Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who was Henry Geldzahler?

I can't tell you how many times I've gone to galleries and art museums and heard people exclaim their wonder that the stuff on the walls was considered art. Obviously we are talking about something incredibly subjective when we discuss the quality of any specific piece of work. There was a time a few centuries ago when representational art was the dominant style worldwide. Within the last 100 years things have changed quite a bit. Perhaps one can trace the development from the invention of photography- I'm not an art historian, so I can't say so with any authority. What I can say for sure is that the art world certainly has the ability to confuse most conventional viewers nowadays.

If you are looking for someone to blame for the confusion, you might want to consider Henry Geldzahler. He'd be an appropriate candidate to confront if he wasn't already dead. He wasn't an artist, but rather a big-time New York City curator during the second half of the Twentieth Century. Born in Belgium to a conservative Jewish family, he developed a brash and jovial persona and sought to employ it in the service of high culture. As a relatively young man he was asked to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Geldzahler had been shadowing several famous art dealers (including Ivan Carp) while he was a student at Harvard University. At first he turned down the opportunity to curate at what he perceived to be one of the stodgiest institutions in Manhattan. He later reconsidered, pledging to bring in an element of contemporary art that had never been seen before at the Met.

Geldzahler had many connections in the New York art scene. As depicted in Peter Rosen's Who Gets to Call it Art? , not only was he involved in the hip gay community, but he actually lived and played among the young artists doing the most vital work of the period. The generation that lived in NYC after WWII (the one dominated by Abstract Expressionism) had been largely antisocial and very small. Everyone in the art scene could fit into a single gallery space during a Tuesday night opening. But as a new breed of artist emerged in the 60's, the scene began to expand and take on a dynamic attitude. Geldzahler became friends with Frank Stella, David Hockney and Andy Warhol. He appeared in a Claus Oldenburg "Happening", and at every reception for every show he could attend. Most importantly (and uncharacteristically for a curator of that time period) he continued to visit artist's studios and engaged them on their level.

As Pop art became to coalesce into a formal movement, it became apparent that Geldzahler was gifted with an incredibly discerning eye. His crowning moment on the island was "New York Painting and Scuplture: 1940-1970", the most revolutionary exhibit ever displayed at the Metropolitan. In 18 prime gallery spaces within the museum, Geldzahler put together a collection of over 400 pieces from 43 artists that he personally liked. This was unprecedented at the time, and drew harsh criticism from critics and member patrons alike- shows on that scale had invariably been juried by committee. But this became appropriately known as "Henry's Show", and in retrospect it was hugely successful. It included a roster of art star luminaries that would soon form the pantheon of late 20th Century Art- Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns, Stella, Rosenquist, Rauschenberg, Kelly, Rothko, etc. The list was exhaustive.

While it was inevitable that Geldzahler would run into some criticism over who he left out of the show, the level of invective was indeed stunning. To his credit, the master curator simply replied that he simply included what he'd seen and wanted to see again. In doing so he forever changed the legacy of American Art. "His artists" are now accepted as the most important of his times. Even during the years before Geldzahler's untimely death, he continued to discover vital art that would form the center of the next wave of NYC art stars. He spent time with Francisco Clemente, Keith Haring, and Jean Michael Basquiat. He passed away (cancer) in 1994 at the age of 59.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Géla Babluani, "13 Tzameti " (2005).

Sometimes I am shocked by how little American audiences expect from their entertainment. I take comfort in knowing that there are alternative venues to which the discriminating can go for quality product. Independently run theaters that show foreign films are often available in towns of any significant size. Such amusements may turn off the average film goer with subtitles and deep characterization, but I find a consistency of value in them that keeps me going back. (Actually, to be honest- I rent these films... I can't stand going to theaters. I particularly resent the distractions of people who are oblivious to your experience and the space that you occupy together). So if I read compelling reviews of a lesser known film, I will often give it a try.

Not only had I seen positive notices of 13 Tzameti, but I had been told firsthand that I would most likely enjoy the film. And then I saw a trailer for it on a DVD containing another title I liked. The scenes depicted looked tense and well-shot, and I thought they promised much more artful anxiety. So when I noticed a pre-viewed copy of it at the local rental outlet, I bundled it with a few others and took it home with me. I waited until a night when I could watch it alone (I expected it to be intense and rather violent), and settled in for what I thought would be a memorable experience.

13 Tzameti is the debut film from Gela Babluani, a French director of Georgian birth. The word "Tzameti" in the title means "thirteen" in the director's native tongue. Given the theme and tone of the movie, I'd have to assume that this number carries negative associations in cultures other than my own. It's the story of a poor immigrant (named Sebastien) trying to scrape up some extra cash for his family. He's working on a neighbor's roof when he intercepts a strange envelope with a train ticket and a receipt for a pre-paid hotel room. He's overheard a conversation which suggests that the contents of his discovery lead to a serious sum of money. When his neighbor becomes otherwise indisposed, Sebastien decides to take his place... and follows a set of instructions that bring him to a seedy location in the middle of the woods. What he'll find there will change his life forever. What he'll be asked to do is something far beyond his conception of himself.

If a viewer were to watch this movie with no prior knowledge of the events that transpire, then the first half of the movie could possibly elicit paranoia and a heightened sense of mystery. We might relate to the desperation evident in the actions of a man that plummets into unknown circumstances for possible gain. The characters that flit about on the periphery might add additional intrigue to the story. Instead the trailer for 13 Tzameti gives us the "money shot" up front and directly. If you've seen the preview, then you know what awaits our hero. And to tell you the truth, it's really not that compelling or original. I don't want to give away the plot of this movie (in case you ever want to watch it and decide for yourself). However, I will say that you've seen this scenario already- it's a straightforward (if remarkably stylish) depiction of the greed and cruelty in which men involve each other. It speaks to the basest instincts imaginable. If you've watched ultimate fighting, a cockfight, or any production coordinated by Michael Vick- then you have already engaged the themes of this film.

Yet from the reviews of the movie on IMDB and Amazon, you'd never know just how pedestrian and cliche 13 Tzameti is. You might think it is deeply nuanced in its philosophy and depiction of a man confronting a desperate situation. Furthermore you might be led to believe that it's a trenchant commentary on the brutal condition of humanity. But if you haven't experienced (either personally or vicariously) the obsessions and compulsions portrayed by these characters, then you've led a fairly narrow life. Certainly it's an extreme version of human drives, even if it is eminently predictable. The performances are admirably convincing. And I have to credit the filmmaking techniques demonstrated in the gritty black-and-white world of neo-noir in which the tale takes place... Still, I think it's a mistake to build up the reputation of this rookie director until we see how he does with the American remake. Typically and perhaps unfortunately, the rights were recently purchased by Brad Pitt. Reports are that Babluani has already signed on to the project.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Mark Essex... Race Warrior and Mass Murderer.

As I continue to read about some of the most violent incidents directed by individuals upon their fellow society members, I am occasionally surprised to come upon an unfamiliar name. Such was the case when I read about Mark Essex in Elliott Leyton's landmark study of multiple murderers- Hunting Humans (2001 ed. of a 1986 copyright). This well-respected book established Leyton's reputation as one of the foremost academics studying serial and mass murderers in America. It makes sense that Leyton would choose Essex as a representative case, because the author takes the unique approach of considering larger social factors when studying the actions of what many have characterized as "monsters". Throughout Hunting Humans Leyton examines the "tasks" of these individuals that may influence them to act out a bloody and horrific script.

Leyton is actually proposing that these killers are acting out some hazily-conceived rebellion against particular segments of society that they view (subconsciously or not) to have wronged them. This perspective certainly generates controversy as psychiatrists, law enforcement personnel, FBI investigators, and other observers have identified a litany of causes and predispositions that seem to override generalized social concerns. In some instances it does seem that Leyton is stretching the details of history to accommodate his theory. But at the same time I think it's fair to consider the behavior of multiple murderers on several different levels. It makes sense that developmental problems, genetics, a history of abuse, head injuries, mental illness, and (yes) sociological factors can all influence even the most extreme of human behaviors.

While it may not seem appropriate to look for social causes when we look at John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer, it seems hard to avoid the issue in the case of Mark Essex. Born to a loving and stable family in Emporia, Kansas, this young African-American grew up believing in a fair and essentially just society for all. According to all accounts he was a gentle and happy boy who got along well with almost everyone. Although he wanted to be a minister someday, he displayed a special aptitude for technical skills and decided to enlist in the US Navy. This is when his life began to spiral downwards. He was posted in San Diego after basic training, and was working as an assistant in a dentist's office. At first his superiors found him to be positive, soft-spoken, and eager to continue his history of engaging with all types of people. But gradually Essex became aware of a United States he never knew existed. He was increasingly subjected to racism from white sailors at the base.

As time went on Essex became frustrated with the inequalities he was now experiencing. He began to spend time only with blacks on the base and in the city, and became involved with outwardly militant political groups. After a clash between black and white sailors led to what Essex saw as a fundamentally unfair and inadequate formal resolution, he decided to go AWOL. This action would lead to a demotion and (eventually) an administrative discharge "for reason of unsuitability due to a character behavior disorder". Essex was by no means alone in his perception that the US Navy was a discriminatory body. There was widespread disillusionment among African-Americans in the military, and even sabotage on occasion. The resentful ex-sailor had been irrevocably altered- Essex went to New York City and then New Orleans, and ended up in the company of Black Panthers and other extremists.

