Category Archives: Books and literature

The Witches: Book Review

Stacey Schiff’s last book, Cleopatra: A Life, made the kind of splash historians dream of, including a much publicized sale to Hollywood. Her latest, The Witches, about the Salem witch trials, has received mixed reviews, and doesn’t seem to have had the same cultural impact. But it’s quite brilliant. I wouldn’t call it the definitive study of Salem–she acknowledges her considerable debt to John Demos, both personally, and for his wonderful Entertaining Salem–but I found it an extraordinary achievement, superbly researched and written.

She begins by acknowledging the hold the Salem witch trials still have on our collective imagination.

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional tensions imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories.

So to what theory does she subscribe? Essentially none of them, and all of them. But if I had to paraphrase her final conclusions, she attributes the trials to, well, humanity. Constantly, page after page, chapter after chapter, Schiff puts us in the position of the men, women, and (particularly) teenaged girls of Puritan Massachusetts in the last decade of the seventeenth century. She asks us to imagine ourselves in their situation. She describes sympathetically and imaginatively the human impact of Puritan theology; the guilt, the insistence on constant self-examination, the constant, unremitting daily chores and obligations. The fears, the tensions, the cold and dark corners of the town and of townspeople’s imaginations.

It could be us. It could be me, my friends, my neighbors. Paranoia and suspicion rising from threats, real and imagined, overreacting, underthinking, giving way. As with the Know-Nothings, as with the Japanese internment camps, as with Jim Crow laws and commie scares and, today, anti-Muslim rants from prominent politicians. Still, I kept thinking, reading Schiff’s book, I get it. It makes sense to me, in human terms. The central conundrum of Salem was simply this: sober, intelligent, well-read people, testifying under oath in a court of law, who believed with all their hearts and souls that lies told under oath would condemn them to eternal damnation, told the court that they had, personally, flown miles on sticks, crash-landing in meadows, attending meetings chaired by the devil, to whom they had sworn allegiance. And Schiff believes, and reading her, we believe, that those testimonies were believed to be accurate and factual, not only by the jurors, but by the testifiers themselves, at least while they were testifying.

Some years ago, I acted in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I played Giles Corey; obstreperous ‘more weight’ Giles Corey, who stubbornly refused to speak the pro forma and meaningless words that, by law, began all criminal proceedings. And was pressed to death for that refusal. I’ve been a Giles Corey fan ever since, as well, of course, as a massive fan of Miller’s superb play. Miller wrote it in the midst of the McCarthy committee hearings. Having refused to name names, thus risking imprisonment, he wrote. His play is not only a dramatic and theatrical triumph, but also an act of moral conscience and defiant citizenship. It’s a genuinely great play. Historically, though, he got most of it wrong.

John Proctor, Miller’s protagonist, was sixty years old, and not a particularly important member of the Salem community. Also, more specifically, a man who certainly had not had an affair with Abigail Williams, who was not a prominent accuser and who was in any event eleven years old. He also accused his wife, Elizabeth Proctor, something the Proctor in the play refuses to do. In reality, the central figure among the accused wasn’t Proctor, but George Burroughs, a charismatic and superbly qualified minister, and Indian fighter, and something of a muscular prodigy; also a man who abused his wives sufficiently to be prosecuted for it. The Chief Justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, in charge of prosecuting and sentencing witches, was not Thomas Danforth, it was William Stoughton, who was also Massachusetts’ Lieutenant Governor. And Tituba was probably not Black. And most of what we know about the Salem witch trials comes from a character Miller doesn’t even put in his play, Cotton Mather, whose role in the trials went a good deal beyond that of chronicler.

The more significant, and probably controversial point, though, is that the teenaged girls at the heart of the Salem witch scare, the girls who writhed and twisted and pointed fingers, Abigail Hobbs and Mercy Lewis and Betty Parris and Ann Putnam Jr. and Mary Warren and the rest of them, may not have done so maliciously. For Miller, the girls were liars, knew they were liars, and kept on lying because they were afraid of Abigail Williams. Schiff doesn’t think so, and I believe her. She describes the symptoms of something called conversion disorder, a malady that previously went under the over-broad rubric of ‘female hysteria.’ Schiff doesn’t exactly blame this particular disorder for the trials, but she offers it as a possible explanation for the girls’ conduct. Above all, though, she treats all the characters in the story with compassion. She sees the events not as melodrama, with carefully defined villains and heroes (as, frankly, Miller tends to), but as tragedy, as a deeply human and terribly distressing combination of factors.

If the book has a villain, it’s probably William Stoughton. He was the most forceful personality in the room, the most impressive and fearsome politician in Massachusetts. He was also a man of infinitely malleable convictions, having taken multiple sides in every political controversy of his age. He was a survivor, a wily old bear who could make any position seem unassailable. So why, on this issue, did he become so unbending, so ferociously inexorable? Why, on this one issue, was he so unwilling to listen to those few timorous voices wondering if it was possible that quite so many New Englanders were witches, or if entirely spectral evidence could be enough to condemn otherwise upright people to death for consorting with Satan?

Rebecca Nurse was twice acquitted. Both times, Stoughton interrogated the jury. Were they certain? Had they considered this evidence, or that testimony? Perhaps they should deliberate some more? The third time, the jury took the hint. And Rebecca Nurse, the very picture of a virtuous Puritan matron, was hanged for witchcraft. Despite the considered opinion of the most respected Boston ministers, Stoughton admitted the most questionable kinds of evidence. And given a chance to show clemency, everyone convicted received the harshest possible penalty. And 20 people were executed.

None of them witches. And we need to keep that in mind. Because witches and witchcraft and enchantments and spells and incantations are frequent memes in our popular culture. And that’s fine, if kept resolutely in the realm of fantasy fiction. But as many as a hundred thousand innocent people were killed, most of them from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Twenty were killed in New England, plus those who died in prison, plus Giles Corey. The citizens of Boston and Salem were not actually plagued by witches; no one with superhuman powers lived in those communities, nor, in fact, in any communities in the world, ever, anywhere. Bridget Bishop was a woman in her fifties, unkempt, belligerent, often homeless, brash and outspoken. She was one of the first ‘witches’ killed from Salem. Sarah Good was younger; another homeless woman, sullen, dependent on the reluctant charity of hard-hearted Puritan farmers, a lurker and a mutterer, probably disturbed; another woman hanged in Salem. That’s who ‘witches’ were; women outside the mainstream of society. Only after the disposable women of the community were disposed of did the good citizens of Salem and Boston and Andover turn to the Martha Coreys and Rebecca Nurses and John Proctors; respectable, but somewhat litigious people, who had made enemies with scores to settle.

The story of Salem is the story of innocent people unpardonably persecuted, and unjustly prosecuted. It’s the story of American paranoia run amuck. It’s human beings doing what humans do; overreact to scary events. It’s also a story that Americans have reenacted far too frequently, as have the citizens of every other culture on earth. Schiff’s book avoids facile conclusions, and easy judgments. It’s a wise and judicious and thoughtful and superbly written book. I can’t recommend it too highly.

