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Sweden

What do you think about terrorist attacks? Do you think it would be better if there were fewer of them, or if there more of them? I rather suspect that pretty much all of us would say that terrorist attacks are bad, and that it would be better for everyone if there were fewer of them. That, however, does not seem to be the opinion of the President of the United States, or of his aides. Otherwise, why make terrorist attacks up?

When Kellyanne Conway invented the massacre of Bowling Green, the response was very funny. Equal merriment has now greeted President Trump’s outrage over “what happened in Sweden. Sweden!” Oh my gosh: what happened in Sweden?! Did IKEA run out of Swedish meatballs? Did the Muppets’ Swedish chef botch a recipe? Did Abba break up again? Or, as Chelsea Clinton asked on Twitter, “What happened in Sweden? Did they catch the perpetrators of the Bowling Green massacre?”

More seriously, the Swedish government took our President’s comments literally. The Swedish ambassador to the US asked for a formal explanation. Trump responded by saying that he was responding to a Fox News report about ‘problems’ Sweden supposedly is having with immigrants. That news report has been discredited, with the Swedish officials featured therein furiously insisting that their comments had been distorted beyond recognition. The Swedish government pointed this out, and the Swedish embassy said it was looking “forward to informing the US administration about Swedish immigration and integration policies.”

The Sweden comment came amid a campaign rally in Florida which leads one to wonder why the elected President is holding campaign rallies a month into his Presidency. The answer, it seems obviously, is because he likes rallies. He also likes watching massive amounts of cable news, most especially Fox News. This is not the first time his news viewing habits have led him astray.

I like Sweden. I don’t know it anywhere near as well as I know Norway, but I have been there, read Swedish, and am a big fan of Abba, Ingmar Bergman films, and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novels. I also like those meatballs. Darn tasty.

American liberals tend to think of Sweden as governmental paradise, what with the universal health care, expansive social safety net, and enlightened family policies. It follows, therefore, that American conservatives are anxious to find everything they can that’s wrong with Sweden. Sweden has been particularly generous when it comes to taking in refugees and other immigrants. Since the heart of Trumpism is the belief that refugees are likely to be terrorists, and that immigrants generally are violent and dangerous, it follows that Trump would like a news story about how much crime has increased in Sweden, largely perpetrated by immigrants.

It isn’t true. Immigrant populations in Sweden aren’t committing lots of violent crimes. As Vox.com pointed out, the Fox story in question was pushing this narrative: “brown-skinned immigrants are raping blonde Swedish women.” It isn’t true, and it’s frankly racist.

In case you’re interested, here is a news story with all the facts and figures. Immigration has increased considerably in Sweden since 2005. During that same period, Swedish crime statistics haven’t changed. There is no Swedish immigrant-driven crime wave.

What has happened in Sweden since 2005 is a massive increase in incidents of rape. This doesn’t mean that more Swedish women are being raped. It means that in 2005, Sweden changed the way it counts rape statistics. Swedish crime statistics do show an increase in reported rapes. But it’s not because more women are being raped. It’s a statistical anomaly. Read the link above; it’s explained very clearly.

The specific news story at the heart of this is also highly questionable. It involves an interview between Tucker Carlson and a documentary filmmaker named Ami Horowitz. Horowitz is under attack for his journalistic integrity, and his story has been generally discredited.

In other words, in a rally he had no business holding, the President of the United States needlessly angered a long-time ally by mentioning a dubious and unflattering news story he’d half-watched. So, of course, he immediately backed down and apologized. Uh, no. And why not? Because President Trump wants more terrorist attacks. He wants us good and scared.

Best response to that, I think, is laughter. Which is why it’s important for us all to stand by Sweden. You know; in its time of need.

 

 

Joe Pickett novels: book(s) review

I’ve been reading a lot lately. Not writing, actually, as followers of this blog will have noticed; hand cramps. But I’ve always loved good books, and I’ve come across a writer and a series that are real corkers. And so I’m here to tell you about them.

Joe Pickett is a game warden, living in Saddlestring, a small town in Wyoming. He absolutely loves his job; loves hiking and horseback riding, loves hunting and (especially) fly fishing. He even enjoys riding into hunting camps and checking everyone’s hunting licenses. And Joe’s a good guy. Bit of a doofus sometimes, but devoted to his hyper-competent wife, Marybeth, and his three daughters. And the various horses and dogs that fill out the Pickett household.

He’s also exceptionally good at solving murders. In fact, he’s a bit like Miss Marple; his home community is an amazingly murderous place. But because he’s of that community, a local in good standing, he’s able to notice vagaries of behavior (or misbehavior) that suggest, well, untoward acts.

Miss Marple, though, sat back and ever-so-keenly, observed. Joe blunders into various fraught situations, has misadventures, and somehow survives them. He makes a lot of mistakes. But he’s so good-hearted, so resolutely honest, he wins our heart, and he solves a lot of crimes. He’s also aided by his best friend, Nate Romanowski, a former Special Ops whiz now living as a master falconer/off-the-grid survivalist, an exceptional shot with an oddball huge pistol. Who enjoys climbing trees in the nude, and communing, underwater, with fish. Nate’s a tremendous character, a wonderful sidekick.

And from time to time Joe’s asked to investigate some remote corner of the state by Wyoming’s flamboyant and eccentric Governor Rulon. The governor is Joe’s protector, though he could also teach a master class in plausible deniability. But his heart’s occasionally in the right place, and though he’s devious and unreliable, he’s also the reason Joe manages to keep his job. (Among other peccadilloes, Joe is terrible at getting along with sheriffs. Or, mostly, the FBI. Or bureaucrats of all stripes).

Joe’s also very bad with trucks. It’s a running joke in the series; how many state-issued trucks he ruins. Never mind, though; Governor Rulon generally gets him a new one.

