Monthly Archives: April 2016

Donald Trump’s foreign policy

As this year’s Presidential election continues to veer randomly between surrealism and farce, on a day when the former Speaker of the House compared a leading Presidential candidate from his own party to Lucifer, and another former Speaker went to prison for child molestation, Donald Trump, the probable Republican nominee, gave a speech on foreign policy. I read it. It’s almost completely incoherent.

Read Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ Foreign Policy Speech

“America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”

I’m going to start in a spirit of good will, and cut him some slack. Let’s assume that his use of the unfortunate phrase ‘America First’ was not intended to invoke Charles Lindbergh’s anti-war movement from the early ’40s. The America First movement, which flowered from 1940 right up until Pearl Harbor, is popularly associated with Lindbergh’s, um, less savory pals in Germany and Italy. In fact, America First was more isolationist than fascist, and was bi-partisan, with leadership that included the socialist Norman Thomas, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver. Nowadays, ‘America First’ sounds more like the name of a credit union than the nascent neo-Nazi movement it turned into back in the day. In fairness, I think Trump is just saying that the central principle of American foreign policy should be national self-interest. Fair enough.

Trump then does a quick historical survey, from WWII (good for us!) and Reagan demanding that Gorbachev ‘tear down this wall.’ (Even better!)  But then, he insists, our post-cold-war foreign policy veered off-course, as “logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.” And what specific examples of foolishness and arrogance does Trump mention? Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper. Very bad. It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.

Let’s break that down. The invasion of Iraq was indeed an example of neo-conservative nation building. ‘Egypt’ and ‘Libya’ however refers to the Arab Spring events, beginning in 2010. Certainly, the US took sides. Egypt and Libya were ruled by brutal dictators. The people in their countries revolted. The Obama administration supported what we believed might be pro-democracy movements. There were factions in each of the Arab Spring nations that did want democracy. American policy did backfire badly in Libya and Syria. But we do see some progress towards democratization in Yemen, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Oman.

But Trump does not differentiate between an invasion, like Iraq, where a US-led coalition toppled a dictator and tried to impose democracy, and Tunisia, where the US offered logistical support for pro-Western factions leading protests in their own country. And that’s a crucial point. Perhaps the US shouldn’t have tried to intervene at all. But Trump doesn’t say that either. Just that our foreign policy is “bad.” Largely, it seems, because our policies have strengthened Iran.

It’s at this point that Trump’s speech becomes almost completely contradictory. For example, he insists that President Obama’s economic policies have weakened our military, making it difficult for the US to intervene internationally. But he also criticized the Obama administration for trying to intervene internationally. Well, which is it? He insists that the US foots too much of the bill in order to support NATO, and he calls for our European allies to pay more. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.” In the next paragraph, though, Trump says “your friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them. You’ve made that agreement, you have to stand by it and the world will be a better place.” In other words, he intends to present Europe with a large bill for all the military forces we’ve been providing. That, in his view, is what it means to be a good ally.

He promises, of course, to complete wipe out ISIS. By acting “unpredictably,” I suppose. And although he doesn’t specify where his policy would require military intervention, it doesn’t seem likely that ‘wiping out ISIS’ could be done without ground forces. He talks about solving problems through diplomacy. But he absolutely intends to unilaterally renounce the international Iran nuclear deal. His first act as President, as far as I can tell, will be to start a trade war with China. He’s opposed to NAFTA, and intends to rescind the US involvement in that trade agreement. Same for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Amazingly, he seems to think that pulling out of every major trade deal of the last twenty years will strengthen the US economy, and lead to better relations with our allies.

It’s an amazing speech, in part because of its lack of organization. He really does just jump from topic to topic; the entire talk is one extended non sequitur. He particularly jumps from right wing talking point to right wing talking point. This silly nonsense about how President Obama ‘refuses to name the problem,’ by not using the exact formulation ‘radical Islamic extremism’ is a case in point. And, of course, the persecution of Christians in Syria is much more important to him than the sufferings of many more Muslims. But to his credit, Trump isn’t afraid to criticize the war in Iraq, and to correctly identify that intervention as leading directing to the establishment of ISIS.

Still, it’s simple-minded. Muslim=bad. American strength=good.

The purpose of this talk is to help Trump appear more Presidential. In one sense, the talk succeeded. Trump stood behind a podium, read from a teleprompter, seemed more subdued and reflective, and didn’t gratuitously insult anyone. He also demonstrated only the most simplistic understanding of the world we live in and the diplomatic challenges the United States faces. It’s a talk by a man who is not just ignorant of the subject he is addressing, but uninterested in learning more. It’s really quite terrifying.


Brooklyn: Movie Review

I know that it’s weird to review movies months after they opened. But that’s how people watch movies nowadays. Professional critics get their reviews out in time for the movie’s opening weekend. But I don’t care about Hollywood’s hit-or-bust mentality. I watch movies when I’m able to watch them, and I’m pretty sure you do the same. And Brooklyn is an interestingly flawed film; well worth discussing.

Let me begin by saying that I liked Brooklyn a great deal, and am confident you will too. It’s beautifully filmed and acted, a treat to watch. It’s a sweet-tempered romantic comedy, in many respects almost conflict-less, if that appeals. It was, as you probably know, nominated for Best Picture in 2015, and while I’m glad it didn’t win, I also don’t mind that it was nominated.

Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a quiet, unprepossessing, but exceptionally bright young Irish woman. As the film begins, she is about to sail to America, to Brooklyn. Arrangements for her trip were made by her beloved older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who had earlier made the move to Brooklyn. When Eilis arrives, she has a room waiting for her, in a women’s boarding house, run by the tart-tongued-but-kindly Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). She has a good job, in an upscale department store. Her boss there (Jessica Pare), is patient with her, and gentle. Father Flood has enrolled her in night school, at Brooklyn College, classes in accounting, which she aces. She has to cope with seasickness on the boat, and homesickness once she’s arrived, but honestly, she’s not badly off.

We root for Eilis, in part because of Ronan’s wonderfully expressive performance. But I found myself wondering what the film’s main conflict would be. First third of the film, there honestly isn’t much of one. It’s a film about a very nice girl, bright and kind, and we root for her life to go well. Mostly, it is.

She goes to a parish dance, and meets a young Italian guy, Tony (Emory Cohen). He’s got a lovely smile and a real sweetness of character–we see that immediately. And he’s clearly as immediately smitten with her as she is with him. So they begin dating, two really nice kids falling for each other. He invites her to dinner to meet his parents; her flatmates boil up some spaghetti, and she has an ‘eating pasta’ lesson.

Okay, so that’s the second third of the film, about the courtship of this agreeable young couple. And again, it’s lovely. They’re nice kids, and they’re nuts about each other, and everything goes beautifully. The ‘conflicts,’ such as they are, deal with such matters as her getting a new (for her, daring) American swimsuit for a trip to the beach at Coney Island. Cohen, who I hadn’t seen before, is really delightfully charming as Tony. Oh, his bratty younger brother says something about how Italians don’t like the Irish, but his parents shut that down pretty quickly. Besides, Tony’s a Dodgers’ fan. The 1951 Dodgers. The Jackie Robinson Dodgers. That’s his favorite team. Of course he doesn’t take ethnic divisions at all seriously.

Okay, two thirds of the way into the film, Eilis gets word that her sister Rose has died. She decides she needs to go back to Ireland, to make what arrangements she can for her mother, Jane Brennan. Before she leaves, though, she and Tony decide to marry, and to consummate their marriage (though not quite in that order).

At this point, I’m afraid I need to spoil the plot a bit, in order to make the point I want to make. So skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens. Eilis arrives home, only to learn that her mother has made a number of arrangements for her. Rose had a job as a bookkeeper; the company she worked for hasn’t been able to find an adequate replacement, and are counting on Eilis to step in. And Eilis’ best friend, Nancy, has become engaged, so obviously Eilis needs to stay longer than she’d planned to, so she can attend the wedding. And when Nancy and her fiancee invite Eilis to join them, they’ve brought a fella for her, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). And Jim’s very nice, and, it turns out, fairly well off. And they see each other socially, the two couples do, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Jim is very taken with her. And she’s not entirely indifferent to him. With Eilis’ Mom quietly pushing all of it along–the job, the guy, the Irish life. And Eilis has to face a decision.

And I honestly found myself wondering if she would in fact stay in Ireland. Ignore her marriage, forget Tony, quit her Brooklyn job and schooling, and stay in Ireland. And, of course, we’re all rooting like crazy for her to not do any of that. We like Tony a lot. We don’t dislike Jim. But she’s married. And Tony’s a sweetheart. And. . . .

When I used to teach dramatic structure, I used to talk a lot about something called the volitional protagonist. We want the story’s main character to make the most important decisions regarding what he/she is going to do. In Brooklyn (a lovely film, and one I enjoyed very much), I wanted Eilis to actually make a decision, take control of her life. Eilis is an agreeable character, and the actress playing her couldn’t possibly be more engaging. It made for a likable film, one that was pleasant to watch, but a film that ultimately was not all that compelling. That’s why. The protagonist couldn’t be less volitional.

And because she’s not been terribly volitional up to that point, the scenes in Ireland, with Eilis and her Mom and this charming Jim guy filled me with a kind of dread. I wanted her to go back to Tony. I wanted that for her, because everything in the first two thirds of the film made that life, with Tony, in Brooklyn, seem impossibly idyllic. I spent the last twenty minutes of the film muttering under my breath about her choices, or lack thereof.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends. I do recommend the film, and I hope you’ll check it out, and I’m pretty certainly you’ll like it too. It did make for an interesting exercise. Create a non-volitional protagonist, and then put her in a position where she seems almost certain to continue not deciding things, but just allow other folks to make them for her, thus mucking up the rest of her life. We’ll be rooting like crazy for her to finally take charge of her life.

Republicans against Republicans

Lately, I’ve been noticing the most interesting phenomenon; life-long Republicans who are completely fed-up with the current Republican party. Bruce Bartlett, for example. No, that’s not President Bartlet’s brother. Josiah Bartlet’s brother was named Joseph, plus he was a Democrat, and also, you know, fictional. No, Bruce Bartlett is an historian and economist who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He recently endorsed Donald Trump for President, which endorsement, given Bartlet’s policy preferences and personality, seemed a bit surprising. Then, when asked in a recent interview why, said this: “my goal is to try to destroy the Republican party.” He then elaborated:

“I think only when it has reached rock bottom can responsible Republicans once again come back and make it a reasonable governing party. Right now the party is just a coalition of cranks, and racists and bigots and religious kooks. The Tea Party have to be run out of the Party completely. And I think Trump is the vehicle that will allow that to happen. I think if he gets the nomination, and I hope he does, he will go down to a historic defeat. I think the Republican establishment will have no choice but to disown him. I think there will be a very substantial “Republicans for Hillary” effort and I think he will lose disastrously and hopefully bring down a lot of Republican senators and congressmen with him.”

Remember, this isn’t from Bill Maher or someone. This is from an eminence grise of the Republican party. Here’s another one, Lindsey Graham, Senator from South Carolina, who appeared on The Daily Show a month ago.

