Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bush Determined To Change Message

Certainly one of the funniest headlines of 2006: Bush: Bin Laden Should Be Taken Seriously; via Yahoo news, courtesy of the AP wire service. I guess now is probably a better time than not to take Osama bin Laden seriously, seeing as how he’s kind of responsible for that whole 9/11 thingy, and, somehow, over the last four years since the attack has released more mix tapes than Tony Touch.

Now everything Bush is saying shouldn’t be glossed over so quickly; hey, don’t roll those eyes ceiling-ward, please no audible sighs. Pay attention. Said Bush: “When he says he's going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it”. And Bush should know. Everyone is now already familiar with that cryptic August 6th, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing entitled Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US. In it, among other things, was this indecipherable nonsense:
Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

I’m no intelligence analyst sifting through recondite classified data, but I’m fairly certain that upon seeing this briefing, I would have done something other than stay at the Ranch. But this briefing, apparently, wasn’t evidence enough to take Bin Laden serious, it would seem.

So today Bush needed to reiterate the gravity of this craven man’s intention, if only to respond to Bin Laden’s recent release already climbing the charts. Bush made his 'little' speech, as irony would have it, inside the National Security Agency, wherein the putatively 'legal' wiretappings of American citizens are being conducted. (Clearing throat sonorously). Yes, that NSA!

It turns out that Mr. Bush is doing that cynical sleight of hand routine again. “See, Bin Laden is serious about attacking us. Therefore, my possibly illegal surveillance program is justified. Isn’t it?” Not likely.

When it was easy enough to get a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) warrant, even 72 hours after said act of surveillance, Bush didn’t. Bush attempted to justify his administration’s actions first by referencing the Iraq resolution, which nobody was buying, and then reaching for historical precedent, asserting that Lincoln and Roosevelt had availed themselves of the inherent right of the President in protecting the country. This inherent right is to be found somewhere in the Constitution, but the trouble is that it’s not there.

Enter Bin Laden, Mr. al-Qaida, Mr. Terror par excellence, and ‘justification number three for thus far illegal surveillance program’. And I’m not entirely adverse to the genuine need for some type of surveillance program because, pace Bush, if someone from al-Qaida is calling you, I want to know. Though, let’s not be naïve and pretend like something of this nature never existed before; it did, albeit on a far limited scale. After 9/11 national security couldn’t be treated as complacently as it had before. Yet, at the same time, there are limits. And Mr. Bush needs to be reminded of them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Syriana is, to my mind, an elaborated, over-long doppelgänger of Crash; except this time set in the Middle East and dealing with another nettlesome issue -- Oil. Like Paul Haggis’s Crash, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is interested in argument over story or narrative. Notwithstanding his function as a screenwriter, Gaghan appears to have used the film as a vehicle to dramatize a number of debates that have been circulating throughout our post-9\11 environment.

First, American dependency on foreign oil has long been the hobbyhorse of well-meaning liberals, and since Syriana was executive produced by EBay founder Jeff Skoll, Hollywood Auteur Steven Soderbergh and his collaborator qua renaissance man George Clooney, the argument is one that has great purchase in the film. The second, more general argument deals with means, or more to the point, the lengths to which American dependency on foreign oil is sustained. These issues and the arguments that surround them can range from the remarkable, to the compelling, to the exhaustingly tedious, to the downright delusive. So where does Gaghan’s offering register on the gamut?

To be fair, the answer would be as long and as convoluted as Syriana, so it would be simpler to describe the mise en scène first. Set in the breath-taking environs of Beirut, George Clooney portrays Bob Barnes, a grizzled CIA case officer who is not unlike Robert Baer, the grizzled CIA case officer and author of See No evil, a book which Syriana, evidently, borrows from. Clooney’s character engages in stealth deals whose transactions involve the sale of United States weaponry to Middle Eastern intermediaries. All of this, unsurprisingly, is entirely under the auspices of the United States government. That is one thread.

