Monthly Archives: February 2016

My favorite political fantasy

I don’t often do process stories; I’m more interested in policy. All the endless handicapping of the political horse race, the obsession with who’s up and who’s down and who’s going negative and what it might all portend, while fun, isn’t really my thing. Plus, I’m not very good at it. But political prognostication can be irresistible at times, and no more so than right now, after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

A day or two before the South Carolina primary, the consensus was that the Republican race was tightening, and that Ted Cruz might very well overtake Donald Trump. The night before the vote, Trump told a horrifying story.  A century ago, in the Phillipines, General “Black Jack” Pershing captured fifty Muslim prisoners. He ordered fifty bullets to be dipped in pig’s blood, and then used those bullets to execute forty-nine of the prisoners. The lone survivor was released, and told to tell the story to a group of pesky terrorists who had been plaguing Pershing’s soldiers. This, Trump suggested, is the kind of thing we Americans should do now, today.

This story is almost certainly apocryphal. It’s also, of course, quite horrifying. The Council of American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, condemned the speech:

By directly stating that the only way to stop terrorism is to murder Muslims in graphic and religiously-offensive ways, he places the millions of innocent, law-abiding citizens in the American Muslim community at risk from rogue vigilantes. He further implies that our nation should adopt a strategy of systematized violence in its engagement with the global Muslim community, a chilling message from a potential leader. We pray that no one who hears this message follows his gospel of hate.

Marco Rubio also condemned Trump’s speech, as did both Democratic candidates, properly so. This is after a week, we should note, in which Trump also attacked the Pope. And one might imagine that that speech, on the eve of an important primary, would be seen as so offensive and so extreme that it should hurt, and could even destroy Trump’s candidacy.

Not so. He won South Carolina in a landslide. And he especially won counties with large Christian evangelical communities. That’s the astonishing thing about the Trump insurgency. He says extreme, wacky things that would hurt most normal candidacies. And his supporters . . . like him even more. Every time.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz essentially tied for second. Trump won every delegate. And Jeb! Bush pulled out of the race, endorsing Rubio.

Here’s what I think is going to happen next. Or, at least, this is what might happen next.

Bush was running consistently at around 8%. If those voters gravitate over to Rubio, he pulls closer to Trump.

Dr. Ben Carson is still in the race, and I think I know why. It’s traditional for candidates, when they drop out, to endorse the candidate whose views most closely mirror their own. Dr. Ben’s main appeal is to Christian evangelicals, which suggests that he might endorse Cruz. He hasn’t done it yet, because Dr. Ben Carson absolutely loathes Ted Cruz personally.  (Joke: why do people hate Ted Cruz immediately after meeting him? Saves time.) But as Carson fades, his supporters will, I think, shift over to Cruz.

So assume we have Trump polling at around 35%, and Rubio and Cruz both polling at just shy of 30%. I don’t think it’s at all unlikely that we could see a brokered Republican convention. That is to say, a convention in which none of the candidates have enough delegate support to win a first-ballot nomination.

If that’s the case, I suspect that the Republican establishment will find a way to make some kind of shady back-room deal to give the nomination to Rubio. Reince Priebus (roll those R’s Germanically when saying it aloud), the Republican National Committee chair, could figure something out, possibly by offering the VP to Ted Cruz. (Which would be hilarious, actually, since Cruz and Rubio also can’t stand each other).

And Donald Trump is so offended, he launches a third party candidacy. And Hillary Clinton wins the resulting landslide. Or Bernie Sanders–I’m willing to be agnostic on that point.

Is any part of that scenario implausible? I don’t think so. Rubio, Cruz and Trump appeal to very different Republican constituencies. thinks a brokered convention is quite possible. If it were to happen, then the movers and shakers in the party would step up, led, probably, by Priebus.

Trump has insisted that he will stick with the Republican party as long as he’s treated fairly. No one knows what he means by that, but if he shows up at the convention with the most delegates and doesn’t win the nomination due to some kind of shenanigans, that would constitute ‘being treated unfairly,’ would it not?

I’ll grant you that this whole scenario is a fantasy. I’m rather clinging to fantasies right now, considering how horrific all three leading Republican candidates appear to me. Trump now appears to be endorsing hate crimes; certainly, he’s intent on disregarding the Geneva conventions. And that’s in addition to starting trade wars with China and Mexico. Cruz is now supporting Trump’s odious proposal to deport 12 million resident immigrants, and all three candidates would unilaterally cancel the Iran nuclear deal. And the economic plans of all three candidates constitute some kind of bizarre fantasy world in which tax cuts are a panacea and spending doesn’t need to be paid for. My son and I spent part of Sunday debating over which of them would make a worse President; suffice it to say that we concluded they would all be dreadful choices.

