Monthly Archives: September 2013

The morality of Breaking Bad

So, it’s now over.  AMC’s Breaking Bad has concluded its run, told its story, run its course.  We know what happened.

I thought the final episode was stunning; sat with my son and his roommate through the whole thing, barely able to breathe.  And this morning, checked out the reviews, which were typically all over the map.  And plenteous. found it necessary to publish, like, five; Huffpo had to struggle along with four.  The main complaint seemed to be that it tied everything up too neatly; that it offered a narrative closure that critics found overly . . . tidy. But the show has been built on beginning/middle/end narrative threads from the beginning. That’s been the pattern: Walter finds himself in trouble, thinks the problem through, comes up with a solution (usually one breathtakingly inventive), and implements a plan.  And gets away with murder.

And there’s the crux.  What about morality? What is the moral code of this television series, the moral vision, what moral conclusions does it draw, or are we to draw?  It’s a show about a decent, ordinary high school teacher who becomes in turn a meth cook, a drug kingpin, a Dillinger-esque folk hero.  In the final episode, Walter White ties up every loose end.  He reconciles with Skyler, gets a small fortune to Walter Jr., rescues Jesse, kills both the neo-Nazis and the sociopathic businesswoman they’re in bed with.  And lies down to die in the joyful sterility of the meth lab he created.  Having killed all the bad people.

To some extent, I suppose, we could plot it all out on a continuum.  The one unambiguously good character, the character who really never deviates from his own essential moral purity, is Flynn, Walt Jr., Walt’s son. Crippled with cerebral palsy (as is RJ Mitte, the actor who plays him), Flynn’s innocence and kindness and compassion never fades.  He does reject Walt, when he thinks his Dad has become a monster, but that’s also part of his innocence–Dad killed Uncle Hank, and that’s not forgiveable.  The one unambiguously evil character on the show isn’t Walt, I think, but Todd (which breaks my heart, because I remember Jesse Plemons from Friday Night Lights, where he was Landry, Matt Saracen’s loyal and generous friend).  Right square in the middle of the continuum, the most ambiguous character on the show–Skyler, Walt’s wife, who can’t bring herself to not help him, but hates herself for it.  (By the end, it’s as though her self-contempt has hollowed her out entirely).  Plot the rest of them in.  Hank’s fairly close to the Flynn end of the continuum, and Lydia right over there on the left with sociopathic Todd.  And meanwhile, Jesse never stops moving.  He’s breaking too.

I would like to suggest, however, that Breaking Bad is neither moral or immoral nor amoral, but rather an extended meditation on morality, on choices and consequences and a whole array of moral possibilities and choices, not choosing between then, but offering them for our contemplation and consideration.  Letting us make up our own minds.

The show is called Breaking Bad, and that brilliant title also captures its essence.  Walter White is faced, in nearly episode, with a quandary.  ‘I have this thing I’m trying to accomplish. I face this barrier.  Absent moral considerations, what’s the best way out?’  Far too often, the best solution, possibly the only solution, is to kill someone.  So Walter does, and his conscience (and he does have one) doesn’t bother him most of the time, because he doesn’t see himself as having viable alternatives.

(And yet, is Walter really that calculating?  Isn’t he really pretty lucky?  Don’t desperately needed car keys just fall in his lap?  Isn’t Breaking Bad also about happenstance, accident, bizarre coincidence?  Isn’t it a series about kids who show up inopportunely on their motorcycles where they have no business being; isn’t it a show about planes randomly falling from the sky?  Is it to Walter’s credit that Todd happens to have a murderous uncle with still-in-prison contacts, or that Saul just happens to know a guy who can make people disappear, a sort of privatized Witness Protection Program?)

And Walt is hardly a human computer, emotion-less and endlessly rational.  One of our earliest indelible images of the man is Walt, in a shirt and tighty-whiteys standing in the middle of a highway, handgun in hand, about to shoot it out with the Highway Patrol.  One meme that even Saturday Night Live utilized is that Obamacare would have solved all of Walt’s problems.  He has cancer; his crappy public-employees-insurance won’t pay for the kind of care that might keep him alive, so he has to find a new and lucrative revenue stream or he’ll die.  So he has no choice except to cook meth.

I support Obamacare, but that argument doesn’t work: Walt has rich friends who offer to pay for his care.  Gretchen and Elliot, his former partners at Gray Matter, the very very successful bio-tech firm he and Elliot co-founded.  The history there is murky–Gretchen was once a lab assistant, and she and Walt were having an affair; when he left her, she married Elliot, and the company that bought Walt out for five grand is now worth billions–but they are all ostensibly friends, and they have the means to pay for any cancer treatments Walt wants.  And offer to do it.

Walt refuses, and then lies to Skyler about it, because deep down, he’s a bitter, angry, resentful man.  Or is that really it?  Maybe instead, he cooks meth because he likes it, he likes feeling in-charge of his own destiny, self-sufficient and strong.  In one of the most wrenching scenes in the show, Walt calls Skyler and verbally abuses her in the most disgusting and horrible way.  Anna Gunn, as Skyler, is amazing in that scene; just sits there, white-knuckled on the phone, and takes it.  But later, in a conversation with Saul, it seems that this moment of gratuitous abuse is calculated–Walt knew the cops would be listening in, and by abusing her on the phone, he takes some of the legal pressure off her.  Calculating, or genuinely abusive?
Or both.

In the final episode, there’s a lovely scene between Walt and Skyler, in which, for the first time in the series, he tells her the truth. He liked being Heisenberg. He liked the power. And for the first time, Skyler can breathe. But in that same scene, he also lies to her. He tells her he’s spent all the money. So the truth is meant to sell the lie, because he wants her and Walt Jr. to accept the money. A lovely scene of reconciliation and communication is also a scene of duplicity and manipulation. Both/and. Walt wants to support his family. He also wants them to do as they’re told.  So it ends up being a show about morality, but about the complexities and ambiguities of it, about morality as gray matter.

As the show went on, I began to notice how sterile the world of meth-dealing seemed to be.  Crystal meth is a highly addictive drug after all, exceedingly dangerous.  So why, when contemplating Walt’s moral choices, don’t see the human tragedy meth causes.  But again, we have seen that earlier in the show.  In the early days, when Walt and Jesse were retailing their meth through, (among others presumably), Badger and Skinny Pete, we saw plenty of ugliness and despair. Remember Wendy?  A meth whore character from Season Three, played wonderfully by Julia Minesci (an actress who in real life runs marathons; the opposite of the skinny, dying woman she plays).  Wendy’s all skin lesions and rotting teeth, ducking in and out of men’s cars.  I know a lot of law enforcement officers who think the show glorifies the meth trade, and to some extent it does–Walt makes a boat-load of money, and doesn’t actually get caught.  And gets to pass some of it on to his kids.  But Wendy the Meth Whore is unforgettable–that’s where meth leads.

And the murders Walt commits are horrific–every time, they’re horrific.  Check this out.  And using the Nat King Cole version of ‘Pick Myself Up’ to accompany the scene heightens the horror of it.  After that scene, our relationship with Walt changes, just as our relationship with Jesse changes after he murders Gale.  But for Jesse, that’s his turning point, the moment at which he becomes so sickened with self-loathing he begins to change, to Break Good.  For Walt, murdering all those guys in prison (Mike’s guys, we’re reminded), that’s who he always was.  The number’s just a little higher.

So Breaking Bad is not a show that asks ‘is dealing meth bad,’ or ‘is murder morally wrong.’  Of course cooking and dealing meth is a moral abomination, and the show depicts it.  Of course murder is horrific and wrong.  Breaking Bad is rather a show that asks ‘if we decide to cook meth, and eventually to murder, how much of our humanity do we retain?  Once we break bad, how possible does redemption become?  Or are we, in the end, reduced to sheer vengeance?

Austenland: A Review

Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), is a 30ish woman obsessed with Jane Austen. She doesn’t seem to have much else going on in her life–no boyfriend, dead-end cubicle job, a co-worker whose romantic advances would, if reported in the real world, result in possible litigation, unpleasant conversations with steely-eyed human resources folks and mandatory sensitivity training. Jane has come to see her Austen-fixation as a problem, as something she needs to move past and beyond, to which end, she decides to go on a kind of reality vacation.  She sees a TV ad for a place called Austenland, in which a feral looking Jane Seymour promises a genuine Regency experience. Which, by cleaning out her savings account, selling her Tercel, and (presumably) maxing out a credit card or two, plain Jane can just kind of barely afford.

