Monday, March 27, 2006

Somebody's reading this thing

This post was excerpted in the Trib's Best of the the Blogs this week.

"Here I am, half a wiseguy"

Any discussion of this week’s “The Sopranos” has to begin with Paulie. This episode was chock full of reminders of why we love this character. As one critic has noted, Paulie is the Joe Pesci-type psychopath, the kind of guy that every mob story has to have. But on “The Sopranos” this archetype is richly textured. Paulie loves being a gangster, but more than anyone else on the show, he’s a regular schlub. The scene in which he is clipping coupons at his kitchen table—all the while sitting on one of the biggest scores of his life—is as typical of Paulie as is the scene in season four in which he robs and murders one of his mother’s elderly friends. (That was a classic “Sopranos” moment. It’s faintly chilling when the woman says “I know you” and a great nod to Paulie’s Oedipus complex that she seals her doom by threatening to call his mother, as opposed to the police.) I’ve always loved when, in season two (after another dream/not-a-dream sequence) Tony expresses his annoyance to Dr. Melfi with Paulie’s annual Christmas letters. Who doesn’t know someone who sends out those interminable holiday missives?

Paulie has increasingly been a source of agitation to Tony, so it was no surprise that Paulie’s chatter to his comatose boss should send Tony’s heart rate through the roof. The parallel in Tony’s alternate reality was hilarious: Tony banging on his hotel room wall, yelling at his neighbor to keep down the noise. And of course Paulie, along with Vito, reminded Carmella that it is fear, not respect, that binds him and the others to Tony. The minute Tony improves, they agree, finally, to share their cut of the score with her. The look of withering contempt she gives them, after they have handed her the money and are behind the closed elevator doors, is priceless. Carmella is yet again faced with the fact that without Tony, she is on her own, and one imagines that she will chafe anew at the gilded yoke that Tony has placed upon her. It is one of the many portents to come out of last night’s episode.

What are some of the others? Well, of course, there was the continuation of Tony’s “dream”, in which he almost literally walked through death’s door. To say that Steve Buscemi was creepy is to be redundant, but there was something particularly sinister in the glad tidings with which he greeted Tony, and the calm yet persistent manner in which he attempted to pry Tony’s suitcase from his hands. Buscemi not only represents the family members who have preceeded Tony in death—clearly, the woman standing in the doorway was meant to be Livia—but also a reminder of Tony’s sin. What does Tony insist on holding onto? And which of his two families drew him back to the land of the living? I suspect that Tony will find himself standing outside the doorway yet again before the show reaches its finale. Tony says to Carmella, “I’m dead, right?” For all of us, it’s only a matter of time, but perhaps for Tony, as with his Alzheimer’s-stricken doppelganger, the end will come sooner, not later.

In the meantime, Tony will recover to find both families in increasing disarray. A.J. seemed resentful that Tony was out of his coma, and once again the center of the family’s universe. Whatever attention he could siphon for himself will surely dissipate, except to be the focus of people’s disappointment. As for Silvio, who knows what becomes of him, now that he has failed, miserably, to live up to his—and his wife’s—expectations. Even the usually reliable Bobby is going to be a headache for Tony, now that he’s lost his role as Junior’s caretaker and has his own Lady MacBeth—Janice—whispering in his ear.

And Paulie? We know from the previews that Paulie’s mother figures in the next episode. An online rumor has it that he will find out he is adopted. Who knows how he would deal with that. As it was, there seemed to be numerous references to his mother last night, even more than usual. If Paulie should meet an untimely end, rest assured it will be bloody—and wickedly funny.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

The best bouncer in the business

Last night, my wife and I watched "Road House" one of the best bad movies ever made. It is deliciously bad. We started watching as a joke, but then we just had to see it through to the end. I had seen it before, years ago, but Maggi was a "Road House" virgin.

For those unfamiliar with this piece of cinematic excrement, Patrick Swayze plays a zen bar bouncer named Dalton who comes to a Texas town to clean up a nasty bar called the Double Deuce. He quickly finds the town is run by wealthy crime boss played by Ben Gazzara. At least I think he's a crime boss. It's not entirely clear how he has amassed his fortune, except through a 10 percent business district improvement tax that he somehow has the power to extort from all the local merchants. (Perhaps the film was an allegory on the state of modern retail development.) I'd tell you how it turns out, but I'd hate to rob of you the pleasure of viewing it for yourself. Believe me, it's worth it.

