Monthly Archives: April 2015


Like, I suspect, many of you, I’ve been riveted by the horrifyingly familiar scenes from Baltimore that have been dominating news coverage of late. For one thing, the rioting and protests have been taking place in Baltimore, a town we all think we know from the HBO TV show The Wire. It makes sense; The Wire depicted Baltimore as a failing city, ripped apart by racial conflict, with a brutal (and ineffective) police force and unresponsive bureaucracy and hopelessly underfunded education system. And David Simon, the show’s creator, has emerged as a voice of reason urging non-violent protest as potentially transformative. I watched Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, George Stephanopolous on ABC, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and Larry Willmore’s show, all this morning, and every one of them referenced The Wire. So we feel like we know what’s going on. We think we know Baltimore.  I love–we all love–The Wire. But it’s fiction. Jimmy McNulty isn’t a cop in the real city; Carcetti’s not the Mayor. I don’t find the familiarity of Wire references in any sense comforting.

What I’m left with are questions. Way more questions than answers, but questions to which I think we all, as Americans, are entitled to answers. Here are a few that have occurred to me. You undoubtedly have more of your own, and better ones than mine.

1) Why wasn’t the homicide of Freddie Gray treated as any other homicide? Why is this not a murder investigation? I understand the difficulty of getting cops to investigate cops, or getting prosecutors to prosecute the people they work with every day. But an unarmed man, without ever being accused of any crime, was chased down and placed in police custody. And his spinal cord was severed. That’s a homicide, and it might well have been a murder. Six cops have been suspended. That’s a start, but it appears that we might need some kind of Justice Department involvement. How about this: place all shootings of civilians by police under the jurisdiction of the FBI? Federally prosecute all such cases. Because this has to stop.

2) Why are police shootings in Europe so rare as to be non-existent, while every week, it seems, some police somewhere in America are involved in a homicide? Is there a difference in the way police are trained over there? Because the common denominator in all these deaths seems to me to be situations in which the police insist on asserting their authority over a civilian. Eric Garner wouldn’t cooperate. Walter Scott ran away from a cop on a routine traffic stop. (I don’t count 12-year old Tamir Rice, killed in Detroit. That one was just flat out murder). I understand that police officers need to exert control over a situation. But are they effectively trained in how to de-escalate? I know that the police have incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs. I know cops. They’re good people. I honor their work. But there have been way way too many violent and lethal incidents. Calm people down. Acknowledge their humanity. Running from a police officer should not ever, ever be a death penalty offense.

3) Rioting is bad. Looting is bad. But let’s face facts: black people riot because an explosive incident brings long-standing oppression to the surface. (As Larry Willmore put it, ‘that’s the history of America: oppression leads to rioting, over and over again. Starting with the Boston Tea Party’). White people riot because their favorite sports’ team won a championship. And while I love calls for non-violence, like David Simon’s, I find Ta-Nahisi Coates’ perspective even more compassing. The homicide of Freddie Gray must be seen in a larger context of systemic police violence in Baltimore.

4) When Jon Stewart said, on his show yesterday, (I’m paraphrasing) ‘if we can spend a trillion dollars building schools in Afghanistan, why can’t we rebuild our inner cities and their schools and institutions’ the crowd cheered. And George Stephanopolous said ‘whenever politicians say what you just said, crowds always cheer. But then it never happens.’ So okay. We’re in an election. I’ll vote for anyone who says it: ‘let’s rebuild our schools and our cities and our infrastructure. Take half of our annual defense budget and use it at home.’ If that means that I’m voting for Bernie Sanders, so be it.

5) It’s not enough, anymore, to watch TV and feel bad about what we see. We need to fix this. We need action.



The campaign for President

Hillary Clinton announced that she was running for President the other day. It used to be that Presidential campaign announcements were these big events, with lots of balloons and marching bands and frippery and folderol. That may be going out of style. Hillary Clinton’s announcement came via a Youtube video.

It was widely mocked, but I don’t know, I kinda liked it. The thing is, Hillary Clinton doesn’t need to introduce herself to us. We know her; we’ve known her for a long time. I think a big Super Bowl halftime show kind of announcement would have backfired. She’s just Hillary. I know that feels sexist, to call her ‘Hillary.’ We could call her ‘Secretary Clinton,’ or ‘Senator Clinton.’ But we know all that; we know she’s a well-credentialed woman. Most Americans, in fact, have already made up their minds about her. She’s put her announcement on Youtube, like we all do when our cats or grandkids do something particularly adorable. She’s just plain folks.

That’s all pose and artifice, of course. Presidential campaigns are theatre; carefully scripted and staged and designed. The first days of the Clinton campaign were completely nuts, with CNN breathlessly covering her visit to a Chipotle, as she–the future of the free world may be at stake here, people–ordered a chicken burrito and carried it to her table. She drove to Iowa to campaign, because she wanted to talk to ordinary Americans along the way. And listen to their concerns. While news vans clogged the parking lots of every rest stop along the path. It got pretty funny. Let’s face it: Hillary Clinton isn’t an ‘ordinary American’ and we don’t want her to be one. She’s running for the most powerful political office on the planet. She’s probably going to win. It’s really really important for her to be good at her job.

So what do we want to learn about her? What criteria should we use? What’s important, what’s not important? What is this campaign likely to reveal?

