Monthly Archives: March 2014

Three faces of Lincoln on I-15

I’ve been making the Provo-to-Salt Lake drive a lot lately, for rehearsals and performances.  It used to be that there was really only one way to make that trip; via I-15.  Poor city planning, in my opinion, to put a big old mountain between the two largest cities in the state!  But with Frontrunner, we now have a reasonable alternative to the I-15 commute; we can take the train, which I do, quite a bit, and which I very much enjoy.  Still, I’ve been doing the drive three or four times a week, and I’ve just about got the billboards memorized.  This last weekend, though, as I was driving, something struck me: on that forty-five minute drive, there are three places where you can see the face of Abraham Lincoln.  And as I thought about it, the three I-15 faces of our 16th (and greatest) President, it seemed that they say something about America, or American culture, or maybe just about Utah.

Moving from north to south, the first Lincoln face is the first of a series of billboards advertising Ken Garff Motors; a bunch of auto dealerships.  The caption is ‘other car dealers would fire him.’  Because Lincoln was too honest, presumably.  The series of Garff billboards feature clever-ish messages on similar themes; that the sales staff at Ken Garff dealerships will really listen to your needs and concerns, that they are scrupulously honest with you, and that the same cannot be said of Garff’s competitors.  ‘We listen, we’re honest, they’re not.’  One billboard just features a big pair of ears, with the Ken Garff logo.  Another shows a Ken Garff ancestor, with unnaturally large ears. Good listeners; right? Another suggests, with brackets, the words ‘Truthful’ and ‘Full of it,’ with captions saying that ‘we’ are ‘Truthful,’ and ‘they’ are ‘Full of it.’  Plus, of course, Lincoln, who Ken Garff would hire, and his competition would not.

As it happens, I was in the market for a car a couple of months ago, and shopped at a Garff dealership.  I didn’t find the Garff salesperson particularly attentive to my needs.  Quite the contrary; I told him from the outset that I wanted a used car, within a certain price range and with certain features, and was shown several new cars, more expensive than I could afford and without the features I needed.  I don’t really question the dude’s honesty; it seemed that they had a special sale on for new cars, and he was determined to sell me one.  He did not succeed; I bought a car from one of Garff’s dishonest/unwilling-to-listen competitors.  A used car, within my price range, with the features I wanted.

This whole billboard campaign plays on two myths, neither of them particularly true.  One is that car salesmen are uniformly dishonest.  That may have been true once (‘this car was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sunday!’) but nowadays, with Carfax and other research tools easily available on the internet, there’s just too much information available to consumers.  A car is a major purchase, and there’s no excuse for people to come to the auto-shopping experience in ignorance. When I asked if I could see the Carfax report on the vehicle I ended up buying, the salesperson immediately printed it off and handed it to me. Why wouldn’t he?

The salesperson I bought my car from was not very experienced, and frankly, not very good at his job.  While test driving, for example, instead of focusing entirely on selling me the car, he spent some time griping about how he was going to miss lunch, and could we hurry things along, so he could get a sandwich.  I didn’t much like the guy, to be honest.  What he had going for him was a car I really liked, and could afford. But I didn’t think he was, you know, a crook.  I just don’t think salespeople can get away with that much anymore.

The other myth is that Abe Lincoln was scrupulously honest; that he was some paragon of integrity.  The ‘Honest Abe’ meme was a campaign slogan; it was political marketing. It was no more true than the Garff billboards are true. Abe Lincoln was a very good President, in part because he was a crafty politician.  Before becoming President, he was a very effective lawyer, and his most lucrative clients were railroads.  He was, in short, a successful corporate attorney.  But watch the movie Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing old Abe.  You’ll see a politician perfectly capable of wheeling and dealing and arm-twisting and conniving, and selling the public on half-truths.  That’s why he was effective; he was good at all that grubby politicking.  I rather suspect that if Ken Garff were lucky enough to hire Abe Lincoln in sales, he’d be very good at the job, but not, one suspects, due to his scrupulous integrity.  He was a master politician and salesman–he got things done.

The second Lincoln face on I-15 is on another billboard; one urging people to read, and perhaps even memorize, the Gettysburg Address.  This is part of an effort spear-headed by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and others; here’s their website.  As part of that effort, BYU did a big thing at halftime at a recent basketball game; a group of school children recited the Gettysburg, led by a biker, Stan Ellsworth, who has a show on BYUTV, American Ride.  I love Ellsworth; a raspy looking dude in full biker regalia, but with a heart of gold and a patriot’s soul.

And I love me some Gettysburg Address.  It’s the second greatest speech in American history, the first greatest being Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.  It’s a profound statement of the greatest ideals of American democracy.  But let’s face it; it’s also an act of salesmanship.  It declares that the Civil War is a test of the proposition that a nation, dedicated to equality, can survive.  But that’s not now the South saw it. Lincoln, in arguing for the sacrifices made by all the soldiers who died on that battlefield, consecrated it to democracy.  But wasn’t the Civil War about the failure of democracy?  Did Lee’s soldiers, the brave and foolhardy men who marched straight uphill into gunfire on Pickett’s charge, really think of themselves as fighting for a new birth of freedom?  Or weren’t they actually in a sense fighting for an institution that denied freedom?  Lincoln’s words are inspiring, because they’re aspirational–he’s defining the struggle as nobly as he could, to, eventually, bring a warring nation together.

The third Lincoln face, again heading south on I-15, is on a mini Mount Rushmore in an amusement park in Lehi, Utah, part of the Seven Peaks Fun Center.  The Mount Rushmore seems to be part of a roller coaster–they call it the ‘Rush Coaster’, get it?   Here’s their website.

They apparently also have a miniature golf course, where you putt amidst replicas of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, plus also, of course, Mt. Rushmore.  And there’s other stuff too: laser tag, bumper boats, a pirate ship.

It’s probably a lot of fun.  If we had small children, we’d probably take them there.  From the freeway, the place looks kind of tacky, to be honest, but that doesn’t mean a good time can’t be had.  It all seems to me a bit more reminiscent of Jefferson (‘pursuit of happiness’) than Lincoln (‘last full measure of devotion’), but who knows, maybe you get a little patriotic buzz while shooting someone at laser tag.

The problem is, Mount Rushmore kind of creeps me out.  I know, it’s a popular place, three million visitors a year (and in South Dakota!), it’s a patriotic tribute to four great Presidents.  Still, there’s something about the history of the place that’s more about ‘manifest destiny’ than ‘four awesome politicians.’  Check out the wikipedia entry.

Mount Rushmore was always intended as a tourist attraction, and the original notion was that it would feature the likenesses of famous Americans, like Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill.  Multi-cultural, sort of.  But Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, wanted to do Presidents instead, and got Congress to fund it.  Borglum was a Danish-American-Mormon polygamist kid from Idaho.  As an artist, he liked heroic themes, and he liked big.  He did a six ton head of Lincoln.  He was commissioned by the Ku Klux Klan to carve Confederate Generals onto Stone Mountain, in Georgia.  He joined the Klan, but left (both the Klan and the project), over disputes over artistic issues, and (shocker), over money.

