Charlie’s marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Movie Review: Fury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sixth Circuit decision

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

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

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

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

Check out, for example, this passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs: Book review

Greil Marcus is an historian, a rock critic and a cultural commentator, known for books that tie together rock and roll music and recent American and world history. His most recent book is The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, which it is my pleasure to review and to recommend. The ten songs of the title are not, of course, the only songs discussed in the book, but they’re carefully, if somewhat idiosyncratically chosen; not the songs most folks, or most rock historians would recommend. Many of them, I had never heard of. But the free-wheeling discussions of those songs, and of the artists who covered them, is lucid, thoughtful, tough-minded, intelligent. I loved this book.

May I also recommend that, if at all possible, you purchase and read this book on Kindle, or some other kind of tablet device. The reason is simple: you’re going to want to listen to the songs, and in many cases, you’re going to want to watch videos of the songs in live performance.  If you’re like me, you’re not going to know at least some of them, or recall them to memory. This is less a book than a book experience, and to fully appreciate Marcus’ discussions of these songs, you’re going to need to have them immediately accessible.

He begins the book by quoting this provocative conversation between journalist Bill Flanagan and Neil Young, in 1986:

“The one thing that rock and roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequence. The country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself to church. Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”

“That’s right,” Young said, “Rock and roll is reckless abandon. Rock and roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock and roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.”

And those quotations set the stage for the rest of Marcus’ discussion. It’s a book about how rock and roll inverts time, reverses cause and effect. It’s about rediscovery and re-imagining. It’s about how brilliantly some artists make an old song their own, and use it to comment on their own time and place. It’s about odd psychic connections between performers and eras.  It’s not so much about timelessness as it is about the ubiquity of time-specificity. It’s quite specifically about Cyndi Lauper turning a mid-seventies Brains’ song Money Changes Everything, and turning into a theatrical punk anthem, all rage and fury and hard-earned truth. And Amy Winehouse finding truth and meaning in a sentimental standard. And it’s about a superb conceptual artist finding a way to memorialize tragedy.

Marcus begins with a discussion of The Flamin’ Groovies and their 1976 hit, Shake Some Action. I’d never heard of this band or song–I was on a mission in 1976–but it’s remarkable, an “argument about life, captured in sound.” It’s a song full of reckless abandon, an unstable song, in which the constituent elements, drums, bass, guitars, vocals, are in constant and exquisite tension with each other. A nice way to begin a book about exactly that tension driving an entire art form.

Next comes Transmission, by the Manchester punk band Joy Division, featured in the 2007 film Control. It’s a song that deconstructs the power of radio, built again on instability and danger. Said Joy Division co-founder Bernard Sumner, “I saw the Sex Pistols (in Manchester, in 1976, in a hall that barely held a hundred people). They were terrible. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.”

In the Still of the Nite was a doo-wap classic, originally recorded by the Five Satins in 1956. Sung by the nineteen year old Fred Parris with some high school buddies, on leave while in the army. It made every oldies album ever. It was featured in American Graffiti and in Dirty Dancing. And then David Cronenberg used it in Dead Ringers, and it took on a whole new meaning. This is also part of Marcus’ project in this book; to show how relatively innocuous songs become darker and more violent as they’re used by great film directors.

Marcus uses the Etta James classic All I Could Do is Cry to explore the kaleidoscope of meanings surrounding the Barack Obama inauguration in 2013, the selection of Beyonce and not Etta James–still alive, and furious at the omission– to sing At Last, the exquisite, and exquisitely inauthentic perfection of Beyonce, and how, playing Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, Beyonce still somehow transcended her own status as media creation and idol, and found the profound and ugly truth of the pre-civil rights era music scene.

Marcus does include one Buddy Holly song, not That’ll be the Day or Peggy Sue, but Crying, Waiting, Hoping, and segues into a brilliant discussion of the Rolling Stones’ cover of Not Fade Away, and the Beatles’ earlier cover of Crying, Waiting, Hoping.  So, yes, his history of rock music does include terrific discussions of, you know, the usual suspects, the Beatles and Stones and Dylan.

He then takes a chapter off, so to speak, to write a lengthy alternative history of rock, imagining that Robert Johnson had never died, but had lived to see his music memorialized.

But in the next chapter, after this little Delta blues interlude, Marcus gets to the heart of his thesis. He ties together Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), as later covered by the Beatles, and The Brains’ Money Changes Everything, as finally covered by Cyndi Lauper. Music is truth and truth is beauty, but behind it all is poverty and despair and the desperate truth that money is actually what makes a difference. John Lennon, born in Liverpool into abject poverty, and Cyndi Lauper, haunting the New York music scene for eight years, raped twice, hospitalized for malnutrition, later found a solid core of pure truth in songs about money, the power of it, the necessity of it, but also the way it warps humanity. Watch Lauper’s live performance of Money Changes Everything, kicking a garbage can around the stage, then climbing into the garbage can and soaring over the audience, triumphant and wiser and sadder than ever.  It’s on Youtube. I don’t seem to be able to link to it right now, but watch it. Marcus is never better than in that chapter.

And then, three wistful codas. First, he writes about This Magic Moment, first recorded by the Drifters, but then, cold-blooded as a rattler, covered by Lou Reed, and used by David Lynch in The Lost Highway. Next, Guitar Drag, less a rock song than a piece of avant-garde multi-media art, by Christian Marclay. A guitar is dragged behind a pickup truck. Just as James Byrd was murdered, in 1998, dragged behind a truck. An unforgettable moment.

