27 September 2006

What I Am Reading: H. Blum & J. Connolly 2006

This will be a short entry. I also do not think this piece was written not first published in 2006, but that is the only date I have. Yesterday I walked downtown to meet her after work and I went into Border to grab a book and an iced tea while I waited. The first book to catch my attention on the new release shelf, I go to the trade paperback book table in case I want to buy something. I hate dropping $35 on a new hardcover.

I am a slut for the Best of series. The one that caught my eye this time was the Best Crime Writing of 2006. I forget whom the editor if this volume is, but it was somebody that I have heard of. (sidebar)While I hate ending a sentence with a preposition, I see Mrs. Knight making fun of me in front of the 3rd grade class, the alternate ending, ‘of whom I have heard’, does not sound right.(/sidebar) I was reading “Hit Men in Blue?” which I think was originally published in Vanity Fair. The story was about NYPD cops turned bad that were on the take for the mob and even served as hitmen.

It read like a movie treatment. The opening paragraph could have been the text displayed on the screen right at the beginning of a movie (for the life of me I cannot find what the term for this on-screen text is.) What was missing, however, from the piece was an admission of this Hollywood intrusion. I cannot imagine the authors did not think about how some readers would find the story too seamless and too complicated to be non-fiction. If I had been writing the piece I would have made an admission in an effort to distance myself from its unbelievability. I guess that is one excellent reason they are paid to write professionally and I am not.

I did not finish the story because my mother called and then after I was done with that conversation the girl called me. She was done with work so I left the cafe to meet her. But there was a funny event that I was witnessed. While I was in the cafe there was a woman on the other side speaking rather loudly into her cell phone. Not a big deal. Next to her was a man with a book in Hebrew propped on a bookstand. Immediately in front of him was a Hebrew-English dictionary and a blank journal where he was busily translating the Hebrew text. The woman finished her calls and started to clean the mess at her table. She turned to the translator, who was rather professorial looking, and apologized for being so loud. He walked away in a manner that did not attract my attention.

A Borders employee came into the cafĂ© to clean up books left behind and she told him of the rude man, rather loudly. “He looked at me like I was trash. People in this city are so rude, the rudest city I have ever been in. I was trying to apologize and he just looked at me like I was trash. I guess I should wear my PhD on my sleeve.” I swear she spoke like this: rapid fire, she was not waiting for the employee to acknowledge her or to even affirm her. “See now, you are only speaking to me,” I did not think he was speaking at all, “because you work here.”

Next to the employee at a table next to mine, in between myself and the woman, was a man who also alone and also reading. I felt the urge but he acted on it. To disprove her whitewashing of DCists as rude, he looked up at her engagingly. She saw him and started in again: rapid fire not waiting for acknowledgement or affirmation. “I apologized for being loud and he looked at me like I was trash. People in this city are so rude. I guess I should wear my PhD on my sleeve.” As if she wasn’t wearing it on her sleeve.

How silly. In the heart of think tanks and policy institutes, this Borders might be in the most highly educated square mile in the world, and this woman thinks she is special because she has a PhD? And, if she were being rude then it is all excused because she has a PhD? She reminded me of one of my professors in graduate school who was also really proud of her PhD and was shocked when we did not give her the respect she thought she deserved. This woman was not at all intelligent and she would agree with everything this particular graduate student said, even when he was messing with her by being contradictory. A large middle-Tennessee looking woman: dumpy, black dress, pink undershirt and a matching large floppy pink hat.

I thought it was going to be a short entry.

What I Am Reading: Graham Allison

I just finished the recent article by Allison in the current Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He claims that nuclear terrorism is easy to carry out, which when coupled with the easily believed willingness to carry out makes my knees clatter. This article makes me think my grandmother might have been correct to beg me not to move to DC and not to take a job in Manhattan. If a nuclear device is set off in the US it seems the only way I will not be caught in it is if I am on the train in Delaware.