What’s remarkable about this clip is the thinly disguised contempt Graham has for his party’s presumptive nominee, that nominee’s main opponent, and his party in general, which he calls ‘totally screwed up.’

Charles Koch said on Sunday that he and his brother were strongly considering ‘sitting this one out,’ and not donating money to any of the candidates running for President. GOP voters routinely speak of their party’s candidates as ‘sophomoric,’ and ‘disgusting.’

Of course, a lot of this reflects a general mainstream Republican distaste for Donald J. Trump. His xenophobia, religious bigotry and bullying manner are seen, by power brokers and party insiders, as inconsistent with the kind of gentlemanly politics they were raised with. In other words, I suspect that a lot of the opposition to Trump is more stylistic than substantive. Candidates for President of the United States are expected to comport themselves with some dignity. That’s why the candidacy of John Kasich is so appealing to a lot mainstream Republicans. He’s managed to distance himself from the antics of Trump and Cruz and Rubio and the rest of that sad lot.

But there’s a reason Trump voters are so fervid in their support for him. The American economy has done fairly well over the last seven years, but not for some people; not for blue-collar lower-middle class white folks. Trump seems to get it. He says ‘hey, this economy stinks. Vote for me, and we’ll win again. We’ll have so much winning, you’ll actually get tired of all the winning. The problems we’ve had have been caused by Others, by All Those People. We’ll build a wall between the US and Mexico, and we’ll start trade wars with China, and we’ll keep Muslims out, and if we do those things, Americans will begin to win again.’ And that’s an appealing message.

Now, absolutely nothing in the actual policies Trump seems to favor will accomplish any of that. From a wonkish perspective, his policy proposals are nothing but complete and utter rubbish. None of the numbers add up, and there’s no discernible path to prosperity. By rejecting ‘political correctness,’ Trump seems to suggest that we just need to be ruder to each other, and then we’ll be fine. That’s just silly. And to people like Bruce Bartlett and Lindsey Graham, of course Trump’s success is incomprehensible.

But Trump’s supporters are right too. Mainstream Republican dogma insists, for example, that massive tax cuts pay for themselves, that cutting taxes authomatically stimulates the economy sufficiently to create jobs and prosperity. That wealth trickles down. That insight–supply-side economics–was the focus of Bartlett’s work for Reagan. And it’s nonsense too. This new rebuilt, freshly relevant Republican party Bartlett and Graham imagine needs to be built on something substantive. Supply-side economics is not it.

One of the great under-reported stories in politics right now are those states who took supply-side orthodoxy most seriously, cut taxes, and now are in a world of fiscal hurt. Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida are all in big trouble, right now, thanks to the ideological conservative purity of their governors and legislators. Cutting taxes confers no particular economic benefit to anyone except for the wealthy folks who get the extra cash.

Voters may not understand policy with much sophistication, but they know a political system rigged against them, and they know a bad economy. That’s where Donald Trump’s snake oil finds customers. But it’s not Trump’s fault and it’s not the fault of the voters. It’s the Republican establishment, pursuing foolish policies for ideological reasons. And if the Republicans do re-invent themselves, dumping ideological movement conservatism might be a good place to start.







































































































































How to save Puerto Rico

For the last few weeks, every time I turned on my car radio, I would hear an ad attacking Representative Rob Bishop for supporting what it calls a “radical plan called Super Chapter 9” to allow the U.S. territory bankruptcy protection. It’s a deal, the ad suggests, that would take money from American pension plans, and give it to those profligate, irresponsible Puerto Ricans. “What’s worse is that Congressman Rob Bishop is standing with the Obama administration to support a bailout of Puerto Rico instead of supporting negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors,” the ad concludes.

There’s also a television ad:

These ads are produced by an entity called The Center for Individual Freedom. That’s a political non-profit organization, either a 501 (c) (4) or 501 (c) (6), which is to say, a group that doesn’t have to disclose its funding sources.

Let’s not mince words: every word in these ads are complete nonsense. The ads are lies, in their every detail. Congressman Bishop isn’t pushing for something called “Super Chapter 9” or anything like it. The Congressman chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico and other US territories. The Republican House and President Obama are currently negotiating a way to help Puerto Rico deal with its crisis; Bishop’s the Republican point man in those negotiations. They’re close to a deal, a crucially important, deeply necessary one.

I know that John Oliver is a comedian, not a journalist, but his show last night dealt comprehensively, and as far as my research suggests, accurately, with the real causes of the Puerto Rican collapse. I wish I could link to it. In general, though, I prefer not to link to R-rated material. May I suggest that you look it up. Look up John Oliver Puerto Rico on YouTube.

The fact is, though, Puerto Rico has historically attempted to deal with its debt crisis through the sale of municipal bonds, which have tax-free properties that make them an attractive investment. At least some of the measures that Congress is considering might cost hedge fund investors some money. I can’t prove this, and neither can Oliver, but it doesn’t seem unlikely that this Center for Individual Freedom is funded by hedge funds. They stand to lose some ill-gotten gains, so they put some money into a TV/radio disinformation campaign.

What they’re not is patriotic. There does not exist some coalition of Americans in favor of individual freedom. ‘Individual’ and ‘freedom’ are two words that, when put in the same sentence, sound like something we should all be in favor of. But no. The Center for Individual Freedom was founded by tobacco companies opposed to regulating tobacco. Literally lethal. They’ve morphed. Now they’re in favor of letting Puerto Rican hospitals go under. This is a bad organization that does bad things. And that’s all they are.

