Monthly Archives: September 2016

The first debate: Trump v. Clinton

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump held their first debate last night, moderated by Lester Holt. Holt did a fine job; fact-checking when it was needed, otherwise allowing both candidates to state their case for why they should be President.

And when they actually started debating, Hillary obliterated Trump. She blew him off the map.

Early on, on the subject of free trade, Trump did well. Trade deals like NAFTA are bad for American manufacturing; he gets that, and articulates it well. That’s most of his candidacy–‘our economy struggles because trade deals favor Mexico and China.’ That’s bonkers, but it’s simple, easy to memorize, and plays for American nativists. And Hillary Clinton has a tough time there. Her instincts are pro-free trade, and she generally supports trade deals. (And should; they’re ultimately beneficial). But the costs of free trade are obvious; the benefits are subtler, and more difficult to explain. Rather than go through a long, abstruse explanation of the ways NAFTA really was good for America, she could only really pivot to her basic economic message. He drew blood on trade, and it showed; for a moment, Trump seemed to be winning.

That was twenty minutes in. For the rest of the debate, she blew him out of the water. She kept Trump off-balance. She adroitly kept the conversation limited to her issues, not his. (He said nothing about immigration, for example, nothing about that doggone wall). She raised serious questions about his finances, which clearly angered him, and kept the heat on. In the meantime, she also managed to demonstrate her grasp on policy, with solid answers on foreign policy, Iran, Isis, and the economy. He kept interrupting her, she kept smiling, and refused to be derailed.

As I watched, I realized that each of them was trying to articulate a specific narrative for the other one, and that their successes and failures throughout the debate depended on how successfully they managed to sell those narratives.

Here’s Hillary Clinton’s narrative: Trump is woefully unprepared to be President. He’s not a politician; his resume is as a businessman. He’s not a good businessman, though. He’s a businessman who stiffs subcontractors. He has repeatedly filed for bankruptcy. His first job in business involved a scheme to discriminate against minority homeowners. (His answer seemed to be that we should all be applauding him for building a non-discriminating resort. What?) It’s not just that big business and politics are very different arenas. He’s quite specifically the kind of businessman who is unlikely to be a good President. She takes his main qualification for the Presidency, and turns it into a liability.

Here’s Trump’s narrative: Hillary Clinton is a typical politician. She’s all talk, no action. She’s been thinking about these important issues her entire adult life, but to what end? What has she actually accomplished? Our political system is broken anyway, and it’s broken because of politicians like Hillary Clinton. She has these terrible and costly ideas, which cost tons of money and end up not working. Or, her occasional good ideas never seem to get implemented. She had her chance–on trade, in the Middle East–and blew it. She epitomizes how broken American politics has become. She’s not just a politician, she’s specifically the kind of politician unlikely to be a good President. He takes her main qualification for the Presidency, and turns it into a liability.

That’s what they’re both trying to accomplish. And last night, I thought she did a better job of selling her narrative. She got lucky in one sense. I could hardly believe it, but last night, in a debate featuring Hillary Clinton, there was no mention of Benghazi, no mention of Whitewater, no mention of the Clinton Foundation, and only one question about her emails, which she dismisssed briskly. In the biggest missed opportunity of the night, Trump was asked about the threat to American cyber-security posed by hackers, and did not pivot immediately to her email server, as I expected him to. Instead, we got this completely incoherent word salad, all about which police unions have endorsed him, and how the DNC hack might have been done by foreign actors, or by some 400 lb. guy in his bed, and wasn’t it cool to read all those hacked emails anyway?

So Trump wasn’t particularly swift afoot, and Clinton kept the pressure on, and by the end, Trump sounded pathetic, shouting that he did too have the best temperment. Still, there will be three more debates, two involving these two and one more with their Vice-Presidential picks. (That could get interesting: Mike Pence is dumb as a brick). But watch the two narratives. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each have a story they’re selling. And the one who sells theirs best will likely become President of the United States.


Don’t Breathe: Movie Review

A blind person, in danger, under attack from a ruthless assailant, but in his/her own home, where he/she has the advantage. It’s Wait Until Dark, basically, which only happens to be one of the great suspenseful plays, and which became a darned good suspense film. So what if you turned that story on its head? What if you made the blind person the bad guy?

Such is the challenge Don’t Breathe presents us. Three would-be thieves break into the home of an older blind man, a veteran. The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) has also lost his daughter in a terrible accident. He received a substantial cash settlement afterwards; the thieves think there’s a chance that cash from that settlement may be somewhere in his house. They break in in the middle of the night, assuming the Blind Man will be asleep. He wakes up, and fights back. That’s the premise for the movie. And we’re supposed to root for the thieves? Aren’t they pretty deplorable? There’s no way.

Yet Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, making just his second feature film (the first being the 2013 remake of Evil Dead) has made a devilishly clever thriller, every part of which works beautifully. It shouldn’t work, but it does. We root for the thieves. We root against the Blind Man.

A lot of it, of course, has to do with the actors. Suburgatory‘s Jane Levy plays Rocky, our heroine. She’s a thief for selfless reasons; she’s desperate to make enough money to get her and her younger sister out of the crummy apartment where her alcoholic mother and her abusive boyfriend preside. And that helps sell the premise; we like Rocky, we want her succeed. Rocky’s boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto) is an obnoxious jerk, and sort of the ringleader of the three of them; the movie only works if he’s out of the picture early, and so he’s the first thief taken out by The Blind Man. And Alex (Dylan Minnette), is the nice guy, with a crush on Rocky, the locks and security systems expert. So a lot of the movie involves The Blind Man hunting these two likable kids up and down the stairs and corridors of these terrific old house.

I won’t give any more it away. There are twists and turns galore, including a shocking moment when the three thieves are joined by a fourth would-be victim of The Blind Man. And it’s not just the kids against the Blind Man; he has an ally, in a thoroughly terrifying dog.

