Beauty pageants: a social disease

Over at the Los Angeles Times, Steve Lopez brings us the latest voting scandal to rock America. Okay, not really. This was, understandably, the first I heard of it some ten days after the event, and, frankly, my first reaction was to wonder, “I’m supposed to care … why?”

But I do care. We’ll get to that in a moment. For now, the scandal:

When Christina Silva of Koreatown was asked on the final day of the Miss California USA beauty pageant 10 days ago in Los Angeles if she was a leader or a follower, she said:

“I’m a leader. I’m on top and in front.”

Silva’s adoring family was in attendance at the Orpheum Theatre, sweating it out as she made the cut to the final 15, the final 10, the final five. And then, the impossible dream:

Silva, a 24-year-old actress, was crowned Miss California.

Her first thought: Miss USA or bust!

Imagine, then, the crushing blow that came just four days later. Silva said she was summoned to the Los Angeles home of pageant director Keith Lewis. She thought she would be signing a contract that would open doors to unlimited opportunity. Instead, she was told the unimaginable.

Due to a so-called error in the tabulation of voting by pageant judges, she was not a winner, after all. Nice try and see you later.

Instead, the crown belonged to Miss Barstow, Raquel Beezley, who had been second runner-up.

“It was the shock of my life,” says Silva, who didn’t understand the explanation that judges’ point totals had been accidentally reversed. If that were the case, why wasn’t the fifth-place finisher the winner? Silva had to wonder whether the pageant simply preferred Beezley’s look, or wanted to reward her for having been on the pageant circuit longer than Silva had.

That’s right, a beauty pageant voting scandal. I’m going to guess, with a presidential cycle set to open next month, we have not yet begun to see what real voting scandals look like.

Well, there was the scandalous affair in 2000, in Florida. And then the questions about Ohio in 2004. But we’re in the United States. What is the average attention span these days? Five seconds?

Part of me does feel badly for Miss Silva. She worked hard for the pageant, paraded herself around like a show poodle for the oohs and aahs of judges and audiences. A piece of meat? If only. This is business, baby, and it’s Donald Trump’s kind of business: ruthless, soulless, superficial. And Miss Silva had succeeded in this sordid business.

Then they took it all away from her.

Just like that.

And then, according to Silva, director Lewis “pressured” Silva to do something unthinkable:

To add insult to injury, Silva says Lewis pushed her to play the role of Miss Congeniality and personally call Miss Barstow to break the news. This would have been like asking Jennifer Aniston to call Angelina Jolie and offer to turn over her wedding ring.

“I’m not going to use the word threatened, but I am going to use the words pressured and manipulated,” says Silva, who has since hired an attorney to argue her case ….

…. But Silva says he told her she could continue to wear “the crown and the sash, but if this leaks out somehow, your career and your integrity will be completely jeopardized. You don’t want to be that kind of girl. You’re a girl of faith, right?”

Silva says she had nothing against Beezley, the new winner. So she placed the call and delivered the news.

Now, Lewis, for his part, denies applying such pressure. He claims to have advised her “to take the high ground“. And of course we believe a beauty pageant director who just happens to be completely innocent in the middle of a completely innocent mistake while attempting to further victimize Miss Silva:

Lewis seems to express surprise that Silva wasn’t playing the good sport.

“It is unfortunate that now, several days later, we have heard reports that Miss Silva feels manipulated although she has not returned our calls or e-mails,” he says in the news release.

Apparently, Mr. Lewis is new to the showbiz culture. Maybe he just doesn’t realize that once someone gets a lawyer in such disputes, you are not going to hear back from them. You will hear from the attorney.

According to that news release, “a mistake was made by the volunteer accountant who tabulated the votes“. And according to Lopez, Mr. Lewis further explained that further examination showed that the point totals had been assigned to the wrong contestants. Lopez asks the obvious:

The more Lewis attempted to explain how it all went wrong, the more confused I got.

How hard can this be?

Hot in Bathing Suit – 5 points.

Frumpy in Bathing Suit – 1 point.

Quick Witted- 5 points.

Barely Verbal – 1 point.

Pencil them in and move on to the next contestant.

Which takes some heat off the infamous Ms. Teen USA South Carolina by reminding us that the contestants are not necessarily the biggest idiots in the room. There are, of course, the volunteer accountants who can’t tabulate numbers properly, and however many morons actually attended the affair. It’s a toss-up.

