Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Big Short: Movie Review

There’s a popular kind of Hollywood film in which a David–a whistle-blower, an investigator, a journalist, a cop–takes on a Goliath, a big corporation, say, or the government, finding and exposing malfeasance and corruption. Concussion, and Spotlight, neither of which I’ve seen yet, are presumably examples of this kind of film. Erin Brockovich, The Insider, Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonThe Pelican BriefAll the President’s Men; like me, you can probably name twenty of them off the top of your head. They are filmic equivalents of this, from Ecclesiastes: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” They encourage underdogs; they’re idealistic in a healthy way. Or, to put it cynically, they serve Hollywood’s favorite narrative; that movie stars can solve absolutely anything.

The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction best-seller and directed by Adam McKay, is essentially that kind of story. It’s about a small group of social misfits, most of whom did not know each other, who separately concluded that the most profitable and stable sector in the US economy was so criminally and foolishly mismanaged that it was likely to collapse. They were all investors and did what investors do; they invested. They shorted real estate. They made a few ineffectual attempts to go to the press, to inform relevant government regulators, to let people know, but their warning was so seen as so preposterous that they were almost uniformly laughed at and ignored. So they laid their money on the table and placed their bets. And became very very rich.

It’s an exuberant film, a film made with tremendous meta-cinematic confidence and elan; for most of the film, it’s a rolicking comedy. McKay sets himself the task of explaining highly technical financial instruments and concepts in a way that will both amuse and instruct. At times, actors face the camera and address the audience directly. At one point, we’re told that Margot Robbie will explain a difficult concept, from her bubble bath. Sure enough, there’s Robbie, in her bath, sipping champagne and explaining things.  Or Louis Jourdan, explaining CDO’s using chopped halibut. It’s a terrifically entertaining film, energetic and funny. Then it stops being funny. And when it was over, I felt angry. Furious, frustrated, and heartsick.

Christian Bale plays Dr.Michael Burry, an Asperger’s-afflicted neurologist-turned-financial analyst, founder of Scion Capital LLC, a hedge fund. Bale is quite brilliant in the role, capturing Burry’s obsessive insistence on insane amounts of research, leading him to conclude that the bundled mortgage bonds that were the hottest investments on earth were built on the shakiest of foundations. Burry works to a cacophany of heavy metal music, doesn’t wear shoes, and plays the drums for release. He can also barely stand to deal with other people, most especially including his many investors. When he approaches Wall Street bankers, asking if he can short real estate, he can barely bring himself to speak. They can barely contain their laughter. Oh, sure, we’ll let you short real estate. We’ll call the instruments ‘credit default swaps.’ Why not? What could go wrong. Heh heh heh.

Over the course of the film, Burry makes billions of dollars for his investors, investors who are busy suing him for using their money so irresponsibly. In the end, they’re wrong, and he’s right. It brings him no joy.

The film also depicts the relationship between Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who meet through a wrong number. Baum was also astonishingly eccentric; a kid that got kicked out of schul by his rabbi, not because he wouldn’t study Torah, but because he was only interested in disproving it. Carell’s amazing in the role. Baum initially can’t believe that the real estate markets could possibly be as unsound as Vennett presents them as being, and so, with his assistants, goes on a trip to Florida. At one point, they meet a stripper, who tells them that she owns five homes, plus a condo, all mortgaged to the hilt. Because how could that possibly go wrong? At one point, as Baum meets with two insanely clueless mortgage brokers, who are describing the felonious ways in which they’re selling houses, he turns to one of his assistants and says ‘I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?’ ‘They’re not confessing,’ says the assistant. ‘They’re bragging.’

The film’s third story involves two small garage-band investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who have one contact in the financial world, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former neighbor. Rickert doesn’t invest anymore–he’s become a healthy foods fanatic–but he’s willing to lend a hand. For the most part, people like Baum and Burry were buying default swaps on bonds rated B. Geller and Shipley can’t break in at that level. So they begin buying swaps on bonds rated AA. Those bonds, it turns out, are every bit as rotten as higher rated ones. They get rich too.

And they dance in celebration. They cavort, joyously. And Brad Pitt, as Rickert, stops them. (Brad Pitt’s doing this lot these days; producing and playing a small part in important films, to get them made).  Reminds them that they bet against the US economy.  Against the world’s economy. That their fortune is built on people losing their homes, their retirement plans, their pensions, their savings. That they are dancing on the grave of the American financial system. That their good cheer is, perhaps, a trifle unseemly.

And in the end, Gosling, as Vennett, tells us, we Americans gained in wisdom what we lost in money. Hundreds of investment bankers went to jail. Serious financial reforms were enacted by a Congress shocked into regulatory good sense. At least it will never happen again. Bad as it was, we learned our lesson. Whew.


No. None of that happened, as Vennett knows well, and as we all know. (Michael Burry is still around; he says it’s likely to happen again). As Gosling cashes a check for half a billion dollars, Vennett, rather defensively, tells us he’s not the bad guy here. It was everyone. It was mortgage brokers writing the paper for loans they knew their clients had no possibility of repaying. It was bonds rating agencies asleep at the wheel. It was SEC regulators seeing their job as a stepping-stone to a better paying one at Goldman Sachs. It was Goldman Sachs. Bear Stearns; Lehman. It was a system either crooked, or stupid, or both.

And that’s the central question, isn’t it? Was the financial system’s collapse the result of criminality or imbecility? Were they all crooks? Or morons? Not all banks and not all bankers. But enough. Also Republicans; they’re to blame–they oppose bank regulation. And Democrats–the repeal of Glass Steagal was signed into law by Bill Clinton. We all had skin in the game, and we all got skinned.

The Big Short is a brilliant film about the world-wide financial crisis. Its heroes are as morally implicated as its bad guys, and nothing good happens. David slays Goliath, and is crushed by his fall. And then both armies advance, and the slaughter is universal. Somehow, McKay captures that too.

Fixing Star Wars: A review of The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has made a billion dollars faster than any other film in history. It’s the hottest movie ticket in the world. And it’s an exciting, fast-paced movie. It’s fun. I enjoyed it. I’m not being a Star Grinch when I say that I don’t want to see it again. It’s a cool flick. It’s fine.

And I’m absolutely itching to fix everything that’s wrong with it.

Ordinarily, I don’t do this. Writers own their work, even if the ‘writer’ is a committee. But Star Wars is communal property, like the six pack of Diet Coke in the break room fridge. And nearly every conversation I have had with people about The Force Awakens has gone like this: ‘I liked it. But. . . .’ So let’s roll up our sleeves. (I’m going to assume that you’ve all seen the movie. But since some of you may not have, I’m not going to reveal The Big Spoiler. Just: there is one).

First of all, let’s acknowledge that The Force Awakens is a pastiche. Early in the film, when we first meet Rey (the incandescent Daisy Ridley; what a find, and so great to see a female protagonist), she’s scavenging in a crashed Star Destroyer, quite possibly the one we see at the beginning of Star Wars (Episode Four, the first movie. I won’t call it A New Hope). That’s how she makes her living; picking up bits and pieces from destroyed ships. My son pointed out that her profession provides the perfect metaphor for the whole movie; that’s J. J. Abrams. He’s Rey; he’s a scavenger. That’s the whole movie; bits and pieces (and plot points, and story elements) from the first three movies. I wish the story were a little more original. But Rian Johnson is directing (and writing) the next one. I’m content to look at The Force Awakens as a combination homage and extended trailer for the two much better films that will follow.

