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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Not Every Woman

Having run out of white women in peril, the media has now turned its attention to its favorite black woman. I refer, of course, to l'affaire d'Oprah.

For those of you who missed this story, the trouble begins, as is so often the case, in France. Rushing to a dinner engagement with her close personal friend Tina Turner, la Winfrey decided to stop in at Hermès and purchase a watch for the Buddhist chanteuse. In early recounts, the store had just closed; a revised version places the event at 15 minutes past closing. In any case, Oprah was denied entry. Conflict ensued. Once again, accounts differ. The New York Post, that bastion of journalistic rectitude, reported sales personnel didn't recognize Oprah and refused to let her in because the store had been "having a problem with North Africans." Both Harpo and Hermès have refuted that story, with a Winfrey mouthpiece declaring that the staff identified Oprah, and that other shoppers were in the store at the time. Hermès says the megastar was barred because the store was setting up for a media event at the time, and the "shoppers" were actually staff.

Whatever the truth is, Oprah was humiliated. Gayle King, Oprah best sycophant, told Entertainment Tonight that Oprah considers it "one of the most humiliating moments of her life." Michelle McIntyre of Harpo Productions called the event as Oprah's "Crash moment," referencing the recent film about racism in LA. Oprah intends to devote an episode of her show to the incident when it returns from its summer hiatus.

Don't get me started.

I spent many years working in the service sector. In those years, I had many experiences with would-be customers who came by after we closed, begging to be let in. Sometimes, if we were still busy, we would let them in. Other times, we would not. On occasion, a manager would make the call and seat a diner after we closed. In all cases, we hated the latecomer.

Here's an unpleasant but simple truth: If you show up 15 minutes before we close, we hate you. If you show up 15 minutes after we close, we wish you would die. On the spot.

Unknown to shoppers and diners, service personnel have lives outside of work. They have not dedicated their life to service, like some upstairs maid of the 19th century. I have been forced to remind customers, "I'm your server, not your servant." How much do you hate it when your boss drops a new project on your desk at 4:30? That's how much we hate you when you show up 15 minutes before we close. Imagine how much we hate you when you show up 15 minutes afterwards.

Oprah is not the only one playing this incident as an example of racism. Across the Web, Oprah supporters are shocked -- shocked! -- by how badly she was treated. Bruce Haynes, a sociologist from UC, Davis, says, "The presumption in America is that if you have the wealth, you'll get equality -- but where's Oprah's equality?" The flaw in this thinking is that Oprah was not expecting equality. Equal treatment supposes that when a place of business is closed, customers are no longer allowed in. I am not allowed in, you are not allowed in, Oprah is not allowed in. Oprah does not want to be treated equally; she wants to be treated specially. As a celebrity, she feels that is her right. Dr. King, I fear, would disagree. He might agree that a black celebrity should be treated the same as a white celebrity, but in general, I think he would prefer that white and black celebrities be treated no better than the common man. And, conversely, that ordinary people be given the same courtesy and respect that are granted to celebrities.

Granted, Hermès doesn't have a lot of experience in dealing with the common man. This century old Paris boutique is known for its $300 scarves and $6000 purses. Its staff is used to dealing with the well known, if not necessarily well-bred, since they are the few who can afford its wares. Oprah is a regular shopper, and has plugged the stores products in the past, such as the $135 teacup and saucer featured on her web site. Most of the people rushing to Oprah's defense couldn't afford to use the restroom there.

Which makes the racism that much more appalling. Harriette Cole, the author of a book on black etiquette, says the incident "proves how deeply ingrained in global culture racism is. There is the assumption that a black person will do you harm, and/or the assumption that a black person has no place in a luxury establishment, cannot afford to buy the luxury item." Except that, according to Oprah herself, the staff recognized her. In other words, they knew that she could afford to shop there and still refused to let her in. Which implies that they didn't let her in, not because she was black, but because she was Oprah. They don't like her. The nouveau riche Américain.

Now that's humiliating.

Indeed, "Oprah describes it herself as one of the most humiliating moments of her life."

This is astonishing. More humiliating than her childhood rape and abuse? More humiliating than a teen pregnancy that ended in stillbirth? Worse than the endless litany of humiliations that must have been heaped upon an overweight, unattractive black girl from the south, trying to carve out a career in broadcast journalism? Someone has forgotten her roots.

