Category Archives: History

The Spirit of the Game: Movie review

The Spirit of the Game is an LDS film, a Mormon movie. I’m a Mormon, and a movie nut. So my initial inclination is to go easy on a film that is certainly well-intentioned. And it tells an interesting story. And Aaron Jakubenko, who stars in it, is very good, even though he can’t play basketball. There’s a lot to like here. The theater was half-full when I saw it (an early weekday matinee), so that’s encouraging. And it’s certainly not as bad as, say, The Home Teachers, which remains the flaming dragon’s breath of hell worst movie ever made, ever, by anyone.

On the other hand, The Spirit of the Game starts off not very good, and ends goshawful, and that also needs to be said. And if we want cinematic depictions of our faith and culture to improve, we do need to foster a candid critical culture. And sorry, gentle readers, but spoilers will abound. Advance apologies to everyone.

The Spirit of the Game is about the Mormon Yankees, an LDS missionary basketball team that was asked to teach the Australian national team hoops fundamentals in time for the 1956 Olympics. It focuses on one guy, DeLyle Condie (Jakubenko), an Idaho kid who, we’re told, is one of the stars of the University of Utah basketball team. He falls in love, gets engaged to a nice girl named Emily (Emilie Cocquerel)–the movie spends lots of time on that romance. And then she breaks his heart, dumps him for another dude. So Condie, rebounding, decides to go on a mission, and is sent to Australia.

Written and directed by J. D. Scott, it’s not really about basketball much, or the Olympics at all. Really, it’s about the power of male Mormon patriarchy. Every single major decision in the movie made by any character is preceded by an Inspiring Speech by a male authority figure. Or not, actually; Condie gets engaged precipitously, without permission from her father, or an Inspiring Speech from his father. That’s why the engagement fails.

When writing a screenplay, you have to decide that sorts of scenes to privilege. Obviously, a certain amount of screen time has to be given to basic exposition–who are these people, what do they want, why should we care? This movie gives immense amounts of screen time to Inspiring Speeches. It just stops dead in its tracks, and lets a male authority figure deliver an IS. At which point, Our Hero, Elder Condie (the least volitional protagonist in the history of film), is redirected. Except when its him giving the speeches.

So, he arrives in Australia, meets the mission President–Inspiring Speech. He meets considerable opposition–nobody’s interested, kids throw tomatoes at him. He gets discouraged, writes his Dad (Kevin Sorbo!). Inspiring Letter keeps him going. He’s offered the opportunity to help coach up the Aussie national team. But the mission President (Mark Mitchell), says no, in an Inspiring Speech full of appropriate bromides. Condie writes his father. And then, see, we get what passes for a plot twist. Condie wants to play basketball, but he’s stymied. But his father is also a male authority figure, and knows a higher one. So Dad writes President David O. McKay, who gives an Inspiring Speech to the rest of the First Presidency about the proselyting power of basketball, then orders the Mission President to let the boys play. And Condie becomes the coach of the Mormon Yankees. Which means he’s now a male authority figure, and authorized to give Inspiring Speeches too. Which he does, repeatedly. And so, finally, the movie half over, we get to seeing people play basketball.

And, oh my gosh, are they bad at it.

There are two basic approaches you can take when making a basketball movie. You can cast actors, and teach them how to play. Or you can take basketball players, and teach them how to act. Both can work. The greatest basketball movie of all time, Hoosiers, cast guys who could actually play basketball. White Men Can’t Jump took the other approach. They’re both good movies. Jakubenko is a good looking kid, and fairly athletic looking. I don’t doubt that he worked hard. But he has a high dribble, where he runs really fast kind of slapping at the ball, which bounces up around his chin. He dribbles like every kid on my son’s Junior Jazz team when he was six. And Condie’s supposed to be the point guard! Jakubenko can’t shoot, and never has to–they cut around him, use lots of hand-held camera, and basically fake the basketball sequences. (Condie does hit a couple of layups). He’ll shoot a jumper–and oh, that form!–and then they cut to a ball going in. And it’s called ‘the hoop’, people–at one point, they actually call it a ‘ring.’ I wanted to strangle someone.

I don’t mean to be unkind, but if you’re going to make a movie about basketball, let me gently suggest that you have someone on-set who actually knows something about basketball. One kid in the movie had a decent jump shot, and another kid could jump a little–they let him get all the rebounds. But mostly, during the basketball bits, I averted my eyes.

Sports movies always have to build to a Big Game climax, and this one is no exception. The movie kind of forgets about how the Mormon Yankees are supposed to be coaching the Aussie team, and lets them play in a pre-Olympics warm up tournament, a decision that requires another IS. And they’re really good, we’re told–able to hold their own against all the Olympic teams. The Big Game is against the nasty wasty French team. (The coach of the French team has a moustache, and twirls it, I’m totally not kidding). So that’s the big game–a nationally televised (in Australia) game between the Mormon Yankees and the thuggish French nationals. And, see, the French play dirty. And our virtuous boys can’t respond in kind, of course, as Condie reminds them in one of his Inspiring Speeches. They’re playing for God or something.

This is a major Spoiler, but I have to do this; at the end of the Big Game, this movie goes completely off the rails. Let me set it up for you. There are 9 guys on the Mormon Yankees team. That’s important–remember that number: 9. The game is very close, though how close we don’t know because the movie never shows us the score. Anyway, our guys are all wearing brave little dabs of makeup blood on their faces, to show how dirty the French are. There’s a collision between Condie and a French kid. Condie looks dazed. Time for a concussion protocol intervention, except, wait, this is 1956 and they didn’t worry about concussions. So Condie (who is also the team coach) may have to come out of the game. And the referee says “you’re down to three players, you’re going to have to forfeit.”

What? Are you kidding me? I sat there in the theater, absolutely dumb-founded. They have 9 guys on the team. They’re down to 3?!?!? How did that happen? How did (carry the 7, multiply by pi) 6 guys either foul out or get injured? We didn’t see anyone foul out. We didn’t see anyone get injured. What we see is Condie getting fouled, resulting in . . . someone else on his team getting disqualified? And the French team getting the ball out of bounds? Also, the ref (an Olympic referee) is talking forfeit? He doesn’t know the rules well enough to know that you are, actually allowed to play 3 on 5?

What happens is this: Condie shakes off his brain fog, gives an Inspiring Speech, and he and his pals do battle, 3 on 5. And for once, the movie gets the basketball a little right–the French, with a two man advantage, spread the floor and go backdoor for the game winning layup (though the final score remains a classified military secret). Condie hangs his head for a bit. But the Aussie crowd goes wild, standing O, cheering with enthusiasm, and then rushing the court to make appointments with the missionaries for discussions leading to mass baptisms. (I may have made that last bit up).

If that ending doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. (6 guys fouled out, that’s like 60 free throws–no wonder that the Frenchies won). I was reduced to sitting there in the movie theater going “What? What?” This is not how you should feel at the end of a feel-good sports movie.

