Absolute good

In this scene from Schindler’s list, Ben Kingsley, playing Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s accountant, holds up the list, the names of Jews who Oskar Schindler intends to save from the Holocaust, and he says “the list is absolute good.  The list is life.”  I’ve always loved that scene, because it suggests something remarkable; that we human beings, weak and puny and foolish and selfish as we are, are nonetheless capable of rising above our own pettiness to do something genuinely, unquestionably good.

It doesn’t happen often, of course. Most of us aren’t capable of sustained goodness.  Oskar Schindler certainly wasn’t.  But every once in awhile, we humans rise above ourselves and do good in the world.  And the people who do that, who manage a moment of sustained grace, are people we think of as heroic.  We want to talk about them and their actions.  We want to encourage self-less goodness.

I have a friend, for example, who manages more than occasional goodness.  He and his wife own a dog, a massive Newfoundland, a big shaggy black dog of unsurpassed gentleness and friendliness.  Jet is his name, and he’s a trained therapy dog.  I’ve written about him before.  I’ve seen him work; he goes into a children’s ward in a local hospital, and he cheers up sick kids.  He’s amazing; he’s much bigger than the kids, and yet they sense his good will–they hug him and pet him and let him pull them around in their wheelchairs.  My friend and his wife take Jet out as often as busy work schedules will allow.  Certainly Newfoundlands are perfect dogs for that kind of work, but they require tremendous training and discipline; this didn’t just happen.  Still, therapy animals strike me as absolutely moral, as doing something unequivocally good.

In fact, I’m not sure we realize how much genuine good happens all around us.  Adults who work in the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, ballet teachers and soccer coaches and youth Shakespeare companies.  I have another friend, Lori Sanders, who runs an organization called Center Stage Youth Performers.  I’ve seen her kids in performance.  It’s marvelous to see; they manage to find the perfect balance between fun and discipline.  The kids do great work, learn a lot about themselves and the growth and confidence that can come from performing, but have a great time doing it, too. Is it always an absolute good to work with children?  Not always, of course not.  But often.  Usually.

Politics can be an ugly game, and it’s not always possible to see much good in it, or even the potential for good.  But I’ve been reading a very interesting book about the Presidents’ Club; the informal but sometimes very productive relationships between former Presidents of the United States.  I was reading about the horrendous South Asian tsunami of 2004, perhaps the deadliest in history.  Presidents Clinton and George H. W. Bush (Bush 41) were asked by President Bush (43) to travel to Indonesia to see what they could do.  The two former Presidents–former political opponents, members of different political parties and philosophies–joined forces, raised hundreds of millions of dollars, used their influence to fast-track aid to the worst areas. They have since joined forces repeatedly, raising money for relief efforts in Haiti and New Orleans and elsewhere.  Now they’re working to alleviate poverty in Africa.  I think that’s inspirational, and a great tribute to both men, that they were able to set aside their differences and just . . . help.

But on a much smaller, personal plane, let me tell you about my friends Kirt and Jerry, and their new baby, Oscar.  Kirt Bateman is one of the finest actors I have ever had the privilege to work with.  His husband is Jerry Rapier, the artistic director of Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake.  A year ago in July, Jerry and Kirt were finally able to marry, in New York.  And now, they have a baby.

A young unmarried couple in South Carolina, Emily and Tyson, found themselves pregnant and unable to care for their baby themselves.  They made the incredibly unselfish choice to give their child up, to allow Jerry and Kirt to adopt him.  He was born a few days ago; his name is Oscar.  He’s adorable, with a full head of hair (he actually has more hair than either of his follically challenged Daddies!).  And every day on Facebook, we get Oscar updates.  A few days ago, Jerry posted that he and Kirt have “joined the ranks of people who have long, detailed conversations about poop.”  I had to smile; I remember those days!

And I know what they’re going through.  Babies aren’t always fun; I promise that Oscar will have times when he’s a grouch.  I remember them all. The long, sleepless nights, holding a cranky kid hour after hour, watching the kind of horrible TV that’s actually on at 4 in the morning–the shopping channel, the infomercials, the Spanish-language soaps. Explosive diarrhea takes on an entirely new meaning, as does projectile vomiting.  I promise they will learn that ‘hopping mad’ isn’t just a nifty turn of phrase–that some tantrums really do involve a child so angry he hops up and down.  It won’t be long before they’ll both get to experience that rare and wonderful pain that comes when a sprinting two year old’s head collides unexpectedly with tender parts of your anatomy.

And they’ve already felt that incredible, sudden rush of pure love that comes when you look at your child, this tiny human being for whom you are entirely and personally responsible.  Those beautiful moments when he drifts off to sleep.  That trusting sweetness resting in your arms.

Tyler and Emily chose life.  They could have chosen differently.  But they chose responsibly, lovingly, unselfishly.  And they’ll be part of Oscar’s life as well.  That’s how adoption works nowadays, as something open and honest and celebratory.  But Tyler and Emily chose Jerry and Kirt, just as Jerry and Kirt chose lifelong commitment, just they chose each other. And I can’t wait to see them all, this whole wonderful family, bound by the same love that my wife and I share.  The same.

Love is an absolute good.  Families are good, marriage is good, children are good, all good.  So think of Ben Kingsley, as Itzhak Stern, pointing to little Oscar in his daddies’ arms, and saying to us all: this, this is absolute good.  This, this is life.

RIP: Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller died yesterday, at the age of ninety-five.  Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe wrote a great obituary, arguing for Miller’s inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  SI on-line, in their Truth and Rumors column, also discussed free agent pitcher Zack Greinke, who is in demand from a number of teams despite asking for a contract paying something in the neighborhood of 150 million dollars, 25 million a year for 6 years. And on the news this morning, I saw protests outside Walmarts. These three stories are not unrelated.

The three most significant men in baseball history are, in my opinion, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller.  This is not a controversial opinion; in fact the old Dodgers’ announcer Red Barber was the first to suggest it. In 1919, baseball was nearly destroyed by the Black Sox scandal, when eight members of the World Series losing team, the Chicago White Sox, were discovered to have thrown the series–played badly on purpose, paid off by gamblers.  The game’s popularity dropped–attendance collapsed.  That same year, Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees.  Ruth transformed the game, changed it from a game where a good team might hit 35 home runs in a season, to a game where one player might hit 50.  Ruth’s charisma, his energy, his inspiring (if largely fictitious) personal narrative–poor kid from an orphanage makes it big, devotes his time to impoverished and ailing children–his oversized personality and appetites made him America’s greatest celebrity.  The biggest name in the biggest media center.  It saved the game–even a rotten team like the old St. Louis Browns would budget around the 8 home games a season where Ruth’s Yankees would sell out their stadium. As for Jackie Robinson, breaking the color barrier allowed baseball, however gingerly, to begin to move beyond racism, just as the country was poised to start to do the same. A color-blind America remains a work in progress, but Jackie’s courage remains at the heart of one of our greatest inspirational and aspirational narratives.

Marvin Miller’s role remains more equivocal.  He never played the game; he was a labor economist.  He was elected executive director of the Major League Baseball Player Association in 1966, and in his sixteen years at its helm, made it the most successful labor union in the country. Which brings me to Zack Greinke.

Greinke is a very good young pitcher.  He’s now a free agent–before Miller, baseball players were not accorded the right to free agency.  Any team that wants to sign him can do so, and several teams are rich enough to bid for his services.  The price will start at 25 million a year, and will likely go up from there.  If he wants to play, and live and raise his children, in New York, or Boston, or Philadelphia, or Chicago or Los Angeles or Arlington Texas (the most likely suitors), he will have the opportunity to do so.

Should a professional baseball player, a young man in his mid twenties, make that kind of money?  Shouldn’t our country value school teachers or firefighters or military personnel or librarians or playwrights more than we value athletes?  Doesn’t it suggest misplaced priorities, that Zack Greinke be compensated so well?  Shouldn’t we, as a nation, pay teachers more, and pay right handed starting pitchers less?

Well, what about small businessmen?  What if Greinke had devoted his energies and imagination to something other than baseball?  What if he’d invented a new cell phone app, or developed the code for a really nifty video game? Mark Zuckerberg was younger than Greinke when he developed Facebook–do we resent Zuckerberg’s remarkable youthful success?

