Monthly Archives: January 2018

Darkest Hour: Movie review

Due to what has to be pure serendipity, two of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture this year cover the same few days in May, 1940: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which came out earlier this year, and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, recently released. Together, the two movies make a compelling case for those few days as one of the great turning points in history. The appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the decision to resist Hitler at all costs even as France and the rest of Europe went up in flames, and the desperate gamble of sending pleasure craft and fishing boats from England to Dunkirk to evacuate Britain’s last 300,000 professionally trained soldiers, combined to make possible the UK’s survival as a nation, as the last bastion of democratic decency left in a world gone mad. One shudders to think of the cost of it had any of those gambles failed.

Essentially, Dunkirk takes a micro-narrative approach to filmmaking, by focusing on a few individual stories within the larger story; a pilot, fighting off Luftwaffe planes trying to sink rescue vessels, a single soldier trying to find his way to freedom, and an ordinary citizen captaining a boat on its way to the rescue. It’s an extraordinary movie, not least because of Nolan’s compression of time. He manages to tell three stories simultaneously, one describing events that lasted an hour, one, a day, and one, a week. And the stakes, of course, are extraordarily high. 300, 000 men will almost certainly die if not evacuated.

And yet, the stakes in Darkest Hour are higher still. It’s one of those movies about a single moment, a movie about a single character making a single, momentous decision, with everything else in the movie subordinated to that decision. (The Post is structurally similar, though of course, about a different time and set of issues). The decision, in this case, is whether Winston Churchill (astonishingly rendered by Gary Oldman), with the rest of Europe under Hitler subjugation, will seek peace terms in order to save those 300,000 lives. Churchill’s instincts are to radically mistrust Adolf Hitler. (Those instincts, of course, are entirely correct). But essentially his entire war cabinet is lined up against him. Most especially, the man who probably would have been a more sensible choice for Prime Minister, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), adamantly insists that peace must be pursued. And what cost? Halifax, in the movie, doesn’t seem to care.

The film’s depiction of Halifax is, in fact, something of a distortion of history. Halifax was appalled by Kristalnacht, opposed (in a measured, quiet way), to Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, and willing to commit British forces to defend Poland. His peace overtures to Germany were based on his feeling that it was the only way out of an impossible situation. By June of 1940, he had fully committed to the war effort, and when appointed as ambassador to the United States, served with great distinction and success.

But this is a Hollywood biopic, and as such, somewhat uninterested in nuance. It’s about Churchill, depicted here as uncertain of his path, but also as unequivocally heroic. Oh, sure, he can be rude to the help, faltering in his speech, and his eating and drinking habits were undeniably unhealthy. But he saw clearly the danger posed by Hitler. The problem is, so did everyone else, and the question was, what to do it about it. As it turned out, Churchill’s rather harebrained scheme of sending hundreds of small civilian boats to rescue the soldiers at Dunkirk succeeded far beyond any reasonable expectation. Earlier in his career, during WWI, his far more strategically justifiable Gallipoli campaign, had failed more catastrophically than it probably should have. Luck evens out over time.

Wright’s filmmaking is inventive, especially his use of long subjective angle tracking shots, as we see the British populace from Churchill’s p.o.v. from his car. The camera gets less busy, of course, in all the scenes with Churchill, but then it’s got Oldman to keep our attention. I thought Kristin Scott Thomas was underutilized in the thankless role of Churchill’s wife, Clemmie. More successful was the film’s depiction of Churchill’s favorite typist, Miss Layton (wonderfully played by Lili James). Initially intimidated by his gruffness, she became a reliable associate and cheering section.

Still, it’s a fine film, featuring a wonderful performance, and I’m looking forward, on Oscar night, to seeing Oldman earn his reward. And this movie, combined with Dunkirk, serve the admirable purpose of telling audiences in 2018 something about a particularly crucial era in history. Well done indeed, to everyone involved with it.


Trump’s Wall

It occurred to me the other day, watching news shows discussing immigration, that I had never heard anyone refer to Donald Trump’s wall without pejorative adjectives. It’s never The Wall, or even Trump’s wall. It’s always ‘Trump’s stupid wall,’ or ‘Trump’s idiotic wall,’ or ‘Trump’s moronic wall.’ I do it too. When Donald Trump was campaigning for President, one of his big applause lines involved the wall, a big wall he wanted to build between the United States and Mexico. And then he’d add “and Mexico’s gonna pay for it.’ That was never going to happen, of course, but he still wants it, I think out of sheer ego and stubbornness. I’m a liberal; like most liberals, I think it’s dumb, and want Democrats in the Senate to oppose it.  When, in the middle of the government shutdown negotiations, Chuck Schumer agreed to fund building the wall, trading it for a clean DACA bill, it felt like a punch in the gut. We have to be against the wall. I mean, don’t we?

In the early New Deal era, British economist John Maynard Keynes came to the US, and Harry Hopkins showed him around. As the story goes, Hopkins showed him a WPA project, in which a whole gang of guys dug ditches with shovels. “See,” Hopkins said, “shovels. It’s a job stimulus project.” “If this is a stimulus project,” Keynes replied, “you should have given them teaspoons.” The point is, to stimulate the economy, there’s value in make-work projects. As long as people are working, and getting paid for it, essentially any job has stimulative value. The wall may be worthless from a policy perspective, but hey, people are getting paid, that money will circulate; it’s a stimulus project. (Then, a year or two later, we can pay other people to take it down! Double stimulus!).

