Say Anything

No one sets out to live in Hollywood. It’s not that kind of place. It’s not exactly homey – maybe it’s the tour busses rolling down the streets all the time, or endless days of endless sunshine without even a nuance of any actual weather, much less seasons of any kind. And there are very few of us who are permanent here. The young people come and go, and the folks who run the studios live elsewhere – over in the far reaches of Beverly Hills, or out in Malibu with the stars. William Faulkner, hired by MGM to work on screenplays out here in the early thirties, just didn’t like this place much – and in the forties, when he came back to write the screenplays for To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, he just left town and worked from home as often as he could. Warner Brothers was no worse than MGM – but not any better either. It was the industry and the town. He preferred his Oxford, Mississippi.

They say Faulkner spent a lot of time out here at Musso and Frank up on Hollywood Boulevard, drinking heavily, with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, both also as dispirited as he was. They don’t tell you that in your college American Literature class. Fitzgerald and Hemingway are supposed to be in Paris and Faulkner in the odd gothic South. Nope – they were also out here. This is where the money was. But only Fitzgerald stayed on, living his last few years right here on Laurel Avenue, just down the street. The other two knew better. They left, quickly.

And it was probably the surreal temporariness of the place. Over sixteen years here now and the place still seems unreal, like a movie set or maybe an amusement park. Down the street at the Chinese Theater there’s a big movie premiere once or twice a week – they close off the boulevard and set up the lights and roll out the red carpet, for a wonderful film that’s going to be a smash hit, or be forgotten in a day or two and show up on basic cable the next month. It’s amusing. And it’s odd. For all the market research and the passions involved – even if it’s just a passion to make big bucks – the whole business is pretty much a crapshoot. The studios really don’t know what will catch fire and what won’t. They just tell their shareholders and their financial backers that this film, this time, is a sure thing. But, as the saying goes, they’re throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. That’s the plan, such as it is.

And this might have a bit to do with why Fitzgerald, who wrote Gatsby, perhaps the Great American Novel, and Hemingway and Faulkner with their Nobel Prizes, found this place maddening. The motto out here seems to be Try Anything and See What Happens. They didn’t work that way. Major writers and big thinkers just don’t write anything and watch to see if masses of folks like what you wrote. You write what you think needs to be said. You don’t just say anything.

Curiously, and a minor thing, there is an unintentionally ironic 1989 movie titled Say Anything… – and that did disappear soon enough, although, in 2002, Entertainment Weekly ranked it as the greatest modern movie romance, and it was ranked number eleven on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the fifty best high-school movies, for what that’s worth. It was Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut, and he came to fame with his very first screenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Go figure. The film is pretty much forgotten now. These things come and go. And they rise, sometimes, and fall, usually. But the title accidentally sums up what Crowe and the studio were really up to, and what the whole world out here was up to. Say anything.

But of course it’s not just Hollywood. Much of America, dutifully attending to politics at least a little, must feel like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner once felt, pie-eyed up at Musso and Frank, stuck in a world where folks will say anything at all, just to see how it plays with the general public, hoping for the best but not knowing what actually might work, or be useful, or enlightening, or even entertaining. It’s kind of nutty, and out here, the gamble these days is with a few hundred million of the studio’s money. In politics, the gamble is with the future of the nation. And when you see the potential leaders of the nation in full-on say-anything mode, with them saying anything at all, well, that can be dispiriting.

Of course that’s the obvious conundrum of leadership in a democracy. Do you give people what they want, saying all sorts of random things to see how they react, or do you say what is true, even if that makes voters uncomfortable, hoping they’ll vote for you because you’re not kissing up to them, telling them what, by hit and miss, you’ve finally figured out what they want to hear? No one likes to be patronized, and at the same time no one wants to hear what makes them queasy and uncomfortable. What is a politician to do? Rick Perry famously said that Texas providing in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants, because the kids were brought here when they were infants and their immigration status is not their fault at all, is good for the kids and good for Texas – and if you disagree with that you’re heartless. And he got booed at the debate when he said that and got hammered by all the other candidates for days and days and days afterward. He made the wrong choice. But there’s never a good choice. It’s like the situation with Hollywood movies. You say what you say and hope for the best.

And yes, it is throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks, or what might be called ready-fire-aim. So you just say things, like that woman with the crazy eyes:

Michele Bachmann lashed out at China Friday, accusing the communist country of attacking U.S. satellites with lasers.

“I’m not sharing something I shouldn’t, but China has blinded United States satellites with their lasers,” the Minnesota congresswoman said in an interview on The Laura Ingraham Show. “They’ve also supplied arms to the Taliban, and they’ve helped North Korea deliver missiles to Iran and Pakistan. And they’ve assisted Iran with their nuclear program.”