And it’s helpful to remember what the world of professional baseball was like before Marvin Miller was named director of the MLBPA.  When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards.  You may not get the allure, but for a ten year old kid, there was incredible magic in a small cardboard card with a list of numbers on the back and a picture of Ted Kubiak on the front.  Or best of all, Oscar Gamble. And on the back of each card, in addition to player stats, they included some humanizing detail.  Usually it was their off-season job.  Generations of fans knew Richie Hebner not as a power-hitting third baseman, but as a guy who worked as a grave digger when he wasn’t playing ball. Couldn’t make ends meet otherwise.

One of my favorite baseball books ever is Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.  His salary negotiations, and his frustration and anger over asking for pay raises from employers who held all the cards and who had no interest in dealing fairly with him was one of the main themes of the book.  As fans, we thought our ballplaying heroes were as rich as they were talented, but it simply wasn’t true; a guy like Bouton, who blew his arm out as a youngster, kept pitching through terrible pain because he needed the money. I remember superstar players were part of the ‘$100,000 club,’ a salary stratosphere reached only by a Willie Mays or a Mickie Mantle.  Guys who now have to make a living signing baseballs at fan events.

Bouton also described how unified team owners were against Marvin Miller’s election.  Miller was called ‘a communist.’  Players were pressured to vote against him.  Told he, Miller, would destroy baseball–would destroy their livelihood.  And Marvin Miller’s election was pretty close to unanimous. The players knew.  They knew that baseball’s reserve clause left them in something darn close to indentured servitude.  Well-compensated servitude, for some, perhaps, but servitude nonetheless.  Baseball players could also be traded without having any say in it.  Just told, that new house you just bought in LA?  Guess what, you’ve been traded to Atlanta.  Good luck with the move.  It was tough on marriages, tough on families.  Bobo Newsome, a pretty good old pitcher, was traded sixteen times in his fabled career. Sixteen times, forced to move from a city where he’d begun to set down roots, to a place where he knew no-one.

So what did Marvin Miller do, as head of the union?  He listened, mostly.  He met with players, and heard their stories. He answered their questions, asked a few of his own.  He empowered the players.  The strikes of ’72, ’80, ’81 (and the subsequent bruising work stoppage of ’94-95, after Miller’s tenure had ended) were not his idea–they were player initiated and player driven.  Marvin Miller helped them realize just how strong they really were, just how much power they actually had.  Free agency followed, salary arbitration, and, of course, much improved pay.

Baseball players–and other professional athletes, who formed their own unions after seeing what Miller was doing for baseball– are small businessmen; for each player, his talent is the commodity he offers for sale. What is a baseball player worth?  Well, whatever the market says he’s worth.  The baseball union isn’t communism, as so many owners, baffled to see their powers diminish, were fond of calling it.  It’s capitalism in action, and it’s altogether a good thing.  Do some professional athletes squander their money?  Sure.  It’s a free society, and the ability to hit a baseball does not automatically equate to a talent for money management.  Capitalism can get messy.  Aren’t we constantly reassured by the Right that messiness and inequality are to be expected?

Now Walmart is facing employee discontent, because Walmart pays poorly. So what do we make of Costco, Walmart’s biggest competitor.  Costco pays $17 dollars an hour.  Costco’s CEO makes $350,000 a year.  And Costco has the lowest employee turnover rate, and the lowest losses to employee theft, in all of retailing.

The greatest period of economic growth in our nation’s history came just after WWII; the Truman/Eisenhower/Kennedy years.  Those years were characterized by a very high marginal tax rate (the highest tax rate was 91%) and very strong unions.  And yes, perhaps a post-war period of economic expansion was inevitable, but that was a  post-war time; Europe was shattered, Asia weakened, which meant the US had fewer competitors than now, but also very few customers internationally.

Marvin Miller was a unique figure among labor leaders, heading a group of uniquely talented athletes who were almost preposterously underpaid.  But today, baseball player salaries are huge.  A star often makes hundreds of millions of dollars over his career–heck, a utility infielder can retire a multi-millionaire.  And baseball isn’t the most popular US sport–it’s at best third most popular, after the NFL and the NBA.  So those high salaries, union driven, are destroying the game, right?  Not in the least.  Major league baseball has, as a corporate entity, never been more profitable.  The Dodgers were just sold to a group of investors: purchase price, from Magic Johnson’s ownership group?  Two billion dollars plus.

It goes further.  Right now, in the off-season, baseball fans are glued to their favorite fan websites: who are we going to sign?  What will that portend? Talented young athletes, capable of careers in either baseball or football or basketball are increasingly choosing baseball–longer careers, better pay prospects.  Prosperous ballplayers are bringing their money home, revitalizing impoverished neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic and Mexico and Venezuela.

Baseball’s current prosperity is because of, not in spite of, its strong union. I suggest the same will become true of our overall economy.  We need more Costcos, fewer Walmarts.  There are still lessons we can learn from Marvin Miller.

 

Comparing two Lincolns

So finally, thanks to our Netflix flying elf friends, my own personal rented copy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter dropped down the chimney, bounced in the fireplace, and landed in my DVD player.  And I got to see the second of two Lincoln movies, made the same year, within a week of each other.  Frabjous day indeed.

So, future generations, what do we make of this Vampire Hunter film?  Especially since my wife gave it five minutes and said “you’re on your own for this one, pal.”  Let me put it this way: if Timur Bekmambetov, vampire obsessed Kazahk director of Night Watch and Day Watch had decided simply to make a fun action/fantasy/horror film about, say, young Linc Abrams, set in the American frontier, ca. 1835-1865, it might have been sort of barely watchable.  Maybe even kinda fun.  He might even have enlisted a talented hipster like, say, Seth Grahame-Smith to come with the screenplay.  That’s actually the best way to watch the thing; pretend it’s not about Lincoln.  It wouldn’t be all that hard; just excise maybe five minutes of politicking and speechifying and cut all the White House exteriors, and you’ve got a fairly nifty vampire slayer flick, and not the entirely horrendously appallingly gruesomely bad insult to an American hero pile of horsepoo he ended up with.  It’s not like the Lincoln stuff is integral to the plot, or that the film gives even the tiniest nod to, you know, that boring history stuff.  This is, after all a film with nineteenth century dialogue that includes phrases like “I’d be okay with that,” and “let’s get this done.”  Alas, the film isn’t about young Linc Abrams.  It’s about that other guy, the sixteenth President guy.

So thanks, Hollywood, for what has unmistakably become the Year of Lincoln.  Abe-o-phile that I am, I thought I would compare the two films in what strike me as the most salient categories.  In the following paragraphs, SL stands for Spielberg Lincoln, and LVS stands for Lincoln Vampire Slayer.

Lincoln. SL: Daniel Day-Lewis creates the most indelible Lincoln ever captured on film, a ravaged Lincoln, a conniving Lincoln, a duplicitous Lincoln, a superb strategist Lincoln, a visionary Lincoln.  LVS:  Benjamin Walker is not half-bad, all things considered.

Mary Todd Lincoln. SL: Sally Field gives the most stunning performance of her career, capturing a Mary Todd barely clinging to mental health, though also at times a shrewd and capable political tactician.  LVS: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is quite a lovely and no doubt capable actress, playing a proto-feminist Mary who realizes her true calling in life when she coolly removes a silver brooch, shoves it down a gun barrel, and shoots a vampire in the head with it.

Bad guy/villainsSL: I suppose the villain would be Lee Pace, as Fernando Wood, a brilliant, ethical, and patriotic Congressman who nonetheless opposes the Thirteenth Amendment out of misguided but deeply held convictions.  LVS: Rufus Sewell, as Adam, a Southern aristocratic vampire with a British accent, who likes drinking the blood of black people, notwithstanding the financial loss he incurs with every slaughtered slave. (Economics is not this film’s strong suit, nor subtlety.)

Joshua SpeedLVS: Lincoln’s old law partner, played by Jimmi Simpson, is a central character, both in Lincoln’s early days in Springfield, and as chief of staff in his Presidential administration.  SL. He’s not in the film, because historically, Joshua Speed had no role in the Lincoln administration.

Kick-ass Black Sidekick characterSL: Gloria Reuben is deeply moving in the quiet role of Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s devoted personal servant, especially in quick cutaway reaction shots whenever viciously racist comments become part of the political debate at the heart of the film.  LVS: Anthony Mackie plays Will Johnson, Lincoln’s lifelong free black friend, who eventually becomes his right-hand vampire slayer, especially in the film’s climactic fight scene on top of a moving train.