When she was running for the US Senate, in New York, my brother, living in Ithaca at the time, said he was worried about her being essentially an outsider. What did she know about the biggest issues facing New York? I told him not to worry about it. We know two things about Hillary Clinton; she’s really smart, and she works hard. She’ll be up on New York issues. And it doesn’t matter what the issues are today. Six months from now, the issues that consume us will be either resolved or forgotten. We want to know two things: how quick a study is she? And what beliefs/philosophy/ideas/ideologies will inform her decisions.

When George W. Bush ran for President, did he know that the defining event of his Presidency would be the 9/11 terrorist attacks? When Barack Obama began campaigning in 2007, how much did we know about the world-wide financial crisis, the defining issue of his Presidency? Did Jimmy Carter anticipate the Iran hostage crisis? George Bush Sr. did have an inkling, in ’88, that the Soviet Union was collapsing, and that he’d have to deal with it, but he didn’t have any idea that Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait. And so on. Remember what the biggest issue was in the Nixon/Kennedy debates? How much do we care today about Quemoy and Matsu?

So as I watch this Presidential season unfold, I don’t particularly care about where the candidates stand on, say Social Security reform. But I do want to know how they approach the question. When Chris Christie recently proposed raising the Social Security retirement age to 69, that specific proposal isn’t one that’s likely to pass. But the fact that he would propose that–and the specific issue-positioning it implies–is very significant. It tells me that he just flat doesn’t understand the issue. He hasn’t studied it, he doesn’t understand the economics of it. Essentially, that proposal eliminates him, for me, as a serious candidate.

I want to know where they stand on the issues not because the issues of April 2015 are likely to be issues in January 2017, or because I think campaign proposals are likely to be enacted into law (though of course, some are), but because they tell me a lot about how candidates think. Or do they not think; do they shoot from the hip, so to say. I want a policy wonk President. Failing that, I want someone sensible enough to find smart people who can give good advice. I don’t want Chris Christie, making a silly proposal to separate himself from the Republican pack.

Their campaign videos don’t matter. TV ads, for or against them, really don’t matter, unless we’re talking about ads so nasty or witless that we can’t imagine a sentient human being approving them to air. Gaffes don’t really matter much; nobody can withstand that kind of 24/7 scrutiny without getting a little dinged. Though, of course, sometimes candidates say things so over-the-top idiotic that it just destroys any chance of survival.

In this election, the Democrats are pretty much all-in with Clinton. Martin O’Malley is a decent guy, and the fact that he was the model for Carcetti (the Mayor on The Wire) is both super cool, and more than a little creepy, considering that Carcetti was played by Aidan Gillen, who also plays the slitheringly slimy Petyr Balish (Littlefinger) on Game of Thrones. (Don’t trust him, Sansa!) Anyway, O’Malley has worse name recognition than Mayor Carcetti–he can’t win. Elizabeth Warren isn’t going to run, and Bernie Sanders is a wonderful public servant who’ll do a nice job competing for Dennis Kucinich voters. It’s going to be Hillary.

Against, almost certainly, 15-20 serious Republican candidates. And I don’t have the faintest idea which of them should be favored for the nomination. Well, I guess Jeb Bush. (Sigh. Bush/Clinton, again?) Or Marco Rubio. Maybe Scott Walker. It’s going to be that uninspiring.

43 people have served as President of the United States. Amazingly, all 43 have been dudes. I understand that it was difficult for women to run for President back when they were prohibited from running for public office or, you know, voting. Still, it’s well past time for a woman to serve. Go Hillary. I don’t find her a particularly inspiring candidate; I’m a Warren Democrat. But she’s smart, she’s tough, and she’ll be effective. If she wins. Someone’s got to. And we have this preposterous process to decide it. Yay for us.

Above all, I want to see a candidate with some humor, some humility, some sense of the ridiculous. The American electoral process is, let’s face it, completely insane. For months and months and months all these people are going to be vying for our attention, our interest, our money and our votes. And flooding the airwaves with the most preposterous ads. And, next fall, we won’t even have Jon Stewart to help mock it. Let’s ignore the campaign nonsense when we can, laugh at it when we can’t help ourselves. And let’s go elect ourself a President.

Freetown: Movie Review

Freetown is the latest missionary-oriented Mormon movie to come from director Garrett Batty, following his Saratov Approach two years ago. Like Saratov, Freetown is well acted, photographed, edited; it’s professionally done in every sense. The screenplay is credited to Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson; an amazing writer. I wish I could report that I liked this movie as much as I liked Saratov. I didn’t. I didn’t like it at all, for what are almost certainly completely idiosyncratic reasons of my own.

But first, the story. Freetown is set in Liberia, in 1989, right at the beginning of their first 7-year tribal and civil war. There was an LDS mission there, but the movie shows how the (white) mission leadership decamped to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to wait out the violence. They left behind the native Liberian missionaries. Among other dangers, rebels targeted a small ethnic tribal minority, the Krahn, the ruling tribe of Liberian President Samuel Doe. One missionary was Krahn. So six missionaries were transported across the country to Freetown, crammed into a tiny car and driven to safety by an LDS church member, Brother Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who had been left in charge of the mission office after the President’s departure.

