Mass shootings, and the limits of human kindness

I have been thinking about mass shootings, these recent, all too familiar horror shows, and the men who perpetuate them, and something about these shooters and their targets occurred to me. I haven’t seen this anywhere else, but that may just be my own ignorance. It’s quite possible that the phenomenon I describe has been broadly reported, and I just hadn’t previously noticed. I am not a journalist, and I am not a psychologist. But I thought I’d pass it on.

The more we read about the shooting in Orlando, the clearer it becomes that Omar Mateen, the shooter, had been to the Pulse nightclub many times before. At least four Pulse regulars told the Orlando Sentinel that Mateen was at least a semi-regular there. Said one, “Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent.” Another said that he talked with Mateen, about his father and his wife. Pulse was itself more than a regular nightclub. Barbara Poma, the club’s owner, opened it as a place of refuge for the Orlando LGBT community, a place of acceptance and celebration. Mateen also was a regular on local gay dating websites. Was he a self-hating closeted gay? Was he punishing something in himself when he opened fire?Mateen’s home was in Port St. Lucie, some 125 miles from Orlando. He did not, in short, pick a place at random. He drove two hours to get there. He went to a nightclub that was particularly and uniquely accepting of gay people (people like him?), a place he had visited many times before.

It’s been just about a year since the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof, the 21-year old shooter, went to a Bible study session at the church, and joined in the Bible discussion before opening fire. That’s strange, isn’t it? He sat with a group of Christians, and spent an evening discussing the scriptures. And then he pulled out his gun.

In San Bernardino, California Syed Farook was an employee of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. A few weeks before he opened fire, his co-workers had thrown a baby shower for Farook, his wife, and their new baby. He shot them at a Christmas party. Again, he knew the people he shot. They were at least co-workers, and could surely have been described as friends.

Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, targeted his old elementary school. He was an awkward kid, struggling with diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. His struggles, though, began in Jr. High. He liked grade school; it was high school that was a nightmare. But in grade school, he met teachers and administrators who were willing to give him the individual attention he needed. Is it fair to say that he may well have shot up the one place that had treated him with kindness?

When we talk about mass shootings, we talk about them as random events, as unpredictable as tornadoes. But that doesn’t seem to have been true. At least some shooters seem to be attacking places familiar to them, places where they were known. In fact, it seems to me that in at least these cases, the shooters went after places where they were particularly treated with kindness, places where they may have been accepted.

It’s been over fifteen years since the Columbine shooting, but it strikes me as relevant. Harris and Klebold, the two Columbine kids, didn’t attack a random public place; they attacked their high school. And it’s easy to see that in cliched terms–they were outsiders who went after their popular/jock tormentors. But they weren’t friendless losers.

When tragedies occur, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. It’s easy to tie these kinds of horrific events to our own ideologically predilections, or our pet political theories. So Mateen and Farook were both ‘terrorists,’ and much of the subsequent commentary have focused on their possible links to ISIS. And ideology may have played a part in their rampages. Or, we fight over mental illness. ‘You’d have to be crazy to do something like that,’ we say. And we liberals recoil, because ‘they’re mentally ill’ seems like code for ‘we’re not going to agree to any gun control legislation.’

Again, I’m not a psychologist. But consider this. Mass shooters target people they know, or at least some of them do, some of the time. They seem to target people who treated them kindly, or at least where they could have a reasonable expectation of acceptance and compassion. Maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe they grabbed their assault rifles because they were enraged because they expected kindness, and didn’t get it.

But I don’t think so. I think that for damaged people, kindness can be seen as imposing an obligation that cannot be repaid. I think it’s possible that being accepted, and treated warmly, may be resented, may add to an overwhelming burden of guilt and misery and pain. It may lead to the point of crisis.

Some of these killings had an ideological component. Mateen declared his allegiance to ISIS in a 9-1-1 call right before opening fire. Farook and his wife had ISIS connections. Roof was affiliated with white supremacist groups. Surely these radical ideologies were part of the mix. But to say ‘they were terrorists’ is a short-cut to an explanation, and an explanation that fits our existing preconceptions. Yes, Dylan Roof was a racist creep. He was also a human being, and a deeply troubled, damaged one. His racists beliefs may have provided him some tiny, false comfort. But something in his mind led him to violence. Something triggered it. And he didn’t choose a target at random. He chose, as targets, people who were nice to him. And I think it’s possible that their niceness, their humanity, is what drove him to commit acts of violence.

There’s a toxic mix of intentions and compulsions and pain that drives these guys. (And they’re all guys, pretty much all of them are men. Well, aside for Farook’s wife). Obviously, one part of the mix is easy access to weaponry. They shoot because getting guns is easy, and getting ammo, that’s easy, and pulling a trigger is ridiculously easy. The effort-to-mayhem ratio is preposterous. And yes, some mass killings were achieved with box cutters, and others with truckloads of fertilizer. But those sorts of events are rarer, because the effort-to-mayhem ratio is so much more balanced. It takes planning to buy a gun, of course, but shooting it can be much more a matter of impulse and caprice.

And I think kindness may be part of it. Kindness is the ultimate expression of humanity. Kindness requires that we see and acknowledge other people as our brothers and sisters on this planet. For someone in terrible psychic pain, it may impose an obligation they cannot abide. And then ideology provides a convenient, easy rationale for violence.

Or not. I may be completely wrong about all of this. I am not a psychologist; I have no training in this field, no expertise. I do think it’s interesting, though, that the San Bernardino ‘terrorist’ shooters did not target random strangers, but the people who had just thrown them a baby shower, that the Orlando shooter drove 125 miles to shoot up a nightclub built on the values of acceptance and refuge, that Roof shot up people with whom he had spent an evening talking scripture. Damaged, hurting, desperately unhappy people committed acts of terrible violence. Let’s acknowledge that as part of our shared human condition.

 

Love and Friendship: Movie Review

Love and Friendship is the perfect, unlikely, sublime artistic collaboration between the director of The Last Days of Disco, and the author of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a hoot. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy, sharply satirical, as trenchant a commentary on the patriarchy as I can remember. It is, I finally decided, after much soul-searching and trepidation, a feminist film. Bear with me.

