The Art of Fielding: Book Review

In 1973, Steve Blass, the ace pitcher for the World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates, found himself suddenly and inexplicably unable to throw a baseball accurately. He was in perfect health, and his arm was uninjured. His difficulties were not physical, but psychological. It wasn’t a matter of courage, or cowardice. He was simply completely unable to do something that he had previously been as good at as anyone in the world. The best article about Blass and his baffling condition appeared in the New Yorker in 1975, written by the great Roger Angell; it was subsequently anthologized in at least two of Angell’s published compilations.  Although previously unknown in baseball history, in the forty years since Blass retired, his odd affliction, ‘Steve Blass’ disease,’ subsequently afflicted another pitcher, Rich Ankiel, two second basemen, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, and catcher Mackey Sasser.  Sax and Knoblauch found themselves incapable of making routine throws to the first baseman; Sasser became unable to toss the ball back to the pitcher between pitches.

And now Henry Skrimshander.  Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, is about a preternaturally talented young shortstop, suddenly afflicted with Blass’ weird syndrome.  But it’s not just a novel about baseball, or even primarily a novel about baseball.  Henry suddenly can’t make routine throws to first, not because he’s been physically disabled, but because he overthinks it, over-analyses the problem, which leads to a crisis of confidence.  And where else would you set a novel about crises of confidence and paralysis-through-over-analysis but in a modern college?

Harbach introduces us to the world of Westish College, a small midwestern 4-year liberal arts school, with high-ish academic standards, somewhat decaying infrastructure, and a really bad baseball team.  And in this world lives Mike Schwartz, literate, well-read, tough, inspirational, a man’s man, who essentially wills the Westish Harpooners (the entire school worships Melville) to improve athletically.  Schwartz is, above all, Henry Skrimshander’s best friend, his mentor, his personal trainer, his coach and conscience and motivator and his captain-my-captain.  And Schwartz has given so much of himself to build up Henry he has begun to wonder who he is, and what he will do with the rest of his life.

The novel also focuses on three other extraordinary characters.   First is Owen, Henry’s roommate; brilliant, gay, kind, utterly sure about himself and who he is, a man who, when a coach yells at him, is neither offended nor motivated by it, but sort of delighted–’look, I get to study apoplectic rage!’  How very interesting!’  He’s also an athlete; a pretty doggone good hitter, though one who, between at bats, reads in the dugout. Harbach could write an entire novel about just Owen, and I’d read it.  Equally compelling is Guert Affenlight, the Westish college president, a once-fashionable young literary scholar, now slowly decaying as an administrator; no longer a teacher or published scholar, but a generous and charismatic soul.  And finally his daughter, Pella, a bright and beautiful and deeply unsure of herself young woman, who has moved home to escape a terrible marriage, and who has found personal fulfillment working as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.

Affenlight is infatuated with Owen, and they finally do have an odd but convincing romance.  Pella and Schwartz also hook up, and although they’re good for each other, they also fight, mostly over Henry.  And Henry himself is . . . a sage, a mystic, a ninja turned ronin, a priest without vocation.  A lost and despairing artist who has lost his muse.

I’m making the novel sound morose or gloomy.  It’s anything but.  Pella’s marriage is terrible, but we do meet her husband, and he’s a richly comedic creation.  The writing throughout is . . .  alive.  The characters are funny and smart and rich and foolish and capable and incapable and eloquent and tongue-tied.  They’re people.

But it’s also smart.  Even profound.  There’s this, for example:

’1973,’ thought Affenlight.  In the public imagination, it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam.  Gravity’s Rainbow.  Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream–the year it entered baseball?  It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation–the Modernists of the First World War–would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the real of utmost confidence in same–the world of professional sport.  In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era where even the athletes were anguished Modernists.  In which case, the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.

Do I dare, and do I dare?

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed.

Thesis, followed by a cheeky antithesis.  The rest of the novel is the synthesis; it is both about a radical loss of self-confidence, and the devastation wrought by it, as well as rebirth and redemption.

Or this: pardon the ellipses.

The thing to do, really was to wash the dishes. In fact, she was feeling a strong desire to wash the dishes. . . . the ones near the bottom were disgusting, the plates covered with water-softened crusts of food, the glasses scummed with white bacterial froth, but this only increased her desire to become the conqueror of so much filth. . . an objection crossed her mind.  What would Mike think?  It was a nice gesture, to do someone’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment . . . even if she and Mike had been dating for months, unprovoked dishwashing might be considered strange.  But the dishes weren’t hers and she and Mike weren’t dating.  They hadn’t even kissed.  Therefore, the doing of dishes could only be weird, neurotic, invasive.  And Mike would shrug and never call her again.  She looked down at the white bubbles.  Steam rose off the water. . .  she really really really wanted to do those dishes.

And so maybe I picked the most pretentious literary paragraph in the novel, and followed it by the weirdest internal monologue paragraph. Plus it’s about baseball.  Meh.  You’re thinking that, possibly.  Meh.

Darn it. I’ve blown it already.  And yet, it’s so so good.

One more, then:

By the time they finished,  Owen had said ‘There, finally’ to two pairs of jeans, two shirts and two sweaters.  A modest stack, but Henry added up the price tags in his mind, and it was more than he had in the bank.  “Do I really need two?” he said?  “One’s a good start.”

“Two,” said Jason.

“Um.”  Henry frowned at the clothes.  “Mmmm. .”

“Oh!” Owen slapped himself on the forehead.  “Did I forget to mention?  I have a gift card at this establishment.  And I have to use it right away.  Lest it expire.”  He reached for the clothes in Henry’s hand.  “Here.”

“But it’s yours,” Henry protested.  “You should spend it on yourself.”

“Certainly not,” Owen said.  “I would never shop here.”


So: this:  This is a novel in which every plot turn and incident is surprising, and yet inevitable.  That is to say, everything that happens flows convincingly from the things that happened earlier, but they also catch us unawares.  It’s also a novel in which the dialogue is literate but persuasive; where the characters talk like the really smart people they are, except for the stupider ones.

I want badly for you to pick up this novel, buy it on Kindle or walk into Barnes and Noble or check it out at your local library; read it! in other words.  So I won’t spoil the plot for you.  But as you read it, you will very much want things to work out well for characters you’ve grown to love, and they do, and the last two chapters are splendid and right and fulfilling.  But it’s a twisty road getting there.  So persevere.

And what if you don’t like baseball?  I wondered about this.  I’m fully aware that this novel did not exactly present me with acceptance-and-enjoyment challenges. I love the game of baseball, though I never played it well, (certainly not as well as Henry does), and I admire the way this author gets every baseball detail exactly and exquisitely right, and boy does that contribute to my engagement with this text.  And maybe, possibly, some of you don’t like baseball as much as I do.  Or (shudder) at all.

Then let me recommend it to you all the more.  Because it’s a terrific read, a marvelous first novel from a guy who I sort of desperately hope writes more of them.  It’s funny and smart and real and profound.

I just really liked it a lot.  I read it until late last night, and work early and finished it this morning, and couldn’t wait to tell someone, everyone, that it’s really good and that you should read it.  So.  It’s really good and you should read it.  That’s The Art of Fielding.  By Chad Harbach.  Click this link to buy your own copy.  It’s about baseball, and it’s about life, and it’s sad and joyful and funny and sad.  But enough.  No more overselling.  You’ll get it, or you won’t.  Just, if you don’t, you’re missing out big time.

Noah: A Review

Let’s start here: Darren Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, is not just a gorgeous visual stylist, he is the one major director I know of who is genuinely immersed in the power of myth and in the power of tragedy.  Lots of directors today appropriate myth as material for otherwise conventional Hollywood melodramatic narratives: The 300, Clash of the Titans, Thor, the upcoming Hercules.  But the mythical trappings of these films are essentially just production design, and we leave them essentially unmoved. We think ‘that was awesome’, without ever having experienced awe.  Aronofsky explores myth creatively, even uses contemporary subjects matter to reimagine myth.  In Black Swan, he uses backstage ballet company squabbling to retell the myth of Odette and Odile; in The Wrestler, the wreckage of a life spent professionally wrestling is given the weight and depth of tragedy; Mickie Rourke’s Randy the Ram becomes a Hector, an Achilles, an Agamemnon.  The seeds of Aronofsky’s new Noah film are found in his 2006 film The Fountain, an extraordinary, complex multi-layered meditation on the Tree of Life, and (possibly), the redemptive power of love.  Ignore critics who scoff about the ‘Biblical accuracy’ of this Noah; this is not a Sunday School lesson, it’s a Darren Aronofsky film, and a great one.

There were giants in the earth in those days. . . . (Genesis 6: 4)

The operative OT word is Nephilim; ‘giants’ is a common translation.  Aronofsky calls them ‘Watchers’, and imagines them as fallen angels, sent to earth to help mankind, but cursed with bodies of stone. They’re ponderous creatures, and move as though every step is agony.  But they’re huge and powerful, and now, having helped mankind accomplish the ruination of the planet, they help Noah build (and they later defend) the Ark. When they die (and they can die, humans can kill them), they again become creatures of light, and are released, gloriously, to heaven.