Gettysburg: LVS: The film apparently labors under the misapprehension that the first day of Gettysburg was a disaster because the North was facing vampires and not human Confederate soldiers.  The day is won, however, when Lincoln is able to melt down the White House silverware in time to cast silver bullets and get them to Pennsylvania overnight, so soldiers will have appropriate ammo for vampires. I mean, duh.  SL: The film is set well after the battle took place.  A snippet of the Gettysburg address is recited at the beginning of the film by two young soldiers trying to impress their commander-in-chief, before the final stirring sentences are recited by a young black soldier who has committed them to memory. A comical scene becomes powerfully emotional.

Conflicted second leadSL: Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant as Thaddeus Stevens, the fire-breathing abolitionist who Lincoln has to persuade to temper his zeal, to not drive away moderates in the House whose votes are essential to passing the amendment.  LVH: Dominic Cooper, as Henry Sturges, who trains the young Lincoln in how to kill vampires despite being, turns out, one himself.  Cooper does a nice job making a preposterous character sort of believable.

Facial Hair.  SL. The nineteenth century was a time of amazing facial hair, and Spielberg uses it to full advantage, distinguishing the dozens of Congressmen visually by featuring their astounding varieties of face fuzz.  LVH. Basically all the characters are disappointingly clean-shaven, except the older Lincoln and, like, Jefferson Davis for his two-and-a-half seconds on-screen.  

Crass foolishness and patent script idiocySL: Couldn’t think of any.  LVH: Too numerous to count.

Conclusion:  Gosh, hard to say.  Maybe the Spielberg Lincoln is just a tiny bit better film.  A little better.  Just a smidge.

 

The fiscal cliff

On the Sunday talk shows yesterday, one particularly juicy tidbit was the news that President Obama had invited Congressional leaders from both parties to the White House for a screening of Lincoln.  I assume that means the new Spielberg film, and not the one where Honest Abe goes around killing vampires.  The idea, I think, is to inspire folks to make a political deal.  Bit of a shame that; there’s a vampire out there that definitely needs a stake in his heart.

A lot of these negotiations have to do with the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire in January. We’re essentially talking about two bills, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, or EGTRRA, and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, or JGTRRA.  I love those names: Egtrra (you’d want to trill the r) and Jagtrra.  Clearly, the ruling generals of the alien invasion forces.  Anyway, they were supposed to expire in 2010, but were extended by two years as part of budget negotiations. Now, they’re set to expire again, and that expiration is part of the current negotiations. Basically both bills cut taxes, for rich guys mostly (since they pay most taxes), but also for the middle class.  They reduced the top marginal tax rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent. President Obama wants to keep the tax cuts for the middle class, and raise taxes on rich guys.  He ran on that; mentioned it in all the debates.  And President Obama won.  Which, I suspect, he mentioned a time or two, when the movie was over.

I am on record as saying that, in my opinion, the Bush tax cuts were a bad idea.  I’ve since changed my view; I now regard EGTRRA and JGTRRA as together comprising the single most foolish and misguided policy of my lifetime. President Bush inherited a budget surplus. He also inherited a mild recession.  His response was to cut taxes, this was supposed to stimulate the economy. Macro-econ 101: tax cuts for rich guys can have a mild stimulative effect in times of high inflation, when the biggest problem is a lack of investment capital.  That wasn’t the case in 2001, or in 2003, and it certainly isn’t true now.  Tax cuts now, under the economic conditions we now see, accomplish nothing except increase the national debt.  Which, I suggest, would not be a particularly good idea.

That’s why we have this huge debt problem; it started with the Bush tax cuts.  Plus a massive Medicare expansion, unpaid for.  Plus two big wars, again unfunded.  Plus, finally, an international financial crisis, which came darn close to destroying our economy, along with Europe’s.  I know, I know, conservatives like to say it was ‘out of control spending’ by that noted profligate, Barry Obama.  The facts, inconveniently, do not support that view.

And this is where we run into ideology.  Conservatives didn’t used to believe in supply-side economics.  President George H. W. Bush (41) called it, famously, “voodoo economics.”  It has since become Republican orthodoxy, the notion that cutting taxes increases federal revenue because of their stimulative power.  Paul Krugman calls it a ‘zombie’ idea; an idea that, no matter how many holes you shoot in it, just keeps shambling forward.  Eating our brains.  And Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, has this pledge he tries to get Congresspeople to sign saying that they will never, no matter what, vote to raise taxes.  And he’s promised electoral retribution on anyone violating that pledge.  And he can generate enough post cards and emails through his organization to make that threat credible.  Which is why Grover Norquist needs a stake through the heart.

It all hangs together.  Conservatives believe that government has gotten too big. They want a ‘smaller’ government.  If you lower taxes, and cut spending, then ipso facto, government gets smaller.  Conservatives also consider taxes dangerous.  High taxes impede economic growth.  High marginal tax rates affect job creators, de-incentivizing investment and entrepreneurship.  In the current negotiations, Republicans consider deficit reduction the highest possible priority, and they want to achieve it through ‘entitlement reform’ and through cuts in domestic spending.  They see the current fiscal cliff ‘emergency’ as an opportunity, a way to achieve their overall smaller government goals.  And they see this as a chance to overcome the enervating unanticipated consequences of the welfare state–welfare dependency, poor people living on the dole, the 47% who pay no federal income tax.  Moochers.

From a conservative point of view, then, liberals want the opposite of everything in the last paragraph.  Conservatives want smaller government; liberals therefore want large government.  Conservatives want entrepreneurship; liberals therefore are anti-small business.  Conservatives want lower taxes, so obviously liberals must like higher taxes.  And liberals see a political upside in giving poor people free stuff.  Liberals, in fact, want poor people to be dependent on government.

But none of that is true.  Liberals and conservatives are actually talking at cross purposes; we don’t even use the same vocabulary. Conservatives are certainly in favor of smaller government.  But liberals don’t want larger government.  Liberals are in fact entirely indifferent to the size of government. If it gets bigger, fine, if it gets smaller, fine.  We don’t care.  We want government to do the functions only government can do.  We want those functions done efficiently and effectively.  That’s really all we care about.

Liberals, in fact, rather like government reform efforts.  I was just reading about Harry Truman’s administration, and his efforts to reform the executive branch.  He formed a non-partisan commission to study ways to make government more efficient, and asked Herbert Hoover to chair it.  Out of that commission came such really good ideas as the formation of the General Accounting Office, the Council of Economic Advisors, the National Security Council, the CIA.  I think that’s one of the great Truman legacies, and one that’s not usually mentioned. Liberals love stuff like that.  Remember VP Al Gore’s Re-Inventing Government Initiative?  We adored that.  We’re generally pro-government, which means, we don’t like government waste and inefficiency.  We want government to succeed.

Fact is, we don’t like the welfare state because we want people to be dependent on government.  We like the metaphor of the safety net.  We love it when people go on food stamps for four months, to see ‘em through an emergency, and then go get a good job. Which is basically the common profile of most food stamp recipients.

We also don’t see taxes as punitive, as harmful, as holding back the economy.  We’re mostly all Keynesians; we think government spending promotes economic growth. We believe this, because it does. We love that Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, about how he liked paying taxes, because “taxes are the price we pay for a free society.”   We tend to look back to the Eisenhower years, the phenomenal growth of the economy coexisting with powerful unions, and a very high marginal tax rate.  ‘No one groused about their taxes back then,’ we say.  I’ve heard some variations of this idea many times in liberal circles, ‘What we need today is more patriotic millionaires.’  But we do have some: the Warren Buffets and Bill Gateses, who agree that it’s preposterous that their secretaries pay a higher tax rate than they do.

So yeah, I want Obama to get what he wants out of these negotiations, above all, a return to Clinton-era tax policy.  I think it’s time for Grover Norquist’s malign influence to subside.  I think, for the good of the country, Norquist needs to lose this fight.

Entitlement reform?  I can fix Medicare right now.  Right now, the federal income tax is progressive, payroll taxes are regressive.  That is, rich folks pay more income tax, poor folks are hurt more by payroll taxes.  The maximum amount of income subject to FICA is $110, 000.  Raise it to $300,000, and Medicare is saved.  Or–and I prefer this solution–make investment income subject to FICA.  Conservatives like to talk about the 47% who pay no federal income tax.  Let’s change the subject; we should respond by decrying the lucky ducks who pay no payroll taxes, because all their income is in investments.

Good luck getting any of that through the House of Representatives, though.

So what happens if a deal gets made, it includes tax increases, and Republicans in the House won’t approve it?  That would seem to be about where we are, right?  What happens if we just don’t pass anything?