Mount Rushmore was a sacred mountain for the Lakota, who called it Six Grandfathers.  It was part of a spiritual journey taken by Lakota chief Black Elk.  It’s probably still owned by the Lakota.  But it got renamed after a lawyer named Rushmore, and, working under the incontestable legal theory that our army has more guns than you do, was ‘given’ to Borglum to carve Presidents into.  And Borglum was a nativist; a fan of manifest destiny.  He wanted there to be a museum with a glass floor, with images of native American leaders (Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk), under glass, so that whenever people visited the park, they’d literally walk on the faces of Indian leaders.

If you go to Mount Rushmore, and ask the Forest Service rangers about Borglum, and his wackier notions, they’ll tell you all about it; they’re all amateur historians and not big fans of the guy.  And the exhibits there nowadays pay respect to native cultures.  On their website, teachers can get lesson plans about geology and ecology and,yes, obviously, American history.  The place has a less-creepy vibe than the ‘let’s celebrate American expansionism’ ideology that Borglum intended to advance. But that vibe is still there.

And the addition, in Lehi, of a roller coaster and bumper boats, seems sort of quintessentially American; the commodification of icons, the transformation of ideals into the tackiest sort of entertainment.  And good for us. Jefferson nailed us; we’re about pursuing happiness, wherever we can find it.  In the cars we purchase, the speeches we memorize, and the roller coasters we ride.  All available off I-15.



Theology and culture

I’ve been reading a lot about the tenth and eleventh centuries lately.  Research for a play, but also, it’s just a really interesting period in history.  Because my play is about European politics in the period, I’ve been reading about Europe, but of course, 11th century Europe was, by almost any standard, a backwater. The 11th century was the high point of the Song Dynasty in China, for example. So while the Chinese people had magnetic needle compasses, Bessemer steel processes, and spherical trigonometry, the most educated European pope, Sylvester II, was generally thought to be trafficking with the devil because he knew how to use an abacus. The greatest cities in the world were Moslem, especially, Cordova, in Spain, with a population that approached a million people, and boasted the world’s greatest universities, librarys, and running potable water. The Toltecs were ascendent in the Americas, and Japan’s Fujiwara clan ruled benevolently and promoted literature and music and drama.  Europe, in contrast, stank.

Europe was savage, primitive, violent and filthy.  Rome, once the greatest city of antiquity, had fewer than 30,000 inhabitants, living like rats in the ruins left behind after the sacking of the city 500+ years earlier.  Commerce was minimal.  Emperors and kings had their hands full just fighting off Magyar, Viking, Saracen and Slavic pirates and bandits and raiders.  The ramshackle, jerry-built feudal system provided some rudimentary governing stability, but small-scale warfare was constant.

The Catholic Church could have, and was supposed to provide some moral boundaries and some pastoral care. But the Church itself lurched between corruption and over-jealous reform.  The Dominican monastic order was the closest thing they had to a stabilizing influence, but it too ranged in influence and virtue from the Cluniac reforms in France to utter debauchery and vice elsewhere.  What I’m basically saying is that life sucked in the 11th century.

And everyone knew it.  And so Catholic theology responded by building an entire world-view around the idea that life was supposed to be awful.  Hardship, violence, filth and disease were endemic to the human condition.  We human beings had chosen a world of corruption and death and illness and pain when Eve tempted Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit (i.e., sexual intercourse).  We shouldn’t expect any happiness in life.  We shouldn’t expect anything good at all.  Every hope, ever dream, every ambition was based on some expectation of the next life.

And so the holiest and best people practiced self-denial and self-mutilation.  They starved themselves in lengthy fasts, they wore clothing that tore the flesh, they flagellated themselves with whips; they built lifestyles around the mortification of the flesh.  I used to love teaching the plays of the great 10th century nun/dramatist, Hrosvitha of Gandersheim.  We would read her play Pafnutius.  Thais, a prostitute, is called on to repent by the righteous monk Pafnutius.  She locks herself in a cloistered cell, where she lives for a year, mortifying her flesh, not eating, with (as the play takes pains to mention), no place to relieve herself.  At the end of the year, she’s half dead, but holy.  She lasts long enough to say a final prayer, then dies and angels greet her, taking her soul to heaven.  As I would remind my students, that play’s a comedy, and that’s a happy ending.

But it makes sense.  If life is unrelievedly grim and awful, violent, short and painful, the theology people might find comforting would be one that focuses on a better life to come.  The saddest figure of the period, I think, was Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor, who fought bravely to preserve the Church and Empire, but became appalled at the misery his wars caused people.  He began the usual mortification routine, with long fasts and hairshirts and the rest of it, and died at the age of 22.  But he died in hopes of a better life to come.  And while I can look back at medieval history and see a talented, brilliant and capable young man who could well have done a lot of good in his time here (as his grandfather, Otto I, had done), and see as well a young man succumbing, tragically, to clinical depression, well, that’s not how they saw it. He was in a better place.

Okay, so fast forward 500 years or so, to the early seventeenth century, and our American forbears at Plymouth and Boston, the generation of John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. By that point, of course, European life was a lot happier, generally.  Europeans knew how to build boats that could cross the Atlantic.  Better roads, better carriages, better rigging for horses. It was still a violent period, but much much less so than had been the case in previous centuries.  We human beings now exercised considerable control over our environment.  We could built reasonably safe and comfortable homes for ourselves.  Cleanliness had become wider spread.

But while we did have safer and more comfortable lives than previous generations had enjoyed, it was something of an illusion.  Infant mortality was around fifty percent. Childbirth was tremendously dangerous for women.  So the really important issues–will my children be safe, will my wife survive childbirth, will we be able to raise our families safely–still must have seemed completely random and arbitrary.  It may have been easier to transport goods to market–better roads, something approaching rule-of-law–but everything else must have seemed out of our control.

So theology, again, echoed culture.  The theology of the day was almost entirely predestinate.  God had, for His own reasons, chosen a few folks to be in his Elect.  We mortals had nothing to say about it.  We couldn’t influence His decision in any way.  You were either going to heaven, to live in eternal bliss, or you were going to hell, where demons would torture you forever, and there wasn’t a darn thing you could do about it. You’d think this would result all manner of debauchery.  If nothing you do can make the teensiest difference in your salvation/damnation, you may as well live it up, right?  But no.  The Separatists who founded New England believed that the Elect could be seen as such by their particularly blameless lives.

Anne Hutchinson was condemned, excommunicated and exiled, not because she questioned predestination, but because she questioned whether living an externally exemplary life proved anything.  She believed that the Spirit of God communicated with her, and that any Christian could feel God’s Grace within.  This made her, in John Winthrop’s mind, a heretic; specifically, an antinomian. It may strike us as a trivial theological dispute, but they didn’t; to them, this was crucial stuff.  But if you think about it, it fit their culture.  You can’t exercise any control over the really important events in your life.  But you can control some things, like what you wear, or how long you sit on a hard bench in Church on a Sunday.  Those actions are meaningless, and you know they’re meaningless, but you cling to them anyway, because maybe, just maybe, they offer a tiny window into God’s thought processes regarding you.