And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . (Genesis 4: 22)

Tubal-cain is a central character in the film, superbly played by Ray Winstone.  After the slaughter of Abel, Cain’s offspring multiplied.  There are essentially two branches of humanity; the children of Cain and the children of Seth.  The Cainites have destroyed the planet; Sethites have been reduced to one family, Noah’s.  After a vision, Noah takes his family on a journey to find his grandfather, Methusaleh, and we see a ruined world; sludge ponds, tree stump deserts, abandoned mines and factories.  Having instilled in humankind an insensate greed for tools, Tubal-cain is king of what’s left.

Russell Crowe creates an essentially kind and loving Noah.  He knows The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) intends to drown the world, and that he’s to build an ark so that ‘the innocent’ (by which he means animals) can survive it, and initially, he believes that The Creator also intends his family to be spared, and his family to mark a new beginning for humanity. The difficulty is that he has three sons, and only one daughter-in-law.  And she, Ila (the magnificent Emma Watson) is barren; married to Seth, but unable to conceive.  His wife, Naameh (the equally magnificent Jennifer Connelly), is also past the years of child-bearing.  So how can mankind survive?

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.  And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence. . . . (Genesis 6: 11-13).

Noah goes to Tubal-cain’s encampment to look for wives for his sons.  And what he sees is a nightmare world, a world of brutality and sexual violence, a world of cruelty to animals, a world of murder, and above all, a world of rape.  We hear it more than see it; hear the cries of women subjected to violence, echoing everywhere in the camp.  And Noah feels, in his heart, his own capacity for violence.  He has killed in the past, defending his family.  He is a gentle man, and a kind hearted man, but he is a man, and he is shaken by the camp, but not just by its reality.  He’s also devastated by self-knowledge; by his own capacity to become that evil. He is, perhaps, titillated by it.  And that realization drives him mad.

And he kills, again he kills, not by design or intent, but by neglect and cowardice, he kills.  He kills a young woman that his son Ham has saved, a woman who is, in Ham’s words, ‘innocent.’  And Ham (Logan Lerman, also magnificent) cannot forgive it.

I will cause it to rain upon the earth . . . and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7: 4)

And we see it. And again, more than what we can see, we can also hear, and we see Noah’s family, in agony as they hear human beings, clinging to their Ark, drowning in despair, beating on the wood with their hands, shrieking in desperation.  And it goes on and on.  And they are devastated.

And, so, on the Ark, Noah gathers his family, and he tells them the story, of Adam and Eve and Creation.  Innocence and joy, purity and the love of the Creator.  And the serpent, and Cain’s violence to his brother.  And he tells his family that humankind must end with them.  They will save the animals, they will make possible re-Creation.  And then, one at a time, they will die.  And the youngest son, Japheth, will bury the last of his brothers, and then he too will die.  That is the vision the Creator has shown him.

Here’s what Aronofsky has done with the myth of Noah; he has imagined for us a prophet who is wrong.  He has created a titanic figure in Noah, but also a madman, a good man driven insane by visions of violence and death.  And the heart of the movie is there, on the ark, as a three-way debate takes shape and defines the intellectual contours of the movie.

In fairness, let me urge you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and want to.  Spoilers to follow; and I think they can’t be avoided.  Because this film is also a moral argument, and an argument that is worth describing fully and honestly.

What Noah does not know is that Ila, his daughter-in-law, is no longer barren. Naameh, in compassion and love, has taken her to Methusalah for a blessing, and she is now with child.  Shem is to be a father, and Noah, a grandfather.  And when Noah finds out, his madness intensifies, and he declares that if the child is female (and if, therefore, she represents a possible future for humanity), he will kill her.  And Naameh pleads with him, and their children avoid him.  He has gone insane.

Or has he?  Because the film is now defined by an argument, and one side of that argument is that mankind does not deserve to live.  I’m reminded of Matthew McConnaughey’s character in True Detective, arguing that human consciousness was an evolutionary error, and that at some point, nature will simply fix the mistake.  Eradicate us.  And we’ve seen a world defined by violence.  We see in Tubal-cain’s camp; we see it today, in the Congo, or North Korea, or Darfur.

What Noah does not know is that his Ark has a stowaway; that Tubal-cain was able to climb aboard. And Ham knows it too, and is angry enough at his father to keep Tubal-cain’s secret.  And the king is a tough old bird, but he’s not stupid and he has something else going for him; he loves mankind.  He thinks we’re supposed to rule, we’re supposed to exercise dominion over the earth. Maybe at times we exercise dominion foolishly, but we can fix that too; we’re smart enough to shape our environment, to use tools to manipulate our world, and incidentally benefit ourselves.  Violence is our heritage and our legacy.  We were meant for power.

But there’s a third point of view.  And it does not come from divine revelation, as both Noah and Tubal-cain (both of whom pray, and to the same Creator), think their philosophies come from.  It comes from the human heart, from what we Mormons would call the ‘light of Christ within.’  It’s Naameh’s opinion, and it’s based on love.  She believes in, and forcefully articulates, the power of human love. She believes that we can choose good over evil, that we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, because she’s done it; she’s given her life for her family.

So: obvious.  Except it isn’t.  As Noah points out to her; she’d kill for her family.  Her love has an undercurrent of violence, or at least the capacity for violence, the possibility of it.  We love, and perhaps that does ennoble us, but we’re tribal beings, and we can and will kill for those we most care for. And maybe love is a powerful force, but those words, ‘power’ and ‘force’ are rooted in a capacity for violence, are they not?  And yes, Tubal-cain is disgusting as he kills for food, and when he tells Noah that he intends to take from him his women.  But don’t human beings share with other creatures an innate instinct for survival?  And isn’t the world of ‘innocence’, the world of nature, a violent one?

And when Tubal-cain is finally defeated (by Ham, the son whose filial devotion is most equivocal, the boy who has cause to hate his father), Ila goes into labor, and is delivered of twins. Twin girls.  And Noah, as promised, takes up his knife to kill.  And Ila begs of him one last favor.  The babies are crying.  Can’t she, at least, calm them, quiet them, allow them to die while peaceful?  And he allows it.  And when he realizes that he can’t do it, he can’t obey his Creator to that final extremity, he cannot, finally, kill again, that realization does not heal his madness.

And Noah . . . planted a vineyard:

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. (Genesis 9: 2o-21).

And he drinks, and it’s not comic; it feels like a punch in the guts, because we see it as more madness, as PTSD made manifest on the earth.  It’s only when Ham ‘uncovers his father’s nakedness’ (in the film, it’s translated as ‘leaves on a self-imposed exile, rather than cope with his father’s insanity’), that Noah begins to heal.  And the family begins to heal, and his marriage begins to heal, and we see, in the heavens, an image of hope.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. (Genesis 9: 13, 14).

I am a believing, practicing Mormon, which means a believing and practicing Christian.  A Bible reader and a Bible lover.  And this painful and tragic and wonderful film does the Bible the courtesy of taking it seriously.  It honors the text by creatively re-imagining it, by giving myth a personal gloss. It’s not a slavishly literal retelling of the story, and it does not provide comforting platitudes.  It honors the horror of the Flood, or of all floods, it honors the painful reality of God’s plan; that we’ve been sent here to a world of volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.  And war.  And murder.  And with an innate human capacity for violence.  I left the theater edified, discomfited, uplifted, disturbed. Shaken.  Moved.  It’s a great film.


Boxes of books

My daughter has been on a ‘clean up this dump’ kick lately, and tonight, she got going on our basement.  And she found three big cardboard boxes full of books.  She brought them upstairs, and my wife and I went through them, deciding which ones, after all these years, we still want to keep, and which ones we can get rid of.

Books are friends. Our house is filled to overthrowing with books.  The room where I work has four big IKEA bookshelves, each one filled close to full.  And a great book has to be treasured, preserved, loved.  I home-teach an elderly woman, disabled to the point that she’s effectively bed-ridden, but I love visiting her.  Her room is full of bookshelves and books, and she’s a thoughtful, interesting and intelligent woman; when we visit, we talk books.  And conversations can last long beyond the appointed time for home teaching.  She reminds me of my mother-in-law, another bibliophile of the first order.

So as my wife and daughter and I went through the books we had so carefully stored, and so carelessly forgotten, I was reminded of times I had completely forgotten.

One of the first books out was The Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Pitch.

I remember finding it in a used book store on 7th East in Provo (now long defunct), and taking it home and reading it, jaw dropping.  It was a wacky book, full of gruesome details about how everyone who was involved in the martyrdom of Joseph Smith had awful lives thereafter, and died in excruciating agony, of horrible diseases.  All of this, the diseases and the agonies these guys suffered, was recounted in voluptuous detail, with then a citation from whoever had told the authors the story.  The book was bonkers, and it turns out, BS.  But I was a college freshman, and I took it home and devoured it. I liked it so much, I took it to my grandmother (a former professor of library science, and the kind of dedicated bibliophile that puts the rest of us to shame), and she snorted in disgust.  She turned to an early page, and she pointed to the book.  “He cites this woman, you see?  Well, I knew her well; crazy as a loon.”  And she said, “this is just folklore, Eric, and a pretty nutty example of it.  I’m surprised at you for being taken in by it.”  And that exchange made me like the book even more!  I’ve loved Mormon folklore ever since. Still, I’ve outgrown it.

