Sunday, May 28, 2006

Leading News Stories in Oceania on May 28, 2006

Stolen from the Ministry Of Truth by Outer Party Member Winston Smith:

Can the House and Senate Meet on Bush's "Rational Middle Ground?"

The Kelo Paradox
The Multilateralism Paradox
The Media's Vietnam Flashback
The Dog That Isn't Biting
"Victors, Not Victims"
1. Can the House and Senate Meet on Bush's "Rational Middle Ground" The senate has passed President Bush's "rational middle ground" immigration bill, as reported in the main link below. The battle now shifts to the congressional "conference committee," which will try to reconcile the irreconcilable House and Senate immigration bills. (The New York Times provides a detailed comparison of the two bills.)

The White House is saying that it expects the House to yield and move toward the Senate bill. But at least one prominent congressman in the House is saying otherwise. I prefer the (somewhat muddled) Senate bill to the "berserk" anti-immigration House bill, but I won't dare to predict its political chances.

On a more positive note, the New York Post reports that the Senate immigration bill includes an amendment that would re-open to the public the top of the Statue of Liberty, which is not only an important symbolic gesture about the meaning of immigration but also an important sign that America is confident enough to stop cowering in the face of terrorism.

"Senate, in Bipartisan Act, Passes an Immigration Bill," Rachel L. Swarns, New York Times, May 26 The Senate easily passed legislation on Thursday that would give most illegal immigrants a chance to become American citizens. But the vote did little to soften opposition to the measure among House conservatives, and Republican leaders acknowledged that delivering a final bill to President Bush's desk would be enormously difficult.

The Senate legislation, which also creates a guest worker program and seeks to tighten control of the border, passed 62 to 36. Twenty-three Republicans and one independent joined 38 Democrats to win approval of the bill in one of the few displays of bipartisanship on a major piece of legislation in years….

Mr. Bush issued a statement praising the Senate for its vote and the House for passing an earlier immigration bill that he said "began a national dialogue." He urged both chambers to work together to pass a bill that he could sign into law….

Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House majority leader, said on Thursday that he was hopeful that the Senate and House could reach a compromise. But when asked whether that compromise might include a guest worker program, he said he did not know….

Conservatives in the House denounced the bill for legalizing illegal immigrants and creating a guest worker program that would admit 200,000 foreign workers each year. Representative J.D. Hayworth, Republican of Arizona, called it an amnesty for lawbreakers and "a nonstarter."
But some Republicans in the House said that the ground seemed to be shifting, if only slightly.

2. The Kelo Paradox The Supreme Court's instantly infamous Kelo v. New London decision gave local governments unlimited leeway to seize property under the power of eminent domain, in a case where the city's purpose was to displace smaller businesses and make room for a large new enterprise that would boost local employment and increase tax revenues.

So naturally, the power of eminent domain is now being used to block a large new enterprise that would displace smaller businesses, boost local employment, and increase tax revenues. In this case, it has been used by the town of Hercules, California, to block the construction of a Wal-Mart, for the alleged purpose of maintaining the city's "small-town flavor."

Why has eminent domain been used for such seemingly contradictory purposes? Because both are consistent with eminent domain's deeper, underlying purpose: to give local governments the power to force on helpless property owners their statist social engineering—whatever form it takes. Thanks to TIA Daily readers Gary Ware and Murphy Neil, who both alerted me to this article.

"Hercules Uses Eminent Domain to Keep Out Wal-Mart," Justin M. Norton, AP via San Francisco Chronicle, May 23 A San Francisco suburb voted Tuesday night to use the power of eminent domain to keep Wal-Mart Stores Inc. off a piece of city land after hearing from dozens of residents who accused the big-box retailer of engaging in scare tactics to force its way into the bedroom community.

The overflow crowd that packed into the tiny Hercules City Hall cheered after the five-person City Council voted unanimously to use the unusual tactic to seize the 17 acres where Wal-Mart intended to build a shopping complex.

"The citizens have spoken. No to Wal-Mart," said Kofi Mensah, who has lived in Hercules for more than two decades and said he values the city's authentic feel. Attorneys from Wal-Mart told the council that the retailer had spent close to $1 million to redesign the property to the community's liking. They said the council couldn't claim it was legally necessary to take the land and that the decision set a bad precedent.

"Today it may be Wal-Mart but the question is where does it end," Wal-Mart attorney Edward G. Burg said.