There is another place the article struck my fascination. When Allison discusses the reason 9/11 was allowed to happen was because of a lack of imagination he touches on a subject I have been dealing with for a while now. Clearly he thinks fictionalizing terrorism before 9/11 could have allowed 9/11 to have been prevented. Maybe the airport security would have been looking for box cutters or, this seems more plausible, the passengers would have been less cooperative. It is this very reason that I find the current rules preventing sharp objects on planes to be not only ineffective but also counter-productive.

Flight 93, which was supposedly crashed in Pennsylvania instead of the White House, is the proof of my argument. The passengers knew what had happened to the World Trade Center towers and maybe even the Pentagon, which is why they abandoned their cooperative tone and attacked the hijackers. Until 9/11 we were told hijackers wanted to leave the country so we should cooperate and we would be safe. The hijackers knew this story and used it to their advantage. Flight 93 proves things are now different. People will fight back. Let the hijackers arm themselves with box cutters, I say they will be horribly outnumbered by the normal passengers, who are also able to be as well-armed as the hijackers. What is needed is a ban on explosives and devices that rely upon explosives, such as guns. But knives? All the ban does is make the crew and the passengers more vulnerable to an unarmed hijacker trained in combat. The hijackers did not break into the flight decks with box cutters, rather they threatened to kill people. This threat combined with the SOP for dealing with hijackers, the pilots allowed, as they were supposed to, the hijackers into the flight decks. The danger is and was not the weapon but the story we told ourselves about airline hijacking.

We failed to imagine a different type of airline hijacking. We failed to imagine them attacking military and non-military targets in the manner they did. Allison argues we are failing to conceive of other scenarios. The DOD’s hiring of movie producers and creative folk in the aftermath of 9/11 makes me question this analysis. Maybe we are not being creative enough, maybe we need to plaster the airwaves and our media with terrorism stories. Although then we will have a population more afraid than they normally would be.

The fictionalization of cataclysm would also allow us to minimize the scope of the Real and prepare for things that would normally catch us off guard. Instead of cowering in fear, more fictionalizations would allow us to be reactive and might even save some lives. Had we anticipated the collapse of the twin towers we could have saved the lives of many police and firefighters. We also could have devised some recovery methods and maybe saved some of the people trapped above the burning floors. Fiction should be a realm of politics and political scientists. Instead of scoffing we need more proactive stories, more exploratory stories.

I am afraid for my life and the lives of my loved ones. But I do love living in DC. I love commuting to Manhattan. I am willing to take such risks partially because I think the stories we are being told are too insecure. Life needs to be lived and not reduced to corner cowerings. I think there is less risk from a terrorist attack than Allison and Bush think there is. Although maybe I tell myself that. Maybe the reason I want to post my thoughts so badly is precisely because I do think something is inevitable.

Review: "The Class" and "Brothers & Sisters"

I am supposed to devise a 5 step penalty phase for an associate editor, Brian A. Klems, that continues to procrastinate. The 5 punishments are supposed to vary in nastiness, and it is supposed to be an escalating scale. To answer some of you that may find this harsh, let it be known that I do not really care for Brian nor this assignment. So…..

1. He will have to stay late at work and be forced to watch the pilot episode of "The Class" over and over until his work is either completed or he has seen the episode 5 times (2.5 hours)

2. Punishment # 1 will be administered again and… he will be given the script for his favorite TV show ever and be forced to cut the tip of his ring finger with the cover sheet.

3. Punishment #2 will be administered again and… he will have his hands bound behind his chair while the Jackass boys dance around him. They will be under orders not to touch him, but he will not know that.

4. Punishment #4 will be administrated again and… the Jackass boys will be allowed to touch him, including but not limited to the pranks they have played on others in their movies and/or their television show.

5. He will be forced to watch the pilot for "Brothers & Sisters".

26 September 2006

New Look Same Feel

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. I read all of these people that are funny and smart and good writers and published and I can also be all of those things. But I am not. So, for now on I will start to act like I am smart and funny and a good writer and published. I will act self-important yet with a self-deprecating tone. For a model I will use Nick Hornby who has several books out but I have only read one and liked it and I have only almost read one, which I hear was very bad. He has a column over at McSweeney’s (I do like McSweeney’s more than I like Nick Hornby) about what he reads, so I will start one too. Like him, I can watch soccer all day long, I may even throw in some football too. I can have awkward barber shop visits. Are there non-awkward barber shop visits? And then I can also publish them all into a volume named something silly.

