Monthly Archives: March 2017

In times like these, what should we hope for?

I intend to continue my series on LDS doctrines we don’t believe anymore next week. But while researching those posts, my attention was yanked back to the present. You know that ancient Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times?” It’s not actually either ancient or Chinese–I believe it was invented by a British foreign minister, a typical piece of faux Orientalism–but it’s still potent enough. Our ‘interesting times’ include the impossible-to-wrap-our-heads-around fact that someone somehow elected a thin-skinned blustering whining lying infant as President of the United States.

His continued residence in the White House is, at best, an affront to civilized values, and at worst, apocalyptic, given his role as caretaker of America’s nuclear arsenal. (If you want to be good and terrified, may I suggest a recent article in the New Yorker, that details Trump’s friendship with billionaire Robert Mercer, who apparently believes that a thermo-nuclear holocaust would be survivable, possibly ecologically beneficial, and in any event, no big deal. I don’t seem to be able to link to it, but it shouldn’t be hard to find.) Anyway, I can’t help but think that nuking, I don’t know, maybe North Korea without sufficient cause would be bad for Trump’s re-election prospects. Is that what I should be hoping for? Obviously not.

This is the problem. What should we be hoping for here? We want Trump gone; does that mean we long for the Presidency of Mike Pence? We want Trump out; does that mean we want some catastrophe?

To illustrate, Ezra Klein has a good piece in Vox.com today. He talks about the Republican health care bill that was supposed to come up for a vote today and didn’t. Let’s suppose that at some point Paul Ryan is able to get enough votes to send the bill to the Senate, where it also passes. Let’s further assume that the CBO scoring on that bill is reasonably accurate, and 24 million Americans lose their health insurance. Klein believes, with good reason, that the Republicans will be blamed for everything that goes wrong with health care in this country. If a hospital closes, it’ll be the fault of Republicare. If employers raise premiums on the health coverage they offer, it’ll be blamed on the Republicans in the House. There will wrenching, powerful stories about human suffering and needless deaths; all that will be considered the fault of this misguided bill. With justification.

You broke it, you buy it. Republicans will own health care in this country. Klein then makes some fairly reasonable assumptions. 2018, Democrats take back the House. The Senate math is tough for Democrats in 2018; it may not be possible to impeach Trump. But any reasonable challenger in 2020 should take back the White House. And then we’ll see a Democratic health care bill that fixes all the problems with Obamacare, and pays for it with a tax increase on rich folks. And that is not the outcome Republicans want.

But for all that to happen requires the Ryan bill to fail to deliver even adequate health coverage for a lot of Americans. It increases human suffering. And people will die. Klein estimates that the AHCA, if it fails as badly as the CBO estimates, will result in around 24,000 people dying younger than they should.

So is it worth 24,000 needless deaths to get rid of Trump?

That’s my conundrum. If Trump fails as President, there will be real life consequences. Politics is important; policy is important. Bad policies can lead to serious problems. Lives could be ruined. People could die. Is that what we want?

If Trump fails, it will be bad for America. I’m a patriot; I love my country. Do I want Trump’s failed policies to harm America?

That’s why this Russia stuff is so intriguing. If the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the results of this election, that would be bad. It would constitute treason. And we absolutely have to find out if that’s true. There’s no shoving this under the carpet; we need to know. Well, that’s tantamount to treason; that would be really bad. And maybe people need to go to jail. That would be fine. But it’s in the past; any damage done has already happened.

In the final analysis, I suppose I want President Trump to succeed, because I want my country to do well. But since there’s essentially no possibility of Trump actually being a good President, given his temperment and policies, then I want his failures to not hurt too many people. And realistically, that’s probably too much to ask.

 

Mormon doctrines? Blood atonement.

Continuing this magical mystery tour of doctrines that were once believed by the LDS Church, and no longer are, I thought I ought to clarify what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m really not trying to destroy anyone’s faith. I just think that LDS doctrine is evolving, and mostly in healthy and productive ways. And I think there’s some value in charting doctrinal changes. Change is a human constant. Societies change, culture changes, ideas change. That’s why a central LDS doctrine is ‘continuing revelation.’ And sometimes, a theologically innovative Church gets it wrong.

In the old TV show, The West Wing, Toby Ziegler has a conversation with his rabbi about the death penalty.

