Category Archives: History

Another attack on standardized testing, and a history

I know, I know, I’ve written enough about standardized testing. It’s May, Spring, time for the thoughts of young people to turn to love and who they’re going to take to prom. And also time for every kid in America to take a whole bunch of government mandated multiple guess tests. Which means time for yet another rant from me.

Jon Oliver did a funny bit on testing last night, pointing out the ridiculous lengths to which the education establishment is going to sell testing, including videos based on popular songs. I’ll link to his show later. Meanwhile, larger and larger numbers of parents are opting their kids out of testing. Good for them! Opt out! Or, kids, there’s no law that says you have to test honestly. Flunk ’em on purpose! Anything to invalidate already invalid results.

Educational mandated testing is to me the rarest of government policies. It’s a bi-partisan failure–President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is as poorly conceived and foolish as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It’s also a policy that does nothing but fail. It has no positives; there’s nothing, absolutely nothing positive that can be said about it. It generates wholly bogus data, which is then used to implement entirely punitive and ineffective responses. It doesn’t work, and never has. And never will. You want to improve education in America? Step one: get rid of all standardized tests administered to children. Federal, state or local; get rid of all of them. Step two: fire anyone who works in education who favors test-based reform. Start there, and then let’s talk about what might work. Doubling teacher salaries would be a nice start.

So, no, I’m not a fan of testing. But the reason I hate testing, the reason I have such a bone-deep, utter detestation of it, is far more personal. You see, I was a SCAP kid. I was a six-year SCAPPIE.

1969. The summer of love. The year of the moon landing. The Beatles put out Abbey Road, and John and Yoko were married, Led Zeppelin put our their first album, Charlie Manson was arrested, and Rupert Murdoch bought his first London newspaper. And I started 7th grade. I entered Binford Jr. High School, in Bloomington Indiana. And the first thing we did, was take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, required for all new students that year, and most especially for those enrolled in SCAP.

The official name of the program was Secondary Continuous Advancement Program. SCAP. The idea was that learning should be fluid and continuous, cross-disciplinary and tailored to the advancement of each individual student. I remember, in Geometry, for example, we learned formulas and equations, but we were also told to create works of art; we were supposed to create really pretty geometric forms, and graded on our aesthetic achievements in that regard. I remember making this really awesome looking flattened oval thing. I thought it was great. It failed, because, said the teacher, it wasn’t complicated enough. His aesthetic was baroque; mine, neo-classical. For that, I got an F?

The key was testing. Lots and lots of testing. And we weren’t graded according to how well we mastered the material; we were graded according to how well we did as compared to how well we were supposed to do, based on the tests we’d taken.

When I was in college, I took a basketball class. I had played basketball for hours every day of my life, growing up. I figured ‘easy A’. On the first day of class, we had a shooting test; we had to take 30 shots from different spots on the floor. I got red hot, and hit 28. Then I learned that we’d have to take the same test at the end of the semester, and that our grade depended on how well we improved. Which is how I flunked basketball my freshman year of college.

So it was with SCAP. I was a voracious reader as a kid. Read most of Dickens in fifth grade. And I’ve always been good at taking standardized tests, a completely useless skill, not widely shared, except my kids have it too. They all test really well. Anyway, I remember taking a spelling test. There were 40 words on the test; I spelled 38 of them correctly. And I got a D.

A D. On a spelling test. And I happened to look over at the test sheet for the kid in the desk next to mine. He’d gotten 29 words right on the exact same spelling test. And he’d gotten an A. A for him, D for me, on the same test. Even though I’d only missed 2 words, and he’d missed 11.

And I stared at his paper. And I thought, ‘it’s true. I’m not making it up; it’s really true. They really are out to get me. The teachers at this school, they genuinely don’t like me, they actually do have it in for me. I’m not being paranoid. Here’s proof. It’s real, and it’s personal. And there’s nothing I can do about it.’