City officials countered that buying the land was acceptable to ensure it was developed to the community's liking and fit in with overall plans for the city.

Opponents worried that Wal-Mart would drive local retailers out of business, tie up traffic and wreck the small-town flavor of this city of 24,000.

3. The Multilateralism Paradox Speaking of apparent contradictions, I mentioned recently the irony that the same liberals who urged America to be more "multilateral" in the run-up to war with Iraq are now demanding that the US drop its European partners and unilaterally engage in direct negotiations with Iran.

The demand for direct negotiations is a crude and obvious Iranian tactic to stall for time—so of course mainstream liberals have fallen for it, as David Ignatius does in today's Washington Post. Fortunately, the Post's Charles Krauthammer exposes the Iranian gambit, below, along with the contradictions of the multilateralists.

But the pose of these erstwhile multilateralists is only an apparent contradiction, explained by their real, underlying loyalty to anything that slows America down and blunts its assertiveness in international affairs.

"Say No to Tehran's Gambit," Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, May 26 Just yesterday the world was excoriating the Bush administration for its unilateralism—on Kyoto, the ABM Treaty and, most especially, Iraq—and demanding that Washington act in concert with the "international community." Just yesterday the Democratic nominee for president attacked President Bush's foreign policy precisely for refusing to consult with, listen to and work with "the allies."

Another day, another principle. Bush is now being pressured to abandon multilateralism and go it alone with Iran. Remember: in September 2003, after Iran was discovered cheating on its nuclear program, the United States wanted immediate UN action. The allies argued for a softer approach. Britain, France, and Germany wanted to negotiate with Tehran and offer diplomatic and economic carrots in return for Iran's giving up its nuclear weapons program….

The full understanding we had with our allies was that if the EU Three process failed, we would go to the Security Council together and get sanctions imposed on Iran….

Which is why the mullahs launched this recent initiative. They know, and fear, that if the West persists on its present and agreed course, they face sanctions so serious that their rule, already unpopular, might be in jeopardy. The very fact that Iran is desperately trying to change the subject, change the venue, and shift the burden onto the United States shows how close the mullahs believe we are to achieving major international pressure on them.

Pushing Washington to abandon the multilateral process and enter negotiations alone is more than rank hypocrisy. It is a pernicious folly…. It would undo the allied consensus, produce endless new delays, and give Iran more time to reach the point of no return, after which its nuclear status would be a fait accompli.

4. The Media's Vietnam Flashback An editorial cartoon published in the first few weeks of the invasion of Iraq showed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a harried father at the wheel of the family car, with the press as a gaggle of unruly children in the back seat screaming "Is it Vietnam yet? Is it Vietnam yet?" Well, the media decided two years ago that Iraq is Vietnam, and they keep trying to induce a national Vietnam flashback.

Get ready for the latest stage, an attempt to gin up an Iraq War equivalent to Vietnam's My Lai massacre, in which US troops wiped out a village full of civilians. Just in time for Memorial Day, this story will be exploited to smear all of our troops as murderers—and the American press will have generated even more propaganda for Muslim terrorists.

"Military to Report Marines Killed Iraqi Civilians," Thom Shanker, Eric Schmitt, and Richard A. Oppel, Jr. , New York Times, May 26 A military investigation into the deaths of two dozen Iraqis last November is expected to find that a small number of marines in western Iraq carried out extensive, unprovoked killings of civilians, Congressional, military and Pentagon officials said Thursday….

Officials briefed on preliminary results of the inquiry said the civilians killed at Haditha, a lawless, insurgent-plagued city deep in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, did not die from a makeshift bomb, as the military first reported, or in cross-fire between marines and attackers, as was later announced. A separate inquiry has begun to find whether the events were deliberately covered up.

Evidence indicates that the civilians were killed during a sustained sweep by a small group of marines that lasted three to five hours and included shootings of five men standing near a taxi at a checkpoint, and killings inside at least two homes that included women and children, officials said.

That evidence, described by Congressional, Pentagon and military officials briefed on the inquiry, suggested to one Congressional official that the killings were "methodical in nature."…
Officials briefed on the inquiry said that most of the bullets that killed the civilians were now thought to have been "fired by a couple of rifles," as one of them put it….

The first official report from the military, issued on Nov. 20, said that "a US marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb" and that "immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire."