The politics of The Hunger Games: Movie review, kind of

Two events, on a similar theme: last night, my wife and I saw the most recent Hunger Games movie, or rather The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part Two. I know, a month after everyone else saw it. So I wondered; should I review it? Here’s the second thing: on Rachel Maddow’s show, she showed a flier that someone in Michigan put in the windshields of cars parked outside a movie theater where Mockingjay was playing. It began by asking Is American like Panem? It obviously concluded that America is in fact a great deal like Panem, and proposed, as a remedy, voting for Ted Cruz. And, of course, it’s hard not to notice that the Hunger Games novels and films are intensely political. They are, after all, about a revolution and a civil war. So political how? And does it have anything to do with our tangled politics here, now, in America?

Here’s the text of the flier:

In the Hunger Games, Michigan would be in District 800–and our job would be producing textiles. The Panem Capitol promises to give you free stuff–security, food, and a job. But what you really get is hunger, torture, and a lack of opportunity. America has wealthy rulers living in the Capitol just like Panem. The political elite think they are entitled to your hard earned money to support their extravagant lifestyle. You are left with: student loans you can’t repay, struggling to put food on the table, not being able to afford healthcare fines, knowing you were lied to by the political elite.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is time for something different: Freedom, Opportunity, Fairness under the law, Personal sustainability, Hope. Join the Rebel Underground! Ted Cruz: Catching Fire!

In fairness, the Ted Cruz campaign told Rachel Maddow that this flier wasn’t produced by the Cruz campaign. Still, the basic themes echo the Tea Party critique of today’s America. Lack of freedom, a faltering economy, Obamacare, arrogant elites wasting our substance. The need for a political revolution. And so on.

I’m going to assume that you all know these novels and movies. And my discussion of them will include many many spoilers. Because I do want to talk about them in the context of politics. So: the flier. Well, of course, Ted Cruz looks nothing whatsoever like Katniss Everdeen, though I do see a slight resemblance to Caesar Flickerman, nor does Barack Obama look even remotely like President Snow, though he is skinny, and getting grayer. Superficially, the comparison doesn’t work at all.

And if it did, it wouldn’t help Ted Cruz. The entire point of Mockingjay–Part II is, as the Who once put it, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Alma Coin, head of the revolution for which Katniss is such a powerful force, turns out to be even more brutal and dictatorial and manipulative as President Snow ever was. Which is why (oops, spoiler!) Katniss assassinates her. If we’re to compare this film with that candidate, we’re led inescapably to the conclusion that voting for Ted Cruz would be a very very bad idea indeed. If you don’t like Obama, Cruz (if he’s really Catching Fire) would, by the logic of the movies, be much worse. There’s a technical, political science-y term for the kind of thinking this flier represents: twaddle. The Hunger Games is about a dystopic future in which American politics is a brutal totalitarian nightmare. That is quite specifically and obviously not the America in which we currently reside. It is, in fact, its polar opposite.

Still, it’s a fascinating question. Suzanne Collins, who wrote the trilogy on which the movies are based, has created a powerful and compelling narrative and a beautifully realized world in which to set it. And they are political novels and movies, with echoes of ancient Rome, but also, of course, of histories and societies closer to our own day. The Ted Cruz flier may be ridiculous, but it gets at something that’s not; the ways in which Collins’ world resonates with our own. Libertarians, I’ve heard, have embraced the Hunger Games world, and with some justification. Panem is certainly a nightmarish society in which personal liberties are abridged routinely. But a Bernie Sanders fan might find the movie reflects her political views. Panem is also a society essentially defined by income inequality.

But I think these similarities are superficial. The specific thing about Panem that makes it so horrifying is the Hunger Games notion. Panem is a society where, annually, children battle to the death, for the amusement of adults. Panem isn’t just an unequal or unfree society; it’s a society where an entire entertainment complex is built around violence to and by kids. There really isn’t a contemporary analog.

My libertarian friends point to Panem as an illustration of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, his careful analysis of the steps by which a democratic society becomes less free. Hayek’s great book was based on his own experiences in Austria in the 30s, and on seeing Germany devolve into a dictatorship. But Hayek’s analysis has nothing to do with The Hunger Games. We don’t see President Snow gradually accrue power, step by step. When the books open, he’s already in power; his conquest a fait accompli. And we’re given to understand that he came to power following a terrible war. We might more properly see Panem as illustrating Hannah Arendt’s essay On Revolution, showing how President Coin will inevitably follow the path of President Snow; how the talents of a revolutionary aren’t particularly relevant to the task of governing, and how therefore so many revolutions lead only to tyranny.

The reason I like the Hunger Games books and (especially) movies so much is simply this: they deal honestly with that reality. These are YA novels, intended for a teen audience. But they’re not remotely triumphalist. They’re not about a notional good overcoming an intensely imagined evil. They’re about civil war and revolution, bloody and violent and morally appalling. Katniss only ‘triumphs’ by becoming an assassin. Her entire intention, in fact, is murder/suicide. In fact, for a big, expensive set of action movies, Mockingjay–part 2 avoids the pitfall of so many of these sorts of films, the big, final battle scene with spectacular stunts and CGI, in which Our Hero beats the bad guy once and for all (unless they need him for the sequel). Katniss’s final walk towards Snow’s palace looks like it’s going to be the set up for just such an ending. Instead, she gets to see her beloved sister die horribly. And then she’s wounded. No big victory. Just a lot of death.

In the world of The Hunger Games, revolution and civil are horror shows, in which a lot of people we care a lot about die painfully and unnecessarily. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight, to spare her sister. Ultimately, she can’t even manage that small task. I love that unsparing honesty.

So, no, I don’t see any particular, specific contemporary political parallels to The Hunger Games. But I do see books and movies I can respect, superbly acted and produced, ending with a moment of earned grace, but not remotely simple-minded or facile. That’s their achievement, and I honor them for it. They have nothing whatever to do with Ted Cruz.

Nixonland: Book Review

Man, I love books like this. Rick Perlstein’s 2008 book Nixonland is history that sizzles. It’s one of those 800-plus pages of superbly researched, exhaustively detailed, astoundingly insightful, richly textured history books that make book nerds glow with happiness. It’s also, incidentally, the best history of that crucial time in American history we call ‘the 60s,’ even though the period he covers doesn’t end until sometime around 1973. And yes, the focus is Nixon, sort of. It’s not a biography of that most complicated of American politicians, though. It uses Richard Nixon’s career instead as the lens through which we view that complicated history.