When we Mormons read the Joseph Smith story, we read about the theology controversies of the Burned Over district in upstage New York ca. 1820, but we don’t think about what the issues were.  What were all those churches contending over?  More of the same.  The intricacies of predestinate theology.  Was baptism essential to salvation?  Obviously no, it couldn’t be. Baptism is a thing people can do for themselves, so obviously it had to be irrelevant to the question of Grace.  But there’s that pesky scripture in John 3:5; where you have to be born of water and the spirit.  So you have to be baptized, as a sign that you were elect.  No, you didn’t!  Yes, you did!  And back and forth and back again.

So along comes Joseph Smith, and right there, Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, what does he say?  All sorts of blasphemy.  Vs. 2: God’s message is to everyone, everywhere.  Vs. 3: what you do isn’t going to stay secret anymore.  Vs. 4, it gets bad: God’s going to send out missionaries, who will, vs. 8, have the power to seal people unto salvation or damnation.  This is seriously Catholic stuff–people, human beings, having the power to send people to heaven.  Or, you know, t’other place.  And then, the biggie: vs. 10:

Unto the day when the Lord shall come to recompense unto every man according to his work, and measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man.

In other words, what we do matters.  Our actions count.  We can actually do things–like try to be a good person–which will make a difference in our salvation.  Predestination, in other words, is no longer central to Christian theology.

And yes, I know; that verse (and a whole bunch of other verses a lot like it) has led us to a modern Mormon cultural world of unrealistic expectations, and self-righteousness, and judgmental attitudes.  To ‘modesty standards’ and ‘body image issues’ and an epidemic of perfectionism and clinical depression.  A theology of works, it turns out, is essentially impossible to live up to entirely.

But what’s the alternative?  Because American culture today fundamentally rejects predestination.  In the marketplace of competing theologies, anyone who preaches that our salvation is entirely arbitrary and that we can’t affect it any way whatsover, well, that theology is going to look weird and be very quickly rejected.  We live in a time when we expect to control our environment.  If our kids get sick, we take ’em to the doctor with the expectation that she’ll prescribe something that will make the kid better.  Over and over, popular culture preaches that everything is awesome, that you can and should dream, that you can do anything you want to with your life.  The fact that none of that is particularly true doesn’t matter.  If we believe in God, we kind of do have to believe in one who cares who wins the Super Bowl. Our theology reflects our culture, for better or for worse, just as theology reflected 11th century culture, and 17th, and 19th.

And if you think about it, the Mormon theology of works may set up unrealistic standards for us, but it surely has a considerable upside as well.  We have to pay attention. We have to try to do good things.  We have to ask our friends constantly ‘did I do that right?’  We have to send water and blankets to countries nailed by tsunamis.  We aren’t free to just pursue happiness.  We see ‘pursuing happiness’ in social terms.

Of course, when I say ‘a theology of works,’ I mean Mormon theology but also world-wide, mainstream, people-who-believe-in-God theology. And also world-wide, mainstream, atheist and agnostic theology.  We don’t divide the world up into ‘Elect’ and ‘Damned,’ but we do divide it up into ‘People Who Care’ and ‘Selfish Bastards.’  We do think we should all be trying to make a difference, and when we think of a ‘good person,’ we don’t think of Otto III, poor kid, beating himself up for being a bad person, and starving himself to death.  When we think of a ‘good person,’ we think of Bono.  Or Angelina Jolie. Or Mother Teresa.

In short, we reflect our culture in our theology. As people ever have done.


90 percent

A Mormon feminist group called Ordain Women orchestrated the mildest of protests at the Priesthood session of the last General Conference of the LDS church.  They asked for tickets to attend.  They asked politely, and were politely turned away.  The Priesthood session is only open to Priesthood holders, which to say, only men.  I don’t have any idea why this is.  The sessions are immediately available on-line, and are broadcast on BYU-TV. No occult secrets are revealed, no special instructions shared.  I hardly ever go, because it’s held at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus, and I can’t manage the stairs. I can, however, watch it on my computer, and so can anyone else.  I can’t for the life of me see what harm would be done if, say, a widow wanted to go with her twelve-year old Deacon son.

So, when Priesthood session is happening, I usually read it or watch it on-line. I have never felt like I missed a thing when I don’t attend.  I have good friends from OW who were there, in Salt Lake, asking for tickets. It took a lot of courage and commitment to do that.  Good for them.

Anyway, as April Conference approaches, a spokeswoman for the Church’s Public Relations department, Jessica Moody, wrote a letter to Ordain Women, asking that the organization confine their protest to ‘free speech zones’ just off Temple Square.  If you’ve been to Conference in Salt Lake, you’ve seen the free speech zones; mostly they’re populated by evangelicals or other groups proselytizing against the Church.  Kate Kelly, an Ordain Women spokeswoman said this in response:

“We feel as faithful, active Mormon women we have nothing in common with people who oppose the church and want to protest against it. The church  is its members. We aren’t against the church, we are the church.”

During Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, when Mormonism was very much in the national and international spotlight, it was fascinating to see who the world media turned to for information and perspective and explanation. Mostly, it was Joanna Brooks, and Kate Kelly, and other leading Mormon feminists.  I thought about Joanna Brooks, in fact, when I read Kate Kelly’s comment ‘we aren’t against the Church; we are the Church.’ The fact is, media types weren’t much interested in pro forma comments from official Church sources, anymore than they’re interested in comments from official spokespeople for big business, or politicians, or movie stars, or any institutions big enough to have a PR department. They want the real skinny; they want to hear from someone who Knows.  For a long time, they loved Jan Shipps.  She was perfect; not LDS, but a scholar of Mormonism with impeccable scholarly credentials. Jan’s retired now, and nowadays, it’s an insider/outsider they want, someone like Joanna Brooks; a scholar, an active Mormon, but an insightful and thoughtful observer of her own faith and culture.  We liberal Mormons, we became unofficial representatives of Mormonism.  (Because of publicity generated by the national candidacy of a guy probably none of us voted for!)  We are the Church, indeed.

Monday, when Jessica Moody’s letter was made public, was pretty discouraging to a lot of my LDS feminist friends.  Many took particular issue with this:

“Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme.  Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership. Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”

I have a couple of reactions to this letter, and to the heartbreak I’ve seen expressed by many many friends.  First, it is at least encouraging to think that the Church’s leaders are engaged in ‘helpful discussions’ with LDS women, inside and outside of Church leadership.  I’m encouraged to think that members of the Twelve are really listening to the ‘thoughts, concerns and hopes’ of women in the Church.

I have no special insight into what the future might bring. I do know that the narrative of the nineteenth century Church was filled with stories of women, called as midwives, laying on their hands and blessing women about to give birth, and of Relief Society presidents holding blessing meetings with their sisters. I can imagine almost any future.

But only one present.  And it seems to be defined as this: “Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for Priesthood ordination for women, and consider that position to be extreme.”  So what we have is a fight over definitions.  OW wants it to be clearly understood that ‘we are the Church.’  But Sister Moody’s letter wants to define OW as ‘extreme,’ as a tiny minority, easily ignored and rightfully marginalized.

