Monthly Archives: July 2013

Sutton: A Review

Willie Sutton almost certainly never said, when asked why he robbed banks, “that’s where the money is.”  That line is mostly what he’s known for, of course.  It’s why he’s in Bartlett’s.  But he didn’t say it, because it wasn’t true.  Willie Sutton started off as a jewel thief, and liked robbing jewelry stores.  They were easier than banks, and if you had a good fence, they paid better.  No, Willie Sutton robbed banks because he hated banks.  Everyone did, back in the thirties.  Which is why a bank robber, like Willie ‘The Actor’ Sutton (and Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde and all the others) became a folk hero.

Sutton, a first novel by a sports reporter, J. R. Moehringer, is about a single day in 1969, the day Willie ‘The Actor’ was released from prison, pardoned by the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller.  Sutton agreed to spend his first day out of prison with a reporter and a photographer, a day-long exclusive, for which he was paid.  Moehringer uses that day as a framing device to tell the story of America’s most popular and successful bank robber.  The historic Willie Sutton was an exceptionally well-read and cultured man, and a fine writer–he wrote two memoirs, sold his story for good money to pay for retirement.  He spent a lot of time in jail, and he spent his time there reading and writing.  The two memoirs are really good, well-written, smart, funny. But they don’t agree.  Later in life, when he became a celebrity, a frequent guest on Johnny Carson, he told stories, wonderful, funny bank robbery stories; those stories also can’t be reconciled with his published memoirs.  The simplest biographical facts change.  So what really happened?  What is the truth of Willie Sutton’s life?  Moehringer tells us that his novel is his best guess.  Then he adds, “it’s also my wish.”  Mine too, now.

I got Sutton for Father’s Day, a gift from my daughter.  Put off reading it for awhile, and then picked it up and was hooked; learned it’s one of those two a.m. books, the kind of book where you think, ‘one more chapter and I’ll go to bed.’  The kind of book where you’re torn–you can’t wait to see what happens next, so you want to read fast, but you also love the prose so much you want to read slowly too, just to bask.

Voice.  My gosh, the voice. Everything works, not a misstep. Every word perfect.  Every sentence right.

1969, right?  Just after the moon landing. Here’s Willie Sutton (via Moehringer) on the moon landing.  A long quote here, but it’s uncuttable:

Everyone praises Armstrong and Aldrin, Sutton says.  But the real hero on that moon shot was the third guy, Michael Collins, the Irishman in the back seat.

Photographer gapes at Sutton.  Collins?  He didn’t even set foot on the moon.

Exactly.  Collins was in the space capsule all alone.  While his partners were down there collecting rocks, Collins was manning the wheel.  Twenty six times he circled the moon–solo.  Imagine? He was completely out of radio contact.  Couldn’t talk to his partners.  Couldn’t talk to NASA.  He was cut off from every living soul in the universe.  If he panicked, if he fucked up, if he pushed the wrong button, he’d strand Armstrong and Aldrin.  Or if they did something wrong, if their lunar car broke down, if they couldn’t restart the thing, if they couldn’t blast off and reconnect with Collins forty-five miles above the moon, he’d have to head back to earth all by himself.  Leave his partners to die.  Slowly running out of air.  While watching earth in the distance.  It was such a real possibility, Collins returning to earth by himself, that Nixon wrote up a speech to the nation.  Collins, now that’s one stone-cold wheelman.  That’s the guy you want sitting at the wheel of a gassed up Ford when you’re inside a bank.

That’s a throw-away, a bit of conversation Moehringer imagines between Sutton and the photographer and reporter, early in the book.  But it’s so clean, such a smart, powerful piece of prose.  The whole book’s this good.

The research feels effortless, capturing New York in the teens, the Twenties, the Thirties, the Sixties.  Irish town and Coney Island and Brooklyn.  When Willie gets caught–he got caught three times, escaped from three maximum security prisons–the cops crow: “we caught the Babe Ruth of bank robbers.”  Willie growls, “I’m a Dodger fan. I’m the Jackie Robinson of bank robbers.”

And relevant.  I got it in paperback, and in the back of the book is an interview with the author.  He talks about starting it in 2008, in the middle of the world-wide financial crisis.  When banks, once again, screwed America.  What caused the Great Depression.  Yes, the Wall Street crash in 1929.  Also, bank failures, especially the failure of the Bank of the United States, where 200 million dollars in deposits were lost, and depositors committed suicide and the bank’s management sold stock to depositors under a one year guarantee against loss they then didn’t honor.  That’s also in the book.

Also, in 1935, Parker Brothers sold the first sets of Monopoly, the board game about American capitalism.  And Parker Brothers, to reflect current reality, recently got rid of jail.  Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars?  Remember, get out of jail free cards?  That’s gone now, no longer part of the game Parker Brother sells.  Makes sense.  Monopoly is now a game where people go around collecting money from people, and never, ever, go to jail.  Because that’s where we are.

Okay, not all banks are evil and bank robbery is both illegal and immoral, and Willie Sutton, though he never used violence, was a career criminal, albeit a charming one.  I get why he was a folk hero, just like I understand Occupy Wall Street.  But his program for reform was criminal, while Occupy’s was merely ineffectual.  What we want is for banking to become boring again.  We want banks to go back to what they once were–institutions of unquestioned integrity, lenders with sense and discretion and if possible, some compassion.  Those banks do exist; we need more of them.  Above all, we need federal regulation, with real consequences for bankers that, oh, I don’t know, bundle crappy mortgages into crappy bonds and then speculate wildly and irresponsibly.  We need jails.  Willie Sutton spent most of his adult life in prison,and should have.  I’d just feel better if the management of Goldman Sachs was in the next cell.

Willie Sutton didn’t rob banks because that’s where the money was.  He robbed banks because he hated banks.  Meanwhile, J.D. Moehringer has written a phenomenal novel about a brilliant bank robber.  Let’s admire it, but perhaps without lionizing a crook. But let’s also put jail back in Monopoly.  Can’t we do all those things at once?

The first thing let’s do. . . .

The second season of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has started airing on HBO, and we’re hooked.  Yes, I know Sorkin’s faults.  I know that the characters are all so obsessed with their (horrible and awkward) romantic lives to the point that it looks like the main reason they even do their super important jobs is to distract them from how lonely and miserable they are dating. And I know he’s self-righteous, like, annoyingly sure of himself at a level rivaled only by Bill Maher.  Yes, yes, yes.  Shut up.  I still like the show.  Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is the title of the first episode of the second season.  “The first thing let’s do is kill all the lawyers.”  It’s an episode about, surprise!, lawyers.  And that quote is by Shakespeare, so we get to feel all literate about using it.

But context is all, and this famous line doesn’t mean what you think it means.  It’s from Henry VI Part 2, Act IV, and it’s spoken by a character named Dick the Butcher.  It comes in the middle of a revolution, led by a thug named Jack Cade. Dick is a particularly sycophantic member of his entourage. Here’s the scene:

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped
pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony
to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in
common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,–

God save your majesty!

I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.


Nay, that I mean to do.  Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment?  That parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man?

Cade’s gang then brings in a lawyer, the Clerk of Chatham, who confesses to being literate.  “Oh, monstrous!” says Cade.  Then, when the good Clerk admits that he can, in fact, read and write, Cade orders him hung. Which the gang promptly does.