I was a weird kid anyway. I was tall and skinny and awkward. I had a nerdy vocabulary, and I tripped and fell down a lot. I got beat up all the time; I was just used to it. But I’d always gotten along pretty well with teachers. But that spelling test, that was a turning point. Suddenly I knew, with absolutely incontrovertible evidence, that teachers hated me too. That everyone, literally everyone, was out to get me. 2 wrong: D, for me. 11 wrong: A, for him. You can’t make it clearer.

Of course, now I know that it was just SCAP. That’s how SCAP worked. I’d gotten a D on that spelling quiz, because my test scores indicated that I should have been better at spelling than the other kid. I was a reader; I shouldn’t have missed those 2 words. My teachers didn’t hate me; they were trying to challenge me. But no one explained any of that to me, and if they had tried, I wouldn’t have listened. What I did was just quit. I just didn’t bother with school work, at all, ever, in any class, from that day on. I withdrew. Instead, I wrote stories. I day dreamed. I snuck books in and read on my own. And at lunch, I’d play 4-square, unless Jeff Tate and Eddie Deckard caught me; then I just got beat up again. Did I ever turn them in? Of course not. Tell a teacher? Why should I tell a teacher anything, ever? They hated me too. And I could prove it.

Google SCAP nowadays, and you get the Security Content Automation Protocol. Or a French car manufacturer. But the basic idea of SCAP lives on. Test kids, use the data to create curricula. Challenge kids, again based on data derived from testing. Okay, I don’t think anyone nowadays teaches geometry using aesthetic criteria. But I look at modern education reform, and I think: it’s SCAP. It’s all just more SCAP. And we’re making modern kids SCAPgoats. (Okay, sorry).

And it makes me sick. It’s damaging. It’s bad teaching. It doesn’t work, and will never work. Teaching is an art form, not a science. It’s humanism writ large. Modern education reform wants ‘good teaching,’ but with all actual human interactions removed. But teaching is, above all else, love. Get rid of every test ever created, and figure out how to love. And maybe then we’ll get somewhere.

Here’s John Oliver. (Language warnings.)

 

Freetown: Movie Review

Freetown is the latest missionary-oriented Mormon movie to come from director Garrett Batty, following his Saratov Approach two years ago. Like Saratov, Freetown is well acted, photographed, edited; it’s professionally done in every sense. The screenplay is credited to Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson; an amazing writer. I wish I could report that I liked this movie as much as I liked Saratov. I didn’t. I didn’t like it at all, for what are almost certainly completely idiosyncratic reasons of my own.

But first, the story. Freetown is set in Liberia, in 1989, right at the beginning of their first 7-year tribal and civil war. There was an LDS mission there, but the movie shows how the (white) mission leadership decamped to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to wait out the violence. They left behind the native Liberian missionaries. Among other dangers, rebels targeted a small ethnic tribal minority, the Krahn, the ruling tribe of Liberian President Samuel Doe. One missionary was Krahn. So six missionaries were transported across the country to Freetown, crammed into a tiny car and driven to safety by an LDS church member, Brother Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who had been left in charge of the mission office after the President’s departure.

In one of the first scenes in the movie, we see Abubakar sitting in his little car (which has Mark 9:24 on the back windshield), stuck in a mud puddle. He’s about to get out of the car, when he sees a small rebel patrol. They’re a dangerous looking bunch, very young, variously armed, and they do African rebel-y things like fire their AKs into the air. (Why do they do that? A bullet, fired directly upwards, will eventually fall back down to earth. It could hit someone. How many innocent folks are killed annually by falling bullets idiotically fired into the sky?). The rebels approach him, clearly suspicious. He doesn’t seem too bothered by them, though, just opens the car trunk, gets out some water, offers them a cup to drink. This apparently mollifies them. He then reaches to the roof of his car, gets out some planks of wood, which he uses to give his tires some traction, and off he drives. The rebels watch him go. So, heavily armed, deeply irresponsible teenage rebels are an ordinary fact of life for this guy. But Brother Abubakar knows how to deal with them. And so the main dynamic of the movie is established; this movie is set in a world that’s actually quite mundane and ordinary, and also dangerous and violent beyond belief.

Ordinary and also insane. Quotidian and surreal. That’s the whole movie. We see these six missionaries, and they’re normal Mormon guy missionaries; zealous, enthusiastic, hardworking. They street-contact, they hand out pamphlets, they share their testimonies with anyone who will listen. And also, there are these insanely violent murdering rebel gangs all over the place. And they’re simultaneously a disciplined military force, and also out of control violent and drunken and arbitrary. Freetown explores a world where ordinary people, on the street, minding their own business, can just get shot in the head, randomly. And also a world of normal daily routines. We see a group of saints chattering happily on their way to a baptism. But one of them is carrying a machete and an AK, and stands guard while they celebrate. It’s a movie where a branch member drives the missionaries around in his car. And crams six of them in this teensy crappy little car. And they drive hundreds of miles on these dirt roads, while rebels stop them every few miles to harass them.

And in time, it becomes the cognitive dissonance movie of the year. There’s one scene in which this is expressly spelled out. One of the missionaries, Elder Menti (Michael Attram) talks to Abubakar about how, after he’d joined the Church, he learned of the policy of priesthood exclusion, and it really bothered him, learning about the racist past of the Church he’d just joined. It led, he says, to cognitive dissonance. I’m glad that scene was in there, because, to me, the entire movie was a cog-diss exercise.

It’s a movie about this one Church member, and these six missionaries, and their journey through fearsomely dangerous Liberia to the comparative safety of Sierra Leone. And along the way, they are rely on a series of miracles. Like, there are almost no places for them to buy gasoline, but the car never runs out of gas until they’re out of money, at which point they find one station willing to give them enough to get them to safety. And when they get to the border, the bridge to Sierra Leone is out, but Brother Abubakar has a revelation about a ferry they can take instead. So they’re all these little but real miracles. God loves His missionaries. God loves these specific missionaries enough to help save them. That’s the message we’re meant to take away.

But it really doesn’t register much, because it takes place in the middle of the Liberian Civil War. Which we see enough of to be horrified by. A closing credit tells us that the missionaries, and Brother Abubakar, spent the next seven years in Sierra Leone, in safety. But what about their families? What about Brother Abubakar’s wife and children?  How are we to take this? That God loves these six missionaries enough to intervene, to save them, but doesn’t love everyone else in Liberia about to be butchered?  Cognitive dissonance indeed.

I know this is an idiosyncratic issue I have. Like, in Church, you’ll hear people bear their testimony about how they know God loves them, because there was this time that they needed to get to a Church meeting, but couldn’t find their car keys, so they prayed and, lo!, there were the keys. And I’m thinking, ‘yes, and what about Sister so-and-so in the ward, dying of liver cancer.’ Or Asian children forced into human trafficking, or starving kids in Darfur or the violence in the Congo. Does God really love Mormons enough to help us with reasonably trivial problems, but He doesn’t love other people (non-Mormons?) enough to intervene in some of the real horror shows in the world? Before Freetown aired, I saw a preview for a new Christian movie about a school shooting in which none of the kids died, because, the kids say, angels intervened. And I thought, ‘great. Good for you. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened more often.’

Also, I wish there weren’t just that teensy bit of vestigial colonialism in there. Like, the white mission President getting out just ahead of the violence, someone clearly having decided that his safety was essential, and the safety of his Liberian missionaries maybe kind of less so. And the super nice mission home in Sierra Leone reserved for the President. Except that was probably true, so including it is at least honest, revealing just that small sense of possible priorities back in ’89.

Could this have been fixed? Garrett Batty is a smart guy, a good director; Melissa Larson’s a terrific writer. I don’t think they intended to make the Cognitive Dissonance Plus Philosophical Problem of Evil movie of the year 2015. It’s the juxtapositioning of quiet little miracles for Mormon guys and the Horrors of African Civil Wars for everyone else that made this such a disquieting (and not in good ways) viewing experience.

First, the movie’s awfully coy about violence, and in this case, I think it was a mistake. We’re not really forced to confront it. We see a guy being led off to be shot, and then the camera pans away, and we hear the shot; we don’t see him killed. I think we need to really face up to the reality of rebel civil war.

But simultaneously, we need to see some larger purpose to saving these missionaries. Michael Attram, the actor who played one missionary, looks a lot like Malcolm X, for example. Well, these six guys come across really well; they seem like really good guys. What if the movie suggested that they’re the solution? Frankly, a screwed-up poor country like Liberia could really use some smart, decent natural leaders. What if one of the missionaries (Menti, probably) were individualized just a bit more, made to seem like a genuine future statesman? What if the movie just hinted that God needed to save these six guys to give Liberia some kind of future, some hope, some desperately needed moral leadership?

And maybe that’s all subtly suggested, and I just missed it. I have cognitive dissonance issues of my own, after all. I’m not saying don’t see it. Just be aware; I found it a very strange movie, and nowhere near as inspirational as I think it was intended to be.

 

 

Political first principles

Okay, so I got into a discussion on-line yesterday. Yes, I know, my New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop arguing politics on the internet, but this discussion was at least reasonably cordial, considering that one of the people arguing was a Tea Party conservative, and another of them was me. Anyway, my friend asked me what, in my mind, the true principles of politics were. His argument is that there exists absolute truth in all arenas–religion, science, psychology, politics–and that it’s our job to figure it out. The corollary, I suspect, is that God knows what that absolute truth is, and will reveal it to us (or has revealed it to us), if we search for it in the right places. And another corollary, I suspect, is that the absolute truth in politics is found in that divinely inspired document, the US Constitution.

I don’t think that way. I’m generally suspicious of truth claims. I think basic human subjectivity leads us inevitably to confirmation bias. I love Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. He speaks of the most contentious political issue in American history, slavery:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves . . . localized in the south. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Preceding this famous passage came perhaps the most powerful four words in the history of Presidential speech-making: “and the war came.” And 600, 000 young men died. Because of a political dispute, growing out of a theological dispute, built on the foundation of a cultural clash.

So that’s my first principle. That, that war that came, that dispute blowing up into violence and death, that’s the worst case scenario. That’s what can happen when politics fails. That can’t be allowed to happen again. People say our politics today, in 2015, is broken. It’s not. Damaged, certainly; frustrating, unquestionably; insane, at times, sure. Comical, absolutely. But not broken. When politics is broken, soldiers die. And children suffer.

Second principle: policy is more important than politics. Politics is about power, the acquisition of power, the wielding of power. In a democratic republic, politics is about winning elections. Policy is about what we do with power, once we’ve attained it. Bad policy is policy that hurts people, that makes people’s lives worse; good policy is policy that helps people, makes their lives better. But we never quite know, do we? What policies will achieve, what unintended consequences can result. And we’re all biased, all subjective. We look at evidence, at statistics, and we draw differing conclusions. It’s rare for all the evidence to be on any side of any dispute. And we’re human beings; we love anecdotal evidence. We don’t actually do very well with abstractions and objectivity; we want to hear a good story, and we want to feel something.

One great example is food stamps. I’m a liberal, and I think food stamps are a perfect example of a federal program that works. I think it’s a spectacular success. I think there’s strong evidence that it’s a program largely free from waste and corruption, and that it does a terrific job of feeding poor people. But then came Jason Greenslate, an able-bodied surfer dude, living on food stamps in California, and uninterested, apparently, in getting a job. Fox News ran with it, and suddenly food stamp fraud had a poster boy. And let’s face it; both sides do this. How many internet memes feature some conservative legislator somewhere who said something comically sexist, racist, or just plain stupid? Or misrepresent something Sarah Palin just said? We humans love to extrapolate general principles from single examples. And outrage is a particularly easy emotion to provoke.

We all want policy to be even-handedly administered, fair, effective, cost controlled and free from corruption. Policy really does matter, and solid, reasonably objective evidence, for or against some policy initiative, really does exist. It’s just hard to find. And no policy uniformly benefits everyone, and never once harms anyone. We’re weighing harm against benefits, every policy, all the time. Heck, every government program, at every level, costs some money, and that requires taxes, and that means money out of someone’s pocket. That’s always true.

Third principle: both conservatives and liberals are necessary. Both sides are essential, both perspectives have to be listened to, and all policies require the cooperation and some measure of compromise between both (or multiple) sides.

I know this is simplistic, but really, isn’t the heart of liberalism something like this: ‘here’s a social problem, and it needs to be fixed, people are suffering. So here’s a program that can, and probably will fix the problem.’ And the heart of conservatism is something like this: ‘hold on there. Maybe this problem isn’t as bad as you think. We’ve put up with it so far pretty well, haven’t we? How much will fixing it cost? What unintended negative consequences might result? Let’s not just jump in there. Let’s study it out, and see if there’s another solution that won’t require the resource of government, which are, after all, finite.’

You’ll see lists from time to time of a whole bunch of really effective and popular federal programs–Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the federal highway system, universal education, the GI Bill, rural electification, civil rights legislation, and so on. And then someone will say ‘every one of these program was proposed by a liberal, and opposed by a conservative.’ But that’s what liberals do; propose government programs to fix problems. And that’s what conservatives do; ask how much it’s going to cost, ask if there’s not a better solution. I think it’s true that every popular government program probably was proposed by a liberal and opposed by conservatives. But it’s likewise true that every disastrous, expensive, bureaucratically unwieldy, inflexible, screwed up government program was likewise proposed by a liberal, and opposed by conservatives. We need both impulses. We need both approaches, both points of view.

Where both sides can come together is over reform efforts. It’s in the best interests of liberals to have government work effectively (and it certainly can, and does, a lot). So when a program gets bureaucratically ossified or ineffective or unnecessary, liberals and conservatives can and should work together to fix it. Problem is, mostly, they don’t, for reasons having to do with politics. It’s easier to score political points by pointing out the failures of the other side than it is to work constructively with political opponents to actually get stuff done. That’s kind of where we are right now, nationally, and shame on everyone for it.

If you do that too much, both conservatism and liberalism can devolve into ideologies. Again: confirmation bias; it’s very easy for people (especially zealously inclined people) to think that they’re completely right and that the other guys are just being obstinate or stupid.  I think both sides can spin-off extremists. Of course, as a liberal, I tend to think that ‘movement conservatism,’ or ‘Tea Party conservatism,’ or whatever you want to call it, is a terribly dangerous and wrong-headed movement. It’s one thing to say ‘we need to keep an eye on government,’ quite another to say ‘all government is always bad always.’ But politically correct liberalism (especially identity politics) can be just as risibly wrong-headed.

Anyway, I wonder if this is a conversation we should be having. What do we have in common? Where do we differ? What policies work, and what policies might work if reformed sensibly? Because we have a great big country. Great and big. It’d be nice to keep it that way.

 

 

Emperor and Galilean

Last Friday, I was invited to Hillcrest High School, in Draper, to see the North American premiere of Ben Power’s translation/version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Emperor and Galilean. I had a terrific time, and thought the production was imaginatively staged and beautifully realized.

Emperor and Galilean is surely the most obscure and seldom staged of Ibsen’s plays, even more infrequently performed even than his early Viking melodramas, like The Warrior’s Barrow or The Vikings at Helgeland, which are fun enough that Norwegian theatres still produce them from time to time. As it happens, though, I have seen a previous production of E and G, at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo, in 1989. That production was nine and a half hours long (not seven and a half, as I may have told people mistakenly), which points to the main reason that the play isn’t done very often–it’s very very long–ten acts altogether. Actually, it’s two five-act plays; Julian the Apostate, and The Emperor Julian, but I can’t imagine anyone doing either play alone. They tell one continuous story, and neither play would be thematically or narratively satisfying separately.

E and G tells the story of Flavius Claudius Julianus, Emperor of Rome for just two years, otherwise known as Julian the Apostate, because of his attempt to reject Christianity as the state religion, and return Roman worship to neo-Platonist paganism. In a battle against the Persian empire at Samara, Julian was killed; according to one source, by a Christian soldier in his own army. Ibsen has him killed by Agathon, Julian’s best friend from his early years as a Christian.