The collected poetry of Philip Larkin.  Keep.

I don’t remember when I first read Philip Larkin.  I am the most random, idiosyncratic and unsystematic of poetry readers–I love cowboy poetry no less than Lance Larsen, tend to dislike poets we’re all supposed to like.  I won’t read anything for six months and then go on a spree.  But Larkin amazes me; so grim, so honest, so completely unsentimental. Among other things, I didn’t know you could put the ‘f-word’ in a poem.  He did; not often, but when it was required. I kept the book, and I know I’ll be going on a Larkin binge pretty soon.

Nibley on the Timely and Timeless.  Kept.

Hugh Nibley is, I think it’s fair to say, the godfather of Mormon apologetics.  He was a man of extraordinary erudition, and he wrote book after book arguing for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  It made him beloved.  But while a lot of his research has been effectively discredited, his occasional essays on Mormon culture still hold up.  He was a theatre guy too, loved good plays in good productions.  He wasn’t a literary critic, particularly, but he was certainly a cultural critic, in his own inimitable, irascible way.  I can’t believe I had this book in storage for fifteen years; it goes back on my shelves tonight.

Elizabethan Drama: Tossed.

A favorite anthology, consisting entirely of plays by Elizabethan authors other than Shakespeare.  I remember getting it in grad school, and being fascinated by Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and Tamarlane, and Cambyses: King of Persia. There was a time when such a collection would have been called something like ‘pre-Shakespearean plays,’ or something. Shakespeare was the only thing that mattered; everyone else’s work either helped us understand Shakespeare better, or helped us realize how much better Shakespeare was than anyone else.  That kind of bardolatry is passé in today’s academy (blessedly), but I remember with great pleasure a class I took in which we read and discussed all these plays.  Marvin Carlson taught it, and it was one of those great classes.  But I’m not a scholar anymore; send it away.

Four great plays by Henrik Ibsen.  Back in the day, these kinds of anthologies were very popular among academic publishers.  We teachers would have to assign certain plays to our students, and take them from anthologies, since there wasn’t really any other way for kids to get hold of them.  But publishers didn’t want to actually solicit good translations, so they’d find some public domain (and very old-fashioned) translation, and publish four plays or so.  Those old William Archer Ibsen translations are very Victorian and British, which is not to say they’re worthless, but they’re why I’m doing my own, in an updated American idiom.  I kept this book, though, to inspire me.

I don’t want to go through every book we looked at tonight.  But every book was meaningful, led to memories and spurred conversations. Books can do that, and not much else can.


Kristen Stewart writes a poem

Kristen Stewart is a movie star. She is an accomplished professional actress.   She stars as Bella in the Twilight movies.  For some people, those movies epitomize vapidness.  Teen romances about a young girl caught in a love triangle, torn by feelings of attraction between a vampire and a werewolf, clearly intended primarily for audiences of teen-aged girls.  I’ve only seen one of them; it was okay.  I rather think that I’m not the demographic for which these movies are intended to appeal.

But I’ve seen her in other movies in which I thought she was terrific.  I liked her as a troubled teen in In the Land of Women, as rocker Joan Jett in The Runaways, as a self-destructive young woman in Adventureland, as a seriously messed up girl in On the Road.  That’s what she’s been good at, at playing young women who don’t know who they are or what they want, and who engage in self-destructive behavior as a result. Is she a ‘good actress?’  I would say that she’s a very good actress with a rather limited range, but very effective within that range.

And now, she’s written a poem. She read it aloud on the Marie Claire website, and it was published in the magazine. Here it is.  Or, if you don’t want to link, here:

My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole

I reared digital moonlight
You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black
Kismetly … ubiquitously crest fallen
Thrown down to strafe your foothills
…I’ll suck the bones pretty.
Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps
Spray painted everything known to man,
Stream rushed through and all out into
Something Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck
Through our windows boarded up
He hit your flint face and it sparked.

And I bellowed and you parked
We reached Marfa.
One honest day up on this freedom pole
Devils not done digging
He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle
And this pining erosion is getting dust in
My eyes
And I’m drunk on your morsels
And so I look down the line
Your every twitch hand drum salute
Salutes mine …


And the response has been snarky, funny, mean, and very very negative.  It’s been called, for example, the worst poem of all time. I think you’d be hard-pressed to write a more negative review than that one.

Well: I like it. I like Kristen Stewart’s “My Heart is a Whiffle Ball/Freedom Pole.”  I think she should just pick one image for her title, and not crowd two in there.  But the poem itself is intriguing, and by no means terrible.  I think it’s inventive and free and playful. And bizarre, but that’s okay, poems can be bizarre.

I really think that a lot of the negativity comes from the fact that Kristen Stewart wrote it.  I think the logic goes like this: Kristen Stewart is a rubbish actress who does rubbish movies, and that means she has to be vapid and stupid, and how dare she, of all people, write a poem, so it’s rubbish.

What constitutes a good poem, or a great poem, or a bad poem?  If our standard is notoriety/fame/reputation, then all poems by Emily Dickinson are, by definition, masterworks, and all poems by Kristen Stewart are, by definition, terrible.  What if this were the first stanza of Stewart’s poem?

Wild Nights. Wild Nights!

Were I with thee,

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!

Rowing in Eden.

Ah, the sea.

Might I but moor

Tonight with thee!

Imagine the uproar! The snark! Imagine the roars of laughter!  She’s writing about Robert Pattinson!  She wants to ‘moor’ with him!  Hardy har har har.

Except that’s Emily Dickinson.

I recently helped judge a poetry contest.  I can’t, for reasons of confidentiality, say any more about it than that.  What I can tell you, with 100% confidence and assurance, is that Kristen Stewart’s poem is NOT the worst play ever written.  That I have, quite recently, read literally dozens of poems much much worse than hers. Wish I could quote you some.  Really, I do.

Of course, poetry is subjective, and of course, there’s no good way to tell people who love them that “The Touch of the Masters Hand” or “It takes a Heap of Livin’ in a House to Make it Home” are just flat out not good poems. Some people love them, are moved by them, like hearing them read aloud.  They’re recitation poems, intended for public performance, like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” or “Casey at the Bat.”  That’s also true of cowboy poetry, which I read for pleasure and think is wonderful.  People used to memorize those rhyming story poems, and some still use them in talks, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I may feel like Yeats’ poetry, or Phillip Larkin’s, or Auden’s, or Lance Larsen’s are all, in some real sense, ‘better.’  But that involves the kind of judgment that generally makes me uncomfortable–judging my brothers and sisters on this planet for a supposed lack of sophistication or a failure in taste.

In fact, Kristen Stewart loves beatnik poetry, loves the generation of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.  She’s expressed a love for the poetry of Richard Brautigan. There’s some Sylvia Plath going on there too. Her imagery is wild, her use of language idiosyncratic, like you’d find in the best work of the beats.  A line like Kismetly … ubiquitously crest fallen, Thrown down to strafe your foothills …I’ll suck the bones pretty could come straight from Ginsberg.

It’s a scary thing, to publish a poem, to lay it out there for the public to rip apart or embrace.  I applaud her courage, both in writing poetry and in sharing it.  She’s young, and the poem is unpolished.  But there’s some real talent there, some real energy and love for language.  She reads good poets, and she responds to the energy in their work.  I hope she keeps going.

As for all the people who hate it, hey, it’s a free country.  But are people really responding to the work itself, or to the fact that a movie star (by definition idiots all) wrote it?  Haters gotta hate, and I say, shame on you.





Ender’s Game: Review

So, yes, I saw Ender’s Game.  My wife and I saw it, and enjoyed it. I was expecting a big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movie, maybe a bit more thoughtful than most, and that’s what I got.  It was good.  Harrison Ford was great, and Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley, and the kid, Asa Butterfield, who played Ender, was very good.  And Hailee Steinfeld, so amazing in the Coens’ True Grit was also good in this, though playing a much less interesting character.  It felt a bit generic, honestly, like a lot of other big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movies. It really only surprised me once; otherwise, I felt like I was always a couple of steps ahead of it.  But it looked terrific, and clipped along, and I found it a satisfying movie experience.  It wasn’t until I got home that the movie got under my skin a little.  I found thinking about it . . . uncomfortable.  And that did surprise me, in a good way.

Example of generic movie predictability: Ender goes to this super-cool space warrior academy place, and there’s the prototypical hard-ass sergeant, Sgt. Dap.  I’ve seen the actor a lot: Nonso Anozie’s in that new Dracula TV series, plus he was in Game of Thrones, also The Grey, also Conan the Barbarian.  He’s got a memorable face.  Anyway, he’s a movie drill sergeant–tough as nails, scary. mean.  And at one point he says to Ender, “I will never salute you.”  Which obviously means that later in the movie, there’ll be this touching moment where Dap salutes Ender. I mean, we’ve see a million ‘army trainee deals with tough drill instructor’ movies; the sarge is rough on the guys, but it’s only because he loves them and wants them to succeed, a truth they eventually learn in the harsh crucible of actual combat.