And finally, To Know Him is to Love Him. The most treacly and sentimental of all songs, first recorded by the Teddy Bears, in 1958. And later covered, in a revelatory performance, by Amy Winehouse. Revealing, finally, everything we lost when that brilliant young woman’s life ended so tragically. Because that’s rock and roll too. Brilliance cut short, far too frequently.

I spent one day devoted to this book, looking up the songs and listening to them (sometimes repeatedly), and then devouring (and at times arguing mentally with) Marcus’ discussions of them. What an exhilarating read. Really, if this subject at all resonates with you, read this book.  You’ll be thrilled at how much you have to think about afterwards.

 

 

16 Stones: Movie Review

Set in the volatile world of Missouri in 1838, 16 Stones follows three LDS twenty-somethings on their quest to find the sixteen stones touched by the finger of Jehovah, as described in Ether, chapter three in the Book of Mormon. They think that if they can find those stones, it will definitively prove the Book of Mormon (and by extension, the LDS faith) true, and that the Missouri mobs attacking Mormon settlements will therefore stop the violence.

That’s not the silliest premise I’ve ever seen for a movie. The notion that our Founding Fathers put a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, or the idea of an archeologist digging around for the Ark of the Covenant, so he can use it to defeat Hitler, both strike me as sillier. But National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark are fun. They’re entertaining because they don’t either of them take themselves very seriously, and because they feature rollicking action sequences and plenty of humor. 16 Stones, on the other hand, is painfully, excruciatingly earnest. Earnestness isn’t a bad thing. It’s not, however, very aesthetically enjoyable.

I just suggested that the premise of the movie is ‘silly,’ when a better word perhaps should have been ‘naive.’  I can see some LDS audiences enjoying the movie, and finding it faith-affirming.  That was not my reaction to it. I found that I had plenty of leisure and brain-space to pick it apart.  And so I did.

The movie begins in Far West Missouri, in 1838. But it doesn’t exist in any actual historical Missouri, but in the Missouri of Mormon myth-making, in which the Saints were innocent and gentle, and the Missourians a scruffy and vicious bunch of thugs, with yellow teeth. (The bad guys in this film had uniformly ugly teeth). James Delford (Mason Davis) is an LDS blacksmith, chastely half-pursuing a romance with Elaine (Aubrey Reynolds), whose brother Thomas (Ben Isaacs), James’ best friend, is expected home shortly from his mission. A Missouri attack, however, results in James’ mother being shot in the back and killed, and James is distraught and angry. At first, he wants to hunt down his mother’s killer, but Joseph Smith (Brad Johnson) talks him out of it. Instead, James decides to go on his search for the 16 stones of the film’s title. And Thomas and Elaine agree to go with him.

What follows is not so much a plot as a string of increasingly preposterous coincidences. Thomas, on his mission, met an Indian who told him of his tribe’s mythology, involving ‘turtle boats’ crossing the ocean. This strikes James as suitably Jaredite-ish, and the Indian, Kitchi (Rog Benally), even gives them a handy map to follow. (I’m not kidding, the Indian character’s name is ‘Kitschy’).  The map leads them to some metallic plates, inscribed with ancient Hebrew letters. They can’t, of course, read ancient Hebrew, but they rescue a Jesuit Priest (Andy Jones), who is being beaten up by Missourians, and who can read Hebrew, and who leads them towards their next clue. And so on. Meanwhile, they’re apparently supposed to be traipsing their way across Missouri, to just outside Chillicothe, Ohio, then back to Indiana, then back home to Missouri again, all on foot, Missourians having stolen their horses.  That’s a heck of a walk, honestly. In real life, their trek would take months. But our heroes stroll along unhurriedly, and manage the whole trip without experiencing so much as a change in seasons.

They are pursued all the while by two more Missouri scalawags, played by Jarrod Phillips and Allan Groves. Although these villains were portrayed as a couple of bumbling idiots, they are also heavily armed, and greedy, and apparently much better at tracking than Our Heroes are at noticing they’re being tracked.

And this leads to one of the film’s biggest problems. Isaacs, Davis and Reynolds, the three leads, do a nice job with their badly under-written heroic roles. Davis is asked to play James as alternatively stalwart and doubting, and he handles both well, though he never does quite manage to turn those contradictions into a fully-realized dramatic character. Reynolds fares better, giving Elaine a courageous edge to balance her character’s doubts and insecurities. Isaacs is an energetic and appealing film presence, despite his character being given the least to do of the three of them.

But the poor actors forced to play bad guys in the film (and their numbers are legion) are uniformly dreadful, painting every Missouri bounder as both ferocious and dumb. The result was not just a film without nuance, it was a film that depicted most of its dramatic characters as subhuman. I do not see how this accords with my understanding art as an expression of the gospel. Art embraces our common humanity. It treats all human beings, even ones who embrace violence, as our brothers and sisters. When a narrative reduces all humanity to black and white, good and evil, then that narrative itself embraces falseness.  That’s okay in an action movie, which isn’t meant to be taken seriously. But the earnestness of this film urges us to take it very seriously indeed. Which, for me, turned out not to be possible.

This is because of the amateur clumsiness on display. The movie never could seem to keep straight who had guns or how many of them, let alone nuances like what sorts of guns the characters might plausibly have owned in 1838, or how likely those guns might be to misfire. At one point, Elaine casually lets her canteen (the one canteen owned by the three of them) dribble water onto a rock, despite it being the only drinking water available for three people on a long cross-country hike. The water on the rock ended up revealing an important plot point, but I was honestly more concerned with dying-of-thirst issues at that point, and I rather think they would have been too. Plus, it was never clear to me what these characters intended to eat on their journey. They certainly weren’t carrying much food, nor had they money to purchase any.  Aside from one early pork-and-beans dinner (cooked, of course, by Elaine; why else would you bring a woman along?), I don’t think they bother with food at all the whole movie.