Which is, indeed, at the root of this story. The character which Oprah has created for herself should be siding with the Hermès salesperson, whether she's confronting the self-righteous celebrity who feels she should be allowed in after hours, or the officious manager who steadfastly sticks to store policy. Instead, Oprah has chosen to paint herself as the wronged party. And that's just ... wrong.

Friday, June 24, 2005

War Torn

The Steven Spielberg version of War of the Worlds opens next Wednesday, and I, unlike millions of Americans, have no interest in seeing it. How can that be? Conventional wisdom asserts that it will be a blockbuster. Steven Spielberg. Tom Cruise. Science fiction. What's not to love?

Steven Spielberg. Tom Cruise. Science fiction. If you recall, the last time these three elements joined forces, they produced Minority Report, one of the most ludicrous science fiction epics in recent memory. After A.I., that is. But I get ahead of myself.

First things first. My disinterest in this movie has nothing to do with the George Pal version of 1953. Granted, Hollywood is once again showing its lack of imagination by providing a summer of reruns (Willy Wonka, Dukes of Hazzard, The Longest Yard). And I have a soft spot in my heart for the original film version. But that has more to do with who I was when I saw it than its inherent merits. It's been years since I've seen the film, and imagine it may be the worse for wear. (Though I must say that even today, the George Pal Time Machine is far superior to the 2002 Guy Pearce/Jeremy "Anything for a Buck" Irons version.)

An adaptation is an adaptation. At the heart of adaptation is re-imagining a piece for your own time. Welles (Orson, that is) adapted the novel in 1938, there was a TV series in 1988, and two other films versions (one British, one straight to video starring C. Thomas Howell – yikes) are on the horizon. Graphic novel fans may be interested to learn that Dark Horse comics has just started a serialized adaptation on their online site. Though one version may be superior to another, being first doesn't necessarily mean you're best. (Heck, The Wizard of Oz was adapted for the screen four times before the 1939 version.) While the George Pal version is a "classic" in its own right, it isn't untouchable in the way such films as Casablanca or Gone With the Wind (also adaptations) seem to be.

Nor am I avoiding the movie because of Tom Cruise. Although that's certainly a good reason to do so. Cruise's recent exploits prove the maxim that actors are like children (not cattle, Hitch): they should be see in their movies and neither seen nor heard in real life. You either know what Tom Cruise has been up to lately or you don't care. I don't care – I don't watch Oprah or Access Hollywood, I don't read the tabloids or celebrity weeklies – but I still know. There's his latest Scientology rant, saying people should fight depression with vitamins instead of therapy and medication, there's the whole Katie Holmes debacle, there are the lawsuits – the latest against a British comic who squirted water in his face and who Tom had arrested for assault. In a way, his WotW role is perfectly suited to Cruise: he plays a divorced father who thinks of no one but himself. But whereas his onscreen alter ego has an alien invasion to teach him the meaning of life, Cruise remains unharnessed.

That little bit of synopsis may give you a hint of why this movie gives me the willies. Yep, it's Spielberg! Here's a guy who, in making a movie about aliens attacking the planet, decides the interesting story is about a guy learning to become a good father. The sci-fi flicks of the 1950s always featured a damsel in distress. Spielberg sticks with the tradition, but makes her 10 years old. I can understand the philosophy that says that an alien invasion is too large a story to tell, and that in order to have a human connection, you should focus on one man and his endangered family. I saw that movie. It's called Signs.

Not so fast, Grasshopper. In an interview at the WotW site, Spielberg tells us that the movie is really about the refugee experience. In making this film, he tells us, he looked to the Eastern European experience. Because although after 9/11, Americans know what it's liked to be attacked (Pearl Harbor taught us nothing!), they've never been refugees. In this film, the characters have that experience. So it's Schindler's List. With aliens instead of Nazis. And no list. I am put in mind of what Jon Stewart recently said of those who compare others to Hitler: "It demeans them. It demeans you. And it demeans Hitler."

In truth, it matters little what this movie is "really" about. A movie can be about anything. My personal prejudice is against a giant bug movie that's really about fathers and children, but I enjoyed Signs. My concern about this flick is that it will be "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Which makes Steven Spielberg the idiot telling the tale.


Yes, I'm the guy who doesn't like Steven Spielberg. You knew I was out there. Most of my friends already know this about me. The truth is, I believe most of you don't like Steven Spielberg either. At least not his movies.

It's hard to have your dislike for Spielberg taken seriously. Especially if you're me, a known anti-populist. (Odd, for someone so into popular culture.) Folks assume you're taking this opinion just because he's popular. And successful.

