Category Archives: History

The Statesman and the Storyteller: Book Review

The period of American and world history from 1894-1904 marks, in a very real sense, either the anomalous beginnings of American imperialism, if you don’t think the US has remained particularly imperialistic, or the America’s debut on the world stage, a spotlighted position we have yet to repudiate or give up, if you rather think we haven’t given it up at all. Mark Zwonitzer chooses to examine that wonderfully contested history by focusing on two men, John Hay and Samuel Clemens. Hay and Clemens were about the same age, and came from similar backgrounds; small towns lining the banks of the Mississippi. They both arose to prominence and wealth from humble beginnings, and were deeply devoted to their wives and children. Both men lost children, and were prostrated by grief. Both emerge, in Zwonitzer’s narrative, as admirable men. And they remained friends, cordial, though infrequent correspondents. But as Hay once wrote: “No man, no party, can fight with any hope of a final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity, avails against the spirit of the age.” As Zwonitzer puts it: “John Hay had learned this lesson early, and accepted it as an article of faith. He was not a man to fight a ‘cosmic tendency,’ and this served him well. Sam Clemens was less sure of this lesson. He learned it the hard way, and as you will see in the story that follows, kept unlearning it.”

John Hay was one of two personal secretaries to Abraham Lincoln, along with his close friend John Nicolay. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay and Nicolay wrote the first biography of Lincoln, a multi-volume work that established the pattern for subsequent Lincoln biographies. Hay also was a poet of some distinction, especially known for a collection called Pike County Ballads; humorous verse written in dialect. Hay made his fortune the old fashioned way; he married into it. This gave him the freedom to pursue a career in government, and he eventually became US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and finally, US Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was, in short, the Secretary of State during the Spanish-American War, and the diplomat who laid the political framework for the building of the Panama Canal.

Sam Clemens, of course, was primarily known, both in his lifetime and today, by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. As the book begins, Clemens was embarked on a desperate quest to salvage his family finances, a world-spanning lecture tour. This is the Mark Twain of the popular imagination; the cigar-smoking, white-suited contrarian, the witty, somewhat cynical humorist. He was, in 1894, dead-broke, having blown a sizeable fortune on an ill-conceived printing device. He insisted, as a point of honor, on clearing the entire debt himself, without resorting to bankruptcy proceedings. But proceeds from the tour were disappointing, as were sales from his published account of the voyage. (Although he did finally pay off his creditors, he never really did learn his lesson; he was still making bad investments practically on his deathbed).

Zwonitzer’s book cuts back and forth between the two men over the last ten years of Hay’s life, during that period when Hay was accommodating and enabling and administering the colonialist impulses of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Hay was an able administrator, in part because he was almost ego-less about it. His job was to serve as an extension of the President, and it was a job he devoted himself to, even at the cost of his health. And so Hay made himself indispensable, as the United States intervened in Cuba, appropriated Puerto Rico, swallowed Hawaii whole, captured Guam and Samoa, and ignored the democratic wishes of the freed Philippines, waging a savage war of conquest, so as to Christianize a nation full of Christians, and to govern a people too stubborn to realize they were ungovernable. And that’s without mentioning the US actions in Panama, actions applauded, at the time, as lacking even the tiniest vestige of legality.

John Hay was surely one of the most able men ever to serve as Secretary of State. He was certainly one of the most consequential diplomats in US history. And I wouldn’t say that Zwonitzer’s book demonizes him; quite the contrary. At the same time, his legacy is a troubling one. Teddy Roosevelt was an extraordinary man and a remarkably impactful President. He also believed in (and wrote books arguing for) the inherent racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples, and the God-given requirement that that superiority gave white men: to govern. One of the saddest chapters in the book describes the Filipino diplomat, Felipe Agocillo, who came to Washington desperate for some kind of recognition of the capable, functioning government established by his boss, Emilio Aquinaldo, and hoping for some Filipino representation, at least, on the commission that would decide his country’s fate and future. He was never so much as allowed to present a letter to that effect to John Hay. His people were incapable of self-governance. Too brown of skin. Period. The Philippines would be administered from Washington.