But a brokered convention, resulting in a Trump third party candidacy isn’t really that implausible. And would ensure the victory, in the fall, of a grown-up. Sounds good to me.

Spotlight: Movie Review

In 2001, the Boston Globe published a series of articles detailing the way the Catholic Church covered up for pedophile priests caught sexually abusing children. Spotlight tells the story of the journalists who researched and wrote that story. I love movies about intrepid journalists, and Spotlight can really only be compared to the best of them, films like All the President’s Men and The Year of Living Dangerously. It’s been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and is favored to win. It’s a masterpiece of ensemble acting. I can’t really recommend it strongly enough. It does, however, raise a very interesting and important question, regarding truth and fiction and how we structure stories based on historical events.

All right. Here’s what the film tells us. Reporters at the Globe had heard rumors of priests molesting children for years. Everyone was also pretty well aware that the Church, and specifically Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the archbishop over the Boston diocese, a very well respected figure in the community, would much rather not see a story in the city’s leading newspaper about pedophile priests. Had Cardinal Law known about and covered up for guilty priests? No one particularly wanted to find out.

Then the Boston Globe got a new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), hired from Miami. A Jewish editor with a fine track record, but not a Bostonian, not Irish-Catholic, an outsider. Initially, the reporters and editors are suspicious of Baron. One of the main story lines has to do with the way Baron gains the respect of the paper’s reporters.

The Globe had an elite team of reporters, the Spotlight team, three reporters and one editor, tasked with taking on big, complex stories, and given the time and resources to really dig deeply into important issues, with no mandate to publish anything immediately. For the most part, the movie deals with the Spotlight reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), and their editor, Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). So that’s the first decision made by the filmmakers–to focus on four main characters, not a single protagonist. Robinson reported to a higher editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), so Bradlee becomes another key player. The Spotlight team looks like a terrific place to work; each reporter has his/her own strengths, and Robby, their putative boss, isn’t afraid to dig in and work alongside them; an outstanding boss. They clash a little bit, but it’s about process and deadlines, not the substance of what they’re doing. You get the impression of four smart, dedicated people, who respect each other, and work well together. You sense that Matt Carroll was a particularly strong researcher, that Pfeiffer was a particularly effective interviewer, that Rezendes was good at negotiating the legal system. And Robby was plugged in, to the power structure of the city, its shakers and movers.

So that’s the second choice made by the filmmakers. The heart of the film has to do with the mechanics of researching and reporting, not really interpersonal conflicts. Three men, one woman, but not a hint of sexual or romantic tension between them (a filmmaking choice I applaud). Just four people who are really good at their jobs, working on the story of their careers.

The story is, of course, explosive, especially in solidly Catholic Boston. And Robby is warned throughout to expect pushback from the Church hierarchy. So is Baron. He’s given a courtesy visit with Cardinal Law (the terrific Len Cariou), who tells him that the city works best when its most important institutions work together. And Baron politely responds that he thinks a newspaper works best when it’s most independent. He and Law agree, cordially enough, to disagree. And then Baron’s Spotlight reporters write a story that couldn’t possibly make the Cardinal (and the Church he represents) look worse.

Because the facts of the case, as they’re gradually revealed, couldn’t possibly be more horrifying. We learn the details of the story as the reporters learn them, and–this was at least my experience–are as devastated as the reporters are. At one point, the reporters conclude that there were 13 priest/pedophiles molesting children in Boston. Bradlee is skeptical–there’s no way there could be that many. Then, in a conversation with an expert on pedophilia, they’re told that the actual number is almost certainly much higher, in the 90s. And their investigation expands, and they confirm that number. And then the number continues to grow, into the hundreds. It’s devastating.

But what’s kind of astonishing is how little the Catholic Church or Cardinal Law does to impede the investigation. Robby is told by several of his powerful friends in Boston that this is an explosive story, that he shouldn’t pursue it. And initially, he wants to publish a more limited story. It’s Baron that urges the team to continue to expand their investigation, to look into the institution of the Church itself.

They’re not reluctant to do it for reasons of piety. They just know they have a powerful story, and want to publish. Their boss, the newpaper’s editor-in-chief, is the one who pushes them to delay publication, to get the whole story, to implicate Cardinal Law and the Church itself. And the Church’s response? Pretty limited; even a bit supine. No threats of legal action. No strikes by the paper’s largely Irish Catholic work force. Not even a response by Church spokespeople.

There is pushback and resistance. It comes from rank-and-file Catholics in the city; a clerk at the City Records office, for example. He’s a bit surly towards Rezendes. To put it in structural terms, this is a film with four protagonists, and no real antagonist at all. Unless the film’s villain isn’t a person. Unless it’s just . . . Irish Catholic Boston cultural pressure. Subtle and quiet.