Here’s why it’s so good. Most histories of the 60’s are fundamentally celebratory. They reflect one perspective on that period, what we might call the ‘Age of Aquarius’ narrative. Plucky young idealists, who conquered racism, sexism, and ended the war in Vietnam through sheer force of will, plus rock and roll music. We take the perspective of, say Tom Hayden, or Jane Fonda, or Abbie Hoffman, and pit Our Heroes against the reactionary forces of bad old reactionary Amerika. The bad guys are easily identified; Frank Rizzo, Mayor Daley and the Chicago police, the National Guard at Kent State, George Wallace. Nixon. Such essentialist hagiographies celebrate the Berkeley Free Speech movement, and Woodstock, and the Black Panthers, and campus protests across the whole nation. Although many such histories exist–books by Todd Gitlin, Nicholas Schou, Ed Sanders come immediately to mind–and although they’re often passionately and eloquently written, they’re too one-sided.

They don’t adequately account for, among other realities, the popularity of Richard Nixon. The sixties were supposed to be a celebration of youth, of youthful vitality and passion and rejection of the platitudes and certainties of, say, the fifties. And when young people got the vote, in time for the 1972 election, that 18-21 demographic was expected to make a huge difference, ushering in a newer, better day. And 18-21 year-olds did make a difference. They voted for Nixon 2-1.

Perlstein’s book does absolutely not represent some kind of conservative revisionism. But it doesn’t shy away from this reality: Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ did, kind of, exist. And was horrified and appalled by anti-war hippies. And not without legitimate cause.

What Perlstein excels at is what might be called a strategy of shifting perspectives. He shows us an event like, say, the ’68 Chicago Democratic Convention from both the point of view of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubins, and the point of view of the Chicago police, or the ethnic Chicago neighborhoods, lower-middle-to-middle class, the homes from where Chicago cops were drawn. We see both. And that’s right, because both perspectives are valid, both should be honored.

Richard Nixon’s political genius was his ability to peek underneath the surface of American society, to feel and articulate and make political use of the anxieties and fears and resentments and hatreds found in those dark understrata. When in college at Whittier, the privileged class of students were called ‘Franklins.’ Nixon started his own club, the Orthogonians, made up of students from lower class families, white kids who had to work their way through college. The grinders and grade-grubbers, the people who knew what it was to struggle, and what it felt like to be disrespected by those who hadn’t had to.

And Perlstein uses that dichotomy, Franklins v. Orthogonians, brilliantly. Nixon didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. His father wasn’t wealthy or connected. Nixon’s own insecurities and petty resentments, it turned out, revealed a way towards power. If he could find other people, cast-offs and strivers, who shared his fury, but also could keep a lid on it, as he did, he could connect with voters. Richard Nixon was pretty famously not a people person, not a glad-hander, though he could play the role of sycophant when he needed to, tactically. But what Nixon realized was that Orthogonians outnumbered Franklin’s pretty substantially. And that feelings of buried rage could have a political impact.

Rick Perlstein understands Richard Nixon, and helps us understand him too. And he’s able to show us how Nixon rose to power, how carefully he understood and manipulated the political processes of his day. How to encode buried feelings of racial resentment. How resonant, and how richly textured and nuanced was Nixon’s political use of the phrase ‘Law and Order.’

And yet, as the dirty tricks and vicious campaign strategies of his two Presidential campaigns unfolded, Perlstein does not neglect the other Nixon, the Nixon who opened China, the cold warrior Nixon of arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Nixon genuinely felt that the world was a dangerous place, and that an American President needed above all to preserve world peace, shaky though it might be. And Nixon was, on top of everything else, genuinely brilliant in his understanding of foreign policy (which was pretty much the only part of being President he cared about).

Perlstein’s authorial voice is endlessly sympathetic to even the most wildly disparate points of view. And his research is extraordinary. He specializes in paragraphs full of detail, describing a typical day or week, with protests and counter-protests and violence on both sides of that most brutal of culture wars, over Vietnam and its meaning and importance.

And finally, it’s about us. It’s about now. He concludes with this:

I have written of the rise, between the years 1965 and 1972, of a nation that had believed itself to be at consensus instead becoming one of two incommensurate visions of apocalypse: two loosely defined congeries of Americans, each convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end.

This was the ’60s.

We Americans are not killing or trying to kill each other anymore for reasons of ideology, or at least, for now. Remember this: this war has ratcheted down considerably. But it still simmers on.

Perlstein wrote that final paragraph in 2009, or at least, that’s when his book was published. I read it in 2015. And I feel like I understand my world much better for having done so. The war he describes so eloquently is ratcheting back up, or so it seems to me. To understand it, historical perspective helps. We live in a world that Richard Nixon created, or at least saw more clearly than others did, a knowledge he ruthlessly exploited, leaving behind an exploded dichotomy, and political civility in tatters.

When you buy this book, buy the Kindle version. It includes news clips from the 60s, in addition to Perlstein’s prose. Take your time reading it, however. It’s worth every hour, every day you spend on it.

 

 

Booksmart: A review

Last night, I had an opportunity to see a preview performance of a new play, and a first play, by a young playwright; always exciting. Rob Tennant’s Booksmart is the latest Plan B Theatre production of the winning play of the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists annual contest. It’s a comedy, set in the employee break room in a big Barnes and Noble-style bookstore Booksmart, a few days before Christmas. It is, in short, a play about customer service (shudder!), complete with rude customers, burned out employees, and clueless management. And all the characters are book nerds, most with advanced academic degrees in various disciplines in the humanities–art, philosophy, English lit. They graduated, racked up debt, and face a common dilemma; these are the jobs they got out of college. Yay for them.

It’s a play, in short, about being preposterously and perpetually underemployed, And Casey (Tyson Baker), is fed up. He’s had it. Apparently he’s decided, on this insanely busy day, to clock in, and spend the day in the break room. He’s on strike, apparently, though he, like most retail workers, has no union protection, and in fact seems only vaguely aware of what unions are or how unions function. He wants better pay; he wants benefits. But mostly he’s just irritating. He’s verbally adept, and can talk at length and with great facility about his grievances. He has no idea what to do about any of them.

His closest friend in the store, Alex (Sarah Danielle Young), is sick of him whining, and calls him on it. She’s good at her job, she can cope with the rudest of customers without losing her cheer or moxie or humor, and she knows some things about unionization. She thinks Casey is being a lazy jerk, which makes her job harder, which pisses her off. She knows–everyone knows–how much he’s into her, which also pisses her off. More specifically, though, she disapproves of his tactics.

So it’s a play about unions. It’s a play about labor v. management. It seems to be, in fact, kind of a comedic millennial version of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, only with retail workers instead of cabbies, which makes sense, Uber having supplanted taxis in our world. Odets’ great ’30s masterpiece, of course, cut back and forth between vignettes about suffering cab drivers and scenes in a union hall, awaiting a strike vote. Tennant’s play is similarly structured; we cut between Casey’s on-going work stoppage, and his co-workers’ phone conversations with preposterously rude (but oh-so-familiar) customers. The impact of Odets’ play was to stoke the white-hot fury of his age; because the defining mood of our day is ironic, the impact of Tennant’s, is comedy, though with a self-critical edge.