The result is a genuinely scary and exciting movie. Lots of surprises, beautifully timed scenes building suspense, shocks and thrills and people (and dogs) jumping out at us. There’s not much else going on, I have to say. It’s just a really well made scary movie. But if you like those, this is a good one.

Cops, politics, and race

I got pulled over by the police yesterday. I totally deserved it. In Utah, if you’re driving in the furthest right lane, and you see, on the right shoulder, a traffic stop, you are obligated to move over a lane, so as to not endanger a cop or fellow motorist. I didn’t know that was the law, but I had plenty of room to move over, and it’s a sensible thing to do, distance yourself from a potential problem. One of the many factors that make policing dangerous is the hazard posed by traffic. Anyway, my interaction with the officer was cordially non-confrontational. He let me go with a warning, which was nice of him, but if he had cited me, I did break the law, and had no grounds to be obnoxious about it. Patience and courtesy prevailed.

That has been the case every time I have interacted with police. It doesn’t happen often. I’ve gotten maybe 3 tickets in my life, plus been involved in perhaps 3 or 4 minor traffic accidents investigated by cops. I wouldn’t say things ever got confrontational or even adversarial. I’m treated politely–I’ve responded politely. But then, I’m white. I’m a middle-aged white guy. I’m very large, but still–I don’t seem to be ever perceived as any kind of threat.

That’s not true of Black people. In Tulsa Oklahoma, recently, an unarmed 40 year-old African-American motorist named Terence Crutcher was gunned down by a police officer as he stood, with his arms up, next to his car, which had broken down. The next day, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Keith Scott, a 43 year-old African American man, who suffered from a brain injury, was shot and killed by police outside his home. Scott’s family insists that he was sitting in the shade by his car, reading a book, waiting for his son to get home from school. A video shot by his wife has been released. It does not, however, answer the key question in the case. Was he armed? The family insists that he was not. The police have refused to release their video of the incident, which suggests, at least, that it wouldn’t appear exculpatory.

So, twice more. Two more incidents of Black men killed by the police. In the case of Crutcher, he was not armed. (Why, then, did a police helicopter observer declare that Crutcher was “a bad dude?” From the helicopter footage, the only thing you can see about Crutcher is that he was Black. Does that automatically make him “bad” in the eyes of the police). In the case of Scott, it’s uncertain whether he was armed or not.

In both cities, there were demonstrations, and in Charlotte, those demonstrations turned violent. Despite calls for peaceful protests from, among others, Black Lives Matter leaders, some folks responded by rioting. Sixteen police officers have been injured. Those riots seem now to have calmed down.

Still, the whole thing’s dreadful. And, of course, because this is America, it’s all gotten politicized. A young blonde woman named Tomi Lahren, who I literally had never heard of until this morning, has 60 million viewers on Facebook for rants like this one:

What an awful person. Meanwhile, Seattle Mariners’ back-up catcher Steve Clevenger enlightened us with his views on these shootings, posted on Twitter:

Black people beating whites when a thug got shot holding a gun by a black officer ha ha cracks me up. Keep kneeling for the anthem.

(Later) BLM is pathetic once again! Obama, you are pathetic once again! Everyone involved should be locked behind bars like animals.

Clevenger has been suspended by the Mariners organization for the rest of the season, without pay.

Meanwhile, on my personal Facebook page, Black Lives Matter was compared to the Ku Klux Klan, as part of an, uh, lively conversation on these matters. And President Obama was accused of ‘fanning the flames’ of racial unrest and strife.

All right. Let’s begin by trying to understand. The narrative on the Right would begin in an unexceptionable place; we should all respect police officers. We should recognize how dangerous and how essential their jobs are, and we should stand by their efforts to keep public order. I completely agree with all of that.

At the same time, we need to recognize that police make mistakes, like all humans, and when someone dies, there should be a reckoning. What infuriates people about these moments when unarmed people are killed, is that the officers in the case are rarely held accountable. The officer in the Tulsa case has been criminally charged, with manslaughter. That’s good. But far too often, no charges are even filed. And the relationship between police and prosecutors is hardly adversarial. It can feel awfully cozy, the way prosecutors present cases to grand juries, the way police shootings are investigated, the whole comfortable relationship between the various entities in the criminal justice system.

We’re talking about power, and who has it, and who wields it, and to what end. During the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s, police were the bad guys. Übervillain of the entire Birmingham protest was Bull Connor, chief of police. Police exist to preserve public order, but ‘public order’ is defined by the political power structure. Me, I’m very much in favor of public order; what scares me is anarchy. But I’m white. I’m automatically empowered. I’m generally seen as a ‘good guy’. I look like one. White privilege favors me. Even in situations, like yesterday, when I commit a minor traffic violation. Slap on the hand; don’t do it again.

I’m saying, in part, that ‘public order’ is often defined by the white power structure in ways that harm Black people. I’m saying that police officers have an exceptionally difficult job, and are deserving of our respect, and simultaneously that too many unarmed people seem to be dying. It’s possible to support police, and express concern about how well they’re trained. It’s possible to support the police, and still wonder about the degree to which racism remains part of police culture.

This is why Black Lives Matter is so very very important, and so right. Black people are not generally, routinely, automatically, presumptively thought of as mattering. With very few exceptions, African-Americans are NOT part of the power structure. My Black friends are, without exception, successful. They’re middle-class, educated, employed, good at their jobs. But when they’re pulled over by cops, they experience fear at a level that I can’t comprehend. They are, to at least some degree, Other, in a white society. And I am privileged, and know it. I don’t fear cops. People of color do, and for good reason.

That’s the insidious way in which racism works. And, yes, of course racism still exists, and still, in part, defines Black/White relationships. We’re not talking segregated rest rooms (though, incredibly, throughout much of the nation, we ARE still talking about segregated schools). We’re talking about how Black Americans get pulled over by traffic cops 31% more often than white drivers are. How New York City’s contemptible and unconstitutional ‘stop and frisk’ policing (which Mr. Trump wants to revive and extend), focused almost entirely on people of color. And the shocking fact that a significant number of Black drivers, pulled over by police, aren’t ever told why.

