Race, Ferguson, “exculpatory” and competing world views

While all the media attention has been directed at Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, there was a second shooting four miles away. The second shooting, of 25-year old Kajieme Powell, was captured on video camera by a passer-by. Powell, walked into a nearby convenience store and shoplifted some energy drinks, which he took outside and carefully laid on the sidewalk.  He was walking around in circles, muttering to himself, and was holding a steak knife. On the footage, a police car showed up, two officers got out, and Powell took a step or two towards them.  Twenty three seconds after the squad car showed up, Powell was shot, at least nine times, killed, and then, bizarrely, handcuffed.

What’s interesting to me was the explanation offered by the St. Louis police department. Originally, they said that Powell moved towards the officers in a threatening manner, holding a knife, that he got within 2 or 3 feet of them, that he was armed and dangerous, that the shooting was justified, and that they released the video, at least in part, because it was, in their view, “exculpatory.”  In other words, they released the video because it supported the official police narrative of the event.

It doesn’t. Powell was never 3 feet from the nearest officer; more like 8 feet, and at least 15 from the second officer. And the officers were equipped with tasers. Nor does Powell seem particularly threatening. He appears, to be honest, a bit deranged.

“Exculpatory?”  I have never served as a police officer, nor in the armed services. I do not own a gun, and can’t imagine ever wanting to. I’ll grant, freely and absolutely, that I am uninformed. I don’t know what it’s like to be a policeman. Maybe I’d shoot too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, the video is not even remotely exculpatory.  If I served on a grand jury, and I was shown that video, I would absolutely vote to indict both officers for manslaughter. If I were on a jury trying them, and I saw that video, I would vote to convict them, perhaps not of murder, but certainly of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Chatting about it on the internet yesterday, though, a lot of people I don’t know disagreed with me. Some thought this was easily and obviously a justifiable homicide. The officers were threatened by a guy with a knife. They stopped him from hurting anyone, including themselves.

So I look at that video, and it seem obvious–this is an unjustified shooting, a criminal act. Police officers, apparently, look at the video and it’s just as obvious–justifiable homicide.  Our world views shape how we see evidence, and shape therefore the narratives we create around that evidence. I see the incidents in Ferguson from the point of view of a middle-aged white liberal. I tend to impute racism to other white people, partly because I’m acutely aware of my own occasional racism.  We’re all shaped by our life experiences, we all have ideological biases. We just don’t all see the world the same way. I cannot fathom anyone looking at that video and calling it “exculpatory” of the officers. Obviously, lots of people, and most especially people who work in law enforcement, completely disagree. We don’t all see the same video. And we tend to label those who disagree with us ‘nuts.’ We think they’re crazy. They just can’t see straight, we think.

Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain–most of the countries of Europe, most First World nations have police forces, crazy people, and steak knives.  They have way way way fewer incidents where police shoot civilians.  In Iceland, in December, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, a police officer shot and killed an armed civilian. The victim was armed with a shotgun, which he used to shoot two other officers; the killing was completely justified.  But the whole nation’s practically in mourning over it.  In Iceland, police officers don’t carry guns. Neither do most European cops.  And they keep civil order just fine.  (Of course, they also have civilian populations that don’t have a lot of guns either.)

So my perspective on guns is urban, middle-class, and liberal. I don’t own a gun, and can’t imagine wanting to own one. If I did own one, it wouldn’t make me feel safer, it would make me feel less safe. I see policemen as essentially benign. To me, they are benign. My few interactions with cops come when I get a ticket for something, which doesn’t happen very often, and which, honestly, I pretty much always deserve, when I do get one.

But in Ferguson, a smallish town without a lot of crime, the Municipal Court issued three warrants and tried 1.5 cases per household. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Guilty verdicts in Ferguson bring in an average fine of $280 dollars. Which means, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, you’re used to being hassled by cops. You factor fines and court appearances into your family budget and your family schedule. And those fines and arrests and court appearances disproportionately hit black families.  Why does Ferguson do this, have so many arrests? They have to. Those fines made up a quarter of the city’s budget. Unemployment is high in the city, and the tax base is small. A lot of businesses have closed. The city has to pay its bills somehow. So they arrest a lot of people, charge ‘em with crimes–loitering, jaywalking, moving traffic violations–and try ‘em. And pay the bills.

So the black population in Ferguson feels put upon, disrespected, unfairly stigmatized and criminalized. And the Michael Brown shooting was the match that lit the powder keg.

I just finished reading Michael Waldman’s terrific new book, The Second Amendment: a Biography.  Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, readable one volume examination of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment should check out Waldman’s book.  As he makes abundantly clear, the Framers absolutely did not intend to codify an individual right to own firearms. Their concern was entirely with state and local militias, institutions that no longer exist in anything like their 18th century forms. The idea that later generations would find in the 2nd Amendment a right for private individuals to own, for self-protection, a semi-automatic rifle, is an argument that the Framers would have found both incomprehensible and ludicrous. They didn’t like ‘standing armies’ and they did like ‘militias.’ And those sentiments were wide-spread enough to get James Madison to stick a poorly worded sop to militia fans into the Bill of Rights. Scalia’s pro-gun decision in District of Columbia v. Heller cannot, by the furthest stretch of the imagination, be called an ‘originalist’ decision. Originalism itself is just silly.

It also doesn’t matter. Justice Scalia ruled as he did because he’s a conservative who likes guns. But enough Americans agree with him (passionately!) that now, yeah, the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own guns. That’s what our day believes. And there’s not a lot we anti-gun types can do about it, except try to persuade people that they’re wrong. And that’s not going to be easy; probably it won’t even be possible. We’re stuck with guns. Probably around 300 million of them, circulating.

There are members of my family who are really pro-gun. I don’t understand that. It seems nuts to me. But I hold beliefs that they disagree with too. I’m not sure how, in a civil society, we can find a way to disagree respectfully and calmly.

But we have to try.  We have to make some effort to maintain civil discourse, to respect each other’s differences, to always re-think and re-examine our own issues, in light of our biases.  It’s hard.  But it’s essential to our democratic experiment. We have to try.


Dawn of the Planet of Apes: Movie Review

It’s a big blockbuster summer action movie.  About monkeys.  I went with fairly low expectations.  But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the smartest, saddest, most deeply tragic film of the year, a soulful, brilliant movie, thoughtfully conceived and superbly rendered.  It feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, honestly, that kind of power and resonance.  Images linger.  My wife and I went home, and could hardly talk about it; it overwhelmed us both.  It’s just a remarkable film, an amazing meditation on leadership and the limits of leadership and on the inevitability of violence and the way peaceful intentions can become derailed.

If you saw the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco, this is the sequel.  In that earlier film, Franco played a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s, desperate for a cure for his rapidly diminishing father.  He experiments on Caesar, his pet chimpanzee, and is astonished when Caesar develops human intelligence and emotional complexity.  But Caesar is taken from him, and placed in an ape sanctuary, where he becomes a leader to the other apes.  He acquires more of the drug developed by Franco, and he and the other apes escape to a forest sanctuary.  But the same drug, it turns out, is toxic to humans, and a massive pandemic threatens mankind.