So Austenland is two things: this Austen-experience reality resort, and the fictional movie of the same.  And the movie is great fun.  And I don’t know how significant any of this is, but the talent behind the camera is strongly LDS.  This might even be the next evolution in Mormon cinema–a smart, well-made, entertaining mainstream genre film, made by LDS people, but intended for a popular audience.  It’s produced by Stephenie Meyer, of Twilight fame, based on a novel by Shannon Hale (Princess Academy, the Books of Bayern), co-written by Hale and by Jerusha Hess (who co-wrote Napolean Dynamite), who also directed.  Anyway, yeah, it’s a rom-com, but an awfully well-made one–I had a blast.

So, back to Jane: she’s off to London, where she’s met at the airport by a ‘servant,’ Martin (Bret McKenzie), who sports that kind of Euro-sexy unshaven look.  It turns out that he’s the Austenland stable boy–cares for the horses, delivers foals, mucks out stalls.  Which means that Jane, once in full Regency mode, keeps sneaking off the reservation to make out with him. And he seems like a nice guy, genuinely cares for his horses, sings (badly) along to Muzak, while slow dancing with our heroine.

Quick aside: it’s hard to make the Austenland finances work in my head.  How much is this guy getting paid?  The film’s about one weekend, in which there seem to be just three paying guests.  It seems that Austenland offers differently priced experiences.  Jane is given the name ‘Jane Erstwhile’, and the persona of the impoverished, barely-tolerated cousin–her costume is bling-less and drab, her room is in the servants’ quarters.  Jane is on the ‘basic’ level package, whereas the other two guests have paid for the ‘platinum’ experience, in which they get to be, like, duchesses and wear prettier dresses and have way nicer rooms.  And the only way this works out for me is that the ‘platinum’ level Austenland experience must cost a ton.  I mean, you’ve got this huge mansion to maintain, plus all these actors-playing-servants, not to mention ‘actors-playing-aristocrats,’ which have to cost more.

But I liked it, the whole basic-level/platinum-level dynamic. It’s actually about the most Regency-accurate thing in the whole concept.  I mean, one defining characteristic of the Regency era (or British society ever), is the importance of class, of social difference.  Jane Austen’s novels are acutely aware of class, of the subtle gradations of privilege. She was a keen observer of it, of how all women in gentle society were not even remotely equal.  Jane gets ‘basic-level’ service, and plays a suitably Austen-accurate character.  It works.

Anyway, so visiting Austenland this one weekend is plain basic-level Jane, and two platinum-level guests.  One is given the sobriquet Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King), and she’s blonde and gorgeous and has the whole Regency dialect and look down, except that she overdoes everything so preposterously she’s a comic delight.  T’other rich guest is even funnier: called Miss Elizabeth Charming, she’s played by none other than Jennifer Coolidge, doing her whole Jennifer Coolidge Christopher-Guest-mockumentary schtick. She’s an aging blonde cutie-pie, blowsy and kind-hearted and terminally dumb.

So the movie is about the interactions of Jane with, basically, three Austenland worlds.  First, it’s about the relationship she builds with the two other guests, all enjoying a faux-Regency experience, which tends to mean women sitting together (in the sitting room, duh), working on needle-point.  Or, second, interacting with the actors hired to play male Regency aristocrats, especially ‘Colonel Andrews’ (James Callis), who sports the plummiest accent, and is clearly destined to be matched up with Jennifer Coolidge/Miss Charming (too dim to catch that the actor playing him is actually gay), and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), who is sort of sullen and distant and border-line rude: Mr. Darcy in the flesh.  A third nobleman, though, is ‘Captain George East’ (Ricky Whittle), a gorgeous soap opera actor who finds every possible excuse to take off his shirt.  It’s pretty clear that Jane Seymour has concocted a narrative in which Lady Amelia (the richest, youngest and prettiest of the three guests), will be tempted by Captain East, before falling for Mr. Nobley.  Jane, as the basic-level guest, is going to have to be satisfied with the stable boy.  Which she’s sort-of-kind-of okay with.

Except, except. She’s also sort of oddly attracted to Mr. Nobley.  And he to her.  And they have all these witty exchanges, Elizabeth Bennett/Mr. Darcy quick conversations, in which she’s revealed as smarter than he expects, he as kinder than she expects, and there are definitely sparks.

Here’s what I liked best about this movie.  Okay, it’s a rom-com.  Okay, Jane’s the protagonist, and she’s smart and a good person, but also sort of plain and average and unlucky in love.  We like her.  We root for her.  To find Troo Luv at the end of the movie.  And there are two romantic possibilities for her: Martin the stable-boy; Henry the Mr. Darcy.  A love triangle.  And Martin and Henry aren’t real, they’re both actors, playing roles.  So how seriously should she take their professed affection for her?  Is one of them sincere?  Would you believe it if he told you?  Could they both just be actors acting?  And until the very end of the movie, I truly, honestly did not know which guy she’d end up with.  So that’s a good thing, right?  Suspense?

I mean, Georgia King is a hoot in this. So is Callis and so is Shirtless Whittle.  And Jennifer Coolidge is, as always, brilliant.  The minor characters manage to be really really funny without detracting from the story that we care about, Jane and her forlorn hope for genuine real actual love. It works. If you want to see a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy, go see Austenland.  You’ll have a ball.  I mean, Jane Austen books always end in a ball, right?

Balancing the budget: Tucker’s approach

My son, Tucker, is in grad school now, in the MPP (Master of Public Policy) program at the University of Utah.  For a class assignment, he was asked to balance the federal budget.  He created a spread sheet, looked at opinion polls, and, without raising taxes, by cutting spending only, eliminated the deficit.  (He was also not allowed to use any dodges like ‘eliminate waste and corruption’). His baseline was the budget for the 2010/2011 fiscal year; those being the most recent reliable figures available to him. Turns out it can be done!  You can actually balance the budget without raising taxes.  Yay.

He began by cutting military spending by 60%.  He dismissed 60% of all current military personnel, and closed 60% of all military bases world-wide.  This would reduce our ground forces to their lowest level since before the Second World War.  But we would still spend more on the military than any other country on earth.  So we’d probably still be fine.  (All those men and women currently serving their country would simply have to come home and find a job).

Tucker then proposed cutting $181 billion from Medicare.  He would cut $75 billion from hospital insurance, $75 billion from supplemental hospital insurance, and $20 billion from prescription drugs.  This probably would mean that most hospitals and providers would refuse to accept Medicare patients, but, as Tucker put it, ‘that would encourage a robust private market’ to help those seniors’ able to afford it.

He cut $144 billion in income security.  This would involve a 50% cut in military retirement benefits, a 33% cut in unemployment benefits, a 14% cut in food stamps, a 43% cut to low income housing subsidies, and massive cuts to the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Credit. It would be good for poor people to be booted out of the hammock of government dependency.

He decided to only cut Social Security by 11%.  This was accomplished by raising the retirement age to 70, by means-testing benefits, and by cutting all benefits by $50 billion, including $15 billion from disability benefits.

Other Health sector costs were cut by $80 billion, which he achieved by massively cutting mental health and substance abuse programs, cutting the NIH budget by 33% and Indian health benefits by 50%.  He would also cut $60 billion from Medicaid grants to states, instituting a block grant program similar to the one proposed by Paul Ryan.

The Veteran’s Administration lost 28% of its budget, with $15 billion cut from Veterans’ hospitals and another $15 billion from Veterans’ compensation and pensions.  He also cut Education programs by 33%, with $9 billion cut from elementary and secondary education, and $10 billion from higher education.  Bye-bye Pell Grants.  He also eliminated the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Foreign aid is never popular with voters, and so Tucker cut it drastically, a 50% hit on all foreign aid, including $5.5 billion in international security assistance, and $3 billion from State Department operations.  So much for preventing another Benghazi; embassy security is a luxury we can’t afford.  So much as well for cooperating with other nations in fighting the war on terror.

Tucker cut 84% of the $29 billion we spend on Science, Space and Technology.  A lot of this is achieved by eliminating NASA.  He also cut $23 billion from the Justice Department, including essentially eliminating any border security budgets.  He also cut $16 billion from Transportation, $10 billion of which comes from cutting highway maintenance.  Potholes just add a little spice to the driving experience.

