Category Archives: History

What we’ve learned

The last few days have been among the most consequential and remarkable in American history. On Tuesday, President Trump’s campaign chairman and his personal attorney each were found guilty of multiple felonies, with an hour of each other. In pleading guilty to felonies of campaign finance reform, Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s attorney, declared that he had committed his crimes at the behest of and with the full knowledge of the President.

I hardly need say that this series of events is essentially unprecedented. It feels much as Watergate felt; disorienting, terrifying, and heartening in equal measure. The word everyone seems to be using is surreal. Commentators and friends alike have invoked Lewis Carroll. We’re going down a rabbit hole, we’re behind the looking glass, our only companionship a mad hatter, and a Cheshire cat. It is indeed brillig, and slithy toves are gyring and gimbeling their frantic lives away. Fortunately, our vorpal blades have one last charge in them. We can’t just beware the jabberwock. We have to kill it.

During Watergate, amidst the daily revelations of Richard Nixon’s utter contempt for the rule of law (and remember that he, no less than Trump, ran under a ‘law and order’ platform, promising to restore American stability after the chaos and disorder of the late 1960s), we were reassured to see the basic mechanisms of governance stepping up and providing a counterbalance to Nixon’s cynical and lawless power grab. First, the press investigated and published daily revelations of misconduct by Nixon and his associates. Congress launched an investigation. The Justice Department, in the event known as the Saturday Night Massacre, gave us the stellar examples of integrity Elliott Richardson and William Ruckelshaus.  Special prosecutors did their job, as did the Supreme Court. Above all, Republicans in Congress only stood by their man up to a point. When party loyalty became untenable, they ended their support for the President. Had he not resigned, he would have been impeached and removed from office.

The system worked. Not perfectly, not smoothly, but eventually, the right people stepped up and did their job. A Nixon henchman, John Dean, flipped. (Just as Cohen, fingers crossed, seems to be doing). Sam Ervin investigated. Woodward and Bernstein became American icons of investigative journalism. America survived.

The Trump situation strikes me as different. I have no crystal ball, no prophetic powers, but I remember Watergate vividly, and this is different, and a good deal more dangerous. The gatekeepers envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution seem enervated, or corrupted, or cowardly. We’re in this alone now.

For one thing, the press is not the force it once was. The great echo chamber of the internet has reduced the power and impact of good journalism. There’s great journalism being done, of course, dedicated reporters and editors trying their best to sort out what’s actually going on and what it all means. But it feels at times like they’re in a losing battle. Powerful forces prefer obfuscation to fact-based revelations, and the most powerful man in the country most especially profits from nonsense. Donald Trump has emerged not just as a moral relativist–we always knew that–but as an ontological relativist unmatched in the history of solipsism. Or rather, as the ultimate cynic, as someone perfectly willing to distort absolutely any notion of facts or reality. “Truth is not Truth,” said Rudy Giuliani (Trump’s astonishingly pliable attorney-spokesman: remember when he was looked up, admired?) recently. Any revelation inconvenient to this most astonishingly narcissistic of Presidents becomes ‘Fake News.’ And the internet enables the proliferation of fantasies, conspiracy theories and outright lies because it is built on a foundation of pure subjectivity, absolutely democratic. It is our collective subconsciousness, and from time to time, on social media, its true hideousness–the hideousness we learn, to our horror, of which our fellow citizens are capable–comes spewing out. 4chan, incels, the alt-right, Infowars, Breitbart, QAnon.  At its worst, the internet is pure chaos, unmediated and without any underpinnings in any worldview or moral stance, including the ones we learned as children: don’t lie. Liars are bad people. Presidents, however, are patriots. They’re here to protect us. Not anymore.

(“What is truth?” the oh-so-sophisticated Roman Pilate asked Jesus, and then dismissed the possibility of an answer. He could have answered it himself, though. Truth is power. “I am the Truth and the Light,” would have struck Pilate as absurd. Truth: a prisoner executed on a cross. How absurd).

So the Press is trying. But there are alternative voices ceded equal authority by many, even when they’re clearly and obviously lying. Congress, meanwhile, is under control of a Republican party that has abdicated, completely and thoroughly, any pretense of paying anything but lip service to Congressional oaths of office. They want their tax cut fraud, and they want nutjobs in the Supreme Court. Which is about to be joined by a man who has opined in the past that Presidents are above the law. In fact, that’s likely the reason Kavanaugh was chosen.

Some of us hold out hope that rule of law will yet prevail, and cling to the integrity and patriotism of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller. His fight is an uphill one, however, with a President willing to fire and pardon his way out of trouble. That leaves us. We, the People. And we have to win in November. That’s what this comes down to; we have to win. We have to prove the basic decency and patriotism of the American people. And in my opinion, it won’t do just to win back the House. We need to win the Senate too (a much tougher challenge), and we need not just to win the House, but obliterate Republican candidates for the House.

But here’s what I keep coming back to. What, actually did we learn this week? We learned that Donald Trump’s closest associates are hopelessly corrupt and dishonest, and that not just his associations, but his fundamental understanding of the world is that of a criminal. (John Dean is ‘a rat.’ Flipping witnesses should be illegal.)  But didn’t we already know all that? We learned that the Trump campaign went out of its way to keep the American people ignorant of the most unsavory sexual escapades of their candidate. Nothing new there. We learned that Trump hasn’t the faintest idea what is legal and illegal when campaigning for national office. No big revelation there: he knows nothing, and has no interest in learning anything, at all, ever.

Slate Magazine recently published an article by William Saletan arguing that we don’t actually need any new revelations of kompromat or sex tapes or money laundering to prove that Donald Trump betrayed the United States. All the evidence is already out. He puts the story together convincingly–of course Trump has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. We know that; it’s obvious. We don’t need further Mueller revelations to prove it, though of course we want the Special Counsel to keep after it, and we do anticipate a lot more criminality to be revealed. Still, argues Saletan, the case has been made. The evidence has been provided. Haven’t we always known Trump to be what he is now revealed to be? A conman and a grifter, a career white collar criminal, a racist and a sexual predator, and the most arrogant ignoramus imaginable? How is any of that news?

Our country remains in a state of emergency. The story is racing towards its conclusion, and unlike Hollywood, there’s no guarantee the good guys will win. If we love our country and its freedoms, this next election may well be our last chance to save it. Sorry, but it’s so. This guy’s instincts are all authoritarian. We can only keep our Republic if we fight for it. Vote, call, give rides, give money, post. Do what you’re able to.