From time to time, three other Booksmart employees drift in and out of the break room. Each time the break room door to the store opens, we hear snippets of the most gosh-awful Christmas music. (As usual, Cheryl Cluff’s stellar sound design tells us everything we need to know about the world of the play). Those musical bits were consistently great, and got the best laughs of the play. My first reaction to the play, in fact, was that, aside for the music, it should be funnier. But on further reflection, I’m not sure that’s what I want to say. (Lousy note, anyway; ‘be funnier.’)  That music, as imagined by Tennant and executed by Cluff, suggested something more interesting than just a pleasant comedy.

I bought a new phone recently, and in the store where I transacted, Christmas music was similarly ubiquitous. When a particularly obnoxious version of that pro-roofie tease ‘Baby it’s cold outside’ played, one employee at the store said, to no one in particular, “when I slit my wrists, this music will be why.” One of her co-workers suggested a coping strategy; crank up the hip-hop for the drive home. “But I don’t like hip-hop,” said the girl. “Neither do I,” said her friend. “But it cleanses the palate.” Both of them laughed. And it struck me how marvelously true is Tennant’s use of music, and how spot-on his depiction of the bright, well-educated souls trapped in retail hell.

Tennant populates his play with similar folk; smart, and damned. (Every time they go on break, they pull out a book). April Fossen played Ruth, a former long-term adjunct university faculty; a highly intelligent and well-read woman who really should be tenured somewhere. As the play progresses, she has a series of phone encounters with a male customer-from-hell (we only see her end of the conversations, but we know this guy). Those conversations go badly. By the play’s end, she’s likely to be terminated from yet another job for which she’s ridiculously overqualified. Anne Louise Brings played Cindy, a young woman unhealthily obsessed with Katniss Everdeen; after another rude customer drives her to tears, she’s far more inclined to entertain Casey’s rebellion. And Joe Crnich played Hippie Ed, barely able to remember his advanced degree in philosophy (and naively astonished to learn of the pagan origination of Christmas holiday traditions); what was once a fine mind seems to have been compromised by that bane of aging hippies, Too Much Weed. He becomes Casey’s first convert. He’s also what passes for management, presumably because he’s their one older white male.

Most of the play’s funniest moments are the hints we get of the chaos outside the break room, and the one-sided exchanges between Ruth, Cindy and Ed and various customers-from-hell. But most of the play’s focus is on Casey, who’s ineffectual kvetching becomes rather irritating. I found myself wondering if Casey’s oh-so-verbal fecklessness might be part of the point. I found him an unappealing character; perhaps I was supposed to. Perhaps the play is about how ill-prepared college training leaves humanities majors for the actual vicissitudes of gainful employment. The title of the play is, after all, Booksmart. Which, in common parlance, contrasts unfavorably with streetsmart. And how gainful is their employment? It’s not just Casey; all these characters struggle financially, especially Alex, whose landlord has just raised her rent.

They need a union, frankly. The play makes that case persuasively. And Alex is the only one of them with the wherewithal to organize one. And that effort, we sense, is unlikely to succeed. Quite possibly, Booksmart’s management will simply fire them all for even discussing the possibility. It’s not like they’ll have any difficulty finding more overqualified humanities majors to replace them. We know all that; so does Alex, the play’s most appealing and tragic character.

In the Group Theatre’s seminal production of Waiting for Lefty, the audience, according to legend, left the theater shouting ‘strike strike strike!’ Whether that actually happened or not, it was certainly the greatest agit-prop play in American history. (And then Odets sold out; went to Hollywood, made some money, drank too much, died too young). What Booksmart suggests is the need for a similar national effort to the essential centrality of organized labor in the 30s. Occupy Wall Street? But didn’t that movement, so profoundly compelling, and similarly a coalition of underemployed ticked-off millennials and aging 60’s relics, eventually dissipate its energy in direction-less empty rhetoric? Doesn’t the Bernie Sanders campaign represent another possible way out of the cul-de-sac of non-specific hopes and unrealized change? And isn’t that campaign likewise losing its mojo?

Tennant’s play strikes me as a fascinating artifact of our times, a verbally adept agit-prop comedy about feckless, misdirected idealism. It’s not quite the Waiting for Lefty of our time; it’s not angry enough for that, because we’re not; we’re just tired. My final response to it wasn’t ‘strike strike strike!’ It was a kind of cynical weariness. The fight against inequality today isn’t a fight against brutal bosses and their murdering thugs. It’s the far less equal fight against stultifying corporate blandness, heard most clearly in the relentless false cheer of mandated muzak. Every time that door opened, we were reminded of it, the anodyne ubiquity of jingling Rudolf. How the hell do you fight that?

 

What I think Donald Trump means by political correctness

Donald Trump is way ahead in all the national polls, in the race for the Presidency. And this unlikely fact is driving the professional political class crazy. Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. In the leadup to the 2012 election, the list of announced Republican candidates had a similar clown car vibe, and unlikely front runners did keep popping up–Herman Cain, anyone?–but eventually order was restored, and the putative favorite, Mitt Romney, did in fact become the nominee. That isn’t happening now. And various pith-helmeted politico/anthropologists have been jungle-safariing for an explanation.

The most recent of these was the respected conservative pollster, Frank Luntz, who declared “my legs are shaking” after meeting with a focus group of Trump supporters:

The focus group watched taped instances on a television of Trump’s apparent misogyny, political flip flops and awe-inspiring braggadocio. They watched the Donald say Rosie O’Donnell has a “fat, ugly face.” They saw that Trump once supported a single-payer health system, and they heard him say, “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” But the group—which included 23 white people, 3 African-Americans and three Hispanics and consisted of a plurality of college-educated, financially comfortably Donald devotees—was undeterred.

At the end of the session, the vast majority said they liked Trump more than when they walked in.

The same night, Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, who is working for the Jeb! Bush campaign, reported similar encounters with one particular Trump supporter: her father. She was on Rachel Maddow’s show a couple of nights ago, and she declared herself similarly baffled and appalled. Trump supporters don’t care: that Trump called Mexicans rapists and insulted Megyn Kelly and holds heterodox views (for a supposed Republican) on a whole range of issues. None of that matters. He says things that would permanently end most political careers, and his poll numbers go up. Then he’s called on it, refuses to apologize, refuses to back down. And his poll numbers go . . . up.

Here’s what I think is going on.

Remember, early on, when he said “I don’t have time for political correctness.” I don’t think he meant ‘political correctness’ as I generally understand the term. Political correctness usually refers to super-persnickity sensitivity to un-or-sub conscious sexism or racism in commonly used language. It relates to, among other things, the dismaying fact that English, unlike other languages, does not have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. Take this sentence: “when your child asks for chocolate, what he’s really asking for is. . . .” That’s sexist. It assumes that ‘your child’ is male. One unsatisfying solution would be to use the feminine pronoun ‘your child . . . she’s.’ Another, equally unsatisfying, would be ‘your child . . . he or she.’ My inner grammar finniken recoils at the increasingly popular compromise ‘they.’ Fact is, there’s not really an elegant way to de-genderize our personal pronouns. Well, the political correctness police don’t care about syntactical elegance. They want sexism gone from our language. They’re fine with ‘your child . . . he or she.’ Or worse, ‘your child . . . your child.’  Now I’m depressed. . . .