Of course, they end up finding the stones. And then James is persuaded by Joseph Smith not to show them to anyone. You can’t prove the gospel true, Joseph sagely tells him. Faith doesn’t work that way. And it turns out the point of the whole journey was to teach James a Valuable Life Lesson. Not Proving the Gospel True.

Fair enough. But that’s actually the point of the entire movie. The whole reason for making the movie is to not just to bear testimony, but to Prove the Gospel True. The movie asserts as matters of provable fact that Indians had legends of turtle boats, that they wrote on metallic plates, that they worshipped a pre-Christian Jesus, that they wrote in ancient Hebrew. Plus, of course, that there really were stones that glowed.  That it’s all literally, provably, factually true.

But as a believing, practicing Mormon, I found every assertion of the movie unconvincing.  The reason is context. I find arguments made in good movies more persuasive than arguments made in bad ones. I don’t actually find faith difficult to maintain, but I do find naivete unsustainable. And so I tended to consign 16 Stones to a brand new category–“movies sort of like National Treasure, but nowhere near as fun.”  I did not find the sincere expressions of testimony made by these characters risible. I cannot say that about the film in which they appeared.

 

Columbus

So, a recent column in the Deseret News was all about Christopher Columbus, and how he’s referenced in the Book of Mormon, and how the Spirit led him to America. This article called arguments that Columbus was “motivated by ambition and materialism,” and that he was “an embodiment of rapacious greed and Western colonialism, an imperialist forerunner of genocidal oppression” mistaken, “at best, one-sided and misleading.” Because his own writings showed that he considered himself led by the Holy Spirit to the Indies. Plus he liked a lot of the same scriptures Mormons like. So: good guy, quasi-prophetic and deeply moral. That’s the narrative.

Except Columbus set a gold quota for the Indians under his charge, and any who didn’t make quota lost an arm. Columbus enslaved a shipload of Indians and took them back with him to Spain, where they all died.  Columbus refused to allow his priests to baptize Indians, because Church law didn’t allow baptized Christians to be enslaved.  And when his lieutenant told him about raping a native woman, Columbus didn’t so much as admonish the man.

I’m fascinated with Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci, and that whole era. I’m particularly interested in Father Bartolome de las Casas, a Columbus contemporary who treated the native peoples with whom he interacted with kindness, compassion and respect, and who wrote letters back to Spain condemning Columbus’ treatment of them.  A genuine Christian, and a heroic individual in every meaningful sense.

So I wrote a play about Columbus, and the ‘discovery’ of America; took about two years to research and write.  Called Amerigo, the premise is that Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, trapped in Purgatory, have been arguing about which of them should get credit for finding America, and their fights have increasingly disrupted the repose of the truly penitent.  So Nicola Macchiavelli has been asked to moderate a debate between them.  And the judge will be Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun, who was also the greatest Spanish writer living in the Americas.  Those four characters, in purgatory, arguing about America.

It was produced by Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City in 2009.  It won City Weekly’s annual award for best theatre production in Salt Lake.  It got good reviews, like this oneAnd this one. And it’s available for purchase, in this collection.

I don’t understand this need by some Latter-day Saints to defend Columbus, though. I think it’s related to the myth of American exceptionalism. God inspired Columbus to come here, leading to more Europeans colonizing the Americas, leading to the creation of a safe haven for religious dissidents, leading to God’s favored nation, the United States of America.  I’m familiar with the narrative.  And I find it deeply troubling. The main reason Europeans were able to colonize the Americas is because of the greatest pandemic in human history, a terrible plague in which tens of millions died, possibly up to 95% of the human population. Of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ that depopulated these two continents, the Germs were by far the most effective/destructive.  Am I to believe, therefore, that God intended it that way, that God sent bacilli to decimate the New World? Because the other possibility, the more likely and the (slightly) less troubling narrative is that germs just happen, that God allows for pandemic just as He apparently allows for genocide, as an essential part of this testing ground on which we find ourselves.

And if it was all a test, de las Casas passes.  And Columbus does not.

Let’s dispense with the borderline blasphemous intentionality model for colonization, and admit what was really going on. Accident, disease, conquest, misunderstandings, miscommunications leading to violence. Male, white privilege, cultural hegemony. And genocide.

And we know a lot about it. Amerigo Vespucci, for example, was a businessman, interested in trade. He’d been a pimp; he’d sold everything to anyone. But at least he had the grace to see how beautiful the lands were he intended to exploit.

And Columbus. And yes, he was pious, in the peculiar sense in which 15th century Catholic religious fanatics could be pious. He thought he was looking for the Garden of Eden. He thought it was the source of all spices on earth. He thought that if he found spice, he would find enough to fund a Crusade, King Ferdinand leading an army to conquer the Holy Land, leading to the Second Coming.  He certainly deserves credit as a seaman–he was a tremendous sailor. But he was also, let’s face it, kind of a kook.

So that’s America today: Columbus and Amerigo. A land of religious fanaticism and extremism. And a land of rapacious capitalism.  Moderated, only occasionally, by the good sense of a Sor Juana, and the moral power of Bartolome de las Casas.

That’s the America I love, and the America I’m glad to celebrate.  The America of, not Columbus, but de las Casas.  The America of, not Vespucci, but Sor Juana.  An America of literary and artistic achievement, and progressive activism. An America build on tragedy, but also an America built around at least the possibility of positive change.

And absolutely, we should honor Columbus. But we honor him best by getting the facts about his life right. Don’t let ideology overrule history. Let’s tell the truth, about him, and about America, what it is, what it was, what it might become.