Military investigators have since uncovered a far different set of facts from what was first reported, partly aided by marines who are cooperating with the inquiry and partly guided by reports filed by a separate unit that arrived to gather intelligence and document the attack; those reports contradicted the original version of the marines, Pentagon officials said.

5. The Dog That Isn't Biting The media and the American left can feel free to act as if American troops are the chief villain in the world only because of America's success in preventing terrorists from attacking us on our own soil. It is a success the mainstream media takes for granted and doesn't report on, because it is about "the dog that didn't bark." Well, this dog may not be barking—or biting—for the moment, but it's still snarling and vicious.

The Daily Telegraph reports on the arrest of a group of British Muslim who were (like a group of jihadis recently arrested in America) training at home in order to strike against the West in Iraq. Alas, not all British Muslim fanatics are so impractical; a new arrest has rounded up a group that was working on a chilling plan to blow up a London nightclub.

Meanwhile, as a timely little reminder, an American jury has just convicted a Pakistani immigrant—inflamed by press coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal—who planned to explode a bomb on a New York City subway platform. Let the New York Times reporters and editors tasked with covering the alleged Haditha massacre consider this fact while on their commute to work.

"Guilty Verdict in Plot to Bomb Subway Station," William K. Rashbaum, New York Times, May 25 A federal jury in Brooklyn convicted a Pakistani immigrant yesterday in the plot to blow up the Herald Square subway station in 2004. The jurors rejected his defense that a paid police informer had entrapped him by stoking his rage with images of Muslims abused at the hands of Americans.

The man, Shahawar Matin Siraj, who will turn 24 tomorrow, appeared pallid and downcast as the jury forewoman delivered the verdict. He tilted his head forward slightly and closed his eyes for a moment as she repeated the word guilty four times, once for each of the bombing conspiracy counts against him. The jurors had deliberated for 10 hours over two days after a four-week trial in United States District Court in Brooklyn….

While the case was a victory for federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, it was also one for the New York Police Department, which has retooled since the Sept. 11 attacks, with the aim of preventing new ones. The trial was the first time that a federal terrorism investigation was largely conducted by the department's Intelligence Division, rather than the FBI. The testimony provided a glimpse of how the police have used informers and deep undercover officers within the city's Muslim communities since 2001….

Mr. Siraj, and another man, James Elshafay, who later pleaded guilty and testified against him, were arrested several days before the 2004 Republican National Convention on charges they plotted to blow up the Herald Square subway station, the third busiest hub in the city's transit system, serving 110,000 riders a day

6. "Victors, Not Victims" In preparation for the Memorial Day weekend, here is a good editorial from the Wall Street Journal highlighting—without realizing it—a symptom of the evil of the morality of altruism. One of the chief arguments for the idea that self-sacrifice is the essence of morality is to cite examples of truly heroic actions, such as those of policemen, firefighters, and soldiers, which appear to be self-sacrificial.

But the American fighting man (or woman) does not believe that he is better off living in a world ruled by terrorists and dictators. He grasps that it is in his interests to live in a free society, and that he can't just depend on others to protect that freedom. In short, fighting for liberty is an act of self-assertiveness and self-reliance. It is an example of the morality of rational self-interest.

And perhaps more to the point, the modern American soldier does not go into battle as cannon fodder. He can reasonable expect that he will not have to give his life for his country—that he will, as General Patton so eloquently put it, "make the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country." As this editorial puts it, the American soldier is a victor, not a victim—and deserves to be celebrated as such.

"Victors, Not Victims," Wall Street Journal, May 26 Here's a Memorial Day quiz:

1. Who is Jessica Lynch?
Correct. She's the Army private captured, and later rescued, in the early days of the war.
2. Who is Leigh Ann Hester?

Come on. The Kentucky National Guard vehicle commander was awarded a Silver Star last year for fighting off an insurgent attack on a convoy in Iraq. The first woman to receive a Silver Star since World War II, and the first woman ever to receive one for close combat.

If you don't recognize Sergeant Hester's name, that's not surprising. While Private Lynch's ordeal appears in some 12,992 newspaper and broadcast reports on the Factiva news service, Sergeant Hester and her decoration for extraordinary valor show up in only 162.

One difference: Sergeant Hester is a victor, while Private Lynch can be seen as a victim. And when it comes to media reports about the military these days, victimology is all the rage. For every story about someone who served out of conviction and resolutely went on with his civilian life, there are many more articles about a soldier's failure or a veteran's floundering.

