Saturday, January 24, 2009

Taking sides in the Israel-Hamas fight

In Fall, 2006 I wrote a couple of perhaps overly long posts on the Israeli-Hizbollah War. I apply those same thoughts here to Israel's most recent war with Hamas in a much briefer fashion.

Less developed nations eventually acquire the more modern weapons of the more developed nations. This has happened throughout the history of the world. While Israel is far more technologically capable of waging war than Hamas or Hizbollah, these terrorist organizations (according to the U.S. and Israel, at least – not everyone), both of those entities have acquired a large amount of missiles, with which they can roughly target Israel at their leisure, and then quickly disappear, requiring Israel to pile up civilian deaths when it retaliates or tries to create a safety zone. The Hizbollah War was a first in history, I believe, where a technologically inferior country or group was able to sit in its own territory and attack its technologically superior enemy in its own territory. That was lost on the commentators of the world, who seemed not to have noticed. But, it’s important, particularly if you are a tiny little itsy-bitsy country. It does not matter that Lebanon and Israel are physical neighbors as technology only makes weapons go faster and farther with more accuracy and more destructive power as time goes on.

For all of Israel’s attempts to lower civilian deaths when it invades Lebanon or Gaza (and their humanitarian efforts and allowances of their enemy are probably unprecedented too), and thereby attempt to avoid the outrage of most of the world, including our other allies, they just can’t do it and wage any kind of effective war. Given the new world order which decries absolute victory by one nation over another, they are caught in this paradox – they must take civilian lives to destroy those who are attacking them from without and thereby suffer political attacks from other nations and even some in their own country, or, avoid taking civilian lives to the degree that they can’t completely defeat their enemy an thereby suffer those same groups and their enemies declaring that they have lost the war, however much destruction they cause.

The result is, Hizbollah and Hamas both continue as strong or stronger in Lebanon and Gaza even if the actual society has suffered horrifying blows to its infrastructure and quality of life. Worse, as technology progresses, they will obtain far more missiles and those they obtain in each passing year will be technologically more advanced. The day will come when Hamas, Hizbollah and perhaps their benefactor, Iran, will be able to rain missiles down upon tiny Israel with GPS precision in such a fashion that no nuclear threat or weapon superiority will allow them to survive. This is inevitable unless a new generation of missile deterrence allows Israel to shield itself from thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of missiles at a time and, I do not see that happening in time to save them. Worse, while these countries now utilize missiles which can do substantial damage when they happen to hit something, it will eventually occur to Israel’s enemies that they can cause far more damage by using many more armaments sacrificing some explosive power. One inaccurate missile which can blow a room out of a house will not be fractionally as valuable as ten smaller missiles which can at least blow a person to pieces or destroy a house. It is a calculation which is inevitable.

For this reason, one of two possibilities must come to pass. Either the day comes when a political resolution occurs, or, one side or the other must win. I think the latter is more likely and here’s why. In order to have a political resolution, you must have both sides willing to settle – this is the old partners for peace problem. Hamas and Hizbollah retain their power by their aggression and success in frustrating (and they hope one day, destroying) Israel. Therefore, as long as Hamas remains politically strong in its own tiny territory (and, I have read that it is gaining popularity in the West Bank) there is not likely to be a political resolution. Moreover, as long as Israel’s peers, Western Europe in particular, and the U.N. as an entity, continue to support Hamas (and Hizbollah) indirectly by decrying all attempts by Israel to destroy them, the political oomph from the rest of the world cannot settle this problem. Israel will not finally resolve the problem unless it has real security.

Israel’s comparative prosperity may be its own worst enemy over the long term. The energy of cultures which live in relative comfort is far quicker sapped in a long term struggle than it is with those who are used to fighting to survive. When you can have air conditioning and hang out drinking marguerites at the beach, you aren’t going to want to go have a sergeant yell at you for not shining your AK-47 and you are not going to want to shoot anyone. It was true with Rome and the so-called barbarians, it was true with us in Vietnam, and it may be true with Israel. At least, reports of the will of many Israeli’s to keep going running out seems to support the thesis.

So, how do they survive? Unfortunately, in order to do so they will have to accept inflicting a lot of death. Hiding behind its own citizenry is an effective weapon in a world where mangled children can be put on YouTube and seen around the world. By that, I do not mean that they should simply kill as many enemy civilians as possible or give up your humanity or compassion. I mean that if you are doing your best to avoid killing civilians, then you have to inure yourself as best as you can to the recriminations of your enemies, those dying, your own citizens and the world. I don't say any of this lightly. When someone steps on an ant for no reason, it is still painful to me. No people should have to live like the people do in Gaza, with their livelihoods, health and freedom controlle by someone else completely. But, you have to look at whose fault it is.

