Monthly Archives: December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, movie review

Last night, we finally saw the new Star Wars movie. There was never a possibility of us not seeing it, of course; keeping up with Star Wars is mandated by federal law, and we’re nothing if not law-abiding, but this one struck me as particularly worth catching. FB responses to it were so polarized, it was obviously a must-see.

I’m in the ‘it’s really good’ camp. Although writer/director Rian Johnson didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel, he did toss on some new tires and a realignment. He brought some fascinating nuances to well-worn plot elements that made it seem quite fresh, and even borderline original.

For one thing, it is apparently de rigueur for the top apprentice of Jedi masters to be  severely tempted by the dark side of the force. This seems weird to me. It’s as though, if you decided to study meditation with the Dalai Lama, you were told ‘there’s one slight pitfall; this discipline might turn you into Hitler.’ Still, in Star Wars, apprentices regularly become monsters, though they, in turn, become masters to new apprentices who think they can turn them from the dark side. Anniken/Obi Wan, Luke/Vader, Kylo Ren/Luke; the pattern just keeps continuing. So when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) begins communicating through the force with young Rey (Daisy Ridley), it could have felt really tired and lame. Geez, that again?

But, for me at least, that didn’t happen, and I found the Kylo/Rey scenes completely compelling. Part of that may be because Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley have the acting chops to make those scenes really sizzle. They’re both terrific. But part of is in the writing. Kylo may hero-worship Darth Vader, but he’s not really like Vader at all. Darth Vader was a subordinate to the Emperor, and apparently, a loyal one. Kylo has the same role in relation to Snoke (a marvelous Andy Serkis). But what he wants from Rey is not really that she come over to the dark side, join him as a Sith lord, or anything like that. He wants out of it. He wants to get rid of the emperor, forget being a Jedi or a Sith, have her rule with him. He’s sick of the whole dark side/light side dynamic, sick of what it’s done to him and what he’s done in its service. He murdered his father, for goodness sake. He’s a generational Jedi; inherited the Force from his Mom, studied with his uncle Luke. Rey isn’t. She has the Force in abundance, and the movie (like Empire Strikes Back, which this movie echoes), the issue of her parentage is raised repeatedly. But we learn who her parents really were, and they were nobodies. And that’s okay.

This film, in other words, democratizes the Force, removes it from the preserve of a certain lineage. Anyone can have the Force, anyone can practice it, anyone can develop mad light sabre skills. At the end of the movie, we see a poor kid in a rustic outpost shadowed by it. That’s awesome. The movie is called The Last Jedi, and we assume that means Luke, but Rey emerges as another Jedi over the course of the film, and it rather looks like there will be other, non-Skywalker folks, possibly not Jedi, but certainly Force wielders. I loved all that. I loved the scenes where Luke (Mark Hamill) interacts (I won’t say trains) Rey. Hamill looks ravaged, and we can see what a fine actor he’s always been. And best of all, we get a marvelous explanation for the Force from Luke that never once references midichlorians. If, as I fervently believe, the three prequel films were nothing but huge, expensive mistakes, the reduction of the Force to a virus was as big a mistake as those films ever made.

Of course this movie recycles old Star Wars memes. For example, there are always these big complicated plans the characters make. You guys blow up this, and that will allow us over here to do this super important thing. In Return of the Jedi, for example, Han and Leia are tasked with blowing up a power station or something on one planet, so that a bunch of fighters led by Lando can blow up the Emperor’s ship. (I may have some of those details wrong). Well, in this film, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) come up with one of those plans. Finn and Rose will blow up a tracking device, so that the Rebel fleet (the good guys, the Republic), can book it at warp speed, and thus evade the First Order (the Empire, basically), which has a honkin’ big fleet they can wipe them out with. So Finn and Rose have to go to this planet, get this guy, DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who can get them to the tracking device, which they will destroy in time for Poe to save the Rebel fleet. Got it? Like Obi-Wan destroying the tractor beam, like Han destroying the power station. We’ve seen this before. And of course, it’s going to work. At the last second, sure, but it will work. These plans always work.

Except, in this film, it doesn’t work at all. It’s a disaster, and it messes with the perfectly good plans developed by Leia (and it was so lovely to see Carrie Fisher for the last time), and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). A complicated Star Wars plan not working? That actually is kind of new, and it was awesome.

Which leads me to what I liked best about this film. It’s tragic. It’s sad. Plans don’t work out very well, and the entire rebellion is nearly wiped out. The triumphant ending of this involves, like, 20 people escaping death in the Millennium Falcon. (I love, btw, that the Millennium Falcon still works, can still outfly any bad guy ship they make, is still really fast and awesome. Forty years have passed, after all; how many battles does our Air Force fight using a WWII era P-51 Mustang? Sure it still uses, like, propellers, but it can still out run a F-16 jet! Not likely. I like to imagine that Chewbacca has been tinkering on it. Upgrading and modifying.

We always want to rank the Star Wars films; I do it too. But mostly just the canonical films, the ones with numbers, from Phantom Menace to, now, Last Jedi. But now there’s a non-canonical Star Wars film, Rogue One. Which is deeply tragic. A film about a bunch of brave rebels who die for the rebel cause (which is, we think, the cause of social justice), who succeed in doing exactly one important thing, but who die in the attempt. I don’t know where it ranks, but I thought it was a powerful and well-made film.

Well, The Last Jedi demonstrated a very similar sensibility. It’s not terribly triumphant. Essentially, it’s about the bad guys’ mopping-up exercise. The rebels have been defeated, and are down to one cruiser, and a few unarmed, unshielded transports. Then the cruiser is lost. And one by one, General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) starts picking off transports. It’s over. The rebellion has lost. But a few do escape. That’s the triumph. My mind went back to 1778. Howe drove Washington out of New York, out of Philadelphia, American defeat after defeat, to retreat to the misery of Valley Force. But still, Washington survived, as did the tattered remnants of his army. That’s where we are in Star Wars.

So: two questions. First, does this cast, Ridley, Isaac, Boyega, Tran, have the charisma to carry the franchise for the next few years? At least through one more film, and possibly four more? Answer: absolutely. They’re terrific. And there’s no way they’re going to let Del Toro disappear. And Adam Driver’s a wonderful, complicated, fascinating villain.

Second question: how does this film rank among all the Star Wars films?  I choose to grade them: A New Hope: A. Empire Strikes Back: A. Return of the Jedi: B-minus. Rogue One: A-minus. Last Jedi: B-plus. The Force Awakens: D-plus. The Phantom Menace: F-minus. Attack of the Clones: F. Revenge of the Sith: D-minus. Love to hear what you think.