Oh, yes, I forgot one of the series’ most memorable characters; Joe’s mother-in-law, Missy. She’s beautiful, well groomed and sleek, and also an utter sociopath. Her superpower is marrying up. She finds a wealthy man, seduces him, marries him, gets her attorney to draw up a pre-nup leaving the man’s fortune to her, and then she’s off to hunt down the next, even richer one. When necessary, she also has been known to add homicide to her repertoire. She also thinks her daughter Marybeth is too good for Joe, and urges Marybeth to divorce the bumpkin. Which she never does; not even tempted; Joe and MB are solid. Still, what fun during family holidays.

The Joe Pickett series is written by a Wyoming native named C. J. Box, who is, as it happens, also married with three daughters. And they’re wonderful fun.

I’m completely bonkers over these novels, as you may have guessed by the fact that I’ve devoured seventeen of them in two weeks. They’re exciting, beautifully paced, genuinely mysterious. And Box’s prose, though generally sturdy and straightforward, has lovely moments of genuine lyricism.

I like the books, in part, because I’m a Westerner myself, and recognize the landscapes and people he so memorably describes. But I’m also a political animal, and each of the books has a political dimension. Of course, one of the main characters is a Governor, so there’s some partisanship built into his interactions with the other characters. But many of the mysteries also have politics at the periphery (or at times, even the center) of their stories. Environmentalists are frequently villains in the novels, but not always, and Joe’s something of an environmentalist himself.

But I like that. I like the idea that politics matters, that political disputes can be folded into the texture of a mystery series. That political differences can even lead to violence, at times.

I imagine that Joe’s position on gun control is pretty resolutely Wyoming–Joe owns a number of guns, with which he’s frequently called upon to defend himself. As he’s fond of saying, “it’s about to get real Western around here.” And violence ensues. Just like it does for the Good Guys in most detective novels.

But Joe’s not a detective. He’s a game warden. And a terrifically drawn and utterly compelling central character for a series of mystery novels.  Very very highly recommended.

Hidden Figures: Movie Review

Hidden Figures is a pretty good film on an absolutely tremendous subject. Viewing it, you’re overwhelmed by the story and the acting and the musical score, and some outstanding characterizations; that’s the initial impression. And then its impact fades, and the weaknesses of its comparatively pedestrian screenplay come to the forefront. It’s a story about the early years of NASA and the space program and the civil rights movement, and the contributions of some extraordinary women. That’s enough to carry the movie, at least initially.

In the early 1960s, the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia was tasked with computing the trajectories for the rockets and space capsules of the Mercury space program. A lot of those calculations were done by ‘computers.’ A ‘computer’ back then wasn’t understood to be a machine, but a person; someone with math skills, who could quickly and accurately do calculations. They had a machine too, what we would call a computer, only they called it an IBM. And nobody knew how to use it.

The Langley site was strictly segregated, with a West building for African-American ‘computers,’ almost all of them women, and an East building for the main NASA scientists, all of them white men. The film tells the story of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), three ambitious and talented African-American women who wanted to be part of the space program, like most patriotic 1960s Americans did.

Jackson gets a job in the engineering program, designing the space capsule. She’s held back by the fact that she doesn’t have an engineering degree. There’s a program available through NASA, but she can’t quality for it until she passes a remedial class offered through night school at a local high school. A white high school. So she files a lawsuit to become the first African-American woman in a Virginia white high school class. That’s a terrific story right there, and it’s also the story that gets the least attention in this film, because the other two main stories are even better.

Dorothy Vaughan, meanwhile, is doing the work of a supervisor, but does not have the job title, seniority or salary of one. She’s been given a supervisor’s responsibilities, and has a leadership personality; she can do the job. But she’s Black; NASA doesn’t seem able to recognize her. That’s her battle; to become an supervisor. In the meantime, she teaches herself Fortran, studying IBM programming on her own time. And so she sneaks into the IBM control room, and quietly programs the machine in the evenings. And when NASA needs precise and fast calculations done, she knows how to get the computer machine working to provide them, and how to teach her ‘computers’ how to program.

Another great story, right? But the movie’s third story is the best of all. Katherine Goble (who marries mid-film and changes her name to Johnson), is a math whiz, who has skills that get her assigned to the main building, and to a team made up entirely of white men. The main mathematician there is a guy named Paul Stafford, played here by Jim Parsons. (It did rather crack me up; the idea of Sheldon Cooper as a (shudder) rocket scientist). Anyway, Stafford has no faith in her, blocks her efforts at every turn. Is he racist? Sexist? Sure, like most white dudes in 1961.

Meanwhile, the boss, the head of Langley, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), cares about one thing only; getting astronauts into space, and back again safely. If that requires that he become a civil rights pioneer, so be it.

In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Katherine needs to go to the bathroom at work, and the nearest colored women’s rest room is a half mile away. And so, a couple of times a day, she has to walk, in high heels, over half a mile just to take care of that most basic need. There’s a women’s restroom in the building where she works, but it’s for white women only. When an exasperated Harrison asks why she has to take such long breaks, it’s difficult for her to tell him–gender, race and workplace protocols all collide. Plus, it’s raining out, and she’s soaking. She finally does, though; she is able to speak out, and tell the truth. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, and leads to a scene where Harrison personally rips a ‘colored’ sign off a bathroom door. Thereafter, all the women are free to use whatever restroom is closest.

There are a lot of bathroom scenes in the film, including a nice one between Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, who plays the supervisor of all NASA women at the facility. They’re both terrific in that scene, as Dunst is forced to confront her own racism in that most basic of settings.

So there’s a lot about this film to savor. Outstanding acting performances, and a powerful story; what’s not to like?

It’s just so conventional, though, and in ways that really do harm the telling of these stories. It’s a Hollywood biopic; of course, the heroines have to be superhuman, and the villains made of cardboard. This is clearest in the scenes with Katherine and the other mathematicians with whom she works. Every major breakthrough comes from her. We get the distinct impression that the mathematicians at NASA are not top talent, but in fact the remedial class in math school. There’s one scene, for example, where Katherine points out that their task is to turn the Mercury capsule’s orbit from an elliptical orbit to a parabolic orbit. I’m not kidding; the other mathematicians in the room stare at her like they’ve never heard of a parabola before. Jim Parson’s Paul Stafford literally moves his lips as he tries to figure out some calculation Katherine Johnson has put up on their communal chalkboard. Honestly, it looks like the Mercury program would be in much better shape if they fired all their white guy mathematicians, and just let the one Black lady do the whole job.

