Monthly Archives: December 2014

On global warming

I just read a very good book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. It’s exceptionally well researched, compelling in its argument and in the evidence it musters to support that argument. It’s passionately and persuasively written.  It’s also completely bonkers. Which is why I’m a really bad liberal.

Whenever my Dad comes to visit, he and my daughter engage in a debate over climate change. She is convinced, as am I, that climate change is a real phenomenon, caused by the behavior of human beings in an industrialized world, that the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere could have serious consequences for people and cultures all over the planet. My father does not trust those scientists who have reached those conclusions, nor is he troubled by the consensus most such scientists have reached, nor by the peer reviewed literature summarizing their research. He thinks they’re alarmists. I think he’s wrong. I would rather that he were right. Here’s why:

Okay, that clip is from The Newsroom, and its an odd segment in an excessively weird episode. It’s also pretty funny, especially all the reaction shots in the control room. I love the moment when Will (the anchor) lists various steps that might reduce the likelihood of continued climate devastation, and the scientist’s response is ‘that would have been great!’ Twenty years ago. It’s quite possible that Aaron Sorkin (the writer of this show) might be right. I would rather that he weren’t.

So, Naomi Klein. And her book argues that the science of climate change should be greeted as terrific news. It gives us the opportunity, she argues, to completely re-order our society. More mass transit; fewer (or no) automobiles. More apartments, fewer (or no) suburban homes. Greatly restricted air travel. We can develop a greater sense of community and interdependence, she argues. We can walk more, or bicycle. Stop burning coal (and destroying mountains looking for it). Stop fracking (and pumping dangerous chemicals into groundwater). Stop, above all, corporatization and neo-liberal economics. If you want a good summation of her arguments, read this excellent review.

Here’s why I call the book ‘bonkers,’ and also why I’m a terrible liberal: it’s never going to happen. Human beings are not capable of remaking society in the ways she describes. Human beings have created political institutions that will block any effort to institute these sorts of changes. We like our cars, we like air travel, we like crappy food and we like doing our Christmas shopping on-line, requiring UPS trucks to drive all day playing Santa.

I tend to think that future generations will come to regard Naomi Klein as prophetic, and that episode of Newsroom as prescient. I think it’s very likely that I, an old white guy, am leaving my children and grandchildren a much diminished planet. I think the early bits of Interstellar may well be regarded as hopelessly naive and optimistic, assuming there’s anyone around to watch movies in the future.

Or maybe climate scientists really are all wrong about this stuff and maybe the situation isn’t actually dire. I hope so. Gosh, that would be great.

The Rapture, and Left Behind: a sort of movie review

I do not believe in space aliens. I have, however, seen many many entertaining movies based on the premise that space aliens exist. I do not believe in vampires, or in werewolves, or in zombies. But I’m a big fan of movies about vampires, werewolves and zombies. And so, though I do not believe in the Rapture, I ought to be able to enjoy a movie based on that particular end-of-times premise. What gets tricky is seeing a movie that appears to take its own fictional premise really really seriously, a movie made from the perspective that a space alien invasion, or zombie apocalypse–or the Rapture–is something that’s going to happen, probably pretty soon, and that there are specific things we need to be doing about it. That’s when your movie viewing experience moves from ‘enjoyable’ to ‘trapped in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness and an Amway salesman’ levels of embarrassment and unpleasantness.

The first Left Behind movie, based on the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LeHaye novels, was made in 2000, and starred Kirk Cameron. It cost $4 million to make, and made its nut, barely, but my guess is sold a butt-load of DVDs. This one cost $16 million and stars Nicolas Cage. It’s made back its investment; who knows about ancillaries. But seen simply as a sci-fi mystery/adventure film, it’s not half bad, honestly. Cage’s performance is creditable, and the other two leads were quite good. I saw it in our local dollar theater, and felt like I got my money’s worth. But, of course, the point wasn’t just to make an entertaining movie, was it?

Okay, briefly, Nic Cage is Ray, an airline pilot, flying New York Kennedy to London Heathrow, and planning on some hanky-panky with a hot blonde flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan). His marriage has gone sour due to his wife (Lea Thompson, of Back to the Future fame) who has converted to evangelical Christianity. Their college age daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), is similarly put off by Mom’s preachiness, but is aware of Hattie, and pretty ticked at dear-old-Dad as well. She meets at the airport (and rescues from a super preachy Christian woman) a TV reporter, Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who is also on Dad’s flight.