Tucker cut $20 billion combined from the Agriculture and Environmental sectors. That gives some idea of the real-world savings achieved if you eliminate the EPA.  It also includes a 50% cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  We don’t really need to know if a hurricane or tornado is likely to hit.

The last four categories, Commerce and Housing, Community and Regional Development, Energy, and General Government were also cut $15 billion total.  This essentially eliminates FEMA, the IRS, the Postal Service, and all Small Business loans.

Tucker’s budget-cutting priorities were determined by opinion polls.  He decided to just make the cuts people told pollsters they wanted.  Most of these cuts, however, would be unpopular.  The only federal spending cuts that enjoy majority support are cuts in foreign aid.  So although the cuts he proposes to defense spending aren’t actually very popular, they’re comparatively more popular than, say, cuts to Social Security or Medicare.

I also found Tucker’s conclusions really interesting.  Polls consistently show that the public generally supports cutting the federal budget, and generally supports a balanced budget amendment, by fairly wide margins.  But polls also show that people oppose most specific cuts.  Even hard-core rock-ribbed Tea Party conservatives don’t want to cut military spending, Medicare or Social Security.  Foreign aid is generally unpopular, and so is ‘welfare,’ broadly construed.  But no one thinks benefits they personally receive should be eliminated.

This has been a fun post for me–my son did all the work.  Yay!  But me add this: if the Tucker budget were implemented in its entirety, I believe that the result would be catastrophic. It would pull hundreds of billions of dollars out of the economy, resulting in a contraction far more severe than the Great Depression or the 2008 world-wide financial crisis. I also predict that any politician from either party to propose or support the Tucker budget would find his career in American politics to be very short indeed.  ‘

I do believe that current deficits are, in the long-term, unsustainable.  But eliminating them requires a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts gradually phased in.  But whatever approach we take to fiscal policy, we can’t let budgetary concerns slow growth. The goal, obviously, must be to grow the economy.  Absolutely nothing in the Tucker budget would achieve that.


A Shakespeare for our time, and Breaking Bad.

I was chatting with someone on the internet t’other day, and the guy was bemoaning the state of current American culture.  “Where are our Shakespeares?” he lamented.  “Where is our Beethoven, or Mozart, or Bach?  Where’s our Michelangelo?” Common enough rhetorical tropes, on the culturally conservative end of things.  If, as some Mormons believe, we will one day have ‘Shakespeares of our own,’ well, where are they?  Where might they be lurking?  And the fault must be in our benighted, decadent American culture.

So last night, flipping through the channels on TV, I happened upon something I essentially never watch, the broadcast of the prime-time Emmy awards.  And they were just announcing the award for best dramatic TV series.  Here were the nominees: House of Cards. Breaking BadDownton AbbeyGame of ThronesHomelandMad Men.

That is a loaded category.  That’s dynamite.  Every show on that list is appointment viewing here in chez Samuelsen, and every one is brilliant. And that’s without even mentioning The Good Wife and Justified and Grimm and Haven and Girls. One could pick nits: House of Cards is still relatively new, with its story mostly yet-to-be-told.  Game of Thrones does at times succumb to HBO ‘even-basic-exposition-needs-writhing-naked-bodies-in-the-background disease.  Downton Abbey is a soap (albeit the best soap in television).  But come on.  Put together any list of the ten best shows in the history of television, and it’s got to include, at the very least, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. And Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, I’d say, though some might quibble.

But that’s just television.  Pop culture, disposable, ephemeral, fast food art.  It’s not substantive, it’s not profound, it’s not, you know, great.  It’s sure as heckfire not Shakespeare.

To which I would respond: Shakespeare’s plays were products of a specific cultural moment, artifacts of specific cultural practices.  Shakespeare was a popular artist, a commercially successful creator of Elizabethan/Jacobean pop culture.  Breaking Bad has to compete with The Real Housewives of Wherever, and Jersey Shore and Duck Dynasty.  Shakespeare had to compete with bear baiting.

His plays are also really really good.  Capable of competing in the cultural marketplace of our day as well as his own.  He’s the most commercially successful playwright of 2013.  Also 2012. Also 2011. Also 1764 and 1928 and 1803.  And if you don’t like using box office as a measure, let’s just concede the point; the man wrote great plays, masterworks, eternally brilliant and relevant.  The dialogue is poetic and powerful. The characters are rich and multi-faceted.

They’re also cheap and vulgar and crass.  The man never met a penis joke he didn’t like.  He loved puns.  He loved crude sexual innuendo.  He loved ghosts and ghouls, and blood and guts and on-stage violence.  Sometimes the conflicts in his plays are subtle and psychological, and sometimes they’re pure melodrama, the rankest villains vs. the bravest of heroes.  It’s that richness, that overwhelming humanity, that makes his plays so much fun to direct and act in and watch, even today, when our ears are no longer tuned to archaic poetic language.

So yeah, Shakespeare was great. So what would he be doing if he lived today, and who today is like him?  And those questions are unanswerable.  Who, today, is Mozart?  Let’s see–child prodigy, charismatic performer and composer, sort of weirdly juvenile, in part due to childhood misery doled out by abusive Dad?  Michael Jackson?  Who is like Michelangelo?  Kinetic visual artist, in love of a vision of bodies in motion? Good at working within the confines of rich patronage? Stephen Spielberg?

But if someone of Shakespeare’s talent was working today, someone with a Shakespearean skill set, (especially someone who seemed to like a large canvas, who seemed to prefer large sweeping epic stories to smaller more intimate ones), he’d be working in television.  Probably not in theatre (too limited by financial limitations), and probably not in movies (too limited by commercial considerations). Today, theatre costs a lot of money to produce, and so most theaters who devote themselves to new plays prefer plays with small casts, because they can’t afford to pay more actors than that. Movies can do bigger stories, with bigger casts, but they have to be able to make lots of money in return, and so way too often devolve into crass spectacle dramas, preposterous heroes fighting ridiculous villains, with lots of ‘splosions and stunts.

To really study humanity, to really tell a long, complex story, with characters who change and grow amid ever shifting moral and physical landscapes, to really follow a group of human beings and their vicissitudes and triumphs and failures, you need television.  Institutionally, television has the capacity to really take a chance on a single artist’s vision and story and people.

Which brings me to Breaking Bad.  Vince Gilligan’s described it as ‘Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,’ a glib reduction of its central story to two pop culture allusions.  In fact, the title is immensely revealing.  Walter White, a respected high school chemistry teacher is driven by financial exigencies to seek a different source of income than his paltry public employee’s salary.  He works part-time, after school, in a car wash.  But when diagnosed with cancer, he becomes desperate, both for sufficient income to pay for his treatment and for enough money to pass on to his family, in case the cancer treatment proves ineffectual.  His only quick-money marketable skill is in chemistry, and he gets the idea of cooking methamphetamine.  Crystal meth.  Crank.  Despite the fact that doing so is illegal.  And that he has a brother-in-law (probably his closest friend), who is an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

So that transition, Walt moving from chemistry teacher to drug dealer, is carefully detailed in the show.  And the greatness of the show are those moments when we can actually see Walt breaking bad.  When we can see him, facing a major decision, thinking it through, and then realizing ‘I’m now a drug dealer.  A criminal.  Ordinary moral considerations aside, how best should this be handled?’

But the key relationship in the entire series is between Walt and Jesse, his former student who becomes his assistant, then his partner, then his friend, then his surrogate son, finally, a threat who needs to be neutralized.  Walt’s heard that Jesse, after dropping out from school, has started dealing drugs.  Walter White, high school teacher, literally doesn’t know anyone else in the drug business.  He looks Jesse up, befriends him, works with him.  But Jesse’s growth mirrors Walt’s fall.  Jesse, once a drug addict dealing small amounts of meth to support his own habit, becomes a man with a conscience.  As Walt breaks bad, Jesse breaks good.  The turning point is a shattering episode when Walt orders Jesse to kill, to murder.  And Jesse does it.  And can barely live with himself afterwards.

Breaking Bad.  And Breaking Good.  And, stuck in the middle, Skyler, Walt’s wife, who gradually learns what a monster her husband is becoming, and who can never quite bring herself not to become one too.  She’s a powerful woman, strong and devoted to her children, and the battle of wills between her and Walt drives most of the series.  But Walt is stronger than she.  Precisely because she is so focused on protecting her children, Walt is able to bend her to his will.  Very very slowly, very very reluctantly, she becomes his money-launderer, all the time consumed with self-loathing.  At one point Walt says (in one of a long series of delusional motivational speeches to her), ‘we can be free, we can be happy!’  And she says, wearily, ‘I don’t even remember the last time I was happy.’  And when, finally, she’s able to confess her wrong-doing, you can see the relief in her entire body language.