In order to put an end to constant threats, Israel’s enemies will to fight or believe that their side can win must be crushed. If we could do that with Japan, which was a tremendously formidable enemy willing for much of WWII to sacrifice anything to win, us, then Israel can do it with Hamas and Hizbollah. Admittedly, of course, Japan had a leader, the Emperor, who, in the end, had the strength to surrender before his people were destroyed. I don’t know if Hamas has that quality of leader. They have already demonstrated that they are at least outwardly inured to the death of their own (they’ve declared victory, after all, when they lost ten people for every Israeli death, and suffered billions in structural damage compared to very little for Israel – good for them).

I find some irony in my own opinion. Although it is impossible to predict what would have been if things had gone differently, I have always believed that the creation of Israel in the midst of the Muslim world was largely a mistake. Although other nations have been created on as little or worse grounds, I do not believe it has been worth it just because Jews had a homeland there a couple of thousand years ago for a brief period of time. I suppose if Israel finds peace and then continues to exist, my opinion might be considered wrong. I won’t be around to know it. Nevertheless, their nation is a settled thing at this point, and violence should not undo it. If they need violence to maintain it, that’s a sad, but necessary factor.

I also am well aware that Israel has dirty hands itself, being grossly unfair for a long time, forcing Palestinians from their homes, forcing some to leave where they lived their whole life, stealing their property, making settlements (still!) in what even they accept will be Palestinian territory, etc. I have no sympathy for the Israelis who believe it should be all theirs in the same manner many Arabs believe it should be all theirs. Settlers in the West Bank should be dragged out of their homes if need be to resolve this issue by Israeli soldiers, just as was done in Gaza. And I have tremendous sympathy for the citizens of Gaza who die, or watch their loved ones die, or have their homes destroyed. Because they support Hamas in large part, or believe that Hamas’ position on Israel is the only available solution does not in itself make them worthy of death. If not for my belief that peace efforts will not work as they did in Ireland, I would say anything is better than war. But, since I believe that more lives, mostly Palestinian will be saved by Israel fighting harder, and that they are more in the right than the wrong, I cleave to that sad, sad position.

Where is the Palestinian Gandhi or Martin Luther King? Is he dead, killed by religious extremists? Or, were I to read Arabic or Pashto, would I know? I know that there are those who advocate peace. I read about one recently, a doctor, who had made great attempts at showing Palestinians that Israelis were not monsters. He just lost three daughters in this war and isn't sure how he feels anymore. For every Palestinian killed by the much more powerful Israelis, there are weeping families and friends. And there are those who pass on information to Israel. Hamas kills them without a trial as soon as they find them, or suspect them. If Hamas, or whoever leads the Palestinians becomes a credible peace partner, I might switch my allegiance on a dime. For this reason, I had a great deal of trouble writing this and actually stopped.

Why do I want Israel to win so much when I so dislike theocracy, and Israel is a definitely a theocracy? For one thing, they are America’s staunch ally if you can get past the whole U.S. Liberty incident a half century ago. For another, they cleave to enlightenment values of freedom and democracy much more so than any of their neighbors. It is better to be a Palestinian living in Israel and disagreeing with the government than a Palestinian living under Hamas who disagrees with them. Third, as has been shown with Egypt and Jordan, if the other side wants peace, Israel wants peace. It is not so the other way around with Gaza, Hizbollah (the power in Lebanon). How doubly ironic that Fatah is now seen as the peace party.

There has been these few weeks, a slight cracking in the Muslim (because we include countries such as Iran) world, because, notably, American allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both spoke, not in favor of Israel, but against Hamas. Naturally, they are going to come to the aid of their own nationality with money and support (hopefully, not money). It has been frequently mentioned that they did so because they really oppose Iran. This may be true, but a crack is a crack whether made by expanding ice or a jackhammer and every opportunity to walk through it shall be made.

As to the – don’t talk to them – crowd, I couldn’t disagree more. This is a mere article of faith. It is not the same as agreeing with them, giving them prestige or any of the other reasons usually put forth. You can talk to anyone without any more meaning than you are talking.

Recently, I listened to a professor talk about his book suggesting that a one state, democratic secular state. Good luck with that one. I would have no problem with it in the abstract and, I am sure, many anti-Israeli partisans would be in favor of it in this particular situation. Because, as much as that sounds like a fair and for the best, Israelis no it would be only a matter of time before they are out-populated and the country loses the character of a Jewish State. If all of the states around it weren’t already Muslim states, I’d say, who cares. But, it’s not happening anyway, so why waste time and talk about it.

Here’s my message/wish list to/for Israel. Give Obama and the world a real shot for the two state solution, because a political resolution would be a thousand times better. If that doesn’t work, empty all Palestinian lands of your settlements, stop your attempts to depopulate Jerusalem and the other property you want of Palestinians, declare the Palestinian lands free of Israel just as Jordan did with them years ago (not that any of this is going to happen either), and then, if you are attacked, with cleaner hands retaliate in the same manner the allies did in WWII, with the same goals and determination. Destroy the enemy’s capacity to fight. Only then stop. If they don't do this, they may face their own extinction.