Sorry. Back to it. That’s not the kind of political correctness Mr. Trump seems to be referring to. Essentially, he’s saying ‘I’ll be rude if I want to.’ My beloved schoolmarm mother is, properly, horrified.

Digging deeper. I just finished reading a fascinating book, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson describes a woman, Justine Sacco, who, as she passed through Heathrow Airport in London, sent out a tweet about the trip she was taking to Africa. A dumb joke, she thought. She got on the plane, shut off her phone, fell asleep. When the plane landed, and she turned her phone back on, she discovered that her life was essentially over. Her tweet had gone viral, and was widely condemned as racist. She lost her job. She couldn’t get another one, because prospective employers would google her, see the tweet and the reaction to it, and decide she was toxic. 30 years old, and unemployable. Terrifying.

So Ronson’s book is about public humiliation, the ferocity of the cyberworld, the way we judge others based on a single tweet or comment or incident. And he cites several other examples of people whose lives were ruined, as Sacco’s was. But his book also includes a fascinating, and rather Trumpian, counter-example.

Formula One racing mogul, Max Mosley is not just prominent in his own right, he’s also the son of a prominent man–Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader during WWII.  Max Mosley was filmed by the British tabloid News of the World having a spectacular sado-masochistic sex orgy with five prostitutes, in a torture dungeon filled with German memorabilia. And he survived it, reputation and employment intact. He survived by going on a national news program and saying ‘yes, that’s me in those videos. I have a kinky sex life. So what? Lots of people do. I’m not ashamed, or embarrassed, any more than anyone else should be about their sex lives.’ And it worked. If anything, he was more popular afterwards.

I’m not saying that Donald Trump has Nazi-themed sex orgies, or anything like it. But there’s a certain game that somehow attaches to politics more than other endeavors. It’s a cycle of mistake-scandal-contrition-forgiveness that all politicians, when they say or do something embarrassing, are supposed to engage in. When Donald Trump says he rejects political correctness, he’s saying that he’s not playing. He’s unashamed.

Look at Facebook. If your Facebook newsfeed is like mine, it includes dozens, hundreds even, of politically-themed memes. And a lot of them show some prominent political figure, and a quotation of something offensive they said on some subject or other. And we’re supposed to recoil in horror. We’re supposed to take that particular quotation as indicative of the program or platform or personality of that political figure. We’re supposed to conclude that anyone who could say something like that must be either a monster or a moron. Certainly, having said that awful thing disqualifies him or her for public office.

Well, Trump’s not having it. He’s not playing that game. He’s not apologizing. He’s running for President because he thinks America’s on the wrong path. He wants to ‘make America great again.’ And a lot of people agree with him, and love how unabashed he is about it. And one of the things they like about him is that he’s not acting like a politician, carefully parsing every statement and focus-group-testing every stance. I get it; I get why he’s popular.

We all say dumb things all the time. And our mistakes don’t define us. We all have blind spots and we all have cockamamie ideas and we all have irrational and foolish prejudices. Trump just doesn’t apologize for his. Part of his personality is that he says rude things about people sometimes. Part of his personality is that he brags all the time about how great he is. That’s who he is; that’s the package. If you don’t like it, vote for someone else.

And that humiliating search for ‘gotcha’ quotations and past policy preferences, and the perceived necessity of groveling before the media when you get caught; it really does seem demeaning and unnecessary and self-righteous. That’s what Trump’s not interested in. He won’t apologize and he won’t back down. And that’s what he means by rejecting ‘political correctness.’ It is, I’ll admit, kind of refreshing.

(There’s still zero chance I’m going to vote for him. He’s just wrong on too many issues. But I am starting to get his appeal.)

Rain: Book review

Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History is an absolute miracle of a book, a meditation on a subject everyone absolutely takes for granted, which also happens to be a phenomenon without which there could not exist life on this planet. It’s also superbly researched, and written with a poet’s eye and gift for language. It’s one of those books you want to read slowly, so as to savor every paragraph and sentence. I finished it last night, and set it aside with a palpable feeling of regret, though of course, I can always read it again.

My son gave it to me for Fathers’ Day; said he saw it in a bookstore, was intrigued by the title, read the first three pages, and found himself hooked. I had the same experience. I wish I could guarantee that you will too. But it is a book about rain. If that idea turns you off. . . .

But start with this thought: there was life on Mars, and water. What Mars did not have was rain, and Mars remains today a lifeless rock. Are you fascinated by science, and especially by that most baffling of all currently unanswered scientific questions; why does life exist on earth? That’s one of the question this book addresses.

Or another: what is the connection between grunge rock and roll and the fact that Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Kris Novoselic are from, not Seattle, but Aberdeen Washington? Seattle is a city known for its rainy days and nights, but Aberdeen, a few miles further inland, is a good deal rainier. Listen to early Nirvana. Have you noticed the rain-dripping sound of Novoselic’s bass? What about The Smiths? Johnny Marr and Morrissey are from Manchester, the rainiest city in the famously rainy British Isles. Is it any wonder that the Smiths’ sound is so, well, gloomy? Is there a connection between the sunniness of certain bands’ popular music and the cities in which its members grew up? Or, in case of Nirvana and the Smiths, the raininess of their cities of origin? That’s another issue Barnett’s book raises, explores, discusses.

Or how does rain make itself manifest thematically? What poets have written particularly rain-intensive poems, what novelists have featured it, what painters have employed rain as a motif? What is the general history of rain in high and popular culture?

All right, how about this? What is the history of drought-busting rainmakers? What charlatans went about trying to make it rain? What have actual scientists done to bring rain to drought-stricken areas? What ideas have worked? Which ones have not? All questions carefully and thoughtfully explored by Barnett.

And, terrifyingly, what about environmental catastrophe? What is the history of acid rain, and how was it ended? What can be done today about various kinds of toxic rainfall? And, of course, what about global warming, climate change, the environmental crisis in which we currently find ourselves? What’s going on, what is the state of current research, what can be done, what are people trying to do? A fascinating subject, is it not? And an important one?

Buy it. Read it. Slowly, so as to savor its every detail. This is a wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

January 1973: Book Review

January 22, 1973, was the date that the Supreme Court announced their decision in Roe v. Wade. It was also a crucial day in John J. Sirica’s courtroom, where he precided over the trial of the Watergate burglars. Also on that date, the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris peace accords, ending the war in Vietnam. And none of those stories led the evening news broadcasts. Because that was also the day Lyndon Johnson died.