Not the case. Nor have I always felt this contempt for Steven Spielberg. Jaws? Terrific. Funny, suspenseful, scary. "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Raiders of the Lost Ark? As perfect a movie as you get. Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Wonderful. Smart, well-paced, nicely structured, good payoff. Until the Special Edition came along, and tossed the ending down the toilet. Also, nearly 30 years old.

Since Duel brought him popular attention in 1971, Steven Spielberg has directed 23 major films (not including War of the Worlds). I've liked 7. I doubt you've liked many more. The first four – Duel and the other three mentioned above – came within a 10 year period. Very encouraging. The other films of that period are The Sugarland Express, which I haven't seen and will believe is good if you convince me, and 1941, which I have and won't.

1982 saw the release of the movie that brought about my split with the American public: E.T. Lord, I hated that movie. I know you loved it, especially if you saw it when you were a kid, but I was bored and just a wee bit nauseous. There are a handful of decent laughs (Drew Barrymore finds E.T. in the closet, everybody screams), but I found the basic premise of "Alien scientist becomes family pet" a little humiliating. You demean yourself and you demean the dog.

Even if you liked E.T. (I know, it's your favorite move ever), 1983 ushered in a ten year run of irredeemable trash:

Twilight Zone: The Movie. Spielberg directs the segment where the old folks become kids. Sentimental, nothing happens.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Kate Capshaw + Short Round = Crap.

The Color Purple. Also known as The Colored People. Walt Disney presents rape and incest. All you need to know about this movie is its advertising tagline: "It's about life. It's about love. It's about us." Are ya feeling nauseous yet? Everyone bitches about how this movie was overlooked at the Oscars (11 nominations, no wins). All I will concede is that the movie that won Best Picture that year, Out of Africa, is just as horrible.

Empire of the Sun. Didn't see this, but heard it was good. If nothing else, it introduced us to Christian Bale.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One good line: "He chose poorly." Not as bad as the Kate Capshaw movie, for what it's worth. Sean Connery is wasted. I recently watched all three movies again on DVD, and the last two are as bad as you remember.

Always. You didn't even see this movie, did you? I did. In a movie theater. Horrible. This is a remake of a 1940's war film, and Brad Johnson, who plays the love interest, makes Van Johnson, in the original, look good. It's that bad.

Hook. This movie makes you hate Peter Pan.

Jurassic Park, 1993. It's 10 years since E.T. and people are wondering if Spielberg is ever going to make a good movie again. That is, if they're honest with themselves and admit to being bored and/or offended by The Color Purple (I bet you didn't even see that movie, and yet you defend it) and HATING the Indiana Jones sequels. So here comes Jurassic Park, and you know what it shows us? Spielberg loves special effects and doesn't give a squat about telling a decent story. The book is a potboiler, bit fascinating in that Michael Crichton Popular Science way. Spielberg turns the villain into a cuddly grandfather, tosses in a couple of suspenseful scenes, and mostly hangs out with the special effects guys. (Frankly, this is what I'm expecting from War of the Worlds.) Wasted opportunity. Sure, the dinos looked great and the raptors were cool and the scene in the kitchen is scary. Anything else? My secret shame is that I actually kind of liked the sequel, The Lost World. (#5 if you're counting.) Sure, it's basically the same movie, but with a T-Rex running around in Los Angeles and eating dogs. Much better.

And this brings us to Schindler's List, the movie that worked. Why? Hard to say. I mean, Spielberg isn't a complete hack – he's no George Lucas – and he has made good movies in the (distant) past. Here, he's blessed with great source material (Thomas Keneally's book), a linear plot, a great cast and a natural hate of Nazis. It probably helps that he's got a new cinematographer who actually cares about story. Sure, he still has to throw in the little girl in the red coat (what is this, Don't Look Now?), but by and large it's straightforward. It's too serious to be sentimental, and that's a huge help. The sixth Spielberg film I enjoy.

Then comes Amistad. You didn't see this movie. When Hotel Rwanda came out last year, I was a little afraid to see it. I thought it would be "good for me," providing some much needed historical perspective on series of events with which I should be more familiar. I was not expecting it to be enjoyable. I was astonished by the life in the movie, the wonderful performances, the emotional depth. Amistad is the movie I was afraid Hotel Rwanda would be. It's a movie only a liberal could love.

