Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Delacroy Parable

I don't see a lot of movies in the theater. But when I heard that Robin Williams was starring in Man of the Year, a film about a comedian who runs for President and "wins" only on the strength of dubious election machines, I knew this would be worth it.

In the film, Delacroy is the company with a national monopoly on touch screen voting systems. I did not detect obvious signals to suggest homage to Diebold or any other real vendors. In a way, this made its own point to me: these crooked companies are indistinguishable and their reprehensible behavior has become a caricature of itself. So while Delacroy may not have been a pseudonymous depiction of an actual company, it was essentially a metaphoric representation of the election machine manufacturing industry as a whole.

Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a TV talk show host who runs for president using schtick on the campaign trail. The media reports he has built up sizable support for his candidacy but he is not expected to win. It is regarded as mildly surprising when he is declared president-elect. To quote Christopher Walken as Dobbs's manager (quoting Tom Clancy), "The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."

There is a scene in which Dobbs, in a three-way presidential debate, completely breaks the format and refuses to yield control of the floor while ranting about a variety of taboo subjects. It was very easy to feel like this is what is really needed. I think other reviews of this film have suggested the Dobbs character may be based somewhat on Jon Stewart. I don't know about that in terms of directly comparing personalities or styles of humor, but it sure did seem to me like the real world is ready for Stewart or David Letterman or Brad Friedman or whomever to show up the suits who usurp our power just as in this movie.

As a writer who has devoted untold thousands of words to the very specific problems with American voting technology, it would be easy to describe many issues unaddressed by Man of the Year. Yet I feel no compulsion to do that. The movie addresses election security, transparency and accuracy in a very simplistic way that I think should be very effective at challenging the comfort level and assumptions of those who have not stopped to learn or even think about this problem.

A programming "glitch" is discovered by a Delacroy employee who feels honor-bound to inform Dobbs despite corporate pressure, intimidation and assault aimed at silencing her. To make the story work, we are supposed to accept that she identifies a single computer algorithm that has altered the results in at least 13 states. Again, without trying to pad this with more context from the real world election security situation, it struck me that even the most uninformed viewer would likely be lead to conclude that the machines make it impossible to know the true outcome of an election. I may use different evidence or arguments, but I have consistently stuck to this same point for a very long time.

If there was a weakness in this film it was the lack of skepticism on the part of Dobbs when he is told about the "glitch." He accepts that claim without any proof and without asking to see evidence. But then that only would have complicated the otherwise basic lesson of the movie. Is it possible that Man of the Year has dumbed down the "no basis for confidence" argument just so far that it can finally reach the general population through the movie screen? My magic Delacroy brand 8-ball says YES.

See this movie and tell people about it, individually, through e-mail lists and websites, by writing to print media and calling talk radio shows, and however else you know to put out a message. It is time to lay off of some of the arguments that haven't been working despite what would seem like their likely devastating impact (McPherson, I'm looking at you and your ridiculous certification of Diebold in response to the Berkeley report saying the equipment is illegal and unsecure). Sorry, just had to get that last one out of my system. We can bring this back at any time, but for now, we have an opportunity to use a gift we've been given to make what should already be known as the strongest argument. The movie is not complicated. It can be summarized in a paragraph with the conclusion so obviously drawn as to be universally understood.

There is no basis for confidence in reported election results.

There it is. It's simple, succinct, and as attorney Paul Lehto says in the Foreword to my book, We Do Not Consent, it "approaches scientific certainty." Want to say it another way? Fine. The concept is more important than the meme, but let's also see this phrase for what it can be. A plainer way to put it might be: With elections like this, there is no way to be sure who won. You can't see this movie and not come away with that. To do what we need to do in the interest of election reform and peaceful revolution, it behooves us to make sure the whole country is clear on this one point. We now have a better way than ever to deliver it.

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Posted by Dave Berman - 12:58 PM | Permalink
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this is reall cool
www.funnybytes.net

Posted by Blogger ben @ Oct 21, 2006, 1:10:00 PM
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Dave, thanks for the review. I saw the movie Sunday night, and brought a friend who was also very impressed. I recommended it to the people in line next to me who couldn't decide what to see, but I think they ended up seeing a different film anyhow.

While I was looking up showtimes, I noticed its box-office rank was #7--not too shabby! That's millions of people exposed to the "no basis for confidence" meme. I'm glad to see this embedded in a fictional story because it's going to reach a lot more people who are new to the idea. Documentaries are great, but I suspect they're better for preaching to the choir than recruiting average folks.

Posted by Blogger Kathryn @ Oct 23, 2006, 2:35:00 AM
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