Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Interview

Seeing a movie is always a wonderful way for many families to spend Christmas Eve.  And this year many gathered in front of a television set to watch The Interview streamed on the web.

The Interview has been the source of enormous controversy in recent weeks.  The plot of this silly comedy is centered on an attempt to assassinate North Korea's dictatorial and maniacal leader, Kim Jong Un.  Its stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco, who play show producer Aaron Rapoport and talk show host Dave Skylark, land an interview with Un because the leader is a big fan of their show. 

The morning after host Skylark announced he had secured a worldwide exclusive interview with Un, the CIA came knocking at his door.  "We want you to take him out," the beautiful woman agent tells Skylark and producer Rapoport, who were recovering from an all-night orgy.  This may have been the sanest and funniest moment of this otherwise idiotic movie. 

To describe The Interview as sophomoric would be a compliment for this film that is replete with sex, references to masturbation, penises, and offensive language.  In fact, the foul language is so overused that George Carlin must be rolling over in his grave. 

Yet the movie has been caught up in an unprecedented global controversy involving hacking, censorship and threats against theaters slated to show the film.

At first, embarrassing emails were released by a group claiming to be the "Guardians of Peace" involving Sony executives and several key Hollywood figures.  Several news publications and television programs published the painfully candid and snarky emails, which then became front page fodder for tabloids around the world.   The media was then attacked for releasing confidential communications, all to no avail.

As The Interview's release date approached, theaters received retaliatory threats.  In response, major theater chains cancelled their showings and Sony dropped its plans for a Christmas Day release.   This decision brought on cries of censorship.

President Barack Obama said Sony's move was a mistake.  American intelligence concluded that the North Koreans had been centrally involved in the Sony hacking and threats.  Under enormous pressure, Sony reversed itself and arranged to release the movie on Christmas Eve in 331 independently owned theaters and online. 

Viewership for The Interview has been strong, giving Sony an unexpected Christmas present.  But the studio will likely lose $20 million in revenue this holiday weekend according to some estimates.

This all seems like a bizarrely outlandish Hollywood movie plot, but it is not.  It is most unfortunate that the principle of artistic freedom is being debated over such a bad movie.   Because of its alleged actions, North Korea has created enormous interest in a film that, otherwise, may have quickly turned into a DVD/Blue Ray release. 

Thank you North Korea, and bah humbug Kim Jong Un.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Obama on a Roll

President Barack Obama is entering the fourth quarter of his presidency, one marked by partisan divisions that have frustrated most Americans. But the president, as he makes the turn for the finish line, has already wracked up an impressive list of accomplishments during his tenure despite the blindly fierce Republican opposition.
Since his party's defeat in the midterm elections, President Obama has taken the initiative. He has announced that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, as well as an executive order on immigration, and a climate treaty with China. Each of these announcements is historic in their own right. And together they signal the president is not going quietly into the night.
President Obama has enjoyed a great deal of good news these past six weeks. Government estimates show that the U.S. economy grew at a spectacular 5 percent, and the Dow Jones stock index reached record highs, fueled in part by corporate profits, which have been up year-over-year for 12 straight quarters.
Unemployment is at 5.8 percent, the lowest rate since the president took office. Total nonfarm payroll increased by 321,000 in November, led by professional and business services, retail trade, health care, and manufacturing. Meanwhile, fuel prices continue to drop as the price of gas has fallen for 89 consecutive days. AAA says that this is the longest streak on record, and that prices have fallen 36 percent since last April.
Falling gas prices have hit both Russia and Iran hard, along with U.S. led sanctions. Just a few months ago Republicans were praising President Vladimir Putin for his leadership traits as Russia annexed Crimea and caused unrest in parts of Ukraine. Now Putin is struggling mightily to keep his economy afloat. Those same Republicans criticized the president for attempting to negotiate a nuclear treaty with Iran. Yet falling gas prices and tough sanctions have brought the Iranians closer to making a deal than any saber rattling ever did.
The president's strategy for handling ISIS has stopped that group's momentum. The president formed a coalition of countries to launch targeted air attacks, and he helped nudge the failing Iraqi government back from the brink. He has also kept America safe from terrorism, and he made the killing of Osama bin Laden a top priority.
North Korea posed a serious threat with its alleged cyber-hacking of SONY's emails. This in response to a movie, The Interview, which is a comedy focused on North Korea's leader. But it has been reported that President Obama, who promised a proportional retaliation, discussed the matter with China. Suddenly, North Korea lost its Internet connection. Now the movie will be released after all on Christmas Day.
And the president's singular greatest legislative success, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has expanded healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans, and it has helped significantly lower the rate of growth of health care costs. His 2009 stimulus package put the breaks on the crashing economy, and his auto bailout preserved thousands of jobs. Today, the U.S. auto industry is healthy. Each of these initiatives was done in spite of furious opposition from Republicans.
Lately President Obama has looked like that confident leader American voters thought they elected way back in 2008. Since his first day in office he has been attacked continuously by conservatives. He has been accused by many of his Republican opponents of being born in Kenya, a Muslim, an emperor, disengaged, distant, a liar, and ill-prepared for the office. On the very day the president was first sworn into office, Republican leaders vowed, in a secret meeting, to do all they could to block, delay, denounce and defeat him. For them it was war.
Throughout his first six years in office, the president has remained persistent, while being buffeted by the partisan winds, and the thunderous exhortations of so-called experts and conservative political pundits. Of course, in today's media landscape, anyone can be a critic and get airtime.
Even his supporters sometimes express frustration because the president has refused to act for the sake of acting, shoot from the hip, or jump to conclusions. His approach, no matter the issue, has been measured, studied, thoughtful, cerebral and yes, lawyerly.
Beginning in January, Republicans will be the majority party in both houses of Congress. They will try to repeal Obamacare, undo the president's immigration order, stop normalization of relations with Cuba, pass the Keystone Pipeline, cut federal social programs,and spend taxpayer dollars re-investigating Benghazi and the IRS. There will be the usual shrill denunciations of the president, and some GOP members may move to impeach him.
Of course, for President Obama, it'll be just another day at the office.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Black Lives Matter