For the new president of the United States, you will save lives in the long run if you don’t jump on the - we mustn’t let anyone really win – bandwagon. The pressure from your allies to stop any war will be intense. It is one of the things that George Bush should be given more credit for, that, because of his other failings, he will not. As for our other allies, what would you do if it was you being shelled? Give up? I have trouble hearing from them any complaints about Israel that don’t include a condemnation of Hamas (or Hizbollah – no substantial difference in my mind).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tribute to John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame

A friend and reader of these platitudinous posts informed me that the great John Mortimer, creator of the legendary Rumpole of the Bailey series has passed. I am sorry. I will miss Rumpole’s adventures even as he aged and cheated death along with his creator.

As I noted in my tribute last year to another great British author, George MacDonald Fraser, many of my favorite authors, British septua- and octogenarians mostly, have started to pass. First John Fowles a few years ago, then Fraser and now Mortimer. All that are left are John LeCarre and John Forsyth. And I’m not sure how many new works we will get from them from here on. LeCarre will turn 78 this year and Forsyth heading to 71. LeCarre still publishes every year or so, but Forsythe, a little less frequently, his last in 2006.

But let’s talk about Mortimer. 85 years old and infirm, he died on the 16th. He was a novelist and screenwriter, and, unlike with Forsyth, Fraser and LeCarre, I can’t say I’ve read virtually every fictional work he wrote. In fact, other than one series of books, I haven’t read anything he wrote. And I don’t care. Because the series I’m talking about that I've read is immortal, in the pantheon of the greatest crime fiction – Rumpole, as in Rumpole of the Bailey, of which he wrote, I believe, nearly 20 novels (although you could describe tham as connected short stories for the most part too).

Who was Rumpole? Like the author he was an older attorney, oldest in his chambers as he tells us. His specialty was criminal work. But he wasn’t just any old lawyer. He was the hardest drinking, wittiest, worst dressed, most henpecked, poetry loving, legal gadfly who ever haunted the halls of the Old Bailey. He was not invincible. Occasionally he lost. But since the Penge Bungalow Murder case, where he obtained an acquittal without a leader (that’s an inside joke known well to all fans) he has been a leader in his field, even if not that many are aware of it.

I’ve always noted that many of my real life heroes as well as the fictional ones, rarely dressed well and were unconventional if not downright iconoclastic. Rumpole was both of these things. His suit was well worn and often spattered with his own cigar ash and stained with his favorite plonk – Pomeroy’s Chateau Thames Embankment, the house wine at his favorite pub.

Nemesis’s? He has a few. Foremost is his most enduring and often endearing relationship with “She Who Must Be Obeyed” aka, Rumpole’s wife, Hilda. Usually comical, she is a society climbing, busy bodying, somewhat prudish woman, who pretty much forced her way into Rumpole's life while he was trying the Penge Bungalow Murder case, and gained an acquital without a leader (did I say that already?)

Others? Whichever judge he’s before. They tend in Rumpole novels, and it seems to me real life, to side a bit much with the prosecution, often telegraphing their prejudices to the jury. They are often given apt names, such as Justice Bullingham (The Mad Bull) and Justice Graves. Rumpole has a beautiful way of putting them down to their face, often with such deft that everybody in the courtroom gets it, but there is little the judge can do.

Others? Whoever is head of chambers at the time. They are usually featherbrained, like Guthrie Featherstone, or politically correct or arrogant beyond bearing like Soapy Sam Ballard. And often a somewhat harried associate in chambers, Claude-Erskine Brown, who is benevolenty incompetent but quite the muttonhead, causes our Rumpole to good naturedly wince. More than once does Rumpole have to help assist Claude’s marriage to his much more successful wife, Phyllidia, who Rumpole has dubbed, in his literary fashion, Portia, originally a heroine from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Allies? Usually his solicitor (in Britain lawyers are either solicitors, who solicit work and barristers, who try the occasional felony [a Rumpolism] and other matters in court and Henry, clerk of chambers who hands out briefs. Sometimes, Portia is an ally and also a younger woman, a feminist named, suspiciously, Miss Fiona Allways.

Many of his fellow lawyers “take silk,” i.e., they become what is known as Queen’s Counsel (it would be King’s Counsel when there is a king), as did, by the way, John Mortimer, for all he makes fun of it, which gives these lawyers a sort of exalted status, regardless of whether or not as lawyers they are worthy of their powdered wigs. When Rumpole says he obtained an acquittal without a leader, he refers to one of these usually chowder-headed QC’s, who, were it not for Rumpole, would happily surrender their client to the mercy of the court.