And let’s be honest, Democrats haven’t always opposed building physical barriers on the Mexican border. Hillary Clinton voted for a fence. Other Dems have voted for other ‘border security’ projects. As much as Republicans want to paint Democrats as the pro-illegal-immigration party, no President deported as many undocumented people as Barack Obama did. Pretty much every Democrat running supported some combination of ‘pathway to citizenship’ and ‘secure our borders.’ When thousands of refugees showed up in the US from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, most of them children, the US didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms. I support our country accepting many many more refugees and many many more immigrants, from all over the world. Millions. But mine is not the majority opinion of the Democratic party.

The wall is, let’s be frank, idiotic public policy. First of all, just building it is a logistical nightmare. Much of the border between the US and Mexico is a river. We can’t build a wall in the middle of a river, and we obviously can’t build on the Mexican side. We’re gonna put a big ugly dangerous wall right on the river’s edge? Construction can’t even begin until someone sorts out thousands of eminent domain cases. A lot of the border is inhospitable building terrain. Plus, build a fifteen foot wall, and folks will show up with sixteen foot ladders. Plus, a large percentage of people who are here illegally arrived by plane, and then overstayed their visas. The Trump wall won’t help with that. It’s a stupid, useless idea, expensive and wasteful. The thing it’s meant to accomplish isn’t worth accomplishing, and the wall won’t accomplish it anyway. Bad idea all around.

Immigration is good. The US wants more, not fewer immigrants. Immigrants are an economic plus. It’s way too hard to get a green card, and much much too difficult, after immigrating, to earn American citizenship. The arguments against immigration, and I’ve heard all of them, are either factually wrong, racist, or irrelevant.

Quick tangential drug policy digression: Mexican drug cartels are dangerous, violent and destructive. We need to amend American drug policy to drive them out of business. Right now, what we’re doing about drugs is interdiction; we’re trying to stop drugs from entering the US. In other words, we’re artificially constricting supply of a commodity. Reduce supply, and if demand stays constant, you’re artificially raising prices and profits. In other words, we’re battling Mexican drug cartels by making them richer. This strikes me as, uh, counterproductive. End drug policy digression.

So we’re all against the wall, except for those Democrats who have, in the past, supported building physical barriers. We’re against the wall, except we also grant its central premise–the need for ‘border security.’ We like the DACA kids, but hate illegals. And everyone, right and left, opposes ‘amnesty.’ So can’t we liberals at least be consistent? Or, you know, brave? I would fall down at the feet of any Democratic politician who came out for amnesty, for increased immigration, for issuing many more green cards and who urged us to take in, I don’t know, five million refugees from Central America, Africa, Syria and Libya. Want to see economic stimulus? Want job creation? Increased immigration will do it.

No, the wall has become symbolic, right and left. I think the people who cheered Trump when he talked about it love the idea of it. The world is changing. White people seem to be losing power. By golly, when I was in high school, the idea was, you got a job at the local RCA plant, building radios, or the local Otis plant, building elevators, and you worked there for forty years, got married, bought a house, and then you retired. Meantime, you coached Little League, and supporting Scouting, and joined the Elks Club. And the people in charge were the same kinds of people who had always been in charge. And everyone on TV was white. (I remember the first time I saw a black person on a TV commercial. For Proctor and Gamble, as I recall) All of that is changing. America doesn’t look the way it looked, and the RCA factory shut down, and so did Otis, and they’re offering job training, on computers. Computers! And your brother-in-law is a drug addict, became one after his back surgery. And the President had a Muslim name and dark skin. He looked wrong. Whether he did a good job or not–he did–wasn’t relevant. Build a wall! Stop it! Block it all out! Make it all go away.

Trump ‘said it like it is.’ That’s astonishing, given how much he lies, but what he was offering was solace, a comforting fantasy. And the wall was the key to his appeal. It stood for something. a barrier to change.

And I’m an old white guy, and I get it. But I also love the world today. If a wall gets built, I want to be there when it falls. I want a piece of it, like everyone wanted when that other idiotic wall got built in Berlin. I like multi-cultural, post-racial, gender bending, feminist, post-modern America. I want more change, faster. I want more, not fewer, gay friends and trans friends and professional female friends. I want more change, faster.

Trump supporters want the wall for symbolic reasons. Liberals oppose it, also for symbolic reasons. Whether an actual wall gets built–it shouldn’t–may be kind of beside the point.

This is what it looks like when a racist runs the government

The federal government shut down on Friday, and remains shut down today. I’m going to assume that you are generally familiar with the whys and wherefores of it. Shortly stated, It involves a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over immigration policy. I watched the Sunday political talk shows this week, and of course, spokespeople from the White House, plus Republican senators, all blamed the Democrats; this is the ‘Schumer shutdown,’ as the ineffable White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it. (Points for alliteration, at least!). Meanwhile, all the Dems were calling it the ‘Trump shutdown.’ Watching the pols shout ‘j’accuse!’ at each other made for an unpleasant Sunday, honestly. And, of course, both sides were intent on blackening the other side’s motivation, intent and basic integrity. Again, unpleasant.