While in Louisiana Essex continued to subscribe to an increasingly defiant revolutionary worldview. During a last attempt to assimilate into society as a vending machine repairman, Essex was distressed to learn of the local on-campus killings of two black student demonstrators. He responded by arming himself and becoming a recluse. Simmering in a small apartment alone, he "decorated" the walls with pro-Black and anti-white rhetoric and hateful slogans. When he finally emerged he initiated a stunning campaign of bloody violence. On New Years Eve (1974), he shot three police officers and cadets, killing two. Somehow he evaded capture. A week later he began a murderous rampage that ended with him being surrounded by 200 cops, on top of the roof of a Howard Johnson's Hotel. When he was about to run out of ammo, he left his hiding place and was riddled with bullets and killed. In the end Essex had managed to take the lives of nine people and wound ten others.

During the tense standoff at the hotel, a crowd of African-Americans sympathetic to Essex had loudly threatened to join the man in his rebellion. Each time he shot at the police, they chanted "Kill the Pigs!" in encouragement. Although the actions of this self-perceived Black Messiah did not touch off a full-scale revolution, it was clear that many of the disenfranchised blacks in society shared his sentiments. A twelve-year old boy that would later become John Allen Muhammed was a resident of the Baton Rouge area at the time- he would become famous as 1/2 of the infamous Washington DC Snipers.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Who Is Ron Paul?

When I first started surfing YouTube a couple of months ago, I noticed that the site was inundated with videos uploaded by supporters of a Republican presidential candidate named Ron Paul. I quickly determined that he was an outsider option, and decided not to spend too much time investigating him. However a visit from a friend who has been living abroad for a couple of years has changed my outlook. This individual left the nation with a fairly conventional liberal orientation, but has since invested a lot of time in 9-11 conspiracy research. I was surprised (and honestly a bit dismayed) when he said he had chosen Ron Paul as his preferred presidential candidate. I tried to explain why I couldn't support a libertarian conservative for executive of the federal branch, and resolved to learn more about this divisive figure.

The 72-year-old Republican Ronald Ernest Paul has represented the 14th congressional district of Texas since 1997. He was also a federal congressman for seven years in the 70's and 80's. Despite his political carrer in the Lone Star State, he is actually a local. He grew up in Greentree (outside of Pittsburgh) , and worked on his family's dairy farm. At Dormont High School he excelled in athletics and student government. He later attended Gettysburg College and the Duke School of Medicine (obstetrics/gynecology). During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was drafted into the Air Force and served as a flight surgeon. The trajectory of Paul's life changed when Richard Nixon completed the process of taking the US dollar off of the gold standard. He was motivated by his intense opposition to this decision to enter politics.

In the House of Representatives Paul became known as a strict constitutionalist. He was even a bit of an iconoclast. He refused to accept a Congressional pension, and tirelessly advocated for term limits (making him look like a bit of a hypocrite in his current run of five terms in office). He blamed the federal reserve for rampant inflation in the 1980's, and spoke against bankng deregulations that led to the S & L scandals that rocked the nation. After being defeated in a bid for the Senate, he left his seat in the Congress (he was succeeded by Tom Delay) and made a presidential bid in 1988 on the Libertarian ticket. On some issues like unquestioned confidence in the "free market", gun rights, and home schooling- he seemed a perfect fit for the party. Yet on other matters he was oddly out of step. Paul has consistently opposed the women's right to choose abortion, and has introduced the Sanctity of Life Act (2005)- which defines human life as beginning at conception. That legislation would define abortion as murder, and make stem cell research illegal. He has also been vocal about trying to amend the Constitution to allow school prayer. Needless to say he was unsucessful in attaining the highest office.

In the 1990's he published The Ron Paul Survival Report, a newsletter that accused Bill Clinton of abusing cocaine and fathering illegitimate children, and suggested that "only about 5% of blacks have sensible political opinions" and "95% of the black males in Washington DC are semi-criminal or entirely criminal." In 1997, a redistricting effort (masterminded by Tom Delay) allowed Paul to return to Congress as a Republican. Although he continued to loudly rail against government spending, he had no qualms about working hard to divert money authorized by legislation to his own district.

Apart from any other action Paul had taken in Congress, his call to pull troops from Iraq is what has made him a popular option for the GOP 2008 presidential nomination. However his supporters are very quiet about the fact that Paul actually voted for the 2001 resolution to empower the president to initiate war without getting Congressional approval. To his favor, he did vote against the Iraq War Resolution (although he authored a bill proposing to give the Congress an opportunity to declare war on that nation). Paul has been able to parlay opposition to the war into a huge online presence and a boisterous show of support at GOP debates. This has drawn the ire of many rightwing pundits, particularly Sean Hannity of FOX News.

While Paul has been able to effectively market himself as the only anti-war candidate on the right, I have to conclude that there are lots of folks that are sadly unclear about his stances on other issues. It's true that he opposes most forms of federal intervention. Typically he is against govermental torture, domestic surveillance, membership in NAFTA and the WTO, the Income Tax, and the War on Drugs. To me, agreement on most of these positions is a no-brainer. But he also has some particularly misguided notions. In a recently televised debate, he admitted he would like to eliminate the CIA and FBI altogether. His desire to rid the nation of the Department of Education, FEMA, and the Department of Homeland Security has also been well documented.

It's obvious that Paul discounts the possibility that the federal government can play a beneficent role in the lives of American citizens. He claims to believe that extending private property rights will effectively discourage pollution. He'd like to see the United States withdraw from NATO, the International Crminal Court and the United Nations. This is all fairly typical of the Libertarian platform. It's unsurprising that Paul would support the elimination of any kind of federal environmental regulation. It's also consistent that he sees the federal government as having no role in corporate oversight.

Yet on several controversial issues he seems to want to retain an iron hand. Ron Paul characterizes himself clearly as an "unshakable foe of abortion". Despite the claims of apologists, he wants to make it akin to murder. His active promotion of school prayer would also seem inconsistent with a worldview outlined by Ayn Rand. Even more unexpected is his vocal support for a federal government construction project- he wants the nation to build a 700-mile wall on the border with Mexico in order to keep immigrants from seeking America's "welfare benefits". Because of his strange amalgamation of political preferences*, I think it will be difficult for his campaign to withstand any amount of close scrutiny. Then again, in today's political climate one must be eternally vigilant not to overestimate the instincts of the American voter.

* Ron Paul also has some opinions that I had no idea how to work into this post. He would like to repeal the 17th Amendment, which allows the people to vote directly for national senators. He wants state legislators to choose the senators. Paul is also against efforts to abolish the electoral college, because he's afraid that the "liberty states" (those in the west and south) will become less powerful. He's also notably against campaign finance reform.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Reconsidering Democratic Candidates for 2008 Presidential Election.

I really didn't anticipate having to take another close look at the field of presidential candidates. Until quite recently, I was hands down in favor of Barack Obama. Having seen clips of his speeches, I was convinced that he was presenting an element of sincerity not seen in any political campaign as long as I've been alive. But lately I'm not so sure. It's as if his handlers and advisers have taken him aside and warned him to curtail his true feelings. He sounds tentative and indecisive. He's not setting the tone of the dialogue at all, and I find that completely disappointing. Unless he resumes the spirit and attitude he had a year ago, there's no chance of him getting the Democratic nomination. The problem is that I don't have anyone to support in lieu of Obama.

I've heard a lot of good things come out of the mouth of John Edwards lately. I like his seeming commitment to environmental issues. I like the idea of ending the Iraqi war, and putting our resources into alternative energies. Our foreign policy cannot continue to be centered on oil dependency. Yet while Edwards hits a lot of the right notes in his speeches, I simply don't believe anything he says. I don't know whether its his southern accent, or if its his abysmal record of avoiding controversial issues between election campaigns. It's great to have and state convictions- but I have a hard time finding the real-life advances Edwards has made toward his stated agenda. I do realize his party was in the minority during his tenure in the senate. Still... he actually co-sponsored Lieberman's Iraq War resolution, and he voted for the Patriot Act. After his "retirement" from the Washington political arena, he worked for a Wall Street investment firm.

Of course the candidate to beat is Senator Hillary Clinton. In the opinion of some observers (including Alan Greenspan), she is married to one of the best Republican presidents we ever had. Unfortunately her family was attacked by a sustained campaign of false moral rectitude and righteously delivered character assassination. Certainly some of the irrational anger that was directed against her husband has rubbed off on her. She is the bogeywoman of the right wing. They constantly invoke her when they want to mobilize their political base. All the while I wonder why conservatives haven't embraced her. She began her political career as president of her college's Young Republican Club, and served as a volunteer on ultraconservative presidential contender Barry Goldwater's campaign. Hillary's been a tireless advocate for the American occupation of Iraq. Her early-90's failure to come up with a viable healthcare plan for the nation was so resounding that it virtually ended all serious discussion of the issue for over a decade. I would think that Hillary Clinton would be the perfect moderate compromise option, if she hadn't been so thoroughly vilified by the likes of O'Reilly, Hannity, Beck and Limbaugh. Of course it wouldn't hurt her chances if she had a penis.

