21 July 2007

I didn't break the law! I am the law!

Our president has struck again. In a move that's thus far attracted disturbingly little media attention, the Bush administration has expanded its claim of executive privilege in the ongoing Congressional investigation into the firings of eight U.S Attorneys last year, essentially saying that it will not allow the Justice Department to pursue contempt of Congress charges against any current or former White House officials that it deems covered by a presidential assertion of executive privilege.

The phrase "executive privilege" is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, but as outlined in case law, the concept has been understood as a limited right of the president to get confidential counsel from his advisers. One problem in this case is that Bush has repeatedly maintained that he was not personally involved in firing the attorneys, so it's very difficult to see how executive privilege could apply here. Moreover, as the Supreme Court made clear to Richard Nixon in the Watergate tapes case, a president's right to privacy may be outweighed by the necessity of investigating possible criminal activity.

Even so, Bush is entitled to make his arguments in court, his very low probability of success notwithstanding. What is outrageous, and what could ultimately lead to a constitutional crisis, is Bush effectively ordering the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to ignore a Congressional contempt citation, which as federal law makes clear, the attorney is legally compelled to bring before a grand jury. Bush appears to be attempting to manipulate the legal system, such as to make it difficult or impossible for Congress to challenge his expansive conception of executive privilege in court, by simply ordering the Justice Department not to pursue any contempt cases. In other words, a preisdential claim of executive privilege trumps all. Bush's arguement, in essence: I control the enforcement mechanisms, therefore I am the law.

The legal rationale for Bush's position is a piece of pernicious nonsense known as the doctrine of the "unitary executive." This notion, until recently confined mostly to the ruminations of far-right legal scholars, more-or-less holds that the president has nearly unlimited authority to direct officials within the executive branch. The Bush administration, led by Dick Cheney with legal expertise provided by his chief of staff, David Addington, has expanded the doctrine even further, claiming the power to ignore and/or reinterpret acts of Congress in accordance with the president's conception of his constitutional authorities. Such declarations have largely taken the form of so-called "signing statements," the most notorious of which claimed the authority to ignore the McCain amendment prohibiting cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees in American custody. If this idea is taken seriously, it amounts to a negation of the concept of separation of powers, an idea so fundamental to the Constitution as to shape its very structure.

A follow-up piece in today's Washington Post indicates that the Democrats plan to roll over and play dead on this one (imagine my total lack of surprise)--several former members of the Clinton Justice Department are quoted, thus providing invaluable political cover for the Bush position. One can only imagine that a President Hillary, given the authoritarian inclinations she's expressed in the past, would like to have the power to basically ignore Congress and the courts whenever it suits her fancy.

Woke Up This Morning

Monday, June 11, 2007

Last night's brilliant installment of The Sopranos, the series' last episode and one of its best, has stirred up a bit of controversy this morning. At issue is the final scene, which played against viewer expectations, not only avoiding the expected melodramatic spectacle but ultimately cutting out in abrupt fashion (anyone who doesn't want to know what happened should check out here).

Going in to last night's finale, I was afraid we might be in for a slow and ponderous affair, particularly given the dire events of the previous week's episode—one of the most brutal and death-haunted of the entire series, which ended with Tony going to sleep in a safe house, holding a shotgun across his chest. The finale opens with the same image, but despite some dark moments, stays light on its feet—indeed, what with A.J. accidentally blowing up his car, some business involving Paulie Walnuts and a stray cat, and a memorable scene in which the villainous Phil Leotardo is dispatched in signature macabre fashion, this was one of the funnier episodes of the final season.

By the final scene, Tony's crew has reached a truce with the New York mob but he's learned that one of his associates is testifying before a federal grand jury, raising the specter of a likely criminal indictment. He arrives at the quaint-looking diner where he's meeting his family for dinner. Soon Carmela and then A.J. join him. The camera keeps cutting away to suspicious-looking strangers all over the diner, including a shady-looking character who walks into a men's room, unmistakably echoing the oft-alluded-to shooting scene from the first Godfather. There is also some crosscutting between the restaurant and the street outside, where a frustrated Meadow is making repeated attempts to parallel park. The editing is nervous and it's clear that we, the viewers, are running out of time. Will she make it in time? In time for what? Finally she gets the car parked and heads for the restaurant. Back inside we hear the front door's chime, prompting Tony to raise his gaze toward the doorway . . . and then nothing. A blank screen for several seconds. What happened? But then the credits roll, and the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television has come to an end with an unanswered look—in cinematic terms, a shot without a reverse shot. Does Tony see something horrible? Or is it finally the hit, the one you never see coming? Maybe, but there's no reason to think so. Most likely it's just Meadow coming through the door, better late than never.