In any event, if you live in Utah, you know all about their ads. I suspect that you’re aware of them wherever you live. Just remember; the ads are fundamentally dishonest. Congress and the President are actually working on a bi-partisan plan to help Puerto Rico out. (Repeat: a bi-partisan plan).

And something needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. Puerto Rico can’t keep the lights on. They’re closing schools and hospitals. Four million American citizens are in serious crisis. We can help. It’s a complicated issue, but this is something government can do, and needs to. And Rob Bishop is that rare Congressman, a guy who is trying to do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s maybe something worth supporting as well.


Okay, progressives, liberals, my friends. I speak to those of you feeling the Bern. You’re part of the insurgency, the movement, the revolution. You’re fans of Bernie Sanders. Let’s talk about the upcoming election.

No, not the Presidential election in 2016. The one in 2018. That’s the important one.

To me, the most remarkable, hopeful, positive development in this election has been the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. I love the passion. I love the energy. I love Sanders’ personality, his basic, fundamental integrity. Driving to vote in the Utah caucus, I was so inspired by all the young people waiting patiently in line to vote. I find the whole movement immensely exciting.

It’s probably not going to win Bernie Sanders the Presidential nomination in 2016. In all likelihood, the Democratic candidate for President will be Hillary Clinton. And there are two ways to think about that. One way would be to say ‘the system is rigged. It’s completely corrupt. I give up. Politics is dirty and bad people win, and why even bother trying.’ But as I understand it, that’s actually not the message of Bernie Sanders.

If Bernie Sanders loses the nomination (and he’s likely to), the second way to look at it is to say ‘temporary setback. No big deal. The cause is what matters, and the fight will continue.’

As I understand it, the message of the Bernie Sanders campaign is that Bernie Sanders isn’t what matters. What matters is progressivism. What matters is the idea of using politics to make life better for everyone. What matters is reshaping American society in a more equitable, more fair, more shared direction. If Bernie Sanders were to win the Presidency, that would be one small step in the right direction. But that’s all it would be. If Bernie Sanders doesn’t win the nomination (and he probably won’t), every part of the vision he articulated remains within our grasp. We’ll just have to find a different way to accomplish it. And that’s okay.

I say all this as a supporter of Hillary Clinton. I believe in her commitment to the basic goals of progressivism. I see her as an incrementalist, as a policy wonk. That’s my personality; I believe in small, accumulative changes, based on solid research and reasoning. I’m pretty much a Fabian socialist. But I wouldn’t support her if I didn’t think that her goals were fundamentally compatible with the basic principles of progressive policy.

She’s also going to win. Donald Trump is a dreadful candidate for President of the United States, all bluster and bigotry and ignorance. Most Republicans I know have quietly written this year off.  When she wins, the hard work will begin.

Earthly paradise? The US becomes Norway? Universal health care, free tuition, paid maternity leave? Fifteen bucks an hour minimum wage?

No. Not yet. In a Parliamentary system of government, the winning party or party coalition gets to impose its agenda. In the US, we have checks and balances. It’s harder to pass legislation, intentionally. That’s why the United States is more conservative then Europe. Any President has to get his program through not one, but two chambers of Congress. And that’s hard to do. Ask President Obama.

In fact, the Obama Presidency provides a template that we really want to avoid. A two year honeymoon (during which time he was also trying to dig the US out of the rubble of the biggest economic collapse since 1929), then, in 2010, a catastrophic low-turn-out midterm election, followed by six years of obstruction and stultifying deadlock. Not President Obama’s fault. If you didn’t vote in 2010, it’s your fault. Own it.

Here’s Samantha Bee on 2010. (Warning: some language and disturbing, in fact disgusting, images).

Whenever I hear young progressives say ‘there’s no difference between the two American political parties. They’re both corrupt. They’re both controlled by corporate interests’ I want to throw up my hands in despair. I’m perfectly aware of the shortcomings and hypocrisies and compromises and corruption within the Democratic party. Of course it’s a deeply flawed vehicle for progressive social change. Obviously that’s true. So what? It’s what we have.

Is it possible that you haven’t noticed that the other party, the Republican Party, defines itself in terms of a conservative ideology that is fundamentally opposed to progressivism? Have you watched any of the Republican debates? You are aware, aren’t you, that when Republicans talk about a ‘pro-growth’ economic plan, they mean cutting taxes for rich people? That that’s their solution for everything?

Are you aware that at the heart of conservatism is ‘limited government?’ And that the heart of progressivism is ‘use the powers of government for good?’ I have many conservative friends, good people. But we don’t, fundamentally, agree.

Do you want to get good things done? Do you want to actually make the United States of America a progressive paradise?  Then you have to work. You have to work with Congress, with the Constitution, and above all, with the Democratic party.

And above all, you have to vote, and you have to organize, and you have to get your friends to vote, and you have to quietly, gently persuade the more skeptical among you.

It’s what conservatives are great at. Give them props; Republicans are amazingly good at networking, at grass roots organizing, at finding fellow conservatives and working together to get things done. We should study them, and learn from them.

But if, in what will be the most important, most consequential election of your lifetime, in 2018, it turns out that only 12% of young people vote, then everything Bernie Sanders stands for will have failed. All that passion, all that energy, all that excitement, all for naught. That will be the test. Will we fail? Again?

The Jungle Book: Movie Review

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In fact, I loved both Jungle Book story collections. When I was eleven, Disney’s animated Jungle Book movie came out, and I remember my reaction: ‘not as good as the books.’ Even as a child, I understood what ‘the Disney’ version of something meant: sugary sweet, and off-puttingly comedic. I remember being particularly turned off by Baloo, who went from Mowgli’s brave and wise teacher to a bumbling goofball. Still, I only had to sit through the movie once, and afterwards, I still had the books.