But let’s not give in to the trap of declaring ‘a pox on both their houses.’ This really is a moral argument more than a political/procedural one. And one side, and one side only, is on the side of the angels.

Procedurally, of course, it’s the Republicans who have the better argument. It takes 60 votes to open a Senate debate, without which no budget can pass. Chuck Schumer heads up the Democratic caucus, and for the most part, it is Democrats who are refusing to vote to open.  (There were a few defections on each side). Democrats are holding the budget hostage over the issues of DACA and CHIP. (They have to–that’s the only leverage they have). The shut-down could end today. A wrench has been thrown into the Senate’s gears, and it was Democrats who threw it. Let us at least concede that much. Couldn’t they all just get along better? Pass a budget, and get on with their lives? Yes, they could. Democrats could give up this lonely, quixotic fight. But that would require a certain moral accommodation, a certain lowering of moral standards. It’s an accommodation they are (not yet) willing to make.

But the fact that Schumer (along with Dick Durbin and Lindsay Graham and Jeff Flake and a few other Senators on each side) are genuinely making an effort to break this impasse isn’t actually the problem. Schumer put it best when he said that working with President Trump is like “negotiating with jello.” Trump famously goes along with whoever speaks with him last, and it appears that immigration hard-liners have his ear, especially advisor Stephen Miller (quite likely the most repellent figure in Washington), John Kelly and Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark).

But this entire embroglia is and always was completely unnecessary. President Obama fought for years to solve the problem of the Dreamers. Young people, who were brought to this country as tiny children, by their parents, in violation of US immigration laws, are vulnerable. In every way that matters, they’re Americans. They’re working, going to school, serving in the military. They should simply be made citizens, and that’s what Obama wanted for them, but he couldn’t get that through Congress, though there exists a bill, the DREAM act, that would accomplish it, and which would pass if Republican Congressional leadership would bring it to a vote. (Plenty of Republicans are good people of conscience, and Dreamer supporters). So Obama used the power of the Presidency to, at least, protect those kids from deportation. And deporting them makes no sense whatsoever. Their homes are here. They know no one in their parents’ countries of origin. Mostly, they don’t speak the language of those countries. Obama’s actions, DACA, gave them a reprieve.

And then, on September 5, Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing DACA.

There was absolutely no reason for President Trump to strip those young people of the DACA protections President Obama extended them. It was an act of utterly gratuitous cruelty. That action, unnecessary and unprincipled and without moral foundation of any kind, is what precipitated this crisis. Democrats have one, tiny bit of leverage they can use to force a vote on the Dream Act. They have to do it, for moral if not for political reasons.

And why did Trump do it? Why did he hold Dreamers hostage like this; what larger political purpose did this despicable act serve? Why, he wanted to put pressure on Democrats to agree to a whole bunch of restrictions on immigration. He talks a lot about ending ‘chain migration.’ He wants to end the diversity visa lottery program. His clearest comment on his reasoning came a few days go; the ‘shithole countries’ comment.

Bluntly stated, Donald Trump wants fewer brown people in this country, and more people with white skin. ‘Norwegians.’ And he’ll go to any lengths to achieve it. This what it looks like when racists govern. This is what happens when the reflexive, xenophobic, inchoate discomfort with people with darker skin influences the policies of an older white man with a long track record of racism. This is what the United States would look like under the alt-Right. This is a power play by racists. This is Klan tactics, and Klan strategizing. This is the savagery of racism, the violence of racism, the barbarism of racism, the barely-contained ferocity of racism.

Someone has to stand against racism, and Democrats are what we have.

Unpack the code. Mr. Trump may rail against political correctness, but the fact is, most decent people are repulsed by statements of open racism, and even Teflon Don can’t just say ‘I hate brown people.’ They talk about ‘illegals.’ They say they’re simply standing up for ‘rule of law.’ It’s not immigrants they oppose, or immigration, but illegality. (If that were the case, illegal Hispanic immigration would be an easy problem to solve; just issue more green cards. Watch immigration hardliners recoil from that suggestion). They oppose ‘amnesty.’ Let’s be blunt; all those words, ‘illegals’ and ‘amnesty’ most especially, are barely concealed racist language. Sometimes, hardliners will even admit it. The seamier pages of Breitbart and other neo-Klan websites talk about ‘racial purity’ and the ‘end of the white race’ quite openly. Stephen Miller wrote Trump’s bizarrely dark and violent inauguration address. He’s been consulting with Breitbart throughout this crisis. The racism of this administration, of this President, of many of his advisors, and of key Republican legislators is not far under the surface, not all that well hidden.

And their intentions were laid bare in a political ad that was released by the RNC last weekend. I’m not going to link to that ad, nor am I going to tell you how to find it: I won’t drive traffic there. But this was the key line: “Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.” The ad essentially accuses Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi of murder. On the Sunday shows, White House spokespeople tried to distance the President from the ad. That’s a little tricky when we can hear the President’s voice at the end of it saying “I’m Donald Trump and I approved this message.”

This President–perhaps driven there by his advisors, perhaps driven there by his own paranoia and suspicion and darkest of dark fantasies–lives in a world in which brown-skinned people are The Enemy, where they’re murderers and rapists, where they’re shithole people from shithole places, where their only interest in America is destructive, America conceived of as a place where they can mooch off ‘hard-working’ (code for white) Americans. And Donald Trump has shut down the federal government to pressure the only people standing against him to accept policies that would hasten deportation, increase deporation, criminalize millions of people’s families, shatter those families, and ultimately, whiten America.