January, 1973, was one of those months in American history where a whole lot of crucially important things happened at once, like April 1965 (which was also the subject of a terrific book, by Jay Winik). I just finished James Robenalt’s book, January, 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month that changed America forever. It’s a very good book; not a great one, but an enjoyable read. It’s a book where the extraordinary events it describes are inherently dramatic and interesting, while Robenalt’s analysis of those events struck me as a trifle too breathless. He seems to be striving for significance where, perhaps, less exists than he seems to think. It’s undeniably fascinating that so many important events seem to have happened at the same time. I’m not sure that coincidence is quite as revelatory as Robenalt would have it.

The key figure in the whole story is, of course, Richard Nixon. What a fascinating character; what an endlessly transformative president, for good and ill. What fascinated me was the relationship between Nixon and aide Charles Colson. Robenalt was able to quote long conversations verbatim, because those conversations were, of course, recorded. What’s amazing is Nixon’s thin skin, his obsessive loathing of enemies for slights real and imagined, his paranoia, his long-standing grudges. Colson was his sounding board; the guy he could sit and vent to for hours on end. Nothing really new here; Rick Perlstein’s brilliant Nixonland covers it all more thoroughly and, I think, more insightfully. But it’s fascinating to me that the end of the Vietnam war, a signal achievement if ever there was one, was marred by Nixon’s jealousy of Henry Kissinger, and an order to bug Kissinger’s phone, to see if he was talking to the press about it. During that same month, both former Presidents Truman and Johnson passed away, and Nixon’s main concern was over which church their memorial services would be held in. The pastor of the National Cathedral was too anti-war (and, thought Nixon, secretly anti-Nixon), for Nixon’s taste. And so he engaged in unseemly negotiations with Lady Bird Johnson over memorializing President Johnson somewhere else.

But that was Nixon. A brilliant geo-political thinker. Surprisingly, even shockingly liberal when it came to domestic policies. You look at the man’s actual accomplishments, and they’re remarkable. He founded the EPA, and pushed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Mammal Marine Protection Act through Congress. He supported and pushed for the adoption of the 26th Amendment, granting the vote to 18 year olds. He ended the draft. He returned tribal lands to Native Americans, and granted tribes self-determination. He increased funding for cancer research.

But politically, his Southern strategy was built on exacerbating racial tensions at a time when it appeared that real progress had been made. He was the politician of white resentment, of ‘law and order’ (which everyone understood to mean ‘cracking down on black inner cities.’)

Was he, for example, a feminist? Well, he signed Title IX into law. No other bill has done more for college women, to promote fitness and achievement and empowerment. Three of the four justices who voted for Roe v. Wade were Nixon appointees, including Justice Blackmun, who authored it. He was also prone, in private, to use the worst kind of gutter language regarding women. Nixon said he supported the Equal Rights Amendment while campaigning. Then he did little about it while in office. Mixed bag? Pretty much, I’d say.

Of course, when we think of Nixon, we don’t think of Vietnamization or the opening to China. We think of Watergate. And it’s in the Watergate passages that Robenalt’s book is at its strongest. Judge John J. Sirica presided over the initial Watergate trial in January 1973, a trial that Robenalt covers in great detail. Robenalt is a lawyer, and it’s clear that he is deeply troubled by Judge Sirica’s judicial overreaching in that trial. Sirica was convinced that the defendants in the case were lying. He was convinced that they were covering up for their bosses, that the question of motive had not been adequately answered. Why were these guys burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate hotel? Who paid them? Who was continuing to pay them? And so, when Liddy and McCord and Howard Hunt all agreed to plead guilty to the charges against them, Sirica (inappropriately and even illegally) went out of his way to refuse those pleas. He basically took over the case from the prosecutors. He committed, in short, the most egregious possible judicial misconduct. He also got away with it, because, of course, as we now know, he was right. There was a larger conspiracy, and the Watergate trial defendants were lying about it. It’s a fascinating story, and Robenalt tells it well.

Of course, historical perspective is always illuminating; the media consensus over Roe was ‘whew, at least we’ve put that issue to rest, once and for all.’ And I had forgotten how very quickly the Vietnam agreement came after the bombing of Hanoi. Of course, those sorts of ironies and insights are the main reason we read a book like this one. Anyway, I strongly recommend it. What a fascinating month. What a fun book.

 

The ancient law of hospitality, the Odyssey, and Sodom

With the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell decision, a lot of people on the internet have waxed apocalyptic, suggesting that the decision was morally catastrophic and predicting a bad end to American society. And where in scripture might one find support for the idea that homosexuality equals catastrophe? Where else, but in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom equals sodomy equals sinfulness equals destruction; that’s how the story goes. The problem is, if we read the actual scriptural account of Sodom, it turns out that Sodom’s destruction had essentially nothing to do with homosexuality. Sodom’s sin was to violate the ancient law of hospitality.

Say what? The difficulty is that word, ‘hospitality,’ with its Martha Stewart-ish overtones, and general sense of using-the-wrong-fork-at-dinner or mussing-up-the-guest-towels. To say ‘Sodom was inhospitable’ seems like pretty weak tea, acting as gay apologists, minimizing Sodom’s sin. In fact, the ancient law of hospitality was a very serious thing indeed, the defining characteristic of civilized society. Ancient Troy was destroyed because hospitality was violated. It’s mostly what The Odyssey was about. It was incredibly important.

The law of hospitality is best described as a whole system of rights and reciprocal obligations, without which civilization could not exist. If a stranger showed up at your city gates, you had two choices. You could bash his head in. Or you could invite him in, feed him, shelter him, and send him on his way with gifts. If you did the former, word got around, you were understood not to be a civilized society, and nobody would trade with you. If you did the latter, word got around, you were understood to be civilized, and trade flourished. As a guest, he had obligations as well; to not abscond with the silverware or the king’s daughter. Or your host’s wife.

Which brings us to Paris, and to Menelaus. When Paris ran off with Helen, he committed the most egregious possible violation of a guest’s obligations, the most despicable possible transgression of civilized values. Menelaus was absolutely justified in asking Agamemnon to join him an in attempt to seek redress, and Priam, though a good and honorable man in most respects, ought to have given Paris and Helen up. Instead, we had the spectacle of the Trojan war. Homer does not defend all Greek conduct in the war, nor does he condemn Priam and Hector and other decent Trojans. The tragedy of Troy was the inevitability of the Greek response to Troy’s breach of the hospitality code.

The Odyssey takes this all a step further. Odysseus is driven off his course, visiting island after island, city after city. The Odyssey can be seen as a primer on hospitality, a series of case studies on how it works, and what’s supposed to happen. Some people–Nausicaa’s people, for example–serve as good examples. Others–Polyphemus–are the worst possible subjects for study, absolutely defining barbarism. Meanwhile, back home in Ithaca, Penelope’s suitors–who have, in the beginning, a potentially legitimate reason to visit–become, over time, intolerable. They are initially guests, but by never leaving, they grow intolerable.