So mid-flight, the Rapture hits. A bunch of passengers just disappear, leaving behind their neatly folded clothing, watches, jewelry (apparently, we’re all naked in heaven), and including all children everywhere. Ray’s co-pilot and one flight attendant also vanish. Understandably, everyone freaks out. Back in New York, people freak out even worse, and Chloe’s car is hit by an out-of-control, suddenly pilot-less Cessna, so she has to walk home from Kennedy, dodging looters all the way. Another pilot-less plane clips Ray’s plane, and now he’s got to try to land a crippled plane, out of fuel, with Kennedy airport in complete chaos and no air traffic control, apparently. But Chloe’s phone has a ‘find-abandoned-highway’ app, and her cell works just opportunely enough to get the plane down safely.

Okay, so that’s the plot. Meanwhile, of course, Ray and Chloe and Buck and Hattie are all trying separately to figure out what-the-heck, and are able to explain to the audience just what the Rapture’s about, without ever using the word Rapture. The world’s gone all wicked, and all that Matthew 24, Joel, Daniel, Revelation, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse scary stuff is about to go down. So 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18: God will rapture his Elect the heck out of here to heaven, and also rapture all kids everywhere. So He can protect them all from the Last Days destruction and death.

And of course, the Rapture is mostly about airplanes. Pilot-less airplanes. Not sure why, but it does strike a chord–we’re all a little freaked out by airplanes, after all, the flying of which really does basically feel more like magic than physics.

But, here’s the thing. I have no problem encompassing in my theology the idea of a God that allows, for His own inscrutable purposes, crashing airplanes. I have a problem, however, with a God that crashes them Himself. I just don’t believe in it. And of course ‘Rapture’ is a contested term in contemporary Christian discourse. Some denominations believe that ‘rapture’ simply means the general resurrection of the dead, after the tribulations described in various scriptures. Others, though, think it’s going to happen before all those tribulations, as in this movie.

What do Mormons believe? I don’t have the faintest idea. We basically never talk about it. Certainly we never, and I mean never, use the word ‘rapture,’ not in either of its Christian senses.  Do we get caught up to heaven to meet Jesus? I’m pretty sure that no LDS General Authority has talked about anything like this in my lifetime. It maybe gets whispered about in Sunday School. There’s some ‘people caught up from fields’ iconography. I don’t know if this is a Mormon belief. I do know that I, a Mormon, do not believe in it.

Whenever I travel, if I have some time to kill, I go looking for bookstores. I remember with great fondness a Christian bookstore in Monroe Louisiana, where I went browsing once. It featured two very popular sections: Left Behind, with books and DVDs and posters. The only display equal in size was the Dale Earnhardt table. Best of all was a very popular poster combining both themes: Dale Earnhardt being Raptured out of his smashed up #3 car. So the Rapture’s a big deal in some parts of this great nation of ours, is my point. Almost as big a deal as NASCAR, it would seem. The Rapture is central, I think, to a lot of Christian preachifying.

But for evangelical Christians, it makes sense. Some Christian denominations do divide the world into two categories: Christians, who are saved, who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior, and people who are not saved, people who may well be decent, good people (Buck and Chloe are what we would call ‘good people’ in the movie), but who do not believe in Jesus, or at least not enough.  And nothing could point that up more starkly than a world-wide event in which all the Christians are instantly zapped away to heaven, leaving everyone else to cope with the aftermath. It fits a certain evangelical world-view.

And that’s a world-view that Mormons do not share, not really. Joseph Smith did away entirely with the Christian heresy of geographic salvation. We believe that everyone can be baptized, that even people who have died can posthumously accept Jesus, and gain eternal life. We do tend to divide the world into Mormons and non-Mormons (and even Mormons into ‘active’ and ‘less active’), but we really do believe that works matter. A good guy, like Buck in this movie, would be in line to be saved. There’s a Muslim character in the movie, one of the passengers on the plane, who is the one genuinely and consistently compassionate character in the film. The evangelical worldview is that he’s ‘left behind.’ Mormons wouldn’t agree.