So after you eliminate the big three, then who is left? There are the marginal candidates that don't have a chance in hell of winning the primary. Joe Biden is clearly the Republican-lite choice. He is basically Hillary Clinton in white male packaging. Bill Richardson is the stealth minority candidate (do y'all know he's part Mexican?). Then we have special interest favorite- Senator Chris Dodd from Connecticut. Dodd's been in bed with Enron, Morgan Stanley, Arthur Andersen, and the International Association of Fire Fighters (!) He'd most likely get support from NORML, due to his stated intentions to decriminalize marijuana. Bringing up the rear is perpetual also-ran Dennis Kucinich. He's both a consistent advocate for peace and the seeming embodiment of comic relief for the mainstream media. The last time Kucinich was taken seriously was when he was the boy mayor of Cleveland (1978).

Finally... we have a new face in the field- Mike Gravel, the former senator from Alaska. He seems to be elbowing in on Kucinch's territory as the lone voice of the far-left. He's taken some interesting positions including calling for the abolishment of the IRS, a national sales tax, a single-payer national health care system, equal rights for gays, nuclear disarmament, immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and term limits. But Gravel is primarily known for his support of direct democracy (the National Initiative). This entails allowing the people to cast votes in ballot initiatives at the federal level, effectively making them an additional legislative body of the United States. It would be naive to think that Gravel has much chance of winning the presidency, but he adds some fresh ideas to the national dialogue. Unfortunately the press tends to willfully ignore (or deride) proposals that they deem to be too distant from "the center". While I think he'd be a worthwhile alternative to Obama, I'm way too cynical to suggest him as a viable Democratic nominee for president.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Neil Marshall, "The Descent" (2005).

If you have ever seen Dog Soldiers, the action-horror flick released in 2002, then you know that English director Neil Marshall understands what true terror consists of. In that movie, a squad of national guardsmen encounter strange and violent beasts that hearken back to the tales of medieval werewolves. However, these monsters were created by modern-day man in order to serve as almost indestructible soldiers on the battlefield. Like most weapons devised by warmongers, they present an indiscriminate danger to people regardless of whether their targets are the enemy or merely civilians. The high speed camera work and fast-paced editing made watching Dog Soldiers an incredibly tense experience. There is an increasing audience for such unrelenting cinema among contemporary horror aficionados. For many folks the movie established Marshall as someone to watch.

Although he has been lumped in with other current directors (Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja, James Wan, etc.) who have been credited with bringing about a renaissance in horror, Marshall's work doesn't quite have the torture-porn component evident in the films of (what's being referred to) as the "Splat Pack". He certainly knows his way around a bit of gore, but he demonstrates more understanding of the subtleties of film making that can make the elements that are unseen even more frightening than what is thrown in the audience's collective face. Marshall's latest film, The Descent (2005), is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

The Descent follows a group of adventure-loving women, and their decision to go spelunking in an uncharted cave system. The six young lasses, all of which are very pretty in their own unique physical ways, are connected through their associations to lead characters Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and Sarah (Shauna Macdonald). The latter has recently lost her husband and child in a gruesome car accident, and she is attempting to use a strenuous outdoor challenge to move on emotionally. Juno is the main instigator of the trip, and presents a fiercely strong-willed and authoritative presence. She also harbors a deep secret that could potentially split the cohesion of the group. Their entrance into the cave itself, along with the subsequent events, demonstrates that Juno's confident presence may mask deeper insecurities and personality flaws not immediately evident.

The psychological undercurrents of the principals aren't particularly unique from those we've seen in other horror films, but they are convincing enough to keep us engaged, and make us empathetic about the characters' fates. Ultimately it's not the depth of characterization that makes a Neil Marshall movie compelling. It's his exceptional skill in creating an atmosphere and mood of extreme anxiety that keeps us interested. The cinematography of The Descent exacerbates the natural feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia that most normal human beings have while crawling through caves on their stomachs. I know these reactions personally because I've been caving. Getting stuck between immovable rocks when you are a mile beneath the earth's surface, and facing the possibility of losing the battery power of whatever illumination device you carried in with you, is frightening in a way very little else could be.

Add a pack of humanoid cave-dwelling mutants to the ordinary terrors of spelunking, and you now have one of the worst nightmares that I can imagine. You have to give credit to Marshall- his monsters are notoriously cringe-inducing, yet have the merest hint of credibility that suggests that you might actually run into them in an oddly parallel universe. He makes great use of the technique of limited exposure to their horror, as the first three quarters of the movie progresses. The protagonists become vaguely aware of their presence- just enough so that they could either be a foreboding reality or just figments of the imagination. And Marshall has the good sense to film these creatures in the darkness, so that you can't get desensitized to them. Even the sequences of extreme violence are shot in an impressionistic manner, so that you aren't quite sure how deadly they might turn out to be. That adds an element of realism to the proceedings because in the flurry of a sudden struggle in the darkness you wouldn't have a clear impression of what was happening to you.

One aspect of The Descent that has been widely commented on is the way it's concluded. Without spoiling the fun, I have to mention that there is just enough ambiguity included to make the viewer second guess his/her perceptions. I think that's perfectly appropriate in a story that concerns itself with an exploration into the deepest parts of its main characters' psyches. The entire setting encapsulates an obvious metaphor that is ignored only at the expense of the viewer's understanding of the events on-screen.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Tales of the Supreme Court.

I recently caught an interesting segment of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Her guest was JeffreyToobin*, who had been invited to promote his new book- The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. The main focus of this work is the conservative counterrevolution taking place on the bench in the wake of the George W. Bush presidency. This process has been in the works since Earl Warren (an Eisenhower appointee) set the tone of the court for the last half of the Twentieth Century. For decades a progressive approach was taken to most of the large decisions at the top level of our judicial branch. Roe Vs. Wade, integration, affirmative action, privacy laws and extended protections for free speech were just some of the priorities of the court during those heady years.

When Ronald Reagan became president, the worm began to turn. The Federalist society was formed at Yale, and was dedicated to crafting an enduring conservative transformation in the national legal arena. Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia were among the first faculty advisers of the group. Conservative groups like the Scaife and Olin foundations funded its activities, and the Federalist society soon established a presence in Washington DC. They railed against what they termed the "judicial activism" of the Warren and Burger-led courts. But they had their own agenda- they wanted to limit the power of the federal government to pass progressive legislation. They said that they were concerned with the "original intentions" of the founding fathers. They focused their attacks on the legal argument of "privacy" that the Warren Court had assumed in their support of a woman's right to choose abortion.

Of course twelve years of Republican presidential administrations accelerated the progress of this campaign. Although Bork's nomination to the bench was defeated, Antonin Scalia somehow made the grade. Meanwhile a young lawyer named Samuel Alito toiled under the Reagan presidency, trying to figure out a strategy to overturn Roe Vs. Wade. He was frustrated, but resigned to incremental progress. Anthony Kennedy was the next Reagan appointee, but he proved unreliable when it came to parroting the reactionary line. The tally still favored the pro-choice camp, but it was closer than ever. When the first Bush attained the highest office, there was confidence that the long awaited shift in the court would occur. David Souter was the first appointee under the new regime, and he initially appeared to be as conservative as Scalia. But he underwent an unexpected transition over time, and slowly adopted more liberal views.

Bush would not make the same mistake twice- after a controversial hearings process, Clarence Thomas became the newest justice. Thomas would go on to prove himself to be the most conservative justice since the 1930's. His subsequent opinions have shown that he considers the entire New Deal to have been unconstitutional. He became an important foot soldier in the battle to shift national values. Still... Sandra Day O'Connor (another Reagan appointee) was now the swing vote of the court, and she was an old school Republican who was less interested in engaging the country in a cultural war. Not only would the counterrevolution have to wait, but it needed to weather the Clinton presidency that would usher in two very strong progressives- Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

As the 2000 presidential election approached, folks on each side of the aisle realized that it would determine the fate of the supreme court for years to come. Several justices were on the verge of retirement and whoever sat in the oval office would fill in the gaps. It's certainly ironic that the existing justices actually got to decide the contest. As the state of Florida began working through a recount that suggested Al Gore had won, the court took the extreme step of shutting down democracy and declaring Bush the winner. The vote was 5-4 and fell along partisan lines. It was a historical low point for the nation's highest court, and left an indelible stain on a government branch that was supposed to be above politics. David Souter considered retiring in protest (but stayed so he could eventually get a full pension). Sandra Day O'Connor would later regret the fact that she let politics effect her judgment. As Dubya began to show his true extremist colors, she (reportedly) began to despise his presidency. Ironically, as Toobin points out, she would play an unintentional role in shifting the court even further toward the far right.

When Chief Justice William Rehnquist's health finally failed he was replaced by John Roberts, who had actually advised the GOP during the Florida election recounts. He had been rewarded for his fealty by the man he helped put into office. It is no surprise that he has joined Thomas and Scalia to form an ultraconservative bloc. News only got worse for the nation's progressives when O'Connor decided to step down in order to take care of her ailing husband. Her spot was taken by Samuel Alito- a man she held in contempt for treating women with an anachronistic paternalism. Tragically her husband's condition worsened to the point where he was beyond her help. But there is no going back after retirement from the high bench. Alito's appointment completed the plot of the Federalists that he helped initiate. The swing vote on the Supreme Court is now Anthony Kennedy, a notoriously unpredictable conservative. God only knows what this new group has planned for us.

