Monthly Archives: November 2013

Obamacare: one more time

I have an unfortunate addiction to the Sunday morning talk shows, especially This Week with George Stephanopoulos, which I remember fondly from its beginnings, when the wry, sardonic David Brinkley hosted.  Stephanopoulos is a good host–a tough interviewer, mostly–and he sometimes books interesting guests, but still, it’s a show for Washington insiders, an hour on Sunday mornings dispensing Beltway wisdom. Everything’s political, everything’s hyperbolic, and everything’s short sighted.  And the vaunted roundtable–that exercise in meaninglessness where five or six journalists and opinion-makers, carefully balanced ideologically, shout at each other.  Blarg. Don’t know why I watch it, but I do.

Anyway, President Obama’s Presidency is over, apparently; a total disaster. His approval ratings are at their lowest ebb, and his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act is seriously flawed.  The roll-out went badly, the website doesn’t work, plus, he lied about it. (Which, by the way, he didn’t. I even said he did earlier in this blog.  I was wrong.)  Liar, liar, pants on fire: the ACA fiasco is (I’m not kidding, there are people saying this) Obama’s Katrina.

Katrina.  As in Hurricane Katrina. A natural disaster, where the federal response was so horrifically incompetent that hospitals in New Orleans were forced to triage which of their patients they were going to euthanize. So we’re to equate the launching of a somewhat buggy government website with that?  Ah, but it makes sense; Katrina lowered Bush’s approval ratings and the ACA rollout lowered Obama’s: equivalence!

But here’s the thing.  Obamacare is the central issue in American domestic politics right now.  That’s pretty sad, when you come to think of it, given how many other really really important issues there are, like, oh, education, welfare, immigration, global warming and environmental issues related thereunto, gun violence, incarceration reform, the penal code, infrastructure repair and modernization, transportation, unemployment, racial polarization, income disparity, unionization and labor issues, and the national debt. But no, none of that matters; it’s Obamacare!  Worse than slavery!  Equal to the Holocaust!  Or so our Republican friends would have us believe.

So the House of Representatives has passed something north of 50 bills canceling Obamacare, none of which has ever even come to a floor vote in the Senate, and none of which ever will be, quite properly.  Nothing in the Constitution requires either House or Senate to actually vote on silly symbolic bills originating in the other chamber.

But here’s the thing.  Obamacare is either going to work, or its not going to work.  The website got off to a bad start; it’s either going to get fixed or it’s not.  The ACA is either going to help people, or it’s not.  Which means this: if the ACA works, it’s going to be good for Democrats, and if it fails, that’s going to help Republicans.

There’s going to be an election in 2014, midterm elections for Congress, and those elections are either going to be ‘won’ by Democrats or by Republicans. And since Republicans have made so much noise about Obamacare, their electoral success is tied directly to the success or failure of that program.

And it’s going to work. It’s already getting fixed, and it’s going to work fine.  Here’s some evidence:

Kentucky decided to set up its own health care exchange and not participate in the national exchange (something the ACA not only allows, but encourages).  It’s called Kynect.  This story in the Washington Post shows how it’s going: brilliantly.  In fact, it’s quite remarkable, to read about dirt-poor rural folk with serious health problems who suddenly, for the first time in their lives, can afford to see a doctor.  Fifteen percent of Kentucky residents–around 600,000 people–had no health insurance.  So far, over 50,000 of them have signed up, with four more months left to sign the rest of them up.

In California, same story.  They went with their own exchange, and after a slow start, they’re seeing 10, 000 people a day sign up.  And costs are quite a bit lower than projected.

Long-term, how does it work?  The best comparison to Obamacare is still Romneycare, in Massachusetts.  This article gives a pretty balanced and reasonable assessment of the Romneycare experiment: it worked pretty well.  A lot more people got insurance, and most health metrics improved.  Fewer sick people, better health outcomes.  Costs were reasonable, and affordable.  Some people figured out ways to game the system–inevitably.  Certainly voices that say that Obamacare is going to be economically catastrophic have little support for that view based on Massachusetts.

And how’s this for anecdotal evidence: it’s worked great for John Boehner. Yep: the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  He decided to get rid of his government provided health care plan, and get insurance via Obamacare.  In various interviews, he talked about how hard it was for him to navigate the website; how he kept getting error messages. It turned out that while he was giving an interview complaining about it, a representative from was waiting on hold, having called him to see if he could fix the problem.  And waited for 45 minutes.  Finally, though, the Speaker got through, and it turns out that his Obamacare policy is going to cost him more than he was paying via his government policy.

Sixteen dollars more a month.

Okay, so it cost more.  But his government policy (something called FEHBP) was a group policy, specifically designed for government employees.  You’ll need to see the linked story above for details, but his FEHBP insurance policy was very heavily subsidized by the federal government.  The bottom line is that a 64 year old smoker was able to get a first-rate insurance policy, for $433 a month. So how much would an equivalent policy have cost in the bad ‘ol pre-ACA days?  My guess is that he wouldn’t have been insurable, not at all, not by anyone.  Or the only insurance options available would have been insanely expensive.  But the fact is, insurance companies weren’t exactly racing to insure 64 year old smokers in high stress jobs.  And now they are insuring people like Boehner. Because they have to.

Next fall, there’s going to be a national election, and the big issue will be Obamacare, and everything will depend on whether or not the ACA works, whether or not the website works.  And the website is working a lot better now, and will continue to improve.  And the best evidence from the states shows that the health exchanges likewise work really well.

And that’s why I predict that in the 2016 Presidential race, Republicans won’t have any interest in Obamacare as an issue.  Because by then, it will be working pretty well.  Not perfectly, because nothing invented by man works perfectly.  But well enough.  It’s not a great law, but it is a pretty good law; it’s going to help a lot of people, and it’s going to save a lot of lives.

Or not. But right now, most of the evidence is trending towards the ACA working.  Glitchy websites get fixed.  And sick people have a much better chance of getting well.  Something to root for.






The big news on the Sunday talk shows involved Harry Reid ‘going nuclear,’ or ‘choosing the nuclear option,’ which is Washington hyperbole for a relatively minor revision of Senate rules.  Now it’s going to be a little harder for the minority party to filibuster presidential appointees.  Or, as one of my friends put it, ‘the Constitution was hanging by a thread, and was saved by the Priesthood.’  (Harry Reid’s a Mormon High Priest).  I do think filibusters have a certain limited comedic appeal–I think they’re a silly annoyance for people trying to govern.  So good for Senator Reid.

A much more important story, of course, involved real actual nuclear weapons.  Secretary of State Kerry announced what’s basically a first-step agreement with Iran, in which the US would temporarily moderate economic sanctions in exchange for Iran putting a hold on its nuclear program and agreeing to nuclear inspections.  Foreign Ministers from China, Russia, the European Union, France and Iran joined Secretary Kerry in intensive negotiations, which led to the agreement over the past weekend.  This story in the Christian Science Monitor did, I thought, an excellent job describing the deal that was reached.

Not everyone’s happy with it.  Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu called it ‘an historic mistake,’ and promised to work with allies in the US Congress to scuttle it.  Predictably, some of those Congressional friends-of-Israel already started speaking up against it.  On the Sunday talk shows, Bill Kristol and Christianne Amanpour got into it a bit–Kristol, of course, has consistently argued for a US invasion of Iran, or at least, for the US to support an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.  The Saudis are also against it–they have their own Sunni concerns about the possible implications of a Shiite nuclear power in the region.

