Eat your vegetables

[This post is participating in The Cooler’s Politics and Movies blog-a-thon.]

I don’t know how my mom ever got me to watch the film 1776 in the first place. Probably it was by turning it on to watch it herself and relying on the hypnotic spell of the TV to pull me in. Ever since she did, I have spent a large part of my life trying — and failing, mostly — to persuade others to see it too. You see, the movie is almost impossible to describe without making it sound like “eat your vegetables” or “floss your teeth” or “do your homework” — something boring but essential because it’s good for you (shudder), even though it’s actually as entertaining a two hours as you’re ever likely to spend. Its educational value is just a nice little plus.

Here, I’ll show you what I mean:

1776 is the true story of how the Second Continental Congress, which at first opposed the idea of separating from Great Britain, eventually came to adopt the Declaration of Independence. And it’s a musical!

See? You couldn’t possibly want less to watch it now, could you? The fact that it’s a musical only seems to confirm that it’s a subject so dreary that it needs some added flavor, like oatmeal. Let me try again:

In 1776, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin persuade a reluctant Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, and a reluctant Congress to adopt it.

Ugh, that’s worse. Try this on for size:

Franklin.
Jefferson.
Adams.
They’re not just names in history books. They’re not just stodgy portraits, marble statues, or dry-as-dust lists of accomplishments. They were ordinary people like you and me. 1776 makes them accessible and shows how they achieved the impossible.

Oy. Clearly I’m trying too hard. Maybe if I concoct a modern high-impact movie trailer using scenes from the film and some dramatic narration…

            NARRATOR
      You know how it ends.

Close up on the new Declaration of
Independence as John Hancock adds his
distinctive signature.

            HOPKINS
      That's a pretty large signature,
      Johnny.

            HANCOCK
      So Fat George in London can read
      it without his glasses!

            NARRATOR
      But it almost didn't happen.

Congress in session.

            RUTLEDGE
      South Carolina will bury now and
      forever your dream of
      independence!

Congress in session.

            ADAMS
      They stopped our trade, seized our
      ships, blockaded our ports, burned
      our towns, and spilled our blood!

            NARRATOR
      In a world that doesn't know
      freedom...

Congress in session.

            DICKINSON
      I have no objections at all to
      being part of the greatest empire
      on earth!

Congress in session.

            RUTLEDGE
      Black slavery is our peculiar
      institution and a cherished way of
      life.

            NARRATOR
      ...a secret cabal...

Franklin indicates Jefferson, Adams, and
himself.

            FRANKLIN
          (singing)
      A farmer, a lawyer, and a sage!

            NARRATOR
      ...defies the mightiest army on
      earth...

Congress in session.

            THOMSON
          (reading a dispatch)
      "There can be no doubt that their
      destination is New York for to
      take and hold this city and the
      Hudson Valley beyond would serve
      to separate New England from the
      other colonies permitting both
      sections to be crushed in turn."

            NARRATOR
      ...and an even greater enemy:
      apathy...

Congress in session.

            HANCOCK
          (distractedly)
      General Washington will continue
      wording his dispatches as he sees
      fit, and I'm sure we all pray that
      he finds happier thoughts to
      convey in the near --
          (swats a fly)
      -- future.

Outside Congress.

            ADAMS
          (singing to the heavens)
      A second Flood, a simple famine,
      Plagues of locusts everywhere
      Or a cataclysmic earthquake
      I'd accept with some despair
      But no, you've sent us Congress!
      Good God, sir, was that fair?

            NARRATOR
      ...to attempt the impossible.

Franklin and Adams scheming outdoors.

            FRANKLIN
      No colony has ever broken from the
      parent stem in the history of the
      world!

            NARRATOR
      One man with a vision...

Congressional chamber, empty.

            ADAMS
          (singing)
      I see fireworks!
      I see the pageant and pomp and parade!
      I hear the bells ringing out!
      I hear the cannons roar!
      I see Americans, all Americans
      Free forevermore!