I feel better.

25 September 2006

Edkins 2000

Certainly, the portrayal of famines as disasters promotes a depoliticized, technologizing approach. This stress on disaster reflects a fascination with what Zizek calls the sublime and, at the same time, a need to tame and domesticate an encounter with the Real. The distinction between nature (raw, uncontrollable, traumatic) and society (ordered, under control, calm) is a distinction between the Real and what we call social reality. This distinction is central to the process of constituting social reality and subjectivity. Hence media interest in stories where this contrast is featured would not be surprising: they deal with something central to what we call existence itself.
The experience of disaster as an encounter with the real is one that, like the gaze of the victim, forces us to confront the impossibility of social reality, the void at its heart. The Real is that which cannot be symbolized. The symbolic or social order is always incomplete or impossible. It can only be constituted by the exclusion of some (nonsymbolizable) kernel – the Real. The literature on trauma and post-traumatic stress emphasizes that not only those caught up in a disaster experience this shock of an encounter with the Real, but also those who witness it. Whole communities can be caught up in it; indeed, those who share a traumatic experience of this type feel themselves both part of a new community of a special type (a community made up of those who share a revised view of the world, produced by trauma, that they must continue to bear witness to) and apart from all usual social links.
However, for witnesses of disaster the traumatic element is not so much the encounter with the real as the encounter with “the gaze of the helpless other – child, animal – who does not know why something so horrifying and senseless is happening to him. It is not, as might be supposed, the gaze of a hero, willingly sacrificing himself, that is so striking to observers of tragedy, but “the gaze of a perplexed victim,” the passive, helpless casualty. It is this gaze that gives rise to the compassion felt by outsiders. It is not, as we might think, the outsiders in distant countries who are the passive ones in cases of humanitarian disasters, who do nothing, who do not want to get involved. Rather, it is the people caught up in the events themselves. They see the horrors that are engulfing them but cannot understand how such horrors are possible and are unable to act. Their gaze, the gaze of the uncomprehending victim, is unbearable and gives rise to guilt in witnesses to distant disaster. It is to avoid the pressure of this gaze that we feel compassion toward those in trouble. This compassion can be related to the reflexive nature of human desire, which is always desire for a desire. Compassion is “the way to maintain the proper distance towards a neighbor in trouble.” By giving, we present ourselves so that we like what we see when we look at ourselves from the position of the victim. By responding compassionately, we present ourselves as that which is desired by those who are suffering. This account does not in any sense invalidate compassion; on the contrary, it shows why it is so important and necessary. The reaction of the subject of compassion, the victim, is a separate matter.

I think there is some need for refinement in this passage from Jenny Edkins, a professor of international politics at the University of Wales (Whose hunger? Page 112-3. 2000). This is an interpretation of compassion, but I am holding out for the possibility that there is another possible interpretation of the compassionate action. What it is I am not sure, but I do find psychoanalysis useful even if it is totalizing in explaining people’s actions. That being said, I want to talk about the Real. I think the Real is less ‘that which cannot be symbolized’ but rather ‘that which has yet to symbolized’. Katrina seems an apropos discussion given the Edkins passage about natural disasters.

Many who were not in New Orleans had the reaction Edkins describes. I did not. I think this is because I have constantly been exposed to stories of catastrophies that have happened and also those that could have happened and even could happen. So, I saw Katrina as awful, but I am not shocked or awed or appalled. It was not an encounter with the Real for me. I think this is because I have symbolized it and, if not previously symbolized, it fit easily into my symbolic realm.