Anyway, I found Last Jedi very satisfying indeed. It’s a beautiful film. The battle scenes on the mineral planet on which they all take refuge were lovely, taking place on a plain on which a layer of salt covers a fine red clay. The red and white dust of the battle was astonishing; beautiful, unsettling. I loved Kelly Marie Tran, the newest cast addition, with her wonderfully expressive face and complete commitment to every scene. I loved Benicio Del Toro’s stutter. I loved the moment when Chewie roasts, but can’t bring himself to actually eat, a porg. So many details the film got right. Now let’s hope J. J. Abrams doesn’t screw the next one up.

Two movies about bad rich people

The day after Christmas, my son and i went to the movies; the following day, my wife and I did. The movies we saw were not in the ‘big blockbuster’ category–no Star Wars, no Jumanji, though we will see both eventually–but we enjoyed them both very much. The first was All the Money in the World, directed by Ridley Scott. The second was Downsizing, directed by Alexander Payne. Good directors both, and interesting stories told, both, serendipitously about how much rich people suck.

All the Money was about the 1973 kidnapping of Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer), grandson of J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), who was then the richest man in the world. (As I understand it, the two Plummers are not related). This movie gained some pre-release notoriety, as Kevin Spacey, initially cast as the elder Getty, was fired a month before the film opened, and all his scenes reshot with the elder Plummer in the role. That may have effected box office; I doubt it did much harm to the film. Christopher Plummer is superbly repellent as Getty.

The film depicts Getty as a monster, as a miserable miser, more interested in his art collection than in the lives of his family members. Actually, that’s not entirely true. In an early flashback, after many years of estrangement, we see him offering his son (Andrew Buchan), a high-paying executive job with Getty Oil, which opportunity the alcohol-and-drug saturated Getty makes nothing of. The old man doesn’t seem much surprised. But he does show an interest in his grandson, depicted as a bright, if somewhat lost young man. The one Getty who he does respect is Gail (Michelle Williams), his daughter-in-law. After the young Getty is kidnapped, the film turns into an extended duel (perhaps ‘negotiation’ is better), between Gail and J. Paul, with her insisting that ransom be paid, and the boy freed, with the old man insisting that paying one ransom will simply encourage other kidnappers. A fair point, we initially concede, but we soon realize that old Getty is simply staking out a negotiating position. He’ll pay the ransom, eventually, but first the asking price needs to move.

Doing the actual price negotiating is Getty’s top man, a former CIA agent named Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg). So the negotiations have a third party; Chase working with the kidnappers to get their price down, and with Getty Senior to get the money. The moment we realize what a consummate bastard the old man is is when we realize that he’ll only pay that amount of the ransom he can deduct from his American income taxes. Plus ςa change, plus c’est la mēme chose: Man, rich people hate paying taxes. Paul Ryan, meet Paul Getty.

Gail is the film’s most (only?) sympathetic character. The media were convinced that she was secretly wealthy, and that she was the one refusing to pay up. And her every public movement is followed by what appears to be a ravening pack of paparazzi. By the end of the movie, you may find yourself wishing someone would run the dang photographers over with a truck. Celebrity millionaires have to face that kind of thing, I suppose, but by the end of the film, we genuinely have lost all sympathy for the rich. It’s a stark, bleak movie, ultimately, though beautifully shot in all-natural light by Dariusz Wolski. Christopher Plummer’s face is always in shadow, emphasizing the character’s essential coldness. It’s a film I respected immensely, but did not much enjoy. That’s okay; it’s a powerful film.  I’ll let James, brother of Jesus have the final word:  “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl . . . Your riches are corrupted, and your garments motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you.” (james 5:1-3) 

The second film is surely one of the oddest movies of the year, and one that suffers, I think, by the misguided way in which it was marketed. Downsizing posits a future in which it’s possible to reduce human beings, on the molecular level (we’re told), to about five inches in height. You’re still yourself; there’s just a lot less of you. Personality and appearance untouched. And there are some advantages to it. Tiny people, obviously, leave a much smaller carbon footprint than larger folks do. So going small has some advantages from a ‘save the planet’ standpoint. But economically, it’s all win-win. You’re consuming less, so your consumer dollars stretch way further. So an average middle-class couple, liquidating all their assets–selling home and car, cashing in pensions–end up with the perquisites of comparative wealth. Our hero, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), end up in a mansion, millionaires, in a luxury resort for the tiny, Leisureland. The concept is a fun one, and the trailers suggest a satirical Matt Damon/Kristen Wiig romp. The film’s marketing team had a tough challenge, I expect, but the ads are misleading and it may hurt the film’s prospects.

What we’re left with is a genuine oddball, a Christian socialist parable, about inevitable environmental apocalypse, in which the world is saved (if it’s to be saved at all), by a colony of Norwegian hippies. (I always suspect that!) It never went anywhere anyone would expect, and yet my wife and I both liked it quite a bit.

One quibble; the economics don’t quite add up. I understand that the tiny eat less. But the film imagines an entire infrastructure in which everything we’re accustomed to using in our modern gadget-intensive lives has a tiny equivalent. Every gizmo, every do-dad; tea spoons and spatulas and scalpels, shoes and socks and shirts and slacks, everything. Plus, when Leisureland is explained to us, I thought ‘that mansion’s going to suck if you can’t hire someone else to clean it.’ Turns out, there is an underclass. And most of Leisureland’s cleaning and cooking is done by people with brown-hued skin, speaking, as their first language, Spanish. (Also, of course, Leisureland would be wiped out by your average housecat. They’re worried about birds? How about a puppy? Or raccoon?

Once Paul gets to Leisureland, the tone of the film turns bleaker. He does make a new friend; his neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), an aging Eurotrash party animal, who seems to have mysterious connections to the original Norwegian scientist who developed downsizing, and the original colony of Norwegian adventurers who were first to go through the procedure.

Paul also meets the film’s most compelling character, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese environmental activist who was forcibly downsized and put on a boat with 15 fellow troublemakers, only one of which, Ngoc, survived the trip. She lost a foot in that misadventure, and Paul, an occupational therapist, thinks he can help her. She works as a housecleaner, but spends her every waking hour scaring up food and meds for the most desperate members of the tiny people underclass. She’s also a committed Christian, with a Vietnamese Bible as her most cherished tradition–her ecstatic church services are the most exuberant scenes in the movie.

The film finally concludes this: if the world is going to end, well, meantime it’s our job to ease the suffering of the least fortunate among us. That’s also our obligation if the world isn’t going to end. It’s a maddening, inspiring film. Also, rich people suck. Also, ordinary people, if they suddenly become rich. “The love of money is the root of all evil,” said Paul of Tarsus to his disciple Timothy. So it turns out this movie has a Biblical moral to it as well.



Christmas talk, 2017

I spoke in Church today. Here is my talk.

I have a friend, a former student, who was telling me about her five-year-old. They just got a kitten, and this little boy loves it. For his recent birthday, he said he wanted to become a cat. So they got him some cat pajamas, with a little cat tail and cat feet slippers, and he loves it. Running around the house, making cat noises. But then, my student told me, he was racing around, and slipped, and slid across the floor of their house, right down the stairs, thump thump thump to the landing below. She ran to the stairs to see if he was okay. And then she heard his little voice, saying “Okay. One life gone, eight more to go.”

