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Lee film ready to show biased, simpleton Katrina picture

One of my special interests is politics in the cinema, having taught a course on it for nearly 15 years and publishing in the area. One of the films covered in the class is Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) which displays both Lee’s skill as a filmmaker and his dishonesty in doing so. Early indications are we can expect the same from his film about Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke.”

I didn’t get invited to see its premiere (imagine that), but New Orleans Times-Picayune television critic David Walker saw it prior to that and, while he avers that he will leave analyzing the politics of the films to others, he can’t avoid pointing out some himself, for Lee is a relentlessly political filmmaker who makes his opinion clear, to varying degrees of subtlety, regardless of whether the facts support his views. This has marked his entire film career.

“Do the Right Thing” was Lee’s first excursion into politics, The film recounts events, loosely based on some real-life occurrences, of a day leading to a race riot in an imaginary neighborhood in Brooklyn, a work Lee expressly made to try to influence the 1989 New York City mayor’s election to oust Ed Koch and put David Dinkins, the city’s first black in the office. Whether by his film, that’s what happened, leading the city into a decline requiring the rescue of Rudy Giuliani.

In this film, Lee shows some nuance in illustrating the events leading up to some residents of a black neighborhood destroying the only restaurant willing to operate there, owned by a guy of Italian descent. The grievances that mount on both sides appear legitimate even as they place emotion ahead of reason. But just because he shows both sides doesn’t mean he doesn’t present one as the legitimate one – the riot was understandable because, he argues, the non-white community was tired of being subjugated and had a right to “defend” itself against its oppressors.

He does a great artistic job but, in the end, it is a fraud. Lee wants to make audiences think he is dispassionately presenting the arguments of which the superior validity lies with “black self-defense” side. Instead, the film is rigged with biased, if not absolutely false information, about the larger issue of race relations in America. There are numerous examples in the film, but to name perhaps the most notorious of them, at one point graffiti is shown proclaiming “Tawana told the truth.” Presented as such, without context or further explication, signals that Lee considers this to be unimpeachable.

The phrase refers to the sensational charges made by a young black woman, Tawana Brawley, who a couple of years earlier claimed she was kidnapped and abused by white law enforcement men. Professional activists like Al Sharpton (who appears in this latest film) immediately took her side and used the claim as evidence of continued white suppression of blacks. But it quickly came out that Brawley had manufactured the entire story to escape parental discipline from being out too late. Even after that, Sharpton and others continued to insist that “Tawana told the truth” (and were successfully sued for defamation as a result). Lee knew she had lied when he made the film.

For this reason, we can expect nothing less from Lee with this film; specifically, Lee will try to throw more blame on white and/or conservative America than on the storm itself. His lineup of commentators interviewed in the film shows no hint of any balance to what Lee calls a “documentary:” Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Harry Belafonte, Sean Penn, and Kanye West among others, all vocal critics of Pres. George W. Bush and the Republican majority in America, if not of Bush’s response to the aftermath of the storm. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin seems the best he’s willing to do to provide any mediocre balance to this biased presentation.

Lee, of course, is an avowed hater of Bush and even more of Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice (clips framed unflatteringly of both of them appear in the film) and who has not repudiated the ridiculous, absolutely unsubstantiated myth that the levees in New Orleans were not intentionally breached to wreak havoc on blacks. Perhaps the imagery of tragedy will be moving, but any value it has gets cancelled by its simplistic, sophomoric screed. This is why we cannot expect an honest look at the tragedy from this waste of celluloid – especially from an activist who has the audacity to claim he presents things honestly.


Blanco wasting taxpayer dollars with nuisance suit

The oil lease sale scheduled for today will go on, but it’s anybody’s guess as to which will conclude first, the start of actual production of the leases, or the state’s nuisance suit that, at best, will end up wasting precious state taxpayers’ dollars.

At the beginning of the week, U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Englehardt ruled that the suit by Gov. Kathleen Blanco to stop the sale, on the basis that the U.S. Mineral Management Service had not conducted a serious environmental impact review (that is, not incorporating the effects of the 2005 hurricanes) of the results of the sale on Louisiana, could not stop it. Yet, interestingly he opined that the state had a strong case and, when heard in full, could well render the state’s position a winner.

In other words, the ruling was that letting the sale go on would cause no irreparable harm to Louisiana if, in fact, a flawed review process had occurred and the MMS had underestimated the environmental damage. The judge did indicate that there were points on which he would agree, when he heard the case in full in November, that the process had been flawed.

Allowing the sale to go forward made sense for three reasons. First, the case is about a process, not about the actual assessments made about environmental degradation. Second, it will be years before any activity can take place concerning development of the leases, so holding it up wasn’t going to change anything. Third, the lease sale itself is really off the coast of Texas, not Louisiana, so it may be difficult to argue there is any impact at all even if the process is found to be flawed.

Naturally, Blanco misidentified what happened, asserting that the suit is about an outcome, not a process. Much like her Democrat colleagues in Washington who want to declare a rebuilt Iraq can stand on its own and withdraw American forces contrary to objective conditions that such forces still are needed, the state tried to tell the media that it meant “our concerns are valid regarding the impact of this activity on our environment and that the federal government is acting in disregard of our environment.”