And Sam Clemens, as he traveled with his ailing family from Italian villa to English country estate to US rental property, kept in touch with world events. And though he couched his criticisms in bitter irony, Mark Twain’s writings reveal how heartsick and furious he was with it all. Twain knew better than to publish all his writings from that period–in any event, he’d promised his beloved wife, Livy, that he would exercise some restraint. Even so, it’s remarkable, to see how willing Clemens was to take on the ruling ideology of his own age, how furious he was with the hypocrisy of American Christians and the complacent American acceptance of the most heinous war atrocities committed by our troops.

When most Americans think of the Spanish-American war, we generally think of two things, if we even give that particularly obscure conflict any attention at all. First, we may be able to dredge some memory of the phrase ‘Remember the Maine,’ though we likely don’t remember what that was about. And second, we might remember Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders capturing San Juan Hill. We don’t choose to think about our utterly unjustified invasion of the Philippines, or the brutal savagery of our war against the subsequent insurgency. We don’t think about water boarding, or the way US commanders justified the slaughter of eleven-year-olds, or our massacres of women and children.

Mark Twain was there. He was horrified and appalled on our behalf. Here’s what he wrote about it, in The War Prayer:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

We’ve forgotten John Hay, and though we still remember Mark Twain, we’ve generally forgotten the lonely, righteous anger of Sam Clemens. Mark Zwonitzer reminds us of them both, and the ways in which they were connected. And the specific points on which they differed, as friends. What a splendid achievement.

Truth: Movie Review

This movie flew under my radar. I saw it on my Netflix DVD queue, thought I’d give it a whirl, despite the fact that it was basically a flop. And I understand why it flopped. It deals with a news story from 2004, one that I think the American public never understood all that well, and has basically stopped caring about. That issue is now called “The Killian documents scandal,” an inelegant sobriquet. And although the film deals with that scandal intelligently and with conviction, and explains everything pretty clearly, it also has a discernible point of view which it hopes we’ll agree with at the end. I did. So did my wife. Not sure how much it matters.

In the fall of 2004, Mary Mapes (beautifully played here by Cate Blanchett), a producer with CBS News, again picked up the thread of a news story she had been looking at in 2000. It had to do with the military service of George W. Bush with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. Together with a retired Marine Lt. Colonel, Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and two reporters, Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mapes tracked down those few documents regarding the President’s service that the Bush camp was able to produce.

Mapes was one of Dan Rather’s (Robert Redford’s) producers. In the news business, the producer writes the story, works with the on-air talent to conduct the interviews, and edits what airs. Mapes was convinced that Bush had essentially been AWOL for a substantial part of his military commitment, and that his superiors hadn’t pursued it, because Bush was the son of a Congressman. She also believed that highly placed Texas politicians had pulled strings to get Bush a cushy National Guard assignment. Most of the other National Guard recruits were, like Bush, sons of political power brokers; also in the Guard were several star players for the Dallas Cowboys football team. Some National Guard companies did serve with distinction in Vietnam. But the Texas Air National Guard never did serve overseas, and was unlikely ever to have done so. It was a cozy sinecure. And the film does a nice job of explaining all that.

While working on the story, Mapes came into the possession of photocopies of a number of memos written by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, since deceased. Killian was Bush’s commanding officer during his Guard service. They were given to her by an elderly retired military officer named Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach). Because they were photocopies, and because the language of the memos suggested a familiarity with the period and with military protocols from the early 70s, Mapes decided to use them. She did send them to four separate document authenticators, two of whom declared them authentic, and two of whom said they couldn’t without seeing the originals. The documents made up a small part of the overall story, and Mapes used them without hesitation.

After the story aired on Sixty Minutes, however, a number of bloggers with an expertise in the documents field questioned the documents’ authenticity. Many people suggested that the Killian documents were the clumsiest of forgeries, using proportional spacing, a feature not generally available on typewriters in 1972. The documents, they said, had probably been created on Microsoft Word. Eventually, the Killian documents, which were not really an important part of the original news story, dominated coverage of it. Eventually, Mapes was asked to resign, along with several other CBS News employees. Including, of course, Dan Rather.

This movie argues, with great clarity and passion, that the documents could have been genuine, and that the larger story, about the President’s military service, had been ignored. To the extent that anyone today cares about the Killian documents, I think it’s fair to say that the consensus opinion is that the documents were forgeries. Burkett admitted to having lied to Mapes about where he obtained them (a painful scene, with Keach splendidly elderly and humiliated).