Well, the sequester kicks in–that was the deal Obama and Congress worked out before the election.  That means massive defense cuts–I’m fine with that, though I think it might be traumatic if they happened too suddenly.  It means massive cuts in discretionary domestic spending, which I’m opposed to; it might restart the recession and fray the safety net beyond repair.  And it means the end of the Bush tax cuts, which I’m completely in favor of.

Not good, in other words, but not the end of the world. I’m a liberal Democrat; I want to see the Bush tax cuts expire, and I want to cut military spending.  Republicans want the complete opposite.  I just have to think there’s a deal that can be made somehow.  But it’s hard to see what it might look like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life of Pi: A review

One of the great pleasures of parenting is reading great books to your children.  For each of my kids, I read Watership Down when they turned eight. Read all the Harry Potter books aloud. The last book I read to all my kids was Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi.  They were at the age where coordinating schedules so we could read together was difficult, but my gosh, what a glorious novel, what a wonderful read.

When you love a book, you approach the movie with some trepidation.  You think: “Please don’t screw this up.”  But Ang Lee’s Life of Pi movie is magnificent, glorious to look at, and as thought provoking as the novel.  Of course, to compress a novel down to a two hour movie requires leaving some things out; I missed Pi’s white blindness and his long conversations with the blind man from another boat.  But the essence of the novel–the unreliable narrator, the meditations on faith, the boat, the sea, the predator/island, the tiger–it’s all there.  When I imagine pressure from the studio to, say, have Pi played by a white kid (“you know, this could be the Justin Bieber vehicle we’ve been waiting for!”) I’m all the more grateful a director of the prestige and calibre and brilliance of Ang Lee took it on.

The story: Pi is Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a swimming pool in Paris, renamed, by himself, Pi, after being teased in school. An inquisitive and curious young man, devoted to God, fascinated by the religious guises in which He appears, Pi is raised Hindu, and converted to both Christianity and Islam as a young teen.  He’s a devout member of all three faiths, untroubled by doctrinal divisions.  His father loves science, and Pi doesn’t exclude reason from his meditations.  His father also owns and runs a zoo, in the Indian town of Pondicherry where the family lives, and Pi loves the animals there.

An economic downturn, however, forces the family to sell the zoo and move to Canada.  En route with their animals, a great storm sinks their ship.  Pi is flung aboard a lifeboat, with four companions: a wounded zebra, an elderly female orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  And so Pi is stranded in the Pacific with four uncongenial companions.

The hyena makes short work of the zebra, and after a quick battle, also kills the orangutan.  Then Richard Parker disposes of the hyena.  Pi realizes he’s next on the tiger’s menu, and escapes to a raft he builds of oars and life jackets.  But tigers are strong swimmers; Pi is not safe.  He knows enough about zoo animals to train a tiger, to condition it.  He can toss the boat, causing sea sickness; can catch fish and keep the tiger fed.  Use a freshwater still to keep it hydrated.  And in time, Pi and Richard Parker learn to co-exist.  They find an island, a strange floating Pacific island, a predatory tangle of seaweed and odd trees, populated by meerkats, safe by day, lethal at night, with freshwater pools that become acidic when the sun goes down.  They escape the island too, and finally land ashore in Mexico, Pi collapsing on the beach, watching while  Richard Parker, without turning back, disappears into the jungle, in his element again at last.

Pi is played by two child actors for the younger scenes, and by Irrfan Khan as an adult, but Suraj Sharma, making his acting debut, plays the main Pi we see though most of the movie.  He’s wonderful, capturing Pi’s religiosity and inventive intelligence with equal success. The tiger is a CSI/Animatronics creation.  But the star of the film is the ocean itself, the luminous leaping whale, the underwater fish, the distant horizons and terrifying storms.

The film uses the same framing device as the novel did, as Pi, now middle-aged, tells his story to a writer; the conceit is that it’s Yann Martel. In the earliest interview scenes, Pi tells the writer (Rafe Spall), he will tell a tale that will “make you believe in God.” And in a conventional sense, it’s a movie about a devout kid in desperate straits who prays for deliverance and is, at the end, delivered.  But of course, it’s a much stranger novel than that and correspondingly, a much stranger movie.

The unreliable narrator.  Meta-fiction: the fictional narrative that knows itself to be fiction, that calls into question its own reality and authenticity and authority.  Those tools are used almost theologically by Martel, and also of course by Ang Lee.

Because after Pi is rescued, he’s questioned by representatives of the Japanese shipping company whose ship sank.  They want to know if Pi can tell them what went wrong; Pi, who was just a passenger, can’t tell them.  But Pi tells them the entire story; the tiger, the floating island and all the rest of it.  And of course they don’t believe him.  It’s incredible to them, it’s therefore not credible to them.  And they ask if there’s a way to tell the story without, well, it including frankly impossible elements.

And Pi retells it, provides a counter-narrative, a subtly different tale.  The life boat originally had four human passengers.  A cook, Pi’s Mom, a badly injured seaman, and Pi.  The cook killed the seaman, cut him into fishing bait, even ate some of his flesh.  Pi’s Mom protested, and finally, the cook killed her too.  And so Pi killed the cook.  And the Japanese engineers get it.  The cook is the hyena, the seaman the zebra, Pi’s Mom, the orangutan.  And Pi is Richard Parker.  The animals are projections of Pi’s imagination.  The island’s a mirage, a fantasy.  Richard Parker is Pi as predator, Pi as survivor.  There never was a real tiger. The Japanese engineers have a story to suit them.

And then the middle-aged Pi looks at the writer and he asks, “so, which is the better story?  The one with the tiger, or the one with no tiger?”  And the writer admits that the story with the tiger is better.  And we catch a glimpse of the report the Japanese engineers wrote, and it seems that they liked the story with the tiger too, enough to put it in their report.

So what really happened?  What’s the truth of things?  Well, which is the better story?  Did Vishnu’s Mom, examining Vishnu after he, as a child, ate some dirt, did she look into his mouth and see the entire universe?  Did Mohammed ride the steed Buraq through the night sky to Jerusalem, to lead all the other prophets in prayer, and then ascend to heaven, to speak to Allah Himself?  Did God the Father send His son to suffer and die for unworthy mankind? Or, for me, speaking as a Mormon, did an angel visit a New York farm boy and show him plates of gold? What really happened?  Can we ever know?  Or does contemplating those stories, those narratives, lead us to faith?  And isn’t faith greater than, whatever, knowledge, truth, what really happened?

We tell stories about our faith and those stories are preposterous.  Really, they are; every religion is built on myths that can sound, to outsiders, ridiculous.  As preposterous as a floating deadly island, populated by meerkats, in the Pacific ocean.  As preposterous as a kid surviving months alone on a life boat with a tiger.  But is there a sense in which stories can be good, can be existentially ‘better’ because they lead us in the direction of faith?

What really happened? Well, what really happened is that Ang Lee made a movie based on a novel. What really happened is that an Indian kid pretended to be on a boat, in the ocean, with a CGI tiger.  The real question, though, isn’t what happened.  It’s that we hear two stories, a logical one and a magical one, and are asked which one is better?  Throughout the movie, Pi insists that he only survived his ordeal because of Richard Parker, that caring for the tiger saved him too.  So isn’t the better story the one that saves us?

Another step: Doesn’t Pi itself combine faith and reason; isn’t Pi–the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter–basically infinity, a number that will never resolve?  Isn’t a circle a symbol of eternity?  Doesn’t thinking about Pi, about that mathematical constant, a way into understanding the mind of God, eternity itself?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright. . . . And we all know that great Blake poem.  But even Blake thought Tigers were necessary.

“When the stars threw down their spears,

and water’d heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb, make thee?”

I don’t know.  But the film got to me, affected me.  It’s a profound and important and gorgeously lovely movie, a film to contemplate, a film to think about.  A film that tells the better story.

Miles Vorkosigan: A Review

So she said to me, “I’m going to let you read these books. And you have to read two full books before you even get to the fun ones.  And then you have to read at least two of the fun ones before you’re allowed to make a judgment about them.  You need to know that I love these books. Love them. They’re really important to me. If you don’t like them, and especially if you say snarky things about them, our marriage is over. So, no pressure, but here they are.”

Turns out, I like ‘em as much as she does. Whew.

Lois McMaster Bujold: author of the Vorkorsigan saga.  Four time Hugo award winner.  Sci-fi, in other words, a whole series of books,  six of which I’ve now read, mostly in a huge, skip-meals-don’t-shave-please-don’t-bother-me-can’t-you-see-I’m-reading kind of rush.