I can identify with that little boy actually. This last year, I’ve definitely felt like I’ve used up at least a couple of cat lives myself. But thanks be to great doctors and hospitals and nurses, I’m doing much better. And when I think back on 2017, what I remember are moments of joy. The things I love most in life, friends and family, theatre and movies, books, and above all, music have sustained me, even in times of difficulty.

And as I’ve had leisure to think about it, I realized that illness and pain and difficulty are only to be expected and accepted. Suffering, disappointment, diseases and their symptoms, depression and loss, were always part of the deal. Mortality is a test, after all. It had to be that way. It had to be hard, to obey, to serve, to grow, to be kind. There also had to be unfairness, unwarranted suffering, undeserved pain. Life wasn’t fair for Job. And we believe that the atonement will reconcile everything, will heal every hurt and right every wrong.

But as I’ve contemplated this, something else occurred to me. Pain’s essential; Beauty may not be. The ability to experience the loveliness of Earth, and even to create beauty ourselves; that may not necessarily be required. It may just be a blessing. Look to our north. Check out Timpanogas. We don’t have to see it as beautiful. It could be, to us, nothing more than a great stone barrier, fallow ground, bad for crops and rotten for travel. But we don’t. It’s glorious. And that’s just one mountain, just one sight, amid the infinity of wonders we call our home. Annette and I once had a calling in the nursery, and we were supposed to teach the kids lessons. Two year olds; lessons. But the manual for the class was terrific. One lesson: Trees show how Heavenly Father loves us. That’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? But doesn’t all beauty, all loveliness, all art, all music testify of God’s love? They’re extra, they’re free gifts. They’re not necessary parts of the test. But they’re wonderful, because that’s also who Heavenly Father is; wonderful is one of His names. And the greatest gift of all, I think, is music.

Hold that thought.

It’s Christmas Eve, and tomorrow we celebrate the arrival of the Christ child; the birth of Jesus. And yes, it was the beginning of atonement, the essential moment when Jehovah received his mortal flesh. But it was something else too. An ordinary thing, a young couple, making a journey, a young woman giving birth.

Why do we not think of Christmas as a women’s holiday? Why is it not a feminist celebration? Is there anything more uniquely and spectacularly female than giving birth? And consider this: Mary was the first woman, in the history of the world, to know one thing. She knew that her baby would live. Angels told her that her baby would live. I love that thought. Not that we should ignore poor Joseph. His part was colossal; male role model for Deity. How do you nurture that nature? But Christmas is about Mary.

And a journey. Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, in Judea; Bethlehem was in Galilee, perhaps because some inflexible bureaucratic regulations required them to go there for a census. We usually picture Mary riding a donkey, but it’s unlikely they could have afforded one; in all likelihood, they walked. It’s seven miles as the crow flies, probably closer to ten by foot; it’s a rocky and difficult terrain. Probably took two days.

They were poor. As I understand it—I don’t speak Greek– Mark and Matthew use the word ‘tekton’ to describe Joseph. Tekton can be translated ‘carpenter,’ but more often, it’s translated ‘laborer.’ It’s the lowest rung in Roman society; Luke, writing years later, gave him a promotion to ‘peasant.’ And Nazareth was, literally, the punch line to a joke.

They arrived in Bethlehem exhausted. There was no room for them in the inn, because there is never room for the poorest of the poor. And then Mary went into labor, in a stable, the only shelter they could find.

We don’t just appreciate beauty, we create it. Which is hardly surprising, given who our Heaven Parents are, and who we are meant to become. As Sister Gayle Rice recently posted on Facebook, “as we awaken to our own creativity, we open ourselves to the power of God, and His influence and direction.” She would know; she’s a wonderful artist. So when we think of an event like the nativity, so simple and so packed with meaning, it’s hardly surprising that so many artists have chosen that moment, in that Bethlehem stable as their subject. One of my favorites is a painting by Brian Kershisnek. Tucked into the corner of a huge canvas, are the holy family. Joseph, looking terrified, as though he’s just begun to understand what he’s taking on. Mary, exhausted, of course. Baby Jesus. And filling the rest of the canvas, hundreds upon hundreds of angels. They also have a dog. The dog’s the only one who can see the angels. He seems quite delighted by them. It’s hanging at the BYU Museum of Art: check it out.

Art enhances, magnifies, intensifies, reinforces. Art can also distort; it’s a powerful force, and needs to be wielded carefully. And there are many paintings of the Nativity. But what I love most of all is the music.

And so I’m drawn to holy scripture. Specifically to hymns numbered 201 to 214 in the hymnal we open every Sunday. And when I look at those hymns, a couple of things strike me immediately. First of all, there are no LDS hymns among them. They’re all from the European or American Protestant tradition. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But it reminds us that Christmas really is for and about everyone. Our hymnal should appropriately expresses an ecumenical generosity of spirit.

And each hymn takes some small aspect of the Christmas story and amplifies it, directs our attention to it, urges us to contemplate it. The first hymn, 201, is Joy to the World, which is hardly about the nativity at all. Instead it looks forward, to his return, to the time when “Jesus reigns, and saints their songs employ. When “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.” It’s a triumphant imagining of an event that hasn’t happened yet. So we start with a comprehensive look at the entire mission of our Savior. 202, Oh Come all Ye Faithful, reminds me a lot of Kershisnek’s painting. Someone had to get all those angels there. It’s in the voice, I imagine, of the choir President, making all those reminder phone calls. Come along, everyone! It’s happened! Come, all of you, to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Come, let us adore him.”

203, Angels we have heard on High, takes a different tack. We’re not in the angelic choir anymore; we’re bystanders, wondering what’s going on. Oh, look, shepherds; they might know. “Shepherds, why this jubilee? What the gladsome tidings be, which inspired your heavenly song.” And we get an answer, but for some reason it’s in Latin. Gloria, in excelsis, Deo.

And then comes 204. Silent Night. I love this hymn. And here’s the thing; childbirth is never silent. And we don’t want it to be. We want newborn babies to cry, it signals vitality and strength, we want our new child to be healthy. But afterwards, after the mess and confusion and pain of childbirth, there comes a moment when the new mother holds the infant in her arms, and both of them, finally, rest. Silent Night is about that moment, as a bewildered but staunchly supportive Joseph stands watch, as Mary and her heavenly child enjoy a moment of reverential repose. And while a heavenly chorus was undoubtedly rejoicing musically, I hope they sang sotto voce, a focused and intense pianissimo, letting mother and child, holy infant, so tender and mild, get some sleep.