What I suspect is that the only people who really care about this are hard-core conservatives, who see it as confirming the ‘liberal-media-out-to-get-conservatives’ narrative. I think that most folks have forgotten this was ever a thing. If we see Dan Rather on Rachel Maddow’s show, we may remember ‘wasn’t there a controversy involving him?’ And when we saw that there was a film about ‘the Dan Rather thing,’ we gave it a pass.

I liked it better than that. Not that everything in the movie works. There’s an awkward, earnest scene late in the film in which Topher Grace (who’s great in this) gives a speech outlining a conspiracy theory in which Viacom (in need of legislative support), pressured CBS to fire Mapes and Rather. That’s all possible, of course. Likewise, the chance that, upon seeing the 60 Minutes piece, that Karl Rove orchestrated a campaign to discredit the one part of the story that could most effectively be discredited, the documents. (Karl Rove! Surely not!).

In the TV miniseries, The People vs. OJ Simpson, which my daughter and I have been watching, there’s a scene where Sarah Paulson, playing Marcia Clark (the main OJ prosecutor) goes into a bar and is challenged by one patron, who says ‘the police framed OJ.’ Clark goes ‘okay, let’s talk about that,’ and then goes through all the evidence to show exactly the convolutions the cops would have had to go through to frame OJ, just how extraordinarily baroque that theory is. And the bar patrons just sit there, astonished and persuaded. There’s a similar scene in Truth, in which Mapes demonstrates just how far-fetched the idea of creating a forgery was.  I found it similarly convincing. But I cared a lot less.

And that’s weird. The one show is about a murder trial; the stakes high enough for the families of the victims, but the whole thing didn’t really affect us at all. And the situation in Truth involves the election of a President, a much more consequential thing. But I cared about the OJ scene a lot more than I cared about the analogous scene involving Bush’s military service. The one feels like political/historical esoterica. The other feels more personal. Same scene, different impact.

Bush is gone, out of office. We’re in a new political season, a much stranger one. Watch Truth, then watch the news. It’ll shock you how much things have changed. And how very little.

The Trump/Kaufman hypothesis

I have a theory. Just tossing it out there. I don’t have, you know, any, like, evidence to support this theory. But I can say that the line of coincidences and correlations and suggestions is getting longer all the time. So, bear with me, and try to keep an open mind.

I think Donald Trump is actually Andy Kaufman.

That’s right. I think that the legendary comedian, Andy Kaufman, is playing a part, has taken on the persona of a billionaire reality TV star and is currently running for President of the United States.

It would certainly be in character for Kaufman. Most of his act was a put on. For much of his career, an aggressively untalented and obnoxious lounge singer named Tony Clifton would open for him. But Kaufman was Clifton; he played both characters. He pretended to be a wrestling ‘heel,’ and made up a feud with professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler. (In fact, they were friends). And he wrestled women, as part of his act.

Kaufman’s act was a convoluted deconstruction of comedic convention, whether it involved his intentionally bad Foreign Man impressions (which he’d follow up with a spot-on Elvis), reading The Great Gatsby on-stage, or announcing his conversion to Christianity and engagement to a gospel singer. Kaufman never really did stand-up. His entire act was a long, extended piece of performance art. He was the original reality TV star.

So how out of character would it be for Andy Kaufman to take parts of his Tony Clifton characterization, turn him into an obnoxious billionaire, and run for President?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Andy Kaufman can’t be Donald Trump, because he died in 1984. But did he really?

  1. In 2014, a woman claiming to be his daughter showed up to the Andy Kaufman Awards show in New York, insisting that her Dad had faked his death and was still alive.
  2. Andy Kaufman’s brother, Michael, insists that Andy is still alive, and that he has been in contact with him.
  3. A video of Kaufman was found in 2013, showing him living in New Mexico.
  4. He was Andy Kaufman. Why wouldn’t he fake his own death?

Other evidence: Donald Trump was born in 1946; Kaufman in 1949. Close enough. Trump is listed at 6′ 3″, while Kaufman was also tall, at 6′ 1″. Close enough. Trump is famous for his combover; Kaufman was balding at the time of his death or disappearance. They both had roundish faces, prominent noses.