Love and Friendship is based on Lady Susan, a Jane Austen novella, written when Austen was a teenager. You know how Jane Austen novels include some pretty incisive social commentary, but structurally are also romances? We ultimately do want Elizabeth to marry Darcy, and would find Pride and Prejudice unbearable if that didn’t happen in the end, right?  Well, Love and Friendship is Jane Austen without the romance. That’s not to say that courtship isn’t a major plot point. It’s courtship entirely without romance, without love or affection or even genuine friendship. It’s a movie about courtship seen entirely as an economic necessity. Marriage, bluntly and unapologetically, as prostitution.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is a recent widow, and she’s dead broke. She is, in fact, homeless. She has a teenaged daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) she needs to get married off, and she’s aware that she needs to marry too. But she has no home base–she, of necessity, spends her time on visits to the homes of people, friends and family who will put her up for a few weeks. She also has to find various homes in which to park Frederica; perhaps a school, if she can persuade it to waive tuition fees by the simple expedient of not paying them.

She has a wardrobe, and she’s beautiful. Those are her assets. But, above all that is one huge advantage; she’s clever. She’s immensely, terrifically smart, especially about men. She’s also completely unburdened by anything like a conscience or a sense of morality. She’s perfectly willing to manipulate anyone, male or female, to get what she wants. And if she destroys their marriages or family relations, well, what’s the adage about eggs and omelettes?

And we root for her. One of the rules of drama is that we will always root for the protagonist, even if she’s awful, even if her objectives are bad. We will still, always, root for the protagonist of any story to succeed. And it helps that Lady Susan is charming, and clever. She’s fun to root for, as she sorts out which wealthy male acquaintances she’ll cull from the herd, one for her and one for Frederica–though it takes her some time to decide who will get who.

One possibility is Reginald DeCoursey (Xavier Samuel), who is decent, honorable, but perhaps a trifle too trusting for his own good. One difficulty there is his parents, who utterly abhor Lady Susan, who they suspect of having had an affair with a married friend, Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain). Which she did, but which, of course, she also denies.

Another possibility, though, is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a very wealthy member of Lady Susan’s social circle. Sir James is amiable, kind-hearted, utterly without guile, a sweet and gentle soul, who, sadly, is also the most astonishing idiot. I don’t know Tom Bennett, though his name is wonderfully Austenian, but I take my hat off to this fine actor; Sir James is a remarkable comic creation. I rejoiced every time he appeared on screen, and laughed out loud at every one of his scenes. His delight at finding peas on his dinner plate is a triumph; he nearly walks off with the movie.

But his character is also central to the film’s social commentary. At first, Lady Susan seems to intend Sir James for Frederica, her daughter. But Frederica finds the idea appalling. She grants that Sir James has many good qualities, that he is a kind man, and a gentleman beyond reproach. But, she wails, he’s such an appalling blockhead. And we can see it. Marriage to Sir James would surely have its advantages; comfort, even luxury. But with whom would you converse? Frederica would rather teach school, she courageously declares.

But that’s not possible. It just isn’t; for a woman of Frederica’s class and upbringing, there simply is not a profession open to her. Her mother is right. In that particular iteration of the patriarchal society, women have exactly one career possibility–that of a wife, and presumably, a mother. Those are the facts; make the best of them.

And that’s why I consider this a feminist movie. It’s not that Lady Susan is a feminist heroine; frankly, she’s a bit of a monster. But if she’s a gold-digger, what else could she be? She’s the ultimate pragmatist, and if her actions hurt other women–which they unquestionably do, including the perpetually sobbing Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray)–what of it?  The point is to survive.

The movie reflects Austen’s novella, as a remarkably clear-eyed dissection of patriarchy, and the harm it does to women. Is Lady Susan wicked? Her society has made her so. And above all else, she will survive. At the end of the movie, when we see her ingenious solution to all her family problems, it’s quite deliciously appalling. And that’s where the film emerges as a strongly proto-feminist text. Susan’s a horror show. But she does win. And we put up with it, because the protagonist is so clever, and the film itself so hilarious.

Couple of final notes; Kate Beckinsale dominates the film, and she’s amazing. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a performance that has caused me to reevaluate an actor more than this performance did for her. Do you think of her as ‘hot chick in action movies?’ No longer. To think that an actress with her comic timing and wit has had so few opportunities to shine the way she shines her–well, blame sexism. And Whit Stillman’s directing of this film is quite brilliant. Lady Susan is an epistolary novella–a story told through letters–and Stillman captures that, with constant shots of various butlers and footman passing on sealed missives, the contents of which are then shared with us through titles. It gave the film a bit of the meta-cinematic vibe of the BBC TV series Sherlock; a contemporary feel for a period story. Anyway, the result is a marvelous film, not the least bit staid or formal, a brilliant satire of manners, and an incomparably funny picture. See this movie.

Orlando, and guns.

It was completely horrifying. It was also terribly, horribly familiar. Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, specializes in nightly themed performances. Saturday night was ‘Latin night.’ Estimates suggest there were a bit more than 300 people there. Omar Mateen, an American-born citizen of Afghani-American heritage, opened fire in the club. He was carrying a handgun, and an AR-15 assault rifle. Mateen killed forty nine people, and wounded fifty three.

Mateen had been under investigation by the FBI for possible ties to terrorist groups. He had a history of domestic violence, and of anti-gay sentiments publicly expressed. He was also a concealed weapon permit holder. He was, in short, a dangerous man, with a history of violence, an adherent to a radical ideology, and known to be homophobic. He does not appear to have violated federal gun laws or the risibly lenient Florida statutes.

Of course, our initial response to this kind of violence is emotional, and personal. We hug our kids close. We weep. We call friends, and we post on social media. We want to do something. Perhaps we give blood. We feel impotent and helpless, and we’re angry about not being able to act. And we gravitate to those voices that seem particularly eloquent and compassionate–Lin-Manuel Miranda, Frank Langella, at the Tonys, for example.

But our response is ineffectual. We know that too. As my wife put it this morning, if the Sandy Hook shooting couldn’t lead to effective gun control measures, nothing will. Newtown involved kindergartners. If that doesn’t galvanize the public, nothing will. And in fact, after each major US shooting event, the public does become galvanized, or at least outraged. Our first reaction is straightforward: ‘we need to do something about this.’ But even the worst school shootings don’t tend to lead to meaningful reform. The gun lobby is incredibly adept at fighting off impulse-prompted legislation. The NRA recognizes that the emotional attachment to gun control is transitory. Those emotions fade in time. And in the meantime, little of substance has happened legislatively.

What we have to do is, simply put, to work harder. We have to decide what we want our society to become, and fight for it. And we have to agree that we’re in for the long game. I do not want to live in a society where military weaponry is readily available for private purchase. I do not want to live in a society where essentially everyone is armed. I also don’t want to live in a society with radical income inequality, where public education is underfunded, or where people suffering from mental health issues cannot get adequate treatment. But today, it’s time to talk about guns.

Here’s what we want. A federal assault weapon ban. Mandatory waiting periods for firearms purchases, and a federal registry of people who really shouldn’t be allowed to buy or own guns. I would love to see major restrictions on ammunition; if we can’t ban guns, let’s ban bullets. And I would love a national gun buy-back program. But really, any measure that would limit the numbers of guns in private ownership, I would favor.

Second Amendment? I’m completely in favor of well-regulated militias.

How do we accomplish any of this? First of all, let’s stop railing at the NRA. Many of the milder measures I’m describing are in fact supported by rank-and-file NRA members. In any event, the NRA is a lobbying organization, and an effective one. Fine; learn from them, beat them at their own game.

Here’s where we start, though. Vote. Vote in every election. Vote for state legislators, county commissioners, judges. Vote in every off-year election, vote in every primary. We’re in a Presidential year, and those elections are highly publicized. But there will be another national election in 2018, and it’s just as essential that you vote then. As Samantha Bee reminded us, the most consequential election in your lifetime was the election of 2010. The one you may not have voted in. The one where the progressive gains of Obama’s first two years vanished. Vow now: that will never happen again.

Don’t just vote, but nag your friends into voting. Be a pest about it. Bug them about it. The NRA has blood on its hands right now. The NRA leadership is partly to blame for this horrible shooting. But, I don’t mean to be rude, but if you didn’t vote, if you didn’t do that minimal civic act to oppose NRA-approved candidates, then blood is on your hands as well. Vote. Always vote. And make sure your friends and family understand how important their vote is too.

And that’s just the start. Volunteer. Donate. Make phone calls; drive shut-in voters to the polls. Your vote does count. Your contribution does matter.

Elections are won by the people who show up to vote in them. What we cannot afford is apathy. What we cannot afford is indifference. What we absolutely cannot afford is the luxury of easy cynicism.

We can change our society. But we have to work harder than we have, up to now. After Orlando, I’m fed up with excuses. We can turn this around. But we all of us have to work together. Vow now. Orlando is the turning point. Orlando is where we decided to change.

The Nice Guys: Movie Review

I liked The Nice Guys better than I ought to have done. In its own shambly, loose-limbed, casually violent, off-beat funny sort of way, it has the look and feel of a ’70s drive-in movie, a Roger Corman special. It’s as though one of those young directors Corman nurtured back in the day got the idea of building an action comedy on the plot of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Chinatown was about corrupt business and government forces colluding over the issue of water rights, in LA, where those rights are particularly contested and volatile. In The Nice Guys, it’s about air quality. So, again, elemental forces. In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose was the omnipresent main-character-defining feature; in TNG, it’s the cast on Ryan Gosling’s broken left hand. And in both films, an abused daughter uncovers and reveals the ultimate conspiracy. Problem is, Chinatown is one of the great films; a brilliant piece of under-your-skin-for-life cinema. The Nice Guys is a yuck-it-up cheap Roger Corman knock-off.

Here’s the difference; the villain of Chinatown was the unforgettable Noah Cross, in the greatest performance of John Huston’s life. When he says, leveling with Nicholson, “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that in the right time and in the right place, they are capable of . . . anything,” it’s completely chilling.

There’s nothing like that here, in The Nice Guys. No character that unforgettable, no line so defining. The bad guy, US attorney Judith Kuttner, is played by Kim Basinger, and while Basinger’s a fine actress, her part had little resonance; she’s just a typical movie corrupt government official. Here’s this film’s MacGuffin, and I’m totally not kidding: it’s a porn film about the need for cars to have catalytic converters. That’s what everyone’s looking for.

Okay, see, Basinger’s daughter Amelia (Margaret Qualley), is missing. LA PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) has been hired to find her. So has thuggish thumper Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). So they partner up, helped along by March’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who seems a good deal smarter than her Dad, and more moral than his partner. It turns out that ‘Amelia’ does exist, and that she despises her corrupt and evil Mom. She’s also an environmental protester, part of a group concerned about LA air quality, which sucked back in the 70s. As part of her protest, she has contacted the LA porn industry, and made a dirty movie, to publicize the lengths to which the auto industry has gone to avoid having to put catalytic converters in cars.

So March and Healy, the two intrepid detectives, explore the seamy underside of the Los Angeles porn world, trying, first to find Amelia, and then, when she dies, to find and screen her movie. In every scene involving Amelia, she’s portrayed as completely nuts. And Kim Basinger, playing Amelia’s Mom, seems genuinely concerned about her daughter’s mental health. But it turns out Amelia was right about everything. And when her film does actually air (we don’t see much of it), it does kick-start a local conversation about air quality. A preachy, earnest, porno.

And see, this goes to the central problem of the entire film. How seriously should we take any of it? Granted, it’s a comedy. But it’s set in the ’70s, when LA’s air quality was truly at dangerous levels. Environmentalists raising awareness over a serious health issue is not, frankly, an inherently funny issue. You can make it funny, by making environmentalists seem loony, but that’s neither fair nor accurate, and even if you laugh at it, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth. And when the genuinely committed environmental activist, Amelia, thinks the way to bring that issue to the general public is to make a preachy porn movie about it, she looks seriously unhinged.

This relates to the other central dynamic of the movie. It’s a comedy action movie. The conventions of action movies require that the good guys win, that they prevail in physical combat with the bad guys. But the bad guy, Basinger, has the resources of the government behind her, including a hit man, called John Boy (Matt Bomer), who is scary-capable with various weapons. And there are multiple other assassins at Basinger’s disposal. Our heros (and specifically, Our Hero, Gosling), have to beat them. Good guys have to defeat the bad guys in action movies. But this is a comedy, and part of what’s funny about it is the fact that Ryan Gosling’s character, March, is NOT good at fighting, or at violence, not at all. He’s a screw-up, and, of course, watching him screw up is funny.

So how does he win? Well, his partner, Crowe’s Jack Healy, is good at violence. But ultimately, that’s unsatisfying. The conventions of the genre require that Holland March, the film’s protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling, win his fight scenes.  His pal can’t just win them all for him. There are two ways for this to happen. He could get really lucky–and the comedy could come from our recognition of how preposterous is his good fortune. Or he could suddenly reveal previously unsuspected fighting skills. Which the movie also tries, again, not very plausibly.

Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, and an adept comedic actor. Russell Crowe’s hitman is a fascinating character, actually; with a ragged integrity and some real regrets over the acts of violence circumstances require him to perform. So at the character level, the buddies work in this buddy-comedy. And some of their repartee together is genuinely humorous, without falling into set-up/set-up/payoff rhythms.

So, the movie was certainly amusing. I laughed aloud a couple of times, and enjoyed the 70s costumes, and the fine performances from Crowe, and Gosling, and Rice and Bomer. But the action sequences were too silly to build up much genuine suspense or excitement, and the central plot was not just ridiculous, it was built on a stupid take on an important actual issue. I liked the movie okay. But then, I always did like Roger Corman films.

A look at Republican foreign policy

Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for President, a job for which he is manifestly unqualified, and particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Last week, Hillary Clinton gave a big speech on foreign policy, which included her harshest criticisms yet of Mr. Trump’s positions. Secretary Clinton impressively pointed out not just where she disagreed with Mr. Trump’s positions, but how unpresidentially unjudicious is his basic temperment.

Every Sunday morning, I watch This Week with George Stephanopoulos, so that y’all don’t have to. Although This Week drives me crazy sometimes, I watch it just to get a sense of mainstream Beltway opinion, which is, of course, frustrating and empty-headed and political. But it can be amusing, too, the rehashing of that eternal human comedy: who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning, who’s losing, and what does it all portend?

Anyway, Stephanopoulos wanted a Republican response to Hillary’s Trump take-down, and so they got Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to provide it. Corker is, at least officially, a Trump supporter, though over the course of his interview with Stephanopoulos, it became clear that he disagrees with Trump on essentially everything. But he obviously couldn’t say that–he was on the show to support Trump. So he tap-danced, not very nimbly. It got pretty funny.

Did Corker, for example, agree with Trump’s recent comments about Judge Curiel?  “I think we need to move beyond that, and he has a tremendous opportunity to disrupt the direction Washington is moving in, and create tremendous opportunity.” That’s an actual quote: Trump has a ‘tremendous opportunity’ to ‘create a tremendous opportunity.’

Stephanopoulos: “can you make a positive case why Trump will make a good Commander-in-Chief?’

Corker: “Yeah.”

That’s it. That’s Bob Corker’s defense for the idea that Donald Trump is tempermentally qualified to be commander-in-chief. One word. ‘Yeah.’

Stephanopoulos didn’t let him off the hook. He bored in, asking again for Corker to make the case for Trump. Corker started off with another ‘yeah.’ Then this: “well, he has an opportunity to transition. He’s talking to people that I respect greatly: Secretary Baker, Dr. Kissinger. Two of the greatest foreign policy experts in our nation. So he’s talking to the right people. So he has an opportunity to transition. . . ”

In other words, Trump can become stronger on foreign policy, if he’s willing to change, and listen to Jim Baker and Henry Kissinger. Yikes.

But what got really interesting was when Corker pivoted to attacking Hillary Clinton. I think that’s why he was on the show, to savage her:

Look, I listened to the speech, and I think her team believes that her service as Secretary of State makes her vulnerable. . . if you think back to the decisions she made in 2011, they were really disastrous. She played a central role in really creating a home for where ISIS resides today. If you look at the Libya incursion, which I think will be a textbook case for what we ought not to do in making foreign policy decisions. And then if you look at the precipitous leaving of Iraq, and look at encouraging the moderate opposition in Syria, and never following through. I think they feel that she’s very vulnerable, and that’s why these attacks are being made.

When it was pointed out that attacking Hillary Clinton didn’t really constitute supporting Donald Trump, Corker danced some more.

So here’s what I have seen, in many of the statements that he’s made recently, it’s a degree of realism in our foreign policy. For years, we’ve had neo-cons on the one side, we’ve had liberal internationalists on the Democratic side, and I think that bringing that maturity back into our foreign policy is something that’s important. That doesn’t mean us being isolationist. But it does mean selective engagement. It’s bringing a maturity, looking at our US national interest, realizing who our friends are, things like throwing aside Mubarak so quickly, after decades of relationship, and not figuring out a better way for him to be eased out.”

All right. Sorry for the long block quotation. Anyway, according to Bob Corker (and, apparently, James Baker and Henry Kissinger), Donald Trump represents a ‘new maturity’ in our foreign policy. And as evidence of Secretary Clinton’s comparative immaturity, we have her ‘throwing aside’ Hosni Mubarak ‘so quickly,’ after ‘decades of a relationship.’

When Corker talks about the events of 2011, he’s referring to the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in December 2010 in Tunisia, and continued throughout the next year or so.

So, what caused the Arab Spring? Widespread dissatisfaction with local regimes, with their corruption and violence, with dictatorship as a way of life, and with horrific unemployment and poverty throughout the region. It went fast, driven in part by social media. By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria, and with major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Sudan. Such dictators as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Moummar Gadaffi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell from power.

Essentially, Corker is saying that during Clinton’s tenure at State, the US mishandled the various opportunities and difficulties posed by the Arab Spring. Surely, though, Corker is aware of how limited our options were back then. These were exceptionally popular uprisings, against brutal and corrupt dictators. Really, the best the US could have done was see, in each case, if among the protestors, there were  pro-Western, pro-democracy elements, which we could aid and support. Those elements did exist, in each of those countries. But they were very much in the minority.

So, in Libya, the Gaddafi government was overthrown, with help from UN forces. But within a few months, a civil war broke out between pro-Western forces and Islamist groups. That civil war continues–Libya is today, essentially, a failed state. In Egypt, after Mubarak fell, the military took command. Elections were held, which were won by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. After a year, Morsi was deposed by the military, leading to a military dictatorship today. Again, not a great outcome. What better outcome was available?

What would have been nice would have been for pro-democratic, pro-Western forces to have won in each of those countries, leading to non-violent Muslim governance akin, perhaps, to Turkey. But the US had very little ability to control events back in 2011.

So to take the preposterous scenario Corker outlines, in which the US was able to keep our old pal Mubarak in power a while longer, that was simply never possible. Mubarak was toxic; utterly loathed. Egypt was being run by Egyptians.

It is absolutely true that the West intervened militarily in Libya in 2011, that NATO’s intervention didn’t work very well, and that Libya is a failed state today. The point of that intervention was to protect civilian lives. In Oct. 2011, NATO withdrew. In retrospect, that may have been an error. But, of course, we wanted Libya to be governed by Libyans. The US had no desire to nation-build yet again. The attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi didn’t help. The fact is, we tried to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and the result was a humanitarian nightmare. It’s fair to criticize Secretary Clinton for the failures of policy in Libya. What isn’t clear is what policies might have worked better.

In making the case for Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy expertise, it’s not just that she was once Secretary of State. It’s that she was Secretary of State during the Arab Spring, when the Middle East exploded in a whole variety of revolutions, counter-revolutions, uprisings and civil wars. There was very little the United States could have done to direct or even influence the way those events played out. We did try to intervene when possible, with mixed results. She was the US main foreign policy official in the most complicated and difficult era the Middle East has seen in my lifetime. She tried to manage events. For the most part, those events proved unmanageable.

It’s fair to offer criticism of her record. But when Bob Corker offers as a counter-proposal something as ludicrous as propping up the dessicated remains of Hosni Mubarak for a few more days, it’s fair to dismiss his complaints entirely. If retaining dictators in power is what constitutes this new ‘maturity’ in foreign policy Corker claims to see in the proposals of Donald Trump, then, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. Trump’s foreign policy, as he’s described it so far, would involve starting trade wars with China and Mexico, offending Muslims world-wide, and ending the US commitment to NATO. That’s not maturity–it’s infantile.

What Hillary Clinton will bring to the table is a maturity born of humility, a sense of just how limited America’s ability is to change the course of history. That seems like a valuable resource, her experience and maturity and habit of thoughtful reflection. Especially given the alternative.

 

 

 

TSA

Having chosen a sedentary lifestyle, or had one chosen for me, I haven’t traveled for months. I used to travel a lot. I miss it. But the one thing I do not miss are the long long lines at security checkpoints. What I do not miss at all is the TSA.

The Transportation Security Administration is the federal agency tasked with airport security. And it is an agency that sucks at its job. TSA’s level of suckitude is really not in much dispute. In recent airport security ‘red team’ tests, TSA agents missed 95% of bombs and guns testers tried to sneak through the system. That’s a horrible test result, like a college exam where you got 5% of the questions right, and missed all the rest. And it’s not an isolated result. They fail these sorts of tests all the time–a 91% failure rate in a Newark test in 2006, 75% in an LAX test in 2007, several failures since.

They’re inefficient, but they’re also annoying. Do you travel? I bet you have some horror stories lately. My niece told about a long wait in an airport security line, while they carefully scrutinized medical equipment she travels with for her ten month-old son. My niece expressed the opinion that her toddler probably did not constitute much of a terrorist threat. The agent was unmoved. And so, a young American woman traveling with two exhausted whiny small children was detained for an absurd amount of time. Why? Because. Because they could. Because she expressed a certain minimal frustration over a needlessly annoying experience.

So why? Why do we spend ten billion a year on the TSA? Why do we make air travel needlessly unpleasant? Why do we put up with intrusive and annoying and rude treatment from underpaid and officious uniformed jerks? Why do we put up endless lines and missed flights and being pushed and prodded and manhandled? Because, right now, TSA agents are very good at making travel more miserable than it needs to be. What they’re bad at is catching people trying to blow up airplanes.

If they’re so bad at their jobs, then why aren’t planes being blown up all the time? Because, frankly, there aren’t that many people trying to blow them up. The terrorist threat in this country is overstated by a factor of, I don’t know, several million. But think about it logically. If 95% of all attempts to sneak bombs and guns and knives into planes succeed, then we should be seeing planes, from American airports, falling out of the sky all the time. And it isn’t happening. There simply do not exist large swarms of terrorists trying to pull off more 9/11s. As Bruce Schneier, probably America’s leading security expert, recently put it, “The TSA is failing to defend us against the threat of terrorism. The only reason they’ve been able to get away with the scam for so long is that there isn’t much of a threat of terrorism to defend against.”

Here’s more from Schneier:

This isn’t to say that we can do away with airport security altogether. We need some security to dissuade the stupid or impulsive, but any more is a waste of money. The very rare smart terrorists are going to be able to bypass whatever we implement. The more common, stupid terrorists are going to be stopped by whatever measures we implement.

We should demand better results out of the TSA, but we should also recognize that the actual risk doesn’t justify their $7 billion budget. I’d rather see that money spent on intelligence and investigation.

There’s another narrative I’ve heard a lot lately, especially from conservatives. The TSA’s manifest failures echo larger failures of government. Government is the problem. Government is bad at everything it tries. So, of course, TSA is bad at its job. We shouldn’t expect otherwise.

In fact, the TSA is bad at its job, and the main reason is political. But it’s not because some mysterious entity called ‘government’ is universally incompetent. Politics reflects human weaknesses and failings. And the point of the TSA isn’t really to prevent terrorist attacks. It’s to create the impression that We’re Doing Something about terrorism. Paradoxically, the more rude and overbearing TSA agents are, the more they remind us that government is responding to a threat we think of all the time, even though it’s really minimal.

It would make sense to spend less on the TSA, not more. It would make sense to simplify and refine security protocols, make it much less intrusive, run more people through more quickly, with only cursory spot checks on peoples’ luggage. But any politician suggesting anything of the kind is going to be accused of being ‘soft on terrorism.’ TSA checks are time consuming and rude and uncomfortable because that’s what we want them to be be like. We want the illusion of security. We don’t care about reality. We prefer a comforting fantasy. In fact, I think we rather like the frisson of thinking that we’re being threatened by Them.

Let’s face it; TSA agents have incredibly boring jobs. It’s a job that attracts people who are willing to do a boring, dreadful job. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s also a job that attracts people that like pushing people around. It’s far past time to consign TSA security to the dustbin of history. And this will never, ever happen.

Captain America: Civil War. Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War is generally being lauded as one of finest comic book movies, like, ever. It’s at 90% on Rottentomatoes.com, and not only have critics embraced it, but it’s become a big popular hit. Like the best of the Marvel movies, it combines humor and well executed action sequences. More than that, it’s smart. It’s not just escapist fare. Comic book characters can be ridiculous, of course, what with all the spandex and ridiculous names, but the fact is, they’re about violence, about warfare, about terror as a tactic; they have surprising contemporary relevance. And this movie deliberately plays on that awareness.

And that’s also why I found this movie so off-putting. It’s not that I’m opposed to comic book movies paralleling contemporary politics. I think that’s great. I just find the conclusions drawn by this movie to be facile and obvious. And I found the film unwilling to interrogate the darker implications of its own narrative.

All right. Let me explain where I’m coming from here. This Captain America picks up the Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) story thread from previous Avengers’ movies, and places that story at the center of a conflict between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It starts with a battle in Nigeria, between what appear to be terrorists and a team involving Captain America and several other Avengers–Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). As the battle progresses, a building explodes, killing a dozen civilians. Turns out, the UN and the US governments are both getting fed up with superhero battle collateral damage, as well they might. An international conference to decide what to do about it is convened, and is likewise attacked. A peace-making king is killed. And this attack appears to have been made by Captain America’s old friend Bucky.

At one level, it makes sense that Cap would be at odds with the other Avengers over Bucky. Captain America, remember, is really a character from the 1940s, as is Bucky. Somehow Cap was frozen, his body recovered and revived. By us, Americans, good guys. Bucky, though, was also saved, but by bad guys, Hydra. Cap and Bucky are childhood friends. Of course Cap feels a tremendous loyalty to Bucky.

But this isn’t the same Bucky that he remembers. Hydra gave him enhanced powers, and also a psychological trigger, a phrase which, when spoken, causes him to surrender his ability to make decisions. At one point, Tony Stark calls him the Manchurian candidate, and that’s dead-on. Bucky’s a decent, good guy. Also a time bomb. And the one thing Cap prizes the most–his freedom, his ability to choose–Bucky does not have.

So that’s one issue in the film: what do we do about Bucky? But it relates to another, more profound one. Oversight.

The Nigerian disaster clarifies how tired the world is getting of collateral damage caused by superheroes. So the United Nations decides to form a ‘superhero oversight committee.’ That committee will decide where and how the Avengers will be deployed, and to what end. It will hold them accountable for damage caused in battle. The committee will exercise some degree of political control over superhero actions.

Initially, it seemed odd to me that rugged libertarian individualist Tony Stark would agree to political oversight, and that supersoldier Captain America would not. But we need to remember Tony’s background. The United States of America has never experienced a military coup, and I think it’s unlikely we ever will. That’s how ingrained in our military culture the idea is of a civilian heading our chain of command. The President of the United States is an elected official, and also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Our military respects that.

Well, Tony Stark is a product of America’s military-industrial complex. That’s his background. And he’s a thoughtful and intelligent man. He recognizes how essential it is that the Avengers appear legitimate; that this issue of superhero collateral damage erodes that legitimacy. And so he signs on, and agrees to sell this oversight committee–the Tribunal– to the other Avengers.

Again, it seems initially strange that Steve Rogers, super-American-military-hero, a product of American military culture, would be the one who rejects the Tribunal. But here’s the thing; he’s Captain America. He is, quite literally, the embodiment of American exceptionalism. And Americans don’t take direction from international bodies.

We just don’t. Sure, we conduct diplomacy, and we make treaties, and try to live up to our international obligations. But allow a foreign body to dictate what our soldiers do? Never.

I think I can make a case for the idea that Steve Rogers, once he realizes just what his abilities can allow him to do, decides that he and only he can be allowed to decide what and who he’ll fight for. He’s only going to be morally accountable to himself, to his own conscience. But I think I can also make a case for Captain America, superhero, representing America, the world’s only superpower. And Americans don’t allow other nations to tell us what to do militarily. And that means that he will not surrender his autonomy to an international Tribunal.

Thinking about this movie, I was reminded that last Saturday, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed by an American strike drone, in Pakistan. Mansour was unquestionably a bad guy. Still, that’s the world we live in, one in which an Afghani political leader can be killed by Americans, in Pakistan, and we Americans applaud. And President Obama announced the killing with some grim satisfaction for a job well done. We’re Americans. We get to do that; kill people in other countries without any accountability or oversight from anyone official. I don’t doubt that President Obama, if he was in fact involved in the decision, did not make it lightly. Still, we are America. We are exceptional, and we are the one nation on earth for whom killing a foreign leader in a foreign country is considered legitimate by much if not most of the rest of the world.

This film should, I suppose, be applauded for putting a political science debate, about oversight and accountability and violence and warfare and the legitimacy of the use of force at the center of a comic book action movie. I do not applaud it, though, for, in my mind, so unquestioningly putting American exceptionalism at the center of that debate. We’re Americans. We get to kill bad guys living in other countries. No due process, no trial, our President just gets to decide to do that; kill guys we designate as terrorists (no doubt legitimately), as worth killing. Yay for us. This movie took one of the most thoughtful and interesting characters in the Marvel universe, Steve Rogers, Cap, and use him to articulate a case for American exceptionalism–not just for America as exceptionally moral, but America as exceptionally empowered. Captain America is the living embodiment of American values. And this is a movie where Cap rejects oversight, and is applauded for it by the subsequent events of the movie.

I do think that the screenplay is trying for greater nuance and complexity than my admittedly simplistic explication allows it. Early in the movie, we see the way Hydra (who pretty much has to represent International Terrorism) mistreated Bucky and also five other enhanced baddies. The main bad guy, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), looks like he’s about to free those five supergoons. I thought the movie was setting up a final confrontation between the Avengers and the five Hydra super-villains. But Zemo just kills them off, instead choosing to use Bucky to instigate a final fight between Iron Man and Captain America. That’s actually a more interesting dramatic choice than the obvious one–Avengers vs. Hydra Creations. I do think it’s a film that tries to deal with the contemporary and political complexities the creation of this oversight body suggest.

To me, though, the film fails,and to at least some degree ends up letting Cap off the hook. I’ll grant that it doesn’t quite go as triumphalist as I feared. No flag waving, no final pro-American jingoism. It still does, ultimately, defend American exceptionalism. Couldn’t it deconstruct our own tortured politics just that tiny bit more thoughtfully? Couldn’t we leave the theater feeling just that tiny bit more conflicted?

The Heavy Water War: TV review

If you’re looking for some terrific television to Netflix, I have a recommendation for you. It’s called various things: The Heavy Water War, The Saboteurs, Kampen om Tungtvannet. It’s a six part miniseries, which also happens to be the most popular television program in Norwegian broadcast history. It was recommended to us by a friend, and my wife and I decided to watch the first episode. We found it so compelling, we ended up bingeing the whole thing. It’s in several languages, so you’ll have to read a certain amount of subtitles, but I promise you, it’s worth your attention. We were completely riveted.

It’s about the Allied effort to destroy a Norwegian factory that was the main European source for heavy water: deuterium oxide. Heavy water was, in the 1940s, a significant element in nuclear energy research, including nuclear reactors attempting to produce isotopes to use in building nuclear weapons. In short, heavy water was needed by the German nuclear program. There was only one place they could get it from: Norway. And so, for the Allied forces, it became a matter of some urgency to prevent the Germans from getting it.

So the series cuts back and forth between essentially four locations. First, Ryukan, a small town in Norway, built by a waterfall, next door to the Vemork power station, where the heavy water was produced. We primarily focus on Axel Aubert (Stein Winge), an executive with Norsk Hydro, the power company that owned the factory. Aubert was in charge of the Vemork plant, tasked with increasing production–this was a lucrative contract for the company. But his wife, Ellen (Maibritt Saerens), desperately lonely, is also deeply concerned that his professional actions might constitute collaboration with the German enemy. Which is a fair thing for her to worry about. And of course, everyone there is under constant Gestapo scrutiny.

Second, cut to England, where a Norwegian scientist, Leif Tronstad, the man who designed the Vemork facility, puts together his Norwegian team of saboteurs. Their training is supervised by Major Julie Smith (Anna Friel), a tough-as-nails military planner, who, over time, finds herself falling in love with Tronstad, and he with her (though both are married to long-absent spouses). They never act on their mutual attraction, but that tension underlies their scenes together. Third, we follow two teams of Norwegian saboteurs, code-named Operation Grouse, and then, when that failed, a second group, called Operation Gunnerside. The Norwegians in Grouse were meant to parachute into the bleak Northern mountains, then rendezvous with a British team coming in with gliders. But the gliders malfunctioned, and the captured British commandos were executed by the Gestapo. The Grouse men were able to ski clear, but had no supplies, and had to survive in some of the most desolate terrain on earth. At one point, they find some moss, boil it up, and choke it down; that’s all there is, until a lucky kill of a reindeer. Eventually, they did meet up with their Gunnerside colleagues; their combined teams skiied in, blew up the Vemork plant, then skiied 300 kilometers east to safe haven in Sweden.

The fourth main story the series follows takes place in Germany, and follows Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), as he attempts to unlock the secrets of the atom, and built a nuclear reactor. And, of course, Heisenberg’s work on the German atomic program is one of the central enigmas of the whole history of science and politics.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to direct Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s wonderful play about Heisenberg and a meeting in Copenhagen between him and Niels Bohr in 1941. (There’s also a 2002 film version, starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea). Directing that play was one of the great experiences of my professional life. Of course, if there’s one word that popularly captures Heisenberg more than any other, it would be ‘uncertainty.’ Did he, prior to 1945, solve the mystery of how to build a bomb? If he had made such a discovery, would he have shared it with the Nazi authorities who were so ubiquitous in his lab?

For what it’s worth, The Heavy Water War does include a shorter version of the meeting with Bohr. The suggestion is that Heisenberg wanted Bohr to know (and to pass on to the Allies) the fact that he was, in fact, working on building a reactor. The series goes on to further suggest that at one point, Heisenberg did have the creative and intellectual breakthrough he needed to figure out how to build an atomic bomb. And that he erased it. Loyal and patriotic German though he was, Werner Heisenberg was also a decent and loving human being. Eventually he could not bring himself to give Adolf Hitler the bomb.

If this is the case, then the Allied efforts to destroy the heavy water factory were not necessary. But there’s no way they could have known it. Certainly, from an Allied perspective, if there was any possibility that the Germans might be on the way to completing an atomic bomb, and if preventing them from getting heavy water might forestall that possibility, then their actions had to one of the war’s highest priorities. Norwegians are immensely proud of the fact that it was Norwegian saboteurs who destroyed the Vemork plant, and who sank the ferry that was shipping the last of its heavy water to Germany. They should be proud. And the story of those two great operations, Grouse and Gunnerside, is a powerful one, beautifully told in this series.

But did they prevent the Germans from building (and subsequently deploying) a nuclear device? This series should be applauded for suggesting that no, we don’t know the answer to that question, but probably not. Probably Heisenberg either couldn’t build it, or, more likely, decided not to.

In any event, this series does a tremendous job of telling a powerful and important historical story. And it does not shy from certain central moral ambiguities. Even after Vemork blew, a ferry full of heavy water was shipped out from Ryukan. The Allies knew that ferry needed to be destroyed. It was a passenger ferry, and carried a number of civilians, including families with small children. Nineteen civilians died. Those deaths, Julie Smith argues, were military necessities. Yes. But she’s crying when she makes that argument; not quite convinced.

And yes, it’s a very good thing that Hitler never had the Bomb. And a good thing that the Allies did have it. Hitler would have deployed it, over a civilian target. As we Americans did, over a civilian target. As President Obama just reminded us, speaking in Hiroshima.

I’m not going to re-litigate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But we must mourn. Our hearts must be filled with compassion, with humility, with a profound sense of loss. Maybe, strategically, the decision was inevitable. But as President Obama reminded us, sixty million people died in World War II. And that war made little distinction between civilian and military targets. Every one of those losses, every single one, diminishes us. Every life was precious, every one beloved. Surely, at least, our response must be ‘never again.’

 

 

 

The Statesman and the Storyteller: Book Review

The period of American and world history from 1894-1904 marks, in a very real sense, either the anomalous beginnings of American imperialism, if you don’t think the US has remained particularly imperialistic, or the America’s debut on the world stage, a spotlighted position we have yet to repudiate or give up, if you rather think we haven’t given it up at all. Mark Zwonitzer chooses to examine that wonderfully contested history by focusing on two men, John Hay and Samuel Clemens. Hay and Clemens were about the same age, and came from similar backgrounds; small towns lining the banks of the Mississippi. They both arose to prominence and wealth from humble beginnings, and were deeply devoted to their wives and children. Both men lost children, and were prostrated by grief. Both emerge, in Zwonitzer’s narrative, as admirable men. And they remained friends, cordial, though infrequent correspondents. But as Hay once wrote: “No man, no party, can fight with any hope of a final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity, avails against the spirit of the age.” As Zwonitzer puts it: “John Hay had learned this lesson early, and accepted it as an article of faith. He was not a man to fight a ‘cosmic tendency,’ and this served him well. Sam Clemens was less sure of this lesson. He learned it the hard way, and as you will see in the story that follows, kept unlearning it.”

John Hay was one of two personal secretaries to Abraham Lincoln, along with his close friend John Nicolay. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay and Nicolay wrote the first biography of Lincoln, a multi-volume work that established the pattern for subsequent Lincoln biographies. Hay also was a poet of some distinction, especially known for a collection called Pike County Ballads; humorous verse written in dialect. Hay made his fortune the old fashioned way; he married into it. This gave him the freedom to pursue a career in government, and he eventually became US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and finally, US Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was, in short, the Secretary of State during the Spanish-American War, and the diplomat who laid the political framework for the building of the Panama Canal.

Sam Clemens, of course, was primarily known, both in his lifetime and today, by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. As the book begins, Clemens was embarked on a desperate quest to salvage his family finances, a world-spanning lecture tour. This is the Mark Twain of the popular imagination; the cigar-smoking, white-suited contrarian, the witty, somewhat cynical humorist. He was, in 1894, dead-broke, having blown a sizeable fortune on an ill-conceived printing device. He insisted, as a point of honor, on clearing the entire debt himself, without resorting to bankruptcy proceedings. But proceeds from the tour were disappointing, as were sales from his published account of the voyage. (Although he did finally pay off his creditors, he never really did learn his lesson; he was still making bad investments practically on his deathbed).

