Friday, July 16, 2004

How John Edwards made his fortune

All this talk about "trial lawyers" must feel a bit personal for Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. As everyone knows by now, Edwards was a highly successful trial lawyer before he became a US senator. An article in today's OpinionJournal gives the sordid details of the final and most lucrative phase of his career. For about a decade, Edwards represented children with cerebral palsy, always claiming that the condition was caused by careless and negligent obstetricians. This theory was eventually deemed "junk science" -- but not before Edwards made out like a bandit, with a personal fortune estimated at about fifty million dollars.

Thanks in no small part to these efforts, many women in Edwards's home state of North Carolina can't find easy access to basic medical care. According to fellow North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole:

I often point to a doctor in Sparta, N.C. who had to stop delivering babies altogether after facing a 300 percent increase in her malpractice premiums. Now there is only one obstetrician in town capable of handling high-risk cases, forcing some women who need C-sections to endure a 40-minute ambulance ride to another hospital.

On the surface, Dole's example doesn't seem like a big deal. Sparta is a town of about two thousand residents; the entire county has a total population of about ten thousand. But when there's only one well-equipped obstetrician, and local doctors won't deliver babies for fear of lawsuits, the area is facing a potential medical crisis. A thousand anti-abortion demonstrators couldn't have a more chilling effect on women's health care.

Pennsylvania is the worst state for medical malpractice, one in which the proliferation of Edwards-style lawsuits has endangered patient care across the board. According to the indefatigable Walter Olsen at, six out of seven medical specialists had been named in a malpractice suit at some point in their careers. Nearly half of Pennsylvania specialists had been sued over the previous three years. Since most of these suits are settled out of court -- a solution which usually involves hefty payments (or "hush money") to the plaintiffs -- it's no wonder that medical malpractice insurance premiums are so high.

The people hurt by Edwards's legal antics aren't just doctors: They're poor and working-class people, many of whom lack health care insurance; they're white-collar professionals who can afford to pay some (or all) of their health insurance premiums; and they're business owners who find the cost of government-required health benefits prohibitive. Frivolous medical suits damage everyone -- except, of course, for lawyers like Edwards who have made these actions their bread and butter.

Let's remember that, as we consider this year's slate of Presidential candidates.

FMA Follies

The Federal Marriage Amendment has crashed and burned in the Senate, with six Republican senators (none, alas, from Virginia) breaking party ranks to oppose it. Although this won't bring Gay conservatives (including yours truly) back to the party fold, it may at least reassure a few of us that the GOP isn't automatically a party of bigotry and intolerance -- at least, not everywhere in the country.

Santo Santorum: Several of the FMA's more prominent Congressional supporters seem a bit "teched," as we say in Virginia. However, Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum just might be mad as the proverbial hatter. When his wife miscarried, he made his kids hold the tiny mass of flesh in their arms and sing to it. (Those poor kids have some serious therapy in their future, I fear.) I can't help wondering what precisely one sings to a dead fetus. "Rock-a-Bye Baby" seems in poor taste, given the circumstances. Even "Jesus Loves the Little Children" might be questionable.

Ordinarily, I'd leave this sort of personal tragedy alone. It's just icky. But Santorum himself penned an op-ed on the "blessed event" for a Pennsylvania newspaper, while his wife, not to be outdone, co-wrote a book. Now Santorum wants to defend "the institution of marriage" from the likes of me.

Perhaps the Pennsylvania senator would do well to consider a slightly different institution ... for a very long stay. There's a fine line between a defense of principle and a cry for help.

Where did John-John go? Forty-eight senators voted to bring the FMA to an official vote; fifty voted against. Two senators, it seems, were missing in action.

Stephen H. Miller at IndeGayForum has fingered the merry truants (I know which finger I would have used), and -- surprise! -- they're none other than Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, and his running mate John Edwards. When the basic civil rights of Gay and Lesbian Americans were under attack, these jokers chose to play hooky and keep mum.

If Kerry and Edwards won't speak up for Gay citizens, why should Gay citizens (or, for that matter, our Straight allies) bother to vote for them?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Bloggiversary, and more Big Government

Terry Teachout celebrated his "bloggiversary" yesterday; I celebrated mine last April Fool's. So how does one celebrate the first anniversary of one's blog? My advice is strong drink, and plenty of it. It's a bit disconcerting to realize that I've been posting longer than Teachout, who knows more about the arts in America than I could hope to learn. Here's hoping he runs out of steam less easily than I do.

Teachout has something else to celebrate: He's just received an unpaid governmental appointment with the National Endowment from the Arts. He'll have to celebrate this one without me, though, since I don't really think very highly of the NEA (though I like its HQ building, a Romanesque island in a sea of neoclassical kitsch). Right now, the NEA is about to wrap up what it bills as "the largest Shakespeare tour in our nation's history," with middling repertory companies infiltrating high schools, college campuses and civic centers in all fifty states. This is all very well, I suppose -- recent studies have proven that high school students need more sleep -- but the only way I know to get high-schoolers truly interested in Shakespeare is to have them stage one of his plays themselves.