Back in October, a PEW poll of Mormon men and women offered statistical evidence supporting Sister Moody’s position.  In that poll, 84% of LDS men, and 90% of LDS women, oppose priesthood ordination for women.  And when the Deseret News published a story about Moody’s letter, the comments section on-line was flooded with responses, almost all of them ferociously opposed to OW’s goals.  Many (not all) of the comments were vitriolic, profoundly un-Christian.  It saddened me to think that people in my Church could harbor such anger towards their sisters and brothers.  I kept seeing that number.  90%. And not just the number, but also the vitriol must be immensely discouraging for Ordain Women’s adherents.

But then, that number is hardly surprising. A lot of progressive notions follow a similar pattern. Initially feared as radical, they come, over time, to seem less and less so.  Such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, when they began advocating for women’s suffrage, faced similarly overwhelming majorities. In 1911, an organization called the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOW), started by a woman, had chapters in 25 US states.  In their literature, they claimed that “90% of women don’t want” the vote.  And they invoked the scary thought of “petticoat rule”.  Shiver.

I have no doubt If you had asked our forefathers what they thought of ‘miscegenation’ (that is, interracial marriage), I’m sure at least 90% of men and women would have thought that a radical notion, and opposed it.  Gay marriage: I can’t even imagine nineteenth century Americans knowing how to frame the question.  That one wouldn’t have been opposed by any 90% of Americans; if we can even imagine a poll asking about it. Everyone would have thought the idea a crazy one. Today, close to 60% favor it.

I do think the 90% figure is probably pretty accurate.  My wife, for example, doesn’t want the Priesthood, because she says it sounds like way too much work.  But she’s also an ardent feminist.  That’s also a responsible and intelligible position. Me, I’m still trying to figure out why the Sunday school President in a ward needs to be a guy.  Or why the Relief Society President can’t sit up on the stand with the Bishopric.  Or why it needs to be the entire Bishopric up there.  I’m an incrementalist, maybe.

And yet, and yet.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” said Dr. King.  He was quoting a nineteeth century Unitarian minister (and committed abolitionist) named Theodore Parker.  Here’s Parker’s quotation in context:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.

And Jefferson was a great thinker, a great President, a brilliant man, and a man who owned slaves, and knew that doing so was an abomination.  And yet, he preached equality, though rhetorically he limited it to ‘all men.’  And still the arc bends, past the Amistad, through Antietam, on past Selma, and it bent again to touch the heart of Spencer W. Kimball, in 1978. I can’t see the shape of the arc either, from my limited, skewed perspective. But the world is better today than it was a hundred years ago, and better then than a hundred years further back. Can I see ahead another hundred years?  No: I’m too short-sighted.  Does it bend towards female ordination?  I don’t know.  But change there will be, and I believe it will be just, and righteous; bending towards a millennium.  And still the arc bends.




Two movie reviews

Everyone knows that February movies are terrible. Studios load all their Oscar-worthy films into November and December, and all their big budget popcorn flicks into the May-August summer movie season. But post-New Year movies tend to be things like Monuments Men, an issue movie intended to generate Oscar buzz, but which just wasn’t good enough to make the cut, or movies primarily intended for foreign distribution, like the new 300 movie, or Pompeii.  February is for flotsom, or on occasion, jetsom.  Which is why it was so nice to see two really pretty fun movies released last month. I had a busy February, as it happens, and only just got to see them, but they’re both really pretty good, and I recommend them with great pleasure.

First was The Lego Movie.  If you had told me six months ago that I would spend my hard-earned cash to see something called The Lego Movie, and not only that, enjoy it, I would have laughed in your face. Or that Tegan and Sara would write the catchiest pop song of the year, especially for that movie?  No way.  Well, take that, six-months-ago-me!  What a tool that guy was!  In fact, The Lego Movie is awesome. Of course, everything is awesome, as the movie’s one song reminds us over and over and over.  But so is the movie.

Basically, there are two ways of playing with Legos.  One way is to follow the instructions carefully, and build the stuff that’s on the cover of the box.  The second way is to ignore the cover of the box, and build whatever awesome thing your imagination can come up with, limited only by the Legos at hand.  That Legos insight somehow becomes a premise, and eventually a story, and eventually an animated movie.  Lord Business (or President Business; the titles are interchangeable) voiced by (and eventually played by) Will Ferrell, wants conformity.  He wants everyone to obey the rules.  And so, in his world, there’s one song that everyone builds stuff to: the aforementioned “Everything is Awesome.”  There’s one TV show that everyone watches, a sitcom called “Where are my pants?”  It features one character, and one joke; dude can’t find his pants.  And everything is about to be locked in, set in stone.  Glued firmly in place.

Opposing Business, is a fierce female ninja warrior, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), her boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett), a prophet figure (Morgan Freeman, natch), and a perfectly (and I mean perfectly) ordinary Lego figure named Emmet.  Also a team of Master Builders, which is to say people with the ability to use Legos to build anything.  Master Builders include Gandalf, Abraham Lincoln, a Pirate, Han Solo–oh, there are a ton of them.

All I can say is, the movie comes down on the side of childish imagination, that it’s the most pleasurable pop culture pastiche, that it moves at a giddy pace and that every second of it was a pure delight.  It’s the funnest, awesomest, most wildly inventive movie I’ve seen in awhile. Let me add that the strongest bad word any character ever uses in the movie is ‘heck’ or ‘darn,’ and that that ends up making perfect character sense by the movie’s end.

Second movie is nowhere near as fun, but it was plenty exciting: Liam Neeson in Non-Stop.  It’s a terrific action movie, and one which I really seriously doubt will be shown on the airplane next time you fly.  That’s assuming that you ever fly ever again after seeing it.  I know I won’t.

Neeson has reinvented himself as an action movie star now, in his 60s, and somehow it works.  He’s a big guy, his face looks like it’s seen better days, and he makes a kind of exhausted physicality work for him; first in the two Taken movies, and now in this.  In Non-Stop, he plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal, who hates flying, and yet has a job in which he basically does nothing but fly.  On a New York to London flight, he gets a text message. Someone on the plane is going to kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless Marks can get his bosses–the federal government–to wire transfer 150 million dollars.

He figures he can trust two people on the plane.  One is Julianne Moore, who was sitting next to him when he got the text message–he figures therefore she can’t be the person who sent it.  The other is Lady Mary Crawley.  Oops, sorry, Michele Dockery, playing a flight attendant.  And, one by one, people on the plane die.  Second to go is the plane’s captain.  Which means the co-pilot is both a suspect, and the only guy who can fly the plane.

One of the things I liked about the movie is that Bill Marks is a very flawed hero.  He’s an alcoholic; he’s about to lose his job.  He sneaks into the lavatory, tapes over the smoke detector, and has a smoke.  And as the emergency progresses, he handles it badly at first, bumbling about, essentially running all the plays in  the bad guy’s playbook.  And the passengers become increasingly convinced that Marks is the bad guy, that he’s hijacked the plane.  And–the power of smart phones!– so does the rest of the world media.

