Thursday, October 15, 2009

They feel pity, such self-pity

"I am without doubt the person who's been the most persecuted in the entire history of the world and the history of man," announced Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister and Man of Sorrows. The self-described "dam against the Left in Italy" has to keep taking time off from governing to defend himself against various charges of bribery and corruption, and it's forcing him to curtail his nude parties and limiting his opportunities to make foot-in-mouth comments about how tan President Obama looks. Long accustomed to corrupt, incompetent government, Italians shrug and discuss their chances in next summer's World Cup.

But Mr. Berlusconi has a rival in suffering, and it's our very own Rush Limbaugh, denied an opportunity to invest millions of dollars in the St. Louis Rams. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with his comparison of the NFL to "the Bloods and the Crips," or his suggestion to a black caller that she "take the bone out of your nose and call me back." It's a huge plot to violate his First Amendment right of free speech (duh?) by the NFL Players Association, the NFL itself, the Obama Administration and, of course, the liberal media's "blind hatred." (That means you, Olbermann.) The whole spectacle is funnier than a circus train full of fundamentalists.

"College" football -- I prefer to think of it as minor-league football -- may be a religion in some parts of this country, but the National Football League is first and last a business, a capitalist enterprise that keeps its eyes firmly on the marketplace. Its enormous public-relations apparatus swings into action whenever a player is arrested, or fails a drug test, or gets caught doing something America won't tolerate, like arranging dog fights. It can't afford to annoy the season ticket-holders, or the even more important television sponsors. It is deeply conservative, patriotically supporting every war that comes along and deploying military color guards and bands at every possible occasion. So how disgusting do you have to be for the NFL to tell you you're money's no good? Now we know.

You're right, Rush-trade, it's a plot. All the decent people got together and said no to the Oxy-addicted racist with the hog-like countenance, just as they said no to John McCain eleven months ago. You may have millions of listeners, but it's short of a majority, even among NFL owners. You may have millions of dollars burning a hole next to the Ring-Ding crumbs in your pocket, but you'd be better off sponsoring a NASCAR team, or -- and I'm just thinking out loud here -- looking into Italian citizenship. Those people will put up with anything.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Roman scandals

The respected French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy recently published this petition:

Apprehended like a common terrorist Saturday evening, September 26, as he came to receive a prize for his entire body of work, Roman Polanski now sleeps in prison.

He risks extradition to the United States for an episode that happened years ago and whose principal plaintiff repeatedly and emphatically declares she has put it behind her and abandoned any wish for legal proceedings.

Seventy-six years old, a survivor of Nazism and of Stalinist persecutions in Poland, Roman Polanski risks spending the rest of his life in jail for deeds which would be beyond the statute-of-limitations in Europe.

We ask the Swiss courts to free him immediately and not to turn this ingenious filmmaker into a martyr of a politico-legal imbroglio that is unworthy of two democracies like Switzerland and the United States. Good sense, as well as honor, require it.

Good sense and honor.

This petition has attracted the support of a number of equally respected artists and writers, including Mike Nichols, Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie and John Landis. Ronald Harwood sniffs, "It seems to me very odd that America, which calls itself a Christian country, is so entirely lacking in the ability to forgive." The British sarcasm, it stings!

The victim, whose name M. Levy does not bother to include, is Samantha Geimer. When she was a thirteen-year-old girl named Samantha Gailey, the ingenious filmmaker drugged and raped her, crimes to which he pleaded guilty in order to obtain a reduced sentence. When the judge refused to honor the deal, he fled the US. California also has a statute of limitations, but it did not apply. Nor is it clear why the Swiss government has decided this is the time to respond to demands for extradition. What is clear is that the stellar names on the petition have handed the right another weapon to aim at the immorality of left-wing Hollywood, one of their favorite tropes since the days of Charlie Chaplin. (I wonder what they will do if it emerges that the Swiss responded to pressure from the Obama Administration. That might be fun to watch.)

Polanski is a gifted director; Chinatown is on nearly every list of the top fifty films of the century, or whatever arbitrary number you like. He had a horrific childhood in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his wife and unborn child were butchered by the Manson gang. If talent and adversity granted permission to assault children, or even adults, the world would be even more dreadful than it is. We don't wave away crimes by saying they happened a long time ago, and the victims want to put the past behind them. If we did, John Demjanjuk would not be going on trial next month in Germany.