I will say this about it: the cars all looked great. It used all these vintage ’50s cars, and they all looked terrific. And there’s a throwaway character, a little kid named Lindsay Gaze, who I assume was Andrew Gaze’s grandfather. And teenaged Bill Russell makes a brief appearance. (And why oh why do the opening credits run over footage from Texas Western beating Kentucky? In 1966?) So it had some nostalgia value for fans. (Also, I’m a Utah Jazz fan, and there are two Aussies on our squad this year).

Still. This. A story of a group of missionaries teaching the inept Australian basketball team how to play basketball is an inherently comedic one, isn’t it? Isn’t it hoops Cool Runnings? But instead, we get this exercise in patriarchal sanctimony. It’s not terrible. But it was unfortunate. That’s a good story. Hope someone tells it better some day.

A fundamental question of patriotism

There was a debate last night. For the last time in this election cycle, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made their case to America. At times, they engaged in a fairly substantive discussion. An early question about abortion allowed each to establish their, respectively, pro-choice and pro-life bonafides. I don’t think either of them won any voters over on that most polarizing of issues, but both defended their positions with some passion. Trump did, I think, badly misrepresent the pro-choice position, but it’s likely that my pro-life friends would say the same about Secretary Clinton.

I wouldn’t say, up to that point, that Donald Trump did well. He spoke forcefully enough. But he’s woefully ill-informed about the issues, and is much given to strong declarative statements on policy that turn out to be entirely and completely untrue. And I wish I could say that Hillary Clinton confined her comments to substantive discussions of policy, but Trump has made too many bizarre pronouncements on the campaign trail to really ignore. She spent much of the debate plucking that low-hanging fruit. That works tactically for her, as he’s sufficiently thin-skinned that he can’t help but respond to what he perceives as insults, finally blurting out “what a nasty woman.” (The nimbleness of the Clinton campaign is evidenced by the fact that, within minutes, they had purchased the web domain, which now redirects to the Clinton For President website).

But then came the defining moment of the debate, the headline in every paper in America this morning. Here’s the exchange. I’m going to quote it at length, because it’s so important:

Wallace: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You’ve been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you. Your running mate Governor Pence pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, will absolutely accept the result of this election. Today your daughter Ivanka said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election.

Trump: I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now, I’ll look at it at the time. What I’ve seen, what I’ve seen, is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile on is so amazing. “The New York Times” actually wrote an article about it, but they don’t even care. It is so dishonest, and they have poisoned the minds of the voters. But unfortunately for them, I think the voters are seeing through it. I think they’re going to see through it, we’ll find out on November 8th, but I think they’re going to see through it. If you look —

Wallace: But, but —

Trump: Excuse me, Chris. If you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote. Millions. This isn’t coming from me. This is coming from Pew report and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote. So let me just give you one other thing. I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I’ll tell you one other thing. She shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s — She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run, and just in that respect I say it’s rigged because she should never —

Wallace: But, but —

Trump: Chris. She should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.

Wallace: But, sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and no matter how hard fought a campaign is that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?

Trump: What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?

Clinton: Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that’s horrifying.

“I’ll keep you in suspense.” “That’s horrifying.”

In 1800, John Adams lost the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson. It was a nasty, contentious election, and although the two men would eventually reconcile, at the time Adams was furious. But when the votes were counted, he graciously conceded defeat, and stepped down. That precedent for the peaceful transfer of power has become one of the great strengths of American democracy. When Presidential candidates lose an election, they concede, completely and without reservation. They pledge their support for the new President.

Two examples, one from each party. In 1960, the Presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was exceedingly close. Kennedy won by a little over 100,000 votes nationwide: 49.72% to 49.55%. Kennedy did win the electoral college 303-219.

But the vote totals were questionable, Kennedy’s victory tainted. In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was widely perceived as corrupt (because he was), and the Daley political machine guilty of voter fraud, which was, uh, not unimaginable. (“I see no reason to deprive a loyal, life-long Democrat of his voting franchise merely because he has passed on to a better world,” a Daley flunky is supposed to have said). And Texas politics were similarly colorful. And Kennedy’s running mate was “Landslide” Lyndon Johnson, whose place in the Senate was due to widely suspected chicanery, as he defeated former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson by 87 votes in 1948.

My father-in-law, a lifelong Republican, was convinced that Kennedy’s victory was illegitimate. He believed that Kennedy won both Texas and Illinois due to voter fraud, and that both states should have gone to Nixon, which would have given him exactly 270 electoral votes, enough for the win. And Nixon’s advisors wanted him to contest the election. Make a fuss. Insist on a full investigation, including recounts in both states. Nixon refused. He said “I want Senator Kennedy to know he has my wholehearted support.” It had been a bitterly contested election, and Nixon would not allow divisiveness to continue.

In that moment, Richard Nixon proved himself a patriot. He put the good of the nation ahead of his own personal ambitions. And, of course, he was eventually elected President, and we all know how that turned out. Still, he deserves full credit for his 1960 concession. He upheld the American democratic tradition. If you lose, you step down.

Next example: 2000. Al Gore and George W. Bush engaged in one of the closest elections in American history. Gore won the popular vote, 50, 999, 879 to 50, 456, 002. The deciding state was Florida, and the margins were razor thin. Initially, it appeared that Bush had won Florida by 537 votes; that total was close enough to trigger a mandatory recount according to Florida law. The exact mechanics of the recount was extensively litigated. Finally, the US Supreme Court stepped in, and by a 5-4 margin, Bush was declared the winner.

Again, Gore might have contested it in the court of public opinion. He did not. Al Gore was a patriot. Citing “the strength of American democracy” as his guide, he conceded the election.

I could discuss other examples. Democrat Samuel Tilden, in 1876, won the popular vote by a substantial margin. But electoral votes were disputed for three states–Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. A commission was appointed to resolve the issue, and a deal was struck, ending Reconstruction in exchange for the election of Rutherford Hayes, by one electoral vote. And Tilden was a patriot. Tilden conceded defeat.

The time and energy and money and, above all, emotional investment required to run for President of the United States must be far above anything most of us ever go through. (Probably the one thing we might compare it to is pregnancy–that level of total commitment). Therefore the ultimate test of the strength of our democracy comes when the election is over, when we peacefully transfer power to the new President. Our losing candidates go into the process aware of our traditions, hoping to win, aware that they might lose, aware as well of the absolute necessity of a graceful concession.

That’s why the post-debate commentary last night was so strongly stated and so unanimous. “I’ll keep you in suspense?” Not in America. Donald Trump’s refusal to state unequivocally that he will concede defeat if he loses was the main topic every commentator addressed. Steve Schmidt (John McCain’s campaign manager) condemned it. Nicolle Wallace, who worked with Schmidt, agreed with Hillary Clinton: his comments were “horrifying.” And Hugh Hewitt (conservative commentator) called Trump’s comments “disqualifying.”

And Hewitt’s right. Wallace’s question went right to the heart of who we are as a democracy. Donald Trump was faced with the ultimate test of his patriotism. And he failed. Donald Trump has disqualified himself to serve as President of the United States. He put his ego over his country. He has proven himself insufficiently patriotic.


Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, book review

On July 4, 1788, in Poughkeepsie, New York, the good citizens of the town gathered together for a patriotic celebration and parade. The parade culminated in a giant bonfire. And at the top of the bonfire, they carefully placed a copy of the proposed Constitution of the United States. And everyone cheered as the Constitution went up in flames. Why would they do this? Why, for obvious reasons. These were freedom loving people, patriots all. And this newfangled Constitution thing was the most obvious possible threat to American liberty.

Reading this story was just one of the many pleasures of Pauline Maier’s splendid new book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Maier’s book is exhaustively researched; as such, it’s full of surprises. We tend to think of our Constitution as kind of miraculous, as divinely inspired, even. Certainly nobody at the time thought so. Even it’s strongest defenders were convinced that it was a deeply flawed document, and in many cases, the best defense that could be mustered for it added up to ‘let’s try it, and in time, we’ll see clearly enough–and can amend–its most serious flaws.’ Heck, we could probably do worse, all things considered.

I did not know, for example, how much the Federalists (that loose coalition of people who fought for ratification), feared Patrick Henry of Virginia. Virginia was the ultimate swing state–the most populous in the union, the United States could not plausibly survive without it, and the ratification vote was likely to be very close indeed. And in part, that was because of Henry, Mr. “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death” (which he almost certainly never said). Henry was an extraordinary orator, inexhaustible and eloquent, and fiercely opposed to the Constitution. The fear was that that, all by himself, he could sway undecided delegates by the bushelful. And it turns out that what Henry probably wanted was essentially two independent American nations, one in the North and one in the South, with the Southern confederation retaining the peculiar institution of slavery.  I say ‘probably’ because he never quite was able to make that case explicitly–he seems to have been aware that it was too radical for most of his fellow delegates. So he limited himself to tying the convention in knots.

There was a general consensus that one fellow delegate might have the knowledge and eloquence to combat Henry, James Madison. Madison was not, however well, and initially didn’t even think he could manage to attend the ratifying convention. And when he did show up, his illness weakened him to the point that he was difficult to hear, apparently. (He was a slight man, physically, anyway). But even on the written page, Madison’s intellect just shines. The Virginia debate between Madison and Henry becomes one of those time machine moments; you wish you could have been there. (Understanding that Henry and Madison each spoke for hours at a time, in that multi-clause, densely punctuated 18th century prose).

The specific issues that the various ratifying conventions had with the Constitution read oddly today, though Maier does a brilliant job of putting them into context. In many instances, anti-Federalists were animated by local concerns, with issues specific to their own circumstances. One of the biggest worries is the brief reference in Article 2 Section 3 about ‘direct taxes.’ Those who opposed the Constitution often cited that provision as particularly odious. They felt that state legislators were more likely to tax people fairly, because of their close acquaintance with their circumstances; even then, the federal government was seen as too distant from citizens’ concerns. Nobody knew what ‘direct taxes’ were, or how they would function, but still they were feared. (Needlessly, as it happens; direct taxes were hardly ever collected, only at time of war, and were eventually superceded by the federal income tax after the passage of the 16th amendment).

Another major concern had to do with the office of Vice President. That office was seen as unnecessary and dangerous–in fact, the fear was that the Vice President would become uncontrollably powerful. That idea is amusing to us today. But since the Vice President breaks a tie in the Senate, and since the presumption was that Senators would disagree about everything, Anti-Federalists thought the VP would be breaking ties all the time, giving him near-dictatorial powers.

The biggest issue raised in all the ratifying conventions had to do with amendments. Pretty much everyone agreed that the Constitution was flawed, and would need to be amended. New York recommended dozens of amendments. For one thing, the Constitution didn’t have a proper bill of rights. And every state took issue with some provision or another, direct taxes being particularly controversial. So delegates at those state ratifying conventions had to decide; should they ratify now and amend later, or should they agree to ratify only if certain amendments were agreed to beforehand.

Our constitution might look very different today if those ratifying delegates had insisted on amendments as a precondition to ratification. Fortunately, no state did, though the margin was razor-thin in some states, most particularly New York, Virginia and Rhode Island.

If you love the Constitution, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But don’t look for evidence of divine inspiration or miraculous interventions. Such were never part of the writing of the Constitution or of its ratification. Instead, what we had were a large number of intelligent and thoughtful men with very different agendas and priorities, arguing, discussing and eventually compromising their way to a document that none of them thought perfect, but which all agreed was probably the best they could come up with, given their circumstances. And it’s served us well. That’s miracle enough for me.


Ubu for President

Down the rabbit hole. Kafkaesque. 2016: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. Just describing this current election strains the descriptive faculty. This election feels more like art than politics. But not the kind of art we’re used to; weird art, avant-garde art. A hundred years after the preposterously brutal horror of World War One led to the rise of futurism, surrealism, expressionism, absurdism, artists insisting that art no longer describe reality, reality itself having been violently shattered, so what we needed instead was anti-art, reflecting a radical opposition to/immersion in politics. I feel like we’ve stepped into a time machine, gone back 100 years, to 1916 and Zurich and the Cabaret Voltaire, where Dada reigned. Dada was a nonsense word for nonsense art; its performers tore up Shakespeare’s sonnets, then read their words in random order. Or placed a lovely French child on-stage, in her first communion dress, to read a poem consisting of the vilest profanities in German, a language of which the child was ignorant. Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and Jean Arp, who was also called Hans Arp, because as he held joint citizenship in France and Germany.  This election reminds me of Dada. Anti-art, reflecting anti-politics. Because the Republican Party–the conservative, white bread, buttoned down, relentlessly bourgeois party!–has nominated Donald “Ubu” Trump for the Presidency.

But let’s take our time machine back another twenty years. To December 10, 1896, the one performance of Ubu Roi, a hilarious and blasphemous and horrifying and intentionally offensive play by the madman/genius Alfred Jarry, at the Theatre de lŒuvre in Paris. Riots shut down the show. In fact, rioting began with the first word spoken on-stage: “merdre,” almost, but not quite, a French swear word. And in the play, the fat and disgusting Ubu raged and whined and beat his wife and insulted women, while conquering Poland.  In the audience was William Butler Yeats. He was shocked and horrified and appalled by the play, but more than a little impressed, and reflected on his own avant-garde past, and then added “after us, what more is possible? The savage God.” Ubu Roi is a grotesque caricature of the bourgeoisie, with the revolutionary Ubu at its center: violent, inarticulate, brutal, venal, misogynist, racist. A revolutionary who becomes King. Sound like someone you know?

So I make this case. Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, prefigures the candidacy of Donald Trump. It’s savage and it’s funny and it’s profoundly anti-democratic. Isn’t Trump running, not for President, but for King? Isn’t his candidacy built, as Ubu’s first line puts it, on ‘merdre?’ Not quite merde, but close to it, the misspelling adding to the ridiculousness of it, the whole play teetering on the edge of comedy, if it wasn’t so horrifying. After its one performance, it was obvious that the play could no longer be performed as written. So Jarry turned it into puppet theatre. And wrote two more plays in an extended Ubu saga, neither of which was performed in his lifetime, except with puppets. And Ubu begat dada, and surrealism, and absurdism. Ubu leads to Zurich, and the dada crowd.