Saving Private Ryan. This is the other movie that everyone but me likes. Tell me: do you remember anything after the first 20 minutes? The movie opens with the invasion of Normandy, and it's a stunner. Things are blowing up, people are running around and dying, no one – including the audience – knows what's going on. Very effective, very chilling. This seems to be what the rest of War of the Worlds is going to be – hand held camera, mass confusion, alien invasion is no fun. Apparently, two of the Ryan boys are killed during the invasion – I didn't remember that from the movie, but read it on IMDb – so off Tom Hanks and his cannon fodder go to rescue Matt Damon. And then … ? I remember nothing. One scene about Tom Hanks' hands shaking. A really sappy ending. (Par for the Spielberg.) This movie made no impression on me.

Then come Spielberg's most recent forays into science fiction, and if these don't scare you off War of the Worlds, nothing will. AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report. AI is like 1941: the less said the better. This movie didn't have to be as horrible as it was. Inside its bloated 145 minutes is a 90 minute movie struggling to come out. But in order to work, it needed a director who had a greater contempt for people. Someone like Stanley Kubrick, who originally developed the material. Spielberg tries to find someone to root for, and you know what? There isn't anyone.

Minority Report is a mess from beginning to end. Full of plot holes, laughable ending (I literally laughed. Out loud. In the movie theater.), two good scenes. The first is the scene with Lois Smith, the scientist who tells Tom Cruise about the minority report. She knows she's in a stinker, and she plays the scene completely over the top. The other is the scene with Samantha Morton, when they're on the run and she uses her precog abilities to tell him what to do ("grab an umbrella") to avoid detection. The rest of the movie is just The Fugitive dressed in some fancy sci-fi duds. Or dowdy, since it's all shot through some blue filter that's supposed to make it seem … I don't know what. The only bright spot is seeing the death of Mike Binder, the guy responsible for HBO's The Mind of the Married Man.

After Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks had a little romance and made two more movies together. One of them I liked. Not The Terminal. In every interview about The Terminal, you know what Spielberg talked about? The set. It shows. No, I kind of liked Catch Me If You Can. It's a complete trifle, and Tom Hanks does an accent that's based on no human language ever spoken, but that's okay. This is the last of the Steven Spielberg movies I like.

So that's my 7. Even if I give you E.T. and Saving Private Ryan, we're still only up to 9 out of 23. Just over 1 out of 3. 4 in the past 20 years. And that includes Catch Me If You Can and The Lost World, which I will bet are not on your list of favorite Spielberg films. If you struggle, maybe you can up your list to an even dozen. Half of his output. I guess that's acceptable. But not enough to earn my trust.

The Brits disagree with me, of course.

A recent poll in Empire magazine ranked Spielberg as the greatest director of all time. The runners-up in the top ten include (in order) Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Akira Kurosawa, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, Orson Welles and Woody Allen. I find it difficult to believe that voters who would list Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino as the 7th and 8th greatest directors ever had even seen a film by Akira Kurosawa. I assume Empire's readership skews fairly young. I find the inclusion of Tarantino particularly amusing, considering that he’s directed a total of four films (five if you count Kill Bill as two). By the by, of the 20 major films Martin Scorsese since 1972's Boxcar Bertha, I’ve liked 11. There are also more (5) that I haven't seen (compared to only 2 for Spielberg), which leaves only 4 that I haven't liked. Probably not coincidentally, on my list of stinkers is his one Tom Cruise flick: The Color of Money.

Shut Up!

Now that she's appeared with Katie Couric, can we please be done with Jennifer "Runaway Bride" Wilbanks? Are people really interested in this story? And if so, who are they? Why are we giving all this attention to someone who gained notoriety simply by acting irresponsibly? The story is over; the only story now is the story of her becoming a celebrity by acting like a foolish child. Enough! The news media is fixated on tales of white women in peril. Jennifer Wilbanks, Natalee Holloway. Hell, you might as well add Michael Jackson. And now Tom Cruise. I'm glad Boy Scout Brennan Hawkins is home safe, but I hope we don't have to keep hearing about it for the next six months. If he was 18 and female, he'd be on the cover of People.


Oh Jeez

I don't have time or space to write about this, but in checking on Brennan Hawkins' name, I read an article about the Supreme Court expanding the power of "eminent domain." Once invoked to claim land necessary to build roads and military bases, and later expanded to include urban renewal, the latest ruling allows local governments to seize your property to put up a shopping mall. This is what we don't hear about because we're reading about Jennifer Wilbanks.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

615 Grams

The Jackson trial ended just in time for Terry Schiavo's triumphant return to the news.

