February 28th, 2005 by Rightsideup

It seems Hollywood just can’t help itself. Once again, the major Oscars go to a picture which ruffled feathers everywhere from Disabled Rights Groups to conservative and pro-life groups. This was, in a sense, predicted, by Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger, when he said a couple of weeks ago:

“All the conservative outcry [about the shocking twist at the end of Clint Eastwood’s best-picture nominee Million Dollar Baby] is going to steel Oscar voters in favor of this movie. It already has the most emotional power of any of the [best-picture] nominees, and this is going to intensify that sentiment. … You’re never a true Oscar contender until you’ve angered a group.”

The interesting thing about Kruger’s comment, of course, is that it’s not just any old group the Oscar voters want to anger – it’s only ever conservative groups. This behaviour is usually justified on the basis of breaking down stereotypes, or breaking new ground, or “asking difficult questions”, but we all know that the Oscars will only ever do this with liberal causes celebres. Imagine the Oscar for best-picture going to a show which tacitly endorsed gay-bashing (as Million Dollar Baby endorses assisted suicide), or even taking a pro-life stance on abortion. You can’t – it’s simply unimaginable. And so, once again, the Oscars are true to form, going to pictures which endorse or glorify euthanasia, drug abuse and sexual immorality. But if we’re still surprised at this, we’re just not paying attention. It’s been this way for years.

February 26th, 2005 by Rightsideup

The US administration (and previous US administrations, including that of Ronald Reagan) has expressed its support in recent weeks for the institution of the European Union, the multinational body which acts increasingly as a federal state superimposed upon the nation-states of Europe. Interestingly, some of the most enthusiastic comments come today from Colin Powell in a post-resignation interview with the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.

From a US perspective, this makes solid strategic sense – endorsing the EU as a valid body for representing the interests of European powers has several advantages:

  • it allows Europe to pull something like its own weight in defence matters – each individual European country’s defence spending and capabilities are dwarfed by that of the US, and joining 25 countries’ capabilities together allows these countries to present something like an equivalent to the US’s immense military power. Since the US has been trying for the last thirty years to get European nations to pull their own weight militarily, this at least seems like a step in the right direction
  • it also allows European nations to speak with one voice – something which would be beneficial if it allowed the US to speak to “Europe” as a single coherent entity rather than as 25 separate nations, each with their own views and needs. The creation of the post of EU Foreign Minister under the proposed new EU Constitution would be a large step in this direction
  • it allows Europe to solve the problems in its own backyard directly without reference to Nato, the UN or other supranational bodies, thus excluding the US from situations which would best be handled locally.

For all of these reasons, US administrations have endorsed the creation and strengthening of the EU and the extending of its powers into the military sphere in particular over the last thirty to forty years. However, in a greater sense, this endorsement of the EU is not in the US’s best interests.

An obvious example is the recent war in Iraq, where a number of European nations endorsed and supported the stance of the US, while the two most powerful EU nations – France and Germany – and others did not. Under the proposed changes to the EU, the 25 countries would either have to speak with one voice, in which case they would not have supported the war in Iraq, or the creation of the post of EU Foreign Minister will be simply a hollow gesture, in which case it does not actually benefit the US at all. In Colin Powell’s interview in the Telegraph, he says, “I’ve always viewed [Javier] Solana as something like the EU foreign minister, anyway.” In which case, why bother to create the position formally?

Another problem with this approach, especially with Republican administrations, is that their ideological counterparts in the UK especially but also in the rest of Europe are actually the least enthusiastic about expansion of the EU’s powers. Thus, when Reagan endorsed the EU during the 80s, he actually was going against the grain as far as his closest ally in Europe, Margaret Thatcher, was concerned, since she was vehemently against any expansion of the EU’s powers.

This is more readily seen when one imagines US Republicans’ response to proposals to give the UN much broader powers, to regulate all industries at a supranational level, give it its own military force to be used as the broad membership wished, to over-ride the decisions of individual nation states within it, etc. If the UN tried to take on these powers there would be outrage in the US, and yet this is exactly the role the EU plays in Europe.