The US imposed economic sanctions against Iran during the Bush years, joined by many of the countries who had representatives at the table last weekend.  At the time sanctions were imposed, Iran has 160 nuclear centrifuges.  Today, they have around 11,000.  So it’s hard to say ‘we can’t stop sanctions; look how well they’ve worked.’  Import/Export bans have hurt the Iranian economy, and hurt everyday Iranians, but with an authoritarian regime in charge, it’s unclear how much that matters.

But there are several inconvenient facts regarding Iran’s nuclear program that nobody on the Sunday talk shows mentioned at all.

First of all, as my wife is fond of saying, how the heck is it any of our business?  Iran is a sovereign state.  If they want nuclear power, or if they want nuclear medical technology, don’t they have a right to pursue it? 99% of natural uranium ore is in isotope U-238.  Only U-235 is fissile, useful in reactors, useful medically . . . and useful in bombs.  Centrifuges can enrich uranium–turn U-238 to U-235–to around 3.5%.  That’s the level needed for nuclear reactors, and that’s the level most Iranian uranium is enriched to.  It can further be enriched to 20%–medically useful levels.  It needs to be enriched to over 90% to be used in a bomb.  And Iran hasn’t enriched past 20% at all. The fear is that they could.  But the Kerry deal calls for frequent and open inspections.  And the Iranians have agreed to inspections.

Second, countries that are way less stable than Iran have nuclear weapons, and really should be seen as a much bigger threat. Pakistan, for example, has seriously unstable leadership, a major problem with Islamist terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, and a long-time beef with another nuclear power.  Pakistan and India have a long history of violence and war.  And right now, even as we speak, both countries have nuclear weapons.  I’m opposed to nuclear proliferation too–why not start with Pakistan?  And to achieve disarmament, India would need to disarm too, which again, doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.  How ’bout we make those two countries a higher priority.

Third, in opinion poll after opinion poll, the Iranian people favor their country having a nuclear program, including nuclear weapons.  The main value of nukes is psychological–getting nukes is like a country getting to put on its big boy pants.  Iranians are every bit as patriotic about their country as Americans are about ours. And if Iran wants to embrace nuclear power internally, well, that would seem to be their choice.  And that’s the level all their centrifuges are enriching to: nearly all of them are at 3.5%.

Fourth, if we really want to get rid of nuclear weapons internationally, why don’t we Americans set the example?  Why do we need a nuclear arsenal?  Especially since the US nuclear arsenal may well be degrading past the point of working.

I understand that the Israelis see a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel’s very existence.  I get that. And we Americans tend to side with Israel, even when it doesn’t make sense.  This is, however, one of those times when it doesn’t make sense.

Let the process work.  This is a good preliminary deal, and it sets up better deals in the future.  Well done, Secretary Kerry.



Jon Stewart: dead wrong about something

I love The Daily Show. I watch it every morning–can’t stay up late enough to watch it live–and I think its incredibly funny.  He’s been wrong a lot lately, but that doesn’t change the fact that Jon Stewart is the most consistently funny political comedian of my lifetime, and a thoughtful and incisive interviewer.

People get two things wrong about Jon.  First of all, Jon’s favorite targets are not politicians or policies, but the media’s coverage of them.  He loves to attack Fox News, for example, because he thinks their particular brand of ideologically driven news is really really funny.  But he attacks CNN as much or more, because their desperation for ratings gives their broadcasts a show-offy edge that’s hilarious.  It’s been interesting to watch Jon’s coverage recently of Toronto mayor Rob Ford.  I mean, you have to cover Rob Ford if you’re a politically-inclined comedian.  “I only smoke crack cocaine when I’m in a drunken stupor in my basement.  Only then.”  That’s funny stuff.  But Jon clearly feels guilty–well, ambivalent– about it.  Let’s face it, Rob Ford is a guy with a serious, life-threatening problem.  If he drops dead, that’s not so funny.

Jon does get into politics, a lot, and he’s never funnier than when he’s really really ticked off about something.  And I tend to agree with him.  This creates the impression that he’s a serious political player, a commentator who we should listen to and regard.  I don’t think that’s true, mostly.  He’s a comedian.  As he puts it, “I don’t think what I do is honorable.  But I try to do it honorably.”

But on one issue, he’s completely, wholly, entirely wrong.  And it’s an issue he’s spent two whole shows on recently.  And I have to speak up here.  Friends tell friends the truth, and Jon, I’m sorry, but you’re allowing your own parochial provincialism to blind you to the truth of things.  Here’s Jon’s initial rant. I’ll grant you, it’s passionate, strongly stated.  Colorful images and metaphors.  But I’m here to tell you something you clearly need to hear.

Chicago-style stuffed pizza is delicious.

In grad school, I worked for three years in a pizza parlor.  Garcia’s Pizza, it was called, owned by a company called the Flying Tomato Brothers.  We sold deep dish pizza by the slice.  And then we expanded, and included a stuffed pizza option. It didn’t take long for stuffed to dominate our menu. I still make it at home, for my kids.  It’s incredible pizza.  It’s amazing.

And yes, I’ve been to New York.  I’ve eaten New York style flat pizza.  And I’m a civilized human being.  I eat New York pizza the way God intended, off a paper plate, folded.  Skinny end first.  And it’s okay.  It’s not bad, as a change of pace.  For those days when you really feel more like crust, and are willing to short-change the cheese and the sauce.

What New York pizza really does, though, is emphasize pepperoni.  And pepperoni, though tasty, gives people heartburn.  That’s the whispered secret behind why New Yorkers are so in-your-face confrontational.

When you go to New York, you become a New Yorker; that’s just basic survival.  I remember flying into Kennedy from overseas one time.  We were standing in a line waiting to go through customs.  Each person in line was going to a different customs official, and then the line would re-form as we headed to ground transport.  As we approached the customs desks, the woman ahead of me said, in that strident New York accent, “when we get through customs, and go back in line, I’m still ahead of you.  I’m not arguin’, just bein’ informational.  I’m in front.”  ‘Infumational’ is how she put it. And she wasn’t kidding.  If my customs guy was faster than hers, it was my obligation to wait for her to finish, so she could still be ahead of me in line.  And she wasn’t confronting me about this fact; she was informing me of it.  She was in front of me.  Just sayin’.

There’s an appropriate New York response to that and similar announcements, I’ve learned.  It consists of two words, the second one ‘you’, the first one beginning with the letter ‘f.’  But I’m a nice Mormon boy from Indiana/Utah.  I allowed myself to be cowed.  Intimidated.  By a fifty-ish red-haired woman a foot and a half shorter than I am.  I finished with customs first, then waited so she could be ahead of me in the next line.

But why would she say that?  Why would she be ‘infumational’ on that point, so confrontational, with a total stranger.  The real answer, I’m convinced, is New York pizza.  The pure acidulous pepperoni, unleavened and untamed by copious amounts of mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce, had curdled the milk of human kindness in her.  She had been raised to eat pizza aggressively, folding the crust, biting down in the tip.  Instead of savoring it, on a plate, with a knife and fork, and really getting the full flavor of all that melted mozz.

Jon did make amends, after a Chicago restauranteur came by the show with some deep dish, allowing as how it was ‘tasty.’  But what the guy gave him was just deep dish, maybe with a hint of stuffed crust.  It wasn’t full blown stuffed pizza, the kind Jon–in what I can only defend as a sad lapse caused by short-term temporary early-onset dementia– had referred to as ‘a marinara bath for rats.’   Even Jon’s new pizza mogul friend dismissively called stuffed pizza ‘a casserole.’  It saddens me. Jon Stewart, who I love and admire, is closing himself off to one of the essential joys of the human experience; one of the world’s culinary treasures.  I’d bake him a stuffed crust pizza myself, if only he could be persuaded to come to my home so I could cook it for him.