So it makes sense to me that the Rapture would be central to evangelical preaching, and that it wouldn’t be something Mormons ever ever talk about, and is probably something at least some of us don’t believe in. Again, I certainly don’t believe in it. And I wish I could say that it made for an interesting movie.

But it didn’t. Ultimately, the movie falls apart, because we sympathize with the wrong people.  The fact is, we only meet two Christians in the early scenes of the movie, only two people who are established as real characters, and who get subsequenly Raptured. One is the annoying woman who pesters Buck in the airport about his (supposed) agnosticism in the face of a tsunami he’d covered. The other is Lea Thompson’s character, Chloe’s Mom, a woman, we’re told, who is such a fanatic that she’s systematically alienated her entire family. They’re our role models? That’s what we’re supposed to strive for, so we don’t get Left Behind? Sorry, but no. I’d rather stay behind and dodge falling airplanes. We come to genuinely care about the people in Ray’s plane, good, but freaked out folks who try their best to comfort each other and whose survival is what the movie is about.  We like Ray, we like Buck, we like Chloe. If they’re what gets Left Behind, count me in.

“I can’t breathe”

Jon Stewart wasn’t funny last night. He apparently got the news just before air-time that the grand jury on Staten Island had not indicted anyone for the death of Eric Garner.

Eventually, Jon gave the only response really possible. He stared upward, and shouted at the top of his lungs the F-word.

This wasn’t a Michael Brown/Ferguson type situation. As Jon pointed out, this wasn’t a case where the forensic evidence was ambiguous and the eyewitnesses contradicted each other and who knows exactly what happened. If Darren Wilson had been indicted for the death of Michael Brown–which is absolutely what should have happened–it’s entirely possible that enough ambiguity existed for reasonable doubt; he could well have been acquitted.

The deadly assault on Eric Garner is here, on camera. It’s horrific stuff.

Watch it. You’ll hear him say, over and over, over and over and over, “I can’t breathe.” But the video doesn’t tell the whole story. He was apparently sick of being harassed. The police thought he’d been selling ‘loosies,’ individual cigarettes, a misdemeanor offense. Apparently, they’d cited him for that before. No cigarettes were found on him after the incident, though.

Here are a few links, if you’re interested. Here’s a link to Fox News, to an interview Greta van Susteren had with a medical examiner. Here’s the Washington Post, a story about the protests taking place nationally.

There’s one thing that strikes me about this video, though, especially the earliest bits of it, before the police start choking him. It’s the physical stance of the two officers, the one with his back to the camera, and the one partly obscured by the first guy. Back to the camera guy is motionless, standing his ground. But then he looks down and we can see just a hint of uncertainty.  The other cop is more agitated, keeps looking over his shoulder for backup.

Here’s what I think: there was no reason for those two officers to be there confronting this guy. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was agitated, and upset with them for hassling him, but engaged in no other criminal enterprise. The situation escalates, but almost entirely because of the presence of the police. If they had simply said, ‘hey, sorry, we don’t mean to bother you, be on your way,’ there’s no reason to think that public safety would have been compromised.

But that would never happen, I think.

I would love for people who know more about it to correct me on this, but what I think is that police are trained never to back down from a confrontation. Never allow a civilian to disobey police instructions. Never, ever, let yourself be disrespected. Always maintain control of the situation, period.

We see maybe thirty seconds of their confrontation, and then there’s an edit to when they try to cuff him. And the police officers are talking too quietly to hear what they’re saying, but they sound calm and reasonable, and although Garner is respectful, he’s also clearly sick of it, sick of being hassled. But I wonder if there’s a kind of internal tension inside those cops. I think I can see it in their body language. A tension between doing the right thing–walking away–and following their training–maintaining ‘control’ of the situation.

The death of this man is a tragedy. The failure of a grand jury to indict is a travesty. An incomprehensible miscarriage of justice. And yet, from a police perspective, I do get it. To put this one officer on trial would be to indict the entire way in which police officers are trained in this country. It would be to indict the idea that police must always be obeyed. And given the very real dangers of their jobs, I can see police resisting that kind of scrutiny.