Walt: Bryan Cranston.  Jesse: Aaron Paul.  Skyler: Anna Gunn.  A trio of the finest acting performances of any of our lifetimes.  Brilliant writing combining with brilliant acting and directing (with episodes, at times, guest directed by big-name film directors like Rian Johnson).  The story is Shakespearean in its sweep, in its humanity, in its insight, and yes, even in its language.

Check out, for example, this scene.“I am the danger.  I am the one who knocks.”  That’s superb writing; clear, powerful, even poetic.  It’s just good contemporary dialogue by a master of dialogue, but it’s resonant and rich.  It’s great, in the same way Shakespeare was/is great.

We have Shakespeares of our own.  Vince Gilligan, writing Breaking Bad.  Matthew Weiner: Mad Men.  David Chase: The Sopranos.  Aaron Sorkin, Julian Fellowes, Matthew Dobbs, Beau Williman, Andrew Davies, Alex Gansa, Gideon Raff, Howard Gordon and Lena Dunham. Names that resonate with Jonson and Marlowe and Fletcher.  The quality of writing today is astonishing, astounding. Greatness still exists.



The 2012 election; Jonathan Alter’s take

I just finished reading Jonathan Alter’s excellent The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, his account of the 2012 election.  Alter’s one of those political reporters, like that late Theodore H. White, who loves digging into presidential campaigns, balancing both the larger themes and narratives with revealing bits of campaign minutiae.  If you’re a political junky (and I am one), this book is crack.

Alter’s main point (taking into account his limited historical perspective, ’cause, you know, it just happened) is that the 2012 election was massively consequential, possibly the most consequential election we will see in most of our lifetimes.  Alter’s a mainstream journalist, a Washington creature, respected, but someone who represents Beltway wisdom. This is not a bad thing.  It does mean that his account is maybe a little more ‘inside baseball’ than most voters need or are interested in.  But Alter thinks that 2012 is important because, essentially, the Republican party has gone insane.  He thinks the Tea Party is dangerously radical, simple-minded and fanatical.  This is, I suspect, what most of the people he interviewed (Washington insiders, mostly), told him.  If Barack Obama had lost the 2012 election, Romney’s coattails could easily have cost Democrats the Senate. (The key Senate races were all very very close).  And with Republican holding the House and the White House, a radical political agenda could have been realized.  Hence the book’s title: Alter sees 2012 as a victory for the Center.

One difficulty, of course, was in persuading the public just how radical Republicans have become.  Non-partisan pollsters put together focus groups, and asked them to read two documents; President Obama’s economic plan, and the Paul Ryan plan that Governor Romney endorsed. The idea was that this would be a way of measuring voter support for policies.  The problem was, most of the people in the focus groups just flat didn’t believe that the Paul Ryan plan was for real.  They thought the document they read was too crazy to be genuine.

Most voters don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, and most aren’t immersed in details of policy differences.  And most voters are tremendously cynical about politics anyway.  I remember, in Utah, the hotly contested Congressional race between Mia Love and Jim Matheson.  Essentially it made television unwatchable.  For weeks on end.  Ad after ad after ad, all of them weird and creepy and idiotic. By the end, I was basically rooting for a lethal two-car collision. Not really, obviously, but I genuinely couldn’t stand either candidate.  And these are two very bright, thoughtful decent people.  But, in the wake of Citizens United, (a Supreme Court decision striking years of campaign finance restrictions), super-Pacs poured so much into our local, close race, flooding our tiny TV market with noxious advertisements.  Mia Love tortured puppies!  Jim Matheson murdered kittens!  And both had suspiciously close ties to (gasp) China!  Blarg.  I’m just glad I don’t live in Ohio.

So with all that noise, it was hard for coherent messages, from either side, to cut through. And it didn’t help that the Republican nominating process essentially became this endlessly entertaining reality show.  Watch Republicans Debate, it was called, and it made for fine viewing. I didn’t watch all the debates, or even very much of the ones I did follow, but even in short chunks, they were fun.  Who was nuttier?  Who could pander to the Right most effusively?  And what horrible thing could the audiences applaud most enthusiastically.  When a moderator pointed out how many people Texas had executed under Rick Perry: applause.  When a gay soldier, serving his country with distinction in Afghanistan was introduced, he was booed.  And of course idiotic Birther nonsense could never quite be repudiated by anyone, not as long as The Donald stayed in the race.

What we had was a group of fringe candidates cowed by the Republican electorate; afraid of their own voters. It really hurt Mitt Romney the most, frankly, because he had some appear a good deal more conservative than he probably really was. As Alter quotes one source: ‘Mitt Romney spent 70 million dollars to win the Republican nomination over a serial adulterer and a mental patient in a sweater vest.’  Rudely dismissive of the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum?  For sure.  But aren’t you glad neither of those guys is going to be President?

Romney had to pose as a guy who was as conservative as the other candidates.  Jon Huntsman provided a cautionary tale–primary voters just didn’t go for sensible moderates, not in the age of Anti-Obama-Derangement-Syndrome.  So who was Mitt Romney?  I don’t think it was ever entirely clear what he stood for, aside from being very much in favor of Mitt Romney being elected President.  In fact, Alter posits that Romney may have been trying to do something pretty cynical but possibly effective–use his own reputation for mendacity as a plus.  It’s as though he was winking at the electorate, saying, in essence, ‘you know I can’t possibly believe most of this nonsense I’m saying.  You know me–I flip flop.  If elected, though, I’ll govern from the center, as a businessman, as a non-ideological pragmatist.’

And, in fact, that’s all probably true.  We know Romney here in Utah; we remember him fondly.  He did a wonderful job with the Salt Lake Olympics.  He’s a good guy.  He’s never seemed terribly ideological.  He’s a top business executive, and a decent, honorable, profoundly religious and family-oriented man.

But his economic plan was nuts, completely unworkable.  Tax cuts for rich guys just flat don’t trickle down.  He could talk about how many jobs he would create if elected, but none of the concrete proposals he made would have grown the economy at all, to any degree whatsoever.  Essentially, his pitch was–‘the business community doesn’t like Obama (quite true), and they like and trust me (also true). So elect me, and confidence will increase and the power of American business will turn things around.’ Well, okay, maybe.  But if he’d been elected, would he have been able to stand up to the Tea Party?  We certainly never saw him try.

The election turned on three factors.  First, the Obama team in Chicago was much much more computer savvy than the Romney team in Boston.  This proved to be huge.  Voters respond to personal appeals, but door-knocking is pretty time-consuming and ineffective.  But Chicago put together an amazing data-base, especially in swing states, sorting out which voters might be amenable to a personal appeal and which voters had already made up their minds.  Pro-Obama volunteers, armed with that kind of information, might go into a neighborhood of, say, 50 houses, and only knock on 8 doors.  But those were the 8 families who might be persuadable, who were perhaps on the fence.  Obama volunteers knocked on three times as many doors as Romney volunteers did, but they also were much more focused on which doors should be knocked on.  Romney had a huge advantage in media buys, with essentially unlimited super Pac funds to draw on, but the TV ads that resulted were completely ineffective.  Folks just tuned ’em out.

Second, though, was perhaps the turning point moment in the campaign; the 47 percent video.  This refers to a Romney fundraiser, in Florida, videotaped by a bartender named Scott Prouty.  In it, Romney can be (barely) seen and heard saying this:

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what.  All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.  That’s an entitlement.  And the government should give it to them.  And they will vote for this President no matter what. . . .Those are people who pay no income tax.  . . . My job is not to worry about those people.  I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

It’s just not possible for a politician to say something more damaging.  For a politician to say that he just doesn’t intend to care about half the electorate? Wow.  And in fact, his comments were simply inaccurate.  The 47% who don’t pay federal income tax still pay payroll taxes, and sales taxes and property taxes and end up paying a considerably higher percentage of their income to the government than Mitt Romney did.  As Alter puts it: “Is the mother of a handicapped child ‘not taking responsibility’ when she accepted help from the government to pay for her child’s physical therapy?  Is a senior citizen with few assets ‘acting like a victim’ when she applied to Medicare for nursing home help?  Do college students ‘not care about their lives’ when they apply for student loans?”  Republicans thought this was a winnable race, because they focused on polls in which Americans said they thought the country wasn’t on the right track. A low number on the ‘right track’ question is very tough for an incumbent to overcome.  But the key polling data turned on another question; does the candidate care about me and my family? Mitt Romney lost because a sizable majority of Americans thought he didn’t care, not at all, not about them, certainly.  The 47% comment was devastating to the Romney campaign.

