Tuesday, June 30, 2009

PBS Bans New Religious Programming

"Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate." -- Ulysses S. Grant

The Public Broadcasting Service agreed yesterday to ban its member stations from airing new religious TV programs, but permitted the handful of stations that already carry "sectarian" shows to continue doing so.

The vote by PBS's board was a compromise from a proposed ban on all religious programming. Such a ban would have forced a few stations around the country to give up their PBS affiliation if they continued to broadcast local church services and religious lectures.

Until now, PBS stations have been required to present programming that is noncommercial, nonpartisan and nonsectarian. But the definition of "nonsectarian" programming was always loosely interpreted, and the rule had never been strictly enforced. PBS began reviewing the definition and application of those rules last year in light of the transition to digital TV and with many stations streaming programs over their Web sites. The definition doesn't cover journalistic programs about religion or discussion programs that don't favor a particular religious point of view.

The vote at PBS's headquarters in Arlington was good news for five PBS member stations that carry religious programs. Among them are KBYU in Salt Lake City, which is operated by an affiliate of the Mormon Church; KMBH in Harlingen, Tex., operated by the local Catholic diocese; and WLAE in New Orleans, operated by a Catholic lay organization ...

This seems like a pretty obvious move, but you just never know. Separation of church and state is fairly cut and dried, but there have always been (and continue to be notable exceptions).

This is a move back towards when PBS was actually relevant and programs like NOVA and Cosmos both entertained and taught. I grew up on PBS. We didn't have mindless fluff like the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon when I was growing up and we were better for it.

The politicization of public broadcasting during the Bush years has created a situation that will take years to recover from. Ken Tomlinson tried to starve public broadcasting, while at the same time tainting it with a conservative viewpoint during his tenure under Bush. NPR has done a better job than PBS at staying out of the fray but faced similar cuts in funding.

If anything, it sounds like PBS may have wimped out on the ruling by allowing the few stations to be grandfathered in. You don't hear of atheist programs being on PBS ... or anything for that matter. I know years ago I remember seeing some on cable public access. To be honest, it's not a loss. They were as unbelievably boring as Christian television programs are. Now, be honest, those Christians that read my blog, do you watching Christian programming on television and if so, which shows? The Christian-only stations all seem pretty fringe to me.

Don't get me wrong about religions (or anything) having the right to broadcast. If you can get funding and viewers, by all means, get your own show or even you own network. But, it's not the job of government-funded broadcasting.

I know some of you would have the government's hands out of broadcasting altogether. But I believe in institutions that are for the common good, that are unbiased, and whose decisions are not based on generating a profit. It's where the really good newspapers and news programs of the last 50 years have really dropped the ball. Pleasing stockholders and being afraid to offend advertisers seems more important now. It's not surprising that big stories aren't really broken by the Washington Post's of the world any more. There are no more Woodward and Bernstein's.

If the measure of validity of ideas was how profitable they were, then FOX News would be the center of intellectualism, and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would be the smartest people in the world. And that's a truly scary thought.

"I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death." -- George Carlin

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Last Train to Nuremburg ...

... Last train to Nuremberg!
All on board!

Do I see Lieutenant Calley?
Do I see Captain Medina?
Do I see Gen'ral Koster and all his crew?
Do I see President Nixon?
Do I see both houses of Congress?
Do I see the voters, me and you?

Who held the rifle? Who gave the orders?
Who planned the campaign to lay waste the land?
Who manufactured the bullet? Who paid the taxes?
Tell me, is that blood upon my hands?

If five hundred thousand mothers went to Washington
And said, "Bring all of our boys home without delay!"
Would the man they came to see, say he was too busy?
Would he say he had to watch a football game?

Last Train to Nuremburg by Pete Seeger

I heard this on Pandora yesterday and it nicely fit into what I was going to talk about anyway. Pete Seeger wrote this song during the Vietnam War. Calley, Medina, and Koster all had degrees of complicity in the My Lai Massacre and it's subsequent cover-up.

The My Lai Massacre ... was the mass murder conducted by U.S. Army forces on March 16, 1968 of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens in South Vietnam, all of whom were civilians and majority of whom were women, children, and elderly people.

Many of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and some of the bodies were found mutilated.

... When the incident became public knowledge in 1969, it prompted widespread outrage around the world. The massacre also reduced U.S. support at home for the Vietnam War. Three U.S. servicemen who made an effort to halt the massacre and protect the wounded were denounced by U.S. Congressmen, received hate mail, death threats and mutilated animals on their doorsteps. Only 30 years after the event were their efforts honored.

The song intimates that the troops involved and their superiors were not the only ones guilty. Nixon (and various other Presidents) were guilty for conducting the war at all. We, as citizens, were guilty for voting for these people and for paying taxes to fund illegal wars. We had "blood upon my hands", all of us. And we continue to. We comfort ourselves that when bad things happen, it's someone else's fault.

Bad actions by bad people do not doom our world. What curses us is that supposedly good people will do and support the most vile acts because they were told it was OK by someone of authority. We tell ourselves that we are not personally guilty because it was given a pass by our President, our church leader, our "freedom fighters". It's OK to invade Iraq because they have WMD's ... OK, Mr. President, whatever you say. It's OK to torture because they might give us some important information ... OK, Mr. Vice-President. It's OK to hate gays because God says so ... OK, Pastor. It's OK that I shot that illegal alien because he was on the wrong side of some arbitrary line ... OK, Mr. Minuteman, you were just fighting for our "liberty".