Bachmann prefaced that statement with a reminder that she sits on the House Intelligence Committee and has access to “the nation’s classified secrets.” She did not offer evidence about the laser attack claim, except to say that it came from an open source document.

Elspeth Reeve at Atlantic Wire tries to straighten this out:

Information on the alleged laser warfare, she said, came from an “open source document” – what could that be? In 2006, China tested a laser on one American satellite, but did no damage to it, USA Today reported at the time. It’s unclear if that test actually blinded the satellite. So perhaps a newspaper is her secret source. On the other hand, earlier this month, The New York Times’ Trip Gabriel reported, “People close to the campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mrs. Bachmann is often influenced by the last person she speaks with on an issue rather than maintaining discipline in communicating a message.”

But that is what makes her a formidable politician, in a system where you get votes by telling people what they want to hear. You’re responsive, and being influenced by the last person to whom you speak on an issue could be considered an asset – you’re in tune with concerns people have – you are intimately engaged with the zeitgeist. Or you’re nutty and pandering to the lowest common denominator. It’s hard to find the middle ground between the two.

But what happens when the Republican candidate for president who was supposed to save the day for the Party, Rick Perry, finds that he is on the defensive over a hot-button culture-war issue of immense importance to the Tea Party base? He called them heartless. They didn’t like that. And now he has to find the zeitgeist again, so he tries his best to say what he now thinks they really want to hear, and then, to be even more dramatic, to go all-out:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Saturday that he would consider sending U.S. troops into Mexico to combat drug-related violence and stop it from spilling into the southern United States. “It may require our military in Mexico,” Perry said in answer to a question about the growing threat of drug violence along the southern border. Perry offered no details, and a spokesman, Robert Black, said afterward that sending troops to Mexico would be merely one way of putting an end to the exploding cartel-related violence in the region.

Black said Perry’s intention is to work with the Mexican government, but he declined to specify whether Perry is amenable to sending troops into Mexico with or without the country’s consent.

Kevin Drum says this is just an effort by Perry to maintain his more-kick-ass-than-thou credentials:

Do I even need to spell out why this is such an unconditionally boneheaded idea? Probably not… I can’t wait to get the official Mexican government reaction to this.

I don’t get it. Is Mitt Romney really such a blood-curdlingly terrifying opponent that he scares every other candidate in the field into repeatedly immolating themselves? This is crazy.

But you give the people what they seem to want. Mitt Romney doesn’t do that. The base doesn’t care for him. And if the idea is to give people what they, then it is probably a good idea, politically, to give them even more than they want. It’s bold. And it’s war with Mexico.

Steven Taylor, at Outside the Beltway, suggests Perry’s military option does have its problems:

First, such a move would be a serious escalation of the current policy (a policy that isn’t working as it is). Not only that, the suggestion suggests a naive belief that all that is needed to fix the drug problem is finding the right level of force. If one thing should be clear from the available data: force alone is not going to solve this problem. The war on drugs is unwinnable and anyone who suggests that all we need is simply more money, more force, or some combination thereof, is simply revealing their lack of understanding and/or seriousness on this topic.

But who is going to tell the American people that military force is not the answer to every problem? No, the answer is completely eliminating Capital Gains taxes. Or it’s getting rid of the gays, or banning abortion, or bring back school prayer, or making labor unions illegal, or… no, wait. It’s always more complicated. And sending a few Army divisions into Mexico seems pretty dumb, and crude.

And Taylor offers this:

Second, such a move would just lead to an escalation of violence, not a diminution thereof. The Mexican cartels are in a position to wage an insurgent style fight against US troops. Further, they are mixed in with the civilian population. What, exactly, does Perry think regular troops would be doing in Mexico?

He hasn’t thought that far ahead. He just wants them this. Why? Because.

But there is more:

Third, there is also the historical tone deafness to the suggestion, given that US troops in Mexico has a rather significant negative connotation to Mexicans. While those of us in the north have forgotten about the Mexican-American War, not to mention numerous incursions by US troops into Mexican territory in the mid-to-late 1800s and the early 1900s, it remains a point of significance to Mexicans.

Yes, they might be pissed off, but there are two more:

Fourth, this is an egregious example of American hubris: the belief that another country ought to welcome the deployment of US troops within their territory because, after all, we just want to help. But, of course, this is something that Americans would never even contemplate (i.e., having foreign troops acting within our territory).

Fifth, given the ongoing military actions in which the US government is currently engaged, do we really need another one?

Heck, do we even have the troops? Taylor argues that we might not want to transform the drug war – the famous War on Drugs that never worked out – into an actual hot war with our combat troops deployed to a foreign country. On the other hand, politicians do need votes to get elected, and you tell people what they want to hear, and more. You need those votes. No, they didn’t think things through, and if you tell them to think things through, because you have, they’ll find that insulting and patronizing.