Now, the reason I care about this at all is because it is time we, as a society, stopped setting our sights so low. We should aspire to far better things than beauty contests. If there seems something perverse about the ambition to be crowned the most vacuous sex symbol in the county/state/nation/world, well, yeah, there is. What is even scarier is that some parents would wish this fate upon their children. Should I point out that this is what JonBenet Ramsey had to look forward to, or would that be excessive and cruel? The truth of the matter is that Miss Silva is not lying dead in a closet somewhere only to be obsessed over for years by sick individuals who would falsely confess to her murder in order to stake a claim to their share of a deviant mythology.  On that count alone, she ought to feel lucky.

So cheer up, babe. Things could be worse.

Update: Slouching toward Tehran

Further evidence that Armageddon may not be postponed by the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran comes from my own sidebar, a Time article by Mark Thompson, ironically, about how the NIE means there will not be a war with Iran:

The U.S. military contributes nine of the 16 intelligence agencies whose views are cobbled together in NIEs: the Counterintelligence Field Activity, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, Army Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Security Agency, and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Some critics have suggested that the military simply found a public way to quiet the drumbeat for war coming from Vice President Dick Cheney and his shrinking band of allies in the Administration.

There was no formal response from the Pentagon. It is evident, however, that the U.S. military, already strained by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has no appetite for a third war. That’s true even if a series of strikes against nuclear and other targets inside Iran were carried out by the Air Force and Navy, the two services who have sat, somewhat frustrated, on the sidelines as the Army and Marine Corps has done the heavy lifting in the two wars now underway. Some Pentagon officials welcomed the new NIE as evidence that the intelligence community is not tied to ideology, as some critics argued was true during the buildup to the Iraq war in 2003.

Still, Pentagon officials made it clear that this was not a political move by the brass — that the military’s lack of desire for another conflict and the conclusions of the new NIE are coincidental. They stress that the military focuses on “intentions, not capabilities” when assessing threats, and that the final unclassified portion of the NIE warns that the intelligence community believes “with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.”

Pretty lights over Tehran? Be the first to start an office pool on whether and when. I mean, it’s not like the administration will wait for a critical point in the election cycle and then call for missile strikes, but we’ve got a pretty good window to estimate.

Slouching toward Tehran

Yesterday I was discussing life, the Universe, and everything with a friend who is a psychologist-turned-mystery novelist. He expressed a theory about the apparent collapse of conventional wisdom regarding Iran in the face of a new National Intelligence Estimate that seems to indicate something about how misplaced the Bush administration’s truculence toward Iran has been. That theory ran, approximately, that the newspapers in more liberal markets would cover the story from the outset, while others would wait and start their coverage with the White House response; the implication, of course, is that the story would only be covered in certain markets once it was framed by the Bush administration. I like his theories. They’re never entirely damning, always relevant and at least partially correct (nobody’s perfect, right?), and amusing in the sense that, as long as we’re stuck trying to figure out what the hell the administration thinks it is doing, we should not let the neck-deep flood of sewage emanating from the White House depress us too much.

Nonetheless, I confess I did not rush home and test that theory. Consider it a personal failing. (After all, I’m overdue following up on a couple of scandalous political stories from the last couple weeks; I look like an idiot leaving them where they are.)

But I did, while picking through headlines, come across Robert Baer’s piece for Time:

Bombing Iran, it seems, is now off the table. There’s no other reasonable take on the latest National Intelligence Estimate that concludes Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

But there is also no doubt that the Bush White House was behind this NIE. While the 16 intelligence agencies that make up the “intelligence community” contribute to each National Intelligence Estimate, you can bet that an explosive, 180-degree turn on Iran like this one was greenlighted by the President.

Naturally, I dropped the link into an email and sent it flying in a matter of seconds.

A couple of questions suggest themselves, and as politely as possible.

The first issue I would ask of Mr. Baer, a former CIA officer with experience in the Middle East, is, “What do we expect that the president green-lit the report? What was he supposed to do, send them back and say, ‘Bring me a report that tells me what I want to hear’?

After all, cooked intelligence seems to be at the heart of the discussion over the propriety and justice of the Iraqi Bush War. See, the thing is that Baer does not seem to be doing a wash job for the administration. He notes how this NIE will not settle well with neocon hawks, who will accuse the intelligence community of incompetence, and also how National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley claims the administration’s diplomatic efforts forced Iran to back down. And Mr. Baer, to his credit, does not buy either notion.