In one of the first scenes in the movie, we see Abubakar sitting in his little car (which has Mark 9:24 on the back windshield), stuck in a mud puddle. He’s about to get out of the car, when he sees a small rebel patrol. They’re a dangerous looking bunch, very young, variously armed, and they do African rebel-y things like fire their AKs into the air. (Why do they do that? A bullet, fired directly upwards, will eventually fall back down to earth. It could hit someone. How many innocent folks are killed annually by falling bullets idiotically fired into the sky?). The rebels approach him, clearly suspicious. He doesn’t seem too bothered by them, though, just opens the car trunk, gets out some water, offers them a cup to drink. This apparently mollifies them. He then reaches to the roof of his car, gets out some planks of wood, which he uses to give his tires some traction, and off he drives. The rebels watch him go. So, heavily armed, deeply irresponsible teenage rebels are an ordinary fact of life for this guy. But Brother Abubakar knows how to deal with them. And so the main dynamic of the movie is established; this movie is set in a world that’s actually quite mundane and ordinary, and also dangerous and violent beyond belief.

Ordinary and also insane. Quotidian and surreal. That’s the whole movie. We see these six missionaries, and they’re normal Mormon guy missionaries; zealous, enthusiastic, hardworking. They street-contact, they hand out pamphlets, they share their testimonies with anyone who will listen. And also, there are these insanely violent murdering rebel gangs all over the place. And they’re simultaneously a disciplined military force, and also out of control violent and drunken and arbitrary. Freetown explores a world where ordinary people, on the street, minding their own business, can just get shot in the head, randomly. And also a world of normal daily routines. We see a group of saints chattering happily on their way to a baptism. But one of them is carrying a machete and an AK, and stands guard while they celebrate. It’s a movie where a branch member drives the missionaries around in his car. And crams six of them in this teensy crappy little car. And they drive hundreds of miles on these dirt roads, while rebels stop them every few miles to harass them.

And in time, it becomes the cognitive dissonance movie of the year. There’s one scene in which this is expressly spelled out. One of the missionaries, Elder Menti (Michael Attram) talks to Abubakar about how, after he’d joined the Church, he learned of the policy of priesthood exclusion, and it really bothered him, learning about the racist past of the Church he’d just joined. It led, he says, to cognitive dissonance. I’m glad that scene was in there, because, to me, the entire movie was a cog-diss exercise.

It’s a movie about this one Church member, and these six missionaries, and their journey through fearsomely dangerous Liberia to the comparative safety of Sierra Leone. And along the way, they are rely on a series of miracles. Like, there are almost no places for them to buy gasoline, but the car never runs out of gas until they’re out of money, at which point they find one station willing to give them enough to get them to safety. And when they get to the border, the bridge to Sierra Leone is out, but Brother Abubakar has a revelation about a ferry they can take instead. So they’re all these little but real miracles. God loves His missionaries. God loves these specific missionaries enough to help save them. That’s the message we’re meant to take away.

But it really doesn’t register much, because it takes place in the middle of the Liberian Civil War. Which we see enough of to be horrified by. A closing credit tells us that the missionaries, and Brother Abubakar, spent the next seven years in Sierra Leone, in safety. But what about their families? What about Brother Abubakar’s wife and children?  How are we to take this? That God loves these six missionaries enough to intervene, to save them, but doesn’t love everyone else in Liberia about to be butchered?  Cognitive dissonance indeed.

I know this is an idiosyncratic issue I have. Like, in Church, you’ll hear people bear their testimony about how they know God loves them, because there was this time that they needed to get to a Church meeting, but couldn’t find their car keys, so they prayed and, lo!, there were the keys. And I’m thinking, ‘yes, and what about Sister so-and-so in the ward, dying of liver cancer.’ Or Asian children forced into human trafficking, or starving kids in Darfur or the violence in the Congo. Does God really love Mormons enough to help us with reasonably trivial problems, but He doesn’t love other people (non-Mormons?) enough to intervene in some of the real horror shows in the world? Before Freetown aired, I saw a preview for a new Christian movie about a school shooting in which none of the kids died, because, the kids say, angels intervened. And I thought, ‘great. Good for you. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened more often.’

Also, I wish there weren’t just that teensy bit of vestigial colonialism in there. Like, the white mission President getting out just ahead of the violence, someone clearly having decided that his safety was essential, and the safety of his Liberian missionaries maybe kind of less so. And the super nice mission home in Sierra Leone reserved for the President. Except that was probably true, so including it is at least honest, revealing just that small sense of possible priorities back in ’89.

Could this have been fixed? Garrett Batty is a smart guy, a good director; Melissa Larson’s a terrific writer. I don’t think they intended to make the Cognitive Dissonance Plus Philosophical Problem of Evil movie of the year 2015. It’s the juxtapositioning of quiet little miracles for Mormon guys and the Horrors of African Civil Wars for everyone else that made this such a disquieting (and not in good ways) viewing experience.

First, the movie’s awfully coy about violence, and in this case, I think it was a mistake. We’re not really forced to confront it. We see a guy being led off to be shot, and then the camera pans away, and we hear the shot; we don’t see him killed. I think we need to really face up to the reality of rebel civil war.

But simultaneously, we need to see some larger purpose to saving these missionaries. Michael Attram, the actor who played one missionary, looks a lot like Malcolm X, for example. Well, these six guys come across really well; they seem like really good guys. What if the movie suggested that they’re the solution? Frankly, a screwed-up poor country like Liberia could really use some smart, decent natural leaders. What if one of the missionaries (Menti, probably) were individualized just a bit more, made to seem like a genuine future statesman? What if the movie just hinted that God needed to save these six guys to give Liberia some kind of future, some hope, some desperately needed moral leadership?