Rumpole has made a living representing an extended family of hopelessly affable criminals named the Timsons, often with great success, although, if you a Timson, that might mean something different than it does for you or I. The Timsons have their arch-enemies, but, I’m getting caught up in a bunch of stuff that may mean little to you and so let me move on to a touch of Rumpole. But, first, try one. Read the first one, Rumpole of the Bailey, of course, and then others if you like it. Go in order if you can because the characters grow and change with the series. If you just can’t bear to read anything, or, not comic novel's anyway, then rent the brilliant series which starred Leo McKern, who, although not Mortimers first choice, was so perfect a Rumpole, for a while Mortimer continued to write the series just to see McKern play him on tv.

Here are the first words from Rumpole of the Bailey, as he practically sums up all of the books for us:

“I, Horace Rumpole, barrister at law, 68 next birthday, Old Bailey Hack, husband to Mrs Hilda Rumpole (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed) and father to Nicholas Rumpole (and father to Nicholas Rumpole (lecturer in social studies at the University of Baltimore, I have always been extremely proud of Nick). I, who have a mind full of old murders, legal anecdotes and memorable fragments of the Oxford Book of English Verse (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s edition) together with a dependable knowledge of bloodstains, blood groups, fingerprints, and forgery by typewriter; I, who am now the oldest member of my Chambers, take up my pen at this advanced age during a lull in business (theres’ not much crime about, all the best villains seem to be off on holiday in the Costa Brava), in order to write my reconstructions of some of my recent trimphs (including a number of recent disasters) in the Courts of Law, hoping thereby to turn a bob or two which won’t be immediately grabbed by the taxman, or my clerk Henry, or by She Who Must Be Obeyed, and perhaps give some sort of entertainment to those who, like myself, have found in British justice a life-long subject of harmless fun.”

Rumpole, is, if nothing else, the outraged voice in many of us when the wheels of Justice, capital J, move much faster than forces of justice, small j. And you consistently chuckle and smile all the way (but don't expect to laugh out loud that often). As I heard Mortimer himself say in an interview once - Rumpole got to say the things we all wished we could get away with. Perhaps more, he is an aging man, who should be past his best powers, who never quits on a client, and seeks out more and more battles in court to stave off the inevitable at home – perhaps he’d say, a veritable Ulysses of the Bailey. It's not a perfect analogy, because Ulysses had a home at the end of his travails where prudent and chaste Penelope waited. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe it is a better analogy than I first thought, as both of Mortimer's wives were named -- Penelope. Now that's odd (unless Penelope in England was like Mary here back in the day). Really didn't see that coming.

Here are some more choice bits of Rumpole:

“'In praise of God, Rumpole. It is going to be Christmas.’ Hilda installed herself on the other side of the electric fire.

“Sometimes I wonder if God enjoys Christmas all that much.’"

From The Trials of Rumpole. Now, here’s Rumpole summing up to the jury in pure Rumpole fashion, which means, bombastic:

“In it not a matter entirely for your Lordship.’ And I said fearlessly. ‘It is a matter for our Common Law! And when London is but a memory and the Old Bailey has sunk back into the primeval mud, my country will be remembered for three things: the British Breakfast, The Oxford Book of English Verse and the Presumption of Innocence. That presumption is the Golden Thread which runs through the whole history of our Criminal Law – so, whether a murder has been committed in the Old Kent Road or on the way to Nova Lombaro, no man shall be convicted if there is a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. And at the end of the day, how can any Court be certain sure that that fearless young woman Mabel Mazenze has not come to tell us the plain and simple truth?”

From Rumpole and The Golden Thread. Now here’s Rumpole battling the court while conducting his usual devastating cross-examination, in a rare episode narrated by Hilda – She Who Must Be Obeyed (a name, by the way, which Mortimer snatched and resurrected from the great British adventure writer H. Rider Haggard of a century past).

“’You might venture to suggest it, Beazley. And you might well be correct. And when you first saw Mr Skelton Senior, he appeared to you to be dead?’

‘He appeared to me to be very dead, sir.’

So if he was dead, then he’ unlikely to have been able to call out for help a few seconds before?’

‘That would seem to follow, Mr Rumpole.’ A weary and sepulchral voice came from the Bench, apparently inviting Rumpole to get on with it and not waste time. At which my husband, with elaborate courtesy, said, ‘Thank you, my Lord. Thank you for that helpful interruption in favour of the defence. Now, Beazley, you say you and your wife were watching a war film at ten forty-five?’

‘He has already told us that, Mr Rumpole.’ Graves was making it clear that he hadn’t joined the defence team.’

‘Any rumpus in the hallway which took place at that time would have been drowned by the batlle of Iwojima?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But when you did hear a voice, we are agreed it could hardly have been that of Mr Skelton Senior?’

No, sir.’