The real story behind this NIE,” wrote Baer, “is that the Bush Administration has finally concluded Iran is a bridge too far.”

What, exactly, does this mean? That the administration has finally realized that extending the Bush Wars to Iran is politically untenable at home and abroad? That it is a bad investment of military resources?

I recognize that we want to believe the best about our leaders, that it hurts us deeply to think that we have invested eight years of our lives in an administration that is either a testament to human stupidity or a new standard in corruption. But what suggestions do we really have that political viability or the general health of our armed services are remotely important to President Bush and his cronies? What bridge is the administration allegedly unwilling to burn? It does not make sense that the administration would come so far only to stop because familiar challenges—especially a lack of credible justification—have returned?

The second question is to wonder if Mr. Baer actually believes that the NIE will bring any significant changes. As Maureen Dowd noted, “ Just because the facts on which he based his white-hot rhetoric about Iran possibly sparking World War III have been debunked, W. said with his usual twisted logic, why should his policy change?

It would seem, also, that Ms. Dowd did not miss Baer’s article:

Even though Sy Hersh claims that the top echelon of the White House has long known of the conclusion that Iran had stopped its nuke program, and that Dick Cheney “has kept his foot on the neck of that report,” the president says he was briefed on it only last week. Others conspiratorially speculate that the president had to have green-lighted the report to take the air out of the hawks’ Iran push.

It would appear that the policy is not changing. Certainly, the helm might make a few corrections, but the ship of state appears to be struggling to keep its original course of a showdown with Iran. Kim Landers reported earlier today for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Two days after a US intelligence report stated Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, US President George W Bush is calling on Tehran to come clean about it ….

…. “These countries understand that the Iranian nuclear issue is a problem and continues to be a problem that must be addressed by the international community,” he said ….

…. “They can come clean with the international community about the scope of their nuclear activities and fully accept the longstanding offer to suspend their enrichment program and come to the table and negotiate,” he said.

“Or they can continue on a path of isolation.”

And from Peter Baker and Robin Wright of the Washington Post:

President Bush scrambled yesterday to hold together a fragile international coalition against Iran, declaring that the Islamic republic remains “dangerous” and that “nothing has changed” despite a new intelligence report that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

While his top diplomats reached out to key counterparts, Bush began calling world leaders and held a White House news conference to argue that the new National Intelligence Estimate only reinforces the need for diplomatic pressure against Iran. Although the report determined that Iran stopped seeking a nuclear bomb in 2003, Bush said Tehran’s secrecy shows it cannot be trusted.

Or we could just go straight to the White House:

Q: Mr. President, thank you. Just to follow, I understand what you’re saying about when you were informed about the NIE. Are you saying at no point while the rhetoric was escalating, as “World War III” was making it into conversation, at no point nobody from your intelligence team or your administration was saying, maybe you want to back it down a little bit?

THE PRESIDENT: No, nobody ever told me that. Having said—having laid that out, I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger. Nothing has changed in this NIE that says, okay, why don’t we just stop worrying about it. Quite the contrary. I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn’t changed.

And I just explained, Jim, that if you want to avoid a really problematic situation in the Middle East, now is the time to continue to work together. That’s our message to our allies, and it’s an important message for them to hear. And here’s the reason why: In order for a nation to develop a nuclear weapons program they must have the materials from which to make a bomb, the know-how on how to take that material and make it explode, and a delivery system.

Now, the Iranians—the most difficult aspect of developing a weapons program, or as some would say, the long pole in the tent, is enriching uranium. This is a nation—Iran is a nation that is testing ballistic missiles. And it is a nation that is trying to enrich uranium. The NIE says this is a country that had a covert nuclear weapons program, which, by the way, they have failed to disclose, even today. They have never admitted the program existed in the first place.

The danger is, is that they can enrich, play like they got a civilian program—or have a civilian program, or claim it’s a civilian program—and pass the knowledge to a covert military program. And then the danger is, is at some point in the future, they show up with a weapon. And my comments are, now is the time to work together to prevent that scenario from taking place. It’s in our interests.

The good news, Mr. Baer wrote, is that “Armageddon is postponed.” How can he tell?