There are currently four ways in science fiction to solve the intractable problem of inter-planetary travel: Worm holes, Warp drive or hyperspace travel, Cryogenic sleep, or Something Else.  None of which mankind can currently do. Anyway, Bujold’s solution is worm holes, but she uses them ingeniously.  If the only way to travel between planetary systems is via worm holes, then that kind of travel would have political and military implications.  To blockade a planet, blockade the wormholes that enable access to that planet.  And see how the politics play out.

So it’s the future, and mankind has spread out from earth to a number of other planets and planetary systems, each with its own distinctive culture and area of expertise.  Beta, for example, is the center for engineering, science, invention, exploration–as the series begins, a survey ship, under the command of Cordelia Naismith, is exploring a new world.  And she and her team are attacked by Barrayarans.  Barrayar is quite the military planet, with an entrenched military aristocracy called the Vor.  The commander of the Barrayaran ship, Lord Aral Vorkosigan, has been the victim of mutiny, leaving him trapped on the same planet as Cordelia.  And as they fight together for survival in a hostile environment, Cordelia and Aral also fall in love.

Eventually, Aral wins his ship back, and Cordelia makes it back to her ship, which is promptly captured.  After numerous vicissitudes (including Cordelia nearly being raped by the creepazoid Crown Prince of Barrayar), a Barrayaran invasion of another planet (which Aral had opposed politically), is defeated, and the Crown Prince dies; Aral takes command of the fleet’s retreat, and returns home a national hero, sort of.  Cordelia returns to Beta, where’s she’s unfairly viewed as a traitor.  So she books it to Barrayar, marries Aral, and tries to sort out how to accommodate herself to the (quite fascinating), Barrayaran culture, so foreign to her own.  The Emperor of Barrayar dies; his heir is his grandson, who is four years old.  And Aral Vorkorsigan is named Regent to this very young Emperor.  And a conservative faction, outraged by (among other things), that someone that high up is married to a furriner, tries to assassinate him.  Both Aral and Cordelia survive, but the child she’s carrying is poisoned in utero.  On Barrayar, a damaged fetus is an aborted fetus, but she’s no Barrayaran; she fights like a tigress for the life of her son. And succeeds in carrying him to term.  And that’s the first two books of the series.

And Miles Vorkorsigan is born.  The rest of the series–thirteen books in all, only four of which I’ve read–is about Miles.  And Miles Naismith Vorkorsigan is the most fascinating, interesting, dimensional, completely compelling character I’ve ever read in any series of novels ever.  Ever.

Miles is . . . heck, I don’t know what word to use.  Handicapped? Damaged?  Crippled?  Okay, he’s very short, less than five feet tall, though in a culture that worships physical prowess.  His bones are brittle, and break easily.  His neck is short, and his head is large.  But he’s pretty fit; he’s sneaky clever as a fighter.  And he’s completely brilliant and charismatic, basically able to talk anyone into anything.  He’s a military officer in the Barrayaran armed forces, though his interest in obeying orders is minimal.  Above all, he’s an astonishing improviser: his personal motto would seem to be “I’ll think of something.”

For example: he goes on a visit to Beta (his mother’s problems with her home planet having subsided).  While there, he happens upon a situation–an old, still functional merchant ship, scheduled for demolition, with a drunken captain who won’t get off.  Miles buys the ship, using land he owns on Barrayar (remember, he’s part of the Barrayar aristocracy, and has land inherited from his grandfather) as collateral. He finds a cargo, which he contracts to deliver, to a planet besieged by an invading neighbor.  Off he goes, with a crew consisting of his bodyguard, a disgraced Barrayaran engineering officer, and the drunken pilot. He meets with various enemy vessels, which he somehow manages to conquer–often without shots being fired. By the time he’s finished, he’s captured several mercenary ships, and is admiral of a navy of 6000 mercenary fighters and their vessels.  Just through charm, persuasion, and an intuitive grasp of tactics.  And here’s the thing; I bought it all.  It’s completely plausible, absolutely convincing.  The characters are so well-written, you believe even sort of preposterous plot twists.  And you can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next.

A lot of the fun has to do with the various planets and planetary systems we encounter through Miles.  Like Cetaganda, a planet devoted to genetic experimentation, with a complex, three tiered caste system, all convincingly real and superbly rendered.  Or Jackson’s Whole, a very wealthy planet where really rich and disgusting folk can clone themselves, then transplant their brain into the skulls of their clones.  In fact, Bujold’s powers of invention are part of what keep you going; there have been fascinating hints of the idiosyncrasies of other worlds, which I assume I’ll get to know better as I read more of the books. Which–hint–I’m hoping we get for Christmas.

They’d make great movies.  And I know who I want to play Miles. (This was actually my wife’s suggestion, but she’s right).  My old friend Kevin Rahm (you know him from Judging Amy, Desperate Housewives, Mad Men) has the charisma, the intelligence, and the acting chops.  He’s too tall, but hey, CGI.  Miles Vorkosigan is the most remarkable character I know of in science fiction.  And loving the books in which he appears has (apparently) saved my marriage.  Can’t ask for more than that.

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, declared one by President Lincoln, in the middle of the bloodshed and slaughter of the Civil War. It celebrates a three day feast in 1621, when 53 English Separatists and 90 Native Americans, including and most especially their chief, Massasoit, and the translator and diplomat for both groups, Squanto, gathered together and enjoyed ‘wildfowl’, including possibly turkeys, and venison and squash and eels and Indian corn.  This Jennie Brownscombe painting captures the way we’ve mythologized the event, though it gets every detail wrong.  In fact there’s no suggestion that that first ‘Thanksgiving’ feast was a religious observance, so all the praying is wrong.  It may not have even been considered by them a feast of ‘Thanksgiving’ at all. And the Wampanoag people in attendance did not wear headdresses. And so on. But something happened sort of like it, and that’s enough. The feast is mentioned rather briefly in two journals, and Separatists had a long tradition of ‘days of Thanksgiving,’ those are the raw materials out of which we’ve built a holiday, best celebrated by grade school kids, in full regalia, reciting dialogue on the level of “I’m a Turkey: kill me.”

When we think of Thanksgiving, we ethnocentrize it; we construct it in terms of ‘generous white folks’ sharing their bounty with unfortunate native peoples. Not so much anymore, perhaps, but that was the Thanksgiving we learned about in school; it was so good of us white folks to share.  What we leave out is the plague.  What we leave out is my favorite detail of the entire Plymouth rock narrative: the Mayflower seeing this one Indian on the shore, bringing him aboard, and listening, shocked, when he asked them, in perfectly idiomatic English, for a beer.

We don’t necessarily leave out Tisquantum, or, in  Puritan mispronunciation, Squanto. But he’s not central to how we tell the First Thanksgiving story, and he should be; he should be front and center, the most important person in whatever picture we choose to draw, of the Pilgrims and Plymouth colony and that three day harvest feast.  Plymouth would almost certainly have starved without him.

In fact, I’ve never understood why Squanto’s story hasn’t been made into a movie.  He was Patuxet, his tribe part of a remarkable political confederacy created by, and co-existing peaceably with, the Wampanoag.  He was a young married man, with a family, when he was captured by an English merchant ship under the command of a Captain Thomas Hunt, who had been a lieutenant to John Smith, of Pocahontas fame. Hunt was a slaver, and sold Squanto, and the other Indians with him, into slavery to Spain.  He was then purchased by, and freed by Spanish monks, who tried to convert him to Christianity.

Squanto must have had a gift for languages: he learned enough Spanish, at any rate, to finally persuade the monks to let him try to get home, and he made it as far as London, where he worked for a shipbuilder named John Slany, who taught him English. But Squanto still was desperate to get home.  He hired on with one merchant ship bound for America, but wasn’t allowed to get off the ship and make it home, and returned to England.  He then found his way to another merchant ship, this one captained by none other than John Smith himself, which dropped him off in Newfoundland, from where he then made his way south to his home. (Smith’s ship was eventually captured by pirates, from whom he managed to escape back to England to write his memoirs).

So Squanto arrived home, after so long an absence and so many misadventures: home.  Only to discover that his entire tribe, including his family and all his friends were dead.  Killed by plague: now thought to be leptospirosis, a disease to which Europeans were immune. At that point, the Pilgrims show up, and Squanto agrees to help them.  Native peoples caught a local fish, menhaden, which they used to fertilize their fields; they survived winter by fishing and by snaring eel.  That’s how the Plymouth colony survived their first year; without Squanto, it’s unlikely they would have made it.  And Squanto also translated and negotiated with Massasoit, of the Wampanoag.