The results of Schiavo's autopsy were revealed on Wednesday. For those of you that missed the story – and how could you? – the report found that Schiavo had severe and irreversible brain damage. By the time she died, her brain had shrunk to half its normal size. In fact, the fluid in her skull weighed more than her brain. Remember Karen Ann Quinlan? For you younguns out there, Karen Ann was the original poster child for the right to death. When she finally died in 1985 – nearly 10 years after they "pulled the plug" – her brain weighed 35% more than Schiavo's. The St. Petersburg Times summed it up with the line, "She would never have recovered."

Not that the Schindler's – Terri's birth family – are buying that bullshit. They have lived too long in the limelight to be swayed by simple scientific evidence. Her parents maintain that Terri recognized them and tried to speak with them. Presented with the evidence that she was most likely blind by the time she died – and indeed for some years before – they took it as proof that Terri was not only conscious, but somehow super-conscious, because she knew when they came into the room even without sight. They are threatening some unspecified legal action, but since that has become their reflex reaction to every bit of news that has ever been presented to them, the response is no surprise.

The Schindler's are even more upset that there's no evidence that Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, tried to kill her, either before or after she went into the hospital. The medical examiner – who reviewed reports dating back to her initial collapse in 1990 in addition to performing the autopsy – could find no evidence that Schiavo strangled his wife, as her parents have asserted. Nor was there any evidence that she was doped up in the hospital in order to speed her end. The toxicology report found nothing in her system but acetaminophen; i.e. Tylenol. The report also found conclusively that she could not swallow, and that any attempts to feed her by mouth would have been harmful. So much for the guy who tried to bust into the hospital with a glass of water during her final days.

Terri's family has taken a cue from the war on Iraq, and is now revising their rationale for having wanted to keep Terri alive. Back in March, the family was saying that with proper therapy, Terri could recover. Now her brother Bobby is telling the media, "We knew all along that Terri was profoundly brain damaged." As a side note, this is the first time that anyone in the family has called her brain damaged. Their lawyer still refers to her as "brain injured." Bobby goes on, "We simply wanted to bring her home and care for her. It all goes back to this quality of life." Quality of life, eh. The most optimistic reports on Terri's condition say that she had the brain function of a six to ten week old infant. If I am ever reduced to the brain function of a six to ten week old infant, please put the pillow over my face.

David Gibbs, the lawyer for the Schindler family, made a point of Schiavo's overall health, as revealed by the autopsy. The M.E. said she could have lived another decade had her feeding tube not been removed. "It demonstrated she had a strong will to live," Gibbs said. Near the end of her life, my mother, who died of Alzheimer's disease, recovered from a bout of pneumonia that was expected to finish her off. Just because the body survives doesn't mean it has anything to live for.

The autopsy sheds some doubt on Terri's initial collapse being due to an eating disorder. Actually, if you read it, the report specifically says she was probably not bulimic; there's no evidence that she "purged." Indeed, the M.E. said she had "lovely teeth," which counters a claim by the Schindlers that she was not given proper dental care in the hospital, but we'll let that pass, as they have. Although her potassium levels were extremely low at the time of her collapse, the M.E. says that could have been due to the drugs she was given in the attempt to revive her. Because the M.E. could not find a definite underlying cause that led to her collapse in 1990, he listed the "manner" of her death (though not the cause) as "undetermined." (Mind you, he rules out strangling, drug overdose, and nearly everything but Jedi mind trick.) Because of this, the Schindlers are now calling for an investigation into Terri's collapse, blindly seeking one last thing to blame Michael Schiavo for.

I don't completely blame the Schindlers for their madness. If my sister, who seems to be in otherwise good health, were to have a sudden collapse, I would think there was foul play afoot. On the other hand, if I had a bad drug experience when I was in my early 20s and ended up in the hospital, my parents would be looking for someone other than me to blame. And they would be wrong. The more I see of the Schindlers, the more I understand Terri's desire to be free of them. Seeing them in action convinces me that Michael Schiavo knew things about their daughter that they could never imagine, and it's easy for me to believe that her end of life desires would be among them. This case is difficult, because while I doubt Terri Schiavo ever formally announced her will (here I tend to believe the Schiavo friend who quoted Michael as saying, "We were only 25! We weren't thinking about death!"), I do believe that when visiting an aged relation, she did say something like, "If I ever end up like that, kill me." That she lost 100 pounds between the time she graduated from high school and met Michael Schiavo in college makes me think she may have had "food issues."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in a rare moment of lucidity, has admitted that Schiavo had "devastating brain damage" when she died. This is a reversal of his opinion back in March, but although he offered his opinion at that time as a doctor, he now says it was not a diagnosis. Frist, like many others, depended on a ten minute video clip which appeared to show Schiavo as responsive. That the clip was edited down from a four hour videotape did not influence his belief. Frist can diagnose popular opinion, however, and now calls the case closed.