Basically, that’s the entire movie–young Ender rising through the ranks of a military academy.  It’s a little less suspenseful than most movies of its ilk, though, because Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff (the academy commander) has this huge totally hetero man-crush on young Ender–is convinced that this kid will save mankind.  Which he says over and over again, especially in all these otherwise pointless scenes with Viola Davis, who brings her usual integrity to the otherwise thankless role of Graff’s subordinate, Major Anderson.  Usual stuff–’you’re being too hard on him,’ ‘I’m preparing him for combat, damnit!’  Anyway, because it’s Harrison Ford (who looks terrific) saying it, we believe him, and it turns out he’s right. Of course.  And she’s sort of right too, we know, because it’s Viola Davis–she’s always right and good.

So it all looked great, and was well acted, and we like Ender, sort of, and want him to succeed, kind of.  By which I mean, he seems like a nice kid and all, and we’re always sympathetic to bullying victims, but his method of dealing with bullies does strike us as, perhaps, a teensy bit, uh, permanent?

And that’s the element that makes the movie just a little bit interesting.  What Colonel Graff sees in Ender is a mix of the two qualities Graff thinks epitomize great military leaders–compassion, and ruthlessness.  And those aren’t actually qualities that strike us as complementary.  Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War’s greatest general, (Grant, not Lee, BTW), hated seeing dead and wounded soldiers.  He was visibly moved when he saw battlefield casualties; sometimes he drank.  But he did send men to battle, to die in great numbers.  He didn’t relish doing it, but he did it.  Lord Nelson’s men wept when he died; they loved him, because they sensed how much he loved them.  Lord Nelson, whose career was defined by his reckless disregard for casualties, for the desperate risks he took with the ships and men under his command.  Loved, because of how deeply he loved.

Orson Scott Card takes it a step further.  A great military commander has to love his enemy.  He has to love him, in order to kill him.  A great military commander can’t win without understanding his enemy, without compassionately understanding the culture of the enemy.  To really know someone is, to some degree, to fall in love with them. And I think that’s a neat idea for a movie, but I don’t necessarily grant that it’s true.  It’s perfectly possible for a genuinely great, highly successful general to also be a sociopath. Genghis Khan?  Attilla the Hun? And even a compassionate military commander has to simultaneously be willing to kill, to kill in great numbers.  Sitting Bull understood the white men Custer commanded better than Custer knew them, which is why the Lakota won at the Little Big Horn.

Key to the story is the notion that children are likely to be better at combat than grown-ups will be.  So is that true?  Better at technology, intuitively better?  Certainly.  Better at videogaming?  Possibly.  Better at leading men into battle?  I’m more skeptical–leadership’s a complex thing.  But that’s not how this film imagines futuristic combat taking place.  This film imagines space ships dueling; sort of akin to WWII fighter plane battles.  The Battle of Britain, in space, perhaps.  And wasn’t the Battle of Britain won on the fields of Eton? (Actually no; the RAF was comprised of pilots from all social classes).  Who is the greatest general who ever lived, the most successful and ruthless?  Napolean, maybe? Hannibal, Julius Caesar?  Who is the greatest young general?  Alexander the Great. So is that who Ender is?  Alexander?  It does sort of work.

And if that’s the case, the movie fails, because although Asa Butterfield is fine as Ender, and Ender is a well-written and interesting character, he’s neither as charismatic as Alexander, or anywhere near as ruthless.  He’s a nice kid who is really good at video games.

Spoiler alert: the movie’s turning point comes later in Ender’s training.  He’s got a cadre of sub-commanders, and he’s given a game simulation; the destruction of the home planet of the Formecs, the ant-like insect people who nearly destroyed the Earth years before, and who seem to be gathering their forces for another attack. His strategy works, the Formecs are (at least notionally) defeated, and Ender is momentarily exultant.  But as the simulation continues, and he sees, in detail, the eradication of an entire sentient species, Ender can’t handle it.  He’s distraught, beside himself.  That’s what they want him to do?  Genocide?  That’s what he’s been training for?

It’s a powerful moment, and it moves the movie beyond generic conventionality.  It reminds me of the Mormon overtones to a lot of OSC’s work–Ender, to some degree, is Nephi, standing over the drunken Laban, trying to decide if he can kill him.  It gives the movie some philosophic resonance beyond its space-opera-plus-public-school movie roots.

But also this: as an American, I know my nation’s prosperity is built on a foundation of genocide.  Or twin foundations: genocide and slavery.  As a human being, though, I don’t ever really consider this: the evolutionary tree of humanity probably had two great branches, homo sapiens, and homo neaderthalensis.  Neanderthals had larger brains than humans, and stronger upper bodies.  But some combination of climate change and–let’s admit it–warfare probably led to Neanderthal extinction.

Human beings are capable of kindness, charity, compassion, love.  But we’re also the most ruthless and successful predators our planet has ever seen.  We’re meant to recoil a bit from Colonel Graf’s insistence that wiping out all Formecs everywhere is necessary for the survival of our species. But we need to admit that (hypothetically, fictionally) he may be right, and if he is right, we’d do it.  Ender grows to love the Formecs, as Graf said he would need to–you have to love your enemy in order to destroy him.  That (obviously debatable) notion is at the center of this film.  But the film’s final images are of Ender heading off, alone, with a Formec queen, looking for a new planet for this enemy to settle.

I think that’s what raises this movie beyond its otherwise generic appearance.  All movie wrestle with ideas.  Even, say, Taken, asks ‘what would you do if your children were kidnapped?’  The answer in that movie is moronic, because it’s a moronic movie, but it does at least momentarily raise a moderately interesting question.  So does Ender’s Game, I think. How would humanity respond if our survival as a species was at risk?  How far would we go?  (And we never, absolutely never even think about the Neanderthal answer to that question, and we avoid whenever possible facing up to the Native American/African slave answers of our more recent past).  Ender faces that question, and recoils from it.  And then. . . . the movie ends, setting up a sequel. Which I will see.

I think the movie raises some interesting and uncomfortable questions.  I applaud it for doing so, because it’s otherwise a big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movie, a genre not known for profundity.  And I’m not sure it’s actually profound.  But I found it unsettling, and that’s a great accomplishment for a movie.


Review: The Android’s Dream

Is there anything more fun than finding a new favorite author?  Is there anything more calculated to bring a family together than to have one family member say ‘you guys should read this, you’ll like it,’ and then you all do, and it’s great, and everyone’s all texting and stuff about what we’ve all just read.  Thirty years ago, a beloved aunt decided she would drive from Utah to Indiana for my brother’s wedding; I was at BYU, and she invited me to tag along, with another aunt and a cousin.  We’re just leaving Provo, and my Aunt Janice says ‘have you guys read any Stephen King?’ And we’re all ‘the schlocky scary guy?  No?!?!’  She’s all, ‘you should read him, he’s terrific.’  So we hit a bookstore and bought like six Stephen King novels–all those early classics: Carrie, ‘salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand.  It was the funnest, though quietest drive of my life; we shared all the books, and read the whole way, and the biggest drawback was that no one wanted to drive.  And I’ve loved Stephen King ever since.

So my daughter Bekka–props to Bekka, everyone!–recommended John Scalzi a few months ago, specifically Red Shirts.  And I read it, my wife read it, my son read it–we all couldn’t put it down.  And that’s led to a John Scalzi-athon.  So my self-appointed task for today is to tell you about his 2006 novel, The Android’s Dream, and to suggest it for your reading pleasure. Like his other works, it’s sci-fi, and like his other works, written in a deceptively breezy voice that masks a serious and thoughtful mind.  And that honors the classic figures in sci-fi history.  Scalzi’s ‘Old Men’s War’ series–five novels all told, with more to come–is very Heinlein in style and substance.  The Android’s Dream is closer to. . . . but let’s see if you can guess.

Because of what do Androids dream?  Sheep, obviously; specifically electric sheep.  Right?  And now if y’all are feeling all smart and all, please, explain the reference to the rest of the class.  Here goes:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a classic 1968 sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick.  It became the basis for a 1982 film by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford. It also became a stage play, which opened in LA last year.  The plot involves a bounty hunter chasing down six advanced androids, in a post-apocalyptic landscape where owning livestock is a sign of high prestige.

There aren’t really a lot of plot similarities between the Dick novel, the Scott film and Scalzi’s novel.  But there are some.  Essentially, Scalzi sets his novel in a future where inter-stellar travel is common, and over 600 worlds have joined in a sort of UN-type super-organization.  Earth has joined too, as the lowest status, barely tolerated, technologically backwards organization member.  But lots of other alien species live on Earth–it’s a popular vacation spot.  The Nidu are our closest allies, one tiny rung up in the organizational structure–techologically superior to Earth, but backwards politically.  Anyway, the Nidu need to coronate a new planetary leader, and their ritual requires sacrificing a special breed of sheep found only on Earth, and very rare here.  So various government agencies are trying to find the right sheep, for various nefarious-or-benevolent reasons of their own.