You may say that this isn’t really what Mormons believe by continuing revelation. But I think it is, close enough. And especially when it comes to the idea of the death penalty. There may have been a time when it made sense to execute convicted murderers. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The constitutional standard prohibits ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments. And society’s standard for cruelty changes, and so does our understanding of what an ‘unusual’ punishment would be. The meanings of those words are ever shifting, like the meanings of all words, always. And the law can and should reflect that reality.

The doctrine I want to write about today is, blood atonement, is one the Church has genuinely repudiated. But it certainly was taught, by Brigham Young and others, especially during the Mormon Reformation period in the mid-1850s.  Let me reiterate; I am not an historian and I am not a theologian. I’m a playwright with wifi. I have no authority in these matters, and quite possibly don’t know what I’m talking about.

Here’s my best sense of things. At some point in the past, some Church leaders (including the President of the Church, from the pulpit, in General Conference), taught that Christ’s atonement may not actually be efficacious for some very serious sins, like murder and apostasy. Serious sinners could voluntarily ask to be executed, for the sake of their eternal souls. But Brigham’s rhetoric on the subject was over-the-top. And his oratory led to conspiracy-theory style accusations that Brigham Young sent out hit squads of Danites to murder apostates.

Here’s what Brigham Young actually said. It’s a long block quotation, and I edited it a bit for length; apologies:

Now take a person in this congregation . . . and suppose that he is overtaken in a gross fault, that he has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of exaltation that he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed, he will atone for that sin and be saved and exalted with the Gods. Is there a man or woman in this house but that will say “shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?”

Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant. He never told a man or woman to love their enemies in their wickedness, never.

I can refer to where the Lord had to slay every soul of the Israelites that went out of Egypt, except Caleb and Joshua. He slew them by the hands of their enemies, by the plague, and by the sword, why? Because He loved them, and promised Abraham that He would save them. And He could save them upon no other principle, for they had forfeited their right to the land of Canaan by transgressing the law of God, and they could not have atoned for the sin if they had lived. But if they were slain, the Lord could bring them up in the resurrection, and give them the land of Canaan, and He could not do it on any other principle.

I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain in order to atone for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance (in the last resurrection there will be), if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty. I have known a great many men who have left this Church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them. The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.

This is loving our neighbors as ourselves. If he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. . . . That is the way to love mankind.

Nobody talks like this anymore. Nobody anywhere, except the kookiest kooks in cuckoo-ville. Al Qaeda, maybe: Isis.

But this kind of rhetorical flourish was common in the 19th century. This talk of Brigham Young’s took place in 1857. The year before, 1856, John Brown was engaging in acts of violent terrorism in Kansas, and a US senator, Charles Sumner, was caned to within an inch of his life on the floor of the US Senate, by a fellow Senator, Preston Brooks. Within 3 years, the ferociously extreme language used by both sides in the slavery/abolition argument led to civil war. Here’s an example of that rhetoric: “Though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the Abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose.” And on and on.

Nineteenth century American society was violent and racist and sexist and . . . immoderate. We Americans were a muscular people, and we expressed ourselves vigorously. And the LDS church was theologically adventurous. I think it likely that Brigham Young genuinely believed that hundreds of sinners would welcome getting their throats slit, as an act of mercy. It goes without saying that essentially nobody thinks that anymore.

Were any apostate Mormons actually killed in this fashion? Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s book on the subject makes a case for it, and I don’t doubt that it’s possible. Quite possibly further research may validate claims of 19th century blood atonement homicides. I just don’t see what it has to do with Mormonism as it’s practiced today.

The Church today does not preach blood atonement, nor does it support the death penalty politically, nor does it require that the death penalty be administered via firing squad. Here is the official position of the Church:

In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives. However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.

This is as close as we’ll ever see to the Church repudiating public comments from a former President. Brigham Young engaged in ’emotional oratory.’ Boy, did he ever. And that’s really all that needs to be said. We don’t need to distort our theology to accommodate the publicly stated views of past leaders. We cannot, and shouldn’t try to correlate every syllable of the Journal of Discourses with current views. Brigham Young loved to engage in what we might call speculative theology. He floated ideas that probably made sense at the time, but which, in our time, our culture, seem pretty wacka-doodle.

Why can’t we just admit the obvious? Brigham Young was wrong. To quote Toby Ziegler’s rabbi: “Maybe  his ideas reflected the best wisdom of his age. But it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard.”

 

Mormon Doctrines? House of Israel

People are naturally tribal. We evolved on the steppes and in the forests, chased by ill-disposed creatures of four and two legged varieties, in constant peril. But we could find safety in numbers. And so we gathered. And trusted our people, our friends and neighbors, and were darn suspicious of goldurn outsiders. And when we began to contemplate the possibility of transcendence, a life after this one, a higher power blessing or punishing us, a God, we assumed that S/He, whoever S/He was or however we imagined Him/Her, anyway, God, liked us best.

I’m not saying anything new here. We all acknowledge this, even as we gather ourselves into tribes. I’m a theatre person; they’re my people. I’m a Norwegian-American; that’s another grouping. Probably the most hysterically arbitrary tribal designations in our culture have to do with professional sports teams. I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, which means I am obligated to look askance at those misguided souls who root for the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite the fact that the best players from both teams are likely from The Dominican Republic or Venezuela, if not Georgia, and that I’m literally rooting for laundry. But I’m also a baseball fan, which means I make common cause with other baseball fans, including those odious kitten-torturers who root for the Dodgers.

Anyway, Mormons are a tribe. I tend to behave tribally in regards to my fellow Mormons. I pay more attention to Mormon politicians than I do politicians from other faith traditions. I root for Mormon athletes. I will buy an album by an LDS musician when I might not for other musicians.

And I love my ward. I go to church every Sunday, and enjoy it. I look forward to it. I try to listen intently to the talks, and I sing the hymns with enthusiasm (though I have been known to, ahem, improve the lyrics a bit).

And I am pretty well indifferent towards the ‘House of Israel’ bits of our theology. And I can’t help but notice that those doctrines hardly ever get mentioned in General Conference anymore.

When I was younger, talks about the Abrahamic covenant or our place in the House of Israel were fairly common. Preparing for this blog, I went back and re-read some of those older talks. It struck me that every one of those talks (and every lesson on this subject in Sunday School, as I now recall them), began by saying something like ‘this is an immensely important part of our doctrine.’ And I wondered then, and I wonder now, why is this important? What does this have to do with anything? What on earth does it have to do with trying to be a good person?

And I think I can say this with some confidence; those talks have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but vestiges. Nowadays, talks are far more likely to suggest a universal God, who loves all of His children equally. I mean, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) refers constantly to a ‘chosen people.’ That is to say, God’s chosen people; the people of Israel. But we can’t have it both ways. Either God has a chosen people, or He doesn’t. If He genuinely loves all His people equally, all over the world, everybody, all the people on Earth, then He can’t simultaneously promise special blessings to one group of them.

The official stance of the Church is, I think, that we Mormons, when we’re baptized, are thereby adopted into one of the tribes of Israel, so we can participate in the Abrahamic covenant. We can even find out, through revelation to a patriarch, which tribe we ‘belong’ to. Remember the Twelve Tribes?

So once upon a time, the Children of Israel had Twelve Tribes. Ten of them lived in the northern part of Canaan, and one (Judah), lived in the south. (Levites were priests, and lived wherever). Then the Assyrians invaded and carried off the Ten Tribes; they’re gone. From time to time, you’d hear something very sci-fi about how they’re still together, a discrete culture, living in a cave under the Arctic icecap or something. Nobody believes that anymore, but it was a fun folk doctrine back in the day. Anyway, the tribe of Joseph is sort of mysteriously described in the OT (“Joseph is a fruitful vine, whose branches climb over a wall”) and that’s where we come in. That’s us, it’s about us, we Mormons; we’re adopted into Joseph. That’s why Mormon kids, usually in their late teens, get a Patriarchal blessing; a special vision just for us, with guidance into our lives subsequently. And which tribe we belong to.

I did. I got a Patriarchal blessing when I was eighteen. I went to the home of this kindly elderly man, and he laid his hands on my head, started a tape recorder (so I could get an accurate typed transcript), and gave me a two page blessing. I loved it, and still do. It said that I would be able to successfully pursue a career in arts. And I have. It said I would be a teacher, and that I would make a difference in the lives of my students. I think that became at least partially true. And it said I would marry, have kids, and that my family would be a great joy to me. All true. It was a beautiful blessing.

The only thing it didn’t do is tell me my lineage.

See, for most Patriarchal Blessings, the main point is to tell you which of the twelve tribes you belong to. Literally, I suppose, it means which tribe you were adopted into–we believe that when we’re baptized, we’re adopted into one of the tribes. And for 99.99% of Mormons, the tribe is Ephraim. (One of the two sons of Joseph). We’re pretty much all of us Ephraim. I suppose, I probably am too. But the main point of the Patriarchal blessing is to tell you your tribal allegiance. The ‘here’s your future’ stuff is frosting. But for me, all I got was frosting. And I also don’t care. I love my Patriarchal blessing exactly as is. I’ve been told I could go and get a supplementary blessing. Have no interest; none. My blessing is awesome, as is.

I think that getting a Patriarchal blessing is a great exercise for teenagers. Gives the kid some direction in life at a time when he or she needs it. The lineage stuff is just vestigial. It doesn’t matter what tribe we’re from. We no longer need to believe in a tribal god, with a chosen people. We need to believe in God, a universal God, who loves everyone and wants us to treat each other with respect and dignity and compassion.

It’s been years since I heard a sermon on the Abrahamic Covenant, or the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And I honestly don’t miss those talks. It just isn’t a significant part of our faith anymore.

 

Mormon doctrines? Birth control

My wife and I were talking the other day about how different Church was when we were younger, and especially, about doctrines and cultural practices that seem to have gone away. I suppose most religious traditions change in significant ways; there’s often, perhaps always doctrinal instability and cultural evolution. Probably, I just notice the Mormon case because that’s where I live, spiritually.

Anyway, I thought, over the next few days, that I would explore the changes I’ve noticed, and try to winkle out a reason for them. For those of you who read this blog, but who aren’t Mormons, I apologize. Maybe you’ve noticed similar changes in your own faith traditions? Anyway, as always, I have no authority to speak for or about the Church. I’m just a playwright with wifi; I claim no expertise in theology or cultural anthropology.

Anyway, the first major change we noticed, and the issue that led to this conversation has to do with birth control. We got married in 1980, and before then, when we were growing up and later when we were dating, the idea of using birth control was, if not entirely forbidden, at least strongly discouraged. The purpose of sex was, primarily, procreation. Artificially restricting the size of one’s family was considered incompatible with God’s will.

If you want to look for anti-birth control quotations from General Authorities, there are certainly plenty to choose from, including quotations from men I have looked up to and admired.  “In most cases the desire not to have children has its birth in vanity, passion and selfishness. . . All such efforts . . . befoul the pure fountains of life with the slime of indulgence and sensuality.” (David O. McKay, 1919) Or this: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, and those who refuse the responsibility of bringing them into the world and caring for them are usually prompted by selfish motives, and the result is that they suffer the penalty of selfishness throughout eternity.” George Albert Smith. Or this: “As to sex in marriage, the necessary treatise on that for Latter-day Saints can be written in two sentences: Remember the prime purpose of sex desire is to beget children. Sex gratification must be had at that hazard.” J. Rueben Clark. Or this: I have told tens of thousands of young folks that when they marry they should not wait for children until they have finished their schooling and financial desires. They should live together normally and let the children come.” Spencer W. Kimball.

This was the normal, everyday rhetoric of Church leaders when I was growing up. It was preached from the pulpit in Church. It was what we all believed. If you had asked me, back in the late seventies, whether my wife and I would practice birth control, I would certainly have said no. I honestly didn’t think about it much. I’m a guy; I wasn’t the one who would be getting pregnant. Still, this is what everyone believed and taught.

And then I met Annette. And we became engaged. And talked about our lives together, our goals, our plans, our intentions. And she didn’t have any better information than I had; we both thought birth control was against the rules, and we both felt pretty uncomfortable with that idea, for reasons neither of us could really articulate. We were Mormon kids; we weren’t comfortable talking about sex at all, let alone the specifics of pregnancy protection.

But we were in a student stake, and one of the counselors in the stake Presidency was an OB/GYN. And he gave a series of firesides on sexuality and birth control. And we had to go; the SP said we had to attend these firesides in order to be given a marriage temple recommend. Not that we wouldn’t have gone anyway; the seminars were, to two nice Mormon kids without a clue about human sexuality, spectacularly informative and interesting and invaluable.

Best of all, this counselor talked about birth control. He talked about the various kinds of birth control available, and gave us his best sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each. (This is what he said about abstinence: “it’s a form of birth control, and like all forms of birth control, it can have unpleasant side effects.”)

What he said in those firesides has become official Church policy. Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions rested solely with us. This was a decision we needed to make, mutually. This was something we needed to talk about and decide. It wasn’t anyone else’s business. Above all, this wasn’t something I got to decide, as the guy. And it was also not something I should just let her deal with. We needed to genuinely communicate. We needed to agree, completely and fully.

The policy today couldn’t be clearer. It’s official doctrine, right there on the Church website. Why the change? Why all this anti-birth control rhetoric, and then nothing. Because really isn’t something anyone talks about anymore. I couldn’t tell you when the last time was when I heard a talk on this subject in Church. It’s certainly never discussed in General Conference. Why?

I know it sounds absurd to say that it’s because the Church is becoming more feminist, or at least more open to feminist thinking. Surely, for most of you, that’s an absurd thing to say. But it’s nonetheless true, in a quiet, unacknowledged way. The Church is becoming more open to feminism, if only because society is growing much more open to women’s issues and the Church is part of society. Decisions about reproduction, about pregnancy and childbirth, these are women’s issues. And yes, there’s tremendous social pressure on young women to marry too soon, to have too many children too quickly, to put their health at risk so they can fulfill what they believe to be a commandment, to multiply and replenish the earth. I taught at BYU for twenty years; I saw it all the time. Mormon kids do marry too young; I think that’s absolutely true.

But things are changing, slowly and inexorably, and changing for the better. And the evolving stance on birth control is central to that change. And yes, Mormon culture is as annoyingly reliant on mansplaining and clueless patriarchy as any other conservative American subculture. But when I was first married, birth control was discouraged and now it’s no one’s business. That’s a good thing.

The Great Wall: Movie Review

The Great Wall was billed as something of a prestige film. It’s the first English-language film by an important international director, Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) with a major American actor, Matt Damon, and the biggest budget yet for a film shot entirely in China. It’s about the Great Wall of China, for heaven’s sake. But it had also gotten fairly bad reviews–35% on Rottentomatoes.com. I expected something fairly sober, like Hero, but perhaps a little self-important, hence the reviews.

What I did not expect was an exciting monster movie. What I didn’t expect was something fun, but insubstantial. The story’s kind of dumb, and a lot of the movie doesn’t work all that well. But it looks amazing, and it includes action sequences that are mind-blowingly intricate and superbly staged. My wife and I enjoyed ourselves.

Damon plays a soldier-for-hire named William, who, along with his best friend and fellow mercenary, Tover (Pedro Pascal), is in China trying to find the ultimate superweapon, an exploding black powder, thinking they can make a fortune selling it in the West. Gunpowder, in other words, which would set the movie, I don’t know, sometime in the 12th or 13th centuries. William and Tovar are attacked by a monster, and manage to cut off a foot while fighting it off. They’re subsequently captured by soldiers from the Nameless Order, posted at a section of the Great Wall, who are fascinated by this creature’s foot. The monster, it turns out, is a creature called a Taotie. And it turns out, they’re the reason for the Wall.

The Taotie (a legendary creature in Chinese mythology), are plenty scary. They’re sort of lizard-y, like a cross between an iguana and a velociraptor, with big teeth and claws, and eyes in their shoulders. They’re fast, highly intelligent, and, we’re told, pose a danger to all of humanity. They eat what they kill, and they regurgitate it into the mouth of their queen, who directs their actions, and replaces their losses. Eventually, they’ll eat enough Chinese people to spread further West. All of mankind is at risk, we’re told. And the Nameless Order, and the Wall, are all that’s stopping them.

And the Nameless soldiers are fantastic. They wear color-coded uniforms, depending on their tasks. Some are archers, some are foot soldiers. Some are spearwomen, who bungie-jump off high platforms with spears, and who seem particularly lethal (and vulnerable).  All the battle sequences, and there are many, are spectacular.

I don’t actually think the Great Wall could do everything this movie thinks it could do. I don’t think, for example, that there were/are slots in the walls where huge scythe-y blades would be inserted and swung about lethally. Or flute-arrows, good in a mist, because they warn you if a wounded Taotie is coming at you. Or ginormous flaming catapulted rocks. I question the historical accuracy of at least some of that. But it all sure looked cool.

Yimou Zhang is the kind of old-fashioned director who, if a scene calls for a thousand soldiers, will cast and drill and costume a thousand extras rather than rely on CGI. I found that those battle sequences were both exciting and heart-breaking. The stakes were high; you could see how risky combat was, and how much was at stake for these superb soldiers. They weren’t faceless casualties. They were people, brave and daring.

The Nameless are led by a woman, a Commander Lin (Tian Jing). Jing is wonderful in the role; I had never seen her before, but she was great, commanding and vulnerable. In fact, the Chinese actors all fared better than the Western actors, especially Andy Lau as Strategist Wang (their top military mind), and Lu Han, as Peng Yong, the company’s lowly dishwasher, who reveals an unanticipated valor by the end of the film.

As for the Western actors, Pedro Pascal is fine as the rather one-dimensional Tovar, and Willem Dafoe is forgettable as a character, Ballard, whose arc makes no sense whatsoever. (He’s there to steal gunpowder too, but after twenty five years has done nothing about it–mostly, he’s there to explain how Lin speaks English).

I love Matt Damon. I think he’s a fine actor, who has managed his career beautifully. He knows what sorts of roles he can play, and stays within his comfort zone. In this, he tries a sort of vaguely Celtic accent (Scots? Irish?), which comes and goes. He’s fine. But most of his better scenes are with Tian Jing, and she kind of blows him away.

The problem is, this is basically a monster film, and the moments that try to be something else don’t work very well. The monsters attack, there’s an astonishing action sequence, they’re driven off. Repeat, as needed. In the meantime, we see Tovar and Ballard plot to steal gunpowder, which we never are able to care about. And William’s supposed to be helping them, but he’s distracted, first by the monsters, but mostly with Lin.

The movie’s one stab at some larger relevance comes in William’s interactions with this Chinese female commander. She’s Chinese. She values cooperation, the individual sacrificing for the common good. He’s a Westerner; he values rugged individualism. That being the case, he really ought to be on his way with his two doofus friends and their black powder. But he’s drawn to these people, drawn to their heroism, drawn to the taut professionalism of their soldiers, and, of course, also drawn to this one particular fascinating strong young woman. It’s not a romantic movie; they never kiss, for example. But there’s clearly an attraction, and, of course, why wouldn’t there be? He’s a professional soldier. So is she. They’re both astonishing good at combat. And the Taotie are really, genuinely a threat.

In fact, the Taotie are such a threat, the gunpowder-stealing subplot is just annoying. And the philosophical discussions about which society is better, Chinese or Western, are about as compelling as abstract philosophical discussions usually are in action movies. When Lin and William talk, the movie stops dead in its tracks. But when they fight side by side? It’s magical.

It’s such a beautiful film, and the action sequences are so compelling, it kept our attention. Yimou Zhang makes gorgeous films. He’s also made profound ones in the past, and this is not one of those. I’m still glad I saw it. Matt Damon moves well, and his action sequences were fine. I don’t much care which foreign accent he mangles. And Tian Jing is marvelous. In fact, I intend to see the new King Kong movie (a singularly unnecessary film, I would have said, and not something I would ordinarily bother with), just because she’s in it.

It’s a shame, really. This film was promoted as an art film. A big budget feature by a major international director. In fact, it’s just a really scary monster movie, and it looks great. I wish it could have found its audience here, in the States. It should do fine in China.

When Trump tells the truth

We’re just a month or so into the Trump presidency, and my head is still reeling. Every day, there’s something new. What I personally find most astounding are the lies. Yes, I know, politicians all shade the truth, from “I am not a crook” to “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” We’re used to the careful parsing of sentences, the spin, the pivots and obfuscations. That’s normal; that’s what we’re used to.

What we’re not used to is a President who lies like a five-year-old. “I didn’t break that lamp, Mommy,” says the weepy child, standing in the lamp’s wreckage. With Trump, it feels pathological. Anyone can look at the photos of the Obama and Trump inaugurations and see which crowd was bigger. It’s easy enough to look up electoral vote totals. But only Trump can insist that he had the biggest crowds ever, that his win was the biggest landslide ever, even when those assertions are clearly, obviously not true.

What’s interesting about Trump isn’t that he lies, it’s why his lies are so ridiculous. And what I find even more interesting are those brief moments when he tells the truth. Those are the moments that reveal the depths of incredible cynicism that underlie the con man’s performance. Trump’s a television star, a performer, and although the performance is offputting and scary, underneath it is something way way darker than slogans like Make America Great Again would suggest.

Here’s Trump on making campaign donations, for example. January, 2015, he said “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.” He repeated the same basic idea many times; it was a huge part of his appeal. Yes, the game was rigged, and rigged in favor of the wealthy. He knew, because he was a wealthy guy who gave money to political campaigns and expected a lot in return.

Isn’t that why a lot of people liked him? Because he told the truth? Of course, in fact, he rarely told the truth. But when he said he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, that line brought some of the biggest cheers from the crowds at his rallies. He admitted that the response surprised him, but if it was so popular, he’d keep saying it. Still, we all know how hopelessly corrupted American politics is by the need for politicians to raise huge amounts of money for their campaigns. We know that Congresspeople spend 6-8 hours a day on phones, raising money. That’s why both parties own sophisticated call centers a short distance from Congressional offices for the use of Congress. We all know that; we know how much time politicians spend raising money, and how little time they spend legislating. And of course, if businesspeople give money to a politicians, it stands to reason that they would expect something in return. Trump plugged into American cynicism about our elected officials; it was an effective strategy. Of course, he’s not actually draining any swamps. He played us for suckers, obviously. (Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders, who genuinely wants to change the way Americans finance elections). But at least Trump was appropriately cynical about the system.

Trump also seems to reject the mainstream narrative of American exceptionalism. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, he was asked about his support for Vladimir Putin. “He’s a killer,” said O’Reilly. “There are a lot of killers,” responded Trump. “Do you think our country’s so innocent?”

Well, of course we’re not. Innocent? America? After Vietnam and Iraq, after CIA assassination attempts and drone strikes, after unprovoked wars and native American genocide? After slavery? The exceptionalist narrative promoted by civic clubs and civics teachers requires, at best, that we overlook an awful lot of history, and a whole raftful of policies over the years. I admired President Obama, am glad I voted for him, and consider him to have been a fine President, but there’s certainly a lot of blood on his hands, as is true of every American President in history. Except maybe for William Henry Harrison, who didn’t have time to do many bad things. (But who did kill lots of Indians before becoming President).

Trump famously proclaimed that his motto would be America First. Setting aside the horrific historical origins of that phrase, I think it’s a bit refreshing, honestly. American foreign policy has always combined realism and idealism. We’re supposed to stand for something–the old ‘shining city on a hill’ rhetoric–while also straightforwardly pursuing our national interests. Well, it rather seems as though Trump’s willing to toss idealism overboard. We’re as bad as everyone else. We’re morally equivalent to Vladimir Putin. (That’s nonsense, but it’s a kind of nonsense I never thought I’d hear from any POTUS). Again, it’s cynical. But at least he’s not trying to pretend his policies will be anything but American-directed.

Should that be our foreign policy? Of course not. I want to retain at least some measure of idealism, some sense that America can mean some kind of moral order. I think, for example, of Obama and Clinton’s response to the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. As nation after nation jettisoned their brutal dictators–Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad–as oppressed peoples began to assert their independence, the US was forced to respond, and for the most part, we did, by supporting the independence movements. And yes, at times, an excess of idealism led to the most brutal catastrophes. Libya remains a failed state without Gaddafi. Egypt is back in the hands of the military. Syria’s situation remains in a state of international humanitarian crisis. Tunisia, though, seems to be transitioning towards a pro-Western constitutional republic. Failures abound, and successes remain few. But, really, what choice did we have. The Obama/Clinton foreign policy, in the wake of Arab Spring, seems to have been to try to manage massive changes, which eventually became, for the most part, unmanageable. If anyone has a better idea, though, I’d like to hear it. I’m not making an argument for Trumpian cynicism. I’m also saying there’s something to it, both in historical and contemporaneous terms.

So that’s Trump. He lies, a lot, in bizarrely obvious ways. But every once in a while, he tells the truth. And that’s when we see just how cynical he is, and how ruthlessly amoral. We elected a businessman, which did not necessarily suggest a moral compass.  It’s shocking, really, to see how real realpolitikk can become.

Trump’s sort of State of the Union

Donald Trump addressed both chambers of Congress yesterday, in what would have been called the State of the Union address, if first-term Presidents gave SOTUs. I’ll say this: it was considerably less unhinged than usual. Trump stuck with the script, for the most part, and his speechwriters served him well. He didn’t brag about his electoral victory, and he didn’t insult people gratuitously. He pretty much stuck to policy. There was some boasting, of course, but that’s fine; it’s normal for Presidents to highlight their administration’s achievements.

I’m sure, from Congress’s perspective, it would have been nice if the speech had included some policy specifics, especially on such issues as replacing the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, and infrastructure repairs. But if we didn’t already know that this President isn’t any kind of policy wonk, his recent discovery that health care reform is ‘complicated,’ which apparently came as news to him, was especially relevatory. What we’re going to get from this White House is general outlines, not policy specifics. And that’s okay; every President finds his own approach.

There were even moments of grace and eloquence. “A new national pride is sweeping across our nation, and a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit.” That’s baloney, of course, but it’s pretty sounding baloney, for all its lack of nutrients.

No, what was wrong with Trump’s speech was, basically, all of it. Like most State of the Union addresses, he talked about both what’s going right and what’s going wrong. That’s the point of a SOTU. Here’s what’s going well, so we should keep on doing more of that, and here’s what’s going badly, so we should stop doing thus-and-such and see if we can fix the damage. It’s a useful annual exercise. And the problem here is that none of the problems Trump wants to solve are actually problems. I’m not saying we don’t have problems; of course we do. But he doesn’t have a clue what our actual problems actually are.

So for example, this:

We tended the borders of other nations while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.

The US border is absolutely not ‘wide open for anyone to cross.’ If that were true, we might actually have a problem with illegal immigration, which we don’t. In fact, the unauthorized immigrant numbers have barely grown at all over the last seven years. And we certainly have a lot of people dying from illegal drug use; 52,000 in 2015. Most of those aren’t from cocaine pouring across the borders; they’re from opioid painkillers, illegal prescription drugs. Trump’s solution, of course, is to build a ginormous wall between the US and Mexico. This will accomplish nothing. We do have a problem with Mexican drug cartels (the last group on earth to be deterred by a wall), but the solution to that problem involves working with Mexican authorities, not offending them.

We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.  According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offense since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.

He’s defending his travel ban here, and it’s completely bonkers. Here is the number of jihadists who have perpetrated terrorist attacks in the US: 12. All of them, without exception, were American citizens or legal permanent residents. Refugees from Syria, Libya or Somalia (all banned from the US according to Trump’s executive order), have committed zero acts of terrorism. Refugees to the US are very very carefully vetted. The travel ban is, again, an ineffective response to a non-existent problem. It’s also damaging to America’s interests and makes it harder to actually fight against terrorists.

We must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited: 94 million Americans are out of the labor force, over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps. More than one in five people in their prime working years are not working. We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years. In the last eight years, the past administration has put on more new debt than nearly all of the other presidents combined. We have lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved , and we have lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

These statistics are completely misleading. Take that first number: “94 million people out of the labor force.” That includes retirees; my parents for example. I’m on permanent disability; it includes me. It includes high school kids, and college kids. It includes trust fund kids. It includes people living off their investments. It includes stay-at-home Moms and Dads. It includes adults who went back to college. In fact, the US unemployment rate is currently 4.9%. That’s very good. I don’t personally know a single person who wants a job and can’t find one, and I was our ward employment specialist.

Trump also refers to international trade agreements as though they’re the Black Death. The US has absolutely lost manufacturing jobs since NAFTA passed. There is, and was, pain. But NAFTA also created jobs, 4.9 million of them, more jobs than were lost, because of increased trade with Mexico and Canada. Losing the TPP and NAFTA will harm the US and world economies. So Trump insists that he’s going to create millions of jobs, and undo the damage done by free trade through protectionist tariffs. He’s invented a non-problem and is proposing a ludicrous solution.

Trump also loves to talk about the US trade deficit as though it’s a huge problem that needs an immediate solution. It isn’t. My son, the economist, points out that he’s running a huge trade deficit with Smith’s (the grocery store nearest his apartment). For a long time, now, he’s been taking food from Smith’s, and all they get in return is cash. It’s non-sustainable! He’s never so much as given them an avocado. Of course, they don’t actually need an avocado–they have plenty. But still, he’s running a deficit.

That’s what the US is doing. We’re trading good for capital. That capital we can subsequently invest, growing our economy. It’s really not that big a deal.

Trump is right when he says American companies pay higher corporate taxes than other companies do internationally. That’s why so many American companies are moving off shore. Trump wants to cut the corporate tax rate, a reform I’m actually okay with. And he says he’s going to cut middle class taxes. And rich peoples’ taxes, too. Without cutting spending, and while increasing spending on the military and infrastructure. Yeah, that’s all gonna be real sustainable.

Anyway, that’s Trump’s speech. He hardly ever actually identifies a real-life, honest to goodness problem. His ‘crises’ are straight from his own dystopic imaginings. And so his solutions have the same fairy-tale quality. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he has no idea what to do about it. Someone wrote him a pretty speech, and he read it competently. That doesn’t make him “presidential.”