It's a sign of some progress that the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are not spit upon and shunned as Vietnam vets were. Yet there may be something more pernicious about mouthing "Support Our Troops" while also asserting that many of them are poor, uneducated dupes who were cannon fodder overseas and have come home as basket cases, plagued by a range of mental, emotional, and financial problems….

This Memorial Day, most of us will remember the Americans who have served their country since the Revolutionary War not with pity but with admiration.

7. The War Department
United 93, Part 2

How Government Undermined a Civilian Counter-Terrorist Force
Like Paul Greengrass’s United 93, the Transportation Security Administration can claim some admirable accomplishments. They have made substantial improvements in the passive security measures that provide the greatest single barrier to suicide hijackers: screening luggage, passengers, and ground crews. Their no-fly lists, nitrate detectors, and legions of low-wage policemen doing pat-down searches have clogged up our airport terminals. Their partial effectiveness is the subject of nation-wide derision. But failing to stop a quarter of the fully assembled guns and over half of the unassembled explosive devices in security tests is no reason to give up on screening. Who would get on an airplane if there weren't any serious attempt to find weapons?

When it comes to active security measures, the TSA replaced the purely ceremonial deployment of National Guard troops in airports with a real security force. There are approximately 4,000 Federal Air Marshals trained in SWAT-team-style gun fighting, deployed in two- and three-man teams. It is no small accomplishment that the TSA has become effective at replacing air marshals who quit and keeping those who haven't quit current in their training and readiness for what has got to be one of the world's most tedious jobs. (In 2004, the TSA battled a "blue flu" of several hundred fed-up agents who were assigned to fly during the Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays.)

In the face of foreign opposition, mostly from "Old Europe," the Bush administration has established agreements and the TSA has made arrangements with many governments to allow armed US marshals through airports on foreign soil so that they can protect America's international flights, too. There are enough air marshals to put teams on only about 4% to 5% of the passenger jetliners operating in American airspace. However, the TSA multiplies the effectiveness of this partial coverage by placing marshals on flights based on risk. For example, it is rumored that essentially all passenger jets at Dulles and Reagan National, the two large airports in the Washington, DC, area, are covered.

But when it came to the creation of a force of armed civilian pilots who could defend their own flight decks, the leadership of the TSA, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Homeland Security offered nothing but dogmatic opposition.

Up until the 1960s, passenger pilots were allowed to carry guns in the cockpit without a permit. Pilots on US postal flights were required to do so. Commercial pilots probably started it, but the idea that guns in the cockpit were the most direct answer to the threat of suicide hijackers immediately circulated among the press and among the American people after September 11. In a nation in which every third person owns a gun and civilians licensed to carry concealed handguns outnumber law enforcement officers four to one, the idea that American civilians should be equipped to shoot terrorists came naturally.

In July 2002, the House of Representatives passed a measure to arm pilots by a vote of 310 to 113. In September, in an 87 to 6 vote, the Senate agreed. These veto-proof votes accurately represented a groundswell of popular support for the measure.

Then TSA head John McGaw, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge all argued against the program out of an aversion to private gun possession in any form. As a congressman from California, Mineta had dogmatically voted for nearly every gun control measure that moved through the House of Representatives. As head of the BATF under Bill Clinton, McGaw's regulatory activism against gun dealers and importers equaled or exceeded the wishes of his president.

The Bush administration didn't question McGaw's rationality. They did, however, question his competency, and they replaced him with former Coast Guard Commandant James Loy. Under Loy, the TSA initiated a campaign of bureaucratic delay and complication. Arming all of the nation's 85,000 pilots might cost $900 million to start and $250 million a year thereafter, but only $25 million was appropriated from the program. Despite the obvious implication that the legislature would back their overwhelming support for the program with any appropriations the TSA requested, Loy claimed that he couldn't proceed because the mandate "raises the question of who will bear the cost of this potentially expensive program."

Congress required the TSA to begin the program by February 2003. The TSA pretended to comply by announcing on the day of the deadline that licensing slots would be available to a test group of 48 pilots and asking who would volunteer? The test group would be screened, trained, and would fly armed for several weeks. Then, based on that experience, the TSA would promulgate regulations for internal comment and then, finally, issue them for the guidance of the full-scale program. The delays worked. By the autumn of 2003, two years after the quadruple suicide hijackings, there were no more than 300 pilots flying armed.