Therein lies the purpose of fantasy: a way to symbolize the as yet encountered, which delimits the realm of the Real. Here is another example; a professor of mine was once driving with his wife on the highway when there was a sudden explosion of noise, glass and wind. It took him a while to figure out that his windshield was struck by a large semi-trailer tire and was shattered. He pulled over, but in those first moments he encountered the Real. He was terrified and scared and had no idea what was happening nor what to do. Then he was able to process it and it became symbolized, allowing him to act and calm himself. This example shows the temporary (temporal) quality of the Real: it will become incorporated into the symbolic and lose its Real-ness. If that were ever to happen to him again the Real would have even less impact on him than it did. If it ever happens to me it will have less effect on me than it would have had because I have now incorporated into my symbolic realm. I have imagined (fantasized about) it and how I would act.

This may be why I like reality TV. It allows me to see things I would never imagine myself and to fantasize about how I would act in those situations. I can do this with fictional TV also, but the events on reality TV are more likely to be new to me than the fictional scenarios. In short, reality TV expands my symbolic realm via the fantasmic more than fictional TV. Because I have seen both Lost and Fight Club I would not be as afraid if the airplane I was in suddenly broke in two (even though there would be nothing I could do except carve a love message into my flesh). Because I have been an avid follower of Survivor I would be more capable of surviving on a desert island than I would be had I only seen Lost or Cast Away. I do not watch Reality TV to become a better survivalist but because it provides my symbolic identity with a richer experience. Maybe I would laugh more if I watched Will & Grace instead of The Real World, but Will’s exploits do not interest me at all.

18 September 2006

Callahan 1973

To-day’s quotation is a blast from the past, straight out of the Cold War, but of some relevance for to-day. Callahan, I think Mary, but am not sure, wrote about when it is acceptable to listen to the doomsday scenario as a justification for a government policy. She sets up a criteria for when those draconian measures are acceptable and when they are not acceptable. Some would use her to argue the War on Terrorism is not justified, but I think this is from a reading of Callahan that is looking for justification for belief instead of really reading Callahan. Why does the War on Terrorism make life so uncomfortable for both the winners and the losers that her threshold is tripped? The following quotation is from the book Tyranny of Survival from 1973. I will try to find more complete citation information at a later date:

As I hope the forgoing discussion will have made clear, the relationship between survival and an optimal use of technology and population growth is complicated by a number of shifting variables. The need for survival is modified by the need to realize other values as well, notably freedom, justice and a sense of dignity and worth. The meaning of survival, once one moves beyond the level of bare subsistence, will be subject to a variety of different national, group and individual interpretations, primarily because survival will usually be interpreted in terms of desired standards of living and the preservation of values seen as integral to a satisfactory self-identity. The problem which remains is to see if it is possible to set forth some general standards concerning the use of survival as a value.
The first requirement is that a way be found to respond to the need for survival without, at the same time, allowing that need to become a tyranny. The tyranny can result either because of a panic in the face of a genuine threat to survival, because survival is invoked for self-interested or totalitarian political purposes, or because of an unnecessarily or unrealistically high standard of acceptable survival. Perhaps it is possible to do no more in the face of the last two possibilities than to be aware of their potential force, and by political and cultural debate to neutralize of overcome their baneful effects. The panic which can result from a real threat to survival will be more difficult to cope with, a panic which can lead to draconian measures in the name of self-preservation. At that point the question must be faced whether there can be such a thing as too high a price to pay for survival. I believe there can be, particularly when the proposed price would involve the wholesale killing of the weak and innocent, the sacrifice to an extreme degree of the values and traditions which give people their sense of meaning and identity, and the bequeathing to future generations of a condition of life which would be degrading and dehumanizing. The price would be too high when the evil of the means chosen would be such as to create an intolerable life both for the winners and for the losers. While it might be possible to conceive of individuals willing to have their lives sacrificed for the sake of group survival, it becomes more difficult to imagine whole groups being willing to make such a sacrifice. And there is a very serious moral question whether that kind of sacrifice should ever be asked for or accepted, even on a voluntary basis.