Here’s what’s really interesting to me though; the 47% comment was not the part of Romney’s talk that most offended Scott Prouty.  It came earlier in the speech:

In my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there.  It employed about twenty thousand people, and they were almost all young women between the ages of about eighteen and twenty-two or twenty-three.  They were saving to potentially becoming married, and they worked in these huge factories that made very small appliances.  And we were walking through these facilities, watching them work, the number of hours they worked each day, the pittance they earn, living in dormitories with little bathrooms at the end.  The rooms, they had ten or twelve girls per room–three bunk beds on top of each other.  . . . And around this factory was a huge fence with barbed wires and guard towers.  And we said ‘gosh, I can’t believe you, you know, keep these girls in.’  And they said, ‘no no no, these are to keep other people from coming in.’

That’s the line that really got Scott Prouty steamed.

And here’s the irony.  George Romney, running for President in 1968, lost, essentially, because he said that the American people were being ‘brainwashed’ in respect to Vietnam.  In other words, the official line about Vietnam–‘it’s going well, we’re winning, the South Vietnamese love us’ was a load of hooie.  But the line ‘the fences are to keep other job seekers out’ is equally nonsensical.  George Romney lost because he told the truth, because he rejected the ‘official word’ about Vietnam as nonsense.  Mitt Romney lost because he believed, or at least said he believed, official nonsense about that factory.  He lost because he believed in a piece of commie propaganda, basically.

The other irony is this: globalization can be defended.  My son, the economist, has convinced me that that factory in China, horrible as we would find it here, is actually benefiting China, and even benefiting the young women who work there.  The pittance they receive at that factory may well be better wages than they could receive elsewhere.  It’s possible to make a case for globalization.  But in an election in a tough American economy, people want to hear about American factories opening and hiring.  They don’t want to hear about how great it is for American multinational corporations’ bottom lines to have Chinese sweatshop factories make I-Pads.

But the final factor in this election was this: the President won because he should have won.  Because he’s basically done a pretty good job. Alter says the election became a referendum on Romney, who lost because he was found wanting.  I disagree. I think people decided Obama hadn’t done half badly, all things considered.  Granted, the US economy wasn’t in great shape last year, and it’s not in great shape today.  But our economy took a bigger hit in 2008 than it did in 1929.  It was never realistic to think that it could recover all that quickly.

And it was a world-wide financial collapse.  And when we look at other countries affected by it, we see most of Europe choosing austerity policies similar to those recommended by Governor Romney.  And those policies have not worked.  The US has recovered more quickly and more completely than most of the other countries hammered by the crisis.  So it’s hard to say that Obama’s policies have failed.  It would be more accurate to say that his policies haven’t worked as well as we might have hoped.

The President asked for four more years.  I think the electorate was wise in choosing to give them to him.  And when I say that I’m proud to have voted for him, I don’t mean to imply that Mitt Romney would have been a disastrous President, under other circumstances.  He’s a good man, a decent, honorable man.  But he never did stand up to extremists in his own party, and that cost him dearly.  Anyway, that’s Alter’s conclusion, and it’s one I agree with.


Another shooting

I’ve been driving myself crazy trying to think of what to say about the Navy Yard shootings.  But I can’t.  I know all the arguments for and against firearm regulations.  I’m completely familiar with what everyone, on either side of the debate, is going to say, what they’ll argue about, what issues will be aired.  I have family members who are pro-gun, politically (with everything that implies) and family members who are anti-gun (with everything that implies).  I’m tired of the debate.

What we know is that Aaron Alexis was a seriously disturbed man, with years of mental health counseling behind him.  We know he had been involved in two previous gun-related incidents, one of which involved shooting the tires of some guy’s car.  We’ve learned that he heard voices in his head.  We know he carved Better Off This Way onto the stock of his shotgun, which suggests that he expected to die that day, in the firefight.  More enigmatically, he carved the initials E.L.F. on the gun as well. The speculation is that that stood for ‘extreme low frequency.’  He claimed he kept hearing the voices of three people, who wouldn’t let him sleep, and that they were controlling him using microwaves.  E.L.F. could also mean ‘every ladies fantasy,’ a slang phrase, apparently.  And with all that, a record of violent behavior using guns, years of psychiatric treatment, the Veterans’ Administration with records showing a seriously disturbed man, even with all that, Aaron Alexis was able to buy a firearm without difficulty, and did so legally.  Which he then used to kill twelve people.  Sunday school teachers, Little League coaches, ordinary Americans, at work.

So this is one of those super-predictable arguments people make and refute, but come on.  Can’t we draw a line here?  Can’t we say that a seriously crazy guy with a history of gun violence shouldn’t be able to legally purchase firearms?  And also, how about mental illness?  Because Aaron Alexis was seriously disturbed, clearly ill.  The VA deals with PTSD all the time–they have good mental health counselors.  Shouldn’t a guy like this, a veteran, after all, be able to get better treatment?

No, let me do this, instead.  Let’s talk about John Howard.

In 1996, John Howard was elected Prime Minister of Australia, leading a center-right coalition.  His main support was rural; his victory came from the outback.  Every non-urban electoral district in Australia went conservative; that’s how he won.  And that means, he was the candidate of the fiercely independent, self-sufficient, conservative, tough-as-nails, gun-owning rural population; farmers, small businessmen.  60% of Australia’s population lives in cities along the coast–they broke about 55-45 for Howard’s opponents.  The rural districts won it for him.  He represented the ‘Liberal’ party, but in the wacky world of Australian politics, that means he was a conservative. Pro-family values, anti-illegal-immigration.  Anti-multi-culturalism.

I was in Russia at a conference in the late 90s, and as always, spent a lot of time hanging out with Aussies.  (Rule of life: whenever you’re in an international setting and don’t know anyone, find and hang out with the Aussies.  You’ll have a much better time.)  At dinner one night, they started telling John Howard stories.  Anyway, I’m at dinner with these Australian theatre professors, none of whom had voted for Howard, and all of whom liked him immensely.  I remember one guy saying something like ‘he’s an Australian type: hard-drinking, tough, mean old bastard, but I like his honesty–he’ll tell you what he thinks, and not apologize.’

Anyway, John Howard’d been Prime Minister for about six weeks, when a crazy guy named Martin Bryant opened fire at Port Arthur, Tasmania, with two semi-automatic weapons, killing 35 people.

Australia is a loose federation of more-or-less autonomous states; the federal government can’t regulate weapons already in Australia.  So Howard proposed a three-step process.  First, he proposed a national buy-back, where people could turn in their weapons for cash.  They bought back 700,000 weapons (adjusted for population, the equivalent of 40 million guns in America).  The federal government passed a law banning the importation of semi-automatic and automatic weapons.  And all the states in Australia also banned such weapons.

The rural areas in Australia were initially furious.  Couldn’t see why they should lose weapons they’d used safely all their lives, plus felt betrayed by the guy they’d voted for.  Decent, law-abiding gun owners felt picked on–why should they lose their guns because of the actions of one nut-job?  There was a lot of opposition to it, and a lot of pushback against it.  A new political party was formed around opposition to gun control, and the Liberals’ coalition partners, the National Party, lost a lot of support.

But now we can look back, see what happened.  Australia had had thirteen gun massacres in the eighteen years before 1996.  They’ve had none since; zero.  Gun-related suicides (and suicides generally) are down 74%. Large-scale gun violence is a thing of the past in Australia, and gun violence generally is exceedingly rare.

We say that in America, we have a frontier mentality, a Wild West past, a lawless legacy; Dodge City, the Shootout on the OK Corral.  We’re a tough, independent, gun-toting people.  Well, so’s Australia. Their history is every bit as colorful, every bit as Wild West, every bit as violent.  One of the great Australian folk heroes is Ned Kelly, every bit as colorful a figure from the past as Billy the Kid or John Dillinger or Clyde Barrow.

