Iran and Obama

The National Review recently published an article called “Five Middle East Blunders,” by someone named Victor Davis Hanson. I don’t usually respond to articles in the National Review. It’s just another hyper-partisan, ‘blame Obama for everything’ publication, not worth any sensible person’s time or attention. But this particular article was fairly well-written at least, and I thought I might respond, to at least the first of Mr. Hanson’s charges, regarding this President’s policy towards Iran. (Which, of course, in NR‘s mind, is horrible. Bad. Wrong). Please, as always, bear in mind that Mr. Hanson has credentials here that I probably can’t match. He’s, like, a Fellow at some conservative think tank. (I could look it up, but that would require that I care). Me, I’m not a Fellow, I’m just a guy. I’m a playwright with wi-fi. That’s all.

It is the policy of the Obama administration, stated many many times without equivocation, that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. I agree that it would generally be better for the world if Iran did not have nukes. But just for grins and giggles, let’s go through what we might regard as the worst kind of nuclear-armed-nation-nightmare. What would define a country that really, seriously, shouldn’t have nukes? Let’s see: a nation without democratic traditions, in which military forces are not really under the control of civilian authorities. A poor country, a country without much of an economy, or a middle-class, a country with an easily radicalized population. A nation with a recent history of supporting terrorism or harboring terrorists. A country that has no particular love for the US, or much connection to the West. And a country with a nearby neighbor with a majority religion hostile to its majority religion. That sound about right? Does that sound like a country that honest-to-Pete should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons? Because I just described Pakistan. And Pakistan is a nuclear power. Yikes.

Why on earth does Pakistan even want nuclear weapons? Well, one answer is as a deterrent to India, its neighbor, which is likewise a moderately terrifying nuclear power. But there’s another answer. Having a nuclear capacity puts you in the major leagues, nation-wise. It’s popular with the population, because it signifies something; it means, by golly, that we’re a country that gets up every morning and puts on its big boy pants. That’s why pathetic, awful North Korea wants them. It feeds a kind of national insecurity. To me, it’s like why cities want professional sports franchises. It’s why otherwise sensible municipalities ruin their local economies, spend massive amounts that otherwise would pay teachers and cops and firemen so they can build stadia for their local (privately owned, rich-as-heck) teams. It’s about ‘civic pride.’ It’s a matter of national/local pride.

I’m not saying that the President shouldn’t pursue, as a high-priority foreign policy initiative, the goal of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capacity. I am saying that it may not be the end of the world if Iran got them. I would add that this is not actually a matter we get to decide. Iran is a sovereign nation, capable of managing its own affairs. We are not the boss of them. The US does not actually get to have a veto over which other countries get nukes. And Iran is far more stable, more prosperous, and more Western-friendly than Pakistan, or, for that matter, India.

There’s also not a lot we can do. There are two ways we could proceed; a carrot approach and a stick approach. The ‘stick’ involves international sanctions aimed at preventing other nations from trading with Iran. The ‘carrot’ involves making diplomatic overtures reducing tensions and working to include Iran in the fellowship of nations. I like carrots, honestly. Respect the richness of Persian culture, admit that we were wrong to assassinate Mohammed Mossadeq back in ’53, apologize for the Shah’s excesses and our propping up that vicious creepy thug for so long. Which we were, you know, honestly, wrong for killing Mossadeq, wrong for the Shah.

The fact is, though, decisions about things like their nuclear build-up are made by the ruling Iranian mullahs, and especially the Ayatollah Khameini. He’s Supreme Leader, and has been since 1989. And he’s not really someone we can pressure effectively; he’s essentially immune from electoral pressures, and even internally, his power base is the Iranian military. And remember, the nuclear build-up is popular in Iran. It’s in his interest to keep up with it, because the general population is not really all that supportive of some of the religious restrictions that have been imposed. Iran leads the world in satellite dishes, remember, and an Iranian friend of mine points out that their favorite program is re-runs of Baywatch. Part of what keeps the people tractable is their ‘big boy pants’ national pride in their nukes.

Up to recently, the ‘stick’ was what we mostly tried. Economic sanctions against Iran were imposed, and did some damage to Iran’s economy. We were able to make that work because Iran’s President, until recently, was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He became the public face of Shi’ite extremism. He was, frankly, kind of a nut. And so it wasn’t difficult for our allies internationally to support sanctions aimed at any regime (titularly) headed by him.

But things have changed. First, of course, for our allies, those sanctions were not really in their own nations’ interest. Iran can supply something for which there is huge international demand. Black gold, Texas tea. Oil.

And there are other factors. Ahmadinejad is out. Hassan Rouhani is the new President, and he’s much more Western-oriented, much more democratic. He’s a much more favorable candidate, in other words, for a ‘carrot’ approach. It would have been massively irresponsible for any American President to engage with Ahmadinejad, but equally irresponsible not to engage with the new guy. Most of the ‘thawing’ in US-Iranian relations are past overdue anyway, and with Rouhani in control, much easier to implement.

And there’s also Isis. And Isis is a specifically Sunni group of murderous thugs. Their main attacks have been against Shi’a communities. In fact, check this out. An article from the Times of India, about the literally life-or-death questions Isis asks captured prisoners. Sunni are released, Shi’a summarily executed. So why wouldn’t the US want to invite the largest Shi’ite power in the region to work with us in the war against Isis? We do, in fact, need allies there. And in fact, Iran has been helpful.

So yes, it’s absolutely true that the economic sanctions we once imposed on Iran have been relaxed, as part of a larger diplomatic engagement. Those sanctions weren’t viable anyway, internationally, once Ahmadinejad left office. And yes, it’s true that Khameini can accurately be described as rabidly anti-Semitic, or at least, anti-Zionist. Israel is very concerned about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. They have reason for their concern. We should too; Israel is our loyal ally, and will remain so.

It’s also true that American conservatives have been rabid in their opposition to the current Iranian regime, and that many in the neo-conservative press have called for the US to bomb and then, eventually, to invade Iran, if sanctions didn’t succeed in disarming them. And that among the voices calling for precisely that option, was Victor Davis Hanson. So: he’s another nut.

Ali Khameini is 75 years old, and in poor health. Iran is under new leadership, one we can actually engage with diplomatically. It’s time for a new course. This President, wisely and sensibly, is pursuing that course. An apoplectic National Review is welcome to weigh in. And the rest of us, equally welcome to ignore their particular brand of reflexive anti-Obama hysteria.

 

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.

 

 

President Romney

Mitt Romney announced yesterday that he has decided not to run for President again. The news was unsurprising, given his age and his wife’s health problems, but also a little sad. I have been consistent in my view that Governor Romney is a decent and competent man, who may well, in a different time, have turned out to be a rather good President. I didn’t vote for him, and don’t regret it, but I respect and admire him personally; just disagreed on matters of policy.

But of course, inevitably, his announcement led to exactly that sort of speculation; what if he’d won, how would he have governed, how would history (hypothetically) have assessed his hypothetical presidency? I think, in fact, that his election in either 2008 or 2012 would have proved disastrous to our nation. But in a different time, he could have turned out quite well. Let me explain.

Mitt Romney’s appeal to voters was resumé-based. He was a successful business manager, who knew how to turn failing companies (and by implication, a failing national economy) around. The problem is that in 2009, on the heels of the world wide financial crisis, we didn’t need a businessman in the White House. We needed a macro-economist. President Obama isn’t one, and he wasn’t terribly well advised by his economic staff, in part because he leaned too much on Wall Street types like Timothy Geitner. But he was also advised by first-rate academic economists, like Christine Romer. And although he took advice from too many sources, and his economic plan seemed like one produced by a committee, such that the stimulus he got through Congress was too small by half, there was a stimulus and it did work. The data couldn’t be clearer.

But don’t businessmen, by the nature of what they do, understand economics? Sure, up to a point. Micro-economics, they understand very well indeed. But most of the successful businessmen I know took macro-economics in b-school, and hated it. It was, almost uniformly, their least favorite class. And there’s a reason for that. Classical Keynesian macro really is pretty counter-intuitive.

How does a businessman turn around a failing company? Well, you cut costs. You tighten belts. You refine the business model. You streamline. You rightsize. You impose what might be called an austerity regime.  Candidate Romney was frustratingly vague about his economic plans, but the specifics he did offer were all along those lines. Cut spending. Balance budgets. Get the US fiscal house in order.  All that austerity and sacrifice and cost-reduction and efficiency seem responsible, moral even. He would have acted, we think, like a grown-up.

But none of that is what classical macro calls for. Quite the opposite, in fact. Macro-economic theory calls for more spending, not less. It declares that deficits don’t matter in the short term. The government should borrow massive amounts of money, go much much deeper into debt, and get more money circulating in the system. Look at the US economy back in 2012, when Romney was running. Companies were sitting on quite immense amounts of cash. But they weren’t using it to hire people, or to invest, or to bring out new products, or to innovate. Their research was telling them that there was insufficient demand to warrant any kind of business expansion. And they were right. Unemployment kills demand. What was needed was to get people back to work, get them paychecks, get them spending.

The reason conservatives loathe Keynes is because all of that seems ridiculous, desperately irresponsible, immoral even. With the economy in recession, tax receipts go down. Government has even a more difficult time paying its bills. And you want to borrow more? Spend more? That’s just insanity.

And so, in the European Union, where economic decisions are largely driven by banks and bankers, they tried austerity. The emphasis has been on debt reduction, cutting spending. And it hasn’t worked. The big news in Europe right now is Greece, who, in a recent election, voted in Keynesians. With forty percent unemployment, they have to try something. Greece may leave the EU entirely, may drop the euro as currency. Because the Greek people are fed up with austerity. So are the Spanish people, and Spain is looking at Greece with great interest. And they’re right to be skeptical of austerity. There’s a reason Paul Krugman’s book is a best-seller in Europe. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, macro-economics is what works.

Governments can do things that families can’t do, and that businesses can’t do. One is to borrow very large amounts of money. And print money. And spend money. And those happen to be the things that can pull a country out of recession.

In the US, states generally can’t deficit-spend (most states have constitutional amendments requiring balanced budgets). And so the biggest driver of unemployment in the US were state governments. We actually saw pretty decent private sector job growth in 2009-10, but those growth numbers were overcome by states laying off public employees–teachers, cops, firemen. That was the step Obama missed. He should have doubled the stimulus money, and just passed it the surplus on to the states. So the US economy has recovered piecemeal, in fits and starts. We never did quite commit to Keynes and to macro. But our economy has recovered, not completely of course, but certainly better than the economies of our European allies have done, faced with identical circumstances and problems.

I think that Romney, if he had won in 2012, would have immediately cut spending, and made budget-balancing his highest priority. And the recovery was still pretty fragile two years ago. I think that Romney, if elected, would have presided over another recession, as devastating as the one in 2008 proved to be. I think he would have been another Hoover. Another good, decent, hard-working man, but a really really really bad President.

But let’s suppose, instead, that Romney had been President in a different time. Let’s suppose that he were President in 2001; that he had won the Presidency instead of George W. Bush. I think Romney could well have been the right man for the job, then.

What were the biggest mistakes of the Bush Presidency. Well, first and foremost, the Iraq war. In the wake of 9/11, would Romney have attacked Iraq? The wrong country, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks on us?  We don’t actually know why Bush pushed for the Iraq invasion, but one reason, one we heard repeatedly, was that he was still angry that Saddam Hussein had tried to murder his father. Not a factor for Romney. And surely Romney would have been better advised than Bush was.  (For one thing, Romney is unlikely to have chosen Dick Cheney as his running mate). And I believe that Romney did not have the sort of personality to think that, since we’d been attacked, we needed to attack someone else.

And I think it’s very likely that Romney wouldn’t have pursued the Bush tax cuts. Those tax cuts were really quite sensationally ill-conceived. They accomplished nothing, except let rich people get richer and to shatter the idea of fiscal responsibility. With a Republican congress, the early Bush years were an orgy of pork barrel spending, combined with utterly, completely unnecessary cuts to the taxes of the one percent. With an economy humming neatly along, we didn’t need stimulus spending. What was needed then was deficit and debt reduction. Remember, Keynes generally liked balanced budgets. He generally liked spending cuts. Stimulus efforts were only needed during demand-side recessions.

