Charlie’s marriage

I wouldn’t say that the news ‘broke’ the internet, but it certainly put a nasty dent in it: Charles Manson has applied for a marriage license. Charlie Manson, age 80. Announcing his ‘engagement’ to one Afton Elaine Burton, age 26, who now goes by the name ‘Star,’ considers herself already married to him, and maintains a website insisting on his innocence. (Which I will NOT link to–I’m not driving traffic to Charlie freaking Manson’s site). Burton’s Mom, by the way, is fine with it. Says the couple shares a commitment to environmentalism. Grantland’s Molly Lambert’s story about it can’t really be improved on; see the link for details.

What’s interesting to me about this is the way in which Charlie Manson still does have the capacity to capture our attention. This was big news. And, as always with Manson, we read it with a little frisson of oh-so-delicious fear. Charles Manson, the most mesmeric, the most charismatic, the most Satanic human being on earth, was up to his old tricks once again. Fascinating young people (mostly young women); bending them to his will.

Remember the watch thing? Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson away, wrote a best-selling book about it, Helter Skelter. In the book, he describes a time when Manson stopped his watch by just staring at it. In the first Helter Skelter made-for-TV-movie, the 1976 one with Steve Railsback as Manson, George DiCenzo (as Bugliosi) notices his watch has stopped, looks over at Manson, and we see Railsback give him a creepy grin. So that’s part of the lore; Charlie Manson can make a watch stop.

Of course, he couldn’t. Bugliosi’s book is very compelling, but its hero is Bugliosi; the courageous prosecutor who put Charlie Manson away, and the more evil and Satanic Manson was, the greater Bugliosi’s triumph over him. I don’t much trust it. I rather suspect that if Charlie Manson had the ability to stop watches, he would also have had the ability to open prison doors. But what he did have was a kind of crazed charisma. He persuaded a group of lost runaway hippie kids (most of them girls) to form a ‘Family’ and commit horrible atrocities, and he persuaded Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys to fund ‘Family’ activities for months. He’s regarded as one of the worst mass murderers in history, and he never actually personally killed anyone. Not for lack of trying; the Family’s first victim, Bernard Crowe, was shot by Manson in Crowe’s apartment in June of ’69, two months before the Sharon Tate killings. But Crowe survived.

And then, on August 9th, 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel murdered Sharon Tate and four other guests in her home, and also a delivery guy, on Manson’s orders. The next night, joined by Manson himself, and with two other Family members, Leslie Van Houten and Clem Grogan, the same four murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home. Manson directed the killings, but did not kill himself. Several subsequent killings have been linked to Manson’s Family members. And in 1975, Manson Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to murder Gerald Ford, the President of the United States.

Fromme’s attempt took place in Sacramento. She and Sandra Good had moved there to be closer to Manson while he served out his sentence at Folsom Prison. In 1987, Fromme escaped from prison in West Virginia. She was apprehended within a few days, as she headed west, towards California. She wanted to be close to Charlie, who she heard was suffering from cancer. This is also typical of Manson Family members; even while incarcerated, they seem to crave physical closeness to their prophet/guru. Afton “Star” Burton has also moved, to Corcoran California, out in the desert, so she can be ‘closer to Charlie.’  Sandra Good maintains a pro-Charlie website, which competes with Burton’s.

And we’ve never lost our fascination with this guy, this career criminal, failed musician, this man who seems to have had one great gift in life, the ability to attract young women to believe in him, and at times, to kill for him. Two made-for-TV movies. Several documentaries. Several major TV interviews, with Diane Sawyer, Tom Snyder, Charlie Rose, Geraldo Rivera, Ron Reagan Jr.

The myth of the sixties’ counter-culture was a myth of innocence, a myth of invincible virtue, opposing Establishment Evil. Hippies were peaceful idealists, devoted to non-violent protest and positive world-change. Hippies stopped the war in Vietnam, ended racism, fought the good fight against ‘the man.’ It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,” Coven sang, describing, see, the Establishment’s hypocrisy, embellishing the irony with achingly pure intentions and ferocious self-righteousness–“one tin soldier rides away”; the song punctuated the message of peace-lovin’ martial artist Billy Jack.  Nick Lowe asked, with aching sincerity, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding. Punk answered back, always more honest; Lowe’s song was bitterly deconstructed by Elvis Costello.  (Elvis: the King of Rock and Roll. Costello: half of the comedy duo who asked Who’s On First. Even his name functioned as satire).

Charlie Manson did us this one great favor: he showed us the lie at the heart of hippie idealism and blissed out mellow. Teenage runaways, escaping the dreariness of square middle-class hypocrisy, crowding the streets of Haight-Ashbury, could easily fall for predators. Hippies could, turns out, kill. So could drugs. So could casual sex. And so could rock and roll, as Dennis Wilson bankrolled The Family, and Charlie grotesquely misread the Beatles.

So we didn’t. Do any of that; we didn’t. We weren’t significant; we weren’t important. I mean, we really didn’t: in the national election of 1972, 18-21 year olds could vote for the first time. George McGovern, whose entire campaign was built on ending the war in Vietnam, was on the ballot. He got crunched, and the Youth Vote went heavily to Richard Nixon. Nixon was right about that silent majority thing. Sixties and Seventies, we youthful idealists, we didn’t end Vietnam or racism or sexism. I wasn’t a hippie–too young for the movement–but I loved the music and was attracted to the ideals, and I wish earnestness and sincerity really could change the world. It can’t. What does change the world is hard work, compromise, working daily at the endlessly boring and crucially important details of legislation.Line upon line, idea upon idea. A hard grind.

Good music is good music, and then the song is over. And that sort-of-interestingly-dangerous, compelling hippie man is saying lovely attractive things about revolutions and race riots and the White Album, and he wrote this nice song about me, and I even got to meet one of the Beach Boys! And then he’s handing me a knife and telling me to kill total strangers. And hey, why not, they’re just establishment pigs, right? Viva la whatever.

That’s who Manson was, the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, the ugly violence at the heart of ideology. The sad game, played by naive fools. Now he’s got another one, another follower, another ‘wife’ for his ‘Family.’ So happy for them both.

 

Film Review: Birdman

Or to get the entire title right: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the most mind-bending, thought-provoking, hilarious, heart-breaking, downright weird (in a good way) movie of the year.  The writer/director/producer is the prodigious Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, whose previous films include Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, superb films all, but not really comedies. Not to pigeon-hole, but at least one of the labels we would attack to Birdman is ‘comedy,’ along with ‘absurdism,’ ‘magical realism,’ ‘fantasy,’ ‘backstage-theatre satire,’ ‘black comedy'; pick one or many. (In fact, the film includes a brilliant speech, pure invective against the work of art critics, and in particular, their penchant for labeling heart-felt works of art).