As this film begins, most of the human race has died in the pandemic.  Some few survivors, however, had a genetic defense against it, and have gathered in San Francisco, where they have formed a community under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).  Also in that community, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his domestic partner, Ellie (Keri Russell), a doctor, and his teenaged son from before the pandemic, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The community’s energy reserves are badly depleted, and Malcolm has been tasked with repairing the electrical generators at a nearby dam.  But his route to that dam runs straight through Caesar’s forest home.

Caesar, meanwhile, has created a city, a refuge for apes, perfectly adapted to simian abilities and needs.  They have a highly sophisticated kind of sign language, but can also speak human English, though they have difficulty forming words.  They tend to use the human language for emphasis, but for conversations requiring subtlety and nuance, they prefer signing.  They’re mostly chimps, along with one gorilla and one elderly orangutan, Maurice, who serves as the teacher for their school.  And Caesar has given them a religious code of sorts, the first commandment of which is ‘ape not kill ape.’  Caesar’s ‘chief-of-security’ is a deeply damaged and angry ape named Koba.  Caesar is also married, with a son, and his wife has just given birth to a second boy.

As in the earlier film, Caesar is played, in an extraordinary physical performance (then animated via CGI), by Andy Serkis.  As in the earlier film, Maurice is played by Karin Konoval.  But the film’s antagonist, Koba, is now an actor named Toby Kebbell.  And he gives the performance of the film.

Okay, so, the first big cultural clash between human and ape comes when Malcolm’s team of humans, trying to fix the generators at this dam, cross ape territory, and are confronted by a security team led by Koba.  One of the humans shoots and wounds an ape, and it appears as though the confrontation is likely to turn violent.  But Caesar shows up, and by his sheer presence, forces Koba to back down.  Malcolm and his party retreat back to San Francisco.  The next day, Caesar and a large party of apes show up at the human colony and Caesar warns the humans not to return.  He’ll maintain the peace, as long as humans stay in their territory and don’t trespass into ape lands.  (All this is expressed in a few words, but it’s unmistakable).

The problem is, the human colony desperately needs energy, for heat and light and, above all, for communications, for attempts to contact other possible human enclaves.  And so Malcolm goes back, and negotiates a truce with Caesar.  He promises that humans will surrender their guns, if safe passage can be guaranteed to and from the dam.  And Caesar agrees to this, although it really puts his authority with his own people to the test.  Koba especially does not trust humans.  Koba was, in the earlier film, the subject of the most brutal kinds of animal testing–he’s a torture victim–and in a deeply moving scene, he points to his various scars and says ‘human work, human work, human work.’  (Which is one of the things I love about this film.  Koba is the ‘villain’ of the piece, but he’s a deeply wounded, damaged, sympathetic character, beautifully written and acted.)

So Malcolm and his men get the dam repaired (with considerable help from the apes), and suddenly, San Francisco has electricity.  And we see one of the characters, searching through a suddenly-aglow gas station, and he finds a CD player, and he puts in a CD, and we hear the strains of The Band playing The Weight.  And we see him dance.

But Koba, always mistrustful, leads a small team back to the city, and finds where the human weapons’ arsenal is.  And he sees a a group of human soldier-wannabes taking target practice.  And all his suspicions about the untrustworthiness of humans are confirmed.  And when the human ‘soldiers’ see him, they’re about to shoot, but he puts on a happy monkey act for them, what would be for apes a Stepin Fetchit act.  A Cheetah act; jivin’ and grinnin’; monkey blackface vaudeville.  It’s a tremendous scene, and an effective one, seeing Koba demean himself to survive.  And then Koba playfully grabs an AK-47.  And then he starts shooting humans.

And then, back at the ape town, Koba shoots Caesar, abandons him, and leads the rest of the apes back to San Francisco, on horseback, heavily armed.  And a battle scene commences, an ugly, violent horrific war between man and ape.  And then Koba commandeers a tank, and we see the battle unfold from his POV.  And the humans are defeated, and crowded into cages.  As are Caesar’s remaining allies among the apes, including Maurice.  And Caesar lingers, close to death.  And Caesar’s older son is torn, between his loyalty to his father, and his admiration for Koba and Koba’s courage and charisma and pain.

But Malcolm and Ellie find Caesar, and Ellie performs life-saving surgery.  And Caesar survives.  And heads back into San Francisco, again to lead his people.

I don’t want to give away the ending.  But what’s remarkable is this; it’s not triumphant.  Caesar and Malcolm remain close friends to the end, but this will not end peacefully.  The two real leaders have become impotent; peace eludes them, and will continue to elude them.  Foolishness and paranoia and fear and the enticing prospect of violence are too ingrained in both human and ape personalities; war must come, and it will not end well.

I kept thinking of historical parallels.  The first is to our own history, and the ugly warfare between whites and Indians that marred it.  Caesar could parallel some of the extraordinary Native American leaders of the past, men like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Tecumseh and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. On the other hand, the people against whom Sitting Bull was pitted had not been decimated in a pandemic, while Native tribes certainly all were.  Or we might look to our day, to the inevitability of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, to the current battles fought between the Israeli army and Hamas.  Or we might look to other historical parallels.  Much of the power of this film is in its dissection of what inevitably happens when two peoples fight over limited resources.  This film manages to feel historically grounded, without recalling any one specific historical period or conflict.  But it’s completely convincing, especially in its depiction of genuine, great leadership (Caesar, and to a lesser extent, Malcolm), and suspicion and hatred and paranoid leadership (Dreyfus and Koba).  Leaders can only lead up to a point.  And then everything blows up.

I should add a word about the acting in this film.  Obviously, Serkis and Kebbell give extraordinary performances, given the extra detail of seamlessly integrated CGI.  But I can’t say enough about Jason Clarke.  He was terrific in Zero Dark Thirty, equally fine in The Great Gatsby.  This is his first big action movie lead, and I hope it really launches him.  He’s a tremendous actor, another of those Aussie acting marvels, and I’d love to see him have one of those Mark Ruffalo/Peter Sarsgaard careers, where he’s great in everything in he’s in, but is never quite an A-list superstar.  He’s certainly remarkable here, if a bit overshadowed by Serkis’ performance.

Anyway.  Wow.  Great movie.  See it.  I know; summer action movie.  Monkeys.  It doesn’t matter.  This is the best movie of the year, so far.  See it.

The border kids

I have a new hero.

His name is Clay Jenkins. He is County Judge for Dallas County, Texas.  Biggest city in that county is, as one might imagine, Dallas, the ninth largest city in the US.  The County Judge is the most important elected official in the county.  In addition to his responsibilities as a Judge, he’s also the guy who is responsible for coordinating relief efforts in the county with the federal Department of Homeland Security.

He’s an active Methodist.  He’s the first person in his family to ever graduate from college.  Has a law degree from Baylor.  And he and his wife have one child, a daughter.

And Clay Jenkins also volunteered his county to house and care for some of that flood of unaccompanied minor children coming into our country (illegally, a lot of them, not that that matters), from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador.

He volunteered.  He contacted the feds on this; he stepped up. Said his 8-year old daughter saw a news story about the crisis, and asked if she meet them; said she thought it would be fun to play with those children.