He’s also wrong about Hawaiian.  Deep dish pizza with ham and pineapple–the sweetness of the fruit setting off the tartness of the sauce–is another treasure.  But Jon may be confused.  He called ham and pineapple ‘California’ pizza.  And California does indeed do terrible things to pizza.  Close to my home is a California Pizza Kitchen, part of that chain.  They sell many many varieties of pizza there, all of them, without exception, completely inedible.  It amazes me–I’ve seen people go in there, sit down, and pay good cash money for pizza that tastes like someone poured catsup on a soda cracker.  Of their own free will and choice!?!?!?  Sometimes I don’t understand people.

So I get it, and I agree there are some things civilized human beings simply must never do.  Put chicken on pizza, for example.  Or buy Little Caesars on the way home from work.  Or Dominos.  (Pizza Hut and Pizzaria 712 are the only home delivery options worth eating in Provo).  Brick Oven makes an okay pizza in Provo, though I’m not a huge fan of their crust.  But ham and pineapple is terrific.  And stuffed crust is the best. The best.  Ever.

And when in New York, sort of as part of your overall cultural experience, a New York flat pizza can be choked down without too much difficulty.  It goes 1) stuffed; 2) deep dish Hawaiian; 3) other deep dish; 4) commercial delivery pizza, 5) New York pizza, 6) every other kind of pizza imaginable; 7) cardboard, covered with Heinz; 8) California Pizza Kitchen.

And yes, I’ve had Italian pizza, in Italy.  It’s basically flavored bread.



President Kennedy

One of the first events from my childhood that I still remember in some detail is the Kennedy assassination.  Thinking about it, I posted this on Facebook:

My 2nd grade teacher was Miss Smith, and she was young and beautiful and loved every one of us, and loved great books and little boys who would rather read than play. And then one day, the principal came to the door of her classroom, and Miss Smith went to talk to her, and when she came back, she was crying. And that was shocking, because Miss Smith always, always smiled. And she said someone had shot the President, and we were to go home early.
And on my way home, my Dad saw me walking and picked me up, and he looked like he’d been crying too. And my Dad never cried.
And when the afternoon newspaper arrived, with the huge headlines, I read the story, all of it, the first time I’d read a newspaper story, and I only had to ask my Mom twice what the big words meant. And one of those big words was ‘assassinated.’ And everything in the world felt different.

Jackie Kennedy did not want the President to go to Texas.  She certainly didn’t want to go with him.  Nor did Kennedy think the Texas trip would accomplish much.  Texas Democratic infighting was, in the Presidents’ mind, more the province of Lyndon Johnson.  But he was committed to getting a major civil rights bill passed, and he wanted to see for himself how people might react to it. Kennedy was an excellent public speaker, but more than that, he was extraordinarily sensitive to audiences–he could read a crowd better than most public individuals. I think he wanted to see how Southerners responded to a civil rights initiative.

And Jackie wanted to come with him. Their marriage, always rocky, was probably happier in November 1963 than ever before.  The tragic death of their infant son, Patrick, seems to have caused Kennedy to reassess his relationship with his wife.  He’d distanced himself from several of his mistresses, including White House intern Mimi Alford, and Pamela Turnure, Jackie’s appointments secretary. But he’d dropped Turnure, and was no longer seeing Alford. He and Jackie were seen holding hands in public.  She went to Dallas because he asked her to.

So, how effective was his Presidency?  Dylan Matthews, on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, published this takedown today, making six arguments for why Kennedy shouldn’t be considered a great president.  Let me respond:

1) The Cuban Missile Crisis was his fault.

This argument displays historical ignorance of the first order.  It doesn’t matter that the Soviets had nuclear submarines, and could get missiles closer to the US than Cuba was.  That’s irrelevant, in the context of the Cold War. For Khrushchev to place Soviet missiles in Cuba was a deliberately provocative act. Matthews suggests that the Soviets put missiles there to forestall an American invasion.  Matthews cites John Lewis Gaddis, suggesting that Kennedy misunderstood the placement of the Cuban missiles as an attempt to give the Soviets an edge in a nuclear exchange; really, Khrushchev was just helping Castro out.  Sorry, but if Kennedy thought Cuban missiles off the coast of Florida was outrageous, he was joined by basically everyone else, here and abroad. And after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy wasn’t about to invade Cuba again.  In fact, Matthews ignores the very real peace negotiations that Kennedy had opened up with Castro throughout September and October of 1963.

2) The Bay of Pigs invasion was Kennedy’s fault.

Kennedy took full blame for it, too.  But it was an ill-planned left-over from the Eisenhower administration.  Kennedy was always skeptical about its chance for success, as was most of his administration.  But the military establishment was enthusiastic, and he didn’t think he could begin his Presidency by ignoring their advice.

3) He escalated in Vietnam.

Essentially every major historian who has studied the Kennedy administration agrees; Kennedy knew that Vietnam was a loser, and that the domino theory justifying our involvement there was nonsense.  Matthews says that Kennedy was ‘influenced’ by Maxwell Taylor, who was urging escalation.  But what this ignores is what seems to me an essential point: Kennedy had served in the military. He was a genuine war hero.  And he was perfectly aware that the orders that had sent his PT boat into battle against overwhelming odds were idiotic. And the Bay of Pigs confirmed his already low opinion of his own military commanders. He did not glamorize generals, or take their advice all that seriously, unlike Lyndon Johnson, who was all too aware of his own lack of military service, and seriously unwilling to ignore the advice his commanders gave him. Kennedy had been to Vietnam with Bobby before his election. Every indication suggests that Kennedy would have figured out how to pull out of Vietnam after being re-elected in ’64.  He just couldn’t say so, and risk being painted as ‘soft on communism’ before the election.

4) He backed an ill-advised coup in Iran.

Yep.  Guilty as charged.  The Cold War warped leaders in strange ways; even someone as self-aware and ironic as Jack Kennedy.  It didn’t happen on his watch, but he did support the overthrow of Mohammed Mossedegh.  And he shouldn’t have.

5) He went way too slowly on civil rights.

Well, he did more for civil rights than any previous president.  He faced intractable opposition among Senate Dixiecrats, but he still pushed for the Civil Rights bill that Lyndon Johnson eventually got through.  And LBJ’s main selling point was ‘Jack wanted it.’  Which no one really argued with.  Kennedy was aware that he’d moved too slowly on civil rights.  He also knew he’d be able to do more after winning re-election in ’64.

6) He passed no domestic legislation of any consequence.

Well, let’s see.  There’s the Equal Pay Act of ’63, the first major legislation intended to end pay inequity by gender.  The Space program was obviously a huge goal and achievement.  He passed a major tax cut, a Keynesian stimulus bill that led to significant economic growth.  (Remember, the top tax bracket previously was 91%).  He increased Social Security benefits, and increased welfare spending.

And what Matthews ignores is probably the greatest speech of Kennedy’s presidency: his American University speech.  It was a clarion call for peace, for a negotiated end to nuclear weapons. And Kennedy’s actions matched his words, negotiating a test ban treaty with Khrushchev, and then getting the Senate to ratify it.  Granted, that first treaty was only the first step in a long process of arms reduction that continues today, but it was the first step, and Kennedy fully intended to follow it up.

All this suggests to me that Kennedy’s second term would have been remarkable, as positive as Lyndon Johnson’s, but unmarred by Vietnam. Two things may have stopped him.  First, Kennedy’s health was never good, and he lied about it.  Bright’s disease could well have killed him before he could complete a second term.

