Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Man Out of Season

There is a very troubling trend developing in our society, and it is being directed from the top.

I wrote earlier about my concern that the president had authorized the murder of Osama bin Laden in what appears to have been a violation of established American law prohibiting any government official from engaging in a conspiracy to assassinate a foreign leader. Now, I would like to make myself clear: I do not regret bin Laden's death. He was a homicidal religious fanatic of medieval world view, and his death renders us all, in civilized society, that much safer. But the question that does concern me is precisely that one, of a civilized society.

Since the death of bin Laden, we have seen the administration engage in the killing of two Americans associated with terrorist causes living abroad. The decision to murder them, via high-tech drone aircraft, was authorized at the highest level of government, and carried out with deliberation and precision. Their murders, though once again unregrettable, appear to have been undertaken in violation of American law; namely, the basic Constitutional prohibition against government depriving any American citizen of life and liberty without due process of law.

In these cases, the president appears to have arrogated to himself the role of judge, jury and executioner. The fact that at least one of the two men was included on the government's list of most wanted criminals makes no difference: The Constitution is clear, and the president is bound by oath to respect it. That President Obama appears to have authorized the killing of these two Americans seems to me to represent not only a violation of the law forbidding political assassination, but also of his oath of office.

Now, this is not a popular issue, and for that reason it has received relatively little attention. I have read the administration's legal opinion rationalizing the murders, and, frankly, I find it insidious in its intent and pathetic in its reasoning. It says, in effect, that the killings were legal because we did them. That is it. Because the president ordered them, they were legal.

This reminds me of Richard Nixon's declaration during Watergate that anything the president did was legal because he did it. That argument was specious then, and it remains specious today. In my view, unless someone can persuade me to the contrary, by authorizing these killings, the President of the United States has violated the law, the Constitution, and his oath.

The identities of the victims are irrelevant. The rationale for the killings is irrelevant. The effect achieved is irrelevant. The only question for a civilized society is whether the actions of the president were in accordance with law. If they were not, then the president must be held accountable, if not in the courts, then at least in the court of public opinion.

I am reminded, too, of the argument put forward by Sir Thomas More in the play "A Man for all Seasons" when he asked the ardent servant of the king the following question: If the devil came to Britain and hid behind the law, would you be justified in destroying the law to get at him? His point was that, once you begin dismantling the protective barrier of laws which alone separates us from evil, then what will save us when evil turns around and attacks? He knew that the answer was: Nothing. We will have been exposed and made vulnerable by our very zeal to destroy the devil.

The terrorists are devils; of that there can be no doubt. But in suspending or violating our own laws in order to to destroy them, we make ourselves that much more vulnerable to them, since they know or respect no law but violence.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A little more than kin and less than kind

I rarely get excited. Which is odd since I work in the film business, wherein everyone seems to exist on a continual diet of excitement. "I'm so excited," is the phrase I hear most often, or, "This is so exciting." But no one means it. You can hear it in their voices, see it in their eyes. Excitement, in the film business, means: "I perceive the prospect of actually getting a film made, and of thereby making money."

Nonetheless, this morning, I felt genuine excitement. Why? Well, it happened like this... (ripple dissolve to:)

I was driving my son to his horseback riding lesson this morning, at the ungodly Saturday morning hour of 8.30. I was thinking about Hamlet, as I often do. It is, as I have said before on this site, my favorite play; perhaps my favorite piece of literature. In particular, I was thinking about Hamlet's first line in the play: A little more than kin and less than kind. I asked my nine-year-old son: What is the first thing Hamlet says in the play? And with his ineffable sense of humor, he replied: Which play? (He is, verbally, a very clever boy.)

Now, the first thing that Hamlet says in the play, after the appearance of the ghost, and after we watch him sitting in somber silence on stage for several minutes while King Claudius goes about his bureaucratic business (for which he appears to have been born, rather like a member of the Senate), he says in response to his uncle/father's prompting, that he regards the king as being: A little more than kin and less than kind.

That is his first line in the play. Now, I have lived with that line since I was sixteen years old. And the sorry truth is that I had never really thought about it until this morning. A little more than kin and less than kind. It is a pun, on the words kin and kind. Everyone understands that. You can read it in any book or essay about the play. I am my uncle/father's kin, since you are married to my mother and you are now both my uncle and my step-father; but you are not kind since you married my mother and (I suspect, and we will soon learn) you killed my father. A little more than kin and less than kind.

Those words kept rolling around in my head as I was motoring up Altadena Drive in search of the stables. And then it hit me: My singular contribution to Hamlet scholarship, after my obsession with the play for over forty years...

A little more than kin and less than kind... Hamlet's first line in the play.