Clay Jenkins was featured on Rachel Maddow’s show yesterday, and of course, she asked him about the politics of this.  He said ‘the politics of this is that there are no politics of this.  These are children.’  He said he expected some backlash, but that he’d gone door to door and talked to people in the county. They supported it.  He talked to his pastor; talked to the local Baptist minister, the local Catholic priest.  Unanimous agreement; these were children, and they needed food and shelter and kindness; bring ‘em in.

Of course, it would be great if we could see this situation as Clay Jenkins sees it, in purely humanitarian terms.  But with thousands of desperate children, some with parents, many without, having made the dangerous journey from their home countries to escape violence, anarchy, the breakdown of civil society, with thousands of kids here, in internment camps and rough shelters along our borders, in Texas and California and Arizona, the issue has become more politicized than ever.

Sunday, and then again yesterday, I watched, switching channels from ABC News to CBS to CNN to MSNBC, and we saw the flashpoints, in Murrieta California. Flag waving protesters shouting ‘go back,’ and uglier slurs as buses full of children arrived for processing. Immigration officials finally giving up, diverting the buses elsewhere, trying to avoid subjecting these poor kids to more violence.  Above all, I saw the faces of the protesters, red-faced white folks (almost entirely), faces distorted in rage.  We’ve seen those same faces, haven’t we?  Back when I was a kid, just getting into watching news shows, a youthful news junky even then, watching footage from Birmingham and Selma, faces spewing hate as James Meredith tried to enroll in the college of his choice, as Dr. King talked about a dream.  Not the same people, but the same faces.  Enraged white folk, fearful of change, fearful of loss, fearful for their jobs in a tough economy, finding a single focus for all that fear.  And the faces of children, looking out bus windows, wondering when they could ever be safe again.

The politics of this are getting ugly.  And the cowardice of elected officials remains permanently on display.  I could care less about the legalities of the case; there are 50,000 kids here or arriving, with more on the way.  50, 60, 70 thousand: I don’t care.  They’re fleeing violence; they’re afraid for their lives.  Just as, during the Cold War, the United States welcomed Eastern Europeans who climbed The Wall, or burrowed under a fence or forged a passport, broke the law to escape tyranny, and we welcomed them with open arms, made exceptions for them, so should we do the same for these children and for their families.  Let ‘em in.  All of them in; let ‘em work here and live here and get an American education.  We’re a huge country and a rich country and we can do this and we should do this.

On this issue, at least, John Boehner has revealed himself as the greatest moral coward in the history of the Speakership.  President Obama’s not far behind him, frankly.  As these kids are ‘processed,’ many will be sent back, to disintegrating civil societies, to again fear, daily, for their lives.  It’s reprehensible and it’s wrong.  Let them stay.  All of them; let them all stay.

This is a minor consideration, but worth mentioning; American undocumented workers are a net plus for our economy by every possible measure, according to every non-partisan study that’s been done. They have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than most Americans generally.  They have far lower crime rates than the populace at large. They’re a great blessing to our nation, and they create more jobs than they perform, and their money circulates just the same as mine does.

Another minor consideration: yeah, they’re here illegally.  They broke the law to come in, some of them. It doesn’t matter.  The law they broke is a misdemeanor; the equivalent of a lane change traffic violation. The buzz-word politically is amnesty, so let’s shout that too: we’re in favor of amnesty!  Amnesty now, amnesty tomorrow, amnesty forever!  If I were a poor guy living in a poor country with a rich country next door, and if, to feed my family, all I had to do is disobey a law (a minor law, to boot, an unimportant law) and also risk a dangerous border, just to get work, just to feed my wife and children, I would do it in a second, and so would you. And anyone who says they wouldn’t isn’t telling you the truth.

And in this case, with what’s going on now, we’re talking about countries that do not border the United States, countries where parents are terrified that violence will touch their children.  I saw the footage: fifty kids, the youngest a two-year-old, covered with a blanket and tied to the roof of a train heading to America.  How desperate would you have to be, how frightened for your kids, how much of a last resort would that be?  And we’re seriously thinking of sending them back?  Are you kidding me?

Also this: their countries are disintegrating largely because of the inherent violence and instability of any product that is a) really lucrative, b) pretty easy to grow, and c) seriously illegal. To anyone who wants to shout from the rooftops that these kids (and other undocumented folks), are here ILLEGALLY!  THEY BROKE THE LAW!!!! I would suggest this: their countries, Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador are imploding, because America’s dentists and accountants and hedge fund managers and executive vice-Presidents and insurance adjusters and corporate attorneys can’t lay off the nose-candy. Because some super poor countries have one insanely profitable cash crop, a market for which exists here, not there. Lady Coke. Also, we have gun dealers who see an equally lucrative market heading back the other way.  So, yeah, they’ve formed gangs (small businesses), and cartels (big corporations), and they’re really seriously fighting for market share.

So at least, if we’re Christians, if we profess to be Christians in a Christian nation, let’s treat the collateral damage of that reality with some humanity.  Clay Jenkins sees it.  The politics of this is that there are no politics.  Just children, who need our help.



The Deseret News gets Iraq wrong

Every morning of my life, I read The Deseret News on-line.  I’m not sure why I do this. It’s a comically bad newspaper.  Habit, I suppose.  I’ve read a daily newspaper since I was 7.  The DN covers Utah County pretty well, where I live, plus it’s a great window into mainstream Utah Mormon culture, a culture I live amidst and which I do not understand at all.

But it’s a terrible paper, and the editorial page is especially risible.  For awhile the DN was on a roll in which it published a daily op-ed piece opposing gay marriage.  Every single day, for months. You’d think they’d run out of things to say, but no, their inventiveness had no limits.  They’re down to 3, 4 times a week now on that.  And what’s great is that the arguments they present against SSM almost always turn out, the closer you look at them, to be great arguments for it.

Anyway, today the editorial board decided to weigh in on Iraq.  Here’s the link.  What makes this hilarious, though, is not the editorial itself, but the comments section in the on-line version.

You can follow the link, but I thought I’d provide some highlights too, for those of you who don’t want to bother.  The op-ed piece is your basic common-or-garden neo-conservative line.  Invading Iraq was awesome, because we were planting seeds of democracy in the Middle East.

The invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein may well have been finished at that point, but the mission of establishing a free, peaceful and self-sustaining government there was far from over.

That still is the case today, which makes President Barack Obama’s declaration in 2011 that, on the occasion of the U.S. withdrawal, “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” just as infamous and embarrassing. The United States withdrew too early, reacting more to political pressures at home than to the long-term dangers of an Iraq too unstable to protect itself.

Americans now face the real danger of Iraq becoming a radical Islamic state. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now controls much of Iraq and is threatening to topple Baghdad.

ISIS likely wouldn’t have been able to gain such a foothold if U.S. forces remained in Iraq in sufficient strength to help the government establish itself.

Late last week, Obama seemed reluctant to provide much aid to the Iraqi government, announcing that no ground troops would re-enter the country. Obama said Iraq has political problems, noting that the U.S. has made huge sacrifices (about 5,000 casualties, for starters) in an effort to give Iraq a representative democracy, but that the leaders of that country have been unable to overcome sectarian differences. Until that is corrected, he said, the U.S. won’t be able to fix things with “short-term military action.”