*Toobin is a senior legal analyst for CNN, a former Assistant US Attorney and a writer for the New Yorker. Perhaps his most famous book (to date) is A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President (2000).

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Edmund Morgan, "The Genuine Article".

Plagued by the thought that I should withdraw from my ongoing study of serial killers, I decided to pick up Edmund Morgan's The Genuine Article. Morgan is a distinguished professor at Yale and a renowned historian specializing in early American history. This particular tome is a collection of book reviews he's written over the years for the New York Times Book Review. As I made my way through the first portion of the book, I wondered what had compelled me to pick it up in the first place. What self-respecting modern American bothers reading this type of stuff in the first place... let alone an entire collection of it? Perhaps I was feeling some strange sense of literary masochism? Regardless I resolved to make my way through it, even when I felt I could better spend my leisure time elsewhere.

As page after page turned, I developed a rhythm and began to see the merits of the endeavor. For despite the fact that I spend much of my life with similar material, I realized just how narrow my view is. No matter how critical we have become, many American citizens still labor under the suppositions that we formed in primary school. This tendency especially applies when we deal with stories of the "founding fathers". These are real-life historical figures- men who walked the earth and had many of the same compulsions and desires as everybody else. Yet we have made them into national symbols, vaguely representing one or another political ideal that they were famous for having expressed. Many of us tend to consider them as if they existed in a vacuum, or as if they popped out of their mothers' wombs ready to spout revolutionary platitudes. Obviously that approach doesn't accurately convey the complexity of their lives.

We also tend to think of historians as ultraconservative keepers of our historical legacy. It is too easy to believe that they know everything there is to know about the Revolutionary War era. We believe that early American history is static and ossified. What new discoveries could we possibly find in this distant segment of our past? Haven't academics agreed by now on the fundamental meanings and interpretations of this particular time period? Well, the fact is that nothing is set in stone. Historical analysis is influenced by the perspectives of the time in which it is written. If we are undergoing a period of social unrest, then that disorder is going to color the spectacles through which historians look backwards. If society is enjoying a time of stability and constancy, then our experts are going to reflect that in their writings. Ultimately the lessons we learn from studying early American history (or any time period, for that matter) are going to be just as much about us as whatever subject they claim to deal with. The observer can't help but affect the observed.

Edmund Morgan is well aware of the type of projection that occurs in any examination of history. He is also careful to take into consideration the context surrounding the primary sources. What one or another figure says in his own time is inflected by the events surrounding him. Naturally we impose our own frames and philosophies when we read them, these 200 (or so) years later. Morgan picks a wide variety of texts to review. Many of them are modern collections of the original papers of the founding fathers. In some cases, much of the included material has been recently rediscovered. In other places the stuff has never before been presented together. A true intellect can construct new associations and gain original insights from looking at the work as a whole. Morgan goes one step further and factors in the biases of the editors.

What's ultimately remarkable about The Genuine Article is the author's obvious attempts to remain evenhanded in his assessment of works of such disparate nature. He's quite clearly leery of drawing conclusions based upon demographic statistics, but he is not so brash as to simply discount them. Even when Morgan does not favor a particular viewpoint because it seems outlandish or fanciful, he seems inclined to give it due consideration. That doesn't mean that there is no piss and/or vinegar in his writing style- he often uses his vast store of wit to subtly jab at the authors he disagrees with. Yet it's evident how much Wilson enjoys his task, even when he is at extreme odds with an author's judgments. The palpable joy he displays in learning something fresh makes what could be an unbearable chore into an enlightening read.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

MTV's Fear Series

It's surprising just how far behind I find myself when it comes to popular culture. Not having cable television constitutes a huge handicap, and I often discover things several years after they were first released. I suppose I prefer it that way, because I don't get sucked in by marketers bent on selling products to "my demographic". Instead of being force-fed entertainment, I generally make my own way around the mediasphere. So in some ways, YouTube was designed for me. It's a self-directed portal that accommodates serendipity. Last night I found myself sitting in front of the computer with a snack, aimlessly surfing, and I came across a video titled "Fear- West Virginia Penitentiary (Part 1/7)". Naturally I tuned in and discovered that it was an episode of a strange reality TV/game show that once aired on MTV. I had some vague memory of a friend of mine telling me that he once worked on such a series. Given the setting and the personal connection, I decided to give the show a try.

MTV's Fear series (2000) worked like this- the producers would choose six participants (generally from the X- Generation) and they'd send them to some creepy locale. The contestants would be expected to spend a couple nights at the place, and fulfill a series of challenges. If they stayed the entire time and completed their dares they would be awarded $3000 (a seemingly paltry reward, in retrospect). If, on the other hand, they chickened out- they had to leave with nothing at all for their time and efforts. The show was sold as a cross between an extreme sport and a scientific examination into paranormal activity. These kids would enter the site alone, with (allegedly) no cameramen or crew. They were outfitted with vests that included attached night-vision cameras with spotlights. Both the setting and their reactions to it were recorded.

The premise of the show was immediately appealing to me. Whether or not each (or any) spot lived up to its billing as a "haunted location", the idea of being compelled to stay in such a modern-day ruin does lend itself to chilling and foreboding feelings. Over the years I have sought out these types of settings and have explored them voluntarily, with no hope of recompense other than personal experience. But then again, I like those spooked out feelings. I'm not sure why and I don't feel any pressure to fret about that fact. For some reason I enjoy mysterious and/or scary phenomena. So not only was I a bit envious of the participants getting the opportunity to explore, I was also taking it for granted that watching the show wouldn't have much affect on me. That ended up being a mistake.

You see, I have toured the abandoned prison in Moundsville. I know firsthand just how oppressive its halls and rooms can be. There is certainly something that works on the darker parts of your psyche when you experience such a place. What I felt was obviously ameliorated by both having a guide and taking the tour in the daytime. I can only imagine what I could have projected onto the surroundings had I been alone and in the dark. Some of the tasks the contestants were asked to perform were especially frightening. One young guy had to walk through a series of pitch black chambers, and squeeze down a narrow passage, only to enter a barred room and have to remove a cover from a piece of furniture. Even on my computer monitor the prospect of touching that tarp was daunting. Similarly the fear elicited by having to spend 15 minutes in the deep darkness of a large graffiti-covered basement corridor (that was notorious for violent assaults) was palpable.

Observing these kids with their extreme psychological reactions to this environment actually induced tension. While it may have been easy to believe that I could have handled their challenges with stony composure, I likewise realized that it was easy to cultivate that attitude from the comfort of my own library. I'm not foolish enough to think that I could accurately predict how I would act in their situations. Part of the reason for this is that I have been in similar places, albeit often in the presence of friends who I could count on. Regardless there is not much scarier than the unknown... and if you have the slighest doubt about the existence of malevolent forces that may possess such abandoned and forlorn buildings... then a few hours in the presence of that doubt might prove enlightening.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

What to do about a mortgage crisis?

When it comes to my ideas about the role of the federal government, nobody is ever going to accuse me of being a libertarian. Sure, when it comes to personal choice, I think we should have as much as possible without hurting others. But on the other hand, I'm for government regulation of corporations, expanded healthcare, and a strong public educational system. So it's surprising perhaps that I would embrace libertarian thinking when it comes to the housing mortgage "crisis" we are now entering. Apparently there are millions of home buyers that are not going to be able to meet the increases of their variable mortgage rates. Others were never really in any position to take out the loans they were offered. Now they face foreclosure when they can't pay their monthly payments.

There is a lot of noise in Washington about doing something to help these people. Bush is suggesting thet those with a good credit history should be allowed to refinance their loans with the Federal Housing Administration. He's also advocating that Congress pass legislation which allows the FHA more flexibility in helping with subprime mortgages. He says he's going to adjust the tax code to help borrowers rework their loans. And he wants more strenuous enforcement of laws regarding predatory lending practices. There are an estimated 2 million debtors who took advantage of adjustable rate mortgages that face increased rates next year. Many of them are going to be facing extreme financial strain. Economists predict that this could have a negative effect on the national economy.

Both home-buyers and creditors have proven to be remarkably irresponsible. Lending institutions issued loans to many individuals with lousy credit ratings (these are also referred to as "subprime borrowers"). A lot of those folks are now simply defaulting on their loans. They were a bad risk from the beginning. Of course the idea that anybody could now buy a home, regardless of their financial resources or history, had a huge effect on the housing industry in general. Home prices soared as everyone tried to get in on the action. Real estate was considered a "no brainer" investment. Evidently many people truly believed that their new homes would only increase in value, forever and ever. And then the bottom dropped out.

Too many new homes were built. Real estate agents began to encourage sellers to charge exorbitant prices. Eventually the housing demand was simply exhausted. Those who had bought homes as 5-year investments soon realized that they were in over their heads. If they tried to get out of their mortgages they would take a loss on the resale. They hadn't expected that because they didn't realize that the housing market was a typical bubble that would inevitably pop. People had committed to monthly mortgage payments that were simply unwise. Perhaps they had been encouraged by unscrupulous loan officers. Or maybe they were just retards in the realm of simple mathematics. Otherwise they were completely unrealistic in their optimism. Did they think lending rates were going to stay at historically low levels forever?

