Monthly Archives: January 2013


Jon Stewart had a funny bit last night, responding to the new-found Republican support for immigration reform.  Losing an election they expected to win seems to have had a salubrious affect. But the immigration reform bill that’s currently under consideration is kind of remarkable.  Marco Rubio’s a bright young conservative with Presidential ambitions, plus, as a Hispanic, one presumes this is an issue he cares a lot about.  And the bill has bi-partisan support, always a good thing.  It has a chance of passing, is the point.  Even Rush Limbaugh may be sorta kinda aboard.  Which would give Republicans in the House political cover with the Tea Party Right if they supported something that’s still anathema to a lot of the Republican base.

The bill does include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, which a lot of conservatives have tended previously to demonize as ‘amnesty.’  But it also comes with a trigger.  A commission of Southwestern officials–governors and law enforcement officials–would have to declare the border ‘secure.’  That’s what compromise looks like: conservatives want the border closed to illegal immigrants, but Democrats want amnesty and citizenship.  So the bill would basically call for an increase in border security, then when that was adequately accomplished, the stuff liberals like would kick in.

One issue here has to do with whether this commission’s role would be binding or advisory.  Another, though, has to do with who would be on it.  In other words, does this commission give Jan Brewer a veto over citizenship.

Jan Brewer is the current governor of Arizona. She’s the main spokeswoman for SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration bill.  And–how to say this kindly–Jan Brewer is, uh, one of God’s special people.  Check this out.  Or this.  She’s the ‘beheadings’ lady; a politician just flat out inventing this preposterous story that dozens of beheaded bodies have been found in Arizona’s desert, and that those (non-existent) bodies can be linked to illegal immigration. She’s exactly the sort of person who would be on this Rubio commission, and exactly the person who under no circumstances whatever should be on it.

So the debate is going on, and it’s possible that something may come of it. Democrats want comprehensive immigration reform, and, for reasons of their own, so do Republicans.  There remain significant differences between the bill Democrats supported last year and the new Rubio bill, and those differences could still scuttle it.  Still, there’s a chance.

But both bills, both approaches, suck.  The Rubio bill stinks.  So did the Democratic bill last year.  It’s certainly encouraging to see at least some prominent Republicans overcome the knee-jerk nativism that’s previously made this debate so disheartening.  Tom Tancredo’s ferociously stated opposition to any kind of reform has been largely discredited by the Republican establishment–mostly because Republicans would kind of like to win a national election sometime in their lifetimes.  But the Rubio bill is rotten.

Fact is, immigration is good for our country.  And basically every major talking point in this debate is factually wrong.

Example: both Republicans and Democrats want people who came here legally–‘folks who played by the rules’–to have first shot at citizenship. That’s a big talking point. And it sounds good: nobody likes queue jumpers, and nobody likes cheaters.  But green cards are doled out via a lottery. People desperate for work apply for legal resident status, then, if they’re not lucky enough to win the lottery, then they come over illegally.  It’s not a question of ‘rule of law’ or ‘obeying the rules,’ it’s just pure dumb luck.

Example: both sides agree that Hispanic illegal immigrants come here to ‘do the jobs most Americans don’t want to do.’  And that’s a little true.  But Hispanic immigrants are the single group mostly likely to become entrepreneurs.

Illegal immigrants ‘increase crime.’  Not true–they’re far less likely to commit crimes than citizens are.  They ‘drain our resources.’ Not true–they’re an economic plus.  Nationally, economically, immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits.  And the word ‘amnesty’ is completely insane–applying for citizenship is very difficult, takes forever, and costs thousands of dollars.

Plus, you know, we have a demographic problem in this country.  The Baby Boomers are just about to get really expensive, as they move into Medicare and Social Security.  Increasingly we’re adding retirees much faster than we’re adding workers.  The panicked Beltway response involves various proposals to cut benefits or push back the retirement age.  Instead, why not just open the borders?

That’s my proposal.  Let anyone who wants to come to our country undergo a background check.  If they don’t have a criminal record in their country of origin, give ’em a green card and welcome them in.  Then, if they want to apply for citizenship, that’s awesome.  Maybe have a three year waiting period.  But no penalties, no fines, and a lot less red tape.

This is an important issue to me, because of my Dad.  He came to this country from Norway, age 17.  He became a citizen by getting drafted to serve in the Army.  He’s as patriotic an American as you can imagine–sang the National Anthem for Indiana University basketball games for many years.

This country was build by immigrants.  And every group that came was subjected to nativist abuse from the groups already here.  The Irish were branded undesirables.  Then it was Chinese, or Jews, or southern Europeans.  Lately, it’s been Hispanics.  Every group has added to American greatness.  Let’s open our borders, and reap the benefits.


49ers stories

The Super Bowl is this weekend, and I’m pretty excited.  I know a lot of my readers aren’t into sports–I’ve spent my life in the theatre, and a Venn diagram of ‘theatre people’ and ‘football fans’ wouldn’t necessarily show much overlap.  And of the major North American team sports, football is my least favorite.  It’s violent.  It hurts people, sometimes permanently.  But the guys who play it tend to love it, and tend as well to be thoroughly aware of the risks. I played a lot of football growing up, though never in any formal organized way–just playing in our back yard, otherwise known as our dog’s favorite bathroom. Dodging dog poo–ah, the memories.

Plus, it can be beautiful, it really can. A perfectly thrown pass, a beautifully executed play.  Wonderful athletes, leaping and running. So: torn.  But still planning a Super Bowl party.

And this year, my favorite team’s in it.  I became a San Francisco 49ers fan because, heck, growing up in Indiana, why wouldn’t I?  And I thought maybe I’d see if I could humanize the sport a little: tell some stories about the guys who play it.

So: Alex Boone.

The 49ers right guard.  He played college football at Ohio State, where he won the kinds of awards you win as one of the best linemen in football.  He showed up at the NFL combine in 2009, 6’8″, 340 pounds, chiseled, a terrific athlete.  Strong, quick, powerful.  And a drunk.

Boone say he started drinking in junior high, would sit with his Dad and drink beer and watch football together.  He would pound forty beers a night as a fifteen year old. He was arrested for drunk driving as a high school kid.   He finished his college eligibility without a degree, and went to the NFL combine (a big pre-draft workout, basically, attended by scouts from every NFL team), and the buzz was that he would be a first-round draft pick–ten million dollar signing bonus territory.  It didn’t happen.  He wasn’t drafted at all. No one wanted him. No one wanted to gamble 10 million dollars, or even one million dollars, on an alcoholic.

He was out of control.  He head-butted people.  He went to a frat party and beat a guy up.  He went to a party in California, went to a mall parking lot, and got it into his head to jump on the roofs of parked cars until the roofs collapsed.  For fun.  He was arrested for trying to destroy a tow truck. He was drinking every day, completely out of control.  And nobody in the NFL was interested.

Except the 49ers.  They interviewed him, said they would draft him as a free agent (for miniscule money), but with two requirements.  His technique sucked, because he’d never had to listen to coaches.  He had to work with La Charles Bentley, a former NFL lineman who had a camp for budding linemen.  And Mike Singletary, the coach, told him he had to stop drinking.

Boone went to AA.  He’s been clean and sober for three years.  He’s married, and a Dad.  He’s very heavily involved in charity work.  And he’s the starting right guard for the Super Bowl Niners. He’s turned his life around.  And is today one of the most intelligent and thoughtful guys on the team, bright and quotable.