‘It might very well have been the voice of my client, young Michael Skelton?’

‘It might have been.’

‘Calling for help for the man he’s accused of murdering? Is that your evidence?

From Rumpole and the Angel of Death.

As all Rumpole-philes know, Rumpole was devoted to quoting from his beloved edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse. Thus, I shall end with a verse as well, from one of Rumpole’s most dearly loved poets, Lord Alfred Tennyson, which Sir John Mortimer has Rumpole quote himself in The Trials of Rumpole. The poem, to match my earlier analogy, is "Ulysses".

“Come, my friends,
`Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.”

And now it seems, he has finished with smiting anything and died. Good bye, you loveable old codger.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Political update for January, 2009:

Well, here I am sitting in Washington, D.C., taking notes for another attorney while his clients are being deposed by federal regulatory agencies that want to take their heads. Not the kind of stuff you fantasize about doing, but, it is paying some much bills. And it is fairly easy.

I now sit in my hotel room near a group of people that Mark Twain described in the 19th century as the only "distinctly native American criminal class" - congress. Maybe that's an overstatement, but, frequently, they do make us sick, don't they?

The refusal of the Senate to seat Roland Burris, the person appointed as a replacement for the seat previously occupied by Barack Obama by disgraced Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich, until yesterday was a much greater disgrace still. Blagojevich may be a criminal and he may deserve to get impeached. We'll see. But, he and Illinois are going through the legal process. To the contrary, as far as the Senate is concerned, we have a government not of laws, as Americans proudly boast, but one of powerful men and woman who decide, regardless of law, who shall be in power unencumbered by law.

Many commentators discuss Burris' appointment without so much as a nod to the applicable law, probably afraid of boring viewers and readers with legal gobbledy goop. But, the legal issues were important and not that difficult.

The seventeenth amendment to the constitution, ratified in 1913, directed that the people in each state were to elect Senators, rather than the legislature appointing them. It also provided that when vacancies occur, the governor is to issue writs of election for a replacement. However, it also allowed a loop hole, which most states follow. In Illinois, for example, the governor may appoint a replacement, as Blagojevich has done, who will sit until the next scheduled election in 2010.

It had been suggested by some that Illinois lawmakers legislate that a special election be held, as some other states do in this situation, and then override any Blagojevich veto. Assuming the legality of that, the Democrat controlled legislature in Illinois is apparently reluctant to want to take the chance of a Republican being chosen in a special election right now.

Thus, despite all the hue and cry about Blagojevich’s appointment, what was he supposed to do? He has neither been impeached nor indicted. Should he leave the Senate seat vacant for an indeterminate time based on the possibility he will be impeached and convicted someday? Arguably, that would be an impeachable dereliction of his duty.

The refusal to seat Mr. Burris was not based on anything Burris has done, but on two very un-American ideas: they relied on a prosecutor’s unsworn word, and, guilt by association. It is very difficult to argue that the Senate had the right not to seat him. In several sections, the Constitution requires only that a senator be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for 9 years, and a few other easily met requirements. But then it also states:

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.

Does that mean that the Senate can refuse to seat a Senator who meets the Constitution’s few requirements? The only time this has come up in the United States Supreme Court was in 1969, involving New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. The court held that the House of Representatives did not have the power to exclude him as he met the express constitutional qualifications. The basic holding was reaffirmed in passing in the 1990s in a case prohibiting the states themselves from adding their own qualifications. Burris’s position here is actually much stronger than Powell’s was, as Powell had his own legal and moral problems. Burris does not.

No doubt those opposing seating Burris would have claimed in court that the Powell decision emphasized the right of the people to their chosen elected representative, and that Burris was merely an appointee. If so, what standard would the Senate apply? Refuse to seat members whenever they feel scandal might hurt their party? That isn’t a standard. It’s powerful people looking to their own interests and throwing about their power.

Meanwhile, in the house, Rep. Charles Rangel continues to sit despite his own partially admitted ethical lapses, which are arguably much worse than those of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who he succeeded. Rangel can sit despite his own wrongdoing and Burris couldn’t despite doing nothing wrong. Great system if you want a government of men and not laws.

As for the cockamamie idea that because the Illinois Secretary of State didn’t sign the Senate's form, the Senate couldn’t let him in - poppycock. Not only has the Illinois Supreme Court correctly said it was a ceremonial and unnecessary act, but, as explained above, the Senate can’t add qualifications. So, I could care what the 1884 Senate rule says. But, here it is anyway:

"2. The Secretary shall keep a record of the certificates of election and certificates of appointment of Senators by entering in a wellbound book kept for that purpose the date of the election or appointment, the name of the person elected or appointed, the date of the certificate, the name of the governor and the secretary of state signing and countersigning the same, and the State from which such Senator is elected or appointed."