That’s the most important decision made by the filmmakers here. They could invent a bad guy. They could have upped the pressure exerted by the Church. But that didn’t particularly happen, I think, and they wanted this film to hew pretty closely to what did actually happen.

That’s a decision I applaud. It makes the film perhaps slightly less dramatic than other Hollywood ‘based on a true story’ type films. I generally think historical truth–to the extent that it’s discoverable– is more interesting and can be more dramatic than more overtly ‘dramatized’ versions.

Hollywood loves ‘true’ stories. And in almost every sense, Spotlight does not feel like a Hollywood film. I rather shudder to think of the missteps this film, blessedly, avoids. (Manufacturing a romance between Pfeiffer and Rezendes comes most immediately to mind; blarg). The result is a film that honors some terrific journalists, and that forces us to confront the reality of the horrible events those journalists exposed. It’s really beautifully done. Kudos.



Zoolander 2: Movie review

The first Zoolander movie came out fifteen years ago. It was very stupid, and it was also pretty funny. Watching the trailers before last night’s screening of Zoolander 2, all of them for movies of surpassing stupidity, I wondered if the movie we were there to see would manage to be even stupider than the movies being previewed. Obviously, we’d have to see all those other movies to make that call. Still, Zoolander 2 is astonishingly dumb.

It’s an interesting conundrum, isn’t it?  How stupid can a movie be and still be entertaining? I’m trying to imagine some kind of Venn diagram, plotting idiotic plot points and moronic dialogue against laughs generated.  But here’s the real question. If you believe, as I do, that comedy derives from truth, that we find things funny because, at some level, we also think they’re true, then where is the truth at the heart of Zoolander 2? Because, I have to confess it: I laughed a lot.

Well, okay. The movie starts with an action sequence; a guy running from two motorcyle-riding assassins. He’s elusive, plus they’re unconscionably terrible shots. It’s a typical movie action sequence, just exaggerated enough to also be pretty funny. Finally, one of the motorcycles corners our hero. He takes off his headgear. He’s Justin Bieber. And then the killer opens up with a machine gun, and shoots Bieber. Many many many times. And as Bieber’s body jerks around from multiple gunshot wounds, it seems to take forever. And finally, Bieber collapses, pulls out a phone, takes a selfie, posts it on-line, and then expires.

So the truth of that scene (which was very funny, honestly) is that Justin Bieber is a narcissistic twit, which makes people hate him, which means we would cheer if we saw him shot repeatedly. And that joke, of course, only works if you’re able to persuade Justin Bieber to appear in the sequence. And, to go all meta with this, simultaneously suggesting a degree of previously unanticipated self-deprecating humor, by Bieber, about being Justin Bieber, and being therefore hated.

And that’s it. Right there; that’s the secret to this film’s humor. It’s a film that features many many cameo appearances by celebrities, each of whom makes fun of his or her own carefully constructed celebrity persona. So, Sting makes an appearance, making fun of his own persona as a ‘rock star/world-weary philosopher.’ And Kiefer Sutherland is aboard too, to make fun of his own tough guy persona. And so on. It’s not just an excuse for celebrity cameos; the cameos are central to the film’s purpose. Which is to make fun of celebrity-world.

Of course, Ben Stiller (who also wrote and directed the thing), is back, as Derek Zoolander, the terminally dim fashion model, now trying to reunite with his son, who he hasn’t seen in years. And his best friend, Hansel, played by Owen Wilson, who has also decided to settle down with his family, which consists of the eleven mismatched folks he met in an orgy. And Will Farrell is the villain of the piece, Mugatu, a designer.

There’s also a plot, sort of.  It’s Biblical. It involves the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve and Steve (androgynous third wheel), and their expulsion from paradise. The blood of Steve’s offspring, it turns out, can grant someone who drinks it eternal life; a kind of Fountain of Youth. And Zoolander’s son is The Chosen One, who needs to be ritually sacrificed, allowing a Who’s Who of fashion designers to live forever. Which means that guys like Tommy Hilfiger had to agree to appear in a film that makes fashion designers look like, literally, youth-obsessed blood sucking vampires.

Oh, there’s also Kristin Wiig, playing Alexanya Atoz, an insanely botoxed designer who speaks entirely in gibberish. And there’s Benedict Cumberbatch, playing All, a model who is the last word in androgyny. And Penelope Cruz as Valentina, a former swimsuit model-turned-cop, who helps Zoolander unravel the film’s plot.