But their most conservative Prime Minister ever passed the most comprehensive gun controls laws in their nation’s history. An exceedingly unpopular law at the time he passed it, especially among his own constituency.  He still got it done.  And it worked. Gun violence is essentially a thing of the past in Australia. If John Howard could do it there, pass meaningful and comprehensive gun control legislation, it can happen here too. I know, different country, different culture, no Second Amendment.  Still, all it took was political will.  They got it done.  So can we.

Final note:  It is true that one of the most prominent victims of recent gun violence was an Australian.  Nice kid, good baseball player, named Chris Lane.  Recently killed in a brutal and senseless shooting, by a group of thugs bored and looking for some fun. So Australians do die via gun violence.  They just have to come to America for it to happen.


All You Need is Love: Movie Review

There’s a moment in Susanne Bier’s Love is All You Need where Trine Dyrholm, playing Ida, a Danish hairstylist in Italy for her daughter’s wedding, is asked by her son what she ever saw in her husband, Leif.  She has to think about it.  Finally she says, “he has good table manners.”  And she doesn’t mean it as a put-down or an insult. She treats it as a serious answer to a serious question. And she’s a bit taken aback when her son laughs.

Most Americans don’t know Susanne Bier’s work, even after her extraordinary film In a Better World was nominated for an Oscar and even though she’s made English language films, most particularly Things We Lost in the Fire, where she got amazing performances from Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro.  She’s been making terrific films since 1991, 16 all told, and I’m hard-pressed to point to a single one I would consider a favorite.  Love is All You Need (the English title is awful: the Danish title Den Skaldede Frisør means ‘The Bald Hairstylist‘) is her first romantic comedy; the title, and the casting of Pierce Brosnan were probably intended to appeal to American audiences.  But as with all her work, the humor and pathos are rooted in characters we care about and believe in–in finely crafted studies of foolish and desperate humanity.

Trine Dyrholm plays Ida, the hairstylist of the title, bald due to chemo-therapy treatments for breast cancer, which, as the film begins, have just concluded.  Throughout most of the film, she wears a blonde wig, attractive enough that it’s a bit shocking the first time she takes it off.  As she comes home from the hospital, after a final consultation with her surgeon, she catches Leif, her husband, having acrobatic sex with Thilde (Christiane Schaumberg-Müller), who, he tells her, is the accountant at work.  Leif–a schlubby, chubby buffoon, played with sad-sack brio by Kim Bodnia–can barely bring himself to apologize, insinuating that his affair is Ida’s fault, for getting cancer and upsetting him so.  Amazingly enough, she doesn’t shoot him; merely nods to herself a bit, terribly hurt but unwilling to let him see how much.

Meanwhile, Philip (Pierce Brosnan), runs what seems to be a produce wholesale firm, selling radishes and lemons and oranges all over Europe.  The firm is headquartered in Denmark, but he’s never bothered to learn to speak Danish, though he seems to understand it fairly well.  Philip’s an unpleasant boss, belittling his employees and constantly shouting orders over his cell phone.  But we learn he hasn’t always been like this.  He has yet to recover from the traffic accident death of his wife, which has left him bitter and angry at the world.

The film is about the relationship between Ida and Philip, and what brings them together is a wedding.  Ida’s daughter, Astrid (Molly Blixt Egeland) and Philip’s son, Patrick (Sebastian Jessen), are getting married in Italy, at a villa Philip bought for his wife, which he has hardly been able to bring himself to visit since her death. And as the guests gather, we meet other family eccentrics.  Leif is obviously in attendance, with Thilde the sexy accountant, and cluelessly has no idea why the other family members are upset with him.  Aren’t we all adults?  Also present is Philip’s appalling sister-in-law, Benedikte (Paprika Steen), much given to long, soppy, utterly inappropriate speeches at dinner.  Kudos to Steen; Benedikte’s a brilliant comic creation, the kind of horrible person who says wildly offensive things to people, then laughs merrily, like that makes it better.  Ida’s son, Kenneth (Micky Skeel Hansen), a soldier fighting in Afghanistan, is unexpectedly wounded and present; we sense how fiercely he loves and wants to protect his mother, and he finally punches out Leif, after Thilde the accountant hits on him while drunk.  Oh, and there’s Patrick’s best friend, Alessandro, who Patrick thinks has inappropriate feelings for poor Astrid.  (Turns out, Alessandro’s more into Patrick).  And maybe my favorite character in the film, Benedikte’s hostile and sullen daughter Alexandra (Frederikka Thomassen), who makes it clear to everyone that she’s been dragged to this miserable wedding by her horrible Mom, so if she gets drunk and barfs on peoples’ shoes, they’re just going to have to live with it.

What I loved about the film is that these characters just seem very real, their eccentricities not forced or caricatured, but just part of who they are.  And through it all, we see Ida’s inherent goodness, her radiant optimism, her willingness to forgive even her awful husband and his selfish witch of a girlfriend.  Things don’t go well at the wedding, and they go especially badly for characters we’ve grown to like immensely.  But it never feels formulaic or conventional.  It never feels like Biers’ screenplay is following the established tropes of romantic comedy, though in fact, in retrospect, it’s a beautifully structured (and pretty conventional) rom-com. It doesn’t feel like one, though: just following these interesting people as they get on with their lives, and as melancholy in tone as it is, at times, hilarious.

But here’s one of the things I love about it.  Philip’s villa is on the Mediterranean, and one morning, Ida decides to go for a swim.  The airline has lost her luggage, so she goes skinny dipping in a secluded cove–it’s not like anyone can see her.  But it’s Philip’s villa; he knows the cove, and he sees her.  She steps out of the sea, and we finally see the ravages of cancer–we see her naked, bald, surgically scarred, a woman in her forties.  And of course, she’s immediately embarrassed, and Pierce Brosnan offers her his jacket, averting his eyes like a gentleman.  But we’ve seen her, briefly, naked, and so has he.  And we can tell that he’s blown away by her, by her openness, her fearlessness, her kindness, and also, despite age and illness, her beauty.

This is not, I think, Susanne Biers’ best film.  But it may be a good introduction to her work, if you haven’t seen her other movies.  It’s a grown-up rom-com, a lovely tribute to middle-aged love.  Check it out.


Book Review: America’s Longest Siege

Joseph Kelly’s America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Toward Civil War is a splendid book, one of those books that takes a familiar story and fills in gaps you hadn’t previously thought existed.  Essentially, it’s the history of an ideology.  It’s the story of a big, powerful, compelling, (at the time) convincing and utterly Satanic idea.

The idea it traces is the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery. This is the idea that slavery was inherently beneficial.  For everyone.

Anyone who studies American history knows how many of our Founders practiced slavery: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Rutledge, George Mason, many many others.  And they managed their cognitive dissonance–the notional gap between ‘all men created equal’ and the peculiar practice they relied on for their fortunes–with varying degrees of discomfort.  But discomfort there was, for all of them: for Washington certainly, who freed (some of) his slaves in his will, for Jefferson, who put a clause accusing King George of promoting it in his Declaration.  That very discomfort, of course, looks very much like hypocrisy to us, today.  It complicates, morally, our celebration of their accomplishments.  But generally, the Founders’ generation believed that slavery was morally wrong. And they believed that, in time, it would go away, if left alone. Ultimately, they believed it would prove economically (and morally) unsustainable.  In time, it would hold back regions that practiced it, keep them locked in agrarian economies that wouldn’t have incentive to industrialize.  And slavery was bad for slave-owners. It was degrading, to own other human beings and profit from their unrecompensed toil.

By 1860, though, this view of slavery, this idea that it violated fundamental human rights, that it was bad for slavers and slaves alike, that it was economically unsustainable, that statements like ‘all men created equal’ meant something important and profound, all those Founders’ ideals had come to be regarded as embarrassingly naive, backward, unscientific.  The new ideology was ‘positive good.’  Slavery was good for everyone, according to this formulation.  Slavery was beneficial.  Slaves prospered under it, if slaves could be drawn exclusively from a backwards and inferior race incapable of managing on its own. Slavery was a ‘positive good.’  For everyone.

Where did that come from?  Who invented it, who taught it, how were those ideas promoted?  Well, that’s the subject of this book.  And the answer is surprising.  This view of slavery, that it was beneficial for slaves and slave-owners alike, that it was genuinely positive for everyone in society, basically traces from the 1830s, not really earlier.  That’s not to say that the idea of slavery as a positive good was previously unknown.  But it became an ideology in the 1830s, something widely believed and taught.  An idea, in fact, so important that every challenge to it had to be ruthlessly confronted.  Public safety committees had to form and intimidate anyone who questioned ‘public good’ orthodoxy.  School curricula had to be examined, and heterodox notions expunged.  Freedom of the Press had to be curtailed.  And any suggestion that maybe, perhaps slavery wasn’t actually terrifically beneficial had to be met with immediate and decisive shows of violence.  And all this started, and spread from, one town in one state.  Charleston, South Carolina.