No, I don’t propose to redo the whole thing. I want to fix this movie. Reshooting and reediting wouldn’t cost more than ten million, tops. (Hey, it’s not my money).

Star Wars films always take place in both a political and a religious context. There’s the Empire v. Rebel Alliance story: politics. And there’s the Force: religion. This film is no exception. Except in this case, it’s the sinister First Order (which wouldn’t seem to be in power, right? Which presumably is a rebellion against the Galactic Republic?), and the good guys, the Resistance (which otherwise would seem to be . . . the government?) So the original films are about a scrappy insurgency against a tyrannical central government. In this film, it’s about a Hitleresque insurgency against . . . the Weimar Republic? Which, for a military force, relies on a Resistance? Mercenaries? Or legitimate soldiers on the side of the Senate? And where’s the Senate anyway? Disempowered, even assassinated?

The Senate, the Republic, are barely mentioned in this film. And we need more; the scroll isn’t enough by itself.

Meanwhile, we do see something of the First Order political structure. We see a ginormous holograph of The Supreme Leader (the great Andy Serkis). Under him is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who gets one big scene, a marvelously fascistic speech to an army of storm troopers; he stands for ‘order.’ (Of course he does). Also in the ruling triumverate is Kylo Ren, who represents the Dark Side, and hero-worships his grandfather, Darth Vader, but who is otherwise a bit of an adolescent weenie. He eventually is involved in The Big Spoiler, which I won’t reveal here. (I know he’s a controversial character, but I like everything about the actor, the performance, and his story thread. In fact, I think it needs to expand).

The Force, meanwhile, has been popularly relegated to myth and legend. Except maybe not; because this film’s MacGuffin is Luke Skywalker. The First Order wants him. So does the Resistance. But why? Because he’s the only Jedi Knight left? That’s more important than, oh, destroying an entire planet?

Here’s my suggestion. Tie the political and spiritual more closely together. Instead of the Force being mythical, how about instead if the Dark Side of the Force is the only Force people know? Maybe that’s the secret to the First Order; they have the Dark Side, having succeeded in shutting down all access to the Light Side. Luke has disappeared; they want to kill him. What if the world is just . . . meaner? What if the First Order is ascendent because the Dark Side infects everything, sours all interpersonal relationships? (We see a hint of it on Jokku; Rey doesn’t seem to have many friends, and the world seems driven entirely by self-interest).

The light side, meanwhile, like Luke, exists, but quietly and in hiding. When Finn (and John Boyega is terrific in the role) can’t bring himself to murder villagers, he says it’s because it was the right thing to do. Well, where does his conscience come from? Not his upbringing. The light side, obviously. What’s needed is more of an acknowledgment about how weird his little rebellion is. Poe Dameron needs to react to it; he takes it way too much in stride.

Rey’s initial skepticism about the Force would have more impact if her doubts were about the possibility of the Force having a good side, not the Force existing at all. Again, Han could sell that. He could talk about how there was a time when the Force was a positive thing.

Maybe even this: what if the poisoned atmosphere of a Dark Side-dominated world was, in part, what broke up his marriage to Leia. Because, come on, there needs to be some bitterness there, doesn’t there? Kylo brought the dark side into the midst of that family? And there’s some lingering nastiness? It would give Carrie Fisher something to do, at least.

A lot of this, both the political and spiritual elements in this film could be clarified by fixing the one great completely incomprehensible missed opportunity of the film. It amazes me that Abrams didn’t do more with Poe. I mean, Oscar Isaac is a terrific actor. Poe is an exciting and interesting and charismatic character. But he gets four minutes screentime early in the movie (where he’s terrifically compelling), and then disappears for ninety minutes. Then he comes back to destroy the Death Star-ish planet thing. “Where have you been?” asks Finn? He offers a brief, unsatisfying answer. Not. Good. Enough.

Of course, it’s possible that they’re making him deliberately mysterious, because they have plans for the character in the next two movies, probably involving an extended flashback. Maybe so. I still the film’s use of Finn as a massive missed opportunity. The Star Wars films don’t do well with flashbacks. They’re great at cross-cutting between multiple story lines. Here’s what you could do:

Show his TIE fighter crash, his survival, and his spectacular escape from Jokku. He’s a great pilot; maybe he steals some other crappy ship, or maybe he steals another TIE fighter. (It would lengthen the movie by, I don’t know, three minutes. Big deal). He meets Rey, is smitten. (Love triangle!) But he’s also skeptical of Finn. ‘Yeah, he rescued me, but why?’ Stormtroopers don’t just throw off their training and indoctrination like that. But then Leia (she has The Force, remember), says, ‘there’s something about this guy. I think he has the Force.’ Again, Poe’s skeptical, (the Force is all Dark Side, remember), but it’s Leia; she’s a legendary figure too. And Han could back him up, ‘I like this kid, he reminds me of . . . Luke.’

I wouldn’t recast Kylo Ren–I like Adam Driver in the role, and love the character. I loved The Big Spoiler. I’m willing to put up with all the echoes of the first three movies. I just think there are missed opportunities here. Let’s fix it. Back to your laptop, Mr. Abrams!


The politics of The Hunger Games: Movie review, kind of

Two events, on a similar theme: last night, my wife and I saw the most recent Hunger Games movie, or rather The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part Two. I know, a month after everyone else saw it. So I wondered; should I review it? Here’s the second thing: on Rachel Maddow’s show, she showed a flier that someone in Michigan put in the windshields of cars parked outside a movie theater where Mockingjay was playing. It began by asking Is American like Panem? It obviously concluded that America is in fact a great deal like Panem, and proposed, as a remedy, voting for Ted Cruz. And, of course, it’s hard not to notice that the Hunger Games novels and films are intensely political. They are, after all, about a revolution and a civil war. So political how? And does it have anything to do with our tangled politics here, now, in America?

Here’s the text of the flier:

In the Hunger Games, Michigan would be in District 800–and our job would be producing textiles. The Panem Capitol promises to give you free stuff–security, food, and a job. But what you really get is hunger, torture, and a lack of opportunity. America has wealthy rulers living in the Capitol just like Panem. The political elite think they are entitled to your hard earned money to support their extravagant lifestyle. You are left with: student loans you can’t repay, struggling to put food on the table, not being able to afford healthcare fines, knowing you were lied to by the political elite.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is time for something different: Freedom, Opportunity, Fairness under the law, Personal sustainability, Hope. Join the Rebel Underground! Ted Cruz: Catching Fire!

In fairness, the Ted Cruz campaign told Rachel Maddow that this flier wasn’t produced by the Cruz campaign. Still, the basic themes echo the Tea Party critique of today’s America. Lack of freedom, a faltering economy, Obamacare, arrogant elites wasting our substance. The need for a political revolution. And so on.

I’m going to assume that you all know these novels and movies. And my discussion of them will include many many spoilers. Because I do want to talk about them in the context of politics. So: the flier. Well, of course, Ted Cruz looks nothing whatsoever like Katniss Everdeen, though I do see a slight resemblance to Caesar Flickerman, nor does Barack Obama look even remotely like President Snow, though he is skinny, and getting grayer. Superficially, the comparison doesn’t work at all.

And if it did, it wouldn’t help Ted Cruz. The entire point of Mockingjay–Part II is, as the Who once put it, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Alma Coin, head of the revolution for which Katniss is such a powerful force, turns out to be even more brutal and dictatorial and manipulative as President Snow ever was. Which is why (oops, spoiler!) Katniss assassinates her. If we’re to compare this film with that candidate, we’re led inescapably to the conclusion that voting for Ted Cruz would be a very very bad idea indeed. If you don’t like Obama, Cruz (if he’s really Catching Fire) would, by the logic of the movies, be much worse. There’s a technical, political science-y term for the kind of thinking this flier represents: twaddle. The Hunger Games is about a dystopic future in which American politics is a brutal totalitarian nightmare. That is quite specifically and obviously not the America in which we currently reside. It is, in fact, its polar opposite.

Still, it’s a fascinating question. Suzanne Collins, who wrote the trilogy on which the movies are based, has created a powerful and compelling narrative and a beautifully realized world in which to set it. And they are political novels and movies, with echoes of ancient Rome, but also, of course, of histories and societies closer to our own day. The Ted Cruz flier may be ridiculous, but it gets at something that’s not; the ways in which Collins’ world resonates with our own. Libertarians, I’ve heard, have embraced the Hunger Games world, and with some justification. Panem is certainly a nightmarish society in which personal liberties are abridged routinely. But a Bernie Sanders fan might find the movie reflects her political views. Panem is also a society essentially defined by income inequality.

But I think these similarities are superficial. The specific thing about Panem that makes it so horrifying is the Hunger Games notion. Panem is a society where, annually, children battle to the death, for the amusement of adults. Panem isn’t just an unequal or unfree society; it’s a society where an entire entertainment complex is built around violence to and by kids. There really isn’t a contemporary analog.

My libertarian friends point to Panem as an illustration of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, his careful analysis of the steps by which a democratic society becomes less free. Hayek’s great book was based on his own experiences in Austria in the 30s, and on seeing Germany devolve into a dictatorship. But Hayek’s analysis has nothing to do with The Hunger Games. We don’t see President Snow gradually accrue power, step by step. When the books open, he’s already in power; his conquest a fait accompli. And we’re given to understand that he came to power following a terrible war. We might more properly see Panem as illustrating Hannah Arendt’s essay On Revolution, showing how President Coin will inevitably follow the path of President Snow; how the talents of a revolutionary aren’t particularly relevant to the task of governing, and how therefore so many revolutions lead only to tyranny.

The reason I like the Hunger Games books and (especially) movies so much is simply this: they deal honestly with that reality. These are YA novels, intended for a teen audience. But they’re not remotely triumphalist. They’re not about a notional good overcoming an intensely imagined evil. They’re about civil war and revolution, bloody and violent and morally appalling. Katniss only ‘triumphs’ by becoming an assassin. Her entire intention, in fact, is murder/suicide. In fact, for a big, expensive set of action movies, Mockingjay–part 2 avoids the pitfall of so many of these sorts of films, the big, final battle scene with spectacular stunts and CGI, in which Our Hero beats the bad guy once and for all (unless they need him for the sequel). Katniss’s final walk towards Snow’s palace looks like it’s going to be the set up for just such an ending. Instead, she gets to see her beloved sister die horribly. And then she’s wounded. No big victory. Just a lot of death.

In the world of The Hunger Games, revolution and civil are horror shows, in which a lot of people we care a lot about die painfully and unnecessarily. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight, to spare her sister. Ultimately, she can’t even manage that small task. I love that unsparing honesty.

So, no, I don’t see any particular, specific contemporary political parallels to The Hunger Games. But I do see books and movies I can respect, superbly acted and produced, ending with a moment of earned grace, but not remotely simple-minded or facile. That’s their achievement, and I honor them for it. They have nothing whatever to do with Ted Cruz.

Great punch lines: the history of American comedy

I just finished reading Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, essentially an idiosyncratic history of stand-up, or at least, a history of live performance. It hardly mentions Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, for example, except for their vaudeville careers; hardly a discussion of their film work at all. Even his discussion of television is kinda weird; hardly a word about, say, I Love Lucy, while all sorts of talk about Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Of course, the subject of comedy is too huge for any single book, and I’m grateful, at least, for Nesteroff’s passion for the subject, and above all, his anecdotes. He was able to interview a lot of older comedians before they passed on, and there are some terrific stories that are likely found here and nowhere else.

But it got me thinking about jokes, about the way in which jokes are constructed. Set up, set up, payoff. “Did you ever notice how. . . .” “Take my wife. Please!” What are the greatest punch lines in the history of American comedy? Not possible to quantify. So what are some really good ones?

“I’m thinking!”

Jack Benny

Jack Benny’s comedic persona was that of a tightwad. A miser, a skinflint. (In reality, he was known for personal generosity). He was also master of the comedic pause. So in a radio sketch, he’s approached by a thief, who snarls “your money or your life.” The resultant pause went on forever; the studio audience cracked up. Then Benny built the joke further “I’m thinking.” The set-up was as funny as the punch line.

“Well, Vaughn Meador’s screwed.”

Lenny Bruce

This one needs some explanation. Vaughn Meador was the star of one of the biggest comedy albums of the ’60s, The First Family. It spoofed the Kennedy family, poking gentle fun at JFK’s accent and fondness for touch football games on the White House Lawn, and Jackie’s penchant for decorating. It was very popular; sold over 7 million copies, and the President especially enjoyed it, often giving copies away as a gift. Meador wasn’t much of a comedian, and wasn’t even much of an impressionist. Mostly, he was just a guy who sounded a lot like Jack Kennedy.

And then, Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. The country was in shock. Comedy clubs went dark; nobody was in the mood.

A few days after the shooting, Lenny Bruce had a gig in Miami. Fifteen hundred people in the house. And he came out, and there was another long pause. Nobody had any idea what he’d say. People who were there say that the laugh after the Vaughn Meador line lasted for minutes; a huge emotional relief laugh. I can imagine.

“We’re going to Greece!”

“And swim the English channel?”

The Firesign Theatre

This is a purely idiosyncratic choice; I loved the Firesign Theatre when I was a kid, and this exchange is just typical of their non-sequitar-based, surrealist verbal humor, first on radio, later captured on vinyl. Peter Bergman, Phil Austin, Dave Ossman, and Philip Proctor. This bit’s from their album Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers. Unless it isn’t.

“Dead honky!”

Richard Pryor

In the first season of Saturday Night Live, as it was establishing itself as the edgy, brilliant, essential show it has become, on their seventh episode, Richard Pryor was the guest host. He brought in Paul Mooney as a writer, and Mooney came up with the Word Association sketch. Chevy Chase played a white manager, interviewing Pryor, who has applied for a janitorial position. Chase insists that one final step before hiring is a word association exercise, which starts off innocuously enough. Chase says some neutral word; Pryor responds: “Dog.” “Tree.” But then Chase’s clue words get more and more racially charged. The last exchanges: “Jungle Bunny”, “Honky!” “Spade”, “Honky Honky,” and then the N-word. Pryor’s anger sells the bit, as does Chase’s oleaginous managerial straight man.

“Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”

Stephen Colbert

Generally, the White House Correspondents dinner is an innocuous enough affair. The President attends, and tosses out a few jokes at the expense of Washington insiders. A professional comedian is usually hired. But the 2006 Correspondents dinner was something else again. Stephen Colbert came on, playing the character he’d perfected on The Colbert Report; the obnoxious, clue-less conservative commentator. And he sliced and diced everyone in the room.

What’s remarkable about Colbert’s performance is not just the way he bashed (while praising) President Bush, or the media. It was how uncomfortable the audience clearly was with the performance. It takes a brave comedian to bomb on purpose. Because, of course, his real audience was YouTube viewers.

Comedy is, of course, how we cope with all sorts of terrible events. And a truly great comedian, a Jon Stewart, a George Carlin, a Louis C. K. captures the anxieties and tensions of their times on earth, and gives it just enough of a twist, to help us laugh, to help us deal with things. And yes, comedians are outcasts, sometimes, social misfits. But they’re also essential.

To my conservative friends who are skeptical about climate change

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference met for a couple of weeks recently, in Paris. 196 countries were represented. That’s amazing. What’s even more amazing is that they all agreed to something; to reduce carbon emissions.

Of course, you’re not going to get 196 sovereign nations to agree to anything all that binding. The central doctrine of international diplomacy is national self-interest. What everyone agreed to was voluntary compliance. The members agreed to reduce their carbon output “as soon as possible” and to “do their best” to keep global warming to “well below 2 degrees C.” It’s likely that some nations will try their darndest to live up to these promises, and that others, frankly, won’t do much. It’s not unfair to characterize this agreement as ‘toothless.’

Honestly, though, if the Paris Agreement is flawed, it’s also what’s possible. A binding agreement, with actual consequences for nations that don’t comply was never going to happen. And this agreement isn’t nothing. If governments don’t act, their people have ammunition to hold them accountable. Perhaps it’s naive, this touching liberal faith in democracy. But this is what we have. It might work. That’s where we are.

Of course, some folks–mostly conservatives– believe that the idea of anthropogenic climate change is a fraud. Carbon emissions aren’t warming the planet. It’s a big hoax. It isn’t happening. It’s just more liberal nonsense, driven by shrill fearmongers like Al Gore. And Obama’s plans to combat climate change will destroy our economy. It’s those people I want to address.

I’m not a climate scientist–just a playwright with WiFi. I’m not an international diplomat, nor any kind of expert on this subject. It does seem to me that there are four possible ways this could play out.

First, it’s possible that climate change is a real phenomenon, and that human beings both caused it and can take steps to fix it. And that we, the nations and peoples of Earth, do just that. Fix it. If so, great. Well done us.

Second, it’s possible that climate change is real, but that we don’t do much about it, that we drag our heels. If so, the consequences could be damaging. It could be that the worst nightmares of Al Gore come true. Or maybe the results aren’t completely catastrophic, but still really bad, flooded cities, disrupted weather patterns, extreme weather events. Seems like something we should try to avoid.

Third, suppose that conservatives are right, and this really is a lot of hoo-raw over nothing. Let’s suppose that climate change data really are misleading or really have been misinterpreted, that nothing’s really wrong. And let’s suppose that we do nothing; non-existent problem, which we do nothing to fix. So: we get lucky. Well, all right; no big deal.

Fourth, though, let’s suppose that climate change isn’t real, but we don’t figure it out in time, that we take measures as though it were a problem. What if we act, and it turns out we didn’t need to. What then?

And I think I know the answer. Conservatives are worried about governmental overreach. National Affairs had a thoughtful and interesting article about this recently. Conservatives are afraid of statist solutions. They are concerned about cap-and-trade legislation, or a carbon tax, or other regulatory solutions which expand the powers of government. And those are legitimate concerns, I think, though I don’t necessarily share them. Of course, part of it is the perfectly understandable human disinclination to believe that people you despise might be right about something important. But climate change deniers are not just idiots full of pique and rancor. There are legitimate reasons for conservatives to distrust climate change as an issue, and legitimate reasons to regard the Paris conference as risible.

But my scenario four isn’t necessarily all bad. In fact, it seems to me that climate change is one issue where there may very well be market-based solutions, and at least the potential for common ground between liberals and conservatives. This is because at least part of the solution to the problem of climate change is technological.

The alternative energy sector of the American economy is, frankly, booming. Bloomberg Business recently posted an article predicting that solar power will attract three and a half trillion dollars in investment money over the short-term foreseeable future. I remember reading somewhere that if the US covered a third of the state of Nevada with solar panels, we could meet our nation’s entire energy needs. Well, have you ever driven through Nevada? Not much there, except desert and sunshine.

How interested would you be in stock from Tesla? Would like you like to own a Tesla car? I sure would. They’re expensive right now, but prices are dropping. Would you be willing to power your home with a Tesla battery? I’m looking into it now. And what about other alt-energy companies. Like, for example, Altenergy, a fast growing, highly profitable solar power company with offices in Virginia, Idaho, Georgia and Maryland. What about Enphase, or First Solar, or Solar City, or Vivant? These are all multi-billion-dollar firms, growing fast and hiring workers. Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the US economy.

And let’s be honest. Are fossil fuels so great? Don’t they come with significant downsides? Isn’t mining for coal destructive, and ugly, with a huge human cost? Aren’t you just a little bit queasy about fracking? Doesn’t the prospect of pumping toxic chemicals into the ground, with at least the potential for polluted aquifers and ground water, strike you as possibly not the greatest idea in the world? I’ll grant you that shale oil shows some promise as a source for domestic oil. But have you seen shale oil sites after the oil’s extracted? Is this technology really a panacea? Wouldn’t we be better off just using the sun and the wind? And if we’re fighting a war on terror, wouldn’t it be nice if Isis, who finances their horror-show through oil revenues, lost that source of income? How beholden do we want to remain to the Saudis and Iran and Iraq?

And I get that no one wants to get rid of their cars. But electric cars, or hybrids, really do have their advantages. I live in Provo, Utah, forty miles south of Salt Lake City, the two cities separated by a really big mountain. I drive between the two places quite frequently. And I can see it, the poor air quality in both valleys, the haze. Caused by vehicle emissions. And occasionally (and obnoxiously), both valleys sock in with really nasty inversions, with poor visibility and respiratory issues and lots of other health-related problems. Even if there is an international global warming fraud, a massive scientific scam, well, so what? Reducing carbon emissions is a good thing anyway, isn’t it?

On the Republican side, in this endless Presidential-race buildup, climate change is not really a major issue. I’ve watched the debates, and terrorism and immigration are bigger issues for this crop of candidates. That seems strange to me, but then, I’m not a Republican. But what really does surprise me is that none of the candidates praised American business and innovation and entrepreneurship as significant factors in solving the climate change problem. Seems kind of unRepublican. And it turns out that the majority of voters who self-identify as conservative Republicans are, in fact, concerned about climate change, and believe that human actions have, to some degree, caused it. Supporting alt-energy could be smart politically.

Is this climate change nonsense all a lot of hooey? I don’t know, and neither do you. You have climate scientists you trust, and I have climate scientists that I trust (but a lot more of them). But why does it matter? Who cares who’s right? There are things we can do that are a good idea anyway.

If man-made climate change is really happening, with potentially damaging, even lethal consequences, then it would be grotesquely irresponsible of us not to act. If it’s not happening, well, what harm is there in supporting one of the fastest growing sectors of American business? And in, possibly, giving less support to Big Oil, which looks more and more, nowadays, like what it is: a dinosaur industry.

In other words, how big a gamble is this? If we choose to do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, and it turns out that global warming is real, then what are we doing to our children, and grand-children? On the other hand, if we act, and it turns out that we never needed to, well, so what? I’ll be honest. I don’t much care. And neither should you.

If the US leads, much of the world will follow. So let’s lead. Let’s innovate. Just like we’re already doing.

Nixonland: Book Review

Man, I love books like this. Rick Perlstein’s 2008 book Nixonland is history that sizzles. It’s one of those 800-plus pages of superbly researched, exhaustively detailed, astoundingly insightful, richly textured history books that make book nerds glow with happiness. It’s also, incidentally, the best history of that crucial time in American history we call ‘the 60s,’ even though the period he covers doesn’t end until sometime around 1973. And yes, the focus is Nixon, sort of. It’s not a biography of that most complicated of American politicians, though. It uses Richard Nixon’s career instead as the lens through which we view that complicated history.

Here’s why it’s so good. Most histories of the 60’s are fundamentally celebratory. They reflect one perspective on that period, what we might call the ‘Age of Aquarius’ narrative. Plucky young idealists, who conquered racism, sexism, and ended the war in Vietnam through sheer force of will, plus rock and roll music. We take the perspective of, say Tom Hayden, or Jane Fonda, or Abbie Hoffman, and pit Our Heroes against the reactionary forces of bad old reactionary Amerika. The bad guys are easily identified; Frank Rizzo, Mayor Daley and the Chicago police, the National Guard at Kent State, George Wallace. Nixon. Such essentialist hagiographies celebrate the Berkeley Free Speech movement, and Woodstock, and the Black Panthers, and campus protests across the whole nation. Although many such histories exist–books by Todd Gitlin, Nicholas Schou, Ed Sanders come immediately to mind–and although they’re often passionately and eloquently written, they’re too one-sided.

They don’t adequately account for, among other realities, the popularity of Richard Nixon. The sixties were supposed to be a celebration of youth, of youthful vitality and passion and rejection of the platitudes and certainties of, say, the fifties. And when young people got the vote, in time for the 1972 election, that 18-21 demographic was expected to make a huge difference, ushering in a newer, better day. And 18-21 year-olds did make a difference. They voted for Nixon 2-1.

Perlstein’s book does absolutely not represent some kind of conservative revisionism. But it doesn’t shy away from this reality: Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ did, kind of, exist. And was horrified and appalled by anti-war hippies. And not without legitimate cause.

What Perlstein excels at is what might be called a strategy of shifting perspectives. He shows us an event like, say, the ’68 Chicago Democratic Convention from both the point of view of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubins, and the point of view of the Chicago police, or the ethnic Chicago neighborhoods, lower-middle-to-middle class, the homes from where Chicago cops were drawn. We see both. And that’s right, because both perspectives are valid, both should be honored.

Richard Nixon’s political genius was his ability to peek underneath the surface of American society, to feel and articulate and make political use of the anxieties and fears and resentments and hatreds found in those dark understrata. When in college at Whittier, the privileged class of students were called ‘Franklins.’ Nixon started his own club, the Orthogonians, made up of students from lower class families, white kids who had to work their way through college. The grinders and grade-grubbers, the people who knew what it was to struggle, and what it felt like to be disrespected by those who hadn’t had to.

And Perlstein uses that dichotomy, Franklins v. Orthogonians, brilliantly. Nixon didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. His father wasn’t wealthy or connected. Nixon’s own insecurities and petty resentments, it turned out, revealed a way towards power. If he could find other people, cast-offs and strivers, who shared his fury, but also could keep a lid on it, as he did, he could connect with voters. Richard Nixon was pretty famously not a people person, not a glad-hander, though he could play the role of sycophant when he needed to, tactically. But what Nixon realized was that Orthogonians outnumbered Franklin’s pretty substantially. And that feelings of buried rage could have a political impact.

Rick Perlstein understands Richard Nixon, and helps us understand him too. And he’s able to show us how Nixon rose to power, how carefully he understood and manipulated the political processes of his day. How to encode buried feelings of racial resentment. How resonant, and how richly textured and nuanced was Nixon’s political use of the phrase ‘Law and Order.’

And yet, as the dirty tricks and vicious campaign strategies of his two Presidential campaigns unfolded, Perlstein does not neglect the other Nixon, the Nixon who opened China, the cold warrior Nixon of arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Nixon genuinely felt that the world was a dangerous place, and that an American President needed above all to preserve world peace, shaky though it might be. And Nixon was, on top of everything else, genuinely brilliant in his understanding of foreign policy (which was pretty much the only part of being President he cared about).

Perlstein’s authorial voice is endlessly sympathetic to even the most wildly disparate points of view. And his research is extraordinary. He specializes in paragraphs full of detail, describing a typical day or week, with protests and counter-protests and violence on both sides of that most brutal of culture wars, over Vietnam and its meaning and importance.

And finally, it’s about us. It’s about now. He concludes with this:

I have written of the rise, between the years 1965 and 1972, of a nation that had believed itself to be at consensus instead becoming one of two incommensurate visions of apocalypse: two loosely defined congeries of Americans, each convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end.

This was the ’60s.

We Americans are not killing or trying to kill each other anymore for reasons of ideology, or at least, for now. Remember this: this war has ratcheted down considerably. But it still simmers on.

Perlstein wrote that final paragraph in 2009, or at least, that’s when his book was published. I read it in 2015. And I feel like I understand my world much better for having done so. The war he describes so eloquently is ratcheting back up, or so it seems to me. To understand it, historical perspective helps. We live in a world that Richard Nixon created, or at least saw more clearly than others did, a knowledge he ruthlessly exploited, leaving behind an exploded dichotomy, and political civility in tatters.

When you buy this book, buy the Kindle version. It includes news clips from the 60s, in addition to Perlstein’s prose. Take your time reading it, however. It’s worth every hour, every day you spend on it.



Spectre: Film Review

I’m fascinated by James Bond movies, have seen every one, and none is more fascinating than the latest: Spectre. It doesn’t so much feel like a Bond film than as a deconstruction of Bond films. The final big action scene, in which Bond (as always) has to rescue the girl, involves him solving a maze through the Bond past. Clues include photos of Bond villains and Bond girls from the past. At the end of the film, he asks Q for his old Aston Martin, and rides off into the sunset with his latest flame. It feels valedictory, like the end of the series. So much so that I watched the closing credits to the end, to see if Barbara Broccoli finished with the usual ‘James Bond will return in . . . (new film title). No film title this time, but a promise that Bond would return, undoubtedly with a new actor (Idris Elba!) in the role. But if the decision were made to end the series, this would be a pretty good film to end it on.

What fascinates me about Bond films are the Bond villains. Taken collectively, they’re a wonderful indicator of American/Western anxieties and fears. First, of course, Bond villains were sort of about the Cold War. The bad guys were often either former Soviet or Nazi counter-intelligence agents. Initially, the films softened the Soviet threat, replaced it with a criminal conspiracy. The Soviet equivalent of MI6, SMERSH, provided villains for the novels, but generally, the films replace SMERSH with Spectre, as in Goldfinger, Dr. No, and You Only Live Twice. Spectre got its start with an equivalent fictional organization with Nazi origins. One of the most famous Bond villains was Ernst Blofeld, head of Spectre, played with such benign menace by Donald Pleasance. Remember, the white cat, the wheelchair? Well, in Spectre, in 2015, the Bond villain declares that he is, in fact, Ernst Blofeld. And he sits in a wheelchair and strokes a white cat. He’s Blofeld, but he’s also Bond’s foster brother. And he’s been manipulating Bond all these years. See what I mean by deconstruction?

Christoph Waltz plays this Blofeld, which is, of course, preposterous. He’s far too young to be, you know, Blofeld. But Bond, who fought for Britain in WWII would be, what, in his late eighties by now? My wife believes, with good evidence, that James Bond is actually ‘James Bond,’ that just as Q or M are titles, with new guys filling the posts, so is James Bond a title. (So, it seems, is Miss Moneypenny–also a title, with new women filling the role). There’s always a Bond, he’s always 007, but different guys (different Scottish orphans, apparently) have always taken on that persona. So there’s now a replacement Ernst Blofeld.

And what does Blofeld want? He’s working with a British politician with intelligence experience, C (Andrew Hall). C essentially is in the data collection business. Blofeld is a criminal mastermind. They’re working hand-in-glove to use all that metadata for criminal purposes. To get funding for this scheme, Spectre stages terrorist events from time to time, to keep pressure on governments. So imagine that ISIS is in cahoots with the NSA, and you’ve basically got the gist of the plot.

Well, that’s spooky. ISIS is actually more about criminality than ideology? And in league with the NSA? Nicely played, Bond film! We’re all anxious about the NSA, after all, and terrified of terrorism. You get to play off both those Western obsessions.

Except it’s not scary at all. It’s a Bond film. This is just the latest Bond villain. Just another good ESL actor with a gift for flamboyant comedy. To take this evil plot seriously would suggest that we have ever taken the evil plots of Bond villains seriously, and we don’t. Because Bond is a cartoon.

And of course, this is the central problem of the whole Bond franchise. The films (especially the Daniel Craig Bond films) have moved towards a greater realism. The West is engaged in a War on Terror, and so the villains have become more plausible. In Skyfall, Judi Dench’s M gave a great speech to Parliament where she made the case for Bond. In a dirty war against psychopathic terrorists, we need someone to do the dirty work. We need the 00 program; we need Bond. Judi Dench is an international treasure, and she delivered the speech with admirable conviction. But it’s still just in the context of a Bond film.

And Bond fans come to the films with certain expectations. They expect the womanizing, they want the wisecracks after he kills someone, they want their Bond girls hot and (preferably) vacuous. (And they don’t come more vacuous than Lea Seydoux in this one). They want ‘shaken, not stirred.’ They want Bond in a tux, in a casino. They want all the elements that make Bond look non-serious. They want another exciting cartoon.

The two worlds–Bond and counter-terrorism–don’t mesh, and never will. Watching Spectre, my wife kept laughing out loud. The fight scenes really were ridiculous, frankly, laugh-worthy. Juxtaposing those fight scenes with semi-realistic approach to fighting the War on Terror just highlights the ridiculousness of Bond.

And even if we grant M the premise of her speech, let me ask this; in what sense do governments today not have 00 powers? A licence to kill (without due process, killing in the national interest, as determined by one guy), has already been granted. President Obama has ordered drone strike executions that have, by the most conservative estimate, killed 2400 people during his Presidency. If we do, in the fight against international terrorism, need a guy with 00 powers to kill bad guys, that guy is not James Bond, a good looking womanizer with a Baretta or Walther handgun. That guy is sitting in a command center in Phoenix, directing a drone with a joystick. Or, it’s Barack Obama. That’s who James Bond is today.

So how do you do it? The biggest challenge James Bond ever faced was the Austin Powers films, which skewered the Bond tradition so neatly the franchise went on a four year hiatus. When Bond came back, Daniel Craig was the new star, and the films took on a darker tone. That coincided with the TV series 24, with Jack Bauer as essentially an American Bond. Bond had to get darker to compete. It worked; the Daniel Craig Bonds are, I think, the best in the franchise history (excepting Quantum of Solace, which is best ignored, I think).

Sam Mendes (who directed American Beauty) directed Skyfall, and now this. He’s a smart and interesting director, and I think his choices made this both the most interesting Bond film, and also contributed to those lingering moments of silliness. It’s a fascinatingly stylized Bond. There’s an early scene, for example, where a woman, wife of a baddie, has been targeted for assassination. She stands on a balcony, looking pensive. Behind her, on either side, two killers. They approach in sync. They raise their guns. Then two silenced shots, and they both fall. Bond has killed them.

That scene, so choreographed, so deliberately anti-realist, points up Mendes’ take. Sure, there are action sequences, and yes, Bond almost immediately sleeps with the widow in the previous scene. But there are also moments with a kind of grim beauty. Which in turn highlights the cartoonishness of, well, James Bond.

Deconstruction. Assume any text is, intentionally or no, ideological, but also that all all ideologies carry the seeds of their own destruction. We’re in a War on Terror. James Bond-like tactics are necessary tactically as we fight that war. James Bond is essential/James Bond is ludicrous. This is a smart film by a smart filmmaker, daring enough to make a film that falls apart, cynical enough to know it doesn’t matter, that it’s still going to make three hundred million dollars. It’s not just another Bond film. It’s hard to imagine that there will be another, or what it will look like.


Secret in their Eyes: Film Review

We’re in that strange, two-weeks-before-Christmas period in the annual movie season, when Hollywood releases the pretty-good movies that are Oscar longshots in some category, right before the last-week-of-the-year period when the real Oscar contenders all get released. Christmas shopping all done, health issues on the way to being resolved; time for a pretty-good-movie binge.

Today’s selection was Secret in their Eyes, a murder mystery thriller-type thing, with an unengaging title, some good acting, an intriguing dilemma, and slow-building suspense. It cuts back and forth between events thirteen years apart; a murder in 2002, and the resolution of that murder in 2015.

Claire (Julia Roberts), Ray (Chiwetel Ejiorfor), and Jess (Nicole Kidman) are law enforcement types brought together, post 9/11, by the exigencies of the war on terror. They’re on a task force in LA, Claire borrowed from the LAPD, Ray from the FBI, and Jess from a prosecutor’s office. And Claire and Ray become good friends. Ray has this smouldering crush on Jess, which amuses Claire to no end. They get a call about a homicide in the parking lot outside a mosque they’re watching; their jurisdiction, due to possible terrorist implications. Only Ray, first on the scene, is horrified to discover that the victim is Clair’s teenaged daughter, Carolyn. And Claire, when she sees the body, falls completely apart.

Meanwhile, in the 2015 storyline, Ray (now a private detective) has never been able to let the case go. They had a suspect, Marzin (Joe Cole), back in the day, who walked. Assuming that Marzin may have gotten arrested for something else, Ray has spent thirteen years looking over photo arrays of incarcerated white guys of the right age. Now, he thinks he’s found Marzin. He wants Jess (now LA DA) to re-open the case, allow it to be re-investigated. She’s reluctant, as is Claire. But she finally agrees, and Ray and another of their cop friends from before, Bump (Dean Norris) begin surveillance.

The film keeps cutting back and forth between the two time periods, and the structure is effective. And as we see the contours of the case, two things become clear. Thirteen years ago, they had very good reason to think Marzin committed the murder. And they had no way to prove it; no forensic evidence, no eyewitness, only a forced confession which will not hold up in court, and evidence illegally collected from Marzin’s house, inadmissible. Plus, this complicating factor; Marzin was a snitch. An informant, part of a terrorist cell, willing to rat out his co-conspirators. And the head of their counter-terrorist unit, Morales (Alfred Molina), is understandably reluctant to pursue an iffy murder indictment of a good intel source.

So. They’re good cops. They are highly, highly motivated to solve this murder, and make an arrest. A colleague’s daughter was the murder victim. They know who did it, and where he lives. And they can’t arrest him. Their only real options are, um, extra-legal. And Claire, the victim’s Mom, doesn’t see just shooting the bad guy as providing any genuine justice.

That’s the dilemma at the heart of the movie, and it’s a solid one, a dramatic and powerful conflict to build a movie around. And the acting is all excellent. Ejiofor is such a wonderful actor, so emotionally connected, so open. I really enjoyed his performance; found the movie worth watching just to see him work. But the real star of the picture is Julia Roberts. In the 2002 scenes, Claire is a wreck, a woman completely crippled by emotional devastation. By the 2015 scenes, she’s figured out how to cope; she’s able to function. But there’s not much there. She’s wan, drawn-out, drained of life. She’s walking dead. It’s a superb performance, relentlessly bleak. I think that’s why the movie got a December release; the studio is hoping for an Oscar nomination for Roberts. It would certainly be deserved.

Nicole Kidman–who, for some reason, is marketed as the movie’s star– is fine enough, I suppose. She has one scene, an interrogation scene with Marzin, where we see her use her beauty, an aggressive sexuality, entirely tactically. And she gets their confession, but it’s so brutal that Marzin attacks her, and Ray beats him up so badly that the confession looks coerced. A complicated and powerful scene. My biggest problem with Kidman’s performance is not her acting, which is fine. I just found myself wondering what her character was doing in the movie. We’re supposed to believe that Ray is still in love with her, that he’s been working this impossible case for thirteen years just so he can impress her; that his investigation is nothing but an extended romantic gesture. I just didn’t buy it. My guess is that the movie got funded and made largely because it had Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman in it. I guess I’m glad she’s in the movie. But cutting her character entirely, and expanding Alfred Molina’s role would have made for a stronger movie, I think.

The last ten minutes of the movie featured two big plot twists, both fairly predictable and neither particularly convincing. But the acting held my attention, as did the movie’s central premise. What exactly do you do if you’re a cop, and you know who-dun-it, and he’s completely evil, but you can’t prove a thing? It’s a neat conundrum, and it made for a slow-paced but relentlessly suspenseful movie, beautifully acted, if the plot didn’t always work.

Best of all, all the trailers before the movie were for terrific movies that I want to see even more than this one. This is a weird movie season, but it’s not without its pleasures.

Overreacting, for fun and profit

Okay, so a particularly silly (but still dangerous) Presidential candidate spoke in an extraordinarily silly (but still dangerous) manner regarding Muslims, and America, and the war on terror. And my newsfeed was clogged with expressions of alarm and anger and fear. Donald Trump proposed that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, including Muslims who have traveled abroad and are returning home. Of course, Mr. Trump is not known for thoughtful, researched policy proposals; he seems to pull them from the nether regions of anatomy, then defend them with his customary ferocity. But, yeah, that was what he said.

So what would this mean? Shaquille O’Neill is a Muslim-American, and plans to perform the hajj–the pilgrimage to Mecca, required of all healthy adult Muslims–perhaps as early as this summer. Is the intention to stop Shaq at the airport? The journalist Fareed Zakaria is a Muslim-American; is the plan to wreck his career by forbidding him to come home to his wife and kids after traveling for his job? What about Dave Chappelle? Or Ellen Burstyn? Or Ice Cube? They’re all Muslim, you know. Muhammed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are getting older these days, but may want to travel. Gonna tell Kareem he can’t get on a plane? Ridiculous.

“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.”

–Langston Hughes

The whole thing’s ridiculous. Ridiculous and unworkable and foolish. And what’s scary isn’t that the Donald says nonsensically brutal things, but that crowds at his events cheer wildly when he does. People are scared, and people are angry. It doesn’t make sense for them to be scared and angry–we live in a prosperous nation, a culture defined by cell phones and where music and art and delicious foods are routinely available. Homes where you can program your DVR with a tablet, a society where we can, routinely, dial a number and get chocolate chip cookies delivered. Our prosperity is unimaginable, the luxury of our lives, beyond compare. But no, we’re scared precisely because terrrorist incidents are rare to the point of invisibility, and yet also ubiquitously visible. Everything’s on TV all the time everywhere. And everyone wants Daddy Obama to do something. So he spoke on national TV and carefully explained precisely what his administration is doing. All of which is reasonable and comprehensive and smart. And got called a ‘pussy’ by a commentator on Fox. Yeah; the natives are restless.

But it’s all overreaction, all fear-driven paranoia. Our country is not at risk. We’re not in a clash of civilizations with the forces of radical Islam. None of that is remotely true. We live in a world where the idea of Amazon delivering our Christmas packages using remote controlled drones seems so possible, it’s the subject of a comical TV commercial. We’re rich. We’re free. Seriously, folks, we’re fine. It’s not that we’re going to win the war on terror. It’s that we’ve already won it.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Martin Luther King

News is news because it’s remarkable, unusual, way out of the ordinary. The San Bernardino attack attracted tremendous attention in part because it took place under the most mundane of circumstances. A couple dropped off their baby at grandma’s house, so they could attend a Christmas party at the place where the husband worked. The place where his co-workers had previously thrown them a baby shower. Normal, everyday stuff. And then the couple showed up in military gear, pulled out military weapons, and opened fire.

Of course it was news. Of course it was. It couldn’t have been more bizarre. But that’s all it was. A weird, random event. And, of course, it’s horrible. And emotions crowd in: compassion, fear, anger. Curiosity. An atavistic desire for revenge. Unreason. For some: prejudice. We don’t have an outlet for those emotions, so they’re amplified. We could just play Call of Duty or something, work things out that way. Or we could listen to The Donald. Even though, in our hearts, we know the speaker’s a buffoon.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes”When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocricy.

Abraham Lincoln

But none of that, not Trump or San Bernardino or Paris, none of it is actually important. Somehow one particular couple became self-radicalized. Probably some measure of resentment and anger over some workplace slight was part of the mix for the husband, for both of them. And the preposterous, unworkable, 7th century ideology of Isis, which feeds on the resentment of marginalized people, led to a furious toxicity. For two people.

And so Mr. Trump and his followers think the answer is to increase Muslim marginalization? To further import it? Really?

So what should we do?

Your Christmas shopping. Toss an extra buck into the kettle, and when the cashier at Macey’s asks if you want to donate to the Food Bank, say, ‘sure. Five bucks.’ For heaven’s sake, get some perspective.