Bruce Miller:

Every year, college football players await the NFL draft, which will determine their futures.  The worst team in football gets to pick first–getting a first shot at the best college player in the country.  The best team picks 32nd, and so on, for seven rounds.  There are always all kinds of speculation about who will be the number one pick, and if you’re a fan, you have strong opinions over who your team should use its precious picks on. And teams can trade picks, and do.  In the 2011 draft, due to trades, the Niners had three seventh round picks.  At that point in the draft, you’re not going to get a superstar, but as a fan you hope your team at least can get a useful player.  And with the last of those three picks, the Niners drafted Bruce Miller.

Miller played his college ball at Central Florida, not a powerhouse school.  But he was a good player there, a defensive end, probably the best defensive player in the school’s history.  Problem is, he was 6’2″, 245.  And at the professional level, that’s just too small.  So he waited, desperate to fulfill his lifetime goal of playing football professionally, hoping someone would take a chance on him, hoping they’d want him for special teams or something. Anything.

So he got the phone call; the Niners welcomed him to the team.  And told him they wanted him as a fullback.

If you don’t know anything about football, that won’t mean much, but you can hardly find two positions with less in common than fullback and defensive end.  For one thing, fullbacks block–that’s their main job.  Defensive players tackle.  All his instincts would be off. It’s like, I don’t know, getting cast as Mercutio and then you show up for your first rehearsal and they say, sorry,  we want you to play Juliet. Here’s your script.  Good luck.

Plus, when they drafted Miller, the Niners already had a fullback, a good one, Moran Norris.

So Bruce Miller shows up to Niners camp, ready to start practice, ready to learn a brand new position.  But the NFL was in the middle of an incredibly nasty labor negotiation, and players weren’t allowed to practice as a team.  Alex Smith, the Niners quarterback, was organizing some informal practices, so Miller went to California from Florida, crashed on Smith’s sofa, and asked the other guys to show him how to be a fullback. And, by all accounts, completely worked his butt off.

It wasn’t going to matter, that first season.  Norris was the starter, and Miller, as he’d hoped, was going to play on special teams.  When the labor problems ended, and the coaches finally showed up, Miller got some more instruction, and was making good progress.  Turns out, his size wasn’t good for a defensive end, but it was pretty well perfect for a fullback.  And Miller had played football all his life.  A season spent sitting on the bench, learning from a respected veteran like Norris would be good for him.

On the third play of the season, Moran Norris blew out his knee.  And his career was over.  And Bruce Miller had to step up and play.

And he’s been great. If you watch the Super Bowl, watch Miller. Miller’s easy to spot–he’s number 49, on the 49ers.  Often you can learn more watching him play than you can from watching the quarterback.  If the Niners make a big play, a long run or a long pass, Bruce Miller’s blocking will have had a lot to do with it–he’s a perfect fullback for the Pistol offense, which the Niners use a lot of the time.  If he’s really lucky, he might even catch a pass. Turns out, he’s great at that too.

Kwame Harris:

It’s hardly news to say that national attitudes towards our LGBT friends have changed tremendously.  Marriage equality now enjoys majority support, and laws forbidding discrimination on housing or employment have been enacted in Salt Lake City, with LDS Church support.  One barrier that has remained unchanged, however, is professional sports.  Olympic athletes, tennis players–wonderful, brave Martina Navratilova– even soccer players have come out in recent years.  But so far, at least, no major team sport athlete has come out as gay.  The old Dodgers’ outfielder, Billy Bean, came out after his retirement from baseball.  But football has remained, at least publicly, entirely straight.

Which is actually hilarious, given the many many homo-erotic overtones of basically everything about the sport.  Still, there has never been an active, out player.

The Forty-Niners play in San Francisco, and are generally reckoned the most gay-friendly team in the NFL.  In August, they became the first NFL team (and remain the only NFL team) to produce an “It gets better” video aimed at LGBT youth.  I love the video, in part because who appears in it–there isn’t a tougher football player alive than Donte Whitner, other than perhaps Ricky Jean Francois.

The Niners now have their first out player.  It’s a sad story, really: Kwame Harris, who played right tackle for the team from 2003-2007 was arrested on domestic violence charges after a fight with a former domestic partner turned ugly. Harris is, by all accounts, a very quiet and reserved guy.  Because they were fighting about what seem like trivial issues–soy sauce on rice, and underwear–the story seems comical.  But a man was badly injured, and another may serve jail time for it–that’s not funny.  No, what’s great about the story isn’t Kwame Harris’ sad legal difficulties, or a relationship turned sour–what’s great has been the response of the Niners’ players.

There are guys on the team at the Super Bowl who played with Kwame Harris.  There are 4000 reporters covering the Super Bowl–Harris has come up. And they couldn’t care less.  Delanie Walker, Brian Jennings–they’ve been asked about Harris, and they say ‘he was a great football player, and a teammate and friend.  His sexual orientation’s irrelevant.’

So remember all that talk about ‘guys in a locker room, they’re not going to put up with a gay teammate?’  Based on the 49ers response, I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.  Obviously, some guys might–the thought that some professional football players may be homophobic is hardly startling.  But for the most part, as Brian Jennings put it: “we’re here to win football games.” And every day that passes, some progress is made. . . .

And then, right after I wrote this, Chris Culliver made some astonishingly homophobic comments, and was promptly blasted for it by Mike Wilbon.  So maybe not that much progress. . . .

Every guy on a football team has a story, and the stories can be fascinating.  Another reason why, despite my very real reservations about it, I remain a football fan.  And go Forty-niners.


Keynes and Krugman and the economics of hope

So I’m working my way through Robert Sidelsky’s magisterial three volume, eighteen hundred page biography of John Maynard Keynes.  I’ve written a play about Keynes, Clearing Bombs, which my dear friends at Plan B Theatre are strongly considering for production, and thought I should do some massive re-reading, just to make sure I got it all right. Before I take one final pass at it. Plus, Keynes is fun to read about.  Then, a couple of hours in, I took a break, so I could watch this, Paul Krugman on Morning Joe.

Joe Scarborough used to be a Republican Congressman, but he’s reasonably moderate, and a great interviewer.  I like his show, don’t catch it every morning, but I do check out his guest list.  When Krugman appears on something like This Week with Snuffleupagus, he tends to be shouted down by the likes of Mary Matalin.  But Scarborough is more respectful to his guests, and lets the conversation go on for enough time for Krugman to make his points.  Even Rachel Maddow, who I adore and who also had Krugman on recently, gave him maybe four minutes.  Scarborough gave him twenty one.

Krugman is actually a bit like Keynes in this sense–he’s the economist as rock star.  Krugman’s new book, End This Depression Now (which I really recommend), is out on paperbook now, so he’s doing the media tours, but he’s always a favorite talking head.  Like Keynes, he’s a terrific economist, a Nobel laureate.  He’s also unafraid to take on conventional wisdom.  He can be pretty feisty.  Like Keynes, he makes a lot of his money in journalism.  Like Keynes, he writes some books intended for a general readership, and other books intended for economists. Like Keynes, he keeps up an active teaching load.  And, of course, Paul Krugman calls himself a Keynesian, or a neo-Keynesian.