And maybe that’s all subtly suggested, and I just missed it. I have cognitive dissonance issues of my own, after all. I’m not saying don’t see it. Just be aware; I found it a very strange movie, and nowhere near as inspirational as I think it was intended to be.



Pilot Program: Theatre Review

Melissa Leilani Larson’s Pilot Program, which closed this last weekend at Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake, is a lovely play, especially in this beautifully acted, directed, and designed production. I say works like ‘beautifully’ and ‘lovely’ despite the fact that the play made me terrifically uncomfortable, and that at dinner afterwards, with my wife, my nephew and his husband and my son, the only two things we could talk about were what a beautiful play it was, and also how uncomfortable it made us.

I love that. I love how a piece of theatre can affect us like that. Ibsen’s A Doll House does that for me, leads to uncomfortable conversations about awkward subjects. A good play should burrow under our skin. It should itch and burn. It should raise more issues than it solves, it should force us to rethink previously held convictions. It should not let go of us afterwards. It’s been four days since I saw Pilot Program. I should have reviewed it earlier, but illness intervened. But I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Three characters, then. We start with Abby and Jake; a nice Mormon married couple. She’s an academic, he works in public relations. They have a good life together, a good marriage. Jake’s a good guy, kind and gentle, nonjudgmental, a supportive and loving spouse. (They were played by April and Mark Fossen, who are, as their last names suggest, likewise married). In addition to teaching and publishing, Abby blogs, and is our window into the world of the play. She addresses the audience directly–she blogs the play for us–and her insights are crucial.

And Abby and Jake have also found themselves unable to have children. And infertility haunts their marriage. Abby tells us that they’ve tried everything–in vitro, adoption–without success.

So: the set, a nice living room in a comfortable and nice-looking home. Abby addresses us; introduces the couple, as wives always do when a couple is asked to speak in Church. A light shift: time passing. And then Jake enters; in his suit; they’ve been somewhere, an event, an appointment. And they can’t even speak. The silence stretched forever: Abby holds herself like she’s been punched, bent over. He appears incapable of speech. Finally, the conversation begins. They’ve been to a meeting, with not just their Stake President, but with an Area Authority. They’ve been asked–called–to participate in a pilot program. They’ve been asked to add another wife to their marriage.

And so, I thought, he’ll be the one to decide, he’ll talk her into it, reluctantly, but in his capacity as patriarch, he’ll make the call. Accept the calling for both of them. And you think, all right, polygamy is certainly about patriarchy, male privilege; that’s where this play is going. And then it doesn’t go there. She’s had a feeling, a warmth, a whispering of the spirit. His inclination is to say ‘no.’ She says ‘yes.’ That was the first time tears came to my eyes, sitting quietly in the darkness.

But she wants to have a say in who the new wife will be, and as it happens, she knows who she wants. Her all-time favorite student, Heather (Susanna Florence Risser), now graduated and a close friend. She loves Heather; thinks of her as a sister, almost. And Heather is still active in the Church, younger than Abby, in her early thirties, a successful professional woman in her own right. One small problem: Heather lives in California, and they live in Salt Lake City. They’re going to have to ask her to move, to uproot her entire life. She’s going to have to ‘move to Utah,’ with everything that implies.

And they invite Heather to visit, and they have this amazingly awkward conversation with her, and Melissa Larson’s gift for comic dialogue gives the scene some lightness. And when finally they get around to it, Heather thinks they’re asking her to be a surrogate mother. And she’s totally fine with it. But that’s not what they’re asking. And of course, when they ask–when they propose–Heather’s reactions are initially what we might expect. She’s appalled, offended, angry. And then a change, and she shocks us, alone in the dark. ‘What if I were to say ‘yes,’ she says. She’s felt something too; she’s felt the Spirit, she thinks. That was the second time I cried.

I cried, because I could see how the rest of the play would unfold. Heather and Jake fall in love. Well, of course they do; they’re married. They work out a ‘marital schedule,’ as I suspect would be needed. He moves out of the bedroom he’s shared with Abby, into his own room, so that each wife can have her own space, her own privacy. And Heather becomes pregnant, and has a baby boy.

And Abby gets to be a child-caring sister-wife (a label she loathes). She gets to be Aunt Abby. And she . . . loses. Loses herself, her identity, Jake’s wife and life-partner, loses that essential intimate exclusivity. And Jake still loves her, still treats her with his usual kindness and attentiveness; of course he does. He’s a good man, a kind man, a good husband. To both his wives.

But we can see it, can’t we. See Abby fold inside herself. See Abby’s distanced misery take her over. We can, not just see her pain, but feel it, ache with her. We’re not remotely distanced, because she’s already allowed us inside her mind and soul; her blog. And there are no good answers for her, not because of the cruelty of the two people who love her most–they love her, both of them do, of course they do, and wouldn’t dream of being cruel. But little Thomas is Heather’s baby. And that changes things.

I don’t think the play has any kind of agenda. Like Larson’s best work, it’s a play about people, about human beings and their lives and choices and deeply rooted private pain. It’s a play that defies easy answers. It’s also, I think, the most stunningly powerful anti-polygamy play I’ve certainly ever seen. It’s a play that says polygamy equals Abby’s pain. And Abby will continue to retreat inside herself, inside her misery. Eventually, she will stop blogging. Because her blog equals life.