StoopidNoodle Sports, Sept. 18 Update

Last week was not much better. There was some improvement, but those improvements only resulted in a more a heartbreaking loss. The Baseball team was playing for the consolation prize of 5th place. The week started off poorly with a 3-7 deficit, but by Wednesday I was able to bring it back to a 5-5- tie. It was a 5-5 tie going into Sunday, but when I woke up this morning I was wholly disheartened. Soriano batted .91 ERA for me without a single home run. I had only 3 home runs on the week, 2 by Michael Young and 1 by Mike Cameron. Even Teixeira was a poor producer this week.

My football team played so well. Buttressed by the play of Amani Toomer and Donovan McNabb, I was really confident. My final score was really good, being the 4th best score of the league, but Jets on the Clock beat me by .6 points. Maybe if TO had not broken the finger and had one more catch then I would have won.

The soccer team in the Hattrick league won the game, but this game was pretty much a guaranteed win. However, two players went down, which stresses an already stretched roster. The roster had 19 players with 3 of them already hurt, making it a nail bitter to field a team of 16 players. Now with 2 more players down it will be a made scramble to the transfer wire to get some replacements.

Disappointing all around and I doubt I will be handing out any Christmas bonuses this year.

15 September 2006

Realism Equivocation

The LSAT podcast that randomly came up during my jog to-day was about equivocation. The podcast defines this as when an ambiguous word is used across its different meanings. The example offered is the following syllogism:

Nothing is better than a juicy hamburger.
Brussels sprouts are better than nothing.
Therefore, Brussels sprouts are better than a juicy hamburger.

There is a simple test to see if the meaning is a shifting meaning, substitute ‘nothing’ for what it could mean: ‘no food.’ Now let us rerun the syllogism.

No food is better than a juicy hamburger.
Brussels sprouts are better than no food.
Therefore, Brussels sprouts are better than a juicy hamburger.

So, the poetry is lost, but notice that the syllogism is the same in either case. Therefore, the fallacy is not one of equivocation, but rather it is in a misunderstanding of ‘better.’ Notice that the first term in the comparison is placed above the second term in a hierarchy. If the fallacy was equivocation then switching the order of the terms would not matter, but since ‘better’ is a conditional term, the order is what determines the meaning and consequently that is the fallacy of the syllogism. The folks at Princeton review should be ashamed.

So, what then does equivocation look like? I like the confusion over the ‘realism’ debates. There are two different debates and two different meanings for realism, but these distinctions are often lost and literature in one conversation is often introduced improperly into the other debate.

The first realism is an epistemological question: how do we know what is real? The realist assumes that reality can be measured and accurately perceived. The usual criticism is that reality is not measurable, rather, reality presents us with data which we must then filter through and interpret. The different schools of philosophy will then disagree about how we go about with that interpretation, but the need to interpret dispels the real of reality.

The second realism is in international studies and is a theory of how nations interact with other nations. Realism maintains that a nation’s foreign policies are the result of exogenous factors, usually the foreign policies of another nation. The usual criticism of this realism is that nations make foreign polices based upon internal constituencies. For example, President Bush goes to war to secure re-election or to gain political capital for domestic programs or because he believes he was elected to go to war. The realist would say the decision was in response to the security dilemma.

An example of equivocation comes when someone is armed with an international realist’s response to criticisms, for example John Mearsheimer argues that the anti-realists are chasing a pipedream because ultimately all states will make security policies based on foreign threats, regardless of what constituents want. ‘Realism is inevitable’ is a simple way to characterize this argument.

So, let us now return to the first debate. The psychoanalyst would tell the analysand to stop calling the significant other passive-aggressive, when she says she has no preference of where to eat dinner. The psychoanalyst will then interpret the passive-aggressive interpretation as a projection of the analysand’s anxieties upon the significant other. Being passive-aggressive would be the realist take on things, whereas the realist critic says (that while the person may be passive-aggressive) that diagnosis is an interpretation of data and not an objective measure. The lesson of the psychoanalyst (one of the schools that criticizes realism) is: your diagnosis of the other is not real, but rather a projection of something in yourself onto the other.