I don’t have time to go over the rest of our Christmas hymns. But I want to call your attention to the last hymn in the cycle, number 214. You’ll be invited to join the choir in singing it later in this meeting. It’s I heard the bells on Christmas Day, a lovely setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow wrote it in 1863, at the height of the brutal slaughter of that horrific exercise in incivility, American civil war. Longfellow had long opposed slavery, but the war depressed him mightily. Adding to his depression, his beloved wife Frances, known as Fanny, died shortly after the war began, in a house fire. Then his son, Charles, very much against his wishes, enlisted, and in his first battle, was badly wounded. The accumulation of political and personal tragedies find expression in the song’s third verse. “And in despair, I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.” When our choir sings in just a moment, pay note to the beautiful arrangement by brother Curtis Winters of that powerful verse. And which of us wouldn’t be similarly overwhelmed. By the horrors of war, by the hatred of people who had once been united, and by the death of a beloved spouse, and terrible injury to a beloved child?

But that is not the meaning of Christmas bells. That pain, that sorrow, though understandable, belays the hope that came to earth in that Bethlehem manger.  No heartache can exist that the atonement cannot heal. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail; the right will prevail. And the message of this Christmas season, the meaning of all Christmas seasons, is peace on earth, good will toward men.

The great and everlasting atonement is an all encompassing purpose. But it wasn’t the only message Jesus brought. Christmas does not just urge upon us a generosity of soul and spirit, but physical, temporal, active generosity of action. As James Martin, a Catholic priest, wrote in a recent LA Times editorial, “Is it any surprise that Jesus felt such intense compassion for the poor and marginalized? That he constantly asked his disciples to care for the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the stranger?” The child born in a Bethlehem manger was also born into the most abject poverty. And that choice, and it was a choice, was made for him by our Heavenly Father. And it was a magnificent event, a beautiful event, made even lovelier through the music by which we celebrate it. But let’s not be blinded by that beauty. The nativity also imposes on us an obligation, even unto the least of them, our poorest and most deeply suffering brothers and sisters. Remembering that obligation is perhaps the truest meaning Christmas has.

Christmas, and the economy

I am, it turns out, rich. ‘I don’t think of myself as rich. I’m not a billionaire. I’m not a millionaire. I actually consider myself pretty averagely middle-class. But by at least one measure, I’m rich.

I’m hard to buy for at Christmas.

My brother and I were talking about this the other day. We’re not either of us actually rich. But we’re both hard to buy for. There really isn’t anything that I want or need that I can’t afford to buy. House? Paid for. Credit card debt? Nonexistent. Car. Well, we do owe money on our new car. We could have paid cash; instead, we thought we’d finance it, pay it off really fast, take the bump in our credit rating.

We have bills, of course. But my wife and I, if we want to go out to dinner, we just do it. If we want to see a movie, we see it. We’re fairly prudent, fiscally speaking. Love a good deal, love a bargain, still comparison shop. But we’ve really very comfortable. For which happy circumstance, by the way, I deserve exactly zero credit. My wife’s the money manager.

So when my family asked me for a Christmas list, I was at my wits end. Couldn’t think of a thing. I saw a commercial for a dingus that helps you put your socks on more easily; I put that on my list. A sock putter-on-er. There are always a couple of books I wouldn’t mind having. Movie passes. But truly, honestly, I couldn’t think of much.

Which, as it happens, is kind of bad for the US economy.

The US economy is not terribly robust right now. The Great Recession is over, and the economy has recovered, but we’re not exactly at peak growth. And I’m part of the problem. I’m one of the people who is supposed to be driving demand, and I’m not doing it. My generation is really falling down. We have pretty much everything we need. We’re fine. Just today, a book was recommended to me, one I’d like to buy, I think. Checked it out on Amazon; it’s available on Kindle for four bucks. So that’s actually not going to help much.

The Republicans just passed a big tax bill, which they’ve been selling as mostly a middle-class tax cut. It isn’t. It’s mostly for millionaires and billionaires, and people with pass-through business revenues and the CEOs of big corporations. But there is a tiny cut for guys like me, the middle-class wealthy. We’ll make a few hundred extra dollars this year. If we spend it all, the theory is that that money will trickle-down to the hewers of wood and drawers of water in our country. And everyone will benefit. Yay.

Except I probably won’t. ‘Cause, see, I’m kinda hard to buy for.

That’s why a supply-side approach to stimulating growth won’t work, not now, not in this country. It’s a silly notion anyway. Increasing supply will not increase demand. What we need is a tax cut for the lower class. They got demand covered; all kinds of things they need. What we need is to put more money in the pocket of those folks who need stuff. We need a demand-side recovery, funded by tax hikes for the super rich.

Right now income inequality is higher in the United States than it was in France in 1789. The big difference between then and now is that our sans culottes are better armed. This Republican tax bill is nuts on a whole bunch of levels.

So what I actually want for Christmas this year is an electoral wave. What I want is fewer Republicans in Congress to write dumb bills like this one. Getting that to happen is going to cost some money, and thanks to this bill, I may have it to give.

What I want for Christmas is a midterm landslide. And thanks to Republicans, I may actually get it.

2018: The year of confirmation bias, escalated

This is the time of the year for media year-end appraisals–best sports moments of 2017, or whatever. I’m not going to do one of those; my memory’s not good enough. But as I’ve thought about this last year, I did come up with maybe one way of understanding the sadly troubled state of our union.

2017 was the year of not just confirmation bias, but the ways in which confirmation bias escalates, each wrong conclusion leading to worse ones. You start with ‘would a plane hitting a building cause it to collapse?’ and end up with ‘no airplanes hit the Twin Towers; President Bush did it, or ordered it done.’ You start with a nagging question, and end up a full-on Truther. You go from ‘how did Shakespeare write those plays?’ to ‘Shakespeare didn’t write those plays.’ You do it by ignoring all evidence that tends not to confirm your conclusion. Nothing makes a conspiracy theorist angrier than telling him ‘there’s no evidence for that.’ And there is some mean troll-fun in saying that. But acknowledge this: when you troll a conspiracy theorists, you are not, actually, being fair. There is, always, at least some some evidence to support even the fruitiest theory. Plus, also, a preponderance of evidence that contradicts it. Confirmation bias is at least a first cousin to conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories, in the age of Trump, rule. He loves ’em. He takes Alex Jones seriously!

I’ve seen it with friends. It starts with ‘Donald Trump, a candidate for President? Hilarious!’ Then, ‘geez, he’s pretty good on the stump; he might win.’ Then, ‘this is terrible. He can’t become President, can he?’ Then, ‘he’s the Republican candidate, and the alternative is Awful Hillary.’ Then, ‘Trump gropes women, but Hillary orders people murdered, so. . . ‘ Then, ‘Donald Trump is the Republican candidate. So I guess I’ll have to vote for him.’ And suddenly, Donald Trump, the vulgarian, the serial sexual assaulter, the most amazing liar in the history of American politics, the almost-certainly-crooked businessman, becomes maybe not so bad after all, plus maybe even kind of refreshingly candid. A guy who tells it like it is. And he’s our President, so we’d best defend him.’

