February 28, 2008 - February 21, 2008
. This is just a plug. The HBO series Rome is in its second and final
season. I guess it's my month for heresy, but this production surpasses
the Masterpiece Theater icon I
Claudius by a mile. I'm not saying I Claudius wasn't great. It was.
But Rome is better. Don't
There has always been an interesting hole in Roman history. There is the Rome of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which gives us compelling portraits of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony. Then there is Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, in which we once again focus on Antony. Octavian is a major character, to be sure, but he is cast in the dramatic role of villain, though he displays a fair amount of humanity, going so far as to permit the lovers to be buried side by side.
What's missing is the extraordinary story of Octavian the political prodigy, the teenager who responded to the assassination of Julius Caesar so adroitly that he bested some of the most famous characters in recorded history, including Mark Antony, Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero, to become the first emperor of Rome and the architect of the Pax Romana, the longest period of relative peace Rome would enjoy before its eventual downfall almost 500 years later.
If there were a 20th century Shakespeare who chose his topics like the first one, we'd have plays about Robespierre and Louis XVIII, but none about Napoleon Bonaparte. That's the scale of the omission. To put it in perspective, Caesar Augustus is the only Roman Emperor mentioned by name in the Bible. Yet where have we heard his story before? In Shakespeare, he was an afterthought and a foil, and in Robert Graves's I Claudius he was a cheerful but moribund symbol of the calm before the storm. Shakespeare lacked interest because he wasn't a tragic character; he was, unlike Napoleon and other subsequent pretenders, a winner. The result? Writers aren't interested in his story.
HBO's Rome rushes into this void with a dramatization of perhaps the greatest political tour de force of all time, the process by which the frail teenage nephew of Julius Caesar accomplished his personal transformation from Octavianus Balba to Caesar Augustus, deftly turning one Roman warlord after another into pawns and victims of his own quest for absolute power over the known world.
Octavian is a far more interesting character than Caesar Augustus. In the scripts of Rome, one can see, and believe, that the titans of the time continually assumed they could manipulate and intimidate him. Cleverly, Rome reinforces this illusion by depicting his mother and sister as blind to the intellect by which he performed the most effective political calculus ever recorded in antiquity, seamlessly creating and breaking alliances as changing circumstances dictated, even among members of his own family. Those who insist that women never wielded power before c. 1970 will both object to and adore the character of Atia, Octavian's mother. Interestingly enough, the woman who plays Atia, Polly Walker, does resemble her.
The triumph of Rome is that
this incredible and heretofore untold story is complemented by extraordinary
characters and subplots that make the Roman Empire more vivid,
enticing, and repellent than any of Hollywood's (or PBS's) epic
efforts. Some liberties have been taken, to be sure, since history is
kinder to the mothers of Octavian and Brutus (Servilia) than HBO
allows, but these departures are a small price to pay for the picture
we get of a pagan world in which murder is matter of fact, beheaded
chickens forgive all, sex is private from the patrician neighbors but
not from slaves or in orgies, and the origins of today's mafia are
evident in the arrangements between the senate and the plebeian "dons"
who managed labor for the ports and commercial districts of the city.
And we haven't mentioned the color. Rome paints the ancient world in reds and blues and greens and golds we never associated with the worn marble and cement of ruins. And graffiti. What do you suppose they painted on the walls back then, before there was a Christian Right? Go take a look. If you don't understand, ask Pullo. It's all there, as early as the credits.
Sunday nights at 9 o'clock.
. Every so often,
we like to look in on the Grammies
and try to solve the perennial mystery: why do they attract so much
attention? They treat almost every major genre of music -- classical,
jazz, rock, country, rap, Latin, world, et al -- as afterthoughts
and only get around
to honoring the true giants of music after they're
wheelchair-bound or dead. Last night, for example, they slipped in --
between endless nominations in various pop categories -- lifetime
achievement awards for Maria Callas (30 years dead) and the Doors (Jim
Morrison is 35 years dead). We haven't looked it up, but our bet would
be that neither of these superstar acts got a Grammy when they were
alive. Still, we enjoyed their unexpected duet performance of "Break on
Through," unless that was a couple of other guys. Even if it was, we
thought it rocked.
Once you accept that the Grammies are strictly about pop music, though,
it's easy to sit back and gape at all the pretty-boy singers and
half-dressed babes making love to their microphones. We got to see
Justin Timberlake perform big numbers, twice, and we have to admit the
tuxedo-with-huge-white-sneakers look is killer. Everywhere else you
looked, there were nice big breasts barely contained by clingy fabric.