Including me.  I’ll be honest, half-way through the film, I wasn’t sure who the good guy really was.  Could it be that Liam Neeson’s character is, in fact, the bad guy, that we’re seeing the film from his p.o.v., but, a la Roger Ackroyd, he’s also the killer? Very nice misdirection from the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, the Spanish director who also directed Neeson in Unknown, another pretty good thriller.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that when we do learn the whys and wherefores of the actual plot, the movie suddenly gets a whole lot dumber.  That the ending, though unquestionably exciting, doesn’t make a lick of sense.  And also, if you’re an iffy flyer like me, this film may well convince you never to fly again.  Funny how that didn’t happen after Snakes on a Plane. But in the case of Non-Stop, a more plausible scenario made for a very exciting action movie.  It won’t increase your understanding of life or the universe or anything.  But it’ll pass a couple of hours agreeably enough.

So, you see, there are good movies released every month. Including February.  And The Legos Movie is weird and fun and bizarre and really really awesome.  And Non-Stop is a darn good thriller, not remotely paint-by-numbers.  They’re both worth your time, I think.




Movie review: Short Term 12

Sometimes, you just need a good movie.

It’s true.  Sometimes, just watching a really good movie can help.

Short Term 12 is the ultimate low budget independent movie.  It won all sorts of awards at SxSW, the great independent festival in Austin.  It can’t have cost much to make.  The acting is tremendous, but I’ll bet you’ve not heard of most of the actors.  But it’s such a lovely movie, smart and kind and compassionate and real and true. It’s at 99% positive on, and deserves it. It’s on Netflix; check it out.

Brie Larson stars as Grace, who runs a short term facility for really troubled kids.  One co-worker there is Mason, played by John Gallagher Jr., who plays Emily Watson’s assistant on The Newsroom.  Grace is astonishingly good at her job, incredibly empathetic and caring.  She seems to know when kids need discipline and when they need to be left alone, to work things out.  She’s funny and smart and kind, and Mason is very nearly her equal.  Together, you know they’re making an incredible difference in the lives of the 12-15 kids who live in their facility. It’s a real home, a refuge, with rules and expectations that the kids (mostly) live up to.

Grace is also a seriously messed up young lady.  When a very troubled teenage girl, Jayden, shows up, Grace takes a particular interest in her, because she recognizes a lot of her own life in Jayden.  (Jayden, by the way, is played by the amazing Kaitlyn Dever, who was so great as runaway teen on Justified).  And as Grace works with Jayden, we get glimpses into her own troubled past, which includes sexual abuse from her father.  We learn that Grace testified against her Dad, that he’s now in prison for it, but that he’s soon eligible for parole, and that knowledge throws her into a real tailspin.

Mason and Grace are also lovers, and Grace learns early in the movie that she’s pregnant.  When Mason learns of this, he’s great with it, proposes marriage, insists that the two of them are going to be terrific parents.  But the combination of Jayden’s problems, Grace’s own past, her father’s impending prison release all cause her to start to lose it.

I’m not going to give away the ending, except to say that it’s wonderfully life-affirming and yet utterly grounded in the reality of the characters.  At the movie’s end, I was just stunned.  Took a deep breath, wiped away a few tears.  And tried to think of something nice I could do for other people.

Okay, I suppose I should give a content warning.  The movie’s rated R, because messed up teenagers use messed up language; it’s a trifle F-bomb intensive.  And it’s disturbing to see great looking kids, kids we care about and wish well, coping with really serious issues and problems.  Kids should get to be kids.  Kids shouldn’t have to deal with the kinds of abuse that kids, in the real world, regularly have to deal with.  But it’s also a movie that says that help is available.  It’s a movie that says that genuinely kind, but badly overworked, flawed and imperfect people are out there, fighting every day, making a difference.  Human goodness is possible.

So at the end of a day that was actually kind of discouraging, this was the movie to see.  This was the right one.  I know the title’s not good, and I know that you’ve never heard of the actors, and I know there’s bad language.  But this is a genuinely great movie, a work of art that also manages to be a mitzvah, a virtuous act.  Sometimes this happens,for art to become testimony, for testimony to be life-changing. Short Term 12, made for pennies, pulls of that miracle.

Spiritual Twinkies

Yesterday, one of the speakers in church talked about ‘spiritual twinkies,’ and how they differ from good spiritual nourishment.  In other words, some people substitute silly, shallow, faddish notions for actual gospel truth.  What we need, she said, is a commitment to solid gospel scholarship, found in the scriptures, and not fill our minds with the intellectually fashionable whims and caprices of ‘the world.’

It was a good talk, and I enjoyed it.  But the speaker didn’t really define her terms very well. She didn’t give examples of what she meant by ‘spiritual twinkies,’ or of ‘good gospel nourishment.’  It was probably just as well that she didn’t.  I think if you ask most Mormons ‘do you agree that we should avoid ‘spiritual twinkies’ and fill our souls with ‘substantive gospel nourishment,’ 100% would agree.  But if you got more specific about it, there’d be a lot of disagreement.  I think what you’d see is a massive display of confirmation bias.  I think everyone would say that their own pet ideas are ‘solid nourishment’ and that ideas they dislike are ‘twinkies.’  And we’d get all polarized, and once again American culture wars would seep over into Mormonism.

I remember two particular priesthood lessons, back to back, many years ago that illustrate my point.  In one lesson, the teacher talked about how important it was that we live by the standards of the gospel in all things, including our amusements, and that we should therefore never play with face cards.

I was outraged. I grew up playing hearts and euchre with my folks.  My Dad taught me gin and blackjack.  My grandfather supplemented the family income by playing poker for cash at the union hall.  He spoke heavily accented, immigrant-y English, and would pretend to not really understand the rules of poker, sort of shambling over to the table, looking pretty clueless.  But in fact, he was an exceptionally intelligent man, with the ability to compute poker odds in his head.  He’d clean up.  My parents love Michigan rummy and played pinochle with friends for years.  I love playing cards.  I still play hearts on-line.  So when this dweeb of a priesthood instructor quoted someone saying we shouldn’t use face cards, I tuned him right out.  Obviously, that was just his opinion; a spiritual Twinkie if ever there was one.

The next week, we had a different instructor. And he based his lesson on President Kimball’s ‘Don’t shoot the little birds” talk, and went on to talk about how hunting was probably inconsistent with a gospel-centered life.  This was in a Utah ward, and most of the guys in there loved hunting; went deer hunting every year. Uproar!  Outrage!  How dare he!  “My father took me hunting, his father took him hunting, his father took him hunting. Nothing, nothing has strengthened our family more!” And so on.

I don’t hunt; have never gone hunting in my life.  Can’t imagine wanting to, ever. The closest I’ve ever come to hunting is fishing, which I did do, as a kid, whenever Dad wanted to and I couldn’t figure out a graceful way to refuse.  I’ve always regarded fishing as the boringest sport on the planet Earth, right up to the point where you catch something, at which point it becomes the most disgusting. Do not see the appeal. So this anti-hunting lesson in Priesthood seemed very appropriate to me. I thought it was a great lesson.  Solid gospel nourishment, that one.