Not all Republicans reasoned this way. I know a lot of lifelong, committed conservative Republicans who have become as ferociously anti-Trump as I am. National Review, maybe the leading conservative journal, has become the center for the NeverTrump resistance. I admire the principled stance Mitt Romney has taken towards Trump. More recently, Nicolle Wallace, who was one of the top members of the John McCain Presidential campaign was driven to ask “Are Republicans dead inside?”

What drove her there was the recent revelation that the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by hard-core Trump tovarisch Devin Nunes, has not only tried to derail the Russian investigation–which falls under that committee’s purview–but has formed a Republicans-only study group, a partisan sub-committee of the sub-committee, to investigate the FBI. Which has recently emerged, in the fever-dreams of Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and others, as treasonous. Yes. The FBI.

Here’s the evidence. During the 2016 election, an FBI agent named Peter Strzok had an affair with Lisa Page, an FBI attorney. Both of them were working on the Robert Mueller Russia investigation. Apparently, a big part of their relationship involved exchanging snarky texts about the election. They dished on Hillary Clinton, on Chelsea Clinton, on Bernie Sanders (who they both made fun of repeatedly). And they had a lot of joy at the expense of Republican candidate Donald Trump. And that’s the problem.

One text seems particularly ominous:

I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office for that there’s no way he gets elected—but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40 …

Insurance policy! See! There’s a Deep Space, black ops contingency plot to overthrow Trump! Proof!

Nonsense. As the invaluable Lawfare blog puts it:

Strzok was reacting to the argument that there was no point getting worked up because Trump was bound to lose. He argued in response that the odds against a Trump victory offered no reason to be complacent and gave an example: The odds are also very much against you dying before the age of 40, but you probably bought insurance at that age because dying with a young family would be such a disaster; the expense is reasonable even if the event is unlikely. For the same reason, in Strzok’s view, horror at the prospect of a Trump presidency is reasonable even though the prospect is remote.

Which is, far and away, the most sensible and rational way to understand an admittedly ambiguously worded text. Which he sent at 2 a.m. To his also-married girlfriend. Probably from the home he shared with his wife. Not conditions, in other words, that would lend themselves to clarity of expression.

At the same time, of course, a Special Prosecutor’s investigation should be impartial, and perhaps more importantly, should appear impartial. Strzok and Page worked on the Mueller investigation. The same day Mueller found out about their relationship and the accompanied anti-Trump texts, they were both reassigned. To the FBI’s HR department, which was surely intended to be punitive.

There’s another side to this. Strzok was also part of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. What Republican conspiracy theory wouldn’t find a way to drag Hillary Clinton into it?

Anyway, with this tiny molehill as foundation, the Strzok/Page affair, conservative media has constructed a mighty mountain of conjecture and speculation, now verging on certainty; the FBI can’t be trusted, and the Mueller investigation–I’m not kidding–is a attempted coup d’etat. Yes. Jesse Watters, on Fox News: “But the scary part is we may now have proof the investigation was weaponized to destroy his presidency for partisan political purposes and to disenfranchise millions of American voters. Now, if that’s true, we have a coup on our hands in America.” Of course, this only echoes what Trump tweets constantly; the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt, unfair, biased against him.

Still. A coup. Because two of the people in the Mueller investigation, as part of an affair, had fun texting back and forth. Inappropriately? Absolutely. Irresponsibly? No argument. Which is why, the second Mueller found out about it, he kicked them off his team. But man, it got taken seriously by Republicans. Andrew McCabe, Deputy Director of the FBI was hauled in before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday and grilled for over seven hours. I have a feeling they weren’t asking about his golf game. It was all Strzok and Page and Mueller.

Evidence of an FBI conspiracy? A liberal Democrat FBI conspiracy? A few anti-Trump texts. Sent back and forth by two people who also texted equally nasty stuff about Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Oh, and one of the agents involved was also on the email investigation. Evidence against the existence of such a conspiracy? Mueller got rid of them. Immediately. Plus he’s a Republican. So is his boss over in the Justice Department. Plus, of course, it’s nuts.

That’s how confirmation bias works. You ignore all evidence that contradicts what you already believe. Also, you get all your information from sources that you agree with. Contrary evidence is not welcome.

I do it, too. So do you; so does everyone. It’s a natural tendency for everyone. Which is why it is so freaking essential. Granted that objectivity is impossible; it’s still an ideal for which we should always, always strive. We should listen to each other, try to converse, make an effort to read articles we’re unlikely to agree with, try to understand sympathetically the points of view of all our brothers and sisters on this planet. Which we can’t ever do, but heck, we sure should try.

But don’t we have an equally sacred obligation to laugh at conspiracy theories? And at this President? Because there comes a point where there’s just so much evidence that you pretty much have to come to a conclusion, and not just any conclusion, but the only one the evidence supports. Trump’s a bad President. Mueller’s investigation is fair, and unbiased. And if he’s fired, Congress should take it seriously. Which this Congress probably won’t, but that’s a different thing entirely.

Kobe Bryant

This morning, ESPN’s SportsCenter did a big piece about Kobe Bryant. Lots of highlights, showing Bryant shooting, dunking, scoring. Interviews with former opponents, with former teammates, with Shaq, who was both. The occasion, the decision by the Los Angeles Lakers to retire both of his numbers. That’s right; Kobe played while wearing number 8 through 2003, then switched to 24 in 2004. Both numbers will be retired.

Professional athletes get attached to their numbers, and it’s unusual for a player to change. Kobe claimed that he asked for the change because the Lakers had just traded Shaquille O’Neal, which, said Kobe, suggested a new direction for the team. New direction; new number. From a basketball perspective, it makes sense for the Lakers to retire his number. He was easily the sixth best player in the history of the franchise; possibly even the fourth. Of course, Magic Johnson, Kareem Jabbar, Jerry West would go 1-3, and I’d put Shaq and Elgin Baylor ahead of Bryant as well. But he’s an easy vote for the Hall of Fame. A genuinely great player. Except, of course, something else happened in between.

I have to say, I find all the Kobe-love completely baffling, and especially today. The lead story on SportCenter this morning was the decision, by Carolina Panther’s owner Jerry Richardson, to sell the team, in the wake of serious (and creepy) sexual harassment allegations against him. Sports Illustrated did a big expose story about Richardson, and it took two daysm no more, for him to quit, resign, decide to sell the team. On the same day he quit, ESPN falls all over itself to praise Kobe Bryant. I truly don’t get it.

Has everyone forgotten? On June 30, 2003, Kobe Bryant checked into a hotel in Edwards, Colorado, preparing for scheduled surgery on July 2. On July 1, he had a sexual encounter with a female hotel employee. The next day, the woman reported that she’d been raped. Kobe was interrogated by the Eagle County Sheriff. He initially denied having had sexual relations with the woman. Physical evidence proved that he had. He then explained that her bruised neck was the result of rough, but consensual sex. An arrest warrant was issued, and Bryant surrendered, and was immediately released on bond.