But a dysfunctional representative government is far better than what ISIS has to offer, and the president’s approach to the situation seems inadequate given the threats to the United States.

The editorial then went on, kind of subtly, to suggest that we need troops back in Iraq, and that it was the sad duty of the President to explain to everyone why we needed to go back. Yay!  More American soldiers fighting (and dying) in Iraq!  How very jolly.

And then the comments section took over:

If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his 900,000-man army, and Shia militia cannot defend Baghdad from a few thousand Islamist warriors, America is under no obligation to do it for them. Also, remember please that we left because Maliki told us to get out. (Marxist)

Followed by this, from a guy calling himself Bob.

Why was it our place to not only go into another country and force out the leader that held it together (bad guy or not), then assume we should choose their government for them?
What about the fact that we destroyed the infrastructure of the country and killed a couple hundred thousand of its citizens? Do people with no electricity or water and a dead son start loving the USA and wanting to be like us?
What about the arrogance of thinking we are so great that groups who have been adversaries for hundreds of years will drop that and follow us?
And what about the trillions of dollars drained from our country? Our dead boys?
Obama was trying to make the best of a bad situation and get the heck out of a place we can’t fix.

From a guy calling himself FatherofFour, with military experience in Iraq.

We withdrew along the timetable set by the SOFA agreement between the Iraqi government and the Bush administration in 2008. Obama did not set our withdrawal timeline, that was done before he even became president. I served in Baghdad from 2003-2004 and the mission was extremely unclear. Now, according to this editorial, you want us all to go back and stay for an undefined amount of time. Which side do you want us to support? The Shia’s who are aligned with Iran, make up the majority of the Iraqi population, and want to impose an Islamic theocracy similar to Iran? The Iraqi constitution already states that Iraq is governed by Islamic law. Or do you want to support the Sunnis who are aligned with ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Those are the only two choices. Or do you just want to do the opposite of whatever President Obama suggests? That is likely the reality here.

Another Iraq war veteran weighed in.  This was the comment that got to me; the passion, outrage, anger and pain expressed should command our fullest attention and respect:


I was in Iraq in 2004-2005 as an old gristled Sergeant, then I retired after I returned home. Too many good men and women were killed and permanently maimed while serving in Iraq. The Iraqis hated us and threw rocks at us as we drove through the country. They set IEDs alongside the roads. It was a horrible place to serve, and when we left a year later, nothing had changed. There were far too few of us to maintain order. It seemed like the military was half-committed to winning and didn’t expect that some Pepsi cans on the side of the road would cause abject fear in otherwise tough men.

I saw comrades from my own platoon blown to bits before my very eyes by an IED. It is something I will never forget no matter how hard I try. Their lives were NOT worth it. This editorial trivializes the lives of the men and women and their families who were forever changed by this misguided war. Let them work it out. There is nothing we can do to permanently keep order there. Read their history and you’ll understand.

What a remarkable perspective.  I like this one, too, from ‘Esquire’, from Springville:

And so you are saying to send in troops. Your approach didn’t work in 2003. It made things much, much worse. Who is writing your editorials? Dick Cheney? This newspaper editorial board baffles me. Talk about naive, irresponsible and ignorant of history. Didn’t you also advocate arming the Syrian rebels, the same folks leading the charge into Iraq? Your judgment, and that of McCain, Chaffetz, and the entire Bush neo-con team, is utterly a waste of time and devoid of good sense. We tried your way, and all it did was destabilize the Middle East, feed the snake of terrorism and burdened the West for decades to come. Our national interests are exactly not what you are promoting.

“Naive, irresponsible and ignorant of history.”  The same guy, Esquire, later commented on the same thread:

Reading the comments, it seems to me that the editorial board would do well to listen to its readers. They are providing a lot more insight and common sense than this editorial.

As I post this today, there are 32 comments in the on-line version of this editorial.  All 32 oppose it.  All of them ferociously, angrily, furiously rejecting the Deseret News‘ position.  And all of them, without exception, are better informed, more knowledgeable, and more historically grounded than the DN editorial board.

I’ve never been prouder to be a Utahn.


Excommunication, Republican-style

Excommunication has been much in the news lately, and especially in Mormon circles.  It’s always a little surprising for me when issues relating to Mormonism receive national attention.  The John and Kate story has recently been a big story in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Good Morning America.  I mean, when Mitt Romney was running for President, his religious beliefs were, quite properly, part of the American political conversation.  I get that.  But the letters received by John Dehlin and Kate Kelly?  Why is that a national story?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because Mormons are weird.

When I say that we’re weird, I don’t mean because we seem to like green jello, or because we wear strange underwear.  It’s not because we oppose gay marriage, or don’t drink coffee.  It’s because we believe in other books of scripture than the Bible, because there are men we refer to as ‘prophets,’ because we claim the power of revelation, because we have these big pretty buildings we call ‘temples,’ because we send out thousands of young missionaries (kids, who wear suits and go around preaching).  We’re weird, I think, in part because we believe in a set of quite specific doctrines, many of them way outside the Christian mainstream.  And because we excommunicate.

That has to seem oddly medieval to people outside our faith, doesn’t it?  I’ve been researching a play set in the 11th century, about a clash between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope; excommunication was central to that conflict, because that particular Emperor wanted to ordain bishops, and that Pope considered ordination an exclusively papal responsibility.  Because the Pope excommunicated the Emperor. And then they nearly fought a war over it.  Thousands of young men nearly died, because of that disagreement over ecclesiastical prerogatives.  And Catholics historically excommunicated lots of people who taught heterodox doctrines.

Boy, not any more.  I know lots of Catholics who disagree with the Church on really fundamental questions, like abortion, birth control, celibacy.  Nobody gets excommunicated for it.

I also read a book recently about the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated as a Jew at the age of 23 (and who was later honored by the Catholic Church when they put his books on the Index of Forbidden Books).  John Dehlin recently talked about Jewish people, friends of his, who may not even believe that God exists, but are still regarded as respectable and faithful Jews by their rabbis.

Mostly, excommunication doesn’t happen much anymore.  But this week, it occurred to me that it sort of does happen politically.  It’s probably because the big political news of the week was the primary defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia.  But isn’t there a sense in which Cantor could be said to have been excommunicated?  Because of doubts within his ‘church’ over the authenticity and orthodoxy of his beliefs?

Okay, in case you were vacationing on Mars last week, Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader, the third highest ranking Republican in Washington, after the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader.  He represents the Virginia Seventh (the “fightin’ Seventh,” as Stephen Colbert would put it).  He lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party-supported economics professor named Dave Brat.  Cantor outspent Brat by a massive amount.  Polls showed him winning by a wide margin.  But he lost, and lost badly.  It was a huge upset.