This film was made in 1989, and Swayze was, if memory serves, riding high from "Dirty Dancing." His career climax the following year in "Ghost." Given how abysmal his acting was in "Road House", I have to conclude that he was cast in "Ghost" before the former film was released.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Vote for Pedro

Is it just me, or does Pittsburgh Police Chief Dom Costa look like he could be Pedro's dad?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

That's my money too, you know

On the one hand, I think it's pretty funny that Gov. Ed Rendell apparently decided to call the bluff of the right-wing whack jobs on the Upper St. Clair School Board who decided to cut the district's International Baccalaureate program under the guise of fiscal prudence.

On the other hand, school boards are locally elected, and if the residents of Upper St. Clair are unhappy over their decision, they have recourse at the ballot box. (I'm not too thrilled about their lawsuit, either.) Would the governor attempt to intervene in such a manner if, say, the Wilkinsburg School Board voted to cut a popular program? The Duquesne School District has pretty much gutted its curriculum on the way to insolvency, and we've heard nary a peep from the governor.

With or without the IB program, I'm guessing the children of Upper St. Clair continue to receive a better education than many of their peers throughout the county and probably much of the state. The governor's gesture strikes me as pandering to a well-heeled constituency whose votes he probably will sorely need come November.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Will the real Tony Soprano please step forward

What to make of this week’s episode of “The Sopranos”? I thought it was an excellent episode, much better than the season premier, which I found to be somewhat disjointed. Sunday’s show featured a David Lynch-esque fantasy in which a comatose Tony imagines he is an ordinary businessman, lost in California when he loses his wallet during a business trip. One of the most entertaining aspects was hearing James Gandolfini pare down the New Jersey accent and jettison the wiseguy dialect.

The alternate Tony storyline was loaded with symbolism and foreboding. The idea of an ordinary life—a typical, humdrum, middle class existence—is an integral part of the mythology of mob drama, including those stories that happen to be true. It is a life that silver-screen and small-screen mobsters alike despise. At the end of “Goodfellas” Henry Hill bemoans having to wait in line like everyone else. On “The Sopranos”, it is his vision of an ordinary life, formed while watching some poor schlub pack his wife and kids into a beat-up car at a gas station, that leads Christopher to betray Adrianna to Tony.

Yet an ordinary life is something to be envied as well. Vito Corleone tells his son that he never wanted to be a pawn of powerful men, but he also admits that he never wanted his son to share his life. Much of “The Sopranos” has revolved around Tony and Carmella trying to keep A.J. out of Tony’s mob world. That’s what makes A.J. pledge of revenge as he stands over Tony’s hospital bed—not unlike the scene in “The Godfather” in which Michael tells his father, “I’m with you now, Pop,”—as ominous as it was laughable. (Laughable, because, while A.J. may share his father’s murderous hate, he has none of his apparent guile and cunning.)

On “The Sopranos”, the ordinary life is represented by Artie Bucco and his wife, Charmaine, which is why I tend to agree with those who think the voice of the alternate Tony Soprano’s wife—never named—was Charmaine’s. Artie and Charmaine represent the lives that the other characters on the show would have had they never entered the Mafia. Think of Artie, trying to turn an honest buck at his restaurant, henpecked by a wife his mobster friends wouldn’t tolerate for two minutes. In an early episode, tired of Carmella’s patronizing, Charmaine reveals that she and Tony once dated, years before, and that “I made my choice, and I’m fine with it.” One can’t help but think that Carmella and her friends secretly resent Charmaine, because they know that despite her lack of creature comforts, she has it better than they do. I mean, can you imagine Artie with a mistress?

At this point it’s worth mentioning that one theory circulating online is that the coma-fantasy Tony, the one who can’t figure out how to leave California, the one diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, is the real Tony Soprano, and that the mob life will be revealed to be a dementia-induced fantasy. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to discount that idea. It just seems too hokey and clichéd, and we seem to have had no forewarning that this is the case. “The Sopranos” has never been predictable, but on the other hand, David Chase has always dropped enough clues to allow us to figure out what is going on.