But that scrutiny has to happen. Watch the video again. I do not see these two officers as operating under a mandate ‘to serve and protect.’ No one was being served in this confrontation, and no one was being protected. A man objects to being interrogated on the street by two police officers. He was not engaged in any criminal activity. He could have, and should have, been left alone. And police training can and should emphasize discretion over confrontation, dialogue over control. But right now, I can see the relationship between police officers and the public (and especially the African-American public) spiraling further downwards, a cycle of mistrust, leading to confrontation, leading to tragedy, breeding greater hostility and mistrust.  We’re there already, are we not?

We know that change in emphasis and tactics is possible, because that’s the way police are trained in Europe, and in Europe, police essentially never kill civilians. It can happen here too. And it would be better for everyone, the police included. But it’s going to take a national effort, and a national consensus. I don’t think there’s any reason for Eric Garner to have died. But maybe it will be worth something if it leads to genuine, actual change. At least that’s something to work for, and to hope for.

Some thoughts on Ferguson

I haven’t wanted to comment on the recent events in Ferguson Missouri, where rioting followed the refusal of a grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson after he shot and illed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. I’m not African-American, not a police officer nor an expert on police procedure, not an attorney, nor any kind of expert on race relations. I’m just a middle-aged white playwright. Still, the commentators who have resonated with me were those who have called for a renewed ‘national conversation on race.’ So I thought I would offer a few thoughts, in no particular order.

1) I watched the press conference in which Ferguson DA Robert McCulloch presented the decision by the grand jury not to indict Officer Wilson. He stressed the even-handed way in which the evidence was presented, the careful cross-examination of contradictory witnesses, and he released all the relevant documentation (a decision for which he should be applauded). I thought it was a very strange press conference. I would love to be corrected if I’m wrong on this, but my understanding is that prosecutors aren’t supposed to be even-handed and objective. They’re supposed to aggressively push for an indictment. Even stranger, Officer Wilson’s testimony was not subjected to cross-examination, apparently. It’s as though the grand jury was being led to regard his account as the one definitive narrative about the event. Prosecutors are not supposed to represent the police; they’re supposed to represent the larger community.  Justice required an indictment; all testimony needed to be subjected to careful, thorough cross-examination, in the adversarial setting of a court of law.

2) As this article in Vox.com described, Officer Wilson’s testimony was literally unbelievable. That doesn’t mean that he lied, or that the events didn’t happen pretty much as he described them. Reality is often unbelievable, inconsistent with our usual standards for a plausible narrative. But that testimony cries out for rigorous cross-examination.

3) There are two specifics of his testimony that strike me as particularly strange. I don’t doubt that Officer Wilson was scared by the situation, and that his training then too over. But if he felt threatened, he doesn’t seem to me to have been actually threatened. Brown’s body lay 150 feet from Wilson’s car, and the shell casings that show where he was standing when he fired. Brown and Wilson are about the same size, and Wilson had a nightstick and a taser. Brown was unarmed. Even if Brown was charging him (something virtually none of the eyewitnesses saw), he couldn’t pull out the taser? Also, apparently Officer Wilson was allowed to retain his weapon for over an hour after the shooting, and was the officer that placed it in an evidence bag. This is significant, because Wilson claimed that Brown had hold of the gun in their initial skirmish in the car. No DNA or fingerprints were found on the gun, but its evidentiary value was essentially eliminated by this police mishandling of it.

4) Several news stories have detailed McCulloch’s close ties to the police department; he served on the board of a police charity, his father was an officer, ect. This is hardly surprising. Prosecutors work closely with the police; that’s their job. That’s why it was essential that McCulloch recuse himself from this case. In many communities, this is automatic; special prosecutors are routinely assigned to cases involving police shootings. Justice was ill-served by not having such a policy in St. Louis County.

5) The role of Dorian Johnson, the friend Brown was with, has not received as much attention as it deserves. By all accounts, Brown was a good kid, a bit of a goofball, but excited to start college in the fall. Johnson is a few years older than Brown, has a checkered past, but was getting his life together. He saw himself, apparently, as a kind of mentor to Brown. Brown’s initial robbery of the convenience store, though irrelevant to the question of his subsequent shooting, is a puzzling episode, inconsistent with his record or reputation. But Michael Brown was 18 years old. Was he trying to impress an older guy with a criminal past? Isn’t that exactly the kind of stupid thing a teenager might decide to do? (I know that there are certain inconsistencies in Johnson’s story, but the basic narrative seems pretty clear–he was hanging out with a younger kid because he wanted to encourage him to make something of his life).