Not at all. Let’s say that MMS was found not to have reviewed all current relevant information about the environmental impact. Assuming that it doesn’t appeal the case to a higher court which well could reverse a single judge’s decision, it could get the new information, review it, and come up with the same no-impact judgment. Then what is the state going to do, file a suit disagreeing with the outcome on its merits? That would be like somebody denied Social Security disability benefits by an examiner suing the government because he disagreed with the outcome by saying the examiner did a bad job. For something like that, even if the judiciary would grant standing to such a political suit between two parts of government, it would take a blatant case of incompetence or bias to rule in the state’s favor – and that’s very unlikely to be the case as long as MMS shows they consulted expertise on the matter. And it all will take years to sort out while lease sales go on and production commences.

So, in the final analysis, this all is just a political stunt that really wastes state taxpayers’ dollars twice (at both the state and federal levels). Because Blanco has failed in exerting leadership on the matter of hurricane protection and coastal erosion, and to cover up her incompetent handling of the hurricane disasters of 2005, this is a ploy to make it look like she’s doing something, drawing upon the latent populism of Louisiana’s political culture to try to make somebody else (the federal government, conveniently in the hands of the opposing political party) look like the bad guy to divert examination of her own record.

If she really wanted to help, she needs to support publicly and vigorously the efforts of Rep. Bobby Jindal and others to secure in federal law the state a greater share of offshore drilling loyalties. (But she won’t because he is her likely opponent in next year’s governor’s race and it would cement in the public’s mind her failures as well as give him credit.) For the good of the state, she needs to put its interests first and stop this nonsense.


Louisiana spending spree contrary to other states' saving

Astute observers of the actions of the Louisiana Legislature and Gov. Kathleen Blanco developed queasy feelings watching state government’s budget machinations over the past year. After initially making cuts (but of an indiscriminate kind), much of what had been saved got recommitted, often for the same purposes. These actions seemed mistaken at the time, and now evidence comes to verify that they also are out of step with the rest of America.

At its ongoing annual meeting the National Conference of State Legislatures issued a report showing that, in the past year, even if only three states cut spending, many saved surprise excess revenues, or spent them on one-time projects. New continuing spending was shunned because many states remain cautious about their economic futures (an entirely valid concern should Democrats take charge of Congress and/or the presidency within the next three years).

Naturally, Louisiana remained an outlier to this trend. In an absolute sense, its spending ballooned, but even taking out federal funds pumped in for hurricane recovery spending increased year over year. But, unlike states which bolstered their emergency savings funds, Louisiana withdrew from its. (The state did put in $150 million for anticipated emergency spending, which is really more like an appropriation for continuing expenses, but even this amount is several times smaller than the amount withdrawn from the Budget Stabilization Fund in 2005).

Worse, as some have argued all along, the overall budget picture remains risky and presumed surge in revenues coming from federal relief spending has created a false sense of security. Studies of previous disasters show a pattern of a rapid, temporary boost in state revenues followed by a decline. If any state should have been shoring up its savings this year, it should have been Louisiana.

Instead, Blanco and the Legislature spent like drunken sailors. They called this lousy tune, and soon the people may have to pay the piper as a result.


More evidence reaffirms benefit of education vouchers

The obvious yet again has been confirmed – students educated at Catholic schools in Louisiana not only do far better in assessment of their learning than do students in the state’s public schools, but also do better than national averages. So when will the state’s public policy finally take advantage of this condition?

This past legislative session, not unlike other recent sessions, bills were offered to allow greater choice to students to attend private schools such as Catholic ones in order to take advantage of this. Despite knowing the advantages of this kind of education and despite the fact that the tuition charged by Catholic institutions (and in general at the national level all private schools) is significantly less than spending per pupil by public schools, in recent years while the Louisiana House has been progressive on this issue, the Senate has been the roadblock towards positive change by never allowing voucher legislation to come to a vote.

Why do private schools do a better job of educating than public schools in both effectiveness and efficiency terms? First, while private schools encounter many bureaucratic hurdles, public schools must deal with even more, wasting resources. This is a consequence of the second reason that with private schools educating is far and away the primary function of these schools, while public schools too often get enmeshed in other politicized goals such as “diversity” or “socialization.” Both of these reasons are related to the third, that in private education with less bureaucracy, fewer distractions, and, perhaps most importantly, reduction of union power (which care only for their members self-enrichment, not in the quality of education), the productivity level of teachers is much higher and they can be held much more accountable for their performances.

Naturally, teachers’ unions and other interests who harbor political agendas (such as getting their hands on as much money as possible for government education spending) that differ from providing quality education oppose vouchers precisely because they will interfere with those agendas. They trot out the same discredited arguments and myths time and time again that, unfortunately, have stalled the necessary reform of education vouchers in Louisiana.

Hopefully, this news – and the fact 2007 is an election year – will create more momentum to get state funding of education vouchers (beyond that of pre-kindergarten) enacted by the Legislature and signed by a governor who formerly was the member of a teacher’s union.