Hospitality was the key to civilization, and it makes sense that the most important work of Greek scripture would be an in-depth study of the hospitality code. And the longest section of the book deals with the most complex case; the suitors. We read it (or hear it), and learn;  yes, it’s possible to start off legitimate, and over time, become barbaric. And, in the end, of course, Odysseus and Telemachus set the course of civilized behavior back on track, by wiping the suitors off the map. The cost is high, but Athena sets matters right in the end, blessing Odysseus’ actions.

How does this relate to Sodom? Well, it’s another case study in hospitality. My friend Bill Davis explains:

Sodom and Gomorrah: What the Bible really says. The issue: didn’t God destroy S&G for homosexuality? Let’s go back and take a look. Remember the story? Two angels show up at Sodom and meet Lot at the front gate. In accordance with the law of hospitality, Lot invites them home. Next thing ya know, the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring the angels out to them. Why? To gang rape them.

Gang rape? Why? Well, in this period and location, one of the strategies certain cultures used to demonstrate their power and superiority over foreigners was to rape them. It’s not about loving relationships. In fact, it’s not even about sex. It’s about power and humiliation. The goal is to humiliate your enemies. Lot brought some strangers into town, and now the Sodomites are going to aggressively humiliate them to show them who’s boss. And this aggressive humiliation went directly counter to the very important, sacred laws of hospitality.

In other words, Genesis provides us with another hospitality case study. And anyone in the ancient world would have been appalled. There’s nothing bad that could happen subsequently to Sodom that wouldn’t have seemed entirely justified. It turns out, there’s an equally appalling story found in Judges 19. I don’t want to explore it in depth, but it’s about the same dynamic; a city refusing hospitality, and rape as a instrument of power. The difference is, in Judges, the rape is heterosexual. As Bill Davis points out: “if we claim that the story in Genesis 19 is a condemnation of the loving intimacy between homosexuals, then Judges 19 is also a condemnation of loving intimacy between heterosexuals.” Or, as Bible scholar Jay Michaelson puts it, “reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe.”

It’s also complicated by other scriptural accounts. The prophet Ezekial, for example, wrote this:

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  Ezekial 16: 48-50

Can we tie these two ideas together? Absolutely. One of the difficulties of the law of hospitality is that the people who showed up at your gate weren’t necessarily rich or powerful or important. It’s easy to treat people well if you think you can immediately profit by it; harder to just help people in need. Again, in the Odyssey, the one people that provide us the most unequivocal good example of hospitality were the Phaeacians–the people of Princess Nausicaa. When she and her handmaidens come across Odysseus, he’s naked, shipwrecked, and injured. There’s no obvious or immediate advantage to helping him. And he doesn’t initially even tell them his name. But Nausicaa’s parents, Arete and Alcinous, treat him with kindness and generosity nonetheless. Their story ties together those virtues of what we would call Christian charity to hospitality, precisely the virtues that Ezekial tells us Sodom most conspicuously lacked.

I know that in common parlance, Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality, and sodomy a synonym for gay sex. Justification for this perspective can be found in that strangest and shortest of New Testament works, the book of Jude:

Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Jude 1:7

I suppose you could argue that ‘going after strange flesh’ is a reference to homosexuality, or possibly bestiality. But the ‘lack of charity’ angle later becomes part of the equation; the people Jude condemns are ‘spots on your feasts of charity.’

There are, of course, other Bible scriptures that condemn homosexual relations. Most of them are part of the Law of Moses, which also condemns playing football (with a pigskin), or wearing cotton/poly blend shirts. Still, there’s the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, I Timothy 1: 8-11). Of course, Paul had nothing to say about gay marriage, because such a concept could not possibly have ever occurred to him. But the narrative that really does not have any scriptural support at all is the one in which the destruction of Sodom is used to demonstrate what God’s wrath will do to America if we embrace marriage equality. The story of Sodom is about arrogance, violence and a lack of charity. It’s about what happens when a society rejects the law of hospitality.  And that’s actually a warning with some teeth.

 

 

Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things: Book Review

Some years ago, an evangelical friend who had gotten into the world of LDS filmmaking was telling me how much she liked the movie The Home Teachers. Since I thought The Home Teachers was the flaming dragon’s mouth of hell worst movie ever made ever, I asked how on earth she could have liked it. ‘You Mormons can laugh at yourselves,’ she responded. ‘I think that’s awesome!’ Which, come to think of it, it is. Think of James Arrington’s Farley Family plays, for example, or Pat Bagley’s cartoons, or the glory years of the late lamented Sugar Beet. Or the self-deprecatory wit of some of our General Authorities. We really do seem to enjoy laughing at ourselves, and that’s a good and healthy thing.

Which brings me to my good pal Janiel Miller’s delightful new book, Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things. Janiel’s an actress, a singer, a Mom and a life-long active Mormon. I just directed her in Much Ado about Zombies. When I told her that I was casting her as zombie-virus disease-vector, she said that I had fulfilled one of her life’s ambitions. In fact, her role was small, but you could see audiences looking forward to her every appearance, she made so much of it.  She became the cast den mother, and our resident humorist. And we had a great time with the show.

What I enjoyed most about her book is how perfectly it captures her voice. She approaches every subject sideways, a little off-center. She goofs around with language, and culture. It’s smart without being smart-ass. It’s a book about tone. Genial, always positive, endlessly enchanted by everything absurd about our culture, the book feels like a lunch with my old friend and her wonderful husband Bruce and my amazing wife,  sitting in Cravings Bistro, eating their mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich (can cuisine get more Mormon than that?) conversationally goofing around. Without ever being angry, or vicious, or disrespectful, never for a second remotely mean-spirited, Janiel takes our culture on with affection and insight. I got the book, dipped my toe in, then set it aside for a few days. It took me awhile to get into it, and then I imagined Janiel reading it aloud, and it came to life for me, and once I figure that out, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a read more. My daughter caught me reading it, and asked why my lips were moving. I hadn’t realized they were. But it’s that kind of book, a read-aloud. Even if you’re alone.

The book starts with a kind of lexicon of Mormonish terminology. Some examples:

Bishop: a man who spends a century over the course of five years herding his flock towards the celestial pen, whilst his wife and kids post ‘missing persons’ bulletins with his picture on them all over town.

Cultural Hall: a vast chamber into which ward members overflow for sacrament meetings, listen to inspirational speakers, and partake of nourishment–all beneath the benevolent gaze of a pair of basketball hoops.

Eagle Scout Project: a program where the mother of a scout earns her Eagle badge by forcing helping her son through each of his merit badges, then dragging him downtown to replant all the bulbs around the city’s trees.

Missionary Farewells: we don’t have them. *snort*

Polygamy: sooo. This. We don’t do this anymore. We did it before. Now we don’t. Anybody who still does this ain’t us, a’ight? I mean, even stalwart pioneer-type dudes were smart enough to eventually realize that having fourteen PMS-y women under one roof made them about as safe as a bucket of KFC Extra-Crispy at the Donner party, and would eventually result in fourteen merry widows.

Terrestrial Kingdom: Second Degree of Glory. The ‘middle child’ of the Three Kingdoms. Not quite good enough, not quite bad enough. Like American Idol runners-up, but with more bling.