But anyone today assessing Kennedy’s presidency has to take into account his womanizing.  The establishment press agreed to a conspiracy of silence regarding his affairs, but in ’63, the first cracks in that wall had started to appear.  The Bobby Baker scandal had begun to rock the Washington political world even as Kennedy flew to Dallas.  Baker was a political operative, a Democratic shaker and mover, a lobbyist who started the Quorum Club just off the Senate office building, a convivial place where lobbyists, businessmen and Congresspeople could meet.  And Baker was the man who introduced Kennedy to Ellen Rometsch, a German woman who was, quite probably, an East German spy.  He was also the middle-man in the relationship between Kennedy and Judith Exner, who was also the mistress of mob boss Sam Giancana.  Baker was, in short, someone who knew everything.  And he was under investigation in 1963, by the FBI and, worse, the press.

So who knows.  It’s quite possible that Kennedy, if he had won a second term, could have enjoyed a transformative Presidency.  It’s also possible that his almost incredible personal recklessness and moral laxity could have destroyed his Presidency.  We’ll never know.

What we do know is that Jack Kennedy’s Presidency was unfinished, a work in progress, and that the last 90 days of it reveal a greater potential for true greatness than the blunders of his first 90 days would seem to suggest.  And that the life and work of this extraordinary man was ended by a smirking, cowardly, miserable, abusive nullity of a man, Lee Harvey Oswald. That tragedy has scarred our nation for fifty years.  Let’s hope it never happens again.



The Constitution: how it actually works

From time to time, I find myself having one of those utterly pointless arguments on-line with one or another of my Tea Party Constitutionalist friends, usually over Obamacare and its presumed unconstitutionality.  The arguments and counter-arguments are as predictable and compulsory as the steps of a quadrille.  My esteemed adversary starts with Article One Section Eight of the Constitution, which enumerates 17 duties of Congress, none of which involves regulating health care.  That means that health care falls under the 10th Amendment; it’s a state duty, something the federal government is prohibited from dealing with.  There are two possible responses.  The first is that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was passed by the House and the Senate, signed into law by the President, and found constitutional by the Supreme Court.  Ipso facto: it’s constitutional. That’s actually the only argument that matters.  But we can engage him on his own turf if we want to: Article One Section Eight begins by stating “The Congress shall have power  to . . . provide for the general welfare.”  The seventeen enumerated duties are best understood as suggestions, as describing the kinds of things Congress can and should do.  Plus, one of the enumerated duties is “regulate interstate commerce,” which health care absolutely is–commerce, which crosses state lines.  So it’s constitutional.

And then we shout at each other for awhile.  “Emumerated duties!  Tenth Amendment!” “General Welfare clause! Fourteenth Amendment!”  Very entertaining.  Not.

I mean, look, it’s great that people are reading the Constitution.  But governing in the 21st century should involve a lot more than a knack for parsing eighteenth century texts.  It’s quite true that the Framers didn’t say anything about health care in the Constitution. Neither did they say a word about regulating television stations, air traffic control, or gene splicing.  Imagine it: “Congress shall have power to regulate health care, if, in future, the practice of medicine improves to the point that doctors can actually make sick people better.”

The Constitution was written in intentionally spare prose, laying out general principles of governance, without tying down future generations with overly prescriptive specifics.  Tea Party Constitutionalists try to impose on the Constitutional text a sort of fundamentalist reading, just as Christian fundamentalists try to impose a literalist reading onto the Bible.  Even when it doesn’t make sense.  And it doesn’t mostly, in either case.

The Constitution isn’t just a document, it’s history, tradition, practice.  It’s a series of ideas that become constituted into our political culture. It’s not a straitjacket, binding us; it’s liberating, empowering.  It’s never meant to prevent Americans from doing essential things that need to be done.

Case in point: Thomas Jefferson, in 1803.  In Washington’s Farewell address, he had said “it is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”  Jefferson, in his Inaugural Address in 1801, put it more strongly, calling for “honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”  A nice sentiment, but Europe was plenty entangled, engaged in a massive war, with basically all European nations either allied with or against Napoleonic France.  A despot, a tyrant, a power-mad dictator, Napoleon, intent on world conquest, and against him, really just England, comparatively democratic, but only comparatively, and a nation from whom we had just freed ourselves.  And Napoleon was making noises about expanding his empire to the New World.  France had acquired, in 1800, vast amounts of American territory–what was then called ‘Louisiana’, but extending all the way to Oregon–from Spain.  Haiti, just off the American coast, was convulsed in a slave rebellion, led by one of the most remarkable and tragic figures of the period, the extraordinary Toussaint L’Ouverture; Napoleon had sent twenty thousand troops to overthrow him, and was assembling a huge fleet to support that effort.  Could he send another army to Louisiana?  If so, would he attempt to overthrow the US?  Jefferson sent James Monroe to France to see what diplomacy could accomplish.

A lot, it turned out.  France’s Haitian adventure had ended in disaster, with yellow fever wiping out most of Napoleon’s army.  His navy was iced in off the coast of Holland.  Napoleon was in the mood to deal, and he needed cash.  We could buy Louisiana for $15 million.

The Constitution does not permit the President of the United States to acquire territory via purchase.  It does not specifically permit Congress to do it either.  And Jefferson believed in limited government, and in a strict construction of the Constitutional text.  In fact, he’d been elected President on just such a platform. So his first thought was to pursue a Constitutional amendment.  But amendments take awhile, and this deal was on the table now.  And Napoleon was not a man known for patience and forbearance, and he continued to have ambitions in our hemisphere. (In fact, after Waterloo, in exile, Napoleon continued to scheme; if he could raise another army, he’d take French Canada, and from there, the United States.  Dangerous dude).

So what to do?  On the one hand, the Constitution did not allow the purchase. On the other hand, Louisiana was huge, and immensely valuable, and available at a very reasonable price.  So Jefferson did it.  Here’s his reasoning:

To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life liberty, property and all of those who are enjoying them with us: thus absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means.

Sophistry?  Maybe.  But what do we know Jefferson’s Presidency for?  First and foremost, the Louisiana Purchase.  I might note that Jefferson bought it from France, without consulting with the various native peoples who actually lived there.  Still, it made our country.  It was huge.

And his speech, justifying it?  Lincoln loved that speech.  He expanded on the thought thus:

The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or can not, so well do,  for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.

Such as, for example, one of the great Lincoln innovations, the Homestead Act.  Property redistribution is not, as it happens, specified as an enumerated duty in Article One Section Eight.  (Like expanding health care coverage to everyone). Lincoln did it anyway, because it was a good idea, well worth implementing.

Another example: the First Amendment.  “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  Clear enough: Congress can’t restrict free speech.  Well, all right, what about the President?  If Congress can’t restrict free speech, can the executive branch?  What about governors?  What about state legislatures?  What about city mayors?  The Constitution doesn’t say one word about mayors.

Specifically, let’s suppose the mayor of Provo, where I live, got the City Council to pass a city ordinance that prohibited billboards, yard signs, or any other advertising for any other candidates for mayor?  What if he prohibited the local newspaper from publishing unflattering stories about his actions as mayor? Or public speakers–what if they weren’t allowed to speak out against him, at all, ever?  (Let me hasten to add that our current mayor would never do anything of the kind).  Would that be legal?  Would it be constitutional?

Of course not.  It doesn’t matter that the Constitution says ‘Congress shall make no laws. . . .” When the Framers wrote that, they asserted that freedom of speech, especially political speech, is a central American value.  No one in government, at any level, can abridge it.  (We should point out that an actual Founder Father DID try to abridge when he became President, when John Adams got Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.  And that we today consider it the biggest blunder of his Presidency).

But let’s suppose that our fictional Mayor was troubled by some group that put up billboards using offensively racist language, arguing that African Americans be lynched.  Let’s suppose that he ordered city police to tear that billboard down.  Would he be justified?  The text of the Constitution doesn’t help us out here; it just says that ‘Congress’ can’t abridge the ‘freedom of speech.’