More to the point, though, look at the Trump campaign. The essence of the campaign is precisely similar to Kaufman’s comedy. Trump takes ideas to their logical possible extreme, then bluffs his way through the resulting mayhem. He’s not a conservative Republican, he’s playing one, on TV, for political purposes, and it gets him in all kinds of trouble. And, of course, it’s also really funny.

So: ‘should women who have chosen to have abortions be punished, legally?’ Well, if abortion is the wanton taking of human life, then the answer to that is obviously yes. But the pro-life movement is trying to win hearts and minds; they can’t, you know, say that. So Trump, hilariously, changed his position on abortion five times in three days. Genuine confusion? Or satire?

On every issue, Trump (or Kaufman) does this. Republicans always propose tax cuts. So what does “Republican” Trump do? Proposes a tax cut so massive as to be completely bonkers, while still insisting he’ll pay off the deficit in 8 years. Macroeconomic ignorance? Or supply-side deconstruction?

What would a billionaire businessman do in foreign policy? Well, the one thing he knows is how to make deals. So he’d look at our free trade agreements first, and promise to renegotiate them, more favorably for us. Trade wars? I don’t care about no stinkin’ trade wars.

Plus, you know, the wall. That wonderful, surreal, Kaufmanesque wall, to keep the Latkas of the world out. Which Mexico will happily, happily pay for.

Last week, the comedy kept building. Trump pretended to take a hard, serious look at NATO, and ended up concluding ‘we should get rid of it.’ Same with South Korea;  ‘what are we getting out of protecting Seoul? Why shouldn’t Japan have nukes? And Saudi Arabia, why not?’ And then, when Europe and Asia and the rest of the world collectively lose it, he plays Mafia don: ‘if you want our protection, it’s going to cost you. Pony up.’ That’s Trump’s foreign policy. “I’m going to make ’em an offer they can’t refuse.”

You can’t say that Andy hasn’t thought the characterization through.

Look at the way Andy Kaufman treated women. One of the things Kaufman was most known for was wrestling women. Of course, his wrestling matches were, again, purely performance art. One of his first ‘opponents’ was Laurie Anderson, for heaven’s sake. As Bill DeMain put it, “despite Kaufman’s over-the-top parody of a trash-talking, chauvinistic jerk, a lot of people believed the whole thing was real. Just like they believed wrestling was real.” And they sent hate mail by the bucketful.

Sound like anyone we know?

So we need to ask. Andy. Did you hear about this one? Tell me, are you locked in the punch? Andy are you goofing on Elvis, hey, baby?

Are you having fun?

I’ll admit, there are a couple of problems with my theory. First of all, if Andy Kaufman has been playing Donald Trump for years, what happened to the real Donald? I suppose it’s possible that Ivana smothered him with a pillow, but proving it could be tricky. Second, although Kaufman’s absolute commitment to his various comic bits was impressive, surely he’s looking forward to the reveal?

And the reveal pretty much needs to happen soon. Doesn’t it?


Spotlight: Movie Review

In 2001, the Boston Globe published a series of articles detailing the way the Catholic Church covered up for pedophile priests caught sexually abusing children. Spotlight tells the story of the journalists who researched and wrote that story. I love movies about intrepid journalists, and Spotlight can really only be compared to the best of them, films like All the President’s Men and The Year of Living Dangerously. It’s been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and is favored to win. It’s a masterpiece of ensemble acting. I can’t really recommend it strongly enough. It does, however, raise a very interesting and important question, regarding truth and fiction and how we structure stories based on historical events.

All right. Here’s what the film tells us. Reporters at the Globe had heard rumors of priests molesting children for years. Everyone was also pretty well aware that the Church, and specifically Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the archbishop over the Boston diocese, a very well respected figure in the community, would much rather not see a story in the city’s leading newspaper about pedophile priests. Had Cardinal Law known about and covered up for guilty priests? No one particularly wanted to find out.

Then the Boston Globe got a new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), hired from Miami. A Jewish editor with a fine track record, but not a Bostonian, not Irish-Catholic, an outsider. Initially, the reporters and editors are suspicious of Baron. One of the main story lines has to do with the way Baron gains the respect of the paper’s reporters.