Some commentators are bemoaning the lack of either narrative resolution or crowd-pleasing spectacle (an argument that takes its most venal form in the suggestion that David Chase somehow "owed" a big finish to HBO subscribers—the popular arts apparently being, like pretty much everything else in America, first and foremost a consumer product). Some are even likening the ending to the almost universally despised Seinfeld finale from nine years ago, which likewise played against audience expectations. But the comparison doesn't fly. The Seinfeld ending felt empty and forced because its tone was completely different from that of any other scene in the history of the show. The opposite is the case here—Chase may be needling the viewer a bit with all the red herrings in the final scene, but he's doing so precisely by appealing to the cinematic codes he's created over the past eight years—the same nervous cuts, looks, and gestures that might have preceded a whacking in a previous episode are here absorbed into an atmosphere of more generalized paranoia. As ever on this most Freudian of dramas, no anxiety is ultimately resolved, only repressed for future recycling. The show doesn't even really end; it just stops.

It's an ending far truer to the spirit of the series than some nihilistic (or moralistic) spectacle would have been. The last nine episodes have made it clear—if indeed it wasn't before—that The Sopranos is less a mob drama than a dissection of the contemporary upper-middle-class American family. The scathing critique of American moral blindness manifests itself not only in Tony's sociopathic acquisitiveness, but also Carmela's self-serving rationalizing, the forcible suprression of any occasional qualms about where her lifestyle comes from—a quality apparently inherited by Meadow, who gives an eyebrow-raising speech in the finale about how seeing her father's supposedly unfair treatment by the authorities, which she frames as a mere consequence of his being "Italian," inspired her to study law. Clearly, it's time to close ranks. Only A.J. is able to see beyond the horrible moral logic of The Family, albeit in halting and callow fashion—his recent suicide attempt and newfound obsession with Islamist terrorism represent a sort of return of the repressed—but he too is finally bought off; Tony and Carmela dissuade him from enlisting in the army to fight terrorists in Afghanistan by getting him a job on a movie set.

Despite lives scarred by violence and horror, the Sopranos continue to float through reality on a tide of affluence, paying no heed to the forces that may be closing in. In a minor stroke of genius, the final scene is set to the Journey anthem "Don't Stop Believing" (which Tony plays on the diner's jukebox), recontextualized here as an ironic commentary on dunderheaded American optimism. Friends and relatives are dead and Tony may soon be headed for trial, but the family endures, suspended in time, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the reverse shot. As Sydney Pollock put it in Eyes Wide Shut, "Life goes on. It always does. Until it doesn't."

Justice on the Court

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The sports world is atwitter with controversy today over the suspensions of Phoenix Suns center Amare Stoudemire and forward Boris Diaw from tonight's pivotal fifth game of the Suns' best-of-seven playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs. For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, a quick summary: In the closing seconds of Game Four, Suns guard Steve Nash, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, was leveled by a hockey-style cross-check from Spurs forward Robert Horry. Horry was suspended for two games for the hit, but the resulting incident also led to the one-game suspensions of the two Suns players for violating a ridiculously inflexible NBA rule about leaving the bench during an "altercation." Neither player came anywhere near the incident—in the case of Stoudemire, probably the Suns' second-most important player, he took only a few steps toward Nash, who at this point was still lying on the floor near the sideline, before being restrained by one of his coaches. Nevertheless, he was suspended for one game. If online polls and message boards provide an accurate gauge of the public's feelings, a vast majority of NBA fans appear to find the suspensions of the Suns players unjust. Commentators like TNT's Charles Barkley and ESPN's Skip Bayless have complained about the league's excessively literal enforcement of a stupid rule and have rightly pointed out that the suspensions effectively reward the Spurs for starting a fight, since the Suns will lose one of their best players for tonight's critical game while the Spurs only lose a bench player for two games. Others have responded by defending the NBA's decision with some variation of the "a rule's a rule" argument.