Keynes’ great moment, the time when he really shined, was during the Great Depression.  He advised Roosevelt in the creation of the New Deal, just as Krugman advises President Obama in fighting the economic devastation caused by the Great Recession, the world-wide financial crisis.  But for both men, their best advice was in part ignored.  Krugman called for a job growth economic stimulus, and Obama did go to Congress and get one, but half the size Krugman called for.  Same with Roosevelt–the New Deal job stimulus measures were never big enough, and Keynes continually said so.

But watching TV this morning, while also reading Skidelsky on Keynes, I suddenly had this insight: they represented an economics of hope, and those who opposed them represented an economics of fear.

Krugman continues to insist that the current Washington obsession with debt reduction is completely misguided.  Most of our European allies chose austerity, because it sounds good.  It appeals to our Calvinist sides–we have sinned–racked up massive debts–and we must repent, or catastrophe beckons.  The Austrian school economists (best represented by David Ricardo and Ludwig von Mises and, above all, Friedrich Hayek), were convinced that Roosevelt’s New Deal would prove catastrophic.  That the debt he was accruing would lead to hyper-inflation.  Which never happened.

Here’s Krugman this morning:

People like me have been saying for five years, don’t worry about these deficit projections for the time being, they’re not an issue, and people have been saying ‘imminent crisis, immanent crisis; how many times do they have to be right and do people like me have to be right before you believe in us.

And one of the other guys on the show, pretty red-faced and angry by this point, responded:

You’re right until you’re wrong, and that’s a bad day!

You’re right until you’re wrong.  And what you see, over and over again in this debate is crisis talk.  The national debt is a crisis.  The collapse of our economy is upon us.  Interest rates are going to soar, inflation is going to rise, borrowing will become impossible, hyper-inflation (Germany in the 30’s) beckons.  We’re like Greece.  Always always poor screwed-up Greece.

It’s all about fear.  It’s nothing but fear.  If we don’t immediately cut spending, end this (non-existent) spending spree we’re on, we’re going to see really really bad things happen to our economy.

Krugman has repeatedly pointed out this: Greece is a country that does not control its own currency.  As we’re now seeing, that is a very very bad idea.  Iceland’s economy was in a much bigger hole than Greece’s was four years ago, but Iceland never joined the Euro, and Iceland is much further along the road to recovery than Greece is even close to being.  Greece is in such bad shape, it’s putting itself up for sale.  In Greece, nobody–seriously, basically nobody–pays their taxes.  To compare the US economy to the economy of Greece is like comparing LeBron James to the last kid off the bench of his high school’s junior varsity.

When you say the name ‘Paul Krugman’ to conservatives, they tend to recoil, because let’s face it, he can be pretty dismissive.  Rude, honestly.  I read his blog every day of my life, and I admit it, he’s pretty partisan.  (In all fairness, he’s been much tougher on President Obama than he is on conservatives.)  His favorite targets are what he calls ‘Very Serious People’, which is to say, Beltway conventional wisdom.  He thinks they don’t understand economics and that they’re wrong about our country’s current economic problems. But I think the larger point is this:

Predicting catastrophe makes for better sound bites.  Predicting gloom and doom sells.  Predicting disaster works.  In my play, I paraphrase Keynes as follows:

Classical economics is unsentimental, tough-minded, austere, and that lends it a kind of virtue.  Plus, it’s complicated and difficult, constructed with such a vast logical superstructure—it must therefore be profound.  And it can explain social injustice and cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and argues that any attempt to change such things as likely to do more harm than good; what government wouldn’t find that attractive?

That’s close to what Keynes actually wrote, in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.  But he said, it’s not true. Government can work to create jobs.  We can stimulate a sagging economy.  And governments can do what private individuals cannot; borrow large sums of money at generous terms.  And use it to ameliorate human suffering.

When economies boom, then austerity makes sense, then deficit reduction can become a priority.  Right now, it shouldn’t be.  We can choose hope.  We don’t need to succumb to fear.



Hope Springs: A Review

I always feel a little stupid reviewing movies months after their initial release. Hope Springs came out last summer, when there were all these other movies out we wanted to see more; finally caught it via Netflix last night.  It’s one of those quiet, character-driven movies that don’t make a big splash, but are terrific and real and funny and smart.  And let me say this: if you’re like me, married for awhile, happy in your marriage but aware that it’s become a bit. . .  habitual, this is the movie for you.  Seriously, see this movie.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Arnold, a long-time middle management type, probably in some kind of insurance related business.  Married to Kay, played by Meryl Streep.  Their children are grown and out of the house, and their lives are comfortable enough.  They sleep in separate bedrooms–she always has breakfast for him before he goes to work, then a nice supper when he comes home, then he falls asleep watching the Golf Channel.  Kay is quiet, sort of shy, not terribly assertive, and, as we learn, terribly terribly unhappy.  Lonely, sad.  Their marriage rituals have become habitual, completely lacking in intimacy or passion.  These are decent, honorable people-when Arnold declares that he’s never cheated on Kay, we believe him.  When he says that he’s done his job, provided for her and their kids, well, he has.

But as the movie begins, Kay’s unhappiness–which she’s never really expressed–finally has led her to enroll them both in a marriage counseling retreat.  A therapist, Dr. Feld, (Steve Carell), has a practice in Hope Springs Maine, and Kay tells Arnold, she has cashed in a CD and bought plane tickets and arranged motel accommodations and paid four thousand dollars for a week intensive couples counseling.  And Arnold can’t believe it, and tells her he won’t go–she’s welcome to go by herself, but he will have no part of it.  But Arnold is all bluster–we know well enough that he’ll be on that plane, and indeed he is.

Arnold is a bit of a grump, a tightwad, a complainer.  They stop in a cafe for breakfast, and he orders an egg and bacon as sides.  The waitress points out that he’s just ordered the breakfast special.  He says, “I don’t want the special.  As sides, they’re a dollar less.”  He constantly complains about the therapist, about how much he’s charging them.  He initially won’t cooperate, won’t do any of the exercises Dr. Feld prescribes.  But as we see Kay quietly admitting how lonely she feels, how starved for affection and intimacy, you can also see that Arnold hears every word.  And how completely lost he would be without her.

I was reminded of my grandparents.  Ragnar and Ellek Samuelsen were married for, gosh, well over fifty years, and in all that time, they never once said they loved each other. Because I spoke Norwegian, I was pretty close to them, especially when Bestemor (my grandmother) had heart surgery and was in the hospital. Bestefar would see her every day, and I go with him, then we’d have supper together in the hospital cafeteria.  He would say to me in Norwegian ‘I love her so much. What would I do without her?’  And I’d say, ‘why don’t you tell her that?’  ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that,’ he’d respond, embarrassed.  So, troublemaker that I am, I’d go in to her her and I’d tell her what he said.  ‘Well, it’d be nice if he told me that,’ she’d say tartly.  But he never could, never did.

This movie does that, makes you think of your own marriage.  Makes you think of how easily the daily routines of life can become unimaginative, uninspired.  How marriage can become pure habit.  You feel for Arnold, having to do all this uncomfortable sharing and confessing and, eventually, snuggling.  And more.  But above all, you feel for Kay, you sense how unhappy she’s become.  How much she needs for him to, once again, really see her.

Carell was terrific, as the counselor.  No snarkiness, no irony–just a good therapist, genuinely committed to helping these two unhappy people.  But of course Jones and Streep are incredibly good together.  All those movies we’ve seen then both in, but you never sense it, you never think ‘I’m seeing two movie stars giving great performances.’  You think ‘I’m seeing Arnold, I’m seeing Kay, I’m seeing this married couple.’

