Monday, March 27, 2006

Primary Colors

I seldom vote in primaries because I find it distasteful to be forced to pledge allegiance to a body for which I feel no particular fidelity. When it comes to the almighty two party political system, I am a devote agnostic and do not worship false idols, be they elephants and a donkeys. But when the opportunity arose this cycle to loosen the Democratic and Republican grip on the electoral process, I heeded the call.

I had been led to believe that I could vote for the open primary advisory referendum without requesting a party ballot. I felt somewhat duped when told that I did have to state a party preference, but was free to vote only on the referendum question. My objection to the current system isn’t that I have to vote for people; if that were the case I would stay home during the general elections as well. So I was forced to perform a mental coin flip to decide which party’s precinct committee person gets to offer me a ride to the polling place next November, and consequently, determine whether I will be arriving in a gas-guzzling, freedom-loving SUV or a rice-subsidizing, socially-conscious Prius.

The SJ-R ran an editorial addressing the parties’ self-serving desire to keep the current system in place. The party organizers like receiving a listing of likely voters from the county that they can use to target future campaign efforts. The editorial wisely pointed out that the purpose of a publicly-funded election isn’t to feed the needs of the party machinery, and as such, theirs isn’t a worthy argument against open primaries.

Even more galling, however, is the reason the parties’ give for opposing the alternative. They believe that open primaries would allow for some unscrupulous voting tactics that they would have no choice but engage in because, well, that is their nature.

Most of you are probably familiar with the scenario that they claim would befall the pristine state of elections as they exist today.

Using the latest primary as an example, Blagojevich loyalists, knowing that their man was assured of the Democratic nomination, could jury-rig the election by voting for the conservative Oberweiss, a candidate that they presume would be easier to defeat in November than the more moderate Topinka. Of course they could have done that under the current system, but that would have meant that dyed-in-blue Democrats (those most likely to have gone along with such a ruse) would have suffered the indignity of having their names appear on a Republican roster, a fate they may feel is worse than being mistakenly listed on the sex offender registry.

I find it crass when people argue a against a new law by contending that it will only force the people whose behavior the law is targeting, to break a different law or otherwise act unethically. The licensed beverage folks tried this tactic when they told us that a smoking ban in bars would force smokers to congregate outside our homes, where they would litter their butts in our yard and wake us with their hacking. And now the Democrats and Republicans are telling us that they can’t be responsible for their actions if we don’t bow to their desires that every person entering a polling place be branded with one of their marks.

Even if the open primary is instituted, as proposed, it would still stifle the truly independent voter because you could still only vote for one party’s candidates.

Why can’t I vote for Candidate (D) in one race and Candidate (R) in another, if that is my preference? Why are the party bosses fearful of a voter who wields a discriminate stylus* in the voting booth? Is it because that such freedom might lead to the emergence of a viable third party, or no-party? Is it because the present system allows them to gerrymander and protect their incumbents? No wonder more people don't vote.

*Although I am a progressive when it comes to improving voting technology, “wielding the stylus” clearly lacks the poetry of “pulling the lever” and for that reason alone voting will probably never be as physically satisfying as it was in an earlier time.

Friday, March 24, 2006

From the Treadmill: ???

In honor of Nick Roger’s extremely difficult movie quiz in the SJ-R (I got a measly five correct* and decided it futile to Google for the rest of the answers), I’m offering a free BlogFreeSpringfield T-shirt to the first reader who can correctly identify the movie that contains these lines:

“You can trust us, Bill Murray.”

“Do you know my mother?”

“He perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance.”

Think you know?

Time's up. The answer is Coffee and Cigarettes (C&C), the subject of today’s movie review From the Treadmill.

C&C is a compilation of eleven short films shot over several years by director Jim Jarmusch, the same auteur who gave us the minimalist classic, Stranger Than Paradise. The first was filmed in 1986 and was featured as a short on Saturday Night Live.

This must be said upfront and there is simply no other way to say it: Coffee and Cigarettes is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The premise for each short is the same: a single scene of conversation between characters who are hopped-up to various degrees on caffeine and nicotine. The action never moves from the table and chairs that serve as each set’s anchor. There is an obvious improvisational tone to the film, although I understand that the scenes were at least somewhat scripted.