Now, I have been a professional writer for thirty-five years. I have written millions of words. I have examined and experienced virtually every permutation of the English language (which I love) imaginable. I have discovered hidden meanings, obscure implications, impossible contradictions, and unexpected riches. I have defied every rule of grammar and punctuation, and illuminated (at least to my own mind) every deep mine of possibility of syntax and meaning which it not only contains but implies. I have learned to laugh at books of style and usage, and have learned to be in awe of the endless possibilities of expression that English presents. (I am reminded of something I discovered while writing a film about Bobby Fischer, the world chess champion: After the seventh move in a chess game, the number of possible moves exceeds the number of atoms in the universe.) And I know that, when a genius such as Shakespeare introduces a character like Hamlet, he gives him an opening line of considerable significance.

A little more than kin and less than kind... That was when it hit me.

Where was Hamlet before the play begins? At college. And where was he at college? The University of Wittenberg in Germany. And what does that mean? That Hamlet spoke German.

Now, consider his first line: A little more than kin and less than kind.

What, in German, does the word "kind" mean?

Child. It means child, as in kindergarten.

Hamlet is saying that, with regards to the king, he feels him a little more than kin (since his mother has now married his uncle) and less than kind (since, as he suspects, his uncle has killed his father), but also, he feels less than "kind" in German (since he has just come from Germany), meaning he has lost his father, and feels less his uncle's child since he was not his father. Kind is therefore a double pun, when we understand that Hamlet must have spoken German.

And there it is... the thing that has excited me more than anything else in recent days; my unique contribution to Hamlet scholarship. A little more than kin and less than (German) kind.

Use it in your next term paper. I don't care. My life is now complete.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fire Them All

Yesterday, Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, announced that "private sector jobs are doing just fine" and that the priority should be on government jobs. This is madness. Later that day, Vice President Biden declared that if Congress did not pass the administration's jobs bill - which had already been defeated and was not supported even by members of his own party - the result would be rape and murder. This is madness. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the president can think of nothing to do but campaign for re-election. This is madness. Meanwhile, the Republican Party offers us a field of candidates none of whom can garner the enthusiasm of even a third of Republican voters. This is madness.

There is a crippling lack of leadership in Washington. Our economy is bankrupt, our nation is in decline. Our preeminence in the world is slipping rapidly away, and we are being overtaken by a monolithic communist dictatorship, to which we, even now, are mortgaging our futures. The president, the administration and Congress are devoid of ideas, integrity and honesty. People across the country are suffering; they are anxious, frightened for the future, and growing desperate. Well, desperate times call for desperate measures, and I am proposing one:

Fire them all.

In the 2012 elections, I propose that we unite as a people to defeat every incumbent who runs for re-election. Every one. All of them, from the top down. Throw them out and replace them with new faces and fresh ideas. But not randomly or arbitrarily. Listen carefully to what the candidates say and judge for yourselves whether they are speaking frankly and sincerely about the problems the nation, the states, the cities and counties now face, and the measures that will be necessary to solve them. If you hear the same worn rhetoric, the sycophantic platitudes, the hackneyed political jargon, find someone else to elect. Or run for office yourself. And vote only for candidates who will term-limit themselves, that is, who pledge to serve for only a definite period of time, and then retire.

This extends to the Republican presidential candidates as well. Fire them all, now, and draft someone who will speak honestly to the American people about the crisis we face, and propose real world solutions, no matter how dire and demanding. Someone who can inspire and unite us, instead of scaring and dividing us, as is now being done.

Send a signal that we will stand for this short-sighted, self-serving political nonsense no longer. And send it to the media as well: Expunge the political agendas from your reporting. Give us facts, raw and unbiased, and let us decide for ourselves. Stop cheer-leading for one party or another, or one candidate or another, and dispassionately investigate stories and report what you have discovered. Treat us like intelligent consumers, not wayward children whose minds needs shaping.

We must take control of our nation and our destinies again. We must act as the Union soldiers did at Gettysburg when, after two years of corrupt and incompetent military leadership, and knowing that their cause was on the verge of defeat, ignored their generals and rushed to the center of the line to repulse Pickett's charge. That spontaneous gesture of popular intelligence and outrage, perhaps more than any other, saved the Union. And that is what we must do now, politically.

I think we all understand that the solutions to our current crisis are relatively simple: We must reduce the size and power of the Federal Government, severely cut its spending and curb permanently its ability to grow, adopt a flat and fair tax, impose term limits on all elected officials, break the power of the lobbyists and special interests whatever they may be, freeing government to carry out its Constitutional duties, and pass a balanced budget amendment as quickly as possible.

The politicians will not do these things, and so we must. And it begins with the coming election. Send an unmistakeable message to government and to the world:

Fire them all.