Thursday, November 21, 2013

A victory for intellectual property rights

Christmas cinema is a genre that's been done ad nauseam (did we really need The Santa Clause 3?), but for my money, there's no better than the classic It's a Wonderful Life.  James Stewart, of course, plays George Bailey, the everyman, the dreamer, who's thrust into a life he didn't want, running the family Building & Loan, by his father's untimely demise.  The film covers an amazing swath of a lifetime of giving to others--the saving of George's brother from drowning, catching the pharmacist's mistake, fending off a bank run by pledging his honeymoon cash, and running his business for the good of the community instead of for big profits.

George is living a blessed life until a mistake brings him to the brink of losing everything.  At the end of his rope on Christmas Eve, George treads out onto a bridge, intent on throwing himself into the icy water below.  But Clarence, an angel seeking to earn his wings, is looking out for him.  When George confesses that he wishes he'd never been born, Clarence arranges for him to see what his little town would be like without him.  When he sees the impact of his life on others through the prism of his absence, George realizes that he does indeed have a wonderful life, too precious to throw away because of some financial trouble.  In the end, the friendships he's made save him.

It's a great film--funny, romantic, dramatic, emotive--and although it's the product of a different, less cynical, more credulous time in American history, it's still among my favorites.  You don't have to believe in angels to get the message.

Earlier this week, it was announced in Variety that a sequel is in the works, this time featuring George Bailey's grandson (also George Bailey, and as-yet uncast) as the near-suicidal man on the brink, and Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the original, as his guardian angel.  In a twist, the younger George is unloved and unlikable, in contrast to his universally acclaimed grandfather, and the alternate reality he sees will show him how much better the world would be if he'd never been born.

Presumably the goal would be to reform him, although the AV Club--a project of the satirical newspaper The Onion--suggested that the message might be, "Go ahead and kill yourself, the world will be better off."  Not exactly a fine Christmas message.

I happen to think that this is potentially the biggest sequel-related Hollywood atrocity since The Lion King 2½, and maybe since Another Stakeout..

It may well be that It's a Wonderful Life story needs refreshing.  I wasn't happy when they re-booted Star Trek, but I have to admit that the franchise has been re-energized by the process.  The recent Batman films have far exceeded the Michael Keaton original as filmcraft.  And remakes are hardly a new concept.

But I'm concerned that producing a sequel to It's a Wonderful Life will almost certainly lead to a cotton-candy sentimental story that lacks the emotional depth of the original.  Bringing back Zuzu--which means she's dead, by the way--strikes me as a gimmick staged to make a buck rather than to craft an enduring film.  It cannot help but cheapen the original.

To put it another way, this is a stunt you could easily see on the Hallmark Channel.

Fortunately, Paramount Pictures, which controls the rights to the original, has stepped up to indicate, if somewhat obliquely, that this project will not go forward.  Paramount made it clear that any sequel would need official licensing and that it would vigorously defend its rights in the original.  That's code language for "over our dead bodies."

So, intellectual property rights to the rescue.  The world is saved from this hideous barbarity.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In defense of the Methodists

When I was 12, my family moved from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, then a city of about 60,000, to Sheridan, a town of about 3,000 some 30 miles away, where my dad's parents lived, where my dad grew up, and where my parents had met.

We had been Presbyterians in Pine Bluff, but there was no Presbyterian church in Sheridan.  As we were a churchgoing family, it would not do to stay home on Sunday, so we tried the Baptist church where my grandparents were members.  It was nice enough, and large enough to have plenty of kids my and my brother's ages, but there were some problems.  In Pine Bluff, our church was what passed for liberal in a small Southern city. It had even begun to desegregate and had hired a female associate pastor, but even more than that, it was doctrinally liberal, consistent with the national denomination's ideological bent toward social justice.  The Baptists, however, were the opposite of that, as befits most Baptists--though it was less so in the 1980s than today.  In a meeting with the Baptist pastor, my parents were encouraged to try out the Methodist church down the street--not out of any rancor, but out of the recognition that we would find the Methodists more in line spiritually with what my family was used to.

So that's where we landed.