The movie’s hook is the eclectic cast of characters who seem to be playing themselves, although several reveal a fictional double life.

Tom Waits and the rapper RZA both practice medicine in addition to their gigs as musicians. Waits is a general practitioner in the superhero mold, telling tales of delivering babies on freeways and performing tracheotomies with an ink pen. RZA is a holistic healer who eschews demon coffee for natural herbal refreshment. Bill Murray is on the down low, working as a waiter in a café where he drinks coffee from the pot while fretting over the onset of delirium.

In addition to RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Jarmusch calls on other musicians to lend hipness to his downtown-cool vision.

Punk icon Iggy Pop redeems himself after his unbelievable turn as a non-android in the Color of Money, although his aw-shucks personae seems a far cry from the guy who wailed “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Taking his place as “worst musician in an acting role” goes to Meg White of the White Stripes whose performance is reminiscent of Paul Reubens as the bellhop in the movie within the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Tom Waits continues to show that he is a natural in front of the camera, although those unfamiliar with the curious troubadour may find him a bit off-putting.

As for actual working actors, Kate Blanchette, a classy broad if ever there was one, stands out in her dual roles as a demure and kind-hearted celebrity and her less refined cousin who espouses a punk rock ethos. Roberto Benigni, wired to the gills on java and blurting out non sequiturs such as the aforementioned “Do you know my mother?”, is the perfect foil for his laconic scene mate, the comedian Steven Wright.

But stealing the show are two Brits, who, true to form, turn their noses up at coffee and insist on a proper spot of tea. Steve Coogan is an arrogant ass and Alfred Molina, a fawning admirer who has discovered that the two actors (remember, they are ostensibly playing themselves) are distant cousins. They both demonstrate considerable comedic chops in what is the most fleshed-out piece in terms of plot.

As I said at the onset, C&C will not appeal everyone. Many critics who like Jarmusch’s past work panned the film and it will almost certainly not play well with the You’ve Got Mail crowd. Not every act is a winner, but overall, I enjoyed it.

Similar to Slacker, the appeal in this movie is the idiosyncratic performances, the offbeat delivery of lines, and the pleasure of hearing people talk about things that seldom get talked about in movies. In a lot of films, the dialogue’s sole purpose is to keep the action moving. In C&C, there is no action. With no particular place to go, you can sit back and enjoy each subtle sip and drag.

*My correct responses: True Stories (one of my favorite lines from the movie); the Princess Bride (one of my favorite movies); Planes, Trains and Automobiles (of which I’ve blogged); Animal House (a classic of its genre); and Flirting with Disaster (an under appreciated comedy, although some will argue that it is impossible to underestimate anything featuring Ben Stiller.) There’s no excuse for my having missed the Raising Arizona line, had
Rogers chosen instead “her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase”, I would have nailed it. I also thought I would have gotten anything he could throw out from Sideways, but that line about the abdomen left me clueless.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

But on a more positive note . . .

While perusing the front page of the SJ-R this morning, I read something that caused me to wince, a feeling that it is probably quite familiar to regulars readers of this blog.

The words that gave me an uncomfortable pause were in a story about two traffic fatalities that may have been caused by the recent snow storm. In transitioning from the story’s lede about the deaths to the second paragraph that reported that there were few other significant problems associated with the weather, the reporters chose a phrase that, for me, came across as inappropriate. But you be the judge.

Two central Illinois teenagers died in a traffic accident near Girard late Monday that might have been connected to an overnight snowstorm.

Other than that, the heavy, wet snow driven by 30-plus mph winds caused no more problems than most other storms . . .

It’s the “other than that” that troubles me. Although I am positive that this wasn’t the reporters’ intention, the second sentence sounds somewhat dismissive of what was related in the lede. It’s just a little too nonchalant, sort of like when Elizabeth does a short piece on the latest suicide bombing in the West Bank before sending it over to a chipper Gus Gordon for a preview of tonight’s weather.