There were some beautiful hips on display, too, from the monumental
Michelangelo curves of Beyonce's lower half to the perpetual motion
machine called Shakira, who probably precipitated some serious tremors
along the San Andreas fault. If she didn't, Christina Aguilera did,
with a performance so loud it must also have broken large amounts of
glassware throughout Southern California. It was an unusual treat
to hear the Dixie Chicks's pledge of allegiance to themselves, recited
with enough woeful chirps to remind us of three crickets sad about
getting stepped on in a redneck bar. Very moving. And did we mention
Carrie Underwood? We hope so, because she's, well, mentionable. She's
the American Idol, you know. Several of her dresses were quite pretty,
but one looked like they had forgotten to sew on the bottom half of her
skirt to cover up that slip. She's definitely getting the hang of the
pop star thing, though. As is Al Gore. But he does need to check with
Justin Timberlake about getting bigger sneakers.
On the other hand, the musical performances were exceptionally good. This year, they rounded up a bunch of old guys who know how to sing real songs and play real musical instruments -- The Police, Smoky Robinson, Nicole Richie's dad, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Stevie Wonder introduced three newcomers who also knew how to sing and play so they could be pretty much ignored in the big awards later on, which have everything to do with pop, meaning popular, which in this particular year means politically correct, and not much to do with anything else.
We can't remember all of them, but here are the most important award categories and winners:
And did we mention Joan Baez? We hope not. Because she is absolutely,
completely unmentionable. Although one of us thought her dress was
For a change.
UPDATE. Not surprisingly, La Malkin checked out the Grammies, too.
UPDATE 2. Courtesy of a tip from Wuzzadem, here's a truly hilarious video of the song the Dixie Chicks should have performed last night:
If you liked it, send some "get well soon" cheer to Wuzzadem. (Scroll down the
left-hand column at his site for contact information.) He's
as usual, but we can be sure there's real pain involved.
. I generally know when to let a subject go, but I
also once accepted the advice that a comment worth responding to is a
blog entry worth writing. So I decided to respond to this whole comment
from a gentleman named Ray
Swenson, who remains angry and embittered about my challenge
Mormons supporting Mitt Romney despite my non-satiric explanation
motives. As I contemplated what he wrote, it seemed an excellent
opportunity to specify what I have addressed only generally about the
mistakes Mormon apologists are making. I haven't omitted any of Mr.
Swanson's words. Here they are, in full, with my thoughts:
Good opening salvo for an armored assault. But try stating this as a
positive argument for Romney rather than as an aggrieved and reflexive
attack on those who might be skeptical.
There is no right in the Constitution not to be offended by what
various people might say. I'm offended all the time by what leftist
totalitarians say about the United States, what liberals say about
conservatives, what hard-line feminists say about men, what black
race-baiters say about white people, what atheists and Islamists say
about Christians, what homosexuals say about heterosexuals, what Global Warming hysterics say about skeptics of
the latest scientific permutation of original sin, and what
"pro-choice" activists say about fetuses. I nevertheless accept that if
those who disagree with me manage to hurt my feelings, they are
committing no crime. With respect to my feelings, they are not even
committing a sin. All too often, people use injured feelings as an
excuse for not thinking. I have always been scornful of George Bernard
Shaw's wisecrack that he would have had a higher opinion of Jesus
Christ if, in the gospels, He had ever exhorted people to think. That
is precisely the reason for the parables, which are not edicts but
invitations to think. (Shaw was an 'arrogant twit' on this point.)
Similarly, I invite you to think rather than emote like some irritated
No, it doesn't. There's a vast difference between provocative speech
and murder. Casual prejudice doesn't come marching up to the door with a bucket of tar and feathers. It just says things you don't like and have no right -- moral or legal -- to suppress. If you disagree, then you shouldn't be backing a Republican
candidate at all, but one of the presumptive juvenile tyrants at
Berkeley who want to make unwelcome speech a hate crime and prosecute
social heretics for what they think rather than what they do. Is that part of your faith? Do you
really want to make me nervous about your religion? Keep going.
No, it doesn't. Making fun of people -- any people -- is not the same
as seeking to deprive them of freedom or life. Indeed, it is the
opposite. Jokes are the safety valve of civilized societies that keeps
minor resentments from ballooning into fanatical hatreds. If I'm wrong,
show me any single personal
anecdote from Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Baathist Iraq, Kim Jong Il's
Korea, Castro's Cuba, or Khomeini's Iran comparable to this exchange
between British parliamentary rivals Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill:
ASTOR. If you were my husband, I'd poison your coffee.
CHURCHILL. If you were my wife, I'd drink it.
