Author Archives: admin

Secret Service Clinton Rumors

I have a family member who told me recently he could never, under any circumstances, vote for Hillary Clinton. The reason? Because his cousin knows a guy who knows a ward member who was a member of Mrs. Clinton’s Secret Service detail. And you wouldn’t believe the stories of depravity! Another friend of mine told me the same thing; her cousin has friends, good LDS people, I was assured, who know a Secret Service agent, and who had stories of literally hundreds of women smuggled into the White House for sexual trysts with Hillary Clinton. The Clintons have an open marriage, you see. And now, there’s one Gary Byrne, also former Secret Service, who declares himself ‘sickened’ by the horrible stuff he saw when serving in the Clinton White House in the ’90s, which he just had to put into print, now, twenty years later.

Byrne’s book has been hotly condemned by the non-partisan Association of Former Agents of the U. S. Secret Service. They point out that Byrne was a uniformed security officer, not part of the Clintons’ detail, and thus not in a position to have seen what he claims to have seen. Plus, Byrne’s book puts him, an obscure low-level agent that most of agents at the time barely remember, at the center of events. Byrne’s publisher, Center Street, is a Christian imprint that also does all kinds of rabidly right-wing political books, and that is also known for paying pretty well. Did Byrne make it all up? Was he passing on gossip? Because it’s easy enough to dismiss the possibility that he might be telling the truth.

Remember the Arkansas state troopers? Back in ’93, two troopers who had been assigned as security for then-governor Clinton claimed that they had arranged sexual liaisons for Clinton, an expose first published in American Spectator. David Brock, author of that article, later apologized to Bill Clinton, saying that the troopers in question were in it for the cash, and calling them ‘slimy.’

The fact is, we don’t actually know very much about most public figures. What we see is a carefully crafted image. And it’s shocking when we learn of ugly incidents or facts or opinions that contradict the family-friendly portraits we’re used to. We initially refuse to believe it. Bill Cosby can’t have done that. What, Tiger Woods? But John Edwards seems so wholesome.

But with someone like Hillary Clinton, there’s a huge incentive for some unscrupulous people to paint her in the worst colors imaginable. Gossip can go viral. And if the source is putatively someone like a Secret Service agent, someone in a position to see all sorts of, well, secrets, all the better. That’s why all this gossip comes from someone’s best friends’ cousin’s neighbor’s nephew. It sounds authoritative.

I don’t believe any of it, though. First of all, all these stories fit too neatly into pre-existing sexist narratives. Byrne’s book describes Hillary Clinton as a raging harridan, a foul-mouthed and abusive queen bitch. No one else ever describes her that way, but it’s easy to believe, because it fits a specific cultural stereotype. The other ‘secret service’ narrative fits a different stereotype: she’s sexually voracious, a (shudder) lesbian. Also, in one particularly nasty bit of slander I’ve heard, Hillary Clinton’s a poisoner, a murderess akin to Livia Drusilla, the supposedly lethal second wife of Caesar Augustus. (Her Secret Service codename was Livia, it seems. Except it wasn’t, of course).

There’s never any corroborating evidence for any of this. And there should be. If Hillary Clinton was indeed foul-mouthed and violent, there should be dozens of similar stories from former employees, associates, acquaintances, former friends. Especially given, let’s face it, a voracious tabloid press in this country willing to pay big bucks for any verifiable Clinton nastiness. By the same token, according to my friend’s story, Hillary smuggled hundreds of sexual partners into the White House. Well, White House visitors are logged. Those logs are public information. Shouldn’t be hard to prove, or disprove that specific allegation. (And, of course, it turns out to be bonkers).

This election is going to get nasty. It’s already been nasty, and it’s very likely to get nastier. Donald Trump is going to be subjected to attack ads. Probably, if the ads they’re running right now are any indication, they’ll just use his own words against him; that shouldn’t be difficult. But Hillary will be attacked too, and probably a lot of the attacks will take place under the national political radar. Expect to see viral emails. Expect an increase in this kind of gossip. There will certainly be more anti-Hillary books. And Trump’s use of social media in this cabin has been unparalleled. And he loves conspiracy theories.

As I’ve talked to many friends about this election, the main reaction from most people is to express their dismay for the two major party candidates. And national polling suggests that most Americans are as appalled with Secretary Clinton as they are with Mr. Trump. When you ask what their problem is with Clinton, they say, ‘she’s corrupt, she’s dishonest, she’s crooked.’ But then you ask for specifics. And they’ll say something like ‘Benghazi’ or ‘her emails,’ so-called ‘scandals’ that were thoroughly investigated, and in which Mrs. Clinton was cleared.

The distrust of Clinton is, in other words, inchoate, non-specific. It’s just ‘what everyone knows.’ You hear vague references to ‘all those scandals.’ If you point out that non-partisan fact-checkers have declared her the most honest politician in this election, they stare at you in incredulity. Surely, that can’t be true. Surely, I have to be kidding.

I’m worried about this election being decided in the shadows, in the murky darkness of gossip, slander, rumors and innuendos. That’s why these ridiculous Secret Service stories are so dangerous, and need to be challenged.

That’s why it’s so important, this year above all others, for fact-checkers to do their jobs. That’s why it is so important that we all vigilantly ask for evidence, for solid, corroborating proof of any particularly nasty allegation. Because this political year is about to get ugly. Hold on to your hat.

 

The Legend of Tarzan: Movie Review

Let’s face it: the Tarzan tales, as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are fundamentally colonialist, ethnocentric, and racialist. They’re about a white man, an English aristocrat, who, though raised by apes, becomes an African leader, then eventually, a member of the House of Lords. Blue blood rules; blue blood, in fact, could be said to be divinely appointed to rule. Primitive African tribes survive thanks to his protection; animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands. All of which make a modern movie treatment of Tarzan, uh, problematic.

The new Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan, seems at least to have recognized that this is a problem, though its solutions are at best half-baked and at worst appalling. It tries three solutions. First, in structure and tone, this movie follows the template and structure of superhero movies. Second, Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense. And third, the movie puts Tarzan in a specific historical context. Every superhero needs a super villain, and we get a good one here, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), agent to loathsome Belgian King Leopold II.

In fact, the movie is set in the Belgian Congo, the private domain of Leopold, an area rich in minerals, including diamonds. It’s important to note that the Congo wasn’t colonized by Belgium, the nation. It was owned by Leopold, a private investment by a monarch. Anyway, in the movie’s version of events, in 1866, Leopold’s plans for the Congo have faltered, because he’s broke. So his henchman, Rom, works out an elaborate plan. Rom meets a Congolese chief, Mbonga (Djimoun Hounsou) who, he has learned, hates Tarzan. So Rom promises to capture Tarzan, and trade him for diamonds, which Mbonga’s tribe has in profusion. This will pay the salaries of the mercenary soldiers that Leopold has hired to serve as the Force Publique, his own private army. Thus allowing Leopold to control and exploit and enslave the native population.

But an American journalist, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of Leopold, and wants John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (otherwise known as Tarzan, played here by Alexander Skarsgård) to bring him with him to Africa. And Jane, Tarzan’s wife, really wants them to go. She was raised in Africa, where her father taught English–her closest friends are African. She considers herself African. And, in the brief glimpses of Tarzan’s origin story the movie provides, we learn that she met Tarzan when she found him half-dead, nursed him back to health, and taught him English.