            NARRATOR
      ...one man with a quill...

Jefferson appears at his window and lets
a paper flutter down to Adams and
Franklin in the street below.

            ADAMS
      Franklin, look!  He's written
      something -- he's done it!
          (reads)
      "Dear Mr. Adams: I am taking my
      wife back to bed.  Kindly go away.
      Your obedient, T. Jefferson."

            FRANKLIN
          (admiringly)
      What, again?!

            NARRATOR
      ...and one man with the savvy to
      see it through...

Congress in session.

            FRANKLIN
      We've spawned a new race here --
      rougher, simpler, more violent,
      more enterprising, and less
      refined.  We're a new nationality,
      Mr. Dickinson.  We require a new
      nation.

            NARRATOR
      ...must overcome incredible
      odds...

Congress in session.

            ADAMS
      But it'll never be unanimous,
      dammit!

            DICKINSON
          (pleased)
      If you say so, Mr. Adams.

            NARRATOR
      ...their personal prejudices...

Franklin and Adams scheming outdoors.

            FRANKLIN
      Nobody listens to you.  You're
      obnoxious and disliked.

Hopkins and Franklin milling about in
the Congressional chamber.

            HOPKINS
      You are without a doubt a rogue, a
      rascal, a villain, a thief, a
      scoundrel, and a mean, dirty,
      stinking, sniveling, sneaking,
      pimping, pocket-picking, thrice
      double-damned, no good son of a
      bitch.

Outside Congress.

            JEFFERSON
          (singing)
      Oh, Mr. Adams, you are driving me
      to homicide!

            NARRATOR
      ...and their own weaknesses...

Adams and Jefferson in Jefferson's
apartment.

            ADAMS
      Do you mean to say it's not
      finished?!

            JEFFERSON
      No, sir.  I mean to say it's not
      begun.

Adams and his wife.

            ADAMS
      I've always been dissatisfied, I
      know that.  But lately I find that
      I reek of discontentment.  It
      fills my throat and floods my
      brain.

Franklin and Adams in Congress.

            FRANKLIN
      What will posterity think we
      were -- demigods?

            NARRATOR
      ...to prove to the world...

Congress in session.

            ADAMS
      Certainly we require the aid of a
      powerful nation like France or
      Spain.

Congress in session.

            DICKINSON
      Mr. Jefferson, are you seriously
      suggesting that we publish a paper
      declaring to all the world that an
      illegal rebellion is, in reality,
      a legal one?

            NARRATOR
      ...that all men...

Adams and Franklin in the Congressional
chamber.

            FRANKLIN
      Whether you like it or not, they
      and the people they represent will
      be a part of the new country you'd
      hope to create!  Either start
      learning how to live with them or
      pack up and go home!

            NARRATOR
      ...are created equal.

Congress in session.

            FRANKLIN
      There's no backing out now.  If we
      don't hang together, we shall most
      assuredly hang separately!

Laughter.

            HANCOCK
      Gentlemen, forgive me if I don't
      join in the merriment, but if
      we're arrested now, my name is
      still the only one on the damn
      thing!

Shell game

The United States of Bigotry — that’s us.

The nation was founded on bigotry: the Second Continental Congress refused to adopt Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 until anti-slavery language was removed; and one war and eleven years later the Constitutional Convention declared a Negro to be three-fifths of a person for census-taking purposes — and for voting, zero-fifths. Our growing nation spent most of its first century internalizing these injustices. When after stealing entire lifetimes from one generation after another we finally got around to trying to fix the problem, it was too late: bigotry was in our DNA and couldn’t be purged without civil war and several more generations of discrimination and institutionalized racism.