There is also a bit of what could be construed as gallows humor in the way that sentence is constructed. At the risk of sounding callow, I admit that I was immediately reminded of the old joke: “Aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” Although this recollection could also be attributed in part to a headline that also appeared on today’s front page: “Legionnaires' Disease Death Linked to Lincoln.” Really? I thought Wilkes-Booth’s bullet did him in.

This isn’t a major gaffe by any means and may not be a gaffe at all. I’m curious as to how many other people found it a poor choice of words. It could be that I’m one of but a few readers who gave any thought to it at all. I say this not to suggest that I am more discerning than thou. Rather, it’s just meant to demonstrate that as rich and expressive as the written language can be, sometimes a writer’s words can perceived in such a was as to betray their intended meaning. Remember that the next time I write something that offends you.

Friday, March 17, 2006

To each his own, but only for some

Yesterday, Bernie Schoenburg asked for my thoughts on one of the governor’s TV spots. Well, actually, he asked his readers for their opinion, and it may have even been a rhetorical question. Still, I feel it would be rude of me not to reply.

If you missed Schoenburg’s column yesterday, he wrote of an exchange that he had with the governor’s office concerning the relative accuracy of a statement concerning the governor’s proposed tax credit for higher education. It says: “now Governor Blagojevich is fighting for a thousand-dollar tax credit for each child going to college.”

Schoenburg thinks that the statement is misleading because it implies that all college students qualify, when in fact, there are some fairly wide-reaching restrictions. As proposed, the credit can only be claimed for students who have at least a B average and are enrolled as freshmen or sophomores at in-state schools.

A spokesperson for the governor believes that the statement does convey the proper meaning because it doesn’t say “every child.” He also mentions that a 30-second television spot is not conducive to detailed explanations, as they tend to distract from the message.

The spokesperson is correct that the details would distort the message. Details would have tainted it with a degree accuracy while sapping it of its grandiosity.

At issue here is the word “each.” By using it with no other qualification, it means the same as “every.” If they had replaced “each child” with “children”, the statement would be clearer. I think most people assume that there will be some restrictions when the government starts handing back money. By including the word “each,” that assumption is challenged and it begins to look like an across-the-board offer.

Another example: If I were to offer a free T-shirt to “each” visitor to blogfreespringfield, I’m sure that all five of you would expect a shirt. You’d probably be none too happy when you later found out that only those who post positive comments about me are eligible for the free offer. You also probably wouldn’t vote for me as best blogger in the Illinois Times next “Best of Springfield” issue.

The spokesperson accused Schoenburg of parsing words. But Schoenburg isn’t guilty of being a grammar hen; he’s simply applying a literal interpretation to the governor’s words. I can see how a politician might prefer that we not do that, what with their penchant for playing both sides of an issue. Words have a pesky tendency to convey meaning that doesn’t always conform to the spin with which they are being delivered.

Separate from the grammar issue, I also disagree with the spokesperson’s assertion that each child has the opportunity to benefit from the program. It’s true that a student can choose to matriculate in-state rather than out-of-state. I also believe that if a student can get accepted at a given college or university, they are capable of earning a B average at that institution. But once a student has earned 30 credit hours, there is nothing they can do to regain their underclass status. And who knows, without that extra 1,000 bucks, they might have to forfeit their upper-class status.

It doesn’t really matter though. The ad will continue to run without revision. If someone as intelligent as Bill Clinton could quibble over the meaning of the word “is”, we have no hope of getting Blagojevich to understand the meaning of “each.”

Thursday, March 16, 2006

House Tornado

Like many, I didn’t get to bed on Sunday night. I was fortunate that instead of digging my family out of the twisted wreckage of a house, I spent the pre-dawn hours bailing out the overflowing cauldron that was my sump pit.

Occasionally, after dumping a five-gallon bucket of ground-filtered rain water down the driveway, I’d take a break and turn on the car radio** for updates on the citizenry’s fate amidst the calamity. I was captivated by the reports that were coming in from those areas that were hit the hardest. The fact that radio offers no visual component only added to the excitement, as is often the case when we’re called upon to use our imaginations to provide the missing pictures.