Not everyone in Washington is responding as sensibly. Representative Dave Weldon, another doctor politician, who sponsored the bill aimed at keeping Terri alive, questioned parts of the autopsy. "I stand by what we did," Weldon said. "You had the mother and father, brother and sister, screaming that she be kept alive, and the husband, I thought, was not credible." Despite the fact that the husband was, you know, right. So screaming trumps truth. This is all you need to know about our political system.

That Terri was in relatively good physical health, outside of a having a brain the size and consistency of a walnut, has brought back the popular analogy, "It's illegal to starve a dog to death." The autopsy revealed that Schiavo died of dehydration, not starvation, but we'll let that pass. It is illegal to starve a dog to death. But dogs are put to sleep every day. It is unfortunate that the humane procedures we use to put animals out of their misery are not available to human beings. Given the choice, I'm sure Michael Schiavo would have preferred to allow his wife to die with greater dignity. Unfortunately, in this country, the only legal way to kill someone is to starve them to death. As Bugs Bunny would say, "Ironic, ain't it?"

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Not My Love

Because I am cranky and opinionated, people naturally want to hear my response to the Michael Jackson verdict. (Cranky and Opinionated were two of the dwarves Snow White was lucky enough not to meet. They worked white collar jobs and lived in a condo at the nicer end of the forest. They had a Polish cleaning lady who came in once a week, so they didn't need Snow's help anyway.)

Of course, I was disappointed when he was found not guilty.

I am not a justice hound. I don't think Michael Jackson was guilty of such heinous acts that he deserved to be put away. I wanted him to be found guilty for the same reason I wanted O.J. to be found not guilty: I find it more amusing. I can't devote more than a tiny sliver of my day or brain to Michael Jackson. Anything that was once human in him has been long since swept away by years of abuse, celebrity, and self love/loathing. He is a tragic figure only in that his destruction has been all self-inflicted. I was curious to see what would happen to him after a few years in the joint. Heck, months. Days. Now, he'll live out his time in ever growing diminution, eventually dying alone like Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather III. That scene, with Michael dying in that chair in the middle of the plaza, is almost exactly how I expect Michael Jackson's life to end. That, or shrunken in his bed, piled high with comforters, deep in the recesses of Neverland, like Charles Foster Kane. But I'll be long dead by then, and it will be private. I like my humiliation public.

I was not surprised by the verdict. Clearly, Jackson was guilty on some counts. Not necessarily conspiracy, though Jackson is clearly surrounded by henchmen who do his dirty work for him. But that doesn't make him different from any other celebrity. And it explains why Donald Trump finds him a kindred spirit. The conspiracy charge reminded me of filmmakers who put sexy or violent scenes in their movies because they know the MPAA will object to their film no matter what, and this may allow them to cut those scenes and keep the scenes they want. Prosecutors knew the jury wouldn't buy conspiracy, but it would allow them to find him not guilty of something. Instead they found him not guilty of everything.

Including giving alcohol to a child. Even if you don't believe he gave liquor to these kids for purposes of seduction, it's pretty likely that he gave liquor to these kids. Did the defense even refute it? [All I know of the case is what I saw in Countdown's Puppet Theater (hilarious) and the E! reenactments (even funnier).] Jackson should be found guilty of giving liquor to a minor for purposes of making him think you're cool. He's like the teenager who breaks into his parent's liquor cabinet and steals the crème de menthe so all his friends can get hammered and then puke green. Which is pathetic if you're 45 years old, and even worse if you're a superstar.

This case was the perfect storm of reasonable doubt. Believing Michael Jackson has molested children, yet not completely believing he molested this kid, is the definition of reasonable doubt. On the other hand, not believing the mother because she snaps her fingers at you when she talks is insane.