"Black lives matter."  "I can't breathe."  These are the words that have been chanted by protestors from New York to California.  Demonstrations continue nationwide against the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers. 

On Wednesday a Staten Island grand jury decided not to prosecute police for the choking death of 43 year-old Eric Garner, an African American, in Staten Island last July.  Police were attempting to arrest Garner for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes.  A video surfaced showing several police officers pulling Garner to the ground, one using an illegal choke hold.   Garner can be heard on the video saying he could not breathe as many as eleven times.

In August a medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide, saying "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." The examiner also noted that asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors in the death.  Despite the video and the medical examiner's findings the grand jury, after a day of deliberations, decided that there was not enough evidence to charge a police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, with a crime. 

The decision came on the same day as a memorial service for 12 year-old Tamir Rice was held in Cleveland, Ohio.  More than 100 friends and family members gathered to remember the young African American boy who had been shot dead by police last month.  Rice had been carrying a pellet gun when a bystander phoned 9-1-1.  A Cleveland police car sped to the scene where Rice stood and shot him within two seconds, according to accounts.

For days demonstrations have been held from coast to coast to protest a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decision not to charge a police officer for the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown, who was unarmed.   Many eyewitness accounts say that Martin had his hands raised when officer Darren Wilson, who has subsequently resigned from the Ferguson police force, gunned him down.  Other witnesses say the already wounded Martin was charging Wilson, who was some distance away.

These deaths were a reminder for protestors that the criminal justice system doesn't treat blacks and whites equally.  ProPublica analyzed FBI records and released alarming findings.  The site reported, "The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police."

In reaction to the Garner decision, Wednesday night President Barack Obama said, "we are seeing too many instances where people do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly."  He continued, "This is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law."  Earlier this week the president announced the White House would ask for $75 million to make 50,000 body cameras available to police departments across the country.

Also Wednesday evening, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner.  He said that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the FBI, which had been monitoring the case closely, would conduct "a complete review of material gathered during the local investigation."

But it will take much more than a federal investigation to stop the tragic trend of young blacks dying at the hands of police.  Local prosecutors work closely with police on cases and may not be independent enough to present evidence in a fair manner.  The prosecutors in the Ferguson case at first presented their grand jury with the wrong law, which may have affected the outcome of that proceeding.

Most police officers bravely carry out their duties, often facing unpredictable and dangerous challenges.  There needs to be a federal review of police arrest procedures in the field that will result in necessary reforms to stop wrongful deaths.  Black lives do matter.