The TSA could have set up a far quicker, cheaper, simpler program patterned after the concealed carry license programs used to screen and monitor tens (or hundreds) of thousands of ordinary citizens in each of the 43 states that handle concealed carry applicants in large numbers. The state programs require a criminal background check (which pilots already maintain current for their flight certificates) and, typically, about 8 hours of basic pistol instruction that can be arranged at a local gun range (which the licensee pays for). Instead, Loy created an elaborate law-enforcement-style program that chews up enough resources and implicitly threatens sanctions sufficient to deter most pilots from volunteering and many congressmen from funding it.

The program requires a criminal background check and a written psychological test that are totally redundant with the requirements for the pilots' flight certificates. That is followed by an interview by a psychiatrist, a one-week-long training program at a remote location, and a follow-up interview with another psychiatrist. Training is performed at an FBI range at Artesia, New Mexico, a three-hour-drive from El Paso, the nearest regional airport. The pilots are given the training free of charge and the government issues them a .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol, but they have to pay for their accommodations and have to schedule a week of vacation time to do it. The triple psychological screening carries with it the obvious implication that a pilot who wants to carry a gun in the cockpit must be crazy, unless he can prove otherwise.

Where a little time and a little money might deter a minority of pilots, the potential risk to their flight certificates posed by the psychological screening deters most. If a pilot were judged to be too unbalanced to carry a gun, can he be trusted with the lives of 150 or 200 or 350 passengers? As a natural extension of their authority over security issues, the TSA has the power to suspend the flight certificate of a pilot they judge to be a threat.

These barriers took their intended toll. Pilots' union surveys indicated that more than 60,000 commercial pilots were interested in carrying a gun, but today—three years into the program—only 5,000 actually do.

As a result of the Bush administration's decision to make a law enforcement program out of what could have been a simple gun carry certificate, pilots are deputized as "Federal Flight Deck Officers" whose power to carry a gun exists only inside the cockpit. Outside the cockpit, the federal government requires its "off-duty" deputies to carry their weapons in locked boxes concealed in their personal luggage at all times. Once they have deplaned, pilots are not allowed to use their government-issued pistols for self-defense or any otherwise lawful purpose. Why? According to TSA spokesman, the reason is "to reduce as much as possible any liability issues that may arise."

The liability issue is not merely an excuse for another restriction. It actually tells the story of why the president, vice-president, and the entire upper echelon of the Bush administration—many of whom favor widespread gun ownership and gun carrying among American citizens—did not object to the TSA's layers of delay and obstruction.

The liability issue came from the executives of America's major airlines. They complained that their stockholders shouldn't have to assume the risk of the wrongful discharge of a gun by an employee who carried it as a part of his civilian job. To placate this constituency, the Bush administration came up with the idea of deputizing airline pilots as federal agents. But federal agents must be vetted and trained. And since the majority of pilots would not be willing to carry guns under such a complicated program, the identities of the few pilots who are armed must be kept confidential to prevent potential hijackers from tracking them. And thus training should take place at a remote location that is easy to patrol.

The attempt to placate airline management created every convoluted feature, every barrier, and every deterrent to an effective program to arm pilots.

As a result of the Bush administration's attempt to accommodate the gun control prejudices of airline management, the TSA created a dysfunctional program with multiple barriers and deterrents to participation. A program that could have defended more than 90 percent of America's domestic passenger flights on a purely voluntary basis, covers less than 10 percent of them today.

And that is why we need a film that prepares passengers and flight crews for an unarmed resistance against suicide hijackers. —Jack Wakeland

8. Human Achievements
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Recently, I came across a list of "The Greatest Britons" and was surprised to see an unfamiliar name at the number two spot following Winston Churchill. After some quick research, I discovered that the honor was well earned by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an engineer. He was a seminal figure in the industrialization of Britain--instrumental in building the first railroad network in the world, as well as in the development of trans-Atlantic shipping using steam-powered boats.

For an exceptional short biography of Brunel visit here.

You can click on the links titled "Early life & education, Thames Tunnel, Bristol, Great Western Railway & the broad gauge, Railways, bridges & atmospherics, Great ships and Family & final years" at the bottom of the page to read through the biography.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is one of the most ambitious designers and energetic practitioners in civil engineering history. Along with Robert Stephenson and Joseph Locke, Brunel was instrumental in the development of Britain's railway network—the first in the world.