The main character is a guy named Harry Creek, a diplomat with the US State Department who has the highly specialized job of breaking bad news to members of alien species living on earth.  He’s tasked with finding, and protecting, the sheep in question.  To which end, he creates an artificial intelligence artifact (sort of an android, I guess, though incorporeal), named Brian–his best friend from high school, now deceased.

The sheep, it turns out, is the novel’s love interest, a cute young pet shop owner named Robin Baker.  Though she doesn’t know it, she is the biological daughter of a half-sheep, half-human construct; though she looks completely human, feels human, considers herself human, and was never told by her adoptive parents that she was ever anything but completely human, eighteen percent of her DNA is sheep.  Which, for the purposes of the Nidu, is close enough for government work.  And also the Church.

I forgot to tell you about the Church.  There’s a Church in this, the Church of the Evolved Sheep; ironically built on the ‘prophecies’ of a con man and failed novelist, who they know was not in any sense actually inspired.  They nonetheless build their theology on fulfilling his prophecies, on the theory that a prophecy that comes true has to be true, even if they themselves intentionally manipulated events so it would come through.  So Robin Baker also becomes the object of their worship.  Which means Takk worships her too.

I forgot to tell you about Takk.  The bad guys in this book are evil government agent types, but they have allied themselves with a young Nagch named Takk.  The Nagch are huge alien creatures with the capacity to eat and fully digest people.  Mostly they don’t–they think it’s uncivilized to eat sentient creatures–but when young, they go on a culturally mandated ritual called the Ftruu, a moral journey in which they’re expected to experience as many aspects of existence as possible, including the unseemly.  Sort of a Nagch Rumspringa kind of deal.  Takk is there to conveniently dispose of the bodies of victims of the bad guys, but then he discovers, and converts to the Church of the Evolved Sheep.  With fascinating consequences. Because it looks like Earth and the Nidu are about to go to war, over farting.

I forgot to tell you about the farting.  That’s what starts off the whole novel; a murder, accomplished via farting. The Nidu, it seems, are extremely sensitive to odors, and have an entire vocabulary of scents, including insulting ones.  So an Earthly diplomat rigs a way to focus and enhance his own farts.  And then, drinks some milk.  And he’s lactose intolerant.  And. . . death ensues. Which isn’t necessarily permanent.  As Brian’s presence in the novel suggests.  In addition to the presence of the AI of a three hundred year old billionaire.

And so on.  It’s a rolicking comic masterpiece of a novel, endlessly inventive and smart and fun.  Written with Scalzi’s usual wit and energy.  It’s an easy read.  But there’s a lot more going on than just a breezy funny sci-fi novel.  Good stuff, not as meta-fictional and awesome as Red Shirts, but densely referential and really really cool.  Try it.

I forgot to tell you about the three-hundred year old billionaire. . . .


A Shakespeare for our time, and Breaking Bad.

I was chatting with someone on the internet t’other day, and the guy was bemoaning the state of current American culture.  “Where are our Shakespeares?” he lamented.  “Where is our Beethoven, or Mozart, or Bach?  Where’s our Michelangelo?” Common enough rhetorical tropes, on the culturally conservative end of things.  If, as some Mormons believe, we will one day have ‘Shakespeares of our own,’ well, where are they?  Where might they be lurking?  And the fault must be in our benighted, decadent American culture.

So last night, flipping through the channels on TV, I happened upon something I essentially never watch, the broadcast of the prime-time Emmy awards.  And they were just announcing the award for best dramatic TV series.  Here were the nominees: House of Cards. Breaking BadDownton AbbeyGame of ThronesHomelandMad Men.

That is a loaded category.  That’s dynamite.  Every show on that list is appointment viewing here in chez Samuelsen, and every one is brilliant. And that’s without even mentioning The Good Wife and Justified and Grimm and Haven and Girls. One could pick nits: House of Cards is still relatively new, with its story mostly yet-to-be-told.  Game of Thrones does at times succumb to HBO ‘even-basic-exposition-needs-writhing-naked-bodies-in-the-background disease.  Downton Abbey is a soap (albeit the best soap in television).  But come on.  Put together any list of the ten best shows in the history of television, and it’s got to include, at the very least, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. And Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, I’d say, though some might quibble.

But that’s just television.  Pop culture, disposable, ephemeral, fast food art.  It’s not substantive, it’s not profound, it’s not, you know, great.  It’s sure as heckfire not Shakespeare.

To which I would respond: Shakespeare’s plays were products of a specific cultural moment, artifacts of specific cultural practices.  Shakespeare was a popular artist, a commercially successful creator of Elizabethan/Jacobean pop culture.  Breaking Bad has to compete with The Real Housewives of Wherever, and Jersey Shore and Duck Dynasty.  Shakespeare had to compete with bear baiting.

His plays are also really really good.  Capable of competing in the cultural marketplace of our day as well as his own.  He’s the most commercially successful playwright of 2013.  Also 2012. Also 2011. Also 1764 and 1928 and 1803.  And if you don’t like using box office as a measure, let’s just concede the point; the man wrote great plays, masterworks, eternally brilliant and relevant.  The dialogue is poetic and powerful. The characters are rich and multi-faceted.

They’re also cheap and vulgar and crass.  The man never met a penis joke he didn’t like.  He loved puns.  He loved crude sexual innuendo.  He loved ghosts and ghouls, and blood and guts and on-stage violence.  Sometimes the conflicts in his plays are subtle and psychological, and sometimes they’re pure melodrama, the rankest villains vs. the bravest of heroes.  It’s that richness, that overwhelming humanity, that makes his plays so much fun to direct and act in and watch, even today, when our ears are no longer tuned to archaic poetic language.

So yeah, Shakespeare was great. So what would he be doing if he lived today, and who today is like him?  And those questions are unanswerable.  Who, today, is Mozart?  Let’s see–child prodigy, charismatic performer and composer, sort of weirdly juvenile, in part due to childhood misery doled out by abusive Dad?  Michael Jackson?  Who is like Michelangelo?  Kinetic visual artist, in love of a vision of bodies in motion? Good at working within the confines of rich patronage? Stephen Spielberg?

But if someone of Shakespeare’s talent was working today, someone with a Shakespearean skill set, (especially someone who seemed to like a large canvas, who seemed to prefer large sweeping epic stories to smaller more intimate ones), he’d be working in television.  Probably not in theatre (too limited by financial limitations), and probably not in movies (too limited by commercial considerations). Today, theatre costs a lot of money to produce, and so most theaters who devote themselves to new plays prefer plays with small casts, because they can’t afford to pay more actors than that. Movies can do bigger stories, with bigger casts, but they have to be able to make lots of money in return, and so way too often devolve into crass spectacle dramas, preposterous heroes fighting ridiculous villains, with lots of ‘splosions and stunts.

To really study humanity, to really tell a long, complex story, with characters who change and grow amid ever shifting moral and physical landscapes, to really follow a group of human beings and their vicissitudes and triumphs and failures, you need television.  Institutionally, television has the capacity to really take a chance on a single artist’s vision and story and people.

Which brings me to Breaking Bad.  Vince Gilligan’s described it as ‘Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,’ a glib reduction of its central story to two pop culture allusions.  In fact, the title is immensely revealing.  Walter White, a respected high school chemistry teacher is driven by financial exigencies to seek a different source of income than his paltry public employee’s salary.  He works part-time, after school, in a car wash.  But when diagnosed with cancer, he becomes desperate, both for sufficient income to pay for his treatment and for enough money to pass on to his family, in case the cancer treatment proves ineffectual.  His only quick-money marketable skill is in chemistry, and he gets the idea of cooking methamphetamine.  Crystal meth.  Crank.  Despite the fact that doing so is illegal.  And that he has a brother-in-law (probably his closest friend), who is an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

So that transition, Walt moving from chemistry teacher to drug dealer, is carefully detailed in the show.  And the greatness of the show are those moments when we can actually see Walt breaking bad.  When we can see him, facing a major decision, thinking it through, and then realizing ‘I’m now a drug dealer.  A criminal.  Ordinary moral considerations aside, how best should this be handled?’

But the key relationship in the entire series is between Walt and Jesse, his former student who becomes his assistant, then his partner, then his friend, then his surrogate son, finally, a threat who needs to be neutralized.  Walt’s heard that Jesse, after dropping out from school, has started dealing drugs.  Walter White, high school teacher, literally doesn’t know anyone else in the drug business.  He looks Jesse up, befriends him, works with him.  But Jesse’s growth mirrors Walt’s fall.  Jesse, once a drug addict dealing small amounts of meth to support his own habit, becomes a man with a conscience.  As Walt breaks bad, Jesse breaks good.  The turning point is a shattering episode when Walt orders Jesse to kill, to murder.  And Jesse does it.  And can barely live with himself afterwards.