Here, in a nutshell, is my beef with the NEA: It's too big, too unresponsive to local communities and their particular cultural needs. It directs itself toward a captive audience of public-school students, and condescends to them by focusing on "educational value" rather than pleasure. The NEA is a typical Big Government program: It will give you what it thinks is Good For You, whether you want it or not -- and if you don't want it, you'll still have to pay for it. And its inevitable "eat-your-spinach" approach to the arts may be the primary reason most liberty-loving Americans avoid culture like the plague.

Now, some small town in Oklahoma may import a repertory troupe for "ONE WEEK ONLY!", and coerce all its high-schoolers into watching an abbreviated Romeo and Juliet. The production will be done too solemnly and on the cheap, and the kids will hate it, just as I hated these productions when I was in high school. Yet high-schoolers don't necessarily dislike Shakespeare: Only a few years ago, small-town teenagers lined up at their local cinemas to see hotties Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes whoop it up in Baz Luhrmann's wild, candy-colored Romeo + Juliet. Both the NEA-funded performance and the Luhrmann film qualify as works of art, and both draw from the same sixteenth-century source. But one is funded publicly, and the other privately -- and thereby hangs our tale. The privately funded work of art had the freedom to be innovative (and less preachy) in its approach. As a result, it reached a broader audience of teenagers, and did more to educate them, than the NEA's entire, massive Shakespeare-in-America campaign did. Best of all, Luhrmann's privately funded art didn't use a dime of taxpayers' money, which made it a win-win scenario for US culture.

Now, don't get me wrong: I congratulate Teachout on his appointment. If anyone can help the NEA connect with the American people, he can. But perhaps the best thing he could do would be to take a hatchet to it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Best and worst films of 2004 (so far)

Reelviews movie critic James Berardinelli has just posted a list of the best films of 2004 ... so far. I was working on my own list when his appeared; fortunately for me, there's very little overlap between his ten best and my paltry six. So without further ado, here's a quick rundown of what I think have been this year's best films:

6. Mean Girls. A rare teen comedy that's also pro-adult. Some critics wanted Mean Girls to be as cruel as Heathers or as bleak as Lord Love a Duck, but I couldn't help noticing the film's intelligent, well-rounded characters and its genuinely humane point of view. Tina Fey is excellent as a put-upon math teacher, in the year's most-overlooked performance.

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Michel Gondry is not much of a director, I'm afraid. He's well suited to short films and music-video imagery, but basic concerns like character and narrative seem beyond his grasp. Luckily, Charlie Kaufman's marvelous script gets the film over its many rough patches, and Jim Carrey delivers some of the year's best acting.

(tie) 3. Spartan. If you blinked, you probably missed this film's theatrical run. David Mamet's latest thriller is a slick, genre-bending tour de force, with at least two shocking plot twists that I doubt any film this year will top. Val Kilmer and Derek Luke are good, and Ed O'Neill is even better. But newcomer Kristen Bell outshines them all, in 2004's most riveting character turn. Attention must be paid.

(tie) 3. The Alamo. John Lee Hancock's sincere, straightforward epic examines the defenders of Texas liberty, warts and all. Strangely enough, they've never looked better. Billy Bob Thornton is perfect as Davy Crockett, an American hero who finally decides to live up to his image; Emilio Echevarria gives a surprisingly well-shaded portrait of the Mexican tyrant, General Santa Ana. Forget America's Heart and Soul (if you haven't already) -- this film is the anti-Fahrenheit 9/11.

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Because this film is a summer blockbuster, no one will give it credit for its nonlinear narrative and double-fugue finale, let alone its moving depiction of masculinity in peril, or its powerful psychological undercurrents. Azkaban may get a little touchy-feely at the end, but it's as daring and demanding a work of art as anything to hit theaters this year. Plus, in the year's most welcome surprise, director Alfonso Cuaron has finally freed Harry Potter from the ghost of Tom Brown.

1. Never Die Alone. Part neo-noir, part bug-eyed cartoon, this picture plays like the second coming of Sam Fuller. Director Ernest Dickerson offers a sly, subversive take on the "gangsta" myth, working around (and through) a hilariously bad performance from rapper-star DMX. I loved every outlandish minute.

Honorable mentions: Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void spins a ripping yarn, while Bernardo Bertolucci's NC-17 The Dreamers is sexy, silly fun. Both are available on DVD -- the latter, I suspect, in a plain brown wrapper.

Finally, the worst film of this (or almost any other) year: Troy. What the Greeks did to the Trojans, Warner Brothers does to the Iliad. Wolfgang Petersen's direction ranges from muddled to incomprehensible; David Benioff's sub-literate script makes everyone look like a buffoon. All the beefcake in the ancient world can't save Troy; it's one hundred and sixty-five minutes of unrelenting awfulness.