Yesterday we elected to our highest office a man who, apart from being the best person for the job, is incidentally a member of that oppressed racial group, and it would appear we finally closed the door on that particular flavor of bigotry — though the job won’t be done until we nail a bunch of boards across that door, shove a chair under the doorknob, and stand permanently to one side with a raised baseball bat. However, in the very same instant we opened the door to a new kind of bigotry as three states outlawed gay marriage — and this after a presidential campaign in which one candidate scored political points by calling the other a Muslim. It’s as if bigotry can’t be ended, it can only be shifted from here to there like some sort of hateful shell game.

In California, where you might least expect a gay-marriage ban to succeed, where did its electoral support come from? In a stunning, epic, historic stroke of irony, exit polls show it came from the very demographic that was motivated by bigotry to turn out in greater numbers than ever before: black voters, who in their (justifiable) eagerness to overcome a legacy of discrimination passed the baton to a whole new class of victims.

Update (7 Nov 2008): My friend Bart points out that this exit polling result is being blown out of proportion to its reliability and may itself be the cause of further bigotry — perish the thought! See “War of the Words: Fear and Hate Behind Proposition 8” on Skepticblog.

Couldn’t I be a little less right all the time?

Preface: It’s remarkable how quickly, after all we’ve been through, it’s becoming irrelevant to bash George Bush. Of course some of this is by his own design: he’s sitting out the election to prevent harming McCain’s chances (any more than McCain and Palin are harming them themselves), and everyone’s bashing energy has shifted to more prominent targets. Very likely, once the election is over, we’ll be hearing a lot more about Bush as he gives the world whatever final fuck-you he has in store; but for now, I’ve got this blog post that I’ve been tinkering with for weeks, and if I want it to have any relevance at all I better wrap it up and push it out the door now, ready or not. Here ’tis.


Global finance in total meltdown. Major cities half obliterated. Peak oil (and peak helium, platinum, indium, zinc, copper, phosphorous…). Deteriorating soil quality in the heartland, and plummeting water tables — in fact, water shortages everywhere. Polar ice caps disappearing. Fishing stocks depleted. Our protective global magnetic field weakening. Vast methane clouds pouring out of their ancient undersea vaults. The U.S. Constitution in tatters.

Not that long ago, when my friends and I would get together and discuss our biggest concerns, they were along the lines of, “With the world so peaceful and prosperous, how will we keep our kids (when we have some) from growing up into spoiled trust-fund brats?” We were looking for solutions a little more subtle than worldwide strife and deprivation to teach them some humility, but I guess worldwide strife and deprivation will have to do. It worked for “the greatest generation,” after all. (Careful what you wish for!)

Honestly, it’s almost worth it to see everything turning to shit all at once, just to be able to say that, when I warned four years ago that the world couldn’t afford another four years of George Bush — that no scenario of devastation was too far-fetched — I was exactly right. It wasn’t hyperbole when I said George Bush could destroy the world. He now has.

Ahh.

Of course the destruction of the world could have taken many different forms. Here’s one way I’ve thought it might happen. Don’t you just know that this is exactly how Bush would respond to this kind of crisis? Imagine with me now…


EXT. GOLF COURSE - DAY

            AIDE

    Mr. President, Space Command has
    detected an extrasolar object in a
    geoconverging orbit, exhibiting
    nonballistic maneuvering capability.
    Here's the report: "Alien starship
    will reach earth in three months."

            BUSH

    "Space Command"?  We have one of
    those?  You're shitting me.

            AIDE

    Yes sir, but the report --

            BUSH

    OK, you've covered your ass.  Now
    watch this drive.

INT. UNDISCLOSED LOCATION

            AUTO EXEC

    Dammit, Dick, these new CAFE rules
    are killing us.  Building more
    fuel-efficient cars adds almost a
    full percent more to the cost of
    manufacture!

            ASSISTANT

    But the public wants these cars and
    will pay a premium --

            AUTO EXEC

    The public?  Bah!  You're fired!

            ASSISTANT

    But the free market --

            AUTO EXEC

    Get out!  ...Sorry you had to see
    that, Dick.