Breaking Bad.  And Breaking Good.  And, stuck in the middle, Skyler, Walt’s wife, who gradually learns what a monster her husband is becoming, and who can never quite bring herself not to become one too.  She’s a powerful woman, strong and devoted to her children, and the battle of wills between her and Walt drives most of the series.  But Walt is stronger than she.  Precisely because she is so focused on protecting her children, Walt is able to bend her to his will.  Very very slowly, very very reluctantly, she becomes his money-launderer, all the time consumed with self-loathing.  At one point Walt says (in one of a long series of delusional motivational speeches to her), ‘we can be free, we can be happy!’  And she says, wearily, ‘I don’t even remember the last time I was happy.’  And when, finally, she’s able to confess her wrong-doing, you can see the relief in her entire body language.

Walt: Bryan Cranston.  Jesse: Aaron Paul.  Skyler: Anna Gunn.  A trio of the finest acting performances of any of our lifetimes.  Brilliant writing combining with brilliant acting and directing (with episodes, at times, guest directed by big-name film directors like Rian Johnson).  The story is Shakespearean in its sweep, in its humanity, in its insight, and yes, even in its language.

Check out, for example, this scene.“I am the danger.  I am the one who knocks.”  That’s superb writing; clear, powerful, even poetic.  It’s just good contemporary dialogue by a master of dialogue, but it’s resonant and rich.  It’s great, in the same way Shakespeare was/is great.

We have Shakespeares of our own.  Vince Gilligan, writing Breaking Bad.  Matthew Weiner: Mad Men.  David Chase: The Sopranos.  Aaron Sorkin, Julian Fellowes, Matthew Dobbs, Beau Williman, Andrew Davies, Alex Gansa, Gideon Raff, Howard Gordon and Lena Dunham. Names that resonate with Jonson and Marlowe and Fletcher.  The quality of writing today is astonishing, astounding. Greatness still exists.



The 2012 election; Jonathan Alter’s take

I just finished reading Jonathan Alter’s excellent The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, his account of the 2012 election.  Alter’s one of those political reporters, like that late Theodore H. White, who loves digging into presidential campaigns, balancing both the larger themes and narratives with revealing bits of campaign minutiae.  If you’re a political junky (and I am one), this book is crack.

Alter’s main point (taking into account his limited historical perspective, ’cause, you know, it just happened) is that the 2012 election was massively consequential, possibly the most consequential election we will see in most of our lifetimes.  Alter’s a mainstream journalist, a Washington creature, respected, but someone who represents Beltway wisdom. This is not a bad thing.  It does mean that his account is maybe a little more ‘inside baseball’ than most voters need or are interested in.  But Alter thinks that 2012 is important because, essentially, the Republican party has gone insane.  He thinks the Tea Party is dangerously radical, simple-minded and fanatical.  This is, I suspect, what most of the people he interviewed (Washington insiders, mostly), told him.  If Barack Obama had lost the 2012 election, Romney’s coattails could easily have cost Democrats the Senate. (The key Senate races were all very very close).  And with Republican holding the House and the White House, a radical political agenda could have been realized.  Hence the book’s title: Alter sees 2012 as a victory for the Center.

One difficulty, of course, was in persuading the public just how radical Republicans have become.  Non-partisan pollsters put together focus groups, and asked them to read two documents; President Obama’s economic plan, and the Paul Ryan plan that Governor Romney endorsed. The idea was that this would be a way of measuring voter support for policies.  The problem was, most of the people in the focus groups just flat didn’t believe that the Paul Ryan plan was for real.  They thought the document they read was too crazy to be genuine.

Most voters don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, and most aren’t immersed in details of policy differences.  And most voters are tremendously cynical about politics anyway.  I remember, in Utah, the hotly contested Congressional race between Mia Love and Jim Matheson.  Essentially it made television unwatchable.  For weeks on end.  Ad after ad after ad, all of them weird and creepy and idiotic. By the end, I was basically rooting for a lethal two-car collision. Not really, obviously, but I genuinely couldn’t stand either candidate.  And these are two very bright, thoughtful decent people.  But, in the wake of Citizens United, (a Supreme Court decision striking years of campaign finance restrictions), super-Pacs poured so much into our local, close race, flooding our tiny TV market with noxious advertisements.  Mia Love tortured puppies!  Jim Matheson murdered kittens!  And both had suspiciously close ties to (gasp) China!  Blarg.  I’m just glad I don’t live in Ohio.

So with all that noise, it was hard for coherent messages, from either side, to cut through. And it didn’t help that the Republican nominating process essentially became this endlessly entertaining reality show.  Watch Republicans Debate, it was called, and it made for fine viewing. I didn’t watch all the debates, or even very much of the ones I did follow, but even in short chunks, they were fun.  Who was nuttier?  Who could pander to the Right most effusively?  And what horrible thing could the audiences applaud most enthusiastically.  When a moderator pointed out how many people Texas had executed under Rick Perry: applause.  When a gay soldier, serving his country with distinction in Afghanistan was introduced, he was booed.  And of course idiotic Birther nonsense could never quite be repudiated by anyone, not as long as The Donald stayed in the race.

What we had was a group of fringe candidates cowed by the Republican electorate; afraid of their own voters. It really hurt Mitt Romney the most, frankly, because he had some appear a good deal more conservative than he probably really was. As Alter quotes one source: ‘Mitt Romney spent 70 million dollars to win the Republican nomination over a serial adulterer and a mental patient in a sweater vest.’  Rudely dismissive of the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum?  For sure.  But aren’t you glad neither of those guys is going to be President?

Romney had to pose as a guy who was as conservative as the other candidates.  Jon Huntsman provided a cautionary tale–primary voters just didn’t go for sensible moderates, not in the age of Anti-Obama-Derangement-Syndrome.  So who was Mitt Romney?  I don’t think it was ever entirely clear what he stood for, aside from being very much in favor of Mitt Romney being elected President.  In fact, Alter posits that Romney may have been trying to do something pretty cynical but possibly effective–use his own reputation for mendacity as a plus.  It’s as though he was winking at the electorate, saying, in essence, ‘you know I can’t possibly believe most of this nonsense I’m saying.  You know me–I flip flop.  If elected, though, I’ll govern from the center, as a businessman, as a non-ideological pragmatist.’

And, in fact, that’s all probably true.  We know Romney here in Utah; we remember him fondly.  He did a wonderful job with the Salt Lake Olympics.  He’s a good guy.  He’s never seemed terribly ideological.  He’s a top business executive, and a decent, honorable, profoundly religious and family-oriented man.

But his economic plan was nuts, completely unworkable.  Tax cuts for rich guys just flat don’t trickle down.  He could talk about how many jobs he would create if elected, but none of the concrete proposals he made would have grown the economy at all, to any degree whatsoever.  Essentially, his pitch was–’the business community doesn’t like Obama (quite true), and they like and trust me (also true). So elect me, and confidence will increase and the power of American business will turn things around.’ Well, okay, maybe.  But if he’d been elected, would he have been able to stand up to the Tea Party?  We certainly never saw him try.

The election turned on three factors.  First, the Obama team in Chicago was much much more computer savvy than the Romney team in Boston.  This proved to be huge.  Voters respond to personal appeals, but door-knocking is pretty time-consuming and ineffective.  But Chicago put together an amazing data-base, especially in swing states, sorting out which voters might be amenable to a personal appeal and which voters had already made up their minds.  Pro-Obama volunteers, armed with that kind of information, might go into a neighborhood of, say, 50 houses, and only knock on 8 doors.  But those were the 8 families who might be persuadable, who were perhaps on the fence.  Obama volunteers knocked on three times as many doors as Romney volunteers did, but they also were much more focused on which doors should be knocked on.  Romney had a huge advantage in media buys, with essentially unlimited super Pac funds to draw on, but the TV ads that resulted were completely ineffective.  Folks just tuned ‘em out.

Second, though, was perhaps the turning point moment in the campaign; the 47 percent video.  This refers to a Romney fundraiser, in Florida, videotaped by a bartender named Scott Prouty.  In it, Romney can be (barely) seen and heard saying this:

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what.  All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.  That’s an entitlement.  And the government should give it to them.  And they will vote for this President no matter what. . . .Those are people who pay no income tax.  . . . My job is not to worry about those people.  I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

It’s just not possible for a politician to say something more damaging.  For a politician to say that he just doesn’t intend to care about half the electorate? Wow.  And in fact, his comments were simply inaccurate.  The 47% who don’t pay federal income tax still pay payroll taxes, and sales taxes and property taxes and end up paying a considerably higher percentage of their income to the government than Mitt Romney did.  As Alter puts it: “Is the mother of a handicapped child ‘not taking responsibility’ when she accepted help from the government to pay for her child’s physical therapy?  Is a senior citizen with few assets ‘acting like a victim’ when she applied to Medicare for nursing home help?  Do college students ‘not care about their lives’ when they apply for student loans?”  Republicans thought this was a winnable race, because they focused on polls in which Americans said they thought the country wasn’t on the right track. A low number on the ‘right track’ question is very tough for an incumbent to overcome.  But the key polling data turned on another question; does the candidate care about me and my family? Mitt Romney lost because a sizable majority of Americans thought he didn’t care, not at all, not about them, certainly.  The 47% comment was devastating to the Romney campaign.