But we have centuries of tradition and precedent going on here.  A public billboard can’t be used for inflammatory speech calculated to disturb the peace.  Precedent and tradition says the Mayor could declare that billboard a public nuisance; that some speech is not constitutionally protected; shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, for example.

And when we talk about ‘freedom of speech,’ we think of it as part of ‘the Constitution.’  And we’re right to do so, because in addition to the text of the Constitution is our tradition with it, our practice with it, the way it informs our everyday discourse, the way it interacts with our culture.  It doesn’t matter that the phrase separation of Church and State’ isn’t found in the Constitution–that phrase describes the way the First Amendment actually functions in American society.  It’s constituted in our institutions, it’s constituted in our practices, it’s constituted in our hearts.

That’s the glory of the Constitution, not a narrow parsing of its deliberately (at times) ambiguous text, but the way it really, actually works.  We use the constitution, the way a carpenter uses a really good tool. And that’s why Obamacare’s constitutional.









Sleepy Hollow

Years ago, I taught a class in television writing, and as part of that class, we watched every new fall show on the major networks.  From time to time, just for fun, I do it again, and this fall was no exception.  And we learned, unsurprisingly, that most of the new offerings were terrible.  Many have, in fact, already been canceled.  But there are often standouts, and for my wife and I, one such standout is Fox’s show Sleepy Hollow.  It supposed to be an expansion of the Washington Irving short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  It is that, with maybe some overtones of Rip Van Winkle; it also owes massive amounts to the Bible, specifically John’s  Revelation.

The premise of the show is that Ichabod Crane, a former member of George Washington’s staff, fell in battle during the Revolutionary War, but was wakened now, today, 2013.  One of his last memories before his ‘death’ was beheading a Hessian soldier, then seeing the headless horseman rise and continue fighting.

Ichabod Crane, in the Irving short story, is a schoolteacher.  Irving describes him very specifically:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

That hardly describes Tom Mison, who plays Ichabod Crane on the TV series. You may remember the actor as Emily Blunt’s lost-and-returned soldier husband in Salmon Fishing on the Yemen, an unusually good rom-com I’m pretty fond of.  Mison is, I am reliably told by the womenfolk in my life, a hottie.  He’s good looking, charming, long-haired and athletic, and on the TV series, he plays, not Crane the oddball schoolteacher, but Crane the military officer, with an officer’s command and presence.  The show is about the return of the Headless Horseman, and Ichabod’s partnership with a modern cop, Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie, as they fight not just the Horseman of Irving’s story, but the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and other forces of Biblical evil, gathering for the End of Days.

Obviously, one issue in a show like this is the deliberate anachronism of an 18th century American in 21st century New England.  How would a Revolutionary soldier deal with a world of automobiles, cell phones, television–heck, even radio?  How would he deal with highways and traffic lights, fast food and billboards and all of it?  Zippers.  Chewing gum.  ATMs. Velcro.  Everything.

What makes it work for me, though, is something that’s basically a throw-away line in the exposition–the idea that he was on ‘General Washington’s staff.’  Because that’s a tremendously suggestive notion.

Because George Washington’s staff, man, there’s a group with some serious talent.  That was one extraordinary bunch of young men.  One of the less celebrated aspects of Washington’s leadership was his ability to identify, assemble and inspire young talent.  If we can place young Ichabod in that group, that tells us a lot about him.  And that group included people like Edmund Randolph, the first US Attorney-General, John Trumbull, one of the first great US painters, plus any number of future Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, Mayors.

Two men from Washington’s staff every knows about.  One was Alexander Hamilton.  He was twenty in 1776 (or nineteen, or twenty-one–he was never sure), a poor kid from the West Indies, son of unmarried parents, orphaned at the age of ten (or so), self-educated. But he was apprenticed to a merchant, made his way to New York, got a better education at Columbia, made himself known with his pen. Washington tried him as captain of an artillery regiment, at which he excelled.  We know Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury, as the one real economist among the Founders.  But as a young man, he showed signs of military genius–Washington made him chief-of-staff.

The other guy we’ve heard of is Lafayette.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette–another teenager, who had every early advantage Hamilton lacked, but who shared Hamilton’s precocious military genius, and the man the childless Washington regarded as a son. Lafayette was Washington’s conscience, even purchasing a West Indian plantation and freeing his slaves, to prove to his mentor that it was possible to run a for-profit plantation while paying your workers a living wage.  He wanted Cayenne to become as famous as Mount Vernon or Monticello; sadly, he lost it in the Terror, and his freed slaves were murdered in a civil war.

But most relevant to Sleepy Hollow may be John Laurens.  Laurens was twenty two when the Revolution began, son of a wealthy South Carolina planter, exiled to London to finish his education when the war began.  On the TV series, Ichabod Crane says he was educated in London–as was Laurens.  Crane says he studied law, philosophy and science, and read very widely–that was also Laurens’ curriculum.  But Laurens, despite his upbringing as a slave-owners son, was passionately opposed to the institution of chattel slavery.  He tried to free South Carolina’s slaves, and form an army of freed slaves, and lead it to battle against the British.  Had he succeeded, he may well have stopped the British from taking the South.  But Laurens was opposed by the Southern aristocracy, and was eventually killed, in 1782, in a small battle of little importance.  He was an astonishingly brave, idealistic and brilliant young man; sadly, men like him are often the first casualties of any war.

In the TV series, Ichabod Crane almost immediately accepts the brave new world in which he finds himself, and adjusts almost immediately to, for example, cars.  For most men of the late 18th century, this would not be dramatically plausible.  But Laurens, say, or Hamilton, or Lafayette were men of the enlightenment. They expected scientific progress. A young gentleman of their class and period would be expected to read broadly in science and engineering, in addition to law or political philosophy. Once they got over the immediate shock of discovering themselves in 2013, they could quite likely take new technology in stride.

Crane also partners up with a 2013 police officer, an African-American woman.  And yes, for an 18th century man, this would require considerable mental adjustment.  But less than you’d think.  Remember that Lafayette and Laurens were passionately opposed to slavery, and passionately committed to the notion that blacks were equal to whites in every sense except opportunity–that, given education and the chance to advance themselves, former slaves could do anything they wanted with their lives.  Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, suggested that slavery was congenial to blacks, because they lacked the capacity for education and reason.  Laurens was from Jefferson’s culture and class, but could not have disagreed more vehemently.  Again, for almost any other 18th century young man, a police lieutenant of African descent would be unthinkable.  For a ‘member of Washington’s staff,’ it would be, more or less, what they would expect of the future.  The bigger shock, in fact, may well be that a woman could be a cop. But then, their culture didn’t have cops either, and in the Revolution they may have seen women in combat. Molly Pitcher, anyone?

In fact, the one adjustment to modern life that Ichabod makes most easily is his ready acceptance of magic and miracles–the Four Horsemen, the witches and ghouls and other Biblical manifestations.  Washington’s staffers, like the General himself, were thorough-going Deists every last man-jack of them; hard-headed rationalists who understood the universe through the metaphor of a timepiece–once wound by God, it’s meant to just keep ticking.  The supernatural bits in Sleepy Hollow are what should throw Ichabod for a loop.  But this particular enlightenment man was, in his previous life, supposedly married to a witch (a good witch, we’re hastily assured), so he’s pretty used to odd stuff going on.

So that part’s pretty silly.  But it allows the show’s producers to wave their magic CGI wands, plus, you know, it’s a show about a 250 year old man, so it can’t be entirely realism.  Thanks to young Tom Mison’s charisma and skill, Ichabod’s a most compelling character, and Beharie’s great too–they have great chemistry in what’s basically a buddy-cop movie, with witches and Headless Horsemen.  Anyway, we’re big fans, and have fewer problems suspending disbelief than you might expect. Catch it if you can; Fox, Monday nights.