So when a Bill O’Reilly points to black-on-black crime statistics, or suggests that if ‘those people’ lived in more stable families things would be fine, putting the blame on African-Americans themselves, he just comes across as foolish and ignorant. Our country, in dealing with the issue of race, took shortcuts. We went from overt displays of racial prejudice to pretending that everything was swell, and that no one harbored those feelings anymore.  We didn’t evolve, but leapt, from ingrained systemic obvious racism to more subtle and quieter forms of it.

One problem, of course, is our nation’s failed war on drugs, which turns a public health problem into a criminal disaster. Another is educational apartheid, nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board. Another is mass incarceration. President Obama has made some small progress during his eight years in office. Now, with Trump, we’re seeing the backlash. But we have to solve this, especially since we’re increasingly becoming a multi-cultural society.

Our first and most obvious beginning requires that we listen to Black Lives Matter. Because they do.


London Has Fallen: reviewing an interestingly terrible movie, with comment on the political implications thereof

For some reason, movies in which the President of the United States finds himself alone in a hostile environment, with one protector, surrounded by terrorists, turn out to be terrible. Like, for example, the movie we’re going to talk about today, kids: London Has Fallen. It is kaka poo-poo bad. It’s also not entirely uninteresting, and may be even, like, historic. Plus, it helps explain Donald Trump. Let me unpack.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Big Game, a Finnish film with President Samuel L. Jackson, protected by a Finnish kid. It was one of those movies that was so bad it was kind of fun. London Has Fallen is just as bad–more technically proficient, much stupider story. Aaron Eckhart plays President Benjamin Asher, who barely survived the last terrorist attack, on the White House, in the inexplicably popular Olympus Has Fallen, to which this movie is the sequel. As in Olympus, POTUS is guarded by Secret Service Superman, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Banning is also married, and his wife (Radha Mitchell) is pregnant. So it has Family Values, see?

Anyway, the Prime Minister of England dies, and President Asher has to go to the funeral, along with many many other World Leaders, and Banning is in charge of, and worried about, security. So are the Brits, of course, and we get lots of tense conference room scenes where security people Express Concern. But, whaddya gonna do, not bury the guy? So AF1 lands, a motorcade is formed, dignitaries gather. And then all hell breaks loose.

We’re supposed to believe that one terrorist mastermind (angry over a drone strike that took out his daughter), has succeeded in suborning essentially all British security forces. Including the Queen’s Guard–the guys with the bearskin hats. Uh, those guys are really, really vetted. But whatever. They just suddenly start shooting people.

Thank heavens, Mike Banning (our hero) is there! To kill maybe fifty people. But they’re all bad guys, so who cares.

The rest of the movie is basically about killing terrorists and freeing POTUS, who at one point gets himself captured. It’s impossibly stupid, especially when Banning gets the stupendous idea of full-frontal attacking the terrorist stronghold, where the assault team he heads is outnumbered, like, 200 to 20. But the bad guys can’t shoot straight, so there’s that. Plus Banning never misses. It’s too stupid for words.

But this is also what’s interesting. Much of it’s essentially not a movie at all, but a FPS video game; visually, it’s like watching someone play Call of Duty or Counterstrike. Lots of critics panned it, as indeed they should have done (it got 26% on Rottentomatoes, a score 25 points too high), but no one pointed out how visually innovative it is. Indeed, it got dinged for ‘bad CGI’, which misses the point. It’s not a movie; its a video game, or more accurately, a weird combination of the two. Not based on a video game, narratively, like Warcraft. I mean, maybe fifteen minutes of this thing is given to watching a first person shooter mow down hundreds of terrorists. And then cut to, you know, the movie; plot and acting and so on. (At one point, the President questions the wisdom in directly attacking a terrorist center, and Banning says grimly ‘we have no choice.’ The goal is to preserve the President. They’re in London, one of the world’s most populated cities. They have literally hundreds of thousands of buildings they could hide in. No choice? I really did laugh out loud).

I wish I could show you a different clip. The one above doesn’t capture it very well. Really, Banning is breaking into this heavily guarded building, and he does it by just shooting tons of baddies. With a handgun, mostly. (He does occasionally pause to reload, like you have to in an FPS). But it’s exactly like watching someone else play a combat-type game (my son, say). Bad guys pop up, you hit ’em, then more bad guys pop up and you hit them. Then on to another room, and continue.

Now, although the numbers are preposterous, it’s maybe barely plausible, if you could somehow overcome the logistical difficulties in, like, magically transporting all of ISIS to central London and giving them police identities and uniforms. But that’s not the choice this silly movie makes. And you’re not going to convert hundreds of lifetime British security people into terrorists, so they can happily die for the glory of jihad. The central premise of this movie is preposterous. Which is fine for a video game. And not really the end of the world for a bad action movie. What it isn’t is true. The movie is built on the premise that terrorism is a real, actual, huge, current threat. And that’s not the case.

In fact, the actual factual terrorist danger is overstated by a factor of, oh, a billion. You’re more likely to drown in your bathtub than to be killed by terrorists. You’re more likely to die when your car hits a deer. You’re more likely to be killed by a brain-eating parasite. You’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine falling on you.

Cue the Donald. Because, let’s face it, one of the major party Presidential candidates in this race has built his campaign, quite explicitly, on fear. We’re supposed to be afraid, very afraid. Bad guys are trying to kill us; Big Daddy President Man will keep us safe, as long as it’s a man. (The job is too tough for women, he consistently implies). A movie like this one feeds that narrative. As, probably, do FPS video games, if anyone was lame enough to take them seriously in a political sense.

In fact, every gamer I know is perfectly aware that he or she is playing a game, that it’s not real, that it’s just for fun. And frankly, I don’t think many people are naive enough to think that a dumb movie like this one represents, you know reality. But movies are taken more seriously than games, and this movie is the first one to blend the two so clearly. I’m not saying this movie is likely to have any political impact in this election. But to the extent that we do fear terrorists–and we do, irrationally and disproportionately to their actual threat–this movie feeds that fear. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been made. And if any of you are gamers, I would appreciate it if you’d watch it and comment. But not all bad movies are created equal. And this one is worse than most, for zeitgeist-y reasons it had no real role in creating.