But if you are a Republican you do have to say that Obama is soft on national defense. All Democrats are. Everyone knows that. It’s a given. Say anything? You can at least say that.

But then there is the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, one more very bad guy, who happened to be an American citizen, working in Yemen as the English-language voice of al-Qaeda, and killed his bomb-making buddy, also an American citizen. This gets confusing. Obama did that? Okay, you have to give him that. But can he do that? Should he have done that? And in the Los Angeles Times, the very conservative Max Boot dismisses concerns about any president’s authority to target United States citizens for execution:

A few civil libertarians are raising questions about whether the U.S. government had the right to kill an American citizen without a trial…. That’s like asking if it was lawful to kill Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. Like the rebels during the Civil War, Awlaki and Khan gave up the benefits of American citizenship by taking up arms against their country. They, and other Al Qaeda members, claim to be “soldiers” in the army of Allah; it is only fitting that their avowed enemy, the Great Satan, would take their protestations seriously and treat them just like enemy soldiers. If it’s lawful to drop a missile on a Saudi or Egyptian member of Al Qaeda, it’s hard to see why an American citizen should be exempt.

Well, that’s bloodthirsty, like voters want, but Kevin Drum finds it rather chilling:

One of the reasons that liberal democracies constrain the use of force against their own citizens more than they do against noncitizens is because national governments have a very wide array of coercive powers already available to track and control their own citizens. Since this coercive power is inherent in the state, it’s wise to restrain it lest it get out of control. Likewise, national governments don’t generally need to execute their own citizens without trial because they have lots of other alternatives available to them. At a practical level, they often don’t have this power over noncitizens, so killing them is sometimes the only option available.

But this distinction also applies to location: national governments have far more police power available within their own territory than they do overseas. In Awlaki’s case, you might argue that if he had been living in, say, South Dakota, the government would have been constrained from killing him without trial because it has the power to deal with him judicially instead. But since he was living in Yemen, it didn’t, and a targeted assassination was the only option open.

But Boot isn’t willing to concede even that. The Civil War analogy suggests that even if Awlaki had been living within the United States he would have been fair game for a presidential assassination merely for belonging to a group that calls itself an offshoot of al-Qaeda.

But those on the right love the idea of an imperial presidency, one with vast powers. We’ve come to expect that and there’s even a book about it – although those on the right would prefer the imperial president be one of theirs. Still, you see, the idea is fine.

But Drum doubts that Max Boot really believes what he is arguing here:

He does not, in truth, think that President Obama can empower the FBI to roam the country and gun down American citizens who are plotting against us, whether they belong to al-Qaeda affiliates or not. Nor does he think that the 1st Cavalry Division can do this, even though that’s exactly what they did during the Civil War. He’s merely using the Civil War analogy because it was handy and seemed like it might sound plausible to readers who didn’t think about it too much.

Nope, Boot was just throwing stuff against the wall, to see what sticks. But Drum thinks this through:

As it happens, I don’t think the Awlaki precedent means that President Obama is going to go hog wild and start mowing down Americans overseas. I don’t think that President Rick Perry would, either. But there are good and sound reasons that presidents are constrained in their ability to unilaterally kill U.S. citizens, regardless of where they live, and we allow these bright lines to be dimmed at our peril. Unfortunately, the war on terror has made poltroons out of every branch of government. The president hides behind the post-9/11 AUMF [the Authorization to Use Military Force that allowed our Iraq War and much more], using it as a shield to justify any action as long as it’s plausibly targeted at al-Qaeda or something al-Qaeda-ish. Congress, which ought to pass a law that specifically spells out due process in cases like this, cowers in its chambers and declines to assert itself. And the courts, as usual, throw up their hands whenever they hear the talismanic word “war” and declare themselves to have no responsibility.

If the president wants the power to kill U.S. citizens who aren’t part of a recognized foreign army and haven’t received a trial, he should propose a law that spells out when and how he can do it. Congress should debate it, and the courts should rule on its constitutionality. That’s the rule of law. And regardless of whether I liked the law, I’d accept it if Congress passed it, the president signed it, and the Supreme Court declared it constitutional.

However, none of that has happened. The president’s power in this sphere is, in practical terms, whatever he says it is. Nobody, not liberals or conservatives, not hawks or doves, should be happy with that state of affairs.

But does that matter when you’re running for office? Boot is just trying to help out Perry and the rest, and this is what he threw against the wall.

But Digby throws this in the mix:

I don’t know what Boot believes and it wouldn’t surprise me if he really does think the president has the right to order the killings of anyone – who Max Boot thinks is worthy of killing. The rub, of course, is when he disagrees about the target. Police states always present that one little problem, don’t they?

And now you see why Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway were up at Musso and Frank, drinking heavily. A say-anything culture is dispiriting and depressing and dangerous.

But in case you were wondering, the martinis at Musso and Frank are still wonderful. See you there.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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