October 29, 2009

Blasphemy, pure & simple

I confess I didn't think that at first when I watched "Curb Your Enthusiasm" last Sunday night. Larry David's character (Larry David) is at the house of a midriff-baring young assistant, offering her the job back as his assistant on the David-Seinfeld reunion show. The assistant had taken umbrage and quit upon hearing Larry's complaint about her attire, revealing as it did one of those typically fatty High-Fructose-Corn-Syrup bellies that young women often display now in America. Anyway, Larry, who's apparently taking a drug like Flo-Max or something, needs to take a leak at the house. An earlier scene had already "established," through a comment by Jerry Seinfeld ("You have Seabiscuit in there with you?") that Larry is producing a prodigious flow when he goes. While he's using the john at the assistant's house, backsplash from the toilet hits a painting of Jesus on the wall just below Jesus's eye. Larry sees it, makes no effort to wipe it off, and hurries from the house. Q: Why didn't he just wipe it off? A: Because it would ruin the set-up of the joke.

The HFCS-Belly girl and her mother see the painting, mistake the stain for tears (of course) and decide to tour the country in a minivan and display the miracle. Images of Jesus on English muffins and French toast, on grilled cheese sandwiches, in snowflakes, in the pattern of syrup on sno-cones, on the walls of houses, etc., are regularly reported in the trash media and on e-Bay; we all know that, and that's what Larry was making fun of: the easy credulity of the belief-inclined, which does not include Larry David. It didn't have to be pee. It could have been water, but then that wouldn't have been funny. The Flo-Max connection was the predicate for the joke, which gives you an idea of how utterly wild David's imagination is, the crazy synthetic nature of his comedy. Suppose, he thinks, we've got a guy taking one of those prostate drugs. He can't control the flow, it's so enormous. It goes all over everything. What could it splash on? I've got it! It creates a crying Jesus, like all those plastic crying Jesuses that people rig up in their front yards using a concealed garden hose down in Florida.

That's how he got there. There has been a storm of protest. Father Donohue, whoever he is, is not amused at all. I guess he didn't laugh out loud (like I did). People are forgetting (or maybe remembering, and now they've had enough) that this is hardly the first time that Larry David has been down this road. In one of the first seasons (maybe the first, in fact), Larry arrives late to an immersion baptism in Northern California and rushes to break it up, thinking it's an attempted drowning. In a later season, Larry is anxious to nail a mezuzah to the doorway before his father (Shelley Berman) arrives, so Larry will look somewhat observant. He can't find a nail, so he lifts a crucifix nail, hanging by a cord around the neck of his sleeping father-in-law (this was about the time of "The Passion of the Christ"), and uses that. In the same episode, Larry, who has hired actors to stage a manger scene in his front yard in an act of contrition aimed at his Christian wife, winds up getting into a fist fight with Joseph.

Larry David has also made fun of Jewish kosher rituals such as burying plates which have been used for both dairy and meat, for example, and burial of his mother in the non-kosher part of the cemetery because she had a small tattoo (Larry is caught digging her up in the middle of the night). He hasn't spared Muslims (he tells the Muslim private eye he hires to determine Larry's parentage that he's not so sure they're as "peace-loving" as the PI claims).

David makes fun of all belief systems, all meaningless and irrational social habits and conventions, and practically everything else. Everything irritates him (he is told to "smile!" by a woman he does not know as he walks down a West L.A. sidewalk; he turns, glares, and yells: "Why don't you mind your own business? How 'bout that?"), and he makes every effort to simplify his life so it is completely devoid of ritual, cant and empty obligation. His money has made this a possibility. He likes people who make him laugh, and that's about it.

In other words, he's my hero.

Still, "blasphemy" is defined as "a contemptuous or profane act, utterance, or writing concerning God." (G_d, in Jewish usage; my American Heritage Dictionary is blasphemous, in Jewish contemplation, in the way it defines blasphemy.) Can one seriously argue that Larry David has not been contemptuous and profane concerning G_d? I'm not even going to try, and it's hardly a defense to say that he's contemptuous of everything, true as that might be.

October 27, 2009

Judge Antonio on Desegregation

Speaking at a forum recently at the University of Arizona Law School, Justice Antonin Scalia (whom Bush called "Antonio") stated that he probably would have dissented in the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education and voted to maintain that stately Southern (and not just Southern, of course) institution known as "separate but equal." According to Antonio, if a state decides to segregate its schools along racial lines, that's well within their rights because the Constitution is "silent" on such a point. His expatiated on his reasoning as follows:

Using his "originalist'' philosophy, Scalia said he likely would have dissented from the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared school segregation illegal and struck down the system of "separate but equal'' public schools. He said that decision, which overturned earlier precedent, was designed to provide an approach the majority liked better.

"I will stipulate that it will,'' Scalia said. But he said that doesn't make it right. "Kings can do some stuff, some good stuff, that a democratic society could never do,'' he continued.

"Hitler developed a wonderful automobile,'' Scalia said. "What does that prove?''

"The only thing you can be sure of is the Constitution will mean whatever the American people want it to mean today,'' Scalia said. "And that's not what a Constitution is for. The whole purpose of a constitution is to constrain the desires of the current society."

In the first place, the idea that Hitler developed the Volkswagen is somewhat apocryphal, but it's curious that's where Tony's mind went. I agree that whether or not Hitler designed a wonderful automobile seems pretty far removed from the question of whether black students in Kansas in 1954 (and later elsewhere, of course) should have been confined to all-black schools run by the state. I'm just not seeing how Scalia's Hitler point really relates to the argument he was making. The problem, of course, must be mine, because everyone knows how smart Judge Scalia is.

I'm pretty sure that Brown vs. Board of Education was based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Here's the text:

Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

So here's the first question that comes to my mind under Tony's "originalist" approach: what does "due" mean in the due process clause? It doesn't actually say. I guess a circular approach is all that is left to us. Due process is the process of law that is due to an American citizen. The Sixth Amendment gives us some clues: j

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Justice Tony adds an important caveat: not if you're a Muslim captured by the United States anywhere in the world.

Still, confining the issue to American criminal defendants, suppose the state of Texas decides to streamline its capital punishment process so that defendants, once convicted by a jury, are summarily executed by firing squad the same day. (The Third Reich used this approach, in the unlikely event there was a trial in the first place.) What Constitutional limit stops Texas from doing so? We all know Governor Perry (and George W. Bush, way back when) would prefer this expedited method. Antonio would have to let this one go, too, I'm afraid, just like segregation.

Judges not quite as smart as Scalia concluded back in 1954 that a state which divided up its schools along racial lines, with whites clearly in the majority and in better facilities, created a situation which was "inherently unequal," and one reason for this conclusion was the stigma of segregation itself. Tony went to a private Catholic high school in Manhattan, so it didn't matter all that much to him.

I doubt that the Founding Fathers, even the slave owners, really thought that the purpose of the Constitution was "to constrain the desires of the current society," if that meant that the desire of a society for equal protection should be defeated because we can't find the word "desegregation" in the document itself. It's possible that Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson were even smarter than Antonio, and did not imagine that the Constitution they created would be limited by intellectual gimmicks like "originalism." Indeed, they were smart enough to know they didn't know everything yet, which is why they used general words like "due process" and "equal protection," without attempting to enumerate the precise application of those words to every social situation. They were writing a guideline, not the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

October 26, 2009

Obama's golf game

Apparently, Barack hits the links on Sunday afternoons, often playing on military courses in the D.C. area. He's only been playing golf for about 15 years or so, and his handicap is around 24, which means on an average 72 par course, he shoots around 96, but often strays into the low 100's. In other words, he's not a very good golfer. He's good-natured about it, though, although he likes to "trash talk" on the course to get "into other players' heads."

