Monday, August 08, 2005


Sony phony, high times, David Brooks, our friend Tiberius

Last week I was concentrating on the big fish (Richard Stern) and therefore overlooked a number of ephemeral, minnow-sized items. You'll have to forgive me. One such delight: Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl gave Sony Pictures Entertainment a brisk slap on the wrist for inventing a bogus movie reviewer. The imaginary David Manning of The Ridgefield Press had plenty of nice things to say about such Sony releases as Vertical Limit, A Knight's Tale, The Animal, Hollow Man and The Patriot. What did the chimerical Mr. Manning think of Heath Ledger? He called him "this year's hottest new star!" Fascinating: even when the marketing department was actually putting words in the critic's mouth, they couldn't come up with any original ones. Along with paying a picayune $1.5 million fine, the studio has suspended two executives (i.e., sent them off for a quiet weekend of contrition at Two Bunch Palms) and pledged to "monitor its publicity and advertising more closely."

Next: Al Aronowitz, the so-called "godfather of rock journalism," passed away on August 1. According to David Segal's appreciation in the Washington Post, Aronowitz died a lonely and embittered man, which is sad to hear. At his peak, however, he partied with the best of them. He also engineered one of the great twofers in music history, introducing the Beatles to Bob Dylan and marijuana on the same day. The Fab Four, barricaded in their suite at the Delmonico Hotel, were initially a little dubious about the joint Dylan offered them. True, they had been gobbling amphetamines since their teenage gigs in Hamburg, but they weren't drug addicts, were they? A few puffs were enough to reassure them. The rest, in Aronowitz's recollection, is history:
In no time at all, [Ringo] was laughing hysterically. His laughing looked so funny that the rest of us started laughing hysterically at the way Ringo was laughing hysterically. Soon, Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing, and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing.
Luckily we've come a long way since the drug-addled Age of Aquarius. Or so David Brooks would have us believe, in his latest, dopiest op-ed column for the New York Times. Brooks used to be a smart, droll, articulate guy, and you still see flashes of his old elan when he's on television, trading barbs with a decent interlocutor. In print, he's turned into a neo-con Pollyanna. This week's news flash: America is in the midst of a Great Reawakening. "The good news is out there," he writes. "You want to know what a society looks like when it is in the middle of moral self-repair? Look around."

Oy vey. To buttress this rickety assertion, Brooks cites a clutch of statistics: declining rates of domestic violence, drunk driving fatalities, teen pregnancies, divorce, and other such "indicators of social breakdown." (Did you know, by the way, that having sex with more than one person is an indicator of social breakdown? That's what did the Romans in.) Now, let's take one example. I'm as happy as Brooks is to hear that domestic battery is on the wane. But I don't believe that it's happening because, as he argues, "America is becoming more virtuous." So what's going on? According to a widely-cited study by two economists, Amy Farmer and Jill Thiefenthaler, the primary factor in the decline of domestic violence has been increased access to legal services for battered women. The study mentions nothing about kinder, gentler husbands. Brooks, I should add, is careful to note this very phenomenon, along with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. Still, he ultimately ascribes the good news to an intangible uptick in our moral quality: "Americans today hurt each other less than they did 13 years ago." Right. That must account for the heartwarming jump in gun production since 2001. Apparently we need more rifles to not hurt each other with. As for that national epidemic of decency--it hasn't yet caught up with these people.

Finally, I was flipping through one of my all-time favorites the other day, Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars. Here's a choice paragraph or two on Tiberius, who looks pretty mediocre compared to his predecessor (Augustus) but an absolute prize compared to what came next (Caligula). He was, you will see, very eager to halt the decline in public morality:
Tiberius cut down the expenses of public entertainments by lowering the pay of actors and setting a limit to the number of gladiatorial combats on any given festival. Once he protested violently against an absurd rise in the cost of Corinthian bronze statues, and of high quality fish--three mullets had been offered for sale at 100 gold pieces each! His proposal was that a ceiling should be imposed on the prices of household furniture, and that market values should be annually regulated by the Senate. At the same time the aediles were to restrict the amount of food offered for sale in cooking shops and eating-houses; even banning pastry. And to set an example in his compaign against waste he often served, at formal dinner parties, half-eaten dishes left over from the day before--or only one side of a wild boar--which, he said, contained everything that the other side did.

He issued an edict against promiscuous kissing and the giving of good-luck gifts at New Year. On the receipt of such a gift he had formerly always returned one four times as valuable, and presented it personally; but he discontinued this practice when he found the whole of January becoming spoilt by a stream of gift-givers who had been denied an audience on New Year's Day.
No more kissing! No more pastry! Strict regulation of mullet prices! That's how you bring about a moral reawakening: impose it from above. By the way, Tiberius also opposed tax increases. "A good shepherd shears his flock," wrote the imperial spoilsport, "he does not flay them." Not unless they buy an expensive sofa from IKEA.

I'm with you, Brooks is only a touch more readable than Thomas Freidman which means he ain't

Sarah Vowell on the other hand is a hoot & a half —or has no one noticed
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