I think Romney would have brought a CEO’s mentality to the Presidency, and that would have meant sound management, and a sensible approach to budgeting. No ‘heckuva job, Brownie’ moments for Romney. He would have expected FEMA to do its job, and he would have fired people for proven incompetence.

Of course, the signal moment of the Bush Presidency was 9/11. And while Bush was praised for his handling of that national trauma, there’s no reason to suppose that Romney wouldn’t have done every bit as well.He would have handled the symbolism, given the speeches, thrown out the first ball at Yankee Stadium. Any President would have.

Of course, this is all conjecture. In fact, the President from 2001-2009 was George W. Bush, not Mitt Romney. And the economy did implode, and poor President Obama ended up having to deal with it. Which he did quite well, all things considered. Romney’s moment in the sun came at a time when his specific skill set was, actually, precisely what wasn’t needed. He didn’t win, and I’m grateful for it. But he had skills, and in other circumstances, I think he would have done very well indeed.

Some thoughts about Charlie Hebdo

On January 7th, two heavily armed and masked gunmen broke into the Paris office of the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and murdered twelve people, including the paper’s editor, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, and four cartoonists. If you’ve been following the news, you know all that already. I just have a few random thoughts to add to the already excellent coverage. In no particular order:

1) Most folks had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before these attacks. I certainly hadn’t. And so a lot of people in the US have checked out their cartoons and humor, and have been appalled by what they’ve found. A lot of the commentary has been of the ‘I defend their right to speak out and to publish, but why do they publish such scurrilous and offensive stuff?’ school.

I was about to go on a long description of the multi-layered nature of French satire, the way it resists easy readings, but all the reasons why the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are nonetheless deeply troubling, and not maybe all that funny. But Vox.com beat me to it, and in a much clearer and sensible way. So check this out.

I also can’t really think of an American equivalent. South Park, maybe, with Parkman? Beavis and Butthead? Then I thought of Donald E. Westlake’s final, posthumous novel, The Comedy is Over. Set in the 1970s, it’s about a comedian named Koo Davis, who has built his popularity on making fun of the anti-war movement. As such, he’s become the favored comic of the rich and powerful. And so a ragtag group of anti-war activists (loosely based on the Weather Underground), kidnaps him, demanding, not money, but the release of other extremists. It clicked a little bit for me; Charlie Hebdo is a bit like Koo Davis, a little.

Anyway, I certainly do believe that there’s a place for this kind of satire, and denounce the thugs who attacked the newspaper. But I do also sort of regret posting Je Suis Charlie on my Facebook page. Charlie‘s voice needs to be heard–all voices need to be heard, including, I believe, actively offensive ones–but I also reserve the right to disagree. And I don’t find their brand of humor particularly funny.

2) Also on January 7th, members of the Islamic terror group Boko Haram continued a massacre in Baga, a Nigerian town on the border of Chad, killing at least two thousand people, most of them women and children. A horrible massacre, and one undertaken for no rational reason. I would merely point out that the disproportion in coverage of the two attacks, in Paris and Nigeria, speaks for itself.

3) On January 11th, a ‘unity rally’ in Paris honored the seventeen victims (including those subsequently killed in the manhunt for the initial killers). Forty world leaders attended. President Obama did not, citing security concerns. He ought to have gone, or at least asked Vice-President Biden to go. It’s not that big a deal, but yeah, the US should have sent someone.

4) It hardly seems necessary to reiterate the obvious point that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that the few extremists who commit these sorts of atrocities do not enjoy wide-spread support among Muslims. A favorite conservative line recently has been to ask why moderate Muslims haven’t spoken up against terrorist atrocities, whether practiced by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, or Isis. Two responses: first, many many mainstream Muslims have denounced these attacks in the strongest possible terms. But, second, why should they? I am a Christian, but I don’t feel myself particularly called upon to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. A Klan affiliate just burned down a black church, and yes, I do denounce that, because that’s a despicable act. But I don’t consider the Klan part of my faith community, not in any sense whatsoever. The Klan may consider itself a Christian organization, but that identification means nothing. They don’t, in any meaningful way, reflect the values or attitudes or doctrines or example of the Savior, values and doctrines to which I have chosen to give my life. We have absolutely nothing in common, except sentience and opposable thumbs. And I have my doubts about their sentience.

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.