His approach to this transport revolution was comprehensive: where his Great Western Railway ended, he designed ships to take goods and passengers across the seas in greater numbers than ever before and at speeds never previously sustained. His work was thus central to the massive economic and social changes of Victorian Britain.

His great strength lay in the range of his interests. From railways and bridges to ships, docks and buildings, he cross-fertilized methods of construction, uses of materials and systems of propulsion with an almost audacious belief in the possibility of improvement.
—Shrikant Rangnekar

9. Things of Beauty

This photograph is taken by the same photographer as yesterday's orange and green sunset. The two together are showing us perhaps the beginning of a trend in this photographer's style, where color and the color of light becomes the focal point of the image.

The pale winter's sky is blushed with pink and blue. The distant mountains are a purplish-blue hue, with the snow taking on a pale icy blue hue. A line of dark blue marks the distant shoreline. The water, turned into a softly focused haze by a long exposure, reflects the pink and blue hues of the sky. And at the near shoreline, the water becomes as pale and icy as the distant mountain snow. In the foreground we see a grouping of rocks and boulders, each in the same, though more muted, hues as the sky, mountains, and water—pinks, blues, and purples with touches of bluish-white speckles.

Though the shapes of the foreground boulders mimic the shapes of the distant mountain range, it is the tight range of color that becomes the focus of this image. And it is this tight range of colors that creates a very quiet and serene view across this body of water.

10. Where Are You Going?
The Da Vinci Code and Art School Confidential Show Us Where Our Culture Is Not Going

I haven't been reviewing movies in TIA Daily nearly as often as I would like—and as I had originally planned to—for two reasons. The first is that the demands TIA Daily puts on my schedule have made it harder for me to make the time to see new movies. And when I do have time, I have been loathe to risk wasting one of my few spare evenings on what could be—and all too often, is—a spiritual draining experience rather than a spiritually rewarding one. I suspect that I am not alone, and that this is one of the causes for declining ticket sales in recent years.
And that brings me to the second reason I haven't done more movie reviews: there have been few films that excited my interest. But I can't stay away, because I love the medium. Film is the newest art form, only a little more than a hundred years old. It is arguably the most powerful art form, with the potential to combine the power of painting, music, and literature in one all-absorbing experience. I sometimes can't stand what Hollywood puts out, precisely because I know that so much more and better is possible. But good and even great films are still made today, so I have to keep looking.

Unfortunately, I don't have any great films to report on today. This week, I saw two films, the widely distributed blockbuster book adaptation The Da Vinci Code and the more obscure, limited-release Art School Confidential. Neither is great, but both might be worth seeing—and interestingly, these two very different films both reveal the same thing about where our culture is, or isn't, going.

The Da Vinci Code has, of course, gained notoriety because of its supposedly anti-Christian message. It is a thriller in which the protagonists have to interpret a series of coded messages (with a rather loose connection to Leonardo da Vinci), in order to reveal a murderous plot by a cabal within the Catholic Church to cover up a historical truth that would undermine the foundations of the faith. The surprise for me is that, despite its generally negative reviews, this was a relatively solid thriller. The action and the details of the plot were enough to engage my interest and keep the filming moving forward.

But it was just a solid, run-of-the-mill thriller—and it did not live up to the billing given to it by the Catholic Church.

The film's premise is potentially anti-Christian. The secret the Church is covering up—and I don't think I am giving away anything that has not already been widely discussed in the press—is that Christ was just human and not divine, and specifically that he was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child whose descendants are alive to this day.

But this and a few references to the bloody history of the church are the only anti-Christian elements of the film. The elements that make up the minute-by-minute substance of the film—the characters, their motivations, the actions they take to solve the mystery, etc.—are not unusual or in any way unconventional. The two protagonists, in particular, are rather ordinary, even bland people.

To convey a theme that would defy the traditional moral and philosophical outlook of Christianity, one would have to present characters whose ideas, values, and actions defy traditional morality. One would have to dramatize, say, the need to discover and expose the facts, no matter whose religious dogmas they contradict (a theme that would be particularly relevant in light of the recent "cartoon jihad"). Or, similarly, several villains (one religious, the other secular) justify their actions by citing the need to sacrifice a few individuals for the greater good—which could have given the filmmakers an opportunity to challenge the Christian morality of sacrifice. But that would have directly contradicted, not just the dogmas of the Church, but the obvious message of Christ's own life.

Hence there is no evidence of either theme or of any broader theme, particularly in the film's anti-climactic, inconclusive conclusion.