And if you know Muslims, if you have Muslim friends and neighbors (and you almost certainly do), or if you’re on a bus or train or subway and see someone wearing hijab, smile. If you want to, say ‘as-salamu alaykum.’ Peace be upon you. Right now, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens are being targeted, not by our government (yet), but by a ridiculous egomaniac. He’s not important; our civic peace is what matters.

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

–Woody Guthrie

What won’t work is overreacting. What won’t work is trying somehow to prevent, for everyone everywhere, random weird lethal stuff from happening, ever. We’re okay. We’re more than okay.

Just don’t vote for Trump. That really would be the apocalypse.

Booksmart: A review

Last night, I had an opportunity to see a preview performance of a new play, and a first play, by a young playwright; always exciting. Rob Tennant’s Booksmart is the latest Plan B Theatre production of the winning play of the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists annual contest. It’s a comedy, set in the employee break room in a big Barnes and Noble-style bookstore Booksmart, a few days before Christmas. It is, in short, a play about customer service (shudder!), complete with rude customers, burned out employees, and clueless management. And all the characters are book nerds, most with advanced academic degrees in various disciplines in the humanities–art, philosophy, English lit. They graduated, racked up debt, and face a common dilemma; these are the jobs they got out of college. Yay for them.

It’s a play, in short, about being preposterously and perpetually underemployed, And Casey (Tyson Baker), is fed up. He’s had it. Apparently he’s decided, on this insanely busy day, to clock in, and spend the day in the break room. He’s on strike, apparently, though he, like most retail workers, has no union protection, and in fact seems only vaguely aware of what unions are or how unions function. He wants better pay; he wants benefits. But mostly he’s just irritating. He’s verbally adept, and can talk at length and with great facility about his grievances. He has no idea what to do about any of them.

His closest friend in the store, Alex (Sarah Danielle Young), is sick of him whining, and calls him on it. She’s good at her job, she can cope with the rudest of customers without losing her cheer or moxie or humor, and she knows some things about unionization. She thinks Casey is being a lazy jerk, which makes her job harder, which pisses her off. She knows–everyone knows–how much he’s into her, which also pisses her off. More specifically, though, she disapproves of his tactics.

So it’s a play about unions. It’s a play about labor v. management. It seems to be, in fact, kind of a comedic millennial version of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, only with retail workers instead of cabbies, which makes sense, Uber having supplanted taxis in our world. Odets’ great ’30s masterpiece, of course, cut back and forth between vignettes about suffering cab drivers and scenes in a union hall, awaiting a strike vote. Tennant’s play is similarly structured; we cut between Casey’s on-going work stoppage, and his co-workers’ phone conversations with preposterously rude (but oh-so-familiar) customers. The impact of Odets’ play was to stoke the white-hot fury of his age; because the defining mood of our day is ironic, the impact of Tennant’s, is comedy, though with a self-critical edge.

From time to time, three other Booksmart employees drift in and out of the break room. Each time the break room door to the store opens, we hear snippets of the most gosh-awful Christmas music. (As usual, Cheryl Cluff’s stellar sound design tells us everything we need to know about the world of the play). Those musical bits were consistently great, and got the best laughs of the play. My first reaction to the play, in fact, was that, aside for the music, it should be funnier. But on further reflection, I’m not sure that’s what I want to say. (Lousy note, anyway; ‘be funnier.’)  That music, as imagined by Tennant and executed by Cluff, suggested something more interesting than just a pleasant comedy.

I bought a new phone recently, and in the store where I transacted, Christmas music was similarly ubiquitous. When a particularly obnoxious version of that pro-roofie tease ‘Baby it’s cold outside’ played, one employee at the store said, to no one in particular, “when I slit my wrists, this music will be why.” One of her co-workers suggested a coping strategy; crank up the hip-hop for the drive home. “But I don’t like hip-hop,” said the girl. “Neither do I,” said her friend. “But it cleanses the palate.” Both of them laughed. And it struck me how marvelously true is Tennant’s use of music, and how spot-on his depiction of the bright, well-educated souls trapped in retail hell.

Tennant populates his play with similar folk; smart, and damned. (Every time they go on break, they pull out a book). April Fossen played Ruth, a former long-term adjunct university faculty; a highly intelligent and well-read woman who really should be tenured somewhere. As the play progresses, she has a series of phone encounters with a male customer-from-hell (we only see her end of the conversations, but we know this guy). Those conversations go badly. By the play’s end, she’s likely to be terminated from yet another job for which she’s ridiculously overqualified. Anne Louise Brings played Cindy, a young woman unhealthily obsessed with Katniss Everdeen; after another rude customer drives her to tears, she’s far more inclined to entertain Casey’s rebellion. And Joe Crnich played Hippie Ed, barely able to remember his advanced degree in philosophy (and naively astonished to learn of the pagan origination of Christmas holiday traditions); what was once a fine mind seems to have been compromised by that bane of aging hippies, Too Much Weed. He becomes Casey’s first convert. He’s also what passes for management, presumably because he’s their one older white male.

Most of the play’s funniest moments are the hints we get of the chaos outside the break room, and the one-sided exchanges between Ruth, Cindy and Ed and various customers-from-hell. But most of the play’s focus is on Casey, who’s ineffectual kvetching becomes rather irritating. I found myself wondering if Casey’s oh-so-verbal fecklessness might be part of the point. I found him an unappealing character; perhaps I was supposed to. Perhaps the play is about how ill-prepared college training leaves humanities majors for the actual vicissitudes of gainful employment. The title of the play is, after all, Booksmart. Which, in common parlance, contrasts unfavorably with streetsmart. And how gainful is their employment? It’s not just Casey; all these characters struggle financially, especially Alex, whose landlord has just raised her rent.

They need a union, frankly. The play makes that case persuasively. And Alex is the only one of them with the wherewithal to organize one. And that effort, we sense, is unlikely to succeed. Quite possibly, Booksmart’s management will simply fire them all for even discussing the possibility. It’s not like they’ll have any difficulty finding more overqualified humanities majors to replace them. We know all that; so does Alex, the play’s most appealing and tragic character.

In the Group Theatre’s seminal production of Waiting for Lefty, the audience, according to legend, left the theater shouting ‘strike strike strike!’ Whether that actually happened or not, it was certainly the greatest agit-prop play in American history. (And then Odets sold out; went to Hollywood, made some money, drank too much, died too young). What Booksmart suggests is the need for a similar national effort to the essential centrality of organized labor in the 30s. Occupy Wall Street? But didn’t that movement, so profoundly compelling, and similarly a coalition of underemployed ticked-off millennials and aging 60’s relics, eventually dissipate its energy in direction-less empty rhetoric? Doesn’t the Bernie Sanders campaign represent another possible way out of the cul-de-sac of non-specific hopes and unrealized change? And isn’t that campaign likewise losing its mojo?

Tennant’s play strikes me as a fascinating artifact of our times, a verbally adept agit-prop comedy about feckless, misdirected idealism. It’s not quite the Waiting for Lefty of our time; it’s not angry enough for that, because we’re not; we’re just tired. My final response to it wasn’t ‘strike strike strike!’ It was a kind of cynical weariness. The fight against inequality today isn’t a fight against brutal bosses and their murdering thugs. It’s the far less equal fight against stultifying corporate blandness, heard most clearly in the relentless false cheer of mandated muzak. Every time that door opened, we were reminded of it, the anodyne ubiquity of jingling Rudolf. How the hell do you fight that?