Cade is a buffoon and a bully in the play. His revolution is deadly and its consequences are horrific, but he himself is not a character to take seriously.  He’s a fool, a preening, bragging idiot.  The line ‘let’s kill all the lawyers’ is how two stupid men, Dick and Jack Cade, think they’ll establish some kind of anarchic paradise, where everyone will eat cheap bread and drink strong beer. And everything will work out fine.  The way to accomplish this utopia: kill anyone who can read or write.

So yes, Shakespeare wrote the line ‘let’s kill all the lawyers.’  And it makes for a good coffee mug slogan, with Shakespeare’s name as author serving as punch line. Makes a nice gift for that lawyer in your life. And he’ll laugh and put it on his desk.  But Shakespeare was a playwright, and he put this famous line in the mouth of a contemptible creep.  The line itself is key to understanding a thuggish and violent uprising, a war that’s anything but civil.

Shakespeare wrote for a theater located across the Thames from the main law courts and offices of his day.  The Globe was in Southwark, south of the river.  Just north, and a bit west, were the Inner Temple and Middle Temple, Inns of Court, which served the same role in Elizabethan/Jacobean society as Bar Associations serve in our day and our country.  Law students studied there.  Lawyers practiced there. For anyone unwilling to brave the congestion of London Bridge (just a little further east down the river), the easiest way to get to the Theatre District of Shakespeare’s day was to take a boat across–and that’s how hundreds of ferrymen made their living.  All of which suggests that lawyers and law students made up a sizeable part of Shakespeare’s audience.

Shakespeare seems rather to have liked lawyers. The Merchant of Venice concludes with a court scene, in which the clever Portia outwits Shylock and saves Antonio’s life.  That trial scene may leave contemporary directors flummoxed, trying to find a non-anti-Semitic way to cope with Shylock’s forced baptism (along with many many troubling issues in that brilliant but problematic play), but in Shakespeare’s day, it’s not hard to imagine lawyers digging the scene.  A much better play, Measure for Measure, is a lawyer’s delight.  The main plot involves the application of unjust laws by Angelo, and efforts, then, by all the characters, to undo or avoid them. Perhaps his first play, Comedy of Errors likewise turns on legal questions. Hamlet uses legal language throughout much of Hamlet, leading to speculation that he wasn’t so much in college as in law school.  That’s not to say that Shakespeare only wrote heroic lawyer characters–in fact, he was fond of making fun of lawyers, with his fools–Touchstone, Falstaff, The Fool in Lear–telling lawyer jokes. Shakespeare knew lawyers, understood lawyers, and understood as well that nobody knows more lawyer gags than lawyers.  (From those few written documents we have of Shakespeare’s life, he was also a somewhat litigious cuss, for whatever that may be worth.)

I understand people who get frustrated with lawyers. I do get that.  The ‘first thing let’s do’ line gets attached to legally oriented news stories all the time, especially tort judgments that strike people as unfair. I saw it the other day, in a story about a court case involving a guy in Maine who was given a week in jail because he pooped his pants in a federal courtroom restroom.  (The link above is to a different story about the same case than the one I saw earlier, the one with the Jack Cade quote, which, this morning, I couldn’t find).  No kidding, poor guy, having a seriously unfortunate reaction to heart meds, ended up making such a mess in a federal courtroom restroom that judges ruled that he had to have done it intentionally. And he got jail time.  For a really horrible bowel movement.

We read that judgment, and we shake our heads in disbelief.  And the same goes for other major news stories.  I know lots of people, for example, who still regard the McDonald’s coffee case as the worst miscarriage of justice ever.  You remember the case–the little old lady who spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself and sued the company for a million dollars.  Liebeck v. McDonald’s, it’s called, and everyone knows it.

Thing is, that jury verdict was completely and entirely justified.  I promise you, if you were on the jury for that case, you would have ruled exactly the same way they did.  Study it.  The jury, in that case, went in convinced that they were being asked to decide a case that frivolous. They were ticked off about it. And in court, the jury generally thought the McDonald’s lawyer was much much better than the lawyer for the plaintiffs.  They liked him more, and thought he presented his case better.  They still ruled for the plaintiff.  On the merits of the case.

Not long ago I was talking to a lawyer friend, and I said something idealistic about the practice of law, and the nobility of it, and the proud tradition of. . . . and I couldn’t finish my sentence.  She was laughing too hard.  And yet rule of law is important, really really important.  And I know there’s a different law for rich people than for poor people, and I agree there are serious problems in our courts and too many criminal defendants get inadequate representation and yes, there are inequities and unfairnesses.

But if you want to destroy a nation, if you want to reduce a great country to utter ruin, if you want to wreck a country so thoroughly it may be impossible to ever fix things again, if you want violent, ferocious, unremitting anarchy, despair and anguish and human misery to increase, if you want to reduce the world to a jungle, then the first thing let’s do is kill all the lawyers.  Shakespeare said so, and he got it right.



The Trouble With Tom: A review

Paul Collins is one of my favorite historians.  He has such a great eye for detail, such a great knack for conveying the specific details of life in the past.  And the subjects which command his attention are outside the usual historical narratives.  A few weeks ago, I reviewed another of his books: Duel with the Devil, about a murder trial, in which both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr represented the defendant.  I liked it so much, I went to Amazon and bought two more of Collins’ books.  Anyway, if you want a great introduction to his work, let me recommend The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine.

I can’t remember her name, but I remember reading an American historian who compared the Founding Fathers to superheroes.  Obviously, George Washington was Superman, and Thomas Jefferson was Batman.  Well, Tom Paine was Aquaman–really good at one thing, but only worth having around if you found yourself in deep water.

Paine, as Collins describes him, was basically a walking revolution.  He played an active, perhaps even decisive role in two revolutions, in America and France, and was deported before he could start a third one in England.  His pamphlets were short, readable, clear and incendiary.  Common Sense, published in January 1776, may have sold as many as a million and a half copies in an America which suddenly came to the shocked realization that it was time to throw off British rule.  His Rights of Man had as powerful an affect on the French Revolution, which Paine narrowly survived, escaping the guillotine a few days after Robespierre’s beheading.  Napoleon loved that pamphlet, but Paine turned on him as well, calling him ‘the completest charlatan in the world.’  Paine burned his American bridges as well, with an open letter to George Washington in which he suggested that the most important question about Washington was whether he was a man who had abandoned all principles, or a man who never had any.  Meanwhile, Paine had offended all Christian clergy, by writing the three-part Age of Reason, arguing for Deism and against Christianity.  He might have found a home in England, but he’d burned those bridges too, with a pamphlet called Observations on the Construction and Operation of Navies with a Plan for an Invasion of England and the Final Overthrow of the English Government; the title, I think, speaks for itself.

Paine finally returned to America to die.  By the end, he was drinking heavily, and broke.  He had a small farm in New York state, and that was finally when he was buried.  For awhile.  Because Thomas Paine didn’t stay buried.  And that, not his life, but the final disposition of his remains, is the subject of Collins’ book.

Yeah, it’s a book about Tom Paine’s bones.  But really, it’s also a history of the entire Progressive movement. It’s a history of phrenology, and transcendent thought, of Emerson and Thoreau, of early feminism and political radicalism and publishing, of sex education and Darwinism and mid-19th century Christianity.  It is, to a very large degree, a history of Moncure Conway.