A lot of their intimacy issues have to do with sexuality–they admit that they haven’t made love in over four years, and you sense that it was never all that wonderful.  The film is rated PG-13, but it has moments where it’s quite sexually explicit, often comically so.  I don’t mean that it was pornographic, anything but.  But it’s a movie about sex therapy, or perhaps more accurately, intimacy healing.  I would suggest that the ideal audience for this movie is a married couple, together for 20-plus years.

It’s terrific.  Beautifully written, superbly acted.  I’m glad I saw it.  Glad my wife and I saw it together.  And I think I have some things to work on.

The 2nd Amendment and the Civil War

I really didn’t want to write this.  I don’t want to troll gun lovers, and anything about the 2nd Amendment is likely to tick people off. But there’s an historical perspective that I haven’t seen in this debate, and so today, a week after first writing it, I’m going to post.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.


Guns and gun control and gun violence and preventing gun violence are all in the news these days, and have been since the Newtown tragedy.  The usual suspects are staking out the usual positions, with the Second Amendment invoked by conservatives, and sidestepped by liberals.  The most recent relevant Supreme Court decision on gun ownership, District of Columbia v. Heller upheld gun ownership as a private right, unconnected to militia membership, though it also agreed that any number of restrictions on firearm ownership were consistent with the Constitution.

So it’s there; it’s in the Constitution.  Why?  What would the purpose have been?  Because so much of the current debate is about the rights of sportsmen, people who hunt by avocation.  And yet the casual weekend hunter cannot be who the Founders were thinking of when they wrote the Second Amendment. Eighteenth century recreational shooting certainly existed–fox hunting dates back to the sixteenth century among the English gentry–but not really here. Well, perhaps to a very limited extent in Southern plantations, where wealthy society developed a bit along British lines. The point is, it was something aristocrats did, running to hounds on those English country estates.  Exactly the people, in other words, we were rebelling against.

So why?  What need in American society was the 2nd Amendment intended to address?

“Well-regulated militia.”  Remember that the Founders never intended the United States to have what they called a ‘standing army.’  They did not envision a professionally trained full-time military. They imagined that, on those occasions when an external threat gathered, that we could quickly recruit and train an army to deal with a short-term emergency. For the most part, that army would be drawn from local militias.  The biggest threats we faced in those days were Indian attacks and slave uprisings.  To deal with those, local communities were expected to form militias; to drill frequently, to conduct weapon inspections, to keep powder and bullets and (to some extent) extra muskets locked up in a local armory.

The Founders did realize that a navy might become necessary.  One of the first acts of the very first Congress involved a bill to build frigates–that is to say, medium sized warships, of 32 to 46 guns, fast and powerful enough to fight off pirates or privateers.  Our navy could not have stood up to the British or French navies, with their massive ships of the line, 74-100 gun warships, slow and ponderous, built with massive oak timbers. But we didn’t need a Channel fleet (a permanent fleet endlessly sailing the waters between Britain and France, keeping those massive continental armies from invading).

So that was the idea.  We would have a navy to protect our merchant shipping, and we would have militias to deal with small-scale local threats, and if we needed an army for some national emergency, we’d gather militiamen together and train one.

The Founders also didn’t really think in terms of cops.  Boston established the first municipal professional police force in 1838, though Philadelphia had begun training a rudimentary force five years earlier. New York followed, but in all three cities, cops were hopelessly corrupt.  We did have federal law enforcement–in fact, the first Judiciary Act of 1789 created 13 federal marshals. They only dealt with violations of federal law, only cases of the utmost severity.  Certainly they weren’t intended to have much local jurisdiction.

But the other fact was this: nobody knew if this whole ‘constitutional government’ thing was going to work.  That’s why a Bill of Rights was so important–the creation of a strong central government filled many Americans with suspicion.  1791, that suspicion and fear turned violent, in what was called the Whiskey Rebellion–basically a very dangerous tax protest.  The federal government had agreed to take on the war debts of the states–to pay for that, Alexander Hamilton declared a new tax, on whiskey.  In Western Pennsylvania, protestors intimidated federal tax collectors.  Federal marshals were called to the scene, and sent away.  So President Washington called out state militias, raised an army, commanded it himself, and put the rebellion down.

It’s not hard to read comments from the Founders suggesting that the purpose of the 2nd Amendment reflected a wide-spread skepticism about the effectiveness of representative government, or an entirely understandable fear of tyranny.  Nobody had ever done before what we Americans were proposing to do.  What if it went all sour?  Check out the Federalist Papers, numbers 29 and 46 in particular.  Here’s James Madison in Federalist 46:

In the several kingdoms of Europe . . . the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.

The Founders had already overthrown one tyrannous government.  The Second Amendment was needed in case we ever needed to overthrow another one.  The rights of the people, in this case, trumped the rights of government.

Okay, so an armed populace, well-trained in a militia, was needed to prevent the federal government from acting in a tyrannous way.  If the federal government overreached, took away essential and basic American freedoms, then we had arms and officers and training–we could rise up again, if needed. Especially since the federal government wouldn’t have a standing army to oppose it.

I grant all that.  So let me ask this historical question: didn’t all that happen?  Wasn’t it true that at a crucial turning point in American history that an entire region of the country rose up in rebellion?  Used state militias as the basis for an armed insurrection against tyrannous federal power?  Wasn’t the clear intent of the Founders, as expressed in the 2nd Amendment, realized, in the United States, from 1861 to 1865?

Read, for example, about the Democratic national convention, held in Charlestown South Carolina in late April, 1860.  Read the comments of, among many others, William Yancey of Alabama.  All the rhetoric, all of it, is about liberty and tyranny and the constitutional rights of minorities.

We like to think of the Founders as wise and admirable men. And they were.  But given a choice, in the Constitution, of ending slavery (and that was discussed) and accommodating it, they chose . . . unwisely.  Given a choice between the economic advantages of slavery, the wealth slavery could accrue to their advantage, and the morality of it, they chose wealth.  So would most men, most times in history.  But they built a fault line into our nation’s foundation, and in time that fault line would widen, and that foundation would crack.  And the 2nd Amendment would become the jackhammer that would break us apart. And 600,000 men would die.

Today, the idea that of an armed rebellion against the might of the greatest military power in the history of the world is just ludicrous.  When 2nd Amendment advocates today quote (among others) Madison about an armed citizenry standing as a bulwark of liberty, they sound frankly crazy.  They sound like Randy Weaver, holing up with his family at Ruby Ridge, and the horror show that turned into. But to 18th century Americans, facing a federal government with no standing army, embarked on a previously untested, brand spanking new experiment in self-governance, that experiment must have seemed fraught with peril.  No wonder they wanted to keep their guns. And then, four score and seven years later, it all blew up in our collective faces.

So let me gently ask–not assert, but merely ask.  Wasn’t slavery a grotesquely immoral blunder?  Wasn’t the Constitution’s accommodation to it likewise a misjudgment?  But couldn’t that error, enshrined in our beloved founding document, start to be seen, not as an immoral horror show, but as a right, as something fundamental to our identity as white Americans?  And weren’t those who thought that way wrong?  Didn’t the 2nd Amendment fulfill its sad promise, on the battlefields of Shiloh and Antietam and Gettysburg? Was it ever anything but another mistake?

Isn’t it time to put that mistake behind us?