When it comes right down to it, I don't really care why these people ended up in the situations they are in. They are adults and they made what should have been informed purchases. Buying a home is the single biggest financial decision most are ever going to make. Obviously there are many Americans that didn't think it through. Now they want the government to grab them by the hands and guide them out of their nightmares. But you know what? I don't think they deserve any assistance from the taxpayers of America. They gambled and lost. I think they need to stop whining, step up to the plate, and accept the consequences of their actions. Perhaps they can even learn from their mistakes. They wanted the those five-bedroom, free-standing, development tract, suburban houses... and they got them. If they are now unbearable burdens, why should we be expected to help them carry the load?

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Part Four- Helen Morrison, "My Life Among the Serial Killers" (2004)

This is the final post in my series about Helen Morrison's My Life Among the Serial Killers. Here's the end of my point-by-point rebuttal:

24. In a later chapter, Morrison deals with international serial killers. She examines two individuals in particular who committed suicide after being imprisoned. She goes on to suggest that maybe the prison structure led to a change in their personalities that made them more "humanlike (sic)". Not only does this typify the type of non-scientific conjecture that she rails at throughout the book, but it directly contradicts her oft-stated belief that serial killers cannot change or develop over time.

25. "Behavioral scientists don't do the medical work that I do to discover what makes a serial killer commit murder after murder. They'll look at the external characteristics of the person, and sometimes they get into a false way of 'psychoanalyzing 'the serial murderer'. " (p.252)

One wonders what Morrison means here regarding "a false way of 'psychoanalyzing' ". Would such a practice entail comments about the lack of emotional maturity in serial murders? What about suggesting that they are "addicted" to killing? It might behoove Morrison to take a good, hard look at her own beliefs before taking these potshots at FBI profilers. Her statements expose her self-importance repeatedly, without end.

26. "Serial murderers never commit suicide before being apprehended, and they rarely kill themselves in prison." (p. 256)

This is yet another assertion that cannot be substantiated. Certainly no serial murderers that we have identified and imprisoned have committed suicide before their identification. That should go without saying. But how does Morrison know that there aren't serial killers that kill themselves before they are identified? There's no way we would ever know, either way.

27. "If you, the reader, remember some or all of these points when watching frightening reports about the latest killer, you too will be able to keep the strange phenomenon of serial murder in perspective." (p.273)

Here's where Morrison tries to make us feel better about sticking it out to the end of her tremendously flawed book. In the last chapter (entitled "Where Do We Go From Here") the author makes a list of the controversial "rules" she has superimposed on serial killers (for example- they aren't psychopaths, they are addicts). This is merely a rehash of a few simplistic categorical statements she has proposed in the previous 270-odd pages. We are meant to think that we have gained some crucially enlightening insights, but only the least critical of readers could possibly believe that.

In summation, I'd like to express my opinion that this is the worst book on serial killers that I have ever read. Instead of insights into the minds or behaviors of these most destructive of individuals, My Life Among the Serial Killers offers a set of poorly reasoned conclusions and wild speculations. I had a lot of difficulty finding the utility of viewing these subjects as "emotionally immature" or "addicted to killing." Morrison is completely unwilling to concede that an individual's environment might contribute to his/her development. Because not every single serial killer tortured animals, experienced head trauma or were abused as children- Morrison feels emboldened to discount these as contributing factors of their behavior. Perhaps if she truly adopted the methods of the science she claims to respect, then her wild claims would be worth investigating. Instead, as I demonstrated in this series of posts, she relies on her own flawed intuition and "eureka moments".

Aside from her total inability to source or substantively defend her assumptions, Morrison lends an annoyingly dismissive tone to her writings. She is unwilling to grant peers, attorneys or law enforcement personnel any authority that might challenge her own. It's great that she is a leading feminist in the field, but that is no reason to be so incredibly self-important. Morrison's ultimate position- that criminality has a genetic component is neither original, nor is it particularly compelling. Contrary to her claims she is not the first "scholar" to propose such ideas. She is, however, remarkable in her abilities to remain entirely unconvincing- despite her ample experience in the field.

The real shame of this book is that she does a disservice to anyone making an alternative claim about the causes of extreme deviant behavior. Many of the reviews of this book that I have read have seized on Morrison's feminism in order to associate her with liberal thought. This is entirely unfair, as many progressive readers would or have had just as much difficulty with both the style and substance of My Life Among the Serial Killers. Neither the content of this book nor Morrison's disregard for her professional colleagues is representative of left-leaning scholarship.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Part Three- Helen Morrison, "My Life Among the Serial Killers" (2004)

This is the third in a series of posts presenting a point-by-point rebuttal of Helen Morrison's My Life Among the Serial Killers (2004).

15. "Then I heard that the lawyers and Bobby Joe had spoken to some other psychiatrists for his trial, and I felt that was not a good sign. As I found with Gacy, too many cooks spoil the broth" (p. 160)

Evidently, after Morrison had served as a defense witness for Gacy, her services were sought after by attorneys and defense teams representing other serial killer clients. Given her failure in the Gacy trial, one wonders why that was so. Perhaps it's because it's difficult to find a psychiatrist willing to work towards a lesser punishment for the most spectacularly dangerous members of society. However, we might be tempted to assume the type of legal fees such experts command are convincing. It's clear from her description of the situation that not only does Morrison see herself as more competent than attorneys, but she also resents having her sole authority challenged on a case.

16. "Like other serial killers I had profiled and interviewed, [Bobby Joe] Long had never matured emotionally beyond infancy." (p.180)

Morrison has a disturbing tendency to infantilize serial killers. This is the crux of her unique approach and perspective. She is making the claim that these criminals kill because they are "emotionally immature". Throughout the book, she systematically dismisses other common factors attributed to serial killers- head trauma, childhood abuse, prior criminal behavior, etc. In this she proves to be irredeemably reductionist. She believes she is revolutionary in finding the unifying theory behind serial killing.

17. "There's a kind of profiler who has studied behavioral science who believes that serial killers torture and kill dogs and cats in addition to humans and that torturing animals is a precursor to killing human beings. But I have not seen this to be true." (p. 191)

Here's an example of what I mentioned above. Her attempt to flout conventional wisdom makes sense because (if there is any truth to it) then her own pet theory crumbles. Unfortunately for Morrison, there are many reports of killers first initiating their cruelty upon animals. Jeffrey Dahmer is just one well known example of this. As conflicting "evidence" we have Morrison's contention that she just hasn't "seen this to be true".

18. "Many [serial killers] have IQs that are above average, though none are geniuses." (p.194)

Here's another incident of the author making a completely unsubstantiated claim. How does she know that no serial killers are geniuses? Has she tested each and every one of them? It seems that Morrison believes that by stating something with absolute authority, her words become reality. Maybe a psychiatrist of like mind would suggest that this itself is an indication of "emotional immaturity".

19. "In one swift moment, Pearson bit [Robert] Berdella so hard, he nearly severed his penis. (..) Berdella then injected him with acepromazine, an animal tranquilizer, and began thrashing Pearson with part of a tree limb. It was thick, splitting Pearson's lip and knocking him out. Then Berdella, oozing a lot of blood from Pearson's bite, drove himself to the hospital." (p.191)

"Most people might immediately react to the pain by wanting to get back at the person who hurt them, a reaction that might lead to killing someone who did such a thing. Berdella did nothing to Pearson right away, he just left the house and went to the hospital." (p. 196)

Nothing of course... besides thrashing him unconscious, and leaving him in that state. Morrison doesn't even seem capable of following her own narrative. She wants to make the case that Robert Berdella (a known sadist) was like a "baby playing with a ball" who did not know the actual reality of torture. She says that he didn't know what pain was, and therefore failed to kill his intended victim when, in the course of that victim's attempted resistance, he almost had his penis severed. In the process of trying to make the facts conform to her theory, she descends into complete and utter nonsense.

20. "He was sleeping like a baby." (p.206)

In an account of the crimes of Michael Lee Lockhart, Morrison describes how Lockhart killed a cop, fled the scene in a sports car, lost control of the getaway vehicle, crashed, escaped on foot, cleaned up at a nearby restaurant, and hailed a cab to Houston. When the cab was pulled over by a the Texas Highway Patrol, Lockhart was discovered sleeping on the backseat. Maybe he was exhausted by the day's activities? No... not in Morrison's esteemed judgment. Her guess is "that he was lulled by the movement of the car, which can have a soothing, soporific effect, especially for someone like Lockhart, who wasn't emotionally developed." (p.206) By now we know exactly where Morrison is going with this.

21. "To me it means they all have this kind of free-flowing identity that is sometimes male and sometimes female and sometimes something in between, pointing to the fact that they have a very fluid sexuality, which means they can function as heterosexuals or homosexuals." (p.208)

This is another absolute gem. Now we are told that all serial killers are bisexual. Are you feeling enlightened yet?

22. "It wasn't that he didn't like his mother or that his father had abused him, and that led him to kill. There was something deeper at work here, something that had less to do with nurture and more to do with nature. To me, there was a consequential, scientifically logical connection to be made here, a connection that no one, absolutely no one, before had made." (p.212)

Morrison's talking about Michael Lee Lockhart here, but she could be talking about any serial killer. In her eyes, she has identified a pattern that applies to them all- They are simply immature babies! You have to appreciate the way she congratulates herself here for this amazingly unprecedented revelation. She's obviously forever altered the case of modern criminology.