This is now. This is happening. Murderous clowns cavort in southern forests. An advisor to a major party Presidential nominee insists that the current President of the United States is demonic, that he reeks of sulphur and attracts hordes of flies. A new movement has arisen, insisting that Obama was demonized–turned demonic–by the Grand Demon from Hell: Oprah Winfrey. A televised Presidential debate was conducted with a Greek chorus of accusing Furies, assault victims of one candidate’s husband, sitting in grim judgment. As for Hillary Clinton, another close advisor to Mr. Trump has detailed descriptions of 67 homicides she’s supposed to have committed. That’s where we are. A sizeable percentage of the electorate is convinced that one of the candidates is a serial killer.

Our political process has become ontologically unstable, if not epistemologically unhinged. We can’t agree on what’s real. We can’t agree on what sources we can read that might describe what’s real. To paraphrase Yeats again, in his greatest poem, we’re turning, turning in the widening gyre, the center really cannot hold. (But, boy, can we ever more clearly than ever, the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born). We don’t agree about the basic nature of the world. We don’t agree about what ‘truth’ means. We have at our fingertips the greatest technology for the dissemination of information ever invented, and we have learned, to our dismay and shock, that all it does, aside from sharing cute kitten videos, is exacerbate confirmation bias. Make us more polarized. More at each other’s throats.

We’re used to elections in which the candidates do not agree about policy. That’s normal. That’s usual. I feel considerable nostalgia for 2012 (so long ago in the past, it feels!) when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney disagreed about things like tax policy. Deep in our hearts and souls, we knew that both men were fully qualified to become President, and would do their best to serve honorably if elected.

(But there was always something beneath that, wasn’t there? An irrational core of festering hatred and fear and racism and self-disgust. It was always there, barely acknowledged, but bursting forth periodically).

But what now, when we can’t even agree about what issues our country actually faces, what problems we expect our politics to solve? Look at Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. It was death and destruction, murder and violence, hordes of roaming illegal immigrants slaughtering our children. He said “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.” He said “This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”

Apocalyptic language; if Hillary Clinton wins this election, we cannot survive. And of course, that’s happened before. Hyperbolic prophecies of incipient doom are often invoked by the most fanatical political partisans, Right or Left. But this is something else again. I’ve talked to Trump supporters, and if there’s one thing they have in common, it is an insistence that our country is in terrible shape, and that unless something is done about it, we may not any of us survive. Or at least, our fragile democracy is seriously threatened.

(And it’s all nonsense. Violent crime statistics show massive decreases over the last eight years. Nafta didn’t destroy our economy, and Isis isn’t much of a threat, and immigration is a good thing, economically, even if it’s illegal. He’s factually wrong about everything).

When irrationality triumphs, what’s left are irrational false narratives. Conspiracy theories. Here was Donald Trump today on the campaign trail.

Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt — now, when I say “corrupt,” I’m talking about totally corrupt — political establishment. There is nothing the political establishment will not do — no lie that they won’t tell, to hold their prestige and power at your expense. And that’s what’s been happening. . It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.

This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.

This is nothing new. This kind of rhetoric has been used before, most appallingly in Germany in the 30s. Once it was the Rothschilds, or, more simply, a cabal of “Jewish bankers” conspiring together to destroy America, or the world economy, or western civilization. Or ‘mongrel races.’ Or it was ZOG that threatened (Zionist Occupation Government, a favorite acronym of the Ku Klux Klan). Or perhaps something more actively demonic. Alex Jones (a ‘2-degrees of separation’ Trump advisor) had this to say.

I’m told her and Obama just stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that stuff off, man. I’m told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’ve been told this by high-up folks. They say, listen, Obama and Hillary smell like sulphur. I’ve talked to people who are on protective details. They’re scared of her. They say, listen, she’s a demon, and so’s Obama, and they stink of sulphur.

And now, it appears, there’s a new evangelical group of Trump backers, who claim to have identified the arch-demon who turned Barack and Hillary evil. Who? Wait for it: Oprah Winfrey.

That’s where we are. That’s where we stand. At the end of Ubu, he wrestles, and defeats a bear, a traditional symbol for Russia. Earlier, Russia invades Poland. It’s like Jarry sort of even got the politics right. Russia as threat and savior? Seriously?

Jarry once described himself as ‘blind and unwavering undisciplined at all times the real strength of free men.’ Blind as Trump is blind, unwavering (the Mexicans are paying for that wall, by golly!), and so remarkably undisciplined, with insanely self-destructive tweets at four in the morning. Every morning, I check the internet. What else has happened? Could anything get stranger? Ignoring two major hurricanes, because that madman did something even more surreal last night. Dada: absolutely. Ubu indeed.




Phyllis Schlafly: RIP

Phyllis Schlafly just passed away, at the age of 92. Every major news outlet eulogized her, as is appropriate. I am not a major news outlet, and rarely do obituaries. And of course, I did not know the woman. Still, Schlafly’s passing leads me to ask this: how do we memorialize the life of someone with whom we disagreed?

On the internet, when someone both prominent and controversial dies, memes begin to appear, presumably amusing expressions of schadenfreud. ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead,’ seems to have been the predominant sentiment this time around. That strikes me as unfortunate. Death is the ultimate leveler, and its majesty, its tragedy, its reality should overawe us, should lead to humility, should supercede parochial concerns.

I believe that Phyllis Schlafly’s legacy is an unfortunate one. I think she left the world an unhappier place. I also thought her political views were mistaken, retrograde, invalid. But it’s not my role to judge.

And, in fact, she was an extraordinary woman. She was an attorney, a political candidate, an activist, and an author. She liked to cultivate a particular image; ‘housewife/activist.’ In fact, that description sells her short. Her book, A Choice, Not an Echo challenged the Republican orthodoxy of her day, and sold three million copies. She developed considerable expertise in international armaments, and researched and wrote books about national defense, staunchly in opposition to arms control agreements. Her newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, became a central text of the conservative movement. She founded the Eagle Forum, and was an activist, who led the opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

I liked and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. I consider myself a feminist. I also like arms control agreements. But I am not blessed with omnipotence. I believe that the Equal Rights Amendment would have made life better for women; really, for everyone. She believed that it would make life worse. She won that political battle. Who knows whose views were right?

And she had a gay son. John Schlafly, her oldest son, came out in 1992. He nonetheless remained active in the leadership of the Eagle Forum. He ended up in a bitter dispute with his sister, Anne Cori, over the Forum’s enthusiastic support for Donald Trump; Cori thought they should endorse Ted Cruz instead. I understand bitterness over that controversy lingers still.

So, a bright, successful, accomplished woman. Devoted to her family, and to her favored political cause. Hers was an extraordinary life. For good? For ill? Let God decide.

Ben-Hur: Movie Review

There are essentially two ways a movie could be called a success. First, it could be a popular success, as measured by box office receipts.  Or it can be a critical success, the kind of movie people like me love, but that have a hard time finding their market. Well, the new Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston, is neither a financial nor a critical success. It cost a hundred million dollars to make, and so far, has made around twelve million in box office, a dismal enough figure that it’s closing all across the country. Critics haven’t liked it. It’s around 29% on By those criteria, it’s not a successful film.

And you can’t help but wonder why it was even made. The 1959 William Wyler film, with Charlton Heston, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (to Heston), and Best Director. I’m not sure how well it holds up anymore, but it’s certainly a classic, an important and memorable film. Why remake it? Why make a new version, directed by the guy who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and starring John Huston’s grandson? Why greenlight it, why fund this production, why market and distribute it? It’s seems like a peculiarly unnecessary venture.

I’m also aware that I have this fault as a critic; I like pretty much everything. I like movies; I like the experience of seeing movies, and my son teases me by saying that my one superpower is finding something positive in even quite wretched movies. So my positive comments here are easy to discount. I get that. I do.

The fact is, though, the new Ben-Hur isn’t terrible, and at times, it’s quite gripping. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by it. Jack Huston’s not Charlton Heston, but he’s a fine actor, and makes a creditable Ben-Hur. The acting is generally just fine, and the story unfolds at a brisk pace (which can’t really be said about the four-hour-long ’59 classic).  And I don’t have much hesitation recommending it.

I’m sure you remember the essential story. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince living in Jerusalem, has an adopted brother, Masala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in.  The men grow up as brothers, and are inseparable. But Masala wants to advance in the Empire, and becomes a centurion. Eventually, he’s posted to Judea, working for the prefect, Pontius Pilate. When a Zealot assassin Ben-Hur has been protecting tries to kill Pilate, Masala has his brother arrested, and condemned to the slow, horrific death of a galley slave. But in a sea battle, Ben-Hur’s ship sinks, and he makes it safely to shore. He is rescued by Ildurim (Morgan Freeman), who trains horses and riders for chariot racing, a popular Roman sport. He trains Ben-Hur, setting up a big climactic chariot race between Masala and Ben-Hur.

In some respects, this new movie is kind of a Cliff Notes version of the ’59 classic. The movie is built around two big action set pieces–the sea battle between galley ships, and the chariot race. Both take up a lot of screen time, and both were well staged and filmed. I already knew perfectly well who was going to win the chariot race, but I still found it exciting and suspenseful.

The interstitial stuff between the big action scenes were less well handled. When Ben-Hur is arrested, his mother and sister are arrested too. He agonizes over that fact, assumes they’re dead, and wants, at least, to see them properly buried. Turns out they didn’t die, but the resolution of that plot point was perfunctory and unconvincing. Likewise, Ben-Hur’s marriage to Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) was rushed through, as were subsequent scenes showing their reunion, quarrel, and reconciliation.

But the film’s biggest failure, in my opinion, has to do with its handling of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). The Civil War General Lew Wallace, who wrote the novel all this is based on, titled it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur meets Jesus periodically throughout the movie, but is unpersuaded by His message. But (SPOILER ALERT), not entirely. Esther becomes a Christian, and Ben-Hur himself eventually comes around. The point of the movie, I think, is this; both Ben-Hur and Masala are men who are consumed with hatred and pain and anger and an insensate desire for revenge. Christ’s message is that those emotions are false, are temptations of the Adversary, and that instead, we need to embrace love and forgiveness. After seeing his brother badly injured in the chariot race, Ben-Hur, touched by Jesus’ teachings, reconciles with his brother, and the men embrace and forgive. Yay for them; closing credits.

It doesn’t really work, though. The resolution is much too perfunctory, and the scenes with Jesus were hampered, in my opinion, by Santoro’s limitations as an actor. And by Huston’s limitations as well; his ‘consumed with anger’ looks very much like his ‘desperate to forgive.’

(And I’m hardly an expert on this historical period, and would love to be corrected if it turns out I’m wrong, but I do not believe that Pilate’s Jerusalem ever featured a big Cirkus for chariot races. Also, I don’t think a Roman Centurion would have been a big name chariot racer. Wrong social class. Also, I’m not sure what caste Ben-Hur belonged to. A ‘Jewish Prince’ who is really wealthy and nonetheless charitable and kind and beloved in Jerusalem? A Herodian? Not sure that guy could have existed. But if I’m wrong, let me know).

If you want to see an exceptionally well-made and well acted movie, set in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry, see Risen, with Joseph Fiennes, a much better movie on the same subject, only without chariot races. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur really can’t be said to have succeeded, exactly. But it’s not half bad, and parts of it are very well done indeed. So I recommend it. And you’ll have to hurry; it’s leaving town soon.

The Underground Railroad: Book Review

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of those novels that you don’t want to read too quickly, lest you deprive yourself of any of its pleasures, lest it break your heart. It’s beautiful, lyrical, as intellectually engaging as it is powerful emotionally. I don’t know anything else like it. The cliché here would be that I ‘couldn’t put it down.’ In fact, I frequently put it down, because it so often overwhelmed me.

Its subject, is, obviously, slavery and the Underground Railroad that conveyed escaped slaves north to freedom. It’s an historical novel, with the most resolute of protagonists–an escaped slave named Cora. But I can’t help myself from calling it a kind of science fiction, or at least speculative fiction. It’s built on two conceits; that the Underground Railroad really was a railroad, a subterreanean network of tunnels and tracks, with trains that take desperate fugitives from state to state. And second, that the experience of African-Americans differed radically from state to state, with each place exploring a different American possibility. It’s somehow a fabulist novel that doesn’t feel fabricated, an alternate history that feels like the most exacting and ruthlessly honest commentary on the actual history of America and race.

Cora begins in Georgia, living on a plantation owned by the Randalls, ferocious and brutal and corrupt, the worst plantation owners imaginable. Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped, when Cora was just a child, and she resents it, being abandoned  like that. But what’s remarkable is that Mabel really did escape; she wasn’t brought back in chains by the ruthless and brilliant slave catcher, Ridgeway, to be tormented and brutalized and murdered like all other Randall escapees. (Eventually, we learn Mabel’s story, and it’s heart-breaking).

And so, Cora grows up a loner, a watcher, a fierce defender of her meagre belongings, but friendless and gossiped-about in slavery’s traumatized and treacherous culture. Then one night, Caesar, newly arrived at the Randall plantation, approaches Cora, the only slave he can trust, he says, and tells her he intends to escape, and wants her to come with him. He knows, you see, a station master. He can find his way to the Railroad.

And so, to South Carolina, a bastion of racial enlightenment, a place where blacks are allowed jobs and wages and an education, and even something resembling freedom. A real home. A paradise, pretty much. Until Cora learns the truth behind the benevolence and the real purpose behind the free medical exams she’s treated to.

The reality of slavery is, of course, economic. In King Cotton, the South had the perfect cash crop, the key to ever-increasing prosperity. Cotten needs tending and picking, and profit margins are greater if you don’t intend to pay your workers. But they came to understand that while African blacks make good workers–and can always be bred, increasing the labor market supply–they couldn’t really be trusted, could they? To remain placid and pliable. And in some areas, they had begun to increase in numbers; to outnumber whites. This wouldn’t do. Steps needed to be taken. South Carolina, priding itself in its sophistication and erudition, made the scientific choice. Forced sterilization. And other medical experimentation, to learn about infectious diseases and further deplete black numbers.

And as Cora contemplates her situation in oh-so-benevolent South Carolina, the implacable Ridgeway shows up, captures Caesar. Cora barely escapes alive. And she’s not expected on the train, and has to go wherever it’s heading. And that, it turns out, is North Carolina.

North Carolina is cruder, more direct. Reluctantly, its white citizenry has decided to bite the bullet, and pay its cotton pickers; not the black ones, of course, but impoverished European imports. That, again, leads to a superfluity of blacks, and a final solution. Cora barely survives, hidden, like Anne Frank, in an abolitionist’s attic.

And so on. Each state confronts the same demographic/economic problem, and each state deals with it differently. South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. Yes, even a Northern state like Indiana. And each solution, in each state, is horrifying. At one point, Cora discovers books, and sees her own situation as analogous to Gulliver, and I buy that; the places Gulliver visits are grotesque, but illustrative.

And Cora is extraordinary. She’s a practical young woman, a farmgirl, hard working and determined and strong. She loves to read, especially loving Farmer’s Almanacs, for their pragmatism. She’s not terrifically romantic, but does fall in love, twice, with both relationships ending in horror. She’s a survivor. She’s also completely unimpressed with white society, and its protestations of civilized sophistication. She learns the Declaration of Independence, and considers it vicious nonsense. She’s an astonishing creation, and when the book ended, I did cry out, vocally: ‘no!’ I so wanted to spend more time in her company.

And the book’s ferocious and philosophical villain, Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is an equally astonishing creation. He’s a murderer, of course, many times over. But he’s also, in his own way, a thoughtful man, a man who sees his society clearly, and sees as well the necessary function of someone like him. He holds the Randalls in utter contempt, but is content to work for them, because the pay is good, and the work essential. Slavery is the key to Southern society. Not allowing slaves their freedom is the key to making the peculiar institution work. He is the face of white slavery, with all its intellectual pretensions, and quite possibly the scariest character in any novel I’ve read, because he’s also rounded, nuanced, complex. Smart. Evil? Well, obviously, but then this book redefines evil. Slavery isn’t just one evil though. It’s manifestations are legion; it infests American history and promise like demons infesting the Gadarene swine.

I haven’t read Colson Whitehead before now, and now intend to buy all his books and read them straight through. What a remarkable talent. What a story! What a rich and powerful and strangely compelling novel.


Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. Movie review

I just watched Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America film, so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

It’s a documentary, of the agit-prop variety, a ferocious assault on the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and any semblance of civil political discourse. Essentially, it’s an assortment of anti-Hillary conspiracy theories, tied together by one overarching über false narrative of breathtakingly ludicrous audacity; that the Democratic party is not now and never has been a legitimate political organization, but is now and always has been a vast, all encompassing criminal conspiracy.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. It’s that bad.

The film’s master narrative goes like this. Dinesh D’Souza goes to prison, ostensibly for violating campaign finance laws, actually because the Obama administration is out to get him.

Which I love, by the way. The totalitarian, tyrannical, anti-Democratic Obama administration is out to get him! So what do they do? Sentence him to . . .  8 months in prison, plus he had to do some community service. Obama’s got to be the wimpiest tyrant in history. (Dinesh, some advice: if you don’t like prison, don’t commit crimes).

So: prison. A scary place, filled with scary people (though as we see him wending his way through general population, with all these plug-uglies glaring menacingly, you think ‘he’s going to be okay; the cameraman shooting all this is his employee, and should be able to protect him.’ Anyway, while in prison, he learns about how con men work. He finishes his sentence, and goes to Democratic headquarters somewhere. He scouts around, goes places he shouldn’t, opens ‘no admittance doors,’ (kept conveniently unlocked), where they keep all the hidden portraits of Andrew Jackson and copies of Birth of a Nation, and ‘learns’ the whole sordid history of the Democrats–all of which I knew when I was ten–which he then recites in the most obvious and insultingly simple-minded way. To wit:

Andrew Jackson was the founder of the Democratic party. And he was the author of the Trail of Tears, a slave owner, and a strong supporter of slavery. All true, and not remotely secret–I don’t know a single Democrat who doesn’t know all about Andy Jackson. Also, of course, irrelevant to the Democratic party today.

The Republican party was anti-slavery, and Republicans voted for the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, all opposed by Democrats. And Lincoln was a really good President, and (prepared to be shocked by this revelation), a Republican. The Ku Klux Klan was founded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a southern general and a Democratic congressman. All absolutely true. No question; I’d have totally been a Republican back then.

Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat, a racist, and a big fan of the pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation. Again, nothing new there. I’ve even showed Birth of a Nation in classes I taught. It’s a historically significant film, but D. W. Griffith was a Kentucky boy, and boy is it racist. Hard film to teach anymore; it’s just so comically racist.

The New Deal had racist provisions regarding some of the benefits it offered. Absolutely true. Southern Democrats generally opposed civil rights; the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was passed by a majority of Republicans.

All this stuff is presented as a secret history, as the kind of thing Democrats are ashamed of and try to cover up. And maybe that happens; I don’t know. Some Democrats may not know much history, like some Republicans don’t. But it’s irrelevant. There’s since been a major party realignment. There was a time when Democrats went out of their way to prevent black voters from voting. That ended. Now, it’s Republicans who pass bills restricting African-American voting. ‘Republican’ doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant 50 years ago, and neither does ‘Democrat’.

In 1960, there were essentially four major political groupings. There were conservative Republicans (like Barry Goldwater), and liberal Republicans (like Nelson Rockefeller). There were conservative Dixiecrat Democrats (like Richard Russell), and there were liberal Democrats, like Hubert Humphrey. I remember when I first was hired at BYU, talking to one of my new faculty friends, who surprised me when he said he was a Republican. Not that that mattered, but he seemed really liberal. Then he said he leaned Republican because of civil rights. Made perfect sense. As we continued to talk, it turned out we didn’t disagree politically at all. About anything. He didn’t even like Reagan, much.

To me, as a Democrat, reading about Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson is somewhat akin to doing my genealogy, and discovering I have a pirate ancestor. It’s disreputable and more than a little embarrassing, but it doesn’t matter–it doesn’t reflect on me at all. The political issues of the 1830s or 1870s or 1920s or 1960s are not the political issues of today. I’m a Democrat because I generally prefer Democratic policies today. I don’t give a crap about what John C. Calhoun thought politically, except as a matter of historical interest.

There’s a biggish chunk of D’Souza’s film where he talks about the journalist Ida B. Wells, who he clearly admires. As well he should–she was a remarkable woman, and a courageous one. I admire her too. The fact that she was a Republican doesn’t matter; in her day, it would have been remarkable if she weren’t. The Republicans were the party of civil rights back then. So would I have been, back then. So why put Ida Wells in the movie?

Okay. The last quarter of the film switches gears, from a ridiculous ahistorical assault on the Democratic party to an even more ridiculous attack on Hillary Clinton. It’s all there; Whitewater, Benghazi, the White House travel office thing, and, of course, the email scandal. Also, the Clinton Foundation. D’Souza insists that the Clinton Global Initiative is a massive money-laundering scheme, with very few of the funds raised used to do anything good at all. He particularly attacks the Clinton’s for their involvement with Haiti, and shows anti-Clinton protesters outside the CGI headquarters in the New York.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Hillary Clinton has been lied about more than any other public figure in US history; D’Souza just repackages those lies. Case in point: Bill and Hillary didn’t skim off donations intended for Haiti: the CGI raised and spent 4 billion dollars for Haitian relief. They provided housing for 300,000 people, built hundreds of schools, built and staffed medical clinics all across the country. They’ve been extensively audited, and can prove exactly what was done with donations intended for Haiti. It’s an impressive list. Money laundering? Get real.

For a lot of people I know, the thing that makes them most uncomfortable with Hillary is the way she’s attacked the various women Bill is alleged to have had affairs with. D’Souza spends a lot of time on that issue. The most serious charge is that of Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of having raped her. There are good reasons to believe her accusation, and equally good reasons to not believe her. I wasn’t there; I don’t have any idea. Bill Clinton did have multiple affairs, but they were always consensual. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Hillary chose not to believe rumors of his infidelity, and yes, she did trash the women making those accusations. I’m not willing to judge her too harshly for it. An adulterous spouse would tend to bring out the worst in any of us.

So maybe those attacks are a little bit relevant. None of the others have any credibility, at all. So she met Saul Alinsky. Big deal. So she once said nice things about Margaret Sanger (a fascinating historical figure, who did much more good than evil, though she did have her blind spots). Big deal. So Hillary got lucky with an investment one time. Good for her, and big deal. And yes, people pay absurd amounts of money to hear people give speeches. She’s made a lot less than Mike Eruzione does.

Anyway, the real question this film raises for me is this: what did Hillary Clinton ever do to Dinesh D’Souza?  What would cause a man to expend this impressive amount of pure vitriol and bile and hatred towards someone? I don’t get it. Why does Hillary have to be some combination of Lady Macbeth, Lucrezia Borgia and Livia Drusilla Caesar? Why does she have to be this monster? Can’t you just say ‘I disagree with her on matters of policy. Here are some specifics.’ Make a sensible argument, for heaven’s sake. This vilifying of a fellow patriot is unseemly, unnecessary, and, frankly, nonsensical. Dinesh, you were wrong about Obama, and you’re wrong about Hillary. Get over it.

I do regret one thing. I saw an early matinee, with about twenty other people. When the film ended, they all applauded. I booed. Very loudly–I’m a big guy with a big voice, and I really shouted out my ‘boo.’ I projected, you know? And they stopped applauding, and glared at me balefully as they left the theater (I was sitting in the front row). So I’m sorry, folks, if I ruined your movie. And shame on you for liking it.

Trump’s appeal, and the white underclass

A conservative friend of mine sent me this article from American Conservative magazine. It’s an interview with J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Legacy, a recent memoir. Vance came from a dirt-poor Appalachian family, and eventually graduating from Yale Law School. Fascinating interview, and a must-read book. And an interesting look at the political phenomenon of our day, the Donald Trump candidacy.

Trump’s strongest demographic is white men, and especially white men without college educations. It’s a group of people easily demonized. I’ve been reading Nancy Isenberg’s terrific historical study, White Trash; when I finish, I’ll review it here. But in short, the history of our nation is the history of class tensions, and the wholesale denigration of poor white people. We know, of course, that America’s prosperity was built, in part, on the backs of slaves. But Isenberg makes a persuasive case for an equally insidious dynamic; the deliberate division of American whites into social classes. And that remains partly true today.

The Vance interview adds a fascinating perspective on class, as it played itself our in his life and career. And I was fascinated by his political insights. After some moving descriptions of the desperate circumstances poor whites face all over the country, Vance says that neither major party has anything to offer the rural poor. Democrats offer ‘smug condescension,’ exasperation over people voting against their own economic self-interests, plus some handouts, which folks don’t much want. Republicans, of course, offer deregulation, tax cuts, plus free trade. Then, this:

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

I understand that. Trump’s candidacy resonates with a group of people who have been ignored, discounted and insulted. Trump’s rudeness, his thin-skinned inability to let any criticism go unchallenged, his willingness to break with what we have come to regard as the civilized norms for political discourse, all that makes him more, not less popular with his base. They share that sense of resentment, of having been put down and discounted. Trump speaks to them, precisely because he ‘tells it like it is.’ What strikes most of  us as rhetorical excesses resonate with his supporters.

Vance uses the word ‘elite’ a lot. And that’s become an important word in this election season.  It’s ‘the elites’ who rigged the election for Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders, ‘the elites’ who negotiated terrible trade deals that hurt the Rust Belt, ‘elites’ who condescend to and put down everyone who is not ‘elite.’

Vance talks about people he knew at Yale, who had never met a member of the white underclass, a professor who said that Yale should never accept students from state universities. Trump, says Vance, is the one guy who actively seems to fight elite sensibilities.

I get that. I understand that resentment, that feeling that people look down on you, or put you down. And I certainly think that Democrats can seem condescending.

But the ‘elite’ tag is most often applied to Hillary Clinton in his campaign. And I don’t get it. Yes, she’s a former First Lady; yes, she graduated from Yale. But her family background was anything but elite. Hillary’s kin were Pennsylvania coal miners. Her Dad got a football scholarship to Penn State, and was able to get an education. He became a moderately successful businessman, but Hillary’s childhood was hardly one of luxury and privilege. Bill Clinton’s family was dirt-poor. Okay, through a combination of hard work, good grades and scholarships, both Bill and Hillary made it to Yale Law School. (As did Vance). I wouldn’t say either of them come from ‘elite’ backgrounds.

An elite background would look more like this: a millionaire father, elite prep schools, Wharton School of Finance, and then a million dollar loan to start his business. Like, say, Donald Trump.

So, this season, we seem to be inhabiting a topsy-turvy world in which the Clintons are ‘elite’ and Trump is ‘champion of the working man.’ How do we liberals, we Democrats, we progressives reach out to those voters? How do we begin a conversation with this group of fellow Americans?

And at this point, I start to feel pretty pessimistic. I can think of lots of strategies that won’t work; I can’t think of any that might. We could, for example, do a point by point comparison between Trump’s policies (to the extent that he has any), and those of Secretary Clinton. Hard to see how that wouldn’t come across as kind of smarty-pants, in a ‘if you were smarter, you’d realize how bad Trump’s policies are’ kind of way. Or we could carefully explain to folks how much we enlightened Democrats can do for them. Mansplainin’ works so well when it’s men talking down to women; I’m sure it’ll work just fine if it’s urbansplainin’ to rural voters.

If Trump wins, we’ll have a stronger case to make. His policies will be disastrous, especially for the working poor; once the economy collapses again, we’ll have a case to make to fix things. But if (as I hope) Hillary wins, it’ll be time to really show what we can do. How about a major jobs effort in economically depressed areas? We have to do something. Because the kind of poverty Vance grew up with is not acceptable.

The Legend of Tarzan: Movie Review

Let’s face it: the Tarzan tales, as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are fundamentally colonialist, ethnocentric, and racialist. They’re about a white man, an English aristocrat, who, though raised by apes, becomes an African leader, then eventually, a member of the House of Lords. Blue blood rules; blue blood, in fact, could be said to be divinely appointed to rule. Primitive African tribes survive thanks to his protection; animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands. All of which make a modern movie treatment of Tarzan, uh, problematic.

The new Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan, seems at least to have recognized that this is a problem, though its solutions are at best half-baked and at worst appalling. It tries three solutions. First, in structure and tone, this movie follows the template and structure of superhero movies. Second, Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense. And third, the movie puts Tarzan in a specific historical context. Every superhero needs a super villain, and we get a good one here, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), agent to loathsome Belgian King Leopold II.

In fact, the movie is set in the Belgian Congo, the private domain of Leopold, an area rich in minerals, including diamonds. It’s important to note that the Congo wasn’t colonized by Belgium, the nation. It was owned by Leopold, a private investment by a monarch. Anyway, in the movie’s version of events, in 1866, Leopold’s plans for the Congo have faltered, because he’s broke. So his henchman, Rom, works out an elaborate plan. Rom meets a Congolese chief, Mbonga (Djimoun Hounsou) who, he has learned, hates Tarzan. So Rom promises to capture Tarzan, and trade him for diamonds, which Mbonga’s tribe has in profusion. This will pay the salaries of the mercenary soldiers that Leopold has hired to serve as the Force Publique, his own private army. Thus allowing Leopold to control and exploit and enslave the native population.

But an American journalist, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of Leopold, and wants John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (otherwise known as Tarzan, played here by Alexander Skarsgård) to bring him with him to Africa. And Jane, Tarzan’s wife, really wants them to go. She was raised in Africa, where her father taught English–her closest friends are African. She considers herself African. And, in the brief glimpses of Tarzan’s origin story the movie provides, we learn that she met Tarzan when she found him half-dead, nursed him back to health, and taught him English.

So Tarzan, Jane, and Williams return to her village, where Rom and his soldiers lie in wait. They nearly kidnap Tarzan, but do kidnap Jane. This works just as well for Rom’s purposes. His plan is to deliver Tarzan to Mbonga, and he knows that Tarzan will do anything to rescue his wife. So Rom and Jane (and many soldiers), sail down a river towards Mbonga’s camp, and Tarzan follows, making good time by swinging from tree vine to tree vine, and getting reacquainted with his ape family. And Williams follows along, with Jackson’s grumpy weariness providing comic relief.

Along the way, Williams learns all about Leopold’s plans. He’s built a series of forts in the Congo, and rail lines for transport, and he has recruited this fearsome private army of brutal mercenary thugs. Williams is able to document everything.

Mbongo and Tarzan finally do confront each other, in what I frankly thought was the best scene in the movie. Mbongo hates Tarzan, because he killed his teenaged son; Tarzan killed the kid, because the kid killed Tarzan’s beloved ape mother. The two men, as they fight, realize how similar they are, and how destructive and unworthy their enmity. And reconcile. The scene works because Hounsou is so terrific, and it plays to Skarsgård’s rather limited strengths as an actor. The movie could have ended then, and been quite satisfying, I think, if you could have included some way to rescue Jane.

But it’s a summer blockbuster. It’s a big budget superhero movie. It has to end in a big noisy fight. And so, we move on, to a big final set piece. Rom has to deliver a trunk full of diamonds to the mercenary captain, and Tarzan has to rescue Jane. And while we’re at it, the riverside town where the mercenaries are all going to land has to be destroyed. And so, Tarzan summons armies of lions, wildebeest, alligators and hippos which attack and destroy this Force Publique stronghold. Summoning animals to fight for him is Tarzan’s main superpower, you see. It’s a ridiculous scene, of course, though not badly staged or filmed or edited, and it culminates satisfactorily, with Jane getting rescued, Tarzan reunited with her, and Rom being eaten by alligators.

And finally, Williams issues his report of Leopold’s intended atrocities to the British authorities. I think we’re meant to see that report as putting an end to the worst of the King’s atrocities, though the British lords who receive the report seem, in the movie, to greet it with decided equivocation. Still, like any superhero movie, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and moral justice prevails.

Except, of course, nothing like that occurred. First of all, Leon Rom wasn’t eaten by alligators in 1886; he decorated his house by Stanley Falls with the skulls of murdered Congolese, and died a wealthy man in Brussels in 1924. Williams did deliver a report of Force Publique atrocities, but it was widely ignored. And the nefarious plans for the brutal subjugation of the Congo that Williams discovers? The forts, the rail lines, the savagery of Leopold’s private army? All of that happened. Leopold grew fantastically wealthy (though mostly through rubber, not diamonds), while treating the native peoples in the region with unprecedented viciousness. Best estimate; 10 million murdered. Ten million people. That’s just an estimate; it might have been fifteen million.

(Things haven’t improved. The Congo has been, since 1998, the site of the bloodiest of civil wars, with millions dead. All unpleasant vestiges of colonialist exploitation and enslavement).

Tarzan, of course, is a fictional character, and this movie tells a fictional story. That’s fine, I don’t actually think Iron Man exists either. But this Tarzan ties itself into historical events, and employs historical characters; Leon Rom, George Washington Williams, King Leopold II. And it shows Tarzan defeating Rom, and Williams defeating Leopold. And those things never occurred. Which means I left the theater with a distinctly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Tarzan is a problematic character nowadays. Making a straightforwardly Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan movie in 2016 would seem a bit like remaking one of those ’40s comedies in which husbands spanking their wives was treated as jolly fun. Uh, no, not anymore. But this movie strains at a colonialist gnat and swallows a genocide camel. It struck me as bizarrely ill conceived. It’s a movie that relies on its audience knowing absolutely nothing about African history. I found it insulting and infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t just do that, just sweep the wanton and brutal murder of fifteen million people under the carpet, because they get in the way of your big CGI movie climax.

It’s a shame, too, because it’s an attractive enough movie, and there are scenes that work well. Hounsou is terrific in too-small a role, and I can’t say enough about Margot Robbie’s sensational Jane. Robbie is the most open-hearted of actresses, absolute in her commitment to the role, and courageous in her acting choices. Sam Jackson does wonderful Sam Jackson things, and all the Tarzan stuff was well executed; the yell, the flying in trees, a scene where he rolls around felinely with lions. Through some combination of gym time, anabolic steroids and CGI, Skarsgård looks terrific, though his performance never quite grabbed me. And, as usual, Christoph Waltz was a sensational villain.

And I can understand the impulse to turn Tarzan into a superhero. But they placed him in a specific historical context, which they then got horribly, unforgivably wrong. As we left the theater, my wife and daughter gave it a B-minus. As a, you know, movie, I’d agree. But I’m not inclined to forgive it. F.