I have written on this page about where I stand today, but in those days, it was as good a fit as might be expected.  I am lucky to have grown up in a tradition in which careful examination and scholarship are to be valued even when they challenge the old ways of thinking, and I tend to think of myself as Presbyterian in my approach to policy if not in my conclusions, especially about spiritual matters.  I have always found the Methodists similarly to be thoughtful and intentional when it was important to be so, but in my experience, most Methodists are content to be easygoing, open to all, and nonjudgmental.  They dislike strife even as Baptists seem to thrive on it. 

There is a great struggle within the old-line main-line denominations--the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, and so forth--about how to deal with the rapid changes our society is experiencing.  These denominations, for various reasons but largely because of their focus upon scholarship over evangelism as means for developing faith, have tended to be more accepting of social change than their more conservative brethren, even if some have come more slowly to that status.  (There is a great line in Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It and Other Stories in which Maclean's father, a Presbyterian minister, is said to regard Methodists, contemptuously, as "Baptists who can read.")  It is to their credit that it's a struggle, because in the more evangelical branches of Christianity, it's not a struggle in the slightest.  It's hardly even a question.

That struggle has brought the Methodists into the news lately.  Rev. Frank Schaefer is the pastor of the Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa.  In 2007, he officiated at the wedding of his son in Massachusetts.  The controversy is that his son is gay and married a man, an act that was legal in Massachusetts but not recognized in Pennsylvania.

After a complaint brought by a parishoner, Rev. Schaefer was charged under the rules specified in the Book of Discipline, a Methodist doctrinal document that carries the force of law as far as the church is concerned, with officiating at a same-sex wedding and with being disobedient to the order and discipline of the church.  On Tuesday, a panel of 13 ordained Methodists voted unanimously to find him guilty of the charges and to impose upon him a 30-day suspension.  The judgment also carries the proviso that if Rev. Schaefer officiates at a future same-sex wedding, he will be defrocked.

Anyone who reads my blog or who interacts with me regularly in any other way will know that I have been a long-time supporter of the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, dating even to before Vermont passed the first-ever "civil unions" statute.  Rev. Schaefer's decision to officiate at his son's wedding was undertaken with the knowledge that doing so violated the rules of his church.  It was a brave act and a loving act for which he is to be commended.  The church's decision to discipline him for doing so is merely the latest in a long parade of horribles through which Christian churches have sought to stem the tide of social change.  In the abstract, I oppose their decision.  I wish they would be better people than they are.

Nevertheless, I am writing today to defend them, and I write also today to defend everyone who chooses to say "no" in their private lives to gay marriage on the basis of a principled objection to it.  I believe that the law should recognize same-sex marriage on the same terms as different-sex marriage, and I am convinced that in a short time, the law will do so.  The freedom of all Americans--not just people who want to enter into same-sex marriages, but all of us--depends upon the extension of the freedoms that recognition of same-sex marriage provides.

But our freedom also depends upon the rights of conscience and the free exercise of religion.  We cannot advance ourselves by forcing one group to step aside from their rights in favor of another.  Religious people must remain free to decline to participate--not to have their beliefs codified in the law, but to determine for themselves how they themselves act.  As such, the Methodists must remain free to discipline their clergy for violating church doctrine, as long as that discipline carries no legal consequences.

For the record, I don't think this concept is necessarily limited to churches.  I am not comfortable with private service providers being forced, through the law, to accommodate customers whose business violates the service providers' conscience.  It should not be illegal for a baker to refuse to furnish a cake to a same-sex wedding party, for example.  On the other hand, should a reception hall that is in the business of renting out space for weddings as a public accommodation (like a restaurant or hotel is a public accommodation) be permitted, under the law, to discriminate against same-sex couples, when they would not be permitted to discriminate against mixed-race couples or (more broadly) minority couples?  Should a pharmacist be permitted to refuse to dispense birth control on the basis of a religious objection?  My gut reaction is no to both.  In the latter case, the problem I have with it is that the law reposes special trust and licensing in the pharmacist and restricts access to drugs on that basis, but overall, I have trouble figuring out where the line should be drawn and on what basis.

That does not mean that these folks are immune from criticism.  I believe their doctrinal decision is foolish, short-sighted, and wrong, and I don't mind saying so.  But that's hardly the only thing, or even the most important thing, over which we disagree.