He’s also holding sick children hostage. Reauthorizing CHIP, another Democratic priority, is also in the mix.

We’ve all known for a long time that Trump was racist. But he hasn’t always governed as one, or spoken as one. Like most would-be despots, he has a sentimental side. And so, from time to time, he’ll talk about treating DACA kids with ‘love.’ But he can be worked on, and Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions and Tom Cotton and John Kelly have his ear.

Please, Senator Schumer. Please. Don’t back down. You really are our only hope.

S***hole Nations

The big issue of the day is immigration reform, and passing a much needed bill will require bi-partisan cooperation. And so meetings have been held, negotiations continue. In the midst of those conversations in the Oval Office, President Trump expressed frustration over a Democratic discussion of immigrants from such nations as Haiti, El Salvador, and various African nations. And the President, with that delicacy and elegance of expression that seems never to desert him said ““Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”  And then suggested that we should seek more immigrants from Norway.

And the internet blew up.

As did mainstream media. I watched the coverage of this story on several networks, as well the indispensible commentary provided by late night comics. It was kind of astonishing. Over and over again, the President was condemned as racist. And that’s without euphemisms of any kind. They used the word ‘racist.’ Time and time again, commentators were calling the President himself racist. In other words, it wasn’t ‘this comment was racially insensitive,’ or something similarly anodyne. It was ‘President Donald Trump is racist.’ Clearly a line has been crossed. A decision has been made. The attitude expressed by the President cannot be normalized. It must be condemned. This President has revealed himself (obviously not for the first time) as openly racist.

Which suggests to me an opportunity. Obviously, politics is compromise. Democrats want a clean DACA bill; Republicans want more money for border security, meaning Mr. Trump’s infamous wall. And in the meeting in which the President expressed himself so intemperately, a compromise was agreed to by the 6 Senate Democrats and Republicans in a bi-partisan working group. They presented it to the President with, I think, some expectation that he would go along with their agreement; just the day before, after all, he had said ‘I’ll support whatever these people (those senators, in other words) come up with.’ But the unctous and repellent Stephen Miller (this White House’s Uriah Heep), got to him first. Trump rather famously agrees with whoever talks to him last. So. No deal. And then came this repugnant Trumpian burst of racism.

But, okay. Does not this suggest a possible window of opportunity? Because the DACA compromise bill agreed to by the bi-partisan working group was a dreadful bill. It would have ended the diversity lottery (which doesn’t let enough qualified immigrants into the country, but at least allows some), it wouldn’t have allowed immigrants to sponsor this families, plus it would have provided at least some money for the wall. So, stuff for Democrats, stuff for Republicans, usual procedure. Except they can’t pass it without 60 votes. And if you’re a Republican, and you vote against, say, a clean DACA bill, aren’t you aligning yourself with this toxically unpopular President? On this issue? Not sure I’d want to run for re-election with that baggage.

Anyway, let’s admit this; there are some mighty screwed up nations on earth. It’s unkind and unfair to call them what POTUS called them, but I also wouldn’t particularly want to live there. The term of art is ‘failed states,’ and there are a few around the world: Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria. Do we want immigrants from those countries? Aren’t they likely to be (gasp) terrorists?

Here’s a working definition for a functioning state: its government has a monopoly on the applied use of violence. In the United States, if you decide to kill someone, you will be arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned. The state reserves to itself that right. And since we get to vote for the people who run our country, we want it that way. We want to watch the constabulary like hawks, but we also want them to exist and to do their jobs.

The failed states I mentioned above are all embroiled in horrific civil wars, and all lack a central, respected state authority. And yes, they’re all havens for terrorism. (Have you noticed: terrorists come from screwed up places?) But their people want the same things most people want. They want their families to be safe. They want their kids to get educations, and to have opportunities. Can you even imagine how hard it is to escape a war zone? Can you imagine how much courage and determination it takes to get your kids out of a dangerous neighborhood, to find a refugee camp, to escape roving violent gangs, to find some kind of refuge anywhere?

Those are the people we want in our country, Mr. President. We want people who work hard, who are dedicated to their families, who are willing to sacrifice for the sake of their children. We want people like my grandfather, with his third grade education and indomitable work ethic. He was a highly intelligent man (best chess player I ever met), who never had the opportunity for success he desperately wanted for his children.

We want people from Haiti. We want people from Syria. We want people from Libya. We want Somalis. We want people from failed states, frankly. This isn’t liberal weenie moralizing. I mean, yes, it’s also the right thing to do, to accept into our country, the richest in the history of the world, impoverished children and their parents. We should do it because it’s right. But. Mr. President, if you genuinely want to put America first, fine. Accept more people from shithole countries. They’ve already demonstrated their courage and determination and creativity. That’s exactly who we want.

And just between the two of us, Mr. President, you absolutely don’t want more immigrants from Norway. You’re a conservative Republican. Norwegians are used to living in a country with socialized medicine and free college tuition. You don’t want Norwegians, because they’ll all vote for Democrats.