I love the fact that it has to be in a "wellbound" book. Note, it nowhere says that the secretary of state must sign or the appointment would not be valid. This is a record keeping rule which would require the recording of the secretary of state's name if they signed. Now, you can stretch it to mean more, because that's what lawyers do. But, if they wanted to say the sec'y of state had to sign, they would have said that. Of course, as I pointed out above, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Senate can't add qualifications. So, double whammy checkmate.

But, just to throw more wood on the fire, the Senate's own "recommended" (note, not required) form for these appointments shows that they are signed "By the governor" and there is a space underneath for the secretary of state. Why? Because since the beginnings of our country, secretaries of state held the seal that makes papers look all official. So, the Senate knew this was bologna. They didn't care.

So why was it raised at all then? Let me explain that with another quote by Mark Twain –“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” I'm just amusing myself with that because I love Twain and don't love power hungry political partisans, but, the the real reason they are doing it is - they are power hungry political partisans. But, I repeat myself.

The media continues to do a horrible job on these things. Although the actual rule was readily available in the Senate's website, not one media entity thought to show it or read it that I saw, even online. The Powell case was mentioned, but by too few. It was the key to the whole discussion.

delenda est Carthago! (secret message only for those who have the secret decoder ring, now only $1599.95. Act now and I will throw in a mug worth $250,000 in a parallel universe where I am the second ever Emperor of America, Scotland and Uganda. You cannot find these products in stores).

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

TV's greatest sitcoms

A Long Island boy named "Eric" sometimes comments here. He's been suggesting a list of favorite tv shows. So, we're going to do them, but, I'm limiting it to traditional sitcoms, which, I think is what he meant anyway.

By traditional sitcoms, I mean non-surreal, non-fantasy shows (ruling out the likes of things like I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan's Island, Batman, etc.) usually set in one or more of the characters living rooms or work place. You may have shows you think are better and feel free to comment. Stanley Fish, a law professor who writes for the NY Times just did his top ten all time American movies, and, although he had a couple of winners, I thought his list ridiculous. However, as he said, it is really not to end the conversation, but to start it.

1) The Honeymooners It may be worth a blog post someday as to who was funnier, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) orEd Norton (Art Carney), but, all I can say is a lifetime after they were made these black and white episodes still make me howl. I can't say that about Abbot and Costello or The Three Stooges, great as they were. These two brilliant comics, I have to say comic geniuses, made writing that seems ridiculous, hysterical. When Norton, trying to teach Ralph how to golf out of a book, walks up with the club and goes to "address the ball" and says "Halloooooo, ball," it reads unfunny. But Art Carney doing it is up there with the funniest things I've ever seen in my life.

2) All in the Family This show broke alot of new ground with its fun loving ethnic baiting and taboo busting. Now, if a character is off screen and you hear a toilet flush, you might chuckle (because we are all little kids). But, when Archie did it, it was a first, at least on prime time tv, and it was gut busting funny. We were all thinking and saying, I can't believe they did that. Each of the four main charachters was archtypical but originally done: Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), the loveable and mostly harmless bigot; Bob Reiner's decent and hippie like, Michael; Jean Stapleton's befuddled, loving and often just idiotic, Edith; and, last and, probably least, the Bunker's emotional but doting daughter and wife to Michael, Gloria, played by Sally Struthers. Even some of the iconic lines still resonate - "Meathead" (Archie's name for Michael); "Would you stifle yourself?" (Archie to Edith); "Ohhhhh, Archie . . ." (Edith to Archie). They don't sound funny, but, you have to see it yourself to understand.

3)Seinfeld This show sometimes borders on too surreal for this category, but, as it is really a comedy of manners and I take it as that, it makes the list. Larry David is a writer and creator of genius who needed the right venue. The casting, particularly the Seinfeld's three friends, was as perfect as you were ever going to get. The guest stars, like J. Peterman, the Soup Nazi. Did I forget that Newman, Seinfeld's unloveable, irascible postman, is one of the best appearing supporting characters ever. I took an informal poll once as to who was funniest on the show. Kramer edged out George, followed by Jerry and then Elaine. There was definitely a gender bias shown in the poll. How many times in your life are you having a conversation and then someone says, "Oh, remember on Seinfeld when . . . .?" That's why it's rated so high. If I go five days without remembering something from the show, it's a long time.

4)The Odd Couple - Tony Randall and Jack Klugman's take off on the Broadway Neil Simon play. The two of them found a way to be funnier than Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon did in the movies or on stage and that is really, really hard. The innocent dating the stars did on the show is fun to watch for the sake of nostalgia. Who was better than Murray the Cop? Mostly though, it's Oscar and Felix playing one off the other. The opening narration, bits and theme music actually tells you all you need to know to get into the characters. A typical scene on the show is like this -- from the the very last episode - the insanely neat Felix remarries. Felix is saying goodbye to Oscar. Leaving the apartment, he picks up a small garbage can and says to the incurably sloppy Oscar* - As a tribute to you, I'm going to throw this garbage on the floor, and he does. Oscar says as a tribute to Felix he will clean it up. Felix leaves and Oscar says, I'm not going to clean it up, and goes to his room. A few seconds later Felix pokes his head back in the door, says I knew he wasn't going to clean it up, and does it himself.