So Tarzan, Jane, and Williams return to her village, where Rom and his soldiers lie in wait. They nearly kidnap Tarzan, but do kidnap Jane. This works just as well for Rom’s purposes. His plan is to deliver Tarzan to Mbonga, and he knows that Tarzan will do anything to rescue his wife. So Rom and Jane (and many soldiers), sail down a river towards Mbonga’s camp, and Tarzan follows, making good time by swinging from tree vine to tree vine, and getting reacquainted with his ape family. And Williams follows along, with Jackson’s grumpy weariness providing comic relief.

Along the way, Williams learns all about Leopold’s plans. He’s built a series of forts in the Congo, and rail lines for transport, and he has recruited this fearsome private army of brutal mercenary thugs. Williams is able to document everything.

Mbongo and Tarzan finally do confront each other, in what I frankly thought was the best scene in the movie. Mbongo hates Tarzan, because he killed his teenaged son; Tarzan killed the kid, because the kid killed Tarzan’s beloved ape mother. The two men, as they fight, realize how similar they are, and how destructive and unworthy their enmity. And reconcile. The scene works because Hounsou is so terrific, and it plays to Skarsgård’s rather limited strengths as an actor. The movie could have ended then, and been quite satisfying, I think, if you could have included some way to rescue Jane.

But it’s a summer blockbuster. It’s a big budget superhero movie. It has to end in a big noisy fight. And so, we move on, to a big final set piece. Rom has to deliver a trunk full of diamonds to the mercenary captain, and Tarzan has to rescue Jane. And while we’re at it, the riverside town where the mercenaries are all going to land has to be destroyed. And so, Tarzan summons armies of lions, wildebeest, alligators and hippos which attack and destroy this Force Publique stronghold. Summoning animals to fight for him is Tarzan’s main superpower, you see. It’s a ridiculous scene, of course, though not badly staged or filmed or edited, and it culminates satisfactorily, with Jane getting rescued, Tarzan reunited with her, and Rom being eaten by alligators.

And finally, Williams issues his report of Leopold’s intended atrocities to the British authorities. I think we’re meant to see that report as putting an end to the worst of the King’s atrocities, though the British lords who receive the report seem, in the movie, to greet it with decided equivocation. Still, like any superhero movie, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and moral justice prevails.

Except, of course, nothing like that occurred. First of all, Leon Rom wasn’t eaten by alligators in 1886; he decorated his house by Stanley Falls with the skulls of murdered Congolese, and died a wealthy man in Brussels in 1924. Williams did deliver a report of Force Publique atrocities, but it was widely ignored. And the nefarious plans for the brutal subjugation of the Congo that Williams discovers? The forts, the rail lines, the savagery of Leopold’s private army? All of that happened. Leopold grew fantastically wealthy (though mostly through rubber, not diamonds), while treating the native peoples in the region with unprecedented viciousness. Best estimate; 10 million murdered. Ten million people. That’s just an estimate; it might have been fifteen million.

(Things haven’t improved. The Congo has been, since 1998, the site of the bloodiest of civil wars, with millions dead. All unpleasant vestiges of colonialist exploitation and enslavement).

Tarzan, of course, is a fictional character, and this movie tells a fictional story. That’s fine, I don’t actually think Iron Man exists either. But this Tarzan ties itself into historical events, and employs historical characters; Leon Rom, George Washington Williams, King Leopold II. And it shows Tarzan defeating Rom, and Williams defeating Leopold. And those things never occurred. Which means I left the theater with a distinctly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Tarzan is a problematic character nowadays. Making a straightforwardly Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan movie in 2016 would seem a bit like remaking one of those ’40s comedies in which husbands spanking their wives was treated as jolly fun. Uh, no, not anymore. But this movie strains at a colonialist gnat and swallows a genocide camel. It struck me as bizarrely ill conceived. It’s a movie that relies on its audience knowing absolutely nothing about African history. I found it insulting and infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t just do that, just sweep the wanton and brutal murder of fifteen million people under the carpet, because they get in the way of your big CGI movie climax.

It’s a shame, too, because it’s an attractive enough movie, and there are scenes that work well. Hounsou is terrific in too-small a role, and I can’t say enough about Margot Robbie’s sensational Jane. Robbie is the most open-hearted of actresses, absolute in her commitment to the role, and courageous in her acting choices. Sam Jackson does wonderful Sam Jackson things, and all the Tarzan stuff was well executed; the yell, the flying in trees, a scene where he rolls around felinely with lions. Through some combination of gym time, anabolic steroids and CGI, Skarsgård looks terrific, though his performance never quite grabbed me. And, as usual, Christoph Waltz was a sensational villain.

And I can understand the impulse to turn Tarzan into a superhero. But they placed him in a specific historical context, which they then got horribly, unforgivably wrong. As we left the theater, my wife and daughter gave it a B-minus. As a, you know, movie, I’d agree. But I’m not inclined to forgive it. F.

 

What I don’t know, what I know

I don’t want to watch anymore. I’m watched out. Another police shooting, another unnecessary and unprovoked killing, another panicky cop’s lethal mistake. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Only, wait, no, that’s not all; turns out there was another one a few hours later, in St. Paul, Minnesota. And so we add two more names to the list, two more African American men executed without cause or merit. Philando Castile. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Dontre Hamilton. John Crawford. Ezell Ford. Dante Parker. Akai Gurley. Rumain Brisbane. Jerame Reid. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Alton Sterling.

And yes, there were cops killed in Dallas last night. And that was tragic and awful and unnecessary too. And they go on the list too.  Absolutely. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. There were three others; as of this writing, their names haven’t been released. But yes, police work is dangerous. I know a few cops, and I know the prayers their families offer every shift they work. “Please, let him come home safely. Please protect her. Please, not today.”

But the movement is called, rightly and appropriately, Black Lives Matter. That’s what needs to be said, repeated, insisted upon. Because that’s what, apparently, we in the white community don’t simply take for granted.

And I feel helpless, impotent, infuriated and heartsick. Mourning doesn’t seem to be enough. Posting and blogging and tweeting doesn’t make a difference. I’m an old, fat, sick white dude. I got nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do have a slight glimmering of a few somethings.

I don’t know much about the way police officers are trained. But I do know that a lot of police departments–Las Vegas, Seattle, New York–have implemented de-escalation training, a shift of emphasis from ‘control the situation’ to ‘calm the situation down,’ less confrontational, and that the results have been substantial decreases in violence, and in police shootings.

I don’t know all that much about gun laws, in part because I don’t know much about guns. Since Heller, we have to accept that, at least for now, the 2nd Amendment is understood to mean that private citizens have a constitutional right to own firearms. I think Heller‘s a foolish decision, wrongly decided. But it still allows the state to prohibit the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, it allows for laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in places like schools and government buildings, and it permits all kinds of laws imposing conditions on the sale of guns, or banning “dangerous or unusual” weapons. There are, in other words, a whole bunch of gun-restricting regulations that Congress could pass. Also, an Australian-style national gun buy-back program is constitutionally permissible.