I bet you’ve never heard of Moncure Conway.  Most people haven’t. I hadn’t, not at all, not a bit, until I read this book.  And in a sense, Moncure Conway (probably the best of Tom Paine’s biographers, the most complete and thorough and disinterested), shouldn’t be well known.  He was a man who stayed in the background, a man who was friends with remarkable men, but not personally remarkable.

In fact, Moncure Conway was a sort of real-life Forrest Gump/Zelig.  He was close friends with Emerson and Thoreau.  He was Thackeray’s drinking buddy.  He was Mark Twain’s agent.  He essentially discovered Walt Whitman, and spent many hours chatting with him.  He was the first Christian minister in America to read Darwin’s Origin of Species–he got an advance copy–and surely the first to cite it approvingly in a sermon, and he was a frequent and welcome guest in Darwin’s home.  And through most of it, he was conservator of Tom Paine’s bones.

But not the only one.  The extraordinary radical publisher Thomas Carlile makes an appearance.  So does Thomas Wakley, founder of the Lancet, the first medical journal in history.  So the pseudo-science of phrenology and the pseudo-religion of spiritualism.  Books were published describing seances in which the authors describe having communicated with the shade of Tom Paine.  And the bones became increasingly scattered.

I don’t want to give it away.  Let me just say that Paul Collins has written a great book, cheeky and funny and smart and thoughtful, part detective work, part travelogue, part history of progressivism and progressive publishing, and part history of one of our most neglected Founders.  I recommend it highly.


The Reluctant Blogger: A Review

The Reluctant Blogger, by Ryan Rapier, is a new novel, soon to be published by Cedar Fort.  It’s ostensibly an ‘LDS novel,’ in that the characters are all LDS, the situations ones that LDS people are likely to recognize and find familiar.  But I think that non-LDS readers may well find it interesting as well, especially readers raised in a conservative religious tradition.  When I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen for the first time, I felt a thrill of recognition throughout, even though I’m not one of the Hasidim, and don’t live in an Orthodox Jewish community in New York.  I was a Mormon boy living in Indiana.  But the love and sense of inclusion in a faith-driven community was very familiar to me, as was the pull and tug of orthodoxy, the security that comes from elders in a faith that purports to have The Answers.  And I also recognized the limitations of that faith, the attraction of secular humanism, the search for other, perhaps more nourishing answers.  Both those great themes–inclusion and also separation, certainty and also the power of doubt, belonging and also not quite belonging– spoke to me; they are likewise the themes of Rapier’s novel.

I just compared Ryan Rapier to Chaim Potok.  Overpraise and hyperbole, to be sure.  But for a first novel, Rapier’s achievement is substantial.  All the characters are compellingly written, and although the story has romcom overtones, we do want the two main characters to end up together, and want to fling the book at a passing seagull when it looks like they won’t.

The premise is this: Todd Landry, a struggling LDS guy, has been tasked by his therapist with writing a blog, an honest one, intended for the therapist’s eyes only.  Nothing else has worked–he hasn’t engaged with his therapy in any meaningful way otherwise.  The therapist gives him an ultimatum–blog, or end our therapy sessions together.  And although Todd resents the very idea of therapy, he also knows he needs it.

Todd needs therapy, because his wife has died, and he’s utterly bereft at her passing. He has three small children, and they haven’t coped well either.  He doesn’t know how to help them, and he feels like a failure in every meaningful sense.  And he’s angry at God, and feels guilty for that anger too.  He’s lost and alone and in terrible pain, and yet feels pressure to ‘be strong,’ to ignore that pain and get on with things.  That’s who we are, after all, we Mormons.  We go on.  We cope.  And Todd tries to.  And it just flat doesn’t work.

His parents try to help.  But in some ways, they get in the way.  Especially Todd’s father, every inch the Mormon patriarch–certain of his place in the cosmos, certain in his faith, and a formidable act to live up to. Todd also has a best friend, Kevin, who has never married–Kevin later comes out to him as gay, which Todd handles abysmally.

At a Single Adult dance, Todd meets Emily, and gets her number.  From that point on, the novel essentially follows four subplots.

First and foremost is Todd’s relationship with Emily.  They go through numerous vicissitudes together, which Todd mostly mishandles, but we like her, like him, root for them to make it as a couple.  Romcom–but it all works.

Second is Todd and Kevin, how much Todd needs Kevin in his life, and how badly he hurts Kevin, a whole cycle of pain and repentance and redemption.  It’s lovely writing, and completely convincing, though a tough read at times.

Third is Todd’s relationship with his father, especially when his mother dies, and Dad goes back onto the dating circuit.  Fascinating character study, seeing a man built on absolutes and certainties start to crack.

And finally, we follow Todd’s friendship with Jason.  They golf together, they hang out.  But Jason is an insensitive jerk, selfish and rude, at times.  Over time, we learn more of Jason, and his story becomes increasingly heart-breaking.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends.  But it’s a story of loss and pain and mistakes and foolishness, and hard-earned self-knowledge, and baby steps towards redemption.  It’s a story of people who aren’t aware of their own pride, until life finds them out and humbles them.

It’s just a lovely and real book.  I think it comes out in mid-August.  But look for it, buy it, read it.  You won’t regret it.



Detroit, Michigan, one of the great American cities.  One of the few American cities with major teams in all four major team sports: the Tigers, Lions, Pistons, Red Wings.  Celebrated by KISS as ‘rock city.’  By Eminem: 8 Mile. Rodriquez: Inner City Blues.  In fact, the musical legacy of Detroit is so rich, I’m listening to this Motown compilation as I write.  Home of the auto industry, of Elmore Leonard’s best novels, of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Contemporary Art.  And now, the first major American city to declare bankruptcy.

The Mayor of Detroit is Dave Bing, was elected in 2009.  If this declaration of bankruptcy can be considered a failure, it would be the first thing Bing has ever failed at in his life.  He’s in the basketball Hall of Fame; mostly playing for the Pistons.  The Dave Bing/Jimmy Walker backcourt is one of the greatest of all time.  Upon retiring, Bing started something called Bing Steel, initially with just four employees.  It became a multi-million dollar steel company, and eventually became The Bing Group; one of Detroits most successful businesses.  Learning of his old friend, Jimmy Walker’s out-of-wedlock children, who were struggling, Bing essentially adopted them.  He’s a civic leader, a tremendously successful businessman, and a civil rights pioneer.

Detroit does have serious problems.  It’s lost a quarter of a million residents since 2000.  It has an annual budget deficit of around 380 million, and may be 19 billion in debt altogether.  Obviously, the story of Detroit is also the story of the loss of manufacturing jobs in a cratering economy, and the story of a city that relied too heavily on a single industry, autos.

Detroit’s problems, therefore, are complicated, and symptomatic of our country’s larger economic woes.  A completely corrupt Mayor didn’t help: Kwame Kilpatrick, indicted on 24 federal felony accounts, including racketeering and fraud. (Dave Bing ran for Mayor specifically because of his disgust with Kilpatrick).  And when you read news accounts of it, one theme comes up repeatedly: that Detroit has a huge shortfall in pensions for retired municipal workers. This story is pretty typical: notice how many times, in one story, some variant of the phrase ‘unfunded pension obligations’ shows up.  That’s the problem, obviously.  Municipal workers’ unions negotiated these sweetheart pensions for their employees, and the city is sinking under the weight of those obligations.