But, okay. The film is about Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, who has written, directed and stars, on Broadway, in a play based on Raymond Chandler’s short story “What we Talk About when we Talk About Love.”  Riggan was once the star of a beloved series of super-hero movies, in which he played the Birdman. His career has since foundered, and everything, his self-respect, his career, his reputation, his carefully hoarded retirement money, everything depends on this play succeeding. The play opens in two days. One of the leading actors, Ralph (the wonderful Jeremy Shamos) is terrible in his role, and, for contractual reasons, cannot be fired. So Riggan uses his superpowers (of course he has superpowers), to konk him on the head with a lighting instrument. Ralph is now too badly injured to continue; the part now has to be recast. And every actor that Riggan and his lawyer/agent/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) can think of to replace him is currently in a superhero movie. (Jeremy Renner, even? Nope, he’s now an Avenger). And then Lesley, the female lead (Naomi Watts; amazing) mentions that ‘Michael’ is available, having just been fired from a movie he was doing. Michael is brilliant; everyone knows that. But he’s . . .  difficult. Method-y, demanding, perhaps a bit crazy. But he’ll sell tickets. And, it turns out, he knows the lines. So they call him, and that’s how Ed Norton enters the cast, and the movie.

It’s all very meta, of course. Ed Norton is known for being difficult, and method-y, and disdainful of actors who play, among other things, superheroes. (But he played The Hulk). And Michael Keaton played Batman; close enough to Birdman, no? Naomi Watts hasn’t really done superheroes, but she did do King Kong. And so the film is able to riff on acting, and career choices, and celebrity, and live-theatre-is-art-while-movies-are-entertainment-crap in wonderfully amusing ways, but our reception of all that snark is tempered by knowing all about the compromises these specific actors have, after all, made in their careers, right? And Iñarritu is known for his wonderful, but very art-y films, but also for his close personal friendships with Guillermo del Toro, who directed Pacific Rim (brilliantly), and Alfonso Cuaron, who directed (the best of) the Harry Potter movies.

Emma Stone is also in the movie, playing Sam, Riggan’s daughter, fresh from rehab and working as a production assistant, but hostile about it. And Amy Ryan, playing Riggan’s suspiciously ethereal wife, who may or may not consistently, uh, exist. And Andrea Riseborough, Laura, also in the cast, and possibly pregnant with Riggan’s child. And finally, Lindsay Duncan, as Tabitha, the theatre critic who will decide the fate of Riggan’s play, and who personally loathes him and everything he stands for. Which would seem to bode ill.

But I’m leaving out all the important stuff. Like Emmanuel Lubezki, whose soaring camera work gives the film its sweep and movement. Like the film editing of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, who magically create the illusion that the entire film is one long unedited take, but covering three days time in two hours somehow. Like the Birdman himself, a costumed superhero, who haunts Riggan’s waking dreams, and may be the one character capable of reaching him.

And above all, Michael Keaton, who gives a career performance, just tremendous, playing this . . . guy, a mediocre artist and father and husband who is desperate to transcend his limited gifts and, somehow, rise. Grow. Fly. Which, it turns out, he’s also able to do; actually fly. I don’t want to say that Keaton was ‘great’ or ‘terrific.’ The film warns us of the dangers of labeling. Just that in the middle of all this meta-cinematic strangeness, he made me care, he made me feel something. I wanted, desperately, for his play to succeed. Even while suspecting that it didn’t deserve to.

And so, in one scene, Keaton/Riggan is lost, alone, fantasizing, wandering the streets of New York’s theatre district in his tighty whitie undies, and as he stumbles along, we hear the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech from Macbeth, shouted, screamed, but barely audible, and then we turn a corner, and it’s Shamos, the bad actor fired from the cast of the play, and he’s screaming it, and the music is drums, and turn another corner, and there’s a drum kit complete with drummer. And in the glorious context of this wonderful film, it all makes perfect sense. See this amazing film. Do yourself that favor.

 

Play Review: Company

The Sugar Space Arts Warehouse in Salt Lake City is, well, a converted warehouse. The floor’s concrete, the ceilings are high, acoustics are echo-y, and watching a play up there you can constantly hear an air compressor. Presumably, it was trying to warm the place up; it didn’t work. It was cold outside, and maybe a bit warmer indoors. The actors had to wear mics, and early on, the sound mixing was a bit off. And none of that mattered at all, not even a little bit. When a live theatre performance is as alive, and compassionate and wise and smart and funny and sad and warm-hearted and, my gosh, as human as Silver Summit Theatre‘s production of Company was last night, nothing else matters.

In fact, I rather liked the space and its limitations. Silver Summit is a company in search of a home; they find different venues for each of their productions, but they do great work, fully professional in every way that matters, and their Company was a pure joy. They’re worth following around. I spoke briefly with Michelle Rideout, their artistic director, during the interval, and told her that I felt like I was watching an early-days show at the Donmar. (Best off-West End company in London, and yes, they perform in a warehouse. And were the first London company to revive Company). We don’t go to the theatre for comfy chairs and gorgeous sets. We go to connect with our fellow human beings on this planet. We go to feel something, learn something, grow a little, weep and laugh and rejoice.

I wondered how Company would hold up, after all these years. This Sondheim/Furth musical was the hottest show on Broadway 45 years ago, and yes, there are moments where it shows its age. It’s hard to imagine a single, successful, Manhattan-apartment-well-off kinda guy today admitting he doesn’t know anyone black, Hispanic, gay. But I suspect that there are still ladies who lunch around today, and those great great songs are still knock-outs; “Another hundred people,” “Being Alive,” “Side by Side by Side.”

For those of you who don’t know it, Company is about Robert, Bobby to his many friends, a single man just turning 35, who is starting to think that maybe it’s time to not be single anymore. His friends both agree and disagree. He’s wonderful company, after all, charming and fun and widely beloved; he’s integral to all their social lives, it seems. But perhaps he’s not quite . . . ready? And the glimpses we see of his friends’ marriages are vivid reminders of, well, human frailty, the petty hypocrisies and foibles and annoying eccentricities that marriage both helps us overcome and accentuates. It’s a musical with no heroes and no villains and hardly any story, and Bobby never does meet the girl of his dreams. But maybe, at the end, he might. Might be ready for it, at any rate. And all fourteen of its characters are vivid, brilliantly drawn and acted and sung.