            CHENEY

    I know how it is with these kids who
    "care."  Say, don't I remember
    reading something highly classified
    about an alien starship...?

            AUTO EXEC

    A what?!

            CHENEY

    Oh it's probably nothing... except
    it's just what the doctor ordered
    for your fuel-efficiency problems.

            AUTO EXEC

    Thanks Dick, you're the best.

            CHENEY

    Yes.  Yes I am.  Fuck you.

INT. OVAL OFFICE - NIGHT

            BUSH

    My fellow Americans, an alien
    spaceship is approaching earth.  It
    will arrive in two months.  Top
    scientists have analyzed it and
    determined it is likely that its
    intent is hostile.  I urge the
    Congress to release one point six
    trillion dollars to fund my
    planetary defense program.  In the
    meantime, this government is taking
    all possible steps to ensure the
    safety of all Americans.  I have
    suspended fuel-efficiency rules so
    that automobile manufacturers can,
    ah, include lead shielding in the
    passenger cabins of all new
    automobiles as protection against,
    er, a possible alien death ray.

INT. PRESS ROOM - DAY

            MILBANK

    Yes, Harvey?

            HARVEY

    What is the president's response to
    reports that MIT scientists have
    deciphered transmissions from the
    alien ship and determined its
    mission is peaceful?

            MILBANK

    The president sees through that
    transparent ruse.  I direct your
    attention to this report, released
    yesterday by the NSA, pointing out
    that Al Qaeda operatives received
    the same transmissions.

            HARVEY

    Of course they did, everyone on
    earth rec --

            MILBANK

    Next question -- Paul?

INT. U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES - DAY

            A REPUBLICAN

    Madame Speaker, I move to end debate
    and vote on the proposal to release
    the one-point-six-trillion dollars
    that our commander-in-chief requires
    to defeat the Al Qaeda terror
    spaceship.

            PELOSI

    Very well.  If there be any opposed
    to the proposal to fund the
    president's Al Qaeda space-defense
    program --

            KUCINICH

    Hang on, that spaceship has nothing
    to do with Al --

            PELOSI

    Shut up, Kucinich.

          (bangs gavel)

    Without objection, the measure
    passes.

INT. ALIEN STARSHIP

            LIEUTENANT

    Commander, sensors indicate a
    massive missile launch from the
    planet's surface.

            COMMANDER

    Target?

            LIEUTENANT

    Computing... sir, I don't
    understand.  The missiles are
    heading straight for us, but --

CUT TO:

INT. WHITE HOUSE SITUATION ROOM

            ADVISOR
          (frantically)

    --those missiles don't have enough
    fuel!  It's what I've been trying to
    tell you!  They're intercontinental
    missiles, they can't even achieve
    low earth orbit, let alone--

CUT TO:

INT. ALIEN STARSHIP

            LIEUTENANT

    --our geostationary orbit is far out
    of range.

            COMMANDER
          (sighs)

    I had hoped for a cultural exchange,
    but I can see these people are both
    warlike and stupid.  Incinerate
    planet.

            LIEUTENANT

    Aye sir... planet incinerated.

Let’s hope that if aliens do come — or whatever the next disaster is — it’s not in the next seventy-seven days.

Real reform now or nothing

Here’s what real-life heroism looks like. Watch it now.

If I caught someone trying to steal from my children I would pursue him to the ends of the earth. How is the current kleptocratic regime’s looting of my children’s country’s heritage any different? They must be stopped.

I was so impressed by Representative Kaptur’s speech that I created an ActBlue page for sending her thanks in the form of monetary contributions. I suggest a contribution of $20, which you would think nothing of spending in a week’s worth of trips to Starbucks, and what has Starbucks done lately to save the world from history’s most audacious thieves?