Interspersed with this are disparate threads that eventually, hopefully, form some type of semblance. Chris Cooper is the churlish Texan Oil executive, replete with all those impolite southern bon mots. As the Managing Partner of an ethically disinterested law firm, Christopher Plummer renders the single-minded and boundless venality of his ilk brilliantly. Matt Damon the actor plays Matt Damon as an energy trader.

There is an emir, maybe in Beirut, not likely in Tehran -- who knows? -- on the precipice of deciding which one of his sons will become the next emir. One son is a reformer buoyed by a strong sense of obligation and commitment to his country; he hopes to reinvest the country's oil wealth back into the countries pitiable infrastructure. The other son wants to sell his country's oil to the Americans at below market-value; he also isn’t troubled with the idea of American military bases on his soil. Guess who the American favor? Guess who’s going to be the next emir? And still there are other threads, one turning out to be periphery, the other even still more periphery. So much for the narrative. But wither Gaghan’s arguments?

To recapitulate a point, Crash and Syriana are the same movie. Both grab at contrived almost opportunistic scenarios to manipulate, as A.O Scott of the Times says of Crash, dialogue and mood. When Matt Damon trails off into one of those prolix geopolitical diatribes reminiscent of Good Will Hunting, his studied earnestness betrays a false intention. The dialogue feels too much like arguments Gaghan may have had with close friends. Standing in the picturesque deserts of Lebanon turns out to be just an excuse to have these arguments.

On another occasion we look in on a Madrassa, the imam is lecturing to the students about the failure of liberal states, noting that “deregulation”, “privatization”, or “lower taxes” are not cures to the ailments of modernity, saying quiet ominously that Christian theology has utter failed. Do imams really talk like this? To me, this sounds like Gaghan as an imam pontificating to a western audience. But who knows?

We must keep in mind that Gaghan penned Traffic, a better film than Syriana, which also involved intersecting and convoluted narrative threads, except that time dealing with the drug trade. And if oil is the drug which Americans are dependent on, then, like Traffic, Syriana talks of systems beyond the comprehension and control of individual agents. What Syriana does best, then, is to explicate the essences of systems. That the only inertia is self-interest, that the system will always remain static, and that beneath and above the myriad layers of obfuscation there is no logic, only self-interest replacing self-interest.

The crux of Gaghan's argument is that Big Oil and American national interests are synonymous, and that in the pursuit of these interests Middle Eastern governments, perforce, must necessarily reflect United States dicta. The deck is always stacked against contrary outcomes. It's an argument that is difficult to disagree with. All of this begins to sound very glib.


The aesthetic of Syriana is very much like that of Traffic’s. The pacing is languorous, the shots, many on hand-held cameras, capture stunting landscapes and lush vistas, yet the cinematography in general chooses an austere sensibility. For a film of this genre it feels too antiseptic, too insular, too prosaic, and too indistinguishable from Traffic at points. Syriana isn’t a bad film, for the conclusions it attempts to reach are novel, but it’s not necessarily a good one either, since the arguments it disguises as drama are about as credible as they were in Crash.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

New Slang

And the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada: After all the axes are grinded, the knives sharpened, cudgels gathered, and tridents hoisted -- after that final hatchet is dug into Paul Martin’s back by an erstwhile ally, Mr. Martin inevitably relenting and stepping down as the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff will be chosen as the new Liberal leader.

Mr. Ignatieff, that Harvard intellectual and humanitarian hawk whose support for the Iraq war was convincing enough for this humble writer to bite, prevailed in the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore to win a seat in the House of Commons and a chance at the Liberal leadership. By earlier accounts, Mr. Ignatieff was in tough. The Etobicoke-Lakeshore constituents were generally skeptical of a Liberal parachute candidate who hadn’t lived in Canada in over 40 years. Despite his impeccable and no doubt enviable credentials -- Director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard, broadcaster, journalist, professor, author of numerous books, novelist, Booker prize nominee, etc. -- people weren’t buying his run for a likely backbench position in a Liberal opposition. Something smacked of opportunism.