I don’t know how to get rid of most Americans’ guns. I don’t think there’s much question that the fact that American gun ownership is off-the-charts internationally, and the fact that American gun deaths are likewise out of control are correlated. We’re a heavily armed people. We don’t need to be. When cops go out to maintain public order, they’re obviously on edge, knowing how heavily armed the populace is. Cops are human, cops are scared, and yes, cops make mistakes. We can support the police, and also hold policing to a higher standard. Those ideals are not incompatible.

I don’t know how to solve the problem of racism. I do know that we’re fighting a whole of history here, and that the fact that black people face less legal discrimination now than they did when I was a kid does not mean that the black community hasn’t been profoundly and significantly harmed. Larry Wilmore last night said that his home, in Pasadena, is also home to a significant Armenian community. He has lots of Armenian friends. But, he said, if you’re with them and you mention Turkey, the reaction is immediate, angry and harsh. It’s been a hundred years since the Turkish massacre of Armenians, but feelings are still raw. Why, then, should we assume that centuries of systemic violence and hatred directed towards blacks, by whites, in America, hasn’t been similarly damaging and hurtful, and with lingering, residual effects?

I don’t know how to change the political direction of this country, how to combat the effects of institutional racism, or how to reverse the tide of violence. But I do know this: nothing will happen for good or for ill unless millennials vote.

This is really important. And it’s not just about gun violence, or racism, or Black Lives Matter. It’s about climate change. It’s about paying for college. It’s about health care. There are a huge variety of life-or-death issues that have political ramifications and political solutions. And if you’re reading this, and you’re 18-35, you probably know the statistics on this as well as I do.

The General Social Survey, one of the most respected national surveys shows that millennials are, in fact, very politically engaged. You engage in political discussions on the internet. You post political views on social media. You’re very likely to attend a rally or a protest. That’s all great. And it means nothing–absolutely nothing–if you don’t vote. And you don’t. Less than 20% of you vote in local or state elections, and less than 40% in Presidential years.

Think about your grandparents. Grumpy old gramps, who watches Fox News all day, and yells at kids who cross his lawn, and whose favorite topics of conversation are his health and what a terrible President Obama is. I mean, you love him to death, but you don’t take him all that seriously, do you? Well, he has a much greater say on what’s going to happen in this country than you do. Because he votes. So does Grandma. Every election, without fail.

You remember the Michael Brown shooting? Remember all the protests, all the anger, all the people who showed up to express their outrage over that shooting? When you read about Ferguson, and how much more likely black residents of the town were to be pulled over and fined, and how essential those fines were to the city’s finances, and how few Ferguson cops were African-American, well, it was disgraceful, and infuriating, and the anger of the protesters seemed completely justified. And someone decided to do something about; set up a voter registration booth right there in the middle of the protests. If you were a Ferguson resident, and African-American, well, there was your chance to make a change, vote out an incompetent mayor and replace the police chief. Guess how many new voters were registered in Ferguson Missouri. Just take a stab at it.

128. One hundred. And twenty eight.

And I thought of Fannie Lou Hamer, testifying in 1964 about how badly she was beaten in Mississippi by the local sheriffs, for the crime of trying to register to vote. Because, as she put it, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want a change! We want a change in this society in America!”

Well, so do I. And I don’t know how to solve this. I don’t know who to blame, or what solutions to try. But I do know this: we have to try. Because this America, this violent and racially charged and furious America does not represent who I want to be, or who you want to be, or who we want to be together.

I believe, like Kendrick Lamar, “if God got us then we gon be alright.” I pray every night for peace, for our nation’s secular salvation. And then I listen to that still small voice and I realize what He’s saying. He gave us hands to work, to help our brothers and sisters. And we gave us minds, to think. And those hands and those minds have to work together. And we start by voting. Every election: vote. That’s all I got, and all I know.

 

 

 

I pray every night for peace, for our nation’s secular salvation. And then I listen to that still small voice and I realize what He’s saying. He gave us hands to work, to help our brothers and sisters. And we gave us minds, to think. And those hands and those minds have to work together. And we start by voting. Every election: vote.

The Purge: Election Year

I’ll say this about the Purge movies; they’re getting better. In James DeMonaco’s futurist dystopia trilogy, positing a future United States of America in which the economy booms due to a nasty annual bloodletting, the storytelling and basic filmmaking chops have clearly improved, film by film. And this third film, Election Year, is the first film to really explore seriously the ramifications of the films’ premise. In broad outline, the idea behind the Purge movies have become increasingly plausible. In detail, of course, they’re silly action movies. So how well do they speak to our day?

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir had a lot of fun with this kind of analysis, writing that there are two versions of an election year available:

One of them is a ludicrous and idiotic narrative about race and class in America, full of unbelievable characters and implausible plot twists, anchored in the naïve belief that popular revolt through the ballot box can bring down a corrupt oligarchy. The other one is a movie.

Yes, very funny. I would put it this way: for the Purge movies to really work, we’d have to find the premise sufficiently plausible that it sends a little chill down our collective spines. Parallels to our reality would have to really resonate, so much that we’d nod a bit in recognition. So, here’s the basic Purge idea. What do you think?

At some point in the future, at a moment of national crisis, a conservative party called the New Founding Fathers of America (the NFFA), establishes a new holiday, the Purge. For twelve hours, during the Purge, everything goes, with no legal penalties for any act by anyone. Including murder. From 7-7 some night, roving gangs, wearing garish costumes and masks, just randomly go around killing people. During the Purge, no emergency services are available; no cops, no EMTs, no ambulances.

As a result of the Purge, the US economy has boomed. Unemployment is essentially non-existent; inflation unheard of, profits are high. This is, the movie suggests, because the government doesn’t have to spend much on welfare, or health care, or food stamps. There just aren’t any excess people. Welfare recipients are, uh, culled annually, like English football relegation, only lethal. Rich people, of course, can afford really tight security systems, and are tend not to be victims of the Purge. Poor people are on their own.

This whole thing has a racial component, especially in the third movie. We see various NFFA leadership meetings, concluding with a religious rite scene, set in a cathedral, in which a succession of poor victims are ritually sacrificed by NFFA leadership. The NFFA consists entirely of older white people. Meanwhile, a multi-ethnic coalition opposes the NFFA. Led by a Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a blonde white woman, who is running for President (and might win, if she can just take Florida). Hillary Clinton? Kinda sorta maybe?

There’s another group out there, an underground revolutionary group, that sets up an emergency ward for the wounded, and is led by a charismatic gangster, Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). Only Bishop’s done with conventional politics and do-gooding. He’s got a plan, to assassinate the entire NFFA leadership. And Senator Roan wishes he wouldn’t. She thinks she can win the election fair and square.

Of course, that’s all just background. The actual plot of the movie has to do with Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), head of Roan’s security team, and his efforts to protect her from an assassination attempt by, essentially, the entire US government. They’re joined by a convenience store owner, Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), who is determined to protect his store from a nasty girl gang of murderous teens wearing prom dresses and Catholic school uniforms, armed with AR-15s. Joe, and his one employee, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), an immigrant from Mexico (with, apparently, mad sniper skills), save Leo and Charlie when they’re set upon by a group of German tourists, Purging having apparently become Euro-chic. Joe and Marcos also have a friend, Laney (Betty Gabriel), who spends the Purge riding around in an armored van rescuing people in need. So Laney, Joe and Marcos join Leo and the Senator, and try to fend off mercenaries hired by American rich people conservatives. That’s the plot. It’s still basically an action movie.