Back to equivocation. We now have the first realism debate and then enters the confused realist in response. The realist invokes Mearsheimer’s argument: realism is inevitable. This response does not measure up and is a non-sequitor. I am told to not try to improve my relationship with my girlfriend because I will inevitably be a realist and forget the lesson of the psychoanalysis. But, even if I will forget I should still employ the lesson for the added happiness it can bring me. Trust me, it brings happiness because my girlfriend hates being called passive-aggressive.

Nuclear Proliferation, slightly visited

Here is a little gem I discovered to-day in the files. It is from Kenneth Waltz in his book (1995, The spread of nuclear weapons: A debate) where he engages Sagan (I think it is Sagan) about the benefits of nuclear proliferation:

Second, deterrent balances are inherently stable. This is another reason for new nuclear states to decrease, rather than increase, their military spending. As Secretary Brown saw, within wide limits one state can be insensitive to changes in another state’s forces. French leaders thought this way. France, as president Valery Giscard d’Estaing said, “fixes its security at the level required to maintain, regardless of the way the strategic situation develops in the world, the credibility – in other words, the effectiveness – of its deterrent force.” With deterrent forces securely established, no military requirement presses one side to try to surpass the other. Human error and folly may lead some parties involved in deterrent balances to spend more on armaments than is needed, but other parties need not increase their armaments in response, because such excess does not threaten them. The logic of deterrence eliminates incentives for strategic-arms racing. This should be easier for lesser nuclear states to understand than it was for the United States and the Soviet Union. Because most of them are economically hard-pressed, they will not want to have more than enough. (31)

While I think I may fall more on the Waltz side of the debate, that nuclear proliferation is not as dangerous as we are supposed to believe, I still find some problems with this comment.

The first sentence belies the fundamental assumption Waltz makes, that reality can be measured. To be stable someone needs to know exactly what is happening, and in a security dilemma that observer would need to know what is happening on both sides of the equation. This is an impossibility, because reality is data which needs to be interpreted. Reality does not present warrants. Let us say that France has a minimal deterrent, the stated goal of proliferants according to Waltz. If France were to perceive German arms acquisitions as a capable first strike force then the minimal deterrent is no longer preserved, it is now an insufficient deterrent. A French minimal deterrent also depends upon French interpretations of German willingness to sacrifice. If France thinks German leaders are willing to allow a large population to die, known as willing attrition (which is fair to say the German culture has allowed), then the French minimal deterrence is now not large enough.

Waltz also assumes a security dilemma that is bilateral. Let us assume France (mis)perceives German intentions and reacts accordingly. There are more actors than France and Germany: Russia, England and others might see this move as hostility and as a willingness to first strike or even as a willingness to absorb retaliatory strikes. I think Waltz’ model makes sense in a simple bilateral security dilemma, but that simplicity rarely exists. Maybe it explains the Brazil/Argentina case, but clearly not the India/Pakistan case because China is also involved.

The gap that introduces this problem is actually touched upon by Waltz when he speaks of credibility. Credibility is in the eye of the beholder, what the beholder interprets as an other’s interpretation of the beholder’s actions. Interpretation is too messy and too unscientific to be relied upon.

Waltz also assumes that nations and those security policies are in response merely to exogenous factors. Maybe there is a prestige issue at work and Iranians want to develop nuclear weapons not out of a desire to protect itself or to assert itself, but to (re)establish Persian culture as a major player in the world. US non-proliferation efforts are then seen not as a security action, but rather as a racial action, an attempt by the European Americans to keep down Persians, a recurring story in Persian culture. Waltz’s model neglects these calculations, although this argument’s politics is often in line with Waltz’s politics: allow the proliferation to occur.

Waltz’s defenders have some answers to these arguments, which I will discuss in length later.

12 September 2006

StoopidNoodle Sports, Sept. 9 Update

It was a bad weekend for the fans and ownership of the StoopidNoodle Sports Empire. The baseball team lost its playoff match. It had been a strange season, with a consistent ranking in the top two until the final week when Dan Kolb Sucks and SleepingUgly mounted charges from behind. The manager had this to say about the team’s untimely demise, “It was a strange series. Soriano batted well and Texiera had heated up from his early season slump but the bats of Dan Kolb Sucks just all went hot at exactly the same time. I don’t know which high priced sports psychologist they hired, but we will pay them more money to hire them next year.”