And it doesn't leave Rev. Schaefer without recourse.  He can use this opportunity to show how his church is wrong, and perhaps his efforts will lead to change.  If not, it is certainly no blot on his record to have been defrocked as the result of an unjust policy.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Are you on drugs?

If you don't watch the news, or the Daily Show, or read the newspaper, or watch late-night talk shows, or if you otherwise live in a cave, then you might not have heard about Toronto (yes, the one in Canada) mayor Rob Ford.

To call Mayor Ford "embattled" is putting it mildly.  Already derided as a notorious binge drinker enveloped in a cloud of continual controversy, Mayor Ford came under new scrutiny back in May when the Gawker website announced that it had been offered video that purported to show Ford  smoking crack cocaine and sought to raise money to buy the video. 

I am not sure precisely where "crack" falls in the ranked order of drugs that are bad for you to do, especially if you are a politician, but let's say that it, heroin, powder cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine are 1, 1A, 1B, and 1C.

In fact, crack is such a notoriously bad drug that at some point it became a perfectly normal response to ask, following someone's obviously wrong observation, whether the speaker was on crack:

A:  "George W. Bush is the greatest president of my lifetime."
B:  "Are you on crack?"

Anyway, this would have been a pretty easy thing to deny.  First of all, do they even have crack in Canada?  And besides, Rob Ford is, like most Canadians, a middle-aged white guy, and if there is anything we know about middle-aged white guys, it is that they prefer powder cocaine if they are rich and meth if they are not.  So what if he pounds a fifth of Seagram's VO every evening?  That's just a poor life choice.  Crack is for people who are referred to as "Canadians" (warning: NSFW; see definition 2) by the waitstaff in American restaurants, not actual Canadians.

And Ford did deny it, and said that there wasn't a video because it never happened.

Except.  Turns out, a few months later, that a video did surface, showing a guy who looked an awful lot like Rob Ford smoking something that looked an awful lot like crack cocaine from something that looked an awful lot like a crack pipe.

Now, at that point, once he knew there was a video, His Honor probably would have been well advised to throw in the towel.  In fact, he was advised to do just that.  Unfortunately, as the video establishes, Ford is actually a crack smoker, and that might have impaired his judgment just a wee bit.

So he denied it.  I belong to the school of public relations that says that one should admit that which cannot be denied, and deny that which cannot be admitted.  I have to admit that if, at that point, Rob Ford believed he had any chance at all at keeping his job, he needed to apply the second part of that rule.

But it was on video.  On video.

So the first part of the rule got applied yesterday, when the Mayor finally admitted that yes, it was entirely possible, just a chance, mind you, but in the fog of one of his drunken stupors, yes, in fact, that crack pipe just might have touched his lips once or twice, but he just didn't remember it ever happening, probably because of the alcohol.

Now, this is just me, but if you are drinking so much that you can't seem to remember whether you smoked crack or not, you might want to back off a bit.

And if Rob Ford had had the good sense to resign, like any decent person would have done, that probably would have been the end of it.  Soon he would recede into the fog of our distant collective memory, eventually showing up only as part of a Daily Double on Jeopardy! ("I'll take Whacked-Out Canadian Mayors for $800, Alex").

Of course, as we've already established, Rob Ford is a crack smoker.  Resign?  Pshaw.  Never.  He's sticking it out for Team Ford!  In fact, he used his latest press conference as an opportunity to announce his bid for re-election.

Hey, you've got to respect the guy's persistence.  When your behavior is so bad that "I was in a drunken stupor at the time" seems like the relatively better thing to admit, managing to get out of bed each day really ought to be considered a personal triumph.

But Rob Ford has some powerful enemies.  I'm sure those enemies thought that the drug allegation (with video!) would be enough to do him in, kind of like when you find that creepy centipede you found in the corner of your shower and hope that a spray of water will be enough to flush him down the drain.  But today, after seeing Ford clinging to the drain for dear life, they brought out the Raid.

During the drug saga, Ford was filmed coming out of his residence in front of a gaggle of reporters.  He politely asked them to get off his property, and when they didn't immediately comply, he went totally bat-s--- insane on them, screaming like they were stabbing out his eyeballs to GET THE *&^#$ OFF MY @#(*$()* )(*$*(^$_)# @#$)$)(!#$*#*(!  The blue streak could be seen and heard* from the International Space Station.  To show it on American TV, CBS had to borrow the censor button usually reserved for making Eminem's raps suitable for radio play.