But as I said, I was not surprised by the outcome. Californians don't like to convict their celebrities. That and sunny weather is all they've got. I recall an article in the New Yorker following the O.J. verdict in which Marcia Clark was quoted as saying her superior told her not to take the case, because O.J. was "unconvictable." Heck, Robert Blake went into court wearing a shirt that said "I murdered my wife and all I got was this lousy jumpsuit," and they let him walk. Martha Stewart is kicking herself that her trial was in New York.

My primary reason for wanting Michael Jackson to be found guilty – once you get past the entertainment value – was to have someone tell him "No." In my eyes, much of Jackson's behavior around children falls on the scale between "creepy" and "objectionable." "Abuse" is difficult to categorize, because much of it depends on response rather than actions. The law is unwilling to go much past outright sexual activity, and I think that's fine. The law has to draw the line somewhere, and in general I prefer it to err on the side of liberty. But what Macaulay Culkin does not find abuse, your child or grandchild or niece or nephew might. In some ways, Michael Jackson's crime is worse than O.J.'s, because unlike O.J., he will do it again.

At least the public dismay over Jackson's admission that he likes to sleep with young boys – in a completely non-sexual way, of course – has put the kibosh on that activity. For now, at least.

Tom Mesereau, Jackson's legal eagle, told the press that Jackson will no longer let children sleep in his room, "because it makes him vulnerable to false charges." How about, "because it's a creepy thing for a middle aged man to do"? During this interview, the contract Mr. Mesereau has signed with the devil was clearly visible in his back pocket. It's one thing to defend Michael Jackson. It's one thing to believe he is innocent (quite different from not guilty) of these particular charges. It's one thing to convince yourself, in order to properly defend your client, that he is an okay guy. It's quite another thing to imply that the children who sleep in his bed are somehow to blame. I'm Michael Jackson's age, and I never find children in my bed. Especially not ones I'm not related to. How about you? How about you, Mr. Mesereau?

Crazy Tom took it a step further, as lawyers are wont to do (some people need to learn when to shut up), calling Jackson a "kind-hearted, child-like person" who could be taken advantage of, because he was too nice to people. Really? Would one of those people be his one time BFF Paul McCartney, who he outbid for publishing rights to the library of Beatles songs? Not that I have any problem with this on a purely business level. But the notion that a decision is "business, not personal," puts us in mind of a certain capo di tutti capi from paragraph 3. And since MJ's decision to screw his best friend happened 20 years ago, when the argument could be made that he truly was too young to know what he was doing, the mind reels at what he's capable of today.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Sweet Home? Alabama!

As of this writing, Natalee Holloway remains missing. Holloway, you will recall, is the Alabama teen who visited Aruba with 130 of her closest friends during a class trip over Memorial Day weekend. The 124 students, along with 7 adult chaperones, were celebrating their graduation from Mountain Brook High School, in an affluent suburb of Birmingham. How affluent? 99% of the student body is white. In Alabama. The other 1% is Asian. The Teacher:Student ratio is 1 to 11. The median household income is $100,000, and the median value of a "housing unit" is $300,000. This in a state where the median income is $40,000.

When the students' plane left on Monday, Holloway was the one child left behind.

Local police and a host of FBI agents have been following up a series of weak leads. This has not stopped Aruban authorities from making 5 arrests in the case. The first two arrests were local men who had recently worked as security guards at the Hotel Allegro, located about 2 blocks from the Holiday Inn where Natalee and her friends stayed. Jeez, if your family is making more than 100 grand, stay at the Allegro! The two men have not officially been charged with anything, but this is no reason to let them go. In Aruba, you see, authorities can hold suspects for nearly four months without filing formal charges. You might as well be at Gitmo. According to police, the two suspects were not seen in Natalee's company, none of her possessions were found among the items police seized after taking them into custody, and suspicious bloodstains found on a mattress were determined to be from a dog.

On Thursday, police arrested the three young men with whom Natalee left a bar at 1:30 Monday morning. They say they dropped her off at her hotel at 2 am. One of them told authorities that as Holloway was getting out of their car, she stumbled and one of them helped her up. Walking to the hotel, she stumbled a second time, and a "dark-colored" man wearing a black T-shirt and carrying a radio helped her. Aruba, if you don't know, is a Dutch protectorate, much as Rwanda used to be. As such, the natives understand the cardinal rule: blame it on the blacks.

But this article is not about the criminal process in Aruba. I know as much about this case as you do, which is to say, nothing. My concern about this case has not been addressed in any of the stories I've read about it.

And that is this:

What kind of parents let their child go on her own to a country whose chief products are drinking and sexual activity?