Predictably, a media circus ensued. Bryant’s attorneys trashed the accuser’s reputation. So did national sports media. The accuser received hate mail, including death threats. Those got worse after some idiot released her name.  Public attacks on her credibility were so vicious that she attempted suicide. Twice. Finally, the unrelenting pressure she endured reached the point that she decided she could no longer testify in court. Instead, she filed a civil lawsuit. That case was settled; details were not disclosed.

In the initial press conference held by Bryant after his arrest, his wife stood by his side, playing the good wife. A few days after his arrest, he bought her a four million dollar ring. Any connection between those two events is purely conjectural.

Did Kobe Bryant rape this woman? I have no idea. I wasn’t there. Was the rape charge against him plausible? Absolutely. The Eagle County Sheriff had to have known that a rape charge against a celebrity was going to turn into a big deal. The Eagle County prosecutors had to have known how difficult such a case would be to prosecute. Their defendant in the case would be able to afford first class legal representatives. They went ahead with it. Seasoned, experienced law enforcement officials thought a woman had been raped, and were willing to do whatever they had to to prosecute the rapist. Bryant even made a public statement in which he acknowledged that, although he “truly believed this encounter . . . was consensual,” he recognized “that she did not and does not view this incident the same way. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person,” (he) now “understood how she felt that she did not consent to this encounter.” He said she said? Maybe. But with physical evidence supporting her narrative. And why would she lie? She had to know that the pushback from sports fans would be ferocious.

Okay. That was then, this is now. Things have changed, very much for the better. Jerry Richardson, apparently, repeatedly asked female employees if he could shave their legs. That’s super weird and creepy and the very definition of someone creating a hostile work environment. I’m glad he’s quit; if he hadn’t, the National Football League would have been perfectly justified in kicking him out. Richardson’s actions also fall considerably shy of rape, a crime of violence, a dangerous assault.

American society is lurching uncertainly towards a place where allegations of sexual aggression and harassment and assault are taken seriously, as they should be. Men in power should never have been allowed to get away with disgusting sexual behavior. I welcome this development, as should be all.

So why does Kobe Bryant get a pass? Why has an entirely plausible rape allegation been swept under the rug?

In his first game in Utah in the 2003-4 season, Kobe Bryant was booed by the Salt Lake crowd every time he touched the basketball. It got comical; these quick bursts of booing when he’d make a touch pass. I wasn’t there; I have friends who were, and they said it was the most electric atmosphere they’d ever felt in a sporting event. And then, in 2016, on his  NBA farewell tour, Jazz fans cheered him. A noble opponent, honored for his skills.

What? Why does this guy get a pass, especially now? I truly don’t get it.

Watching All the President’s Men in 2017

This afternoon, I was home alone, and happened to notice that HBO was screening All the President’s Men. Great film, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at the top of their game as Woodward and Bernstein. Screenplay by William Goldman. Beautifully directed by Alan J. Pakula, and shot by the great Gordon Willis, the cinematographer known as ‘the prince of darkness’ for his wonderful use of shadows and unlit corners. The film holds up beautifully.

Obviously, though, that’s not why I watched it. John Oliver has called the Russian collusion scandal “stupid Watergate,” which is to say, it’s a scandal as consequential as Watergate, but carried out by dumber people. I was in high school during Watergate, and I remember vividly coming home from school every day and watching the Congressional hearings on TV. I was a news junkie back then, and I knew all the players, not just Nixon and Haldeman and Dean, but bit players too: Kalmbach, Magruder, Segretti, Hugh Sloan.

Richard Nixon was an intelligent and capable man. He certainly had his character failings, one of which, his thin-skinned sensitivity to criticism and his paranoid creation of enemy lists seem rather Trumpian. Nixon also seemed more ruthless. In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein were told that their lives were in danger, and in the movie, we believe them. They thought, and people generally thought, that Nixon could have his enemies killed. That turned out to be groundless. But everyone around Nixon seemed to be, at least, good at their jobs. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, both men were noted for their intelligence and competence. The analogous folks in Trump’s White House would be John Kelly, chief of staff (like Haldeman), and senior counselor Jared Kushner, special councilor to the President, similar to Ehrlichman. The one apt comparison would be the comically inept Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, and the ghastly Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose job seems to be to reinforce whatever the lie of the day is coming from the President.

That’s the biggest difference, though, between Nixon and Trump. Nixon was smart, a genuine expert on foreign policy, a real diplomat, but also amoral and vindictive. Nixon lied, but it wasn’t always easy to see through his lies. Whereas Trump is willfully, intentionally, insistently ignorant. You wondered, with Nixon, what he believed, and how it informed his governing. With Trump, you just assume he’s what he appears to be; a not-very-bright braggart narcissist.

Trump just lies all the time, about matters of importance and more trivial matters. He lies reflexively; telling a lie seems to be his default position. He drives the press corps crazy, not because he tries to mislead them, but because he’s so brazen about it. He lies when he doesn’t have to, lies when the truth is perfectly obvious to everyone. When he’s not lying, he’s bragging. And then, when it would do him the most damage, seemingly, that’s when Trump tells the truth, just blurts it out.  That really wasn’t Nixonian.

Both Nixon and Trump have been accused of obstruction of justice, for example. One of the reasons All the President’s Men is such a great film is Gordon Willis’ cinematography. So shadowy, so mysterious. That’s the feel of Watergate. No wonder the key figure in the film is Deep Throat, this guy meeting Woodward in parking garages. That’s not Trump. He’s all bluster. Did you ask James Comey to shut down the Russian investigation? Nixon would have obfuscated, offer some legalistic defense. Trump says ‘yes, I did, because I was trying to shut down the Russian thing.’ Nixon would never have done that.

But, then, Nixon couldn’t. Yes, he was head of the Republican party. But the Republicans were a different party then. For one thing, the party wasn’t consistently conservative. It was home to both Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, two men who couldn’t agree about anything. Nixon himself self-identified as a conservative, but he in domestic policy, he would be a moderate Democrat today. And in both parties, there were politicians of integrity, people who were appalled by Watergate as the drip drip drip of new information about the coverup became known.

That’s not true anymore. The Republican party is the conservative party; a Rockefeller or a Charles Percy (liberal Republican Senator from Illinois) wouldn’t be welcome in it anymore. And politics had norms and standards and traditions Nixon had to at least pretend to follow. Trump sees all that nonsense as so much political correctness.

Trump’s lies are open and obvious. It should be much easier to catch him. It won’t be, because the Republicans seem unwilling to investigate even his most egregious statements and actions.

Nixon had to pretend not to be a crook. Trump, far more obviously, is a crook. So what? say his followers. A crook? A colluder? Possibly even a traitor? Who cares. He’s going to make American great again. And that’s all that matters.