It is, in a short, a fairly good-hearted spoof of celebrity culture and high fashion. Coming off several days of illness, it was also exactly what the doctor ordered. I don’t exactly recommend it. It is, as mentioned earlier, incredibly stupid. But sometimes stupid is fun–if that’s the mood you’re in, give it a whirl.


Replacing Justice Scalia

US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away this past weekend. Justice Scalia was a towering figure in American jurisprudence. He was perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive voice arguing for Constitutional originalism; for the idea that judges should base decisions on the best clear reading of the original Constitutional text, and not on their own social or political views. Scalia’s views resist the idea of the Constitution as a ‘living, breathing, evolving’ text, which is otherwise a fairly mainstream one. I don’t think that Justice Scalia’s philosophy of jurisprudence is particularly achievable; I do think that American jurisprudence thrives in an atmosphere of debate and open dialogue between partisans of various persuasions. It does not surprise me that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg treasured her friendship with Justice Scalia; their frequent clashes sharpened the thinking and refined the rhetoric of them both.

And Scalia could write. His writing (particularly in his dissents) was masterful, filled with trenchant commentary and wit. He will be missed.

And, of course, he does need to be replaced. And the Constitution makes it clear that the President of the United States is charged with nominating new Justices, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Which means a straight up and down vote, following (nowadays), hearings by the Senate Judiciary committee.

It’s an election year. But it’s early; today is February 16. Assuming that the President names a replacement within the next couple of weeks, the Senate would have plenty of time to hold their hearings and schedule a vote. The notion, first floated by Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell, that it’s somehow improper or unseemly for this President to make this nomination is preposterous on the face of it. Justice Scalia spent his professional life defending the idea of Constitutional originalism. The idea that the American people, in the next election, should make this call, is nonsense. The American people have already decided who should replace Scalia. When they elected President Obama in 2012.

Except, of course, this is Scalia, and this is Obama. It’s safe to say that for most conservatives, Scalia is the model Justice, the very epitome of the person and philosophy they want on the court. And, astonishingly, President Obama is, um, not liked by conservatives. The idea of Obama (boo!) naming Scalia’s replacement is anathema to conservatives. There’s no precedent for it, but I don’t expect Republicans to budge on this. President Obama will make his nomination. And, as Donald Trump put in the last Republican debate, the Senate will “delay, delay, delay.”

And let’s be honest; if this nomination was being made by President Romney, and if the Justice being replaced was Justice Ginsburg, and if the Senate was controlled by Democrats, the result would be the same. The partisan divide is never wider than it is in regards to SCOTUS. We’re talking a life-time appointment. It’s great fun for Democrats to shout and gesticulate wildly over the appalling hypocrisy of Republicans over this (non-)vote. It was just as much fun when Democrats in the Senate were protesting appointments to the federal bench by George W. Bush. This is politics. Expect elbows to be thrown.

Which means that 5-4 decisions are suddenly going to become 4-4 decisions, with all sorts of unintended consequences.

For one thing: Bob McDonnell is going to jail.

McDonnell was governor of Virginia, until 2014, when he was convicted on 11 corruption charges. He was supposed to report to federal prison sometime in the next couple of weeks. However, a month ago, SCOTUS agreed to hear his appeal of his case, and granted a stay. There were, apparently, interesting questions regarding what might be regarded as routine exchanges of political favors, and what might be regarded as bribes. Justice Scalia was seen as particularly receptive to the arguments made in McDonnell’s defense, and a 5-4 decision, reversing McDonnell’s conviction, seemed at least possible, if not actually kind of likely.

Not anymore. It’s going to be 4-4 now, and that means the lower court’s ruling stands. And that means Bob McDonnell is going to prison. Sucks for him.

That’s not the only consequence. In fact, as Rachel Maddow put it last night, McDonnell’s case is probably the least consequential result of Justice Scalia’s sad passing (and resulting Senatorial gridlock).

Maddow had Dahlia Lithwick–Slate’s legal correspondent–on her show last night, and together, they went over some of the high profile, really important cases the Court was going to be deciding this term, only probably not now. There are cases regarding affirmative action, abortion rights, an appeal reversing President Obama’s immigration policy, another Hobby Lobby case regarding religious liberty and contraception, a voting rights decision, and a decision about how states can draw legislative districts. Lithwick said she was certain that all the above cases would have been 5-4. Now, they’re 4-4, which means that lower court rulings can stand. And that’s a decidedly mixed bag.

For example, Texas has a particularly restrictive law restricting women’s access to abortion; outlawing certain clinics, for example. The Fifth District court ruled in favor of that Texas law; it’s entirely possible that SCOTUS would have overturned it. Other appellate courts have overturned similar laws. All those lower court rulings would be upheld if SCOTUS deadlocks 4-4. Which means that abortion laws would depend entirely on . . . geography.