But there is plenty in the Tony’s mob life that we can see bleeding over into the fantasy. Alzheimer’s and dementia loom large for Tony—indeed, Uncle Junior’s dementia is the reason Tony lies in a coma with an open gunshot wound. And Alzheimer’s is hardly the way a guy like Tony would want to go out. That’s how ordinary men die, not in a hail of bullets. The disease also forms a nice parallel with the permanent brain damage that the doctors have told Carmella likely awaits Tony should he survive. In his dream, Tony tells the emergency room doctor “I’m lost” and indeed, so is the real Tony. Even before he was shot, Tony lorded over an empire in peril, some fault lines apparent, others hidden. What awaits Tony? As he once told Dr. Melfi, there are only two ways out for a guy like him—prison, or the morgue.

And so he lies there, while the bonds that hold both his crime family and his real family together begin to slip. Near the end of the episode, the ordinary Tony looks out his hotel room and sees, as he did at the episode’s opening, the faint glow of California forest fires on the horizon. He picks up the phone, apparently to call his wife, and then lowers the receiver, thinking the better of it. He’ll take refuge a bit longer in this sanctuary, just like the real Tony, who we can imagine would be in no hurry to confront the chaos his absence has unleashed.

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Strange bedfellows indeed

I have to admire Christopher Hitchens, even if I disagree with him, profoundly, when it comes to the war in Iraq. He does not mince words: He is right, and you are wrong. I grow tired of his self-righteous condescension, but that doesn’t change the fact that he continues to offer the most morally and intellectually rigorous arguments for the invasion of Iraq and the continued presence of U.S. troops there.

He does not, however, dispute the obvious, which is that things would have gone a lot better had the United States been supported in its effort to oust Saddam Hussein by the United Nations. Given that the Bush administration was determined, no matter what, to go to war in Iraq, it is the war’s great tragedy that the president failed to persuade most our allies to join us.

After all, the opposition of France, Germany and Russia, for example, was not in itself evidence that the war was a bad idea. Nor was such opposition inevitable. Various news accounts on the eve and in the aftermath of the invasion painted the picture of an administration either too lazy or arrogant to work the phones, so to speak, to persuade several key nations to come on board. Russia, in particular, was practically waiting to be wooed by the United States, and when no entreaties were forthcoming, found suitors elsewhere.

So it is too bad that the administration didn’t have the likes of Hitchens on the payroll to make its case. And what an irony that the administration’s most vociferous ally among the chattering class should be an atheist British Trotskyite who thinks Henry Kissinger is a war criminal.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Under pressure

My latest Pittsburgh Business Times article appears here.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

I don't need your civil war

George Will makes the point that should be obvious to everyone, but appears to have gone unnoticed by the person who matters most, our illustrious leader in the Oval Office: Iraq already is bogged down in civil war.

I've never subscribed to the George W. Bush-is-dumb theory, but I don't believe he is an astute student of history, so it's worth noting, as Will does, that few civil wars resemble the one America fought:

But civil wars do not usually begin with an identifiable event, such as the firing on Fort Sumter, or proceed to massed, uniformed forces clashing in battles like Shiloh. Iraq's civil war -- which looks more like Spain's in the 1930s -- began months ago.

In Spain, the security forces were united and in three years were victorious. Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. John Abizaid, U.S. commander in the Middle East, recently said Iraqi forces would cope with a civil war "to the extent they're able to" (Rumsfeld) and "they'll handle it with our help" (Abizaid). Their problematic assumption is that Iraq's security forces have a national loyalty and will not fracture along the fissures of Iraq's sectarian society.

Will, a Burkean conservative, says it's time to bury Bush's belief--indeed, the bedrock of his foreign policy--that democracy can be exported through force of arms and made to flourish immediately in a place where it has not previously been known:

Conditions in Iraq have worsened in the 94 days that have passed since Iraq's elections in December. And there still is no Iraqi government that can govern. By many measures conditions are worse than they were a year ago, when they were worse than they had been the year before.

Three years ago the administration had a theory: Democratic institutions do not just spring from a hospitable culture, they can also create such a culture. That theory has been a casualty of the war that began three years ago today.