Massasoit’s role is also interesting.  His people had been devastated by the plague, with losses exceeding 90% of his population.  The much smaller Narragansett tribe, however, neighbors and rivals, had been much less affected.  He needed a buffer and an ally, or his people would be wiped out.  This tiny band of Europeans may not have seemed like much, but they were what he had to work with; they were there, and as much in need of his help as he was of theirs, though he never really trusted them, nor them him.  So the head of Narragansett Bay was given to the Plymouth colony, all negotiated by Squanto.

I keep going back to him: Squanto.  What must that have been like, to find his way home after so many calamities, only to find his entire life destroyed, his family dead, his friends gone, his people wiped out.  How must it have felt?  Wouldn’t suicide have crossed his mind?  Wouldn’t it have seemed natural to blame white people, all white people for his troubles?  Wouldn’t some of us feel that God had betrayed us, that we hadn’t even been permitted the dignity of dying at the side of our wife and children?  Why go on?  What point is there to life at all, to fight so hard to come home, and to nothing but desolation?

But Squanto did not give up and Squanto did not succumb to despair.  He took a people as ignorant as children and taught them how to survive, how to thrive.  He shared the best of his knowledge and people; gave of it freely.  And, though distrusted by Wampanoag and Pilgrim alike, he forged a peace between them that lasted for fifty years.

And then he died in 1622; poisoned by Massasoit, say some historians. And he begged the white people he had befriended to pray for him, hoping, according to William Bradford’s report, to go to the Englishman’s heaven.  I hope he did.

So when we think of Thanksgiving, let’s remember Tisquantum, a man who had nothing for which to be thankful, a man who forged an unlikely and lasting peace nonetheless, a man who showed how, even in the midst of personal tragedy, we can still find some way to do good in this bad world.  And Lincoln, who created a day of remembrance and gratitude in the midst of a bloodbath.  To find a way, even in the middle of the most calamitous tragedy, to give thanks.  Let that be the lesson of Thanksgiving.

Lincoln: a review

To begin with, the Oscar race this year is over.  Not that it matters much: the Oscars are a nice guide to a bunch of films that film people thought were especially good, but those awards are not particularly meaningful per se.  But this year, the suspense is over: we know. Best director, best screenplay, best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, and of course, best film: Lincoln will run the table.

I know people who didn’t particularly want to see it, because the trailers weren’t very good. I agree; they weren’t. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, with that reedy voice, pounding the table; it looked like it could be the worse kind of inspirational costume parade movie.  It’s not.  The trailers are weak because the scenes tend to be rather long, and the trailers show just the climax of a scene, and not the sinuous build-up.  But in the context of the entire movie, those same long scenes crackle, are filled with wit and energy, political and personal complexities colliding.  It’s a long movie, but there’s not a second wasted; every scene is crucial, every image filled with thought and emotion.

Lincoln essentially follows four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, from January to April, 1865, and deals primarily with one event, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Amendment that abolishes slavery.  We do hear bits of the two most important Lincoln speeches.  The film begins in a scene where three young soldiers stumble through most of the Gettysburg address, showing off for their Commander-in-Chief.  It ends with the second half of the Second Inaugural (to my mind, the finest speech ever given by an American), but those speeches are not the focus of the film.  Nor is it a Civil War film–we do see short battle scenes, but mostly to remind us of the ugly brutality that underlies everything else in the movie.

No, Stephen Spielberg and his screenwriter, the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, focus their movie mostly on Lincoln the politician, Lincoln the wily political operative.  It’s about the horse-trading and arm wringing and threats and barely legal bribes that forced an unpopular Amendment down a wary public’s throat.  At times, the movie is very funny, in fact; there’s tremendous wit in the writing, and Lincoln’s great love of long, meandering countrified tall tales is woven throughout, though we’re always aware that his jokes and stories serve larger tactical purposes.  Kushner’s screenplay is a marvel; every scene perfectly shaped, capturing the diction of nineteenth century rhetoric as well as the homespun conversation of everyday nineteenth century life.  I’m a playwright, and I work hard at my craft.  I watched this movie in awe of the writing.  I cannot now, and never will be able to write that brilliantly.  And I’m perfectly content saying that.

Still, if anyone is naive enough to think that politics is all inspiring speeches and high ideals will be disabused of such notions by the end of this film.  I thought of Obamacare in this regard, how many Republicans continue to resent the way President Obama, with help from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, shepherded that unpopular piece of legislation through Congress– not much debate, not really time to read it. Shoved it down our throats, say some of my conservative friends.  So was the Thirteenth Amendment: just as unpopular, just as unscrupulously strong-armed into law.  Because that’s sometimes what leadership means.  Because that’s sometimes the only way great things can be accomplished.

The film also explores the complicated relationship between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.  I think we mostly think of Mary Todd as, well, deranged; as Abraham Lincoln’s crazy wife.  And she was almost certainly borderline schizophrenic.  But she was also a capable and intelligent political partner, Lincoln’s vote counter and strategist.  It’s quite fascinating; our greatest President was probably clinically depressed for much of his Presidency, married to a woman who may well have suffered from serious psychological issues.  But they were nonetheless able to function.  Sally Field gives the finest performance of her career as Mary, capturing every mood swing and calculation with superb craftsmanship.  And Daniel Day-Lewis gives the finest acting performance I’ve seen in a movie in years. Every detail is perfection; the voice, the walk, the story-telling and above all, the transcendent intelligence in his eyes.

The nineteenth century was a great era for facial hair, and oddly enough, Spielberg uses that to his advantage too.  Much of the film involves debates in the House of Representatives, and the votes of maybe thirty delegates are crucial. There’s no way we’d ever be able to sort them all out using just their names.  But in those debate scenes, we keep score via facial hair; oh, that’s the bushy beard dude, which way is he leaning; what about mutton-chops and moustache guy, which party does he belong to? Those debate scenes, though, primarily feature Lee Pace as Fernando Wood, leading of the Democratic opposition to the Amendment, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican leader, in favor of it.  Jones dominates every scene in which he appears, and his character is the focus of much of the plot; yes he’s an important yes vote for the Amendment, but when he speaks in favor of it, will he scare off moderate Democrats?  The final vote scene–which is as exciting as any scene in any movie in years–makes sense to us, because we’ve seen all those bushy faced guys earlier; we know who they are, where they stand, and can actually tell ‘em apart.

The great Civil War historian Bruce Catton once wrote that, by 1863, the Civil War had come down to two great wills competing, to a battle to the death between two men: Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee.  This film captures Lincoln’s will, his ferocious determination, but only in moments, in quick snatches of dialogue. He’s actually something of a comic character, a man who at times knew the strategic value of playing a clown. We never see Lee at all, nor do we see Jefferson Davis, but we do see the remarkable Jackie Earle Haley, as Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice-President, who visits Lincoln to sue for peace.  We also see Ulysses S. Grant: Jared Harris walks with such authority you know it’s Grant the second we see him.

Although the film covers Lincoln’s assassination, it never mentions John Wilkes Booth, and has no scenes inside Ford’s Theater.  I think this had to be a deliberate choice by Spielberg and Kushner; as though at some point, in some meeting, they mutually decided that they weren’t going to honor the name of the contemptible bastard who murdered Lincoln; that his name would never be mentioned.  Absolutely right too.  I’m a theatre person, and Booth is the theatre person who dishonors us all.

Still, because of the respect in which most American hold the name of our sixteenth President, we do tend to think of him as Saint Abraham.  This film shows us a very human Lincoln, Lincoln the practical pol, a Lincoln perfectly willing to use any lawyerly dodge to get a piece of legislation passed.  Ultimately, the film ends up honoring . . . politics. It’s a civics lesson, a much needed one, disguised as an inspirational film.  I think it’s a brilliant work of art.  But Lincoln is not just a great movie; not just the Platonic ideal for biopics. I think it is also a stunning act of patriotism.

 

Benghazi: and the Intelligence Community

Big news from Washington right now, in addition to the budget negotiations, has to do with UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who John McCain has promised to block if President Obama names her Secretary of State, which the President is rumored to be considering.  Rice is certainly qualified: Rhodes Scholar, expert on Africa, academic credentials, served in a number of capacities under President Clinton.  Aside from the meaningless irony of both Presidents Bush and Obama having African-American women named Rice heading State, she’d be a great choice.  But she’s part of the Benghazi narrative, and that means she’s anathema to the Right.