But I do have to ask this: when Donald Trump says he has ‘a secret plan’ to take out ISIS, is this what he’s referring to? When he says he knows more than his generals (most of which he seems to think he can fire, like so many celebrity apprentices), has he had a FPS-style Dream? Does he imagine himself in full battle gear, mowing down ISIS? ‘Cause I sure have. And then I wake up.


Sully: Movie Review

I was astounded by Sully, by how intense and exciting it was. We all know the story. We all know about the ‘miracle on the Hudson,’ when pilot Chesley Sullenberger brought his disabled airplane down for a water landing, and all 155 passengers were saved. ‘Sully,’ as Sullenberger was known to friends and family, became an American hero. He was on Letterman. He was on Leno. We all knew who he was–this tall, white haired guy with a prominent moustache. How do you tell a story that familiar and that recent?

Clint Eastwood directed, from a screenplay by Tom Komarnicki. And dramatically, the focus was on a hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board, determining if the plane’s destruction could be attributed to pilot error, an engineering or construction flaw, or just plain bad luck. That is a part of the story we don’t know much about, but we do know how it turned out; if Sully had lost his pilot’s wings, it would have been a national story and something of a scandal. We know what happened (in broad outline), and we know how it turned out. Where’s the dramatic tension?

Turns out, there’s plenty of drama; the movie is terrifically exciting and intense. There are two reasons, I think. For one, Tom Hanks plays Sully. And through Hanks, the movie ties the NTSB hearing to Sully’s own struggles with the emotional aftermath of his emergency landing. Not just that; the film ties Sully’s ordeal, and the trauma of PTSD, to our own American national nightmare; to 9/11. It does this quite explicitly; the film begins with a nightmare. Sully, piloting his plane, trying to make it to an airport, smashing it into a New York skyscraper. Then waking from his dream in a panic.

Those images haunt the movie, just as our own collective memory continues to haunt our nation. In fact, we see Sully’s plane hit a building three times in the movie. (Nightmares, and also in flight simulations). It brings home to us how desperate the situation was. US Airways flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. No more than a minute into the flight, the plane flew through a flock of geese, which destroyed both engines. Sully’s first impulse was to return to LaGuardia. He soon realized that he did not have the altitude or velocity to turn and make it back. But in the multiple times Eastwood shows us the incident, we see what we also know; that Sully’s plane was flying over one of the most populated areas on the planet. Any wrong choice would not only impact the flight 1549 passengers, but untold other victims. We see him narrowly avoid a bridge. And finally, with no other options available to him, he opted for a controlled water landing in the Hudson River. And everyone survived.

Hanks is terrific in this, though that’s hardly surprising. Tom Hanks has an astonishing ability to play command. I first saw it in Apollo Thirteen; he’s one of those rare actors who can play a leader and make it look effortless. I’ve known a few military officers in my day, and the best of them have that quality; a way of projecting authority. When we see the real-life Sully on talk shows and the like, he comes across as a pleasant, self-effacing sort of chap. But that’s not how Hanks plays him. At a crucial part of the NTSB hearings, it looks bad for him; it looks like he might really lose his pilot’s license. And then he just . . . takes charge. It’s a terrific moment, and I don’t know many other actors who could play it so convincingly. Hanks’ Sully is, yes, struggling with self-doubt and unable to stop reliving a terrible experience. But he’s also a leader, a pilot. His strength carries the movie.

All the actors are great in this, though. Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn play head investigators for the NTSB, and they’re both given the thankless challenge of making government bureaucrats (persecuting a guy we like), seem human and real and sympathetic. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, and she’s got an equally thankless task, playing the ‘loyal and supportive wife.’ But Linney gives us a sense of some genuine tensions in their marriage, and her scenes sparkled. I also loved Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully’s co-pilot. He’s exceptional in, again, a pretty underwritten role.

But it’s not just the leads. This is a movie with many smaller parts, from the passengers on the plane, to the flight attendants, to the air traffic controller, to the ferry boat captains and crew and the helicopter rescue divers and the medical personnel.

Flight 1549 went down on a freezing day in January. Even after its water landing, the passengers were at serious risk. They survived because a whole bunch of people did their jobs. They survived because Sully, faced with a myriad of impossible choices, made the least bad one available to him. They survived because Skiles did his job just as well. They survived because the plane’s flight attendants performed superbly, as the well-trained professionals they are. They survived because a whole bunch of ferry pilots hustled their ships out to the plane. The point is made explicitly by Sully; he tells Skiles ‘we did our jobs.’

For that matter, the plane also makes it clear that the NTSB investigators, who we initially think of as the film’s bad guys, were also competent professionals doing their jobs well.

It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood, at 86, was attracted to this story. Eastwood is, above all, a craftsman. His films are meticulously assembled, exquisitely edited. He’s worked with the same crew for years, or when they retire, their offspring. He’s famous, of course, for being Hollywood’s most notorious political conservative. But I sense sometimes that he’s not conservative because he hates government, but because he’s fed up with big government’s incompetence and inefficiency and corruption. I get that. And I find his films a pleasure to watch.

Anyway, Sully is far more engaging than I ever suspected. It’s a wonderful combination; Clint Eastwood at his best, Tom Hanks at his best. And finally, it makes the case that Sully is miscast as a hero. He’s just a guy who did his job. That’s enough, and that’s plenty.

Kaep’s protest

On August 14th, Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, did not stand with his teammates during the playing of the national anthem, before an exhibition game with the Baltimore Ravens, choosing instead to sit on the bench. Nobody noticed. On August 20th, same thing; another exhibition game, they played the anthem, Kaepernick sat. Nobody noticed. On August 26th, the 49ers played the Packers, in another meaningless exhibition game. This time, Kaepernick’s protest was noticed, and he was asked about it in a post-game press conference. He said “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people who are oppressed.” He later elaborated, speaking to the press for eighteen minutes, answering every question put to him calmly but firmly.