*(Most of the quotes in this post are paraphrased and approximations - I'm not looking them up; sue me).

5)The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A pure ensemble effort with Mary being the gorgeous and sweet girl next door surrounded by a host of great friends, kooks and characters. Think about the cast - Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Gavin Macleod, Georgia Engel, Betty White, Nancy Walker and even, occasionally, John Amos. Not to mention guests like Penny Marshall, David Ogden Stiers, Gordon Jump, Jerry Van Dyke and so on. I'd stay home Saturday nights to watch it. Okay, I had nothing else to do, but still, this is what I'd watch Saturday nights when I was to young to really go out. Was I in love with Mary? Yeah, I was. I can't imagine many men weren't at the time. She was everything you could want.

6) M.A.S.H. The classic mixture of comedy and drama. Many of the episodes were not just funny, but riveting. No wonder it's last episode is still the king in the all time ratings (and they didn't screw it up like so many other shows). The show made Alan Alda (surgeon Hawkeye Pierce), and, since he was undoubtedly the main focus, perhaps he made the show. Of course, like Mary Tyler Moore's show, it was an ensemble, and such characters as Hotlips Hoolihan, Radar, Klinger, Colonel Burns, Winchester, Sherman Potter (new base commander) and Blake (old base commander), Father Mulcahey, Trapper John and Hunnicut live on in our memories. My favorite moment -- Alan Alda is dressed as Santa for a Xmas party when he is called to take a helicopter to save a soldier with a battlefield injury. The injured guy is moaning on the ground to his buddy -- is someone coming? His buddy looks at Santa climbing out of the helicopter and says -- you are not going to believe this. It is perhaps not unique in the way it seemlessly mixed drama and comedy but it was the best ever done.

7) Friends - Another brilliant ensemble show. The six friends, Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey were each engaging, recognizable and occasionally real characters. They may have been cardboard, but, that was part of the fun. You knew sort of how they would react, but not exactly how. In real life, we have a lot of those friends too. You really did almost feel like they were your friends, or wished they were. The show was comfortable; even when they were fighting, it seemed harmless and you knew it would resolve itself. Was I one of the sappy babies who wanted Ross and Rachel to finally get their act together in the very last show? Absolutely and with no apologies. No last episodes like Will and Grace or Seinfeld for me, please. Worse thing about the show - little Emma, Ross and Rachel's baby. She almost ruined the last few seasons. Nobody wanted that kind of drama or to watch Ross sing to his kid. Still, you can watch a marathon for 24 hours and never be bored for an instant. The episodes are all named - "The one where . . . ."

8) The Dick Van Dyke Show - some of you might not remember this old black and white quintessential sitcom. Dick was a comedy writer teamed up with Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, two old time stand up comedians with an endless supply of jokes, playing to Dick's quirky straight man, and it worked. Although in my opinion those two were the best part of the show, they were actually only in a little more than half the episodes, which often focused on Dick's home life. The three of them wrote for their boss, played by Carl Reiner and their foil was the producer, Mel, who was endlessly tormented by Amsterdam's character, Buddy Sorrell. Now that Dick is an ancient tv detective, people forget what a talented comedian he was. All they need do is watch an episode of this show (or Mary Poppins) to find out. Dick's wife was none other than the very young, Mary Tyler Moore, who occasionally (well, at least once that I remember) exhibited her dancing ability on the show. She was yet to explode in her own right.

9) Taxi -- How could I pass by Cheers for this ensemble act. Easy. Of the two, I thought it was the funnier. Although the lead was, at least technically, Judd Hirsch, playing the worn but wise Alex Reiger, the comedy was provided by Danny De Vito, who played the evil but pathetic Louie the Dispatcher, Andy Kaufman's brilliant Latka and Tony Danza as Tony, who was a blueprint for Friend's Joey character, and Christopher Lloyd's Reverend Jim. It's not surprising that most of these actors (and yes, Marilu Henner played Elaine - yawn - but Carol Kane was very funny as Latka's wife, Simka) went on to greater fame. My favorite moment on the show is still used by me when trying to advise people that they don't have to stick to a plan just because they said they would (sometimes called "quitting"); Jeff, the would be actor, is at the end of the five year period afterwhich he said he would give up trying to get an acting gig. The whole gang is sitting around the phone waiting for it to ring so he won't have to give up his dream. But the time passes and he doesn't get a role. The group is all quiet and sad, and, then Jeff says, Ah, I'll give it another five.