Except maybe not.   Try this story instead.  It does point out that municipal workers (cops, firefighters, teachers) receive an average pension of 19,000 annually. That hardly seems excessive.  Meanwhile, it points out that Detroit spent 55 million for a football stadium in 1975, then spent 300 million on another stadium to replace it, selling the old stadium for half a million.  Or that Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings play, was taxpayer funded.  Or that the Red Wings lease on Joe Louis requires that the team give the city 25% of cable revenues.  Of which, so far, Detroit has not received a single thin dime.

The Salon article above points out that Michigan gives huge tax breaks to corporations, and that corporate welfare is a far bigger line item in Detroit’s indebtedness than pensions ever could be.  But what Salon does not point out is the incredible double bind Detroit finds itself in.

Detroit is broke.  City services are terrible, and getting worse.  9-1-1 calls take an hour to be answered–police services, EMTs, firefighters have all had their budgets slashed.  And Detroit has closed half its schools.  High school class sizes are now around 60.  Detroit needs local businesses to thrive, and it needs out of state businesses to move in.  But it’s not an attractive place for businesses.  Why would you move your company to a place where the cops don’t answer emergency calls and where the schools are crumbling and desperately over-crowded?  So the governor negotiates huge tax abatements for companies want to move in.  Which means that even when new businesses do move in, it doesn’t help the city much.  Catch-22.

So Detroit has the best mayor it could possibly hope for, a universally respected local citizen, a successful businessman, and a long-time civic leader.  And the auto industry is coming back.  But that hasn’t helped Detroit much, and trade agreements (NAFTA, for example), have devastated the main Detroit industry.

It’s hard to see things getting much better.  One good thing that might come out of this bankruptcy might be just simple bill collecting–a lot of companies are in arrears in the paltry taxes they are required to pay.  The Red Wings need to pony up.  So do the Lions and Tigers (oh my!).  But most of all, I really do think Detroit needs and deserves a federal bailout.  If city services could be restored, and the downtown could revive, Detroit might be able to solve its own problems.  But that’s a very long shot indeed.  I spent this morning researching the Detroit bankruptcy, and getting more and more depressed.  I’m not sure this story is going to get a happy ending.  Maybe I’ll root for the Tigers to win the World Series this year.  Maybe that’ll help a little.


The Lone Ranger: A review

The Lone Ranger was the one certified flop of the summer. Pre-release buzz was overwhelmingly negative, and when reviews starting pouring in, they were brutal.  27% positive on Rotten Tomatoes (though audiences have been more positive).  Critics hated the film’s shifts in tone, hated its juxtaposition of serious and comedic moments, hated the complexity of the plot, hated the length, and hated, really really hated Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto.  Mostly that.

Well, pffftttbbb to all the critics.  I liked the movie, liked it a lot. I thought it was a terrific, funny and fun, but also morally serious summer movie.

Johnny Depp may be in something of a rut, creatively.  Yes, he likes to work with Tim Burton and he likes to work with Gore Verbinski.  And he’s acted alongside Helena Bonham Carter many many times.  And yes, he likes to play oddball characters, likes to bring his own strange brand of comedy to marginalized, damaged, often masked characters.  All true, and I don’t doubt that for many critics, Depp-fatigue is setting in.

But set all that aside, set aside the fact that Tonto is the kind of character Depp has taken to playing a lot over the last ten years, and just look at the characterization. Tonto, as Depp plays him is:

An outcast, a man without a tribe or a people, a man in exile, shamed, lonely and alone.  A man who, as a child, made a single, foolish, tragic mistake with terrible consequences. And a man who almost certainly suffers from untreated PTSD

A man desperate for revenge. A Comanche, trying to solve a crime committed by white Americans.  A man, therefore, who learns to embody white men’s stereotypes for his people, because that’s the only way he can infiltrate a foreign people, and root out the greatest enemy of his own people.  So he speaks in pidgin as part of his disguise, (though he’s more fluent in English than he lets on).  He wears a dead bird on his head, and wears face paint.  Essential to his disguise?  Possibly also a bit of shell shock?

A man who clings to half-remembered vestiges of his own culture’s spirituality, a man who desperately seeks spiritual comfort, but only occasionally can connect himself to it.

A man who nonetheless, notwithstanding all the above, retains a sense of comedy and the ridiculous, a warrior aware of the essential absurdity of war, a man barely capable of restraining his inner jokester.

That’s the characterization I saw in the theater.  I saw him nail all of it, all the contradictions, weaving it into a whole.  I saw the most inventive, interesting, quirky, brilliant actor of his generation give a performance for the ages. And the movie reflected that performance.

It’s certainly true that Johnny Depp is not Native American, and that he played one of the few genuinely iconic Native American roles. And his characterization included Indian stereotypes–the pidgin, the vision quests.  But I thought his multi-faceted, rich performance honored Native American culture, as did the movie.  I do understand that Depp took a job a Native American actor could have played.  Lou Diamond Phillips is a fine actor, and is one eighth Cherokee (also one eighth Hispanic, one eighth Chinese, one eighth Phillipino. . .).  But Disney wasn’t about to invest a quarter of a billion dollars to fund a Lone Ranger movie starring Armie Hammer and Lou Diamond Phillips. The movie got made because Depp agreed to play the role.  As a result, twenty Native American actors got work in smaller roles, (including the tremendous Saginaw Grant, giving a Comanche chief stature and dignity and presence).

And the movie also honored the Comanche narratively.  The basic plot involves evil railway magnate Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who starts a border war with the Comanche because he knows there’s silver on Comanche land.  That echoes our sad history twenty times over–quite specifically, it echoes 1874-76, when the US Cavalry precipitated a war over the Black Hills, sacred to the Cheyenne and Lakota, and given to them via treaty–until gold was found there.  And so, in The Lone Ranger, the Cavalry provoke a Comanche attack, and then mow down the Comanche warriors with repeating rifles and Gatling guns. It was a powerful bit of filmmaking, given full value by the director, given enough time and space to really resonate.  And, then, cut to The Lone Ranger and Tonto barely escaping with their lives, and their escape is treated a little comically.  Inappropriate?  Human comedy, human foolishness and greed and weakness juxtaposed against tragedy?  Is there a more profound human tragedy than the Civil War?  Has it ever been treated more beautifully, majestically, than in . . . The General?  A Buster Keaton farce?  Or how about Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful?  A comedy, set in the Holocaust?

And yes, those are two tremendous films, wonderfully transgressive and inventive and daring. Sacrilege, perhaps, to compare them to The Lone Ranger. This is a Disney movie, after all, a Gore Verbinski mainstream action adventure buddy comedy, a summer popcorn movie.  An attempt by a purely commercially oriented director to do for oat operas what he had previously done for pirates.  I just say that it’s an ambitious undertaking, and that its moments of seriousness ground it, and give it some real resonance and power. I think Verbinski takes some risks here, and for me, they panned out.  I think of most recent Westerns–Appaloosa, 3:10 to Yuma,  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, True Grit–and it seems to me that most of them sort of duck the issue of Native Americans.  But you can’t make a Lone Ranger movie and duck Tonto.