Brat was essentially a one-issue candidate, hammering Cantor for supporting immigration reform, which Brat characterized as ‘amnesty.’  So this election was seen nationally as kind of a referendum on immigration reform, and a confirmation of a national narrative that sees the Tea Party as hopelessly nativist and borderline racist.  In fact, as the invaluable Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, in-depth polling of the Virginia Seventh District shows that Virginia voters didn’t care much about immigration.  It wasn’t an important issue to them.  Brat kept hammering it, and he did win, but Maddow argued that Brat would have won just as easily if he’d picked another issue to hammer Cantor over.  The fact was, Cantor’s unfavorable ratings were very very high.  He wasn’t popular in his district.  He seemed much more focused on his Washington career (and his probable advancement to House Speaker), than on the issues that mattered to his district.  And on conservative, Tea Party issues, he seemed . . . insincere.

In post-election interviews, Cantor kept saying something that seemed weird to me.  He said that he would continue ‘fighting for the conservative cause.’  If he had been a Democrat, I think he wouldn’t have said ‘I will keep fighting for the liberal cause.’  He would probably say something like ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the American people,’ or ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the people of Virginia,’ or ‘fighting for what I believe in.’  Liberalism isn’t an ideology.  And conservatism is one.

Look, it’s a truism that all politicians pay lip service to issues, but the only issue they really care about is their own election/re-election.  In fact, I do think some folks get into politics because they care about certain issues.  I love the TV show Veep, and Selina Meyer, the politician played so wonderfully by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is entirely career focused–she doesn’t care about anything, or believe in anything, and her cynicism (and the utter cynicism of all the characters) is key to the comedy.  It’s satire.  Satire’s always exaggerates for comedic effect–that’s how it works.  And there may well be politicians that cynical, but mostly they’re not, I think. They may compromise, but they still believe.

But Tea Party voters today really do seem to get angry when politicians don’t believe in the issues they believe in as fervently as they believe in them.  Eric Cantor would sometimes explain his support for immigration reform in political terms–’we’re up against some hard demographic truths, we need to reach out to Hispanic voters, who will never vote for us if they perceive us as, you know, racist, so we need this, we need immigration reform.’  There’s some terrific footage of Cantor trying a variant of that argument in a town meeting, and getting roundly booed.  He didn’t believe in what Tea Party Republicans believe.  He was an opportunist, a political calculator.  He wasn’t ideologically pure.  And so he got fired.  Excommunicated.

The Democratic equivalent has to be Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008.  She had voted for the war in Iraq.  To many liberals, the war in Iraq was anathema.  Barack Obama had not supported the war.  That made him seem more authentically Democratic, more genuinely liberal.  And so he won the nomination, and eventually the Presidency.  So yeah, liberals can do it too.  But the war in Iraq really was important.  It really was defining.

And for the Tea Party, the list of ‘really important, ideologically defining’ issues is very long.  You have to, absolutely have to oppose Obamacare.  You have to be against immigration reform.  You have to oppose the minimum wage increase.  Gay marriage and abortion are, as always, crucial.  Any tax increases, at all, ever, for anyone, ever, is political suicide.  Cutting spending is embraced with an evangelical fervor.

Dave Brat is an ideological extremist, and will, if elected this fall, make Congress crazier.  He’s an ‘economics professor,’ but exists on the Ayn Randian lunatic fringe of his discipline.  But I also get why he won.  He seemed genuinely to care about the issues his constituents cared about.  He comes across as sincere.  And Eric Cantor does not seem similarly authentic.

So they excommunicated him, for ideological impurity.  What a weird world we live in these days.  In a week where the Mormon part of it got weird too.

What now?

It’s been a rough couple of days. I am absolutely heartsick.

Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, and John Dehlin, of the Mormon Stories podcast series, were both sent letters recently informing them that they will face Church disciplinary councils.

I don’t know Kate and I don’t know John–I have never met either of them.  I do know people who know them, am Facebook friends with both, and have read their writings.  These are two incredibly important voices in Mormon culture.  John is a psychologist, who has spent his life working with LDS people who doubt, and especially with LGBT Latter-day Saints.  Kate not only advocates for female ordination (an issue about which I hold no strong position), but has also been a voice for LDS women who feel marginalized by LDS patriarchy.

For me, an organizing metaphor in the Church is that of a tent; we live in ‘stakes,’ outposts to which tent lines are tethered.  So how big is that tent?  Is it big enough for voices calling for female priesthood ordination?  Is it big enough to make room for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters?  Is it big enough for doubt, for questioning, for non-correlated lessons and non-orthodox conversations?  And the question I’m hearing over and over is this: is it big enough for me?

Fourteen.  As I write this, I know of fourteen young LDS friends, male and female, who have decided, based on this news, to terminate their membership in the Church.  I know of fourteen letters written, fourteen formal requests for excommunication.  ‘Good riddance,’ some may say.  In fact, many people are saying precisely that. ‘Go away.’  The on-line comments to the Deseret News article about this number nearly 200, nearly all of them saying some version of ‘get lost.  Leave.’

Fourteen.  Fourteen, that I know of, so far.  Some of them, to be sure, are from people who were pretty disaffected anyway.  But not all.  One young woman I know was, until this week, very active in her ward.  She served in her ward’s Relief Society Presidency.  But this is too much, she thinks.  This is unconscionable. So she’s out.

Mormonism is my spiritual home.  Mormonism is the well from which I drink, the roof over me, the bed on which I lay my head.  I love the Church.  I love its leaders.  I also believe that they are men, expounders of truth, but capable of error, men of  a courage which sometimes falters, sensible and senseless, as are we all.  I doubt; I also believe. And the authenticity of my faith journey requires both doubt and belief.

So is there room for me in the tent?

The right words, spoken at the right time, by the right people, can make a huge difference.  And so, today, I listened to this. John Dehlin and Kate Kelly, on a Salt Lake Tribune podcast.  And they’re in pain, clearly in pain, and in mourning and fearful and at times, inarticulate.  But what should we do about it?  What should we do?  John Dehlin:

Do whatever makes you healthy. . . I do not want anyone resigning their membership because of me–please don’t do that.  At least a hundred people have suggested that they’ll do that; please don’t.  I don’t think people should put themselves in jeopardy or harm by being open in public, if they’re not in a life position where that would be good for them. I think people should tap into their center, to their soul, to their core, to the safety issues that surround them.  If people want to leave the church because it’s not healthy for them, then by all means do that.  But I’m not asking for anyone to fall on their sword, or protest, or march, or storm the castle.  I just want people to be healthy and happy, and to live the life that’s good for them.

Kate Kelly:

The day that I launched OrdainWomen.org was March 17, 2013, and I went to Church, and that was the most joy I had felt going to Church basically since my mission. . .  I felt like I could be my true self.  I felt liberated.  And I felt the Spirit.  So you should do whatever makes you feel like that.

I don’t want to speak for the Church, or impute ill motives to Church leaders, or attack anyone for anything.  I prayed last night, most of the night I prayed, and towards morning, I felt some relief, some love, some peace.

Let’s pray together, counsel together, mourn together, hope together.  Let’s push back the tent poles a little.  John and Kate, thank you.  And let the Restoration continue.