Dishonorable mention: Connie and Carla. Otherwise known as "My Big Fat Greek Debacle."

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Outdoor Drama, part three: What's Missing in the Theater?

Live theater, at least in the form most drama critics encounter, has three major problems that drive mainstream audiences away: It's elitist, it's expensive, and it's dogmatically left-wing. Now, hundred-dollar tickets for the latest Tony Kushner play are all well and good if you happen to be a wealthy, liberal Manhattan socialite; even then, though, you might not enjoy getting harangued by boilerplate characters with chronic logorrhea. Once you go beyond the Great White Way, ticket prices drop substantially (to the point that middle-class folks can join in) -- and by the time you arrive at a place like Charlottesville, theater can be as affordable as the movies. But it's still elitist and left-wing, so that most people I know don't attend.

People come to drama for many reasons, and I suspect one is to see a mirror of their own lives and values. I'm not saying that people only want to see themselves in the theater. But as a Gay man, I know that my friends and I like to see someone or something familiar every once in a while -- a landmark, if you will, to orient us within a particular landscape. People who live outside New York City, the "East Coast," or Chicago, don't often get that. Most major American plays nowadays are set in New York, with New Yorkers for the main characters and Gotham (or at least the Northeast) for their setting. The ones set elsewhere tend to depict their setting with an outsider's detachment. It's clear that the respective playwrights are venturing into alien territory, which very often happens to be your home, and examining the strange and benighted natives, who happen to be your neighbors. (For example, I am informed that Tennessee Williams's dramas often take place in an exotic, faraway land called "Miss Issippi.") This insularity, this provincialism that passes for universality, is all very well for snobby New Yorkers and assorted East Coast urbanites, but for the rest of us it's as remote as Mars, or Oz.

Do I have to add that I often feel embarrassed when I go to the theater? It's not just because I hail from the rural South, and in the theater this region is dependably populated with Sheriff Clarkes, Jerry Falwells, long-suffering Black maids and manservants ("O Lawsy!"), Miss Tomato Queens, and of course assorted "trailer trash." There's another, even bigger problem: You see, I happen to be conservative -- and I'd be Republican, too, if the GOP weren't hell-bent on driving me out. So as a regular theatergoer, I've come to expect a lot of left-wing jokes at my expense, a lot of name-calling, and of course characters who equate people like me with Nazis. I've even brought myself to the point where I barely wince at these remarks, though I feel ashamed at not standing up for myself, or at least walking out.

Leave it to Tony Kushner to deliver the coup de grace to any conservative who might yet hold an interest in the dramatic arts: "Who goes to serious theater? People who are curious about life, curious about illusion and reality, people with probing questions rather than dull convictions, people seeking solace from loss and injustice, but who seek solace not in denial or amnesia, but rather in rich, sometimes painful, hopefully illuminating visions and dreams — in serious art. Who are such people? Most likely not the delegates to the GOP convention." I suspect more of us might be "such people," if Kushner and his colleagues didn't chase us away. Southern Baptists make a point of insulting my friends and me at every opportunity, which is why I haven't attended their church services in years. If theater is going to do the same thing (albeit for different reasons), why shouldn't I abandon it, too?

Which is exactly my point: Most conservative Americans have already abandoned theater, because it does not respect them, let alone speak to them. What's missing in highbrow theater is the sense that there's life beyond chattering leftist circles. There are other people in the world with differing points of view, and they want to be seen and heard onstage. If you want to see generally functional heterosexual families (or functional heterosexuals, for that matter); if you want to see America affirmed as a land of opportunity, not denounced as an evil, capitalist meat market; if you want theater that affirms conservative values, you must venture out of the city and seek popular drama. The best examples are to be found outdoors, and this list will get you off to a good start.

In my own quest for outdoor drama, I've found myself experiencing the wonder of live theater in some of the oddest places imaginable: Seaside resorts, Indian reservations, mountain hamlets, abandoned rock quarries, sandstone canyons, and vacant county-courthouse lawns. We conservatives have to take our theater where we can find it -- and luckily, it looks like we're more than willing to do just that. Despite out-of-the-way locations, strangely designed venues with less-than-ideal seating, middling production values, mediocre scripts, and a general lack of attention from the critical establishment, outdoor dramas can draw solid crowds, running for years if not decades.

The long-standing success of American outdoor drama is cause for optimism, I think. Despite the presence of cinema and television, live theater still draws a truly national audience from all points on the ideological spectrum, in areas of the country where one would think it a lost cause. But before highbrow theater can achieve such levels of success, it will have to welcome conservative patrons, entertain us, and address issues pertaining to our lives, values and beliefs -- or at least it will have to refrain from mocking us and driving us out. Given the insular state of "serious drama" (and perhaps of the arts in general), this might be a pretty tall order. Here's hoping someone gives it a college try.

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