23. "All the others before and all the others in the future: they all had this trigger moment prior to killing. They were addicted to killing." (p. 214)

Wait... what's that you say? Maybe they are not all babies? They are addicts? OK, that explains it. And it's a good thing too, because now all we have to do is get them into a 12-step program. Who wants to be a sponsor?

Tomorrow... the last installment of this sordid affair...

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Part Two - Helen Morrison, "My Life Among the Serial Killers" (2004)

This is a continuation of yesterday's point-by-point rebuttal to Helen Morrison's My Life Among the Serial Killers (2004).

8. "It wasn't that the panties had sexual meaning to him. He just liked the feeling of them in his hand and on his body. To him, it was about simple comfort and quick release and not about fantasies or dreams ." (p.96)

In Chapter 6 ("The Gacy Interviews"), Morrison relates John Wayne Gacy's account of stealing his mother's panties as a kid. He also stole his neighbors' underwear off their clotheslines. And he even took panties from some of the boys he slept with. He admits that he "used to masturbate with them". Morrison's analysis of this habit is striking. Gacy clearly had issues with his gender identity. By sleeping with men, he confounded conventional expectations regarding sexuality. But to suggest that Gacy's sexual practices were not sexually meaningful seems to me to be the apex of denial. Obviously this extends to his masturbatory habits and methodology. Morrison's statements make me question whether she understands anything at all about male sexual behavior.

9. Dr. Morrison administered a "language test" in which she read a very simple and vague sentence, and asked John Wayne Gacy to interpret what was happening in the imagined scenario. He displayed what (to me) appears to be an understandable hesitancy to assume to know what had not been said. He explained that there were several unexplained variables, and outlined some possibilities. Instead of interpreting the answer as a cautious effort to avoid unwarranted assumptions, Morrison characterized it as the display of "a very primitive mode of thought" (p.98). She went on to say, "A normal person would come up with a structured beginning, a middle, and an end to the story", and then gave her own formulation of a correct answer. Apparently if a subject is unwilling to jump to conclusions based upon flimsy data, then they are abnormal. This explains much of the logic within Morrison's book.

10. Morrison has the unfortunate tendency of overgeneralization. I remarked on this in my last post. Chapter 7, in which the psychiatrist appears for her first time as an expert witness in a "high-profile criminal trial", and displays her habit of flawed simplification. She suggests that her study of Gacy led to extensive knowledge of serial killers in general. She goes on to say that seeing Gacy "is like seeing [Richard] Macek in a different body" (p.101). Macek was the very first serial killer Morrison was allowed to examine in depth and in person. Here she appears to have formed a template to superimpose on individuals, regardless of their differences. This strategy seems not only naive, buy also completely unproductive.

11. "After ten years of research and investigation, I felt I'd barely scratched the surface of what goes on inside the head of a serial killer. (...) I knew a little, and while that was more than anyone else, I still needed to know a lot more." (p.127)

The first part of the above quote is understandable, given Morrison's shoddy research techniques and obvious pattern of misconception. The second half (containing the portion I placed in boldface) is downright disturbing. Her self-assessment shows such an extreme narcissism and hubris that it raises the question of whether or not she should be allowed by law to claim any credibility or expertise on the subject of serial killers.

12. "Gacy could have gotten bored with his victim or he could have become tired physically. But it was not something Rignall did that made this occur. Rignall's passivity did not allow a distraction to occur; it couldn't have." (p.129)

Here Morrison is referring to a victim that was released by Gacy. There has been speculation that Rignall's demeanor helped influence Gacy's decision to let him go. How Morrison feels qualified to make her assertions is a mystery. She has no way of qualifying her claims. She couldn't know what happened between Rignall and Gacy. She wasn't there. Yet she voices her guess with total authority, as if she were omnipotent. Perhaps this too is attributable to her role as defense witness. She attempted to "prove" that Gacy's actions were beyond his control. If Gacy could choose to let a potential victim go free, then her position is necessarily disproven (as it ended up being judged at the trial).

13. "Whenever he drank too much, Peter would indeed open up, only to collapse in fits of hooting laughter, incessant giggling, that often went on for up to ten minutes. Once he got started, he couldn't stop."(p.132)

Morrison included a chapter that presented a detailed profile of British serial killer Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper). Apparently Peter both abused alcohol, and experienced decreased inhibitions when using it. These are both blatant contradictions of earlier statements made by the author (see Part 1). It's amazing that Morrison was able to get her doctorate, but is unable to identify her many academic inconsistencies. My Life Among the Serial Killers is a prime example of poor scholarship.

14. "Serial killers rarely can control the intensity of their impulses. When they go to do something, they don't modulate their reactions. It's all or nothing, broken wrist or not." (p.132)

This quote references an incident when the young Sutcliffe broke his own wrist while punching a bigger target. Any substantial exploration of the lives of serial killers will demonstrate that Morrison's conclusion here is mistaken. There are multiple incidences of serial killers fighting their instinct to take additional victims, and then succumbing slowly to their aggressive drives after a number of years. The author even gives several examples of serial killers deciding to release their victims after torturing them, but before killing them.

Stay tuned for Part 3...

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Helen Morrison, "My Life Among the Seral Killers" (2004)

Given my propensity to enjoy reading true crime, I thought a book like Helen Morrison's My Life Among the Serial Killers would be fascinating. After all, I thought reading a forensic psychiatrist's thoughts about these most heinous of criminals would (at the very least) be intellectually stimulating. I certainly didn't expect to laugh out loud at flawed logic and skewed perspectives. But within the first 30 pages, that's exactly what I was doing.

Right off the bat I discovered that the author was extremely defensive about being a woman in a male-dominated field (and an attractive one at that, if the narrator is at all reliable). In the interactions she had with men, it was immediately evident from her descriptions that she had preconceived notions that would affect her ability to operate objectively. She seemed to even look down on law enforcement, with stereotypes of the class of people that concern themselves with it, and a less-than-subtle condescension toward those who don't have the luxury of doing "pure research". Her attitude made me quickly doubt the quality of her judgment. As I continued reading I began to dog-ear the pages where the most dubious assertions occurred. It wasn't long before I resolved to post here about what I had found.

I decided that the best format for my consideration of the book would be a point-by-point rebuttal, including quotes. Bear in mind that I don't view myself as an expert on criminal pathology, and my objections to the author's thinking process are generalized in nature. What I know about killers, I've learned by reading books- unlike Morrison, who has met and interviewed them in great depth. Yet (as a self-defined expert and frequent court defense witness) I would have predicted that her theories and contentions on the subject would be more logical than they appear to be. Notice that I confine myself to an evaluation of her own words alone, and that I haven't even sought other sources that may contradict her accounts.

1. Morrison puts great stock in hypnotherapy- a method of recovering memory. This is a technique that has been (at the very least) controversial, and generally discredited in the scientific community.

2. (p.24) "(...) no serial murderers are addicted to drugs, drink, or even smoking."

Morrison is prone to making blanket statements about serial killers, based upon her interactions with several of them. Nowhere does she explain her odd belief that they are without substance addiction. But no reputable scientist would frame an absolute in this manner.

3. Morrison claims that a subject that she hypnotized (Richard Macek) manifested spontaneous blisters on his hands during a session where he was meant to recall a previous experience of being burnt. Later when she explains why she had no documentation of the event, she contends that the institution guards would not let her bring such equipment into the mental hospital where Macek was incarcerated. Perhaps we should simply let her own evaluation of the event stand- "I was frightened at what seemed to be an almost supernatural event." (p.28)

4. When the same Macek lapsed into addressing Morrison as his wife in a letter, she completely omits any mention of doctor-patient transference. This is a fairly common concept in psychological therapy, and for all of Morrison's validation of Freudian theory- you'd think she would have caught this. Yet she writes, "We didn't look or act alike. How could he have mixed up the two of us?" (p.43) She concludes that "Richard had just forgotten to whom he was writing."(p.44)

5. "What happens with many normal people is that they lose inhibitions when under the influence [of alcohol], but this doesn't occur with the serial murderer, and it can't be seen as a trigger." (p.55)

So... Morrison is saying that, although serial killers are never alcohol addicts, they don't lose their inhibitions when they drink. Maybe she is suggesting that they have no inhibitions. Or maybe she is claiming that serial killers are immune to the effect of alcohol. Either way, the claims are ludicrous. Ted Bundy himself claimed that he needed to drink alcohol in order to prepare himself to commit crimes. His loved ones confirmed that his manner often changed under the influence of alcohol.

6. Morrison tells us the story of Albert Fish, a child-killer form the 1920's who ate his victims. She says that when he was arrested it was discovered that he had inserted needles between his scrotum and rectum. This would widely be considered deviant behavior. Yet our good "doctor" asserts confidently that the practice "had no greater psychological meaning." (p. 65) This claim is meant to support her theory that "serial killers like to experiment simply for the sake of experimentation." (p.65) Of course even if this were true, it would be useless due to the fact that it can neither be proven nor refuted by data.