Catfishing Manti Te’o

On ESPN, while you’re watching, say, Sportscenter, they’ve got this scroll running along the bottom of the screen, keeping you up with sports news.  Few days ago, I see this news item: “Manti Te’o girlfriend does not exist.”  Say what?  My first reaction was to chuckle–looks like ESPN has a glitch in their scroll.

What a strange story.  For those of you who may have missed it, Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame middle linebacker, and the runner up for college football’s Heisman Trophy, carried on a long relationship, conducted entirely via the internet and phone calls, with a tragically dying young woman named Lennay Kekua. Who, turns out, did not exist.  Te’o was pranked.  Hoaxed.  Bamboozled.  Victimized.

It had been a big story, in Sports Illustrated and in many many other news outlets.  Te’o’s girlfriend was in an auto accident, then learned she had leukemia.  She and Manti talked nightly, texted; she was his inspiration. They shared religious beliefs. They prayed together. The same day that his grandmother died, so did Kekua.  He was devastated; he dedicated the season to her.

And it turns out the whole thing was an invention, a false narrative.  The scammer was a guy named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. He also impersonated Lennay Kekua on the phone.  We all heard his voice; Katie Couric played voice mail conversation excerpts in her interview with Te’o.  Sure sounded like a woman to me.

Deadspin broke the story, not without trepidation.  The single best interview I saw about it was on The Cycle, with Deadspin managing editor Tom Scocca.  The four Cycle reporters (one of them named, I’m not kidding, Krystal Ball) were all snarky about it; clearly saw the story as really hi-larious.  Tom Scocca did not.  He saw the story as tragic, sad on several levels. Said he didn’t particularly want to run it. Sad for Te’o, sad for the state of mainstream journalism.  Because the tragic/inspiring Lennay Kekua story had been such a big story, Scocca and his reporters went over every detail of the main media stories (especially the one in Sports Illustrated), to see what specific facts their story would need to rebut.  He said he was shocked to learn that there weren’t any.  SI had done this entire cover story about Te’o/Kekua without a single piece of supporting fact or evidence.

The story frankly is pretty hard to believe.  Could Te’o really be that naive?  Tuiasosopo/Kekua apparently called him in December–she wasn’t dead after all.  She had faked her death, and was on the run from a drug cartel.  Te’o kept on believing.  He began embellishing the tale, including frankly impossible details, describing seeing her at a Notre Dame/Stanford football game, for example.  Even after he learned of the scam, he kept the Kekua story alive, out of embarrassment and because he didn’t want to disappoint his Dad.

This kind of thing, impersonating a non-existent romantic partner, is called Catfishing, apparently.  Comes from a documentary film: Catfish, which became a reality TV series.  I’ve never watched either.  It’s not a new thing: in the ’80s, a woman named Miranda developed phone relationships with Billy Joel, Warren Beatty and Robert DeNiro, among others.  She told ’em she was a model, independently wealthy–they believed her, and would talk to her on the phone for hours. They thought they had something going with her–Beatty said it really hurt when she stopped returning his calls. Miranda turned out to be a social worker from Baton Rouge.

But what’s particularly interesting to me is the Mormon angle.  Te’o is famously LDS.  Very prominently LDS.  So when the story broke, and people incredulously asked ‘could he have really been this naive, this gullible,’ my thought was, ‘of course he’s naive.  He’s LDS.’

On the TV show Frazier, they had a recurring bit when we met Frazier Crane’s new agent, this incredibly naive innocent; first time we meet him, he’s wearing a Boy Scout uniform.  It got a nice costume laugh.  He was also described as Mormon. But that public image–Mormons as impossibly guileless.  And it has some foundation.

Which is why Mormons are so susceptible to cons.  We’ve seen it in our family.  Thirty years ago, family members were caught up in a huge scam.  Their bishop introduced them to it as ‘an opportunity for righteous LDS people to pay some extra tithing.’  He wasn’t in on it; he was also a victim, as hornswoggled as they were.  The whole time the Te’o story was breaking, my daughter was job hunting–she got this wonderful job, good paying, easy work, working as a PA for a real estate agent named ‘Mike Jones.’  Seemed too good to be true.  Which, turns out, it was–she figured out it was a scam before she could get burned.  We live in Utah; flimflam capital of the USA.

We like to think of ourselves as goodhearted people, disinclined to think the worst of other people, inclined to kindness.  But the dark side of Mormon culture is this: we tend to believe in a narrative in which righteous people (us) are rewarded for their goodness.  When something seems too good to be true, we tend to think maybe we deserve it.  God’s rewarding us with an opportunity to maybe pay a little extra tithing. That particular notion–a chosen people, blessed with material prosperity as a direct result of righteousness–is deeply ingrained in our culture. But it’s as theologically questionable as it is impractical.  Sometimes a little cynicism isn’t such a bad idea.

In Te’o’s case there wasn’t any money involved.  Lennay Kekua didn’t ask for his banking information–she may have hinted at it once, apparently, but Te’o never gave her money.  No, what ‘she’ wanted was Manti Te’o’s trusting, loving heart.  And that places the cruelty of Tuiasosopo’s prank quite beyond comprehension.

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo is clearly a bright guy, a talented guy.  He’s apparently a good singer, and obviously he’s a pretty gifted actor.  He impersonated a dying young woman so convincingly that a good man fell in love with ‘her.’  I suspect he’s also a sociopath, indifferent to the suffering he causes.  He’s played Lennay Kekua for years–Manti Te’o is only his first famous victim. I wish there were some way for him to do prison time, but he probably didn’t do anything illegal.  I do hope that Brother Te’o is able to put this behind him. And next time he falls in love, let’s hope it’s for real.  With someone who exists.

Hillary Clinton and Benghazi

I don’t usually sit and watch the news all day, but I did yesterday.  They had this new reality show, and boy, was it fun.  It was called Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee: completely riveting.

Yes, the Benghazi hearings continued yesterday, and finally they had the Secretary of State in their sights. She’s SecState for just a few more days, until John Kerry is confirmed as her replacement.  She’s getting older, Hillary, and a bit more crotchety.  She just had surgery for a blood clot, and I wondered if she might seem a little under the weather. Maybe come across a bit feeble or something. Hah.

Those hearings are really sort of weird.  The Senators take turns by party affiliation to ask questions, which means she’d get these very tough questions from one guy, and then the next questioner would be a Democrat, and the question would be a creampuff, preceded by four minutes of fulsome praise.  Very strange: Rand Paul going “If I were President, I would have fired you!” followed by, next questioner, “I am honored today to breathe the same air that you’re breathing, to share space on this planet with you, the finest Secretary of State in our nation’s history.”

The main issue in Benghazi is embassy (or in this case, a mission) security, and Hillary Clinton kept tossing that back in the Senators’ faces.  Embassy security is provided by the Diplomatic Security Service, (supplementing security offered by the host country), and their funding keeps getting cut by Congress.  The DSS is also aided  by contingents of Marines, something called a Marine Embassy Guard, but the MEG budget is low enough that they can only be deployed to embassies with top secret documents to guard. Which Benghazi wasn’t important enough to have.

So Mrs. Clinton kept pointing out the many requests State has made for more funding for embassy security, while also pointing out the many many instances where embassy personnel have been threatened.  In Benghazi, we relied on pro-American Libyan militia guards, and their training proved completely inadequate when attacked by terrorists.  That’s the bottom line: Congress has never properly funded embassy security.  And Hillary kept hammering them for it.