Among those who spoke over the airwaves, there was a noticeable tendency to personify the tornadoes that struck at our city.** Jim Leach spoke of a vengeful tempest that was dishing out rebuke to a people who may have grown too comfortable in thinking that they were immune to its wrath. A government official spoke of a bullying force that was indiscriminate in leveling punishment to rich and poor alike. No one, thankfully, spoke of it as God’s reprisal for the decision to add sexual orientation to the city’s discrimination ban.

To them and to many in the area, this wasn’t a case of warm, wet wind emanating from the Gulf of Mexico forcing itself up into a colder layer of Canadian-born winds which then produced a funnel cloud. This was an egregious assault on our city.

It’s understandable that those who were experiencing the awesome power of the storm firsthand would speak of it as evil. A sober analysis of climatic conditions probably isn’t possible when roofs are being torn off houses and power line poles are being snapped like toothpicks. I would go as far as to say that it is healthy to take such a view, to direct anger and blame at the tornadoes themselves. It’s good for a community to have a common enemy, especially one that can only be combated through a collective resolve not to bow down in its wake. Besides, you can’t really blame the government for this one.

From the relative safety of my far south side home, I didn’t experience the trauma that might have caused me to see the tornadoes as an embodiment of a vindictive force. The only scourge I potentially faced was damp carpeting in my basement and spoiled meat in my freezer, hardly the stuff of biblical-level retribution.

To me, what happened on Sunday night was a random act of nature, but there is nothing random about what occurred in its aftermath. And with exceptions made for those who lost their homes or livelihood, you’d have to be pretty cynical not to see most of it as positive.

Save for the lowlifes who were pillaging the belongings of people whose lives had been stripped bare, everyone seems to be conducting themselves admirably and to have absorbed the blow with a stiff upper lip. The efforts of volunteers and public works employees are inspiring. The media has been tireless in their efforts to cover what is a historic and fascinating story. And drivers are reacting with surprising restraint at the many intersections that have been turned into four-way stops. They are actually stopping.

The high winds have also swept clean some of the divisiveness in the city. The issue of smoke-free establishments becomes a bit less contentious when entire bars have been turned into beer gardens. The shades of red and blue are less stark on talk radio and the editorial page when the villain is a twister and not an elected leader (although Chris Britt did use the occasion to get a dig in at the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.) As our police officers continue to pull extra duty after putting themselves in harm’s way on Sunday, Courtney Cox has even had the good taste not to file any new suits against them, an act of restraint that seems almost unfathomable.

But there is no one I am prouder of than my eldest daughter. Having taken on the role as our family’s designated worrier early in her young life, she was the one who needed the most comforting when twice we roused the kids from their beds and hustled them down into the basement. After assuring her that a basement is a bulwark in the path of a tornado, she quickly shifted her anxiety away from her own well-being, and began worrying about her best friend whose house doesn’t have a subterranean level. Such compassion and concern at such a young age is truly commendable. But she might have thrown a little sympathy my way after my valiant efforts in stemming the tide of a torrential flow of ground water that was seeping into our house.

*This might not be very descriptive of the content, but it isn't everyday that you get the chance to use the title of a Throwing Muses album to headline a blog post.

**Jim Leach proved himself a hearty soul with his sleep-defying coverage.

***WMAY’s Molson and Lee are following suit by asking listeners to help them name the two tornadoes that swept through town earlier this week.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Blowing Smoke and Mirrors

Chuck Redpath and Sam Cahnman faced-off in debate on the Jim Leach Show this morning. I didn’t get to hear the entire program, but from what I heard,the two candidates seem to be on the same side of many of the issues, save for the open primary.

There’s another similarity between the two candidates; as orators they both make George Bush sound like Daniel Webster. I don’t know where these gentlemens' careers will take them, but I don’t see any keynote speeches at the DNC in their future.

