Category Archives: History

The Comey firing

On June 17, 1972, five men were caught in an attempted robbery of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a rented room in the Watergate hotel. They had previously broken into the DNC rooms on May 28th, had rifled through some filing cabinets and bugged a couple of phones. Although that operation had gone smoothly, the bugs had begun to malfunction. The second break-in was needed to repair the phones, and also to continue to look for damaging intelligence that could be used against the Democratic presidential campaign. The Watergate burglars had been hired by G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Nixon campaign, the break-in authorized by CRP (Committee to Re-elect the President) chair, Jeb Magruder, White House counsel, John Dean, and Attorney-General John Mitchell. It’s possible that President Nixon did not know of or approve the initial burglary. But he aggressively participated in the subsequent cover-up.

Once it was learned that President Nixon routinely recorded conversations in the Oval Office, the Watergate investigators tried to subpoena the audio tapes. President Nixon claimed executive privilege; Archibald Cox, who had been appointed Special Prosecutor, kept insisting. On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliott Richardson, to fired Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. his deputy, William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fired Cox; he also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor-General Robert Bork, third in command, was ordered to fire Cox, and after some soul-searching, did. This series of events has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and is seen as one of the more significant events in the scandal that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation.

What the Watergate burglars were looking for was damaging intelligence, stuff they could use to smear Democrats or foreknowledge of their strategies and tactics the Republicans could counter. They bugged phones, they rifled through files. During the recent election, Russian hackers did much the same thing. They hacked into the files of the DNC, looking for damaging intel. They didn’t actually find a lot, but they did find some snarky emails, in which Clinton campaign staff said nasty things about the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and they found other documents that suggested that the DNC did not treat the two Democratic candidates equally, but favored Hillary. When the hackers released this information on Wiki-leaks, it drove a wedge into the already-shaky relationship between Democratic voters who preferred Clinton and those who preferred Sanders. We do not know, and will never know, how significant a factor any of this was in Donald Trump’s eventual electoral win. We don’t know, in a close race, what effect the Wiki-leaks revelations had on voters’ behavior. What we do know is this; Russians hacked the election, because, for whatever reason, Vladimir Putin preferred Trump over Clinton.

We know, of course, a lot more about Watergate, the historical event, than we do about Russian electoral interference. With Watergate, we know who did what, and when. That’s not true so far with the current scandal. We do not know, for example, the extent to which the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s electoral preferences, or to what degree, if at all, members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians prior to the election. We don’t know if Trump himself is guilty, at all, of anything. I expect that, in time, we’ll know a lot more.

Former acting Attorney-General Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday may have seemed somewhat mundane, and not really all that revelatory.  No ‘smoking gun,’ in other words. But that’s generally not how these things work. I remember Watergate vividly. I was in high school then, and every day after school, was glued to my TV watching the Watergate hearings. I remember listening to the drip drip drip of new information, and trying to put it all together. What Yates did was confirm a lot of facts that had previously been reported. We do know more today than we did last week.

Last week, preceding her testimony, FBI director Comey made a request of President Trump, for more funding to expand the FBI’s investigation into the Russian hacking and possible Trump campaign collusion. Yesterday, President Trump fired Comey. This means that the most significant three people conducting investigations into Trump/Russia when Trump took office 110 days ago were James Comey, Sally Yates, and Preet Bharara, New York US Attorney. Trump has now fired all three of them. Again, we don’t know if Trump or his campaign were guilty of, well, anything. It would, however, be easier to cut him some slack if he didn’t act so darn guilty.

Again, there’s no hard evidence of collusion. But we do know that Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, may also be a Russian spy. (US intelligence agencies, apparently, regard him as one). We know that vast numbers of high ranking Trump officials met with Kislyak and other Russian officials, many times, during the campaign. Michael Flynn, of course, was among them. Trump has repeatedly claimed he didn’t and doesn’t have any business dealings with Russians. We know that’s not true; in a recent story admitted that Russian money funded Trump golf courses, and there are many other Russian/Trump connections discovered by journalists, including, in a stunning story, a major investigation by USA Today.

Of course, Watergate was a major historical event, certainly one of the most consequential in our nation’s history. Right now, the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections is in its infancy. We don’t know, or at least, have not yet proved, collusion.

But if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump or his campaign staff did collude with Russian to influence a Presidential election, that seems to me much much more important than even Watergate. Whatever we may think of Richard Nixon, he didn’t collude with a hostile foreign power. Nixon was certainly devious, thin-skinned, and amoral. But he was no traitor. But that’s what we’re saying Trump committed: high treason. No evidence yet, but he just fired the guy investigating the case. It’s hard to come across as guiltier than that.

Doctrines Mormons no longer believe: plural marriage

Of all the doctrines once taught and believed and practiced by the Church, the most famous, the most well-known is surely polygamy. Though it’s been officially disavowed since 1890 (or, at least, since 1904), it’s often the only thing people outside our faith know about us. Certainly, when I served my mission in Norway in the 1970s, Mormon equaled polygamy in most folks minds. They’d hear “Mormon” and either purse their lips in disapproval, or laugh. Big Love ran 5 seasons on HBO, and Sister Wives, a popular reality TV series, has broadcast on TLC since 2010. Of course, the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavows polygamy as practiced by fictionally on HBO, or in the highly mediated ‘reality’ of TLC, but in both shows, its practice is rooted in Mormon tradition, in the revelations of Joseph Smith. It’s not unfair to call their characters ‘Mormons.’

In the history of our Church, plural marriage went through a remarkable evolution. From the beginnings of the Church, polygamy was shrouded in secrecy, privately taught and (perhaps) clandestinely practiced. It then went public, and became the only thing people knew about us. It then went underground for awhile, until reemerging in subterranean enclaves. It was officially espoused, but also also officially condemned, though vestigial doctrinal remnants remain.

Joseph Smith certainly married multiple women (28? 31? 44?), as did others of the Twelve. Although officially denied, furtive polygamy was a shrouded part of Nauvoo culture.  The 1843 revelation on polygamy, canonized as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants wasn’t widely disseminated. Plus, there’s good old Emma. Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s first wife, who, uh, wasn’t a fan. The proximate cause to Joseph Smith’s murder was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, and its one and only issue, which exposed the practice of polygamy.

Secrets get exposed; that’s their main reality. When it became clear that the martyred prophet had received a revelation on polygamy, it wasn’t long before the Church embraced it, fully and publicly. Though, to be sure, Brigham Young made sure he’d put a mountain range between him and the people who were trying to kill him first.

So, 1851-1890. Plural marriage becomes part of Mormon culture, part of Utah life, part of LDS doctrine. I want to reiterate: I’m not an historian. I’m a retired playwright with wifi. Many many people know way more about this than I do. But my Mom’s family came from polygamous stock; I’m proud of my history and heritage. My Mom descended from Stephen Markham and his fourth (I think) wife Mary. He’s my FPA (Famous Pioneer Ancestor). My wife’s family comes from another FPA, Peter Maughan. And we tease each other about it; who would have won a fight between them. In fact, both Markham and Maughan were early Utah settlers; it’s not at all unlikely that they might have known each other.

Larger point, though: plural marriage was officially sanctioned doctrine. There were many many many talks, from the pulpit at General Conference, by men of Apostolic rank or higher, including successive Presidents of the Church and thus prophets, seers, and revelators, who taught that a plurality of wives was central to the Great and Everlasting Covenant, and therefore necessary for exaltation. And that was what was taught, most specifically by Brigham’s successor, John Taylor, in a big, highly disputed revelation in 1886.

There were women, at the time, who supported it. And we have to remember the context; LDS polygamy flourished in the Victorian era. Not a good epoch for women. Kind of a horror show for women and marriage. Income inequality led to massive social dislocation, leading to widespread abject poverty, leading to exceptionally high rates of prostitution, exacerbated by an incredibly hypocritical sexual double standard. Victorian men cheated on their wives with impunity, and mostly without consequence, except for a burgeoning syphilis epidemic. At least LDS men, when they slept around, did so with women to whom they were married. For many, many women, polygamy may have been marginally better than the alternative. Some sister wives really did become close friends. Others regarded their co-wives as succubi. My grandmother once told me of two women she knew, sisters and co-wives, who, when one of them died, it may have been homicide. Frontier women had a workload that was, literally, lethal. At least plural marriage divided that workload up a little. That’s the best case I can make for The Practice.

I’m not going to get into the various court cases regarding polygamy, except to point out that the Church had a strong religious liberty case to make constitutionally. Also, again, there are lots of people who know more about this than I do. The argument against it (us) was, essentially, a legal brief for traditional marriage. Ponder that irony, but also consider this; Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto, in 1890, doesn’t read as terribly heartfelt. Utah wanted admission as a state, and the Church stood to lose its financial autonomy. We’d lost the legal battle; best to surrender with as good a grace as possible.

Meanwhile, clandestine polygamy continued. Joseph F. Smith’s 1904 Second Manifesto was probably intended to put the matter to rest. Two apostles were excommunicated, and although practitioners weren’t required to give up long-standing marriage arrangements, officially sanctioned polygamy finally did fade away.

Of course, there are still lots of people who still practice polygamy in Utah and surrounding states. Some of them seem more like insane criminals than like decent folks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t non-crazy, well-meaning, well-intended plural families around. I don’t know them well, but have engaged in dialogue, and let me tell you, they can quote John Taylor’s 1886 polygamy revelation at you until the cows come home.

But I’m not part of that circle. I’m an active, Church-attending, calling-accepting active LDS guy. And I don’t believe in polygamy, wouldn’t practice it if I was asked to, or even commanded to, and recoil from the notion that it might be reinstated.

My good friend and former student, Melissa Leilani Larson, wrote a play a few years ago called Pilot Program. About a contemporary husband and wife, active in the Church, who are asked by Church leaders to add another wife to their marriage. It’s a wonderful play, powerful and moving. And it filled my soul with sheer horror. What a nightmare. Our contemporary understanding of marriage would not, I think, comfortably sustain plurality. We believe in marriage based on two things; romantic love, and absolute equality. Those strike me as incompatible with polygamy. That was not true in the 19th century. It just wasn’t.

Of course, vestiges of polygamous doctrine remain. If a couple are sealed together in the temple, and he dies, she cannot remarry in the covenant. He can. And single women are ‘comforted’ with well-meaning bromides about how they’ll be eventually sealed to a worthy male. Cold comfort indeed.

So, no. I do not believe that polygamy’s coming back, and couldn’t be happier about that. I’m perfectly happy in my own marriage, thank you. What about our history, though? How do I reconcile it?

I don’t know. That’s where I come down: I don’t know. I do know lots of people, men and women, who believe that polygamy was never anything but a mistake. That Joseph Smith was not inspired, and that D&C 132 should be dropped from the canon of scripture. They believe this quietly, for the most part, but I do know people who think that way. It’s an attractive idea, that the single thorniest issue of our past was nothing aberrant.

But I don’t know. I’m troubled by our polygamous past, but also inspired by it, inspired by the real lives of extraordinary women (mostly women), who worked through heart-break and loneliness and despair to make their preposterous marriages work. I’m inspired by what little I know about Mary Curtis Markham, my ancestor. It’s hard to think that her life-long toil was in support of pure error. It’s equally hard to conceive of God requiring something that feels so entirely and comprehensively wrong. Commandment or ghastly mistake; it’s part of our history. And it’s not coming back. Let it go at that.

Mormon doctrines? Blood atonement.

Continuing this magical mystery tour of doctrines that were once believed by the LDS Church, and no longer are, I thought I ought to clarify what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m really not trying to destroy anyone’s faith. I just think that LDS doctrine is evolving, and mostly in healthy and productive ways. And I think there’s some value in charting doctrinal changes. Change is a human constant. Societies change, culture changes, ideas change. That’s why a central LDS doctrine is ‘continuing revelation.’ And sometimes, a theologically innovative Church gets it wrong.

In the old TV show, The West Wing, Toby Ziegler has a conversation with his rabbi about the death penalty.

You may say that this isn’t really what Mormons believe by continuing revelation. But I think it is, close enough. And especially when it comes to the idea of the death penalty. There may have been a time when it made sense to execute convicted murderers. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The constitutional standard prohibits ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments. And society’s standard for cruelty changes, and so does our understanding of what an ‘unusual’ punishment would be. The meanings of those words are ever shifting, like the meanings of all words, always. And the law can and should reflect that reality.

The doctrine I want to write about today is, blood atonement, is one the Church has genuinely repudiated. But it certainly was taught, by Brigham Young and others, especially during the Mormon Reformation period in the mid-1850s.  Let me reiterate; I am not an historian and I am not a theologian. I’m a playwright with wifi. I have no authority in these matters, and quite possibly don’t know what I’m talking about.

Here’s my best sense of things. At some point in the past, some Church leaders (including the President of the Church, from the pulpit, in General Conference), taught that Christ’s atonement may not actually be efficacious for some very serious sins, like murder and apostasy. Serious sinners could voluntarily ask to be executed, for the sake of their eternal souls. But Brigham’s rhetoric on the subject was over-the-top. And his oratory led to conspiracy-theory style accusations that Brigham Young sent out hit squads of Danites to murder apostates.

Here’s what Brigham Young actually said. It’s a long block quotation, and I edited it a bit for length; apologies:

Now take a person in this congregation . . . and suppose that he is overtaken in a gross fault, that he has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of exaltation that he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed, he will atone for that sin and be saved and exalted with the Gods. Is there a man or woman in this house but that will say “shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?”

Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant. He never told a man or woman to love their enemies in their wickedness, never.

I can refer to where the Lord had to slay every soul of the Israelites that went out of Egypt, except Caleb and Joshua. He slew them by the hands of their enemies, by the plague, and by the sword, why? Because He loved them, and promised Abraham that He would save them. And He could save them upon no other principle, for they had forfeited their right to the land of Canaan by transgressing the law of God, and they could not have atoned for the sin if they had lived. But if they were slain, the Lord could bring them up in the resurrection, and give them the land of Canaan, and He could not do it on any other principle.

I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain in order to atone for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance (in the last resurrection there will be), if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty. I have known a great many men who have left this Church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them. The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.

This is loving our neighbors as ourselves. If he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. . . . That is the way to love mankind.

Nobody talks like this anymore. Nobody anywhere, except the kookiest kooks in cuckoo-ville. Al Qaeda, maybe: Isis.

But this kind of rhetorical flourish was common in the 19th century. This talk of Brigham Young’s took place in 1857. The year before, 1856, John Brown was engaging in acts of violent terrorism in Kansas, and a US senator, Charles Sumner, was caned to within an inch of his life on the floor of the US Senate, by a fellow Senator, Preston Brooks. Within 3 years, the ferociously extreme language used by both sides in the slavery/abolition argument led to civil war. Here’s an example of that rhetoric: “Though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the Abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose.” And on and on.

Nineteenth century American society was violent and racist and sexist and . . . immoderate. We Americans were a muscular people, and we expressed ourselves vigorously. And the LDS church was theologically adventurous. I think it likely that Brigham Young genuinely believed that hundreds of sinners would welcome getting their throats slit, as an act of mercy. It goes without saying that essentially nobody thinks that anymore.

Were any apostate Mormons actually killed in this fashion? Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s book on the subject makes a case for it, and I don’t doubt that it’s possible. Quite possibly further research may validate claims of 19th century blood atonement homicides. I just don’t see what it has to do with Mormonism as it’s practiced today.

The Church today does not preach blood atonement, nor does it support the death penalty politically, nor does it require that the death penalty be administered via firing squad. Here is the official position of the Church:

In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives. However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.

This is as close as we’ll ever see to the Church repudiating public comments from a former President. Brigham Young engaged in ’emotional oratory.’ Boy, did he ever. And that’s really all that needs to be said. We don’t need to distort our theology to accommodate the publicly stated views of past leaders. We cannot, and shouldn’t try to correlate every syllable of the Journal of Discourses with current views. Brigham Young loved to engage in what we might call speculative theology. He floated ideas that probably made sense at the time, but which, in our time, our culture, seem pretty wacka-doodle.

Why can’t we just admit the obvious? Brigham Young’s views, if quoted accurately, can’t be reconciled with our understanding of Christian conduct.  To quote Toby Ziegler’s rabbi: “Maybe  his ideas reflected the best wisdom of his age. But it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard.”

 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2017 vote

Last week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the nineteen finalists for induction in 2017. We get to vote for five of them.

I love this. This is one of my favorite exercises every year, especially when I call my sons and we spend hours talking about who should be in, who should be out, how to vote. This, despite the fact that I have essentially no respect for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and won’t until they give prog rock its due and nominate Jethro Tull, King Crimson and Gentle Giant.

Ahem.

Anyway, let’s start. I’ll list the nominees, offer some thoughts, and tell you my vote. Love to hear what you think!

Bad Brains: Really interesting band. Started off as a jazz fusion ensemble, then shifted to a driving punk sound, then added reggae beats. Rythmically complex, with proto-rap lyrics. Black Rastafarians doing punk music; really fascinating. I’m going to vote NO, because their discography is pretty thin; only 8 albums, really, and a history of breaking up and reforming. But glad to see them recognized.