So can that be the standard?  If we agree with it, if it confirms us in self-righteousness, if it gives us a nice warm glow of moral superiority, then it’s obviously spiritual sustenance, but if it involves some petty practice, perhaps even a sin, that I personally enjoy committing, then any talk condemning it is probably a Twinkie. And cultural norms are affirmed, and anyone disagreeing is probably an apostate.

So maybe we should dig a little deeper into this question, this tough little Twinkie vs. Nourishment conundrum.  If all we’re doing is confirming our prejudices, then I’m not sure why we should bother even going to Church.  And I’m not entirely sure that the answer is something simple, like ‘read the scriptures.’  Because, let’s face it, you can find support for almost anything in the scriptures.

I agree that we should read the scriptures, and I do, every day.  Right now, I’m working my way through the Old Testament.  Really enjoying it, especially now that I’m using a different, better translation than the King James, and can mostly understand what’s going on.  But let’s face it, there’s a lot of crazy stuff in the Bible.  A lot of crazy stuff. I’m not sure how much spiritual nourishment we can get from the story of Lot and his daughters.  Or Elisha and the she-bears.  Or the entire pro-genocide book of Joshua.

So what exactly does qualify as non-Twinkie spiritual nourishment?  It seems to me really it’s just a few basic things.  Jesus, and his life and example and atonement and resurrection.  The restoration of the Gospel.  Continuing revelation. And the attempt to live a Christian life, according to the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Forgive. Empathize. Live lives of charity and kindness and service.  Be kind, be reasonable, be gracious, be decent.

That’s all what nourishes me.  It’s also really hard, to live your life that way.  Forgive those who trespass against us?  Turn the other cheek?  Wow.  Seems impossible, sometimes.  But isn’t that the essence of the good news of the gospel?  Jesus Christ, and him crucified?  His example, his precepts, and the nearly impossible standard of goodness he did, in fact, require of us.

So here, tremblingly tentative and unsure, is a possible rule of thumb.  If someone’s sermon or lesson or talk involves asking something difficult of me, asks me to try to live my life in a way that I personally find really really hard, then that’s gospel nourishment.  Pretty much anything else is Twinkies.




Boxes of books

My daughter has been on a ‘clean up this dump’ kick lately, and tonight, she got going on our basement.  And she found three big cardboard boxes full of books.  She brought them upstairs, and my wife and I went through them, deciding which ones, after all these years, we still want to keep, and which ones we can get rid of.

Books are friends. Our house is filled to overthrowing with books.  The room where I work has four big IKEA bookshelves, each one filled close to full.  And a great book has to be treasured, preserved, loved.  I home-teach an elderly woman, disabled to the point that she’s effectively bed-ridden, but I love visiting her.  Her room is full of bookshelves and books, and she’s a thoughtful, interesting and intelligent woman; when we visit, we talk books.  And conversations can last long beyond the appointed time for home teaching.  She reminds me of my mother-in-law, another bibliophile of the first order.

So as my wife and daughter and I went through the books we had so carefully stored, and so carelessly forgotten, I was reminded of times I had completely forgotten.

One of the first books out was The Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Pitch.

I remember finding it in a used book store on 7th East in Provo (now long defunct), and taking it home and reading it, jaw dropping.  It was a wacky book, full of gruesome details about how everyone who was involved in the martyrdom of Joseph Smith had awful lives thereafter, and died in excruciating agony, of horrible diseases.  All of this, the diseases and the agonies these guys suffered, was recounted in voluptuous detail, with then a citation from whoever had told the authors the story.  The book was bonkers, and it turns out, BS.  But I was a college freshman, and I took it home and devoured it. I liked it so much, I took it to my grandmother (a former professor of library science, and the kind of dedicated bibliophile that puts the rest of us to shame), and she snorted in disgust.  She turned to an early page, and she pointed to the book.  “He cites this woman, you see?  Well, I knew her well; crazy as a loon.”  And she said, “this is just folklore, Eric, and a pretty nutty example of it.  I’m surprised at you for being taken in by it.”  And that exchange made me like the book even more!  I’ve loved Mormon folklore ever since. Still, I’ve outgrown it.

The collected poetry of Philip Larkin.  Keep.

I don’t remember when I first read Philip Larkin.  I am the most random, idiosyncratic and unsystematic of poetry readers–I love cowboy poetry no less than Lance Larsen, tend to dislike poets we’re all supposed to like.  I won’t read anything for six months and then go on a spree.  But Larkin amazes me; so grim, so honest, so completely unsentimental. Among other things, I didn’t know you could put the ‘f-word’ in a poem.  He did; not often, but when it was required. I kept the book, and I know I’ll be going on a Larkin binge pretty soon.

Nibley on the Timely and Timeless.  Kept.

Hugh Nibley is, I think it’s fair to say, the godfather of Mormon apologetics.  He was a man of extraordinary erudition, and he wrote book after book arguing for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  It made him beloved.  But while a lot of his research has been effectively discredited, his occasional essays on Mormon culture still hold up.  He was a theatre guy too, loved good plays in good productions.  He wasn’t a literary critic, particularly, but he was certainly a cultural critic, in his own inimitable, irascible way.  I can’t believe I had this book in storage for fifteen years; it goes back on my shelves tonight.

Elizabethan Drama: Tossed.

A favorite anthology, consisting entirely of plays by Elizabethan authors other than Shakespeare.  I remember getting it in grad school, and being fascinated by Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and Tamarlane, and Cambyses: King of Persia. There was a time when such a collection would have been called something like ‘pre-Shakespearean plays,’ or something. Shakespeare was the only thing that mattered; everyone else’s work either helped us understand Shakespeare better, or helped us realize how much better Shakespeare was than anyone else.  That kind of bardolatry is passé in today’s academy (blessedly), but I remember with great pleasure a class I took in which we read and discussed all these plays.  Marvin Carlson taught it, and it was one of those great classes.  But I’m not a scholar anymore; send it away.

Four great plays by Henrik Ibsen.  Back in the day, these kinds of anthologies were very popular among academic publishers.  We teachers would have to assign certain plays to our students, and take them from anthologies, since there wasn’t really any other way for kids to get hold of them.  But publishers didn’t want to actually solicit good translations, so they’d find some public domain (and very old-fashioned) translation, and publish four plays or so.  Those old William Archer Ibsen translations are very Victorian and British, which is not to say they’re worthless, but they’re why I’m doing my own, in an updated American idiom.  I kept this book, though, to inspire me.

I don’t want to go through every book we looked at tonight.  But every book was meaningful, led to memories and spurred conversations. Books can do that, and not much else can.


High school theatre

My wife reminded me last night that it’s been a week since I blogged.  Indeed it has, though for good reasons; I’ve been up against some deadlines on other projects.  But I’m back today, and glad to be.