So what about the spirit? Both women, in this play, believe themselves to have received a spiritual confirmation of the rightness of this, after all. What did they feel? I don’t know. Part of me thinks that they haven’t actually felt the Spirit, but the stirrings of a essential biological imperative. But I can make just as good a case for the Spirit. I don’t know. I’m just as happy not knowing. That’s the place where the play bothers me the most, and that’s entirely a good thing.

One last thing: I consider Mark Fossen a good friend, and thought his performance was tremendous. What a challenge, playing a decent, ordinary, spiritual man. He was masterful in the role. I also consider Susanna Florence Risser a good friend; one of my favorite actresses, and a student I was proud to teach. Her performance was likewise terrific. But April Fossen was remarkable. Again, a friend, but being friends with her is a bit like being friends with Meryl Streep.

My goodness. What a play, what a production, what a searing examination of a part of Mormon history that most of us would really rather never think about. If you haven’t seen it, buy it; an ebook has been published. It’s just extraordinary.




American Idol

My wife and I have been intermittent fans of American Idol for years now. I wouldn’t say we’re any kind of die-hards, but we do still watch, even now, when the show is clearly on its last legs. Back in the day, Idol was on two nights a week, often two hours a night. Remember the results show, where they stretched a simple, straightforward announcement–Contestant A has been eliminated!–to a full hour’s show full of tension and strife. That’s all gone. None of the original lineup of judges is around anymore, though actually, that’s kind of an improvement–Harry Connick is terrific, insightful and smart and helpful. He’s good enough, I’m willing to put up with Keith Urban and JLo. They have a new producer/mentor guy, the oleaginous Scott Borchetta, whose various ‘this week you have to really bring it!’ exhortations we generally just fast-forward past. Still, this week, something interesting happened, something kind of genuine and non-scripted and odd.

Okay, so the way they do it now, the contestants all sing, and we vote for them, and the next week, they all sit in these lighted chairs, and the highest vote-getter’s chair lights turn green, and that’s how they know they’ve advanced. So they then get up and sing, and we vote on their performance for next week. But the last two unlighted chairs are for the ‘bottom two,’ and at the end of the show, those two sing, and everyone in America votes on Twitter. And one poor schmuck is eliminated right there. Handed his/her choice of weapon and sent to a fiery pit to do battle with an Orc, to the death. (I may have made that last bit up).

Actually, no, they just get to go home and not be on American Idol anymore. Which is not to say they don’t get some subsequent success in the music biz. One of the fascinating things about Idol is that the exposure from being on the show is often more important than actually winning it. Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, several of them have all done really well after not winning the contest, while Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks haven’t been as successful. Not all of them get Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson-type careers.

Anyway, so, on Idol last week, they were down to the top seven. Clark Beckham and Tyanna Jones were the top two. They’re both really good singers, and I suspect one of the two of them will win. Then came Jax–she just goes by one name–she’s been uneven throughout. Nick Fradiani (Adam Levine wannabe) went next. That left three contestants; Joey Cook, Sayvon Owen, and Quentin Alexander.

Sayvon has been near the bottom the entire show. He’s crawled out of more coffins than Bela Lugosi. He keeps almost getting eliminated, and keeps barely surviving. Good looking kid with a big smile and a gorgeous voice, but not much of a performer. Seems like the nicest kid.

Joey, though, Joey’s interesting. She is a weirdo. I mean that in a good way; she has a weird voice, a weird look; she’s quirky and does really imaginative arrangements of the songs she’s assigned. Like she did Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love as a bluegrass song, and it worked. She’s absolutely the most original contestant they’ve had, since Adam Lambert (who is still the greatest Idol ever).

Quentin Alexander is fascinating. He looks like he came straight to Idol from an off-Broadway revival of Hair. A whole 60’s Black Panther vibe, but with more piercings. He’s a tremendous performer, and seems like a serious and thoughtful and intense young man.

So: stage is set. Quentin, Joey and Sayvon, on the three unlighted chairs. Quentin’s chair lights up; we’re going to a Twitter vote between Joey and Sayvon to stay on the show. Quentin sings. Then he says, loudly, ‘this is wack.’ And Harry Connick called him out. Here’s what they said:

Quentin: This sucks. We have two of the best vocalists, my best friend is sitting over there. This whole thing is wack, but I’m going to shut up right now.

Harry: Quentin, if it’s that wack, then you can always go home because Idol is paying a lot of money to give you this experience and for you to say that to this hand that is feeding you right now, I think is highly disrespectful.

To his credit, Quentin came back on-stage, walked up to Harry, and explained. He didn’t mean that the whole competition was wack. He was reacting emotionally to two good friends having to duke it out to stay alive in the competition. Later, though, he doubled-down, saying that he felt Connick’s comments were ‘disrespectful.’

Quentin Alexander is 21 years old. He’s a highly emotional performer, and seems to be a very emotional young man. Over the course of the Idol experience, he apparently has grown very close to Joey Cook; not romantically (in fact, she just announced her engagement), but as friends. So maybe this is just a young man blowing off steam.