Depp’s performance is so memorable that it’s easy to forget Armie Hammer as TLR himself, but he’s great too.  Hammer’s sort of absurdly good looking and physically imposing, but he’s also a real actor–he creates an equally multifaceted character, and his growth is interesting.  He’s John Reid, a former Westerner sent East to study law, now returned to serve as district attorney.  He goes around citing John Locke at people and babbling on about ‘rule of law’, and even his brother, Dan, an actual Texas Ranger thinks he’s ridiculous, seeing as how the actual West is populated with psychopaths and murderers and cannibals and Tom Wilkinson.  To toughen him up, Dan takes him on a posse, which is then wiped out by the evil gang of outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, fabulous in the part).  And Tonto comes by and saved John Reid (or does he? could he be immortal?) and gives him the mask and the hat.  And Hammer grows in the part, the Masked Man role.  So it’s a buddy movie, and Hammer and Depp crack wise back and forth, and of course save the day.  The actors have a nice rhythm together, and the comedy leavens the action nicely.

And there’s a girl (obviously, there’s always a girl), Ruth Wilson, (from Anna Karenina) as Dan’s widow, who John (TLR) has always kinda had a crush on.  But then so does Tom Wilkinson, of course–all melodramatic villains have evil designs on the lovely heroine’s person.  That particular subplot feels de rigueur, no fault of Wilson’s, who clambers agilely around various trains.  And of course Helena Bonham Carter’s also in it, as a madame with an ivory leg gun thing. Her part feels perfunctory–felt like they just put her in because it’s a Johnny Depp movie and could anyway use another female character, plus, hey, leg gun!  But it’s still HBC–they don’t give her a lot to do, but you don’t forget her either.

What I’m saying is that this is a movie with serious bits and comic bits and the serious bits worked on their terms and the comic bits worked on their terms, and these amazing action sequences tie them all together.

And that’s something else that needs to be said about Gore Verbinski.  Okay, maybe he’s not a director whose movies make profound comments about the human condition. But check out his IMDB page.  One of the scariest films I know (The Ring).  One of the best animated films of the recent past (Rango).  Big budget Pirates of the Caribbean movies (and remember how shockingly good the first one of those was, how amazed we all were with this movie based on a theme park ride?).  The guy knows what he’s doing.

And the final action sequence in The Lone Ranger is just astounding.  Endlessly inventive, incredibly exciting, funny and dangerous and smart and exceptionally well filmed.  And the music for it is the William Tell Overture.  Am I overstating?  Consider this: throughout the entire twenty minute sequence, we always are oriented in time and space. We cut between three separate story situations, and always know where we are in each of them.  The camera pulls back, and he lets it roll (no Michael Bay-ish manufacturing of artificial excitement through tiresome rapid editing–instead he pulls back the camera and lets the stunt guys do their thing).  The CGI: seamlessly integrated.  It’s just a beautifully conceived, filmed and edited action sequence.  And the music adds a boldly ironic meta-cinematic commentary.

Look, we can quibble about details of the film.  For one thing, the Western geography is so preposterous that it has to be intentional–like the scenery is providing its own meta-commentary.  Apparently, the producers seem to think that Promontory Point is just outside Albuquerque, and that the route of the Union Pacific railroad passed through the Four Corners region.  (Also that buffalo proliferated in the New Mexico desert!).  The film is ostensibly about the building of the railroad, but it wants to be a Western, and Westerns are shot in red rock country.  Ah, what’s a few hundred miles among friends?

And yes, I’ll grant you that it’s basically just a summer popcorn movie.  But I’ve seen all the big budget summer popcorn movies out so far, and I thought The Lone Ranger was the most exciting, most entertaining and best filmed.  Set aside critical cavilling about how many parts like this Johnny Depp has played in his career.  It’s a good movie.  My wife and I had a great time, and honestly, I think you will too if you give it a chance.


A war we’re losing

The first US President to use the phrase ‘war on drugs’ was not, as we might expect, Ronald Reagan, but Richard Nixon.  However Nixon’s ‘war on drugs,’ at least initially, focused more on rehab than on law enforcement.  Those priorities are long past, as politicians have learned that there are votes to be gained by taking a tough stance on drugs, and by insisting that we’re going to lock up dealers and throw away the key.  But I wonder if the tide may be turning.  There seems to be a growing consensus that the war on drugs has failed, and that it never really did make sense to take what was essentially a public health problem and turn it into a law enforcement problem.  At least that’s an issue where a coalition of libertarian and liberal policy makers may be able to find common ground.  I hope so.

Any look at incarceration rates surely suggests the immensity of the problem we face.  The United States incarcerates 743 citizens per hundred thousand, the highest rate in the world.  Americans complain about human rights violations in China, but in fact, China only jails 120 per hundred thousand of its citizens.  The US has 5% of the world’s population, but a quarter of its prison inmates.  It’s costly–the US spends upwards of 60 billion dollars a year to house our prisoners, and to build new prisons to hold them.  There are way more women in prison than ever before.  In 1977, 11,000 women found themselves in prison–today, it’s over 111, 000. Blacks make up around 13% of the overall population, but 40% of the prison population.  And most of these prisoners aren’t violent.  About half of inmates in state prisons are there for non-violent drug offenses–in federal prison, it’s closer to 90%.

NOTE: in my initial draft, I made an error, a really silly one, suggesting that 7 out of every 10 Americans is in prison.  Obviously, that’s completely wrong.  It’s 743 per 100,000.  Leave off two little zeros, and sound like an idiot.  The link above has the correct figures.

I just watched a terrific, terribly depressing, hyperbolic but superb film, Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live in.  Check it out–I watched it on Netflix.  It’s one of those 90% plus positive films on Rotten Tomatoes.  I admit that it’s a bit extreme to compare America’s War on Drugs to the Holocaust.  (To be fair, he consistently also points out substantive differences between the two events).  But what he does is point to the many many ways we’ve built perverse economic incentives into the whole War on Drugs fiasco.

For one obvious example–voters like tough talk on drugs.  Any candidate saying ‘we should release non-violent drug offenders from all federal prisons, and arrange for rehab for any with drug problems’ (a solution that would save billions annually if we tried it), would get clobbered in the polls.  Just clobbered.  We know that, don’t we?  Even though it’s silly, isn’t there an atavistic part of us all that rather likes the idea of locking up bad guys?  And aren’t drug dealers bad guys?  (Never mind that most small dealers are addicts, selling to support their own habits, people with an illness and, usually, multiple problems).  So first and foremost, we need to change that, change attitudes.  An uphill fight, but one we need to begin with.

Politicians have no incentive to oppose, for example, getting rid of mandatory sentencing minimums.  So Jarecki interviews a guy who has been in prison for eleven years, and will be in prison for the rest of his life–his sentence is for life, with no parole.  His crime?  He sold four ounces of methamphetamine.  But add that offense to two youthful violations for marijuana possession, and add ‘three strikes and out’ sentencing requirements, and this non-violent offender will never get out of prison.  Why did he do drugs?  Well, for starters, his father was a drug addict.  He has a brother who died of an overdose.  He has a drug problem.  Keeping in prison for life, though, strikes me as absurd.