Tedious name-dropping. And counter-productive. It tends to reinforce
the widespread notion that Mormons have a hard time distinguishing
between real goodness and more superficial attainments like success,
wealth, authority, and status. If I were really being mean, I could
invite you to reread this paragraph making the following substitutions:
1) for "Mormons," "National Socialists;" 2) for "American," "German;"
3) for "Harvard," "Heidelberg," 4) for "America," "Germany;" 5)
and for "faith" and "Church," "Party." Would it still sound like a
perfect resume? Not that I'm asking.
Sorry for reducing your brilliant argument against atheism and
evolution to microfiche, but it's completely irrelevant here.
(Instapunk has gotten into enough trouble with atheists and
evolutionists in the past.) There's a more important point that most of
the Mormon spokespeople in the comments have quite failed to perceive.
Not all infinities are created equal. For example, the infinite set of
rational numbers is larger than the infinite set of integers. In the
same way, not all impossibilities
improbabilities are created equal. It may seem improbable that a divine
incarnation named Jesus Christ rose from the dead after being executed
by the Roman governor of Judea, but we do not not have to further
diminish this probability by questioning whether there was a Roman
Empire, a captive state called Judea, a city called Jerusalem, a town
called Bethlehem, a place called Nazareth, a sea called Galilee, a
Greek language in which the gospels were written, a Latin language in
which the memory and meaning of the improbable events were translated
into doctrine and creed, or a process of recording scripture that did
not involve the use of magical, disappearing technologies.
Strangely enough, some of the other Mormon debaters have even dared to frame the improbability of Christ's immaculate conception and resurrection as an implicit accusation against those who question the legitimacy of Mormonism. I can't think of a worse line of argument. A Mormon begins his series of improbable beliefs with an acceptance of all the New Testament improbabilities, then piles on top of them the improbabilities of the Book of Mormon -- a civilization, language, history, and technology for which there is no evidence of any kind.
No, this does not mean that you are wrong. It does not mean that you are crazy. It means that you constitute a tiny minority of the most populous and influential religion of all time. Skepticism, distrust, and even scorn from the limb out of which you grow as a twig are a natural condition of your existence. There is probably no other country in history in which the people of your faith could have survived and prospered as they have here. Utah and the Mormon Tabernacle are a purely American miracle. Now you even aspire to the highest office of the nation that -- despite numerous bumps and scrapes did finally accept your right to exist -- and it is your choice how you respond. How do you choose? With a cynical presumption that no one else in the land believes as deeply in their faith as you believe in yours, which gives you the right to demand acquiescence, silence, and even obeisance in the face of what could be perceived as ludicrous heresies? With bilious resentment and contempt for those who still cling to the two-millennium-old taproot from which you and yours are but a century-and-a-half-old sprout? Or with the missionary enthusiasm and humility with which the first Christians set about sharing the spiritual joys of their faith with the ancient denizens of the culture whose laws and traditions gave them the chance to survive the lifespan of their original inspiration?
My oldest impression of Mormons was that they were missionaries, not bratty didacts. Fact is, I have cousins who are Mormons. And one close friend from college who was one of the few saintly people I have known. He had been raised by Mormons as a touchingly virtuous person, a bishop by rank, but he was also a troubled agnostic of his own faith. From what he shared with me of his knowledge and doubts, I did acquire a skeptic's view of Mormon scripture -- and an unsettling conviction that true goodness can be sired through paternity of dubious worth. (In fact, this is my only reason for believing in the existence of the "good" muslims who are supposedly on our side.) Call it bigotry, but I learned to expect extraordinary personal qualities from Mormons even as I continued to question the legitimacy of their faith. My conclusion is that your dudgeon, Mr. Swanson, is itself a Mormon heresy.
Only in America could a religious faith like this rise from nothing to the possibility of supreme elective office in a religious nation in fewer than 150 years. You're scarcely older than the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's witnesses. You've lost a few true believers along the way. But so have the Roman Catholics and the Protestants and the Christians who fought to free the slaves in the United States of America. Join the club. So quit your whining and griping and start using your faith and considerable intelligence to convince this unbelievably hospitable nation that you have something wonderful to offer.
Call me what you will. That's beside the point. You're competing for the highest office of the greatest, freest country in human history. It's time to prove you're more than yet another victim-in-waiting.
You are all most welcome for the preview
I have given you of two issues that will be part of the 2008
presidential campaign. Since no one seems in the mood for humor, I'll
explain these for everyone who finds it impossible to delve below the
most superficial level of provocation for insight.
First, though, a couple of observations and assertions.
Dean Barnett has proven that he can be trusted. The most prudent response he could have chosen to my post was no response. That he attempted to address the questions I raised speaks very well of his integrity.
Even the angriest commenters here still did not stoop to the four-letter filth that is not just common but pervasive among leftwing blog folk. That their jibes were mostly wide of the mark was unfortunate, but it does highlight one of my reasons for posting what I did.