But isn’t he, at least in part, somewhat right? I mean, I know that Idol is a singing competition, with a very nice first prize; a recording contract. And it’s no more brutal a process than any audition would be, for any performing art. Still, it is a little bit wack. Interesting young artists competing to become, what? A music industry voice-for-hire?

Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame, has been outspoken on this subject, saying recently, “imagine Bob Dylan standing there in front of those judges singing Blowin’ in the Wind, and them going ‘it’s a little nasally and flat. Sorry.” Grohl (who I think sometimes is on a campaign to save rock and roll in America, expanded on this:

When I think about kids watching TV shows like American Idol or The Voice, and they think, oh, okay, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f-ing hours at a convention center with 800 other people, and you sing your heart out to someone and they tell you it’s not good enough? Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old drum set and just get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in, and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll start playing, and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and maybe all the sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s–ty instruments, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again!

Or, like Joey Cook, color her hair and wear weird outfits and sing with a wobbly odd sounding voice, and doing something remarkable every week, often not very good, but never once uninteresting. I hope she does well. And I hope we see Quentin again. American Idol is kind of wack, and I’m glad he pointed it out, though I probably will keep watching, for a little while at least.



Political first principles

Okay, so I got into a discussion on-line yesterday. Yes, I know, my New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop arguing politics on the internet, but this discussion was at least reasonably cordial, considering that one of the people arguing was a Tea Party conservative, and another of them was me. Anyway, my friend asked me what, in my mind, the true principles of politics were. His argument is that there exists absolute truth in all arenas–religion, science, psychology, politics–and that it’s our job to figure it out. The corollary, I suspect, is that God knows what that absolute truth is, and will reveal it to us (or has revealed it to us), if we search for it in the right places. And another corollary, I suspect, is that the absolute truth in politics is found in that divinely inspired document, the US Constitution.

I don’t think that way. I’m generally suspicious of truth claims. I think basic human subjectivity leads us inevitably to confirmation bias. I love Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. He speaks of the most contentious political issue in American history, slavery:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves . . . localized in the south. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Preceding this famous passage came perhaps the most powerful four words in the history of Presidential speech-making: “and the war came.” And 600, 000 young men died. Because of a political dispute, growing out of a theological dispute, built on the foundation of a cultural clash.

So that’s my first principle. That, that war that came, that dispute blowing up into violence and death, that’s the worst case scenario. That’s what can happen when politics fails. That can’t be allowed to happen again. People say our politics today, in 2015, is broken. It’s not. Damaged, certainly; frustrating, unquestionably; insane, at times, sure. Comical, absolutely. But not broken. When politics is broken, soldiers die. And children suffer.

Second principle: policy is more important than politics. Politics is about power, the acquisition of power, the wielding of power. In a democratic republic, politics is about winning elections. Policy is about what we do with power, once we’ve attained it. Bad policy is policy that hurts people, that makes people’s lives worse; good policy is policy that helps people, makes their lives better. But we never quite know, do we? What policies will achieve, what unintended consequences can result. And we’re all biased, all subjective. We look at evidence, at statistics, and we draw differing conclusions. It’s rare for all the evidence to be on any side of any dispute. And we’re human beings; we love anecdotal evidence. We don’t actually do very well with abstractions and objectivity; we want to hear a good story, and we want to feel something.

One great example is food stamps. I’m a liberal, and I think food stamps are a perfect example of a federal program that works. I think it’s a spectacular success. I think there’s strong evidence that it’s a program largely free from waste and corruption, and that it does a terrific job of feeding poor people. But then came Jason Greenslate, an able-bodied surfer dude, living on food stamps in California, and uninterested, apparently, in getting a job. Fox News ran with it, and suddenly food stamp fraud had a poster boy. And let’s face it; both sides do this. How many internet memes feature some conservative legislator somewhere who said something comically sexist, racist, or just plain stupid? Or misrepresent something Sarah Palin just said? We humans love to extrapolate general principles from single examples. And outrage is a particularly easy emotion to provoke.

We all want policy to be even-handedly administered, fair, effective, cost controlled and free from corruption. Policy really does matter, and solid, reasonably objective evidence, for or against some policy initiative, really does exist. It’s just hard to find. And no policy uniformly benefits everyone, and never once harms anyone. We’re weighing harm against benefits, every policy, all the time. Heck, every government program, at every level, costs some money, and that requires taxes, and that means money out of someone’s pocket. That’s always true.

Third principle: both conservatives and liberals are necessary. Both sides are essential, both perspectives have to be listened to, and all policies require the cooperation and some measure of compromise between both (or multiple) sides.

I know this is simplistic, but really, isn’t the heart of liberalism something like this: ‘here’s a social problem, and it needs to be fixed, people are suffering. So here’s a program that can, and probably will fix the problem.’ And the heart of conservatism is something like this: ‘hold on there. Maybe this problem isn’t as bad as you think. We’ve put up with it so far pretty well, haven’t we? How much will fixing it cost? What unintended negative consequences might result? Let’s not just jump in there. Let’s study it out, and see if there’s another solution that won’t require the resource of government, which are, after all, finite.’

You’ll see lists from time to time of a whole bunch of really effective and popular federal programs–Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the federal highway system, universal education, the GI Bill, rural electification, civil rights legislation, and so on. And then someone will say ‘every one of these program was proposed by a liberal, and opposed by a conservative.’ But that’s what liberals do; propose government programs to fix problems. And that’s what conservatives do; ask how much it’s going to cost, ask if there’s not a better solution. I think it’s true that every popular government program probably was proposed by a liberal and opposed by conservatives. But it’s likewise true that every disastrous, expensive, bureaucratically unwieldy, inflexible, screwed up government program was likewise proposed by a liberal, and opposed by conservatives. We need both impulses. We need both approaches, both points of view.

