The ancient law of hospitality, the Odyssey, and Sodom

With the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell decision, a lot of people on the internet have waxed apocalyptic, suggesting that the decision was morally catastrophic and predicting a bad end to American society. And where in scripture might one find support for the idea that homosexuality equals catastrophe? Where else, but in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom equals sodomy equals sinfulness equals destruction; that’s how the story goes. The problem is, if we read the actual scriptural account of Sodom, it turns out that Sodom’s destruction had essentially nothing to do with homosexuality. Sodom’s sin was to violate the ancient law of hospitality.

Say what? The difficulty is that word, ‘hospitality,’ with its Martha Stewart-ish overtones, and general sense of using-the-wrong-fork-at-dinner or mussing-up-the-guest-towels. To say ‘Sodom was inhospitable’ seems like pretty weak tea, acting as gay apologists, minimizing Sodom’s sin. In fact, the ancient law of hospitality was a very serious thing indeed, the defining characteristic of civilized society. Ancient Troy was destroyed because hospitality was violated. It’s mostly what The Odyssey was about. It was incredibly important.

The law of hospitality is best described as a whole system of rights and reciprocal obligations, without which civilization could not exist. If a stranger showed up at your city gates, you had two choices. You could bash his head in. Or you could invite him in, feed him, shelter him, and send him on his way with gifts. If you did the former, word got around, you were understood not to be a civilized society, and nobody would trade with you. If you did the latter, word got around, you were understood to be civilized, and trade flourished. As a guest, he had obligations as well; to not abscond with the silverware or the king’s daughter. Or your host’s wife.

Which brings us to Paris, and to Menelaus. When Paris ran off with Helen, he committed the most egregious possible violation of a guest’s obligations, the most despicable possible transgression of civilized values. Menelaus was absolutely justified in asking Agamemnon to join him an in attempt to seek redress, and Priam, though a good and honorable man in most respects, ought to have given Paris and Helen up. Instead, we had the spectacle of the Trojan war. Homer does not defend all Greek conduct in the war, nor does he condemn Priam and Hector and other decent Trojans. The tragedy of Troy was the inevitability of the Greek response to Troy’s breach of the hospitality code.

The Odyssey takes this all a step further. Odysseus is driven off his course, visiting island after island, city after city. The Odyssey can be seen as a primer on hospitality, a series of case studies on how it works, and what’s supposed to happen. Some people–Nausicaa’s people, for example–serve as good examples. Others–Polyphemus–are the worst possible subjects for study, absolutely defining barbarism. Meanwhile, back home in Ithaca, Penelope’s suitors–who have, in the beginning, a potentially legitimate reason to visit–become, over time, intolerable. They are initially guests, but by never leaving, they grow intolerable.

Hospitality was the key to civilization, and it makes sense that the most important work of Greek scripture would be an in-depth study of the hospitality code. And the longest section of the book deals with the most complex case; the suitors. We read it (or hear it), and learn;  yes, it’s possible to start off legitimate, and over time, become barbaric. And, in the end, of course, Odysseus and Telemachus set the course of civilized behavior back on track, by wiping the suitors off the map. The cost is high, but Athena sets matters right in the end, blessing Odysseus’ actions.

How does this relate to Sodom? Well, it’s another case study in hospitality. My friend Bill Davis explains:

Sodom and Gomorrah: What the Bible really says. The issue: didn’t God destroy S&G for homosexuality? Let’s go back and take a look. Remember the story? Two angels show up at Sodom and meet Lot at the front gate. In accordance with the law of hospitality, Lot invites them home. Next thing ya know, the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring the angels out to them. Why? To gang rape them.

Gang rape? Why? Well, in this period and location, one of the strategies certain cultures used to demonstrate their power and superiority over foreigners was to rape them. It’s not about loving relationships. In fact, it’s not even about sex. It’s about power and humiliation. The goal is to humiliate your enemies. Lot brought some strangers into town, and now the Sodomites are going to aggressively humiliate them to show them who’s boss. And this aggressive humiliation went directly counter to the very important, sacred laws of hospitality.

In other words, Genesis provides us with another hospitality case study. And anyone in the ancient world would have been appalled. There’s nothing bad that could happen subsequently to Sodom that wouldn’t have seemed entirely justified. It turns out, there’s an equally appalling story found in Judges 19. I don’t want to explore it in depth, but it’s about the same dynamic; a city refusing hospitality, and rape as a instrument of power. The difference is, in Judges, the rape is heterosexual. As Bill Davis points out: “if we claim that the story in Genesis 19 is a condemnation of the loving intimacy between homosexuals, then Judges 19 is also a condemnation of loving intimacy between heterosexuals.” Or, as Bible scholar Jay Michaelson puts it, “reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe.”

It’s also complicated by other scriptural accounts. The prophet Ezekial, for example, wrote this:

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  Ezekial 16: 48-50

Can we tie these two ideas together? Absolutely. One of the difficulties of the law of hospitality is that the people who showed up at your gate weren’t necessarily rich or powerful or important. It’s easy to treat people well if you think you can immediately profit by it; harder to just help people in need. Again, in the Odyssey, the one people that provide us the most unequivocal good example of hospitality were the Phaeacians–the people of Princess Nausicaa. When she and her handmaidens come across Odysseus, he’s naked, shipwrecked, and injured. There’s no obvious or immediate advantage to helping him. And he doesn’t initially even tell them his name. But Nausicaa’s parents, Arete and Alcinous, treat him with kindness and generosity nonetheless. Their story ties together those virtues of what we would call Christian charity to hospitality, precisely the virtues that Ezekial tells us Sodom most conspicuously lacked.

I know that in common parlance, Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality, and sodomy a synonym for gay sex. Justification for this perspective can be found in that strangest and shortest of New Testament works, the book of Jude:

Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Jude 1:7

I suppose you could argue that ‘going after strange flesh’ is a reference to homosexuality, or possibly bestiality. But the ‘lack of charity’ angle later becomes part of the equation; the people Jude condemns are ‘spots on your feasts of charity.’

There are, of course, other Bible scriptures that condemn homosexual relations. Most of them are part of the Law of Moses, which also condemns playing football (with a pigskin), or wearing cotton/poly blend shirts. Still, there’s the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, I Timothy 1: 8-11). Of course, Paul had nothing to say about gay marriage, because such a concept could not possibly have ever occurred to him. But the narrative that really does not have any scriptural support at all is the one in which the destruction of Sodom is used to demonstrate what God’s wrath will do to America if we embrace marriage equality. The story of Sodom is about arrogance, violence and a lack of charity. It’s about what happens when a society rejects the law of hospitality.  And that’s actually a warning with some teeth.

 

 

Obergefell v. Hodges: two sides of the same debate

And so, now Obergefell v. Hodges has come down. Not a shocking result, honestly, though I did think the vote would be 7-2 or 6-3, and not another razor thin 5-4 margin. I wonder if it’s possible that Chief Justice Roberts was hoping for a more conciliatory and moderate draft from Justice Kennedy, one he might be able to join, and was taken aback by how sweeping Kennedy’s decision was. But it’s done, and is unlikely to be undone. SCOTUSblog has lots of outstanding expert legal analysis on the decision; time for me to weigh in with my decidedly inexpert parsing of it. (As always, I am just a playwright with wifi; I do not claim any legal or scholarly credentials).