Yesterday, I went to Herriman High School to judge the Region Four One-act play competition.  I was one of three judges, deciding which shows and which actors would advance to the state competition.  It was a fun day.  ‘One-act’ suggests a short play, forty minutes (or so) in length, but some of the plays we saw were cuttings from much longer plays; what my wife calls ‘the Cliff Notes version.’  So one high school did Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  Not just forty five minutes of the play, but the whole play condensed to forty five minutes.

When I saw that I was going to be seeing a high school production of The Crucible, my first reaction was ‘someone shoot me in the head right now.’  This is not because I dislike Miller’s great play.  I love The Crucible, and grew to love it even more after playing Giles Corey (“More weight!”) in a good production.  But it’s a grown-up play, a play about politics and adultery and fanaticism and the way people lie to hide their own weaknesses.  And the characters are all, well, grown-ups.  Would high school kids be able to convey all that?  I needn’t have worried; the kids did it beautifully. Some projection problems (some of the kids’ voices weren’t strong enough to handle a big space), but strong emotional content, and an intelligently conceived production.

We were asked to rate the shows Superior, Exceptional, Good and Fine, with a strong suggestion from the Region supervisors that it would be seriously uncool of us to give any show a Fine.  They needn’t have worried; I gave six of the seven shows Superior ratings, softy that I am.  And yet, my two fellow judges were equally prodigal; the shows really were that good.

Some of the show choices were interesting.  One high school did a terrific job with Christopher Durang’s Wanda’s Visit.  Durang’s a wonderful comic playwright, who builds his plays around cartoon monsters–Sister Mary Ignatius in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You, the Doctor in Beyond Therapy, the parents in Baby with the Bathwater.  Mostly he writes them for performance by his Yale BFF, Sigourney Weaver.  Anyway, Wanda’s Visit is outrageous; a nice WASP couple, Jim and Marsha, is visited by the husband’s former girlfriend, who is, as I say, monstrous, a completely horrible human being. Much of the comedy comes from Marsha, the wife, trying to stay polite while this awful woman destroys her home.  The girl who played Marsha was tremendous, absolutely great; disciplined, focused, and very very funny.  And the girl who played Wanda was terrific too.  I liked the show very much, while also aware that actors at this level don’t yet have the experience to capture every nuance of this kind of savage comedy.

An even stranger choice was the high school who performed David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice.  It’s a Japanese ghost story, about a mysterious woman who runs what appears to be an inn, but an inn from which visitors never ever escape. Turns out, she’s a witch, a lonely-but-deadly seductress. It’s a quiet play, with many short scenes, just two actors, very rooted in Japanese culture. The girl who played the witch was wonderful, elderly and hobbling in the earlier scenes, and then growing increasingly youthful and dangerous as the play progressed.  It was a trifle slow-paced, and I could sense a little high school restlessness in the audience as it progressed.  But I thought it was splendid.  Such a risky choice–what you’re risking is boredom–and such beautifully subtle work from the kids.

We were supposed to choose a single winner, and my fellow judges and I were torn between two plays that were actually very similar.  Several high schools chose to do big cast, monologue heavy shows, like Jack Hilton Cunningham’s Women and War. It’s just a series of monologues about the experiences of American women in wars fought from WWI to Afghanistan.  I get why it would be a popular choice–lots of parts for girls, and a chance to do good ensemble work.  It was interesting to me, though, how a show like Women and War could still have a single outstanding performance. Everyone was good, but one girl, playing a veteran of Afghanistan, was really sensational–matter-of-fact, non-melodramatic, completely grounded and emotionally devastating.

Another somewhat similar show (large cast, monologue-heavy, good parts for lots of kids), was Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the murder trial and community impact of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal death.  It was beautifully directed, nicely acted, and I found it very moving; we eventually gave it first place in our rankings. Utah is a very conservative state, and I was delighted to see a high school willing to tackle that difficult a play, dealing with such sensitive subject matter.  Well done.

Overall, though, the entire experience was, well, uplifting.  We hear a lot about a current ‘crisis in education.’  About the challenges facing today’s youth.  About how tough life can be for this generation of teenagers.  And yet, all across America, kids are being taught by dedicated teachers. All across America, kids are trying out for the school play, and making friends the best possible way, by working hard together on a project all of you care about and consider important.  And teachers put in long long hours in rehearsals, building sets, coaching kids.

And of course, it’s not just high school theatre that’s wonderful and character building and educational and immensely important and valuable.  Kids are playing high school sports, tennis and volleyball and basketball and yes, even football, and good men and women are coaching and refereeing and administering, and other kids are joining the chess club or the math club or working on the school paper or raising cattle in 4H or working with Scouts or Explorers.  And kids are learning and growing and caring about good causes.

High school can be full of wonder and joy.  It can also be horrible.  But good people, caring grown-ups are busy at work every day, badly underpaid and under-appreciated, to help as many kids as possible to have great experiences, and minimize the bad ones.

My high school drama teacher changed my life.  Mary Forester, her name was, and she absolutely altered the course of my life.  I am who I am today, in very large measure, because she gave her life to building a great high school drama program.  So yesterday, in the tiniest possible way, I tried to give back just a little to that larger cause.

American education does face serious challenges.  But what I saw yesterday was something wonderful–a company of caring adults leading terrific kids to perform, to do something really hard really well. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted.  But I’m not sure when I’ve felt better.


And. . . the bizarre West Wing parallels continue.  This article does a nice job showing the more obvious ones; the last two seasons of The West Wing are about a Congressman, Matt Santos, as he runs for the Presidency, and the Santos=Obama prescience is really quite amazing. (Not to mention Vinick=McCain).  But now there’s another one.  The last year of the fictional Presidency of Jed Bartlet is marked by a crisis in Kazakhstan, in which the President puts American troops right in between a Russian army and Chinese troops.  Well, we have a Russian army invading a neighbor; not an exact parallel, but once again, there are voices calling for American armed intervention.

Or sort of.  In fact, I don’t know of anyone actually calling for President Obama to send troops to Ukraine.  You kind of have to read between the lines.  Bill Kristol, for example, wrote:

Ukraine can expect no serious assistance in getting Russian troops off Ukraine soil or helping secure Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nor is President Obama committed to seeing to it that President Putin pay a real price for his actions.

And his entire column is an angry denunciation of President Obama’s measured, diplomatic response to this particular piece of Russian aggression.