As Lithwick put it last night: “You’re going to have an absolute patchwork across the country, where fundamental Constitutional questions do not get resolved. This is what the Court does!” Or not, until after next January, apparently, when the new President, whoever he or she is, has leisure to nominate someone else, and the new Senate has time to confirm. Or not.

Reluctantly, let’s speculate. Let’s suppose that President Obama nominates someone reasonable and maybe kind of moderate to the Court. One name that’s gotten a lot of attention is Sri Srinivasan. Son of immigrants from India, he clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor. He won confirmation to the DC Circuit Court, in 2013, by a vote of 97-0. He’s a very respected judge, seen as highly intelligent, a respected moderate. Republicans would look really foolish voting him down for SCOTUS, after just recently unanimously having confirmed him.

If Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins the general election in November, it seems like Senate Republicans might be receptive to the idea of confirming a guy like Srinivasan, if it looks like President Clinton/Sanders would nominate someone, like, I don’t know, Goodwin Liu (a California appellate judge, seen as more liberal) or Loretta Lynch, or (wait for it) a certain former law professor from Chicago, name of Barack Obama. A December lame-duck confirmation does not seem all that improbable, to head off that appalling possibility.

What I do not expect to see is anything done quickly. I suppose that Chief Justice Roberts might hold over some of the more contentious cases until a new Justice can be confirmed. But one thing does seem probable. We’re in for a big rancorous mess. Should be fun.


Why I love Bernie Sanders; why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton

I absolutely love Bernie Sanders. I love his passion, his sincerity, his integrity. I love the crowds that come to Sanders’ rallies. I love the story; the 74-year old socialist fighting for ordinary Americans. I love his low-tech, low-money, high energy campaign, and I especially love the way he engages with young voters. I love his idealism. And I love, above all, his vision for America.

And I’m voting for Hillary Clinton in this campaign. Enthusiastically.

Here’s why.

Start here. Here are his issues, his vision for America, taken straight from his website. He wants universal health care for all Americans. He wants free college tuition for everyone who wants one. He wants a higher minimum wage. He wants higher wages generally for the middle class, and he wants higher taxes on the super-wealthy. He wants to over see a reduction in the power of corporations. An expanded social safety net, with mandatory paid maternity leave. A fairer, more equitable society, a society in which prosperity is widely shared.

I don’t see any of that as remotely implausible. In fact, if we’re genuinely progressive in our political views, something akin to Bernie’s vision is what we should all be aiming for. I know Republicans have been shocked and appalled and horrified at the thought that Bernie Sanders–a socialist, a socialist!–is doing so well on the Democratic side. Who cares? It’s a good vision, a workable vision.

What Sanders is calling for is more or less for the economic realities that prevail in other countries in the world. Which means, essentially, all the countries in the world where you wouldn’t mind living. Think about it. If through some appalling exigency you, or a family member, or a friend, had to move to Somalia, say, or Libya, or Syria, or the Congo, you’d be frightened for them. You’d worry. Whereas, if your friend or family member were to move to Canada, or Austria, or Norway, or Denmark, or Sweden, or Germany, France, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Finland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, you’d be fine with it. You’d think: ‘how cool.’ China? Sure. South Korea? You bet. Brazil, Argentina, Mexico? Absolutely. Russia? Sign me up. There are failed states in the world, places that aren’t safe to live. But most countries in the world are doing well enough. And many many nations of the world are closer to Bernie Sanders’ vision for America than they are to American realities. In a very real sense, we’re the outliers.

Now, when you point this out, how many countries of the world enjoy the benefits of democratic socialism, your conservative friends will point out problems in those countries. Problems with immigration, for example. High taxes. Restrictions on personal freedom. But there isn’t a perfect society anywhere on earth. No one is saying that Sweden doesn’t have difficulties. Sweden does have a stronger social net, and a more equitable society than we do. They don’t have problems with gun violence; we do. I’m just saying that we could learn a lot from other countries. We could look to Finland, for example, for ways to strengthen public education.

In many respects, of course, America is kind of a socialist country. We have a strong social safety net–progressives would like it to be stronger. We have a decent health care system for most of our citizens–progressives would like everyone to have access to first-rate health care. We’re getting there, incrementally.

So why not support Bernie? On his website, on the first page, are two words that give me pause. Revolution. And Movement. And, of course, if we’re going to overthrow the entrenched political power of corporations and of the conservative movement, we will need a mass movement, and we will need a revolution. Cue John Lennon’s guitar: “you say you want a revolution, well, you know, we’d all love to change the world.”