What strikes me, reading both Kennedy’s decision and the dissents from Roberts and from Scalia, Alito and Thomas, is the degree to which they’re writing at cross purposes. They’re not even addressing the same issues. That’s been true throughout this debate. One side insists that the central issue here is a radical redefinition of marriage, that it’s about how marriage even gets defined and who should define it, even, on the margins, calling this particular redefinition a potentially catastrophic and certainly radical social experiment. What that leads to, frankly, is federalism. Conservatives are generally fonder of federalism than liberals are, and that’s the main issue that Roberts addresses; whether unelected judges should define something as fundamental to society as marriage, or whether The People should define it, through their elected officials, state by state.

That’s a reasonable position. But if, in fact, citizens of the United States have a fundamental right to marry, then to deny that right to members of an unpopular minority is a wrong that needs to be redressed. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that all citizens receive equal protection under the law. If some citizens of the United States are denied legal equality by the states in which they happen to reside, then that becomes a matter for judicial intervention. Citizens are being harmed. Citizens are being discriminated against. And it’s not just appropriate for courts to step in; it’s necessary. That’s their function.

Put another way, does Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell bully the states? Is this a situation where courts unfairly tell states what they can and can’t do? Or is this a situation where states are bullying gay people, and the court is telling them to cut it out?

So: do citizens have a right to marry? The Constitution never mentions marriage; the word ‘marriage’ never appears in the Bill of Rights. So how can Justice Kennedy insist that there is a constitutional right to marry? Here’s Justice Roberts final paragraph:

If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.

So let’s talk about rights, and let’s talk about history. What is a ‘right worthy of constitutional protection?’ And what I write next may seem simple-minded and foolish. It may be presumptuous of me to say that my status as a layman, my lack of legal credentials, could also give me a different, and dare I say, needed perspective. But here goes. Rights are fundamental areas into which government cannot intrude. And rights are basically what most people believe to be rights. You believe that something is a right because, come on, of course that’s a right. Why wouldn’t it be?

It’s certainly true that the Framers never mentioned marriage. But then, their understanding of marriage was very different from ours. The primary legal requirement in 18th century America involved the posting of the banns, which took place three weeks before the wedding. (And I suspect that was mostly for well-off families). You could register a marriage with the county clerk, but this was rarely done. Divorce was difficult to obtain. Marriage itself was a subset of property law.

More to the point, though, the Bill of Rights did not include a right to marry, because nobody thought to include one. I mean, fathers might forbid their daughters marrying some wastrel n’er-do-well (leading, at least in novels, to spectacular elopements), but the idea that a government entity would forbid some marriage or another was just nonsense. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that ever happened.

But soldiers were quartered in people’s houses without the owner’s consent. The British had done that, and it was bitterly resented. So the Third Amendment is in the Bill of Rights, though today it’s mostly just considered a charming anachronism.  And states and communities did insist that men form militias, and drill periodically with their muskets, and so we have the Second Amendment, though its meaning has morphed weirdly into a right to buy a hunting rifle at Cabela’s.

Most particularly, the Bill of Rights does not include a right to vote. That’s because the Framers wanted to limit the voting franchise. But today, we believe that all adult citizens have the right to vote. And getting those rights into the Constitution required further amendments; the Fifteenth and Nineteenth.

Not long ago, a friend of mine proposed on Facebook this: that there existed a fundamental right for all children to be reared by their biological parents. Would I support calling that a right? I’d never thought of it before; never considered it. So I thought about it. And after some somber reflection, I decided that that idea was crazy. I couldn’t have disagreed more. The simple reality is that some biological parents are terribly neglectful and abusive, enough so that they’ve forfeited their parental rights. And other people just can’t deal with kids, and give them up for adoption, and that’s terrific, that’s a great thing, adoption is a wonderful human institution giving kids in tough situations a chance. So there you are. Someone proposed that something should be considered a right. I disagreed, and I think most folks would disagree. That’s a decidedly minority position. So it’s not a right.

So, okay, what about marriage? Do citizens, consenting adults who have decided to commit their lives together, have a basic, fundamental, human right to do that, to marry?  Should we consider that right as basic and fundamental as the right to free speech, or freedom of the press, or the freedom to worship freely? The Obergefell decision lists lots of case law precedents to support the majority’s claim that marriage is a right, but let’s instead just be, you know, people. What do we think? Don’t worry about legalities; is the right to marry a fundamental human right?

Man, I can’t imagine how anyone could say that it isn’t. I mean, not everyone gets to marry, and not all marriages work. But we think divorce is a tragedy, and feel compassion for our unmarried friends, precisely because we think marriage is so important.  Think about it. Is anything more basic than our society’s commitment to marriage? Is there anything more intrinsically, fundamentally important than marriage? Is there a choice we make, ever, that’s more important?

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out, and there’s terrible heartbreak and sorrow and pain involved. But that fact only shows how important it is, how essential we regard it as being. For two people to say ‘I choose you, I commit my life to you, I have decided that you are the one person on earth I want to be with for the rest of my life’ goes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being. And in our culture, in American culture in the 21st century, the main way people make that kind of public declaration of that commitment is through the institution we call marriage. Of course, some people choose not to marry; that’s also their right. But it basically comes down to this: are gay people fully citizens of the United States? And if not, why not? That’s the question that Justice Kennedy answered so eloquently:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

This is not to say that the concerns of the other side aren’t worthy of our consideration. But I would suggest to you that marriage is a right, and that the more you think about it, the more you’ll agree that it has to be. And that’s why I say, after careful reflection, that Obergefell was rightly decided.

King v. Burwell decided. Yay.

This morning, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Carter v. Burwell, otherwise known as the Obamacare decision. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, and ruled against the plaintiffs in the case. Essentially, the arguments made by the Obama administration won. And great rejoicing was heard throughout the land.

Actually, that’s kind of true, the great rejoicing part. Oh, sure, there were ill-tempered rumblings in the tiny village of Scaliaville, and presumably the twin cities of Thomas and Alito were less than entirely gruntled. But the muted response from the GOP suggests the corner into which a different decision would have painted them. Ten million people are currently enrolled in the Affordable Care Act insurance policies available to them, most of whom would, in all likelihood, have lost their coverage. Republicans in Congress would have had to come up with some alternative plan, some new ideas, which they frankly don’t have. Republican Presidential candidates can go back to safely denouncing ‘Obamacare’ without facing unpleasant consequences (until they have to face the general electorate, which is coming around on the ACA).  Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief right now, because the ACA, like Keanu Reeves, has dodged another bullet. Listen carefully: you can hear John Boehner’s quiet ‘whew.’

Here’s what King v. Burwell is about, best I can understand it. (And, as always, remember, I’m not a legal expert in any sense. Not a lawyer, not a law professor, just a playwright with wifi, and an addiction to SCOTUSblog).  The way Obamacare works is that people who couldn’t have previously have afforded health insurance were able to receive a federal subsidy to help pay for it in a health care exchange. States were supposed to set up those exchanges, which are sort of on-line insurance stores. But in fact, 34 states didn’t set them up. Another provision of the ACA allows the federal government to set up a national exchange, which is, in fact, where most people got their policies. But the bill was awkwardly worded. It’s possible to read one small section of the bill as saying that the only people eligible for subsidies were those who bought their insurance in state exchanges. Here’s the relevant passage, from Section 36 B of the ACA: subsidies could go to those who purchased insurance in “an exchange established by the State.” Well, did that mean that people who bought theirs in the federal exchange were therefore not eligible for the subsidy? That was what the plaintiffs argued.