But there are other, even more perverse incentives to keep the war on drugs going.  For one thing, cops like it, and police departments like it.  Confiscating drug money can be a major revenue stream for cash-strapped police departments.  And in many areas, police are compensated according to their arrest records.  It’s very easy to cruise bad neighborhoods and find lots of low-level dealers.  With every bust, an enterprising officer can apply for overtime, and for arrest bonuses.  Some cops can double their salaries with drug arrest bonuses. And in a revolving door criminal justice system, where perps get, often enough, badly overworked public defenders under pressure to plea them out, such policing basics as probable cause can go right out the window.  Jarecki interviewed police officers who point out that a narcotics cop can make more money than a homicide detective, simply by processing tons of low level dealers.

Many state prisons are operated by private firms, in it for profits, their stock traded on Wall Street.  What incentive do private prisons have to do any rehabilitation at all?  Jarecki interviews inmates at an Oklahoma prison who have learned advanced cabinetry while in prison.  It’s difficult for anyone with a criminal record to get a job, but a skill, like carpentry or cabinetry or woodworking can really help.  Obviously, if a prisoner gets out with a marketable skill, he’s much more likely to stay out on release.  But state legislators with an eye to budget cuts generally make vocational training the first programs to go.  And recidivism increases.

In 1844, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith ran for President.  Prison reform was a huge plank in his platform.  He wrote:

Petition your State Legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries, blessing them as they go, and saying to them, in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more. Advise your legislators, when they make laws for larceny, burglary, or any felony, to make the penalty applicable to work upon roads, public works, or any place where the culprit can be taught more wisdom and more virtue, and become more enlightened. Rigor and seclusion will never do as much to reform the propensities of men as reason and friendship. Murder only can claim confinement or death. Let the penitentiaries be turned into seminaries of learning, where intelligence, like the angels of heaven, would banish such fragments of barbarism. Imprisonment for debt is a meaner practice than the savage tolerates, with all his ferocity.

Dude was soft on crime!  But there’s a wisdom there that I can’t help agreeing with.

We need to recognize that people who deal drugs in this country are making a rational economic decision.  Supply and demand: certain drugs are attractive to people–there’s high demand.  And our absurd drug laws artificially limit supply.  The result is a lucrative industry for entrepreneurship. If you’re from a poor neighborhood, with few jobs available and shuttered businesses and closed factories, why wouldn’t you participate in the underground economy?  If we want to end that economy, wouldn’t it make much more sense to legalize drugs, and tax them?  Then provide drug rehab free of charge to anyone who wants it.  Support that federally.  Would that cost money?  Yes, but a tiny fraction of what we already spend on incarceration.

What we’re doing right now doesn’t work.  We’re destroying lives, destroying families, destroying priceless human capital, and accomplishing nothing by it.  The War on Drugs was announced by Richard Nixon, championed by Ronald Reagan, strongly supported by Bill Clinton, expanded by George W. Bush.  The ‘most dangerous drug’ rhetoric, meanwhile keeps changing, from marijuana to heroin to cocaine to crystal meth.  Misuse of prescription drugs is a big one right now.  Why not just admit that we have a public health problem?  And stop throwing away the futures of non-violent offenders, left to rot their lives away in prison.


Vaccinations and Jenny McCarthy

No one is quite sure how many people were living on the American continents when Columbus landed on Hispaniola.  The general scholarly consensus is that the population was at least 50 million, but there’s considerable evidence for a larger population, possibly as many as 100 million.  But then came pandemic, the greatest in history.  When we talk about The Black Death, the plague that devastated Europe in the mid-fourteenth century and subsequently, most scholars come to the horrific conclusion that as many as a third of all the people in Europe may have died.  The Native American pandemic was almost certainly much worse, per capita.  Up to 90 percent of Native Americans may have died, of smallpox, mumps, measles, and a noxious stew of other diseases.

Let’s talk about smallpox.  It’s surely one of the greatest killers in history, with an 80% mortality rate for infected children, accounting for millions of deaths annually.  As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization estimates that smallpox claimed two million victims.  Today, however, due to widespread vaccination of children, smallpox has officially been eradicated.  One of the greatest killers in history, a disease that has caused untold misery and heartache and death, is no more.  That surely must count as one of the greatest public health triumphs in human history.

Mumps was once a deadly and virulent disease.  So was measles. Neither has yet been eliminated, but the widespread use of the MRR vaccine, which protects children from mumps, measles and rubella, has made them pretty rare.

When I was a kid, we had to go to the doctor and get a shot; our vaccinations.  I guess I was about five.  That would have been the MMR.   Later, I remember when I was in elementary school, all us kids were pulled out of class, and we all were herded into the lunchroom, and given vaccinations.   I remember we were given a sugar cube in a little paper cup by a kindly though harrowed-looking school nurse: polio vaccines. It was just normal.  It was what happened.

In 1998, the Lancet (one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world) published an article by a Dr. Andrew Wakefield suggesting a link between vaccinations and autism.  The paper has since been retracted, Dr. Wakefield’s research was shown to be fraudulent, and he has been stripped of his medical license.  The Institute of Medicine cited over a thousand peer-reviewed articles in the medical literature in a study that concluded that no link between vaccinations and autism exists.  The Journal of Pediatrics conducted a second study, and reached the same conclusion. There is no credible reason to conclude that vaccinations have any connection to autism.

Jenny McCarthy is a former MTV VJ, a former Playboy bunny, a model and actress and television personality.  I don’t mean to speak dismissively of her, but she does strike me as one of those people who become celebrities without ever having done much for which they might be celebrated.  Having said that, I’ve always liked her.  She had a comedy show on MTV which was pretty funny.  She had a sitcom, which failed, and she’s been in some movies, essentially all of them terrible:  BASEketball, Scream III, both of which I (regrettably) saw, and Dirty Love, which, whew, dodged a bullet there. She’s charming and funny and doesn’t take her beauty terribly seriously–that’s her package.  She also can’t act.  Basically, she’s able to play Jenny McCarthy.  And all that is why she’s sort of a natural for The View.  She’s scheduled to replace Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who played the role of ‘pretty blonde token conservative.’  I always sort of liked Hasselbeck too, on the exceedingly rare occasions when I watched The View.  I thought she had guts, taking on Rosie and Whoopi and the rest of them.  Jenny McCarthy will bring comic timing, personality and charisma.

And. . . less positive qualities.

McCarthy married film director John Asher in 1999.  She had a baby, Evan, in 2002.  In 2005, Evan was diagnosed with autism, though some doctors believe his symptoms are more consistent with Landau-Kleffner syndrome. In her book, Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism, a book I have not read, and in subsequent appearances on Oprah’s show (which I have seen, the show and Jenny McCarthy’s appearances on it), she claimed that Evan’s condition ended her marriage, as Asher couldn’t handle it.  I have no doubt whatever that the entire situation, her son’s condition and coping with it in the midst of dealing with a deeply troubled marriage was tremendously difficult and painful.  I have tremendous sympathy for her, and for her son. She’s been through a lot.  She’s worked tirelessly to find different treatments for her son.  She claims to have found one that worked for him.  Power to her.

However much sympathy we may have for her, though, she has used her status as a celebrity to discourage people from vaccinating their children.  She has spoken out repeatedly against vaccinations.  She believes that vaccines cause autism.  She proselytizes for that point of view. And she has been labeled a ‘threat to public health’ for taking that stance.

A few points seem worth making in this regard:

1) Jenny McCarthy is an American citizen, and has the right to voice her opinion on any subject she chooses to address.  ABC similarly has the right to put her on their most popular daytime program.