The fact of the matter is that the American form of government does not lend itself to revolution. In a Parliamentary form of government, such as those found in all our European allies, elections are won by parties, and governments are formed from the leadership of whichever parties have a legislative majority. If a party wins an election on a platform of universal health care, they get universal health care, by golly. They tend not to subsequently give it up, either. Our Constitution, however, is filled with impediments to legislation; checks and balances. The Framers didn’t anticipate the rise of political parties (though they got the reality soon enough), but the kind of government we now have, with a President representing one set of ideas and a Congress representing the antithesis, is not one the Framers would have found terribly alarming or worrisome.

There have been a few moments in our history where cataclysm has led to huge majorities and revolutionary advances: Roosevelt’s administration, especially 1933-37, and the New Deal, and 1964, and the Great Society after Kennedy’s assassination. But mostly, what we get is incremental change. Compromise and deal-making. Surrendering the ideal in pursuit of the possible. Who does that sound like to you?

I think Bernie Sanders shows us what America could look like in 2040. But it’s probably not achievable in 2016. With Republicans controlling the House, possibly controlling the Senate after this election, with conservatives in ascendence in state governments all across America? It’s not likely to happen, not now, not yet.

Our task right now must be to move the ball forward, maybe just a little at a time. Fight for small improvements, work with conservatives on bills where we can find agreement. We’re not likely to see a great leap forward. I’ll settle for a step or two, in more or less the right direction.

If you believe in the vision Bernie Sanders articulates so passionately, then let that vision have a  stronger hold on your soul than the person arguing for it. And, of course, if Bernie is the nominee, I will vote for him. Please, commit to supporting Hillary otherwise.



Hail, Caesar! Movie review

In Hail, Caesar!, the new Coen brothers movie, a key plot point involves a ‘study group,’ a cabal of communist screenwriters, intent on indoctrinating Americans with Marxist ideas. “We think we’re really making a difference,” one of them says cheerily. When I learned that one of them was supposed to be Herbert Marcuse, I laughed out loud. The extended joke that the ‘study group’ represent never loses its appeal, which is a little strange. Their dialogue isn’t overtly funny, nor do the actors play broadly, for laughs. They are, nonetheless hilarious, simply because the premise is so delicious.

During the worst years of the McCarthyite Red Scare, that was the fantasy that the commie hunters pursued so grimly; a cabal of communist screenwriters. That’s why Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr. and all the rest of them were blacklisted; because dolts like Bill Wilkerson (of the Hollywood Reporter) or Joe McCarthy took that fantasy seriously. Of course, the blacklist destroyed careers and lives and was a serious and awful thing. But instead of outrage, the Coens employ ridicule. They take this ridiculous suspicion to its comic extreme. It would be as if–what’s a good analogy?–a sci-fi movie were to take seriously, for comedic effect, the notion that the earth is flat.

Hail, Caesar! is, at its heart, a spoof of ’50s Hollywood. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, head of ‘physical production’ at Capitol Pictures (the same fictional studio the Coens referenced in Barton Fink). Essentially, Eddie is a fixer. His job is the construction of false narratives–not the stories of movies, but the increasingly desperate spinning-out of stories of the normal family lives supposedly lived by movie stars, white-washing their rowdier escapades, which no one must ever know about. And gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton), are constantly on the prowl, sniffing out which actors are gay, which are pregnant, who’s been drinking again. (They get it all wrong, and completely miss the real blockbuster, which I won’t spoil for you. But it involves Channing Tatum. And it’s not what you think).

Eddie’s biggest challenge is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), off the set of ‘Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ,’ a sword-and-sandals religious epic about a Roman prefect converted to Christianity. By Saul of Tarsus, no less. Baird’s kidnappers are the commie screenwriters ‘study group,’ and they’re trying to convert him too, to communism. And Baird’s dumb enough that it seems, sort of, to be working.

Those two conversions, of Baird to communism, and of Baird’s fictional Roman to Christianity, provide the fulcrum on which the film turns. It’s a film about conversion, about beloved cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), converting to a suave, Cary Grantish star of sophisticated Philadelphia Story-type romantic comedies. Above all, it’s about Eddie himself, trying to decide whether to stay in the movie business, or accept a safer, more lucrative but (we suspect), boring job with Lockheed. And that is a moral decision, we see, as Eddie agonizes over it with his priest, in the confessional. Eddie wants to do good in the world. Movies or airplanes.

It’s not just a film about conversion; it’s a film about Christianity, about religion itself. In one of the funnier scenes in the movie, Eddie assembles three Christian clergy and a rabbi, asks that they peruse the Hail, Caesar screenplay, and tell him what they think. That meeting quickly deteriorates into a theological argument over the nature of the trinitarian Godhead.