Constitution Day

Today is Constitution Day, a national holiday established in 2004. We celebrate it on September 17, because that was the day the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. Or the people who were still there signed it, many of the Convention members having already left Philadelphia. The Framers were probably relieved, first to have the ordeal done with, and also because it was September, following a particularly sweltering summer of 1787. With no air conditioning. Or good fans. Or even open windows, which remained closed for fear of eavesdroppers.

Still, this is a good thing, to celebrate the Constitution. And for families with children, the Constitution Center has a website with lots of fun activities designed to teach kids about it.

The Constitution is actually a pretty easy document to read, once you get used to eighteenth century vocabularies and usage.  It’s really pretty simple. It basically describes the process by which laws will be passed, who will pass them, how they will be elected to the task, and who is responsible for executing them. The principle doctrine that informed its creation is ‘separation of powers.’  The Framers were worried about political power. Most of the world of their day was governed using the ‘insane hereditary dictator’ system of government, a popular form throughout most of history, for reasons that defy comprehension, since it never works very well. Anyway, what is political power, how should it be wielded, who exercises it, how can it be channeled in positive, beneficial directions?  Nobody knew.  And when the Framers finished the document, they were generally skeptical about what they’d accomplished. What if it didn’t work? Because maybe it wouldn’t.

James Madison and the other Framers built the theoretical framework for a Constitution out of untested and frankly pretty radical political theories, which they believed in and thought would work in a practical sense, but which they couldn’t be sure of at all.  Key to those theories was the notion that political power resided with the people, and not with a sovereign blessed by God. Throughout most of history, the theory had been that God had, in His Infinite Wisdom, placed everyone in a particular station in life, for inscrutable but wise reasons of His own. If you were a peasant, it was because God wanted you to be a peasant; if a nobleman, again, God’s will.  And kings, of course, were likewise divinely appointed, and ruled by divine right, and therefore, by fiat, by unobstructed decree.

Now, its true that our political traditions were mostly British, and that Britain had, ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, been a more or less constitutional monarchy. The political theories Madison believed in had, for the most part, and in rudimentary form, been tried out in Britain. The ever-evolving British constitution did allow for some freedom and personal autonomy; the Magna Carta was in both American and British backgrounds. So there is a sense in which the Framers took the best of their British political heritage and rejected the worst of it.  I certainly don’t think a non-British colony, granted independence, would have come up with anything like our Constitution. It was still radical, and perceived by some as dangerous–dangerously monarchical by some, dangerously anti-monarchical by others. Was the office of the President too strong? Not strong enough?

Some conservatives today believe that our Constitution established America as a Godly nation, a Christian nation, with Christian values. We hear, for example, that the Framers opened their sessions with prayer. They didn’t. They did think about having a prayer once, but rejected it, because it might look bad; might look like they were squabbling so much they needed a priest to sort them out. It certainly never occurred to any of the Framers that they could pray. Wasn’t something gentlemen did.

It’s important to understand that that this Christian document malarkey isn’t remotely true, and that if it had been true, the document would have reflected the traditional understanding most Christian denominations had of political power.  The Framers would have reinstituted the monarchy; would have provided for a king. When historians point out that the Framers were, for the most part, Deists, that isn’t an insult. The Constitution is a Deist document, reflecting Deist values. Deism is not atheism; Deists believed in God.  But they believed in a distant God, who had set the universe on its path and chose not to intervene subsequently in how it worked. The Deist God was a clockmaker God, who wound up the universe and then let it tick along on its own.

This doctrine didn’t disenfranchise God, but it did empower ordinary (property-owning, white, male) citizens. People were generally free to decide what they would make of their own lives. Birth and wealth and privilege didn’t matter much; what mattered were the decisions of free men, working out their own destinies. And that meant a democratic document.

But the Framers were just as afraid of the raw power of pure democracy. They were savvy enough to know how easily mobs could form and be swayed and the destruction they could wreak.  So democratic power had to be limited in scope, turned into a Republic, in which enlightened citizen-philosophers, elected by their fellow citizens, could make decisions that would be binding and conclusive.

Another familiar conservative trope is that the Framers intended a ‘limited government,’ that they would be appalled by the massive behemoth that our current federal government has become.  This is likewise nonsense. The Framers were in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.  They’d tried Federalism. They’d tried small government. They’d tried the ‘local government is best government’ experiment. If there was one thing that united them, it was disgust with the ineffectual, bankrupt mess the Articles had created.

Again, their solution was separation of powers. They wanted to disrupt the traditional centers of power.  A democratic House, immediately responsive to voter concerns needed to be checked by a more contemplative Senate, protected from passionate demogoguery by its leisurely six year electoral cycle. If laws were passed that violated the rights of minorities, a Supreme Court could declare them invalid. Presidents nominated Court members, but those nominations required Senate ratification.  The Framers didn’t want government to be powerless; indeed the very doctrine of a separation of powers presupposes that government would have significant powers that needed separating.

What they established (or were at least willing to live with) was a government that would be inefficient. They didn’t mind much that the process of passing a bill was cumbersome and ineffective. That was all right. They figured that sooner or later, legislators would compromise, and the measures that resulted would be regarded by most as ‘not great, but probably the best we can come up with, given the circumstances’.  They were fine with half-measures, with watered down legislation, with debates in which egotists and gasbags and show-offs and grandstanders would hold forth endlessly on subjects they knew nothing about. They weren’t afraid, in other words, of American governance getting pretty comical at times.  They were pessimistic optimists, in other words, realistic about human self-delusion, but also certain that in the end, future Americans would muddle along well enough.