His press conference (which for some reason, I don’t seem to be able to link to), was remarkable. Asked what he was trying to accomplish, he responded:

I mean, ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change.

That’s something that–this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.

It’s something that I’ve seen, I’ve felt. Wasn’t quite sure how to deal with originally. And it is something that’s evolved. It’s something that as I’ve gained more knowledge about what’s gone on in this country in the past, what’s going on currently, these aren’t new situations.

This isn’t new ground. These are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed. And they need to be.

I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country–is representing the way that it’s supposed to–I’ll stand.

One specifically is police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.

I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.

People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. It’s something that’s not happening.

-Q: Do you personally feel oppressed?

-KAEPERNICK: There have been situations where I feel like I’ve been ill-treated, yes. But this stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way.

This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change.

So I’m in a position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

More recently, Kaepernick has changed the manner of his protest, kneeling instead of standing for the anthem, after talking to decorated soldiers who sought him out. He’s been joined by other NFL players, including teammate Eric Reid, and others of his own teammates, and by women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. President Obama has weighed in, saying “I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are sitting on the sidelines not paying attention at all.”

Of course, the backlash has been huge, loud, often irrelevant and viciously ad hominem. Kaepernick was once one of the budding stars in the league, and was offered, and signed, a 68 million dollar contract reflecting what NFL execs thought was his limitless potential. Many comments, therefore, suggested that a) he’s too well-paid to be considered ‘oppressed’ and b) he’s not very good. Play better, and maybe we’ll listen. Bleacher Report‘s Mike Freeman interviewed seven top NFL executives. None of them were willing to be identified for Freeman’s story, but all agreed on how much they hated Kaepernick. One compared Kaepernick, unfavorably, to Rae Carruth, the Panthers’ wide receiver who hired a hit man to murder his pregnant girlfriend.

It’s not just Carruth. The 49ers, Kaepernick’s team, have seen seven players arrested since 2012. Most recently, (just a few days after Kaepernick’s protest, in fact), a team captain, Bruce Miller, was arrested and charged with elder abuse, after an altercation in which Miller, intoxicated, beat up a seventy-year old after knocking on the wrong hotel room door. The NFL has a huge public image problem, after a whole series of arrests involving players for such infractions as spouse abuse, sexual assault, and child abuse. Not to mention two guys, Aaron Hernandez and Carruth, in prison for murder.

So Colin Kaepernick’s dignified, thoughtful, carefully considered protest is seen by at least some NFL executives as more damaging to the carefully burnished image of the league than a guy who murdered his girlfriend. But I can see why. It’s not just the national anthem played before games. The NFL likes to sell itself as wholesome, family oriented, and, above all, hyper-patriotic. Last Sunday, Sept. 11th, was the start of the 2016 NFL season, and the NFL outdid itself in pro-America celebrations, with a huge flag covering the entire field (in every stadium), and flyovers with military jets and salutes to soldiers. And a speech by President Obama, broadcast in every stadium, and loudly booed in most of them. That’s right, President Obama was booed on 9/11. Makes sense. He is, after all, Muslim.

Which is in part my point. It isn’t all that overt yet, but football is a contested space; part of the cultural war. Football isn’t just patriotic; it’s red state patriotic. It’s martial. It’s a sport full of ‘blitzes,’ defeated by ‘throwing the bomb.’ It’s built on the model of a military campaign, battles along a line of scrimmage for control of enemy territory. It hurts me to say this; I have enjoyed watching football for most of my adult life, and remember fondly hundreds of backyard contests. But it’s a violent sport, deeply damaging to its participants. (It can also be beautiful). And proudly embraced, by some, as proudly and emphatically politically incorrect.

And it’s becoming increasingly a regional sport, played more in the South than elsewhere. And, of course, it’s a sport where most of the players are Black, and most of the fans are white. (And where most of the coaches, most of the league executives, and effectively all of the owners are white). Also, played by guys, cheered on by attractive, underdressed young women. (And NFL cheerleaders are badly underpaid and mistreated).

Here’s what I think: I think Colin Kaepernick is acting more patriotically than all the people attacking him. Loving America means loving the promise of America, the ideals of equality and social justice that find such perfect expression in the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment. It means wanting America to grow, to improve, to get better, to actually treat all its citizens equally and fairly. It means protesting when we perceive America falling short of those ideals. The flag and the anthem are merely symbols, not objects of worship.

Good for Kaep. Good for the other protesters as well. Well done.

As a 49ers fan, I also wish Kaepernick was a better quarterback. But that’s a separate, and much less important question.


Hillary Clinton, mass murderer. Yes, there are people who believe this.

What is it with people and conspiracy theories? I ask, because I spent a frustrating couple of days arguing on-line with people who really do believe that Hillary Clinton is a mass murderer. I know, right? But there are people who believe this, that the Clintons routinely bump off people who are about to expose them. Expose what, you might reasonably ask? Well, all the women Bill raped, for one thing. The Clinton family drug smuggling. And also, duh, all the murders.

Really, I should know better. It’s completely impossible to argue with conspiracy theorists. For one thing, they’re obsessed. The Clinton-haters spend endless amounts of time reading books about the vileness of the Clintons. Which means they know way more about their theory than you’re likely to. They know the names and life histories, for example, of all 67 people the Clintons had murdered. How do you refute that?

So you scramble. It doesn’t take that long. A quick proficiency with Google leads to, yes, fifty articles supporting the conspiracy, but also to solid, factual evidence. But if you cite that evidence, it doesn’t matter. That’s what’s infuriating with conspiracy theorists; nothing fazes them. Disprove one allegation, and they’ve got twenty more lined up. I’m genuinely angry with myself. The number one rule with conspiracy theories has to be: do not engage. It’s impossible to argue with these people. Conspiracy theories are intoxicating. You get to feel superior. Everyone else is a dimwit; you possess the actual truth of things! You’re one of the secret elite; you’re Someone Who Knows.