The Sue-S-of-A

I’m on a mailing list where, earlier today, a discussion arose about patents, the lawsuits they can spawn, and whether the great early American inventors had to contend with anything like today’s legal environment. One participant made an offhanded comment about “200 years ago, before society became so litigious,” and so I emerged from the woodwork to write the following.


Oh yay, someone triggered one of my favorite rants.

Though it’s common to hear people say so, it’s not true that our society is qualitatively more litigious now than it was in some halcyon past. Americans have been suing the pants off each other since even before we were Americans. A notable feature of colonial America was the litigiousness of its people compared to their British counterparts. (Indeed, compared to all the rest of Christendom.) And though it’s easy reflexively to decry this aspect of American society, I would like to persuade you that this is actually the very root, or at least a reflection, of American greatness.

What does it mean for a citizenry to be litigious? Does it mean that they have more grievances against one another than elsewhere? Almost certainly not; neighbors have had the same complaints about each other throughout recorded history. Does it mean they’re more vindictive toward one another? More spiteful?

No. It means that when disputes arise, even the lowliest commoner has such faith in the law and such equal access to it that he readily turns to the courts for redress. Not to individual reprisal. Not to generational vendettas. Not to local strongmen. The law. In America the courts are and always have been accessible to everyone who wishes to bring business before them. This was not true in 18th-century England and is still more true in America than in most other places. So when Americans disagree and can’t settle the difference themselves, they sue each other, and they trust the justice that’s dispensed, and they abide by it, and it’s the very height of civilization to do so.

Obviously it’s better when people can work things out themselves, but they can’t always. What better next step is there (when the issue is not frivolous) than to sue? Why must there be such a strong negative connotation attached to it? It’s your right to sue that keeps honest those people who might otherwise have inordinate power over you: your doctor, your accountant, the makers of your car, of your food, the executives of companies in which you own shares, etc.

We’ve been convinced to equate the right to sue with frivolous, wasteful lawsuits that line the pockets of greedy litigators. It’s only because of that association that we think nothing of routinely waiving that right. It is now ubiquitous for corporations to insist on binding-arbitration clauses in contracts with individuals who are all but powerless to negotiate them away. This is as un-American a practice as I can imagine and I urge everyone to agitate against it.

You are not doing enough to save the world

When John McCain and Sarah Palin win the election and then finish off the destruction of the planet that Bush and Cheney began, will you be able to say that you did everything you could to stop it? Did you give the maximum allowed by law to the Obama campaign? Did you register voters? Did you work the phones or knock on doors canvassing for votes? Did you change any minds? Or were you too busy shopping and watching TV? Was it a good movie? One where the hero saves the world and you thought, “Wow, if only I were cool enough to save the world”?

The worst form of government except for all those other forms

When Barack Obama becomes President of the United States — there’s no point saying “if,” because if he loses, then what John McCain will be president of won’t really be the United States any longer — things will start to get better. Almost certainly not fast enough, and some things will have to get worse before they get better, but at least things will start to get better.

However, nothing can fix the fact that in 2000, the American people did not revolt when the Supreme Court halted a legal recount and handed the presidency to George Bush on the flimsiest of pretenses. Nothing will change the knowledge that in 2004, after things had already gotten terrible, America re-elected Bush because they were persuaded by repeated insinuation that John Kerry was a flip-flopping coward from France. And there’s no erasing the fact that Obama is running almost neck-and-neck with a lying, hateful, ill-informed, septuagenarian, unhealthy, misogynist warmonger and his lying, vindictive, ill-informed, unpatriotic, thieving, scandal-plagued running mate.

America, WTF? Yes, we’ve all imagined our own versions of the strangely familiar feel-good comedy that ensues when McCain croaks and Sarah Palin has to step into the Oval Office to become the sassy, brassy commander-and-working-mom-in-chief. She’ll give the world some tough love and a dose of what it really needs, right?

Wrong. If you really want to see that, that’s what we have Hollywood for. The election is about people’s lives. It’s about the fucking qualifications.