They also knew their work wasn’t perfect, and that changes would need to be made. That’s why they included an amendment process. When James Madison was elected to the House he’d helped create, his first, self-imposed task was passing a Bill of Rights. That’s worked out pretty well. But the Constitution was absurdly accommodating to slavery, and most of the Framers knew well enough that that was going to be a problem, that they’d basically shuffled a major slavery confrontation off to their grandchildren. The Framers may well have been ‘inspired,’ but collectively, their work was informed by self-interest, anticipated personal economic benefits, and moral cowardice every bit as much as nobility and sagacious wisdom.

And the Constitution is deliberately and intentionally vague about a lot of issues that it might have been nice to have clarified. (Like, what they meant by ‘bear arms,’ for example!)  From time to time, you’ll hear people declare, in terms of utter certitude, that some action or other by some President is ‘unconstitutional.’ That’s the basis for Speaker Boehner’s amazing, risible lawsuit against President Obama; the President unilaterally changed some of the deadlines in the Affordable Care Act.  But it’s not remotely clear what the constitutional line is between  ‘Congress passing legislation’ and ‘President executing laws.’  The Framers give us, like, two sentences on those issues. So you can make a case for the President’s actions being unconstitutional, but you can make an equally plausible case for those actions being perfectly constitutional.  The Constitution is kind of infuriating that way.

And that’s what I like about it. It’s a framework, a set of guiding principles.  It’s not Holy Writ. Did the Framers intend for the US of A having a modern social welfare state? Providing health care? Regulating car safety? Passing environmental legislation? Child safety laws? Gay marriage? Access to public buildings for people with disabilities?  How could they possibly have anticipated any of those issues? Article One Section Eight does offer a few suggestions regarding the kinds of issues Congress might consider, but there’s no hint that those are the only questions they properly could address.

Do you want a big government or a smaller one? Do you want a bigger army or a smaller one? Do you want more money spent to help disadvantaged people, or do you want less money spent on those efforts?

We’re the People. We get to decide. And that’s the genius of the Constitution.

 

 

Presidential lying

I’m going to do something that I’m normally reluctant to do; respond to a source without providing you a link to that source. I’m not just going to respond to it, in fact, I’m going to judge it, declare it utterly worthless.  And I’m going to confess right now that I haven’t actually even read the article in question. And I feel absolutely comfortable doing all this.

The subject is Presidential lying, and the article in question, based on its title, makes the case that President Obama is a liar of the first order, that he lies all the time, routinely, pathologically. That he is, in fact, the worst liar ever to occupy the White House. As I say, I have not read the article, and I’m not going to link to it, nor even tell you where it might be found. A conservative friend linked to it on Facebook, and I read some of the commentary about it on his FB page. So, again without reading the article or examining the author’s evidence, I’m prepared, right now, to say that this article is worthless, and that its very existence fundamentally discredits the website on which it appeared.

Presidents and lies. And first of all, let’s define what a lie actually is. If I claim that yesterday, I grew wings out my upper back, and flew around the neighborhood, and using those wings, was able to hover in the air outside one of the upstairs rooms of my house and fix a broken window, that would be a lie. I don’t have wings, and even if I did have wings, wouldn’t be able to fix a window. But if I said to you that the company I hired to fix that window did a terrific job on it, and that I recommend their professionalism and workmanship, and you subsequently hired that company and they did a poor job on your window, my recommendation would not be a lie. You might be angry at how bad a job those window-fixers did for you, and how dishonest and corrupt they seemed, but my recommendation was offered in good faith. I had a good experience with that company, and told you of it fully anticipating that you would have a good experience too. If I say to you ‘I strapped a magnet to my back, and my back pain went away,’ and you strap a magnet to your back and it doesn’t do you any good at all, I still didn’t lie to you.  Even if I say to you ‘magnets cure back pain,’ that wouldn’t necessarily be a lie. Maybe I genuinely believe that magnets can cure back pain. Maybe I say ‘scientific evidence proves that magnets draw healing chemicals to the source of the pain in your back’, again, that’s not necessarily a lie. It’s nonsense, but it’s not a lie, unless I know it to be nonsense when I say it.

Presidents are politicians, and part of the politician job description is to be a salesman. Politicians try to sell us on their ideas, on their programs, on their proposals, and of course, also on them.  And so, when describing a program, a politician, like any salesman, is likely to emphasize the benefits of that program, and soft-pedal possible downsides. If there are three estimates regarding the cost of the program, a politician will emphasize the lowest of those estimates. That’s just sales. And it’s not fundamentally dishonest. Our political system, like our legal system, is adversarial in nature. One pol says ‘this is a good idea,’ and his/her electoral opponent responds ‘no, it’s a terrible idea,’ and we voters sort it all out on election day. But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that either politician lied to us. They were both making a case for their ideas.  They just disagree.

Now sometimes, a politician really does just lie to us. He’ll say something like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  Or he’ll say “I am not a crook.”  Usually, we see right through it.  We look at President Clinton and we say to ourselves, “you did too have sexual relations with her.”  Or we look at President Nixon and say to ourselves, “I don’t believe you.  I think you are a crook.”  And that kind of lie is a very serious matter, and massively destructive to that politician’s career, when they get caught. And they always get caught. Nixon would have been impeached if he hadn’t resigned. Clinton was impeached, though not removed from office.

Presidents can’t really get away with those sorts of lies for very long. People notice, people pay attention. Any claim that President Obama lies all the time just doesn’t hold up. Watchdog groups, like Politifact, don’t seem to have noticed any massive whoppers like the two I just cited. If President Obama lies all the time, it’s not obvious the way the Clinton and Nixon lies I mentioned were.

But, then, lies regarding policy are not as obviously lies. Take two examples, one from a Republican and one from a Democrat. When President Bush told the American people that Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, had weapons of mass destruction that endangered American interests, that turned out not to be true. But I don’t think it’s accurate to call that statement a lie. There’s no question that the Bush administration genuinely thought the evidence of Saddam’s WMD was credible. A statement that turns out not to be true is not necessarily a deliberate falsehood.

By the same token, when President Obama said ‘under the ACA, if you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep him,’ that wasn’t a lie. The best information he had suggested that almost all insurance plans would meet the ACA guidelines. He didn’t know that health insurance companies would suddenly sell a bunch of low-premium, low-benefit plans that would have to be canceled when the ACA kicked in. He was trying to sell people on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Maybe he exaggerated a little, but there’s no evidence of him consciously and intentionally lying. Politifact called the ACA statements lies, because there’s no question that the President said things that turned out not to be true. And he’s paid a heavy political price for it; his approval ratings are very low right now. But deliberate, intentional lies?  Did he know that a great many people would actually lose their insurance and their doctors, and say the opposite, on purpose?  If so, why tell so obvious a whopper?  Is he really that stupid? No. I suggest to you, therefore, that his statement was offered in good faith, and that it was not a lie.

But there are always people who despise the current President, whoever he is, for partisan reasons. I’m a liberal; I thought George W. Bush was a very bad President. My conservative friends think Barack Obama is a very bad President.  Everyone, every person in the country, suffers from some form of confirmation bias. But for a hard-core political partisan confirmation bias gets amped up to eleven.  So every time a President we dislike says anything, we parse it carefully.  We take every slight exaggeration, every tiny misstatement, every failed projection as a deliberate and intentional falsehood. We never cut a President we disagree with any slack at all.

So on the periphery of our national political conversation, we can always hear, buzzing in our ears, a tremendous amount of partisan white noise. I have liberal friends who will go their graves ‘knowing’ that President Bush deliberately lied our nation into war, so he could enrich his wealthy oilmen friends. I have liberal friends who think President Bush ordered explosives placed inside the Twin Towers foundational gridwork; that 9/11 was an intentional Bush plot. I have conservative friends who are equally convinced that President Obama is a foreign agent, a secret Muslim terrorist and also a communist, born in Kenya, trained by Al Qaeda; that his agenda is to destroy America.

So liberal partisans are convinced that everything George W. Bush (or Dick Cheney) ever said was a lie, a deliberate intentional falsehood. And conservative partisans are convinced that President Obama is essentially a pathological liar, congenitally incapable of telling the truth, about anything, ever. There are liberals who suffer from ‘Bush derangement disorder.’ There are conservatives who suffer from ‘Obama derangement disorder.’  Both disorders are catching, and probably best avoided, and the best way to keep from catching them is to shut them out of our heads.  So when conservative white noise, about Obama and lying, appears on my FB page, I’m not going to read it, and I’m not going to link to it.

It’s perfectly possible to think that Bush’s Iraq policy was a mistake without considering the man a hideous monster. It’s perfectly possible to have misgivings about Obamacare, without considering Obama a tyrant.  Let’s have a reasonable conversation about politics. Let’s focus on policies, and on evidence, and on reason. Let’s leaven rancor with humor, certainty with humility, conviction with compassion. We’re all Americans, after all, and our elected leaders are human beings, susceptible to error, capable of great achievements.  And Presidents have the hardest job in the world. Respect the office, if you can’t respect the person holding it, and let’s keep our cool.

 

 

Rand Paul, ISIL, and the new nihilist chic

ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or alternatively, ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is really really evil. They’re so evil that al-Qaeda has disavowed them. When your extremist jihadist army is too evil for the guys behind 9/11, that’s really evil. I apologize for my tone here; ISIS (or ISIL) continues to murder journalists, and slaughter innocent civilians. They really are a horror show.

So the consensus on all the Sunday morning political talk shows was, as usual, that Something Has to be Done, and whatever the Obama administration is doing is too little, ineffective, and not part of an overall coherent strategy. Is ISIL a genuine threat to American interests?  That question tends to get dismissed pretty quickly. They’re really evil; of course they’re a threat.

Right now, the American response is to bomb ISIL positions, a kind of military action which Congress has not specifically authorized, not that they’re in any huge hurry to do anything of the kind, Article One Section Eight of the Constitution notwithstanding.  But Rand Paul published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal attacking both the President’s actions and those members of his own party (pace John McCain and Lindsay Graham), who are arguing for a continued American military presence in Iraq.  Wrote Paul: “shooting first and asking questions later has never been a good foreign policy.”  Paul isn’t convinced that Isis is a threat to America.  Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee issued an utterly contemptible response to Paul’s op-ed, questioning his patriotism and saying he supported policies that would “make America less safe.”  I’m grateful to my good friend Adam Blackwell, who called this contretemps to my attention, as well as Ezra Klein’s response on the invaluable Vox.com: “the DNC response recalls “the brain-dead patriotism-baiting that Democrats used to loathe” when they were subjected to them by Karl Rove and his proxies.” Dead on.

Paul doesn’t say what he thinks we should do, or what he’d do if he were President (something he would very much like to see happen).  But like his father before him, Rand Paul is never more interesting than when he comments on foreign policy, precisely because he doesn’t care what the Washington conventional consensus is.

The Sunday talk shows are invaluable as a guide to what All the Smart People Think, mainstream Beltway wisdom. I always watch This Week on ABC, and it drives my daughter insane: “why do you watch this? It’s terrible!”  She’s right, but I watch nontheless–it’s good to know what the Establishment is up to. Washington always wants the President to Do Something, to Show Leadership, to Project American Will. That’s why the mainstream media turned cheerleader so quickly in the leadup to Bush’s Iraq invasion. It’s why Hans Blix couldn’t get a major media outlet to listen when he was busy shouting from the rooftops how Saddam Hussein did NOT have WMD, something Blix knew with some certainty, because he was the guy tasked by the UN to go to Iraq and look for them.  So that’s Beltway wisdom: always certain, usually wrong.

When Rand Paul writes about how disastrous that 2003 invasion proved, and how invading Iraq destabilized the region, freeing up human cockroaches like ISIL to crawl out from under the fridge and start blowing stuff up, he’s absolutely right. And so our foreign policy has become almost entirely reactive. Threats emerge, hands are wrung, the President is blamed for those threats, and generally it turns out that there’s not much we can do, except the limited measures the President anyway prefers.

The larger question, of course, is whether or not there are legitimate American interests at risk in Iraq and Syria.  The reason there might be is this: about a hundred Americans, and over a thousand Europeans have joined ISIL.  (I’m calling them ISIL instead of ISIS for reasons I’ll explain later).  That’s the fact that’s being cited on all the talk shows.  There are a hundred American guys going over there!  What happens when they come home!  They have passports!  They’re terrorists!  They’re going to do terrorist-y things over here!  Not so fast, writes Zack Beauchamp on Vox.

The first American jihadist ISIL guy to be killed over there is a guy named Douglas MacArthur McCain.  No kidding; he was named for one of the greatest of American generals, and shares a last name with John McCain.  Who was he?  He was from a Milwaukee suburb. Had a few traffic tickets. Was described as a goofy guy, kind of lost, searching for something.  I also read about the British citizen who they think was the guy who beheaded journalist James Foley.  He supposedly became a jihadist because his rap career wasn’t taking off.

And so I read about these guys, and no, I’m not a national security expert. I’m an aging playwright who used to teach theatre history. But they sure sounded familiar. They remind me of a friend of mine in high school who joined the Children of God.  They remind me of the Baader-Meinhof guys.  They remind me of the SLA.  You remember them; the folks who kidnapped Patty Hearst? My brother’s junior high school English teacher, Emily Harris, was in that group. Smart, disaffected, searching, lost.

In other words, the Americans and Western Europeans who are running off to Syria and joining ISIS may well be simply the latest iteration of the ‘bored nihilist hipster’ crowd. You want to reject mainstream suburban values? One way to do it is to become Kurt Cobain and write some of the greatest music of the last fifty years.  Another way is to run off into the wilderness.  The possibilities are endless.  Get a tattoo, dye your hair, get multiple piercings, drop out of school, try heroin, rob a convenience store. But if you really want to piss off your parents, try joining a group of jihadist terrorists. Way more hardcore than playing Tour of Duty all night. This way, you can really shoot a real weapon.  Drive around in a Toyota pickup waving an AK around. Wear a bandana and talk jihad, send home letters about the glorious pan-Islamic caliphate you’re bringing about. And maybe shoot some people, too.  That’s hardcore, man.

That’s why I’m calling them ISIL, instead of ISIS. Isis was an Egyptian goddess.  ISIL sounds like the thing painters set their canvas on to paint. I don’t want terrorist to sound even a little bit cool. ISIL sounds stupider.

So what happens when they come back to the US, those who survive. Well, not much. First of all, they’re going to be easy to identify, easy to track, and easy to follow. They’re already pretty easy to keep tabs on, because they love to tweet. Doug McCain was, by all accounts, a pretty bright kid, who was lost and needed something to give his life meaning. He found it in Islam, and that’s great. Then he found a greater fulfillment in the darkest corners of the Islamic world, and became a killer, a savage nihilist. It’s a tragedy. My heart breaks for his family. But he wasn’t ever much of a threat to America or to American interests.

So what should we do about ISIL? I’m not convinced they’re much of a threat to American interests. Iraq has a very large, superbly trained and equipped army. They also don’t seem very interested in fighting for the glory of Iraq. The Kurds are semi-autonomous, much better fighters than Iraqi general forces, and motivated–they’ve seen enough of Isis up close to know what they’re dealing with. If some limited bombing strikes can provide support for Kurdish forces, that might be worth trying, if we can manage it without infuriating Turkey, which does not want a Kurdish state on its southern border.

I also think that the US might have a larger humanitarian role to fill. If NATO forces, or UN peacekeepers can be persuaded to get involved, we might be able to fight ISIL effectively, without at the same time supporting Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, or further destabilizing the hopelessly corrupt and inefficient Iraqi government, such as it is. Who knows; perhaps the threat of ISIL could even provide an opportunity for some very careful and nuanced diplomacy with Iran, since ISIL is a Sunni force and Iran generally supports endangered Shiites.

So our options are limited, and the role the US can and should play is a complicated one. So far, I’m willing to support President Obama’s general approach. But Rand Paul should also be listened to. To the degree that it’s possible for both President Obama and Senator Paul to be right about foreign policy, that might be a middle ground worth further exploration.

 

 

Race, Ferguson, “exculpatory” and competing world views

While all the media attention has been directed at Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, there was a second shooting four miles away. The second shooting, of 25-year old Kajieme Powell, was captured on video camera by a passer-by. Powell, walked into a nearby convenience store and shoplifted some energy drinks, which he took outside and carefully laid on the sidewalk.  He was walking around in circles, muttering to himself, and was holding a steak knife. On the footage, a police car showed up, two officers got out, and Powell took a step or two towards them.  Twenty three seconds after the squad car showed up, Powell was shot, at least nine times, killed, and then, bizarrely, handcuffed.