I’ve been chatting with some of my conservative friends about Benghazi lately, trying to figure out what they think happened.  To me, it’s perfectly straightforward; last September 11 was a very tough day for State and for the CIA.  Protests over that wretched video all over the Middle East and North Africa, especially Egypt, which is such a powder keg anyway, distracted everyone, and so, quite understandably, both State and the CIA had a hard time figuring out that the terrorist attack in Libya was a whole ‘nother thang.  To conservatives, it all suggests treason, or maybe murder, by President Obama and his administration. Here’s how they put it together: the CIA had intel regarding an Al Queda attack in Libya, which the administration, under political pressure from the President, ignored.  The administration also ignored requests for better security at the Benghazi mission, because Obama wanted to prove how much Libya loves him.  Then, when the attack happened, the administration ordered CIA security forces to stand down.  Then, when the whole thing went sour and Ambassador Stevens was dead, they falsely blamed the Libyan attack on that stupid video, as a smokescreen and cover-up.  So on September 16, when Susan Rice made the rounds on various media outlets, she lied to everyone, kept referring to the video. President Obama lied, and quite possibly is complicit in the murder of Chris Stevens.  He lied, because that’s who he is, a man who lies pathologically.  He lied because he’s a liar.

Benghazi has become more than a terrorist attack on a mission, it’s become an icon, a fulcrum for Obama hatred.  Since I admire the man personally, I don’t get that, but I do remember how liberals felt about Bush–Bush derangement syndrome, was George Will’s pungent phrase for it. BDS.  So Benghazi is, for conservatives, the delivery system for the ODS pathogen. Obama derangement syndrome.

I believe that we should rarely if ever ascribe simple human SNAFUs to a conspiracy.  Here’s my counter-narrative: everyone screwed up.  The CIA had intel regarding a possible Al Queda attack in Libya–okay, but they have piles of intel regarding a whole bunch of possible attacks, and sorting it all out is incredibly difficult.  They did have requests for better Benghazi security, and competing reports that suggested the security was adequate.  And in the noise and confusion of a day where all sorts of things were going wrong all over the world, analysts initially conflated the embassy protests over the video happening all over the world with the attack in Benghazi.  So when Susan Rice went out to talk to the media, she followed the talking points she was given.

What we learned today, and what prompted this post, is breaking news fresh off the wire:

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” from the unclassified talking points given to Ambassador Susan Rice on the Benghazi consulate attack – with the agreement of the CIA and FBI. The White House or State Department did not make those changes.

That’s from CBS News: here’s the whole story.  So, no, there was no cover-up, it didn’t come from the White House, Susan Rice told the story she was told to tell. The facts support the ‘screw-up’ narrative, not the ‘conspiracy’ narrative. Which has been true from the start.

Oh, and David Petraeus wasn’t asked to fall on his sword to prevent the story getting out.  In fact, as the Petraeus story has unfolded, it’s gotten more and more bizarrely high-schoolish.  So David was sleeping with Paula, but also maybe Jill, so Paula texted Jill and all in her grille, so Jill called her FBI BFF, and he got David in deep doo doo, but then he started sexting Jill, and . . . .”  Oh my freaking heck.

People screw up.  Petty jealousies and schoolyard crushes and hurt feelings and misunderstood communications; even very important and intelligent and powerful people are as prone to foolishness and selfishness as any thirteen-year-old. Oh, and some of them have access to nuclear launch codes.  Scared yet?

So why did the CIA get this wrong?  Why do they always get it wrong?  This is, after all, the US intelligence community we’re talking about.  The same guys who got basically the entire Cold War wrong.  The same folks who consistently got the Soviet Union’s economic capacity and performance completely wrong.  The same folks who were taken completely by surprise when Iran fell and our embassy there was occupied, who were shocked and unprepared for Tiananmen Square, who did not anticipate the Arab Spring.  Who were surprised by 9/11.  And who thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The loudest voices on the Right are screaming ‘impeachment’ over Benghazi.  So let’s look at Iraq, by way of instructive comparison.  Let’s start with Douglas Feith.  This is a blog, not an academic paper, but I do generally try to get my facts right and share my sources: the best book on the intelligence leading up to Iraq is probably Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, but George Tenet’s autobiography is also instructive, as is the work of Lawrence Wright.  Anyway, Feith was a protege of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and close to Vice-President Cheney.  He was put in the Pentagon, in charge of the Office of Special Plans (Orwellian title, that), and, by order of the Vice-President, was given access to all raw intel regarding Iraq.  And every day, he’d pore through all that intelligence, looking for evidence of WMD. Well, him and the, like, two other guys in that office.

Look, the ‘intelligence community‘– the CIA, the NSA, the DIA, the OICI, the Armed Services intelligence wings, sixteen federal agencies in all–they’re not bozos and they’re not stupid.  They knew perfectly well that Feith’s office was cherry-picking intel.  They also knew perfectly well that in that political climate, finding evidence of Iraqi WMD would create a nice short-cut to career advancement.  The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that Saddam either had or was building WMD and did therefore pose a threat to US interests was heavily built on Feith’s work.  It was, frankly, a dishonest NIE (Tenet admits as much).  But it was at least good enough to fool a very bright and very intelligence-savvy career military officer like Colin Powell.  It was good enough to fight a war over.

US casualties in Iraq: 4, 486.  Iraqi casualties: in excess of 100,000.  Over a million, according to the British medical journal Lancet‘s best estimate.

So was Douglas Feith criminally prosecuted for manipulating intelligence leading to a war resulting in 4500 US casualities, and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualities?  No.  Was Paul Wolfowitz, or Richard Perle even so much as reprimanded.  Impeach Obama over Benghazi?  Where was the call to impeach Dick Cheney over Iraq?

No, the official Iraq narrative was that it was a mistake, an intelligence blunder.  We thought Saddam had WMD–sorry, but it turned out he just didn’t. Our bad.  It is a shame that there wasn’t somebody already in Iraq looking for them, but Saddam wouldn’t let anyone in. Feith found specific evidence of specific locations for WMD.  Shame we couldn’t check those places out.

Enter Hans Blix.  The UN inspector, under the authority of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, had received what he described as ‘pro-active if not immediate’ cooperation from Saddam’s government, and was a few months from completing a comprehensive report on Iraqi weapons, concluding exactly what we now know to be true; Iraq had no WMD.  If the US hadn’t attacked Iraq when we did, March 2003, we would have lost our cassus belli.  And it’s not like Blix wasn’t telling anyone what he had and hadn’t found.  January, February 2003, Blix was in the US, desperately trying to get someone in the media and/or US government to listen to him.  But by then, America wasn’t interested.

The sadly ironic fourth verse of our National Anthem includes this verse: “then conquer we must, if our cause it is just, and this be our motto: in God is our Trust.”  The unfortunate truth is that we have fought in many wars as a nation in which our cause was not just by any stretch of the imagination.  But we’re a patriotic people, and we like to think that our cause is always just, and that God really does bless all our endeavors, including military ones.  But the Spanish-American War, and the resulting invasion of the Phillipines?  Was that a just war?  Vietnam, just?  Iraq?

But nobody at the time was interested in hearing about Hans Blix and the non-existent WMD.  Nobody was interested in hearing about Doug Feith, or the probable reality that we were going to war over cherry-picked intel and a dishonest NIE.  We would rather focus on what a human cockroach Saddam Hussein was–and that was certainly true.  Our cause, it was just, and God would bless it. That’s what we wanted to believe. It is what we will always want to believe.

So we have to hope that CIA analysts are good at their job, and that the data they’re crunching is trustworthy.  And we have to acknowledge how incredibly difficult their job is, how immensely complicated and contradictory the intel they receive can be, and how tentative their conclusions have to be, even when the American people want certainty and reassurance.  Benghazi was about human beings who made mistakes. It was about chaos and confusion, and a really really bad day.  It was about the death of good people serving their country.  We should mourn and we should investigate, and we should try to fix whatever problems we can fix in our intelligence gathering and analysis.  And recognize just how hard the job is with which that community is tasked.  Benghazi is not a conspiracy and it doesn’t prove anything or even suggest anything untoward about this President.  It is, however, a tragedy.  Let’s not politicize the event, but let’s also not pretend it didn’t happen.

 

 

Happy 50th, James Bond

The first James Bond film, Dr. No, was released in the fall of 1962, though it didn’t open in the US until the next spring.  Sean Connery, of course, was Bond–the villain was Joseph Wiseman, Barnard Lee played M, Lois Maxwell was Miss Moneypenny, and the first Bond girl was Ursula Andress, a Swiss model who hardly spoke English, but who looked great in a white bikini.  Skyfall, the most recent, is number 23 in the series. I’ve seen ‘em all.  And I think Skyfall may be the best film of the lot.