The first news stories I heard referred to this expedition as a "class trip." While this is true to some degree – the students were all graduating from the same high school – the purpose of the trip was clearly recreational. This is better than pretending that there is some educational value in a trip to Aruba, but not by much. I don't know if the school had anything to do with organizing this expedition, but I sincerely hope not. Mountain Brook High School is a public school – though obviously one with benefits much greater than many private schools – and I don't believe public schools should be involved in the whoring out of our children.

[Note: A story in the Birmingham Post-Herald says graduating seniors "have traveled to the sunny Caribbean paradise of Aruba on senior trips for many years," but that, "the trip, though traditional, is not an official school event." So apparently while Mountain Brook High School is not directly involved in the whoring out of our children, it supports such whoring. This story also refers to "142 recent graduates," but the number I've seen most often is 124 (an easy transposition), so I'm sticking with it. Either number is a significant portion of the 270 total senior class.]

One might consider the vacation as something of a graduation present. Even then, I shudder. I have no problem with commemorating your child's passage from high school with some sort of a celebration. A nice party, perhaps. In my family, even the increasingly traditional gift of a car is considered excessive. But a trip – on your own – to the freaking Caribbean? Come on! The ability to graduate from high school is a base level accomplishment. It means you were able to not screw up enough that you made it through public school. I understand that there are plenty of families at risk in our nation, and that there are plenty of children for whom graduation is a major accomplishment. Not in Mountain Brook, Alabama, where 60% of the teachers have Masters degrees, where average daily class attendance is 97%, and where the dropout rate is 0.37% (vs. 13% for the state.)

Readers might object to my characterizing Natalee as being "on her own." After all, there were adult chaperones on the tour. Yes, there were. 7. For 124 students. Some quick division reveals that to be a ratio of nearly 18 students per chaperone. This is more than one and a half times the ratio of students to teachers at Mountain Brook High School, which, you'll recall, is 11 to 1. In other words, it is more important to provide supervision in the classroom than in a foreign country 1800 miles away.

And not just any country. An island nation devoted to spending most of the say mostly undressed mostly drinking. Oh, there may have been some scuba diving, but even with their endurance, few teens can send as much time diving as drinking. Nor would they want to. Natalee has been described as a naïve girl who hasn't dated a lot and doesn't party a lot. By her family. Even if this is true, sending her off to the Caribbean with a hundred randy teens and a fistful of chaperones seems the equivalent of throwing a baby into the deep end of the pool to teach it to swim.

Are parents held hostage to such a degree by their own children that they are forced to lavish such gifts upon them? Or even worse, do parents feel so bad about themselves that they feel this sort of need to buy affection from their own offspring? It boggles the mind.

And if you are such a parent who feels a) bound, or b) guilty enough to provide such pleasures, is it that much of an effort to research your child's travel plans?

Aruba is a small island in the Caribbean. Good start. This conjures up such images of the Bahamas, Jamaica, maybe the Cayman or Virgin Islands, perhaps St. Barts or Antigua. Aruba is nowhere near all that. Aruba is 25 miles from Venezuela. South America is clearly visible from the island. And when we think of Venezuela, what do we think about? Failing economy, domestic instability, drug trafficking. To quote the CIA World Factbook: "large quantities of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana transit the country from Colombia bound for US and Europe; significant narcotics-related money-laundering activity; increasing signs of drug-related activities by Colombian insurgents."

Which doesn't mean that Aruba is not safe. The rate of crime against tourists is relatively low, and violent crime against tourists is very uncommon. But it does mean that you should think twice – and then twice more – and then just STOP – before leaving a club at closing time with three strangers. Being in a foreign country, especially in these heady times, is like being in a horror movie. Don't leave the group!

Would that her loving parents had given her that message two weeks ago.


Note: Natalee Holloway's senior quote in the Mountain Brook yearbook comes from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "Freebird:" "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? For I must be traveling on now, there's too many places I haven't seen." Take that as you will.


This entire tragedy could have been avoided if Natalee had been wearing her forget-me-not panties.

These panties use an embedded microchip and the cutting edge technology of the sensatech system to monitor the wearer's position (globally, not physically), as well as such biometric measurements as her heart rate and body temperature. They're sold individually or in packs of 7, for daily protection.

If Natalee had worn forget-me-not panties, we'd know where she was today. Or at least where her panties were.

[Warning: forget-me-not panties are marketed through]