So when I saw the trailers for the new Disney Jungle Book, I was genuinely thrilled. Through the miracle of CGI, we had a jungle that looked like a jungle, a tiger that looked like a tiger, all surrounding a single human child actor. It looked fantastic. And I hoped, desperately hoped, that the story would return to the Kipling source. That this would be an unforgettable Jungle Book.

It’s not. It looks great. The voice actors were superbly cast, and the animal characters’ CGI popped. The action sequences, if too frequent, were at least genuinely exciting, and the jungle locations were superbly rendered. The child actor, Neel Sethi, was suitably intrepid as Mowgli, and the biggest threats to him, the tiger Shere Kahn and the snake, Kaa, were both terrifying creations. I especially appreciated how smoothly the movie handled the transitions between animal characters talking anthropomorphically and then, those same animals growling and howling and snarling.

It’s still disappointing. The images compel; the story does not. It’s just another Disney bowlderization of a classic tale. And it got worse the longer the movie went, finishing with an ending that was just a complete mess.

In fact, I found the film all the more disappointing precisely because it looks so great. For the first third of the movie, the images distract us from the weakness of the storytelling. And then Baloo shows up (wonderfully voiced by Bill Murray, to be fair), and sings “Bare Necessities” and I threw up my hands. It wasn’t going to be special after all. It really was just going to be a remake of a mediocre late-60s Disney exercise in cultural appropriation. It looks so terrific, I expected more. All I got was ‘Bare Necessities’ and King Louie (Christopher Walken voicing that annoying monkey like a half-Mafiosa/half-African warlord).

The turning point, I think, is Kaa. Scarlett Johansson gives every sibilant full value, creating a mock-sympathetic, utterly hypnotic python sociopath. Kaa’s only in one scene, but it’s terrifying and creepy and fun in equal measure. That scene, with Mowgli in Kaa’s clutches, was the high point of the movie. And then Baloo showed up and sings that dumb song, and the movie went straight to heck. Nothing after the Kaa scene really worked at all.

And it could have. With that cast, and that technological magic, and that director, and that story, this could have been lovely. I wanted it to be lovely. I cheered when it was lovely. And then the studio . . . stopped trusting the material. And it turned into just another movie. Basic Disney template.

I’m being too harsh, I think. My wife and I showed up way early, and saw at least ten trailers for other movies, all of them kids’ movies. And they all looked dopey and bad. There’s an Angry Birds movie for example that, based on the trailer, I would sooner face the electric chair than sit through. There’s a Robinson Caruso thing, told from the perspective of the animals on his island. Stunts and falls and fart jokes. Jungle Book, of course, also has anthropomorphic animals. But, as weak as I found it, it’s still way better than the movies with which it seems to be competing. That’s worth remembering.

But that doesn’t make The Jungle Book any less disappointing. It’s a movie that does some things so spectacularly well, it’s all the more discouraging that all that beauty, all that skill, is in the service of a story that’s so pedestrian. Especially since the original tale, the one Kipling wrote (probably for his dying six-year old daughter), is so magical and wise and good. What a shame.

BYU, the Honor Code, and Sexual Assault

On April 7, at a Rape Awareness event on the BYU campus, it was revealed that women who report having been sexually assaulted may be reported to the Honor Code office. Turns out this wasn’t hypothetical. A nineteen-year old student from California had been raped, and had been contacted by a representative from the Honor Code office about a possible violation. A sheriff’s deputy had inappropriately given a copy of the case file to university officials. The young woman had refused to cooperate with the subsequent University investigation, and had been blocked from registering for classes. As a result, she was considering returning home to California. Utah County prosecutors have expressed their frustration over the case, because her absence from Provo might complicate their investigation into the alleged attack.

Of course, BYU does not regard being raped as a violation of the Honor Code. The point of an Honor Code investigation is to discover ancillary HC violations. Was she out past curfew? Was she alone with a man in her apartment? That kind of thing. However, it seems obvious that pursuing that kind of investigation could have a chilling effect on women reporting an assault. If a woman is raped, and knows that reporting that rape might result in university disciplinary action, she’s going to be less likely to report it. I don’t doubt that ‘fewer women reporting being attacked’ is an unintended consequence of this policy. It’s still a consequence.

And it seems just as obvious that this policy would really only apply to sexual attacks. If a woman is raped, she is the victim of a violent crime. Let’s suppose that a man was violently attacked. Let’s suppose that someone beat him up, for example. Would the Honor Code office get involved? Would they ask if he’d been somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, dressed inappropriately? In general, we would say that any victim of any violent crime should be encouraged to report that crime, and we would hope that the police would investigate the crime, with an eye to arresting its perpetrator. And in all such instances, if the victim of the crime was a BYU student, there’s really no appropriate role for the Honor Code office.

And so, ever since we learned of this policy, there’s been a lot of outrage about it. I share that outrage. 30,000 people have signed a petition asking BYU to ‘stop punishing victims of sexual assault.’ I agree with the goals of that petition. BYU seems to be straining at the gnat of minor HC violations, while swallowing the camel of serious violent crimes. I also think it’s very unlikely that those policies will change. This is, after all, BYU we’re talking about.

Let me clarify. I taught at BYU for over twenty years. They were joyful years. I loved the students I was able to teach, loved the colleagues I worked with, loved experiences I had there. I also found BYU administrators could be, at times, difficult to work with. I rather suspect that faculty across the country would say the same about the university administrations at their schools. BYU administrators don’t like being challenged.

