Category Archives: History

Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was always the other movie in town. You know what I mean? When my wife and I wanted to see a movie, it was always ‘should we see Bridge of Spies, or should we see . . . ‘ It looked like a really good movie. It’s Spielberg on American history; always something he does well. It had a screenplay by the Coen brothers. It starred Tom Hanks. There was no reason not to see it. But somehow, we missed it, week after week.

I wish now we’d seen it. It’s a terrific film, a deserving Best Picture nominee.  And it occurred to me that it’s one of the few truly excellent films about the Cold War that I’ve seen. But there’s something about it that does feel rather ‘other film in town.’ It’s a structural issue in the film itself.

The film begins in 1957, with the capture of a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, a New York insurance attorney, but with a background as one of the attorneys at the Nuremberg trials. He’s asked to defend Abel, but it’s made clear to him by everyone–his law partners and the trial judge included–that his defense is meant to be perfunctory; that it’s not any part of his task to actually get the guy off. But Donovan’s the real deal, a terrific attorney, and a genuine true believer in what America’s supposed to stand for, including rule of law and due process. He can’t quite win the case, but he comes darn close, and he does argue successfully against the death penalty, saving his client’s life.

Cut ahead to 1960, and Francis Gary Powers, the American U2 pilot, shot down over the Soviet Union. Cut ahead two more years, to ’62, and as the Berlin wall is under construction, Donovan is asked to travel to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers. As he arrives, he learns of an American grad student, Fredric Prior (Will Rogers) caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, preposterously, accused of espionage. And so Donovan decides to exceed his mandate and trade Abel for both guys. Who are held by different authorities–Soviet and East German. And all very much against the wishes of Donovan’s CIA handlers.

These are all terrific conflicts. The Cold War environment. The willingness of the CIA to let Prior freeze in an East German prison. The mysterious functionaries, Russian and German, Donovan has to deal with. It’s a great story, about a genuinely heroic American negotiating complicated moral terrain while keeping true to his own best sense of himself and his country. I liked the whole film. I loved the testy exchanges between Donovan and his various antagonists, US and Commie.

There isn’t anything not to like about the movie. It introduces us to a heroic American most people have never heard of–all to the good. It explores a history that we continue to find fascinating. It’s also an exceptionally well-made film–tautly paced and beautifully filmed.

I just can’t help but notice that the stakes aren’t actually all that high for Donovan, the protagonist. There’s a great scene early in the film where he meets with a CIA agent, who wants to know what he’s learning from Abel. Donovan says he can’t tell him: attorney-client privilege. The CIA guy says, ‘we’re in a war, if you’re a patriot, you have to tell me anything that might affect American interests.’ And Donovan asks him this: ‘your name is Hoffman, right? You’re of German ancestry? And I’m Irish, both sides. So what makes us both Americans? We both agree on the same set of rules. We call it the Constitution. So, no, I will not violate attorney-client privilege.’ It’s a terrific scene, and it tells us everything we need to know about Donovan.

But mostly, the stakes aren’t very high for him. As he walks to a meeting at the Soviet embassy in East Berlin, the ruined city seems dangerous and menacing. It’s beautifully acted and filmed. But he’s really not actually in much danger. He’s a remarkable man, and I applaud Spielberg for telling his story. But his task doesn’t really endanger him. Or at least, not much. In fact, throughout the East Berlin scenes, we’re told repeatedly that he’s suffering from a head cold. And that does complicate things for the poor guy. But that’s all.

So it’s a very interesting and engaging film, and I liked it very much indeed. And I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s up for an Academy Award. But I don’t think it’s going to win. It’s an A-minus film, and one I’m glad we finally saw. Films don’t have to have a protagonist up against life-threatening odds. Sometimes a threat to his integrity can carry a film. That’s what happens here.

Benghazi, and Michael Bay’s Thirteen Hours

Say the word ‘Benghazi,’ and watch the fur fly. If you’re a conservative, Benghazi is a national disgrace, proof of the ineffectual and feckless foreign policy of Barack Obama and the rank dishonesty of Hillary Clinton. If you’re a liberal, Benghazi is a national tragedy unnecessarily politicized and trivialized by a right wing desperate for some actual scandal they can use to attack this President, and deny the Presidency to the woman who served as his Secretary of State.