7. "First, the serial murderer is never as organized as a psychopath in his methodology. A Psychopaths can plot and carry out complex schemes. Secondly, psychopaths have a structured personality that doctors can pinpoint, utilize and work with. That structured personality is like most everyone else's, with an ego, an id, and a superego. The psychopath has problems with the superego, where guilt and conscience reside; he has no conscience, and he's not scattered the way a serial killer is." (p.71)

There are so many problems with this excerpt that it's difficult to find a starting point for criticism. The outdated and simplistic Freudian psychology should be noted right of the bat. Later in the book, Morrison entertains us with the notion that she tries to avoid "pop psychology". Maybe she has problems with definitions and/or classification. But even if we grant her that confusion, we can't let her get away with the other nonsense here.

It is generally accepted that most serial killers fit the description of "psychopath". Morrison even uses the conventional definition for the term. Few feel remorse for what they have done. In fact, they might even be considered the archetypes of the classification. Not every psychopath is a serial killer, and it can be argued that the reverse is true as well. But Morrison frames her argument as if they are mutually exclusive descriptions. This is simply untrue, and a dangerously irresponsible claim.

Furthermore, there are both organized and disorganized serial killers. Some have undeniably "plotted and carried out complex schemes". It's ironic that the quotes above come from a section about John Wayne Gacy- a man notorious for his plotting and execution. Perhaps Morrison tries to get away with these claims here because she was hired to work on Gacy's defense team. In her capacity as defense witness, she was supposed to provide evidence for Gacy's insanity. Needless to say she was unsuccessful.

Much more to come in Part Two...

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fox Butterfield, "All God's Children".

I've always resisted the idea of genetic determinism. Clearly genes guide the development of each and every human being. But I feel most people go too far in crediting them for the ultimate product. For most traits beyond the most basic and physically fundamental, it is clusters of genes that work together to help define manifestation. Many individual genes are facultative, which means that they introduce a range of possibility into the organism at conception. Environmental factors largely decide how an individual grows. Complex behaviors are even less reducible to genetic determinism. I've described how my thoughts about genes affects my perspective on homosexuality and gender identity.

Another dimension of human behavior that some posit has a genetic component is criminality. This notion is philosophically suspect right off the bat, since conceptions of criminality vary over societies and time periods. Certainly I will grant that a cluster of genes can affect the individual's predisposition for becoming impulsive or aggressive, but that's as far as I'm willing to go regarding the relationship between crime and genes. Yet if there is one account that could make me reconsider my position- it would have to be All God's Children (1995) by author Fox Butterfield. This book is a case study of a New York man named Willie Bosket. It traces several generations of the Bosket family and describes the difficulties and criminal activities of the various males in Willie's direct genealogy.

Butterfield actually adopts an unconventional approach in telling the Bosket story. He traces the root of their difficulties all the way back to antebellum South Carolina, and more specifically to a county called Edgefield. The case is made that this particular region has one of the most violent histories of any rural area in the United States. Butterfield examines the culture perpetrated by the white classes in the county. Indeed there is much historical record documenting an extreme orientation toward violence. This record extends to include the physical assault of a US Congressman (Preston Brooks- and Edgefield native) on a US Senator (Charles Sumner). It is the author's contention that this environment of mayhem was passed down to the slaves in Edgefield County. As the Civil War and the demise of Southern Reconstruction pushed African Americans to northern urban areas, this legacy of violence was transmitted along with them. (Please bear in mind that I am greatly simplifying Butterfield's train of logic here in the interests of keeping my description of the book brief.)

Willie Bosket's ancestors found themselves in Harlem, on northern Manhattan Island. Willie's father Butch was an incorrigible youth, abandoned by his parents and left to the mercies of a chaotic juvenile justice system. As his antisocial behaviors evolved, he was passed from agency to agency along with a sense of frustration and a lack or resources to truly help him. As one might expect, Butch ended up in prison for life after an exchange with a pawnbroker that resulted in the murder of two individuals. Butterfield interviewed many family members, bureaucrats, and social workers that came into contact with Butch during his lifetime. He manages to capture the sadness inherent in Butch Bosket's story, as well as the brutality that he visited on innocent victims. While he doesn't candy-coat the consequences of Butch's actions, he is not without sympathy for the neglect and mismanagement that contributed to his ultimate "fate".

The case for the contribution of a genetic component in the formation of criminal personality is made most effectively in the examination of the arc of Willie Bosket's life. Both his personality and his early childhood experience eerily mirror that of his father. There is suggestion of a mental disorder that both Boskets may have been born with. Regardless of the origination of the similarities, they can't be denied. Indeed Willie ends up in several of the exact same correctional institutions that appear to have failed Butch. They even share the same diagnoses as determined by psychiatrists and behavioral specialists. Yet the scale of violence seems to have increased with each generation of the Bosket family. By the time he reached adulthood, Willie had murdered at least three human beings. At times Butterfield seems prone to overstatement- both his characterization of Willie Bosket as the most dangerous man in the New York penal system and his descriptions of his subject's personal charm seem exaggerated. But All God's Children's exhaustive study of one (perhaps) demonstrative American family certainly illuminates the mix of cultural and physical inheritance that contributes to the incidence of antisocial behavior.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Brotherly Love.

For some reason I've always been fascinated by stories of legacy and patrimony. Perhaps it's because I come from a relatively small family that has spread itself all over the country. There's something appealing about the idea of a father with multiple sons, and the potential of combined strength and loyalty when they all work toward the same goals. When I was a boy I used to think that one day my brother, my two cousins, and I would all go into business together. We'd each contribute according to our own particular strengths, and provide checks on each others' weaknesses. I figured there would be a special element of fidelity in our working relationship. We wouldn't have to spend a lot of time looking over our shoulders, anticipating a betrayal. Blood is thicker than water, and all that.

Perhaps that's why I've always been intrigued by tales of the mafia. It's supposed to be a large extended family, wherein each member has every one else's back. Certainly that's not the way it usually plays out. Some get eliminated and others develop shifting alliances within the family. The Godfather series is a perfect example of that. Maybe it's just not possible anymore in our complex age. Yet we still hold onto the idea of dynasties, and stare in wonder and fascination. Take a look at politics. There was a mystique about the Kennedys. A strong patriarch had dreams for his sons. Each in turn was cut down by tragedy, and the sole remaining hope has transformed into a caricature of the original legend. Who's to say that the prospect is not doomed to failure from the outset? Even when it occurs, the results are mixed. Just look at our president and his siblings.

So why does the filial bond become so fragile? Are brothers not often most competitive with each other? Classic literature gives us the iconic manifestation of the complex relationship between brothers. One need look no farther than Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Or if that is too foreign for your tastes, pick up just about any Faulkner novel. Ultimately it seems that great promise exists simply to illuminate the hard lessons of reality. How did it work for our great-grandparents generation? The hardscrabble families in the past produced multiple children with the expectation of losing a couple along the way. Is it merely a matter of numbers?

Last night I watched Joseph L Mankiewicz's House of Strangers (1949). Edward G. Robinson stars as a first generation Italian banker, lording over a brood of male heirs. Working his way up from a humble barbershop business, he manages to establish himself as a captain of finance. This should be the classic rags-to-riches story of success. But finding material wealth doesn't translate into domestic happiness. In his single-minded campaign to build a personal empire, Gino Monetti has managed to alienate his family. His eldest son resents the favoritism shown to a middle child. Meanwhile Gino considers another weak and the youngest stupid. To give him the benefit of the doubt, one might say that he is only trying to guide his sons in the best way he knows how. But when he runs afoul of the federal government, his progeny turn against him. That is, all but Max (played by Richard Conte). Max is a bit of a dirt-ball in his law practice, but he's got Gino's back. This sets up a situation whereby his father pits him against his brothers in a contest for control of the bank.

There's also a love interest weaving through the plot, but I didn't find that aspect of the film especially intriguing. One comes to expect that in any noir film- there is always a woman nearby gumming up the works. What makes The House of Strangers special is Mankiewicz's able efforts in making most of his characters sympathetic. Surely Gino Monetti wouldn't win any awards for his parenting. However it would take a very callous viewer not to understand his actions, or feel for his plight. When his kids exploit his misfortune for their own advantage, it's not difficult to figure out the reasons why they would do so. And as the confrontation between the siblings builds, the only thing we are uncertain about is the ultimate outcome. This is as it should be. There is a truth underlying The House of Strangers that we might not want to recognize, yet we ignore it at our own peril. Blood may be thicker than water... but it also makes a nastier mess when spilled.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Lucky McKee, "The Woods" (2006)

Every once in awhile a new American filmmaker hits the scene, and horror fans nationwide proclaim the emergence of a future star. In 2002, California-native Lucky McKee released May- a nasty little flick (with an initially limited theatrical release) that captivated viewers with its low budget creativity. It featured female lead Angela Bettis, who proved more than capable of portraying a socially maladaptive young woman with psychopathic tendencies. The depiction of a budding love affair between an unsuspecting mechanic and a highly disordered victim of childhood abuse struck chords with an audience eager for an obscure cult hit. It gained notoriety following its video and DVD release. While McKee claimed to have been inspired by Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, May was a breath of fresh air for those left frustrated and numb by Hollywood remakes and sequels. Mckee was heralded for his quirky and original script, as well as his deft touch as director.

In fact Lucky McKee was recognized by the horror film cognoscenti, and was rewarded with the opportunity to make an episode of Masters of Horror. While his selection among such genre masters as John Carpenter, Dario Argento , Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon stunned some observers, his fans believed that he would inevitably fulfill his great promise. His entry(Sick Girl) is said to be an homage to David Cronenberg, and includes a nasty insectoid monster wreaking gory havoc in an apartment building. I haven't seen it, and I most likely never will. But the ratings were mildly favorable and Mckee's star continued to rise. He went on to star in Roman- a film for which he both wrote the script and played the lead role. For that project he turned the directorial reins over to Angela Bettis.