It didn’t help that the Liberal machine all but secured his nomination, locking out a local Croatian candidate who had his own designs of succeeding Jean Augustine, a former Liberal stalwart in that riding. And so, predictably, Michael Ignatieff rallies were stormed by jilted Croatians excoriating him for his support of the Iraq war and his alleged Croatian racism. In rebutting these criticisms Ignatieff, a commentator on the Balkan wars and the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia, drew the distinction between his misgivings with an aggressive Croatian nationalism and Croatian racism. Mr. Ignatieff wrote thoughtfully on the former while never evincing any evidence of the latter. Many of the attacks on him were both defamatory and without merit.

The Conservative candidate in the race, John Capobianco, couldn’t shake the baggage of working in the backrooms of the disreputable Mike Harris government. The NDP candidate, Liam McHugh-Russell, was an unserious University of Toronto Law student who didn’t even make the effort to prepare for a debate against Michael Ignatieff because, as he says, he didn’t think anyone was showing up. Sure. But in the end Ignatieff out classed them all.

And as I finish up writing this, my man, Paul Martin, has stepped down with dignity and grace – deciding to not run again and therefore leaving the door open for hopeful leadership candidates.

Monday, January 23, 2006


I just finished watching a ridiculous Toronto Raptors’ game on the T.V. Down in La La Land, the Raps looked to grab a second win on their west coast road trip. Initially the Lakers came out flat and altogether uninspired. They were essentially dead in the water by half time down 13 points. “Kobe’s going to get his points” went the refrain; and sure, why not, let him have his 40 points -- just as long as the Raps walk away with the W. And so at one point in the third quarter when the Raps were up by 18, it was easy enough to say “so what if he hits a few jumpers”. But when the 17-foot jumpers turned into 25-foot three pointers, the Raps exchanging twos for Kobe threes, we had entered dangerous territory. At the end of the third Kobe collected 53 points as if the Raptor defenders were lowly J.V.

Earlier today I had joked with my brother at the absurdity and ease with which Kobe put up points. In this calendar he is averaging close to 45 points-a-game; over the last 15 games, I believe, he’s had only one twenty point game, the rest have been 30, 40, and even 50 point outings. And then we wondered whether or not Jordan had ever scored over 70. We checked the records and were surprised to know that he hadn’t (69), and then joked again that Kobe would do it sooner or later considering the season he was having. The irony could not go unnoticed especially and because five minutes into the fourth quarter Kobe had 60 and the game was effectively done -- the Raptors looking passive and impotent. I’m a big Bosh fan, so it was a bit problematic to see him struggle yet at the same time cheer Kobe on. But I did nonetheless. The Raptors, like everyone else enjoying the game, sat back and watched history.

Bryant finished the game with 81 points, the second highest single game point total, behind only Chamberlain’s historic 100. To put things into perspective, something that should embarrass the Raptors, Kobe out scored them 55 to 41 in the second half. Asked about the unenviable task of guarding Kobe Bryant earlier that night, Morris Peterson (Mo-Pete!) reflected thusly: “A player like that is going to get his points.” Clearly Mo-Pete hadn’t imagined anywhere near that many.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I’m already partial to that adorable, jowl-cheeked of a Prime Minister Paul Martin, so this may not be saying much, but have you seen the latest Liberal ad? No it’s not a scurrilous hit-piece about how Mr. Harper is indistinguishable from the far-right neoconservative hawks responsible for the Iraq debacle. And it’s markedly less anti-American than the latest spate of artless Liberal ads. The ad begins innocuously enough with Paul Martin side straddling an oak dresser. He’s looking pensive and unhurried, which is a change.

