the taxes on the highest income earners — especially in such celebrity-infested states as New York and California — have reached a point that more outspokenly liberal rich folks are finding objectionable. Maher joins fellow unfunny comedians Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Lovitz in stating so, along with professional golf star Phil Mickelson and a few other athletes, and if more celebrities feel emboldened to join them it could have pleasant political ramifications.
The recent hatred for the rich has been peculiarly inconsistent, with business executives, entrepreneurs, professionals, and other productive citizens bearing the worst of it while athletes, entertainers, and people who are celebrities for no particular reason continue to bask in the warmth of the public’s affection. One likely explanation for this inconsistency is the tendency of celebrities to embrace liberal causes and thus display their compassion for the little people, unlike those ruthless capitalists who merely provide socially beneficial products and services and seem to be intent on profiting from it, but another possible reason is that they celebrities are better-looking, provide mindless diversion from mundane day-to-day existence, and have publicists who allow the fans to vicariously live the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Should the celebrities rise up en masse to protest on behalf of their fellow one-percenters, the public’s fervor for class warfare might abate.
Or perhaps not. Even Maher’s adoring audiences might decide that they no longer care for someone so greedy as to expect a full half of his paycheck, and even those celebrities who keep their resentments to themselves might sooner or later decide that all the rich must pay for their success. Robespierre and other well-heeled radicals of the French Revolution stoked the fires of class resentment until they found themselves under the guillotine’s blade, and the French aristocracy was far more entertaining and not nearly so annoying as today’s celebrities. We note that even Barack Obama’s press secretary was recently reduced to snarkily responding to a rare question about the president’s regal lifestyle, insisting that multi-million dollar vacations are only fair compensation for someone who cares so deeply about the poor, and Obama is the celebrity-in-chief.
If the beautiful people do find themselves being rounded up in the coming Reign of Terror, at least the public will be showing an admirable consistency.

— Bud Norman

An Un-Civil War

There’s quite a war being waged within the Grand Old Party these days, and it is hard to see how anyone will emerge a winner.
On one side are entrenched incumbents and the party’s congressional leadership, along with numerous professional political operatives and certain longstanding conservative media. Their internecine opponents call them “the establishment,” an intriguing term of derision for conservatives, and damn them as elitists, accommodationists, insufficiently faithful to the Republican gospel, and worse yet, responsible for the debacle of the last presidential election. On the other side are the true blue, grassroots, sons-of-the-soil conservatives out there in the heartland, who are easily portrayed by their opponents as ideologically hopped-up rubes who scared away the respectable suburbanite voters and thus blew the last presidential election.
This unsightly conflict has been has on stark display the past week due to two news stories that received wide play. One was the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual convention, a sort of Comic-Con for right wingers that somehow garners an extraordinary amount of attention, where speaker after speaker lambasted the “consultants” for their timidity and ineptitude. The other was an “autopsy” on the past election offered by the Republican National Committee, which urged that the party adopt a less strident tone and adopt a few reforms that might curb the influence of the more bellicose activists. Both stories provoked predictably vituperative responses from either side, with much-maligned Bush administration mastermind Karl Rove taking to the airwaves to mock former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and almost all of the talk radio hosts reacting with similar disdain to the RNC report.
Such squabbling could be considered a sign of the party’s health, perhaps, and we’d hate to see the Republicans so unthinkingly unified that they accept any deviation from principle as willingly as the Democrats do with drone wars and cronyism and lavish living and any number of Obama’s other heresies. Still, one would hope that the disagreements could be resolved with more civility than has lately been evident.
Although our sympathies naturally lie with the rubes, we do not regard the party accommodationist, elitist, out-of-touch losers as our enemies or their arguments as entirely without merit. The CPAC speakers were correct to note the crucial role that Tea Party enthusiasm played in 2010 mid-term elections, as well as how the lack of it played a crucial role in the 2010 presidential election, but Rove and other scapegoats are correct to note that an excess of Tea Party enthusiasm has cost the part eminently winnable Senate seats in Nevada, Delaware, and Missouri. The RNC’s recommendation that the party embrace some unspecified sort of immigration reform raises understandable suspicions, but its suggestion that the party make an effort note to come off as a bunch of Mexican-hatin’ bigots deserves some consideration. A series of super-primaries touted by the RNC report would indeed provide an advantage to the sort of well-heeled and media-recognized candidates favored by the party professionals, as a conservative base hoping for an out-of–nowhere hero complains, but it would also lessen the disastrous effects of a prolonged intra-party blitz of negative advertising.
These arguments are not nearly so clear-cut as those between the Republicans and a Democratic party that seems intent on spending the country into a financial calamity, and they all deserve a calm and respectful deliberation.

— Bud Norman

Suddenly It’s Cyprus

Tucked away in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, uncomfortably close to both Greece and Turkey, you will find the tiny island nation of Cyprus. This mere speck of land was briefly in the news back in the ‘70s, when the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots inevitably fought it out after winning independence from centuries of Western or Ottoman rule, but then returned to its usual blissful obscurity until the past weekend’s Great Cyprus Bank Run.
Poring through the resultant slew of news stories has proved fascinating, and more than a bit frightening. So far as we can gather from the various foreign correspondents, the country finds itself broke and in need of a bail-out from its fellow members of the European Union. The reports offer no explanation for the country’s destitute condition, but the words “Mediterranean” and “European Union” offer some hints, and to be fair these days such a situation does seem rather unremarkable in any corner of the world. Thus the EU has generously offered to provide the country with €10 billion, which is more or less worth $12.6 billion, whatever that’s worth, but only on the condition that the Cyprus government pitch in beginning today with a 6 to 10 percent tax on every bank account in the country. Unsurprisingly enough, although it seems to have taken the geniuses at the EU by complete surprise, this sent everyone in Cyprus scurrying to the nearest automatic teller machine hoping to draw out all their money before 6 to 10 percent of it is gone.
None of this should be a matter of international concern, given the relatively small economy of a rather remote country with a population less than half that of Kansas, except that Cyprus’ famously customer-friendly banks contain deposits worth more than eight times the country’s gross domestic product. A significant portion of the money is said to come from “Russian oligarchs,” which is press-speak for mobsters, and much of the rest comes from citizen of other EU countries who are now complaining to the very governments whose outrageous taxes they have been trying to avoid by sheltering their hard-earned money in Cyprus. Whatever the source of the huge pile of cash, it is huge enough to cause concern that it’s sudden implosion will infect the bank systems of the rest of Europe and then the economies of the rest of the world.
That possibility is scary enough, but almost every aspect of the story has an unsettling feel to it. It is jarring to realize that the profits of Russian organized crime vastly exceed the gross domestic of an EU member country, that the tax structures of the entire developed world have become so burdensome that the investors of every nation require an off-shore account, that even those safe havens are not safe from the reach of ever-expanding governments, and that the supposedly smart people running this international operation are so very inept that they will inadvertently wreck a country’s valuable banking system in a ham-fisted effort to rescue its less valuable domestic economy. Frightening, too, to think that the world is so small that such a tiny nation could have such a large effect.

— Bud Norman