The Republican tax cut

Last week, on This Week with George Stephanopoul0s, this exchange took place. One of the guests was Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax; another was Megan Murphy, a financial reporter from Bloomberg News, and another was a columnist named Charles Blow. Stephanopoulos describes the passage of the Senate tax reform bill as a legislative victory. Here was the response:

Murphy: Let’s contest the first point of this, whether this is a legislative victory, ’cause it is a deeply unpopular bill, and I want to bring up something the Senate Majority leader said; their own economic analysis says that this will not do much for economic growth, less than one percent over the next ten years, not only their model, but top economists surveyed by the University of Chicago, there is no survey that shows that this will generate the kind of economic growth that they need to make it pay for itself, it just doesn’t exist. So where does this leave them? With faith, that tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest members of society will actually be the juggernaut that drives manufacturing job growth, and more specifically, wage growth in this country. . . there’s no factual basis for that assumption. In fact, when we talk to CEOs, they say exactly the opposite. They say they’re going to use that money for M&A (mergers and acquisitions), to pay down debt, and for share buy-backs, and to give more incentives to wealthy executives. 

Ruddy: I’m not sure if you’re all living in a bubble. . . This tax bill, this is actually going to be a watershed. Three trillion dollars in off-shore money–forget about the individual and corporate tax rates, three trillion dollars is coming back into the economy, three times the Obama stimulus. It will propel Trump’s re-election; it will drive the economy for the next ten years.

Blow: This idea of this tax break is just fascinating to me, because basically, it’s an article of faith. Basically it’s saying, we’re going to make rich people richer, and we’re going to hope that that makes them happy, and if they’re happy, maybe they’ll create jobs. And there’s no fallback position, and we have no way of absorbing the trillion and half dollars debt we’re creating.

Later on the show, Alex Castellanos suggests that the tax bill will result on 3 to 4 percent economic growth, and Murphy just explodes: ‘there’s no evidence for that.’

I’m not an economist. I’m just a playwright with wifi. I did study economics for a play I once wrote. But based on what real economists say, here’s what I think, assuming the Senate bill becomes the basis for a conference committee bill that ends up passing the House and Senate (which seems likely, though not necessarily inevitable, thank heavens).

I think the tax cut will provide a small stimulus. I think the idea that three trillion dollars of money stored by American corporations offshore, as a tax dodge, that this bill will cause all that dough magically to return to the US and stimulate our economy is a fantasy. The whole idea of this tax return was to lower the corporate tax rate, but simultaneously close tax loopholes, so that the actual amount of money collected goes up. I wouldn’t necessarily oppose that, but I also don’t believe it. This tax bill is so slapdash and haphazard, it will inevitably open a new tax loophole for every one it closes. And it didn’t close every loophole; just some of the less popular ones.

Besides, the whole idea of supply-side economics is that if you increase supply, you increase economic growth. That’s just not true. Increasing supply will lower prices, but that doesn’t automatically increase demand. It doesn’t matter how many Edsels you build; if people don’t want them, they won’t sell. What matters is demand.

Pumping more money into corporations through cutting their taxes may result in some economic growth. Tax cuts don’t always generate growth. Tax cuts can have a modest stimulative effect if and only if the biggest problem facing the economy is a lack of investment capital. That is absolutely not the problem with the US economy today. There’s plenty of investment money sitting on the sidelines. Why? Because businesses are leery of expanding right now. Why? Because demand is low. Too many people just don’t have enough money. But this bill is massive; maybe it will facilitate some companies to expand. Could happen.

More likely, it will make things worse. The US economy has been in recovery since the Obama stimulus in 2008, but it’s not a robust recovery. We’ve averaged about one percent growth, and for the most part, that hasn’t gone to lower class, lower-middle class, or middle class people. Wages remain fairly stagnant, job growth, relatively anemic. And there’s a important reason for this. It’s called income inequality.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has been called the most important economics book of the last decade. Essentially, he lays out the case. Income inequality leads to economic stagnation. It’s not just that income inequality is immoral, or destructive of social norms. It is those things too, but the big problem is that it doesn’t work. It’s bad economics. Laissez faire, libertarian economics aren’t just brutal, and violent; they’re ineffective. Whenever conservatives talk about economic freedom–and that’s such a fine word, freedom–they mean, let the rich do what the rich do. And maybe they’ll build a factory and hire people to run it; that can happen. But the problem isn’t a lack of factories. The problem is, people don’t have enough money to buy what factories produce. Demand creates supply. Supply does not create demand.

So, part of the Senate plan–the only part Mitch McConnell wants to talk about–is a small middle-class tax cut. And that’s real, that is part of the plan. And it will have a mild stimulative effect. Not three percent. More like .3 percent; a fraction. And that will go away almost immediately. And then we’ll see how long it takes the massive deficit this will create to drive inflation up, leading to another recession.

One of the Democrat talking point about the tax cut is that the Republicans are acting on the behest of their big money donors. I don’t question that rich Republicans like the idea of getting their taxes lowered. But I’m not that cynical. Nor should we oppose this because rich corporations are evil or anything like that. No, we should oppose this bill on economic grounds.

I think Republicans genuinely believe in the power of tax cuts. I think it’s probably the one thing Republicans still believe. But as Blow put it on This Week; it’s akin to religious faith. Certainly there’s no economic analysis that supports the preposterous notion that this tax cut will pay for itself by stimulating the economy to massive growth. There’s just no evidence that that’s true. All the evidence is on the other side. This is a bad idea.

As I write this, the bill is not yet in its final version, and still hasn’t passed. All that is expected to happen within the next couple of weeks, and there are political considerations that could derail it. Let’s hope it fails. Because this is the exact opposite of what the US economy needs.


Erik Prince’s spy network

This may not be a real thing. CNN contacted everyone who is supposed to be involved, and they all denied it. While it’s the kind of thing that’s likely to appeal to President Trump, I can’t imagine it passing muster with John Kelly, or any of the other White House minders and nursemaids and gatekeepers trying to keep some semblance of American democracy alive. And the story is, on the face of it, preposterous. An unholy alliance between Erik Prince, Mike Pompeo and Oliver North? Ridiculous. And, therefore, entirely plausible.

The Intercept is kind of a new thing. It’s an on-line news organization; been around since 2013. Started by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitrus, and Jeremy Scahill, excellent reporters, all. Funded by the guy who founded Ebay, they’ve had some journalistic successes, and their reporting is generally solid, though as lefty as Sandy Koufax. And they’re very strong when it comes to reporting on American surveillance agencies and policies.

Anyway, on Dec. 4, Scahill and Matthew Cole reported that Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother to Betsy DeVos, and Oliver North had pitched an idea to CIA director Mike Pompeo and to someone unspecified in the White House (Trump?), to create an off-the-books, unaccountable, reporting-to-Trump-only network of spies. Here’s a link. Let me quote the Intercept article.

The sources say the plans have been pitched to the White House as a means of countering “deep state” enemies in the intelligence community seeking to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency.