Of course, supporters of the war--and some opponents as well--insist that such criticisms are counterproductive. We are in Iraq whether we like it or not, and what's important is to devise a strategy for restoring order to the country. But there is more to be gained in dwelling on the mistakes that brought us to this point than merely scoring political points. We can hope that our future leaders will have more respect for history than our currents ones, and heed its lessons wisely.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

A right, not a privilege, cont.

Michael Kinsley suggests, wisely, a more moderate approach to health care reform than what these guys suggest. (I linked to the latter article in the comments to this post earlier in the week.)

If you're not as hopeful as Krugman and Wells about being able to avoid rationing, you face the question: Should people be allowed to opt out of rationing if they can afford it? That is, if the system (private or single-payer) won't pay for the $100,000 pill, should you be able to pay for it yourself? Fear that this would not be allowed helped to kill the Clinton health-care reform 13 years ago. But explicitly granting some people life and health while denying these things to others is hard, even though this disparity has existed throughout history and is probably unavoidable. In fact, a serious defect of single-payer is that it makes all sorts of unbearable trade-offs explicit government policy, rather than obscuring them in complexities.

There are the makings of a deal here. Better-off or better-insured people could be told, individually or as a group: Give up your health-care subsidy, and you may opt out of any rationing-type restrictions that the system imposes. And if a few smaller reforms like that don't work, maybe, it will be time for single-payer.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

" embarrassment to the U.S. Senate"

When I first heard about Sen. Russ Feingold's resolution to censure President Bush, I dismissed it as a cheap political stunt. But then I remembered how outraged I was to hear about the president's domestic spying program. And how I outraged I was to read about this, just to name a couple of examples. It's high time someone said "Enough."

Speaking of our commander-in-chief, I think Eric Alterman fairly well sums up everything Bush the Younger has accomplished:

They've lost Bin Laden, screwed up Afghanistan, completely wrecked Iraq, destroyed our fiscal future, left us completely vulnerable on homeland security, ignored the threats to New Orleans, messed up its recovery, thrown science out the window, attacked our civil liberties, undermined freedom of the press, you know the drill.

Monday, March 13, 2006

It's all about me

My latest stuff in the Pittsburgh Business Times is here and here.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

"We took an oath"

Is Junior faking?


Saturday, March 11, 2006

A right, not a privilege

The New Republic makes a persuasive argument in favor of universal health insurance, and says it is the issue that can reignite the liberal imagination. Might this not be the kind of thing I was talking about earlier this week, the kind of issue that all Democrats can rally around?

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Lies and liars

You tell a lie often enough, and eventually, even you start to believe it. Maybe that is what's happened to former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, who keeps trying to hoodwink Tampa officials into believing that he reversed Pittsburgh's decline, and did not contribute to it:

Speaking to Tampa business and civic leaders, Murphy acknowledged his master plan to redevelop Fifth and Forbes avenues in the Downtown core was "one of the failures" of his administration. But he blamed historic preservationists and others who fought his plan.

He talked about attracting Lazarus-Macy's and Lord & Taylor to town, but not about the subsidies that lured the department stores, or the fact that they eventually left.

He claimed as successes the development of the city's cultural district, North Shore sports stadiums, the expanded David L. Lawrence Convention Center, riverfront walking trails and the emergence of Downtown housing.

He did not mention that the city fell into junk bond status during his 12-year tenure, or that federal prosecutors are investigating his handling of a contract with the firefighters union.

Of course, Downtown is not the only place where the reality falls far short of Murphy's fantasy. Things are not all they seem on the North Shore, either.

Remind me to stay out of Tampa.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Uncompromising Democrats"

This is the key passage in John Dickerson's Slate column about why the Democrats are unlikely to do in 2006 what the Republicans did in 1994:

Because he had Republicans united behind him, Gingrich used the contract to reach out to Perot voters who cared about balancing the budget but didn't care about issues crucial to social conservatives. Gingrich made fiscal responsibility the lead item in the contract and kept out any talk of abortion, school prayer, or protecting the rights of gun owners. He had the power to convince social conservatives to go along, and the party finished the race on the most broadly appealing, excruciatingly poll-tested message. Today's Democratic base would almost certainly see such a move as a sellout and another sign of their leadership's tendency to capitulate.