As a faculty member, I was particularly troubled by the dress and grooming standards of the Honor Code. As a male faculty member, it seemed to me that the language of the dress and grooming standard unnecessarily and inappropriately sexualized the young women in our classes and at the university. I was told, on occasion, that it was my responsibility as a faculty member, to ‘enforce’ those standards. This meant that I was to scrutinize the clothing choices of our students, to determine if clothing was ‘form-fitting’ or ‘revealing.’

I do not know, did not know, and never cared to know what any of that meant. Those terms strike me as quite subjective. And for me to determine if a young woman was wearing an outfit that was ‘revealing’ would require me, as a male faculty member, to view her as something beyond simply as a student.

I decided early on that I wouldn’t do it. I opted out. My informal interactions with colleagues suggest that pretty much everyone opted out. It was my job to teach. It was not any part of my job to judge how people chose to dress. Or how they cut their hair, or how many earrings they wore, or if they chose to express their individuality through tattoos. I wasn’t going to worry about any of it. I taught my classes, and I made myself available for office consultations, and I wrote letters of recommendation when asked, and I made lifelong friends. I never once turned anyone in for anything.

Except that’s not entirely true. I did turn students in to the Honor Code office, twice. Once, it was a student who openly, obviously and egregiously cheated on a paper. Plagiarized. And, when I asked him to meet with me about it, was so dismissive, so contemptuous, and so obnoxious about it I felt that I needed to do something about him. He was a kid with a problem and an attitude, and I thought the Honor Code office handled his situation with a mix of sensitivity and firmness that, in my mind, was kind of the Platonic ideal for dealing with rude and dishonest students. So that was one. The second time I turned someone in, it was a stalker situation. A student asked me what she should do; she didn’t want to call the cops, but she also wanted this guy to leave her alone. Again, the Honor Code office handled the situation well.

So it sounds like I’m defending the Honor Code office. In a way, I am. I only interacted with that office twice, and both experiences worked out well. I heard anecdotally of students whose interactions with the HCO were less positive. The operative verb would be ‘hassled.’ ‘I’m being hassled by the Honor Code folks.’ That’s a shame. I think monitoring whether students wear their hair too long, or their skirts too short is silly. I do think that it’s helpful to have an office you can turn to when students cheat on exams or harm other students.

The fact is, almost every university has a code of personal conduct to which students are expected to conform. And almost every university in the country struggles to deal with the national scourge of sexual assault. President Obama’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault has listed 124 institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law regarding sexual violence cases. This is an important national issue. BYU is not alone in sometimes handling it badly.

Without becoming a BYU apologist, I do think that this situation is complicated in ways that have not been recognized in the public discourse over it. I agree, of course, that preventing campus rape should be a goal towards which every university should strive. One way to accomplish that is it to remove all possible barriers discouraging victims of sexual violence to come forward. This BYU policy creates such a barrier. The policy really does, therefore, need to change.

But there are ways in which the Honor Code could also help solve the problem. Since the code already prohibits ‘obscene or indecent conduct or expressions,’ then grossly sexist expressions would also seem to be prohibited. ‘Red Pill’ or ‘Gamergate’ attitudes towards women are already incompatible with the standards of the Church. As, of course, is rape itself. There are surely more positive steps that BYU can take. Call me naive, but in my experience, the will to take them largely already exists.

Truth: Movie Review

This movie flew under my radar. I saw it on my Netflix DVD queue, thought I’d give it a whirl, despite the fact that it was basically a flop. And I understand why it flopped. It deals with a news story from 2004, one that I think the American public never understood all that well, and has basically stopped caring about. That issue is now called “The Killian documents scandal,” an inelegant sobriquet. And although the film deals with that scandal intelligently and with conviction, and explains everything pretty clearly, it also has a discernible point of view which it hopes we’ll agree with at the end. I did. So did my wife. Not sure how much it matters.

In the fall of 2004, Mary Mapes (beautifully played here by Cate Blanchett), a producer with CBS News, again picked up the thread of a news story she had been looking at in 2000. It had to do with the military service of George W. Bush with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. Together with a retired Marine Lt. Colonel, Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and two reporters, Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mapes tracked down those few documents regarding the President’s service that the Bush camp was able to produce.

Mapes was one of Dan Rather’s (Robert Redford’s) producers. In the news business, the producer writes the story, works with the on-air talent to conduct the interviews, and edits what airs. Mapes was convinced that Bush had essentially been AWOL for a substantial part of his military commitment, and that his superiors hadn’t pursued it, because Bush was the son of a Congressman. She also believed that highly placed Texas politicians had pulled strings to get Bush a cushy National Guard assignment. Most of the other National Guard recruits were, like Bush, sons of political power brokers; also in the Guard were several star players for the Dallas Cowboys football team. Some National Guard companies did serve with distinction in Vietnam. But the Texas Air National Guard never did serve overseas, and was unlikely ever to have done so. It was a cozy sinecure. And the film does a nice job of explaining all that.

While working on the story, Mapes came into the possession of photocopies of a number of memos written by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, since deceased. Killian was Bush’s commanding officer during his Guard service. They were given to her by an elderly retired military officer named Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach). Because they were photocopies, and because the language of the memos suggested a familiarity with the period and with military protocols from the early 70s, Mapes decided to use them. She did send them to four separate document authenticators, two of whom declared them authentic, and two of whom said they couldn’t without seeing the originals. The documents made up a small part of the overall story, and Mapes used them without hesitation.

After the story aired on Sixty Minutes, however, a number of bloggers with an expertise in the documents field questioned the documents’ authenticity. Many people suggested that the Killian documents were the clumsiest of forgeries, using proportional spacing, a feature not generally available on typewriters in 1972. The documents, they said, had probably been created on Microsoft Word. Eventually, the Killian documents, which were not really an important part of the original news story, dominated coverage of it. Eventually, Mapes was asked to resign, along with several other CBS News employees. Including, of course, Dan Rather.