* - As Gravity reminds us, there is no sound in space. This is dramatic license.

That was bad enough.  But let's go back to the videotape.  Today, a new video surfaced in which His Honor is waxing poetic on what he is planning to do to someone, presumably one of his political opponents, or maybe a reporter, or an aide.  Or, who knows, maybe just some random person on the street because--I've mentioned this before--he's a crack smoker:

I'm going to kill that f---ing guy. I'm telling you it's first-degree murder ... He dies or I die, brother. ... When he's down, I'll rip his f---ing throat out. ... I'll poke his eyes out. ... I'll make sure that motherf-----'s dead. ... No one is [going to] f--- around with me. ... Don't tell me we're liars.
Now, who among us hasn't wanted to kill a motherf-----?  We just usually have the good sense not to admit to it on video. 

But Rob Ford has an excuse.  He was "extremely, extremely inebriated."  I'll bet.

I suppose it could have been worse.  He could have been the mayor of San Diego.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Lesson Learned

I have not yet seen "12 Years a Slave," a new film from Steve McQueen (not the long-dead action-movie star, but a British writer-director whose work I'm not familiar with), so my commentary today isn't about that.  I am told, however, that the film is stunning, even "concussively powerful"--see below--in its depiction of slavery.

For those who aren't familiar with the story, a brief synopsis:  In the 1840s, a free black musician from New York, Solomon Northup, is lured to Washington, D.C., where he is kidnapped and sold into slavery.  The loss of freedom and property is total; he is held in bondage for 12 years before being released when his status as a freeman is verified.

It is hard to express in words the visceral disgust I feel regarding this American's treatment.  And yet, at the same time, his treatment was no worse than that doled out to millions before, during, and after his enslavement.  Perhaps it hurt him more to have been free and to have it taken away from him, but those who were born into slavery were no less robbed than he was.  For them there was no happy ending except through the barrel of a gun.

I am prompted to write about this subject by a column in today's Washington Post by Richard Cohen.  I'm not a fan to begin with, but his words today left me shaking my head.

Apparently, Richard Cohen has been laboring his whole life under the belief that slavery, while philosophically horrible and against our highest values, was mostly a benign institution under which mostly benevolent white people merely exploited the labor of mostly content black people.

I find this to be a bizarre view.

I suppose congratulations are due Mr. Cohen in some small measure for righting a wrongness in his thinking, and he can't, of course, help what he was taught.  We might even expect such a sanitized view of slavery to be taught in the more rural reaches of the Deep South--still inexcusable, but not unexpected--but Richard Cohen grew up on Long Island.

Lest there be any confusion, let's be clear:  Slavery was a crime against humanity on par with the Holocaust.  That it was tolerated for so long, and defended by so many, is a stain on our forebears. 

I have lived my entire life in states where slavery was legal 150 years ago--Arkansas, Maryland, North Carolina.  Growing up, I heard the lesser lights trotting out the familiar tropes of Southern martyrdom:  If we'd-a won the war, we'd-a been a lot better off.  Hank Williams, Jr. turned that into a hit song, even.

That kind of attitude has always sickened me.  "We" did win the Civil War.  In no way do I identify with a group of people who engaged in armed insurrection against the Union, who turned their backs on the Constitution, and who did it in defense of the stomach-turning idea that one man may properly own another as property.  I stand with the Constitution, now and forever.  I am an American, first, last, and only.

I have heard my whole life about how the Southern rebels were "honorable people," "fighting for principle and their way of life."  Their way of life was a betrayal of our most sacred concept:  that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable and inviolate.  (Yes, I recognize the huge irony that the man most responsible for putting that concept onto paper at our founding was himself a slaveowner. He had a blind spot, and it stains him, too.)

It is hard to conceive of a situation under which any thinking person could think of slavery as something less awful than that.

So I am, to some extent, shocked to hear that Richard Cohen is only now coming around to the reality of what slavery was.

At the same time, perhaps it explains why certain people have spent the last 150 years working as hard as they could to keep their boots on the necks of those who would have been their slaves.  Perhaps they simply don't realize how degrading to them their support of slavery and its progeny really is.