There’s actually been some research on this subject, including a book-length study by political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, which was published in 2014. It makes for depressing reading. Liberals and conservatives believe in conspiracy theories pretty equally, though the two sides like different ones. A third of Americans believe in birther theories about Obama; about the same number believe 9/11 is an inside job. In fact, liberals and conservatives are equally likely to think the favorite theories of their opponents are hilariously silly (because of course ‘those people’ believe that sort of ridiculous nonsense), while holding to favorite, equally nonsensical notions of their own.

Education helps, a little. 42% of people without high school diplomas are prone to conspiratorial thinking, while only 23% of people with post-graduate degrees do. Still, that’s depressing. One of five PhDs believe in absolute tommyrot? Because that’s the reality of conspiracy theories. They’re objectively untrue. They’re unsupported by, you know, evidence. Facts.

Anyway, the Clintons. The false narrative, in this case, argues that Bill and Hillary Clinton have murdered (or ordered murdered) 67 people over their time in the public eye. See, there’ve been all these mysterious deaths! Of people who were just about to testify against the Clintons about something nefarious they’d done! (Except, turns out, they weren’t). And they can name names: Ron Brown, Seth Rich, John Ashe, Victor Thorn, Shawn Lucas. Vince Foster (of course!) So many deaths! Has to be murder!

I grew up in Bloomington Indiana. I am a middle-class, unremarkable, politically insignificant man around 60. But I can certainly think of 67 people who I knew and who knew me, who died. In my neighborhood growing up, the kid who lived to our north died of AIDS. Another kid, a little further north, died in an auto wreck. The kid across the street committed suicide. One of my best friends, in high school, killed himself–I spoke at his funeral. Over fifty-some years, there have been lots of mishaps and illnesses and tragedies. My life isn’t anything special, but if some nasty-minded person wanted to stitch all those unrelated incidents together and create a false narrative about Eric the Lethal, I can imagine what it would look like.

And that’s what’s going on here. Not that it matters, but Ron Brown (Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce) died in a plane wreck. The conspiracy theory is that they found a bullet hole in his skull–he was shot before the plane went down! Except that isn’t true; there was no exit wound, no bullet fragments in his skull. He died of blunt force trauma, because, you know, his plane crashed. Seth Rich died in a botched robbery. John Ashe died of a heart attack, Victor Thorn killed himself, Shawn Lucas died in an accident. And Vince Foster actually, really, did kill himself. Seven separate investigations proved it.

It’s all that silly. People sometimes die. All of us know people who have died. There’s nothing remotely suspicious about either the number of deaths of people the Clintons knew, or the circumstances in which those deaths took place.

Most of this garbage came from a recent book, Roger Stone and Robert Morrow’s The Clintons’ War on Women. Roger Stone is a professional Clinton hater, a guy who has spent his life digging for anti-Clinton dirt. Robert Morrow, meanwhile, spends his free time writing in a genre I had not previously known exists–Hillary porn. Researching this, I found some, read maybe half a paragraph of the most unspeakable vileness. (Now you don’t have to: you’re welcome). Their book is published by something called Skyhorse Publishing, which specializes in all sorts of conspiracy theory books, with titles like American Nuremberg (a truther book about 9/11), American Conspiracy, Spooks, and The Secret Coalition. Thar’s gold in them thar hills.

Of course, as is always the case with these things, the conspiracy requires the active collusion and participation of way too many people. There’s no way; someone would have blabbed. It’s like the Kennedy assassination theories; if, say, LBJ conspired to kill Kennedy, it would have required the cooperation of dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals. Or the ‘moon landing was faked,’ literally hundreds of scientists and engineers with NASA, and that’s just for starters.

So let’s get real. Hillary Clinton absolutely doesn’t go around bumping people off. She’s been investigated more than any politician in the country, and there’s absolutely no evidence of criminal wrong-doing. And if you run into a conspiracy theorist, there’s a perfect way to handle them. Don’t engage. Don’t argue. Just change the subject, politely and firmly. Exactly the way Chelsea Clinton did, when confronted with Robert Morrow.


Phyllis Schlafly: RIP

Phyllis Schlafly just passed away, at the age of 92. Every major news outlet eulogized her, as is appropriate. I am not a major news outlet, and rarely do obituaries. And of course, I did not know the woman. Still, Schlafly’s passing leads me to ask this: how do we memorialize the life of someone with whom we disagreed?

On the internet, when someone both prominent and controversial dies, memes begin to appear, presumably amusing expressions of schadenfreud. ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead,’ seems to have been the predominant sentiment this time around. That strikes me as unfortunate. Death is the ultimate leveler, and its majesty, its tragedy, its reality should overawe us, should lead to humility, should supercede parochial concerns.

I believe that Phyllis Schlafly’s legacy is an unfortunate one. I think she left the world an unhappier place. I also thought her political views were mistaken, retrograde, invalid. But it’s not my role to judge.

And, in fact, she was an extraordinary woman. She was an attorney, a political candidate, an activist, and an author. She liked to cultivate a particular image; ‘housewife/activist.’ In fact, that description sells her short. Her book, A Choice, Not an Echo challenged the Republican orthodoxy of her day, and sold three million copies. She developed considerable expertise in international armaments, and researched and wrote books about national defense, staunchly in opposition to arms control agreements. Her newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, became a central text of the conservative movement. She founded the Eagle Forum, and was an activist, who led the opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

I liked and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. I consider myself a feminist. I also like arms control agreements. But I am not blessed with omnipotence. I believe that the Equal Rights Amendment would have made life better for women; really, for everyone. She believed that it would make life worse. She won that political battle. Who knows whose views were right?

And she had a gay son. John Schlafly, her oldest son, came out in 1992. He nonetheless remained active in the leadership of the Eagle Forum. He ended up in a bitter dispute with his sister, Anne Cori, over the Forum’s enthusiastic support for Donald Trump; Cori thought they should endorse Ted Cruz instead. I understand bitterness over that controversy lingers still.