The Internationalists: Book Review

I just finished reading a terrific book, but I’m not sure how to approach telling you about it. If I tell you that it’s a densely written, impeccably researched book about international law, intellectual history, and foreign relations, I could make it seem boring. But I don’t want to mislead anyone either. In fact, the writing style is lively and engaging, but that’s not the main reason to read it. You should read it because it will rock your world, or at least, your understanding of the world in which we live. The book is The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World, and the authors are Yale law professors Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro.

Let me start here. In 1928, essentially every nation on earth signed a treaty named the Kellogg-Briand Pact, after the American Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, and the French Foreign Minister, Aristide Briand. That treaty, signed with much fanfare and enthusiasm, outlawed war. Since 1928, as you may have noticed, the world has seen a few wars, including, like, the Second World War. As a result, Kellogg-Briand is generally seen as ridiculous, a big, sad, unfunny joke. It’s not really taught anymore in classes on 20th century history, and rather ignored by experts in international law. The point of this book is to argue that Kellogg-Briand was massively consequential, exceptionally important, a pact that literally changed everything. Before I read the book, I had heard of Kellogg-Briand, mostly in the context of ‘look what silly nonsense weenie liberal eggheads got up to just before the most destructive war in history, what a laugh.’ Having read the book, I now find Hathaway and Shapiro’s argument completely convincing, and that realization has completely changed my opinion about 20th century history, the world we live in how, and the entire field of international law.

Hathaway and Shapiro begin by discussing the work of a Dutch scholar, Hugo Grotius, who in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries formulating a legal defense for war. Grotius did not act in a vacuum. of course, and what his writings really accomplished was simply to codify the ways nation-states already acted. War was simply the primary way in which nations resolved disputes. If you wanted territory held by a neighboring state, you sent an army across the border, and took it, and if you were able to do so, you held it, ruled it, used its resources for your own national purposes. You generally didn’t invade other countries without a pretext of some kind. You would, almost always, compose some lengthy rationale for your invasion, laying out all your grievances and complaints and the diplomatic steps you had taken to resolve matters peacefully. But you did send troops in, and if they were successful, the other countries on earth let you get away with it.

They use as an illustrative example, American President James K. Polk. The United States had a long-standing dispute with Mexico, over borders, and over negotiated reparations payments the US claimed that Mexico owed. All those complaints were carefully articulated in a war manifesto. (Hathaway and Shapiro, and their students, have compiled a remarkable database of over 300 war manifestos from throughout history, all round the world.) Having observed the legal niceties, Polk sent troops into Mexico, in what we call the Mexican War. As a result, the US added California, Utah, Nevada and much of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico to its territory. This conquest was justified by international law, as per Grotius. Nobody disputed it at the time, and nobody really seriously suggests that we, for example, give California back to Mexico. Might made Right.

It’s important to note two things. First, Polk did not say ‘man, if we took California’s ports and harbors, it would open up trade with the Orient.’ That happened, but it was not one of the rationales for war listed in Polk’s manifesto. And certainly, war manifestos could be self-serving and meretricious. But none of that mattered. Two nations had a dispute. The legal, justifiable way in which nations resolved disputes, according to the top legal analysis available, was through war. And after wars were fought, sovereignty over territory changed. California is, today, fully American. And everyone in the world was okay with that.

Everything changed in 1928. War was made illegal. The idea of invasion as a way of resolving disputes between nations became illegal. Every nation on earth, pretty much, agreed. And so, because war had been outlawed, Old World Order invasions and incursions became widely regarded as morally and legally invalid.

Did that fact deter Adolf Hitler? No, it did not. Nazi Germany still invaded Poland. But that invasion was seen as invalid, illegal, a contemptible act by an outlaw regime. That’s why the surviving Nazi leadership were tried at Nuremberg. (I found the lengthy discussion of the Nuremberg trials absolutely riveting.) It’s certainly true that most of the Nazis on the dock at Nuremberg were tried for war crimes. But in the Old World Order, according, again, to Grotius, war crimes couldn’t exist. Whatever any soldiers did in wartime was considered legally acceptable. Post-Kellogg-Briand, in the New World Order, perpetrators of war crimes could be tried and executed for their misdeeds. And, of course, the German government could be condemned for invading Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Russia. That was no longer the legal way for nations to resolve disputes.

Kellogg-Briand, therefore, is not some nugatory piece of pacifist fantasy. It created the New World Order. When Russia invaded Crimea recently, that act was condemned as illegal, and Russia paid the price in economic sanctions. Some of the sanctions imposed damaged the economies of the European nations who imposed them. That ultimately didn’t matter. That invasion was a criminal act, a violation of international norms and laws and treaties. And the world acted in response.

One consequence of all this is that the numbers of nations on earth have increased. When the United Nations building was first built, its designers had to decide how many seats were needed for delegates. There were then 51 nations represented; the architects, after consulting with experts, decided to add another 20, just in case, bringing the total to 71. Today, the United Nations has 193 members, and all the seating the architects intended for audiences are needed for delegates.

But it makes sense. If Might Makes Right, then smaller countries would be swallowed up by more powerful nations all the time. The Old World Order created the conditions under which  colonialism could flourish. Not anymore. Since Kellogg-Briand, the numbers of nations has dramatically increased.