My task today is to tell you about a film about Benghazi, directed by, of all people, Michael Bay. A film I expected to loathe, and ended up respecting and being moved by. Yes, that Michael Bay, known for mindless and idiotic action films about transforming robots, weighing in on the most tendentious political scandal of our age. Of course, I thought, the movie was going to suck; that went without saying. I was seeing it so you wouldn’t have to. You’re so very welcome.

I’m a liberal, and a Hillary Clinton supporter. I’m also a film guy. And so when I tell you that Thirteen Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is, for the most part, an honest, powerful and important film, and kind of interestingly revelatory, I suspect that most of you will worry that the old guy’s finally lost it. I knew perfectly well, going in, how I was supposed to react to it. But I make up my own mind. And yes, it’s  true that, to some extent, the film does perpetuate some conservative conspiracy theories. I just don’t think that’s very important.

Some background. September 11, 2012. Benghazi was the second largest city in Libya, a nation which, then, had recently, in 2011, been freed from the brutal and odious rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The United States supported the rebel faction that deposed Gaddafi, but the country began, almost immediately, to disintegrate, with some factions supporting the West, while others aligned with Isis, or Al Quada, or other Islamist extremists. The US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, supported Libyan independence, and the pro-Western factions in the country, and to show that support (and to meet with their leadership), he chose to spend a week in the mission compound in Benghazi, despite oft-expressed security concerns. And it was there that a large group of Libyan terrorists attacked.

In fact, there were two Benghazi attack centers. One was the consulate, where Stevens was in residence. The other was a CIA intelligence annex, tasked with monitoring Gaddafi-era weapons. Security at the consulate was provided by minimal personnel, plus a substantial Libyan militia presence (who turned out to be completely useless). Security at the CIA site, a mile away, was provided by civilian contractors, who reported to the CIA station chief. The contractors tried to save Stevens, but arrived too late. They returned to the CIA compound, followed by bad guys, and were attacked there. Of the four American casualties on that day, two were at the consulate, and two at the CIA facility. Most of the film is about the defense of the CIA compound.

The contractors were all former military Special forces. Those special forces are the heroes of this film. They all have beards, and cool tough guy names like Tig and Boon and Tanto and Oz. And the film’s protagonist, Jack (John Krasinski). They’re all married, all with families, and all with civilian jobs that they hate. And so, they take these security gigs, missing their families, but doing the job of warriors, because no one else will.

When terrorists attack the consulate, the contractors hear of it immediately, and want to drive to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his people. The CIA station chief, Bob, (played by David Costabile, a fine actor who often plays villains), refuses at first to allow it. The film therefore does support one conservative talking point: that the Ambassador could have been saved, but the guys who might have saved him were given a ‘stand-down order.’ An excellent Vox.com article on the film and the event points out that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation reached a different conclusion. (Still, given conflicting accounts, it’s hard to fault a screenwriter who chose to believe the one offering a stronger conflict).

The other major issue in the film has to do with their lack of air support. The contractors call repeatedly for some kind of military air support, which never comes. The reality, as found in both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee’s reports, is that the contractors didn’t receive air support because there weren’t any planes close by who could have provided it. So, in those two instances, the film does exactly what I was expecting it to do; support conservative talking points and conspiracy theories.

Here’s why, to me, none of that matters that much. Benghazi has not just become politicized, it’s also, perhaps inevitably, become trivialized. The current Republican talking points on the ‘scandal’ have to do with unimportant nonsense like who said what on Sunday morning talk shows a few days after the attack. The current Democratic response is a resounding ‘Hillary did nothing wrong!’ What both of these responses ignore, and what the film illustrates, is the complete failure of US foreign policy in Libya, and probably throughout the Middle East.

The US strongly supported one side in what became a Libyan Civil War. As a result, today, as the film both illustrates and points out, Libya is a failed state. It’s a surreal, violent, horror show of a country, and the movie gets that right. We see it over and over, what a dreadful, screwed-up, violent place Libya has become.

There’s one scene early in the film, as three of the contractors are running, weapons ready, towards a firefight. And as they run down a Benghazi street, they pass a bar, where a whole crowd of Libyans are watching a soccer game. This kind of thing happens throughout; the most bizarre juxtapositions of the brutal and the mundane. Another guy has set up a TV set in his backyard, and is watching the same game, while bullets fly past his head. It’s a country where the most horrific violence is so routine that people don’t pay it any heed.