Where both sides can come together is over reform efforts. It’s in the best interests of liberals to have government work effectively (and it certainly can, and does, a lot). So when a program gets bureaucratically ossified or ineffective or unnecessary, liberals and conservatives can and should work together to fix it. Problem is, mostly, they don’t, for reasons having to do with politics. It’s easier to score political points by pointing out the failures of the other side than it is to work constructively with political opponents to actually get stuff done. That’s kind of where we are right now, nationally, and shame on everyone for it.

If you do that too much, both conservatism and liberalism can devolve into ideologies. Again: confirmation bias; it’s very easy for people (especially zealously inclined people) to think that they’re completely right and that the other guys are just being obstinate or stupid.  I think both sides can spin-off extremists. Of course, as a liberal, I tend to think that ‘movement conservatism,’ or ‘Tea Party conservatism,’ or whatever you want to call it, is a terribly dangerous and wrong-headed movement. It’s one thing to say ‘we need to keep an eye on government,’ quite another to say ‘all government is always bad always.’ But politically correct liberalism (especially identity politics) can be just as risibly wrong-headed.

Anyway, I wonder if this is a conversation we should be having. What do we have in common? Where do we differ? What policies work, and what policies might work if reformed sensibly? Because we have a great big country. Great and big. It’d be nice to keep it that way.



Woman in Gold: Film review

Woman in Gold is a terrific movie, much better than I expected. It reminded my wife of The King’s Speech; it reminded me of Philomena, and it’s a movie that fits nicely with either of those equally terrific films. Only The King’s Speech won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, and Philomena was nominated for both. Woman in Gold, meanwhile gets the obscurity of an April release, no Oscar buzz, a lower-than-deserved Rottentomatoes score, and gets to battle Furious 7 for audience share. Ah, the vagaries of Hollywood release strategies! Philomena, based on a true story, starred Judi Dench as an elderly woman coming to terms with her past, helped by an initially-reluctant-but-increasingly-engaged younger male cohort; Woman in Gold, likewise historically based, stars Helen Mirren as ditto, and Ryan Reynolds as ditto. They’re both approximately twelve billion times better movies than Furious 7. I repeat: ah, the vagaries!

Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who escaped Vienna in the midst of the Anschluss. From a well-to-do, well connected family; her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer was the model for the Gustav Klimt painting, Woman in Gold. Another relation was the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Maria now lives in California, and runs a small dress shop. When her sister dies, she finds old letters that convince her that the Austrian ownership of the Klimt painting is of dubious legality. She asks a distant nephew, Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds), an attorney, to research the case. He becomes increasingly convinced that her case has merit, and pursues it, first to the US Supreme Court (which rules that the Austrian government can legitimately be sued in American courts), and then to Austria, where he and his client agree to binding arbitration.

The legal machinations are fascinating. No one questioned that the painting was owned by Adele Bloch Bauer, then retained after her death by the Bloch Bauer family, then subsequently stolen by the Nazis when they took over. The Austrian government claimed that Adele’s will bequeathed the painting to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. Schoenberg’s research discovered that the will was not legally valid, that the painting was actually left to her husband, and subsequently to the family.

But it’s an incredibly famous painting, the Austrian Mona Lisa, a painting featured on post cards and coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. The Austrian Cultural Ministry, of course, wanted to return stolen Nazi art to its original owners. Up to a point. But come on. Not the Woman in Gold.

Mirren is tremendous as Altmann, at times peppery and opinionated, at times profoundly unwilling to confront her own tragic past. We also see why her past haunts her. At least a third of the movie is told in flashback, as we see her as a young married woman during the Nazi takeover. That takeover was hardly resisted at all, and as anti-Semitic brutality grew, it was generally cheered by the majority of Austrians. The young Maria is played by Tatiana Maslany, the wonderful Canadian actress who is so spectacular in the BBC America series Orphan Black. All the scenes involving her were riveting.

I thought the flashbacks were the best part of the picture. I was equally taken with a pivotal character, Hubertus Czernin (German actor Daniel Brühl). Czernin is an Austrian journalist who helps Maria and Randol in their fight against the Austrian cultural authorities. As he points out, Austria is still engaged in a battle to define itself culturally. Hitler was Austrian, raised in the anti-Semitic sinkhole that was Austrian society before the First World War. The Austrians hardly fought the Nazi takeover at all, and were willing participants in the lethal persecutions of Austria’s Jews. Obviously, post WWII Austrians would much prefer to forget that any of that was true. Not just older Austrians, but Czernin’s own generation resents having the past dredged up against.

Go to Paris, and you expect post cards to feature the Eiffel Tower; go to the Louvre, and post cards will feature Mona Lisa. In Austria, in the 1990s, the Woman in Gold had much of that same cultural allure and prominence. The idea that that painting had been stolen by Nazis, that it represented the most shameful part of Austria’s past, and that its rightful owner wanted it removed from the most important museum in Vienna and sold to Americans was a decidedly unwelcome one. No wonder they fought Maria so hard.