The end of legally sanctioned war did not mean the end of illegal, unsanctioned violence, of course. Terrorism and civil war still cause massive amounts of destruction and death. But violence has been greatly reduced. And even something as patently foolish as the American invasion, under President George W. Bush, of Iraq, shows the ways in which Kellogg-Briand affects the waging of war. The US couldn’t invade Iraq alone. That would be illegal. It needed to be done by the international community, by coalition forces. Then the war would be a response by the world to a rogue, outlawed nation. That was the legal rationale, at least, though it still strikes me as the most feeble kind of rationalization. But that’s frequently true of most war manifestos historically.

Anyway, I thought this book was exceptional, and I’m very glad I read it, and I strongly recommend it to you. It’s a paradigm-shifting book, a book that helps you understand the past, recognized what’s happening in the present, and forecast the future. And for a book by legal scholars, it’s intelligently and engagingly written. As Edwin Starr so memorably put it: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” A sentiment which isn’t quite true, but is surely worth keeping in mind.

Oprah for President?

In 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, an Illinois state legislator (and US Senate candidate) named Barack Obama stood up before a Boston crowd, and gave a keynote speech that none of us who saw it will ever, ever forget. He began by telling his story–start with your personal narrative, says every speechwriter ever–about his unorthodox family and unlikely rise to prominence. He tied his own tale, a story of hard work and sacrifice and the dream of a better future, to the stories of people he’d met all across America. He offered the obligatory keynote speaker praise for the actual Democratic nominee, John Kerry. And then he spoke of “the audacity of hope, hope in the face of difficulty.” It was a powerful, inspiring speech, and it was delivered by an African-American guy with a funny name that I’d never heard of before. The living embodiment of the American dream. A poor kid from a fractured family, who genuinely believed that through hard work and dedication, anything was possible.

I remember telling my wife as the speech finished, “that’s the guy. If Kerry loses, this guy will run for President in 2008, and he will win. This may be the next President of the United States.”

I didn’t watch the Golden Globes last night. I never do. But my Facebook page blew up with people saying things like ‘did you see Oprah last night? OMG!’ Positive and negative; I have conservative friends who didn’t like it. So this morning, I went to YouTube, and was maybe the nine trillionth viewer of the speech. Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech, after winning the Cecil B. DeMille award. Here it is.

Notice what she does. She starts with her personal narrative, a wonderful story about watching Sidney Poitier win an Oscar, and how she watched with her bone-tired, working class, single mother Mom. She tied that story to other narratives, about civil rights heroine Recy Taylor, a powerful, ultimately inspiring story that also tied together civil rights and feminism. She then made reference to the struggles of women all across the country. And she brought the speech to a rousing conclusion, about hope for the future and the powerful voices opposing sexual harassment.

And the crowd reaction was kind of interesting. It wasn’t a glamorous, Hollywood-celebrating night. The women were all in black dresses, turning haute couture into political engagement. The audience gave Oprah repeated standing ovations, but people seemed unclear about whether to sit down afterwards, or just stay standing. It was awkward; some people standing, others popping up and down.

Acceptance speeches on award shows are typically short; 30-45 seconds. They do give a little more latitude for big career lifetime achievement awards, like the DeMille. Oprah spoke for just shy of ten minutes. And no, the orchestra did not try to play her off. She commanded the stage, and the reaction to her presence and to her speech was rapturous.

In his opening monologue, Seth Meyers (who was terrific, I thought), mentioned his 2011 speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. In that speech, Meyers rather famously made fun of Donald Trump, who was there. In Joshua Green’s book Devil’s Bargain, Green describes how angry Trump became during the speech, which he found insulting and humiliating. According to Green, Meyers’ monologue was what prompted Trump’s decision to run for President.

So, last night, Meyers addressed Oprah Winfrey directly:

Oprah, while I have you, in 2011 I told some jokes about our current president at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — jokes about how he was unqualified to be president — and some have said that night convinced him to run. So if that’s true, I just want to say: Oprah, you will never be president! You do not have what it takes!

An “Oprah running for President joke.” Followed, fwiw, by a jab at Tom Hanks. “And Hanks! You will never be Vice-President!” Ha ha. Ha.

And then, Oprah gave an absolutely terrific political speech. And, yes, it was intentionally political; the Golden Globes last night became a political event, what with all the black dresses, and constant references to l’affair Weinstein. And that was great, though I imagine a Hollywood exercise in self-congratulation is a weird venue for a political rally. Oprah’s speech, in structure, directly mirrors one of the greatest political speeches of all time; Obama’s, in 2004. It was shorter, of course, but it had all the elements: personal narrative, inspiring historical anecdotes, tributes to the hard-working Americans you’re reaching out to, with a final uplifting appeal to hope. (Best of all, not a single mention of John Kerry.)

I begin every morning by looking at a dozen political websites: Salon, Politico, Slate, Vox, Daily Beast, the NYT and WP. This morning, every one of them had a story about Oprah’s speech, and every one was speculating about two questions: is Oprah Winfrey–bright, accomplished African-American with a funny name–going to run for President in 2020? And if she runs, can she win.

And, honestly, ask yourself this question. As Alex Burns put it in the New York Times: “Ms. Winfrey could face a difficult fight for the Democratic nomination, especially against _______.  It’s difficult to finish that sentence.” Indeed. Gillibrand? Warren? Booker?