Welcome home, Sgt. Bergdahl

The longest war in American history is now, finally, winding down.  We’re getting out of Afghanistan.  And when wars wind down, one thing nations have to do is to get their captured soldiers back.  President Obama cited a “sacred rule” of American warfare, that “we don’t leave our men and women in uniform behind.”  As it happens, the Taliban held one final US soldier prisoner, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.  And US negotiators have been trying to work out a prisoner exchange to bring Sgt. Bergdahl home. The contours of the final deal, in which five Taliban detainees being held at Guantanamo were to be freed, initially to Qatar, their actions monitored by the Qatari security forces, and after a year, allowed to go home, have been part of the negotiations since 2011. The Bergdahl family have been kept in the loop for three years, and have been allowed, at times, to go to the press about it.

This last week, though, a video released by the Taliban suggested that Sgt. Bergdahl’s health had deteriorated alarmingly.  Back in March, President Obama informed Congress that negotiations had resumed, and that if a deal were made, it might be necessary to move quickly.  At that time, Senator John McCain (and many others), spoke out in favor of this specific prisoner exchange.  So this past weekend, Bowe Bergdahl was released from Taliban custody.  He was reunited with his parents in a Rose Garden ceremony.  An American soldier was home!  And rejoicing was heard throughout the land!

For a day or two.  And then (as Rachel Maddow hilariously reported), a number of conservative Congresspeople found themselves deleting embarrassingly congratulatory tweets.  And the narrative shifted, from how great it was to get our last captured soldier back, to how President Obama is a lawless imperial President who needs to be impeached.  No kidding.

There are three specific complaints about this deal.  I’ll deal with them in order.  First, the five released Taliban guys are dangerous terrorists, and their release puts American security at serious risk.  So, is this true?  How dangerous are these five guys?  The answer seems to be sorta kinda, for two of them.  The invaluable Vox.com provides this perspective. The two Mullahs, Mohammed Fazl, and Norullah Noori, could still be problematic.  Fazl is linked to war crimes, and Noori was once a fairly high ranking Taliban leader.  But they’ve both been in Guantanamo since it opened–they were among the first group of prisoners sent there.  They haven’t had any kind of operational role with the Taliban for thirteen years.  And they’re getting old. And they were almost certainly mistreated during at least some of their time in American custody, subjected to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ to use Dick Cheney’s splendidly Orwellian euphemism for torture. It’s unlikely that thirteen years detention have left them feeling particularly warm and fuzzy about the US, so maybe they’ll be motivated to resume terrorist activities.  But, not to be callous, how skilled are they by now?  So, yeah, there’s some risk, but it’s very unclear how much.

Second problem: Bergdahl may not have been a model soldier.  He’s been accused of deserting his post, and he did write an email back to his folks three days before his capture expressing his disillusionment with the war effort.  Rolling Stone published a powerful article in 2012 citing that email. So the notion that Bergdahl was a deeply conflicted soldier, uncomfortable with his role in a war he had come to despise isn’t anything new.  But was Bergdahl guilty of desertion?  Did he put fellow soldiers at risk?  It’s all very unclear.  Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff handled it well.  He said “concerns about Bergdahl’s conduct are separate from our efforts to recover ANY US service member in captivity.”  Adding that Bergdahl, like all Americans, is entitled to a presumption of innocence, he said “Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family.”  That sounds about right to me.

But the third major issue raised by the Bergdahl release has to do with its legality.  According to the law, the President is supposed to notify Congress thirty days before releasing prisoners from Guantanamo.  In this case, he didn’t.  He negotiated the trade, then told Congress.  Fait accompli.  Well, it’s quite possible that President Obama did violate the law. A respected Constitutional scholar, Jonathan Turley, thinks so.  Dianne Feinstein, (D-CA) has a problem with it.  So did the President violate the law, and if so, how serious is it?

The White House’s rationale for this non-notification is essentially that they couldn’t inform Congress due to exigent circumstances.  Waiting thirty days for the transfer would have put Bergdahl’s life in danger.  His health was deteriorating rapidly, and a brief window of opportunity opened up in which the Taliban were willing to negotiate.  There is, of course, legal precedent for government officials to set aside purely technical legal requirements in order to save life.  As I understand it, there’s considerable case law to support an ‘exigent circumstances’ defense. (Or so I’m reliably informed by an internet search; I don’t want to pretend to be a lawyer; I’m not one.) An example would be a medical emergency where you break traffic laws in order to get a family member to the hospital.  And this particular and specific negotiation–these five Taliban guys at Gitmo for Bergdahl–had been in the works since 2011.  John McCain publicly signed off on it in March of this year. And the President did tell members of Congress that a deal like this might come together quickly.

So Congress was, sort of, notified.  Kind of.  It’s certainly a legal gray area. To say conclusively, absolutely, that ‘Obama broke the law’ isn’t supported by the facts.  What we can legitimately say is ‘some legal experts think he may have broken the law.’  I think it’s fair to say that some Congresspeople are genuinely outraged by what they regard as the illegality of this prisoner swap, that others are pretending to be outraged for political reasons, and that others aren’t outraged at all.  And that those levels of outrage are, for the most part, predictably partisan.

But there are two larger points that I would like to make.  First, who was actually harmed by this?  That’s my problem with Jonathan Turley’s article; he’s sort of a ‘separation of powers’ absolutist, and his approach, though well reasoned, strikes me as unrealistically  ivory tower. Any Presidential decision has real-world political consequences.  And, yes, it would have been nice if Bergdahl hadn’t been sick, and the President could have announced his intentions and then waited thirty days to implement them.  But as I understand the relevant statute, the President just has to notify Congress of prisoner transfers.  He does not have to seek Congressional approval for them.  So, by not being informed about the deal, what was Congress prevented from doing about it?

Throw a hissy fit.  That’s it. That’s all.  Congress was prevented from spending thirty days denouncing it.  They weren’t able to fit in thirty days worth of political grandstanding.  Posturing and speechifying.  Bitching and moaning. Complaining. (And not getting anything else done, but that sort of defines this Congress). That seems to me to be what was at stake here, legally.  And that’s all. And depriving Congress of more time to gripe about something is not remotely an impeachable offense.  So lay off.  (Obviously, if I’m wrong about this, then by all means let me know.  I’m not, as I’ve said, a legal scholar.)

I don’t defend every aspect of this deal.  I think the President did err in making this a big Rose Garden event.  Since there are legitimate concerns about Bergdahl’s service, perhaps a quieter ceremony would have been more appropriate. But all this ‘imperial, lawless President’ argle-blargle is silly.

And also this: you’re complaining about the dubious legality of a prisoner transfer?  From Guantanamo?  Are you serious?

These five Talibani have been held for thirteen years without formal charges being filed against them, with no defined legal status.  If they’re prisoners of war, then they are allowed certain rights by the Geneva Conventions, which have been denied them.  If they’re terrorists, then the US has an obligation to present evidence sufficient for an indictment on terrorism charges, and try them.  But no, they’re neither POWs or criminals.  They’re ‘enemy combatants,’ in a legal limbo in which they can’t be given a civilian trial, but in which they also can’t be released, because they’ve been determined to be dangerous criminals. They’re just being. . . detained.  Held, illegally, for thirteen years. In the company, by the way, of dozens of prisoners who have been cleared for release, but can’t be freed for various diplomatic and political reasons.  These guys have been held, in violation of every relevant international law, and in violation of American law.  And we’ve done it, for thirteen years, because we can, because we’ve got the guns and soldiers and facilities to make it stick.  And now, after thirteen years of illegal detention, conservatives are angry because, in exchanging them for an American POW, the President didn’t follow a deadline? You’re calling for his impeachment because of issues of time frame?  Are you freaking kidding me?