And what about all those irate Presbyterians? I mean, how could they get that furious just because I slammed John Calvin about as hard as I did the Mormons? Uh, what? You didn't notice any irate Presbyterians? Hmmmm. I wonder why.
For the record -- and as most regular readers of InstaPunk should readily have determined -- I don't hate Mormons. If Romney turns out to be the Republican nominee, I will probably support him. I don't think he's the best candidate available because he's a Massachusetts Republican on the wrong side of some key conservative issues. I also -- and separately -- don't believe he's electable, no matter how smart and rich he is. All you enraged Mormon commenters have just helped illustrate why.
InstaPunk makes fun of everyone. That's a big part of what we do here, and we're not going to stop doing it because we are not political players with some obligation to be politically correct. We romp up and down on the sidelines shouting catcalls and sticking out our tongues. Because we can. I don't recall receiving anything like the amount of grief you Mormons expressed when I was just as "borderline offensive" (Dean's words) about Richard Dawkins's atheist agenda a few weeks ago.
So here's the first point. Did all you Romney adherents and Mormons really think that the subject of Romney's religion wouldn't come up in the course of a campaign for the presidency? The most disturbing thing about the comments was how offended and surprised everyone seemed to be that anyone would bring up the subject. That is truly absurd. And is this how you're planning to persuade the electorate that it's not a problem? By immediately resorting to ad-hominem attacks without bothering to look past the first incendiary remarks for more information about the person who offended you? (Leaping to the conclusion that InstaPunk is a liberal and/or Jew hater and doing nothing to verify such assumptions before making a fool of yourself is really inexcusable if you're actually trying to help your cause, not just blowing off steam.)
Romney's religion is definitely going to be an issue in the campaign. If you want your man to win, the time to drag this looming iceberg into the open is now. The worst possible strategy is to ignore it until after Romney is nominated, because that's when the left will go to work on it, and if you thought I was unfair, you ain't seen nothing yet. We've just seen how unafraid the lefties are of using genuinely obscene ridicule against the Roman Catholic Church. They despise evangelical Christians even more than they do Catholics. You need to think long and hard about how unscrupulous they'll be about the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
Some facts everyone in the Romney camp needs to accept pronto. It is remarkably easy to make fun of Mormonism. You're going to see a lot of it, and I mean a ton. And it's not going to be as simple to handle for Romney as it was for Kennedy to handle his Catholicism. Nothing I read in the comments reassures me that you Romneyites understand this reality. I am especially concerned about the intimations I read that there are Mormons who are good Mormons even though they do not really believe all the harder to believe stuff!? Talk about your slippery slopes. Serious thought has to be given to how Romney advocates and the Mormon community generally should respond to the doubters. And there will be a great many doubters who are not "arrogant twits" or "bigots" or "haters," but mere conventional traditionalists who think that what and where a person comes from says a lot about who he is and what he will do in a pinch.
This brings me to the second issue -- the role and responsibilities of "players" like Hewitt and Barnett. Though he circled around the question quite a bit, Barnett never did quite draw a clear line between being a blogger and a semi-official advocate for a political candidate. In fact, his posture of taking offense at InstaPunk's Mormon abuse rather than recognize the size and danger of the iceberg does no service to his readers or his candidate. He wound up falling through the rift between blogger and campaign-worker. As a campaign worker he shouldn't have linked me at all. As a blogger, he should have remembered that satire is in InstaPunk's DNA and addressed the fact of a political problem that is best not wished away.
This is a significant issue of its own, irrespective of the Romney candidacy. In the 2008 election, the political world is going to reach into the blogosphere in new ways, drafting bloggers as political soldiers and thereby creating much confusion and potential conflict of interest. Last week's flap about John Edwards's blog girls is only the first of what will prove to be many controversies. What is the line between bloggers and campaign soldiers? What are the ethical questions that should be anticipated and thought through ahead of time? Specifically, what should bloggers-turned-campaign-workers tell their readers about what they will or will not do with their writings on behalf of a candidate? Or are we just supposed to read between the lines and guess how much is honest discourse and how much is pragmatic political spin?
Frankly, I'm not comfortable with that, and it seems to me that Dean Barnett is still grappling with the problem but has not quite come to grips with it yet.
For all of you who found it impossible to read this because you're so blinded by the conviction that I'm just a bigoted idiot, my condolences. Shooting off your six-guns at anyone who says unflattering things about Mormonism is naive at best and self-destructive at worst. Whether you know it or not, I've just done you a big favor. Get a grip.
And finally, to Dean: I know you'll sort your way through the ethical issues. That's why I picked on you rather than someone else.
UPDATE 2/12/07. A more specific response from InstaPunk to a commenter who's still angry and bitter.