Here’s what’s really interesting to me though; the 47% comment was not the part of Romney’s talk that most offended Scott Prouty.  It came earlier in the speech:

In my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there.  It employed about twenty thousand people, and they were almost all young women between the ages of about eighteen and twenty-two or twenty-three.  They were saving to potentially becoming married, and they worked in these huge factories that made very small appliances.  And we were walking through these facilities, watching them work, the number of hours they worked each day, the pittance they earn, living in dormitories with little bathrooms at the end.  The rooms, they had ten or twelve girls per room–three bunk beds on top of each other.  . . . And around this factory was a huge fence with barbed wires and guard towers.  And we said ‘gosh, I can’t believe you, you know, keep these girls in.’  And they said, ‘no no no, these are to keep other people from coming in.’

That’s the line that really got Scott Prouty steamed.

And here’s the irony.  George Romney, running for President in 1968, lost, essentially, because he said that the American people were being ‘brainwashed’ in respect to Vietnam.  In other words, the official line about Vietnam–’it’s going well, we’re winning, the South Vietnamese love us’ was a load of hooie.  But the line ‘the fences are to keep other job seekers out’ is equally nonsensical.  George Romney lost because he told the truth, because he rejected the ‘official word’ about Vietnam as nonsense.  Mitt Romney lost because he believed, or at least said he believed, official nonsense about that factory.  He lost because he believed in a piece of commie propaganda, basically.

The other irony is this: globalization can be defended.  My son, the economist, has convinced me that that factory in China, horrible as we would find it here, is actually benefiting China, and even benefiting the young women who work there.  The pittance they receive at that factory may well be better wages than they could receive elsewhere.  It’s possible to make a case for globalization.  But in an election in a tough American economy, people want to hear about American factories opening and hiring.  They don’t want to hear about how great it is for American multinational corporations’ bottom lines to have Chinese sweatshop factories make I-Pads.

But the final factor in this election was this: the President won because he should have won.  Because he’s basically done a pretty good job. Alter says the election became a referendum on Romney, who lost because he was found wanting.  I disagree. I think people decided Obama hadn’t done half badly, all things considered.  Granted, the US economy wasn’t in great shape last year, and it’s not in great shape today.  But our economy took a bigger hit in 2008 than it did in 1929.  It was never realistic to think that it could recover all that quickly.

And it was a world-wide financial collapse.  And when we look at other countries affected by it, we see most of Europe choosing austerity policies similar to those recommended by Governor Romney.  And those policies have not worked.  The US has recovered more quickly and more completely than most of the other countries hammered by the crisis.  So it’s hard to say that Obama’s policies have failed.  It would be more accurate to say that his policies haven’t worked as well as we might have hoped.

The President asked for four more years.  I think the electorate was wise in choosing to give them to him.  And when I say that I’m proud to have voted for him, I don’t mean to imply that Mitt Romney would have been a disastrous President, under other circumstances.  He’s a good man, a decent, honorable man.  But he never did stand up to extremists in his own party, and that cost him dearly.  Anyway, that’s Alter’s conclusion, and it’s one I agree with.


Book Review: America’s Longest Siege

Joseph Kelly’s America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Toward Civil War is a splendid book, one of those books that takes a familiar story and fills in gaps you hadn’t previously thought existed.  Essentially, it’s the history of an ideology.  It’s the story of a big, powerful, compelling, (at the time) convincing and utterly Satanic idea.

The idea it traces is the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery. This is the idea that slavery was inherently beneficial.  For everyone.

Anyone who studies American history knows how many of our Founders practiced slavery: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Rutledge, George Mason, many many others.  And they managed their cognitive dissonance–the notional gap between ‘all men created equal’ and the peculiar practice they relied on for their fortunes–with varying degrees of discomfort.  But discomfort there was, for all of them: for Washington certainly, who freed (some of) his slaves in his will, for Jefferson, who put a clause accusing King George of promoting it in his Declaration.  That very discomfort, of course, looks very much like hypocrisy to us, today.  It complicates, morally, our celebration of their accomplishments.  But generally, the Founders’ generation believed that slavery was morally wrong. And they believed that, in time, it would go away, if left alone. Ultimately, they believed it would prove economically (and morally) unsustainable.  In time, it would hold back regions that practiced it, keep them locked in agrarian economies that wouldn’t have incentive to industrialize.  And slavery was bad for slave-owners. It was degrading, to own other human beings and profit from their unrecompensed toil.

By 1860, though, this view of slavery, this idea that it violated fundamental human rights, that it was bad for slavers and slaves alike, that it was economically unsustainable, that statements like ‘all men created equal’ meant something important and profound, all those Founders’ ideals had come to be regarded as embarrassingly naive, backward, unscientific.  The new ideology was ‘positive good.’  Slavery was good for everyone, according to this formulation.  Slavery was beneficial.  Slaves prospered under it, if slaves could be drawn exclusively from a backwards and inferior race incapable of managing on its own. Slavery was a ‘positive good.’  For everyone.

Where did that come from?  Who invented it, who taught it, how were those ideas promoted?  Well, that’s the subject of this book.  And the answer is surprising.  This view of slavery, that it was beneficial for slaves and slave-owners alike, that it was genuinely positive for everyone in society, basically traces from the 1830s, not really earlier.  That’s not to say that the idea of slavery as a positive good was previously unknown.  But it became an ideology in the 1830s, something widely believed and taught.  An idea, in fact, so important that every challenge to it had to be ruthlessly confronted.  Public safety committees had to form and intimidate anyone who questioned ‘public good’ orthodoxy.  School curricula had to be examined, and heterodox notions expunged.  Freedom of the Press had to be curtailed.  And any suggestion that maybe, perhaps slavery wasn’t actually terrifically beneficial had to be met with immediate and decisive shows of violence.  And all this started, and spread from, one town in one state.  Charleston, South Carolina.

So we read about William Gilmore Simms, a newspaperman banished from Charleston for opposing South Carolina’s first attempt to secede, in 1832.  But he changed, converted, became a novelist, and an exceptionally popular one, with book after book which established the comforting lies about black inferiority and black contentment under slavery.  No one today reads The Yemassee, or The Sword and the Distaff, or Magnolia.  But they were wildly popular in their day.  Mark Twain thought the novels of Sir Walter Scott were to blame for the Civil War, for the inflated romanticism of mainstream Southern plantation culture.  Kelly makes a more convincing case for William Simms.

Familiar figures make an appearance, like John C. Calhoun, twice Vice-President and one of the great political giants of the early-to-mid 19th century.  But Kelly brilliantly deconstructs Calhoun’s South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828), calling it “the most pernicious disquisition on the Constitution ever authored by an American statesman.”  You don’t need to look further than Calhoun to find the philosophical roots of ‘positive good’ theory.

Because, as Kelly consistently points out, the idea that slavery was good for everyone was the considered, widely accepted scientific opinion of the day.  Opposition to slavery was considered sentimental, fanatical, wildly emotional and untrustworthy.  Rationally considered, it was obvious that blacks were inferior to whites.  The mid-19th century proved it: measured skull sizes, compared gaits and posture, conducted rudimentary intelligence tests.  Whereas the Jefferson generation believed that the black races had been degraded by the treatment to which they had been subjected, and were as capable as white races given similar opportunities and education, the Calhoun/Simms generation knew better.  Racial differences were innate. Biological.  Demonstrable.

Of course they knew it wasn’t true.  Of course ‘positive good’ was a psychological adjustment to cognitive dissonance.  Kelly’s great there too, showing the hysterical overreaction to the most benign moments of black independence, and the complete hypocrisy of ‘positive good”s most outspoken proponents.

See, for example, James Hammond, US Congressman and Senator, and author of pamphlet after pamphlet extolling the Southern way of life, the generous and kind treatment of slaves, the care taken by slaveowners.  Hammond’s own slaves died at far higher rates than other Charleston slaves, beaten to death and starved.  He fathered multiple children by them, telling his appalled wife that it wasn’t adultery, as they were only slave women.  Oh, and he was also a pedophile, sexually molesting his own nieces.

White supremacists did have their opponents.  One consistently courageous soul was an amiable eccentric named James Louis Pettigru, a anti-slavery advocate of almost unimaginable bravery.  But we also read about Angelina Grimke, a Charleston woman who became one of the greatest of abolitionists, but who was, let’s face it, maybe a little fanatical.  She was easy enough to dismiss, along with William Lloyd Garrison, and other prominent abolitionists, who were, frankly, pretty extreme in their opposition to slavery. They weren’t moderate, they weren’t reasonable, they weren’t willing to compromise.  They thought slavery was a moral evil, and said so.