Right at the beginning, Chief Justice Roberts tells us his approach:

If the statutory language is plain, the Court must enforce it according to its terms. But oftentimes the meaning—or ambiguity—of certain words or phrases may only become evident when placed in context. So when deciding whether the language is plain, the Court must read the words in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.

I mean, obviously. I’ll grant that the statute’s language was unclear. But could Congress seriously have intended to limit so drastically the scope of the subsidies? Isn’t it obvious that someone just screwed up? The whole point of the bill is to allow people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to get insurance. Obviously, subsidies had to be available to everyone. The kind of exchange, state or federal, you bought it from is clearly unimportant and irrelevant.

What Roberts gave us, therefore, is a common sense reading of the statute. What’s the bill trying to accomplish? If the meaning of one passage is unclear, go back to basics. Assume that Congress didn’t stick five words in the middle of a big, important bill that would undermine everything else it’s meant to accomplish. Here’s his conclusion:

Petitioners’ plain-meaning arguments are strong, but the Act’s context and structure compel the conclusion that Section 36B allows tax credits for insurance purchased on any Exchange created under the Act. Those credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.

Roberts did adopt a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ tone to point out what he called the bill’s ‘inartful drafting.’  “The Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation,” wrote Roberts, an elegant prose stylist saddened by awkward phrasing by a lesser writer. Frankly, I wish he had taken Congress more sternly to task. There’s no reason why five poorly chosen words in a too-hastily drafted law should have jeopardized the health coverage for millions of Americans.

Roberts is generally described as a ‘conservative,’ and the word seems apt. But his final two paragraphs give us a window into the kind of conservative he aspires to be.

In a democracy, the power to make the law rests with those chosen by the people. Our role is more confined—“to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803). That is easier in some cases than in others. But in every case we must respect the role of the Legislature, and take care not to undo what it has done. A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter. Section 36B can fairly be read consistent with what we see as Congress’s plan, and that is the reading we adopt.

In contrast, Scalia’s temper tantrum of a dissent reveals his own brand of conservatism. His is the kind of textual literalism that allows for not the tiniest ambiguity or context.

The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says “Exchange established by the State” it means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.” That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so. This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an Exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits. You would think the answer would be obvious—so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it. In order to receive any money, an individual must enroll in an insurance plan through an “Exchange established by the State.” The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not a State. So an Exchange established by the Secretary is not an Exchange established by the State—which means people who buy health insurance through such an Exchange get no money.  Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.

Accusing Roberts of knee-jerk partisanship, Scalia reveals his own blinkered partisanship. By refusing to look at a strangely worded passage in context–and by refusing to acknowledge the possibility of simply human error in drafting a statute–Scalia demonstrates yet again how bizarre his understanding of collegiality has become. Would he seriously have deprived millions of fellow citizens of health care coverage (and the attendant protections against medical emergencies or serious accidents) simply out of pique, or because one phrase in a 20, 000 page bill was ambiguously worded? Apparently so, sadly.

Still, the right thing happened, and for the right reasons. Whew indeed.

 

Charleston, race, and the confederate flag

Like, I’m sure, all of you, I have been heartsick over the senseless murders in Charleston. I don’t understand it. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the oldest and most important black churches in the country. They were holding a Bible Study class, and welcomed the shooter with open arms, and held an hour-long dialogue with him, before he opened fire. I don’t understand any of that. How can you look people in the face, how can you talk to fellow human beings, how can you study with them, how can you hold a conversation with someone, and then pull out a weapon and start shooting? It’s incomprehensible.

I debated whether or not to use the killer’s name. He pretty clearly wanted to publicize his cause, and part of me doesn’t even want to allow him that tiny victory, of attaching his name to the names of the extraordinary men and women worshipping that night at Emanuel AME. At the same time, I feel like perhaps it would be just as wrong to deny this deeply troubled young man his humanity. He’s clearly ill, clearly delusional. His cause would deny the common humanity of those who he hated so pointlessly. And the families of the victims who spoke at his bond hearing expressed such an astonishing willingness to forgive, it humbles me, sets me an example I do not know I will be able to live up to.  So, let’s say it this way. On June 17th, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, a librarian, Susie Jackson, a church choir singer, Ethel Lee Lance, a church sexton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, a school administrator, Clementa C. Pinckney, a pastor and state senator, Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson’s niece, Daniel Simmons, a pastor, Sharonda, Coleman-Singleton, a pastor, speech therapist and track coach, and Myra Thompson, a Bible Study teacher were brutally murdered by Dylan Roof, a racist.

So what do we do now? President Obama called for national legislation restricting the purchase of firearms. He’s absolutely right about that, and I have no hope whatsoever of it actually happening. But the African-American community in South Carolina have called for a lesser, more symbolic response. They have asked to have the Confederate flag removed from the statehouse grounds. Obviously, this cannot happen without Republican support; very much to his credit, Mitt Romney called for it as well.

Not many others, though. The main Republican candidates for President were all asked about it; their responses were monuments to cowardice and political expediency. But perhaps we shouldn’t expect much from politicians.

As Larry Willmore pointed out on his show on Monday night, the Emanuel AME Church is found on Calhoun Street in Charleston. Calhoun was the most significant exponent of the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery.

I hold that in the present state of civiliza­tion, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one por­tion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.

John C. Calhoun, Speech in the US Senate, 1837

 

What this means is that every piece of correspondence sent or received from the Emanuel AME Church bears the name of a defender and supporter of slavery. That every car filled with worshippers at that Church drives down a street named for the most significant racist in the political history of the United States. And many streets in Charleston are named after generals in the Confederacy, a treasonous government specifically established through force of arms, and intended to maintain undisturbed the institution of slavery.

Okay, that was harshly put. I’m a Northerner, unpersuaded of the virtues of the Southern cause. I reject the fantasy of a noble South, invaded by Yankee aggressors. I know that the civil war was a catastrophically bloody war, and that Sherman’s march to the see, though tactically brilliant, brutalized an entire region. Robert E. Lee, and J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson were military geniuses of the first order, and their story is surely a tragic one, as none of them were really pro-slavery. Lee fought for Virginia, not for slavery. His tragedy is the political tragedy of federalism run amuck. ‘Virginia,’ that abstraction, is not worth fighting, killing and dying for.

I found this article describing the history of the Confederate flag. It’s pretty straightforward. To say that it’s a traditional symbol of Southern heritage, or Southern pride, or Southern values really isn’t true at all. It was adopted in 1948, by Strom Thurmond, as a rallying symbol for segregationists.  It started flying over courthouses as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

But, of course, symbols mean different things to different people. I don’t think Lynyrd Skynyrd perform in front of a Confederate flag because the band is racist. I think they wrote Sweet Home Alabama in response to what they perceived as Neil Young’s put-down of their state in his song, Alabama. They liked the rebel vibe the flag gave them. I don’t think the Dukes of Hazzard were racist idiots for putting a rebel flag on their car, nor did that TV show intentionally mean to be racist. 6 of 10 white Southerners want to keep the flag; that does not suggest that 6 out of 10 white Southerners are racists. It speaks to regional pride, not the violent suppression of people based on skin tone.

But that’s also not a good enough reason to keep it. I’ll grant you that symbols have slippery meanings. But if a symbol is deeply and personally offensive to one group of people, and is liked by other people out of some sense of fond nostalgia, then weigh those two responses and get rid of the darn thing.

South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, called for the legislature of her state to remove the flag, to debate and vote on the issue (which will require a two thirds majority to pass). But as Larry Willmore pointed out last night, why not just take it down? Why can’t Haley just order the flag removed. Then let the legislative debate be about putting it back up?

And of course, it shouldn’t just come down in South Carolina. Georgia and Mississippi should get rid of theirs too, while they’re at it. Oh, and Virginia? The Virginia flag includes the phrase ‘sic semper tyrannis.’ That’s what Booth shouted after shooting Lincoln. Seriously, do you really want to keep that historical association?

The flags should come down. Put the flag in museums; be done with that symbol of racism and oppression. That needs to happen. It won’t end racism and it won’t end racially motivated violence. Easy access to firearms makes it much too easy for deluded and violent people to act out their most despicable fantasies. Still, any triumph over racism is a step towards progress. Let’s take this small step, at least.

 

Mad Max, Fury Road: Movie review

Finally saw it. Took me a month, saw, like, ten other movies in the meantime. Despite rapturous reviews, both from professionals and from friends, it took me forever. Nothing against the movie; I liked it just fine. Just this: based on the previews, I thought I might find its admittedly state-of-the-art Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Cirque du Soleil aethestic a bit tiresome. That happened, but much less than I was afraid of. As a triumph of stunts, CGI, design, cinematography, editing, and just pure imagination, it’s really quite astounding.

It’s basically Buster Keaton’s The General, with slightly less amazing stunt work, but with updated sexual politics. In Keaton’s day, of course, they couldn’t cut around anything; any action sequences were entirely designed and performed by Keaton himself, and he treated that old civil war locomotive as his own private playground. But the two films are structured identically. It involves a chase, a decision, leading to another chase. Our Hero (and companion) is badly unnumbered in both films, and the bad guys have every advantage. But pluck, determination, and an astonishing ability to scramble up and around vast pieces of machinery allow Our Hero to save the day.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go watch The General. I’ll wait.

Finished? Great, wasn’t it? Let’s move on.

Here’s the biggest similarity between the two films. The General is set in the middle of the American Civil War, with photography specifically inspired by Matthew Brady. This new Mad Max is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where deformed and motley brigades of macho dudes fight over the most basic liquid elements of life; water, gasoline, mothers’ milk. Women are completely subordinate; we see a room full of nursing mothers hooked up like cattle to milk extractors. The most attractive women are the exclusive property of grotesque warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who also preaches a post-mortality in which he will choose his fellow Valhalla immortals, incentivizing his War Boy followers to feats of the most astounding derring-do at his behest.

But neither film actually feels particularly tragic. The General is a romp; Keaton turns the Civil War into slapstick. Death itself becomes a set up for a sight gag. And Mad Max never gives us time to consider the implications of this post-global warming/post nuclear holocaust slayground. The stunts in both films are spectacular, and we respond viscerally; we’re in awe. They’re not just the same film in terms of plot structure; they’re tonally similar. Only the gender politics are different.

So: gender. In Mad Max, the women of this horrific community have a savior, Furioso (Charlize Theron). And she has embarked on a daring plan to rescue women from Joe’s harem, and take them to her home, a Green Place. It involves a huge semi-truck, a war truck, a beast of a machine that can all kinds of punishment, and has to. But Joe sends his boys to chase it down. Over the course of that chase, Max (Tom Hardy) joins forces with her (after an obligatory ‘getting to know you’ slugfest between them), and they’re also joined by a renegade War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), converted, I think, by the power of Troo Luv (he falls for one of the women).  The most important decisions in the film are generally made by Furiosa (though advised by Max), and she gets a lot more screen time. She can shoot, she can steer a truck through the most impassable obstacles, she can beat up bad guys; she’s an action movie star. And she shows remarkable leadership skills, including occasional moments of compassion and tenderness.

So she’s a feminist heroine, right? And that’s one way the film has been marketed and sold–it’s a strong feminist triumph story. And I suppose you could argue that the Hollywood model which this film follows so closely is inherently anti-feminine. But she’s not a terribly feminine feminist, if that makes sense. She has the central characteristic of male action figures. She’s good at violence.

Again, in contrast to The General, it’s refreshing. Keaton riffed on gender roles throughout, but of course it’s gender as understood in 1926. Marion Mack is his comic foil. He rescues her repeatedly, but without much tenderness–a lot of the comedy comes from Mack’s game willingness to be stuffed into sacks, tossed onto boxes, stepped on and trapped in a bear trap and otherwise mistreated. Not that Buster’s ever violent towards her; it’s all slapstick violence. They’re on the run, and Keaton’s character doesn’t have time for chivalrous delicacy. Marion Mack’s character is courageous, plucky and patriotic; you could make a case for her feminism too, if you wanted to and were willing to overlook a 1920s culture’s construction of gender.

Both films are awesome; The General because it’s so funny, Mad Max because the stunts and the design are so spectacular. We’re more blown away by them than we are moved or thoughtfully provoked. It is a little strange to have nuclear destruction and global warming (or for that matter, the Civil War), treated as throwaway background for otherwise frenetically active movies. In the case of Max Max, I kept thinking of another, far better (and infinitely less successful financially) film, John Hillcoat’s 2009 version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which also starred Theron. Another road movie, another despairing future, another trip through hell. But The Road was relentless in its despair. To the extent that there are things we could do to prevent global warming or nuclear war, it’s a lot more responsible film. But almost nobody saw it, and everyone saw Max Max.

I mean, seriously, Mad Max showed the War Boys riding into battle with a soundtrack, provided by one vehicle carrying four kettle drums, and by another with a guitarist hanging from bungee cords, playing his axe while bouncing around in front of a moving vehicle. A flame throwing guitar, I should add. And sure, Custer rode into battle with a regimental band playing Garry Owens, and for Apocalypse Now‘s helicopters, it was Wagner, so war can certainly have a sound track. But the guitarist was just pure amazing. It was the kind of throwaway detail that made the viewing experience so viscerally rewarding.

So Max is certainly one of the most exciting action films in years. It was a triumph of design and of film craftsmanship. I enjoyed it; don’t think I didn’t. If I felt a trifle cheated at the end, it’s maybe because the movie fed the gut much more than it fed the mind. That’s okay. But the pieces were in place for a full meal; not just dessert.

 

The Cokeville Miracle: movie review

The Cokeville Miracle is unquestionably a powerful and affecting film about a terrible, traumatic event. It was ably filmed and directed by T. C. Christensen, nicely edited by Tanner Christensen, features a lovely musical score by Christian Davis and Rob Gardner, and was beautifully acted by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about faith, the efficacy of prayer, and, as the title suggests, about the possibility of miracles. I saw it on a weekday, a late morning screening, and was surprised to see the theater half full. Listening to the comments of the rest of the audience as they left, they clearly found the film inspiring and testimony-affirming. In most respects, it has to be seen as one of the strongest LDS films since God’s Army in 1999.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . . But give me a moment to think it through.