“Pompeo can’t trust the CIA bureaucracy, so we need to create this thing that reports just directly to him,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official with firsthand knowledge of the proposals, in describing White House discussions. “It is a direct-action arm, totally off the books,” this person said, meaning the intelligence collected would not be shared with the rest of the CIA or the larger intelligence community. “The whole point is this is supposed to report to the president and Pompeo directly.”

Some of the individuals involved with the proposals secretly met with major Trump donors asking them to help finance operations before any official contracts were signed.

The proposals would utilize an army of spies with no official cover in several countries deemed “denied areas” for current American intelligence personnel, including North Korea and Iran. The White House has also considered creating a new global rendition unit meant to capture terrorist suspects around the world.

After the Intercept article appeared, denials were swift.  A CIA spokesperson told The Intercept, “You have been provided wildly inaccurate information by people peddling an agenda.” Spokespeople for Trump, Prince and Pompeo all denied it. The Intercept’s sources were anonymous, so no one could confirm the story. So we don’t know if this was a real proposal made by people who thought this would be a good idea, or a badly sourced story rife with errors. But I also don’t take those denials very seriously, of course. If this proposal was really floated, everyone involved would, of course, deny it.

In fact, though, I do believe it. I think The Intercept story needs to be taken very seriously indeed. It needs to be investigated. While being investigated, it needs to be ridiculed. By everyone, everywhere. Mr. Colbert? Seth Meyers? Sam Bee? Anyone else?

I believe it because, frankly, Erik Prince is a tool. (See, for example, this Esquire article from yesterday). Erik Prince is the guy who, a few months ago, thought we should reinstitute colonialism in Afghanistan, with himself as Viceroy. He’d fund it via Afghan minerals, which Afghans would mine, enriching Prince, while also privatizing the military end of things, through Blackwater. This isn’t as crazy a scheme as that one. And it makes sense because it so perfectly expresses the paranoid, macho, divorced-from-reality nature of the Trump White House and Trumpism. My favorite part? That these guys think Oliver North–that’s Iran/Contra’s Oliver North–will lend the proposal credibility.

Look at the phrase ‘the deep state.’ The deep state is real, and its important. It’s shorthand for all those career government employees in State and the FBI and the CIA and every other government agency who are experts on stuff that it’s really important that someone be an expert on. Remember The West Wing? When CJ Kregg took over as Chief of Staff, the invaluable Margaret (Leo’s incomparable secretary), shows her the various meetings she needs to have that day. And CJ, overwhelmed, said (I’m paraphrasing) ‘I can’t possible know enough on all these subjects to advise the President.’ ‘You don’t have to,’ says Margaret. ‘Just call me. I’ll put you in touch with the leading experts in the world on any subject. They work for us.’ Do we have a problem with, I don’t know, Azerbaijan? Well, the leading expert on Azerbaijan works over at State. Career diplomats. Career analysts. Career spies.

Donald Trump doesn’t care about any of that, of course. He’s willfully, intentionally ignorant, and has no interest in learning. Deep state advisors are exactly the people that Rex Tillerson is trying to get rid of. They’re exactly the kind of people a major world superpower needs. They’re exactly the kinds of people who were horrified by Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel. They’re non-partisan, patriotic, and really really good at their jobs.

Not according to Sean Hannity and Alex Jones and other wackadoodle cable TV guys watched by The Donald. To them, the deep state is something sinister and dangerous. President Trump apparently believes that they’re all allies of Hillary Clinton and The Democrats, and that they’re out to get him. I mean, the CIA believes that Russia helped him win the election! Outrageous! And the FBI are investigating him! Him! They’re on the wrong side. They’re dangerous. They need to be gotten rid of. Or, as with this proposal, circumvented. Sidestepped. And Erik Prince is there to help.

A private spy network. Presumably, some of the spies with 00 numbers, indicating a license to kill. That’s all Donald Trump needs. His own private secret police.

So let’s take it seriously. Call for Congress to investigate. (That’ll be easier after 2018). And meanwhile make as much noise as we can. And I know, there are so many outrages to protest, and only so many hours in the day. I do think The Intercept did America a great service with their article. At least, now, everyone in the Trump orbit has publicly issued official denials. Sometimes just shining the light on a particularly insane proposal is all that’s needed to kill it. Let’s hope this is one of those times.


Why I haven’t been able to blog

When I started this blog, I saw it as a chance to weigh on a wide variety of topics and ideas, including ideas that I fully admit I don’t have the credentials to talk about at all. I’m a playwright with wifi. I’m not a journalist, nor am I a policy expert.

But. While I’m also not an economist, I spent two years trying to learn enough about economics to write a play about two important economists; I’m not a scholar of Mormonism, but have dipped my toe into the field; I’m an historian, but in theatre history. I’m a reasonably well-read generalist, with a pack rat mind, and the most varied possible reading habits. I’m a pretty experienced movie and theatre critic. I’m a baseball and basketball nut. And so I thought my blog would be like, well me. Eclectic and curious. All over the map. I strive for open-mindedness, and although I am a liberal, I respect conservatives and conservatism, and try at least to get it right. I want to be reasonable. I like conversation. And I’m always willing to admit it when I’m wrong about something. And I enjoyed blogging. I looked forward to it. And some people were kind enough to say that they enjoyed reading it.

Then two things happened. The first is, my health took a nasty turn, and I had to endure several months of hit-and-miss medical issues. I won’t bore you with the details, and I am doing much better now, but I found that I often just didn’t have the energy to do something as creative, even, as blogging.

But the second is–and I’m ashamed to admit this–but Donald Trump’s Presidency just wore me down. The lying, the buffoonish approach to policy, the savage destruction of governing norms, the blatantly incapable people in his cabinet, the crudeness, the coarseness, the open racism, the Islamaphobia–I just reached the point where I didn’t want to write about it. I could, of course, have simply abandoned politics as a subject. But that felt like an abdication of citizenship. There have been Presidents in the past that I simply disagreed with. But this is something different, something new, something unprecedented. The Trump Presidency represents, if anything, an ongoing crisis, a continuing assault on the most cherished American values.

And it doesn’t matter. I have voted for Republicans for public office on occasion, when I thought they were more capable than their opponents. I live in Provo; most of my friends are Republicans. I have generally thought of Republican politicians as fundamentally decent, honorable, patriotic people with whom I differed on matters of policy.

Not any more. Not now. The craven willingness of national Republicans to enable the worst instincts of the worst human being to serve as President in our nation’s history is probably the most disheartening part of our current political environment.

It wore me down. If I just wrote movie reviews or wry commentary on Mormon culture, I’d be ignoring an all-encompassing national emergency. So I took the cowards’ way out. I stopped writing at all.

No more. I will resume a full blogging schedule starting tomorrow. And yes, I will review movies, and comment on Mormon culture, and reflect on sports, and chat about theatre, and tell you about the new book I just read. But I will also address national issues of import.

I’m sorry I went away. If you’ve given up on me, I don’t blame me. But I’m back, and will try to re-earn your trust.