The soccer team also had some success, but just not enough. Two weeks ago in a home match against Dindin, the two teams played to a tie game. StoopidNoodles retained their lead on the top of the fixture with the point. Last week’s match, however, was a match they were supposed to lose. Beytar Hills has been in the league for at least a season longer than the StoopidNoodles, so it is not surprising that they had some superior talent. The game was tight, however, as the StoopidNoodles scored three goals and only lost by a single PK late in the match.

Monday night saw the conclusion of the week as the football team took a loss in its first week. Donovan McNabb’s strong played helped buoy the team, but the mismanagement of Shelton Quarrles may have cost the match. Quarrles was reported to be in fine health and to be slated to play, but a last minute scratch meant that he occupied a roster spot and did not produce for the StoopidNoodles. “A stupid mistake that I will make sure not to make again,” Manager Jonathan McSweezyneezy told this reporter.

09 September 2006

Little Miss Sunshine, Reviewed

Here is what I think the producers were thinking: let us solve problem of Vacation. All sorts of stuff goes wrong in this road trip movie, many of them similar to the dilemmas in Vacation (death of an elderly family member, car troubles) so similar in fact that I think it is an homage to the classic. But the homage has too prominent a place in this movie. A homage should be a reference but not a central driving arc of the movie. Here is what I am thinking: maybe the writers thought they were perfecting some of the problems faced by the Griswolds, but they are wrong.

A review of a new road trip movie deserves some discussion of the search for identity. A uniquely American genre, the road trip is a national search for an identity, or a families search for its identity. My conclusions about what this movie prescribes is below, but is fairly obvious from the beginning. Once we learn the story of Steven Carrell’s character the lesson of the movie is set and the remainder is merely a reinforcing of the lesson. I find Chris Vogna to be correct that the life lesson is well-woven into the fabric of the story that it is bearable. But not by much.

This movie is not an improvement to the road trip genre. In fact, I am scared to see the other entries at Sundance if this was the darling of the festival. It was a fun movie, but not worth more than the $7 matinee price I paid for it. Here is the problem I allude to above. In Vacation Clark Griswold continues to drive across country despite all of these horrible events when the easy response, and the most likely, is to turn around go home. Now I do not subscribe to the theory that this is a problem because Vacation (and this is the genius of the movie) has the perfect solution, make Clark Griswold more than a funny loser by making him a funny lunatic.

Little Miss Sunshine tries to solve the problem by making us fall in love with the cute little girl, the supposed Miss Sunshine. They press on because the girl wants to go compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, but the problem is that we do not fall in love with her. We watch the movie waiting for the moment we realize why the characters are willing to do this for the girl, but, there is the catch; if I were Greg Kinear I would also press on for my little girl, although when the conflict with the brother plays out I would then turn it around. The girl has never asked to press on despite the problems and the way the girl’s character develops I think she would gladly offer to have the family go home.

The gimmick of the movie about her performance is clearly highlighted and we are made well aware of our anticipation. We know that we are supposed to fall in love with her after her performance, but even then we don’t. There also is little time left in the movie for her to work on us with her newfound capital.

The ending is obvious and predictable, except the message is almost too political to stomach. Yes, we should all be happy with ourselves even if we are not all winners. We should try to be happy but also not beat ourselves up over our shortcomings, let alone others’. The critique of child beauty pageants is funny but too obvious and too gross.

The movie is formulaic. It takes several people that have nothing in common and are all supposedly losers in their own rights and put them in a small car for a long trip, since they are family it is supposed to make some sense. Then throw some unusual complications at them and let them laugh until they realize their hang-ups and all come together to fight a common foe. Despite the plot-by-numbers it is a fun movie and worth some money. For me I am putting the threshold at $7. I would easily pay more to see Vacation and even Road Trip.