Demjanjuk, known to tabloid readers as "Ivan the Terrible," was a Red Army draftee from Ukraine who deserted to the SS after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and became a guard at Sobibor and Treblinka concentration camps. He is 89, thirteen years older than Polanski, and claims to be in poor health. He also insists he is not the man in the old ID photo. Although he has been acquitted by an Israeli court, Germany will try him for participating in the murder of thousands of people. Demjanjuk settled in Cleveland in 1951 and spent most of his life working in an auto plant. Clearly he should have become a filmmaker.

Yes, Mr. Harwood, I can be sarcastic, too.

Everywhere you look, criminals are pocketing giant bonuses (John Fuld) or pontificating like elder statesmen (Dick Cheney) or otherwise prospering away (take your pick). Eric Holder would rather pose naked with the statue of Justice in his building's lobby than indict anyone in the Cheney-Bush regime for torture and murder; apparently we have to "look ahead." What criminal wouldn't prefer that? And the madness is spreading like strep throat in a pre-school: When Gore Vidal pronounces Timothy McVeigh "a true patriot, a Constitution man," I walk quietly to the bathroom and check the mirror to see if my head is on backwards. An end-justifies-the-means man, Vidal will probably sign the Levy petition, too.

We're clinging to civilization by our cuticles, with little or no help from those best situated to do the unpopular job of enforcing the law. Civilization demands that crime be punished, and raping children is a crime, not an "episode." There are no other issues. There is no martyrdom. California's teeming prison system will just have to find another bed.


Monday, October 05, 2009

Inside, Outside

Is it over? Has Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Greatest Idea finally ended? I think I saw about three episodes, or perhaps one episode three times. When Burns was pimping it on every talk show except Prime Minister Question Time, I suspected it would be a dog, and I was right. Old photographs? Check. Narration by Famous Actors? Check. The same wan fiddle-and-guitar music Burns has been using since The Civil War? Spectacular nature film indistinguishable from the spectacular nature film on two dozen other channels and programs? Check and double check.

I know, other people were rapt. I am not an outdoor person, I admit that freely. I don't like heat, bugs, unpaved paths, sleeping on the ground, or even standing on the ground. I descend in an unbroken line from people who lived in Wales and Cornwall and spent most of their time in mines. All the melanin was bred out of us by the end of the Stuart era. I have to put on sunblock to watch Lawrence of Arabia. As for eating outdoors, a hot dog at the ballgame will cover it for me. When someone tried to induce my father to cook outdoors, he invariably replied that it took thousands of years for humanity to reach the point of preparing food in the house, and he was not about to reverse all that progress. A wise man. Why do you think the weather report always describes today's principal air pollutant ("fine particulates," whatever that means)? So, OK, I gave it a shot, and one waterfall looks much like another. I'm glad the parks are there and all, but don't expect me at Yosemite anytime soon.

I also confess to a certain lack of affect over the location of the Olympics seven years from now. A lot can happen in seven years; I may not be the only person who doesn't give a damn, especially if the Mayans are right -- yes, I got bored and took a couple of peeks at the "History" Channel -- and the world will end on September 21, 2012. (Of course, if the Mayans were such ace prophets, why didn't they anticipate the sudden disappearance of their whole civilization?) I thought President Obama was badly advised to schlep all the way -- what? Schlep, it's a good Welsh word. To schlep all the way to Denmark to make a pitch for the games. He's the President of the United States, not the Chicago Chamber of Commerce. Better he should fix the current Kafkaesque nightmare of obtaining a visa to come here, which is the real reason they picked Brazil. And I have to admit, I'm intrigued by the possibilities of the opening ceremony in Rio, with fifty thousand people all dancing the samba.

Anyway, challenged by the title of the Burns extravaganza, I composed a list of ideas I consider to be at least as great as national parks:

The First Amendment, polio vaccine, the blues, free public libraries, Louis Armstrong, the GI Bill of Rights, Astaire and Rogers, archy and mehitabel, Social Security, musical comedy, synthetic rubber, pizza delivery, the music of Aaron Copland, and the phonograph. I am open to suggestions.