Ender’s Game: Review

So, yes, I saw Ender’s Game.  My wife and I saw it, and enjoyed it. I was expecting a big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movie, maybe a bit more thoughtful than most, and that’s what I got.  It was good.  Harrison Ford was great, and Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley, and the kid, Asa Butterfield, who played Ender, was very good.  And Hailee Steinfeld, so amazing in the Coens’ True Grit was also good in this, though playing a much less interesting character.  It felt a bit generic, honestly, like a lot of other big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movies. It really only surprised me once; otherwise, I felt like I was always a couple of steps ahead of it.  But it looked terrific, and clipped along, and I found it a satisfying movie experience.  It wasn’t until I got home that the movie got under my skin a little.  I found thinking about it . . . uncomfortable.  And that did surprise me, in a good way.

Example of generic movie predictability: Ender goes to this super-cool space warrior academy place, and there’s the prototypical hard-ass sergeant, Sgt. Dap.  I’ve seen the actor a lot: Nonso Anozie’s in that new Dracula TV series, plus he was in Game of Thrones, also The Grey, also Conan the Barbarian.  He’s got a memorable face.  Anyway, he’s a movie drill sergeant–tough as nails, scary. mean.  And at one point he says to Ender, “I will never salute you.”  Which obviously means that later in the movie, there’ll be this touching moment where Dap salutes Ender. I mean, we’ve see a million ‘army trainee deals with tough drill instructor’ movies; the sarge is rough on the guys, but it’s only because he loves them and wants them to succeed, a truth they eventually learn in the harsh crucible of actual combat.

Basically, that’s the entire movie–young Ender rising through the ranks of a military academy.  It’s a little less suspenseful than most movies of its ilk, though, because Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff (the academy commander) has this huge totally hetero man-crush on young Ender–is convinced that this kid will save mankind.  Which he says over and over again, especially in all these otherwise pointless scenes with Viola Davis, who brings her usual integrity to the otherwise thankless role of Graff’s subordinate, Major Anderson.  Usual stuff–‘you’re being too hard on him,’ ‘I’m preparing him for combat, damnit!’  Anyway, because it’s Harrison Ford (who looks terrific) saying it, we believe him, and it turns out he’s right. Of course.  And she’s sort of right too, we know, because it’s Viola Davis–she’s always right and good.

So it all looked great, and was well acted, and we like Ender, sort of, and want him to succeed, kind of.  By which I mean, he seems like a nice kid and all, and we’re always sympathetic to bullying victims, but his method of dealing with bullies does strike us as, perhaps, a teensy bit, uh, permanent?

And that’s the element that makes the movie just a little bit interesting.  What Colonel Graff sees in Ender is a mix of the two qualities Graff thinks epitomize great military leaders–compassion, and ruthlessness.  And those aren’t actually qualities that strike us as complementary.  Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War’s greatest general, (Grant, not Lee, BTW), hated seeing dead and wounded soldiers.  He was visibly moved when he saw battlefield casualties; sometimes he drank.  But he did send men to battle, to die in great numbers.  He didn’t relish doing it, but he did it.  Lord Nelson’s men wept when he died; they loved him, because they sensed how much he loved them.  Lord Nelson, whose career was defined by his reckless disregard for casualties, for the desperate risks he took with the ships and men under his command.  Loved, because of how deeply he loved.

Orson Scott Card takes it a step further.  A great military commander has to love his enemy.  He has to love him, in order to kill him.  A great military commander can’t win without understanding his enemy, without compassionately understanding the culture of the enemy.  To really know someone is, to some degree, to fall in love with them. And I think that’s a neat idea for a movie, but I don’t necessarily grant that it’s true.  It’s perfectly possible for a genuinely great, highly successful general to also be a sociopath. Genghis Khan?  Attilla the Hun? And even a compassionate military commander has to simultaneously be willing to kill, to kill in great numbers.  Sitting Bull understood the white men Custer commanded better than Custer knew them, which is why the Lakota won at the Little Big Horn.

Key to the story is the notion that children are likely to be better at combat than grown-ups will be.  So is that true?  Better at technology, intuitively better?  Certainly.  Better at videogaming?  Possibly.  Better at leading men into battle?  I’m more skeptical–leadership’s a complex thing.  But that’s not how this film imagines futuristic combat taking place.  This film imagines space ships dueling; sort of akin to WWII fighter plane battles.  The Battle of Britain, in space, perhaps.  And wasn’t the Battle of Britain won on the fields of Eton? (Actually no; the RAF was comprised of pilots from all social classes).  Who is the greatest general who ever lived, the most successful and ruthless?  Napolean, maybe? Hannibal, Julius Caesar?  Who is the greatest young general?  Alexander the Great. So is that who Ender is?  Alexander?  It does sort of work.

And if that’s the case, the movie fails, because although Asa Butterfield is fine as Ender, and Ender is a well-written and interesting character, he’s neither as charismatic as Alexander, or anywhere near as ruthless.  He’s a nice kid who is really good at video games.

Spoiler alert: the movie’s turning point comes later in Ender’s training.  He’s got a cadre of sub-commanders, and he’s given a game simulation; the destruction of the home planet of the Formecs, the ant-like insect people who nearly destroyed the Earth years before, and who seem to be gathering their forces for another attack. His strategy works, the Formecs are (at least notionally) defeated, and Ender is momentarily exultant.  But as the simulation continues, and he sees, in detail, the eradication of an entire sentient species, Ender can’t handle it.  He’s distraught, beside himself.  That’s what they want him to do?  Genocide?  That’s what he’s been training for?

It’s a powerful moment, and it moves the movie beyond generic conventionality.  It reminds me of the Mormon overtones to a lot of OSC’s work–Ender, to some degree, is Nephi, standing over the drunken Laban, trying to decide if he can kill him.  It gives the movie some philosophic resonance beyond its space-opera-plus-public-school movie roots.

But also this: as an American, I know my nation’s prosperity is built on a foundation of genocide.  Or twin foundations: genocide and slavery.  As a human being, though, I don’t ever really consider this: the evolutionary tree of humanity probably had two great branches, homo sapiens, and homo neaderthalensis.  Neanderthals had larger brains than humans, and stronger upper bodies.  But some combination of climate change and–let’s admit it–warfare probably led to Neanderthal extinction.

Human beings are capable of kindness, charity, compassion, love.  But we’re also the most ruthless and successful predators our planet has ever seen.  We’re meant to recoil a bit from Colonel Graf’s insistence that wiping out all Formecs everywhere is necessary for the survival of our species. But we need to admit that (hypothetically, fictionally) he may be right, and if he is right, we’d do it.  Ender grows to love the Formecs, as Graf said he would need to–you have to love your enemy in order to destroy him.  That (obviously debatable) notion is at the center of this film.  But the film’s final images are of Ender heading off, alone, with a Formec queen, looking for a new planet for this enemy to settle.

I think that’s what raises this movie beyond its otherwise generic appearance.  All movie wrestle with ideas.  Even, say, Taken, asks ‘what would you do if your children were kidnapped?’  The answer in that movie is moronic, because it’s a moronic movie, but it does at least momentarily raise a moderately interesting question.  So does Ender’s Game, I think. How would humanity respond if our survival as a species was at risk?  How far would we go?  (And we never, absolutely never even think about the Neanderthal answer to that question, and we avoid whenever possible facing up to the Native American/African slave answers of our more recent past).  Ender faces that question, and recoils from it.  And then. . . . the movie ends, setting up a sequel. Which I will see.