And that’s when we realize how spectacularly comical theological disputes can be, whether between Christian clergymen or Marxist theorists. Anyone who thinks he has Ultimate Answers is ultimately destined to play the fool. And that’s the appeal of Hollywood. Hobie Doyle may be a pretend cowboy in ridiculous oaters, but he’s also an extraordinary trick rider, a rope spinning whiz, an athlete. I may not immediately understand the appeal of those Esther Williams water ballet movies that DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) stars in, but her ability to swim underwater is quite extraordinary. And while we’re giggling over just how amazingly gay the tap-dancing sailors led by Burt Gurney (a remarkable Channing Tatum) look to our jaded eyes, they really are terrific dancers.

It’s even a film with a virgin birth, sort of. It’s a film about two subjects–Christianity and the movie industry. DeAnna is pregnant (bad), typical of the problems Eddie has to solve. She’s pretty sure she knows who the father is, but it turns out he’s married. So Eddie works with the fixer’s fixer, Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), a professional ‘person,’ a man who, by injecting himself into any situation, can make anything happen. The idea is that she’ll ‘adopt’ her own baby. She’ll remove the child’s father from the equation. Virgin birth.

There’s also a God, a distant voice, a long way off, who communicates with His people through a prophet. Eddie’s the prophet, and God is ‘Mr. Schenck,’ the studio head, in New York. (Some particularly smart critics have suggested that Eddie’s actually a symbol for Christ, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t take on anyone’s sins–just spins them for the press. I’m Mormon–he’s a prophet. Either way, though, the film doesn’t really mock him him or his role.

That’s the topsy-turvy moral universe of Hail, Caesar. It’s a film where the most fakey, Hollywood-y, ridiculous scene is, supposedly, ‘real,’ where Baird Whitlock is a moron when talking Marxism, but re-finds his dignity as an actor and movie star. It’s a movie where a deeply powerful exposition of the central Christian doctrines, the incarnation and the atonement, find expression, and then founder on the word ‘faith,’ because Baird goes up on his lines. And swears in frustration.

It’s a film in which a good man, working in a corrupt profession, contemplates the nature of goodness itself. And finds his answer in that profession, in the professionalism and craftsmanship of artists, even artists working on the silliest projects, in a ridiculous industry. It honors that ridiculousness, and places that craftsmanship as higher on the moral scale than theology or politics.

It’s a delicious confection. It’s also a profound examination of questions of faith, theology and Christianity. I loved it. But it’s a film of some thought and some delicacy, not just a parody or farce. After you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear from you.

The Donald

The Iowa caucuses are tonight, and as I continue my project, looking at campaign websites to get a sense of where the candidates stand on the issues, I thought perhaps today would be a good time to take a look at the Republican front-runner. I want to treat him fairly, and I want to accurately reflect his views. I want to be clear; I’m primarily interested in issues, in policy proposals. This is trickier with Donald Trump than with other candidates running. I worried, going in, that he doesn’t really think very hard about issues. I’m not sure how committed he is to his own policy positions. But reading his website, I’m more convinced that he is actually kind of thoughtful, and sincere. He doesn’t care about a whole lot of issues–in fact, very few. But on those issues, his proposals are detailed and specific. Also, at times, crazy. But not always.

Trump’s website is pretty minimalist. There’s a ‘Positions’ section, which only deals with five issues–U.S.-China trade reform, VA reforms, Tax Reform, the Second Amendment, and Immigration Reform. Those are also about the only issues he talks about on the stump. I suspect that these are just about the only issues he cares about enough to have thought about much.

I went first to the section on US-China trade. Here’s the gist of it; he also expands on each of these points:

1.Bring China to the bargaining table by immediately declaring it a currency manipulator.

2. Protect American ingenuity and investment by forcing China to uphold intellectual property laws and stop their unfair and unlawful practice of forcing U.S. companies to share proprietary technology with Chinese competitors as a condition of entry to China’s market.

3. Reclaim millions of American jobs and reviving American manufacturing by putting an end to China’s illegal export subsidies and lax labor and environmental standards. No more sweatshops or pollution havens stealing jobs from American workers.

4. Strengthen our negotiating position by lowering our corporate tax rate to keep American companies and jobs here at home, attacking our debt and deficit so China cannot use financial blackmail against us, and bolstering the U.S. military presence in the East and South China Seas to discourage Chinese adventurism.

In other words, Donald Trump, if elected President, will immediately begin a trade war with China. And it’s not entirely clear that he’s not open to the possibility of a trade war escalating to an actual, shooting war. It rather sounds like he’d be okay with that.