Bowe Bergdahl gets to go home.  Bob and Jani Bergdahl get their son back. In my opinion, there are exactly two things we, his fellow Americans, should say about the entire situation, all of it, the whole thing, every single part.

Welcome home, soldier.  A grateful nation thanks you for your service.





A Million Ways to Die in the West: Movie Review

I went to see A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth McFarland’s rude take-down of the Olde West, with a friend.  When we bought our tickets, it looked as though we’d have the theater to ourselves, but we grabbed some lunch, and came back, and in the meantime, it did fill up some.  Mostly guys, mostly small groups of guys with that elaborately self-conscious body language that says ‘we’re here as friends; but, hey, we’re both straight!’  Two little old ladies sat directly behind us.  Just to my right, though, were two teenagers, a guy and a girl, both really quite sensationally nerdy looking.  The guy had this really high pitched hyena-like laugh, and clearly thought the movie was hilarious.  The girl never laughed once, and kept looking over at him, like ‘seriously?  You thought that was funny?’  By the end, she had developed quite a look of scientific detachment, as though her date was some kind of exotic species she was observing in the wild.  A first date, I think, and likely also a last.

The movie’s like that; incredibly funny if your sense of humor tends towards the crude, and not remotely funny if you just don’t get poop jokes.  I laughed a lot; my friend didn’t laugh once, and thought the movie was cretinous.  Which I suppose it also sort of is.

But for those of us with an interest in American history, the movie is not uninteresting.  The comic premise of the movie is simply that the old west of myth and folklore, the American Western Frontier, sucked. That it was a terrible time and place to be alive, not least because death beckoned so frequently and so ferociously.  The cheapness of human life becomes a major theme in the movie; the humor is not just scatological, but specifically morbid. And every time someone is killed, the characters react, in shock and surprise, at least. Well, Seth MacFarlane does. The other characters seem astonished that he’s so bothered. So, yes, the movie does derive cheap laughs from the cheapness of human life, but it does also value human life, in its own way.

MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer, who seems to be the only character in the movie who notices how bad everything is.  That’s essentially it; that’s the movie’s source of humor.  All the characters just sort of take for granted how terrible life is.  Albert is passionate on the subject, evangelistic.  Three times in the film, he faces a duel to the death in the streets of his own town.  The first time, he talks his way out of it, just completely rejecting the Code of the West, and offering to sell a couple of sheep so he can recompense the cowboy who’s angry at him.  Everyone in town calls him a coward for it, which he’s not.  He’s just unwilling to die if he can avoid it.

Second time he faces a duel, it’s with elaborately mustachioed Neil Patrick Harris, as the man now dating Albert’s former girlfriend, Amanda Seyfried.  But before they can shoot at each other, Harris is overcome with a bout of diarrhea, leading to the movie’s grossest (and IMHO funniest) scene, one in which Harris drops trou and snatches a spectator’s ten gallon hat, which he then proceeds to, uh, fill.  Okay, he poops in the guy’s cowboy hat.  Sorry, sue me, I thought it was funny.

The final duel is with Liam Neeson, playing the fabled gunslinger Clinch.  Clinch is married to Anna, played by Charlize Theron.  She’s befriended hapless Albert, and also taught him how to shoot.  And they’ve fallen in love. And Clinch wants revenge.  That’s the final shootout–Albert vs. Clinch. Seth MacFarlane v. Liam Neeson. Not a battle Albert has the remotest possibility of winning. Unless aided by the spiritual insights of our Native American friends.  (The terrific Cherokee actor, Wes Studi, makes a tremendous blissed-out Cochise, and walks off with all his scenes with MacFarlane).

MacFarlane is a pretty funny writer, but he’s not much of an actor, nor much of a director.  Without Theron, this movie wouldn’t work at all.  She saves it.  She plays straight man to MacFarlane’s smart-aleck, know-it-all neurotic, and she nails every joke.  I had no idea.  I know she’s a fine actress; I had no idea she had comic timing that superb.  She seems bemused by it all, a little superior to everyone, and therefore able to crack wise when she finally finds a man who shares her own sense of her time and place.  It’s her confidence, her intelligence that are funny, because they’re so misplaced.  McFarlane comments on how bad the Western frontier really is, and implied in his criticism is a sense of how much better things could be.  She embodies that hope and that future, but she does it effortlessly.  When she finally meets Amanda Seyfried, her romantic rival, so to speak, for MacFarlane’s attentions, you can see how little the rivalry bothers her.  There’s never been a day in her life when she hasn’t been able to beat out girls like Seyfried.

Later in the movie, when it makes the mistake of finally taking its plot and story seriously, Theron is called upon to register vulnerability and fear, which she does competently enough.  But it’s not very convincing, because we can’t really imagine this woman ever being actually vulnerable, or ever in much danger.  (She’s a better shot than most men, for one thing, and does the pistol twirl reholster thing like a pro.)

The movie exists entirely in our era, of course.  Nothing in the dialogue suggests anything remotely 19th century, and the film’s frequent cameos give the joke away.  Sarah Silverman has a lot of fun playing the town prostitute, with the twist being that she’s engaged to MacFarlane’s best friend, played by Giovanni Ribisi, but that they haven’t consummated their relationship, because they’re both Christians.  That may have been intended to mock the 19th century sexual double-standard; it reads more like a ‘aren’t Christians silly hypocrites?’ piece of tiresomeness.  But at other times, MacFarlane uses his, and our distance, from the Olde West in smart ways.  The appalling racism of 19th century America is fully deconstructed, and just at the point when you think ‘dang, these people could use a little Django Unchained in their lives,’ Jamie Foxx shows up to provide it.

I thought the movie was smart and clever and funny.  The friend I saw it with thought it was nothing of the kind.  Neither did the young woman sitting next to me; her entirely unprepossessing date seems to have agreed with me.  Take that for what it’s worth; your mileage may vary.

Reliving 2009; Tim Geithner on the Daily Show

For a fake news show, anchored by a comedian, Jon Stewart does a creditable job of covering the news, and nowhere is that more true than in his interviews.  Of course, The Daily Show does its share of ‘movie stars promoting their latest superhero movie’ nonsense.  But he interviews the authors of books he loves (and in every instance, he’s clearly read the book), and he loves in-depth (yes, actually in-depth) interviews with policy-makers.  And nowhere was that more evident than this extended interview with Timothy Geithner.

Geithner was, of course, President Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury when he first took office, the man principally responsible for the administration’s response to the financial crisis.  He has new book out, Stress Test, which I have not read yet, but will.  It’s essentially a defense of the Obama administration’s actions following that crisis.  And to some extent, the policies he advised the President to support and adopt did succeed.  Let’s be clear about that.  The financial crisis was world-wide, affecting many nations. Of all the countries afflicted by it, the US came out of it better than most.  We did succumb to austerity mania, but less so than, say, Britain.  The combination of bank bailouts and economic stimulus did some good, managed to fend off complete disaster.  Let’s be fair.  The economy still struggles.  But it could be worse.