I mean no disrespect, by the way, by calling her ‘Hillary.’  It’s old habit–you didn’t talk about her as ‘Clinton’ back when her husband was President, and so we tend to call her ‘Hillary’ still. She’s 65 now, and has recently had some health challenges.  If she decides to run for President again, she’ll be 69, though she would certainly be the front-runner.  So that was part of the subtext to her testimony–it’s likely her last official-capacity-public-appearance for awhile, but also maybe not the last we hear of her.  Some of the Senators had that in mind too: “we certainly hope you decide not to retire from public life, Madame Secretary.”

Anyway, she kept after ’em–‘why, Senator, did you vote against increasing embassy security, if that’s such a concern for you.’  In a way, it reminded me of the current debate over gun control.  Conservatives like to say that we don’t need more laws restricting gun access, but that first, we should enforce the many gun laws already on the books.  That’s a fair point–current laws are inadequately enforced, and maybe we could make a difference by beefing up enforcement.  Except that the federal entity responsible for gun enforcement is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and their budget is completely inadequate–they haven’t been able to hire new agents for thirty years.  Don’t even have a permanent director; can’t get one confirmed by Congress.

So we’re just starting to see it; the consequences of Beltway austerity.  The ruling paradigm now is all about deficit reduction–the debt is going to destroy our economy if spending is allowed to continue unchecked.  I think that’s the usual language.  But it isn’t true.  The economy is in a liquidity trap–high unemployment has led to a reduction in overall demand, which means businesses are reluctant to expand, which leads to higher unemployment.  The answer is more spending, not less–pulling money out of the economy is exactly the wrong thing to do. But beyond that, essential functions of government are going badly underfunded.  Embassy security is one such essential function.

So Hillary Clinton changed the narrative.  The Republicans on the Intelligence committee were primed for her testimony.  On the right, Benghazi is a rallying cry like no other.  I’ve called it the main infection vector for the Obama-hating bacillus.  The President’s role in Benghazi, man, that involved high crimes and misdemeanors–  impeachable offenses.  It was a Very Big Deal.  Except that darn pro-Obama lamestream media has refused to cover it.

I haven’t actually kept au courant with the latest Benghazi hysteria.  I do know that a major talking point has to do with Susan Rice, and her comments on various Sunday morning talk shows the weekend after the Benghazi attacks.  In those interviews, Rice repeated the talking points given her by the ‘intelligence community,’ and said things that weren’t, as it happens, true–that the Benghazi attacks had something to do with the riots over that ridiculous Innocence of Muslims anti-Islamic video. Most of our embassies in North Africa and the Middle East did have to respond to riots caused by the video–Benghazi did not, but in the midst of a horrendously chaotic day, initial reports conflated what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia with what happened in Libya.

For some reason, though, Susan Rice’s talk show appearances are just infuriating to conservatives.  Clearly, she was part of some kind of cover-up.  The outrage on the right–especially as expressed by John McCain and Lindsay Graham–was sufficient to deny Rice the chance to become Secretary of State.  So Hillary’s testimony was widely anticipated.  Even her medical emergency, requiring surgery to remove a blood clot, was viewed skeptically–she was suffering from ‘Benghazi flu’, suggested Allen West.

Good law of politics: when attacked, change the narrative.  And Hillary’s a master politician.  She went after Republicans again and again.  And in the exchange that made the evening news, she took on Republican Senator Ron Johnson.  Check it out.

Ouch. As she said: “What difference did it make?”  Johnson goes on and on about how ‘one simple phone call could have ascertained that it wasn’t a protest,’ and her response is ‘so what?’  And deciding who won that exchange probably depends on your political leanings.  To me, though, Johnson’s faux outrage over how the American people got incorrect information for a few days is, well, unimpressive.

One thing we learned, obviously, is that Rand Paul thinks of himself as a plausible Presidential candidate.  Another is that John McCain is no more interested in giving up the Benghazi battle than Ahab was in quitting the search for that whale.  What I think, though, is Hillary won.  I think Benghazi is basically done as an issue.

Nor should it ever have been much of an issue.  Benghazi was a tragedy.  Security at that compound was clearly inadequate, and known to be inadequate.  Terrorists with Al Queda connections attacked, and killed four American patriots.  It was a confused and chaotic environment, and it took awhile to sort out what actually happened.  The incident has been investigated, a report has been issued.  Embassy security should be beefed up.  And that’s basically it.  It’s over.  It was never a particularly important issue, and it’s time to move on.  The Senators aren’t likely to want to tangle with Hillary Clinton again over it, and I think that means it’s going away.


Hollywood and violence

I love the Deseret News, especially the editorial pages, which is this wonderful, free window into Mormon Utah.  And lately, the DN has been on this amazing Hollywood-bashing kick.  See, the gun violence problem in this country hasn’t anything to do with how many people own guns or how easy it is get hold of one.  It’s Hollywood.  It’s violent video games and above all, it’s all those violent movies.  Hollywood consists entirely of limousine liberals who love to support gun control, but who purvey violence through all those excessively violent movies. And so on.

I live in Provo, quite probably the most conservative town in America, and certainly the most Mormon.  There’s a big movie complex three minutes from my home.  They have twelve screens.  My wife and I see movies there all the time, and we’ve never yet seen the place empty.  I saw Taken 2 at that theater, one of the most violent films made this last year, and easily the dumbest.  Went to an 11 AM weekday matinee.  Place was packed.  To say that ‘Mormons reject violent Hollywood films’ would not, uh, describe what I see happening.

But the larger point is this: Hollywood doesn’t make violent films. That is, Hollywood (whatever one means by that problematic term) doesn’t load films up with violent images because they’re intent on corrupting America or something. For that matter, people don’t go see violent movies–I mean, nobody says to their friends “let’s go see that!  I heard it was really violent!”  They say “I heard good things about the story.” Hollywood makes action movies.  Movies tell stories, and sometimes (often), the stories told in movies involve violent, action filled conflict. Conflict is the basis of all drama, and movies happen to be a medium where stunts and special effects and camera tricks can make really preposterous action sequences look realistic.

And the stories mainstream Hollywood movies tell are generally pretty formulaic and predictable.  It’s mostly built on the conventions of 19th century melodrama: good guys facing off against really colorful but indisputably evil bad guys.  Anymore, a whole lot of action films aren’t even about human beings.  The ‘bad guys’ nowadays are likely to be space aliens, or zombies, or mythical monsters, or ginormous robots capable of transforming into cars (or vice-versa).  Among the most violent films I have ever seen are the Lord of the Rings movies, which are also wonderful films; the bad guys being killed in those films were mostly orcs.  And the good guys aren’t often all that recognizable either, what with the tights and capes and fancy masks.  It’s hard for me to see how a disturbed kid who watches a movie in which The Hulk and Iron Man fight against Loki is thereafter primed to pick up his Mom’s Bushmaster and shoot up a kindergarten.

Movies do not purvey violence, they purvey heroism.  In fact, they purvey completely unrealistic notions of what constitutes heroism. I do think movies and violent video games contribute to the current debate over gun control.  We see it in gun advocates insisting that an armed teacher could have stopped the shooter at Newtown, or that an armed citizen could have protected Gabby Giffords.  It’s the whole fantasy that says ‘if I had a gun, I could have stopped the bad guy.’  And it isn’t true.