In Defense of Mixed Economies

Thought experiment: let’s suppose your daughter just got a new job. It’s a great job, one she has been training for and preparing for all her life. She’s tremendously excited by it, and you’re excited for her. But it will require that she relocate. in fact, it will require her to move to another country, leave the US, if not forever, for at least a substantial length of time. How excited would be for her? How scared would you be?

My guess is that in large measure, it would depend on where she would need to move to. If her new job were in France, you’d be delighted. You might have some trepidation–after all, this is your daughter we’re talking about. But you can always Skype, you can email, you can text, you can call. It’s not like you’ll lose touch with her. And France, my gosh, France is beautiful. You’ll think of ways to plan vacations around visiting her. You’ll celebrate at a nice French restaurant. You’ll brush up on your high school French. You’d be excited for her. Right?

But let’s suppose that she told you her new job was in Libya. Or Somalia. Or Afghanistan. Well, you’d be scared to death. You’d try to talk her out of going. If she was, in fact, going to those three countries, it would probably mean that she was in the US military, and heading into a combat zone. But those countries are, economically, not prosperous. They’re for the most part failed nations.

You want your child to move, if move she must, to a country with jobs, good health care, good schools, rule of law, adequate transportation. You would want her to go to a relatively prosperous nation.

In short, you would want her to move to a country with a mixed economy. You would be thrilled if she moved to Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Finland. You’d be delighted if her job were in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, or Germany. Austria would be fine. So would South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Italy would be fine. Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all have growing economies. So does Romania. Mexico has a problem with gang violence, but is otherwise fairly safe and prosperous. And they’re all countries with, to some degree or another, mixed economies.

What is a mixed economy? It’s a system that combines market capitalism with socialism. It has some of the characteristics of each. Generally, it means an economy where private property is protected, where the free market and supply and demand determine prices. It’s an economy that relies on the enlightened self-interest of individuals, to make their own basic economic choices–where they’ll live, what they’ll drive, what they’ll purchase. Rule of law makes for orderly conflict resolution, and regulation and taxation keep income inequality under control. It also has a robust social safety net. Quality of life is protected through laws governing how much people are paid, how many vacation days they’re allowed, what to do in the case of illness or incapacity. Generally, pensions are either generous or, at least, adequate. Education is well-financed. Governments take infrastructure needs seriously. Taxes can be fairly high. And health care is regarded as a right, and provided for either through the government or via government mandate.

A lot of my friends on the Right are terrified of the spectre of creeping socialism. They warn against it. They point, with trembling fingers, to the Bad Examples of Venezuela recently and the Soviet Union historically. If LDS, they like to quote Ezra Taft Benson on the subject. And if they’re LDS, they vote for either conservative Republicans or Libertarian Republicans. Libertarians are likewise loathe to embrace socialism. Their mantra is Freedom, by which they mean complete deregulation, with private enterprise expected to take over many government services, and with health care up to each individual. “There has to be a market solution” to the problem of health care access, they say.

And, up to a point, they’re right. The defining characteristic of socialism is public ownership of industry and commerce, with a command economic element. Prices are set by government. production quotas are set by the government. Weak industries are propped up and not allowed to fail, and everyone is guaranteed full employment, at wages established by government bureaucracy. It’s been tried, and it doesn’t work. By the end, the Soviet Union was an economic basket case. Today, Russia is a deeply corrupt kleptocracy, but with market elements–it’s doing a bit better. Free markets work. It really is fair to say that socialism, as an economic system, is a proven failure.

But so is laissez faire, deregulated, fully-liberated-and-free unrestrained capitalism. The nineteenth century demonstrated that nicely, both here and in Europe. Libertarianism doesn’t have a lot of test cases anymore, but Somalia remains one, a country without rules, laws or policing. They have two major industries–sale of an addictive hallucinogen, qat, and piracy. It’s a nightmare state, just recently starting to emerge with something resembling rule of law. The nineteenth century tended to devolve into the worst kind of Dickensian nightmare. Income inequality was rampant, and the poor largely just starved. And if we learned anything from the world-wide debacle of the Financial Crisis of 2006-09, it’s the complete failure of financial deregulation.

By hook and by crook, by trial and error, through experimentation and by degrees, what has developed in its place is the mixed economy. Free markets are essential, and free trade preferential. But economies do also include some planning, and markets are carefully regulated. And social safety nets prevent income inequality from utter destructiveness. In nation after nation on earth, we’ve learned a lot in the last fifty years. Scandinavia led the way, as did the Fabian incrementalist model in the UK and elsewhere.

In the United States, in many respects, we’re a mixed economy. Every country is different, every example internationally can teach its own lessons. Right now, I would suggest that the US needs a greater commitment to the socialist side of the mix. We need universal health care; we need pension reform, we need to make college affordable for our kids. This is all doable. And should be the policy approach of the Democratic party going forward.

Chappaquiddick: Movie review

On Friday, July 18, 1969, Senator Edward Kennedy hosted a cookout party on Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, in connection with two big events–the Edgarton Yacht Club Regatta, a sailboat race in which Kennedy competed, and the lunar landing and first moon walk, which took place on July 20th. Kennedy’s guests included six young women, the ‘Boiler Room girls,’ who had been part of Bobby Kennedy’s campaign staff. One of the women was 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne, who the Senator was trying to hire for his campaign staff for a possible run at the Presidency in 1972. Around 11:15, Kopechne asked Kennedy if he would take her back to her hotel in Edgarton. Kennedy agreed to do so, and later testified that he decided to drive her himself, as his chauffeur was enjoying the party. The car went off a wooden bridge, Dike Bridge, which had no guardrails, and landed top down in Poucha Pond, which the bridge spans. Somehow Kennedy was able to get out of the car and swim to shore. Kopechne died in the vehicle, though she survived the initial crash, and lived for up to an hour after, her head in a small air bubble.

Chappaquiddick is a new film covering essentially the events of that night and the week afterwards, as Kennedy and his team of lawyers, managers, and Kennedy hangers-on tried to cope with the aftermath of this tragedy. Ted Kennedy is played by Jason Clarke, and Kopechne, by Kate Mara. Both are superb. Of course the very word Chappaquiddick is, today, synonymous with scandal. There remain many unanswered questions about what happened, what Kennedy did immediately after the accident and subsequently, and why he didn’t report the incident to the police until the next morning. And, of course, the incident has given rise to a wide range of conspiracy theories and accusations. I saw one this morning at the grocery store, a tabloid asserting that Kopechne was pregnant at the time of her death, and that she told Kennedy that he was the father of her child that evening. (Not true).

When I saw the first trailers for this film, my thought was that it was likely another right wing hit job. It’s not; not even remotely. In fact, the screenwriters, Taylor Allen and Robert Logan, and the director, John Curran, went out of their way to confine their story to what is known, based largely on testimony from the inquest, and also from other sources. To the extent that a film can tell a controversial story objectively, that’s what they accomplish here. In fact, this film accomplishes something that Ted Kennedy was never able to do in relation to Chappaquiddick. It conducts itself with integrity. I cannot adequately express my respect to these filmmakers and their approach.

The conscience of the film, its moral center, is Kennedy’s cousin, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), known to the family as Joey. He was Kennedy’s logistics guy, as well as his attorney. He was there with his close friend, Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), a former US Attorney for Massachusetts. After the accident, we see Kennedy stumble back to the cabin where the party was taking place. He says to Gargan, “I’m not going to be President.” Not: ‘there’s been a terrible accident, and I’m worried about Mary Jo.’ Not: ‘call the police.’ That line is one of many that indicts Ted Kennedy. It’s kinda horrifying. But it’s based on the sworn testimony of two members of the bar, two officers of the court. That’s the approach of the entire movie; if it happened, it’s onscreen. No embellishing, no sugarcoating. (Also, by the way, these two leading roles in a serious movie are played by comedians–Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan–and they’re both terrific).

So we see them drive back to the bridge, we see Gargan and Markham dive down to the car, we see their inability to open a door. We see the three men, exhausted, sit on the bridge. We see them borrow a rowboat and row it back to Martha’s Vineyard (it being too late for the ferry to run), and we see these two respected attorneys tell Kennedy that he absolutely needed to report the accident immediately. We see him step into a phone booth, and place a call. But not to the police. He calls his father. Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern), had had a stroke, and speaking was exceptionally difficult for him. But he has one word of advice for his son. “Alibi,” he says. And so Kennedy goes back to his hotel, has a bath, falls asleep on the bed, wakes up the next morning, dresses carefully, get himself some breakfast. And then, and only then, does he report the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

From that point on, the movie is about the spinmeisters, the political operatives, the Kennedy team of seasoned image managers with which the Senator surrounded himself. Seeing as how it was 1969, they’re all older, white and male. Leading the charge is someone listed in the credits as ‘McNamara’, played by Clancy Brown. Robert McNamara? He was no longer Secretary of Defense in ’69–I think he was running the World Bank. Would he have been in those meetings? No idea, but as with most Clancy Brown characters, he’s a forceful and powerful presence in the movie, his character openly contemptuous of the 37 year-old Senator. Those scenes, with everyone trying to control the narrative and minimize the political damage are frankly kind of disgusting. It would only taken the slightest tweaking of tone for them to have been comedic–an interesting aesthetic choice, if Curran had chosen to go that way. Really, though, they’re about Kennedy’s continuing cowardice and ambition. And Gargan, meanwhile, is disgusted by it, and disillusioned.

So, no, it’s not a movie in which Kennedy looks even remotely decent. It’s a movie about cowardice. He was drinking before the accident, and lied about it. He initially wanted to lie about who was even driving the car. He showed up at Kopechne’s funeral wearing a neck brace he didn’t need, in a plea for sympathy. The idea of him giving a nationally televised address to set Chappaquiddick rumors to rest was his idea, as was the idea of invoking in that speech the memories of Jack and Bobby, the martyred brothers, making himself the victim in an event in which a young woman died. As his advisors hash out the wording of that speech, Kennedy says (in a stunning line), “We’re going to tell the truth! Or at least, our version of it.” One thought I had after watching it was gratitude that this weakling never became President.

But there’s another scene as well, with him and his father, in which old Joe, wizened and crippled and damaged, hands him a letter, in which he says (I’m paraphrasing), ‘you can become anything you want to. You can become a man of consequence, or you can choose not to. But if you choose nothing, I’ll have nothing to do with you.’ It’s a painful reminder of what must have been an excruciating childhood.

I think that larger perspective is part of what the filmmakers were aiming for. Kennedy looks like the worst kind of opportunist in this film, but it is, after all, about a terrible week in the man’s life. And the film acknowledges, and I think foreshadows, what would become of him. He would become the lion of the Senate, one of the most respected Senators in history, and an unflagging champion for progressive values. He became a man of consequence. Just not the one his father envisioned.

I respect and admire this film immensely. I especially like its portrayal of Mary Jo Kopechne. For most people, then and since, she wasn’t a woman worth paying a lot of attention to. What was she doing alone in a car with a married man (whose wife was also pregnant)? She had to have been his latest girl-on-the-side, a floozy, a tramp. As the film goes to some pains to point out, she was nothing of the kind. As Mara plays her, she was a canny, accomplished woman, a political operative–at the time of her death, she was managing a mayoral campaign in New Jersey. She was certainly not having an affair with Kennedy or with anyone else–indeed, she was engaged to be married. She was there, at Martha’s Vineyard, because Kennedy was trying to hire her, a job she hadn’t decided to accept, but was leaning towards turning down, there to see her old boiler room pals. She and Kennedy spend some time talking in the car, and those conversations are interesting. Kopechne was a listener. She’s quiet, reserved. She was valued as a counselor and a sounding board, someone whose opinion Kennedy valued, surrounded as he was by sycophants. And as he talks to her, he wants to know if he should run for President or not. The subject clearly consumed him, and he was never entirely sure if he even wanted it. More than that, though, he’s wondering who he is. As he puts it (again, I’m paraphrasing), ‘Joe was the hero, Jack was the leader, Bobby was the brilliant one. Who am I? The screw-up.’ In short, Mary Jo Kopechne was his friend. And yes, even in 1969, it was possible for a man and a woman to just be friends.

Kennedy of course has consistently denied that he had had an affair with her, which no one believes because why would we? Certainly Joan Kennedy (Andria Blackman), though we don’t see much of her, is royally honked off at him. But I like this movie’s portrayal of her. Mary Jo’s been labeled and forgotten and shoved aside by history, beginning with the Kennedy people. But she was worth remembering.

Ted Kennedy did eventually run for President, disastrously, in 1980, taking on a Democratic incumbent in the primaries, and losing in an ugly convention. Him running that year seems seems inexplicable to me. Did he feel so much pressure to run that he finally just decided to go for it, in an inauspicious year, to get it over with? I suspect so. But he was never able to shake Chappaquiddick. Nor, frankly, should he have. It was a terrible event, and a tragic one. And this film captures it, the tragedy of a good person’s unnecessary death, and the fall of a much lesser one. Pity and fear, man.


Korihor’s children, part two

Let’s start with privilege.

Although class distinctions and issues of privilege are raised repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, privilege can also be a little tricky to track. The Book of Mormon begins with privilege. “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents.” That phrase, the first verse of First Nephi, establishes young Nephi as wealthy, a rich kid from a rich family. That’s what ‘goodly’ implies. He was ‘taught in the learning of his father’ because his Dad could afford to educate him. But, unlike his brothers, Laman and Lemuel, he doesn’t turn out to be a spoiled brat. He can choose, and he chooses obedience and righteousness. Specifically, he chooses to give up all his wealth, and settle instead for a copy of the Torah and the Prophets, and exile into the wilderness. He genuinely believes his father’s warnings and visions. His emphasis is on doing what God wants him to do. And his choice is subsequently echoed throughout the Book of Mormon.

Essentially the books of Mosiah through Helaman tell the story of the Nephite civilization through the lens of two dynastic families; the priestly Alma line (Alma, Alma, Helaman, Helaman, Nephi, Nephi) and the ruling Mosiah line (Mosiah, Benjamin, Mosiah). The three main offices described are high priest–head of the Church–and king, which becomes eventually, chief judge–the highest executive office in Nephite government, with, as the name implies, judicial responsibilities. But the Nephites mingled religion and government pretty freely. Mosiah’s sons become important missionaries, Alma becomes chief judge–they go back and forth between public service vectors.

The Book of Mormon provides the names of twelve chief judges, but we know more about some of them than others. It’s also not clear how long their terms in office were–some served for up to thirty years, while others only for what appear to be a matter of months. It also became rather a dangerous job; six of the twelve whose names we know were assassinated. In any event, much of the Book of Mormon reads rather like a dynastic history. In fact, when Jesus makes his appearance, he calls ’em on it, points out that they left out the mission and message of Samuel the Lamanite. (Of course, they fix it). We’re primarily interested in the lives and contributions of Alma, Alma, Helaman, Helaman, Nephi and Nephi. They’re also the ones, we’re told, keeping and preserving the records from which the Book of Mormon was compiled and edited. The Book of Mormon could be seen as a history of privilege, or at least of a particular line of men–always men, by the way; we’re told very little about women. This kind of history is out of fashion nowadays–our focus today is on previously marginalized figures, and their contributions. So, no, it’s not a ‘History of the Nephites’ per se. It’s a specialized, old-fashioned kind of history, and may not be immune from hagiography. We’re interested in these guys. These few important guys.

But again, not really. The point of the Book of Mormon is not to valorize a few specific individuals, or advance a ‘great man’ historical narrative. It’s to promote a specific world view. It’s not what this group of men accomplished or what offices they held. It’s about what they believed, taught and practiced.

Because both lines, priestly and judicial, were commited to the same radical Christian agenda, anti-poverty, quasi-socialistic, peace-loving (amidst pretty much constant war) and socially leveling. We see two ideologies in play. On the one hand, the Korihor-ish doctrine of radical libertarianism, couched in terms of ‘personal liberty,’ laissez-faire and valorizing acquisition, is contrasted with the Benjamin-line side, rejecting even property ownership as a principle (See Mosiah 4: 16-30), and preaching equality and tolerance. Which is why I call it a progressive narrative.

I might compare the Alma line to that of the American Adams family. From John Adams to John Quincy Adams to Charles Francis Adams to Henry Adams and continuing, the Adams sons all demonstrated a commitment to public service and civic engagement, including support for public improvements and opposition to institutional slavery. Two US Presidents are included, in addition to ambassadors, authors, public intellectuals and political figures of outstanding capacity and merit. (Granted, there were also a few anti-Semites in the mix–it’s not a perfect parallel.)

These Nephite priests (and judges) warred pretty consistently with privilege, though arguably privileged themselves. And it doesn’t read as noblesse oblige.  Their enemies begin with the courtiers surrounding wicked King Noah, and continue with a Nephite political party known as the ‘kingmen.’ In fact, it appears as though the biggest issue the Nephites had to face throughout their history was over issues of income inequality. When Korihor appears, one of his most potent accusations against Alma is elitism. He accuses Alma of using his office in the Church to enrich himself, and of usurpation of power. These charges, Alma hotly denies, and with merit. All of them in the Alma line, though powerful, defined themselves in opposition to wealth. King Benjamin, in his great speech of succession, nearing the end of his reign, says this:

I have been suffered to spend my days in your service, even up to this time, and have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you; Neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another . . . And even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day.

Presumably, this speech had resonance because his listeners knew of kings that did all those things; sought gold and silver and confined people in dungeons and used slave labor. But he hasn’t done any of it, and there’s no reason to think that he’s not telling the truth. This passage could suggest that they didn’t have a system of taxation, but I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. He kept taxes low, didn’t tax them at a level ‘grievous to be borne.’ What we’ll see, though, is that the kingman party wanted all that, gold and silver and slaves and arbitrary imprisonments. The liberty Korihor wants–and the liberty he accuses Alma of denying him and his party–is precisely the liberty to make buckets of money any way they can, no matter who it hurts. In short, Korihor is an American type-acquisitive, callous, ambitious, grasping.

Becoming rich is a bad thing in the Book of Mormon. The entire book describes a cyclical view of history. Righteousness leads to wealth, which leads to pride and people forgetting God, which leads to destruction and poverty, which leads to righteousness and begins the whole thing again. That is the view of history of the Alma-line. That’s what their experience taught them. And although the Book of Mormon is described as a quintessentially American book, it is not an American cycle or story.

Can we admit this? In America, historically, was it really righteousness that led to wealth? Wasn’t it, well, wickedness? Benjamin specifically invokes, with a shudder of horror, slavery. Doesn’t  the American experience demonstrate this specific dynamic: it’s easier to make money if you don’t intend to pay your employees? Wasn’t, to a very large degree, American prosperity built on chattel slavery? Nor was this a regional phenomenon; New Englanders profited by it too, through shipping and international commerce. Didn’t America become an economic powerhouse by raising highly lucrative cash crops–cotton, sugar, tobacco–using slave labor, and by expanding westward onto lands stolen from Native peoples? Isn’t that how we got rich? At least partly? And didn’t we, as a nation, also pay for it, most especially in the period from 1861-65? How did Lincoln put it?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

The cycle didn’t end so well for the Nephites either. Because that’s the great tragedy of the Book of Mormon; the Alma line failed. Their great project, a reordering of society in the direction of social justice and equality led to their complete, utter, desolating destruction. That’s not to say that the Alma-line failed. Theirs is a beautiful vision, and it worked well for awhile.  It’s also specifically endorsed by Jesus, in Third Nephi. Eventually, though, Korihor did win. That’s our first lesson.

Winchester: Movie review

The Winchester Mystery House is a favorite tourist attraction in San Jose California, where my wife grew up. When we’d go visit her family, we sometimes took it in. It’s a very strange house, a mansion, one of those ‘eccentric millionaire’ extravaganza’s, like the Hearst Castle, or, in Orem, the Bastian home. The Winchester was constructed by Sarah Winchester, wife of firearms business mogul William Winchester. After his death, in 1884, she continued to build, until her death in 1924. She supervised the construction personally, did not employ an architect, and the result is a seven story mansion that can best be described as haphazard. The house was, in many respects, ahead of its time, with working indoor toilets, forced air heating, a unique communications system, and elevators.

Mrs. Winchester was said to have believed the house to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. She was, in short, a strange but fascinating woman, and both she and the house seem well worth a movie treatment. Especially with the right actress playing Mrs. Winchester. Dame Helen Mirren strikes me as an ideal choice.

The film we saw last night, Winchester, was, in nearly every respect, a disappointment. Its Rotten Tomatoes score was 13%, a score I found unsurprising. The German twin brother directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig took the fascinating psychological drama of Mrs. Winchester, and turned it into a paint-by-numbers gothic horror flick, all jump cuts and spooky music. The cast, beginning with Dame Helen, were wasted, and included the marvelous character actor  Jason Clarke, Australian actress Sarah Snook, and a couple of superb actors in minor roles: Angus Sampson as Winchester’s construction foreman, and a wonderfully sepulchral young actor I’ve never heard of before, Eamon Farron, as a particularly malevolent ghost. The Spierigs had a wonderful story to tell, and the right cast to tell it, and apparently could think of nothing better to do with it than make a creepy schlock-fest.

Because, lurking beneath all the creaking doors and grotesque imagery, is a fascinating meditation on America’s obsession with firearms. Mrs. Winchester kept detailed records of every person killed by a Winchester rifle. By her own admission (and to her shame), her records were inevitably incomplete, but they haunted her. The scenes where Mirren shows Clarke (playing a psychologist sent to evaluate her for the company’s board), her detailed ledgers, every gun death obsessed over, were completely compelling. She believed that by continuously building and rebuilding her mansion, she was welcoming the ghosts of gun victims. She would invite them into her rooms, then nail the doors shut (with 13 nails, exactly, every time), allow them room and space to find peace and transition to the spirit world. In the meantime, she would express her remorse and heartbreak over their deaths. What an astonishing continuing act of penance and contrition! Would that the makers of AR-17s felt a tiny fraction of that measure of repentance.

Snook plays Mrs. Winchester’s niece, Marion, who lives at the mansion as a particularly fierce defender of her aunt’s eccentricities. But her son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), is badly affected by the ghosts, and most especially by the mansion’s latest apparition, Ben (Farren), a mass shooter gunned down by police. Ben’s a particularly powerful and evil ghost, with, we’re given to understand, the spectral power to bring about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Except, of course, Clarke’s psychologist (Dr. Price, if it matters), has kept the bullet that his wife used to shoot him, resulting in a near-death experience, and giving him, see, the ability to both see and banish ghosts. By shooting it. With a Winchester rifle. And the very bullet his wife used. None of that makes a lick of sense, and was frankly more risible than spooky.

But imagine a psychological thriller, again starring that mansion, Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, in which we never actually saw any ghosts? In which the existence of ghosts was implied, but not made overt? In which we’re never sure just what’s going on, but in which Mrs. Winchester really does believe, and continues her manic building project as a kind of expiation? And a movie that really did plumb the depths of her feelings of guilt? And, of course, our shared guilt as Americans? Because nobody else does this, right? Just lets whoever have whatever guns they want? And proclaims its unique Christian heritage, while arming the world?

It’s a shame. Winchester is just another scary movie.  We’ll all have forgotten it existed three months from now.  But, my goodness, there’s a wonderful movie lurking beneath it. Wrong directors, perhaps, wrong studio heads, wrong production company? Who knows. It’s just a shame. Sarah Winchester deserves better.

Hostiles: Movie review

A cast, a crew, a director all work unfathomable hours on a film project. They believe in it, or come to believe in it; they think the story and the script are first-rate, and that the film they’re making is going to be excellent. Post-production finishes, and the cast and crew gather in a theater and see it for the first time. And it’s great; austere, deeply tragic, haunting, powerful. And then the studio looks at it, has no idea how to market it, and it gets dumped into theaters in January, when everyone in the world is watching the Oscar films that were released in two theaters in late December. No buzz, no hype, and the terrific film you were working on gets no buzz, and little audience.

That’s the story of Hostiles. It’s a wonderful film. It’s sad and haunting and beautiful, and features absolutely stunning acting performances in all the major roles. Based on seeing it, I would vote for Rosamund Pike for Best Actress and Christian Bale for Best Actor and Wes Studi for Best Supporting Actor in a heartbeat. And when I saw it, the theater was all but empty, and when I told my son about it, his response was “that Western? That was good?”

As the film begins, a frontier woman, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), is teaching grammar to her young daughters. Her husband is outside their home, doing chores. A rampaging Comanche war party attacks, kills her husband and daughters. Holding her baby to her chest, she runs into a nearby woods, as the Comanche shoot at her. She barely makes it, finds a hiding place, tries to stay quiet. They miss her; she’s alive. Then she looks down at the infant, and realizes that a spare bullet has killed it. And she falls apart.

Cut to US cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), on patrol. He’s rounded up an Apache, and takes him back to the fort, mistreating him all the way. While there, his commanding officer, Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) give him new orders. A Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been imprisoned in New Mexico for seven years. He’s dying of cancer, and wants to go home to Montana, and the President of the United States has granted him clemency for that purpose. Blocker is to take a small company of men and escort Yellow Hawk home.

Blocker doesn’t want to do it. He is a seasoned Indian fighter, close to retirement, and loathes those he calls, indiscriminately, ‘savages.’ He’s lost too many friends, fought too many battles, taken too many lives. No. But Biggs is adament, and tells him that refusing this order will cost him his pension. And so Blocker reluctantly obeys his orders, and agrees to go.

Bale’s performance as Blocker is just riveting. He’s a complex, troubled, haunted man. He despises the Cheyenne, yet speaks their language fluently. He reads by the campfire every night; Caesar on the conquest of Gaul, in Latin. He is a brilliant cavalry commander, and a man of faith, however battered. And so he puts together a small team of soldiers, a mix of men he respects and has fought with–Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), even more damaged and war-weary than Blocker, and Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), an African-American with whom Blocker has fought and who he respects immensely. They’re joined by Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), a newby straight from West Point, and Phillipe DeJardin (Timothee Chalamet), not only new to the service, but a Frenchman new to America entirely. Along with Yellow Hawk, they’re accompanied by Black Hawk (Adam Beach), his son, Elk Woman (Q’Orianka Kilcher), Black Hawk”s wife, and two younger female family members.

And so they set off, and quickly discover the burned out Quaid farm, and in the charred interior of the house, Rosalie, driven half-mad from grief. She has somehow retrieved her dead children, and dressed them, but she insists that they’re alive, that the soldiers keep quiet so as not to wake them. When the soldiers attempt to dig graves, she fights them, insisting that she will dig all the graves for her family, and tries to until her strength gives out entirely. And Blocker is able to treat her respectfully, kindly and solicitously. Pike’s performance is completely convincing and completely heart-breaking. She brought me to tears more than once. And so the soldiers take her with them on their journey.

One of the many things I loved about this movie is that this group of disparate characters were all superbly rendered, completely realized individuals. Rory Cochrane’s depiction of a brave man ravaged by untreated PTSD was stunning, as was Majors as a man determined to maintain absolute professionalism despite the weight of his own loaded history.

The Comanche return, and casualties are suffered, and Blocker comes to respect Yellow Hawk and Black Hawk, and their insight and expertise. And Elk Woman befriends Rosalie. Alliances are formed, friendships tentatively embarked upon. But Sgt. Metz’s problems run too deep for any of them to cope with, and we sense how precarious is his hold on his sanity. Plemons is excellent too, as a man in over his head, but trying desperately to cling to some humanity.

And I can’t say enough about Wes Studi. He’s honestly one of the great American actors, one of those actors who the camera loves. I first fell in love with him as Magua, in Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, and have followed his career ever since. His performance as Yellow Hawk is utterly compelling; you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s dying, but he retains his dignity and authority. He’s imprisoned, but still a wily tactician. And he’s capable of tremendous empathy. It’s a special performance by a marvelous actor.

And that story, the marvelous cinematography and haunting music and superb performances are all in the service of a history lesson of the first order. This is a film that helps us feel, not just witness but deeply and powerfully feel the savagery and violence and tragedy and deeply distressing brutality of the history of the American West, and the ill-treatment to which our forebearing Americans subjected those native to these shores. It’s a film about the cost of colonialism, about the cruel inhumanity of the American pursuit and acquisition of the wealth of our beautiful continent. Blocker, as created by Bale, represents the American propensity for viciousness required for the kind of conquest we felt entitled to pursue. It’s not just a marvelous film, it’s an essential one. And I, for one, was grateful to have seen it.

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 v. Kim

The theory of nuclear deterrence is predicated on the idea that, ultimately, nations would act rationally. When I think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s alarming how unnecessarily bellicose both Kennedy and Khrushchev initially acted. Kennedy wanted to prove that he could be as tough and as resolutely anti-Commie as any Republican. Khrushchev hadn’t been in power for long, and needed to mollify more hawkish members of the Politburo. Throughout the crisis, Kennedy got terrible advice from at least some of his generals. But ultimately, both Kennedy and Khrushchev backed down, found a face-saving compromise both sides could live with. Unleashing the horror of thermonuclear holocaust isn’t necessarily unthinkable. People in power do seem capable of thinking about it. General Maxwell Taylor, President Kennedy’s most important military advisor, clearly was willing to at least entertain the thought of it. But finally, in the end, nuclear war was avoided. Ultimately, both the Americans and the Soviets thought better of it. Everyone took a deep breath, reconsidered previously held positions, calmed down. A nuclear exchange was, finally, averted.

And thus it has always been. Diplomacy has, in the final analysis, triumphed over bellicosity. When I look at the world today, I shudder to realize which countries have nuclear capacities. Pakistan is far too unsteady and unstable to really be a nuclear power. It nonetheless is one. So is India. And India and Pakistan loathe each other, with deeply rooted religious animosities unworthy of two great world religions. Still, both countries have nukes, and that’s a scary thought. But when it comes to their nuclear arsenals, both countries have, miraculously, remained rational, reasonable, peaceable. Israel has nuclear weapons, understandable given its many enemies. But, at least so far, without untoward incident. The nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union remains poorly maintained and guarded, and at least some weapons exist in exceedingly unstable regions. But everyone does seem to recognize how high the stakes are. The Obama administration negotiated a treaty with Iran, which is holding up exceptionally well, at least so far. Iran’s governance is hardly any kind of ideal, with dual military presences and modes of governance. But even Iran, so far, is behaving reasonably.

And then there’s Kim Jong Un. Who may or may not have a nuclear capability, and who definitely has developed an ICBM. And he’s being opposed by Donald Trump. And while James Matis and Rex Tillerson have responded to North Korean threats with diplomatic language, offering to negotiate a way out of the current dispute, Donald Trump seems intent on acting like a spoiled, angry, frightened child. And we’re in major threat escalation mode. Now, Kim is threatening Guam. Poor Guam. And the Donald is promising ‘fire and fury.’

Here’s what would ordinarily happen. The President of the United States would consult with a number of experts on North Korea. He’d probably start with the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs from the State Department, plus the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security from Defense. Those two officials would have access to the expertise of a number of career diplomats with more specific knowledge of Kim and North Korea. The President would also talk with the US ambassador to South Korea. There would be meetings between State and Defense and intelligence agencies. A coherent, rational, consistent policy would emerge. Diplomatic overtures would begin, certainly involving China, Japan and South Korea. And everyone would commit to both the process and the policy. And six months from now, we’d all be wondering whatever happened to Kim Jong Un. Weren’t we scared of him for awhile there?

That can’t happen with Trump; none of it can. For one thing, none of those positions are filled. There isn’t an ambassador to South Korea–Trump hasn’t named one. State is badly understaffed. So is Defense. And the President of the United States is trying to govern via Twitter, as informed by Fox and friends, advised by ideological extremists (Steve Bannon), and desperately unqualified family members (Jared Kushner.) We have no coherent policy. We have no process by which one might be arrived at.

Nuclear deterrence requires nations to act rationally. Which means, at present, we have to hope that Kim Jong Un fills that role, Donald Trump having abdicated it.

Now, to be fair, Trump is getting some good advice from some qualified people. Jim Mattis, John Kelly and H. R. McMaster are, at least, sensible people. They’re career military men, and they know full well that even a conventional attack on North Korea would be a sickening, disastrous nightmare. We’d probably win such a war. So what? It would result in a humanitarian crisis the likes of which the world has never seen. That choice has to be off the table. The nuclear option has to be off the table and buried fifty feet down in the backyard.

But it may not be. Our current President has not demonstrated a capacity for mature self-reflection, careful strategic planning, or rationality. We have to hope Kim can be the sensible adult in the room. Or, just maybe, Xi Jingping. Otherwise, this whole situation is scary, and getting scarier. Maybe, just maybe, Rex Tillerson and Xi are on the phone right now. Let’s desperately hope so.


Autumn of the Black Snake: Book Review

William Hogeland’s Autumn of the Black Snake is one of the finest books of popular American history I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Such familiar figures as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson and Henry Knox, come to life as never before, not as saintly paragons of civic virtue, but as they sometimes, often, were: grasping, venal, impatient, corrupt, and fundamentally indifferent towards people they regarded as their inferiors, particularly peoples of color. This is Hogeland’s fourth book about eighteenth century America, and all of them are remarkable, but I absolutely couldn’t put this one down. Above all, although I’m a history junkie–especially American history–Autumn of the Black Snake tells an extraordinarily important story that I’ve never heard before.

The book’s full title is Autumn of the Black Snake: The creation of the US Army and the Invasion that opened the West. Above all, it tells about the first real war fought by the new, fully constituted United States government. This war had no generally accepted name–not the War of 1812, not the Revolution, not the French and Indian war, though it was related to all three. And the stakes could not have been higher. Would the United States of America remain an eastern seaboard nation? Or would it expand, beyond the Alleghenies, and into what was then known as the ‘Northwest Territory’; the area we now know as western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. And once that territory was inhabited, cultivated, domesticated, administered, what was to stop further Western expansion?

George Washington had started his career in that territory, moving from his base in Virginia, on to surveying in Ohio, then land speculation, and also, of course, military adventurism.  He knew the area well, and thought it contained the richest land he had ever seen. Some of the richest plots, he had surveyed and claimed for himself. Any Virginia planter was anxious for new land, as tobacco farming (and later, cotton farming) so badly depleted the soil. Now, it was 1791, and he was President of the newly formed United States of America. Ohio beckoned. And his vision for America required aggressive west-ward expansion. And Washington was happy enough to try to purchase land from the peoples who already lived on it. When that failed, though, it could always be obtained via conquest.

Only the first attempt to send an army to conquer it was a catastrophic failure. The Shawnee leader, Blue Jacket, and the Miami leader, Little Turtle did not agree about much, but they did agree that the future of their peoples required military cooperation between all the tribes of the Ohio Valley. They were fighting for the survival of their people. They had, against all odds–including the difficulties of coordinating the efforts of people who spoke different languages, worshipped different Gods, were in every sense from different cultures. None of that had come to matter. Now they were busy getting their heads around a new identity–not as Shawnee or Miami or Ojibwa or Potawatomi, but Indians, as their enemies saw them. And so, Blue Jacket and Little Turtle led their forces against American militiamen, led by General Arthur St. Clair. They had fought and they had won. St. Clair may have lost 650 men; he might also have lost 900, casualty lists being unreliable. Every student of American history knows about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the defeat of General Custer by forces led by Sitting Bull. Almost no one remembers St. Clair’s defeat. But he lost, at least, twice as many men, and his defeat looked far more consequential. The western boundary of the United States looked to be the Allegheny mountains.

To Washington, that result was unacceptable. And he knew what had caused it. The soldiers who lost so disastrously were poorly trained, poorly supplied, and poorly led. And this, in Washington’s professional estimation, was inevitable, given Congress (and most Americans) detestation of a ‘standing army,’ and corresponding love of militias.

Militias fed an enduring American myth; the freeholding soldier/citizen, who left his plow, grabbed his musket, and ran off to victory in combat. Washington had tried to win a war using militiamen, and knew them to be entirely untrustworthy and ineffective. Most Americans thought of standing armies as following the British model–poorly paid mercenaries, drawn from the dregs of society, instruments of royal tyranny. But Washington knew this truth; that soldiers are as good as their training, their discipline, and their effective leadership. Alexander Hamilton, who had been Washington’s Chief of Staff, knew it too. So did Henry Knox, Washington’s head of artillery. America needed an army; Washington and Hamilton conspired to persuade Congress to provide it one.

Commanding it would be General Anthony Wayne, a man who Washington knew well from his Revolutionary War days. Wayne is in some respects another American archetype; the military man par excellence, who can’t do anything but soldier. Wayne had been an effective commander; post-war he proved an abysmal businessman, a hopeless financier, a miserable and corrupt politician. He was good at one thing; training and leading troops. Washington promised him five thousand soldiers, fully supplied, and sent him to Ohio.

I have always known about the militia vs. standing army rift in early American politics–it was a major theme in the fight over constitutional confirmation. I knew that, initially, we didn’t have an army. Then, suddenly, we had one, and have had ever since. I just assumed that at some point in the late 18th century, Congress had decided to authorize one. What I didn’t know was that St. Clair’s disastrous defeat (which I hadn’t heard previously known ,much about), provided the impetus Washington needed to get Congress to act.

And so, Anthony Wayne trained his army. It took him over a year. He built forts, and guarded supply lines, and his army began marching, inexorably, west. His movements may have appeared ponderous, but they were incredibly effective. Little Turtle, the singular military genius opposing him, said, in admiration, ‘Wayne never sleeps.’