But saying Skyfall is number 23 is actually kind of misleading: it’s only 23 films if you don’t count the non-Eon productions.  Cubby Broccoli and his partner, Harry Saltzman founded Eon Productions specifically to make Bond films; when they died, Cubby’s daughter, Barbara took over the company, partnering with her half- brother, Michael Wilson.  Barbara Broccoli’s still running things, and has announced that there will be at least two more Bonds. She’s only 52, and her credits on IMDB are amazing; just this long list of Bond films.  She grew up in the Eon office; once, when she was a kid, shooting on location in Japan, she got sick and Sean Connery generously gave her his bed, sleeping on the floor so she would be comfortable, recovering.

But there have been other, non-Eon Bond films, most especially the first Casino Royale (1967), with David Niven as Bond (which also recycled Ursula Andress) and Never Say Never Again (1983).  Never represented one of the real Eon crises: it brought Sean Connery out of retirement as Bond, and it came out the same year as Octopussy, far and away the worst Bond of Roger Moore’s career, and possibly the worst Eon Bond. It was Connery against Roger Moore, mano a mano, and it looked like Eon’s run might be ending. And Never was a good film; it also had Kim Basinger as a Bond girl, and Klaus Maria Brandauer as a particularly memorable villain.  But its producers got caught up in the legalities of rights negotiations, and Eon came back with View to a Kill, which had Christopher Walken as the villain and Grace Jones as his remarkable sidekick, and the series survived.   It’s really remarkable, keeping a series alive and flourishing for fifty years.  I’ve seen ‘em all.  I’ve seen every Bond, most of them several times.

And Skyfall is terrific.  Adele’s theme song is either the best or second best of all the Bond theme songs, depending on what you think of Goldfinger. Judi Dench is the best M ever, and I love Ben Whishaw as a young computer nerd Q. Best of all is Javier Bardem as Silva, a mesmerizing and flamboyant Bond villain.  When we first see him, he’s a distant figure in a long shot, emerging from an elevator at one end of a long room.  The camera holds on him as he walks towards Bond, tied to a chair, Bardem telling this remarkable story about an island full of rats.  By the time he gets to Bond, he’s finished the story, and we’re totally hooked.  Javier Barden won his Oscar for playing Chigurh, the sociopathic killer in No Country for Old Men; Silva is, if anything, a more compelling and remarkable creation, though with equally terrible hair.

I love the villains in Bond films.  A lot of the great Bond titles are the names of the bad guys: Goldfinger, Dr. No, The Man with the Golden Gun.  Bond villains are like a Who’s Who of remarkable European actors: Robert Carlyle, Sean Bean, Mads Mikkelson, Jonathan Pryce.  Bond villains represent some current anxiety, something we’re scared of or worried about.  Initially, Bond was a Cold War hero; some of the early villains were from Smersh, a super-secret elite KGB squad. Then, in For Your Eyes Only, the MacGuffin (the whosis, the gadget that the good guys and bad guys both want; in this film, some kind of transmitter thingy) is destroyed by Bond, who then says to his Soviet counterpart: “I don’t have it, you don’t have it.  Detente.”  The Soviet laughs, and that’s the last Cold War Bond. Well, sort of: Goldeneye is a post-Soviet nightmare, with some kind of Russki technology on sale to the highest bidder, brokered by Bond’s friend and colleague, 006 (Sean Bean).  One of my favorites is Tomorrow Never Dies, where the villain is a media mogul–basically, he’s Rupert Murdoch. And of course, more recently, Bond villains have been either terrorists or are linked to terrorists.

What’s interesting about Skyfall is that Bardem’s villain isn’t so much a terrorist as a former spy with Mommy issues; he specifically wants to kill M.  And the last third of the film is basically Home Alone, James Bond playing Macauley Culkin, with Javier Bardem playing the Joe Pesci role. I’m serious: Bond lures Silva to his ancestral Scottish castle, and then booby-traps it.  Fills it, in fact, with IEDs, that favorite weapon of terrorists.

But before that point, there’s a scene where Judi Dench, as M, testifies before Parliament, arguing that England needs Bond (and guys like him) more than ever, because of the shadowy world of international terrorism.  We need guys who can handle amorality. And I thought that driving home afterwards, how Presidents Bush and Obama have become 00-agents; they’ve arrogated to themselves licenses to kill, only using drones instead of field agents to project American (or Western) power.  Sam Mendes, Skyfall‘s director, and this screenplay (by Robert Wade and Neal Purvis), make a case for drone warfare, for the quiet assassination, without due process, of anyone deemed a threat to national security. Extra-Constitution, indefensible in interational law? Oh, absolutely. And Judi Dench makes that case, as M.  And everything else in the film supports her argument.  Bardem’s character is at least arguably not a terrorist–he’s certainly non-ideological–and yet, the film provides a rationale for the real-life, real-time deployment of, well, James Bond. CIA and Army Ranger and Marine sharpshooters in Afghanistan. Seal Team Six. Predator drones out of Shamsi airbase in Pakistan.  And drone pilots in Texas and California raining death down on suspected Al Queda targets half a world away.

Bond becomes relevant again, coldly relevant, in a film with a flamboyantly gay villain with an awful die job. And I rooted and cheered for Bond to beat the bad guy, like everyone else.  And only questioned it all a bit later.

And Daniel Craig is a tremendous Bond.  Sam Mendes said he would only direct a Bond film if 007 was vulnerable and human.  Craig’s a great enough actor to pull it off; his hair is graying, as is his beard, and he can’t pass an MI-6 physical exam or shooting test.  He’s damaged; he’s assailable.  But he’s also Bond, and M knows that about him, knows that he has what a field agent must have; the ability to, without hesitation, pull the trigger.  Two of the three Daniel Craig Bonds are among the finest films in the series; only Quantum of Solace failed, because of an inadequately imagined threat and villain.

So Skyfall does include all the Bond tropes: ‘shaken not stirred,’ the tux and the casino scene, the fabulous opening chase scene and the amazing stunts, the conscience-less womanizing.  That particular aspect of Bond films has always been their biggest weakness; Bond’s skirt-chasing has had a smirky Playboy smarminess to it, perhaps forgiveable to the Mad Men sensibilities of the early sixties, but increasingly repugnant as the series aged.  In Skyfall, however, the Bond girl’s role is entirely tragic.  Berenice Marlohe plays Severine, and Bond sleeps with her with entirely tactical motivations, to procure an introduction to Silva.  Silva then dispenses with her completely cold-bloodedly.  It’s a tough scene to watch, and an effective one; beautiful women are disposable to sociopaths like Silva.  And to a borderline sociopath like James Bond.

I don’t mean to suggest that the film is entirely dark in tone.  One of the hallmarks of Bond films is the way they don’t entirely take themselves seriously.  In fact, of the three great crises that the Eon empire has weathered, (the other two being a six year hiatus locked up in court in the early 90’s, and Never Say Never Again), the most significant was the challenge posed by Michael Meyers and the Austin Powers films.  Meyers dissected the Bond world so skillfully, and skewered it so precisely, that it appeared as though Bond couldn’t survive.  And The World Is Not Enough, the first post-Austin Powers Bond, was ludicrous, what with Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist (the silliest Bond girl ever).  But Bond survived even being pantsed by Michael Meyers.  It survived by going darker.  It survived by hiring Daniel Craig, who finds a way to turn jokey-ness into gallows humor.

Skyfall, the title, is an attempt to give Bond, or at least this Bond, some backstory.  It works pretty well, but it’s also kind of silly; Ian Fleming’s Bond started off fighting Nazis in World War II, which would suggest that James Bond’s pushing ninety.  A better solution is the one my wife favors: that ‘James Bond, 007′ is a title, like M, or Q.  They just recruit the newest ‘James Bond’, like they did when ‘Q’ transitioned from Desmond Llewelyn to John Cleese to, now, Ben Withrow.  It’d be easy to do: just make a James Bond film with Sean Connery AND Roger Moore, AND Timothy Dalton, AND Pierce Brosnan AND Daniel Craig.  Bring ‘em all out of retirement.  (I think we can pass on George Lazenby).  I’d watch that film.

Anyway, Bond, who has survived multiple re-castings and some frankly pretty terrible films, seems also to have survived the biggest challenge of them all: irrelevancy.  The Cold War, his original raison-d’etre, has long since expired, but Bond lives on.  And with Skyfall, we may have seen the finest film in the series.