What’s interesting to me was the explanation offered by the St. Louis police department. Originally, they said that Powell moved towards the officers in a threatening manner, holding a knife, that he got within 2 or 3 feet of them, that he was armed and dangerous, that the shooting was justified, and that they released the video, at least in part, because it was, in their view, “exculpatory.”  In other words, they released the video because it supported the official police narrative of the event.

It doesn’t. Powell was never 3 feet from the nearest officer; more like 8 feet, and at least 15 from the second officer. And the officers were equipped with tasers. Nor does Powell seem particularly threatening. He appears, to be honest, a bit deranged.

“Exculpatory?”  I have never served as a police officer, nor in the armed services. I do not own a gun, and can’t imagine ever wanting to. I’ll grant, freely and absolutely, that I am uninformed. I don’t know what it’s like to be a policeman. Maybe I’d shoot too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, the video is not even remotely exculpatory.  If I served on a grand jury, and I was shown that video, I would absolutely vote to indict both officers for manslaughter. If I were on a jury trying them, and I saw that video, I would vote to convict them, perhaps not of murder, but certainly of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Chatting about it on the internet yesterday, though, a lot of people I don’t know disagreed with me. Some thought this was easily and obviously a justifiable homicide. The officers were threatened by a guy with a knife. They stopped him from hurting anyone, including themselves.

So I look at that video, and it seem obvious–this is an unjustified shooting, a criminal act. Police officers, apparently, look at the video and it’s just as obvious–justifiable homicide.  Our world views shape how we see evidence, and shape therefore the narratives we create around that evidence. I see the incidents in Ferguson from the point of view of a middle-aged white liberal. I tend to impute racism to other white people, partly because I’m acutely aware of my own occasional racism.  We’re all shaped by our life experiences, we all have ideological biases. We just don’t all see the world the same way. I cannot fathom anyone looking at that video and calling it “exculpatory” of the officers. Obviously, lots of people, and most especially people who work in law enforcement, completely disagree. We don’t all see the same video. And we tend to label those who disagree with us ‘nuts.’ We think they’re crazy. They just can’t see straight, we think.

Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain–most of the countries of Europe, most First World nations have police forces, crazy people, and steak knives.  They have way way way fewer incidents where police shoot civilians.  In Iceland, in December, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, a police officer shot and killed an armed civilian. The victim was armed with a shotgun, which he used to shoot two other officers; the killing was completely justified.  But the whole nation’s practically in mourning over it.  In Iceland, police officers don’t carry guns. Neither do most European cops.  And they keep civil order just fine.  (Of course, they also have civilian populations that don’t have a lot of guns either.)

So my perspective on guns is urban, middle-class, and liberal. I don’t own a gun, and can’t imagine wanting to own one. If I did own one, it wouldn’t make me feel safer, it would make me feel less safe. I see policemen as essentially benign. To me, they are benign. My few interactions with cops come when I get a ticket for something, which doesn’t happen very often, and which, honestly, I pretty much always deserve, when I do get one.

But in Ferguson, a smallish town without a lot of crime, the Municipal Court issued three warrants and tried 1.5 cases per household. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Guilty verdicts in Ferguson bring in an average fine of $280 dollars. Which means, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, you’re used to being hassled by cops. You factor fines and court appearances into your family budget and your family schedule. And those fines and arrests and court appearances disproportionately hit black families.  Why does Ferguson do this, have so many arrests? They have to. Those fines made up a quarter of the city’s budget. Unemployment is high in the city, and the tax base is small. A lot of businesses have closed. The city has to pay its bills somehow. So they arrest a lot of people, charge ‘em with crimes–loitering, jaywalking, moving traffic violations–and try ‘em. And pay the bills.

So the black population in Ferguson feels put upon, disrespected, unfairly stigmatized and criminalized. And the Michael Brown shooting was the match that lit the powder keg.

I just finished reading Michael Waldman’s terrific new book, The Second Amendment: a Biography.  Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, readable one volume examination of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment should check out Waldman’s book.  As he makes abundantly clear, the Framers absolutely did not intend to codify an individual right to own firearms. Their concern was entirely with state and local militias, institutions that no longer exist in anything like their 18th century forms. The idea that later generations would find in the 2nd Amendment a right for private individuals to own, for self-protection, a semi-automatic rifle, is an argument that the Framers would have found both incomprehensible and ludicrous. They didn’t like ‘standing armies’ and they did like ‘militias.’ And those sentiments were wide-spread enough to get James Madison to stick a poorly worded sop to militia fans into the Bill of Rights. Scalia’s pro-gun decision in District of Columbia v. Heller cannot, by the furthest stretch of the imagination, be called an ‘originalist’ decision. Originalism itself is just silly.

It also doesn’t matter. Justice Scalia ruled as he did because he’s a conservative who likes guns. But enough Americans agree with him (passionately!) that now, yeah, the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own guns. That’s what our day believes. And there’s not a lot we anti-gun types can do about it, except try to persuade people that they’re wrong. And that’s not going to be easy; probably it won’t even be possible. We’re stuck with guns. Probably around 300 million of them, circulating.

There are members of my family who are really pro-gun. I don’t understand that. It seems nuts to me. But I hold beliefs that they disagree with too. I’m not sure how, in a civil society, we can find a way to disagree respectfully and calmly.

But we have to try.  We have to make some effort to maintain civil discourse, to respect each other’s differences, to always re-think and re-examine our own issues, in light of our biases.  It’s hard.  But it’s essential to our democratic experiment. We have to try.