Rather than explaining all the reasons why the NBA's decision is moronic, wrong-headed, infuriating, and sadly typical, I'd like to focus on an aspect of the controversy relevant even to non-basketball fans. NBA enforcer Stu Jackson may have summed up the philosophical issue at stake here best when he said yesterday in defending his decision, "It's not a matter of fairness. It's a matter of correctness." Asked to clarify that comment today on ESPN radio, Jackson explicitly equated the two concepts, saying that his decision was fair because it was correct—that is, because it represented a consistent application of a rule that he deemed to have been clearly violated. But is fairness always the same thing as correctness? The equation seems to preclude the possibility that a rule itself can be unjust or that it should be interpreted in light of the specific circumstances of a given situation, notions that I think would seem reasonable to most people. Even so, the idea that fairness is the same as correctness informs much of our social life in this excessively literal-minded era, when everyone from sports commissioners to high school principals boasts about "zero tolerance" policies and our law books are cluttered with mandatory-minimum sentences and "three strikes" statutes. In order to change these policies, it is first necessary to free the concept of justice from the bonds of legalism in the public mind. Many fans hope that this week's incident will lead the NBA to finally rethink the leaving-the-bench rule over the offseason, but it's also an occasion, however trivial, for a more fundamental sort of rethinking.

The Neon Bible

Friday, April 27, 2007

It's been a good spring for new music. So far I've been very news-oriented here but I'd also like to use this space to comment on books, movies, music, and other cultural goings-on. Since I like to be able to live with a record for a while before talking too much about it, it's going to take me a while to catch up on the music alone. There have been strong new releases this year from the likes of Modest Mouse, Amy Winehouse, and the Arctic Monkeys (subject of a future post), but my early favorite for album of the year honors is The Neon Bible from Arcade Fire (not "The Arcade Fire" anymore, apparently).

What's most interesting to me about The Neon Bible is its full-on embrace of rock's epic mode, by which I mean less a style of music than a form of address marked by hi-fi sound, salient vocal tracks, and an overriding concern with all things big. Politics being much in the air these days, the latter tendency finds its clearest expression in the Arcade Fire's obvious drive to create some kind of emblematic Bush-era artifact. The album's most moving song climaxes with the rueful refrain "All the reasons I gave were just lies," and there's also a real toe-tapper of a 9/11 tune ("Antichrist Television Blues"). Elsewhere the band contemplates the encroachments of government ("Black Mirror") and religion ("Intervention") and the entire album is suffused in the sense of paranoia and lowered expectations endemic to the era of homeland security (although nothing here is quite as politically pointed as the despondent "Parting of the Sensory" from the new Modest Mouse album).

Normally all this straining after topicality would be a flaw, and possibly a fatal one, but such is the power of the epic mode. To put it bluntly, the band has made a Springsteen record. Much of the The Neon Bible plays like a lost third disc from The River. Thrilling, propulsive rockers like "Keep the Car Running" and "The Well and the Lighthouse" recall The Boss at his exuberant best and everything from the prominence of the organ to the repeated automobile references evokes epic-mode Bruce. Unusual production choices result in a sound that's simultaneously ornate and austere; guitars, strings, brass, choirs, harps, and other instrumentation are relegated to the corners of the mix, leaving Win Butler's vocals front-and-center, suspended in the band's rhytmic thud.

Butler rises to the challenge, rasping and wailing with enough conviction to survive the occasional cringe-inducing lyric ("Workin' for the church while your family dies"). That he inevitably sounds like a more burdened, less confident Springsteen (I'm hardly the first to observe that one of the most frequently recurring words on The Neon Bible is fear) gets to the crux of the whole thing. The essence of this album is precisely its self-consciously nostalgic appeal to the epic gesture. U2's latest album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was notable as the first album on which the band fully embraced its own outsize ambitions—it was, as Rob Sheffield approvingly observed in Rolling Stone, "grandiose music from grandiose men." But for the creators of The Neon Bible and others of their generation, such ambitions remain tantalizingly unrealizable; their reach will always just exceed their grasp and they know it. Even as it emulates the likes of Bono and Springsteen, The Neon Bible shows that these men are already mythic figures, products of a more comprehensible era that's receded behind some historical vanishing point. By the end of the album, Arcade Fire has left its models behind and is already covering itself: the penultimate song is a gorgeous, balls-out rendering of the band's 2003 "No Cars Go." Amplified in every sense, the new version is a career highlight, resolving an entire album's worth of dread and longing into a blind ecsatic rush of speed and volume.

Gonzales and Iraq

Friday, April 20, 2007

Thursday's disastrous appearance by Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee brings President Bush and the Republicans in Congress closer to a moment of reckoning that the party clearly wishes to avoid. I'm not going to waste time here explaining why Gonzales needs to go. We're talking about a guy whose greatest accomplishment prior to becoming attorney general was the concoction of a legal rationalization for torture. And about a guy who claims to believe the Constitution does not guarantee the right to habeas corpus. He should never have been confirmed in the first place. As for the U.S. Attorney firings, let's just say that I'm far less interested in what the eight in question did to get fired than in what the remaining 80-plus may have done to keep their jobs.