So, a bright, successful, accomplished woman. Devoted to her family, and to her favored political cause. Hers was an extraordinary life. For good? For ill? Let God decide.

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is a beautifully paced, wonderfully acted heist thriller, which also manages to feel like the most profoundly American movie I’ve seen in awhile. This, despite the fact that its director is British. I’m tempted to suggest to you that this is the one movie, more than anything else out there, that explains the mindset of Donald Trump supporters. Then I thought about it some more, and realized that that’s exactly true, though not perhaps as the film’s writer, Taylor Sheridan, and director, David McKenzie, intended.

Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard are west Texas brothers, blue collar guys with backgrounds in drilling, ranching, and, in Tanner’s case, criminality. Over the course of several bank robberies they pull, we learn something of their backgrounds. Over the previous ten years or so, Tanner’s been in prison for armed robbery. Toby’s taken care of their mother. She has now died, and she left the ranch to Toby, disowning black sheep Tanner. Before she died, she took out a reverse mortgage from a local bank. Toby also learned that there’s oil on the ranch, a lot of it. He owes the bank $45,000, which he believes he has no way of paying back. He’s turned to older brother Tanner, and the two decide to rob banks, though only the Midlands’ Bank who, they believe, tormented their mother during her final days. So it’s kind of a revenge thing, too. Toby has formed a family trust, and intends to leave the ranch (and oil money) to his two sons. (When he tells his ex-wife Debbie (Marin Ireland) about the trust, her response is to sigh deeply, and complain ‘one more thing I gotta take care of.’)

Both leading characters are superbly rendered, both by Sheridan’s screenplay and by the two terrific actors. Tanner’s more violent, more impulsive, more ranbunctious; nowhere near as good looking as his brother, but much more successful with women. Toby’s quieter, and smarter. The plans are his, and he’s allowed for essentially all contingencies, he thinks.

Meanwhile, a Texas lawman, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), is on their trail. He’s partnered up with Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who is half-Native American, half Mexican, and completely American. Theirs is a fraught relationship. Hamilton cannot refrain from dropping insulting, meant-to-be-funny, politically incorrect Injun lines at Parker’s expense, and we can tell that Parker doesn’t like it. That’s Hamilton–crude, rude, aggravating, and incredibly good at his job. He’s a couple of weeks from retirement, and loathes the very idea. He has no idea how he’ll fill his hours, which makes him all the more determined to solve this one last case.

So that’s the movie. Toby and Tanner robbing banks, Hamilton and Parker trying to catch them. (Is it accidental that Parker has the same last name as Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame?). But describing it so baldly kind of misses the point of it. It’s about rural, small-town America, where there are almost no jobs and very little hope. Parker’s convinced that the robbers they’re chasing are ‘tweakers.’ But Hamilton doesn’t believe it. The robberies are too meticulously planned for that; meth addicts are too addled to pull off these plans.

But what I loved about this movie is the way it takes its time, not just rounding and complicating its characters, but capturing the way time moves along in these hopeless little places. The way it sours people. At one point, Toby describes poverty as a disease, and we take his point; nobody seems entirely well.

There’s a wonderful scene in a cafe that captures what I’m suggesting. Hamilton and Parker stop to eat, and are informed by their waitress (Margaret Bowman), who is very elderly, that the only thing she wants to know is what they don’t want. They serve T-bone steaks, with baked potatoes. Period. The only question is, do they want that with green beans or corn on the cob? Parker asks if he can have his steak well done, and is informed that their steaks are served medium rare, period. Bowman gives a wonderful, crotchety performance, and that scene captures the time and place as little else could.

I love the little details. A young woman, lying on the floor as instructed during one robbery, texts someone–‘the bank’s being robbed–and next thing we see in front of the bank are a half dozen pickups and guys with rifles. An old-timer is asked by Toby if he’s carrying a gun, and he looks astonished and aggravated and responds ‘of course I’ve got a gun!’ I’m not saying it’s a movie filled with woe-is-me monologues, but the hopelessness of poverty is stitched into the fabric of the film.

And the music. There’s a lot of music in this film, and it’s used perfectly. It’s what I would call ‘outlaw country,’ with modern singer/songwriters like Chris Singleton and Colter Wall and Scott Biram, and with several songs by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (I especially loved Singleton’s “Outlaw State of Mind,” which I didn’t know). And, of course, one song by the granddaddy of outlaw country, the great Waylon Jennings (“You Ask Me To,” of course. Perfect choice.)

So, it’s a lovely movie, my favorite movie of the year by far. Two thirds in, I honestly did not know how things would turn out. Would Toby and Tanner get away, would their plan work? Would Hamilton catch them? Would they go down, guns ablazin’, in a Bonnie and Clyde ambush and firestorm?  I did not predict what actually happened, and yet the ending was also completely plausible and satisfying. Surprising, and also inevitable.

And then I thought some more. A lot of critics have called this a movie that ‘helps explain Trump,’ and I agree. That’s true. But then I thought some more about their situation. Mom took out a reverse mortgage, which they have to pay back. It’s forty-five thousand dollars, which they don’t have. But there is oil on the ranch. What are their choices? Well, let’s see. They know that the oil on their land will pay around $50,000 a month.They could get an oil company to pay them for the oil rights, cash payment, maybe ask for, conservative estimate, six or eight million. Or, they could go to the bank, ask for a loan extension, or a refi, or another loan. Let’s suppose that this greedy, evil bank refuses; they want to foreclose on the ranch, so they can get their filthy hands on that oil. Well, there are other banks in the world. You think maybe you could use the oil strike as collateral, borrow fifty thousand from some other bank?

The point is to have a fortune to leave Toby’s kids. If they get caught robbing banks, the evil bankers will foreclose. They could get shot–they live, after all, in west Texas, where essentially everyone’s armed (a point the movie keeps making). Robbing banks to pay off the loan is the stupidest of their many many options. And as far as the movie is concerned, they never consider anything else.