And what did social conservatives get for their compromise? They are now the dominant wing of the Republican Party, and fiscal conservatives have pretty much been pushed aside. The religious right hasn't won every battle, but they've won a hell of a lot, and they've made incredible strides in curtailing a woman's right to seek an abortion.

The activist wing of the Democratic Party, however, pretty much threatens to take their ball and go home every time the party nominates a candidate who doesn't meet each and every one of their criteria. It's a brilliant strategy, if you like losing elections.

There goes the neighborhood

I weep for the future of American cities that their leaders are taking advice from this man.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Wake me when the Reichstag burns

This and this make me despair of the Democrats taking control of Congress this year, assuming there was ever a chance to begin with. And if you don't think it matters, then consider this.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Maybe there is hope after all

In reference to this, let me add that maybe our new mayor is slowly--slowly--starting to wake up to what government is really supposed to be doing:

Lucas Piatt said longer abatements would not make or break the Lazarus-Macy's development or any other the firm might pursue but "would only make it stronger."

"I'd like to see some form of tax abatement if it's in the cards," Jack Piatt said.

Mr. O'Connor, who also spoke at yesterday's breakfast, said incentives would be a problem given the city's budget situation.

"The trouble is I've got to be very careful with incentives because I'm worried that if people don't pay their taxes, I can't have a cop on the street and I can't have a clean, safe street. So I'm not saying no, but I'm very cautious about if we bring people in and no one's paying the bill, how do we make our city better?"

To quote Nancy Reagan, just say no, Mr. Mayor.

Friday, March 03, 2006

First they came for Comedy Central...

Harvard might want to ask this kid to give back his diploma:

THE SELECTION of Jon Stewart as the host for Sunday night's 2006 Oscars undoubtedly marks a career milestone for the aspiring king of late-night comedy. Unfortunately, however, the ascension of Stewart and ''The Daily Show" into the public eye is no laughing matter. Stewart's ever-increasing popularity among young viewers directly correlates with the declining influence of progressive thought in America. Coincidence? I think not. Let me explain. ...

Stewart's daily dose of political parody characterized by asinine alliteration leads to a ''holier than art thou" attitude toward our national leaders. People who possess the wit, intelligence, and self-awareness of viewers of ''The Daily Show" would never choose to enter the political fray full of ''buffoons and idiots." Content to remain perched atop their Olympian ivory towers, these bright leaders head straight for the private sector.

Observers since the days of de Tocqueville have often remarked about America's unique dissociation between politicians and citizens of ''outstanding character." Unfortunately, the rise of mass media and the domination of television news give Stewart's Menckenesque voice a much more powerful influence than critics in previous generations. As a result, a bright leader who may have become the Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson of today instead perceives politics as a supply of sophisticated entertainment, rather than a powerful source of social change.

OK, let's get a few things straight. Jon Stewart invented neither political satire nor cynicism--which the writer acknowledges. In fact, the author of this tripe concedes his own argument. Mencken may not have had a television show--but he did write for a newspaper, which a hell of a lot more people read back then than they do now. Stewart didn't even invent televised political satire. Hello? Ever hear of "Saturday Night Live"?

Most important, this disturbing cultural phenomenon overwhelmingly affects potential leaders of the Democratic Party.

The type of folksy solemnity brandished by President Bush does not resonate with ''The Daily Show" demographic. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, only 2 percent of the show's audience identify themselves as conservatives. At a time when the Democrats desperately need inspired leadership, the show's self-conscious aloofness pervades the liberal punditry.

Although Stewart's comedic shticks may thus earn him some laughs Sunday at the Oscars, his routine will certainly not match the impact of his greatest irony: Jon Stewart undermines any remaining earnestness that liberals in America might still possess.

Let's keep a few other points in mind. It was Republicans, not Democrats, who made an art form of trashing government for years. It was Republicans whose call for congressional term limits in the 1990s implied that the corruption of politicians was inevitable. (A self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.) It was a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, who said that government is the problem and not the solution.

And liberals do not need to be more earnest. They are too earnest as it is--humorless, if you will. They need all the Jon Stewarts they can get.

Smokestacks and silicon

First, check out this, then read this, and tell me which you think is a more honest assessment of the state of Pittsburgh.