6) Without question, the coverage of this event on Fox News has been, for the most part, disgraceful. Jon Stewart basically eviscerated it here:

7) There’s something sadly comical about older white guys lecturing the black community on the subject of race. As an older white guy myself, I will desist. I will simply say that something quite obvious: the everyday experience of life as an American is different for me than it is for people of color. When we say that racism is an omnipresent reality of the world today, we’re not saying that all white people wear Klan robes. Racism today is more liely to manifest itself as cluelessness than violence. I would simply point out this reality: minorities riot when their basic rights are routinely and systematically violated. White people riot when their favorite sports teams win a championship.

The true meaning of Christmas

To all pastors, ministers, priests, bishops and elders, of whatever Christian denomination:

I’m asking you, please: do not denounce, decry, disparage, lament, condemn, attack or rail against the commercialization of Christmas. Do not complain about Black Friday, or Christmas advertising. Christmas excess and Christmas commerce can make for tempting subjects for sermonizing. Resist that temptation.

During the Christmas season, people are subjected to tremendous cultural pressure to buy lots of stuff for their friends and loved ones. Merchants plan on this. They base sales projections, bonuses, advertising budgets, work schedules around it. Many small businesses rely on the Christmas season for their very survival.

If people don’t buy things during the holiday season, it could destroy the economy. In a destroyed economy, human suffering increases ten-fold. The poor are hammered. Even in a diminished or weakened economy, people suffer, people are harmed. Homelessness increases. Starvation can result. I say this with some confidence: Jesus does not want for any of that to happen.

Commerce is not evil. Commerce is good. People buying and other people selling; all are positive, good activities. A robust commercial season increases employment, allows more people to support themselves and their families. Encourage people to shop, to spend. As robustly as their budgets will allow.

I am a Mormon. The LDS Church recently invested in the building of a new, downtown, Salt Lake City shopping mall. I know some people criticized this. I didn’t, and don’t. That investment spurred economic growth. It rejuvenated the downtown. It led to the creation of businesses, to new jobs.  It allowed people who had been unemployed to find employment.

We’re urged, at Christmas, to contemplate the True Meaning of Christmas. Indeed, we should do precisely that. We should give to local food banks and homeless shelters. We should increase our charitable giving; of course we should. And we should remember that the Christmas narrative involved the giving of gifts, really expensive ones, which undoubtedly came in handy for Joseph and Mary, poor young people from Nazareth, a tiny, impoverished village.

You say that Christmas advertising is tacky. The key words at Christmas are “Peace,” “Love” and “Joy”. Peace and love don’t lend themselves to ads, but ‘joy’ sure does. And so we see ads describing ‘the Joy of Fleece,” “the Joy of Chocolate,” “the Joy of Earthen Bakeware.” To describe Christmas ads as ‘tacky’ is to make an aesthetic, not a moral judgment. If tackiness moves product, then tackiness is likewise a social good, and should be applauded. Snicker, but buy.

Can Christmas shopping be overdone? Of course it can be. Anything good can be. Should we put ourselves massively in debt for expensive gifts? Certainly not. That doesn’t mean we should neglect dear old Aunt Mildred, or leave out our daughter’s step-kids. Be generous. Remember Scrooge, who discovered the true meaning of Christmas, and did what? Bought gifts for people!

And children! Christmas is about the birth of a Child, and it’s the holiday most beloved by children. And certainly a lot of Christmas advertising is aimed at kids, and certainly the toys aren’t always of the highest quality. But kids love opening presents. Is there anything inherently un-Christian about making children happy, even if only for a moment? I say no. Brave the lines at Toys R Us! Shop for your kids, all the kids in your life!  It’s good for the economy, and believe me, we want the economy to prosper. Because kids are the first ones hurt when it doesn’t.

Every year, we hear it. “The commercialization of Christmas.” Or sermons attacking Santa. Thank heavens no one pays the least attention. Have a Merry Christmas! Buy stuff! Lots of it!  Celebrate this holiday season! Shop!