2) If you’re a parent of a young child, you enter an entirely new world, of fear and paranoia and desperation and love.  You feel incredibly vulnerable.  Every time your child does anything, you want to tell people, and you want to know what it means.  And if she gets sick, it feels like the end of the world.  You’re willing to listen to anyone, however crazy they might seem.  If a hobo in the street tells you you’re not swaddling properly, you’ll trade him a fifth of Jack Daniels for swaddling advice.  If your dotty Aunt Caroline says that it’s bad to own a cat, because cats can suck the life right out of your infant, just suck it right out of there, you may well decide to get rid of dear old Mr. Tibbles, even if you love him, know he would never hurt you, and even if you think Aunt Caroline is senile.  You listen to advice from everyone, including doctors, yes, but you also don’t trust doctors.  They might be wrong, you know.  And this is OUR BABY.

3) An attractive, authoritative, confident sounding Mom may be the one person you listen to the most, even if you don’t know her personally at all.  This may be especially true if she’s on TV, and especially on a program with someone like Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters.  And if she tells you, ‘the conventional wisdom is. . . . and here’s why it’s wrong. . . . ‘, well, that’s gold.  You don’t want conventional wisdom.  This is your kid we’re talking about.

4)  Really really smart people can have the most astounding blind spots, and can come to believe some of the most extraordinary nonsense.  Case in point: I think Steve Jobs was one of the most brilliant Americans ever.  But Jobs had this special ‘fruitarian’ diet he swore by.  Ashton Kutcher, preparing to play Jobs in a movie, tried the diet–it nearly destroyed his pancreas.  Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer.  This genius, but he also had this screwy diet he believed in, and it may even have killed him.

I think Oprah is brilliant.  I suspect that Jenny McCarthy’s IQ is way way up there.  I think she’s probably really bright.  But . . . blind spots.  There are even Supreme Court judges who believe that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, for heck’s sake.

5) There is no credible evidence suggesting a link between vaccination and autism. None.  The one doctor who said there was turned out to be a fraud.  I think it’s a little mean to create a website.  Sort of personalizes the issue in unfortunate ways. But if I was a public health official, I suspect that, uh. . . . Jenny McCarthy probably wouldn’t be my favorite celebrity.

6) I think Jenny McCarthy, by her presence on The View, is likely to persuade at least some parents to not vaccinate their children.  And I think children may well die as a result.  Which leads me to. . . .

7) Maybe possibly ABC should rethink this decision?

Fair? Unfair?  I will admit that I haven’t carefully researched the ‘vaccination/autism’ link at all carefully.  I don’t really think I need to.  This isn’t an issue with two sides.  This is an issue about which the entire medical establishment agrees completely.

So vaccinate your kids.  Seriously, vaccinate them. It’s really really important.  And if Jenny McCarthy says she’s got this great salsa recipe, hey, try it, maybe it’s great.  But she’s wrong about vaccines.


Mornington Crescent

And now for something completely lighthearted.

I know a lot of you have spent time in London, and are familiar with the London tube system.  And I assume that readers of this blog are cultured, thoughtful and educated people.  So I won’t bore you with a recitation of the rules of Mornington Crescent. A basic explanation is widely available.  If you’re in need of a refresher course, there are many websites you might consult.  This one, for starters.  Or, perhaps, this.

But I’ll make it easy for you:  standard-tube-mapThat’s basically all you need.

You may well disagree, but I do find it’s best if you play from memory.  I know that, officially, Americans are allowed to consult the map, provided their accents don’t suggest a Massachusetts or Vermont origin.  I just find myself too often at a disadvantage.  The Dearborn gambit, for example, essentially requires a quick Hounslow-Ealing-Gunnersbury maneuver, bound to fail if you mistake Hounslow East with Central, or leave off Ealing Common for North.  It’s worth the extra time to commit the blighter to memory.

Now, I certainly would not say that I am an advanced player, not by any means.  My current world ranking is third farchog, which isn’t half-bad for an American. But I’m a good sixty flaenau shy of argylwydd rank, more’s the pity.  I had hoped retirement would provide me with the leisure time needed to advance.  Sadly, my last two bouts have gone badly.  Last week, I fell for the Ruislip Manor gambit, an amateur move if I have to say so myself.  Then last night, I’d worked my way up from Maida Vale to Goodge Street, ready to engage in a bit of rook-forking with an opponent trapped in the Claphams, only to learn that I had inadvertently agreed to play by the 1894 Rowzleton Conventions, and I was fairly clupped in the gowers. And there you have it: femti poeen to the wide.

Mind the gap.

All right.  Mornington Crescent is one of the deepest London tube stations, accessible only via elevator, and one that’s nearly been closed on several occasions.  But it is also the name of an ancient and honorable game.  Ask one of your British friends how to play it, and they’ll put you off: ‘surely you are well familiar with it,’ or ‘the rules are easy to find. I shan’t insult you by telling you what you can more easily find on your own.’  Or they’ll say something like this:

There cannot be anyone in the civilised world who does not already know the basic rules of Mornington Crescent, so we shall not insult our readers by re-iterating them here. Suffice to say, if you have temporarily forgotten them, or if you come from, say, the uncivilised world, such as, for example, France, you will certainly pick them up as you go along. Beginners will discover that Mornington Crescent is a little like golf, a little like shove-ha’penny, quite a lot like watching your laundry in the tumble-drier, and most closely resembles feeling around in the dark for a pocketful of loose change dropped in an unlit, damp alleyway on a Saturday night after a few beers. That is to say: frustrating, hard on the right forefinger, disorienting, even more disorienting, sheer hell on the right forefinger, and frustrating… probably in that order.

The essence of the game is the strategic recitation of London Tube stops.  And whoever says ‘Mornington Crescent’ wins. But there are rules to it.  Random, confusing, ever-changing and eternally frustrating rules.  Such as:

Boxing out the F, J, O and W placings draws the partner into an elliptical progression north to south.

In a weak positional play, it is vital to consolidate an already strong outer square, i.e. Pentonville Road

The lateral shift decisively breaks opponents horizontal and vertical approaches.

Which sounds even more authoritative when said in a British accent.

One theory is that Mornington Crescent was invented for the British radio comedy show, I Haven’t got a Clue, around 1972.  One claim is that Geoffrey Perkins, a contestant on that show, invented it. Perkins denies it, however, and says it was derived from a game called Finchly Central, which dates from the 1960s.  But others say it is based on games invented by Roman soldiers, bored during their occupation of Britain.

I may as well come clean: in fact, of course, the whole thing’s a put-on.  There’s no such game.  Comedians on I Haven’t got a Clue invented this exceedingly complicated and esoteric sounding game.  They would soberly recite the names of tube stations, with invented learned commentary on the stratagems being employed.  Then someone would randomly say ‘Mornington Crescent,’ and the studio audience would go wild.  That’s where it started, and that’s how it continues today.  Ask about it, and you’ll be told wildly inventive stories of its history and tactics and classic matches from the past.  And it’s all completely made up.  Perhaps the most elaborate practical joke in history.

And its flourished since the arrival of the internet.  Google Mornington Crescent and find the various websites devoted to the game, which always include a link to an on-line version you can play. Usually, their software is down, or takes forever to upload.  Or has dire warnings about damage their game can cause to your computer if you don’t download it properly.  All part of the game.