Oprah has built an entire career on her unique ability to connect to working class women. She’s, like, the definition of empathetic. She’s certainly willing to face tough issues, and to confront difficult subjects. She’s also not a political figure. She’s a celebrity. Are outsiders in? She’s certainly able to self-fund a campaign. She’d be like Roosevelt; a rich person who can plausibly engage with not-rich people. Her big issue, if she ran, would be sexual harassment. Running against a serial sexual predator like Trump, she’d be a potent voice for women, and women’s empowerment. Will guys vote for her? Over Trump; oh, heck yes.

In a general election, as things currently stand, she would crush Donald Trump. I’m talking a 65-35 edge, electoral college sweep kind of landslide. Her base would be working class women. If she sweeps that demo, plus people of color, plus progressives, plus young people, plus college-educated people, and breaks even against white men, it’s a tsunami.

And nobody hates her, really. I can’t think of a soul. She may be accused of being a lightweight, of not being a policy wonk. My conservative friends thought her speech last night bashed men, which it totally didn’t; I think that’s more fear than anything.  But she’s a great public speaker, and she’s certainly smart enough to bone up on the political stuff.

I don’t know what she’s thinking, or what she will decide. I do think she’d make a formidable candidate, and that she would clobber Donald Trump in a general election. She’ll be 65 in 2020, and may decide she’d just as soon retire. Or she may just decide to keep doing with her life what she’s already doing. But, oh my gosh, if she runs. . .

Fat Spock

I’m fat. I even blogged about it a couple of years ago. I’m fat. I claim that word; I own it.  I’m not particularly proud of it, but, heck, it’s true. I’m a big guy. A chubbo. A slob.

There’s another term that applies, not a cultural term, but a medical one. I’m also morbidly obese, with several co-morbidities. That’s what my doctor said recently. And my weight is a problem, medically speaking. And so it’s time to lose it.

This summer, I learned that the clinic where I go for most of my health care problems offered a weight loss program. I signed up. I was assigned a nutritionist–the estimable Megan–and have a rotating group of three doctors who co-supervise. And I’ve lost just under 80 pounds since this summer.

In my first meeting with my nutritionist, I told her about my theory of weight loss. I call it “Fat Spock.” Spock, on Star Trek, was all about logic. ‘That is not logical’ was his favorite put-down, in his many disputes with Dr. McCoy. I figure, it’s illogical to eat more food than you need to sustain yourself. Getting fat is not logical. It’s all tied to habits and emotions and feelings and self-worth and body image and our society’s obsession with appearance and presentation. I have to ignore all that. I have to be Spock about this. Do I need that candy bar, that ice cream, that brownie? I do not. It is therefore illogical to eat it.

Megan likes that: ‘Fat Spock.’ Says it’s going to be the title of her book, when she gets around to writing one. I told her she was welcome to it.

I told Megan from the beginning that what I wanted was a program that was medically supervised and scientifically valid. That’s what they’ve got me on. I bought a bathroom scale, and weigh myself on it every morning, pretty much at the same time every day. I also got the Fitness Pal app on my phone, log every single morsel I eat. Fitness Pal then tells me how much protein I’m eating, how much fat, how many carbs. Just points out where I could do better. I also bought a Fitbit, which nags at me if I don’t make my exercise goals.

Do I feel better, healthier, skinner? Sometimes. I can’t fit into my clothes anymore, and that’s a good thing. Baggy clothes fit nicely with my homeless hobo aesthetic. I needed (and got for Christmas) a new belt. Down three pants sizes. I’m not about to pat myself on the back, though. Self-congratulations is an emotional response, and emotion is the enemy here.

I also have a long way to go. I also feel pretty crappy most of the time. Dizzy, disoriented, nauseous. That’s because most of the weight I have lost has been water weight, and I’m pretty much constantly dehydrated. I take water pills, but I hope to reach a point where they are no longer needed.

As I said, though, emotions are the enemy. I can’t get down on myself if I have a bad day. I’m like a good quarterback who throws an interception. If he beats himself up over it, if he gets down on himself, it may prevent him from making a better play next time. It gets in the way. It’s not helpful.

And see, that’s the problem with weight loss. Getting fat is illogical. We tend to view fatness as having a moral dimension which, frankly, it doesn’t. We say ‘I don’t have the self-discipline to stick to a diet.’ We think, ‘I’m a big fat slob, and I can’t do this.’ I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m lacking self-control, I’m not strong enough. I deserve this.’

None of those thoughts, none of those feelings are helpful. Megan won’t even let me say I’m on a diet, because of the emotional baggage that word carries.  Feelings get in the way. And they are, absolutely, Not True. I’m not a fat, sloppy, inconsistent slob. I’m a successful person in lots of ways. I just need to do this thing, this weight loss thing. And if I have a bad day, cheat, eat something I shouldn’t or not walk when I should, well, okay. That happened. Yesterday. Has nothing to do with today.

Right now, the estimable Megan has me on something called optifast. It consists of soup, energy bars, and shakes. I can eat five a day, in any combination. The shakes are kinda chalky; the protein bars taste like cardboard, the soup’s too thin. Doesn’t matter. They’re nutritious and therefore helpful. I also get one meal of, you know, actual real food. I’m allowed one small piece of meat, a multi-grain pasta or rice, and lots of veggies and fruits. That’s dinner. I eat around 1200 calories daily, but those calories are packed, meet all my nutritional needs.