The same thing’s true of the scenes where Dorothy Vaughan figures out how to use the IBM. She’s got a library book on Fortran, and this brand new mainframe, and she figures out how to make the thing work, while the guys from IBM who are setting it up stand by, flummoxed.

Believe me, I’m not making some kind of alt-right argument about how egregiously this movie disrespects white people. Not even remotely. What I am saying is that the movie’s approach, in which Katherine Johnson is the Michael Jordan of mathematicians, and the guys she’s working with are the New York Generals ends up diminishing her actual accomplishments. Which is the better story: Black Supergenius astounds a village of idiots, or a brilliant African-American woman holds her own, and gains the respect of some of the top mathematicians in the world, and becomes their esteemed teammate and colleague? In 1961?

The truth makes a better story than a fictionalized, distorted version of the truth that this film, sadly, relies on. And I know you’ve only got two hours to tell your story, and that narratively, you need to conflate some characters or it just becomes unwieldy. I know that. But in fact, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson were not particularly close friends, and the scientists they worked with were not dopes, and their contributions to the Mercury program, though significant and ground-breaking, were not as all-encompassing as this film makes them appear. Tell that story, the real story. They were remarkable women, and their achievements were extraordinary, especially in that time and place. They were patriotic Americans, and civil rights pioneers, and I’m thrilled that this movie got made. I just wish it were a better screenplay.

Still a fascinating, entertaining and educational piece, and well worth your time. Just not as good as it could have been, and should have been.

Lion: Movie Review

For the fourth time, my wife and I tried to see Hidden Figures, and couldn’t, because it was sold out. But we were in the mood for some filmed entertainment, and decided to see Lion instead, as an adventure, knowing essentially nothing about it.

This is rare for us. We make every effort to be informed film consumers; reading reviews, checking metacritics and rottentomatoes.com, watching trailers, referencing IMDB. This isn’t difficult or time consuming, and we feel like it’s well worth our time to make sure our movie-going dollars are well-spent. We made an exception for Lion. We knew exactly three things going in. We knew it was nominated for Best Picture. We knew it had a high rottentomatoes score (via hearsay; we didn’t look it up). And a friend on Facebook had said she was glad it was Oscar-nominated, as it was the kind of family-friendly entertainment that never gets nominated for big awards. That was it. We didn’t know who was in it, what it was about, who directed, or anything else.

The experiment was a rousing success. Lion tells a powerful, moving, human story. It’s exceptionally well filmed, written, and acted. It is one of those ‘celebration of the human spirit’ movies that ends up, on reflection, raising more troubling questions than the immediate issues it addresses. Still, I recommend it highly. And it’s possible I may have caught my eyes watering a time or two. Air quality in the theater, probably.

As the movie begins, we see two young brothers, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), climbing on and around a train somewhere in India. Saroo looks to be around 5, and Guddu is maybe 8. The train is transporting coal, which they steal, and eventually sell for two modest bags of milk. They’re poor kids, in other words, and their home is a single room about the size of a single cow stall. Their Mom (Priyanka Bose), works lugging rocks. That appears to be the only work she can find. She asks Saroo to watch his younger sister Shekila (Khushi Solanke), which Saroo complains about. There is no evidence that this anything but a loving family, but these boys aren’t in school, run around in dangerous places, and steal for food. Poverty doesn’t get much more abject.

Guddu also works, at a laborers job, and as he heads out, Saroo wants to go with him. This would leave 3-year-old Shekila alone and unsupervised, but Saroo doesn’t care; he wants to prove he’s a big boy and can work too. Finally, Guddu relents, and he and Saroo head off. They reach a train station, and Guddu tells Saroo to wait on a bench, while he goes to see about work.

And so Saroo waits. Eventually he falls asleep. Guddu does not return. A train pulls in. Saroo wakes, sees the train and is curious. It has one door open, no passengers. He climbs aboard. The one door closes, and the train begins moving.

We can see a sign informing us that the train is heading off for maintenance, and not accepting passengers. Saroo doesn’t know that, though, and for two days, he’s the only passenger as the train rockets through the Indian landscape. He finds an apple core, so he’s got that much food. Finally, the long train ride ends. He’s in Calcutta. He has no idea, though; he only speaks Hindi, and almost nobody he meets speaks anything but Bengali.  Saroo doesn’t know this, of course; he’s only five. He only knows that people talk nonsense to him, and don’t understand his responses. He’s lost in a huge, impoverished city, without money, family, any way to communicate, or any way to survive.

Somehow, he stays alive. He finds a Hindu temple, and is able to eat temple offerings. He finds the Hooghly River, and can drink from it. A nice-seeming woman, who speaks some Hindi, brings him home to her apartment and feeds him his first decent meal. But when she introduces him to her ‘friend,’ (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) a good looking guy in his forties, the boy’s creeped out, as well he might be–the guy appears to be a Fagin-type, a boy-prostitute recruiter. Saroo takes off, at a full sprint.

The first third of the movie is about this kid, this five-year old, surviving in a dangerous city, despite not speaking the language and having no resources at all except his courage, his intelligence, his instincts, and his ability to run away really fast. It’s terrifying and the sense of danger is palpable. The kid, Sunny Pawar, is absolutely terrific, but so is the filmmaking, which never lets us lose track of this one child, while also reminding us of the hundreds of thousands of impoverished and desperate children lost in the cruelty and danger of Calcutta.

Eventually, he ends up captured and placed in an orphanage. A notice is posted, with his picture, but we realize there’s no chance of his mother seeing it; and anyway, the notice is in Bengali. We see him in an orphanage school, sitting there, completely uncomprehending. But salvation awaits. An Australian family wants to adopt an Indian orphan. He’s got a new family, an ocean away.