A good contrast is one of my favorite films, the 1999 thriller The Thomas Crown Affair (not to be confused with the trashy 1968 original film on which it was loosely based). The hero of this thriller is a spectacularly successful businessman turned art thief, and the plot revolves around his unconventional romance with the woman who is trying to catch him for the crime. It is about two self-assertive individuals whose whole characters consist of the defiance of social norms. They are a whole lot more radical than anything we are shown in The Da Vinci Code.

In short, The Da Vinci Code's plot premise was potentially revolutionary, but all of the means by which its plot is carried out are safely conventional. Behind the theological hoopla surrounding it, it is just an ordinary thriller—entertaining, so long as you go in without any more grandiose expectations.

Art School Confidential is a very different film, with a target on the seemingly opposite end of the cultural spectrum. Its target is not the Church, but the most rarefied realm of secular, subjectivist Modernism: the contemporary art world. This satire follows a hapless young man whose talent for drawing leads him to attend a big-city art school. There, he encounters a total lack of objective standards, as his competent, realistic renderings are ignored, week after week, in favor of childlike scribbling, incompetent smears on canvas, and another fellow student's offering: a piece of cardboard adorned with a glob of silly string, accompanied by a stream of art-world jargon that leaves everyone nodding pretentiously in appreciation. Our protagonist then embarks on his own experimentation with every crazy art fad of the past 50 years, in an attempt to curry favor with his teachers and win the attention of a beautiful art model.

As far as it goes, this film offers some very amusing and badly needed satire of Modern art, with its substitution of meaningless smears and academic in-jokes, in place of representational art that conveys a meaningful theme. It also nicely captures the way in which words—the art world's esoteric jargon—substitute for the art itself as the means by which students and professors decide who is a "great artist."

This film was clearly inspired by the ideas in Tom Wolfe's classic 1975 essay The Painted Word, a journalistic satire that presented the world of Modern art as the gigantic scam that it is.
But this film's weakness is the same as that of Wolfe's book: it is only a satire. It lampoons what it is wrong with the world—but offers no positive vision. Our protagonist, while a skilled illustrator, is hapless and unassertive; his own style is mostly realist, but with Modernist touches; and he is presented as a clich├ęd high-school geek motivated, not by any serious, independent artistic vision, but simply by his desperation to attract the attention of a beautiful girl. And while every fad in 20th-century art is ridiculed, pre-20th-century art works—the paintings of the great masters, from Michelangelo and Leonardo on down—might as well not exist. They are totally absent from the film.

This is partly the limitation of satire, which is effective at exposing what is worthless, but powerless to show us a positive vision. In the greatest works (see, for example, Ayn Rand's satire on Modern architecture and literature in The Fountainhead) satire serves only a secondary role, as a foil for the presentation of the hero. On its own, satire is ultimately unsatisfying. It shows us how not to live—but provides us with no guidance about what is possible and desirable in human life. And if there is any realm in which today's culture needs that kind of positive vision, it is the realm of art. For that purpose, Art School Confidential is of no value.

Taken together, these two films show us where our culture is not headed. For two centuries, since the intellectuals' counter-revolution against the Enlightenment, we have been offered a false alternative: old-fashioned religious dogma—or "modern" social subjectivism. The Da Vinci Code superficially rejects one half of that alternative, while Art School Confidential satirizes the other half. But neither one offers us a vision of the real alternative: a secular philosophy of reason.

Hence the title of this article, a literary (and religious) reference that I couldn't resist: quo vadis, "where are you going?" Where is our culture going? The cultural momentum of subjectivist Modernism is a spent force, as reflected in the fact that the once-revered institutions of Modern art can be presented as an uncontroversial subject of ridicule (even among the University of Virginia art-school crowd that was clearly in the theater when I saw Art School Confidential). But our culture is not prepared to revert back to Medieval religious dogmatism, as indicated by the popularity of the book and film versions of The Da Vinci Code.

But if those two cultural forces are spent—is there any cultural momentum in the only remaining direction, back toward an Enlightenment culture of reason? Judging from these two films, and their reception, not yet.

In my view, we are headed toward a period of aimless muddling through. The good news is that we are headed neither toward a secular socialist dictatorship nor toward a theocracy. The bad news is that we are not headed anywhere else. Our culture does not know where it is going—unless we redouble our efforts to show it the way.

No comments: