A playwright’s take on economics

I love the letters section of The Deseret News.  They just published a letter to the editor from me, which led to a brisk, and disappointingly positive response.  Stirring up a hornets’ nest isn’t as much fun when the hornets, instead of swarming, stop to applaud.  But it’s also encouraging–more people than you think actually do understand economics.

And that’s actually a hilarious line, that last one, about understanding economics.  It makes it sound like I do.  This, from a guy who can’t balance a checkbook–Annette runs our family finances.

But this world wide financial crisis thing is huge, and (here’s where I come in) a fascinating subject for a playwright.  So I’ve been doing what I do: reading.  That’s always the first step for me, research.  I started with Michael Lewis–three books of his, plus books about Lehman Brothers and Deutches Bank and Goldman Sachs, plus maybe thirty articles, plus a lot of other stuff.  I wanted to get my head around it, and it needed to be in words, not numbers–I don’t handle math. 

That led to economics, and so I read The Worldly Philosophers and Wealth of Nations, and Mill and Malthus and Mises and Keynes and Hayek and Friedman.  So far, I’ve written two plays on the subject, both of them inadequate, but still in progress. 

When I read economists, I’m attracted to the prose stylists–I like guys who wrote well, and don’t care for guys who wrote poorly.  So I love Keynes.  But I’m also drawn to his ideas, which seem to me persuasive.

I’m informed.  I know what I’m talking about. Sort of.  In my own completely idiosyncratic way.

So I wrote a play, about Keynes, and in that play he has this line:

“When you vote, Mr. Bowles, bear this in mind.  You believe you’re voting for a chap, a good bloke.  You like his message, not considering that all elections hinge on experts carefully crafting messages of optimism or fear-mongering, or of both simultaneously.  And that’s all right—Mr. Churchill is a master manipulator of opinion, but he’s also right and Hitler must be defeated; we both support him.  Don’t we Hayek? (Hayek nods solemnly.)  But none of that ultimately matters, not the person, not the literature or platforms or slogans.  You are voting for a set of economic principles.  You are voting for one of several competing economic theories, each with its own policies and programme.  And if you vote wrongly, if you vote for a theory that is wrong, that inadequately describes the world, that foolishly ascribes to human beings behaviors they do not in fact engage in, or inadequately accounts for behaviors we do in fact engage in, if you vote the wrong way, for the agreeable chap you could imagine sharing a pint with, but who, as it happens, believes in a bad theory, an unworkable theory, a chap who will, if elected, attempt to implement an foolish economic programme based on an untenable theory, you could, in very short order, drive your nation off a cliff into disaster.  (BOWLES stares at him.)  Catastrophe.  It has happened many times in the past.  It has destroyed entire empires.  It absolutely can happen again.
And, you know, we’re sort of doing it now. 
Right now, both parties are contemplating massive cuts in federal spending.  The argument seems to be that the best way to increase employment is to increase unemployment.  If the Paul Ryan budget plan is enacted–and Mitt Romney is on record as supporting it–it will be a mistake, and potentially, a catastrophic one.    
I think.  The guy who can’t balance his checkbook.  
Anyway, that’s why I can’t support Mitt Romney, and the reason I’m not wildly happy with President Obama. The deficit is scary.  Cutting it radically right now is scarier.  

The Avengers

The Avengers is great fun.  I thought it might be.  Grantland.com called it “last summer’s best movie,” and it’s true that last summer’s string of superhero action movies got pretty tedious.  I liked Thor, liked Captain America a little less, have liked both Iron Man movies, loathed The Green Lantern.  There weren’t Black Widow or Hawkeye movies, and Mark Ruffalo wasn’t in the latest Hulk.  It’s just felt like there were so many.  Knowing they were heading towards an Avengers movie with all these preliminary offerings didn’t so much create a sense of expectation as ennui; crap, they’re doing another one? 

Of course, it’s also possible to not see them.  That is a choice.  I could have actually skipped a few.  The problem is, if you love movies, and if you decide to start skipping the popular, populist ones, you place your soul at risk.  If you’re not careful, you could find yourself on a path to terminal hipsterdom.  Too cool for school.  Bored with everything.  Superior snobbishness. Blarg.

Me, I’m all about art films.  I can epater la bourgeoisie, in the right time, place and mood.  I have absolutely seen more than my share of morbid, slow-paced movies, with subtitles and lots of rain in them. But sometimes, you just need ‘splosions. 

And The Avengers is great fun.  I kind of thought it would be.  It’s a Joss Whedon movie, after all.

Here’s the thing: Whedon knows that even an action movie, even a genre movie, needs to be rooted in interesting human characters.  The Avengers takes its time.  Each character is introduced with his/her own action set piece, the one exception being Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who ends up being about the most interesting Avenger during the film’s final battle scene.  And then, when all the Avengers are finally assembled, turns out they don’t get along.  Thor and Iron Man have a nasty battle scene, Iron Men mistrusts Nick Fury (Sam Jackson, world’s coolest actor, with a gratuitously coolness-adding eye patch), Captain America thinks they should just be good soldiers and obey orders, and meanwhile everyone sort of walks on eggshells trying not to piss off The Hulk. We know they’re going to work it out, get along, learn to fight together.  But they’re people, they’re interesting. 

Best of all: the villain.  Tom Hiddleston was great in Thor and he’s great here–Loki is completely untrustworthy, and Hiddleston has genuine charisma, with a gleefully evil grin.  He’s even a complex character, hiding his insecurities with bluster. 

Great stuff.  Maybe my favorite was Scarlett Johansson, as Natasha (Black Widow) Romanoff, a spy turned superhero-powerless-superhero.  She’s got an interesting backstory–her ledger’s in the red, as she puts it–and she can seemingly turn on the vulnerability at will, strategically.  There’s a scene you’ve all seen from the trailers, in which the camera pans all the Avengers–there’s Hawkeye with his bow and arrows, Captain America with his shield, Thor with his hammer, and. . . . Scarlett Johansson with her handgun.  I laughed out loud. And we know why she’s in the movie: we all like some sex with our violence.  But she holds her own; Scarlett (and her stunt double) are seriously plausible at fight scenes. 

Of course the movie ends with a big CGI fight scene, as mandated by federal law pertaining to American-made movies.  But the big fight scene is even good here, better than most and light years better than any Transformers fight scene.  It’s funny.  That’s, again, a Joss Whedon speciality.  He’s maybe the best ever at the funny fight scene, at tongue-in-cheek violence.

Which is why the violence of the film remains for me so inoffensive and genial–it’s funny. Whedon knows the premise of the film is silly; that superheroes, in their costumes, are silly.  He also knows we have to genuinely feel some sense of menace and danger.  Those two impulses strike us as irreconcilable.  But Whedon balances them.  The final battle takes place in midtown Manhattan, and we see lots of ordinary citizens terrified by the extraterrestrial monsters Loki has recruited for his army.  Their fear seems genuine; the running crowds aren’t superfluous. Captain America takes charge, directs police attempts to protect folks–Chris Evans is great in those scenes.  But then comes the moment when the Hulk faces off against Loki.  “I am your God,” Loki commands, “kneel before me!”  And Hulk grabs him and smashes him to the ground a few times.  “Puny God,” he mutters.  It’s hilarious. 

Okay, I admit, I’m a Joss Whedon geek, of the most obnoxious Firefly-quoting variety.  He hasn’t made a film for a long time, and now he’s got this, and it’s going to make buckets of money (maybe even more buckets than any other movie ever), and that presages an artistic freedom in the future that I basically can’t wait to see what he does with.  The bad news, of course, is that there will be an Avengers sequel, which Whedon will not direct.  That’s okay; we don’t have to watch it, (though I probably will).  The good news is, he’ll be doing something else just as awesome. 

In Memoriam

I’ve been reading a book about the Crimean War lately.  It’s actually called The Crimean War, by Orlando Figes.  It was a birthday present from my oldest son, and a completely awesome one, not because I’ve got some kind of jones for obscure nineteenth century wars, but because he knows I do have a jones for any book about any era in history, and the Crimean War happens to be one I don’t know much about.  The Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightengale, Tolstoy’s Sevastapol Sketches: that’s about it.  Well, now I know more.

It’s a great read.  Figes is my favorite kind of historian: thorough, in-depth, clear about events and personalities and strategies and tactics.  But my gosh, what an awful war.

The British were certain they could finish the war in a few weeks, and didn’t send any winter supplies–their troops had light overcoats, light summer tents, light provisions.  The Russians never really bothered to supply their armies.  The French were a little more conscientious about the welfare of their troops; the Turks not at all.  Deaths from cholera plagued both sides in the summer, deaths from exposure and pneumonia wiped out soldiers throughout the winter.  The Russian soldiers were, for the most part, serfs, and essentially went unfed–they were forced to forage, and many starved to death.  British troops were routinely flogged, for even the most minor of infractions.  Until Florence Nightengale showed up, medical care for the sick and wounded was close to non-existent.

So what were they fighting for?  Most of the soldiers on all sides had no idea.  Most of their commanders had only the vaguest notion.  It’s not that Figes isn’t exhaustively thorough in his discussion of the war’s causes.  All the nations fighting in Crimea had different, irreconcilable objectives.  Something about curbing Russia’s expansionist ambitions, with the Brits and French and Austrians eying the crumbling Ottoman empire, each with their own endless nineteenth colonization ambitions.  There were also, inevitably, religious overtones–the Tsar saw himself as the protector of Orthodox interests, the Brits were unaccountably Islamophilic.

Very very serious and intelligent men thought carefully and hard about their nations’ geopolitical needs and interests, and concluded that war was both inevitable and desirable. And the public, and the newspapers that shaped and amplified their views, were gung-ho for it.  And that’s always true, isn’t it?  The decision to go to war is rarely if ever taken lightly. But once taken, we’re all in.  The saddest verse in the Star Spangled Banner, for me, is the fourth verse: “then conquer we must, when our cause, it is just.”  When are we ever not convinced that it is?

Then historians look back at them, the newspapers and journals and the writings of those serious, powerful men.  We reexamine their motives and objectives, and their wars seem so incredibly pointless, their deliberations shallow, their motives venal.  It almost never seems justifiable, the bloodshed and horror, the suffering and sickness. When we look back at those moments in history when old men sent young men to die, it almost never looks anything but pointless and foolish.

The Crimean War was unique in one regard–it’s the first major war in which armies made full use of the small unit cohesian theory.  The idea was that an army should consist of relatively small groups of men, men who would train together and serve together, that they would fight harder for men they had come to regard as comrades and friends. Talk to people who have served in combat, and they nearly always talk about their fellow soldiers, the other guys in their unit.  Ask what they fought for, and usually soldiers have some sense of a large objective.  But that’s not what they end up fighting for.  They fight for each other.  They fight for their friends.

For us?  For us civilians, at home?  Maybe, sometimes.  Mostly, not. We justify it that way, their pointlessly heroic sacrifices.  We say ‘they fought for us.”  That was maybe true for the Second World War.  And that’s about the only time Americans fought in a war where our way of life was seriously threatened.  That’s the one war that seems a bit justified, fighting to defeat a madman.  

There aren’t a lot of soldiers in my family background.  My father’s a veteran–spent his time in Germany just after the end of the Korean war, an MP, who says his main task was patrolling pubs to make sure the white soldiers and black soldiers didn’t kill each other in drunken brawls.  I just missed Vietnam. A great uncle was a highly decorated sailor in World War Two.That’s all.

But I’ve read.  History is mostly about war, scripture is mostly about war, most popular entertainments deal with violence and war.  We glorify it, even when we don’t intend to.  And we study it, and should, because that’s the only way we’re going to end it.  Study it, so we can put it behind us, along with witch hunts and inquisitions and pogroms. 

On Memorial Day, we remember those who served.  We honor their service.  It’s altogether right and proper for us to do that.  But the best way we can memorialize soldiers is to end war entirely.  As Elder Uchtdorf put it recently: “Stop it.”  Stop trying to dignify our momentary, transitory, ephemeral disputes with bloody human sacrifice.  Stop trying to gain some foolish political advantage through the deaths of our best and brightest citizens.  This.  And this. And this, And this, this. . . .

A day full of Killing

My wife and I are devout DVR users.  We watch a lot of TV, and we tend to record shows, save them up and watch ‘em when we have time.  Plus, we like fast-forwarding commercials. And so today, we decided to catch up on The Killing.

We got started on this show because I know the lead actress.  Mireille Enos was a freshman at BYU the same year I joined the faculty, and I cast her in the first show I directed.  It was a medieval passion play–basically, we adapted the Wakefield play of Corpus Christi into something called The Wakefield Passion. All the actors played multiple roles, and this tiny red-head became one of the cast standouts.  I’ve kept tabs on her ever since, as she’s carved out her career on-stage in New York and now in film and television. She was a wonderful 18 year old actress, and she’s even more wonderful now.  Plus, it’s so cool seeing her getting to carry a gun. 

In The Killing, Mireille plays Sarah Linden, a detective trying to solve the murder of a teenage girl, Rosie Larson.  It’s based on a Danish TV series, which I haven’t seen.  A lot of TV critics howled at the end of the first season when the show didn’t solve the murder.  The producers had hinted that they would, and all the clues seemed to be falling in place, implicating a mayoral candidate, Darren Richmond.  Turns out he was framed, and the murder was still unsolved.  Still is, for that matter, mid-way through the second season. 

I really like the show, though it sort of drives me nuts. One thing I like is that it really does show the anguish of the family of the murdered girl.  Too many shows treat the pain of victims’ families in a perfunctory way, but Rosie’s Mom, Mitch Larson (Michelle Forbes) is about the most compelling character in the show, compelling because of her grief.  I love the performances, by Mireille and also her kind of skeevy partner, Holder (Joel Kinneman). Plus, Michelle Forbes was a Bajoran on Star Trek: TNG, and Linden’s ex-husband (Tahmoh Penikett) was a Cylon on Battlestar Gallactica.  So in all his scenes with Mireille, Annette and I have to go ‘don’t trust him, he’s a Cylon!’ 

But, my gosh, they’re awful cops, Linden and Holder.  They just consistently violate the most basic rules of police procedure.  They don’t check up on the most obvious clues, they tell the victims’ families things they have no business telling them, they never finish an interview, they don’t secure crime scenes.  If the point of the show was that these were terribly inept, hopelessly incompetent cops trying to solve this thing, all right.  But they’re supposed to be good at their job.  It’s just badly written, not from a character standpoint, but in terms of basic cop research.

I am, as it happens, something of an expert on police procedures, particularly as it relates to murder investigations.  It’s just something I know a lot about.  You may ask, ‘how did you achieve this particular expertise?’  I’ve never gone to cop school, never been a cop, never been friends with cops.  But I’ve seen hundreds of hours of Law and Order, and CSI, and Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue, and Prime Suspect and the Mystery channel, and Castle and literally dozens of other police procedural dramas. We all have. Most Americans are murder experts, even murder connoisseurs. We know cops, and by golly, we know murder. 

And Annette’s better at it than I am.  Watching murder mysteries with her is an amazing experience.  She pretty well always knows who-dun-it, and why.  I tell her she’d be a great detective.  She says she wouldn’t be, because she’s only good at figuring out the way they write these kinds of shows.  A real life crime scene would probably leave her flummoxed.  She likes The Killing because she still hasn’t figured it out.  It’s got her stumped, and that makes it more fun. 

Or maybe not. I’ve actually read a lot of real crime stuff, plus I used to home teach a cop, and most actual murders aren’t hard to solve.  Most actual murders, the cops show up, and the poor schlub is sitting on his porch covered with blood, holding the gun, saying over and over, “she wouldn’t give me the remote. That’s all I wanted, was for her to HAND ME the REMOTE.”  On cop shows, the investment banker had to kill his accountant because he knew the password to the Cayman Islands’ account, plus his girlfriend was the daughter of his rich uncle’s attorney. Most real murders, it’s about two drunks and a beer tab. 

A whole day with The Killing, however, turned out to be fun. I’m pretty sure Mireille didn’t kill Rosie.  Beyond that, I still got no idea.  

Fixing graduation

My daughter graduated from Provo High School last night, and it was a wonderful celebration.  We had lots of family in town, a great barbecue in the afternoon, and then we all trooped over to UVU’s McKay Events Center for the graduation ceremony itself.  Lexie looked lovely in her white robe, and dealt patiently with various wannabe family comedians suggesting that it only lacked a pointy hat for perfection.  (Klan jokes: always fun.) 

And then we spent two hours watching total strangers walk across a stage.

Let’s face it, graduation ceremonies suck. Pomp and Circumstance can get tiresome pretty quickly, and frankly it’s the highlight of the evening.  At my son’s college graduation last month, the orchestra played P and C at a tempo that would have made a dirge sound lively; at Lexie’s last night, I guess the orchestra kids never learned it; we listened to a recording. 

Three kids spoke, and they did fine; usual pablum about Dreams and The Future, with that Nelson Mandela quote prominently featured. Four musical numbers by school ensembles, all fine. And then various administrators also spoke, and brother did we all REALLY not care about their remarks.  Then finally, with all sorts of elaborate choreography and much milling about, they finally got to the names and diplomas.  Provo High did this thing where as they read each kid’s name, they showed their picture and a baby picture, giving us all two chances to think “geez, that’s a geeky lookin’ kid.” 

I was feeling cranky anyway.  UVU is not very handicapped accessible (I mean borderline non-ADA-compliant, it was that bad), which meant an interminable walk to the crip section, where they had no chairs, until Annette found a patio that had chairs and stole some.  So, Lexie walked, she looked awesome, big smiles all around; it was great.  We did lose Grandma and Grandpa in the crowd afterwards, but eventually found ‘em okay, besides which, that’s kind of de rigueur: the Tossing of the Caps, the Wearing of the Tassels, the Losing of the Grandparents. 

Still, it’s interminable.  Two hours plus, when what you’re there for takes two minutes.  It’s Kentucky Derby Broadcast level boring.  (You know, where ABC takes three hours to broadcast a two minute horse race.) 

This is totally fixable.  Instead, why not create a graduation DVD for each kid?  It could be a school activity. Like: the Graduation DVD Club. Interview a few teachers, a few friends, then finish with a shot of the kid holding her diploma.  Just hand those out the last day of school.  You could even tape the valedictorian’s speech and include it.  The whole ‘sit in a basketball arena for hours watching pedestrian traffic patterns’ thing is just soooo twentieth century. 

Albert Nobbs

In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close plays the film’s title character, a woman, who dresses like a man, is thought to be a man by the other characters, goes by Albert, and works as a waiter at a posh Irish hotel. She has a cache of money under the floorboards of her hotel room, and enters all her earnings in a small notebook.  Late in the movie, she calculates how much it’s going to cost to continue to court Helen (Mia Wasikowska, as great in this as she was in Jane Eyre), a maid at the hotel.  She’s appalled by the cost–calculated over a year, it could add up to over seven pounds! After a moment, she sits back and says something like “I’ll propose after three months, then.”

It’s a comic moment in a film that needs them–Rodrigo Garcia has built a wonderful film on stillness, on Albert’s unblinking gaze, as she tries to figure out a world she finds utterly bewildering.  Her world is defined by two reactions: terror, and incomprehension.  As we learn her story, we wonder if the two aren’t related.

As a fourteen year old, we learn, she was assaulted by a gang of five guys.  Shortly thereafter, she saw an advertisement for a waiter–she got hold of a second-hand suit, and began her career as Albert Nobbs.  She seems completely clueless about human sexuality.  As she ponders marrying Helen, her biggest worry seems to be whether she should reveal herself as a woman before the wedding, or let it wait until their wedding night.  What people actually do on their wedding night–or how Helen will respond to such a revelation–seem well beyond her powers of comprehension.  She imagines Helen as a hostess for the tobacconist’s business she intends to start and is saving towards.  She imagines Helen serving tea. When Helen, in frustration, kisses her, saying “that’s how I like to be kissed,” Albert recoils in shock and confusion.  Is she really that naive, that innocent?  Or is it a deeply repressed trauma?  What exactly was the nature of that assault?

Early in the film, Albert is asked by the hotel’s proprietress Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) to share her bed with Hubert Page, a house painter who’s been hired to spruce up a few of the rooms.  Albert demurs, but Mrs. Baker runs roughshod over her objections, and so, retiring for the night, she finds the tall, rough-and tumble Hubert curled up on her bed.  She tries to crawl in next to him, fully clothed, but, plagued by flea bites, has to undress briefly to scratch.  Page wakes, sees her breasts, laconically tells her she needn’t worry; he won’t reveal her secret.  The next day, Hubert tells her why.  Hubert is also a woman, passing as a man (played brilliantly by Janet McTeer).

Albert suddenly finds herself with something she seems never to have had previously, a friend.  She meets Hubert and she meets Hubert’s wife (Bronagh Gallagher).  A wife, a comfortable home, respectability–that’s what Albert wants, and that’s what she pursues, in the person of Helen.  In one wonderful scene of liberation, she and Hubert dress up as women, and stroll together down a beach, free to be themselves, clomping about in what are for them strange and uncomfortable shoes. 

We know this all will turn out badly.  Helen thinks of Albert as an odd duck, a weird old man; her interest in him is entirely mercenary, and she’s sleeping with another servant, Joe (Aaron Johnson).  When Helen becomes pregnant, Joe can’t handle it, tells her he’s going to leave her.  Helen is astonished when Albert, the strange man she’s been using, is untroubled by her pregnancy. For one brief moment, it appears that Albert will succeed, that she will improbably negotiate all the gender confusion of the situation and end up happily with (somehow) Helen. But no.  

The ending of the film is deeply tragic, and the resolution, although unexpected, is also unsurprising.  It’s a quietly powerful film, blessed with magnificent performances. At the end, the hotel’s doctor (the magnificent Brendon Gleason) shakes his head over the sad and private lives of his friends.  His benediction closes the story of hidden, tormented, only occasionally joyful lives.

What bad novels do

I just read a really bad novel, which I sort of enjoyed in a grubby sort of way–it passed the time.  The author’s name is Christopher Farnsworth–I wrote a play once about Philo T. Farnsworth, and so this guy’s name caught my eye in the new fiction section at the library.  Book’s titled Red, White and Blood, which is also an album by Generation Kill, a metal band I’ve at least listened to a couple of times.  Plus it’s about contemporary politics, which I’m also into.  Plus, vampires: score! 

This is the second book (that I know of) in a series with this premise: the President of the United States has a vampire working for him. Vampire’s named Nathaniel Cade, discovered by President Andrew Johnson, who got him (it) to swear an unbreakable loyalty oath binding it (him) to protect the President and the nation forever.  So Cade lives in a lair underneath the White House, and when we’re faced with some REALLY bad situation, they bring him out and he goes to work.

Now, I don’t know about you guys, but that strikes me as a splendid premise for a trashy novel.  And so it turns out.  Cade is the only actually interesting character in the book, of course, but he’s plenty interesting.  Part of the premise is that dark spooky critters from the Underworld keep slithering into our world, and Cade’s the only one who can deal with ‘em.  The bad guy in this novel is the Boogeyman.  He’s basically the unkillable evil spirit who inhabits the bodies of loser guys who, after he possesses them, become serial killers. Cade’s caught him and killed him oodles of times, but he always sneaks back, finds a new host, and starts killing folks.  This time back, he’s after the President. 

If only Farnsworth could write.  Alas . . . .

Here’s what he does: he’ll create a character, call him, whatever, Anderson, Jones, Saltalamachia.  You learn a little about Anderson, like, maybe he’s a porn producer.  He’s slimy, he’s a bad person; we get maybe a page and half about the guy.  We read about him meeting a girl, and they have wildly acrobatic sex.  In the midst of this, the monster kills him and the girl.

That’s half the book, scene after scene exactly like that.

Now, as it happens, I am aware that people do have sexual relations from time to time. But not like this.  What happens in bad novels of a certain kind is that we pornografy sex, turn it into something fundamentally untruthful.  We then get to moralize over it, like slasher flicks do.  Bad girls do bad things, which we enjoy watching/reading about/consuming, but which also must be punished.  So the whole ‘see her naked/see her killed’ dynamic.

I said that it’s fundamentally untruthful.  But it’s not entirely untruthful–it’s oddly revelatory of a certain kind of male adolescent mindset. But it’s entirely false in the larger, moral universe that we’d really rather have even our pop fiction inhabit. 

I get that it’s a novel about a vampire, and that vampires don’t actually exist.  I don’t think, though, that it’s too much to ask for fantasy novels to display some acquaintance with human truth. I also don’t mind wasting my time reading a trashy novel occasionally.  I just don’t want to feel grimy after I’ve read it. 

Sunday Sermon: Baptism for the Dead

I get that it’s peculiar.  I understand  how it looks. ‘Those Mormons are so desperate for converts, they can’t even let dead people alone.’  It can seem almost comically presumptuous.  I know the history of forced baptisms for Jews, and I understand how terrifically offensive baptizing Holocaust victims can seem. I get it.

But baptism for the dead is a central tenet of Mormonism.  We can and should defend it better.

Baptism for the dead is the most remarkable theological innovation of any Christian church of the 19th century.  It stands as a rebuke to the most offensive of Christian heresies: the heresy of geographic salvation.  Every Christian faith, every denomination, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, Armenian and Coptic, Arian and Athanasian, Huegenot and Anabaptist, all of them, without exception have in their history–in their recent history–the preposterous absurdity of believing that a loving God would condemn most of His children to eternal torment based solely on the land in which they were born.

And the logic’s compelling.  If salvation is found only in Christ Jesus and Him crucified, if you must be born of the water and the spirit to be saved, if God really did so love the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life, if that’s true, then most of the people born on earth must therefore perish, solely and entirely because of where they happen to have been born.  John 3:16 is a glorious scripture, but it also implies inevitably that God loved His Europeans, and for centuries, basically not anybody else.

That particular heresy was more implied than explicitly stated, but its logic is so inescapable, it led to three great Christian responses.  Over millennia, Christian missionaries risked their lives to preach in China and Africa and India.  That’s one response, and we must honor their sacrifices, while acknowledging the fruitless inadequacy of most of their efforts.  The second response: violent ethnocentrism, colonialism, wars of conversion, crusades.

But the third response is to enshrine theologically the inevitable absurdity of this heresy, and make it central to Christian faith.  The third response has been, historically, the doctrine of predestination.  Since God decides where His children will be born, it follows He must love some of us better than others.  Or, perhaps, our own inherent sinfulness requires Him to hate us all equally, extending His divine grace to a few, arbitrarily Chosen. Nobody believes that anymore–the whole Christian world believed it for centuries.

Joseph Smith jettisoned the entire superstructure–predestination and geographic salvation and the need for Crusades, all of it, gone.  He replaced it with a radical extension of salvic opportunity–extending missionary efforts beyond the grave.  And also including, no, requiring, baptism for the dead.

I remember one time, when I worked at a pizza parlor, part of an assembly line laying down sausage with two philosophy majors.  The work was mindless–the conversation anything but.  One day, one of them asked about the Granite Mountain Record Vault–that repository of geneological records maintained by the Church.  “What’s in there?” he asked.  “Like, paintings, poetry, philosophy?  Collected works of Kant, that kind of thing?”  He was taken aback, and a bit offended, when I told him we collected names.  The goal–the quixotically impossible, gloriously crazy goal–was to collect information about every human being who ever lived on this planet.  “Why?” my friend asked, astounded.  Why indeed?

Because God wants those people remembered.

I know it can seem comically bureaucratic.  God says everyone has to be baptized, so by golly, we’re gonna do our best to baptize ‘em; they’re free to reject it in the afterlife if it’s not what they want.  But it’s part of a larger vision.

Check this out:  2 Nephi 29: 10-11

“Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. For I command men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the words which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.”

What does this mean?  It means Mohammed really was a prophet.  Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu.  It means God has spoken to every culture, in their language.  And it means salvation, eternal salvation, is as much about what we do as what we believe.  It means Jesus wasn’t kidding about the Sermon on the Mount.  Belief isn’t enough; isn’t even, probably, all that important.  We’re supposed to love and serve our brothers and sisters.
Joseph Smith was way ahead of the conversation–you’d be hard-pressed to find a prominent Christian preacher today who thinks Chinese peasants are condemned to Hell, or that our actions don’t matter. Or even that Hell exists. That’s basically what Rick Warren’s talking about, or T.J. Jakes, or Jim Wallis, or David Jeremiah.  I imagine they think baptism for the dead’s pretty squirrelly (1 Cor. 15:29 notwithstanding), but they don’t actually have a better solution to the problem of geographic salvation than a generalized ‘I’m sure God will take care of those people.’
Well, that’s what we’re doing.  That’s what our temples stand for, that’s what they mean.  “A great welding link between dispensations” said Joseph Smith.  Hearts of children turned to their fathers.  God loves all His children, all of them personally, all of them, by name.  He wants us to feel that love, to practice it, to implement some part of it in our lives.
So we baptize.

Beethoven, Brahms, the Beatles

The economist Paul Krugman has a blog I love, in which he sometimes writes about stuff other than economics, like, on Fridays, music.  This is what he wrote recently:

“I love Mozart as much as ever; but it would be a sad world if we had to go back to the 18th century — or even the 20th century! — to find music that moves the soul.

The real classical music of my generation — classical in the true sense, meaning that it endures and will continue to be played for a long time — was actually pop/rock/folk. The reality is that the Beatles are at this point as solidly embedded in the Western canon as Beethoven and Brahms — and rightly so.

Now, as the aging baby boomer I am, for a long time I thought that the great age of modern music ended some time in the 70s. My big discovery — which, I’m embarrassed to say, came after Arcade Fire won their Grammy and I decided to give them a listen — is that the wonder goes on.

And don’t let the trappings of pop performance fool you: many of these musicians are deeply sophisticated. Some commenters mentioned the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who brought lieder to a wide audience (and my mother was a Fischer-Dieskau fanatic!); listen to Feist for a while, and you’ll realize that what she’s writing are art songs, in some sense very much in the same tradition.”

My father is an opera singer, and a huge Fischer-Dieskau art song fan, and he would probably not agree.  But I think Krugman’s dead right. 

When Rudyard Kipling wrote “Recessional,” that poem, by that poet, was considered so significant that the Times of London published it on their front page.  Poetry mattered.  And poet friends of mine sometimes go off on the decline of poetry, how Kids These Days don’t read poetry, how no poets since Robert Frost (or Phillip Larkin or Alan Ginsberg) are embedded in the national consciousness, how, at the Presidential inauguration, when the poet-laureate reads the official inaugural poem, the audience takes it as their exit cue. (Could it be that the inaugural poem sucked?). I think the modern generation, the Kids These Days, are immersed in poetry, inundated by it, I think kids know more poetry than any kids ever in the history of the world.  I think the Sturm und Drang kids standing on mountaintops reading Herder or Lenz, or the young romantics, starving themselves to buy a copy of Childe Harold had nothing on Kids These Days.  We just don’t call it poetry–we call it rap. 

So in two hundred years time, it’ll be interesting to see what music gets studied and played and talked about as great and significant and important.  Phillip Glass and John Adams?  Nigel Osborne or Bryan Ferneyhough?  Or Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Michael Stipe of REM? 

I’m not even worried about the Beatles.  They’re already in. 

American Idol

American Idol is a better show than it’s ever been, and the reason is the judges.

My wife and I love American Idol; watch it every week.  We started close to the end of Season One, when Kelly Clarkson came out of nowhere to win, and we’ve seen it all.  I know, I know, there are lots of AI blogs and fansites and commentary, and I know that’s not a popular opinion.  I stick to it, though.  This has been a great season, and the reason is the judges.

When American Idol started, the real star was Simon Cowell.  He was the prototype nasty Brit, proof positive of the notion than anything sounds more profound if spoken in a British accent (see also Hitchins, Christopher).  The early episodes really were about Simon’s gift for invective, as he would routinely (and comically) eviscerate deluded wannabes sent on from the contestants’ pool by a sadistic staff as patsies, dupes, foils.  Then, once the competition began, Simon could be nasty, but he was also pretty insightful.  He was . . . right.  A lot of the time.  Paula would gush, and Randy would offer his few catch-phrases, and then Simon would say something pretty true and often helpful.

So you felt like a misanthropic jerk for watching the early ‘crush the dreams of the untalented’ segments, and then you stayed, because you did have this sense that Simon was good at his job, like you also sense that Gordon Ramsey is a genuinely gifted cook offended by mediocrity. 

Then came Season Eight, and suddenly Simon met his equal.  Adam Lambert dominated that season as never before.  He was brilliantly talented, but also flamboyant, spectacular, theatrical.  He had the best voice that the show had ever seen, and he also knew what he was doing; he turned each song into an event.  Simon had no idea what to do with him. He’d call him ‘music hall,’ (a huge put-down from a Brit); and here’s the thing: Adam knew Simon was putting him down, and didn’t care.  Adam had been doing musical theatre for years; he knew exactly what he was doing, and he fully intended to keep doing it.  We all knew that someone that openly and unapologetically gay had little chance of winning–Middle America would be more comfortable with someone boring and bland and inoffensive, like Kris Allen.  But what Adam knew was that winning didn’t matter.  Surviving is what mattered, using Idol as a personal showcase yet another week.  I mean, check this out: Adam Lambert sings Mad World .  (Simon actually liked that one, BTW).

We know that Simon was going to leave, that he had what Bill Simmons calls ‘the disease of me’, that they would never offer him enough money while poor Paula never got a raise.  When they announced the new judges for Season Ten, it seemed lame.  Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, with Jennifer Lopez and of course, the tired mediocrity of Randy Jackson.  At least they fired Ellen.  (Who I love, but she doesn’t know enough about music to be an Idol judge.)

I was wrong.

People think the main function of the judges is as opinion-shapers. Contestants perform, and the judges speak, and the public’s votes are swayed.  I don’t know how much authority the judges command, but it’s irrelevant; that’s not why the judges are important.

The judges cast the show.

That’s it.  That’s their really vital function.  So it doesn’t matter if J-Lo loves everyone and hardly ever criticizes even a little.  (You can tell J-Lo didn’t like a female contestant when she says ‘you look great in that dress.’)  So what if Steven Tyler’s comments are frequently bizarre: “when you’re in the spotlight, the shadows are all behind you, man.” (My wife and I think Steven Tyler, in that rock star regalia, looks like the scariest old woman in the nursing home.  We’ve taken to calling him ‘dear old Mrs. Tyler, as in “do you think Dear Old Mrs. Tyler knows that in that blouse, you can see her mastectomy scars?”)  So what if Randy has to name drop.  They cast the show.

And that matters.  Simon, for all his talent, had an irretrievably mainstream mentality–he liked top forty pop, and he only cast people with the limited talent range to become pop stars.  He loved Carrie Underwood.  She was the ultimate Idol candidate, I think.  And Carrie’s good, I’m not dissing Carrie. But I don’t think he would have cast Adam, without three other judges to overrule him; I think that was Kara Dioguardi’s contribution to the show. I remember when Kris Allen sang Glen Hansard’s “Falling Slowly.”  Simon chewed him out for singing something ‘so obscure.’  This, in response to the song that had just won the Academy Award. 

This group of judges likes a wider range of music.  Steven Tyler loves rock, obviously, but also blues, jazz, gospel.  This year, the contestants were terrifically diverse and interesting.  Check out this: Elise Testone sings Bold as Love; one of my favorites singing Jimi Hendrix. (She also rocked Zep: Elise Testone rocks Zep.)  Or this: Colton Dixon sings Everything. Or this. Phillip Phillips sings Volcano.  J-Lo is open to any kind of interesting music.  I think even Randy sort of is. 

Their comments after the singers sing aren’t terribly insightful most of the time.  J-Lo says everyone is ‘crazy,’ which she means as a compliment.  Dear Old Mrs. Tyler says everyone is ‘over the top,’ which he also means as a compliment.  But the show also features coaching sessions and comments from Jimmy Iovine, and he’s great.  He’s every bit as insightful as Simon ever was, while also being a kind and decent human being. 

Next week, the choices are Phillip Phillips, who the Idol blogosphere loathes as a Dave Matthews wannabe (so what, Dave Matthews is a terrific musician), or Jessica Sanchez, an insanely talented skinny sixteen year old with more pop tastes, who I like and root for, while still wanted PhilPhil to win.  And if Jessica wins, I’m fine with it.  I like Idol, because I like watching talented young musicians get a shot.  They’ve never been better than this year.