Chaka Khan: One of the great, smooth R&B voices, and a track record of great songs. She keeps getting nominated, and she still hasn’t been inducted. Not this year either; too many other great nominees. A reluctant NO.

Chic: A great disco innovator. Le Freak is one of the great songs, with that terrific guitar riff. Ten time nominees for the R%R HOF. They’ve got to get in sometime. Two problems; first, disco is not exactly underrepresented in the HOF, and second, Nile Rodgers, their great guitarist and songwriter and producer should probably get in before the rest of the band does. NO.

Depeche Mode: I don’t like Depeche Mode. I never have liked their music; I just can’t help but regard that 80’s electronic sound as an unfortunate sidestep in the history of rock and roll. Even their best song, Personal Jesus, was better when other people covered it. Still, they’re massively influential, and a genuinely important band. YES.

Electric Light Orchestra: It’s just hard to take them all that seriously. They did the music for Xanadu, for heaven’s sake. Sure, Eldorado is a good album, and Time. Honestly, it’s the same as with Chic; if they inducted Jeff Lynne, I’d be all for it; great songwriter, great producer, in addition to his work with ELO. I would just remind you of the chorus of ‘Don’t Bring me Down.’ “Don’t bring me down. Groos.” NO.

The J. Geils Band: Their biggest hit is a novelty song called Centerfold. Their second biggest hit was a novelty song: Love Stinks. They were a good, solid rock and roll band, of which the HOF has many. NO.

Janes Addiction: Really important alternative rock band, for about four years in the late ’80s. Founded Lollapalooza. Still.  Just too thin a resume. NO.

Janet Jackson: She’s sold millions of records. She’s an important performer. Her candidacy bores me to tears. She’s getting in eventually; not this year. NO.

Joan Baez: Important sixties singer/songwriter/activist. Is it rock and roll? The HOF kind of gave up on that criterion when they inducted Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. Gorgeous voice, of course. I’m voting YES.

Joe Tex: Great nominee. An innovator, an early rapper, a southern rock pioneer, a guy who influenced everyone from James Brown to Little Richard. An electric performer, who never really had the one breakthrough hit that would have made him a legend. This is exactly the kind of performer the HOF should honor, really, to fulfill their role as a museum, telling folks about great musicians they may not have heard of. Problem is, the ballot is loaded this year. Exceedingly reluctant NO.

Journey: They’re getting in, along with Janet Jackson, and everyone knows it. And I’ll sing along with Don’t Stop Believin’ every time it’s played at a ballgame. Still, they’re just not good enough. NO.

Kraftwerk: My older son has finally talked me around on these guys. They were immensely influential, and not the Germanic joke band I’d always thought them to be. Not this year, though. NO.

MC5: Terrific live performers, with a roots-rock and roll sound that shaded into hardcore punk. But they really were only important for three years. NO.

Pearl Jam: You pretty much have to put Pearl Jam in the HOF, especially now that Nirvana’s in. The one slight reservation I have has to do with influence; isn’t Pearl Jam the progenitor to bands like Creed? Still, they’re getting in. So, bowing to peer pressure: YES.

Steppenwolf: Really important big name late sixties rock band, with maybe three big hits, including Magic Carpet Ride and Born to be Wild. But they were a big deal from 1968-72, and didn’t do much else. NO.

The Cars: Same thing; didn’t make that big a difference, didn’t survive all that long. NO.

The Zombies: One of the original British invasion bands. Basically, the same thing you could say about Steppenwolf could be said about the Zombies, only their few hits lasted longer, and seem more significant. NO, but a harder call.

Tupac Shakur: Is rap a subset of rock and roll? That’s really the only question. Because Tupac is incredibly good and incredibly important, almost as much as a political figure than as a rapper. I vote YES.

Yes: The easiest call of the year. Of course, you have to vote YES for Yes. One of the greatest prog bands of all time. Long discography, with many huge hits over decades of amazing work. You question the induction of Yes? Listen to the opening guitar riff for Roundabout. Or the opening bass line in Close to the Edge. Or Bill Bruford’s drumming. Or Rick Wakeman on keyboards. Or Jon Anderson’s exquisite falsetto. YES, YES, a thousand times YES.

So that’s my five. Depeche Mode, Joan Baez, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes. Love to hear your responses!

 

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 nastywomengetshitdone.com, 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 Rottentomatoes.com. 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.