Okay, let’s take his points one at a time. Does China engage in currency manipulation? Yes. Do we Americans also manipulate the value of our currency? Yes, through a practice called quantitative easing. (Here’s a link that explains what that is.) Does the Chinese government manipulate interest rates? Yes, and so does the U.S. government, as does the E.U., as does Japan.

If Trump, as President, officially called China on their currency manipulations, Congress would likely impose tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods coming into our country. China would respond with tariffs of their own. The result really would be a trade war. This would be bad. Trade suffers in trade wars. Factories shut down; workers lose pay checks. This is, in short, a terrible idea.

What’s weird about this section is the constant emphasis on ‘getting a better deal.’ He thinks that trade negotiators have made deals with China that are–this is a big word for Trump–weak. He wants us to assert US strength, and US power, and force China to cut deals that favor American interests over Chinese interests. Why on earth would China agree to that? Trump’s big best-selling business book is The Art of the Deal. I haven’t read it; my taste for research only goes so far. But surely he has to have noticed that, in any deal, there has to be something for both parties. You appeal to my self-interest, and I appeal to yours. But he seems to think that the Chinese government can simply be bullied into trade deals in which there’s nothing for them. Why would they? I mean, if Trump wants to open trade negotiations with China, fine. But they’re not going to give away the store.

Nor is Mexico going to pay for Mr. Trump’s giant wall on our southern border. That’s just childish posturing. In fact, illegal immigration isn’t actually much of a problem. Undocumented workers living in the US are more likely to start businesses than most Americans, and have much lower crime rates. Trump’s stance on immigration is nothing new in American politics, of course–remember when Chinese immigrants were the big threats, routinely discriminated against in a hundred different ways. Remember when it was the Irish? The kind of xenophobic posturing on Trump’s immigration section demeans Trump’s entire campaign.

The section on Taxes is more interesting. Of course, it includes tax simplification and tax cuts. He is running as a Republican. He proposes just four tax brackets, 0%, 10%, 20% and 25%, along with the elimination of estate taxes and cuts in corporate taxes. Families earning less than $50,000 would pay no federal income tax at all.

For people in that income bracket, though, federal income taxes are already a negligible part of their tax burden, and if they qualify for Earned Income Credit, they actually make money back. In fact, the EITC is a lifesaver for a lot of low-income families–allowing them to pay off big medical bills, or get a more functioning car. Trump makes no mention of the EITC. The biggest tax burden for those families are payroll taxes, which Trump’s plan never mentions. He has absolutely nothing in his plan to pay for such entitlements as Social Security or Medicare, two of the biggest budget busters.

He does, however, get quite specific about matters he knows about; the various loopholes available for the super-rich.

Reducing or eliminating deductions and loopholes available to the very rich, starting by steepening the curve of the Personal Exemption Phaseout and the Pease Limitation on itemized deductions. The Trump plan also phases out the tax exemption on life insurance interest for high-income earners, ends the current tax treatment of carried interest for speculative partnerships that do not grow businesses or create jobs and are not risking their own capital, and reduces or eliminates other loopholes for the very rich and special interests.

I have never in my life heard of the Pease Limitation. I don’t make enough money, and my guess is, neither do you, Gentle Reader. But it eliminates some tax deductions for rich guys. Trump wants to increase it, which means increasing the tax burden, for, well, guys like him. And this is where Trump gets interesting. He’s the only Republican running for President who actually, seriously proposes raising taxes on rich people.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are part of the economic proposals for every other Republican running. It was just assumed that the Republican rank-and-file voters supported those tax cuts as well.

But Donald Trump is the Republican front-runner, and the favored candidate by lower-middle-class Republican voters. And that seems weird to me, not that lower-middle-class voters are angry, because they have every right to be angry, having been screwed over by the political establishment in both parties for years. No, what seems strange is that these voters have embraced a billionaire. Donald Trump has positioned himself as the guy looking out for them. And with cause.

Of course, in part, Trump’s popularity is because he does such a skillful job of articulating a sense of resentment among voters, against all those people who are destroying their jobs and lifestyles. China! Mexico! Mexicans; sneaking across the border and stealing American jobs! That kind of knee-jerk xenophobia is part of what makes Trump’s popularity so scary and so uncomfortable.

But he’s a businessman who is not just about businessmen; a billionaire that is not just about billionaires. He is seriously talking about increasing the tax burden of the super-rich. He’s the only Republican calling for something that heterodox. And voters love it. Love it.

I want to be clear; I do not want Donald Trump to become President of the United States. I do not support him. He frightens me. But I do, kind of, get it. And what we really need is a candidate that can articulate policies that really, genuinely do something to help the lower-middle class and middle class in this country.