This movie argues, with great clarity and passion, that the documents could have been genuine, and that the larger story, about the President’s military service, had been ignored. To the extent that anyone today cares about the Killian documents, I think it’s fair to say that the consensus opinion is that the documents were forgeries. Burkett admitted to having lied to Mapes about where he obtained them (a painful scene, with Keach splendidly elderly and humiliated).

What I suspect is that the only people who really care about this are hard-core conservatives, who see it as confirming the ‘liberal-media-out-to-get-conservatives’ narrative. I think that most folks have forgotten this was ever a thing. If we see Dan Rather on Rachel Maddow’s show, we may remember ‘wasn’t there a controversy involving him?’ And when we saw that there was a film about ‘the Dan Rather thing,’ we gave it a pass.

I liked it better than that. Not that everything in the movie works. There’s an awkward, earnest scene late in the film in which Topher Grace (who’s great in this) gives a speech outlining a conspiracy theory in which Viacom (in need of legislative support), pressured CBS to fire Mapes and Rather. That’s all possible, of course. Likewise, the chance that, upon seeing the 60 Minutes piece, that Karl Rove orchestrated a campaign to discredit the one part of the story that could most effectively be discredited, the documents. (Karl Rove! Surely not!).

In the TV miniseries, The People vs. OJ Simpson, which my daughter and I have been watching, there’s a scene where Sarah Paulson, playing Marcia Clark (the main OJ prosecutor) goes into a bar and is challenged by one patron, who says ‘the police framed OJ.’ Clark goes ‘okay, let’s talk about that,’ and then goes through all the evidence to show exactly the convolutions the cops would have had to go through to frame OJ, just how extraordinarily baroque that theory is. And the bar patrons just sit there, astonished and persuaded. There’s a similar scene in Truth, in which Mapes demonstrates just how far-fetched the idea of creating a forgery was.  I found it similarly convincing. But I cared a lot less.

And that’s weird. The one show is about a murder trial; the stakes high enough for the families of the victims, but the whole thing didn’t really affect us at all. And the situation in Truth involves the election of a President, a much more consequential thing. But I cared about the OJ scene a lot more than I cared about the analogous scene involving Bush’s military service. The one feels like political/historical esoterica. The other feels more personal. Same scene, different impact.

Bush is gone, out of office. We’re in a new political season, a much stranger one. Watch Truth, then watch the news. It’ll shock you how much things have changed. And how very little.


Drive and dish. Spacing. Block out on rebounds. Screen. Swing the ball around the perimeter, find the open teammate. Communicate on defense. Switch. Basketball, like soccer, is a team sport in the best sense of the word. It’s five guys working together, using their imagination and creativity and discipline to create magic. It’s a game where each player knows his role, and executes. It can be beautiful to watch, as pretty and inspiring as any sport can be when played at the very top level.

And last night, the Golden State Warriors finished a season in which they became the greatest team in the history of basketball.

One might quibble with that assessment. Perhaps some of the US Men’s Olympic teams, collections of superstars and Hall of Famers, might disagree. And the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls won 72 games, lost only 10. They had two Hall of Famers–Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen–and current US ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman. They were a brilliant, intense, brutally competitive team.

The Warriors, last night, won their 73rd game.

(There is one odd connection between that Bulls team and this Warriors team. Steve Kerr started at guard for the Bulls. He’s also the Warriors head coach).

Michael Jordan’s Bulls were reflections of his ferocious intensity. LaBron James’ Miami teams were a bit like that; fierceness and fury. That’s not the Warriors. They play a different kind of basketball, more graceful, somehow, more balletic. They can take your breath away, with ball movement and athleticism.

They’re also a reflection of their star, Stephen Curry. And Curry just isn’t like most other players. He’s thin, fairly short, not imposingly muscled. But the ball is a yo-yo in his hands, his control of it absolute. His footwork isn’t just perfectly disciplined, it displays an imagination and creativity unlike that of any other player. And he can shoot like no one ever before in basketball history.

The player in basketball history that Curry reminds me of most is The Pistol; Pete Maravich. Maravich had Curry’s insouciance, his deceptive cool. And Maravich was a marvelous ball handler and passer. And while Maravich was a wonderful shooter, Curry’s better. Demonstrably better, 40% better; statistically, Curry’s on another planet altogether from anyone who has ever played the game. The all-time record for most three-point baskets made in a season was 286, by Curry, last year. This year, Curry hit 402. And Maravich couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play defense. Curry’s a pest on defense, a ball hawking vexation.

But the Warriors are more than just one superstar. The first, second and fourth greatest seasons by three-point shooters are all by Stephen Curry. The third greatest season was by Klay Thompson, Curry’s teammate. An excellent shooting percentage for three pointers is around 35%. That’s a terrific season, by a great shooter. Curry was at 45%, which is absurd. But here’s what’s really absurd: Curry had 8 teammates that shot over 35% from three point range.

Aside from Curry, here’s who else is on the team. Shaun Livingston was one of the most promising young talents in the game, until 2007, when he suffered a knee injury so severe that the doctors’ initial assessment was that the only option was amputation. Thank heavens, that didn’t turn out to be necessary, but it still took him two years to rehabilitate the knee. Only now is he playing close to the high level that was once predicted for him.