We know how it turned out. I’m from Indiana, and we have a town named Fort Wayne. As late as the 1930s, Anthony Wayne was a sufficiently notorious military hero that a strapping young actor with an unfortunate name, Marion Michael Morrison, took Wayne’s last name for his own screen persona. Ohio was made safe for white people. Within fifteen years, its population grew, from a few thousand to 150,000. And the United States became known for west-ward expansion.

At what cost? And that’s part of the genius of Hogeland; he never forgets the cost. Washington, Jefferson, Wayne himself were all slaveowners. Indians could be defeated and killed because, well, they weren’t white. We know the names Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton. We don’t know Little Turtle, or Anthony Wayne. Hogeland writes:

That the more decisive war, and thus, the more important people, has lapsed into obscurity points to a vacancy in American memory when it comes to what is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of George Washington’s career, and to the political, moral, and existential burden his career, and its national indispensibility, will forever carry. That legacy is the formation of a permanent military establishment, via the conquest of indigenous people, in pursuit of the industrial and imperial power that, with our victory in its first war, the United States did go on to achieve.

Ultimately, the hero of this book is not Washington, nor Wayne, nor Wayne’s treasonous second-in-command James Wilkinson (who I haven’t talked about, but believe me, his story is insane). It’s Little Turtle. Little Turtle, who saw clearly how this professional army should be fought, and could be defeated. Little Turtle, whose outlook was never melancholy, but always tragic, who saw clearly what defeat would mean, who fought valiantly to prevent it, but who knew, in his heart, that his people were doomed.

Empires know what conquest costs. And the building of an American empire came on the backs of black slaves, of brutal and uncompensated labor by a people deemed inferior. And by the defeat of indigenous peoples, whose only crime was living on land Americans wanted, and who paid for it via genocide. Our history is not triumphant. It’s tragic. Hogeland captures that tragedy, while acknowledging genuine achievement. Can we hold that paradox in our heads?

The Comey firing

On June 17, 1972, five men were caught in an attempted robbery of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a rented room in the Watergate hotel. They had previously broken into the DNC rooms on May 28th, had rifled through some filing cabinets and bugged a couple of phones. Although that operation had gone smoothly, the bugs had begun to malfunction. The second break-in was needed to repair the phones, and also to continue to look for damaging intelligence that could be used against the Democratic presidential campaign. The Watergate burglars had been hired by G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Nixon campaign, the break-in authorized by CRP (Committee to Re-elect the President) chair, Jeb Magruder, White House counsel, John Dean, and Attorney-General John Mitchell. It’s possible that President Nixon did not know of or approve the initial burglary. But he aggressively participated in the subsequent cover-up.

Once it was learned that President Nixon routinely recorded conversations in the Oval Office, the Watergate investigators tried to subpoena the audio tapes. President Nixon claimed executive privilege; Archibald Cox, who had been appointed Special Prosecutor, kept insisting. On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliott Richardson, to fired Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. his deputy, William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fired Cox; he also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor-General Robert Bork, third in command, was ordered to fire Cox, and after some soul-searching, did. This series of events has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and is seen as one of the more significant events in the scandal that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation.

What the Watergate burglars were looking for was damaging intelligence, stuff they could use to smear Democrats or foreknowledge of their strategies and tactics the Republicans could counter. They bugged phones, they rifled through files. During the recent election, Russian hackers did much the same thing. They hacked into the files of the DNC, looking for damaging intel. They didn’t actually find a lot, but they did find some snarky emails, in which Clinton campaign staff said nasty things about the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and they found other documents that suggested that the DNC did not treat the two Democratic candidates equally, but favored Hillary. When the hackers released this information on Wiki-leaks, it drove a wedge into the already-shaky relationship between Democratic voters who preferred Clinton and those who preferred Sanders. We do not know, and will never know, how significant a factor any of this was in Donald Trump’s eventual electoral win. We don’t know, in a close race, what effect the Wiki-leaks revelations had on voters’ behavior. What we do know is this; Russians hacked the election, because, for whatever reason, Vladimir Putin preferred Trump over Clinton.

We know, of course, a lot more about Watergate, the historical event, than we do about Russian electoral interference. With Watergate, we know who did what, and when. That’s not true so far with the current scandal. We do not know, for example, the extent to which the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s electoral preferences, or to what degree, if at all, members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians prior to the election. We don’t know if Trump himself is guilty, at all, of anything. I expect that, in time, we’ll know a lot more.

Former acting Attorney-General Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday may have seemed somewhat mundane, and not really all that revelatory.  No ‘smoking gun,’ in other words. But that’s generally not how these things work. I remember Watergate vividly. I was in high school then, and every day after school, was glued to my TV watching the Watergate hearings. I remember listening to the drip drip drip of new information, and trying to put it all together. What Yates did was confirm a lot of facts that had previously been reported. We do know more today than we did last week.

Last week, preceding her testimony, FBI director Comey made a request of President Trump, for more funding to expand the FBI’s investigation into the Russian hacking and possible Trump campaign collusion. Yesterday, President Trump fired Comey. This means that the most significant three people conducting investigations into Trump/Russia when Trump took office 110 days ago were James Comey, Sally Yates, and Preet Bharara, New York US Attorney. Trump has now fired all three of them. Again, we don’t know if Trump or his campaign were guilty of, well, anything. It would, however, be easier to cut him some slack if he didn’t act so darn guilty.

Again, there’s no hard evidence of collusion. But we do know that Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, may also be a Russian spy. (US intelligence agencies, apparently, regard him as one). We know that vast numbers of high ranking Trump officials met with Kislyak and other Russian officials, many times, during the campaign. Michael Flynn, of course, was among them. Trump has repeatedly claimed he didn’t and doesn’t have any business dealings with Russians. We know that’s not true; in a recent story admitted that Russian money funded Trump golf courses, and there are many other Russian/Trump connections discovered by journalists, including, in a stunning story, a major investigation by USA Today.

Of course, Watergate was a major historical event, certainly one of the most consequential in our nation’s history. Right now, the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections is in its infancy. We don’t know, or at least, have not yet proved, collusion.

But if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump or his campaign staff did collude with Russian to influence a Presidential election, that seems to me much much more important than even Watergate. Whatever we may think of Richard Nixon, he didn’t collude with a hostile foreign power. Nixon was certainly devious, thin-skinned, and amoral. But he was no traitor. But that’s what we’re saying Trump committed: high treason. No evidence yet, but he just fired the guy investigating the case. It’s hard to come across as guiltier than that.