Another day in the nation our fathers fought and died for

Newly reported this day in The Country Formerly Known As The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave:

  • There is a growing mountain of evidence to suggest that the anthrax attacks that followed on the heels of 9/11 were orchestrated from within our own government to cement the public’s fear and distrust of Islam and propagandize for war with Iraq.
  • We are prisoners within our national borders, except for those willing to surrender their privacy, their property, and their right to due process.

Just one day in Bush country. (Another recent day.)


About the anthrax attacks: Glenn Greenwald (the superb Salon.com reporter whose column I linked to above) points out that the anthrax/Iraq propaganda campaign — which is fact, not surmise; the falsehoods involved have been exposed and not refuted — was carried out by multiple “well-placed sources” feeding misinformation to ABC News, which repeated the talking points so faithfully that it became ingrained in the national discourse.

This put me in mind of a story that Larry Flynt told in an interview a few years ago (coincidentally also in Salon.com — or not so coincidentally, considering how few good, independent news outlets there are):

In 2000, I got a call from a lawyer in Houston. He told me that his client, “Susan,” could prove that George W. Bush arranged for his girlfriend to have an abortion back in the early 1970s. Her boyfriend at the time, “Clyde,” was pals with Bush and set up the procedure. We checked up and found that indeed “Clyde” was responsible for keeping Bush out of trouble. Bush had knocked up a girl named “Rayette.” We talked to the doctor that performed the abortion. We felt we really had a blockbuster story, but about two months before we were going to break the story, “Susan” disappeared. We finally found her. She was living in a half-million-dollar home in Corpus Christi, Texas. Before that she was living in a small apartment working for $13,000 a year as a cocktail waitress. I’m not saying Bush bought her off, but I’m confident that one or more of his cronies did. The only thing that interested me in this story is — I’m pro-choice, but to have a guy who is running on a pro-life platform… and this procedure was committed in 1971, two years before Roe vs. Wade, which would have made it a crime.

I went to two members of the national press (during the 2000 presidential campaign) and said, “Look. I don’t have anyone out on the stump. You guys do. At least ask Bush the question.” You know what? They refused to. One of them had the nerve to tell me that the election was too close. “We don’t want to be the ones to tip it in any direction.”

“We don’t want to be the ones to tip it in any direction” — as if by withholding the news they somehow weren’t doing exactly that.

I can almost identify with what that reporter told Flynt. Early in my career as a computer programmer I occasionally soliloquized about my unwillingness to work on anything much more mission-critical than e-mail software. “I could never write medical software,” I’d say, “or flight-control software, or anything like that. If there’s a bad bug in my code, the worst that happens is that someone loses some personal data. They don’t die.” I found the very idea of that much responsibility appalling.

But guess what? Someone’s gotta write the mission-critical code. If I’ve got the knowledge and the access, it’s my responsibility to do it, because otherwise someone not as qualified might do it in my place and then I would share some of the blame for any critical failures anyway. On the flip side, who’s to say what’s mission-critical and what isn’t, even when it comes to e-mail software? It’s remotely conceivable that the loss of the just the wrong data at just the wrong time could cost someone his or her life — especially if some unscrupulous person (a war profiteer, say) had figured out a way to “game the system,” taking advantage of my desire to avoid responsibility in order to create a certain outcome.

The reporter who talked to Flynt was exhibiting the same fear of responsibility and was being gamed in just that way. But my (somewhat strained) point is that you’ve got responsibility whether you like it or not. You can’t avoid it; the best you can do is to refuse to acknowledge it.

I write software that people rely on; it’s my responsibility to make it reliable, whether or not it’s a matter of life and death. Those reporters in 2000 were part of a system on which a healthy democracy relies: keeping the citizenry well-informed, letting them decide whether a news item should tip a race one way or another. That was their responsibility; they blew it.

