Watching All the President’s Men in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Republican tax cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Erik Prince’s spy network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why I haven’t been able to blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration and terror

On Halloween, an Uzbek man, in the US legally, rented a truck, and drove it onto a popular New York City bike path, killing 8 people, at least 6 of them tourists. The killer, one Sayfullo Saipov, claimed allegiance to ISIS in a note left behind in the truck. Saipov was shot by an alert New York police officer, and is currently under arrest. New Yorkers, meanwhile, headed off to their Halloween parties, which is precisely what they should have done. Terrorists want to terrorize; the best response is to not allow yourself to be terrified.

President Trump, with that delicacy of expression and sensitivity to nuance that seem never to desert him, used several Twitter posts in an effort to console the nation. His complete failure to do anything of the kind is as predictable as it was dispiriting. Of course, we know this; we know he can’t help but be divisive, that even something as basic as compassion is not in his wheelhouse. Prompted, apparently, by what the dolts on Fox and Friends were saying about the event, the President decided that blame for the attack should be laid at the feet of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The terrorist came into our country through what is called the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program,” a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based. We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter).

Of course, it’s deeply wrong for anyone to politicize tragedy. Sorry, no, I got the rules wrong; what’s wrong is for liberal Democrats to politicize gun violence. It’s perfectly okay for a Republican to politicize a terrorist attack.  At least, that’s the official position of the executive branch of the United States, as articulated by Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

It goes without saying that Trump’s tweets were factually wrong: Chuck Schumer, in fact, is on record as opposing the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. I would suggest that both this President and Senator Schumer are wrong regarding the policy in question.

It’s important that we remember this: Trump is not only an odious and repugnant human being. He is that, but that’s tangential to the real danger he represents. He’s also wrong about policy. It’s uncanny; on every issue, he takes the wrong side. He supports proposals that would make everything worse, not better. He says he wants an infrastructure bill. Great, we have major infrastructure needs. But his public/private approach is a proven failure. He thinks the opiod epidemic is a major public health problem. Indeed it is. He resists, however, doing anything that might actually help. And so on.

It’s difficult, of course, to tell where Trump stands on any issue at all. Either he knows absolutely nothing about policy, and isn’t aware how contradictory his public positions actually are, or he’s a showman and con man who doesn’t care about policy at all, so long as someone, somewhere, cheers.  Still, whatever he might have said about health care policy, he did, in fact support the various ghastly attempts by Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And so on.

And so, yes, he’s wrong about immigration. Of course, that’s the mistaken policy with which he began his run for the Presidency; he spoke then and remains now unconscionably racist. And the biggest applause line in his stump speech–such as it was, it was actually more like a stump stream-of-consciousness–was his cretinous call for a Really Big Wall. Which Mexico would pay for.

The Diversity Visa Lottery Program, then, is not, in my opinion, a particularly good program. It’s far too restrictive.

Here’s how it works. Millions of people would like to come to the United States. Most lack the specific skills Trump’s ‘merit-based’ program requires. Most also lack relatives who are already citizens. Most come from places where they can’t plausibly request political asylum. But they can apply for a diversity lottery visa. It’s a weighted lottery, which last year offered green cards to 50,000 immigrants, out of 9 million applicants. Once selected, prospective immigrants are carefully screened. And then they receive the documentation they need, to live her, work here, and within five years or so, apply for citizenship here.

I said it was a weighted lottery. That’s because you can’t even enter the lottery if you come from a country that has sent more than 50,000 people to the US over the last five years. So your chances are largely based on where you’re from. Uzbekistan and Nigeria had disproportionately large numbers of lottery winners last year.

Sayfullo Saipov won the lottery. He also became a terrorist. Ergo, the Diversity Visa Lottery program promotes terrorism. Post hoc propter hoc. Blarg.

No. The United States of America is, at bottom, a nation made up of people from different places who unite together behind common ideals. Immigration is a social, moral and economic good. Immigrants start businesses. Immigrants raise families. Immigrants obey the law, with a few exceptions, of course. And, specifically, Muslim immigrants, immigrants from Muslim countries, reject terrorism, and are a massively useful resource in combating it. None of those statements are even remotely controversial among experts who study immigration. Those are simply the facts regarding immigration.

So, yes, the Diversity Visa Lottery program is flawed, but not because its vetting requirements are insufficiently rigorous. It’s flawed because it does not accept enough people. The ratio shouldn’t be 50,000 accepted out of 9 million. It should be closer to 1 million to 9 million. Yes, a million people, in addition to the refugees we should also be welcoming. And yes, some of those people will do bad things. A few might even become terrorists. It doesn’t matter. We will never win the ‘war on terror’ until we stop massively overreacting to terrorist acts. Catch the bad guys, and get on with our lives. Disproportionately many of those doing the arresting will themselves be recent immigrants, or their kids.

Of course, Mr. Trump is uninterested in making sense on this issue. He’s all id, all seething resentment and vile prejudice and pompous and ill-informed nativism. in fact; I’ll go further. I don’t think he gets it. He doesn’t understand, appreciate, or sympathize with what it means to be an American. He doesn’t grok it; he’s more foreign, in many ways, than some non-English speaking guy straight off the boat. I suspect that the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty is an incomprehensible jumble of words to him. Diversity–what America is basically about— is a mystery to him.

Sadly, he can’t even pronounce it:

Sleeping Beauties: Book Review

Stephen King is, and always has been, an extraordinary popular novelist. I don’t mean that disparagingly; not in any sense. The stories he tells are meant to entertain, but that doesn’t mean they’re not built on a solid foundation of clear, honest, and even at times, lyrical prose, well-drawn characters, and situations that somehow feel plausible, even when utterly fantastic. With Sleeping Beauties, his son, Owen, joins the family business. They co-wrote this, and I couldn’t tell who wrote which passages, so that’s all to the good. Anyway, I enjoyed the novel immensely, Couldn’t put it down, in fact. When I say that they seem to be aiming for a profundity they never quite achieve, I say that with full appreciation for everything the novel does accomplish.

It’s a genre novel, of course, but it’s really more sci-fi than horror. It traffics in the supernatural, but through a character that seems more alien than fantasy. Above all, it’s a novel about gender. It’s about men and women, and the ways we’re different, and the ways we’re similar. In fact, as the title suggests, an examination of ‘gender’ is at the heart of everything the novel is trying to achieve. I have a sneaking suspicion that it resonated with me because I’m a guy, and it’s a novel about women written by guys. I wonder if it would be a different novel if Stephen King had written it with a daughter (if he has one; I don’t know), instead of with a son. Or with his wife, Tabitha, a fine novelist too.

Okay, here’s the premise. In the town of Dooling, a town of 30,000 in the American Midwest, the sheriff, Lila Norcross, has worked a long overtime shift, is dog tired and ready for some shuteye, when she’s called to a crime scene. In a low rent trailer, next to a shed where he cooks meth for sale, one Truman Mayweather sits with his meth-head girlfriend, Tiffany, and a visiting cousin, when a woman, a stranger, astonishingly strong, breaks in, kills the two men–ramming one’s head through a trailer wall–and then disappears. Lila sees her, covered with blood, walking mostly naked down the middle of a highway. She arrests her, takes her into custody. This woman, who will only identify herself as Eve, is, in appearance and language and skillset, otherwordly. Not sure what else she can do with her, Lila arranges for her to be incarcerated, not in the local jail, but in the town’s nearby women’s prison, where her husband, Dr. Clinton Norcross, works as the prison psychiatrist.

About the same time, all around the world, women fall asleep and do not wake up. I don’t mean that everyone falls asleep at once, but just that when women do fall asleep, they don’t wake. Instead, they quickly are covered with a kind of cocoon. If anyone removes the cocoon, the women instantly wake, are possessed with a superhuman strength, and commit unspeakable acts of violence to whoever woke them. They then go right back to sleep, and the cocoon reforms around them. While sleeping, though, they’re fine. To the extent that medical personnel can measure their vital signs, they’re perfectly healthy. But all bodily functions stop; they don’t seem to need to eat or relieve themselves. And this mysterious affliction, which media dubs ‘Aurora’, hits every woman in the world. No men, all the women. No exceptions.

Except one. Eve, the mysterious stranger in the Dooling women’s prison. She can sleep and wake up. She also can talk to the prison’s resident rats (all prisons, apparently, are troubled with rodents), and the rats do her bidding. As Dr. Norcross observes her (and talks to her), she also can read minds. What the good doctor does not know is that she can also communicate with other animals, including a fox, and including the ubiquitous moths that begin gathering.

Knowing that they won’t be able to wake up, many women choose to stave off sleep. All groceries and drug stores have runs on any kind of upper drug. The women in the prison in charge of the mess hall brew up a super strong batch of vile-tasting but effective coffee. Men, meanwhile, freak out. Riots break out. Violence increases–civil order is disrupted. Of course, lots of men try to wake up their wives and sweethearts, and suffer immediate and lethal consequences. The news media sends out the direst of warnings. The CDC is overwhelmed. And in Dooling, mobs begin to gather. Rumors spread of this strange women, Eve, who is immune to the illness. And vigilantes decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands.

Guys, in other words, act like guys. Irrational and violent. Aggressive.

About halfway through the novel, we learn where all the women are. The women of Dooling (and apparently, nowhere else), find themselves in, well, Dooling. But it’s an overgrown ruin of the town they knew. Time moves at a different rate in Our Place, as the women begin calling it. And they build a new society. With no men around, they cope for themselves just fine. They find food. They grow crops and they kill game. They manage to rebuild the electrical grid. A few of them were pregnant when they fell asleep; they carry their babies to term, and give birth, and the children born to them are the usual mix of boys and girls. And they’re determined to raise their male children to be less, well, guy-like. Less aggressive, less violent, less irrational.

I’m not going to give away the ending. But the novel posits two separate worlds, one with no men, the other with no women, and draws parallels between them. Except the guy world is pretty dystopic. And the gal-world is . . . less so.

In other words, gender is described about the way you’d think it would be described by two men who would self-identify as feminists, but who are not particularly sophisticated students of gender. (For one thing, the novel never even mentions transgender people).

As I said, I enjoyed it a lot. I thought the characters were very well drawn, including Frank Geary, an animal control officer with a real temper who becomes the head of the vigilantes and probably serves as the novel’s villain. He’s an interesting character, though, and I liked that he wasn’t really painted as ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ I thought the two Norcrosses, Lila and Clint, who are the leaders of the two worlds, were both superbly drawn. And I loved “Eve”, the supernatural character.

I do think the Kings were striving for something more important, a statement of greater significance, than what they achieved. I still, I liked it, very much indeed. And, like Stephen and Owen King, I do worry about my gender, especially in the light of recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. Anyway, it’s a good one. Give it a read.

Jeff Flake’s speech

Senator Jeff Flake, R-Arizona gave a speech yesterday at the US Senate. It was a terrific speech. Here’s how he started:

I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership. Regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

Well, who could argue with that? He comes across as a decent man, a man of conscience, a conservative in the best sense of the word. I’ve seen interviews with him, and I’ve read his book, cheekily titled Conscience of a Conservative. The title he may have stolen from Barry Goldwater, but those ideas are now mainstream conservatism. It’s the disgust with the Presidency of Donald Trump that’s, sadly, kind of unique. But back to his speech:

Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.

Preach it brother! Amen! Absolutely! And when I say ‘brother,’ I mean that in a religious sense; Flake’s LDS. And his speech isn’t just an attack on Trump. It’s also a call to action:

When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? What are we going to say? Mr. President, I rise today to say, enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal.

Great. That’s fine. We don’t want the anomalous to become the normal. Couldn’t agree more. I just want to know this:

Why haven’t you done anything?

And why are you leaving?

Here’s an example. Betsy DeVos was confirmed at Secretary of Education back in February. It was perfectly obvious from her confirmation hearing that she was spectacularly unqualified for the job. She was the wife of a major Republican donor, who has spent her time trying to privatize the American education system. She demonstrated repeatedly that she knew absolutely nothing about the most pressing education issues of the day. And she was confirmed 51-50, with the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice-President Pence.

And Jeff Flake voted for her. He voted ‘yes’. He made normal, in other words, Trump’s sensationally anomalous choice for his cabinet.

Okay, that’s unfair. Flake is a big school-choice guy, a charter school guy. Maybe he agreed with her on education issues, and was willing to overlook her, ahem, idiosyncracies. And that vote was a long time ago. So what about yesterday? The Senate voted on a measure that would have made it harder for ripped-off citizens to sue the banks or credit card companies that cheated them. The one recourse people have under such circumstances is to sue, either individually or through a class-action suit. Credit card companies want people to use binding arbitration instead, because they usually win those. The Senate was voting on the measure. So, easy vote: Wall Street vs. consumers. And two Republicans voted against the banks, joining all 48 Democrats. Jeff Flake was not one of them. Trump wanted it, and Flake voted with Trump. Again, Mike Pence broke the tie. 51-50.

So, again, the anomalous becomes the normal. And Jeff Flake’s anti-Trump rhetoric starts to look pretty empty, pretty self-serving.

And, all right, let’s suppose Flake really would now like to oppose Trump on principle, that he wants to join the fight against normalizing anomalies. Then why not stay in the Senate? Because Jeff Flake’s big speech was essentially a farewell address. He’s quitting. He’s leaving the Senate.

I get that Trump hates him, and that Steve Bannon is willing to spend ten million dollars of Robert Mercer’s money to defeat him. Flake’s main concern seems to be all that support flowing to his primary challenger. He, understandably, does not want to humiliated by a primary defeat.

But it’s not like his opponent is some juggernaut. She’s Dr. Kelli Ward, an ER doc from Lake Havasu City. She’s probably a very good doctor. And she may not be quite as nuts as she sometimes appears. She appeared on Alex Jones’ show, where she suggested that John McCain may be trying to kill her. Kind of; Jones said it, she just didn’t contradict him. She hosted a town hall meeting about chemtrails. Though she hasn’t said where she stands on the chemtrail issue, she clearly took that particular conspiracy theory seriously enough to hold a town hall on it. So, no, it’s not entirely fair to call her Chemtrail Kelli. But she also sees political advantage to cozying up to conspiracy theorists.

What does she stand for? I went on her website, and guess what: if Trump’s for it, so is she. Border wall, tax cuts for rich guys, no gun control at all, for anything.

Remember, Steve Bannon is an insurrectionist. He’s pro-chaos. He wants desperately unqualified people in the cabinet and Congress; he’s trying to rush us towards something akin to the Second Coming. He likes creative destruction. That’s why he supported (and we may be stuck with), Roy Moore for the US Senate. Moore’s crazy. Bannon likes crazy.

More to the point, Flake isn’t crazy. At least, he’s not-crazy enough to understand what a disaster Donald Trump’s Presidency has become. He is, at least, competent, and a decent guy. He’s massively conservative, and if I could vote in Arizona, I’d vote for his likely opponent,  Kyrsten Sinema. She’s a liberal Democrat. Who he would probably beat.

What bothers me most, though, is him not even trying. What troubles me is the suggestion that active opposition from someone as extreme and bizarre as Steve Bannon might scare Flake off. Or that he doesn’t seem to think he can beat a Trumpite like Kelli Ward.

Flake’s speech seems to suggest that an actual conservative (whatever that is), can’t support Donald Trump in good conscience, and that the Republican party needs to disassociate themselves from Trumpian policies and politics. Great. Good start. But he’s not going to do anything about it. And that, frankly, strikes me not as conscience, but as cowardice.

The Foreigner: Movie Review

The Foreigner is one of the stranger action movies you’re likely to see; a big budget, movie star vehicle action movie without a single likable or relatable character.  And considering that it stars Jackie Chan, that’s kind of amazing.

Because Jackie Chan, in addition to being one of the two greatest physical comedians who ever lived (his only rival, Buster Keaton), specializes in playing nice guys. He’s got that big grin, and all that energy; he’s charming. He specializes in playing good guys who find themselves in circumstances where the only possible way out is through advanced martial arts. That’s the combination that makes Jackie Chan movies such a delight; astonishing action sequences, and preposterous plots. He’s a rescuer of innocents, an inadvertent foiler of dastardly schemes. Even Jackie’s occasional struggles with English are appealing. He’s sixty three, now, and not as quick with a punch or a fall, but this is a movie I marked on my calendar. A new Jackie Chan movie is not to be missed.

And he really can act. In The Foreigner, he plays Quan, a London restauranteur, and father of the lovely Fan (Katie Leung: Cho in the Harry Potter movies), a teenaged girl with a British boyfriend. She pops into a shop to buy a dress for a Big Date, which is promptly destroyed by a terrorist bomb. Quan is devastated. And for the rest of the movie, Chan plays this guy as someone who has essentially been destroyed emotionally, turning him completely single-minded. He is going to find and kill whoever killed his daughter. Nothing else matters; no power on earth can stop him. Beyond that one desire, he seems completely numb. It’s a tragic and moving performance. But not likable. His single-mindedness turns him into a end-justifies-the-means kind of guy; essentially, he becomes something of a terrorist too.

And he’s not much interested in doing detective work. The bombing was carried out by a newly-minted IRA splinter group. Quan sees on the news that a former IRA member, who has settled into a role as a British minister to Ireland, Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan), is trying to head up the effort to discover who bombed the store. So Quan focuses on Hennessey. Who, we discover, does in fact know a lot more than he’s saying to the Press. The movie becomes a cat-and-mouse duel between the two men, with Quan terrorizing Hennessey’s family to force Hennessey to tell him what he knows.

Hennessey’s no prize. It turns out, he has a mistress, Maggie, or Sarah, or something, superbly played by a fine actress named Charlie Murphy who I’d never heard of before. But Maggie/Sarah is one of the terrorists, and she sleeps with various men to further the nefarious terrorist plans, which also involve blowing up an airplane. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of political machinations involving Hennessey, his uneasy relationship with the British crown, represented by a cabinet minister, Katherine Davies (Lia Williams), with other Irish crime bosses, and his own wife, Mary (Orla Brady), who despises him and may well betray him. I’m oversimplifying–the plot is more convoluted even than I’ve described it, but it’s all made clear in the picture.

Problem is, we don’t like any of them. The battle of wits between Quan and Hennessey is what carries the picture, and it’s edge-of-the-seat compelling. But we don’t actually care who wins, ultimately, because they’re all pretty awful people.

When I taught dramatic structure, I used to introduce students to two kinds of theatrical naturalism, which I called Naturalism A and Naturalism B. This is a Naturalism A structure, but it’s also an action movie, a melodrama. Melodramas have good guys and bad guys; heroes and villains. Naturalist pieces have no heroes, nor really any villains. Everyone’s just trying to survive.  We’re to watch it dispassionately, with much attachment to any characters. That’s what this is. A cold-blooded, well-made, superbly acted exercise in pure detachment, with utterly amoral characters pursuing a fairly loathesome objective. I mean, is Quan seeking justice? Or just revenge? And what is the difference?

I found it fascinating, and riveting, and not remotely ingratiating. My wife was as fascinated as I was by it, but ultimately found it quite disappointing. If you’re expecting a Jackie Chan vehicle, a fun action/comedy, you’ll be disappointed too. If you don’t mind a pretty well made formalist exercise, and a chance for Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan to show off their acting chops, you’re more likely to find it to your taste.

A rare outbreak of bi-partisanship

Congressional Republicans found themselves in a bind. For years, they stood in steadfast resistance to the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare. The House, under Republican control, voted repeatedly to repeal it. Granted, the Senate, under Democratic leadership, never brought any such measure to a (failing) vote, and if they had, through some miracle, passed it, Obama would have vetoed, but still, the Republicans had run for election on repealing Obamacare. Fulminated against it, lied about it, misrepresented it, put all their eggs in that one basket. Never let it be said that they didn’t try! Over and over again, they wasted everyone’s time with this silly symbolic exercise. It never meant a thing. It was just this silly pointless thing they did, like me putting ‘diet and exercise’ on my New Year’s Resolutions. Or a dog chasing a car.

Then suddenly, one day, a health scare, and the doctor was telling me, in all seriousness, dude, diet and exercise; you have to lose a lot of weight fast or you could die. One election, and the state of our nation shifted from ‘peaceful transfer of power after a democratic election’ to ‘on-going national crisis.’ And the Republicans found themselves controlling the House, AND Senate, AND White House, and also, pretty much, the judicial branch as well. The dog caught the car, and suddenly wondered what he was going to do with it. And it turned out, the Republican party was much better at ‘repeal,’ than ‘replace.’

For years, we’d been told of these wonderful conservative, market-oriented alternatives to Obamacare. It turned out, they didn’t exist. Various approaches to repealing and replacing were floated, and just as quickly, shot out of the sky. Republicans, turns out, are great at winning elections. They’re incapable of governing. In fact, most conservatives don’t actually want the government in charge of health care. It’s a commodity; if you can’t afford it, you don’t get it. Various attempts were offered, bills created, and, darn the CBO, vetted. Every one of them would have substantially reduced the numbers of citizens with good health care. Citizens without health insurance get sick or get in accidents at about the same rate as everyone else; without insurance, people can die. And voting margins on these bills were sufficiently narrow that all kinds of legislative hocus-pocus was brought to bear. Bills were rushed through, jammed through, forced down people’s throats. In short, lots of really sucky bills scorched their way through Congress, right up to the point where Congresspeople voted on them. Thousands of people began cramming their way into Congressional constituent meetings, exercising their First Amendment rights to be vocal, contentious and angry. Obamacare is still the law of the land.

President Trump, it turned out, was terrible at working with Congress to get this stuff passed. This is hardly surprising, since Trump is awful at all the other aspects of his job as well, but in this case, his ineptitude combined with Congressional fecklessness to produce no bill, no answers, numerous lies and a thoroughly honked-off populace. So Trump decided to do see what some executive orders might accomplish. Since Obamacare couldn’t be repealed and replaced via legislation, as the Framers intended, Trump cut insurance subsidies, and destabilized insurance markets. He wants Obamacare dead. Or something. It’s hard to tell; he’s given speech after speech that makes it sound like he favors a single-payer system. Or block grants to states. Or witchcraft and wizardry. Or something.

Meanwhile, something weird was happening in the offices and conference rooms of the Senate. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, chair and ranking Dem on the Health Committee, were holding hearings, and meeting, and discussing, and trying to figure out a way to fix the real-life actual-factual problems Obamacare did in fact have. And they came up with a bill. Bi-partisan. A compromise. A little bit from the left and a little bit from the right. And it’s not a great bill, but it’s likely to be effective. Turns out, overcoming the partisan divide wasn’t completely impossible. Obamacare can be saved. Regular order works.

It was shocking. And nobody seems to know what to do about it. Trump was startled enough that he initially even seemed to suggest he’d support it. He immediately muddied the waters by saying nine other contradictory things about it, but who knows, he likes signing things. The House didn’t seem to know what to do about it. A few people reflexively made some noises about how this wasn’t ‘repeal and replace.’ It was a fix. The spectacle of two elected officials actually doing their jobs and serving their constituents has taken everyone by surprise. Even the national media didn’t know how to handle it; it was a below-the-fold-page-seven story in the national news.

Meanwhile, Alexander and Murray say they’re lining up co-sponsors, and hope for a Senate vote soon. Like, you know, real Senators. And Nancy Pelosi says she’d love to bring her House caucus aboard. It might, you know, actually pass. I wouldn’t bet my Mom’s pension on it, but stranger things have happened. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

 

Basketball begins

The NBA season starts tonight, and I couldn’t be more excited.

To get us all pumped up for the start of a new season, HBO showed Hoosiers today. It’s a wonderful movie, an old favorite, about the Indiana high school basketball tournament, and also, more generally, about the hold the sport of basketball has on the state of Indiana, where I was raised. I’ve seen it many times, of course, but still pick up something new from it every time I see it. It was made in 1986, so 31 years ago. And, although it follows the fictional Hickory High team of 1951, it’s actually about the unlikely Milan championship in 1954, the smallest high school to ever win the state tourney. Which means that the movie was made 35 years after the events that it tells. So we end up with three interesting snapshots of basketball historically. Basketball in the early 1950s, in the mid-80s, and today.

Although the movie is nostalgic in tone, a paean to basketball played between small town high schools, where everyone in town came to all the home games, then drove through wintry country roads to away games, where all the town fathers gathered in the barber shop to reprise each win or loss–and the players got free haircuts, it’s also about an important turning point in basketball history. Anthony Pizzo, who wrote Hoosiers, and David Anspaugh, who directed it, are both from Indiana, sports nuts and basketball fans of the first order, and one of the marvelous things about their movie is the details.

This time through, I noticed Rade (Steve Hollar), and his one footed outside shot. Hank Luisetti is often credited as the first player to shoot a jump shot, but if you look at archival footage of his game, he really shot more like Rade; a long shot, with one foot ahead of the other, shot two handed. He did jump, so technically it’s a jump shot, but the smooth one handed shot with which Jimmy (Maris Valainis) wins so many games is the shot used mostly now, shot with shoulders square to the hoop, bouncing off both feet. Watch footage of Ken Sailors shot, a few years after Luisetti, and he’s shooting what we now regard as the classic jump shot. And that’s Jimmy’s shot as well, and it’s deadly. So this movie figured, an average player would shoot using the old fashioned Luisetti form, but a better player would use the cutting-edge Sailors shot. They got that right, is what I’m saying. I’m in awe.

So, as the jump shot revolutionized the game, so did a far more important factor, as basketball (slowly, reluctantly) integrated, as the best African-American players changed the way the game is played. In the movie, the Hickory team we follow (based on Milan High’s ’54 state champions), plays South Bend Central for the state title. And the South Bend team features four Black starters. In actuality, Milan played against Indianapolis Attucks High, starring the young Oscar Robertson.

Oscar Robertson was the greatest talent of his day, and one of the greatest players who ever lived. And when he finished high school, he desperately wanted to play college ball at Indiana University. The IU coach was Branch McCracken, once a superb coach who, sadly, allowed himself and his attitudes to be overtaken by time. He had his quota of black players, he told Robertson, and could not recruit another. Nowadays, of course, that attitude doesn’t just seem racist, it seems colossally, monumentally stupid. Hickory beats South Bend in the movie, and Milan beat Attucks, but those wins came to seem more and more anomalous. Today, basketball is played by, well, anyone who wants to play it. (The Utah Jazz, this season, will feature players from 9, count ’em, 9 different countries. That’s amazing).

The ’80s, when the movie was made, were the time of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and the transformation of basketball in the national consciousness, and the rise of the NBA. Hoosiers helped; the best basketball movie ever, coming in the midst of the game’s big leap forward. And Bird, the white Hoosier kid, and Magic, the black kid from Michigan, became, in time, great friends, and great ambassadors for the game. And Bird, today, runs the Indiana Pacers, and Magic, the LA Lakers. Both bad teams, but that won’t last.

Most important, the game has changed, and entirely for the better. Watching Hoosiers, you can see the limitations of old style basketball. With the addition of a shot clock and a three point line (both, thanks to the upstart ABA), the game is more about floor spacing, about outside shooting, about defending passing lanes and opening up corner threes. The Utah Jazz, my team, meanwhile, thrive on the old fashioned virtues of strong defense, and team-oriented, state-of-the-art pick-and-roll, drive and dish modern basketball.

So do the Golden State Warriors, and therein lies the rub; the Jazz will not compete for a championship this year, or anytime soon. And this season carries little suspense. The Warriors play the game the way its supposed to be played. They’re an amazing defensive powerhouse, and their offense is about passing and spacing and screening and shooting, the way God intended.  But they also happen to have 3 of the 8 best players in the world. They have the right approach and the right coaching and the right attitudes, and they also feature Kevin Durrant, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green. The Jazz, meanwhile, feature Rudy Gobert, a monstrously good defender, who can’t shoot. We’re not going to beat the Warriors, and neither will anyone else.

I don’t care. I’m feeling very Zen about the Jazz chances. I’ll be fine if they make the playoffs. My evenings are taken for the next six months.  I’m excited. I’m thrilled. Basketball is back, and all is right with the world.