Check out this ABC news special.  The reality is, very few people have the training to deal effectively with an armed emergency.  Movies make it look easy; Liam Neeson taking out fifty bad guys to get his kidnapped daughter back.

Horrible incidents like Newtown are news because they’re so exceedingly rare. To spend a lot of time buying a gun and learning how to shoot effectively in case you’re threatened by an armed predator makes as much sense as spending time and money attaching some kind of lightning rod to your clothing.  But it’s a potent fantasy.  I spent huge amounts of time when I was as kid sitting in church imagining what I would do if our ward were attacked by terrorists.  It passed the time.  Then I turned fourteen.

So what about the children?  Are children affected by violent movies? Well, sure.  Watch kids as they leave the theater after seeing The Avengers or something.  They’re all psyched.  Jumping up and down, karate chopping the air. They’re excited. It lasts maybe fifteen minutes.  My wife and I knew this; knew if we took our kids to an action flick, they were gonna be a little hyper for a few minutes afterwards.  That’s about it.

I have a cousin, a doctor, who worked for awhile in an inner city ER.  He said that most fights lasted two seconds, and involved one punch.  Guys had all seen movies, and they think they can take out the other guy with a big haymaker to the chin.  So, one punch, and then both guys would come into the ER, one with a broken jaw and the other with a broken hand.  The hand usually took longer to heal.

Because Django Unchained just came out, and because it’s a Tarantino movie, and really violent, essentially all the Deseret News anti-movie-violence articles have at least mentioned it, entirely unflatteringly.  And that makes sense.  If you believe that seeing violent images promotes violent attitudes (“as a man thinketh, so is he”) and that graphically violent movies also desensitize people to violence, and also that bad language destroys spirituality, then yes, it makes sense that they would hate that movie, that they would consider it immoral.

But Quentin Tarantino is hardly a standard Hollywood director.  What Tarantino does is deconstruct standard Hollywood genres.  In Django, Tarantino highlights the violence inherent in slavery, by exploding the myth of the ‘noble cause’ of the romantic and romanticized South.  By embodying the archetypal Southerner with the vicious, sociopathic and incestuous character played by DiCaprio.  And he opposes that myth with an equally potent American myth, the Lone Cowboy, the western myth. It’s an excessively violent movie, to be sure, but hardly one that promotes violence.  I understand why the Deseret News hates the movie; personally, I found it brilliant.  And moral.

Personally, I think these attacks on Hollywood are a smoke screen.  Gun violence is a problem that the President seems intent on addressing, and he’s made a number of common sense proposals that might actually make some difference.  But those proposals do involve making some kinds of guns illegal.  For political purposes, it makes sense to point fingers elsewhere. And ‘Hollywood’ is an easy target, especially for cultural conservatives who don’t like pop culture anyway.

One Deseret News article called for a ‘violence tax.’ That is, movies would be charged a tax based on how many frames of ‘violent images’ were included in the film.  That’s about how sensible the debate has gotten.  I’m not a huge fan of stupid action movies, though I rather like clever ones.  I wish the American film industry was more known for intelligent and thoughtful movies than for big dumb movies with lots of car chases and ‘splosions.  In the meantime, we can and should work reduce the incidence of firearm violence.  The obvious, and easiest solution, is gun control.

Obama’s Second Inaugural

I was going to do this historical thing about Inaugural addresses.  Talk about Washington, who thought it might be kind of nice to include a speech after he took the oath–which meant all the subsequent Presidents pretty much had to give one too.  Mention that the ‘so help me God’ bit at the end isn’t in the Constitution and doesn’t have to be included–though things didn’t turn out so well for the first President to not say it, Andrew Johnson.  Maybe say something snarky about William Henry Harrison, who droned on so long in his Inaugural (while not wearing an overcoat on a freezing rainy day), that he caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia, which killed him.  Then finish with some comments on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the shortest Inaugural address ever, and by far the greatest.

But there he was, up there on TV, President Obama. A man I campaigned for and voted for and whose campaign I supported financially.  Twice. But also a President I can only regard warily, with ambivalence.  There are still detainees in Guantanamo, and still unmanned drones kill from the sky, and the climate continues to warm and the executive overreach of the Bush years remains policy. He’s been okay on the economy–not better than that, and he still buys into too much of the Beltway deficit hysteria. Too soft on Wall Street, too cozy with corporations.  Give him a B minus. So, my Obama Facebook relationship status remains as it’s been.  It’s complicated.

How many speeches have we seen from him? He’s good, he can handle soaring rhetoric, and though he doesn’t write all his own speeches–heck, neither did Lincoln, Seward wrote a lot of the Second Inaugural–Obama does a final polish that’s pretty eloquent.  Second Inaugurals are about principles more than programs–Presidents lay out their agendas in the State of the Union.

Then he said this:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall. It rocked me back in my chair, those words: those allusions to our history. Tying Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harvey Milk to Patrick Henry and Ben Franklin. Making ‘American’ mean ‘everyone.’  Seneca Falls–the founding of feminism, the declaration of equal rights.  Selma, and the height of the Civil Rights movement. The Stonewall inn in Greenwich Village, and the beginning of the historical moment when our gay brothers and sisters stood up to be counted.  And Dr. King, and his dream. That’s America.  That’s what America stands for, every bit as much as Lexington and Concord and the Constitutional Convention.

Obama’s speech began with history, even quoting Lincoln:

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.  We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.

But he didn’t just recite historical facts. It was a progressive re-telling of history, an attempt to claim American history to emphasize the best advances of liberalism.

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.  Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

It was the history of legislative progressivism: the Highway Act, anti-trust legislation, Social Security and Medicare.  And, without mentioning it, the Affordable Care Act, still his greatest accomplishment as President.

The whole speech was a challenge to conservatism.  It acknowledged the conservative critique of progressive government (“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-old debates over the role of government for all time”), while asserting his commitment to a different philosophy and approach (“but it does require that we act, in our time”). But what the speech asserted more than anything is this: progressivism and liberalism are not inconsistent with American values, or with the Constitution, or with our history or with fundamental American patriotism. (“That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American”).That needs to be said; it can’t be said often enough.  Liberals love America.  Liberals honor the Constitution. The facts of American history can support multiple narratives–we are all Americans together.  We just disagree a bit on some issues.

I support President Obama, because I mostly agree with him, on at least a majority of important issues.  But I also like him, also admire him.  He’s a man of intelligence and grace, an eloquent spokesman for American values.  As he proved today.

And then Kelly Clarkson got up and rocked “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” turned it into a pop/gospel number, and nailed it to the floor.  And her song, it turned out, was a lot like Obama’s speech. Older verities, given a contemporary sound.  Tradition and history, but with a beat and drums and brass.

Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of the United States. Michelle up there with him, Sasha and Melia.  A wonderful family, a good and patriotic man, an eloquent vision for a compelling future. It don’t know when I’ve ever been prouder to be an American.

Zero Dark Thirty: A review

“Effective intelligence — including the effort to find Osama bin Laden — is the result of sustained, collective efforts that spark moments of intuition among a pool of experts and processes, not individual hunches that compel monumental effort.”  Nada Bakos, former CIA analyst

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a tremendously unsettling film, a film I’m still trying to get my head around. It purports to tell the story of how US intelligence discovered where Osama bin Laden was hiding, and it concludes by depicting the subsequent military action that killed him.  It looks authoritative.  Everything about it appears painstakingly researched and recreated–we think, as we leave the theater, that this must have been what really happened. The extensive use of hand-held cameras, the scenes in meetings where the characters use insider lingo so we can’t quite follow what they’re talking about, the design and look of the film, all support a sense of documentary objectivity. We’re aware, of course, that we’re seeing a movie, and that parts of the story must have been compressed to fit a two hour narrative.  But the film presents itself as factually accurate; we’re not meant to question its version of events.