Instead, let us look at the Gonzales controversy from a crass political perspective. Yesterday's hearing saw Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) add his name to the list of Republicans calling for the attorney general's resignation. Indeed of all the Republicans on the committee, only Orrin Hatch (R-UT) seems to support Gonzales, albeit tepidly. Yet as of this writing, President Bush has not asked for the attorney general's resignation, setting the stage for a showdown in the coming days between congressional Republicans, who are tiring of the embarrassment and distraction the Gonzales affair has caused for the entire party, and President Bush, who has been unwilling to abandon his old friend even in the face of significant evidence of corruption and incompetence.

So why is this important? The events of the next few days could serve as a dress rehearsal for an inevitable showdown over the Iraq war. By the end of this summer, the so-called "troop surge" will have demonstrably failed and the Republicans in Congress, all eyes on the 2008 elections, will have to decide what they're going to do about an increasingly unpopular war. If congressional Republicans and the party as a whole can't find a way to insulate themselves from Bush's failed policies, it could wind up being a disastrous election season. But if they're unable to find the political will to stand up to the president over something as ultimately trivial as the fate of Alberto Gonzales, then how are they going to be able to challenge Bush on the war that has become the centerpiece of his presidency?

With the exception of Nixon is his very last days in office, there hasn't been a president in living memory more isolated from his own party than George W. Bush is right now. Will the Republicans find a way to distance themselves from Bush over the next year and a half or will they passively follow the president as he leads the party over a cliff?

Comments on Comments

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So once again we have a bona fide media frenzy over some so-and-so's controversial "comments." It seems like this type of story is taking up an ever-greater proportion of our news media's collective headspace. It goes like this: some random celebrity makes some "comments" that some other person or persons deem offensive, or pretend to deem offensive; said celebrity is subjected to a public berating by news anchors, talk show hosts, heads of advocacy organizations, etc.; celebrity responds with disavowal, defiance, or remorse, as appropriate; celebrity is punished or exonerated or the whole thing is forgotten after somebody else says something stupid, thus restarting the whole cycle.

The latest of these tempests, of course, surrounds radio talkshow host Don Imus, who last week in the midst of what otherwise seems to have been a harmless rant about the Rutgers women's basketball team, offhandedly referred to some of the players as "nappy-headed 'hos." The "comments" generated a firestorm that has led CBS radio to suspend Imus for two weeks and MSNBC to drop his show entirely amid growing calls for his firing by the likes of Al Sharpton and Bob Herbert. There can now be no doubt that it is a very, very bad thing to refer to women of color as "nappy-headed 'hos."

Well I guess we can all agree on that. Still, I can't help but wonder what it is about such trivial incidents that triggers such a grotesquely disproportionate response in the national media. I've never listened to Imus much, but it seems like a good part of his appeal comes from his propensity for just the sort of cartoonish jag that got him in trouble this time. Obviously, his remarks can be construed here as racist, sexist, or just plain tasteless, but they certainly weren't malicious, which prompts the question of exactly how low the threshold is for one of these week-long spirals of sanctimony.

The whole incident highlights a few other noteworthy contemporary phenomena that I'll no doubt be returning to in this space. In brief:

1. The Career-Threatening Gaffe In which a public figure commits some sin of speech or action that seriously damages his/her credibility, either reparably or irreparably. Other recent examples range from John McCain's ill-fated stroll through a Baghdad market to Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic rant.

2. The Public Apology Imus has apologized repeatedly for his comments, but it's unclear if he'll be forgiven. Michael Richards attempted to apologize for his racist tirade, but just kept digging himself in deeper. Other sins may be forgivable: John Edwards has apologized for his vote authorizing the war in Iraq and seems to have been taken seriously by most Democrats; Hillary Clinton has refused to apologize for casting the same vote. Is this actually significant? Will the "apology issue" matter in next year's primaries?

3. The Ritual of Public Humiliation Sometimes it's not enough merely to apologize. Some sins are so bad that one must submit to a public berating by some recognized dispenser of justice. As author James Frey willingly submitted to the demands of his Oprah moment, so did Imus dutifully report to Sharpton's radio on program on Monday to get his tongue-lashing in what was otherwise an unfathomable act of masochism.