I think the movie raises some interesting and uncomfortable questions.  I applaud it for doing so, because it’s otherwise a big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movie, a genre not known for profundity.  And I’m not sure it’s actually profound.  But I found it unsettling, and that’s a great accomplishment for a movie.


Terrible people: great art

My wife and I are going to see the Ender’s Game movie tonight.  Ever since it was announced, I had friends who would ask me, sometimes rather challengingly, ‘are you planning to see it?’  I guess because I’m a well-known leftie, pinko commie, and Orson Scott Card has said some things that, uh, suggest he isn’t.

So there’s a boycott.  And it’s the kind of boycott that someone like me seems likely to support.  So do I support it?  Am I going to see the movie?  Let me end the suspence: my wife and I have purchased tickets already.  We’re seeing the movie.

I read Ender’s Game many years ago. I liked it.  I especially liked the triumph of a kid who was victim of bullies.  I could relate to it.  It wasn’t my favorite book ever or anything–I preferred Frank Herbert’s Dune–but I thought it was good.

In recent months, though, OSC seems to have begun, for whatever reason, positioning himself at the Jon McNaughton end of the political spectrum.  His right as an American, of course, just as it’s my right to write long blog posts taking issue with his views. Whatever; he’s a fine novelist and a brother in the gospel.  He also has weird ideas about President Obama, and ideas about gay rights I don’t agree with.  Free country.

But boycott the movie?  No, I don’t think so. No way.  First, because I have no intention of depriving myself of the pleasure of seeing a movie I’ve wanted to see for years.  I’ve read mixed reviews; I have to think, though, that it’s going to be better than the movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Lo freaking l.

The larger question, though, is this: do we not see various works of art based on our personal disapproval of the lifestyle, ideas or personal obnoxiousness of the artist.  Pablo Picasso was a pig; does that negate the extraordinary beauty of Guernica?  Richard Wagner was a womanizer and seducer, who held utterly disgusting political views; does that prevent me from attending a performance of Tannhäuser?

When I was in grad school, working on my dissertation, I was allowed a dedicated desk in the library.  It was soon piled high with Ibseniana. The desk next to mine was equally covered with books about Bertold Brecht; the desk of my friend Cynthia, who was working on BB for her dissertation.  One day, we were both up there, and she was reading her stuff and taking notes, and I was reading mine, and she sighed, sat back, and said to me, “what’s it feel like studying someone who was, at least, a decent, moral human being?”  Which Brecht was not.

Except, except.  I’m an Ibsen scholar and an Ibsen translator; I think Henrik Johan was one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived, part of a holy trinity that includes Shakespeare and Sophocles.  So you study him, and sure, he was obnoxious.  Grumpy, irritable, egotistical.  But anyone who studies Ibsen seriously runs, soon enough, into the Emilie Bardach problem.  The Helene Raff problem. And the Hildur Andersen problem. Ibsen, in his sixties, liked young women.  He certainly had an affair with Emilie Bardach–her journal and letters have been recently discovered.  He spent huge amounts of time with Andersen and Raff–teenage girls.  It’s quite possible, in fact, that Ibsen was, by our standard, a pedophile.

And he wrote about it.  Only one character appears in two of his plays; Hilde Wangel.  We meet her as a teenager in The Lady From the Sea, and she reappears as a twenty-year-old in The Master Builder.  And The Master Builder is about an elderly artist, past his prime, who is inspired to greatness again by a relationship with a fascinating young woman.

Here’s the thing: it’s also a tremendous play.  It’s terrific.  It’s creepy and has weirdly pedophiliac overtones, but it’s also brilliant. A good play can do that, can show a mutually destructive and icky relationship between a really old guy and a really young woman, and turn it into art. Does it excuse pedophilia?  Portrayal is not advocacy; the play ends tragically.  So Ibsen as an elderly playwright, has an affair with a teenager, and writes, as a result, a play about an elderly architect who has an affair with a teenager.  And it’s a really good play.

This is my point.  I personally disapprove in the strongest possible terms of elderly married men having affairs with girls young enough to be their grand-daughters.  I think that’s reprehensible behavior.  My favorite playwright–a playwright I have spent most of my life studying and writing about and translating–not only did that, but rubbed our faces in it.  Wrote one of his greatest plays about the very behavior I despise.  How do we handle all that?

We recognize that art is about life–it’s a testimony about lived experience. And that life isn’t always pretty.  And that we sin, we humans, we sin all the time.  And writers write what they know.  Including sins, including, in fact, the specific sins they created.

So Wagner was a womanizer, and wrote these magnificent, sensuous operas about, among other things, sexual longing, sexual attraction, passion and obsession.  And Ibsen was inspired by young women–they fascinated him, and became subjects for his plays.  And Picasso didn’t just live a life of moral relativism, he placed relativism–or at least relativity–as the central organizing theory of his paintings.

Art celebrates humanity, all of it, even the grubby bits. It transforms experience, even even nasty experiences.  We can avert our eyes.  Sometimes, maybe we should. But no, we don’t say ‘I won’t see that; the artist, I heard, was a bad person.’  It’s art.  Honest, it is; it’s not a cesspool.  How can we tell? Take a swim.

Getting worse to get better

Ever since we moved to Utah over twenty years ago, I have been a fan of the Utah Jazz basketball team.  (I’m from Indiana–I’ve been a basketball fan since I could walk.  Something about Hoosier drinking water).  This year, for the first time in that history, the Jazz are terrible.  They’re probably the worst team in the entire NBA.  They won last night, beating the also-terrible New Orleans Pelicans, having lost their eight previous games.  (Did you hear that New Orleans is marketing team underwear?  Yep, the Pelican briefs.  Rimshot).  Anyway, the Jazz are awful.  And I couldn’t be more delighted.  I don’t care if we lose every game.  I know what they’re doing, and I fully approve.

Sometimes you have to get worse in order to get better.  It’s even a principle of Mormonism–the way repentance may require excommunication before you can begin getting your act back together.  This happens all the time in other aspects of life. Suppose you’re working at a job you hate. Don’t you get training for a better job? This happened to my son.  He graduated from college, got a good paying job as a stock broker.  Hated it.  Hated everything about it.  So he decided to switch careers, went to grad school.  He loves his field, and loves his new life.  His income took a big hit, but only temporarily–he’s now getting a first-class education that will prepare him for a career he loves.  Took a step back, in order to take a big step forward.  I have a son-in-law; terrific guy, works as a truck driver.  He decided to buy his own truck, essentially go into business for himself.  Short-term, of course, he’s going to have to pay for the truck.  But long-term, his financial outlook is vastly improved.  Small step back; big step forward.

That’s what the Jazz are doing.  Boy are they going to be awful this season. They’re an odd team; a mix of over-the-hill veterans and raw, talented young guys who haven’t quite figured out how to win in the NBA.  But help is most decidedly on the way.