Despite his growing fame, McKee had not yet released a feature length follow-up to his startling debut. Some now began to suspect that he was a one-hit wonder. But unbeknownst to the masses, the director had already completed The Woods for United Artists. Unfortunately the film was shelved when Metro Goldwyn bought UA, and it sat without an official release date for three whole years. Finally it was put out on DVD and video, and mostly remained unnoticed. I hadn't even realized that it existed until I randomly discovered it on Amazon. The few reviews that were posted seemed intriguing enough for me to pick it up, and I looked forward to finding some time to watch it.

Last night seemed like an appropriate opportunity to watch a spooky horror flick. The temperature had dropped with Autumn's first approach, suggesting an eerie moodiness. M. had no idea what we'd be watching, and from the very first images we knew we were in for a chilling ride. The setting is a girl's boarding school in 1965. The facility was built in the late 1800's, and sits in what should be a pleasantly bucolic wooded setting. But there is something about the atmosphere of the old stone building, and the forest surrpounding it, that unsettles lead character Heather Fasulo (played aptly by Agnes Bruckner). Heather was forced to come to the school by circumstances largely of her own creation, and resents her mother for not allowing her to stay at home. The all-female staff, led by headmistress Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), works to overcome Heather's resistance through a strategy of stern guidance.

The girls that make up the student body are largely unwelcoming, and Heather casts her lot with another outcast. Even beyond the mundane bullying of snotty blonde Samantha (Rachel Wise), there's obviously something afoot at the school. The girls are warned to stay out of the woods, the staff is adamant that the students drink their milk, and people are disappearing. Of course we are meant to wonder who is responsible for the strange occurrences, and it really isn't that difficult to figure it out. Frankly, the plot is not one of the main assets of The Woods. If you want to enjoy the film, you must suspend your disbelief. And even then you have to be forgiving of some of the cheesier effects that appear repeatedly. Having said that... if you can focus on the performances of the cast and the creepy charms of the setting- you will probably enjoy watching the madness enfold.

While The Woods delivers more charms than you'd expect from the typical straight-to-video thriller, I was struck by how derivative it is. McKee's choice to include Bruce Campbell in a work that blatantly rips off Evil Dead is telling. Additionally, there is no doubt in my mind that McKee is a big fan of genuine "Master of Horror" Dario Argento. This is almost a loose remake of Suspiria. Yet whereas that classic shares a certain shabbiness of plot with The Woods, it more than compensates with its incredible aesthetics, cinematography, set design, score and editing. McKee's film is simply entertaining.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

What Can We Learn From Zombies?

When it comes to movies, I've never hidden the fact that I am a horror fan. Throughout my extensive collection of DVD and video, there are many classics within the genre. But until recently I haven't made much of an effort to collect zombie-themed fims. Perhaps that's because I really didn't enjoy George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). For most zombie-lovers, that's a rite of passage. I mostly found the movie boring. The undead generally move so slow that I believe I'd have no problem getting away from them. I didn't care about any of the characters and most of the film was contained to one or two sets. Maybe if I went back and watched it again, I could appreciate whatever others see in it. In the meantime I've started given other entries in this sub-genre a chance.

As soon as I saw the trailer for 28 Days Later (2002), I knew I'd see it someday. Director Danny Boyle had made Trainspotting, so I expected his journey into more classical horror would be stylish and compelling. For some purists 28 Days Later wasn't even a zombie film. Technically it is more accurately characterized as an infectious disease film. Despite the source of the demented mob's behavior, the affected folks sure acted like traditonal zombies. There was (of course) one notable exception- they moved super-fast. Indeed it was their improved locomotor abilities that made the plight of the protagonists almost unbearably horrific. However you characterized those crazed and rampaging hordes, there's no doubt that other filmmakers took note of them. Last year I had a look at the remake of the Dawn of the Dead (2004). Lo and behold, Zack Snyder made one huge deviation from the Romero version... he made the zombies fast.

Regardless of how a particular creator conceives of the physical aspects of monsters, I'm usually more fascinated by other aspects of the stories they inhabit. I suspect that many folks are looking specifically at the special effects, the gore and/or the make-up. For me, there are two aspects of filmmaking that I am particularly interested in when I watch horror films. It's important that the settings are suitably creepy and creatively shot, and there needs to be an intriguing story beneath the spectacle of the horror. Messiah of Evil (1973) is a good example of a film that excels at the first, and adequately meets the second requirement (have a look at a previous blog post wherein I described the film). This is the one that made me reconsider my rejection of the entire subgenre. It is one of those obscure gems that forces you to share it with your friends.

In fact there are many zombie films that people commonly point to when it comes to the evocation of mood. Obviously Romero's works are often cited. But each individual fan will be able to name a few of their lesser-known favorites. Dead and Buried, Dead Alive, Re-Animator, The Blind Dead Trilogy, and Shockwaves are all among the many films regularly argued to be among the best of the category. Yet I find that the most fascinating component of the subgenre is the various devices by which people transform into the walking dead in each of these films. Is it the result of an ancient curse, a sinister plot, an aforementioned virus, weather conditions, or planetary alignment? The filmmakers themselves express a lot about their perceptions and values by the methods by which they turn their hapless performers into zombies.

Last night M. and I watched Jorge Grau's Let the Sleeping Corpses Lie (1975). Grau was obviously concerned with ecological issues long before "going green" became a fashion trend. In his tale of re-animation, a piece of agricultural machinery is to blame. Somewhere in the pastoral English countryside, a farmer has agreed to test a new technology. Radioactive waves are being emitted to tweak the nervous systems of insect pests, so that they attack and kill each other. Unfortunately the wide-ranging effects of the equipment have been underestimated. Beneath the shock and violence of the film, Grau is asking if humanity isn't constantly creating new problems for itself. If the end of the movie is any indicator, the director is pessimistic about our chances of recovery and/or restraint.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rupert Murdoch... Goin' Green?!

You know who Rupert Murdoch is, right? He's an Austrailian-American who owns the News Corporation, a conglomerate based out of New York City. FOX TV, FOX "News" Channel, The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, HarperCollins and are among the properties under his control. He also owns a big chunk of Direct TV. In addition Murdoch recently purchased Dow Jones, and made a bid to buy the Wall Street Journal. Although Murdoch's political affiliations have historically been all over the map, he is associated in the United States with the radical right wing. He's been close to both Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan, and he voted for Dubya in 2000 and 2004. All of his worldwide newspapers strongly supported the invasion of Iraq. He's even on the record accusing BBC television of having a left-leaning bias. In any case the media mogul identifies himself as a "libertarian".

Murdoch inherited his trade from his father- who upon his deathbed instructed the newspaper he owned to jump-start his son's career in journalism. Though some observers believed that Rupert had more interest in gambling and making money, he soon warmed to the publishing business. Through an ambitious plan of acquisition he soon built his own empire, with a heavy focus on tabloids. His holdings expanded to England, and he soon ran afoul of the printers union by setting up an expanded process of automation. Despite the ire he garnered for that move, the youthful Murdoch proved to be quite successful as a businessman. He became known as the kind of guy that can (and would) justify doing anything for money. In fact he became a US citizen just to satisfy the requirements for owning an American television station.

Somehow Rupert Murdoch has managed to side-step many onerous regulations, including paying any form of corporate taxes for an unspecified number of years. Apparently News Corp. Investments has used a complex tax structure (involving offshore havens) to avoid paying its due. Yet somehow Murdoch is able to remain more of a cartoon villian than a real-life antogonist. Some credit must go to his own FOX network's The Simpsons, which routinely lampoons the man and his reputation. Whether he is as devious and tyrannical as he is portrayed is an unanswered question. However there is no doubt that he is willing to exploit any advantage (including self-serving political alliances) in order to further the interests of himself and his corporation(s).

So what should we make of the recent series of announcements that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. is going "Green"? Not only has he pledged to reduce his comapany's carbon emissions, but he has promised to include pro-environment messages into his media products of. He says that he "wants to inspire people to change their behavior". Huh? Does this include FOX News, home of global warming deniers like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter? What about the Weekly Standard- home of the neo-cons? I would imagine that many of the pundits that represent Murdoch's news empire are aghast and appalled by this decision. On the other hand maybe they know this is all just smoke-and-mirrors. Remember that this is the same guy that supported deposing Saddam Hussein with the rationale that "the whole world will benefit from cheaper oil". Come on now. Do you really think Murdoch has changed that much in four years?

Perhaps it's more appropriate to ask whether or not it makes any difference if Murdoch is sincere in his new campaign against global climate change. If his company really does reduce its carbon footprint, does it matter what the spirit behind the shift is? If viewers of the FOX Channel are exposed to the potential dangers of not changing their destructive behaviors, should we care whether or not Rupert Murdoch makes money as a result? The case could be made that if it's in his self-interest to confront this issue, then it should be understood as a universal concern. Or think about it this way- does whether or not a FOX news anchor truly believes in what he says give his words any more or less credibility? There's going to be an agenda either way. I'd rather see an ecologiocally responsible one.

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