So, it would be far better if the US were to take a more moderate stance on the EU, not endorsing its expansion nor advocating its dismantling, while bolstering support for Nato, an institution which truly serves the needs of both the US and European nations militarily, without the headaches that a strengthened EU creates.

February 4th, 2005 by Rightsideup

As ever, the State of the Union speech has been picked over ad nauseam by the press, and commentators both pro and con allowed to share their views on TV and in the press. Those who enjoyed the speech were primarily those who supported President Bush’s re-election campaign, while those who denigrated it were primarily those who supported Kerry in the recent election. In other words, it won over none of those commentators on either side of the spectrum – no surprise there.

But according to polls conducted by CNN and others with ordinary people throughout the country, those who listened to the speech responded much more favourably to questions about President Bush after the speech than before it – by about 15%, apparently. This is worth looking at. What was it about this speech that had such a powerful impact? Wasn’t President Bush just reiterating many of the same policies that he outlined during the election campaign? He was, but now that the “ra ra ra” aspects of campaigning have been dispensed with, President Bush is able to articulate his policies in a more measured fashion, explaining his stance and providing the supporting evidence on subjects such as social security.

This, along with last week’s inaugural address, also marks the first time since the Republican Convention that a substantial speech has been shown in full on national TV. During the campaign, the positions of both the President and Senator Kerry were reduced to soundbites, as is customary, so that the Social Security debate was reduced to “Social Security is almost bankrupt” versus “Bush wants to take away your benefits.” In the State of the Union speech, Bush was able to explain the real situation, which is more nuanced than soundbites are able to convey. The fact is that Social Security will not fall apart tomorrow, or even next year, if nothing is done to reform it. But, at the same time, if nothing is done over the longer term, it will run out of funding, which will lead to either a need for increased taxes or a cut in benefits. Ironically, it is the “do nothing” position which would put future benefits at risk, not the reformers’ position.

President Bush used the customary terminology to describe this situation, saying that Social Security faces bankruptcy unless the system is reformed. Nancy Pelosi and others rejected this terminology as alarmist, but conceded that the system faces a funding shortfall if it is not reformed. In a business, a chronic inability to fund obligations would lead to just that – bankruptcy – but apparently this standard terminology is unacceptable when used to describe the Social Security quandary. Why should this be? It’s simple – bankruptcy is a concept most ordinary people can relate to – it withdraws the cloak of complexity the opponents of reform want to use to convince people that the problem is not simple to define, and therefore not simple to solve. Allow people to see how simple the problem is, and President Bush’s desire to reform the system is much more compelling. Hence the Democrats’ unwillingness to submit to the logical clarifying terminology.

On other issues, too, the President explained his policies in his trademark, straightforward style, and viewers responded positively to that too. On healthcare, foreign policy, immigration and other policy areas the President discussed in his speech, he was rightly applauded for setting an overall framework and calling on the combined legislators of the House and Senate to prepare bills to bring these policies into effect.

And, of course, there were the non-verbal sections of the speech – the introduction of invited guests from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq. The image of those parents embracing and being embraced by the Iraqi pro-democracy activist was a fitting confirmation of the rightness of the war in Iraq, regardless of the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction.

In all, the speech set a solid foundation for the second Bush administration. He made it clear that he was serious about his campaign promises, as those who know him and his style could have told us, and does not intend to conform with the supposed precedent of lame-duck second-term presidents. Assuming there are no real or imagined scandals, and assuming the Democrats don’t follow through on their anti-democratic filibuster plans, President Bush should be able to get a great deal done in his second term.

It is conceivable that by the end of that second term, we could have significant progress towards peace in Israel and Palestine, fledgling democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, reform underway in Social Security and the tax system, and many other positive changes. The world in 2008 could look very different indeed from today’s world, and this would set things up nicely for President Bush’s heir, whoever that may be.