American Idol

My wife and I have been intermittent fans of American Idol for years now. I wouldn’t say we’re any kind of die-hards, but we do still watch, even now, when the show is clearly on its last legs. Back in the day, Idol was on two nights a week, often two hours a night. Remember the results show, where they stretched a simple, straightforward announcement–Contestant A has been eliminated!–to a full hour’s show full of tension and strife. That’s all gone. None of the original lineup of judges is around anymore, though actually, that’s kind of an improvement–Harry Connick is terrific, insightful and smart and helpful. He’s good enough, I’m willing to put up with Keith Urban and JLo. They have a new producer/mentor guy, the oleaginous Scott Borchetta, whose various ‘this week you have to really bring it!’ exhortations we generally just fast-forward past. Still, this week, something interesting happened, something kind of genuine and non-scripted and odd.

Okay, so the way they do it now, the contestants all sing, and we vote for them, and the next week, they all sit in these lighted chairs, and the highest vote-getter’s chair lights turn green, and that’s how they know they’ve advanced. So they then get up and sing, and we vote on their performance for next week. But the last two unlighted chairs are for the ‘bottom two,’ and at the end of the show, those two sing, and everyone in America votes on Twitter. And one poor schmuck is eliminated right there. Handed his/her choice of weapon and sent to a fiery pit to do battle with an Orc, to the death. (I may have made that last bit up).

Actually, no, they just get to go home and not be on American Idol anymore. Which is not to say they don’t get some subsequent success in the music biz. One of the fascinating things about Idol is that the exposure from being on the show is often more important than actually winning it. Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, several of them have all done really well after not winning the contest, while Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks haven’t been as successful. Not all of them get Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson-type careers.

Anyway, so, on Idol last week, they were down to the top seven. Clark Beckham and Tyanna Jones were the top two. They’re both really good singers, and I suspect one of the two of them will win. Then came Jax–she just goes by one name–she’s been uneven throughout. Nick Fradiani (Adam Levine wannabe) went next. That left three contestants; Joey Cook, Sayvon Owen, and Quentin Alexander.

Sayvon has been near the bottom the entire show. He’s crawled out of more coffins than Bela Lugosi. He keeps almost getting eliminated, and keeps barely surviving. Good looking kid with a big smile and a gorgeous voice, but not much of a performer. Seems like the nicest kid.

Joey, though, Joey’s interesting. She is a weirdo. I mean that in a good way; she has a weird voice, a weird look; she’s quirky and does really imaginative arrangements of the songs she’s assigned. Like she did Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love as a bluegrass song, and it worked.http://www.americanidol.com/american-idol/performances?pid=105301&vid=105246 She’s absolutely the most original contestant they’ve had, since Adam Lambert (who is still the greatest Idol ever).

Quentin Alexander is fascinating. He looks like he came straight to Idol from an off-Broadway revival of Hair. A whole 60’s Black Panther vibe, but with more piercings. He’s a tremendous performer, and seems like a serious and thoughtful and intense young man.

So: stage is set. Quentin, Joey and Sayvon, on the three unlighted chairs. Quentin’s chair lights up; we’re going to a Twitter vote between Joey and Sayvon to stay on the show. Quentin sings. Then he says, loudly, ‘this is wack.’ And Harry Connick called him out. Here’s what they said:

Quentin: This sucks. We have two of the best vocalists, my best friend is sitting over there. This whole thing is wack, but I’m going to shut up right now.

Harry: Quentin, if it’s that wack, then you can always go home because Idol is paying a lot of money to give you this experience and for you to say that to this hand that is feeding you right now, I think is highly disrespectful.

To his credit, Quentin came back on-stage, walked up to Harry, and explained. He didn’t mean that the whole competition was wack. He was reacting emotionally to two good friends having to duke it out to stay alive in the competition. Later, though, he doubled-down, saying that he felt Connick’s comments were ‘disrespectful.’

Quentin Alexander is 21 years old. He’s a highly emotional performer, and seems to be a very emotional young man. Over the course of the Idol experience, he apparently has grown very close to Joey Cook; not romantically (in fact, she just announced her engagement), but as friends. So maybe this is just a young man blowing off steam.

But isn’t he, at least in part, somewhat right? I mean, I know that Idol is a singing competition, with a very nice first prize; a recording contract. And it’s no more brutal a process than any audition would be, for any performing art. Still, it is a little bit wack. Interesting young artists competing to become, what? A music industry voice-for-hire?

Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame, has been outspoken on this subject, saying recently, “imagine Bob Dylan standing there in front of those judges singing Blowin’ in the Wind, and them going ‘it’s a little nasally and flat. Sorry.” Grohl (who I think sometimes is on a campaign to save rock and roll in America, expanded on this:

When I think about kids watching TV shows like American Idol or The Voice, and they think, oh, okay, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f-ing hours at a convention center with 800 other people, and you sing your heart out to someone and they tell you it’s not good enough? Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old drum set and just get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in, and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll start playing, and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and maybe all the sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s–ty instruments, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again!

Or, like Joey Cook, color her hair and wear weird outfits and sing with a wobbly odd sounding voice, and doing something remarkable every week, often not very good, but never once uninteresting. I hope she does well. And I hope we see Quentin again. American Idol is kind of wack, and I’m glad he pointed it out, though I probably will keep watching, for a little while at least.

 

 

Political first principles

Okay, so I got into a discussion on-line yesterday. Yes, I know, my New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop arguing politics on the internet, but this discussion was at least reasonably cordial, considering that one of the people arguing was a Tea Party conservative, and another of them was me. Anyway, my friend asked me what, in my mind, the true principles of politics were. His argument is that there exists absolute truth in all arenas–religion, science, psychology, politics–and that it’s our job to figure it out. The corollary, I suspect, is that God knows what that absolute truth is, and will reveal it to us (or has revealed it to us), if we search for it in the right places. And another corollary, I suspect, is that the absolute truth in politics is found in that divinely inspired document, the US Constitution.

I don’t think that way. I’m generally suspicious of truth claims. I think basic human subjectivity leads us inevitably to confirmation bias. I love Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. He speaks of the most contentious political issue in American history, slavery:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves . . . localized in the south. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Preceding this famous passage came perhaps the most powerful four words in the history of Presidential speech-making: “and the war came.” And 600, 000 young men died. Because of a political dispute, growing out of a theological dispute, built on the foundation of a cultural clash.

So that’s my first principle. That, that war that came, that dispute blowing up into violence and death, that’s the worst case scenario. That’s what can happen when politics fails. That can’t be allowed to happen again. People say our politics today, in 2015, is broken. It’s not. Damaged, certainly; frustrating, unquestionably; insane, at times, sure. Comical, absolutely. But not broken. When politics is broken, soldiers die. And children suffer.

Second principle: policy is more important than politics. Politics is about power, the acquisition of power, the wielding of power. In a democratic republic, politics is about winning elections. Policy is about what we do with power, once we’ve attained it. Bad policy is policy that hurts people, that makes people’s lives worse; good policy is policy that helps people, makes their lives better. But we never quite know, do we? What policies will achieve, what unintended consequences can result. And we’re all biased, all subjective. We look at evidence, at statistics, and we draw differing conclusions. It’s rare for all the evidence to be on any side of any dispute. And we’re human beings; we love anecdotal evidence. We don’t actually do very well with abstractions and objectivity; we want to hear a good story, and we want to feel something.

One great example is food stamps. I’m a liberal, and I think food stamps are a perfect example of a federal program that works. I think it’s a spectacular success. I think there’s strong evidence that it’s a program largely free from waste and corruption, and that it does a terrific job of feeding poor people. But then came Jason Greenslate, an able-bodied surfer dude, living on food stamps in California, and uninterested, apparently, in getting a job. Fox News ran with it, and suddenly food stamp fraud had a poster boy. And let’s face it; both sides do this. How many internet memes feature some conservative legislator somewhere who said something comically sexist, racist, or just plain stupid? Or misrepresent something Sarah Palin just said? We humans love to extrapolate general principles from single examples. And outrage is a particularly easy emotion to provoke.

We all want policy to be even-handedly administered, fair, effective, cost controlled and free from corruption. Policy really does matter, and solid, reasonably objective evidence, for or against some policy initiative, really does exist. It’s just hard to find. And no policy uniformly benefits everyone, and never once harms anyone. We’re weighing harm against benefits, every policy, all the time. Heck, every government program, at every level, costs some money, and that requires taxes, and that means money out of someone’s pocket. That’s always true.

Third principle: both conservatives and liberals are necessary. Both sides are essential, both perspectives have to be listened to, and all policies require the cooperation and some measure of compromise between both (or multiple) sides.

I know this is simplistic, but really, isn’t the heart of liberalism something like this: ‘here’s a social problem, and it needs to be fixed, people are suffering. So here’s a program that can, and probably will fix the problem.’ And the heart of conservatism is something like this: ‘hold on there. Maybe this problem isn’t as bad as you think. We’ve put up with it so far pretty well, haven’t we? How much will fixing it cost? What unintended negative consequences might result? Let’s not just jump in there. Let’s study it out, and see if there’s another solution that won’t require the resource of government, which are, after all, finite.’

You’ll see lists from time to time of a whole bunch of really effective and popular federal programs–Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the federal highway system, universal education, the GI Bill, rural electification, civil rights legislation, and so on. And then someone will say ‘every one of these program was proposed by a liberal, and opposed by a conservative.’ But that’s what liberals do; propose government programs to fix problems. And that’s what conservatives do; ask how much it’s going to cost, ask if there’s not a better solution. I think it’s true that every popular government program probably was proposed by a liberal and opposed by conservatives. But it’s likewise true that every disastrous, expensive, bureaucratically unwieldy, inflexible, screwed up government program was likewise proposed by a liberal, and opposed by conservatives. We need both impulses. We need both approaches, both points of view.

Where both sides can come together is over reform efforts. It’s in the best interests of liberals to have government work effectively (and it certainly can, and does, a lot). So when a program gets bureaucratically ossified or ineffective or unnecessary, liberals and conservatives can and should work together to fix it. Problem is, mostly, they don’t, for reasons having to do with politics. It’s easier to score political points by pointing out the failures of the other side than it is to work constructively with political opponents to actually get stuff done. That’s kind of where we are right now, nationally, and shame on everyone for it.

If you do that too much, both conservatism and liberalism can devolve into ideologies. Again: confirmation bias; it’s very easy for people (especially zealously inclined people) to think that they’re completely right and that the other guys are just being obstinate or stupid.  I think both sides can spin-off extremists. Of course, as a liberal, I tend to think that ‘movement conservatism,’ or ‘Tea Party conservatism,’ or whatever you want to call it, is a terribly dangerous and wrong-headed movement. It’s one thing to say ‘we need to keep an eye on government,’ quite another to say ‘all government is always bad always.’ But politically correct liberalism (especially identity politics) can be just as risibly wrong-headed.

Anyway, I wonder if this is a conversation we should be having. What do we have in common? Where do we differ? What policies work, and what policies might work if reformed sensibly? Because we have a great big country. Great and big. It’d be nice to keep it that way.

 

 

Woman in Gold: Film review

Woman in Gold is a terrific movie, much better than I expected. It reminded my wife of The King’s Speech; it reminded me of Philomena, and it’s a movie that fits nicely with either of those equally terrific films. Only The King’s Speech won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, and Philomena was nominated for both. Woman in Gold, meanwhile gets the obscurity of an April release, no Oscar buzz, a lower-than-deserved Rottentomatoes score, and gets to battle Furious 7 for audience share. Ah, the vagaries of Hollywood release strategies! Philomena, based on a true story, starred Judi Dench as an elderly woman coming to terms with her past, helped by an initially-reluctant-but-increasingly-engaged younger male cohort; Woman in Gold, likewise historically based, stars Helen Mirren as ditto, and Ryan Reynolds as ditto. They’re both approximately twelve billion times better movies than Furious 7. I repeat: ah, the vagaries!

Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who escaped Vienna in the midst of the Anschluss. From a well-to-do, well connected family; her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer was the model for the Gustav Klimt painting, Woman in Gold. Another relation was the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Maria now lives in California, and runs a small dress shop. When her sister dies, she finds old letters that convince her that the Austrian ownership of the Klimt painting is of dubious legality. She asks a distant nephew, Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds), an attorney, to research the case. He becomes increasingly convinced that her case has merit, and pursues it, first to the US Supreme Court (which rules that the Austrian government can legitimately be sued in American courts), and then to Austria, where he and his client agree to binding arbitration.

The legal machinations are fascinating. No one questioned that the painting was owned by Adele Bloch Bauer, then retained after her death by the Bloch Bauer family, then subsequently stolen by the Nazis when they took over. The Austrian government claimed that Adele’s will bequeathed the painting to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. Schoenberg’s research discovered that the will was not legally valid, that the painting was actually left to her husband, and subsequently to the family.

But it’s an incredibly famous painting, the Austrian Mona Lisa, a painting featured on post cards and coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. The Austrian Cultural Ministry, of course, wanted to return stolen Nazi art to its original owners. Up to a point. But come on. Not the Woman in Gold.

Mirren is tremendous as Altmann, at times peppery and opinionated, at times profoundly unwilling to confront her own tragic past. We also see why her past haunts her. At least a third of the movie is told in flashback, as we see her as a young married woman during the Nazi takeover. That takeover was hardly resisted at all, and as anti-Semitic brutality grew, it was generally cheered by the majority of Austrians. The young Maria is played by Tatiana Maslany, the wonderful Canadian actress who is so spectacular in the BBC America series Orphan Black. All the scenes involving her were riveting.

I thought the flashbacks were the best part of the picture. I was equally taken with a pivotal character, Hubertus Czernin (German actor Daniel Brühl). Czernin is an Austrian journalist who helps Maria and Randol in their fight against the Austrian cultural authorities. As he points out, Austria is still engaged in a battle to define itself culturally. Hitler was Austrian, raised in the anti-Semitic sinkhole that was Austrian society before the First World War. The Austrians hardly fought the Nazi takeover at all, and were willing participants in the lethal persecutions of Austria’s Jews. Obviously, post WWII Austrians would much prefer to forget that any of that was true. Not just older Austrians, but Czernin’s own generation resents having the past dredged up against.

Go to Paris, and you expect post cards to feature the Eiffel Tower; go to the Louvre, and post cards will feature Mona Lisa. In Austria, in the 1990s, the Woman in Gold had much of that same cultural allure and prominence. The idea that that painting had been stolen by Nazis, that it represented the most shameful part of Austria’s past, and that its rightful owner wanted it removed from the most important museum in Vienna and sold to Americans was a decidedly unwelcome one. No wonder they fought Maria so hard.

I’ve generally thought of Ryan Reynolds as something of a lightweight actor. Not in this film. Initially, a little bland, he becomes more and more engaged in the case, more and more invested in his own past. The fact that he’s a Schoenberg struck me as particularly apt. Arnold Schoenberg’s music is, of course, difficult to appreciate the first time you hear it. But the twelve tone approach he created rewards those listeners willing to put the time in. The more you listen to it, the more it affects you, and in the end, what initially seemed like an academic exercise becomes closer to an agonized lament, for a time he could see was ending in violence and death. At one point, Randol and Czernin go to a concert, and hear a Schoenberg piece; my one complaint about the movie is that we don’t get to hear more of it.

Anyway, don’t let this movie slip past you. It may not be in town for long; catch it while it is. It’s really powerful, really well done. Beautifully written and acted and photographed and edited; see it, please.

RFRAs and Indiana

A Pennsylvania traffic law requires slow moving vehicles, including Amish buggies, to carry bright orange fluorescent warning signs. The Amish protest, saying that those signs equal technology forbidden by their religious beliefs. Some Indian tribes use peyote sacramentally, although peyote is a controlled substance, its use prohibited by federal law. A Moslem inmate in a state or federal penitentiary asks that a copy of the Quran be made available to him in the prison library, in addition to copies of Bible. A Sikh teenager wears his hair long and grows his beard, violating his American high school’s dress code.

These are all real-life examples of governmental infringements of religious liberty, exactly the sorts of things that a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, is intended to correct. It’s precisely to cover these sorts of issues that President Clinton signed the federal RFRA into law in 1993. It’s reasonable for the Amish buggie to use a lamp instead of a fluorescent sign, for an Indian holy man to dispense peyote, for a Moslem inmate to read his own scriptures and for a Sikh teen to follow the dictates of his faith. We might wonder if the First Amendment doesn’t provide sufficient protections for these sorts of religious practices. But no constitutional rights are absolute, and in 1990, in Employment Division v. Smith, the peyote case, SCOTUS ruled against the plaintiffs, but urged Congress to clarify the circumstances where a religious exception could be made to otherwise compelling government interests. That led to the federal RFRA. Then, in 1997, in City of Boerne v. Flores, SCOTUS limited the scope of the federal RFRA to federal cases, and urged states to craft their own RFRAs. Many have done so, though haphazardly and piecemeal. The point is this: RFRAs are not automatically sinister. As Vox.com recently pointed out, most of the cases in which RFRAs have been invoked have been ‘pretty vanilla.’  They serve a valuable, if minor, function, clarifying those few cases in which religious freedom and government interests collide.

Context matters, though. Boy, does it ever. As court after court has ruled in favor of marriage equality, some conservative legal scholars have begun to see RFRAs as a possible response to what they perceive as ‘the problem with gay marriage.’ The fear is that Christians who oppose homosexual conduct might be forced to, in some way, participate in gay weddings. A Christian baker might be forced to bake a wedding cake, a Christian photographer might be forced to take pictures, an anti-gay florist might be forced to provide flowers. It’s in that context that the Indiana legislature passed its RFRA, and Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed it into law last week. And . . . kerblooie.

On the one hand, I’m not sure I’d want a wedding cake baked by someone who I think might hate me. On the other hand, I’m not sure how a bakery stays in business turning down gigs. One would think that there’s some kind of national epidemic of intolerant bakers, florists and photographers. There isn’t; to the degree that the Indiana RFRA is actually meant to promote intolerance, it strikes me as comically ineffectual. In fact, my guess is that most folks in the wedding industry welcome gay marriage. Social change that expands my customer base? Bring it on!

Anyway, Pence has emerged as the villain of this piece. It turns out that he’s been saying nasty anti-gay things since he first ran for office in 2000.  He’s also really really bad on-camera. Anyway, Pence insists that the purpose of the Indiana RFRA was never to allow private businesses or individuals to discriminate. That claim seems disingenuous. It’s not unusual for governors to invite supporters of any legislation to be there when it’s signed into law. The people at the signing of the Indiana bill included Eric Miller Executive Director of Advance America, who urged the Indiana Senate to sign the bill to protect ‘Christian individuals and Christian businesses’ from punishment if they chose to ‘follow their Biblical beliefs. Also at the signing, Micah Clark, executive director of the Indiana chapter of the American Family Association, who explained that any anti-discrimination language in the bill would ‘completely destroy’ it. It’s pretty clear how they all saw it: as a bill that would allow Christians to discriminate against LGBT people. This is anti-gay marriage backlash. And what we’re seeing in response is anti-backlash backlash.

And so, the good name of the State of Indiana (the state where I was raised, where I finished my PhD, a state I love as a second home), has become synonymous with bigotry. Business leaders across the state have condemned it. So did George Takei, who is now urging folks to boycott Indiana. (Gonna be tricky for me; I’m heading out there in a few weeks!). Pence hasn’t helped. He appeared on the ABC news show This Week With George Stephanopoulos. It did not go well.

Worst of all, the Indiana Pacers, of the NBA, have strongly condemned the bill. The finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are scheduled this week in Indianapolis; the NCAA is seeking other venues. In other words, Pence, and the Indiana legislature have lost basketball. In Indiana. They’ve lost basketball.

No wonder the front page headline in this mornings Indianapolis Star was just three words long. Fix. This. Now.

 

 

 

Cinderella: Film Review

When I first heard that Disney was doing a live-action film based on the old Cinderella animated feature, I had the same reaction I’m sure a lot of you did: Why? The 1950 film was a classic in its day, Golden Age Disney at its best. But we’ve outgrown that time and culture. I could imagine a satire of Disney princesses, a la Enchanted. Or a tougher, stronger Cinderella, like in Ever After. Or a feminist or Marxist deconstruction Cinderella. But just a live-action version of the cartoon, with retrograde classist and patriarchal assumptions left unchallenged? No.

And of course, this new Kenneth Branagh version isn’t that either. It is, however, gloriously and unapologetically romantic in its look and its storytelling. It’s a gorgeous film. (My number one reaction to it, walking out of the theater, was that Sandy Powell just earned her 11th nomination and 4th Oscar for Costume Design). If anything, it’s a humanist reconstruction of the story. Yes, it’s a Cinderella in which a handsome prince sees a beautiful princess at a ball and falls in love at first sight. Except they’ve met before. And he doesn’t know if she actually is a princess, and doesn’t care. And they spend their time at the fancy dress ball playing hooky from it and, you know, talking. Engaging in conversation. And he likes her because she’s vivacious and smart and funny, not just because she looks amazing in that blue dress. (Although she does look amazing in that dress).

A critic I really like, the Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek said that she liked the film precisely because it wasn’t full of ‘female empowerment’ messages, that it wasn’t a film that said to girls ‘you can become anything you want to!’ That isn’t actually true, of course. Instead, Ella’s mom, as she dies, tells her two things, to be brave, and to be kind. I love that. I can’t imagine better advice for my own daughters, and my sons too. Be brave and be kind.

Cinderella is played by Lily James, who you probably know from Downton Abbey. And when you look at Lily James in closeup, you realize that she’s hardly a classic beauty; her nose is a little big, her mouth a little wide, her teeth a bit oversized. And it couldn’t possibly matter less. Her smile lights up her face, and she’s got such vivacity and energy and is so open emotionally, she’s spectacular in the role. The prince, Richard Madden, Robb Stark from Game of Thrones, is of course an exceptionally good looking prince. But he’s also a little dorky, a little awkward. You can see that he doesn’t really know how to talk to girls–he’s a prince, an apprentice king, learning politics on the job–but he likes Ella because she’s easy to talk to, because of her open enthusiasm for, basically everything. The evil step-sisters, Drisella (Sophie McShera, Daisy on Downton Abbey), and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), aren’t physically unattractive (they’re not ugly step-sisters), but they’re unkind, mean, selfish and stupid. And the name ‘Cinderella’ is pejorative, an insult. Until Ella embraces it. She doesn’t want her Prince to have any illusions; she wants him to know her as she is, a servant girl. But she says it proudly, with a smile. She’s learned what it means to be brave, and kind.

Cate Blanchett is the evil step-mother, and again, it’s a smart and human portrayal. Blanchett plays her as a survivor, a tough-minded pragmatist who does what she needs to do to get by in a world dominated by men. She expects Cinderella to wait on her and for the household’s dwindling income to extend to fancy dresses, because keeping up appearances is the way to catch a man, and without a man to look after her, how is she to survive? Her scenes with the King’s evil advisor, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgaard) are delicious, as we see two crafty practitioners of real-politikk sum each other up, and make common cause.

As we left the theater (I saw it with my wife and daughter, and a niece and her husband), we all laughed a bit, at the glorious preposterousness of Cinderella’s ball gown, at this imagined Mittel-European kingdom, on a picturesque coast, but also with Alps, and rosy-cheeked Scandanavian-looking peasants, but also, apparently, a thriving black community. Of course, it’s a fantasy; the whole thing’s a fantasy. But one with at least one foot in the reality of actual human experience. And a fantasy grounded in the notion that in a tough and brutal world, a world full of death and despair, we still have the capacity for courage. And kindness. It’s a terrific film.

 

Imagining a progressive Mormonism

I attended a terrific lecture last night. It was the Eugene England annual lecture, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at UVU. The speaker was Robert Rees, who teaches religious studies at Berkeley. I’ve admired his writing for years, and we became acquainted at Sunstone recently. Anyway, his talk will surely be available on-line soon, and I’ll link to it when it appears. Meanwhile, I don’t want to paraphrase, and did not, in any event, take notes.

To briefly summarize, though, he spoke of Latter-day Saints imagining a future in which our culture and our community is more open to progressive ideas, and he suggested a few ways in which that could happen. Mormons, for example, join other Christian communities in our belief that we humans have an important stewardship over the earth. Politically, climate change is a divisive issue, a partisan issue. But if we discuss the issue in terms of stewardship and not ‘environmentalism’ (a dirty word in some quarters), perhaps we can find common ground, especially as the frightening reality of climate change becomes increasingly apparent. It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which Latter-day Saints unite around stewardship and conservation efforts, and join with both political and Christian evangelical environmentalists in seeking solutions. When we read in the 10th Article of Faith that ‘We believe . . . that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory,’ it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s something we’re supposed to make happen, not just something we wait for.

I found myself moved and inspired by Rees’ great lecture and his vision. Again, I don’t particularly want to paraphrase his remarks. But I do want to join him in imagining, to the extent that we can imagine it, a future progressive Mormonism.

I imagine a world in which we stop paying lip service to female equality, and actually take concrete steps to make it happen. I imagine a world in which we reject, as unworthy, a vestigial sexual double standard. I imagine a world in which we embrace a non-judgmental model for modesty, one related to self-respect and self-confidence, and not shame or finger-pointing. I imagine a world in which our language about gender no longer reflects unreflective patriarchy. I imagine a world in which we embrace Mormonism’s unique theological stance with both genders represented as Deities.

I imagine a world in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are genuinely embraced, in Christian fellowship, and in which the standard of sexual morality required of straight Latter-day Saints applies equally to our gay family members.

I imagine a world in which income inequality is decried from the pulpit as unworthy the Body of Christ. I imagine a world in which all Latter-day Saints lift each other, in which poverty is seen as the human tragedy it genuinely is all over the world. I imagine a world in which no child goes to bed hungry. I imagine a world in which all children are safe from violence, despair, squalor and hatred, and in which all children, and all adults, have access to state-of-the-art health care.

I imagine a world in which the artificial construct we call racial difference no longer divides us, no longer holds some of us back, no longer turns our discourse harsh and ugly and violent.

I imagine a world full of laughter. I imagine a world in which teasing is allowed. I imagine a world which embraces the preposterous absurdity of human ambition, human pretension, human arrogance and human self-absorption, and finds joy in our unique apprehension of foolishness.

I imagine a world in which we Latter-day Saints continue to confront, honestly and openly, the most troubling aspects of our history, in a spirit of forgiveness and Christian charity. I imagine a world in which our fondest hope for those of our faith who leave us is that they find peace and acceptance within some other faith community, while we continue to offer them fellowship and love, kindly and without judgment.

I imagine a world in which we are, all of us, free. Free to reason, to search for truth, to , to disagree civilly, to discover and grow and learn. I imagine a world in which knowledge and truth and reason replace prejudice and acrimony.

And I don’t imagine a world in which lions lie down with lambs of their own accord, in which peace reigns only because Jesus has returned, in which cataclysm leads to spectacle, leading to millennium. I imagine a world in which we make peace happen. I imagine a world in which we forgive and love and care and rejoice together because we decided to embrace that paradisiacal future, together, willingly and joyfully.

That’s the world I imagine. I don’t expect I’ll live to see it. I won’t mind, if I can see the rawest beginnings of it starting to take shape.

We look around us and we see progressive accomplishment and regressive backlash, over and over, in a pattern described in the Book of Mormon. That tale ended tragically. Ours doesn’t need to. Let’s embrace a better future, together, as brothers and sisters should. Let’s make it happen. Let’s build our own cities of Enoch, in our homes, in our wards, in our communities.

Let the great work commence.

 

 

Debt and deficit

I have lots of friends on Facebook, and politically they range from socialist to liberal to conservative to Tea Party. Makes for some fun conversations. Some of my conservative friends insist that President Obama is hopelessly and incomparably bad at being President, that he has visited incalculable harm on the United States during his time in office, that his Presidency is one from which our nation may never recover. And when you ask what events, what policies, what actions have led them to this preposterous conclusion, they will point out, accurately enough, that the deficit has never been higher, and go on to assert that the debt incurred during the Obama Presidency will cripple our economy.

I get that, I really do. If you point out that the deficit isn’t as high as conservatives think it is, that it’s falling rapidly, and that it’s not actually damaging the US economy, you will be accused of ‘drinking the Kool-aid.’ Which is to say, of blindly and thoughtlessly following Obama, of being swayed by this President’s charisma to believe in absurd and untrue things. Oh, and of complete ignorance of economics. The debt is huge, the deficit massive, and the only way out is via huge cuts in federal spending, especially cutting Medicare, Social Security, welfare, food stamps, and all other federal strands of the social safety net.

So the question is this: how sincere are the concerns of Tea Party politicians, of House Republicans and other fiscal conservatives? Is Paul Krugman right, when he argues that the debt and deficit are being used cynically by right wing ideologues to further their ‘small government’ political agenda? Or are the concerns about the debt and deficit genuine? Is US indebtedness an actual, for reals, honest-to-Pete national emergency? Or is it all a big bluff?

From the point of view of actual Tea Party folks, voters, of course their concerns are genuine. They see this issue in personal terms. If they had family members who were racking up huge amounts of credit card debt, they’d be terribly concerned, and they’d do whatever they had to do to fix it. That’s how they see this, through the lens of personal finance. They are terrified of burdening their grandchildren with debt. The fact that the federal government can do things, and is required to do things that no family would or could ever do is immaterial. It’s all about the grandkids.

(But only up to a point. In fact, the US is doing something right now that is quite absurd. We’re saying to young people ‘you should go to college. It’s the key to your financial future. But the reality of college nowadays will require you to incur debt equal to a home mortgage in order to get that education.’ That’s a rotten deal for young people, and they know it. Especially when they know perfectly well that, in Europe, college is free.  Ask the Tea Party folks if they support free college education, and I can predict the response. ‘We can’t afford it.’ Meaning the US. Can’t afford to educate our 18-22 year-olds. Uh, the richest country in the history of the world).

But back to the debt and deficit, because it’s much more comforting to worry about potential problems fifty years from now than actual-factual problems right now. Let’s suppose that the Tea Party is right, and that the national debt is a huge problem, crippling the US economy going forward, and the deficit adds to the debt annually and is dangerously fiscally irresponsible. To go back to the ‘family finance’ model, let’s suppose that your family has incurred a debt. Let’s suppose that you’re living beyond your means, spending more every month than you bring in. There are two things you can do (and you may have to do both). You can increase your income (perhaps by having someone work more hours, or take a second job), or you can cut family spending. So if the deficit is really a big problem, you need to do both things; increase revenues and decrease expenditures.

So lately, to be obnoxious, I’ve been conducting a little thought experiment with my Tea Party friends. Let’s suppose that you’re right. Let’s suppose that the debt really is destructive, that continuing deficit spending really does need to end. Let’s suppose that we’re facing a national emergency if we don’t do something about it.

All right then, what is the current budget deficit? Tea Partiers will usually say ‘it’s a trillion dollars.’ It isn’t. The deficit was $483 billion in fiscal 2014. But fine, we also need to pay down the debt, so let’s go with their figure; let’s say we need to reduce the deficit by a trillion dollars.

Now, this is a national emergency, right? This has to be done. And cutting discretionary domestic spending won’t get us there. We need to look at both sides of the ledger, at cutting spending, and raising revenue, right? As you would do with your family. So we ask two questions: what is the most bloated, irresponsible part of the federal budget? And what sector of the population is most conspicuously undertaxed?

The answers are clear enough; the US spends more on defense than the next seventeen highest countries in the world combined. Is it a national emergency if we shut down the six golf courses the Navy operates in Guam? No. Let’s cut $400 billion from the defense budget. We’d still be the highest spending country in defense in the world, by a wide margin. And the super-rich, the top 1% have seen their taxes decline for years. Let’s raise the top marginal tax rate to 1970 rates. And we just made another $400 billion. Add increases in capital gains taxes and estate taxes, and we’d come pretty close to reaching our goal. One trillion dollars.

Then I ask this: if in fact the national debt is a national emergency and eliminating the deficit our top national priority, would you support the budget I just proposed. Would you support cuts in defense spending, and raising taxes on the richest folks in the country? If you’re saying, we must do this, we have to do this, we are bankrupting the future of our grandchildren if we don’t eliminate the deficit immediately, all right then. I have a concrete proposal that would accomplish it. Granted, perhaps, cutting defense and raising taxes wouldn’t be your first choice. But would you support it? In an emergency? Which you insist we have right now.

There have been two usual responses. Here’s one: ‘look, squirrel!’ In other words, a very rapid change of subject. The second is anger: obviously, I don’t understand foreign policy or economics. Cutting defense spending would leave us open to terrorist attacks. (Not true; we’d still have plenty of resources to fight terrorism). Taxing rich people would destroy our economy. (That’s never been true historically; in fact, the economy has never grown faster than during times when the highest marginal tax rate was 91%).

But the Up response, the ‘look, squirrel’ one has been the response of the national Republican party. Right now, in fact, the Republican dominated House and Senate have both proposed budgets, exercises in fantasy really, because there’s no chance at all of President Obama signing either of them into law. And both those budgets include increases in defense spending.

Which suggests to this Hoosier boy one thing: conservatives are not serious about the deficit. They’re using it as a pretext to cut domestic spending. It’s not about fiscal responsibility, it’s about conservative small-government ideology. Sorry to be cynical, folks, but it’s so. The Republican party is, and remains, the party of the rich, of big business, of Wall Street excesses. The Democratic party, in instructive contrast, is only mostly the party of rich business interests. Meanwhile, kids really are getting screwed, but not in the nebulous future, by debt and deficits, but right now, by the student loans that make college, which is a good thing, possible. Some day soon they’re going to get fed up, and kick all the old rich white people out. Can’t happen too soon either, says this rich old white guy.

Emperor and Galilean

Last Friday, I was invited to Hillcrest High School, in Draper, to see the North American premiere of Ben Power’s translation/version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Emperor and Galilean. I had a terrific time, and thought the production was imaginatively staged and beautifully realized.

Emperor and Galilean is surely the most obscure and seldom staged of Ibsen’s plays, even more infrequently performed even than his early Viking melodramas, like The Warrior’s Barrow or The Vikings at Helgeland, which are fun enough that Norwegian theatres still produce them from time to time. As it happens, though, I have seen a previous production of E and G, at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo, in 1989. That production was nine and a half hours long (not seven and a half, as I may have told people mistakenly), which points to the main reason that the play isn’t done very often–it’s very very long–ten acts altogether. Actually, it’s two five-act plays; Julian the Apostate, and The Emperor Julian, but I can’t imagine anyone doing either play alone. They tell one continuous story, and neither play would be thematically or narratively satisfying separately.

E and G tells the story of Flavius Claudius Julianus, Emperor of Rome for just two years, otherwise known as Julian the Apostate, because of his attempt to reject Christianity as the state religion, and return Roman worship to neo-Platonist paganism. In a battle against the Persian empire at Samara, Julian was killed; according to one source, by a Christian soldier in his own army. Ibsen has him killed by Agathon, Julian’s best friend from his early years as a Christian.

I had to read the play in grad school, and ended up falling in love with it. The usual reading of the play is that Ibsen, following Nietzsche, was arguing for a synthesis between the sensuousness of paganism and the spirituality of Christianity. If that’s indeed the point of the play, I have to say that that synthesis certainly doesn’t work very well–Julian’s attempt to create it lead to civil war, and to his own destruction. Plus, there’s no evidence that Ibsen even read, let alone cared about Nietzsche. Plus, I couldn’t possibly care less about a synthesis between pagan sensuousness and Christian spirituality. If those are indeed the main philosophical concerns of the play, then I wouldn’t be alone in considering it a play that has well deserved its obscurity.

I don’t think that’s what it’s about, though, and I don’t think those themes were given much expression in production. As the play continuously reminds us, it’s a play about the choice between Emperor and Galilean, about balancing the needs of the state and the demands of leading a Christ-like life. And it’s a play that shows, unmistakably, how state power corrupts and corrodes religion. As one parent said at the talk-back session following the play, ‘it’s a play about the First Amendment. It’s showing how badly we need it.’ Amen, brother.

When we see the play today, in 2015, we see a fanatical megomaniac who causes untold destruction by his vicious insistence on his own personal ideology. We’ve had our fill of those characters in my lifetime, have we not? I see the imposition of a state religion, any state religion, Christian or pagan, leading to war and violence and death. I see a huge, unnecessary, religious war fought in southern Iraq, by an army also intent of destroying the religious center of Persia/Iran. We see a play about issues that still resonate. We see, in Julian, a figure that we know all too well, and we see how damaging his charismatic fanaticism can become.

Ibsen builds the play around Julian and his three best friends–Agathon, Peter and Gregory, plus his pagan mystic guru Maximus. As the play begins, Agathon is proud of the fact that he has managed to lead a pogrom against local pagans, killing a whole lot of them. His fanaticism remains unabated, and eventually, he kills his apostate friend. Peter’s Christianity finds expression in fellowship and loyalty–he’s the one friend to stick with Julian no matter what, even after he grows appalled by Julian’s excesses. Gregory leaves Constantinople and founds his own religious community, which is eventually destroyed by Julian’s men. Gregory is really the one genuine Christian we meet in the play, and he is martyred for his devotion. Maximus, meanwhile, is about four/fifths a flattering fraud, but he does seem to have real visions, and those visions have consequences. Julian is told that he will complete the work of two great World Spirits; men who changed the world, advancing civilization. The first two are Cain and Judas Iscariot. I’m not sure that’s a parade I want to head up, but Julian eats it up. And that vision devours everyone else, in time.

Ibsen loved guys like Maximus; he loved creating fatuous blustering pompous jerks–Torvald, in A Doll House, Manders in Ghosts. We often take Ibsen too seriously–there’s a savage satirical wit in Ibsen that it can be easy to miss, especially in British English translations of his works. I wonder if anyone has ever thought to play Maximus as comic relief. It would certainly fit nicely with the rest of the Ibsen oeuvre.

Anyway, Hillcrest’s production was imaginative, energetic, lively and theatrically spectacular, with lots of smoke effects and projections and timely-falling set pieces. David Chamberlain was terrific in the huge role of Julian, and I also loved Carter Walker, Steven Hooley and Russell Carpenter as Gregory, Agathon and Peter, respectively. Of all the other supporting characters, I was particularly taken with Skyler Harmon, who played the conniving Ursulus, the Emperor Constantius’ fixer and right hand woman.

Above all, kudos of Joshua Long, the director of the production. Long has clearly created a tremendous high school drama program there at Hillcrest, with massive parental support. Watching the show, I estimated a cast size of around 90, but counting the names in the program, there were closer to 120. That’s a lot of costumes to build; how many moms were enlisted in that effort? Refreshments were sold during the show’s two intermissions, and again I saw supportive parents working for the success of the show. Long told me afterwards that he had tremendous support as well from his principal and administration; good for everyone involved. Those kids, in that cast, will never forget this experience as long as they live. They were involved in a fantastic undertaking, a very much neglected masterpiece given new life on stage. I can’t imagine anything cooler.

 

The NCAA tournament

The annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament started yesterday, an orgy of missed shots, wild dunks, last second finishes, agony and joy. Sixteen games were played yesterday, all of them nationally televised, five of them decided by one point. I watched at least some of all of them; basically I wore out my remote. As always, it was very exciting.

And not. Because if you’re a lifetime basketball fan–and I am–you can’t help but notice how bad college basketball has become. Every possession, more or less, ends with a guy blasting past a defender, flinging a wild shot in the general direction of the rim, followed by five guys flailing to grab a rebound. College baskeball has become an over-coached, over-defended, badly officiated (make that ‘horrendously officiated’) travesty. At its best, basketball can become an argument, a statement in a continuing debate over how the game is supposed to be played, over strategies and tactics and fundamentals. At its worst, basketball is thuggish, slow, and ugly. And dangerous; it amazes me that more kids aren’t hurt.

And Kentucky’s going to win. Kentucky, with six freshmen and three sophomores in their regular playing rotation. And you might think, wow, what a dynasty! All those young players; how good are they going to be next season! Ha. Next season, they’ll all be in the NBA. They’re ‘college students’ in the same sense that the kids on Glee are in ‘high school.’

Grantland.com’s Brian Phillips had an interesting article today discussing the problems inherent in the current game. As Phillips points out, there are a number of relatively simple rule changes that could be implemented that would speed the game up, open it up, and make it more entertaining. But it’s almost impossible for the NCAA to make those changes, because doing so would require that they admit that they are creating and selling a product, ‘college basketball broadcasts,’ that needs to be tweaked to make it more fun to watch. The fiction is that these are ‘student-athletes,’ college kids engaged in an extra-curricular activity, televised as a public service, so that their families and interested alums can enjoy seeing them play. In fact, though, the NCAA generates billions of dollars from college basketball. And does so through a business model in which they don’t pay the people who generate it.

Every time I drive from Provo to Salt Lake and back, I pass several billboards for BYU sports. Right now, it’s basketball season, and so those billboards feature Tyler Haws, the star of the team. Haws, of course, isn’t being paid for the use of his likeness on those billboards. Nor are his teammates compensated for all the posters and tee shirts and hats and bobbleheads and water bottles featuring the BYU basketball team. I know the argument: they’re being compensated in that they receive a college education. That’s a valuable commodity. True enough, and especially for someone like Tyler Haws, who is a good student. Still, it seems disproportionate; millions of revenue generated, with almost nothing going to the players.

Remember last year’s tournament? Exciting stuff, right? Shabazz Napier and UConn? Remember what Napier said afterwards? How some days were just ‘hungry days,’ because his scholarship didn’t provide sufficiently for meals, and he wasn’t allowed to get a job or in any other way make enough money to buy a Big Mac?

Okay, Shabazz Napier’s in the NBA now; for him, it was worth it. Most players have that dream; the dream of a professional career. For 98 percent of them, it’s a pipe dream. So what happens then?

John Oliver’s show, last week, straightforwardly recommended that college basketball players be paid. I’ve heard that from other sources. And it’s probably going to happen. Ed O’Bannon won his lawsuit against EA Sports, after suing them for using his image without his permission. That verdict is being appealed, but when the appeals are exhausted, we’re going to see some compensation for college athletes.

Meanwhile, let me give the ‘fix the NCAA’ problem a shot. I taught for twenty years in the BYU Theatre department. We had a lot of kids in our program who wanted careers on Broadway or Hollywood; most of them didn’t make it. But they did get a good college education, and I have former students who are attorneys, successful business people, some are in medical school; they didn’t so much abandon their dreams as re-route them. The kids who acted in our college theatre productions weren’t paid. But a lot of our students were paid; to work in the scene shop, to hang lights, to sell tickets, to work in marketing. And our actors were actively encouraged to work professionally. I remember one actress who got the lead in a Disney movie. When her work on that film was done, she came back to school, acted in college productions, finished her degree. Now she’s a successful professional actress. As faculty, what did we think of her work on that Disney movie? We thought it was awesome. We had a party and watched it. We rooted for her then, and we root for her today.

So I’m going to make some recommendations to the NCAA, none of which I expect that organization to listen to for a second. Because, let’s face it, the NCAA is appalling, an organization of rule-bound ninnies, liars and hypocrites. Overpaid frauds. It’s an group of college administrators, after all, hardly nature’s aristocrats; these are people who think ‘university assessment’ is a good idea. They won’t change until they have to.

Still.here’s my fix for the NCAA. Number one: permanently abandon, once and for all, the notion of the ‘amateur athlete.’ The Olympics doesn’t bother with it anymore, and neither should the NCAA. All those ridiculous rules in which a player is suspended and a program punished because his coach bought him a sandwich accomplish nothing except expose the NCAA to ridicule.

An athletic scholarship should be non-revocable. All athletic scholarships, in all sports offered on campus. Pay for those extra scholarships by cutting the salaries of coaches and athletic directors. Every athlete receiving one should be guaranteed a college education. If a coach recruits a player, and gives him a scholarship, then that kid gets, free of charge, five years worth of a college education, period. Right now, coaches routinely recruit more players than they have scholarships for, and if one of them turns out to be less good at basketball than the coach initially thought, he’s out of luck. That needs to end. Let colleges offer as many athletic scholarships as they want to, no limits, but with the understanding that they can’t take that scholarship away, at all, ever, for any non-academic reason. If the kid gets injured, he keeps the scholarship. If a kid doesn’t make the team, he keeps the scholarship.

Also, let them be college students. Put serious limits on how much time kids spend in practice. ‘Voluntary workouts’ count against practice time. Every second a kid spends out of class, in a weight room or in meetings or working out with coaches counts against practice time. Limit practice time to twenty hours a week, and enforce it.

If a kid is able to earn money off the court, that’s fine. Let him appear in a Disney movie. Or play on a D-league summer team. Or appear in a local commercial. Or sell his autograph. Or flip burgers. Whatever. None of that is any of your business. (Will this lead to abuses? Will boosters offer the starting quarterback no-show jobs at their businesses? Sure, probably. I just don’t think that kid of petty corruption is policeable).

I would probably put a cap on coaches salaries. I’d also like to see coaches treated like tenure-track faculty. If they make tenure, you can’t fire them. And give them some classroom responsibilities. Make ‘em teach a class or two.

None of this is likely to happen, of course. But I’d love to see it. These kids are being mistreated, and it’s wrong. And while we’re at it, make the game a little more fun. For starters, let the kids play. Limit coaches time-outs to two per half. Let college kids be college kids. I promise, they’ll amaze you.

 

 

Chris Borland

Twenty years from now, when we look back on it all, we may well decide that this is the turning point, that Chris Borland’s retirement was the first domino to fall. It’s going to seem weird. A multi-billion dollar sports industry, the NFL, running the most popular team sport in the United States, just . . . ending. The Super Bowl, the single biggest TV event of the year, just going away. But the demise of professional football will only seem remarkable in retrospect. When it all ends, we’ll all sit back and agree that there was nothing else that could have been done. It just wasn’t worth it.

Chris Borland is 24 years old. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history, then was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He is a thoughtful and intelligent young man. His position, inside linebacker, was one in which the 49ers wouldn’t seem to have needed much help. The 49ers had two of the best inside linebackers in all of football, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman; it was thought that Borland wouldn’t play much. But then Willis hurt his foot, and Bowman was slower than expected to recover from knee surgery. Early in the season, Borland won the starting job, and was spectacular. He looked like a superstar. A few days ago, Patrick Willis, age 30, announced his retirement from professional football. His foot just wasn’t getting better, and he was concerned about the quality of his life going forward. But 49ers’ (and I count myself as one), weren’t concerned. After all, we had Chris Borland.

And then, yesterday, Chris Borland likewise announced his retirement from professional football. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t disgruntled. He didn’t have some kind of religious experience that persuaded him to do something else with his life, as former 49er Glen Coffee had had. (Coffee, after a promising rookie year, retired, saying he had become convinced that ‘God didn’t want him to play football’). No, Borland retired because he had researched the long term effects of multiple minor concussions. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” Here’s  the interview.

Over 70 former NFL players have been diagnosed post-mortem with degenerative neurological disease. Numerous studies have demonstrated a connection between head trauma and subsequent brain damage. Borland did his research, and made an informed decision about his health and his future. He also left a lot of money on the table. As a budding star, he could easily have made a bundle if he’d stuck around a few years.

But what’s really remarkable about Borland’s announcement has been the reaction of his teammates and other current NFL players. Pretty much everyone’s been supportive. Borland’s 49er teammate, Frank Gore, long considered the epitome of the NFL tough guy, said he ‘respected Chris’ decision.’ Here’s a sampling of supportive tweets.  The words used by his fellow plays seem particularly interesting to me; they talk about his ‘courage,’ and how hard it can be to ‘do the right thing.’

I didn’t expect that. The NFL code of toughness says that if you ‘get your bell rung,’ you find a way to get back in the game. Most former players can tell humorous stories about games in which they were concussed, but got back on the field. ‘I played the second half, and still don’t remember a thing about it.’ That kind of thing. But the data is piling up, and those stories aren’t as funny as they once were. In the most recent Super Bowl, Patriots’ receiver Julian Edelman may well have caught the winning touchdown pass while concussed. The reaction around the league was pretty hostile; he should have come out of the game, players are saying. His coaches should have forced him out.

And that’s how football will die, I think. Not with a bang, but a whimper. More and more parents will decide not to sign that permission slip; more and more high schools will have to weigh insurance costs, and decide there are better extra-curricular activities for their students.

And more and more fans of the sport (like me) feel conflicted about it, and question whether this is a sport to which we should give our time and attention. We’ve seen too many former players who have a hard time climbing stairs or bending over to pick up their grandkids. And too many who have suffered brain trauma. Chris Borland is right. And he won’t be the first.