Before I proceed with this critique on the communication skills of these two candidates, let me confess that I am not particularly given to verbal virtuosity. In speech, I stumble over words with the best of them. That’s why I’m a blogger and not a podcaster. Nevertheless, I do have a keen ear for language and have studied communications extensively, and besides, everybody is free to be a critic. For example, you don’t have to be an actor to state, with a significant degree of credibility, that Keanu Reeves’ performance in "Speed" lacked the dexterity and vitality that one would expect from an actor who isn’t really, really stoned.

Redpath and Cahnman fared all right in the question and answer portion of the debate, although there was a decided lack of vigor in their deliberation and they didn’t really sell themselves or their ideas with much gusto. There were also no sparks, or witty rejoinders, or verbal daggers – none of the things that can make a debate good fun. That would both do well to study Al Sharpton. Say what you will about the good reverend, but he does know how to turn it on whenever a microphone crackles in his presence and in my view he is a welcome addition to any debate, even if he isn't running.

Of the two candidates, Redpath comes across as the less polished. He seems to be at battle with himself when conversing in a public forum. His is a salty tongue by nature, not uncommon among northenders.* This is acceptable at the aldermanic level, where Frank Kunz’s blue-tinted opinions have earned him the reputation as the council’s straight shooter. But Redpath has obviously been advised to tone it down now that he is playing to a larger audience and his attempts at self-censoring disrupt the flow of his oratories. On Sam Madonia’s show last week, he apologized profusely after dropping an a-bomb which only drew attention to the matter, and made him sound a bit sappy to boot.

Where both candidates failed speech class was during their closing remarks, the segment that afforded them the most opportunity to prepare. It was painfully obvious that both men were reading verbatim from a script. Their attempts to sound colloquial were thwarted by the unnatural inflections in their recitations. At one point, Cahnman addressed his opponent by saying, “Hey, Chuck” and it was easy to imagine that at that moment he made a split-second glance at Redpath before quickly looking back down to the script lest he lose his place.

Redpath may have deviated from his script at least once. At one point he suggested that a particular political columnist has been in intimate contact with his (Redpath’s) viscera through a rather evasive, and hopefully metaphorical, probing. Another impromptu remark may have come when Redpath promised voters that he wouldn’t “blow smoke and mirrors.” Out of respect for a fellow northender, I’ll assume the comment was made off-the-cuff and that he didn’t mix that metaphor on paper before reading it on air.

The verbal deficiencies of the candidates were made even more glaring by having a skilled public speaker such as Leach presiding over the debate. Imagine Lenny and Carl from the Simpson’s fielding questions from Peter Jennings and, well, I guess it wasn’t that bad. I do wish Leach would have snatched the prepared closing remarks from the candidates’ hands and demanded that they speak extemporaneously, but I suppose that it isn’t a moderator’s duty to make the debaters seem more genuine.

It used to be that politicians could be counted upon to be silver-tongued devils who would lure voters with their slick talk and then go back on their word once in office. I suppose we are better off with honest politicians** who lack the ability to deceive us with verbal cunning. I just can't imagine that Redpath's and Cahnman's performance today inspired too many independent voters to pick up a democratic ballot in the primary.

*As a native northender, I have a pass to make such pronouncements.

**If that is indeed the case with these two.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Emily Litella Foundation for Public Discourse*

One of the great things about blogging - the ability for anyone with a computer to publish their uncensored ideas, opinions, and interests for the entire world to see - is also one of its inherent dangers.

While all bloggers benefit from unfettered freedom of speech, there are always instances when we would have done well by having an editor to offer sage advice. Typos, poor grammar, and blatant misrepresentation of the facts show-up in the postings of even the most conscientious of bloggers.

But even more embarrassing, for those of us who provide commentary on issues and events, is when emotion or haste (perhaps even ignorance) clouds our thinking and we totally misread the subject we are commenting on or provide a counter-position that rests entirely on disjointed logic.** Fortunately, this has never happened to me, but it does seem to be the case with the author of a letter in today’s SJ-R.

A local attorney, perhaps already pushed to the brink by one too many lawyer jokes, opened fire on a column written by Dave Bakke, and to a large extent, on Bakke himself.