And so, he gets on a plane, and at the airport, he meets John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley. He’s going to be raised as an Aussie. He will move from abject destitution to middle-class luxury. He’s got a TV, and a sailboat. They teach him how to play cricket. He’s fine.

Not long afterward, he also gets a brother, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), a deeply damaged young boy, also Indian, but as troubled as Saroo is well-adjusted.

Cut ahead twenty five years, and Saroo is played by Dev Patel, and Mantosh by Divian Ladwa. And Saroo is fine. He’s in grad school, in Hotel Management. He’s met a fellow grad student, Lucy (Rooney Mara). (Manosh is still pretty screwed up). But Saroo is also discontented. He remembers his childhood, his home in India, Guddu and his Mom, the long train ride and those horrible months in Calcutta. He becomes obsessed with finding his Mom. Not that he doesn’t love his Aussie Mom; he and Sue are very close. But he can’t shake it, this need to reconnect.

He tells the other students in his program about his past, and they’re entirely supportive. And one of them suggests that he look on Google Earth. Maybe that could be a tool he could use to find his home. That’s the rest of the movie; about Saroo’s search on Google Earth for his home, and his growing obsession with finding his family.

Nicole Kidman is terrific as Sue Brierley. I think that’s one of the great acting challenges, to play a genuinely good human being. (Villains are comparatively easy). Anyway, she nails it. Rooney Mara is somewhat wasted, in this ‘world’s most supportive girlfriend’ role. Dev Patel is likewise great, though he might want to move on a bit from these ‘Indian urchin who becomes upwardly mobile’ roles. Anyway, it’s a fine movie, a glorious film debut for Garth Davis, who comes from the world of advertising, and who has another film in post-production, an as-yet untitled film about Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara (with Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus).

Anyway, we took a chance on a film we knew nothing about, and feel well-rewarded for it. It’s a powerful and family-affirming film. It also reminds us that there are hundreds of thousands of desperately impoverished children all around the world, who don’t end up with a lucky second chance in the privileged West. So that’s also a thought that lingers.

Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley

Professional conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to Berkeley to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans. Some 1500 people gathered to protest. A group of 150 masked and violent agitators attacked the protesters. Rocks were thrown; fireworks deployed. A riot broke out, and Berkeley security forces decided to cancel the event, to protect Yiannopoulos from physical harm. Those are the details I know; I’ll admit right now that I haven’t followed the story all that closely.

Nor have I followed the career of Milo Yiannopoulos very closely. (I have read that his followers generally refer to him as ‘Milo.’ So I won’t, even though it means having to type out the long and hard-to-spell ‘Yiannopolous’ over and over). Reading him would require that I go into Breitbart.com, which I am loathe to do. It’s an alt-right website; I’m not about to give them the click. As I understand it, he’s a Brit, ostentatiously gay, and absurdly good-looking. He was the head troll in Gamergate. He was banned from Twitter for harassing Leslie Jones, the actress, for having committed the unpardonable sin of getting cast in a movie. He hates ‘political correctness,’ which Breitbart seems to define as any constraints on mocking disabled people, women, or African-Americans. He’s anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay rights.

In short, he’s deliberately and intentionally insulting, needlessly vicious, and a self-promoter of the first order. He’s toxic, on purpose, for fun. And for profit: he just got a quarter of a million dollar book deal from Simon and Schuster. Which has done untold damage to that esteemed mainstream publisher; professional book critics have announced that they’ll boycott all Simon and Schuster books in future, other S&S authors have pulled out of their book deals; it’s a big mess. Which is great news for Yiannopoulos; like most infants, he likes causing messes.

And that’s the key to understanding the alt-right. They’re not Klan, and they’re not Klan wannabes. They’re not Nazis. They just get the giggles over using the rhetoric and style of the Klan and of Nazis, which usage they seem to regard as consequence-less. That’s Yiannopolous; when he insults feminists, he doesn’t seem to know or care if it actually harms women. It’s just how he gets his kicks.

So the Berkeley college Republicans, for fun, decided to invite the most incendiary alt-right troll on the planet. To Berkeley. They knew there would be protests. Anticipating those protests, a bunch of masked thugs launched a violent counter-protest, for kicks. Kind of like Fight Club; violence being politically incorrect, so let’s do that too.

So how should a university respond to a guy like Milo Yiannopoulos? First of all, the College Republicans were within their rights to invite a speaker to campus. And Berkeley students are within their rights protesting that invitation. As long as that protest, and that invitation live up to certain standards of civil discourse–and those standards need to be expressly stated and understood–then the University can be said to be fulfilling its main educational purpose. Invite speakers. Let them speak. Let protesters protest. Use the fact of that talk and that response to influence how teachers teach and how learners learn. Do not, ever, ban certain speakers or points of view.

And if you think it unlikely that Yiannopolous is going to say anything worth listening to (which I do), then don’t go to his speech.

What I strenuously disagree with is the idea that potentially offensive speakers should be banned from college campuses. Campuses absolutely must invite speakers, and some of those speakers are likely to hold points of view that some members of the campus community find offensive. Fine. Invite them anyway. A robust and bracing exchange of views is good for all participants.

Do you think Milo Yiannopolous is a contemptible weenie? Me too. In which case, his ideas, such as they are, won’t stand the test of time. So who cares?

Seven Countries

The President’s de facto Muslim ban was sold as a security measure, restricting entry to the US based, not on religion, but on country of origin. Nobody believes that that’s actually its intent, least of all Trump himself, who was caught on camera calling it a Muslim ban within hours of its enactment. Still, since the only possible way this particular executive order could survive judicial scrutiny was by positing it as a more effective way to vet potential threats, the various Trump apologists selling the policy have insisted it’s really just about seven specific countries which pose a terrorist threat. So let’s look at those seven nations.

Iraq and Syria: ISIS, in other words. Since June 2014, ISIS has conquered large sections of both Iraq and Syria. Syria has been embroiled in the most brutal civil war, which created a power vacuum that ISIS filled. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army’s initial response to ISIS attacks was to drop their weapons and run for safety. Why? Because the Iraqi army is Shi’ia-dominated, and the Sunni thugs in ISIS don’t believe in taking Shi’ite prisoners. Aleppo, in Syria, the second largest city in the country, is a humanitarian disaster. Three million Iraqi refugees have sought asylum in the West, mostly in Europe. Millions live in refugee camps in Jordan, which is struggling to feed them, and couldn’t without massive international help. There are literally millions of displaced Syrian and Iraqi people, desperate people, people in the most dire need of basic food, shelter and medical care. Many of the ones turned away over the weekend also helped us fight the insane war we started.

Libya: Formerly, the odious and contemptible thugocracy of Moammar Gadhafi, whose regime was toppled by Western-backed militias. Turned out those militias each had their own agendas, incompatible with Western interests, or with each other. Getting caught in the middle of that firefight was essentially at the heart of the Benghazi attack. Caught in the middle, of course, are also ordinary Libyan citizens, many of whom are resolutely pro-US. (Remember, Benghazi had a security force; a pro-American militia bodyguard. Wiped out by the terrorist attack that also took the lives of four Americans. We never talk about Libyan casualties in that battle). Libya has become a terrorist haven, but with millions of impoverished and displaced citizens. The country’s still swimming in oil, but its GDP is tanking. Vetting Libyan refugees would be a challenge, but don’t think there aren’t lots of them.

Yemen: Total basket case. Embroiled in a massive civil war. Out of a total population of 27 million, 20 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. 3 million displaced peoples. Children starving throughout much of the country.

Somalia: Continues to be ripped apart by warring strongmen. Basically no government. A growing sanctuary for terrorists. Essentially the countries economy is driven by piracy and the cultivation and sale of qat. It’s a flowering plant of the region; chew the leaves and you can get high. Somalia does now have a (barely) functioning government in place. But it also has 12 million people living in fear for their lives.

Sudan: There’s a continuing war between the Army of Sudan and the Sudan Revolutionary Front. That’s after the war between Sudan and South Sudan ended, leading to South Sudan’s independence. Darfur remains a war zone, and represents perhaps the most prominent humanitarian crisis on the planet.

Iran: And then there’s Iran. Which has a stable government, a functioning economy, and which has troops fighting against ISIS in Syria. Iran is, in fact, a relatively prosperous and peaceable nation. For awhile they had nuclear ambitions, but as you know, the Obama administration negotiated a deal in which they suspended that program, in exchange for an end to economic sanctions. There are even a number of pro-Western Iranians.

So what we have here are six of the most screwed up nations on earth, with literally tens of millions of displaced citizens in absolutely desperate need of humanitarian assistance. And also, comparatively well-off Iran. Those are the countries Trump has targeted. Because: terrorists.

Again, another factor those seven countries share is this: the Trump organization does not have financial interests in any of them. This isn’t surprising; the President builds luxury hotels. These countries barely have functioning economies; some of them do have oil. Still, the Islamic-dominant nations that actually have a track record of attacks on US soil–Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan–and which the Trump organization has investments, they’re not on this watch list. Conflict of interest?

There are absolutely terrorists in each of those seven countries. Those terrorists haven’t attacked the US, but of course, they could. Well, not so much Iran, but Iran supports Hezbollah. Refugees from those countries would need to be vetted.

But these are countries in which the US has tried to intervene diplomatically, with catastrophic results. These are countries with huge displaced populations, countries with millions of refugees. We’re the richest and most powerful country in the world. And we’re rather proud of our ‘national values,’ and our status as a Christian nation. And now we’ve closed the door to the “wretched refuse of (their) teeming shores.”

This is a bit of a generalization, but here goes: terrorists are fantastically good at scaring people into thinking they’re a huge threat, and absolutely horrid at actually posing such a threat. They’re great at producing terror. They’re great at making otherwise sensible people think that a war exists with someone we’re not actually at war with, and that that war must be won, no matter what. And none of that is even a little bit true. Their attacks are merely theatrically effective.

Twenty five hundred years ago, the world was a lot scarier place than it is now; infinitely more violent, every bit as full of terror. And yet God whispered to Isaiah: “Fear not; for I am with you.” And then He continued: “Be not dismayed; for I am God: I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you. All they that are angry with you will be confounded; they shall be as nothing, they shall die. They that war against you will become nothing. They will vanish.” Though Isaiah 41 does throw in a little something about people dying of starvation. Give them water to drink, he says.

Donald Trump is a bully and a coward, in addition to being a fool. His actions will accomplish nothing positive, nothing at all. Every national security expert says so; this executive action will strengthen terrorist organizations, not weaken them. As for refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, the numbers we should be accepting should be numbered in the millions, not the thousands.

Instead of blogging about Trump’s SCOTUS pick, I spent today researching seven countries, places I’ve never visited, filled with people I’ve never met. It broke my heart. It made my spirit contrite. This executive ban is beyond contemptible. It cannot and must not be allowed to stand.

Keep it going

It’s been a wild 11 days, hasn’t it?

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for about a week and a half. Here’s what I think we’ve learned. He meant what he said while he was running. Like most Presidents, the ideas that animated his campaign are going to form his Presidential agenda. The new President is as infantile as ever, as thin-skinned and reactive. He responds to criticism badly, and resorts to childish name-calling on Twitter, just like he did when running. His campaign was a disorganized mess; his administrative style is similarly chaotic.

I had a friend who once told me of an experience he had when waterskiing. He did a lot of fancy tricks one day, and ended up with a lot of slack in the line, which somehow ended up around his leg. He watched the boat zipping away, saw the slack line tighten, and thought ‘that rope is going to break my leg.’ There was nothing he could do to prevent it; it was just going to happen. He said he felt rather calm. About two seconds later, of course, the rope did tighten, and it did break his leg. But he said the calm before that particular pain was quite remarkable.

That was us, three weeks ago. Now the rope has tightened, the bone has snapped, the pain is palpable. We’d be in mourning, but frankly, it hurts too much right now.

The latest move, of course, was the Muslim ban. Granted, it wasn’t officially a ‘Muslim ban.’ It was a temporary ban on people from seven Muslim-dominant countries–whose citizens have committed exactly zero terrorist attacks on US soil–entering the US. And so we got to see people with all the proper paperwork, people who have been vetted and approved and authorized, denied entry into our country. Including a five-year-old Iranian kid, in handcuffs. Kept from his Mom for eight hours. This executive order came without warning. Airport officials had no idea what was going on, and were forced to improvise, without instructions, which of course went about as well as we might have supposed.

Yes, it’s not officially a ban on Muslims. Just on people from certain countries. Except, on Sunday morning, when White House spokestroll Sean Spicer was defending it on ABC News, they cut to the President calling it a Muslim ban. That’s one thing about Trump; he’s undisciplined enough that sometimes he’ll get away from his staff’s carefully defined talking points. Of course, an hour later, he lied about it; that’s also part of the Trump modus operandi. A brief moment of candor, then back to the lying.

Lots of people, by the way, have pointed out that countries like Iran and Iraq, which have not attacked the US, were on the list, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which did, weren’t on it. Leading to this thought; Trump has business interests in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He singled out countries that haven’t attacked us, where he has no financial stake, and let countries that have attacked us go unmentioned. Because the Trump organization’s bottom line is at stake? What that a consideration? We don’t know; maybe not. But that’s the tricky thing about conflicts of interest. They poison everything.

Meanwhile, the optics have been amazing. A whole bunch of people went to American airports to show their solidarity with people stuck in this weird, unnecessary, Trumpian legal limbo. It was topsy-turvy; Kennedy Airport was the positive center of attention! People were cheering . . . Muslims! And lawyers! People were cheering for lawyers!

And suddenly, Sally Yates, a woman none of us had ever heard of two days ago is an American liberal heroine.

It’s been great. People are energized; excited. First the Women’s March, now this. Our leg bone may be shattered, but we’re still limping around, defiant and unafraid.

So protest. March. Shout. Carry banners. All that’s great. But 2018 is looming, and none of this energy will matter at all unless we take back the House and Senate. Did you join the Women’s March? Awesome. Two years from now, though, we’re going to need you to vote, and to bring five friends with you. We have passion on our side, we have right on our side, we have morality on our side. We can and must oppose Trump, everywhere. Cut him no slack at all, on anything, ever. I’m for all of that.

What we don’t have is power. That boat is zipping away, and its driver can’t hear us. Passion declines; energy dissipates. It’s been an amazing 11 days. Just two more years to go.

Feelings, and politics

In several recent posts, it’s possible that I have been mildly critical of our new President-elect. This failing has been helpfully pointed out to me by some of my Republican friends, who have suggested that it’s time to support our new President, the election being over. “Get over it,” would be the main thrust of their argument. Also “stop whining.”

And so I found myself wondering this: what exactly do Trump supporters want? I mean, I remember 2009. I remember how annoying it was when those sore losers who didn’t like Barack Obama kept insisting that they never, ever, would regard him as their President. They were being sore losers, I thought. Expressing sour grapes. What on earth was wrong with those people? And now I am one of them. Mr. Sore Loser Sour Grapes Man.

I absolutely intend to support Donald Trump’s Presidency in all the ways that are required of me. I will pay my taxes, and I will fulfill the other obligations of American citizenship. In those respects, I fully intend to ‘support’ Donald Trump.

But I don’t think that’s enough for my Trump-supporting friends. For many of them, they don’t just want passive acquiescence. They want us to feel something. They want us to be okay with his electoral win. They want us to set aside our policy differences with the man, and, at least passively, accept him as President. That’s why Congressman and Civil Rights hero John Lewis’ comments questioning the legitimacy of Trump’s victory stung so sharply. That’s exactly what we’re not supposed to do.

In short, Trump supporters want me to feel the same way about Trump that we felt about previous Presidents we didn’t vote for. And I don’t, and won’t. Not now, not ever. And this isn’t just sour grapes or being a sore loser. I cannot and will not normalize his election victory. We don’t know how closely the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin cooperated during the election, or the degree to which Russian hacking contributed to the result, but we do know now that the answer to both those questions is, at least, ‘somewhat.’  Did Russian hacking influence 1% of the voters’ decisions? Less? 1/2%? 1/4? We don’t know, and will never know, but the answer clearly was a sum somewhere above zero. We cannot and should not normalize that kind of behavior.

It’s more than that. Trump did not run as a normal, usual sort of candidate. All previous recent presidential candidates released their tax returns, or at least some of their tax returns; Trump kept putting the press off with some bogus nonsense about an audit, and now Trump’s people say his tax returns will remain off-limits, forever, because. Trump lies. He lies all the time, stupid, easy to catch lies, about, for example, whether he said things he was captured on camera saying. His appeal as a candidate was his unorthodoxy. And that’s fine; it was an effective strategy and it worked. Americans were, apparently, enthusiastic about ‘change.’ But he said and did offensive things, then attacked people who found his language and conduct beyond the pale as being, absurdly, ‘politically correct.’ Just as he now labels news organizations that criticize him ‘fake news,’ and ‘liars.’

He wants us to feel okay about him being President. And I don’t, can’t, won’t, never will.

Which is why the two biggest news stories recently were so heartening. The first was the spectacular success of the Women’s March on Washington, and the complementary protests that took place all across the country. My Facebook page was flooded with images of old friends gathering in protest and celebration. Protesting, not just Trump, but Trumpism; his authoritarianism and racism and misogyny, his full-throated embrace of white male privilege. But also celebrating our view of America, our version of America, an America where greatness is determined by inclusion and toleration and compassion. The energy of the Women’s March could fuel a renewed commitment to progressive ideals. It could also dissipate, become a wasted and empty gesture. We’ll see. I hope that doesn’t happen, though.

At least a lot of people showed up. And a lot more came to the Women’s March than came to Trump’s Inauguration. And so, the utterly surreal experience of the campaign was amplified, with Trump surrogates forced to pretend that more people celebrated Trump’s inauguration than actually were there. Culminating in the absurd declaration that obvious falsehoods weren’t really lies, they were ‘alternative truths.’

Feelings are powerful. Great political rhetoric can sway crowds, get policies enacted, start wars. And while it may not be polite to say so, no, I do not feel warm fuzzies at the Trump inauguration. Not in any way. And I intend to spend the next four years watching him like a hawk. We don’t like him, we don’t trust him, we don’t respect him. We don’t think his Presidency is legitimate, and we think it’s quite possible that he won the Presidency through acts of high treason. That’s how we feel about this President. I don’t wish him ill personally. I will try to muster some common decency in regards to his family. Otherwise, he’s not my President. Never never never.

And so it begins

Donald J. Trump was inaugurated today. I couldn’t bring myself to watch, but I did read his inaugural address on-line. A peaceful and orderly transfer of power is always something to be celebrated, I suppose. So while it may not be time for actual optimism, we can, perhaps, muster a certain grim hope. Let’s start by ignoring such events as the Deplora-ball, last night’s preening alt-Right celebration, complete with Nazi salutes, and also the prayer service, and the invocation by Pastor Robert Jeffress (who once said that “Mormonism is a cult dragged from the depths of hell”) and the other alarming signs and wonders of this moment. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump . . . we shall be changed.” For the better?

And while I’m being all sunny, let’s admit that some of his cabinet picks have been fairly reasonable: Nikki Haley, James Mattis, David Shulkin, Sonny Perdue. There’s a long American tradition of cutting new Presidents some slack. I wouldn’t go that far with this guy, but I don’t wish him ill. He’s going to try to do dumb and terrible things. Let’s hope he doesn’t succeed all that often.

Reading his Inauguration speech, though, I was struck by what seem to be Trump’s governing priorities. It seems to me that the first step to solving problems is identifying them. It’s not just that I think Trump’s approach to problem solving is likely to prove ineffective. It’s that the specific issues he wants to address are all things that aren’t really problems at all.

For too long, [those in politics] have reaped the rewards of government while people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.

His first point–that money, in politics, tends to corrupt people, seems inarguable. (Though his solution seems to be to appoint corrupt people to begin with). But are people struggling so terribly? People do feel like they are, but evidence suggests it’s not true. More Americans are employed right now, in good paying jobs, than ever before in history. More people are working in manufacturing than ever before. This dark vision of a dystopic America where no one can find work and factories are shut down and regular folks live lives of quiet despair is, frankly, a fantasy. It’s likely to become true–Trump’s policies (tax cuts, trade wars, cutting safety net spending) will certainly hammer lower class and lower middle class Americans. It’s just not true yet. He inherits a very strong economy from Obama; he’ll turn over an economy in recession to President Warren.

An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. . .

We do spend a lot of money on education, but our schools are hardly ‘flush with cash.’ Teachers are badly underpaid, and basic school supplies generally come out of their pockets. And while we can certainly improve student achievement (starting by banning all unnecessary testing), our students aren’t ‘deprived of all knowledge.’ For one thing, there’s this resource called the Internet. Which kids are better at using than their parents.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth . . . of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first .

Trump hates international trade deals. He consistently spoke out against, specifically, NAFTA and the TPP, and has talked of pulling out of both. And that’s nuts. Both NAFTA and the TPP, though flawed, were net positives, both for the US and internationally. I know this is kind of an unpopular view, but it’s the only opinion actually supported by, you know, evidence.

Donald Trump comes from the zero-sum-game world of Manhattan real estate. He seems to have difficulty in conceiving of a deal in which both sides prosper. But those are the best kinds of deals imaginable. He says our policies should be driven by national self-interest. Sure, fine; every country on earth does that. Making a deal between nations requires balance. We all know how to weigh costs and benefits. By that standard, NAFTA was a success. NAFTA was a trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico–the three nations of North America. Since it passed in ’93, trade between those three countries quadrupled, from 297 billion dollars to 1.14 trillion. It boosted economic growth, created millions of jobs, and lowered consumer costs in all three nations. And yes, also a few American factories moved to Mexico.

In 1999, my wife and I bought our house. It provided a safe shelter for ourselves and our kids, and also, a great neighborhood for the kids to grow up in. But we also had to make a mortgage payment every month. Trump’s view of NAFTA is the equivalent of focusing entirely on that payment. ‘What a terrible deal! Look at all the money you spent!’

We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and reform the world against radical Islamic terrorism , which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.

Let’s be honest: absolutely nobody thinks it’s going to be possible to eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ Ask any military or intelligence expert in the world; it cannot be done. That’s the bad news; the good news is that ISIS, or Al Qaeda, or any other group you want to lump into the definition ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ cannot succeed in their stated aims and intentions. ISIS wants to establish a multi-national pan-Islamic caliphate. There is zero chance of that ever happening. ISIS is not an ‘existential threat’ to the American way of life, or to Western society.

What we actually have is a humanitarian crisis in Syria. That’s bad enough. And while we’re doing that, yes, we want to reduce the ability for terrorist groups to mount attacks on US soil or in Europe. Those are lofty and difficult goals. But let’s be honest; those attacks, when they do occur, are at worst, minor annoyances. I’ll grant you that they don’t feel so minor–our hearts go out to the victims of terrorist attacks. But such attacks really only achieve one thing; they affect us emotionally. They spread terror. They terrify us. They make us afraid. And when people are afraid, they tend to overreact. The kinds of violations of civil liberties that Trump has talked about are counterproductive. Terrorist groups can only disrupt us, and that can only happen if we allow it to happen. Which, believe it or not, we don’t have to do.

Trump, blessedly, said very little about the signature issue of his campaign; illegal immigration. He made passing mention to America’s ‘refusal to defend our own’ borders. That’s also nonsense, of course. The US does maintain a border patrol. But the larger point is this: immigration is good. Immigrants are a great blessing to our society and nation. And it’s doesn’t particularly matter whether they arrive here illegally. Of course, we should be accepting more Syrian and Middle-Eastern immigrants, and of course, we should be welcoming more immigrants from Mexico and South and Central America. They are, by every possible measure, an economic plus.

What’s needed is amnesty. What’s needed is a sensible immigration policy, that makes it easier, not harder, for folks to enter our country and work here and marry and raise families here. And create jobs here. Instead, Trump wants to waste time and money building a wall. At least, he didn’t include that particular piece of idiocy in his Inauguration address.

Meanwhile, of course, he said nothing about, you know, actual problems. Like world-wide climate change. Or universal health care. Or the rise in racial intolerance and bigotry. But that would have been asking for too much.

We have four years to get through. They’re going to be tough. We will survive, though. And starting in 2020, we can get back to making America great again.

La La Land: Movie Review

La La Land purports to be a good-natured, charming and delightful throwback musical. It begins with one of the most dazzling production numbers ever filmed, and tells what appears to be a sweet love story. Remember the big “Gotta Dance” from Singin’ in the Rain? Young hoofer tries to break in to the Broadway scene, has some success, faces temptation, nearly falls, finally breaks through and becomes a big star? Replace Broadway with Hollywood, replace the dancer with either an actress or a jazz pianist, and you’ve got the story of La La Land. Or A Star is Born, or any of the fifty other movies telling the same story. Set in LA, of course, where dreams come true. It’s a feel-good movie, a success story. Who doesn’t like to see nice kids realize their dreams?

I really don’t want to join the anti-La La Land backlash. There is one, of course, ever since La La Land won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, leading to all kinds of Oscar buzz. The opening deserves an Oscar all by itself, a spectacularly choreographed bit with people singing and dancing around and on top of cars stalled on a freeway. I take my hat off to the director who can find joy in the most joyless experience on earth–a California traffic jam. Well done, sir! And Damien Chazelle, the film’s writer/director, deserves all the accolades Hollywood can bestow. Fine.

I have a few quibbles with the rest of the movie. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress, doing the LA audition scene, working at a coffee shop and hoping for a break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist, something of a music purist, hoping and scrimping and saving towards the day that he’s able to open his own jazz club. They meet cute, sing and dance together, hope and work together, support each other. It’s a romance, kind of. Except it also isn’t. What keeps them together is the power of their dreams. They’re together, they seem to be in love, and are, but not with each other, it turns out. Instead, they’re in love with their dreams, and with each other’s dreams. They’re in love with the goal of making it come true. It’s a more complicated relationship than most A Star is Born musicals can sustain.

Stone and Gosling are terrific in the movie, giving smart, painful, intelligent performances that capture the nuances of their sort-of-in-love-but-not-really relationship. They’re so good, in fact, that they almost got me to ignore the fact that they can’t actually sing and dance all that brilliantly. I hate saying that, but it’s kind of true; they worked hard, they do fine, but they wouldn’t make call-backs for an off-Broadway show, based on their singing and dancing chops. I didn’t care, actually, because I liked the characters, but it leads to the other big problem in the movie–one my wife picked up on way before I did–the sound mixing. Emma Stone has a sweet voice, but it’s tiny, and much of the music is jazz. Brass. And you can’t always hear her, and you miss a lot of lyrics. Gosling’s voice is a bit more robust, but still; I couldn’t understand the words pretty consistently.

So it’s a musical where we . . . make allowances. And I’m willing to, in part because they’re not singer/dancers in the movie; that’s not what their characters do. And Gosling’s piano chops look sensational. (In fact, he essentially learned how to play the piano for the movie). They have a nice little moonlight number, just the two of them, which is delightful.

But the movie isn’t just a love story. It’s about success, and the sacrifices success requires, and what it means to ‘sell out.’ There’s one number in particular that captures both the movie’s strengths and (I don’t want to say weaknesses), and the complexities of its argument. Sebastian has an old friend, Keith (brilliantly played by John Legend), who he knows from school and who has a successful band. And needs a keyboard player. And Sebastian joins this band, the Echoes. And Mia goes to see them in concert, loyal girlfriend that she is. And it’s a very funny scene. The song begins with a big showy piano solo by Sebastian, and then the rest of the band joins him, and it’s great. And then, oh my gosh, the synth and the electronic dance vibe and the sexy backup dancers, and the song jumps the shark, goes off the rails, choose your own metaphor. And the crowd goes wild. All except for an appalled Mia.

Here’s what I think: John Legend’s character is the devil, representing the artistic compromises needed to achieve commercial success. And Sebastian is the purist-turned-self-loathing-cynic. The definition of tortured artist.

That’s a clichéd trope and I don’t think it’s true. The greatest musical successes in history were, as far as I can tell, universally interested in   popular and commercial success, and yes, that absolutely includes Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. You want to be good and you want to be successful. Both/and. And if Sebastian’s a jazz fanatic, he has to know that jazz music is a dialogue, not a monologue. And yes, creative tension can lead to personal tension; that’s why bands eventually break up. In the meantime, find your sound together.

As for Mia, here’s what I don’t buy; she’s doing the LA audition circuit, and getting nowhere. For six years. But we see her audition; she’s a good actress. I mean, of course Emma Stone is a good actress, but so is Mia, the character; we see no suggestion that she stinks. And she gets nothing? Not a call-back, nothing?

One of the big myths about the acting profession is that wanting to be an actor leaves you with two possible outcomes. Movie star or bum on the streets. That myth is the reason parents tend to discourage their kids from majoring in theatre. But I taught theatre at the college level for twenty kids, and I’ve known a lot of talented young people. And lots of them have gone to LA, and tried to break into the profession, and guess what? A lot of them have done just fine. If you’re willing to work hard, you can absolutely carve out a career. You may not become, well, Emma Stone. But you can get consistent work, and earn a living. I’ve known dozens of people who have done just that. I don’t believe that someone as talented as Mia, in the movie, would work that hard auditioning for six years and get absolutely nothing. It isn’t plausible to me; it doesn’t ring true.

La La Land has two endings, a fantasy ending and a reality ending. I much preferred the real one. And my quibbles with the movie are just that; quibbles. It’s a romantic, sweet-tempered movie. You absolutely must see it, but I also sort of hope it doesn’t win Best Picture. Though it certainly could. The opening really is that spectacular.