The Globe had an elite team of reporters, the Spotlight team, three reporters and one editor, tasked with taking on big, complex stories, and given the time and resources to really dig deeply into important issues, with no mandate to publish anything immediately. For the most part, the movie deals with the Spotlight reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), and their editor, Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). So that’s the first decision made by the filmmakers–to focus on four main characters, not a single protagonist. Robinson reported to a higher editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), so Bradlee becomes another key player. The Spotlight team looks like a terrific place to work; each reporter has his/her own strengths, and Robby, their putative boss, isn’t afraid to dig in and work alongside them; an outstanding boss. They clash a little bit, but it’s about process and deadlines, not the substance of what they’re doing. You get the impression of four smart, dedicated people, who respect each other, and work well together. You sense that Matt Carroll was a particularly strong researcher, that Pfeiffer was a particularly effective interviewer, that Rezendes was good at negotiating the legal system. And Robby was plugged in, to the power structure of the city, its shakers and movers.

So that’s the second choice made by the filmmakers. The heart of the film has to do with the mechanics of researching and reporting, not really interpersonal conflicts. Three men, one woman, but not a hint of sexual or romantic tension between them (a filmmaking choice I applaud). Just four people who are really good at their jobs, working on the story of their careers.

The story is, of course, explosive, especially in solidly Catholic Boston. And Robby is warned throughout to expect pushback from the Church hierarchy. So is Baron. He’s given a courtesy visit with Cardinal Law (the terrific Len Cariou), who tells him that the city works best when its most important institutions work together. And Baron politely responds that he thinks a newspaper works best when it’s most independent. He and Law agree, cordially enough, to disagree. And then Baron’s Spotlight reporters write a story that couldn’t possibly make the Cardinal (and the Church he represents) look worse.

Because the facts of the case, as they’re gradually revealed, couldn’t possibly be more horrifying. We learn the details of the story as the reporters learn them, and–this was at least my experience–are as devastated as the reporters are. At one point, the reporters conclude that there were 13 priest/pedophiles molesting children in Boston. Bradlee is skeptical–there’s no way there could be that many. Then, in a conversation with an expert on pedophilia, they’re told that the actual number is almost certainly much higher, in the 90s. And their investigation expands, and they confirm that number. And then the number continues to grow, into the hundreds. It’s devastating.

But what’s kind of astonishing is how little the Catholic Church or Cardinal Law does to impede the investigation. Robby is told by several of his powerful friends in Boston that this is an explosive story, that he shouldn’t pursue it. And initially, he wants to publish a more limited story. It’s Baron that urges the team to continue to expand their investigation, to look into the institution of the Church itself.

They’re not reluctant to do it for reasons of piety. They just know they have a powerful story, and want to publish. Their boss, the newpaper’s editor-in-chief, is the one who pushes them to delay publication, to get the whole story, to implicate Cardinal Law and the Church itself. And the Church’s response? Pretty limited; even a bit supine. No threats of legal action. No strikes by the paper’s largely Irish Catholic work force. Not even a response by Church spokespeople.

There is pushback and resistance. It comes from rank-and-file Catholics in the city; a clerk at the City Records office, for example. He’s a bit surly towards Rezendes. To put it in structural terms, this is a film with four protagonists, and no real antagonist at all. Unless the film’s villain isn’t a person. Unless it’s just . . . Irish Catholic Boston cultural pressure. Subtle and quiet.

That’s the most important decision made by the filmmakers here. They could invent a bad guy. They could have upped the pressure exerted by the Church. But that didn’t particularly happen, I think, and they wanted this film to hew pretty closely to what did actually happen.

That’s a decision I applaud. It makes the film perhaps slightly less dramatic than other Hollywood ‘based on a true story’ type films. I generally think historical truth–to the extent that it’s discoverable– is more interesting and can be more dramatic than more overtly ‘dramatized’ versions.

Hollywood loves ‘true’ stories. And in almost every sense, Spotlight does not feel like a Hollywood film. I rather shudder to think of the missteps this film, blessedly, avoids. (Manufacturing a romance between Pfeiffer and Rezendes comes most immediately to mind; blarg). The result is a film that honors some terrific journalists, and that forces us to confront the reality of the horrible events those journalists exposed. It’s really beautifully done. Kudos.



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 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, 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.



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 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.


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.