That’s one guy. Andre Iguodala was, for eight years, the best player on a dreadful Philadelphia 76ers team. He signed with Golden State because he was tired of losing. Marreese Speights was a college star, a big guy who can shoot, who was Iguodala’s teammate at Philadelphia. Leondro Barbosa is from Brazil, a quick guard who has bounced from team to team in the NBA. Brandon Rush was a big college star who blew his knee out, and bounced from Portland to Indiana before ending up in Golden State.

Good players, right? You can see why the Warriors like them. Now, here’s the thing; that’s the Warriors’ bench. Those guys are their reserves. Barbosa is Curry’s backup.

Klay Thompson is the second best shooter in basketball history. Draymond Green is a human swiss army knife; does everything. He is the team’s best rebounder, best passer, best defensive player, and second best ball handler (after Curry). He’s also a terrific three-point shooter, when that’s needed. Andrew Bogut is an Australian center who starred at the University of Utah. A rugged rebounder and shot blocker who, as it happens, is also a marvelous passer. And Harrison Barnes is a young guy who would be a star for any other team in basketball, a 6’10 super athlete who can also shoot.

It’s a joyful thing to me, to see players this good mesh and blend their games so superbly. They’re fun to root for; easy to root for. Agreeable guys who are also wonderful basketball players.

I’ve been a basketball fan all my life. Heck, I’m a sports nut, and I’m from Indiana; of course, I love basketball. And I have no particular reason to root for a basketball team from Oakland. But I have gotten as much pure joy from watching this marvelous team play basketball than anything else I have done or seen or been part of. I’m so grateful to be alive to see them.


Eye in the Sky: Movie Review

Eye in the Sky is a beautifully calibrated, superbly acted, morally compelling and thoughtful film that also couldn’t possibly be more relevant to the contemporary world. As such, sadly, it also became kind of a box office flop. Still, it’s a terrific movie, and one I wholeheartedly recommend.

Helen Mirren plays a British military officer, Colonel Katherine Powell, tasked with monitoring an Islamist terrorist group operating out of Kenya and Somalia. As the film begins, she’s planned an joint op with the US and Kenyan military to capture the 2nd, 3rd and 5th most wanted East African terrorists. One of them, it turns out, is a British national, Susan Danford, now known as Ayesha Al Hadi. A radicalized American is also in her group. The Brits have intel about a meeting of these terrorist leaders, and the Kenyan military stands by for a raid and capture. American drones watch from above. But the intel is faulty, and the drones are unable to confirm the identities of all the targets. The bad guys pile into a van, and drive through the streets of Nairobi to a much more secure location, a house in an area heavily patrolled by armed militias. Powell has to call off the Kenyan operation. However, a Somali agent (Barkhad Abdi, as good in this as he was in Captain Phillips) is able to infiltrate a market close to the terrorist house, and send in this freaky little tiny insect-size drone, which gets into the house, confirms the targets. And then the drone camera captures, in another room, a chilling image; suicide vests and packets of C-4. And Powell realizes that a suicide bomb attack may well be imminent.

The story cuts between several locations. One is the tiny op center for the drone, where the pilot, Steve Watts (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) awaits orders. Another is a conference room, where General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in his last film) is joined by two cabinet ministers, ready to observe the operation, and approve or deny any change in plans. Another is the market place in Kenya, where a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), plays with a hula hoop her father made for her, and also goes into the market to sell the bread her mother bakes. And her sales table is right next to the wall of the terrorist’s house.

Powell is certain that the terrorists are planning a suicide bombing. Since capturing them is no longer possible, she believes a drone strike is justified. But Watts, the American pilot, can see, in his cameras, this child next to the strike site. He insists on another collateral damage assessment. Powell is furious, but agrees. And the British cabinet ministers will not approve the attack. They insist on getting authorization from the British foreign minister. And meanwhile, of course, they all can see images from the teeny bug drone inside the house. They can see two young men donning suicide vests, those vests loaded with explosives, the explosives wired together, the men making their farewell propaganda videos. The clock is ticking, and Powell is desperate to authorize a kill order.

Meanwhile, their Somali agent continually risks his life for the girl, offering to purchase all her bread. But the little girl just goes back to her table and sells some more.

When we think of drone warfare, we tend to think of it as antiseptic. Clean strikes, from long distance. We also tend to think of it as fairly dispassionate. Intel provides a target, and our drones take out bad guys. Boom. This film reminds us that human beings operate those astonishing weapons, that those people have feelings and consciences and scruples. Aaron Paul is extraordinary, playing an ordinary soldier desperate somehow to obey his orders, but also keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Desperate to save the life of a child.

But Mirren and Rickman are no less remarkable, playing career soldiers who see an opportunity to strike a crippling blow against a vicious enemy. Powell and Benson know how terrorist groups operate. They believe that the people they can see donning suicide vests plan to launch an immediate attack on civilian targets. By risking the death of this one child, they may save dozens of civilian lives, including the lives of other children. Meanwhile, the politicians in Benson’s conference room have to weigh the propaganda costs. Possibly saving 80 civilians may damage the hearts-and-minds war, if the cost is a single child.

As we left the theater, my wife and I were both pretty shaken by the film, and my wife commented that she could see, and even agree with, the perspectives of every single character, even when those characters passionately disagreed. I thought so too. It’s a film in which each character represents a point of view, in addition to being an interesting character in his or her own right.

I especially loved Mirren’s performance, even at times when she seemed a bit off-puttingly bloodthirsty. Because, as Rickman’s character says at the end of the film, (probably the last line spoken by Alan Rickman on camera), “never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” That cost is front and center in Eye in the Sky.

And that’s part of what makes it such an important film. Children die in the war on terror. And sometimes, we’re the ones who kill them. Is it worth it? I love the way that this film does not provide a comforting answer to that disturbing question.