I’ve generally thought of Ryan Reynolds as something of a lightweight actor. Not in this film. Initially, a little bland, he becomes more and more engaged in the case, more and more invested in his own past. The fact that he’s a Schoenberg struck me as particularly apt. Arnold Schoenberg’s music is, of course, difficult to appreciate the first time you hear it. But the twelve tone approach he created rewards those listeners willing to put the time in. The more you listen to it, the more it affects you, and in the end, what initially seemed like an academic exercise becomes closer to an agonized lament, for a time he could see was ending in violence and death. At one point, Randol and Czernin go to a concert, and hear a Schoenberg piece; my one complaint about the movie is that we don’t get to hear more of it.

Anyway, don’t let this movie slip past you. It may not be in town for long; catch it while it is. It’s really powerful, really well done. Beautifully written and acted and photographed and edited; see it, please.

RFRAs and Indiana

A Pennsylvania traffic law requires slow moving vehicles, including Amish buggies, to carry bright orange fluorescent warning signs. The Amish protest, saying that those signs equal technology forbidden by their religious beliefs. Some Indian tribes use peyote sacramentally, although peyote is a controlled substance, its use prohibited by federal law. A Moslem inmate in a state or federal penitentiary asks that a copy of the Quran be made available to him in the prison library, in addition to copies of Bible. A Sikh teenager wears his hair long and grows his beard, violating his American high school’s dress code.

These are all real-life examples of governmental infringements of religious liberty, exactly the sorts of things that a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, is intended to correct. It’s precisely to cover these sorts of issues that President Clinton signed the federal RFRA into law in 1993. It’s reasonable for the Amish buggie to use a lamp instead of a fluorescent sign, for an Indian holy man to dispense peyote, for a Moslem inmate to read his own scriptures and for a Sikh teen to follow the dictates of his faith. We might wonder if the First Amendment doesn’t provide sufficient protections for these sorts of religious practices. But no constitutional rights are absolute, and in 1990, in Employment Division v. Smith, the peyote case, SCOTUS ruled against the plaintiffs, but urged Congress to clarify the circumstances where a religious exception could be made to otherwise compelling government interests. That led to the federal RFRA. Then, in 1997, in City of Boerne v. Flores, SCOTUS limited the scope of the federal RFRA to federal cases, and urged states to craft their own RFRAs. Many have done so, though haphazardly and piecemeal. The point is this: RFRAs are not automatically sinister. As recently pointed out, most of the cases in which RFRAs have been invoked have been ‘pretty vanilla.’  They serve a valuable, if minor, function, clarifying those few cases in which religious freedom and government interests collide.

Context matters, though. Boy, does it ever. As court after court has ruled in favor of marriage equality, some conservative legal scholars have begun to see RFRAs as a possible response to what they perceive as ‘the problem with gay marriage.’ The fear is that Christians who oppose homosexual conduct might be forced to, in some way, participate in gay weddings. A Christian baker might be forced to bake a wedding cake, a Christian photographer might be forced to take pictures, an anti-gay florist might be forced to provide flowers. It’s in that context that the Indiana legislature passed its RFRA, and Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed it into law last week. And . . . kerblooie.

On the one hand, I’m not sure I’d want a wedding cake baked by someone who I think might hate me. On the other hand, I’m not sure how a bakery stays in business turning down gigs. One would think that there’s some kind of national epidemic of intolerant bakers, florists and photographers. There isn’t; to the degree that the Indiana RFRA is actually meant to promote intolerance, it strikes me as comically ineffectual. In fact, my guess is that most folks in the wedding industry welcome gay marriage. Social change that expands my customer base? Bring it on!

Anyway, Pence has emerged as the villain of this piece. It turns out that he’s been saying nasty anti-gay things since he first ran for office in 2000.  He’s also really really bad on-camera. Anyway, Pence insists that the purpose of the Indiana RFRA was never to allow private businesses or individuals to discriminate. That claim seems disingenuous. It’s not unusual for governors to invite supporters of any legislation to be there when it’s signed into law. The people at the signing of the Indiana bill included Eric Miller Executive Director of Advance America, who urged the Indiana Senate to sign the bill to protect ‘Christian individuals and Christian businesses’ from punishment if they chose to ‘follow their Biblical beliefs. Also at the signing, Micah Clark, executive director of the Indiana chapter of the American Family Association, who explained that any anti-discrimination language in the bill would ‘completely destroy’ it. It’s pretty clear how they all saw it: as a bill that would allow Christians to discriminate against LGBT people. This is anti-gay marriage backlash. And what we’re seeing in response is anti-backlash backlash.

And so, the good name of the State of Indiana (the state where I was raised, where I finished my PhD, a state I love as a second home), has become synonymous with bigotry. Business leaders across the state have condemned it. So did George Takei, who is now urging folks to boycott Indiana. (Gonna be tricky for me; I’m heading out there in a few weeks!). Pence hasn’t helped. He appeared on the ABC news show This Week With George Stephanopoulos. It did not go well.

Worst of all, the Indiana Pacers, of the NBA, have strongly condemned the bill. The finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are scheduled this week in Indianapolis; the NCAA is seeking other venues. In other words, Pence, and the Indiana legislature have lost basketball. In Indiana. They’ve lost basketball.

No wonder the front page headline in this mornings Indianapolis Star was just three words long. Fix. This. Now.