A few standouts last night, not that there was a single weak link in the cast. Rick Rea was tremendous as Robert, smiling, fun, smart, empathetic Robert, Bobby to his friends. And then, gradually, we see other shadings, his loneliness, his occasional selfishness (especially in “Barcelona,” with Heather Shelley wonderful as slightly dim flight attendant April), his increasing sense of quiet desperation. And his performance of “Being Alive” was wonderful. What a song.

I can’t say enough about Eve Speer and Brandon Rufener, as the karate fighting couple, Sarah and Harry. I loved Natalia Noble as the lively and eccentric Marta; her “Another Hundred People” had just the right mix of fear and comedy and pathos. But Marcie Jacobsen was a sensation. “The Ladies Who Lunch” is such an excoriating, biting satire of New York society, and Jacobsen found the right blend of self-destructive self-loathing, viciousness and tragedy in her Joanne. Look at the great Joanne’s of the past: Patti Lupone, Barbara Walsh, Elaine Stritch. Jacobsen fits well in their company. Or Company.

Anyway, wow. Go see it, y’all. The house was half full last night, on a Friday night. Go, and take a date, and ask your date to ask a friend, and date, to join you. Then maybe, like, both couples could ask out two other couples, make it an eight-some. And afterwards, there’s a really nice restaurant close to the, uh, well, a few blocks at least from the, uh. . . . actually, the theater’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But there is a Leatherbys kinda close. Bring a sweater, (a good, thick one) and see a fine production of a great musical. With a bunch of your friends. You won’t regret it.

 

Movie Review: Fury

David Ayer’s Fury is one of the best war films ever made, and certainly one of the two best films about the Second World War, right up there, perhaps, with Saving Private Ryan, a film with similar strengths and weaknesses. It’s a tremendously visceral film, communicating, with appropriate violence and brutality, what may well be the reality of combat. (I can’t say for sure, of course, because I did not serve in the military and have never experienced combat). It’s an ugly and unheroic film about deeply damaged, flawed and exhausted men, which nonetheless depicts powerfully what actual heroism entails.

It’s a film about the crew of a Sherman tank, set in April 1945, as the war was winding down, an Allied victory all but ensured, but with battlefields punctuated with final bursts of German desperation and aggression. Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is the tank’s commander, a laconic and matter-of-fact leader of men who, only occasion, slips away from his men to give way to his emotions. As the film begins, one crew member had died, and the tank has been damaged. The men are on edge, and bicker fiercely. one of them, Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (John Bernthal) works on fixing the tank’s ignition, almost incoherent with rage and frustration. Another, Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) rides him mercilessly. Meanwhile, the deeply religious Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf) studies his scriptures. And then the new guy shows, up, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), idealistic, naive, a typist shocked to be assigned to a tank, an assignment for which he has received no training, hopelessly unprepared for combat and its rigors. These are the characters with whom we’ll spend the movie, and each performance is remarkable, especially Bernthal, who makes the half-savage Travis one of the truly memorable characters of any film I’ve seen recently.

American Sherman M4 tanks were faster than German Tiger I, but lightly armored and with inferior firepower; we see one battle in which four Shermans go up against one Tiger, and three are quickly destroyed. When Collier’s men are able to maneuver their tank to a position to destroy the German tank, it’s depicted as an extraordinary achievement. That said, tanks always did have an advantage over infantry, a fact that becomes central to the final battle of the film.

But as the Fury (the word painted on the tank’s gun turret) travels from objective to objective–liberating a town, protecting a supply line–we see glimpses of the horrors of warfare. They drive by a huge pit, and we see a bulldozer shoveling human bodies in. We see women and children hanging from lampposts, each with a placard saying they had refused to defend the fatherland, and Collier (who for some reason is fluent in German) that the SS is hanging anyone defying the drafting of ten-year olds. Ayer doesn’t allow his camera to linger on any of these images, which makes them, in their matter-of-factness, even more horrifying. And in one battle, a German army surrenders, and we see that most of its soldiers really are children.

We like to think of World War II as the good war, the war in which we, the Allies, really were the good guys, and the Germans, the Nazis, really were evil. And I don’t dispute that narrative–the Holocaust does tilt the table one direction only, morally speaking. But in one brutal scene, Collier, furious at Norman’s reluctance to fire his weapon, forces him to shoot an unarmed captive German soldier. And we don’t necessarily applaud. But we do get it. When we talk about the sacrifices made by soldiers, we don’t just mean that they sacrifice their lives. They do that, yes. But the soldiers who survive also sacrifice their innocence. They not only die for their country, they kill for it.

In the most fascinating and crucial scene in the film, after the Fury has ‘liberated’ a German town, Collier takes Norman up the stairs to an apartment occupied by just two German women. Ilsa is older, perhaps in her forties, and her cousin, Emma, is much younger, a pretty girl. Collier asks for hot water, washes and shaves. He trades the women some eggs, some cigarettes and some other supplies for a brief R&R. And he sends Norman and Emma off into the apartment’s bedroom. But oddly, the scene does not really seem to suggest either rape or prostitution, but rather a time-out, an interlude, a moment of life in the midst of so much death, a moment of innocence and romance accelerated by the exigencies of slaughter. It’s possible (the scene suggests it), that Emma and Norman, however briefly, fall in love. They try to exchange addresses. Then the other men in the tank crew show up, and Ilsa feeds them, but their crudeness and violence and pent-up rage (especially from Travis) become overwhelming, turning a sweetly flavored moment into terror and barely-averted violence. We learn how little actual authority and control Collier is capable of exerting. Something, death, violence, PTSD, has turned these men, (especially, again, Travis) into hardly trained animals. It’s a tremendous scene, a scene that shows us, briefly, something akin to civilization amidst the barbarity of combat. And it ends tragically. Of course it does. How could it end otherwise?

Some critics have wondered what the point of it all is, what we’re supposed to conclude from this film’s unapologetic depiction of violence and death. I think the point is that there is no point. Not to say that there weren’t strategic objectives to be achieved in April 1945, or that WWII wasn’t justified, or that the only possible response to any war anywhere is just cynicism and nihilism. Nothing like that. Just that the experience of ordinary foot soldiers was probably somewhat like this, surrealist episodes of sheer horror, unremitting violence, punctuated by periods of pure boredom. That the men in a tank crew or squad get on each others’ nerves and drive each other crazy, and yet, you end up caring for each other like no other humans on earth.