The same fear of responsibility is what leads modern news operations to present two sides of every issue as equal, when it’s perfectly obvious that they seldom are. It’s their responsibility to treat propaganda skeptically rather than presenting it on the same footing as legitimate news. When it’s decisively exposed as propaganda, it’s their responsibility to report on that.

That’s the responsibility that ABC News can now deny but cannot avoid: to disclose the identities of the propagandists who manipulated them and to shine a light on the whole operation. Until it does, ABC can deny, but cannot avoid, its responsibility for launching a war that has killed thousands, decimated our military, and bankrupted our nation.

I want to suspend my disbelief

[This post is participating in South Dakota Dark’s X-Files blog-a-thon.]

I can’t resist a good blog-a-thon, and South Dakota Dark’s X-Files blog-a-thon, anticipating tomorrow’s release of the new X-Files movie, seemed as good as any. For the past couple of weeks I watched the date of the blog-a-thon approach and waited for a good idea to strike. By the time it began on Sunday, none had yet. And I don’t appear to be the only one — sad to say, the X-Files blog-a-thon appears to be even more sparsely attended than my “I Can Do It Better” blog-a-thon of a few months ago.

What can account for this? The X-Files was a major pop-culture phenomenon in its time. Was its time too recent? It takes a while to ferment a classic after all. Those who were fans while the show was on the air have long since moved on, finding no shortage of well-written, well-acted conspiracy/mystery/thriller/science-fiction shows. (I’m thinking particularly of Lost, whose jaw-dropping third season I just finished on DVD last night.) And it takes more than a scant decade for a new nostalgia-minded fan base to build.

As for myself, every time I tried to think of what to write about The X-Files, my mind kept drifting instead to The West Wing. Why was that happening? I think I know, and if I’m right, it doesn’t augur well for tomorrow’s premiere.

During the late 90’s, Andrea and I used to love sitting down and watching The West Wing each week. It took place in a progressive paradise where, even though the moneyed interests sometimes won — it was about presidential politics, after all, and dealt believably with moral and political dilemmas — at least the public interest was usually uppermost in the minds of the fictional senior officials.

Star Trek had nothing on The West Wing when it came to enticing visions of an enlightened possible future.

That all came to an abrupt end during a few wrenching weeks in late 2000. The real-life presidential election results were up in the air, hinging on voting irregularities in Florida. The bad guys gamed the system and bent the rules to get the count to go their way. The good guys, being too principled, didn’t put up enough of a fight. During those weeks there were reversals of fortune and counter-reversals and counter-counter-reversals. I was a wreck. I followed every development as closely as I could and each scrap of news flayed my nerves raw. Democracy itself was under attack, and everyone involved in the battle had a stake in the outcome — meaning there was no disinterested authority to help settle the matter reasonably, not even, in the end, the Supreme Court. That authority vacuum felt like a taste of anarchy; the election battle, a gang fight in a bad neighborhood where the cops never patrol. The bad guys won, democracy lost — and at once The West Wing went from uplifting, optimistic, educational entertainment to simple-minded, far-fetched wish-fulfillment fantasy. The very thought of watching another episode was almost too painful to bear. We did try a few times, but we weren’t entertained and we weren’t optimistic for the future. The show’s only remaining power was to remind us of the brutality perpetrated on our ideals and the ease and speed with which it had been done, and was continuing to be done.

I think something similar may have happened to X-Files fandom. After seven and a half years of George Bush, who could be entertained by the idea of a shadowy government conspiracy? Who would even find such a story remarkable? Our real-life news is a constant barrage of conspiracies and corruption taking place in broad daylight. Cigarette-Smoking Man, with his furtive ways, would be laughed out of the Bush administration! The Lone Gunmen wouldn’t be three weirdos in a basement shining light on official misdeeds, they’d be DailyKos! As for Mulder and Scully, if they wanted to keep their jobs at the FBI they’d have to accept assignments trumping up new terrorism fears, busting consumers sharing mixtapes, or cracking down on porn. (Hmm, that’s one Mulder might actually like.)