 

But I’m making it sound too straightforward. Most of the lexiconographical entries include asides, anecdotes, clarifications, funny, barely-relevant-but-probably-true stories. Janiel takes a scattershot approach to her comedy, reflecting a magnificently random mind. That’s the charm of the book. Plus the fact that she generally gets us right. And truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, but truth is always the basis for funny.

Like the recipes. After the lexicon, we have recipes. For Funeral Potatoes and Green Jello salad; authentic Mormonicana. And I mean, come on. I always use frozen hash browns for my funeral potatoes, thank you very much, and crushed corn chex on top, not panko bread crumbs. (Seriously, panko bread crumbs? Way too highbrow for the World’s Greatest Comfort Food). Also, onion powder is optional for the best Utah fry sauce. Really, all you need is ketchup and mayo, though I understand Burger Supreme seasons theirs with BBQ sauce.

Ahem. Sorry. Anyway, the last section of the book was the most delightful; just stories. And that’s when the book gets a little more real, a little more vulnerable. I mean, it’s still funny. She can’t help but be funny. But we get that little bit more truth. It’s where Janiel moves from straight-up Erma Bombeck to later, more reflective Erma Bombeck, with a strong flavor of Jean Kerr. Maybe a little Molly Ivins. Good stuff, though, and moving.

I think I know Janiel well enough to know that she won’t be insulted when I call this the perfect bathroom book. In fact, though, I did not read it in the bathroom. I mostly enjoyed it in my office, waiting for my computer to download the latest I-tunes update, or for files to backup. It’s a book that made annoying mandatory downtime pretty fun. I started to look forward to computer hassles, honestly, so that I could get back to reading Janiel’s book. It was that much fun.

So, seriously, buy this and read it. It’s a lark, a wheeze, a ball. And also wise and smart and real. And if you’re not a Mormon, but want to learn more about us, read this. Do not see The Home Teachers. It’s really bad. And this is really really good.

Austerity: Book Review

Every dollar spent by government is a dollar not available for job creation and investment. Our first national priority must be eliminating the federal budget deficit, and paying down the national debt. It is immoral to pass on all that debt to our grandchildren. Europe’s problems are of its own creation: too generous a welfare state, too high taxes. What’s needed is belt-tightening, cuts in spending. Recessions are simply normal parts of a business cycle. Ride them out, and normal and natural rates of unemployment will return. The biggest problem in a recession is for a government to spend; it just prolongs the misery. The Great Depression would have ended years earlier were it not for Roosevelt’s foolish reliance on Keynesian stimulus efforts. What we need is to improve business confidence, achieved by cutting government spending. Or, heard more faintly, out on the fringes, this: what we need is to get rid of the federal reserve, and go back to the gold standard. What’s needed, above all, is austerity.

You have probably heard most, if not all of the ideas expressed in that first paragraph. Sometimes they’re uttered by politicians, sometimes by commentators, often by businessmen, occasionally even from economists, though only from that small (but sadly influential) minority of economists from the Austrian school of neo-liberal or libertarian thinkers. You’ve probably heard them at family gatherings, from your elderly great-uncle Horace, or on-line from that old high school friend now working as a computer programmer. But here’s what’s really important: everything in that first paragraph is false. All of it; every sentence. Demonstrably false. Provably false. Factually false. Or, to put it more colorfully (and here I quote Mark Blythe), “absolute horse***t.”

May I recommend an excellent book making that case: Blythe’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. And no, his language isn’t generally that colorful. But it’s a passionate book, a fiery polemic, as well as a first-rate economic history. I loved it, and found it almost compulsively readable, but I should warn you; it’s a book about economics by an economist. It’s intelligibly written, intended for a general readership, but there are still paragraphs it may take you some time to unpack.

Blythe is professor of economics at Brown University, holds an endowed chair, published scholar with a lengthy resume. But, of course, economists disagree with each other all the time, and the main rival schools of thought hold views that are unreconcilable. So don’t just believe him because he’s a smart guy with advanced degrees in the field and an impressive publishing history. Read the book. Follow his logic and reasoning and evidence. Then let’s talk.

Because, let’s face it; austerity has a certain grim appeal. The United Kingdom, and France, and Spain, and many other countries in Europe have generous welfare states, high unemployment, and massive budget deficits. All that debt is crippling their ability to budget responsibly, especially when paying interest on debt already accrued becomes a major budget line. So what’s needed is good old fashioned thrift and industry. It’s common sense, we think, because that’s what we would do in our families. If we had a situation, in our families, where someone was out of work and our income shrank, we’d immediately cut down on our spending. We’d see if we could cut our food budget, we’d clip coupons, we’d forgo that new purchase, we’d scrimp and save and make do. Even if our income didn’t shrink, even if we did find ourselves in relative prosperity, we still look for ways to be frugal. Frugality is a virtue; profligacy a vice. How much TV advertising is based on that premise? You can save $___ if you use our insurance company, or wireless service, or buy that car from our dealership.

The problem is, if everyone practices frugality and austerity, the economy grinds to a halt. If everyone does it, it doesn’t work. Companies go broke, factories are shuttered. And a government is the very definition of ‘everyone.’

So when governments spend, more money is put into circulation, demand grows, and supply grows to meet demand. When governments contract, less money circulates, unemployment increases, and, paradoxically, budget deficits increase. Over and over again, Blythe makes this point: austerity doesn’t work. It has never worked. It’s been tried repeatedly, in countries all over the world, and has essentially a one hundred percent fail rate historically. What does tend to happen in austerity situations is that rich people get richer (because they’re insulated from the effects of it), and poor people, obviously, get a good deal poorer. And there are always neo-liberal economists who will insist that the only thing that’s needed is more patience. That it will work eventually.

Economically, there’s no reason to believe that austerity will ever work. Politically, of course, it’s a complete failure. As Blythe points out repeatedly, you can’t have a gold standard in a democracy. Gold standards constrict economic growth, and voters eventually get fed up. That’s exactly why the anti-austerity party, Syriza, just won an election in Greece, for example.

Blythe does not suggest, BTW, that governments should spend irresponsibly, or that deficits don’t matter at all, ever. Of course, too much government debt is a bad thing. But he does suggest several policy initiatives that are more likely to be successful. Looking at the debt held by the US government, for example, one obvious solution is to raise taxes on the super-rich. The greatest periods of economic growth in US history coincided with very high taxes on the top brackets.

He also believes that there exists, internationally, a tax collection crisis. That’s certainly true in Greece, where wealthy scofflaw tax cheats held, at one time, nearly every seat in their parliament. The fact is, most rich people don’t like paying taxes, and have the resources to avoid paying them. Governments need relentless imagination and cunning to see to it that that doesn’t happen.

I’m a bit skeptical about a country like the US mustering the political will to actually raise taxes, or let banks fail–another policy notion Blythe recommends. But the book is a treat. Give it a read. Plow through. You’ll be well-rewarded.