Zwonitzer’s book cuts back and forth between the two men over the last ten years of Hay’s life, during that period when Hay was accommodating and enabling and administering the colonialist impulses of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Hay was an able administrator, in part because he was almost ego-less about it. His job was to serve as an extension of the President, and it was a job he devoted himself to, even at the cost of his health. And so Hay made himself indispensable, as the United States intervened in Cuba, appropriated Puerto Rico, swallowed Hawaii whole, captured Guam and Samoa, and ignored the democratic wishes of the freed Philippines, waging a savage war of conquest, so as to Christianize a nation full of Christians, and to govern a people too stubborn to realize they were ungovernable. And that’s without mentioning the US actions in Panama, actions applauded, at the time, as lacking even the tiniest vestige of legality.

John Hay was surely one of the most able men ever to serve as Secretary of State. He was certainly one of the most consequential diplomats in US history. And I wouldn’t say that Zwonitzer’s book demonizes him; quite the contrary. At the same time, his legacy is a troubling one. Teddy Roosevelt was an extraordinary man and a remarkably impactful President. He also believed in (and wrote books arguing for) the inherent racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples, and the God-given requirement that that superiority gave white men: to govern. One of the saddest chapters in the book describes the Filipino diplomat, Felipe Agocillo, who came to Washington desperate for some kind of recognition of the capable, functioning government established by his boss, Emilio Aquinaldo, and hoping for some Filipino representation, at least, on the commission that would decide his country’s fate and future. He was never so much as allowed to present a letter to that effect to John Hay. His people were incapable of self-governance. Too brown of skin. Period. The Philippines would be administered from Washington.

And Sam Clemens, as he traveled with his ailing family from Italian villa to English country estate to US rental property, kept in touch with world events. And though he couched his criticisms in bitter irony, Mark Twain’s writings reveal how heartsick and furious he was with it all. Twain knew better than to publish all his writings from that period–in any event, he’d promised his beloved wife, Livy, that he would exercise some restraint. Even so, it’s remarkable, to see how willing Clemens was to take on the ruling ideology of his own age, how furious he was with the hypocrisy of American Christians and the complacent American acceptance of the most heinous war atrocities committed by our troops.

When most Americans think of the Spanish-American war, we generally think of two things, if we even give that particularly obscure conflict any attention at all. First, we may be able to dredge some memory of the phrase ‘Remember the Maine,’ though we likely don’t remember what that was about. And second, we might remember Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders capturing San Juan Hill. We don’t choose to think about our utterly unjustified invasion of the Philippines, or the brutal savagery of our war against the subsequent insurgency. We don’t think about water boarding, or the way US commanders justified the slaughter of eleven-year-olds, or our massacres of women and children.

Mark Twain was there. He was horrified and appalled on our behalf. Here’s what he wrote about it, in The War Prayer:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

We’ve forgotten John Hay, and though we still remember Mark Twain, we’ve generally forgotten the lonely, righteous anger of Sam Clemens. Mark Zwonitzer reminds us of them both, and the ways in which they were connected. And the specific points on which they differed, as friends. What a splendid achievement.

Trevor Noah talks economics, and it’s so refreshing

On The Daily Show last night, Trevor Noah played this clip from Donald Trump, part of a speech he’d given in New Jersey, a speech which was greeted by wild applause:

A company moves to Mexico . . . and they think they’re going to take our people, fire all of our people, move to Mexico, make their air conditioners, and sell ’em right across the border, no tax, no nothing, guess what, folks? Not going to work that way anymore. Every unit you make, that you sell in the United States, you’re going to pay a 35% tax. 35, very simple. We’re losing our shirts, folks!

Here was Noah’s response:

When Donald Trump says you’re going to pay a 35% tax, you do understand that he means ‘you.’ The American consumer. That’s who ends up paying the tariff. It seems like just yesterday shoppers were pulling knives on each other to save ten bucks on a blue-ray player. And now people are cheering for more? When everything coming from another country is suddenly a third more expensive, Trump is essentially putting sanctions on America. You know, sanctions, the same things the US uses to cripple other countries. That’s basically the Trump economic recovery plan. A plan that could deepen the trade imbalance, throw our economy into recession within a year, and lead to trade wars with China and Mexico. That’s a trade war.

Cut back to Trump:

These dummies that say ‘oh, well, that’s a trade war.’ A trade war?! We’re losing five hundred billion dollars a year in trade with China; who the hell cares if there’s a trade war? That’s crazy.

And here’s Noah’s response:

No, you’re crazy! How is this guy a Presidential candidate? I know you don’t care, Donald Trump, but you know who would care? The four million Americans that would stand to lose their jobs if a trade war happened! There’s no war with China that you can say you don’t care about. It doesn’t matter what kind of war it is; a military war, a trade war.

Here’s why I liked this moment so much. I watch a lot of media, and a lot of political media. I watch Sunday morning political talk shows. I watch several shows on cable. I read several political and news websites every morning. And of course, Donald Trump has been covered extensively throughout. But not like this. Not analysis of the economics of his plans. It took a Comedy Central fake news host to point out what has seemed obvious to me from the beginning. Donald Trump’s economic program, with high protectionist tariffs and unilaterally re-negotiated trade agreements, would, if enacted, seriously and negatively impact the US and world economies.

Here’s how this entire exchange would have played out on mainstream news media outlets. There are two possibilities: “New Jersey supporters applauded Donald Trump today, as he reiterated his call for a 35% tariff on imports from Mexico if elected, as he continues to tighten his appeal heading into the fall election.” That’s the more likely approach; the focus entirely on the horse race. Or, a second, rarer possibility: “Donald Trump continues to call for a protectionist tariff on Mexican imports. Some economists believe that such a tariff could lead to a trade war with Mexico. Other economists disagree.” Mainstream media folks are exceedingly reluctant to even appear as though they’ve taken sides on issues, even on issues as seemingly black and white as, you know, the idea that starting a trade war is a good idea. So they play this ‘some people say . . . on the other hand, others believe. . .’ And that constitutes appropriate balance. (“Some Americans believe that the earth is flat. Others, however. . . “)

In fact, though, the vast majority of economists agree that Trump’s actions would, in fact, constitute a trade war, and lead almost certainly, to a recession. And that a sudden, immediate price increase on some (but not all) consumer goods would be inflationary, and harmful to most US consumers.

Because Trump is a businessman, there’s an assumption that he knows what he’s talking about on economic questions. Because he’s successful, people assume that his economic plans make sense, and are a good idea. Maybe, on foreign policy questions, he’s a little uninformed, but surely on the economy, he’s a guy we can trust. He has a chance to renegotiate trade agreements, and that will be good for America.

But it’s on economic matters that Trump’s invincible ignorance is most pronounced. His plans are insane. They won’t work. They won’t Make America Great Again. They’ll lead to trade wars and a recession. He really, genuinely, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And it took a comedian to say so. Well done, Mr. Noah.