Some background:

In Sunday’s column, Bakke commented on the makeover that a defendant in an upcoming trail had received. The defendant, one Maurice LaGrone, Jr., ditched the hooded, pierced, and tattooed look that he had previously favored, for a more dapper presentation. Bakke opined that this was probably done at the request of his attorney to create a favorable impression upon the jury. Bakke found this cynical and thought that it underestimated the ability of jurors to look past a defendant’s appearance and judge the case based on the facts.

In response, Adam Giganti, a local defense attorney, wrote a letter in which he accused Bakke of being prejudiced. He presumes that the columnist would have one look at ghetto-attired African American and immediately cast a guilty vote, while waiting to acquit Kenneth Lay only long enough to admire his well-tailored suit. The tone of the letter could best be described as caustic.

My view:

Immediately upon reading Giganti’s letter, I felt that this was a man who had let emotion get the better part of reason. After digging the Sunday paper out of the recycling bin and rereading Bakke’s column, it confirmed that Giganti had come unglued over a criticism that Bakke had made of lawyers, without comprehending that they both share the same view on the important issue: it’s not right to judge people on their appearance.

Giganti believes, and I tend to agree, that there is a real possibility someone on a jury will be prejudiced by a person’s physical appearance (“Looks guilty to me!”), so defense lawyers have to safeguard against it. Bakke finds it calculating to gussy up a defendant for their big day in court, which it would be if jurors could be trusted to ignore the superficialities and stick to the facts, which they can’t.

It’s beyond me how Giganti could conclude from anything written in Bakke's column that he is “a person who would judge another because of their appearance” or that he has “already convicted them based upon their appearance.” He might as well accuse Bakke of kicking puppies and conning old ladies out of their inheritances too, there is just as much evidence of that in the column as there is of what he alleges.

It’s good that the SJ-R printed the letter, as irrational of a response as it may have been. This brings me to one advantage that bloggers have over newspaper columnists.

If someone posts a comment to one of my entries that takes me to task in a way that I feel is unjustified or faulty in reason, I can respond immediately and my response will appear directly below theirs. Anybody reading the comments section will get both sides of the issue at the same time and can form their opinion accordingly.

A newspaper’s format doesn’t allow for this type of debate. A person who read Giganti’s letter, but didn’t read the column in question, could be left to wonder what sort of disparaging remarks Bakke was making about the black man whose pictures appeared above the letter in today's paper. Sure Bakke can respond to the attack in his column, but there is no guarantee that everyone who read the letter will read his column. In fact, a person left with a negative opinion about Bakke might go out of their way to avoid reading his column.

Several years ago, while in grad school, I was researching a paper on how newspapers handle corrections and the role of public editors (or ombudsmen) in keeping journalists fair and balanced. Sarah Antonacci, an SJ-R reporter, related to me an interesting anecdote that demonstrated that sometimes it is the readers who need corrected.

Antonacci had reported on a county jail inmate who took advantage of the special release privileges he had been granted to commit a crime (it may have been a murder, the details escape me.) In her story, she referred to the inmate as a jail “trusty.” Antonacci said that she received numerous phone calls and emails alerting her to the mistake, telling her that what she meant to write was “trustee.”

Except it wasn’t a mistake. A trusty is a “convict regarded as worthy of trust and therefore granted special privileges.” Trustee is a legal term that deals with fiduciary matters.

Antonacci was able to defend her correct usage to those who contacted her, whether they believed her or not is another story. What troubled her, however, were all of the other people who she didn’t correspond with who also thought she was in error. The newspaper can’t print a correction when there is nothing to correct, so there was no way to clarify a matter that had obviously left many readers with a mistaken notion.

I guess it all just goes to show, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. Either you’re a bi-weekly columnist who wants to deny the poorly attired due process, or you're an investigative reporter with unrefined orthographical skills. No wonder so many bloggers choose the comfort of anonymity.

*What's all this fuss I hear about making Puerto Rico a steak?

**Maybe it has happened a couple of times. Looking back, it may have been irresponsible of me to malign the Red Hat Society to the extent that I did based on my limited knowledge of the group, but my gut still tells me there is something sinister going on there.