The ending has the same flaw, I think, as Saving Private Ryan. These ordinary foot soldiers become super-heroic and kind of bullet-proof for a finale that’s perhaps that one degree too Hollywood. But that’s a minor flaw in an extraordinary film. Pitt’s tremendous in it, as is Lerman, Peña, LeBeouf. But the performance that lingers is that of Jon Bernthal. It’s a difficult, ugly,profane, uncompromising film. But I was profoundly moved by it.

My political manifesto

Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors opined in class one day that actors were the most moral people in the world. His argument: the basis for morality is compassion, and compassion comes from empathy. And because they are in the business of creating characters, becoming other people, actors were pretty much always, you know, walking in the moccasins, so to speak, of other people. Hence greater empathy, hence greater compassion, hence morality. When he said this, I was in a show, acting across from a brilliantly talented actor who was also pretty much the most awful person I had ever met. Empathy was one of many human emotions he was wonderfully able to fake. Total narcissist, a womanizer and a creepy creepy person. We were doing a murder mystery; he was the killer, and I was the detective tasked with catching him. Watching him hit on every woman on the production staff gave my characterization added oomph, and I must say I found it supremely satisfying to hear the click of my handcuffs on his wrists, night after night.

Having said that, I would add that I acted for years, though not anymore, and that I generally love actors and consider many actors to be among my closest and dearest friends.

I thought about the misguided naivete of that professor yesterday, when I engaged in an entirely futile on-line debate about politics. A conservative friend found amusing a YouTube video caricaturing liberals; it was funny, he insisted, because it was true. I angrily asserted that it wasn’t either true, and that I could as easily stereotype conservatives. I argued poorly in that forum; let me redeem myself here by stating, firmly and unequivocally, what I believe to be true, absolutely true, in my heart of hearts true.

Principle One: American Liberals and American Conservatives are, for the most part, patriotic and decent human beings who differ somewhat in regards to matters of policy.

Principle Two: The Democratic and Republican parties are both comprised of people who love the United States, and want nothing more than for the nation to prosper and bless its citizens. Both parties are equal parts corrupt and idealistic. Most Democrats are decent, good citizens; some have the morals of pit vipers. Most Republicans are decent, good citizens; some have the morals of cockroaches. And both parties have individuals in their ranks who are narcissistic attention seekers, that being the besetting sin of politicians.

I am a liberal Democrat, deeply committed and passionate in my beliefs. I am a liberal  as a matter of principle and conscience. That does not mean that conservative Republicans are without principle or conscience-less. I study policy issues very carefully, and believe that my positions on matters of policy are factually based, supported by research and reason. That does not mean that conservative policy proposals are unsupported by evidence. Confirmation bias afflicts both sides; both sides tend to favor evidence supporting our previous prejudices and opinions.

As a liberal Democrat, I consider myself pro-choice. That means that it’s easy for conservatives to label me a baby-killer. I’m not a baby-killer. That’s preposterous. It’s a complicated issue, and in general, I come down on the side of a woman’s right to choose. My conservative Republican friends tend to disparage programs intended to alleviate poverty. That does not allow me to label them uncharitable or call them vicious meanies. It just means that they don’t believe federal anti-poverty programs are effective.

My father is much more conservative than I am, and there are a number of political questions on which we disagree. But he was and is a wonderful father, and I love and respect him immensely. My brother–one of the finest men I have ever known–is a Republican, but he called the other day, and we talked politics for an hour, and found very few questions on which we disagreed. Not all policy questions are partisan. Roads need to be repaired, schools need to be built, power grids need to be maintained.  Those may be ‘political’ questions, but surely they are questions about which reasonable people can find common ground.

None of this means that we can’t passionately advocate for our positions. Of course we can, and we must. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t genuine differences between parties and ideologies and platforms. Of course, those exist. It does mean that we can’t demonize the opposition. I do forget that sometimes, and apologize for it.

Let’s all commit ourselves to civil dialogue, and civil disagreement, when disagree we must. But what unifies us is much more important than what divides us. We’re American citizens. Let’s always continue to respect what that means.

The Sixth Circuit decision

After an unbroken series of victories in federal courts, those advocating for marriage equality had a bit of a setback last week. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold same sex marriage bans in four states, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Lower court rulings in all four states had gone for the plaintiffs, overthrowing such bans. The decision was written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton, with Judge Deborah Cook concurring. Senior Judge Martha Daughtrey dissented.

The Supreme Court recently decided not to grant cert in a number of cases involving same sex marriages, allowing lower court rulings to stand. No one knows why cert wasn’t granted–SCOTUS doesn’t have to explain itself to anyone. But it’s reasonable to assume that they decided not to review the cases because there was no dispute between them. Typically, SCOTUS reserves judicial review for instances where, on a single issue, lower courts disagree.

So plaintiffs in these four cases now have two options. One is, they could request that the case be reviewed by the entire Sixth Circuit en banc.  That is to say, they could request that the entire panel of Sixth Circuit judges look at the thing, rather than just three judges chosen randomly. Or, of course, they could ask the Supreme Court to review it. If they do, it’s probable that SCOTUS will take it.

Judge Sutton’s decision is, um, kinda unusual. It reads more like a civics lesson than a court decision. It suggests that the decision to expand the definition of marriage is not one properly decided by courts. It’s a federalism decision; a states’ rights decision. The definition of marriage is not something courts should decide. Then, when the decision does get into questions of case law and precedent, it does so idiosyncratically. For example, it uses a 1972 decision, Baker v. Nelson, in which a state court invalidated a gay marriage performed by a minister (subsequently denied cert by SCOTUS) as a valid precedent. But Baker was decided a long time ago, and is generally regarded as having been overturned by Lawrence v. Texas and United States v. Windsor, which are far more recent. And given an opportunity to weigh in on gay marriage, SCOTUS punted. But these developments might never have happened, as far as Judge Sutton is concerned.

Check out, for example, this passage:

Over time, marriage has come to serve another value–to solemnize relationships characterized by love, affection, and commitment. Gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of sharing such relationships. And gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of raising children and providing stable families for them. The quality of such relationships, and the capacity to raise children within them, turns not on sexual orientation, but on individual choices and individual commitment. All this supports the policy argument made by many that marriage laws should be extended to gay couples, just as nineteen states have done through their own sovereign powers. Yet it does not show that the States, ca. 2014, suddenly must look at this policy in just one way on pain of violating the Constitution.

Really? I don’t get this at all. I suppose what he’s saying is that state legislatures are capable of arriving at different conclusions than the conclusions reached by pro-gay-marriage activists. But that’s not the point. There are plaintiffs in this case who claim to have been discriminated against. That’s what you’re deciding. That’s the case before you. A decision that says ‘they might have been discriminated against. That’s possible. But it’s not really our place to say’ is preposterous. It is, in fact, your place to say. That’s your obligation, to decide that.

And for you to say (paraphrasing the rest of the decision) ‘the love and commitment of gay couples is equal to the love and commitment of straight couples, and the ability to raise children is, in both cases, identical, but that doesn’t mean we have to rule for plaintiffs. They should go out and become activists in their states, and get their local legislators to change the law’ is just preposterous. Judge Sutton, if you’re not going to rule in cases like these, why are you an appellate court judge?

Judge Daughtrey responded with a blistering, angry, and more than a little snarky dissent.

The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED talk, or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy. But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state’s constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the majority sets up a false premise–that the question before us is ‘who shall decide’–and leads us through a largely irrelevant discourse on democracy and federalism.

Wham. She then goes on to make what seems to me an obvious point:

In point of fact, the real issue before us concerns what is at stake in these six cases for the individual plaintiffs and their children, and what should be done about it. . . In the main, the majority treats both the issues and the litigants here as mere abstractions. Instead of treating the plaintiffs as persons, suffering actual harm as a result of being denied the right to marry . . . my colleagues view the plaintiffs as social activists who have somehow stumbled into federal court, inadvisably, when they should be out campaigning to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee voters to their cause. But these plaintiffs are not political zealots . . . they are committed same-sex couples, many of them heading up de facto families, who want to achieve equal status. . . .They seek to do this by exercising a civil right that most of us take for granted, the right to marry.

She then eviscerates the main argument made by the defendants in this, and other similar cases nationally, that redefining marriage might provide a disincentive for irresponsible heterosexual couples to marry, devaluing it somehow.  “How ironic,” she says, “that unmarried, irresponsible, heterosexual couples who produce unwanted offspring must be ‘channeled’ into marriage, and thus rewarded with its many psychological and material benefits, while same-sex couples who become model parents are punished for their responsible behavior by being denied the right to marry.” Ironic indeed.

Being remarkably eloquent in defeat still means you lost. The Sixth Circuit opinion will certainly be reviewed, either by the rest of that court, or by the Supremes. My guess is that this decision will probably go to SCOTUS, and that this time the justices will grant cert.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that the Supreme Court wants to risk the kind of controversy a sweeping reversal of all those cases, in all those other Circuit Courts, would cause. And it’s impossible to imagine Justice Kennedy, who authored the Lawrence decision, would decide to uphold decisions as silly as this one from the Sixth. I predict it will go to SCOTUS, who will vote to overturn 6-3, with Kennedy, Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsberg, Breyer and Roberts in the majority, and Scalia, Thomas and Alito in the minority. And Utah will provide the defining case of the controversy. Utah. Wow.

 

A theology of fear

Sunday was our stake conference. For those of you who are not Mormons, we worship every Sunday in a ‘ward,’ a group of 400-600 people. Wards are part of larger units, called ‘stakes’, a group of 8-10 wards; the guy who runs the stake is the Stake President. (The metaphor is that of a people gathered in tent, with stakes holding it together). Once a year, all the people in the stake get together for a big meeting, held in the stake center. And sometimes, occasionally, General Authorities of the Church come down and speak at stake conference.

This Sunday, we had the exceedingly rare experience of having, not just a General Authority, but an Apostle, Elder David Bednar speak to us.  This is very rare, and the stake center was crammed full.

Elder Bednar’s talk was outstanding. He talked about fear. As he pointed out, fear is generally described as something to be overcome. It’s a negative emotion, something that gets in the way of faith. Elder Bednar used as an example the story in Matthew 14, when Jesus walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are on a boat (presumably Peter’s fishing boat), and a storm starts up. Jesus approaches the boat, walking on the water, and says to them, “Be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid.” And Peter, ever impulsive, asks if he can join him. But when he starts walking towards Jesus, he’s overcome by fear, and begins sinking, and says “Lord, save me!” and Jesus catches him by the hand and says “oh, ye of little faith, why didst thou fear?”

Elder Bednar made several cogent points about this story. First, it appears that fear is, in this instance, the opposite of faith. Peter is able to walk, miraculously, on the water, because he has faith. But, understandably, his faith falters. He essentially says to Jesus ‘the surface tension of water is insufficient to bear the concentrated weight of a two hundred pound human. I’m going to sink.’ But he has just experienced another miracle, the feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes. He should know that Jesus had the power to supercede natural law somehow. If he had had faith, he could have performed miracles. Like walk on water.

So looking to Jesus is the essence of faith; looking to Jesus is what gives us courage, enabling us to overcome fear. Courage and faith are therefore linked. Although Elder Bednar didn’t say this explicitly, I would add that love seems similarly linked to faith and to courage.

Today is veteran’s day. I have not served in the military, and have never experienced combat. I know people who have. I can only imagine what they went through, my imagination aided, in my case, by movies. Think, for example, of Saving Private Ryan, and its depiction of the Normandy beach invasion by Allied forces. We see soldiers on boats ready to storm that beach, and we see and hear guns firing, bullets whistling past them, the impact sounds as men are hit. After watching that movie, I thought to myself, “I do not believe that I would be able to get out of that boat. I believe that I am too cowardly to do so.” But those men did get out of the boats, and did race up that beach firing their weapons, and did win that battle. That’s an extraordinary thing. And I feel chastened by their courage. I’m in awe of it. No doubt, for some, that courage came from their own religious convictions; they ‘looked to Jesus,’ as Elder Bednar suggested. For more of them, though, I think they thought of their families. I think they were driven by love. Which I also believe to be a gift from God.

But let’s talk about fear. There is another usage of the word ‘fear’ in scripture. It’s sometimes used as a positive thing: ‘the fear of God.’ It’s rather an archaic usage; we mostly use it nowadays as a colloquial expression meaning ‘a boss is going to crack down on underlings.’  As in “look at our sales figures for August. We’re having a meeting and I’m going to put the fear of God into our sales staff.”  But as Elder Bednar pointed out, that’s not really how the scriptures use the phrase. In Acts, for example, Cornelius the centurion is described as a man who “feared God with all his house, and gave alms to the people, and prayed always.” ‘Fearing God’ seems to refer, in this case, to a general piety and charitableness. Fearing God means to hold God in awe and reverence.  Not really be afraid of him.

A parent who wants his/her children to fear him/her, and beats them, is, let’s face it, a horrible parent. There’s certainly an Old Testament sense of ‘fearing God’ that strikes me as atavistic. We should obey God because if we don’t, He might zap us, send horrible floods or earthquakes or diseases. If we assume that terrible weather events are the sorts of things that God is personally responsible for, then it makes sense to fear Him, just as it makes sense, when hiking in the woods, to fear bears or wolves or poisonous snakes. But I’d rather not liken God to a wolf. That sense of ‘fear’ suggests an interesting theological question, does it not? Is God in charge of, say, weather? When a hurricane devastates a coastal region, or when a tsunami wipes out a beachfront community, is that something God sent? Does God do that, send terrible tribulations? If so, does He send them as a response to unrighteousness? Do we believe that a town destroyed by an earthquake had it coming?

There does seem to me to be a lot of scriptural support for the notion that ‘natural disasters’ are actually supernatural; that severe destructive weather events are in fact sent by God as a punishment for wickedness–Sodom and Gomorrah, Zerahemla.  And it’s the kind of thing you do hear from time to time in Sunday School: “those people had it coming.” At the same time, when a Pat Robertson or other prominent right wing evangelical goes on the air to say “this hurricane was God’s punishment for allowing gay marriage” or something like that, most people respond with disgust and laughter. That kind of sentiment is no longer  acceptable in contemporary society, and rightfully so. We believe in, and worship, a God of love. And one of the ways the LDS church has distinguished itself in our day is in the area of disaster relief. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, the Church is on the scene with supplies–food, blankets, potable water, shelter. So, what, when God punishes people for their wickedness, we jump right in and try to make things better for the people being thus punished? Really?

I don’t think we believe that anymore. I don’t think we believe that God uses bad weather to punish wicked people. I certainly don’t believe in it; some Mormons may disagree with me. But I dislike the theological implications of that. A second possibility is even more appalling to me; the idea that God is in fact in charge of weather, but just lashes out randomly, out of, perhaps, a kind of divine Pique. That’s the God of predestination, is it not? A God that just picks some people to save, leaving the rest to roast forever? That was the mainstream theology of early nineteenth century America, which means it was the theology specifically condemned in the First Vision, was it not?

No, what I believe theologically is that our life here on earth is a testing ground, and that part of the test of mortality is dealing with random, arbitrary disasters. Weather happens. God set it up to happen, but I’m not convinced He directs it, particularly. I don’t think health setbacks are meant to teach us anything, for example. I think we just get sick sometimes. Certainly, we’re meant to deal with illness with courage and resolve; that is part of our test.  And maybe we learn something along the way. But I don’t think we’re supposed to go through life afraid that if we say the wrong thing God’s going to zap us with lightning. I think lightning just . . . strikes.

And yes, I believe that fear, and the courageous overcoming of fear are absolutely crucial to the testing of mortality. I think that we look to God for faith, and we pray in faith, not because we’re afraid of horrible things happening to us if we don’t, but just because. Out of love. Out of devotion. Out of gratitude. Not because we hope for a reward afterwards, because good things and bad things happen to us, here, randomly, without being deserved or earned either way. But we can always choose. And the right choice, the best choice, is always the most courageous choice.

There is another way in which ‘fear of God’ can function theologically, although this wasn’t one mentioned by or in any sense referred to by Elder Bednar in his excellent address. We can be afraid of each other. We can be afraid, not of God, but of ‘god.’ Not the God who loves us, who created a beautiful, terrible earth for our mortal final exam, but the ‘god’ made up of popular opinion, the ‘god’ of mainstream prosperous white American culture, the ‘god’ that whispers and gossips and points ‘his’ crabbed and arthritic finger at our everyday foibles and missteps. And who forbids, not sin, but life. Who mutters under ‘his’ breath imprecations against (this is crucial) courageous, principled acts of rebellion born of conscience. Not the God of the Tree of Life, but the ‘gods’ staring down at us from the various spacious and specious buildings of our oh-so-active imaginations.

Samuel Beckett, in the greatest play of the twentieth century, had a word for that ‘god.’ He called it ‘godot,’ a french diminutive. And his ‘godot’ is a ‘god’ that we fear, and wait for, and he never, ever, shows up.  ‘He’ doesn’t have to. As long as we never leave, as long as we stay put, as long as we spend our days testing the branches of our trees to ensure they’ll hold the weight of a hanging rope, ‘his’ purposes are amply fulfilled.

Because, you see, Peter and the disciples did have one more thing to be afraid of. Not just the storm and the sea and the fear of drowning. Read Matthew 14 carefully. All the miracles described there, the feeding of the multitude and the walking on the water came immediately on the heels of an act of state-sponsored violence. John the Baptist had run afoul of the tetrarch, Herod, and his step-daughter Herodias. And Herod had John murdered. It was right after that horrid event that everyone freaked out and ran to the wilderness, five thousand strong, desperate for answers, for comfort, for reassurance. For courage. It was then that Jesus fed them. It was then that Jesus defied a storm.

Because what Jesus understood was that godot is a coward, and like many cowards, a bully, violent and weak. And there’s really only one way to sidestep godot. It involves a storm on a lake, and a boat, tossed and turned. It involves a blessing, and bread and fishes, and a terrified people fed.

Short term, godot won. John was beheaded; Jesus scourged and crucified. And Gandhi and Dr. King; likewise murdered. But courage overcomes fear, faith is stronger than death itself. Ordinary young men, huddled in a boat outside Normandy, drove themselves, through love, towards heroism. No one remembers cowards, except as cowards. We ‘fear’ (honor, worship, sustain) God by loving our brothers and sisters. And love leads to faith and faith to courage.  And even amidst danger, we can be of good cheer. We must, in fact, overcome fear. That’s the real test, and one so many of us (Mormons, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Atheists) pass every day of our lives. By being, not just human, but the best humans we can manage to be, the most courageous, the most daring, the most audacious. Artists and artisans, merchants and beggars. Be courageous. Be strong. Be of good cheer.

 

Five bills to pass

So now what? Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives, and a smaller majority in the Senate. The President still has a veto, and has made it clear that he’ll use it. It’s time for (drumroll) bi-partisan cooperation. This President has never, once, shown any interest in working with Republicans, on any issue ever, according to my Republican friends. He has also been so open to working with Republicans, he’s consistently in danger of violating utterly essential tenets of liberalism, according to my Democratic friends. To both sides, the truth of Obama’s bi-partisanship couldn’t be more obvious. Obama simply will not work with Republicans, ever, on anything. Simultaneously, he’s so intent on pushing for Grand Compromises that we wonder how anyone could ever have considered him progressive at all. He’s ‘my way or the highway!’ He’s also Mr. ‘meet you way way more than half-way.’ It’s like those hardcore conservatives who insist that he’s Bozo, clownishly inept at everything. And also a tyrant, horribly dangerous because he’s such an accomplished villain. Both/and, either/or.  All, and also none of the above.

Anyway, them dudes gotta work together, or ain’t nuttin’s gonna happen. So what are some actual genuine real national problems Republicans and Democrats could maybe work together and pass? Here are a few thoughts (and please feel free to correct me if I get any of these details wrong. I’m not a policy analyst-just an old retired college prof/playwright):

1) Highway bill. There’s about a 100 billion dollar gap between infrastructure needs nationally and the amount of money the gasoline/diesel tax raises for the Highway Trust fund. The gas tax is 24.4 cents a gallon, and hasn’t been raised since 1993. Raise the gasoline tax (which is comically low anyway, compared to most of the industrialized world. In Germany, for example, it’s, like, 8 bucks a gallon). There’s a Democratic bill that would raise the US tax by 15 cents a gallon, with a slighter higher hike for diesel. I don’t think that’s anywhere near enough, but it’s a start. Something needs to be done; the current approach is to toss an extra 10 billion or so into the pot every few months. A fix here should be possible.

2) Time to actually pass the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama was asked to hold it up for a few months, so that moderate Democratic red state US Senators could attack him for holding it up, distancing themselves from him, and demonstrating their ‘independence.’ Buncha cowards. Glad they lost; good riddance. Build the darn pipeline.

3) I rather like the Hire More Heroes bill, though. It’s a bill that would allow employers to not count veterans for purposes of the ACA employer mandate. Employers have to provide health care if they have 50 or more employees, but veterans already get VA benefits. Pass it; give our men and women in uniform a leg up in hiring.

4) It’s hard to imagine Republicans wanting to give this President more power, but Vox.com suggested they might pass a fast-track trade authority agreement that would make it easier for him to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Car companies don’t like it, but it’s a good bill and one Republicans have traditionally supported.

5) George F. Will had a recent column outlining the various things Congress could try to do now. It was, for the most part, a list of suggestions for legislation that, if passed, Obama will simply veto. But a repeal of the medical devices tax wouldn’t be the end of the world, and might slake some of the Republicans’ thirst for anti-Obamacare measures. Expect that to pass, and expect Obama to sign it. Though I sort of hope he doesn’t.

I’d love to hear some other suggestions. Certainly, it would be nice for Congress to actually, you know, do its job. Maybe get their approval rating up to Paris Hilton levels. Wouldn’t that be just swell.

 

 

Nightcrawler: Movie Review

Nightcrawler is the inspiring tale of a small business success story. I expect it to be cited in business schools as a perfect case study of triumphant entrepreneurship. It’s about a young man, without education or background, but full of drive and ambition, who finds a niche industry in which he can make his mark, who, through hard work and sacrifice, rises to the top. Indeed, I can only think of one popular-culture businessman’s-portrait equally inspiring; AMC’s television series about New Mexico pharmaceutical pioneer Walter White.

Rimshot. (If you missed it, that was an extended Breaking Bad joke just now). In fact, Nightcrawler is a superbly rendered portrait of pure human viciousness, an expose of the seamy underside of local television news programming, modern business ethics, and the whole positive thinking B-school mantras of success and achievement. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an extraordinary performance as an amoral creep drawn to the world of ‘nightcrawlers,’ which is to say video stringers, guys who cruise police radiowaves looking for particularly gruesome images of car wrecks, local crime stories, and other ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ sensationalism, which they then sell to local news outlets. It’s the same subculture that Richard Dutcher explored in his film Fallen. Dutcher’s film is a futile search for redemption in a lost and fallen world. This film, written and directed by veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy, discounts even the possibility of grace. It’s more like an extended exercise in the mechanics of pure sociopathy.

Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a petty crook living by his wits in LA, and desperate for the kind of career success his daily internet trolling has convinced him is within the grasp of anyone with a dream. He has a perpetual smile pasted on, talks in full sentences chock-a-block with bromides and cliches drawn from personal improvement seminars and TED talks, and he never, ever, the entire movie, blinks. His peculiar intensity creeps pretty much everyone out, except when, more or less by accident, he happens upon an auto accident being filmed by veteran nightcrawler Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). He gets his own camera, and sells some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the overnight news director of the lowest rated local newscast in LA. From then on, Lou is launched, and discovers he has a knack for getting shots other cameramen can’t (or won’t) even try for. Nina’s subordinate, Frank (Kevin Rahm), finds Lou’s footage repugnant and his methods unethical. But she outranks him, and Lou becomes the key to ratings success for a news outlet desperate for it. Meanwhile, Lou hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed) who is poor enough to work for a pittance, though increasingly troubled by Lou’s methods.

The film is thereafter structured according to that moral geometry. Lou will do literally anything to get footage for the morning news; Rick is his never-consulted conscience. Nina will follow Lou in doing anything to increase the station’s ratings; Frank is the angel on her shoulder, though one she has little trouble in ignoring. And Lou wins. Lou’s vision of the world triumphs. Nina’s success rides on his amorality.

And, of course, like any good sociopath, Lou’s primary interest in other people is in getting them to serve his purposes and ends. We see a sort of dreadful romance develop between Lou and Nina, entirely pragmatic on her part, entirely manipulative on his. And yes, they do sort of deserve each other. (It’s also beautifully played by both actors, especially Russo, who we see discover depths of pragmatic personal depravity she seems to find surprising. Like: ‘am I capable of, well, this? Yeah, guess so. How about. . . . this? Yep, that too.’

At one point, Lou points out that local news programs devote a few seconds a week on politics and public policy, spending most of every newscast on sensationalism. And the preference is for stories about crimes and tragedies in upscale white worlds; the ‘inner city crime is seeping into the suburbs narrative.’ This is not, in fact, true, as Nina and Lou both know; the stories they’re busy chasing are almost entirely anomalous. But they know their viewers. The purpose is to titillate. Their routine disclaimer–‘this footage is particularly graphic, viewer discretion is advised’–isn’t a warning, it’s a come-on.

And yet and yet. A lot of the fascination of this film is wondering what peculiarly awful footage Lou’s going to find next, and how much is he likely to get away with while broadcasting it. We’re implicated by the film as much as we’re appalled by it. We do this too, the film implies, we’re as much voyeurs as Nina is. And once we realize that Lou will literally do anything to get gory footage, we’re fascinated by that too. We do, in fact, want to watch.

As remarkable as Russo and Gyllenhaal are in the film, I was perhaps even more impressed by the acting performances of Ahmed and Rahm. Both actors do a remarkable job of conveying an essential human decency, though leavened by cowardice. In a way, their characters become even more morally culpable than Gyllenhaal’s and Russo’s characters. They know what they’re doing is repugnant. But economic dependency doth make cowards of us all; Ahmed is paid, we’re told, thirty bucks a night, but we also see how desperately he needs it. We see less of Rahm’s character–the movie’s focus is on Gyllenhaal more than Russo–but we can see, on the margins of the characterization, the same quiet desperation. He’s putting stories on the news that he knows are not just unethical, they’re lies. He does it anyway, protesting all the while, losing every inter-office fight, swallowing every insult, never quite able to quit. A wonderful, subtle performance.

It’s a tough film to watch; simultaneously, it’s compulsively watchable. It’s, literally, like watching a car wreck. It’s not so much a film you watch as one you rubberneck at. A remarkable achievement, and a film that will stay with me.

Apocalypse not

I didn’t watch the mid-term election coverage last night. My wife and I went to a movie instead: The Maze Runner.  Those were our choices: MCNBC,or Maze Runner.  Two post-apocalyptic dystopias. Hey, at least, in Alabama, the voters’ initiative banning the imposition of Sharia law passed. (Just in time, before Obama could impose it). Betcha anything the veiled cheerleaders are why Mississippi State beat The Tide.

As a liberal Democrat, of course, gallows humor is pretty much the order of the day. The Republicans now have a mandate: to not let ISIS behead too many of us, and to stop the spread of Ebola. The reality is, this was a low-turnout midterm election, coinciding with some foreign policy setbacks, and a really scary but not actually dangerous disease outbreak. Old white people got scared, and voted. Minorities had stuff to do.

Right now, here’s what national politics looks like. The Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate. So the House passes lots of bills, which the Senate doesn’t so much as even consider. And the Senate passes lots of other bills, which the House also ignores. As a result nothing gets done. President Obama does some small-scale governing, within the limits of existing legislation; other than that, bupkus. That’s the status quo. It’s going to change.

(And in the Maze Runner, these kids, all male, live in a community surrounded by massive stone walls. They have tools, a forest, the means to survive. They’ve created a nice little community for themselves. An opening in the walls leads to a series of mazes, which they’ve been mapping. But the mazes change nightly, and nobody has survived in the mazes past sundown. It’s a stable, but dangerous society. A new kid shows up once a month, along with some supplies. But nothing really changes, not really. They have a community, rules, a leader; they vote on things like chores. Stasis.)

So the Republicans now control the Senate, in addition to the House. What will this mean?

Three possible scenarios:

First, a lot of the screwier House bills that right now get passed and then go nowhere are now going to be passed by the Senate, which won’t mean much, because President Obama will simply veto them. In fact, President Obama could set a new record for vetoes. Deadlock will continue, and nothing will get solved; there’ll just be a different mechanism for inaction. I do think that the anti-Obama rhetoric we’ve enjoyed so much the last six years could ramp up exponentially. The cries of tyranny! and dictatorship! and monarchist! that the crazier elements on the Right are so fond of will increase in volume and passion. We’re going to see more bills introduced to rescind Obamacare, for example. Only now, instead of Harry Reid ignoring those bills, Obama will simply veto. Ugly as American politics has been, and racist and vicious and vile, it’s now likely to get worse, and much much more personal. Good thing Obama’s got a thick skin. (I think it would be really cool if he vetoed some of those bills from the golf course). I also think impeachment is a possibility, not that Obama’s done anything to get impeached for, but they’ll come up with something. That will fail too, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.

(And in The Maze Runner, a new kid, Thomas, shows up, and actually kills one of the horrid spider creatures that guard the mazes. This freaks everyone out; change is scary.)

On the other hand, I rather suspect that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner would very much like to, you know, govern. They have two years to prove that Republicans can actually pass a legislative agenda. There’s stuff they can do. Not every bill out there is idiotic. They could pass a highway bill, for one thing, and probably will. That’s something that needs to be done, it’s not a tough fix, and there’ll be bi-partisan support for at least something that fixes infrastructure. It’s not likely to be a particularly good highway bill–they could possibly include some kind of anti-union provision for federal contracting–but there’ll be tremendous pressure on Obama to sign it. And if it’s not horrible, he probably will.

I watched Reince Priebus on Jon Stewart last night, and he said ‘we’ll be able to force Obama to work with us. We have that power now.’ But President Obama’s always been willing to work with Republicans, as long as what they propose isn’t completely crazy.

(And in The Mazerunner, suddenly, a girl shows up, the first non-male addition to their community. This terrifies everyone. Thomas also discovers that the maze has in fact been completely mapped, and that killing the spider creature is the key to opening a door to the outside. A way to escape is open to them all. Even more terrifying; the more conservative community members are about ready to kill Thomas. Also the girl.)

Priebus said something else that terrified me, though. He said ‘now we can really get this economy going.’ Thing is, we know what Republicans want to do economically. It’ll be more of their Holy Economic Trinity: tax cuts for rich people, spending cuts for poor people, and deregulation. Oh, and probably increases in the most bloated part of the budget; defense spending. Which leads me to my third point: budgeting could get really really nasty. As awful as budget battles have been up to now, they’re particularly going to get worse now. The Tea Party smells blood. We’re in for an awful two years.

(In The Mazerunner, the spider creatures attack, and many of the kids are killed. And they escape, and more of them die. And when they find their way out of the maze, what they discover isn’t particularly triumphant or good, but more death and destruction).

Which of these three scenarios is it going to be? Tea Party triumphalism, leading to massive numbers of Presidential vetoes? Sensible compromise, and some good legislation–a highway bill, immigration policy, education initiatives? Or some bruising budgetary battles? The answer is, all three. We’re in for a tough two years.

(The Mazerunner is the first movie in a trilogy. The next two movies, telling the rest of the story, haven’t been made yet. I could cheat and read the novels, but kind of don’t want to).

And then, gazing into my crystal ball, Hillary Clinton will be elected easily, and quickly become one of the most consequential Presidents in history. And the Tea Party could, once and for all, slink back to the margins of history, joining the No-Nothings and radical anti-Masons. So, silver lining, maybe. The Mazerunner kids do get out, though to what end? Uncertain, and possibly a little bleak.  As with America itself, this fine chilly Wednesday.