Well, there’s one thing that George Bush hasn’t managed to ruin, and that’s a good working relationship between two intelligent people with a lot of integrity and courage and a little sexual tension. If the producers were smart and made the movie be about that, then tomorrow’s premiere stands a decent chance.

If you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em by joining ’em

What can we do when the President is bought and paid for, opposing the public interest at almost every turn? Demand investigations. But what if our Justice Department is bought and paid for too? Demand Congressional action. But what if Congress is bought and paid for? Why, vote them out of office. But if the voting-machine industry is bought and paid for, and local election officials are bought and paid for, then what? Agitate for a popular uprising. But what if the mass media is bought and paid for in order to pacify the electorate and to reinforce the status quo? Turn to more democratic means of getting the word out. But what if the “more democratic means” is under the control of the (bought-and-paid-for) corporate establishment?

At this point it looks like there’s only one choice: get money out of politics somehow or other. Meaningful campaign finance reform and other similar measures have the virtue that they address the very root of the problem, and the drawback that they will never, ever happen. (In part because of entrenched interests, but also in part for the legitimate reason that campaign spending has been equated with free speech, which must not be curtailed, especially in a political campaign.) Not to mention that any mere legislation, depending as it does on enforcement and judicial interpretation, is weak medicine in the current environment.

So are we screwed? Are we doomed to suffer the worst that tyranny and endemic corruption can ultimately produce?

I thought so, until I thought of two movies (because that’s how I think, in movies): The Untouchables and Schindler’s List.

You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!

Why are we (the good guys) denying ourselves the use of the most powerful weapon in the other side’s arsenal? I’m talking about bribery. To borrow a page from the NRA (“Guns don’t kill people…”), bribery itself is not the problem; the problem is what people are being bribed to do. There aren’t thousands of evil people in the Establishment. There are just a few; the rest are all whores. The thing is, when only evil people employ whores, the whores only do evil. But the nice thing about whores is that they’ll do whatever you ask as long as the money’s green.

Oskar Schindler understood this. He became one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century by using bribery for good for a change. At the cost of his personal fortune, he bought, via bribery, the lives of hundreds of Jews who were otherwise doomed. To him, it was nobler to befriend and enrich Hitler’s murderous sociopaths and actually accomplish something, dammit than it would have been to disdain those methods and let the “Schindler Jews” perish in the name of not lowering himself to the Nazis’ level.

That was just one man’s wealth. Imagine how much good we can bribe Establishment whores into doing if we pooled our resources! We could bribe Brian Williams into reporting the real news. We could bribe Nancy Pelosi into putting impeachment back “on the table.” We could bribe any number of high-ranking officials to ease their troubled conscience and spill everything they know about Bush administration misdeeds. (As if there were any shortage of evidence.) I thought of this, rushed to the nearest domain registrar and discovered that bribe4good.com was available, and started thinking about how to design a website where citizens could contribute money and dicuss how best to use it to fight bribes with bribes.

Of course, even though there is presently a raging epidemic of illicit bribery, and even though law enforcement agencies routinely look the other way, you better believe that if the good guys started using bribery, the law would crack down faster than you can say, “I’m shocked, shocked!” And forget about keeping secret a slush fund that consists of contributions from millions of individuals (hey, why not dream big), all of them with a say in how the bribes are to be allocated.

But perhaps a modified version of this idea could still work. Instead of setting up a slush fund and proactively bribing those in a position to fix our country, set it up as a reward fund instead, meting it out to those who contribute to achieving specific goals. “Presidential signing statements declared unconstitutional” — $100,000. “War crimes trials for torturers” — $250,000. “Expose attempted bribes between corporate officers and government officials” — twice the amount of the bribe.

I call it Healthy Lucre and have an embryonic demonstration website up and running. Watch this space for further developments.