And so, when 1860 rolled around, and the Democratic party made the insane decision to hold their national convention in Charleston, prominent white supremicists like William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett (both native South Carolinians, both born in Charlestown, though Yancey had moved on to Alabama), were able to hijack it, call for a vote on secession, derail the candidacy of Stephen Douglas, and make certain the election of Abraham Lincoln.  The Civil War inevitably followed, as Yancey and Rhett knew it would.

But then Kelly introduces us to his real heroes.  Like Robert Smalls, a slave who had been trained as a river pilot, and given the responsibility of piloting a Southern steamship, the Planter.  In 1862, the officers of his ship went ashore to a tavern, leaving the ship under Smalls.  He filled it with other slaves intent on escaping, added his wife and children, and took off.  He steamed past five batteries, any one of which could have sunk him, but he also had learned the recognition signals and pass codes, and steamed to sea unmolested.  Finding a Northern ship, Smalls ran up a white flag, and told the astonished captain, ‘I thought this ship might be of use to Uncle Abe.’  Smalls later commanded the Planter in battle, playing a significant role in capturing Charleston.  Post-war, he sold the ship, using the money to set himself up in business. I’d never heard of Robert Smalls before, and now regard him as one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War.

Kelly’s book isn’t just great because it’s well-researched, or because it’s about a fascinating subject, or because it’s written with wit and energy and eloquence.  It’s all that, but that’s not why I loved it so much.  It’s great because it’s so angry.  Kelly doesn’t just want us to understand where the ‘positive good’ ideology came from.  He wants us to be as pissed off about it as he is.  And he wants us to look at our day, at the vestiges of ‘positive good’ ideology that surface from time to time in our public discourse and in our politics.

There are, face it, still people today who argue that slavery wasn’t all that bad, that it had a beneficial side, that slaves were basically contented and slave-owners generally benevolent. It tends to spoken quietly, privately, in code, but ‘positive good’ ideologues still exist. But those ideas were never true. Never even a little bit true.  An historian like Joseph Kelly performs a great public service of reminding us of that.  We can only cope with our own, uniquely American brand of racism by looking to our history.  And then expunging it, root and branch. Kelly’s book helps.


Zealot: Review

Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was already on its way to best-seller status, even before he got the biggest boost an author can hope for: controversy.  A particularly idiotic Fox News interview went viral, and the narrative, for some, became ‘some Moslem dude wrote a book about Jesus.’  In fact, Aslan is a fine popular historian. He writes well, and he’s an adept synthesizer of the main threads of contemporary Bible scholarship. And he’s an honest scholar, citing in his end notes those experts in the field who disagree with him, as well as those who agree.  I don’t think he’s a particularly controversial figure in the world of Bible scholarship; more like he’s an especially eloquent participant in that scholarly conversation.

Not that I’d know.  I’m not a Bible scholar, not at all.  I’m at best a layman who enjoys reading books of popular scholarship in this field.  I read Aslan’s previous book, No God But God, on Islam, and enjoyed it a great deal.  I’m a big Bart Ehrman/Karen Armstrong/Raymond Brown kind of guy; in fact, I would strongly recommend that anyone reading Aslan’s book first consult Father Brown’s outstanding An Introduction to the New Testament.  Read that first, then by all means tackle Aslan.

Aslan’s main argument–and his book is very much an argument, more than it’s a biography–is that Jesus of Nazareth was primarily a political figure, a zealous Jewish messianic and apocalyptic preacher.  The idea that Jesus was the Son of God, or that that we was the pre-existent Logos of John, or that he was the literal Incarnation of God, all those mainstream Christian beliefs, were ex post facto inventions by Hellenist Jewish converts, starting with Stephen and Paul.  Jesus preached revolution, a revolution against the status quo, which meant revolution against the Roman occupation, and against the Jewish priestly caste that grew wealthy through collaboration with Roman authority.  For that crime, for the crime of preaching what Romans would have seen as sedition, he was crucified.  As Aslan puts it:

In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E. and the second is that that Rome crucified him for doing so.  . . . These two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the Gospels.  Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from that historical exercise–a zealous revolutionary caught up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine–bears little resemblance to the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.

Aslan then goes on at great length to immerse us in that world, the violent, dangerous, deadly world of first-century Palestine. That’s Aslan at his best, the vivid descriptor of cycles of murder and repression and enslavement that engulfed Galilee and Judea.  And in that world, Jesus was not unique. Aslan tells us of many others like him, violent revolutionaries, miracle workers and magic-wielding con men, messianic pretenders by the dozen. I found myself fascinated by those descriptions.  I loved reading about Nazareth, the small, completely insignificant Galilean town where Jesus grew up.  If Jesus was, in fact, a tekton, a woodworker or builder, then he would have belonged to a caste just barely above that of subsistence farmer.  The Romans used ‘tekton‘ as slang for an illiterate peasant.  But Sapphoris, the closest big city to Nazareth, had been destroyed by the Romans, and given to Herod Antipas, who rebuilt it.  Jesus and his father and brothers could have found employment there.  And Sapphoris was a Jewish city, albeit a Greek-speaking one.  It’s possible Jesus may have learned some rudimentary Greek there, in addition to his Aramaic, the language of the poor. It could have even have been a place where, mingling with other Jewish laborers, he might have, for example, heard of John the Baptist.

When describing the world of ancient Palestine, the violence, the politics, the religious fervor, the Temple rituals and their meaning, the Jewish priestly caste, and the on-going, ever-present conflicts with the Roman occupying forces, and finally the tragic destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Aslan is at his best.  But Aslan isn’t just interested in depicting an historical past.  He also makes arguments about it, arguments with which, as a Christian, I, at times, take issue.

I’ll grant that Palestine was a brutal place, in a violent time in history.  I’ll grant that Palestine was full of messianic pretenders, and popular revolutionary uprisings were rampant, and that Jesus of Nazareth needs to be seen in that context. I’ll happily grant the unreliability of the Gospels as historical sources.  But look at the long paragraph cited above. It may be true that “the Jesus that emerges from that historical exercise–a zealous revolutionary caught up . . . in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine–bears little resemblance to the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.” But by saying that, Aslan downplays this central fact: there did exist a gentle early Christian community.

Aslan does admit that Jesus of Nazareth, while he may have resembled other messianic figures of his time and place, is different from the others in this crucial regard–Jesus’ movement survived.  And it survived for a reason that Aslan admits he finds perplexing–Jesus’ followers claimed that he was resurrected from the dead.

Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 1 Corinthians 15: 12-14.

Christianity exists because of Jesus’ resurrection, witnessed first by two women at the tomb, then by various disciples, then by gatherings of hundreds of followers.  Our faith, as Christians, depends on it. More to the point, though, historically, this one movement succeeded where so many others failed, because of it.

As an historian, Aslan doesn’t deny the resurrection–he says it’s a matter of faith, outside the historian’s purview.  Fair enough.  But he deals even-handedly and well with the historical fact of the resurrection–that is to say, with the historical fact that resurrection was claimed to have happened, and that those who made that claim preached it and were believed. And he points out something that may otherwise have escaped our attention–that resurrection really was something new and different; a notion that would not have fit well into the world-views of Jews or Romans.

My biases are, I think, obvious to anyone who knows me.  I am a believing, practicing Mormon, and as such, a believing, practicing Christian.  And I’m a former college professor, and a historian of sorts, though my discipline is Theatre History.  My reaction to Zealot is that I found it very interesting, enjoyed it, disagreed with parts of it, and did not in any sense find it challenging to my own faith.  My good friend James Goldberg knows way more about this stuff than I do, and had a similar (though far more eloquent) reaction.

I believe that the answer to any intellectual dilemma challenging to faith is never to read less–it’s always to read more.  By all means, read Zealot.  While you’re at it, read James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus.  Read Father Brown.  Read Jesus the Christ.  Oh, and may I recommend to you four other books, short ones, but really good, probably not written by the people they’re named after but pretty darn authoritative nonetheless: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The message of Jesus of Nazareth did, quite likely, have a political component.  I don’t think, as Aslan does, for example, that the parable of the Good Samaritan had entirely a political message and impact, but I’ll certainly grant that it had some political resonance in its day.  But I believe that Jesus’ message also spoke to the deepest spiritual longings of a people buffeted by politics.  And it’s that spiritual message that continues to resonate today.

I love and revere my Savior. I’m also fascinated by the history of Jesus of Nazareth.  The two perspectives are not incompatible.  I learned a lot from reading Zealot.  Enjoyed the book very much, even when disagreeing with its conclusions. (I believe, for example, that the disagreement between Paul and his followers and James and Peter and the Jerusalem Church, was far more collegial than Aslan portrays it). I don’t regard its conclusions as definitive, though, and think of it as contributing to an on-going conversation, not as any kind of final word.

Meanwhile, if you’re a Christian and want to read something challenging, then go ahead.  Read. By all means, absolutely read.  Anything, anywhere: read.  Also pray.  Then read and pray some more.  And while you’re at it, maybe find someone struggling, the least of His brothers, and ask if you can serve.  We Christians really can do both–read anything, but don’t ever, ever, in any sense ever neglect the poor.