What is this that comforts us in our guilt? Is it a defense mechanism or is it just human nature? There was a great discussion on Science Friday on NPR yesterday about the famous research psychologist Stanley Milgram. Besides conducting studies which became the basis of six degrees of separation, he is most famous for the Milgram Experiment:

"The experimenter orders the teacher , the subject of the experiment, to give what the latter believes are painful electric shocks to a learner , who is actually an actor and confidant. The subject believes that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level."

The supposed shock levels increased all the way to 450 volts, a fatal level. An unbelievable 65% of the participants continued to administer a shock all the way up to this level merely because they were told to do so. Only one person refused to administer the shock before the 300 volt level. Milgram's conclusions:

"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study ...

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

Milgram's experiment was in response to the crimes of the Nazis and the complicity of the German people. But it's relevance to any situation where good people "go along" with the crowd is obvious. In effect, we're all on that "last train to Nuremburg".

Monday, June 08, 2009

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sci-Fi Movie Reviews

I am so far behind on movie reviews. Not behind on watching new movies, mind you ... just on reviewing them. I've been going to movies like a mad man. Anyway, I'm going to try and break it up into genres. First up are all the sci-fi or comic book adaptation movies that I've seen lately, oldest first:

X-Men Origins: Wolverine - As you would expect, this movie establishes the origins of the Wolverine character, from his birth in Canada in the 1800's, through his involvement in all the major wars and finally as part of a government group of mutants. The background is more interesting than the meandering story of the group of mutants. I'd explain it to you if I understood it. It's not that it's deep or complicated ... it's that it's contradictory and not well-paced.

I thought the special effects were not that great. Specifically, Wolverine's blades's effects were not seemless. I could clearly see it shifting on his hands. With the state of the art computer effects that movies have now, there is no excuse for that.

Ryan Reynolds was good, sarcastically funny as usual, but not enough lines. Liev Shreiber is a good actor, but I don't think his role as Sabretooth really required any talent. It seems like the movie was more concerned with establishing characters that could have their own spinoff movies, like Gambit. But they were just thrown in haphazard and didn't really have anything to do with the plot. Wait ... there was no plot.

The movie is full of good actors like Jackman and Danny Huston, but they're stuck doing stupid things and saying stupid stuff. The dialogue was iffy, even for a comic book movie.

I'm not saying it's a terrible movie, but in this age of comic book adaptations standing on their own as good movies (Iron Man, Dark Knight), you have to bring it better than this. This movie is not as good as any of the X-Men movies, which weren't exactly high art themselves. Grade: C-

Star Trek -- You could probably call this Star Trek Origins. The movie's goal of establishing a backstory like X-Men, however, would be the only similarity with that movie. In every aspect where X-Men falls short, Star Trek hits it out of the park.

Star Trek establishes how all of the Enterprise characters we know from the original series (and several bad movies) get to be on the Enterprise. It's a story point that has never been explored in depth, just hinted at. By doing this, we're released from having to use crusty old actors. All of the young(er) actors that they brought in to fill the roles are outstanding. Especially in the roles of Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), they had to make sure that they got good performances. And they did. The characteristic bravado and charm of Shatner is there in Pine, but he's not mimicking him at all. He makes the role his own. Quinto takes the best traits of Nimoy but, again, inhabits the role. The other two performances I want to make note of are Karl Urban (LOTR, Bourne Supremacy) as Bones and Simon Pegg (Shawn of the Dead) as Scotty. They are both hilarious. But not in a campy way.

The movie as a whole is not camp at all. It makes a nod to some catchphrases that we all know, but this is not an inside-joke "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" type movie at all. It stands on it's own. If you had never seen a Star Trek movie or series, this would still be an entertaining movie. The special effects are nice, but at no point are they the point of the story, like in a George Lucas movie. Star Trek is much more about character development. As I mentioned before, several moments are funny, but just as many are touching, particularly the opening scene with Kirk's father. I'm not ashamed to admit that I might have welled up a bit on that one. Plus, there are some definite sexy moments.

I could get into the details of the movie, but that's not what I really do with my reviews. I don't want to ruin it, I just want to give my impressions. Suffice to say, there is some time travel, some Romulans and maybe a visit by someone we know. The familiar directing/writing/producing team of J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindenof, Bryan Burk (all of Fringe and Lost fame) does a great job with the film and I'm excited to see what the next film holds. Grade: A

Terminator Salvation -- This is a fairly dark, thematically and literally, account of John Connor in the future as an adult. Whereas Star Trek didn't rely on any previous knowledge, Terminator Salvation wouldn't really make a lot of sense if you hadn't at least seen Terminator and T2 (I don't think anyone saw T3).

Christian Bale, an actor I like a lot, plays John Connor. He brings to it his normal intensity and I think he does a good job. Bryce Dallas Howard (Spiderman) plays his wife but is underused. There are some other bit actors but the two I would highlight would be Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) as the young Kyle Reese (the Michael Biehn character in Terminator) and Sam Worthington as a terminator that is not aware that he is a terminator. Both actors are very good.

The movie is loud, but that's to be expected since it's really about them fighting huge robots in a post-apocalyptic world. But, in between explosions, the movie does a decent job of exploring the philosophical concept of what really makes us human? Is it flesh and blood? Is it a soul? Can machines have a soul? Etc. It's the combination of effects and philosophy that have made the previous movies interesting. And Terminator Salvation does a serviceable job of continuing it. Nothing great. Not as good as the first two movies, but much better than the third. Grade: B-