I don’t know if this is deliberate. But again, look at this as a ‘movie-that-explains-Trump.’ Trump supporters tend to be blue collar, uneducated, rural, and white. Communities like the ones depicted in this movie are struggling. The problems the movie weaves into its story are genuine and real. And here’s my point; the solution they seem to arrived at–vote for Donald Trump–is the worst idea they could possibly come up with. That’s the one thing that’s absolutely guaranteed not to work.

Without getting into the specifics of Trump’s policies, he has proposed exactly nothing to help out rural blue-collar communities. He has proposed exactly zilch to help poor people, or to help those communities dig themselves out. His tax plan would be a boon for rich guys–it would do zippity-doo-dah for the Tobys and Tanners of the world. His business track record is of a guy who rips blue-collar folks off, not someone who helps them.

Robbing banks to pay off a mortgage is a really really bad idea. This is an exceptionally good movie that takes that bad idea to its logical extreme. I don’t know if that makes it, on reflection, better or worse than I originally thought. I do know that I’m really glad I saw it.



Why Donald Trump is different

I am an unapologetic, card-carrying liberal, and have been for most of my adult life. But I also try to be as open-minded as possible. I think of myself as a reasonable person, and I try to listen carefully to opposing points of view. On any political issue, if facts are presented that lead me to change my views, I am unafraid to make that change. There are issues that are very important to many liberals that aren’t important to me, and many issues that liberals favor and conservatives oppose where I believe conservatives are right. When that happens, I say so. I could give some specific examples, if you like. One is free trade, which I favor. I think it reduces poverty world-wide. Another is the Keystone pipeline, which I likewise favor.

The same is true of political candidates. I generally support Democratic candidates and oppose Republicans. But I have voted for Republicans in the past, and will probably will do so in the future. What I reject is the notion that Republicans, or any political opponents, are dreadful people. I thought the last two Republican candidates for President, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were decent, honorable and intelligent men. I thought they were both proven patriots. In both cases, I voted for Barack Obama, because generally I agreed with him on important matters of policy, and because I disagreed with Senator McCain and Mitt Romney on matters of policy. But that’s all. We just disagreed, and if they had won, they may well have turned out to be good Presidents. Just not as good as Obama.

George W. Bush was, I thought, a particularly poor President. But it’s not difficult for me to find important issues where he was right, and where I agreed with him, and thought he did well. He did a tremendous amount of good, for example, in combatting AIDS in Africa. PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, was a spectacular success, saving millions of lives. I think that Bush’s legacy is generally a weak one, that his tax cuts were ruinous and the war in Iraq grievously ill-considered. On balance, he wasn’t a very good President. But he also did genuine good in the world during his time in the White House.

Political campaigns are ugly things, with ferocious rhetoric on both sides. Partisans delight in making terrible personal attacks on their political foes. I deplore that. I wish we could all, liberals and conservatives, agree on this point: that both candidates are patriots, who just happen to disagree on matters of policy.

This is what I have believed and this is what I have written. This year is the exception. This year is genuinely different. For the first time in my lifetime, I am genuinely frightened for the future of my country. For the first time in my lifetime, we have a candidate for President who, if elected, seems to me to be genuinely dangerous. I consider myself a reasonable man. One candidate, however, defies reason, and requires an unreasonable response.

Donald Trump is the most dangerous candidate for President in American history. He cannot, and must not be elected. I do not say that, if he is elected, it will mean the end of the United States, that he is a danger to democracy. I don’t know that. But I do believe that he might pose precisely such a threat. And I don’t think that’s a chance we should take.

He has allied himself with dangerous forces of ethnic nationalism. I don’t particularly care if Alt-Right is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Their rhetoric, and his rhetoric, is dangerously extreme, and profoundly anti-democratic. On crucial matters of race and ethnicity, Trump represents the most atavistic, nativist, and extremist strains in American history and current American society.

His economic plans, as outlined in his speeches and on-line, would impoverish our nation, increase our international indebtedness, and would, in all likelihood, lead to trade wars with many, if not most, of our leading trade partners–China, Mexico, the EU, South Korea.

His immigration plans are vicious, uncompassionate, and completely unworkable. The mass deportations he describes would badly damage our economy, while destroying the lives of millions of people, and ruining their family relationships. And let’s be clear, there’s not going to be, and shouldn’t be, a wall. (I have friends who point out that there have been times in the past when Hillary Clinton has supported building a similar wall. That’s true. She was wrong too.)

His foreign policies, such as they are, are built on a foundation of utter ignorance and foolishness. He has no appreciation for the complexities of foreign diplomacy, and no understanding of the challenges faced by our allies and friends. Worst of all, he expresses and fosters the most extreme contempt for a peaceful major world religion, Islam.

Worst of all, though, is Trump’s embrace of authoritarianism, for his rejection of fundamental democratic processes. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump repeatedly insisted that he and only he could solve intractable national problems, that he and only he could Make America Great Again. For a student of history, that’s a frightening notion.

And his personality is incompatible with political leadership. This campaign has been so topsy-turvy, it beggars the imagination. But there is one event that I absolutely cannot imagine happening. I cannot imagine Donald Trump graciously conceding defeat. That’s something every losing candidate has done in the history of our great nation. And it’s the one thing of which I believe Trump to be incapable.

Though, of course, I would love to be proven wrong.

For this candidate, and only for this candidate, I do not say ‘he’s a patriot with whom I disagree.’ I say that this candidate, and only this candidate may represent a threat to the idea of America, to American melting pot multiculturalism, to American republican democracy, to the values that find such perfect expression in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and to the Bill of Rights.

In a recent speech, Trump said to African-American voters, ‘what do you have to lose?’ I would answer that there is a great deal that we stand to lose. We cannot, cannot take that chance. Donald Trump cannot become President of the United States. Whatever we can do, consistent with our democratic traditions, we must do. I’m writing a check to the Clinton campaign today. I hope you will join me.