It’s really great fun.  Sort of an intellectual version of Calvinball, where you make up the rules as you go along.  I’m very fond of it.  Just bear in mind; Mornington Crescent is best approached from the Belsize Park-Chalk Farm end of the Northern Line.  But if you find yourself at King’s Cross (just two stops away, you think optimistically), remember the Victoria Paradox kicks in, and you’re going to have to work your way all the way round again, to Charing Cross and the Bakerloo line round to (at least) Willesdon Junction. Always remember: there are no easy paths to Mornington Crescent.







My son has a friend who took the class required by the state to get a concealed weapon permit.  He says that the instructor started the class by saying this.  ‘I’m going to tell you something, and if you don’t like it, I recommend that you leave.  This is what getting a concealed carry permit means.  It means that you agree to lose every argument you have, with anyone, for the rest of your life.  If you’re in a bar, and people start arguing, and it gets heated, you will back down.  You will apologize and you will leave.  Every time, for the rest of your life.  Because otherwise, you may find yourself in a situation in which you have to draw your weapon.  At which point, anything might happen.  And if you are forced to fire, and you take the life of another human being, that moment will haunt you forever.  So if you want to stay in the class, remember what I said.  You just agreed to never, ever, win an argument.’

And a third of the class walked out.

I thought about this over the weekend, when the George Zimmerman verdict came down.  I didn’t watch the entire trial, but I did watch some of it, and I watched quite a bit of the legal commentary afterwards.  I found the verdict infuriating, sickening, horrific.  I also think it’s quite possible that the jury got it right.  The legal experts seem to have thought so–so did the folks posting on the Law sub-reddit thread.  The presumption of innocence is central to our legal system, and if the prosecution did not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, then Zimmerman should go free.  That doesn’t mean we have to like it.

What I wanted was for the jury to hear the entire narrative.  That’s our focus, as non-lawyers, as citizens watching the trial.  And that entire narrative is one in which Zimmerman’s actions were incomprehensibly wrong.  Let me break it down in a way that makes sense to me.

Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch guy, and he saw Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, walking down the street.  He called 9-1-1, and was told to back down, to not worry about it, to walk away.  Instead, he followed Martin in his car.  Got out of his car, confronted Martin, which led to an argument,which led to a fight, which led to a gun being fired and Martin’s death.

So step A–he ignored the instructions given him by the 9-1-1 dispatcher.  Zimmerman was wrong, completely wrong to do so.  He was morally wrong, tactically wrong, situationally wrong, ethically wrong.

Step B–he followed Trayvon.  He was wrong.

Step C–he got out of the car.  Wrong.

Step D–confronted Trayvon.  Wrong.

Do you see where I’m going with this?  Every single step of the way, George Zimmerman acted wrongly.  Step A: wrong, Step B: wrong, Step C: wrong.  It wasn’t until Step Z, in which he was losing the fight, getting his head pounded against the pavement (if that even happened), choosing to defend himself with his firearm, that he did something that might be considered even defensible.  He was wrong up to that point, completely, unequivocally wrong, for steps A-Y.  Step Z, there’s reasonable doubt about whether he was wrong or right.

But step Z is the only one the jurors were allowed to consider in the court of law.  Steps A-Y were legally irrelevant.

I’ve heard it said that the prosecutors botched the case, in part by overcharging it, and in part by presenting it badly.  I don’t see how that’s relevant.  According to Florida law, the only legal issue at stake in the trial had to do with what I’m calling Step Z.  The only way the prosecution could have won would have been to try for some bizarre sort of jury nullification.  They would have had to have persuaded the jury to ignore the judge’s instructions, and rule, not according to the law, which limited them to Step Z, but on the whole narrative, Steps A-Z.  I suppose it’s barely possible that might have worked.

In fact, I don’t think the A-Z narrative should start with Zimmerman’s response to the 9-1-1 instructions he received.  My question is: ‘why call 9-1-1 at all?’  As far as I can see, here’s what he saw, here’s what prompted his 9-1-1 call.  He saw a pedestrian walking down the sidewalk in his neighborhood.

That’s it.  That’s all.

And that’s where race enters the equation.

I don’t have any special insight into George Zimmerman’s soul.  But I can’t see what else could have prompted an emergency call.  Because what George Zimmerman saw was A Threat.  He saw, not just a kid, not just a pedestrian on a legitimate errand.  He saw The Other.  He saw something that made him think that a potentially threatening situation might develop.  And there was nothing for him to see except what was there–a Black kid, wearing a hoodie.  And that’s how, for many Americans, we construct race.  As Other.  As threatening.

I’ve heard it said that this would never have happened if Trayvon Martin had been white.  I’m not sure that’s true. If this mysterious pedestrian that had Zimmerman all worked up had been a white kid with a shaved head and a swastika tattoo on his neck wearing paratrooper boots and camos, he may well have reacted the same way.  Again, he would have seen someone Other, seen A Threat.  What’s appalling, though, is that a teenage kid, minding his own business, on a snack run to a 7-11 could be seen as so terribly threatening that a guy like George Zimmerman would overreact so horrendously.

Even scarier was some of the local reaction.  On the Deseret News website, they posted the basic AP story about the verdict.  The message boards exploded.  Here are some of the comments:

“There are still some jurors who won’t be bullied.”  “Speaks volumes that only one group is expected to start rioting.”  “The prosecutors are cowards. There was never enough evidence to convict, much less arrest him. Apparently, fear of rioting, being called “racist” by mindless lemmings, or blind hatred of gun-assisted self defense overcame their consciences. Pathetic.” ” A state has no business interfering in a persons right to defend themself for political or any other reasons.” “The prosecution should have never let racial and political influences take this to court in the first place.”

But on Facebook, in response to the well-meaning suggestion that Zimmerman ought to have just offered Trayvon a ride home, this: “Trayvon would have robbed George if he had offered, and probably car jacked George’s car. Admittedly, we are all being fed political propaganda, and George was a fool in butting in where he didn’t belong. Just because Trayvon was scouting out places to burglarize should not have been George’s concern. But since no good deed ever goes unpunished, good old George decided to tell Trayvon to get the hell out of the neighborhood, and Trayvon attacked.”


In other words, George Zimmerman was not wrong in taking steps A-Y. He was only wrong in being bad at fighting.

I am frightened for our country.  I thought it was a good thing in our country when we elected a Black man as President.  When I saw photos of Tea Party rallies with men wearing T shirts that read ‘Keep the White House White,’ I thought it was just a minor thing, a vestigial remnant of our bad ‘ol past.  And yes, progress has been made, slowly and painfully, but progress nonetheless.

But the George Zimmerman case is so . . . elemental.  Far too many Americans see threats everywhere.  See their fellow citizens as threatening, see their government as threatening, see the President of the United States as sinister and scary and threatening.  For many people, George Zimmerman wasn’t just a guy who flunked neighborhood safety 101.  He wasn’t just a guy who overreacted horribly and tragically to a completely non-existent threat.  He wasn’t just a guy who mis-read a totally innocent situation, with horrendous consequences.  He wasn’t just a guy who flunked the first rule of gun ownership: meekness.  He was a hero, acquitted by fellow heroes on a jury.

On one of the Sunday talk shows, various commentators suggested that it was time for ‘a national conversation about race.’  I disagree.  I think it’s time for people who call themselves Christian to re-examine their souls, and their attitudes towards their brothers and sisters.