It also probably isn’t going to be enough. By the time I’m done with this, I will have lost around 240 lbs. I’ve lost 76. A good start, but I have a long way to go. Very likely, bariatric surgery will be needed; I’m prepared for that, though the estimable Megan wants to see how optifast works for me first.

I’m fat. But I’m being Spock about it. It really is illogical to be fat. Time to let logic take over.

Pitch Perfect 3: Movie Review

The first Pitch Perfect movie was a delightful surprise, a genuinely engaging comedy about the world of competitive a cappella performance, which I didn’t even know was a thing. My wife and I met singing in a choir; love vocal music, love Pentatonix and other similar groups, don’t mind hearing well done pop covers. The Bellas were an all-girl group of singers, with a lively sound and appealing characters. Plus, Anna Kendrick was in the movie. What’s not to enjoy?

Then the second PP movie came out, and it was even better. The obligatory (and irrelevant) romcom trappings that marred the first movie were gone, as the Bellas moved out of the college competitive circuit and competed for a notional world a cappella championship. Elizabeth Banks directed the second film, and turned it into a sprightly feminist comedy, a fun, funny, flick about bright, talented, dedicated young women who liked, and were very good at, singing together. Plus, their foil, the film’s antagonists, were the superbly funny paean to continental pretentiousness, Das Sound Machine, all Teutonic arrogant hipsters. Their big music numbers proved a perfect foil for the Bellas, making our spunky heroines’ ultimate victory all the more satisfying.

Sadly, Pitch Perfect 3 feels more like a cash grab than a satisfying continuation (or resolution) of the Bellas’ story. While it has the elements of the two previous movies–competing ensembles, riff-offs, well-produced musical numbers for all occasions–it feels self conscious, annoyingly (as opposed to instructively) meta. Case in point: the previous movies cut repeatedly to two unnecessarily dismissive commentators, Gail (Elizabeth Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins), covering the Bellas’ competitions for some media outlet or another. They’re back in this movie, and we’re told they’re making a Bellas documentary. But this time, they’re intrusive, unnecessary, and worst of all, sort of aggressively unfunny. Banks directed PP2, the best film of the series; it was sad to see her in this throw-away role.

In the previous movies, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), added her own hair-brained comedic emphasis to the movies, though really, we wondered if she was a good enough singer to add much to a group of musicians. This movie, she was given much more to do, to the detriment of the movie. And so, we’re treated to a kidnapping plot involving her estranged father (John Lithgow), which makes no sense, and felt like padding, some silly farcical elements added to push the movie’s length to an acceptable 90 minutes.

The movie did give a bit more emphasis to other Bellas, to Chloe (Brittany Snow), Aubrey (Anna Camp), Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), and especially, to splendidly spooky Lily (Hana Mae Lee). As the movie opens, they’re all post-graduation, unhappy in their jobs and lives and desperate to reunite, doing the one thing they loved most. That’s a nice idea, and the movie could have done something with it; show the tension between the difficult disciplines they’re trying to master professionally, and the need to rehearse and perform. It could have been a movie about young people maturing, making adult choices in life, how tough it can be to move past youthful passions to more grown-up life decisions. Chloe wants to be a veterinarian; couldn’t we have seen her stealing a moment from a much-needed rehearsal to review for her vets exam?

But no. In fact, the Bellas never rehearse at all in this iteration of their story. Which reminds us, sadly, of the power and importance of their rehearsal scenes in the previous movies.

Part of their rehearsal involves their riff-offs, scenes in which they have to improvise arrangements and sharpen their repertoire competing with other a cappella musicians. Those scenes were the highlights of the previous two movies; lively and fun and creative.

In this movie, they’re competing for a slot on a USO tour featuring DJ Khaled. Three bands are likewise seeking a performing slot, a country band, a rapper, and a girl-group who call themselves EverMoist. Presumably, EverMoist is meant to be the Bellas’ main competition, this film’s equivalent to Das Sound Machine. Whoever made that decision, it was a big fail. EverMoist isn’t just musically mediocre, they’re unamusingly mediocre. They don’t mean anything, or stand for anything, except the mean girl poses favored by their singers.  And why would these three bands, representing, one presumes, different musical styles, all be good at riff-offs? It makes no sense, and this film’s riff-off scene is among its most flaccid.

And yet. The film does have Anna Kendrick, and she’s so charming as a performer, she nearly makes up for how disappointing the script is generally. Her scenes with putative love interest Theo (Guy Burnett) are so sharply fun, they help us forget how obnoxious an un-reigned-in Rebel Wilson can be. At the end of the film, DJ Khaled decides that Beca is the only Bella worth touring with, and gives her the prized slot opening for him. Her, but not the Bellas. And the other Bellas are sweet about it, and decide they’re all perfectly happy with the lives they had previously found so unsatisfying; she can go ahead and be a star, and they’re cool with it. (Ha!). But then, Beca sings a lovely arrangement of the great George Michael song, Freedom. And, of course, the Bellas join her onstage. And while their performance wasn’t great–as my wife correctly suggested, the point isn’t for performers to have a good time, it’s for the audience to be entertained–still, it was solid. That final song was well enough done to make up for the flabby, disappointing movie that proceeded it. So there’s that.

Pitch Perfect 3 has some okay music, some poorly executed farce, and a final performance that somewhat redeems a sadly flabby movie. I don’t regret seeing it; I’m sorry it wasn’t better.