I had to read the play in grad school, and ended up falling in love with it. The usual reading of the play is that Ibsen, following Nietzsche, was arguing for a synthesis between the sensuousness of paganism and the spirituality of Christianity. If that’s indeed the point of the play, I have to say that that synthesis certainly doesn’t work very well–Julian’s attempt to create it lead to civil war, and to his own destruction. Plus, there’s no evidence that Ibsen even read, let alone cared about Nietzsche. Plus, I couldn’t possibly care less about a synthesis between pagan sensuousness and Christian spirituality. If those are indeed the main philosophical concerns of the play, then I wouldn’t be alone in considering it a play that has well deserved its obscurity.

I don’t think that’s what it’s about, though, and I don’t think those themes were given much expression in production. As the play continuously reminds us, it’s a play about the choice between Emperor and Galilean, about balancing the needs of the state and the demands of leading a Christ-like life. And it’s a play that shows, unmistakably, how state power corrupts and corrodes religion. As one parent said at the talk-back session following the play, ‘it’s a play about the First Amendment. It’s showing how badly we need it.’ Amen, brother.

When we see the play today, in 2015, we see a fanatical megomaniac who causes untold destruction by his vicious insistence on his own personal ideology. We’ve had our fill of those characters in my lifetime, have we not? I see the imposition of a state religion, any state religion, Christian or pagan, leading to war and violence and death. I see a huge, unnecessary, religious war fought in southern Iraq, by an army also intent of destroying the religious center of Persia/Iran. We see a play about issues that still resonate. We see, in Julian, a figure that we know all too well, and we see how damaging his charismatic fanaticism can become.

Ibsen builds the play around Julian and his three best friends–Agathon, Peter and Gregory, plus his pagan mystic guru Maximus. As the play begins, Agathon is proud of the fact that he has managed to lead a pogrom against local pagans, killing a whole lot of them. His fanaticism remains unabated, and eventually, he kills his apostate friend. Peter’s Christianity finds expression in fellowship and loyalty–he’s the one friend to stick with Julian no matter what, even after he grows appalled by Julian’s excesses. Gregory leaves Constantinople and founds his own religious community, which is eventually destroyed by Julian’s men. Gregory is really the one genuine Christian we meet in the play, and he is martyred for his devotion. Maximus, meanwhile, is about four/fifths a flattering fraud, but he does seem to have real visions, and those visions have consequences. Julian is told that he will complete the work of two great World Spirits; men who changed the world, advancing civilization. The first two are Cain and Judas Iscariot. I’m not sure that’s a parade I want to head up, but Julian eats it up. And that vision devours everyone else, in time.

Ibsen loved guys like Maximus; he loved creating fatuous blustering pompous jerks–Torvald, in A Doll House, Manders in Ghosts. We often take Ibsen too seriously–there’s a savage satirical wit in Ibsen that it can be easy to miss, especially in British English translations of his works. I wonder if anyone has ever thought to play Maximus as comic relief. It would certainly fit nicely with the rest of the Ibsen oeuvre.

Anyway, Hillcrest’s production was imaginative, energetic, lively and theatrically spectacular, with lots of smoke effects and projections and timely-falling set pieces. David Chamberlain was terrific in the huge role of Julian, and I also loved Carter Walker, Steven Hooley and Russell Carpenter as Gregory, Agathon and Peter, respectively. Of all the other supporting characters, I was particularly taken with Skyler Harmon, who played the conniving Ursulus, the Emperor Constantius’ fixer and right hand woman.

Above all, kudos of Joshua Long, the director of the production. Long has clearly created a tremendous high school drama program there at Hillcrest, with massive parental support. Watching the show, I estimated a cast size of around 90, but counting the names in the program, there were closer to 120. That’s a lot of costumes to build; how many moms were enlisted in that effort? Refreshments were sold during the show’s two intermissions, and again I saw supportive parents working for the success of the show. Long told me afterwards that he had tremendous support as well from his principal and administration; good for everyone involved. Those kids, in that cast, will never forget this experience as long as they live. They were involved in a fantastic undertaking, a very much neglected masterpiece given new life on stage. I can’t imagine anything cooler.

 

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.