It’s also a country where you really can’t tell the bad guys and good guys apart. There are Libyan characters who act heroically throughout, and of course, Libyan terrorists, led by this one, unnamed, long-haired guy. At one point, a car drives past the compound, and one of the contractors can’t decide whether to open fire or not. The car then turns around, and drives off. Was he lost? Was it reconnaissance? They don’t know, and neither do we, watching the film.

Of course, today, as Libya continues to collapse, as its two main factions and seven sub-factions all vie for power, the main response of the Libyan people has been to flee. There are half a million Libyan refugees in camps across Lebanon and flooding Italy. We think of the refugee crisis as involving Syrians, but it’s every bit as much a Libyan problem.

In American politics today, ‘Benghazi’ is the perfect illustration of what it means to strain for a gnat and swallow a camel. Conservatives shriek about how long it took Obama to call the attack an act of terrorism, while liberals shout just as robustly that Hillary was blameless. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pursued a policy in Libya that could not have failed more catastrophically, with an unbelievable cost in lives lost and families scattered. And the reason conservatives haven’t called them on it, is because they fully supported the essence of that policy, still do, and are upset that Obama didn’t commit to it more fully. Libya has failed, and thousands of people died, and that fact gets ignored by politicians left and right.

But not, as it happens, by Michael Bay. And after the attacks fail, and the contractors head home, we see the main battlefield outside the compound, and the bodies laying there, and we see women, wearing burqas and weeping like their hearts are broken, going from body to body, mourning each one afresh. I honor Michael Bay for including that moment, and lingering on it, just as I honor him for capturing the nightmare landscape that modern Libya has become.

It’s not just a stupid action film. It’s a powerful film about the cost of war, on both sides. And it’s a film about how badly US foreign policy has failed that entire region.

There’s an early scene in the film where Ambassador Stevens talks to the contractors at the CIA compound. And he’s idealistic and inspirational, and we can see that he’s a decent, good, hard working man, who genuinely believes that Libya can transform, under US guidance, to become a safe, free, prosperous nation. And that possibility maybe did exist, briefly. And the contractors aren’t impressed. They’re veterans of Iraq, and Afghanistan. They’ve served multiple tours in ‘nation-building’ missions abroad. And they’ve seen the results. It doesn’t work. And they’re going to end up having to shoot themselves out of the mess that kind of idealism creates.

Benghazi doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton lied and it doesn’t mean that Republicans hyperventilate over trivia. Benghazi is about an instance of horrible violence in a country that no longer exists, where violence has become routine. It’s about well-meaning idealism, left and right, and about the honest, superbly trained grunts who have to make policies work that have no chance of working. In short, it’s a tragedy. Made by Michael Bay. Watch it yourself. Make up your own mind.

Ted Cruz: natural born citizen

One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was the original cast recording of the Broadway musical Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, book and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, quite brilliant. I’ve had Hamilton on the mind a lot lately, and I got interested in this question: could Alexander Hamilton have been elected President? I mean, would he have been eligible to be elected? Was President Obama eligible? What about Ted Cruz?

I always thought Hamilton couldn’t be. Next Monday will be his birthday: January 11, 1755. (Or maybe not: Hamilton was never sure about the year). Specifically, he was born in Charlestown, St. Kitts and Nevis. British West Indies. His parents, James Hamilton and Rachel Faucette had been married, but were divorced at the time of Alexander’s birth; Rachel accused, in court documents, of being a whore. Hamilton was therefore illegitimate. (She was more successful than that suggests, though; she ran a shop, and owned five slaves). When his Mom died, Hamilton was apprenticed to a local merchant, who eventually paid for his college education.

So, was he a ‘natural born citizen?’ I’m not a legal scholar; here’s an interesting article by a guy who is one. The Constitution was ratified in 1788, went into force in 1789. Article II, Section One sets out the qualifications to be President:

No Person except a natural born Citizen or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.

I’d always assumed that this excluded Hamilton, since he wasn’t born within the boundaries of what would become the United States. But he’d been a resident of New York City for years before the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution were ratified. He never actually ran for President, but if he had, he would certainly have been considered eligible.

Which brings us to Obama. Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, uncontestably born in the United States. Of course, there was once a certain amount of ridiculous birther nonsense regarding his birth. In fact, if he had been born in Kenya, to a Kenyan father and an American mother, he might not have been eligible to be President. That’s not actually relevant or important, of course, but it is interesting.

The most prominent birther back in the day was Donald Trump, and his preposterous pursuit of The Truth of Obama’s Birth Certificate is actually significant, because of what it tells us about Trump’s character. I mean, it’s not like there’s any shortage of Trumpian character deficiencies that probably ought to give voters pause, but his obsession with the President’s birth had that unlovely blend of odiousness, mendacity and cantankerous pigheadedness that’s just primo Trump. He’s stopped talking about it lately. Because he’s got a new target: the Presidential eligibility of Ted Cruz.

The facts: Ted Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta Canada, on Dec. 22, 1970. His mother, Eleanor Elizabeth (Darragh) Wilson and his father, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz, were working as computer programmers for an oil drilling company. Rafael Cruz was born in Cuba, attended the University of Texas, and applied and received political asylum, then moved to Canada. He was a Canadian citizen at the time of Ted’s birth. Cruz’s parents divorced in 1997.

So, should Cruz count as a ‘natural born citizen?’ I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. Probably, pragmatically, he should. The Congressional Research Service, in 2011, looked into it, and concluded that anyone who was a citizen at birth (as Cruz was, because of his mother’s citizenship) was eligible to run for President. I don’t see why that wouldn’t apply to Obama too, though, had he actually been born in Kenya. (Which he wasn’t. Because he was born in Hawaii. Can’t say that often enough). And last month, the Harvard Law Review published an article which came to the same conclusion.

But there’s never been a Supreme Court review of this question. The ‘natural born citizen’ clause of the constitution remains murky. If someone were stupid enough to challenge Cruz’s candidacy, it might go all the way to SCOTUS, and be definitively adjudicated. That’s probably not going to happen, though.

Here’s Donald Trump, out of the kindness of his heart, just trying to be helpful:

. Ted–free legal advice on how to pre-empt the Dems on citizen issue. Go to court now & seek Declaratory Judgment–you will win!

As Trevor Noah pointed out on The Daily Show last night, everything about this tweet is fabulous. First of all, addressing it to ‘Ted’: colleague to colleague, you see. I love the faux helpfulness. And Trump’s offering ‘free legal advice’ (to a Harvard Law school graduate, a guy who has argued seven cases before the Supreme Court). And then the advice: seek a Declaratory Judgment! In other words, take this fringe issue, and place it front and center in your campaign. “Hi, I’m Ted Cruz, and I’m running for President. An office for which I may not be constitutionally eligible. Vote for me!”

Trump’s just trolling, of course, and a week from now, the ‘Cruz eligibility issue’ will have disappeared. Here’s how it’s actually going to be resolved; Ted Cruz is running for President, and if he can persuade enough people to vote for him, he’s going to be President. He’ll be inaugurated, and he’ll move his family into 1600 Pennsylvania. Is he ‘constitutionally eligible?’ Not important: an esoteric legal question. Trump’s exploiting it, kind of slimily, because that’s what he does. It will work if it persuades some people not to vote for Cruz. I don’t really see that happening. There are plenty of other reasons not to vote for Ted Cruz. Or, for that matter, Donald Trump.

Here’s where this gets fun. All the legal analyses I mentioned above are by scholars using what is today the mainstream approach to the Constitution. It’s a ‘living document.’ Our understanding of it is colored by our time, our culture, our national needs. We need to govern today, now. Our reading is inevitably subjective, culturally determined. An approach which Ted Cruz philosophically opposes.

The pragmatic, ‘what does it matter?’ approach I just took directly contradicts the approach Ted Cruz (and certainly his followers) otherwise take to the Constitution. I mean, for some conservatives, things just are constitutional, or they’re not. It’s like there’s a single, definitive, engraved-in-stone Only Right Way to read the Constitution. Or the Bible. Or any other presumably authoritative text.

Is Obamacare constitutional? I’d say, of course it is. It passed both chambers of Congress, was signed into law by the President, and crucial provisions of it have gone through judicial review. Of course it’s constitutional.

But to some conservatives, none of that matters. Article I Section 8 enumerates specific things Congress can do. Regulating health care is not on that list. Therefore, regulating health care is not something Congress is allowed to do. It doesn’t matter that the Framers lived in a time when doctors were as likely to kill people as to heal them. It doesn’t matter that the General Welfare clause of the Constitution could arguably preempt Article I Section 8, which could be seen as just some suggestions. It doesn’t matter that we can probably stretch the Commerce clause to cover it. Nothing counts if it’s not specifically and clearly on the list. According to the Platonic Ideal Form for Ultimate Constitutional Readings, as revealed by God to James Madison, Obamacare can never be legitimate.

Go to TedCruz.org, his campaign website. Link to The Issues. Number one on his list is Defending The Constitution. And it takes about two seconds to find this gem:

We need to restore the Constitution as our standard. We need to protect the people by rolling back the federal government to the functions the Constitution sets out. We need to give power back to the states and the people so that we remain a land where liberty can flourish.

Of all the candidates running for President this cycle, the most fervent constitutionalist is undoubtedly Ted Cruz. Certainly, the one above all who, at least rhetorically, defends this notion of Constitutional Inerrancy, of our Founding Document as Monolithic, Literal and Definitive, is Ted Cruz. And the phrase ‘natural born citizen’ certainly suggests ‘born in the United States’ more than it suggests ‘born of an American mother and Canadian father, in Canada.’ What does the phrase ‘natural born’ suggest to you? The place where he was born, right?

Pragmatically speaking, this isn’t an important issue. Ted Cruz is running, people are going to vote for him, or not, and if enough people do, he’ll be the next President. But according to the logic of his reading of the Constitution, according to the Doctrine of Constitutional Literalism, it’s hard to see where he’s got a case. Contemplating both the delicious irony and the small whiff of hypocrisy at the heart of Cruz’s candidacy should get us through January, at least.

 

Ahem.

The Oregon standoff

The current stand-off between armed militia guys and the feds in Oregon has its comical side. While I deplore the tone of this Deadspin article, it’s also pretty funny, and reflects an attitude towards the militia guys that will increasingly become the norm. They’re already late-night fodder; never a good thing. And the militia’s rather desperate call for snacks suggests, at the very least, that someone maybe didn’t think this through very carefully. Still, it’s a dangerous situation, and one that deserves a nuanced appraisal.

Here are the facts, as I understand them. (And, as always, if I get this wrong, let me know). A father and son, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were supposed to report to federal law enforcement yesterday. In 2012, they were convicted of setting fire to federal lands adjacent to their property. Most sources I’ve seen have said that the fire they set was intended to cover up for their having poached deer on that land. (Defenders of the Hammonds dispute that). Anyway, they were convicted, sentenced, and served their time. But appellate courts, reviewing their case, found that they should have received harsher sentences under federal anti-terrorism guidelines. So, on Monday, they were supposed to go back to jail to do more time.

I don’t blame the Hammonds for thinking the whole thing is massively unfair. Granted, the increased sentence has been thoroughly adjudicated, including a Supreme Court endorsement. Still, I’d be ticked if I were them. I don’t really see why this act of arson warrants another five years in prison for a 73-year old.

But now come Cliven Bundy’s boys to complicate things. The militia guys are there because this whole thing ties into one of the more contentious issues in the west, federal land use policies. On the extreme edge of the land use debate, we find Ammon and Ryan Bundy. The two Bundy brothers have joined forces with friends who share their views, and travel around the country injecting themselves into various national controversies regarding federal control of land. So this small group has occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, probably to provide safe haven for the Hammonds (who don’t seem to want it), and also, as Ammon Bundy has said, to create a base where patriots can gather in defiance of the tyrannical federal government.

The United States government controls huge chunks of land in the West, in Oregon, Nevada and Utah, among other western states. The Bureau of Land Management is seen as administering those lands in a high-handed and confrontational manner. Ammon Bundy calls the BLM’s fees for ranchers’ grazing rights unconstitutional. That means, for the militia, this is a question of high principle. The specifics of the Hammonds’ case is getting lost here.

It also appears that the Bundy militia were sort of hoping for a lot more people to join them. Blaine Cooper, a member of the group, went on Facebook and asked for people to send them ‘snacks.’ He suggested that food and other supplies could be mailed to them. They’re hoping, in other words, for supplies to be delivered to them by the federal government’s mail service, to the federal government address they’re currently occupying, in defiance of the federal government. All this suggests that maybe this plan wasn’t all that carefully thought-through.

So how big a deal is this? Honestly, their poor planning reminds me of is John Brown, and Harper’s Ferry. I wouldn’t call the Bundys ‘terrorists.’ But Brown was indeed a terrorist, an ideological fanatic. He took over the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, hoping to inspire a slave insurrection. Again, his forces were few in number, short of supplies, and poorly trained. If slaves didn’t revolt and join him, he had no chance of success whatsoever. And, in fact, his takeover was very short-lived, and the federal forces (under the control of an officer named Robert E. Lee), had little difficulty capturing him.

But what Brown may have really been hoping for did come true; a bloody, ferocious intra-regional conflict. What was the proximate cause of the Civil War? Sure, Fort Sumpter. But that was more symptom than cause; really, war was inevitable once Abraham Lincoln was elected President. And his election became inevitable when the national Democratic convention, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1860, couldn’t agree on a candidate, splitting the party. And that result was the inevitable consequence of ‘bloody Kansas,’ the battle over whether ‘the territories’ would be slave or free. And Kansas was bloody, in part, because of a series of murders committed by John Brown against slave owners. John Brown therefore might be remembered as the most spectacularly successful terrorist in history.

Brown was successful, in part, because on one point (and one point only), he was unequivocally right; he believed chattel slavery to be a moral abomination. He was successful because his message was seen as compelling by many Americans, and terrifying by many others. And the war came.

I use him as a parallel because he launched his insurrection so badly ill-prepared, as the Bundys seem to have done. I cite Brown, because his example shows how terrible the consequences of his kind of revolt can be, and because thinking of him in connection to the Bundys scares me to death. And I think that fear may be why some folks on the left have referred to the Bundy militia as ‘terrorists,’ and called for an armed response.

But on sober reconsideration, an armed response to the incidents in Oregon would mark a criminally misguided overreaction. The Bundy militia does not actually pose much of a threat to anyone. They haven’t taken hostages, for example, and haven’t shot anyone. They’re just occupying some buildings in a remote and obscure federal land use facility.

Also, they’re wrong, dead wrong, on every point. No one’s going to rally to their call (oh, a few people might, perhaps), because their call is too kooky to take seriously. Of course the federal government can constitutionally own and administer land. In fact, determining issues of property ownership and control is one of the most essential duties of any government anywhere.

And ranchers are not getting short-changed. In fact, as fivethirtyeight.com recently posted, ranchers are getting a great deal from the BLM. Federal grazing fees are 93 percent lower than the average market rate. The BLM’s fees only cover around fifteen percent of their costs; the rest of the tab is picked up by, well, you and me. Taxpayers.

So the Bundys’ argument is entirely notional, unconnected to any actual reality. It’s a cloud cuckoo land insurrection. They believe that it’s unconstitutional and illegal for the federal government to own land and to charge ranchers to use it, no matter how good a deal ranchers get. That’s frankly a nonsensical argument, and it will increasingly be seen as one as this controversy continues. Their cause is not morally or legally compelling. And they don’t seem to have sufficient supplies to hold out all that long.

Let’s resolve this peaceably. Or, as the LDS Church put it, in an official statement on this matter: “we are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.” Amen. Or, instead of citing Captain Moroni (who wasn’t, let’s face it, bothered by the legal minutiae of land use policies), let’s quote Acts 5, and Gamaliel: “Refrain from these men, and let them alone. If this work be of men, it will come to nought. If it be of God, you cannot overthrow it.” I’m betting on the former.

The Witches: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Short: Movie Review

There’s a popular kind of Hollywood film in which a David–a whistle-blower, an investigator, a journalist, a cop–takes on a Goliath, a big corporation, say, or the government, finding and exposing malfeasance and corruption. Concussion, and Spotlight, neither of which I’ve seen yet, are presumably examples of this kind of film. Erin Brockovich, The Insider, Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonThe Pelican BriefAll the President’s Men; like me, you can probably name twenty of them off the top of your head. They are filmic equivalents of this, from Ecclesiastes: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” They encourage underdogs; they’re idealistic in a healthy way. Or, to put it cynically, they serve Hollywood’s favorite narrative; that movie stars can solve absolutely anything.

The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction best-seller and directed by Adam McKay, is essentially that kind of story. It’s about a small group of social misfits, most of whom did not know each other, who separately concluded that the most profitable and stable sector in the US economy was so criminally and foolishly mismanaged that it was likely to collapse. They were all investors and did what investors do; they invested. They shorted real estate. They made a few ineffectual attempts to go to the press, to inform relevant government regulators, to let people know, but their warning was so seen as so preposterous that they were almost uniformly laughed at and ignored. So they laid their money on the table and placed their bets. And became very very rich.

It’s an exuberant film, a film made with tremendous meta-cinematic confidence and elan; for most of the film, it’s a rolicking comedy. McKay sets himself the task of explaining highly technical financial instruments and concepts in a way that will both amuse and instruct. At times, actors face the camera and address the audience directly. At one point, we’re told that Margot Robbie will explain a difficult concept, from her bubble bath. Sure enough, there’s Robbie, in her bath, sipping champagne and explaining things.  Or Louis Jourdan, explaining CDO’s using chopped halibut. It’s a terrifically entertaining film, energetic and funny. Then it stops being funny. And when it was over, I felt angry. Furious, frustrated, and heartsick.

Christian Bale plays Dr.Michael Burry, an Asperger’s-afflicted neurologist-turned-financial analyst, founder of Scion Capital LLC, a hedge fund. Bale is quite brilliant in the role, capturing Burry’s obsessive insistence on insane amounts of research, leading him to conclude that the bundled mortgage bonds that were the hottest investments on earth were built on the shakiest of foundations. Burry works to a cacophany of heavy metal music, doesn’t wear shoes, and plays the drums for release. He can also barely stand to deal with other people, most especially including his many investors. When he approaches Wall Street bankers, asking if he can short real estate, he can barely bring himself to speak. They can barely contain their laughter. Oh, sure, we’ll let you short real estate. We’ll call the instruments ‘credit default swaps.’ Why not? What could go wrong. Heh heh heh.

Over the course of the film, Burry makes billions of dollars for his investors, investors who are busy suing him for using their money so irresponsibly. In the end, they’re wrong, and he’s right. It brings him no joy.

The film also depicts the relationship between Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who meet through a wrong number. Baum was also astonishingly eccentric; a kid that got kicked out of schul by his rabbi, not because he wouldn’t study Torah, but because he was only interested in disproving it. Carell’s amazing in the role. Baum initially can’t believe that the real estate markets could possibly be as unsound as Vennett presents them as being, and so, with his assistants, goes on a trip to Florida. At one point, they meet a stripper, who tells them that she owns five homes, plus a condo, all mortgaged to the hilt. Because how could that possibly go wrong? At one point, as Baum meets with two insanely clueless mortgage brokers, who are describing the felonious ways in which they’re selling houses, he turns to one of his assistants and says ‘I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?’ ‘They’re not confessing,’ says the assistant. ‘They’re bragging.’

The film’s third story involves two small garage-band investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who have one contact in the financial world, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former neighbor. Rickert doesn’t invest anymore–he’s become a healthy foods fanatic–but he’s willing to lend a hand. For the most part, people like Baum and Burry were buying default swaps on bonds rated B. Geller and Shipley can’t break in at that level. So they begin buying swaps on bonds rated AA. Those bonds, it turns out, are every bit as rotten as higher rated ones. They get rich too.

And they dance in celebration. They cavort, joyously. And Brad Pitt, as Rickert, stops them. (Brad Pitt’s doing this lot these days; producing and playing a small part in important films, to get them made).  Reminds them that they bet against the US economy.  Against the world’s economy. That their fortune is built on people losing their homes, their retirement plans, their pensions, their savings. That they are dancing on the grave of the American financial system. That their good cheer is, perhaps, a trifle unseemly.

And in the end, Gosling, as Vennett, tells us, we Americans gained in wisdom what we lost in money. Hundreds of investment bankers went to jail. Serious financial reforms were enacted by a Congress shocked into regulatory good sense. At least it will never happen again. Bad as it was, we learned our lesson. Whew.

JK.

No. None of that happened, as Vennett knows well, and as we all know. (Michael Burry is still around; he says it’s likely to happen again). As Gosling cashes a check for half a billion dollars, Vennett, rather defensively, tells us he’s not the bad guy here. It was everyone. It was mortgage brokers writing the paper for loans they knew their clients had no possibility of repaying. It was bonds rating agencies asleep at the wheel. It was SEC regulators seeing their job as a stepping-stone to a better paying one at Goldman Sachs. It was Goldman Sachs. Bear Stearns; Lehman. It was a system either crooked, or stupid, or both.

And that’s the central question, isn’t it? Was the financial system’s collapse the result of criminality or imbecility? Were they all crooks? Or morons? Not all banks and not all bankers. But enough. Also Republicans; they’re to blame–they oppose bank regulation. And Democrats–the repeal of Glass Steagal was signed into law by Bill Clinton. We all had skin in the game, and we all got skinned.

The Big Short is a brilliant film about the world-wide financial crisis. Its heroes are as morally implicated as its bad guys, and nothing good happens. David slays Goliath, and is crushed by his fall. And then both armies advance, and the slaughter is universal. Somehow, McKay captures that too.

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

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

Here’s the text of the flier:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great punch lines: the history of American comedy

I just finished reading Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, essentially an idiosyncratic history of stand-up, or at least, a history of live performance. It hardly mentions Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, for example, except for their vaudeville careers; hardly a discussion of their film work at all. Even his discussion of television is kinda weird; hardly a word about, say, I Love Lucy, while all sorts of talk about Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Of course, the subject of comedy is too huge for any single book, and I’m grateful, at least, for Nesteroff’s passion for the subject, and above all, his anecdotes. He was able to interview a lot of older comedians before they passed on, and there are some terrific stories that are likely found here and nowhere else.

But it got me thinking about jokes, about the way in which jokes are constructed. Set up, set up, payoff. “Did you ever notice how. . . .” “Take my wife. Please!” What are the greatest punch lines in the history of American comedy? Not possible to quantify. So what are some really good ones?

“I’m thinking!”

Jack Benny

Jack Benny’s comedic persona was that of a tightwad. A miser, a skinflint. (In reality, he was known for personal generosity). He was also master of the comedic pause. So in a radio sketch, he’s approached by a thief, who snarls “your money or your life.” The resultant pause went on forever; the studio audience cracked up. Then Benny built the joke further “I’m thinking.” The set-up was as funny as the punch line.

“Well, Vaughn Meador’s screwed.”

Lenny Bruce

This one needs some explanation. Vaughn Meador was the star of one of the biggest comedy albums of the ’60s, The First Family. It spoofed the Kennedy family, poking gentle fun at JFK’s accent and fondness for touch football games on the White House Lawn, and Jackie’s penchant for decorating. It was very popular; sold over 7 million copies, and the President especially enjoyed it, often giving copies away as a gift. Meador wasn’t much of a comedian, and wasn’t even much of an impressionist. Mostly, he was just a guy who sounded a lot like Jack Kennedy.

And then, Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. The country was in shock. Comedy clubs went dark; nobody was in the mood.

A few days after the shooting, Lenny Bruce had a gig in Miami. Fifteen hundred people in the house. And he came out, and there was another long pause. Nobody had any idea what he’d say. People who were there say that the laugh after the Vaughn Meador line lasted for minutes; a huge emotional relief laugh. I can imagine.

“We’re going to Greece!”

“And swim the English channel?”

The Firesign Theatre

This is a purely idiosyncratic choice; I loved the Firesign Theatre when I was a kid, and this exchange is just typical of their non-sequitar-based, surrealist verbal humor, first on radio, later captured on vinyl. Peter Bergman, Phil Austin, Dave Ossman, and Philip Proctor. This bit’s from their album Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers. Unless it isn’t.

“Dead honky!”

Richard Pryor

In the first season of Saturday Night Live, as it was establishing itself as the edgy, brilliant, essential show it has become, on their seventh episode, Richard Pryor was the guest host. He brought in Paul Mooney as a writer, and Mooney came up with the Word Association sketch. Chevy Chase played a white manager, interviewing Pryor, who has applied for a janitorial position. Chase insists that one final step before hiring is a word association exercise, which starts off innocuously enough. Chase says some neutral word; Pryor responds: “Dog.” “Tree.” But then Chase’s clue words get more and more racially charged. The last exchanges: “Jungle Bunny”, “Honky!” “Spade”, “Honky Honky,” and then the N-word. Pryor’s anger sells the bit, as does Chase’s oleaginous managerial straight man.

“Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”

Stephen Colbert

Generally, the White House Correspondents dinner is an innocuous enough affair. The President attends, and tosses out a few jokes at the expense of Washington insiders. A professional comedian is usually hired. But the 2006 Correspondents dinner was something else again. Stephen Colbert came on, playing the character he’d perfected on The Colbert Report; the obnoxious, clue-less conservative commentator. And he sliced and diced everyone in the room.

What’s remarkable about Colbert’s performance is not just the way he bashed (while praising) President Bush, or the media. It was how uncomfortable the audience clearly was with the performance. It takes a brave comedian to bomb on purpose. Because, of course, his real audience was YouTube viewers.

Comedy is, of course, how we cope with all sorts of terrible events. And a truly great comedian, a Jon Stewart, a George Carlin, a Louis C. K. captures the anxieties and tensions of their times on earth, and gives it just enough of a twist, to help us laugh, to help us deal with things. And yes, comedians are outcasts, sometimes, social misfits. But they’re also essential.

Nixonland: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the ’60s.

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

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

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

 

 

Booksmart: A review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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