10) Two and A Half Men- I had to drop great shows like Barney Miller and the Office to include this in the list, but I think it's right. Two and a Half Men is just a silly, sophomoric show, with the kind of bathroom humor I usually hate. Charlie Sheen plays a rich jingle writer who is a shameless drunk and womenizer, but, who reluctantly takes in his straight, uptight brother thrown out by his wife, and on weekends, their young, overweight, perpetually perplexed kid. So, why do I and so many other adults I know just laugh till we cry when this show is on. Because as stupid as it is, and as much as it is the same schtick week after week, it's just so funny. It's mostly a series of double entendre's, which we get, but for some reason, the characters often don't. There is a small regular cast, including the boys' mother, Alan's often shrewish ex-wife, the loveable stalker downstairs and the maid, Berta, played perfectly by Conchata Ferrell (who deserves special mention). And, thankfully, a parade of unbelievably beautiful women who march in and out of the boys' lives and beds, including April Bowlby, who managed a season or two as the idiotic but sexy, Kandi (funniest woman on tv today)including Tina Fey) and every magazine in America's 2008's sexiest woman, Megan Fox, who played Berta's jail bait granddaughter. And, I almost forgot Alan (Jon Cryer) and his kid, Jake - (Angus Jones), who are as much the stars as Charlie Sheen (or almost), if less famous. In one sense, this is a modern take on the Odd Couple; in another sense, it is a satire on Charlie Sheen's life. Who cares? It is so funny I've choked on my dinner watching the same episode for the fifteenth time. One last thing though. The kid is too old and the show is getting too old with it. The time to stop already passed.

First Runner up) The Office A very different type of comedy and one I had trouble putting after Two and a Half Men. It is much more sophisticated, doesn't really make you laugh out loud and is based almost entirely (so I understand) on the British version which was the product of Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant (whose brilliant British production "Extras" was way too short lived). Steve Carell, whose choice of movies needs to be questioned, plays Michael Scott, the boss, a spoiled, awkward, terribly funny-because-he-is-so-unfunny (and thinks he is a comic genius), dying for love, understanding and attention from his office staff and others. He can make you uncomfortable the way George did on Seinfeld, but has a heart of gold, even at his worst, and is so stupid, his dark side is worth it. It's a character of a lifetime. His assistant, Dwight, is an almost psychopathic farm boy, endlessly fascinating in his bizarre quirks, who is tormented by Jim, who along with Pam, the receptionist, play the unique love interest around which a great deal of the show's softer moments revolve. By the way, the whole show is shown through a single camera manned by someone(s?) who are making a documentary. It's different and unique. It took me two or three episodes to figure out who everyone was and their characters, and then I was hooked. The only sitcom I now watch other than Two and A Half . . . . There are too many great things to mention about it that don't have time for here, but, one is the uncanny way Michael portrays bosses you and I have known. Is there something about being a boss that makes them this way? For you fans of the show - did you know Carol, the real estate agent is really Steve Carell's wife; that Jan, his other love interest, also plays the late Trudy on Monk; that Ryan the intern, Tobey, Kelley, and Dwight's even stranger cousin, Mose, are all writers on the show?

Okay, this stuff is as important as the above.

First: apologies to Barney Miller, The Beverly Hillbillies (not sure if it qualified anyway), Cheers and Everybody Loves Raymond, which probably deserve to make any list, if you could cram more into the top ten.

As for Will and Grace and Frazier, they were good shows I always enjoyed watching but they never cracked me up or meant as much to me the way these other shows do.

I never got I Love Lucy or her other shows.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is too surreal to make this list, but, if you do not watch this show, start. It is like a sick, demented version of Friends. Very clever and really funny. Danny DeVito is funnier here than in Taxi. But, it is so strange, I really can't describe it except to say a bunch of low lives own a bar and make each other and everyone else's lives a misery.

Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza was a little known show a few years ago that I could describe as a forerunner to It's Always Sunny . . . When I used to watch it I'd wonder what intangibles or luck made Friends so famous and this show, somehow not as great, because it was probably funnier. Why do I include Friends on my list then and not this one - maybe longevity and Friends somehow had a stronger story line. It lasted only 4 seasons. But, maybe someday I will go back and have them change places. This is Ryan Reynolds before Van Wilder, Scrubbs, Waiting (a great, but little known movie) and Just Friends. I popped onto to check the title (which has several variations) and read a user comment about the show which probably says it better than I just did: "It's fantastic! The Cast are brilliant, the writers are brilliant, the production team is brilliant!!! It has me in stitches all the time. I love the Halloween episodes. Actually, I love them all! I must have seen every one at least twice but I still love it. Should've gone on for longer, but as mentioned earlier, Fox suck...." Yeah, I should have just said that.

Your thoughts?

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .