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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S***hole Nations

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

And the internet blew up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internationalists: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oprah for President?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, last night, Meyers addressed Oprah Winfrey directly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat Spock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pitch Perfect 3: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two movies about bad rich people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Christmas talk, 2017

I spoke in Church today. Here is my talk.

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

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

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

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

Hold that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas, and the economy

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

I’m hard to buy for at Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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