Here’s what they’re doing: basketball is a game played with five on a side.  If you replace a weak player with a star, you can improve your team by a tremendous amount immediately.  For example, the 1968 Milwaukee Bucks were a terrible basketball team.  They won 27 games, lost 55.  Their best player was probably Jon McGlocklin (from Indiana!)  Jon McGlocklin was a pretty good shooter, but that’s all.  If he’s your best player, well, you’re going to go 27-55. 
But by going 27-55, they got the first pick in the 1969 NBA draft.  And with that draft pick, they drafted a tall skinny kid from New York by way of UCLA, a guy just in the process of converting to Islam, which meant changing his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  Greatest low post scorer in the history of basketball, plus a tremendous shot blocker and rebounder, back then.  Same coach, all the other players stayed the same.  Jon McGlocklin went from their best player, to their second best player.  They went 56-26.  They went from a terrible team to a very good one. Next season, they traded for Oscar Robertson, one of the best point guards in the history of basketball (the Magic Johnson of his era; also from Indiana).  Jon McGlocklin went from their second best player to their third best.  (They also added a rookie forward named Bobby Dandridge, terrific defensive forward).  They won the NBA championship. 
You take an awful team, add a superstar, and become an excellent team.  Add another superstar, and you win a championship.  That’s how basketball works.  That’s what happened with the Boston Celtics, when they added Larry Bird.  Cornbread Maxwell went from their best player to their second best player.  And the team improved from 29-55 to 61-21. (Larry Bird, allow me to note, is from Indiana).  ‘
Right now, the Utah Jazz’ best player is Gordon Hayward.  He’s a fine player, can play guard or small forward, an excellent shooter and passer, very good defensive player, from Indiana.  So, you know, quality guy.  (Also, I’m reliably assured by my youngest daughter, a hottie).  But Hayward is really miscast as a star. 
But if we’re bad enough, we’re going to get a star.  Oh my heck, are we getting a star. 
Talent flow into the NBA tends to be cyclical.  Some years, the best college players are frankly not superstar quality.  Last year, the number one pick in the draft was a guy named Michael Bennett. (They should have drafted Victor Oladipo instead.  Best player on the Indiana team–obvious first pick). Right now, Bennett looks like a bust.  Looks a little over-matched out there.  There were some good players in last year’s draft, but no stars.  It was generally seen as a mediocre draft.  Happens.  
Monday night, ESPN showed two college basketball games, involving, obviously, four teams.  On three of those teams, the best player (by far the best player), was a college freshman.  Kentucky, for example, has this guy, Julius Randle.  Boy did he not look like a college freshman. Huge, incredibly athletic, insanely skilled.  Kentucky trailed badly at the end of the first half, and in the second half, Randle clearly just decided, ‘all right, enough’s enough.’  Just took over the game.  Unguardable.  You watch him play and you just know–barring injuries, he’s going to be a star. 
And he wasn’t the best player out there.  Duke was up next, and we got to say Jabari Parker play.  Jabari’s from Chicago, a town that, for basketball purposes, is essentially an Indiana suburb.  He’s also active LDS, a straight-A student, a first-class guy from a strong-supportive family.  Monday–well, there’s dominating, and then there’s dominating.  In his second game as a college player, he scored basically anytime he wanted to, grabbed 9 rebounds, made 3 steals, passed for a bunch of assists, guarded the other team’s best scorer and shut him down.  Afterwards, he was mad at himself–said he would give himself a C-minus.  Because his team lost.  To Kansas.
Kansas has a guard, Andrew Wiggins (and why he hasn’t been given the nickname ‘Ender’ I have no idea).  He made some stupid fouls in the first half, looked a little intimidated, didn’t show much.  Went out in the second half, and exploded–27 points, in barely half a game.  Led his team to victory.  And showed off an athleticism that even Randle and Parker, great as they are, couldn’t quite match. 
Those three guys are going to be the first three players picked in next year’s NBA draft, assuming they all decide it’s time to play in the NBA.  (Which they probably will, except possibly Parker, who wants a college degree).  One two three.  Randle, Parker, Wiggins.  Or Wiggins first.  Or Parker. And they’re going to be superb.  Five years from now, LaBron James will be contemplating retirement, and people will be arguing about who the greatest player in the world is, and it’s going to be one of those three guys.  
And if the Jazz continue to be terrible, one of those guys will be a member of the Utah Jazz, I think, and Gordon Hayward will be the second best player on the team.  I look at the Jazz, and I see a very talented forward, Derrick Favors, excellent rebounder and defender, who gets out of position too much, because he’s very young.  I see a capable big guy, a center, Enes Kanter, from Turkey.  Good athlete, can rebound and shoot, doesn’t really know what he’s doing out there.  I see a huge kid, Rudy Gobert, very tall, long arms, French–doesn’t really know how to play basketball.  Fabulous potential, though. That’s the whole team.  Talented, inexperienced.  Potentially potent.  Add Jabari Parker, and . . . wow.  (And an LDS kid?  In Utah?  Double wow). 
The Jazz stink right now.  I hope it continues.  Step back, so you can step forward. 



New plays

Monday evening, I attended a meeting sponsored by The Dramatists’ Guild, a meet-and-greet for, on the one hand, playwrights, and on the hand, theatre producers in Utah who have and will commit to producing new plays.  Driving home afterwards, I thought this: nobody, but nobody says of the film industry ‘they shouldn’t just film the same screenplays over and over.  They should be producing films based on new screenplays.’  In fact, that’s what basically all movies are: original screenplays (or adapted from other media) mostly telling stories that haven’t been told before.  If we go to a movie, and like it, usually it’s because we liked the story.  But in theatre, producing new plays is seen as exceptionally risky and bold.  My gosh, look at that company!  They did a NEW PLAY!  How remarkable!

Okay, I get that people don’t consume all entertainment products the same way.  People can go to the movies and see five terrible movies in a row, and still, Saturday night, there they are, at the cineplex, ready to see another one.  Hoping against hope.  That this time, finally Adam Sandler will actually be amusing, and not just moronic. (I’m kidding; nobody thinks that).  But going to the theatre is a different thing.  It feels like a riskier investment, of time and money and brainspace.  That’s why, in Utah, the Hale Center does so well–within the fairly narrow range of shows they’ll do, they’re all basically good.  I’ve never seen a bad show there, certainly. 

But that’s also true of Plan B Theatre, the one company in Utah that really does just do original plays by local playwrights.  I’ve seen I don’t know how many shows there–dozens, surely—and they’ve all been good.  Not just good, terrific–provocative, smart, stunning, powerful.  The message, I think, is this: if you decide the kind of theatre you want to do, and commit completely to it, absolute dedication, you’ll end up being really really good at it.  And your audience will learn to trust you.

I think the same thing can be said of the other theatres who came to the DG meeting.  Salt Lake Acting Company has a niche, a certain kind of play they do and do well. Right now they’re doing Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire. My goodness, that’s a lovely play; so glad Salt Lake audiences get to see a first-rate production of it.  They just closed Venus in Fur; a terrific David Ives play.  That’s pretty much who they are.  They do productions of that kind of smart, literary off-Broadway/off-West End fare.  Good for them. And sometimes, occasionally, they’ll take a chance on a new script.  Plus, annually, they make fun of Utah culture with Saturday’s Voyeur.  They know what they’re good at; I take my hat off.

Likewise Pygmalion.  Nice little feminist theatre, doing smart, funny plays in outstanding productions.  They’ll do new work, if it fits their mission statement.  Pioneer Theatre Company is in an interesting place in this discussion.  They have this gargantuan space, and they have to fill it–it actually makes sense to me that they won’t even consider producing new work. Karen Azenberg, their Artistic Director, was in the meeting, and I’m convinced that her heart’s in the right place.  She wants to commit to ‘play development’ (euphemism for ‘staged readings only’), and she said that if she had access to a smaller black box, she’d stage more new plays.  I think she’s telling the truth.  But ‘staged readings’ are really only a useful dramaturgical tool for developing new work–they do not represent any kind of actual commitment to new drama.  And new works are the lifeblood of any art form.

So for a Utah playwright, we can send work out to fill out the pile on the desk of the management of the Lark or the O’Neill, or we can work with local theatres, and thank our lucky stars that there are some that will read our work and produce the best stuff.  And I’m fantastically grateful for Plan B and for the other houses that are committed to at least reading, and sometimes even producing new work.  I just think we’re on the cusp of even greater achievement.  Keep working.