Bigelow, and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, have insisted that the film is based on their own, painstaking research, and that the US military did not cooperate in the making of the film.  The military does lend filmmakers equipment for some of their films, but insists on approving the script before-hand– Bigelow and Boal have said that they would not agree to those terms.

The film has been controversial because of its depiction of torture.  The film shows detainees being water boarded, for example, and shows one torture victim subsequently providing the CIA with intelligence that eventually led to further discoveries leading finally to bin Laden’s location.  Liberals argue that torture is not just morally reprehensible, it’s also ineffective–it’s almost an article of faith on the left that torture has never led to any actionable intel, or any information we wouldn’t have found out anyway. That’s what I’ve believed, and I have read extensively about the war on terror.  I would rather not confront the possibility that torture worked.

At the same time, if torture did actually work, if a detainee did provide intel that eventually led to bin Laden’s death, if Bigelow’s research led her to that uncomfortable conclusion, then she should absolutely have included it in her film.  (One way she does it is by depicting ‘Dan’ (Jason Clarke), the main CIA interrogator that we meet, as an otherwise bright, curious, decent, well-read guy, a real humanist, a good guy with a rotten job.)  This is the kind of film that is meant to make us uncomfortable, to raise questions, to make us doubt previously held certitudes. She should be applauded for refusing to back away from uncomfortable truths.

Bigelow’s approach to filmmaking is consistent with what I call New American Naturalism.  Filmmakers in this school– Kelly Reichardt, Laurie Collyer, Jeff Nichols, Lynn Shelton, Derek Cianfrance, the Duplass brothers–make films with ZDT‘s sense of objectivity, films that simply look at an ugly or uncomfortable reality without mediation or comment. That was the approach Bigelow took in her Oscar winning Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker.  These directors’ films don’t offer solutions or suggest a point of view towards the material their films explore.  They just depict.  I love these films; love them passionately, precisely because they’re disturbing, they’re uncomfortable to watch.  I think Nichols’ Shotgun Stories, and Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Collyer’s Sherrybaby and Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine are tremendously important and powerful films.  And I couldn’t help but note that Mark Duplass had a small role in Zero Dark Thirty.

But it is just a style.  These films are works of fiction, even when based on real-life events or history.  I think Kathryn Bigelow is a marvelous director.  But her film should not be immune to criticism.

And what makes the film so troubling to me is that while it appears authoritative, while it looks like it’s showing us What Really Happened, it’s actually pursuing a very conventional movie narrative.  It’s about The Lonely Outsider who makes enemies and struggles to be listened to because no one wants to hear The Truth. The film follows a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain), and her thirteen year effort to find bin Laden.  She’s single-minded in that pursuit.  She seems to have no personal life, and not many friends.  She’s highly confrontational with her superiors, and can be a bit obnoxious.  Chastain is completely brilliant in the role, (I’m rooting for her to win the Oscar for Best Actress), and the movie follows her as she chases down bin Laden, from data point to data point.  She learns of a courier, then she gets a phone number he might call, then she tracks calls to that number, then she tracks a cell phone he might use and so on.  It’s very compelling and of course beautifully filmed.

And I don’t buy it.  I’ve read too much about the war on terror, I’ve read too much about the way the CIA works.  I don’t find it plausible, except possibly as a movie tracing one thread of many that led to bin Laden. And that’s all before I read this article in Salon.

I do not believe that the CIA would recommend to the President of the United States that our military violate the sovereignty of a ally to murder a foreign national based on conclusions reached by one analyst she based on maybe ten points of data. That’s not how counter-intelligence works.  I think that Bigelow and Boal discovered a real-life analyst, code-named Maya, who did remarkable work.  I don’t question the decision to make a movie about her. (And of course, she’s not the only character–other CIA colleagues are shown).  A single compelling protagonist makes for good drama. I think that depicting the actual hunt for bin Laden would have made for a much longer and infinitely more boring movie than Zero Dark Thirty.

But Bigelow did not tell The Real Story of How We Caught bin Laden.  She has made a taut, exciting, exceptionally well filmed and acted suspense movie, following, for the most part, the conventions of that genre.  It just looks like a gritty naturalistic indie film.  It appears authoritative, but that’s a triumph of style over substance.

And that’s okay.  It’s still a disturbing movie, a thought-provoking movie. I don’t think it tells the Real Story.  More than ever, though, I want to know how much of it is based on solid research.

Did torture lead to intelligence that led, in time, to discovering bin Laden’s location?  What the film suggests is that torture may have disoriented a detainee enough that he was prepared to give up crucial intel when they started treating him nicely.  I would prefer not to believe that that’s true, but if it is true, I want to know that too.

Above all, I want to know about the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound.  That’s something we should be able to know quite a bit about, and I want to believe that Bigelow gets it right.

The Seal team raid is not, to Bigelow’s credit, treated triumphantly.  It’s very tense and superbly filmed–lots of night vision photography and subjective camera angles, but there’s no soaring music, no dramatic confrontation with bin Laden, even.  It’s presented as a precisely planned and executed military op. The Seals are depicted as exceptionally well-trained and highly disciplined men doing an unpleasant job superbly well.  It felt like I was watching the very best exterminators in the world taking on the world’s worst cockroach.

But it also depicts a very tense situation that could have blown up completely, and sort of barely didn’t. According to the movie:

The Pakistani military scrambled helicopters to the site, and our guys just barely got out in time, by a matter of seconds. Imagine the fallout of a helicopter battle between US and Pakistani forces.

Bin Laden’s compound was in a residential neighborhood and the raid woke everyone up, leading to a confrontation between two Americans, a Seal and a CIA operative, supported by a roof-top sniper, and maybe fifty unarmed civilians.  The CIA guy spoke enough Urdu to defuse the situation–imagine the fallout if we’d had to shoot a bunch of civilians.

Two of bin Laden’s men opened fire on American forces, and were killed.  In the firefight, an unarmed female non-combatant was also killed.  There were close to a dozen children in there too.  Imagine if collateral damage had been worse.

Plus, you know, they did get bin Laden, but it was dark in there, and it’s not inconceivable that they could have missed him.  Imagine the blowback if they had. So I want to know how much of that is true.  How close did this come to a complete fiasco?

And also, there’s this.  We violated the sovereignty of a foreign nation, an ally, in order to murder a foreign citizen.  We made no effort to arrest him, nor did we go through any formal extradition process.  We flew in, landed soldiers, and killed four people, and flew out again with bin Laden in a body bag. I don’t mourn the death of Osama bin Laden.  But I do think we need to acknowledge this reality:  We violated international law, and we did it without apology or regret, because we’re the United States of America and we get to do that.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t really celebrate any of that. Instead it ends with a question, and a final image.  It asks “where do we go now?”  And it closes on Jessica Chastain’s tear-streaked face. In tears, because bin Laden’s dead, and what happens next?  Who are we now, thirteen years into the War on Terror?  Where do we go?  How do we define ourselves as a people, in relation to the rest of the world?