I'm kind of thinking right now: gimme a frigging break.

Bush claimed that he gave up golf at some variable time (there were reports of Bush playing after his "decision") out of deference to the feelings of the families of soldiers in harm's way in Afghanistan and Iraq. More deference, perhaps, could have been shown by simply bringing the soldiers home from these pointless wars, but in the USA it's often true that "optics" are as good as something real, especially when you can get the Mainstream Media to go along with the gag. Barack, whose American soldiers in Iraq are now mainly sequestered out of the free-fire and free-exploding zones, perhaps does not feel that the same deference is necessary or particularly meaningful, and besides, since he was not a silver spoon kid like W, he didn't get a chance to grow up in country clubs. So he's "earned" his right to the vaguely Republican-looking pastime.

I don't really begrudge Obama's leisure-time choices. He needs to get away from the Oval Office and from whatever it is that he's doing there, and I'm starting to think that, as with Bush, the less he actually does, the better. His access to nice courses where other players are cordoned off while his pack of duffers and hackers shanks and pounds their way through is something he won't always have, like his weekend trips to Camp David, so the more taxpayer-subsidized golf he can get in now, the better for him. He can hone his game up till about January, 2013, at which point I strongly suspect he won't be the U.S. President anymore.

I see where the New York Times has picked up and stolen the painstaking work of Glenn Greenwald about Obama's complicity in the Bush-era atrocities committed against one Binyam Mohamed, a British citizen who was the victim of rendition and torture by the CIA and U.S. military. His torture went way, way beyond waterboarding; indeed, compared to the torture inflicted on Mr. Mohamed (such as slicing his scrotum with a scalpel), waterboarding seems like shooting a siphon down someone's baggy pants. The British security apparatus went along with the Bush demand that no record of Binyam's torture be made public, on pain of a loss of cooperation with the CIA regarding terrorist threats against Britain. And you're reading that right (it's reflected in the opinion of the British High Court): the U.S. told Great Britain that if they publicized the torture of Mohamed, the U.S. would keep secret actionable intelligence indicating the possibility of an attack on Britain. Britain's spy services yielded to the threat, and demanded that a court hearing Binyam's case redact the Famous Seven Paragraphs which detail the tortures inflicted upon him. The lower court went along with this; the High Court has now reversed this decision and is prepared to publish the opinion in full. Here's what the Times has to say:

Victims of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including Mr. Mohamed, have already spoken in harrowing detail about their mistreatment. The objective is to avoid official confirmation of wrongdoing that might be used in lawsuits against government officials and contractors, and might help create a public clamor for prosecuting those responsible. President Obama calls that a distracting exercise in “looking back.” What it really is is justice.

The Obama Administration is pretty lathered up about this, and they are pressuring the British government to appeal this latest decision. In so doing, Obama is not only ratifying the violations of Geneva Conventions by the Bush Administration, and acting contrary to the requirements of the Convention Against Torture (which requires Obama to investigate and prosecute where appropriate any credible allegation of torture), but Obama is now becoming complicit in a direct effort to subvert the judiciary for political reasons.

All of which is to cover for Bush/Cheney war crimes.

I'm starting to think that Obama is a pretty weird bird. I just don't get it. He casually lies about lots and lots of things, and has so alienated his "progressive" base at this point that he must know that when 2012 rolls around, the money from the base won't be there. Why would anyone get excited about him?

That's the way it is. I never expected anything from Bush but the worst, and man did he deliver. I thought Obama would produce great things and chart a new course, go for the long ball, but he's content to chip and putt, I guess. We're pretty much on our own, while he flies off to Martha's Vineyard, buzzes up to New York in some fat cat's Gulfstream for "date night" in New York, speaks at two-grand-a-plate dinners with the banksters on Wall Street, and in general carries on like a guy completely out of touch with the people that actually elected him.

Whatever. Play through, Mr. Prez.