Bill Rogers, R-Michigan, (kind of a favorite go-to guy on the Sunday talk shows, because he’s articulate and usually pretty reasonable), said “Putin is playing chess with us; we’re playing marbles.”  But he also agreed that President Obama doesn’t have a lot of viable choices:

There is not a lot of options on the table and, candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed,” the Michigan Republican said. “And unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them. Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”  He continued:

There are not a lot of options on the table and, candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed, and unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them. Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”
In other words, me paraphrasing: ‘we probably can’t send troops in, though we could have earlier, and should have. So, darn it, we probably can’t go to war over this yet.’
Good old Lindsay Graham weighed in as well, calling President Obama “weak and indecisive,” and saying that Presidential weakness on this scale “invites aggression.”  He then added melodramatically “President Obama needs to do something!”  Others have attacked President Obama’s supposed timidity and weakness: Dick Cheney among them.  And everyone–by which I mean the mainstream media and Congressional Republicans– agrees that this is the defining crisis of the Obama Presidency.
That’s bonkers.  When President Obama took office, the American economy was in freefall.  Tanking big time.  That was the defining crisis of the Obama administration, and he handled it pretty darn well.  I know our economy has stagnated, but the fact that the Speaker won’t even bring a jobs bill up for a vote in the House has a lot more to do with it than any action the President can realistically take.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a serious matter.  The Ukrainian people suffered greatly under the Soviet Union’s tyranny, and we have a moral obligation to support their Democratic aspirations.  We also have treaty obligations towards Ukraine; specifically, the Budapest accords, to which Russia is also a signatory, and which Putin has violated most egregiously.
But the fact is, we have no national interests at stake in Ukraine. And Putin has not invaded most of the country, nor has he tried to take it over.  He hasn’t, for example, sent troops to Kiev.  He’s in Crimea, putatively to protect the lives of Russians living there–a big majority of the Crimean population.  Worst case (and most likely) scenario; the Crimea votes on which country they want to be part of; Russia, or Ukraine.  We probably could live with that, and so could Ukraine.  We don’t really have a dog in that fight.
I suppose the President could have sent troops to Ukraine two weeks ago, to prevent the Russians invading.  Problem is, you sort of have to be invited to send troops to foreign countries, and no such invitation was (or would ever have been) extended. I suppose the President could have sent ships to the Black Sea or something.  In the middle of the Olympics, precipitating an international crisis.
I think everyone can agree that it’s morally wrong for a country to unilaterally violate another nation’s sovereignty, and especially egregious to do so under some made-up pretext.  But we have no credibility on that issue internationally either.  Because that’s precisely what we did in Iraq.
So why on earth are we listening to Bill Kristol on Ukraine?  Or Lindsay Graham or Dick Cheney?  They were wrong, spectacularly and brutally and violently wrong, on Iraq.  What on earth qualifies those characters as geo-political players, as people whose expertise should be consulted?
What solutions are they offering?  Kick Russia out of the G-8. Not sure it matters, plus Putin doesn’t even care enough about the G-8 to attend the last one, plus we can’t do that unilaterally, and Germany might not agree to do it now.  They need Russian oil.  Sanctions?  A lot of Europe relies on Russian oil.  We can, and should, freeze Russian assets in American banks.  But there’s not a huge economic price Putin’s going to have to pay here.
Diplomacy is the answer, and I get that it can feel like a pretty ineffectual one.  But that’s how civilized nations resolve their differences.  Russia is not, let’s be clear, behaving like a civilized nation right now, and should be condemned for it.  But we didn’t either, in 2003.  Did we?


The meaning of this year’s Oscars

I watched the Oscars, as I do every year, and, as happens every year, was bored to tears by the parts of the broadcast intended to entertain me and entertained by happenstance, accident and humiliating failures.  The ‘theme’ this year was ‘heroes’ or something, which meant we were subjected to 418 looonnnngggg montages about heroism. I’ve seen all those movies, and mostly enjoyed them; seeing 2 seconds each from 50 of them is dull. Idina Menzel sang the winning song from Frozen, but her performance, though perfectly fine, was much less entertaining than John Travolta’s butchering of her name in her introduction.  Matthew McConaughey is an amazing story, a lightweight actor in movies like Failure to Launch and We Are Marshall and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days who like three years ago decided to completely reinvent himself as an actor.  He’s terrific, he earned his Oscar, and boy does he know it; his self-aggrandizing acceptance speech was a comic highlight.

But there is an interesting message that emerged from this Oscar season, and it has to do with the films that didn’t win as much as the films that won.  Gravity won, and deserved to win, a boatload of Oscars for things like Sound Mixing and Special Effects–it’s a technological achievement of the first order, plus an immensely exciting and entertaining film.  12 Years a Slave is a deserving Best Picture winner–a powerful, issue oriented film.  Her had one great strength as a film–its innovative, imaginative screenplay, and Spike Jonze won in that category.

But two films had to have been considered the biggest losers of the night: American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Multiple nominations, critically acclaimed, and between them, they won bupkus.

American Hustle is a comedy; I think that hurt it. But it’s also a specific kind of comedy; a comedy about dreadful people who do dreadful things.  And it’s also a film about unattractive dreadful people. Christian Bale was great as a two-bit conman turned government informant, but he was hardly playing Batman; Bale got a pot belly and a spectacularly awful combover, plus ghastly 70’s costumes.  Amy Adams gave a tremendous performance, I thought, easily deserving of a Best Actress Oscar (though frankly the same could be said of all the women nominated in that category), but her costumes were, again, horrid looking (intentionally and comically).  Best of all, her British accent came and went–sometimes it sounded sort of authentic, and other times it went away completely.  Which was, again, intentional.  Adams’ character, Sydney, is a conwoman, and not a very good one–her schtick is to pretend to be an upper class British woman, but it’s all fake. Adams, the actress, created an inconsistent and inauthentic British dialect for a character who is only pretending (unconvincingly) to be British.  It’s a great choice, and a great comedic choice.  But it could also look like bad acting.  So a great actress created a character who is a bad actress, and I think it’s quite possible she fooled at least some Academy voters in the process.  Because the Academy voters do still tend elderly, and conservative; not politically conservative, but aesthetically.

But The Wolf of Wall Street was the real surprise. Martin Scorsese is 72 now, but he’s still the youngest director out there, and though his filmography is astonishing, Wolf could well be his masterpiece.  But it’s a good deal uglier than Hustle. It’s a film about morally repugnant human beings behaving badly, and enjoying it, and profiting from it.  And it’s a film that never redeems them or anyone else.  There’s no character or moment in the film where a sympathetic character says ‘you’re bad people, and you deserve your comeuppance.’  The moral center of the film resides outside the film itself, in the collective conscience and judgment of the audience.  We’re sickened by the characters’ choices, and worse, we’re titillated by them, implicated in them.  It’s a film that condemns the American financial industry, shows how it destroyed America, shows how much fun everyone in that industry had while they were doing it, and reveals their utter contempt for average Americans, their utter misanthropy.

It is, in short, the perfect example of new American naturalism.  It’s the heir to the theatrical tradition of Neil Labute and David Mamet; it’s Glengarry Glen Ross with a lot more cocaine and much higher class hookers. And as such, it’s a deeply disturbing, deeply moral, powerfully redemptive film.  Redemptive?  Yes.  Because we need to see this; we need to recognize its essential truth. Examining our consciences as a prelude to confession.  It’s an Occupy film, really, only it focuses and channels the moral passion of the Occupy movement and gives it a name and an identity; Jordan Belfort.  Leonardo DiCaprio.  Gatsby without Daisy.  Richard Roma with a sales staff and motivational speeches.

It’s a terrifying film, in part because it’s so hypnotically addicting.  The Oscars had to ignore it, I think.  And it’s not like 12 Years a Slave let us off easy.