Doubtless a recent ad sprung together in response to criticisms over their glib anti-Americanism, this ad places the Prime Minister front and center admitting a) that Canada’s relationship with the US is valued; b) that the US is our neighbour and not our nation (ed. – I’m looking at you Stephen); and c) that the Liberal government has not been ‘perfect’ – really?. After listing off our country’s peerless values he asks for Canadians to join him on Monday to choose ‘that Canada’: the one that values socially progressive principles like….. Obligatory platitudes here. It looked like he was in a hotel room, between campaign stops, or perhaps just woken from sleep, but altogether he looked ascendant.

Yet it still seems questionable that the Conservative will form a majority government -- baring some unfortunate vote splitting in Quebec and British Columbia in their favor. A third way has become progressively more palatable, and the NDP will likely see the fruits of years and years of labor pains. Mr. Layton should unqualifiedly be commended for this turn around, as well as Mr. Chrétien, incidentally.

And yet it’s still tight in Ontario, the electoral plinth any sitting government rests on. Expect plenty of final week histrionics from all parties; and expect one of the closest federal elections in modern history -- or since the last one

Thursday, January 12, 2006

End Game

It's not like I predicted an impending Conservative swell in my December 13 post -- not in the slightest. I simply noted on how well they had been campaigning up until that point. Trends were fairly suggestive of this Crest, as they should've been. Flat out: the Liberals were being out hustled on every score. It's been a bit pathetic.

As the campaign heads into its final week there appears to be no give in the Conservative's momentum. Paul Martian and the Liberals are, at this point, suffering from a peculiar problem. It's not so much that people are dismayed by allegations of corruption, or that they have simply fatigued at the thought of another Liberal government, it's that the Liberals no longer register. After twelve years in government the Liberals have become government.

The distinction is a fine one. Whereas the Conservatives and NDP can run on the outsider platform that rebukes the sitting government, the Liberals are hamstrung by their inability to offer anything in the ways of a critique, because to do so would invalidate what the Liberals have done for the last twelve years. The Liberals are running on a record that has played too long. (Even if that'’s been a good thing for Canada on the whole)

Monday'’s debate, one could say, was an aberration, conforming nothing substantial save for the biases we already brought. Naturally, Paul Martin was flailing his arms affectedly, like the sailor watching the sea swallow his ship. But true to form Martin didn't miss his opportunity to miss an opportunity. When Stephen Harper was being grilled by Duceppe and Layton about the mysterious individuals donating to his campaign, and looking considerably flustered, to the extent that Stephen Harper can look flustered, the moderator offered Martin a piece of HarperÂ’s flesh, an opportunity to strike. Martin brushed aside the offer with an effete gesture to say, inexplicably,"I would like to talk about the Notwithstanding clause"”.

The 'Brian-trust' at the Liberal war room sure has its finger on the pulse of the common Canadian. When was the last time you and your friend got into a contentious argument about the Supremacy of the Parliament and the jurisdictional impositions an independent and unelected body places on Provinces through the Charter? Doubtless the chatter around the water cooler the following morning was all about that ignoble clause.

Other highlights in the Debate were Stephen Harper'’s tightly controlled coif, his incrementally better attempt at conveying humanoid characteristics; Jack Layton'’s piercing snake charmer's gaze, the effect of which was to project that silent and desperate intensity commonly associated with used Car salesmen --– but he sold it; Giles Duceppe's wildly fluctuating inflections, later settling into that grizzly curmudgeon we grown to disdain and love all at the same time.

And then came the Liberal attack ads, which were baseless, deplorable, and pretty much correct. Spliced with quotes from an erstwhile, politically inept, Stephen Harper, the ads materialize into a direct focus of Harper'’s suspect and tragically deformed eyes, implicitly asking us whether or not we could trust eyes like this. The short answer is no. But change is a tough thing to stop. I'’m crossing my fingers blue for only a Conservative minority, given that the NDP, and ironically the Liberals, will have the balance of power. All bets may be off, though, since it appears that the Conservative's could be heading for a majority. Gulp.