So we read about William Gilmore Simms, a newspaperman banished from Charleston for opposing South Carolina’s first attempt to secede, in 1832.  But he changed, converted, became a novelist, and an exceptionally popular one, with book after book which established the comforting lies about black inferiority and black contentment under slavery.  No one today reads The Yemassee, or The Sword and the Distaff, or Magnolia.  But they were wildly popular in their day.  Mark Twain thought the novels of Sir Walter Scott were to blame for the Civil War, for the inflated romanticism of mainstream Southern plantation culture.  Kelly makes a more convincing case for William Simms.

Familiar figures make an appearance, like John C. Calhoun, twice Vice-President and one of the great political giants of the early-to-mid 19th century.  But Kelly brilliantly deconstructs Calhoun’s South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828), calling it “the most pernicious disquisition on the Constitution ever authored by an American statesman.”  You don’t need to look further than Calhoun to find the philosophical roots of ‘positive good’ theory.

Because, as Kelly consistently points out, the idea that slavery was good for everyone was the considered, widely accepted scientific opinion of the day.  Opposition to slavery was considered sentimental, fanatical, wildly emotional and untrustworthy.  Rationally considered, it was obvious that blacks were inferior to whites.  The mid-19th century proved it: measured skull sizes, compared gaits and posture, conducted rudimentary intelligence tests.  Whereas the Jefferson generation believed that the black races had been degraded by the treatment to which they had been subjected, and were as capable as white races given similar opportunities and education, the Calhoun/Simms generation knew better.  Racial differences were innate. Biological.  Demonstrable.

Of course they knew it wasn’t true.  Of course ‘positive good’ was a psychological adjustment to cognitive dissonance.  Kelly’s great there too, showing the hysterical overreaction to the most benign moments of black independence, and the complete hypocrisy of ‘positive good”s most outspoken proponents.

See, for example, James Hammond, US Congressman and Senator, and author of pamphlet after pamphlet extolling the Southern way of life, the generous and kind treatment of slaves, the care taken by slaveowners.  Hammond’s own slaves died at far higher rates than other Charleston slaves, beaten to death and starved.  He fathered multiple children by them, telling his appalled wife that it wasn’t adultery, as they were only slave women.  Oh, and he was also a pedophile, sexually molesting his own nieces.

White supremacists did have their opponents.  One consistently courageous soul was an amiable eccentric named James Louis Pettigru, a anti-slavery advocate of almost unimaginable bravery.  But we also read about Angelina Grimke, a Charleston woman who became one of the greatest of abolitionists, but who was, let’s face it, maybe a little fanatical.  She was easy enough to dismiss, along with William Lloyd Garrison, and other prominent abolitionists, who were, frankly, pretty extreme in their opposition to slavery. They weren’t moderate, they weren’t reasonable, they weren’t willing to compromise.  They thought slavery was a moral evil, and said so.

And so, when 1860 rolled around, and the Democratic party made the insane decision to hold their national convention in Charleston, prominent white supremicists like William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett (both native South Carolinians, both born in Charlestown, though Yancey had moved on to Alabama), were able to hijack it, call for a vote on secession, derail the candidacy of Stephen Douglas, and make certain the election of Abraham Lincoln.  The Civil War inevitably followed, as Yancey and Rhett knew it would.

But then Kelly introduces us to his real heroes.  Like Robert Smalls, a slave who had been trained as a river pilot, and given the responsibility of piloting a Southern steamship, the Planter.  In 1862, the officers of his ship went ashore to a tavern, leaving the ship under Smalls.  He filled it with other slaves intent on escaping, added his wife and children, and took off.  He steamed past five batteries, any one of which could have sunk him, but he also had learned the recognition signals and pass codes, and steamed to sea unmolested.  Finding a Northern ship, Smalls ran up a white flag, and told the astonished captain, ‘I thought this ship might be of use to Uncle Abe.’  Smalls later commanded the Planter in battle, playing a significant role in capturing Charleston.  Post-war, he sold the ship, using the money to set himself up in business. I’d never heard of Robert Smalls before, and now regard him as one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War.

Kelly’s book isn’t just great because it’s well-researched, or because it’s about a fascinating subject, or because it’s written with wit and energy and eloquence.  It’s all that, but that’s not why I loved it so much.  It’s great because it’s so angry.  Kelly doesn’t just want us to understand where the ‘positive good’ ideology came from.  He wants us to be as pissed off about it as he is.  And he wants us to look at our day, at the vestiges of ‘positive good’ ideology that surface from time to time in our public discourse and in our politics.

There are, face it, still people today who argue that slavery wasn’t all that bad, that it had a beneficial side, that slaves were basically contented and slave-owners generally benevolent. It tends to spoken quietly, privately, in code, but ‘positive good’ ideologues still exist. But those ideas were never true. Never even a little bit true.  An historian like Joseph Kelly performs a great public service of reminding us of that.  We can only cope with our own, uniquely American brand of racism by looking to our history.  And then expunging it, root and branch. Kelly’s book helps.


Kon-Tiki: A Review

In Oslo, I would say there are at least three must-see tourist attractions: the Munch Museum, housing the paintings of Edvard Munch, Frogner Park, featuring the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland, and the Kon-Tiki/Viking ship museum.  I list the latter two together although they’re separate buildings, but they’re next door to each other, and both are well-worth a visit.  The Vikings, of course, sailed all over, as far west as the Americas, as far south as the Mediterranean sea, robbing and conquering all along the way. I’m half-Norwegian; I’m proud (ish) of my Viking heritage.  Ruefully proud, let’s say. But the Kon-Tiki is something else, a celebration of another very interesting Norwegian type, the scientist/adventurer, the explorer/naturalist/artist.  Another Oslo museum celebrates the Fram, the alarmingly tiny ship the great Fridtjof Nansen deliberately got stuck in the polar ice, to measure drift and also, basically, just to see what would happen.  Nansen’s the prototype, a celebrated scientist who was also a major explorer, a fearless adventurer, a diplomat and politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner. And then there’s Thor Heyerdahl.

Thor Heyerdahl was a scientist, a zoologist and ethnographer.  Before World War II, he studied the island peoples of Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas, and after hearing their folk tales of their own voyage to the islands, became convinced that they had not originated in Asia, as everyone at the time thought, but in South America. They had come west, not east, knew it, and said so. He tried to publish a book about this theory, but was rebuffed.  World War II found him back in Norway, where he fought with great distinction as a member of the Norwegian underground.  When the war ended, he returned to his theory.

He had found great similarities between the plant and animal life of Fatu Hiva and Peru. He found other cultural markers the two civilizations shared. And the prevailing winds and currents of the Pacific tend westward, not eastward from Asia.  The difficulty, though, was that the best archeological research in Peru hadn’t turned up anything like a boat.  The coastal Peruvians of 1500-2000 years in the past made due with balsa wood rafts.  The consensus was that such rafts could not possibly have survived a voyage of 5000 miles from Peru to Polynesia. Asians had boats, therefore Asians settled the islands.

So Heyerdahl built an ancient Peruvian boat, a raft, following the best specifications he could find from archeological research.  Built it of balsa, held together by rope.  And then he got some friends together, and off they sailed.

It’s a remarkable story, of courage and faith and determination and more than a little Norwegian pig-headedness.  For one thing, Heyerdahl wasn’t a sailor.  He had two experienced sailors on board, but he himself hadn’t spent much time in boats. He also (minor detail), couldn’t swim. He sought funding from every source he could think of, including National Geographic (a natural, one might think); they told him they weren’t interested in funding a suicide.  He eventually was funded by the government of Peru, who thought the voyage might prove a boost to patriotism, and who gave him boxes of unwanted American military rations and supplies (including a shark repellent, which they mistook for powdered soup and ate).   He did bring a short-wave radio, but for most of the voyage, it couldn’t contact anyone.  He also brought a film camera, thinking maybe a documentary of the voyage might be interesting to folks.  (In fact, the doc he eventually created won an Oscar in 1951).