In 1986, in the small ranching community of Cokeville, Wyoming, children at the town’s elementary school were taken hostage by a heavily armed, bomb wielding fanatic named David Young (Nathan Stevens), and by his wife, Doris Young (Kym Mellon). The film tells us that there were 99 child hostages–other sources say it was 136 children, and 18 adults. (I don’t know what purpose was served by changing the number of hostages). After a standoff lasting two and a half hours, the bomb detonated. Both Youngs died, and the explosion injured, but did not kill, the children or their teachers. The scenes involving the capture of the school, the taking of hostages, and David Young’s gradual mental breakdown, were as riveting as you might imagine. All the child actors were excellent in those scenes, as were the actors playing the teachers.

After the crisis was over, some of the children began to claim that they had seen personages dressed in white protecting them. Many of the children identified the angels from old family photos as deceased family members. A sheriff’s deputy, Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade), charged with investigating the event, becomes the lens through which we see its aftermath, as he puts together the various angel stories, and also the forensic analysis of Young’s bomb, and why it was so much less destructive than it ought to have been. Hartley, who seems to be suffering from some kind of job-related PTSD, is going through a crisis of faith, which the testimony of his children (both of whom were in the school), help him resolve.

And it’s at that point, in the film’s depiction of Hartley’s difficulties with his testimony, that I began to feel uneasy. First of all, it seems strange to me that the screenplay would make Hartley its protagonist, when he had essentially nothing to do with the event. He was out of town when the Youngs showed up at the school, and didn’t arrive on the scene until after the bomb exploded. Wade gives a fine performance, but it seems like an odd choice. What it suggests is that the main purpose of the film is not actually to tell the story of this terrible event, but to guide and direct our response to it. No, not guide and direct: mandate. It’s a film about a miracle, period. There are no ambiguities here, no other permissible reactions. Angels saved those kids. End of story.

But human nature, cross-grained and rebellious, recoils from this narrative approach. It brought out my inner cynic, not my inner believer. And so, I dig in my heels. I thought the film was very powerful, right up to the third act. It was nicely made up to that point. But the film’s Mormon-centric didacticism amplified more contrary responses.

Like this, from Wikipedia:

After a two-and-a-half hour standoff, the children were becoming restless, so the teachers led them in prayer. The praying appeared to make David Young agitated and he decided to leave the room. Before leaving the room, David Young attached the bomb’s detonation device to his wife’s wrist. When the children became increasingly loud, Doris Young began begging the teachers to settle the group down. At one point she lifted her arm sharply and the bomb went off prematurely.

In the film, the children decide to pray on their own, unprompted by their teachers. In the film, the teachers also pray, but quietly, to themselves. In the film, David doesn’t become agitated by their prayers; he becomes agitated, frankly, because, as portrayed by Stevens, he was bughouse nuts. And there’s not much doubt that David Young was crazy. But the actual guy was Unabomber-style-crazy; he showed up at the school with a long, rambling manifesto. In the film, he mentions ‘Brave New World.’ One of the teachers tells us it’s a reference to reincarnation. Uh, not the Aldous Huxley novel everyone had to read in high school? Reincarnation? In fact, though, the teacher wouldn’t have known that, but authorities did; it was the central idea in his manifesto. He thought he would rule the dead children after they died and were reincarnated. But if the Wikipedia account of the event is true (and I tend to believe it, because of other corroborating details from other sources), then the children’s prayer was an act of aggressive resistance. Good for them, too. But perhaps not quite as . . .pious.

And, in its best moments, the film went there too; depicted little kid brattiness. And I loved it for that. One obnoxious little girl, for example, kept correcting Doris Young’s syntax, pretty much every time she spoke. I adored that little girl. When one teacher created a ‘magic box’ around David Young, a taped-off space kids were not supposed to enter, we see two little boys doing exactly what little boys have done from time immemorial–crossed the line, broke the rule, pushed the boundaries. I loved those little boys. I loved it when the film got the human stuff right.

Other difficulties: the film says only 2 of the bomb’s blasting caps went off, because the leads to the other 14 had been severed. Who severed the leads? We’re meant to conclude that angels did it. But most other sources say there only 5 blasting caps, 4 of them with severed leads. (A minor detail, but details are what convince us). So did angels sever 4 leads? Isn’t it more likely that Doris Young (who was surely deluded and abused and not all there, but who was at least more humane and well-intentioned than her husband) did the other ones? As portrayed in the film by Mellon, Doris is far and away the most interesting character in the film, and far more sympathetic than her husband, but that also fits other accounts of her. In fact, the bomb didn’t even kill her–David Young shot her after it exploded, before ending his own life. Did she sabotage it? Isn’t that at least a possibility? In fact, was she busy cutting wires when the children’s loud prayers distracted her? Wo, could the kids’ praying have been a proximate cause for the explosion? How much more intriguing would the film have been if it had gone there?

Also, the blast was ineffectually defuse, in part because the teachers had opened the windows in the classroom, giving the fireball a path out. So here’s my question: if the children were spared at least in part due to specific actions, specific, human, non-divine choices made by the teachers and by Doris Young, shouldn’t that possibility have been presented in the film? And wouldn’t that alternate explanation also be faith-affirming, but just in a different way?

Because for me, cynical secular humanist that I undoubtedly am, the film was genuinely inspiring, and became increasingly less so the harder it worked, in the end, to force me down one specific understanding of the event. What I found inspiring were those teachers. One teacher (and I’m sorry that I didn’t catch the character’s name, but she was played by Barta Heiner), was the last person out of the room. She stayed behind to get the last child out, despite bullets flying, from cartridges Young placed in the bomb. Earlier, she volunteered, to Young, to give up her life for the lives of the children, and she lived up to that same principle after the bomb exploded. And I totally believe it. Teachers would. In that situation, with a few teachers and 136 children, teachers would do whatever it took to save them. And we see those teachers, in that classroom behave heroically.

My gosh, that’s inspiring. At Sandy Hook, Sandy Hochsprung and Mary Shurloch were the first two victims in the school. Both teachers. A third teacher, Natalie Hammond, was badly wounded, but survived. Another teacher, Lauren Rousseau, was killed trying to keep the killer out of her classroom, as was Rachel D’Avino, a behavioral therapist. A school custodian was also shot, but survived. These teachers were, absolutely and unequivocally, heroes. But any other teacher, in any other school in America, would do what they did. And that’s what inspires me.

I don’t know whether real angels really intervened in Cokeville, Wyoming. Some children said they saw angels; most did not. Adults did not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the men and women charged with the education of the children at that school were heroes. Could angels have been there? Sure. And I think it would be swell if angels intervened in school shootings. I wish Heavenly Father tasked them to do just that; sent angels to Nigeria to protect the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, for example, sent heavenly beings to Sandy Hook and to Columbine and to Utóya Island in Norway. I believe in God, and I humble myself before Him, and the infinite mystery of why and where He chooses to intervene, when evil encroaches.

But I do believe this; that on those blessedly rare occasions when some deranged individual chooses a school to act out some fantasy of absolute evil, our response should be national, legal, and political, aimed at doing whatever we can to not let deranged individuals have access to weaponry. And the Second Amendment be hanged–it’s about militias, not individuals, and who cares anyway. Let bad guys have as much access to non-rifled muzzle-loading muskets as they want. But that’s a subject for another day, and another soapbox.

Anyway, in many respects, this is an awfully good film. I wish it were a better one. If it had preached a bit less zealously, it might have been exceptional. As it was, the best I can say is that it was ultimately unconvincing. Tell the story; let us figure it out. Don’t force a response. As Sgt. Friday was fond of saying, ‘just the facts.’

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A biography, a review.

Nothing momentous ever happens without conflict; no great accomplishment is ever achieved unopposed. Half of Paris hated both Eiffel and his Tower, many 18th century Americans thought British rule was just fine, and at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Diaghilev had to force his dancers on stage at pistol point, such was the fury of the rioters in the house. Look at any great institution and understand that it came into being because somebody was willing to fight for it, and had to. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir rose to its present prominence because smart, talented people believed that it could, and should grow in artistic excellence and stature. That’s what makes Michael Hicks’ new biography of the Choir so thrilling. For most of us–certainly for me–the Choir just was. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to take for granted. Oh, yeah; it’s General Conference this weekend. And that means, as usual, the Choir will be singing. Cool. I wonder what new Mack Wilberg arrangements they’ll feature this time.

But no. Choir building took a long time, and many decisions. One of the earliest had to do with the role of music in worship; did Church services require hymn singing? If so, by whom? Who would select the hymns, who would compose them, who would rehearse the singers? Hicks covered those crucial decisions in his Mormonism and Music: A History (2003), a book I devoured, and still go back to. See this book as the essential supplement to that earlier work. Who were the earliest conductors of the Choir, what were their backgrounds and personalities?

I am a choir nerd of the first order. I have been a choir-watcher and a choir fan for most of my adult life. I met my wife in a BYU choir; Ron Staheli sat us in sections, but I was the tallest bass and she was the tallest soprano, and we shared a riser at the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s The Redeemer. (Trying to impress her, I told her that the soloist playing Jesus was my father. This was actually true, but she didn’t believe me, and rebuffed my fumbling first advances). Years later, I landed a gig as a Tab Choir writer–I was one of several who wrote the Spoken Word segments for the Choir’s weekly broadcasts. I wrote eight Spoken Words a year for seven years before burning out. I have to this day an immense appreciation for Richard Evans, who managed to stay inspirational for forty years.

So I am, I suppose, an ideal reader for this book. And I found it immensely satisfying. A book like this requires the persistence of a first rate researcher, the patience and discretion of a great story-teller, as well as the musical chops to critically assess the choir’s musicality in each phase of its development. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finished, it was with that sense of regret we all experience when we’ve read something terrific. That feeling of ‘shoot, now I won’t get to read it anymore.’

Heroes emerge: George Careless, Evan Stephens, Tony Lund, Evans, Spencer Cornwall, Jerold Ottley. The word ‘heroes’ implies the existence of ‘villains,’ making it perhaps a bit misleading; there weren’t really powerful voices in the institutional Church wondering if we really needed a Choir, for example. But there were certainly disagreements, over the Choir’s purpose and direction, over financing, over age requirements, and, as might well be imagined, over repertoire. All those sorts of questions had to hashed out and clarified and decided and then, later, revisited.

And certain themes, specific areas of perpetual conflict, all emerged. Should the choir record and perform a classical repertoire of great oratorios or cantatas? What modern composers should they feature? What about the best work of Mormon composers? What should the relationship be between the Choir and music in the Church generally? How should the choir balance its obligations to its radio broadcast partners? With non-LDS musicians? With pop music? And probably the biggest question of all: was the primary responsibility of the Choir to the demands of great music? Or to the missionary efforts of the Church?

These weren’t matters about which there was universal agreement. They all had to be hashed out, argued over, and finally settled. The process by which all that happened is endlessly fascinating, mostly because they are important questions about which good men strenuously disagreed.

One of the things I most respect about Hicks’ book is the way he handles areas of controversy and possible scandal. One question, for example, has to do with Evan Stephens’ sexuality. Hicks mentions the dispute, gives it a paragraph or two, directs us to further reading. But the conclusions he reaches seem fair and evidence-driven. Where there is no definitive proof, Hicks refuses to speculate. The fact of a controversy and the extent to which that controversy has become part of the historical narrative does deserve some small attention, and that’s essentially what Hicks gives it. I think that’s fair. Likewise the mystery of Craig Jessop’s sudden and unexpected resignation as conductor is given, I think, sufficient but not excessive attention. I admire Hicks’ careful restraint on these issues, driven not by prudence or caution, but by a simple recognition that the evidence is insufficient and unclear.

Anyway, this is a terrific book, a book I recommend without reservation. The MoTab is one of the great cultural institutions in American history. That didn’t happen by accident, nor does it seems to have entirely by design. Each new actor changed the story; it’s fascinating to wonder what it will look like fifty years from now.

A politics primer

A friend of mine sent me a link to her daughter’s blog, and a terrific, funny, smart recent post on that blog. I don’t seem to be able to link to it, but name of the blog is Abundant Recompense, and the post had the title “Why I’m just the Worst at Politics.” It was a coming of age thing, about a young woman learning about politics, and developing her own convictions. I thought I would respond.

Let me start here: politics is about winning elections; policy is about getting things done. Politics and policy are closely aligned, of course–you can’t get your policies passed unless you win elections. But one way to win elections is to paint your opponent as a horrible, horrible human being. That’s why cultural issues–abortion, gay marriage–are so important. If you can convince people that the other side wants to murder babies, you can get them to vote for your side. If you can convince people that the other side wants to prevent all these really nice gay people from being with the people they love, your side might have a better chance of winning. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that these kinds of social issues are unimportant. But they take on an exaggerated importance in elections, because they’re so emotionally potent.

On Facebook, we see posts all the time that portray either liberals or conservatives (or liberal or conservative candidates) as absolutely horrible human beings. Republicans want big corporations to enslave Americans. Democrats hate America, and want to take everyone’s guns away. None of this is remotely true. George W. Bush was not the village idiot, and Barack Obama is not a terrorist. Republicans and Democrats are patriotic and intelligent people who disagree on questions of policy. That’s the truth of things. Both sides have ideological biases. In general Republicans are skeptical of the ability of the federal government to solve problems. In general, Democrats think lots of problems are amenable to government solutions. Both are sometimes right, and both are sometimes wrong.

In my friend’s blog post, she talks about how she’s regarded as liberal in largely conservative areas of the country, and as a conservative in largely liberal areas. Good for her! But I suspect this is because, again, of the sorts of social issues that each side favors. It’s not remotely difficult for staunch conservatives and die-hard liberals, in their natural habitat, to look a little crazy. (And the most important thing a young politically engaged person needs is, I’m not kidding, a sense of humor).

Anyway. Not all issues break neatly down along ideological grounds. One of the most contentious bills in Congress right now is something called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s a big trade bill, involving a treaty between the United States and other countries that border the Pacific ocean. President Obama favors it, and is opposed by many, if not most, members of the Democratic party, including such important liberals as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell support it. Strange bedfellows indeed. I’m a liberal Democrat, which means, I guess, that I’m supposed to oppose it. But I’ve learned enough economics over the years to really like free trade; I have some reservations about the bill, but generally I support it, though I’ll admit it’s a tough call. So, from a partisan political perspective, it’s a very weird bill. From a policy perspective, it’s really interesting.

Right now, in my home state of Utah, the toughest issue currently under discussion has to do with the state prison. The current prison is in Draper, just north of point-of-the-mountain, the ridge that demarks the boundary between Utah County and Salt Lake County. When the prison was first built, Draper wasn’t very populous. Now, it’s prime real estate. So those who oppose moving the prison have been casting all sorts of nasty aspersions against those who support moving it. They’re all ‘developers,’ get-rich-quick real estate con men–that’s how they’re portrayed. That’s neither fair, nor accurate, but neither is it entirely inaccurate; the prison is in a prime housing market, and many of the state legislators who want to move it are in the real estate business. But it’s way too easy to portray them as venal and corrupt.

I’ve read a lot about the prison issue, and the facts are clear–the current prison has become inadequate. The main purpose of a prison has to be to help inmates transition to lives as responsible and productive citizens. Recidivism isn’t good for anyone. People make mistakes, even serious mistakes, and if those mistakes rise to the level of criminality, of course they should be caught, tried, incarcerated. But while in stir, they should have educational and vocational opportunities; of course they should. Joseph Smith thought prisons should essentially function as schools; that’s obviously the ideal we should strive for. Utah is very involved in criminal justice reform, and revamping the prison should be an important part of that reform. The current prison just isn’t set up very well for providing for those kinds of reforming efforts.

The problem is, nobody else wants it. NIMBY–Not In My Back Yard. Put a prison close to my house, and watch my property decline in value. No thanks. Utah is certainly well supplied with vast tracts of worthless real estate. But putting the state prison out in the middle of the desert would be a terrible idea. Prisoners need a support system–they need to be able to see their families. The nice thing about the current location is that it’s convenient to the two largest population centers in the state.

So here we have a very contentious political and policy issue, and emotions are running high, but it’s not remotely ideological. It isn’t about ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives.’ Every study shows clearly that the prison needs to be either rebuilt or moved. It’s going to cost a lot of money either way–money the state is willing to pay. But where to put it?

I don’t actually know, and I don’t have any good suggestions. I just say that most of the time, politics is about this kind of issue. Where should we put the new prison? How are we going to repair or rebuild that bridge? How do we properly fund education? What about that new development; how do we zone it? And these are all difficult issues, in part because they require research, expertise, hard thinking and hard study. Which most Americans would rather not bother with. (And doing that research and study is also kind of boring. And that’s a huge problem–we don’t like boring policy studies. Way easier to compare the other guy to Hitler or something).

But here’s the thing: that’s what we really need to do more of. What’s really not needed is more partisan rancor and name calling and false accusations of corruption. What we do need is for smart decent people to take policy seriously enough to do all the hard work of deciding, well, where we should put that prison. I have a son who aspires to do that kind of work. He just finished a master’s degree in public policy. Multiply him times a thousand and we’d be making a good start.

How do we vote? How do we make those hard choices, in the ballot box. May I gently suggest that pretty much every political candidate in pretty much every race, national state and local, has a website. Check ’em out. Vote for the person who makes the most specific, concrete, intelligible proposals. That’s at least a start.

Tomorrowland: Movie Review and commentary

Finally catching up on movies that have been out forever, we saw Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland last night. I think it’s the ‘lost in the shuffle’ big summer movie, the one that just didn’t generate enough buzz to really take off, which is a shame. It’s an energetic and enjoyable flick, and also a seriously intended commentary on contemporary society and politics. In fact, that’s its biggest problem, I think. Bird has something significant to say in this movie, but the vehicle for his message is so pretty and funny and light that the message doesn’t penetrate. Except when it did.

The movie first. A kid, Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), brings an invention to the 1964 World’s Fair, a jet pack, an awesome piece of James Bond-ish technology that has the solitary defect of not working very well. Queried about it by an enigmatic judge figure, Nix (Hugh Laurie), young Frank admits that it’s not a practical invention. It could, however, inspire young people, he insists. Not good enough, says Nix, and leaves, his nine-year-old daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) accompanying him. But Athena gestures for Frank to join them, and he does, ending up in Tomorrowland, a magic world of amazing technology, like Epcot Center on steroids.

Cut to the future, and we meet a teenaged girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), about to commit an act of sabotage. It’s the future (or our present?), and the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral is scheduled for demolition. Casey, a plucky optimist and science freak, thinks this is unconscionable, and zips around on her motorcycle, frying the controls of the demolition equipment. This leads to fights with her father (Tim McGraw), a soon-to-be-unemployed NASA engineer. But we sense how much father and daughter (and also her younger brother (Pierce Gagnon) care about each other. And in their conversation, the ruling metaphor of the film finds its first expression. The human spirit is likened to two wolves: one, positive, optimistic, kind, the other selfish, fearful, negative. Which one will survive? The one we feed.

Okay, so Casey is caught and arrested, and Dad makes bail, but in her effects, she finds something that’s not hers; a pin with a T on it. And she discovers that when she touches the pin, she’s transported to a wheat field outside a magical city, the same techno-paradise that young Frank saw in the earlier scenes. But the pin has a time limit, and when hers expires, she returns to her reality. Obviously, the next step is an internet search for that pin, which leads her to a curios shop in Texas, run by the amusingly menacing couple, Ursula (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key). When Casey won’t tell them where she got the pin, they pull out space age blasters, and start shooting. She’s rescued, however, by little Athena, aged not a day from her earlier iteration, but now with mad martial arts skills. Athena then sends Casey to the home of a world-weary recluse, Frank, now played by George Clooney.

The world, it seems, is on the brink of destruction. Climate change, political instability, ethnic hatreds, all are leading us to destruction. We have about two months left. But old Frank sees something on his various monitors that tell him that the world might still be salvageable, because of this girl, Casey, because of her optimism and courage. And so he takes her with him to Tomorrowland. He takes her to, in other words, a technologically advanced society living in a parallel universe to earth, run by, yes, Nix, Athena’s putative father (who also hasn’t aged).

And amidst their various struggles, Nix gives a speech. Seeing the end of the world rapidly approaching, he decided to send a signal from his world to ours, showing precisely what would happen if we all continued in our current course. He thought the warning would wake us up. He thought we’d change our ways. He thought we’d all figure out what we were doing wrong and make the political and cultural changes that would hold destruction at bay. He thought the human capacity for innovation and invention would prevail, that we’d allow it to prevail. But in fact, he ‘fed the wrong wolf.’ We embraced nihilism. We embraced various visions of dystopia. We fetishized it, in pop culture, in movies and television and video games. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss: we’ve accelerated our headlong rush to oblivion. And he doesn’t see a lot of reason to stop sending that signal. He warned us. We don’t seem to care. Let us blow ourselves up.

What can we do? Well, we can blow up that signal, and Clooney and Laurie can scrap a bit, finally Casey wins, and with Frank’s aid, she createss a whole bunch more Tomorrowland pins, which she distributes, which I read as ‘recruit forward-thinking optimists and get things solved.’ The ending of the movie really was genuinely moving and inspiring. I mean, yes, in part, the movie is arguing for a Disney-esque vision for mankind, and asks us to reject the values of the other big box office movie released the same week, the new Mad Max. It’s Disney asking us all to adopt Disney values. (And reject worldly nihilistic values). It’s Disney Corp. saying only Disney can save us. See what I did there? Used a positive family-values movie to feed my inner cynic?

But in fact, Nix is right. I know, he gives a pretentious and didactic bad-guy-monologuing nihilist speech at the end of a fun fantasy adventure movie, and I’m probably taking that speech way too seriously. But he is right. He accuses mankind of short-sightedness, laziness, selfishness and complacency, and he basically gets us right. Doesn’t he?

I mean, I live in Provo, Utah. A nice little town, maybe 100, 000 contented souls. And it’s a town built on the suburban model. It’s all single-residence homes, grass yards, transportation needs filled by cars. It’s an ecological disaster. Hardly any mass transit, which one of the most contentious local political issues involves expanding. If global warming is raised as an issue at all, it’s in the context of disputing whether or not the science can be trusted.

We should probably change. We should increase buses, add more rail options, move into apartments, retire our cars. (I live with my wife and daughter–we own three cars between us). We should make massive cultural and lifestyle changes in an effort to stave off global warming. And we’re not going to. We don’t want to. I don’t want to. Run for public office on a ‘radically downsize society, or we’re doomed’ platform. You’d get, what, 1% of the vote? Less?

It’s easier to amuse ourselves with dystopias. It’s easier to comfortably embrace nihilism. Yes, global warming, how very dreadful. Gonna be tough on our grandkids. But, hey, they’ll figure something out.

I found Tomorrowland . . . unsettling, in a way that’s peculiarly at odds with its colorful and fast-paced fantasy storytelling. I liked Clooney, liked the child actress Cassidy, really liked Robertson. But Hugh Laurie ended up costing me sleep. Brad Bird is a visual stylist of the first order. But he’s also a bright guy, with something to say. We should probably all pay more attention.

But we’re not going to. It’s too much trouble.

San Andreas: Movie review

I love big stupid disaster movies. I’ve been a fan of them ever since the ’70’s, when Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake marked the high points in what was something of a golden age of disaster. All these movies were about terrible events, with lots of death and destruction and very high death counts, which we weren’t supposed to worry about much because, after all, characters played by movie stars are the only human beings that matter. Really, though, the movies were about showcasing whatever passed for state-of-the-art special effects.

Earthquake, for example, featured sensurround. It made it feel like that theater was actually shaking, accomplished by using low level bass, low enough that you couldn’t hear it, but only feel it. It was awesome, but impractical; there weren’t enough movies that used it, and it was expensive to install in theaters. It was used, I remember, in the 1979 Battlestar Gallactica movie. I remember how cool it was, to feel like your seat was shaking.

No sensurround, alas, for San Andreas, though there was tons of CGI. They had to plausibly film the destruction of Hoover Dam, downtown Los Angeles, and all of San Francisco, after all. That’s a lot of destruction, and a lot of people killed. But all those dead people don’t matter, because Dwayne Johnson’s family is in danger, and has to be saved. And that becomes the only thing we’re supposed to care about.

I have many many friends in LA. I love San Francisco, and have enjoyed my fair share of ballgames out there in China Basin. I would care a lot if both cities got clobbered. So would you; so would everyone.  There are millions of people in those cities–strangers to me, but fellow sojourners on this rock. Obviously a real life 9.6 clobbering both places would be an unimaginable catastrophe. Unimaginable, except, of course, we do get to imagine it; we have to imagine it, after we’ve laid down our eight bucks for tickets and taken our seats.

To deal with the story as quickly as possible, Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a firefighter/helicopter rescue specialist. His wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) has filed for divorce, and has moved in with her new squeeze, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), while daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) heads off to college. An opening scene shows Ray helping a young woman who has managed to drive her car off a cliff and onto a mountain ledge–Ray, of course, manages a last-second rescue. But life on the home front is nothing but one long humiliation, though he manages to be civil to oily architect Daniel.

Meanwhile, a seismologist named Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) has figured out how to predict big earthquakes, and is being interviewed by a TV reporter, Serena (Archie Punjabi) about it. That’s the big subplot. I can only hope that Giamatti got paid a lot of money.

Anyway, the big one hits. And it destroys Hoover Dam (without killing Lawrence, because he’s a seismologist, and therefore able to know exactly how close to the dam he can safely stand as it collapses). And his magic predicting system tells him that first LA and then San Francisco are going to get clobbered. Which he has to figure out how to tell everyone, so the authorities can evacuate both towns.

I imagine the producers’ thinking here was; why wipe out one iconic American city when we can have double the fun by wiping out two? In any event, Ray, flying around on his helicopter, is able to find the LA building where Emma is having lunch with, I think, Daniel’s horrendously bitchy ex (Kylie Minogue, having way too much fun). So Ray snatches Emma off the top of a skyscraper just before it collapses. And they’re back together.

Awkwardly. See, Ray’s problem is that he can’t express his feelings. That’s why Emma’s divorcing him; he’s uncommunicative. Because their other daughter died, and he blames himself. So when he breaks through and cries a little, Emma feels so much better about him. That was the first time I laughed out loud in the movie. See, in a movie in which Los Angeles California has been reduced to rubble (with how many millions dead?), what we really care about is Dwayne Johnson weeping for us, over a previous dead daughter.

But, see, they still have a living daughter, and Ray and Emma, now united, have to rescue her too. But San Francisco is a ways off. So they ditch the helicopter, steal a truck, ditch it, steal an airplane, and finally ditch it too and parachute onto the field at AT%T Park. That enables them to steal a boat, and drive around the waterfront looking for their daughter, who really, genuinely, could be anywhere in the city.

It turns out, though, that Dastardly Daniel has ditched her. She was in his limo, it got smushed, and rather than get her out, he scarpers. But never mind, two cute British brothers, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) get her out of the car, and off the three of them go, looking for Mom and Dad, and also dodging various collapsing buildings.

But what brings them all together, Mom, Dad, Blake and Brits, is a tsunami. Never mind that tsunamis only happen at subduction faults, which San Andreas is not. San Francisco gets a big one. In fact, that’s what destroys the Golden Gate Bridge–not the earthquake, but a cargo ship which the tsunami smacks the bridge with (incidentally, also crushing Dungbeetle Daniel). Meanwhile, Ray and Emma are in their boat, driving around flooded streets, where they just happen to see the one big building in which their daughter has taken refuge.

We’re close to the end of the movie now, so BELATED SPOILER ALERT. But when Ray rescues Blake, it’s too late. She’s already died. Drowned. No big deal, as it turns out; death in these movies is more an annoyance than, you know, The End. He CPRs her back to life, and she’s fine. And all ready to hook up with Ben the Cute Brit.

But that’s not the ending. No, the ending was the final time I laughed out loud in this ridiculous movie. Dwayne Johnson stands on a hill overlooking the Bay. We see an American flag wave (hanging from the Golden Gate wreckage). And Carla Gugino says “What do we do now?” And he says, solemnly, “We rebuild.” And the camera flies upward, and we see destroyed San Francisco from, yes, God’s POV.  ‘Cause, see, He approves of optimistic American pluckiness in the face of disaster. (Which, sorry, He sort of caused. Isn’t He in charge of earthquakes?)

It’s a ludicrously terrible movie, even before its final moment of blasphemy, and that’s why my wife and I went to see it; we were in the mood for craptacular. San Andreas did not disappoint, really at any level.  It’s a movie about the wholesale deaths of millions of people, that manages to leave us completely unmoved, because Dwayne Johnson’s character’s daughter survived (and even acquires a new boyfriend. Yay!) But that’s what we expected. It’s a good thing that these movies are so cheesy. Better movies would leave us utterly devastated. These things have to be formulaic and stupid. The acting has to be mediocre, the stories preposterous, the dialogue, comically idiotic.

Otherwise, we couldn’t bear it.