So how plausible is it? Not very. I mean, come on. American conservatives, in my experience, tend to believe in a bootstraps narrative, in which America is defined as the place where anyone with sufficient gumption can be successful. Republicans want to lift poor people, not, you know, murder them.

But let’s suppose that high welfare rolls really were what was holding our economy back. Let’s suppose that high social spending on a parasite class really was a major drag on the economy. (Not true, actually, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant the premise). Could we really solve that problem by just shooting the bottom five percent every year? Or, you know, essentially deputizing all our sociopaths?

Probably not, no. And yet, here’s the paradox of this movie; it starts with this appalling premise. And the movie tells us, repeatedly, that the idea of the Purge is desperately immoral. And heroic Senator Roan campaigns on the idea that the Purge is violent and sick and needs to go away. And all the more sympathetic characters in the movie are all in agreement about how awful the Purge is.

And yet, the movie is also built on the idea that the Purge does, in fact, work. We see a debate between Senator Roan and her NFFA opponent, and when he asks her what she proposes (“more welfare spending?” he sneers), she doesn’t have an answer. In fact, the movie advances an even-more-contemptible idea–that poor people are nothing but a drag on the economy. A net minus for any advanced nation.

In a way, the Purge movies, when they’re not distracting us with firefights, are sort like Swift’s A Modest Proposal. An insane idea, presented tongue-in-cheek, to force us to confront our own prejudices. Only the Purge movies don’t just toss this awful, murderous idea out there. They build a narrative around the idea that the awful, murderous idea is also economically sound.

So, at first, I thought this series, for all the bloodshed it depicts, did at least have its heart in the right place. Now I’m less sure. I can at least say this. In our own time of scary, scary politics, we do have a blonde woman to vote for. At least there’s that.

 

 

 

Hillary’s emails

Yesterday, FBI director James Comey announced that no criminal charges will be filed against Hillary Clinton or any member of her staff in relation to her use of any unauthorized private server while she was serving as Secretary of State. So that’s over.

Ha.

Because Comey didn’t just say that Secretary Clinton wouldn’t be charged with anything. His statement was actually kind of remarkable. He went into great detail regarding the investigative process the FBI went through, and why the investigation reached the conclusions it did. He was thorough, and he was persuasive. I found his statement fascinating, and recommend it to anyone interested in these issues.

I don’t know why Hillary Clinton used a private email server and not the .gov server available to her. Still, I want to put this case into some perspective; view it in human terms. See if that brings some clarity.

The first thing that jumps out at me, reading Comey’s report, is the number 30,000. That’s the number of Hillary Clinton emails the FBI initially examined, but their investigation turned up several thousand more. She switched servers a few times, and switched devices. Here’s Comey:

Secretary Clinton used several different servers and administrators of those servers during her four years at the State Department, and used numerous mobile devices to view and send e-mail on that personal domain. As new servers and equipment were employed, older servers were taken out of service, stored, and decommissioned in various ways. Piecing all of that back together—to gain as full an understanding as possible of the ways in which personal e-mail was used for government work—has been a painstaking undertaking, requiring thousands of hours of effort.

That’s a huge number of emails. 30,000, 35,000; whatever the number may have been, it’s a lot. I’m a pretty avid emailer, but I don’t send 50 a month.

Previous Secretaries of State had private email accounts, but used the official government email systems for public business. But they also didn’t send out anywhere near that many. Secretary Clinton really likes to communicate via email. Official procedure should have gone as follows; if she wanted to send a personal email, she needed to put away her official government device, step out of the room, and access her personal email device located in another room. That’s a colossal pain in the neck. It would work well if your life was really neatly compartmentalized; you deal with work when you’re at work, and you go home and open your email on your home PC. Her life isn’t like that; never has been.

Because she’s a woman? Because the balancing act–home/work–is different for women than it is for men? Because men can do this; step into another room, another space, to deal with the annoyance of a family situation? And women can’t?

Because, while she was Secretary of State, two big personal events also took place. Her mother died, and Hillary had to plan her funeral. (And isn’t it true that planning a funeral is different for women than it is for men?) And Chelsea Clinton got married. Hillary and Chelsea are very close, and you can imagine all the emails it took to plan Chelsea’s very nice, expensive, highly political wedding. And, again, isn’t planning a wedding a different experience for a Mom than it is for a Dad?

So, she’s in a meeting. They’re discussing some international situation. She’s got her Blackberry, she’s emailing various underSecretaries. She gets an email from Chelsea–‘what do you think of these flowers?’ She’s supposed to excuse herself, leave her meeting, get her personal device, respond to Chelsea’s email, then put the device away and go back into her meeting.

It strikes me as . . . unreasonable.

And so, she resisted. And in order to keep her personal account, in order to store all those emails, government regulations required that she print off every email, no matter what the content, and store them in big binders full of email hard copies. They tried it for a couple of months, and Secretary Clinton realized what a colossal pain the whole thing was going to be for her staff, printing off hundreds of emails every day, filing them, storing them someplace. So they quit doing it.

Why didn’t anyone stop her? Why didn’t someone say ‘you can’t do this?’ Because she was the Secretary of State. Her boss was POTUS. It was too trivial a matter for the President of the United States to worry about.

There are a couple of other factors to consider as well. Comey says that the FBI was unable to determine if anyone had hacked her private account; whether her carelessness with internet security protocols ever led to foreign actors getting hold of American state secrets. But whether or not anyone hacked her account, we know that US government computers, the official, secure computers that Hillary was supposed to use get hacked all the time. Google ‘US government computers hacked.’ Look at the links that pop up: ‘hacking of government computers expose 21 million people.’ Over and over again. (Is it possible that foreign hackers were so busy actually compromising US cyber security that they missed Hillary’s private server entirely?)

Comey’s statement has been parsed by everyone, on every side of the political spectrum. First, here’s Comey’s explanation of why he didn’t file charges:

Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.

People who would, for political reasons of their own, very much like to see Hillary Clinton indicted, read this statement, and conclude that the fix was in. She’s a crook, and she got away with it. Elites protecting elites. But Comey’s actually referring to the principle of prosecutorial discretion. This is normal practice for law enforcement officials: to decide that a technical violation doesn’t rise to the level of criminality. Comey gives us a subtle, nuanced description of a complex process.

It also recognizes the reality that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, and that she is now running for President. Comey adds this clarification, which some people have found confusing.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

What does he mean by ‘security or administrative sanctions?’ Clearly, Comey’s not talking about any kind of criminal charges. He dealt with the issue of criminality in his previous paragraph. But it’s possible that the FBI could recommend some other kind of lesser penalty. In other words, someone else doing what Hillary did could be fired.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Hillary should be fined for her actions. That would be the kind of ‘lesser sanction’ that Comey suggests. But you can’t. The only way to fine Clinton would be as the result of a criminal procedure. You can’t just say ‘Mrs. Clinton, we’re not going to charge you. But could you please pay a fine?’ Can’t happen. A judge can fine someone in lieu of jail time. But that was never going to happen.

Didn’t Hillary Clinton know how bad this whole thing might look? Didn’t Bill Clinton realize how his innocent airport visit to Loretta Lynch’s plane would appear to people? This story, from Vox.com, explains it beautifully. Bill and Hillary Clinton are caught in a horrible, toxic cycle of suspicion and mistrust with the press.

I think it goes back to what was likely one of the most traumatic events of the Clintons’ lives: the suicide of Vince Foster. Foster was a close personal friend of them both, and a trusted aid. When he saw how badly the press overreacted to the travel office story, he fell into a deep depression, resulting in his tragic suicide. And then the Clintons found themselves accused of having murdered him.

I don’t think they’ve ever recovered from it. I think it’s even possible that Hillary Clinton suffers from untreated PTSD stemming from Vince Foster’s suicide. And she concluded, probably both Clintons concluded, as a result, that they are never going to be treated fairly by the national media. Scandals simply erupt, based on nothing, and there’s nothing they can do to prevent it. So who cares about appearances? So a private email server looks bad? It could become a big problem? Well, so what? If it’s the emails, it’ll be something else.

Hillary Clinton knows she will never be treated fairly, that her reputation will be maligned no matter what she does. And her reaction is to keep on keepin’ on. Her instinct is to hunker down, fight harder, study more, and try to do some good in this world. The email thing is over. Let’s elect her President.

 

Independence Day: Resurgence. Movie Review

My wife and daughter and I went to see the new Independence Day movie on the Fourth of July, sitting in air conditioned comfort while rockets were red glaring and bombs bursting away outside. Twenty years separate this Independence Day sequel from the original Independence Day film, and I say this with some confidence: the original film was at least 50% dumber than this one. And correspondingly at least 50% more enjoyable.

In both films, the Evil Aliens attack Earth with such advanced technology that our pathetic earth weapons are useless, at least initially. In both films, we Earthlings have to figure out how to overcome the aliens’ superior firepower. The pleasure of these films is watching human (read American) ingenuity come up with a solution. But in the original ID, what we came up with is so sublimely, wonderfully idiotic, I still laugh thinking about it. In this new one, the solution, the breakthrough is just not very exciting or original or cool, plus it requires help from other aliens who turn out to be on our side. Frankly, it’s kind of a confusing mess. The old one is clearer. And it’s much much sillier, which is a good thing.

Specifically, in the old film, the unbeatable alien energy shield is circumvented by a computer virus, which Jeff Goldblum uploads from his Macintosh. He’s able to sneak past the force field in the first place, because of an alien space ship found in Area 51 back in the ’40s, which Will Smith is able to fly all the way up to the alien mother ship. Also, Smith and Goldblum bring a nuclear warhead with them on their trip, which they’re able to launch, and then fly away from, and ultimately, survive the detonation of.

I love everything about this plot. It’s really kind of the perfect B-movie storyline, for a fun popcorn movie. And some version of most of that appears in this movie, plus too much else. Plus, Independence Day had Will Smith, kicking alien ass with palpable glee. Plus Bill Pullman’s hilariously rousing patriotic speech. Plus Brent Spiner’s mad scientist. Plus Randy Quaid’s crop-duster pilot saving the day. And Adam Baldwin awkwardly offering tough guy solace to a kid who just lost his father, after which the kid is totally fine. Great stuff.

The plot in Independence Day: Resurgence just isn’t as much fun. It starts with an alien ship, which doesn’t seem like an Evil Alien ship, but which we shoot down anyway, on the moon, just ’cause. Authorized by the new President, Sela Ward. (But President of what? They never quite answer that, but it appears that there’s a new one-world government, dominated by Americans, obviously, but with cabinet officers from all over). Anyway, without orders, tough guy Jake (Liam Hemsworth), stationed on the Moon, commandeers a space tug and retrieves the enemy ship, taking it to Area 51, where Dr. Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner again, having way more fun than actors should be allowed), who has been in a coma ever since the last movie, now leaps up from bed, improbably spry, and figures out that this round ball alien thing is benignly intentioned towards us, and that we can use it to our advantage.

Meanwhile, this really big scary Evil Alien ship shows up, and takes out all our space defenses, just swats them into oblivion. So up goes the Earth airforce; complete mismatch. As in the previous movie, we’re initially crushed. In fact, the aliens have this new weapon, which essentially allows them to scoop up Hong Kong and drop it on London. And they send a ginormous laser thing out to the ocean, where it digs a hole that should reach the Earth’s core, destroying our planet. (A sub full of underwater treasure hunter/pirates are in place to monitor their progress, and send reports to Earth HQ. The drunken buccaneers were a fun touch, I admit it.)

Jeff Goldblum is in this movie, though Will Smith isn’t, his character having died in the twenty years between movies. His son, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher) is frenemies with Jake (Liam Hemsworth), and a fighter pilot of fearsome renown, and limited charisma. Goldblum’s Dr. Levinson is apparently in charge of Earth’s space defenses, though he’s dogged by an accountant, Floyd (Nicolas Wright) presumably from some future version of the GAO. In my favorite character transformation in the movie, this nebbishy bean counter eventually picks up a weapon and becomes a major alien combatant, guided by an African war lord he befriends. (I don’t mean it’s not silly, just not silly enough).

So anyway, the good guys, all of them, work up this plan. They’ll fly a captured alien fighter into the massive alien mother ship, and detonate a neutron bomb. It’s a suicide mission, and President Whitmore volunteers. Yes, Bill Pullman from the first movie. Over the wishes of his daughter (remember the cute little daughter from the first movie? Her. Different actress, of course; Maika Monroe this time), who is in love with Liam Hemsworth.

So this varsity team of great flyers, including Jake, Jake’s BFY Charlie (Travis Tope), Dylan, and Chinese flyer Rain (Angelababy), all agree to clear the path for the President’s suicide mission. And they all get shot down and trapped inside the alien mother ship, which has, like, hydroponic gardens and stuff they can hide in. So they’re able to steal alien fighters, and escape. (Missed opportunity, IMHO. What if, instead, they’d figured out how to attack the alien ship from inside it? Improvise something cool.)

Anyway, Bill Pullman shoots off his nuke, and dies, and the All-star fighting team manages to escape the alien ship, which crashes. But the main alien, an all-but-unbeatable ginormous queen alien, escapes. And the fighters all attack it. And Jeff Goldblum lures the queen out to the desert, fools it into thinking that’s where the good-guy alien sphere thing was, covers it with a force field and sets off another neutron bomb. And still doesn’t quite kill it. But the All-star pilots attack the queen, and finally, at (of course) the last second, succeed in killing her. Yay for us.

You see what I mean? The earlier movie was a simple three part process. 1) set off the computer virus, 2) set off the nuke to destroy the mother ship, and 3) send Randy Quaid on a suicide mission to destroy the big (but not biggest) alien ship. This one involves a suicide mission, which doesn’t entirely work, plus an escape, plus various ways for the fighters to survive, plus this desert fake-out thing, plus a final battle.

Plus, Judd Hirsch is back, playing Jeff Goldblum’s Dad again, and the movie spends an inordinate amount of time on a subplot in which he bravely rescues a school bus full of kids who were already pretty safe and in no need of rescue. Plus, there were romances galore, between Jeff Goldblum and Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing Francois Truffaut in Spielberg’s Close Encounters), between Jake and Bill Pullman’s daughter, plus between Jake’s friend Charlie and the Chinese pilot. Also, I think, between Brent Spiner and his caregiver.

It was a bit of a wade, honestly, striding through a swamp of a too-convoluted plot and too many personalities. I mean, William Fichtner, one of my favorite actors, was in it, playing a major character, and I didn’t even mention him in my plot summary.

Plus, this has to be said, some of the actors were–how to say this?–not good. Most conspicuously, Jessie T. Usher, playing Will Smith’s boring son. Sorry, but it’s true; the actor just never was able to make the character exciting. Will Smith held the earlier movie together. Liam Hemsworth comes closest to that role here, but gets lost in all that plot.

I suppose it’s a little more realistic. I mean, defeating a malevolent alien entity wouldn’t be easy, I suppose, and probably would require multiple approaches. But we don’t see an alien invasion movie to model various scenarios for probability. It’s an escape; it’s meant to be fun. And this sequel just isn’t all that fun. I didn’t not enjoy it. It was hot out, and everything was closed for the Fourth, and there wasn’t much on TV. It passed the time agreeably enough. But it’s not a bad enough movie to be great entertainment. And it’s the sequel to a movie that was.

The Loretta Lynch “scandal”

On Monday night, Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s plane was waiting on the tarmac at the Phoenix airport. Bill Clinton’s airplane was also down, a short distance away. So Bill Clinton strolled over to her plane, uninvited, to say hi. They chatted for a few minutes, about family, especially Clinton’s grandchildren, and travels; the kind of innocuous chitchat old friends engage in. Then he went back to his plane, and they both went their separate ways. That’s it. That’s the sum and substance of the current Loretta Lynch scandal.

Except, of course, it’s not. There’s pressure on Lynch to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate this ‘secret meeting.’ There may well be a Senate investigation. Did they talk about Hillary’s emails? Did Bill Clinton pressure the Attorney General of the United States to instruct the FBI to drop their investigation? Did Lynch and Clinton cook up some kind of plot to make the email problem go away? What did they really talk about?

Here’s the take from Vox.com, which I pretty much can’t improve on:

The overall structure of the scandal mirrors that of many Clinton imbroglios of years past: Travelgate, Troopergate, Whitewater, and so on. The media and conservative critics seized on these as evidence that the Clintons are willing to do anything to help themselves and their friends, and will interfere with investigations if necessary.

But to the Clintons and their defenders, they’re tempests in teapots, proof that the media will try to construe even the most meaningless incidents as evidence of the Clintons’ perfidy. That belief, in turn, seems to inspire a cavalier attitude about actions that lead to such tempests, fueling the cycle all over again.

Put more strongly: there are people who care more about Hillary Clinton’s emails than they care about almost anything on earth. Some are Republicans and some are Democrats, but what unites them is not just a belief but an absolute conviction that Hillary is guilty of serious criminal acts in regards to her emails, plus a whole bunch of other crimes in addition to the emails, that she is being shielded by Old Family Friend Loretta Lynch, that any day now the FBI will announce her indictment, ending her presidential bid. Obviously, some die-hard Bernie Sanders supporters believe this. Just as obviously, some Trump supporters do too, fueled by Trump’s tweets about it. And full-time Clinton haters (and their numbers are legion) are certain of it. Bill Clinton met with Loretta Lynch. It was kind of secretive, off anyone’s schedules, sneaking from plane to plane. OF COURSE it was about the emails. What on earth could it have been about otherwise?

But to Hillary Clinton (and undoubtedly Bill as well), the email thing isn’t important at all. It’s just the latest silly nonsense she has to deal with. Clinton’s enemies are always inventing these ridiculous pseudo-scandals. She had a private email account. So did previous Secretaries of State. It wasn’t against the law, and nobody told her she couldn’t. She never sent classified material over her private server. She never broke any laws. It’s nothing. Loretta Lynch really is an old friend. Bill popped over to say hi, and to show off the latest pictures of his grandchildren. Period.

I never cared about the email scandal. It really has always seemed trivial to me. But I have, in recent weeks, had occasion to talk to several people who work for companies where internet security is a very big deal, including a friend who works for a company with Department of Defense contracts. These friends (who are otherwise inclined to vote for Hillary), are appalled at the thought of someone using a private email server to handle company business, or, heaven forfend, State Department business. In their experience, this is a fireable offense. And the fact that she was the boss makes her offense even more egregious. She was Secretary of State. She should have set a good example for cyber-security. So, yeah, the email scandal has some resonance. There’s no evidence that anyone actually hacked into her private email account. But ill-intentioned cyber-persons could have, and if they had, State secrets could have been compromised. Getting lucky is not much of a defense.

So there’s that. I think Hillary Clinton was unnecessarily cavalier about internet security, and perhaps a bit arrogant about not taking it seriously. I think there are also all kinds of mitigating factors involved that tend to absolve her. For one thing, she was a prolific emailer. One estimate is that the disputed emails number about 30,000. I like email, but I don’t send 10 a week. She loved her Blackberry, and she loves email as a communications tool. I can see that having to switch back and forth between devices would become a pain. While she was Secretary of State, her daughter was getting married, and her mother died. Both of those events took a lot of planning, with many emails back and forth. Nobody seems to have told her she had to use two devices. So she didn’t.

There is, of course, a conspiracy theory vibe to the whole Loretta Lynch scandal. And, like most conspiracy theories, it falls apart on closer examination. The FBI investigation into the Hillary server wound up in May. She’s not going to be indicted, unless really damning new evidence turns up at the last second, which isn’t remotely likely. Why on earth would Bill Clinton do something as egregiously stupid as pressure Loretta Lynch to halt an investigation that was already pretty much over? Isn’t it more likely that he merely stopped by her plane to say hi?

So why risk it? Knowing the scrutiny the Clintons always face anyway, why would he do something risky like drop in on the sitting Attorney-General? Shouldn’t he go out of his way to avoid even the appearance of evil?

Because he’s Bill Clinton. Because he’s learned, by sad experience, that ‘avoiding the appearance of evil’ is simply impossible. Why? What’s the point? Remember some of the ‘scandals’ from the past. A close friend, Vince Foster, killed himself–the Clintons were accused of murdering him. Bill shut down the White House travel office because of accounting irregularities–they were attacked in the press for it, with weepy stories about those poor poor travel office folks. They lost money in a real estate deal, and spent the next six years being investigated for all sorts of alleged misdeeds under the broad umbrella ‘Whitewater,’ an investigation that found no wrong-doing. Hillary and Bill Clinton have been in the public eye since, at least, 1991, and have been accused of all manner of malfeasance every single day of that time.

All of these accusations have been false, except one. Bill really did have a consensual affair with Monica Lewinski. Most of the others have been preposterous. And so, sensibly enough, Bill and Hillary have apparently decided not to care anymore. Bill thought he’d stop by Loretta Lynch’s plane to say hi. That’s what happened, and I’m pretty sure that’s all that happened.

The Shallows: Movie review

In The Shallows, Blake Lively plays Nancy, an American med student on a surfing vacation to a remote beach in Mexico. While surfing, she is attacked by a shark, and injured. Somehow, she has to get back to shore in one already-munched-on piece. It’s a woman-in-peril movie, a movie about surviving a desperately hostile situation. It’s pretty well-done; kinda exciting. I know, tepid praise. And I’m not sure why I can’t recommend it with more enthusiasm. Lively’s a fine actress, she does good work here, and we do genuinely worry that she may not survive. It’s not that we’re indifferent to her plight.

This is going to sound weird, but the movie it really reminded me of was Gravity. That was in outer space, while this is a shark-infested lagoon, but otherwise, they’re basically the same movie. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock is stranded, and in danger, but she also has a series of steps she can take. She has to get from the space station to another space station to a satellite array to another facility; that’s what drove the plot. She has to get from damaged space haven A to damaged space facility B, to C and D and E and eventually back to Earth. Same thing here. Lively sees a dead whale in the lagoon–presumably, the whale is what attracted the shark. So Lively climbs up on the whale, and that keeps her safe for awhile. But not for long; sharks apparently can ram dead whales, to knock people off them. So Lively has to escape to a coral reef. And from there to another one. And from there to a buoy. It’s the same plot. “I’m safe for now, here, but that won’t last. I have to get to there. And from there to that other place.” And so on.

Of course, throughout the whole awful ordeal, Nancy’s resourcefulness, imagination, and courage pull her through. She doesn’t have much to work with, and she has a nasty, deep shark-bite wound on her thigh. But she’s a medical student; she does know how to suture a wound, for example. Of course, all she has to work with are her own earrings, but in a pinch, they hold up adequately. She turns her wetsuit jacket into a compression bandage, and uses what’s left of her surfboard for shade from the brutal tropical sun. All those scenes are fascinating, well acted; they’re the best things in the movie.

I compared The Shallows to Gravity, which it very closely resembles. But the biggest difference is that Gravity was tremendously exciting, absolutely riveting every second of the way. I found The Shallows kind of meh. I’m trying to figure out why. It’s not the star–Blake Lively is terrific in this, every bit as interesting as Sandra Bullock was in her movie.

I think there are two reasons. The first is just the setting. We don’t know much about space, but we do know it’s plenty dangerous. And we find Sandra Bullock’s resourcefulness convincing, because we don’t know better–we don’t know anything about outer-space survival. But we’ve all seen how many scary shark movies? And how many hours of Shark Week on TV? Ultimately, I think, the last third of The Shallows doesn’t work very well because we think we know how actual sharks actually behave, and it’s not the way this shark behaves. If real sharks can’t do what this shark does, then her duel of wits with it is substantially diminished.

I think there’s another reason too. In Gravity, George Clooney’s character dies pretty early on. That heightens the stakes; we think that Sandra Bullock’s character might actually die. Of course, she’s not going to die; Hollywood doesn’t do that to protagonists–only second leads. But in this movie, Blake Lively plays essentially the only character that matters. There are two Mexican dude surfers in it, and they do get shark-eaten, but they don’t matter as characters–we never even learn their names. So their deaths don’t have much resonance. And that means, we never really do believe that Nancy might not make it.

My all-time favorite shark movie, Open Water, a wonderfully terrifying small indie movie works precisely because we don’t really have any reassurance that the characters are going to survive. As we watch, we think that they’re as likely to die as to live; it generated terrific suspense throughout for that very reason. I wonder how much of the difference is due to casting. Open Water starred Who? and Whosat? (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, actually). While this is clearly a Blake Lively vehicle. She’s probably going to survive it.

Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a pretty well made, moderately suspenseful, fairly exciting woman-in-peril movie, The Shallows does deliver. There’s a lot to like here; I can’t point to any part of the filmmaking that didn’t work. It’s just a little too easy to compare it to other really similar movies that are just that much better.

 

Reflections on the Brexit vote

Last Thursday, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. They executed a Brexit. Polling suggested that the vote would be close; still, I thought it likely that Remain would win. Young people, Millennials, voted overwhelmingly to Remain. The problem was that not enough of them bothered to vote at all (the figure I saw was 38%). This was, as it happens, a vote about the future of the United Kingdom. But it turned into a vote in which the future of young people was determined by old people.

I spent last week trying to blog about the Brexit vote. I drafted blog after blog, only to discard them all. I realized that I simply did not know enough about English or European politics to comment usefully or thoughtfully. So I tried to give myself a crash course on the subject, only to feel more and more foolish with each draft.

What I was able to determine was that there were very good arguments made on both sides of the Brexit issue. There are excellent reasons for British voters to resent or dislike or even despise the EU, and to want to vote Leave. There were equally excellent reasons to Remain. To some extent, Leave engaged in misleading advertising; undoubtedly, so did Remain. I would have voted Remain, but I don’t regard those who voted to Leave as dunces, racists, or fools. To me, it would have been something of a tough call. (I would have suggested that the UK use the leverage of a threatened Brexit to force a renegotiation with the European Parliament over a number of matters, especially the EU continued policy of economic austerity. Which has to be reckoned a catastrophic failure).

What is interesting is how, immediately after the election, both Liberals and Conservatives over here, in the US, recast the vote so it reflected our own polarized politics. Leave became the conservative stance; Remain, the liberal one. Conservative commentators and journals crowed over the ‘courage’ of the British for standing up for national sovereignty. Liberals saw the Leave victory as a triumph of ascendent Trumpism. And that all strikes me as both illustrative and very interesting.

Leave was certainly a vote for national sovereignty. Even the more contentious issue of immigration was couched in terms of nationality; what kind of nation is one that can’t control its own borders? But it goes well beyond the single issue of immigration. Brussels issues all sorts of pettifogging regulations over all aspects of British economic life. One of the more entertaining spectacles in the run-up to the Brexit vote was a pitched sea battle using water cannons in the Thames between fishing boats trailing Leave banners and a yacht owned by Sir Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats band, slinging water balloons for Remain. Comical, sure. But illustrative; fisherman were furious over EU regulations over when, what, how often they could fish.

To conservatives (at least over here), then, Leave was a reaction to intrusive Big Government, a rejection of heavy-handed statism and bureaucratic overreach. I get that. I respect it. Conservatism rejects statism; is skeptical of government generally. That’s a principled position.

Of course, that’s not all that Leave stood for. A lot of Leave voters were vocally opposed to EU policies of free immigration, for reasons that do strike us Yanks as uncomfortably redolent of The Donald. When you see voters talking openly about wanting to keep out ‘that sort’ of people, we hear echoes of Trump’s cover of The Wall. (As for Trump, he was, as the Brexit vote unfolded, in Scotland, promoting his golf course. Because that’s what Presidential candidates do, hold press conferences to extol the exceptional bathroom fixtures in the luxury suites at the golf course he just renovated). We all saw those post-Brexit images; angry older white Brits wanting to Make England Great Again.

Of course, liberals in the US are as interested in exploiting Brexit for our political purposes as the Trump campaign is. And so we conflate a part with the whole, and craft a narrative in which Brexit is Old White Racists rejecting immigration. But that’s unfair. Surely, for most Leave voters, arguments about national sovereignty and economic freedom were more compelling. By the same token, American conservatives are genuinely worried about encroaching statism. If we liberals genuinely do want to eradicate poverty, we need to recognize that free markets will do more to accomplish it than any combination of government initiatives and agencies and programs.

But, here’s the thing. That’s not the only thing ‘conservative’ means. Conservative can also mean a resistance to radical change. Part of conservatism, it seems to me, is a concern about unintended consequences. Ill considered government actions could make things worse; programs can exacerbate the  very problems they’re meant to solve. So, for example, conservatism’s skepticism to anti-poverty programs. Won’t those programs lead to welfare dependency? Won’t they provide incentives for people not to work? Shouldn’t work be the goal? And so, in the history of American politics, we see progressive program after progressive program proposed by liberals, and opposed by conservatives. And that’s not because conservatives are all a bunch of hard-hearted meanies. Conservative concerns are legitimate. Will this program work? How do we pay for it? If we raise taxes, will that hurt the economy? That’s why our government works best when any bill has the benefit of both approaches; liberal passion, conservative skepticism. That’s why government requires compromise, and the forging of alliances.

And that’s also why Brexit is a bad issue. It’s purely up and down; Remain or Leave, with no middle ground in-between.

But isn’t it also seriously weird that LEAVE is the de facto conservative position?

I mean, seriously. If there’s one thing Leave will mean, it’s chaos and uncertainty. What will happen to Britain’s economy? No one knows. Could it be catastrophic? Oh, sure, of course it could. It could easily lead to a recession, and that recession could spread to the rest of Europe and the US. What will the EU do in response? No one knows. If the UK invokes article 50, what happens then? What will the EU/UK negotiations be like? No one knows. Will Scotland Leave? Possibly. What about Northern Ireland? Is it possible this could leave to an Ireland/Northern Ireland merger? Seriously? Bad things could happen, good things could happen; this becomes, genuinely, Anarchy in the UK. If there’s one thing conservatism should be presumed to oppose, it’s their world turning into a real-life Sex Pistols album.

A few days before the Brexit vote, Paul Krugman wrote a column about it. Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize winning economist, but he’s also a well-known liberal political commentator. And in his column, after soberly describing the Leave and Remain positions (and the reasons each of them had merit), he decided he would probably vote Remain, if he had a vote. Why? Because Leave was just too dangerously radical. It could have really terrible consequences. And if you vote Remain, you could always change your mind later. Better be safe than sorry.

In other words, one of liberalism’s leading writers declared for Remain for what are fundamentally conservative reasons. Remain is a vote for the established order, for things not changing. And leading conservatives declared for Leave, supporting, therefore, massive, chaotic change, a leap into the void sort of change, exactly the kinds of change liberals generally like. What a topsy-turvy, radically de-centered world we seem now to inhabit!

Free State of Jones: Movie Review

Free State of Jones is kind of a mess of a movie, the kind of film that never seems to have quite decided what it wanted to be. At times, it felt like a docu-drama. At times it was more like a melodrama; at times it felt like classical tragedy. It employs a framing story set 80 years after the main story it tells, but it uses that frame very oddly, and starts it much too late for it to be terribly effective. I saw it with my wife, my daughter, and a sister-in-law, and afterwards, we went to lunch, and spent an enjoyable half hour tearing the movie apart. While also agreeing that, with all its flaws, it had affected us deeply. We found the history the film described completely fascinating. But we also weren’t sure how much of the movie’s version of that history could be trusted.

Newton Knight was certainly a real guy, and as played by Matthew McConaughey, a charismatic and fascinating character. He was a farmer from Jones County Mississippi, conscripted to fight in the American Civil War. He served as a nurse, apparently because he was strong enough to carry wounded soldiers from the battlefield to those horrific civil war surgical tents. The movie begins with a line of southern soldiers marching stolidly to their deaths. A union skirmish line cuts them down. The bloody battle scenes are graphic and ferocious, and set up the rest of the movie; we wouldn’t want to fight back then either, and would do whatever we could to get out of it. And so does Newton, especially after a young family member dies in his arms. He deserts. And helps neighbors fight off Confederate teams who go from farm to farm, stealing crops for the war effort.

Eventually, Newton is sufficiently notorious an outlaw that he has to go into hiding, in the swampland of the Mississippi delta. Also on the lam, a number of escaped slaves. And Newton, already disposed to treat his black neighbors with courtesy and respect, makes friends, especially with an educated slave, Moses (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his close friend. He also becomes ever closer to a black woman healer, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who he eventually marries, his first (white) wife, Serena (Keri Russell), having left him.

We also cut back and forth to a modern (1940s) Mississippi trial, in which a Knight descendant, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is tried for having entered into an illegal marriage to a white girl. Davis is accused of being one eighth black, and thus a Negro ineligible to marry anyone white. We cut back to the incidents of that trial on, perhaps, three other occasions.

Back to the civil war past, however, Knight eventually organizes his neighbors (many of whom have also deserted), and escaped slaves into an army. And they secede from the secession; declare themselves the Free State of Jones, with by-laws prohibiting rich men from profiting from the labor of the poor, and also outlawing slavery. (This is, ultimately, a film about the history of Southern race relations, but almost as much, it’s a film about social class. Knight was more a class warrior than a racial provocateur). Knight proves himself an effective guerilla leader, until finally he raises enough fuss that the Mississippi and Confederate authorities have to send a full regiment to deal with him. At which point, he and his men melt back into the swamp, where cavalry can’t follow them and infantry won’t. A few of his men are caught and hanged; most get away scott-free.

Those incidents make up perhaps the first two thirds of the movie; maybe a little less. The rest of the movie covers the end of the war, Reconstruction, the fight for voting rights, and the return of Knight’s first wife. (He welcomes her home, and builds her a cabin on his property, while his beloved Rachel remains with him in the main house). All this is handled episodically, with the story continuity provided in titles.

In short, we have essentially three movies. One is an exciting action movie, about Knight and his rebellion against the confederacy. The second is a story closer to our age, about a trial, in which a Knight descendent has to prove he has the mettle of his grandpappy. The third is a docudrama, in which we dramatize a few random incidents after the civil war; interesting incidents, to be sure, and tragic ones, as the history of the state of Mississippi is inherently tragic and dreadful.

I liked all three movies a lot. I found them all fascinating. They don’t mesh together very effectively, but that didn’t matter much to me. But it might to other viewers. It’s a terrific history lesson, even if the history can’t be entirely trusted. Who was Newton Knight actually?

The first thing I did when I got home from the movie was look up the Wikipedia article for Newton Knight. If that source can be trusted, then yes, the movie took some liberties with the story. It made his army bigger than it probably already was, and showed them as being more militarily successful. And, of course, Newton Knight is a contested figure in American history and Confederate history. Apparently, there’s a good, scholarly book about Knight by historian Victoria Bynum. I’ve ordered it on Amazon, and intend to read it when it arrives.

And I think that captures the impact of this movie more than anything. The story is fascinating. The acting is beyond superb. The filmmaking is stylistically inconsistent, but I also didn’t much care. But the history! My goodness! It’s a very interesting movie, and one I’m very glad to have seen. It’s also not a cinematic masterpiece. Let that be my recommendation.