That voyage, and the faith and determination of Thor Heyerdahl, are now the subjects of a major motion picture, Kon-Tiki, which was nominated for (but did not win), the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign film.  It’s made by the directing team of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who also made the Norwegian WWII patriotic epic Max Manus (and who are also signed up, apparently, to direct yet another Pirates of the Caribbean film: blarg).

Kon-Tiki is a well-made and exciting film.  My wife and I watched it, and enjoyed it very much.  Pȃl Sverre Hagen is a charismatic and exciting Heyerdahl, and Anders Baasmo Christiansen is suitably woebegon as Herman, the engineer-turned-refrigerator salesman who Heyerdahl meets in a New York bar, and decides, on a whim, to take on the trip.  One weakness in the film is that the other four adventurers were all, accurately enough, young blonde Norwegian guys, but in a movie, they tend to blend together, especially later in the voyage when they’ve all grown big blonde beards.  Not the actors’ fault, I suppose, but I did keep asking myself ‘wait, which one’s that?’  I do regret the understandable-but-frustrating decision to make the film in English.  Six Norwegians alone on a raft together would, I think, speak Norwegian, not English with Norwegian accents.  I wouldn’t have needed the subtitles, but my wife would have and says she wouldn’t have minded reading her way through the film.

At times, it’s spectacular.  Rønning and Sandberg seem to like shots fromway overhead, God’s p.o.v. shots, emphasizing the tiny raft alone on the vast ocean.  A number of sharks (uncredited) make appearances, and are suitably menacing, especially in a terrifying scene when sad-sack Herman falls overboard. And at one point, the raft is accompanied by a pod of whales, a lovely scene.

We do get a glimpse of Heyerdahl’s unhappy first marriage.  The very-Norwegian-looking Agnes Kittelsen plays Liv, Heyerdahl’s first wife, content enough in their early scenes together in Polynesia, but increasingly unwilling to support her husband’s (to her) hare-brained sail-across-the-Pacific-in-a-balsa-wood-raft scheme.

A quibble: if Rønning and Sandberg were more daring directors, they might have pushed the megalomania angle a bit further.  In fact, Heyerdahl’s scheme was a bit daft. And whenever the other characters (especially Herman) point out that the balsa they’re riding on is becoming seriously water-logged, or that the prevailing currents are not sending them to Polynesia at all, but the opposite direction, north towards the Galapagos, Heyerdahl’s response was always, ‘have faith.’  Don’t worry.  I know what I’m doing.  This is all going to work out.

It turns out, of course, that Thor Heyerdahl did know what he was doing, and it did all work out, quite brilliantly in fact. The currents drove them first northwest, then southwest, exactly as he anticipated. His theory, disbelieved by the entire scientific community of his day, is now accepted as, at least, a plausible possibility. If you grant similarities between Polynesia and Peru, and if the one barrier to believing in a connection between those two cultures is that Peruvian rafts couldn’t have made the voyage, well, at least that objection has to fall away when one dude builds one and sails it the whole distance.  Let us also grant, though, that his wife (or for that matter, Herman), may well also have been right, and the voyage could well have failed.

As a Mormon, too, let me add this: we rather like Heyerdahl, don’t we?  I remember taking a group of LDS BYU students to the Kon-Tiki museum, and how an hour visit stretched to three hours, the students riveted by the Kon-Tiki story.  Most had never heard of Heyerdahl–all got the LDS connection.  After all, the Book of Mormon also posits an alternative, non-Asian origin for the peoples of the Americas, and specifically, a non-Asian origin for Polynesians.  Hagoth, right?  I heard Heyerdahl address that very question in a fireside he gave in Oslo in 1975, while I was on my mission.  He was appropriately cautious in his conclusions, but I remember him saying, (I’m paraphrasing a talk I heard nearly forty years ago), ‘look, for you, this is a matter of religious faith, for me it’s a matter of science.  And I haven’t proved anything, except a possibility.  But I would agree that our theories . . . reach similar conclusions.’

So, yes, let’s be appropriately cautious. But let’s also agree on this point; there’s something exciting about a scientist who forms a theory, is greeted with skepticism, who is told ‘okay, smart guy: prove it.’  And puts his life on the line. And proves it.  That’s a fantastic story, and Kon-Tiki, the movie, honors that story.  See it.  It’s terrific.


More on Syria

Barack Obama did not run for President to wage war.  He ran for President, and won the election, based on a promise to end two wars.  Implied was a promise not to start any new ones.  In 2008, Obama won the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton essentially because she had voted with President Bush, to authorize the invasion of Iraq, an act he’d opposed.  So now, here we are, at the brink of attacking Syria, albeit in a very limited way.

As I have previously posted, the ugly, brutal civil war in Syria is the ultimate lose/lose proposition.  There literally are no good options, for the US or for the international community.  To leave Bashar al Assad alone to butcher his own people, untroubled by an international response to his (probable) use of chemical weapons, would lead to further humanitarian catastrophe.  Doing nothing allows a conflict to spread, as is already happening in Lebanon.  But can we really join forces with Syrian rebel forces, mostly made up of the Muslim Brotherhood, and including elements of Al Qaeda?

I watched the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, and the professional commentariat was pretty well unanimous in insisting that the US needs to carry through with an attack, once one has been threatened.  The pressure for war doesn’t come from any one particular source. It’s a Washington thing, a Beltway consensus, with opinion-makers on both sides of the ideological divide in agreement.  The US cannot ‘appear weak.’  The President, having declared a ‘red line’ Syria could not be allowed to cross–chemical weapons against its own people–must not now back down from it.

So the President did two things that I applaud, frankly.  First, he asked for Congressional approval for an attack.  Article One Section Eight of the Constitution couldn’t be clearer–there’s no ambiguity in its text.  Congress gets to declare war.  I’m familiar with the Unitary Executive Theory which argues that the President, as Commander in Chief, can basically send troops anywhere, on whatever pretext. (Or basically exercise all executive functions unilaterally).  I think it’s bonkers–neo-conservative nonsense, a fantasy.  Give me separation of powers, thank you very much.  The President should consult with Congress, seek Congressional approval.

Which may not necessarily be forthcoming.  The House of Representatives has recently been an obstreperous lot, and may well decide not to support a President the majority caucus generally loathes.  If the President were to propose a resolution stating that cornbread dressing is particularly yummy with Thanksgiving turkey, I suspect there are Tea Party conservatives would find a way to oppose it.

Okay, but then: this. Jon Stewart, citing “Newton’s Law of Relative Stupidity,” mocked Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparently off-the-cuff proposal that Assad could avoid a US attack if Russia were to agree to mediate.  Hilarity ensued, as is often the case on the Daily Show.  Then, two hours after The Daily Show was taped, the President spoke.  And he said this:

The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons and even said they’d join the chemical weapons convention, which prohibits their use.

It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force . . . .

I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to met his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin. I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom. And we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.

We’ll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st. And we will continue to rally support from allies, from Europe to the Americas, from Asia to the Middle East who agree on the need for action.

Okay, so Jon Stewart ridiculed this Russian initiative almost immediately.  And some of the same conservatives arguing for war went nuts, with Ann Coulter saying Putin had made Obama ‘look like a monkey.’

I don’t know, though. Putin is an Assad ally.  If we could involve Russia in working towards a negotiated settlement, wouldn’t that be better than fighting a war, however limited, with ill-defined aims, no clear exit strategy and no national interest at stake. And what if Putin’s involvement here, at this level, could lead to an overall UN diplomatic solution to the civil war?

It’s easy to say that the UN is useless, that the UN can’t actually accomplish anything.  But right now, the United Nations is anything but ineffectual.  They’re doing an incredible job, in fact, in responding to the emerging Syrian refugee crisis.  Andrew Harper, the main UN representative of the UN Refugee Agency has been publicly calling for support, appearing on NPR and The Daily Show, and really any other media outlet that will give him a platform.

A diplomatic solution should be the priority of everyone, and realistically, any diplomatic solution must involve Russia.  Whether Secretary Kerry initially meant his proposal seriously or not, it’s now on the table, and being taken seriously, as indeed it should be.  Meanwhile, cut the President some slack.  He’s negotiating a fantastically treacherous diplomatic terrain; let’s hope a solution can be found.  Ultimately, it would be nice if Bashir al Assad could be persuaded to step down peaceably.  At least, though, it would be nice if we could take away his sarin gas.  That would be, at least, something.