But in this interview, Jon Stewart is relentless in insisting that the priorities of the administration were misplaced, that prioritizing saving the banks ignored the first victims of the crisis; hundreds of thousands of homeowners who remain underwater today.  And Geithner is less convincing in his insistence that he (and the President) were progressives too, that they wanted to provide relief to homeowners, that they wanted to save the housing markets, but that they just couldn’t pull it off.  That they were defeated by the political realities of the moment.

And I don’t question that they faced serious, and completely irresponsible political opposition.  Stewart makes a salient point about the idea of ‘moral hazard.’  One argument against bailing out homeowners is the moral hazard argument; that a bailout would have rewarded irresponsible behavior by people who bought houses they couldn’t possibly afford. Financial markets were able to speculate on bundled and securitized sub-prime mortgages because a ton of people signed mortgage documents committing them to payments they couldn’t afford.  So why should taxpayers who managed their finances prudently bail out people who did nothing of the kind?  And by rewarding irresponsible behavior, aren’t we incentivizing it?  Fine, I get all that.  But where’s the moral hazard argument when it comes to banks?  Why selectively argue moral hazard, to apply it to the middle class, but not to rich people?

Okay, so, go back to 2007.  Personal story: our home mortgage was owned by Washington Mutual, which later changed its name to WaMu, I guess because some consultant told them it sounded cooler.  WaMu: shudder.  Worst bank in America.  Which I didn’t know.

So I’m at work, sometime in the spring of 2007, and I get a call from a woman at WaMu, asking me if I was interested in refinancing my loan.  I told her that my wife and had been thinking about it, about a debt consolidation re-fi.  She told me about all the advantages of it, and pushed me to commit to it on the phone, that second.  I said no, and went home and mentioned it to my wife.  We talked about it, and decided not to do it.

That same WaMu saleswoman called me back at least seventy-five times.  She called four or five times a week, for months.  She got pushier and pushier.  She kept increasing the amounts I could borrow.  And I told her repeatedly that I wasn’t interested, and to please stop calling.  I finally had to threaten legal action if she ever called again.

All right.  WaMu, it turns out, was one of the worst offenders when it came to sub-prime.  (The loans she was pressing me to buy wouldn’t have been sub-prime–I’ve got good credit.  But that re-fi would have been bundled with a whole lot of toxic loans; I could have been a spritz of perfume sweetening a real turd of a CDO). (CDO=collateralized debt obligation–the prime driver of the financial crisis).

All right; that’s how hard WaMu was pushing this saleswoman to push me to re-fi.  That was her job, presumably, to approve loans, as many as she could.  Her job depended on it, as did her pay and chances for promotion.  And we know details about many of the loans approved by banks like WaMu, or like Long Beach (which WaMu purchased), or all the rest of them.  People with minimum wage hourly jobs and poor English language skills pressured to buy half-million dollar homes.  That happened.  It happened a lot.

So what would have been fair?  What would have been equitable, what would have been just? And let’s grant Geithner’s premise; letting WaMu go under would have been immensely damaging to the economy.  So the federal government took WaMu into receivership, then arranged a sale to JPMorgan Chase.  And the whole sale is still being litigated and it’s all a big mess.

But here’s what did not happen; people who were pressured to take on mortgages they couldn’t pay for (many of whom had no idea what the papers they were signing even meant), got no relief. And that pressure came from above, from WaMu executives, who pressured loan officers to approve basically every application, often apps with no documentation, no collateral, no paperwork even.

I understand Geithner saying that banks had to be rescued, that the Obama administration had to hold their noses and save companies that had behaved irresponsibly, and that it was also all okay because their bailouts have been repaid, with interest.  I get that.  But the world wide financial crisis was not just a failure of risk management and it wasn’t just a bubble, and it wasn’t just a bubble. It was an enormous Ponzi scheme.  Laws were broken.  Fraud was committed.  And nobody yet has gone to jail.

So, okay, I get that you didn’t particularly want to bail out AIG and Goldman Sachs, and that you were offended, even, that your job required that you advise the President to do so.  But why aren’t the CEOs of both those companies in jail?

I understand that at least some of the actions taken by big companies weren’t actually illegal.  Creating a CDO isn’t illegal.  Credit Default Swaps aren’t illegal.  So you can’t throw someone in jail for trading CDOs.  But you can tighten up financial regulations.  You can make default swaps illegal.

Banks are pretty heavily regulated.  But large institutions that behave in most respects like banks aren’t regulated at all.  The stock market is supervised (badly) by the Securities Exchange Commission.  But the SEC has no jurisdiction over bonds.  Why not? Why not at least push for it?  I really rather think that bank regulation would be a political winner, don’t you?

Conservatives call Barack Obama a ‘socialist’ and insist that debt is THE big national problem.  They’re wrong.  He’s not a socialist at all.  He’s a pro-business moderate, vaguely progressive, but timid in defending his convictions.  There was a better deal that could have been made.


Michael Sam, and Jackie Robinson

Like an unfathomably large number of my fellow American sports fans, I spent quite a bit of time last week watching the NFL slave auction amateur player draft.  The best young football players in the country, having previously been weighed and measured, raced against each other, challenged to weightlifting contests, given the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, interviewed extensively and investigated by teams of private detectives, were selected by the 32 teams in the NFL, teams representing cities where, if selected, the young men will be required to live and work without any say over either circumstance, compensated only by all of them becoming millionaires. The worst teams got to pick first, in an effort at competitive balance.  Despite this, the two teams generally thought to have drafted most effectively were the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, both perennial winners.  And this exercise in compensatory socialism represents the highest triumph of capitalism imaginable; the NFL’s business model is universally admired in the world of professional sports. There isn’t any part of the NFL draft that’s not insane.

I watched, for example, watched for hours.  And I don’t even like football that much.  And for the most part, the telecast is unimaginably dull.

Which is not to say it’s lacking in drama, or in human interest.  The biggest speculation over the early stages of the draft was over who would draft Johnny Manziel.  ‘Johnny Football’ as he came to be known, and marketed.  He was the best college player in the country over the past two years, but also possibly too small and slight to succeed in the pros. Plus, he’s a fun kid, charismatic and charming, but also perhaps too avid a partier for everyone to be completely comfortable picking him.  As team after team passed on him, the camera increasingly followed his every grimace and grin.  Finally he was picked, by Cleveland.  And immediately, all the commentators agreed it was a perfect fit for him, Cleveland, a developing team in need of some excitement, with a fanatical fan base, and also excellent receivers for him to throw to, and also simultaneously a terrible fit for him, because Cleveland’s line isn’t very good and he’s going get killed back there.

And a similar dynamic played itself out on Saturday, the third (!) day of the draft, in the seventh round, as team after team passed on Michael Sam.  And then, finally, seven picks from the end of the entire draft, the St. Louis Rams took the plunge.  And America was treated to the genuine emotion of a fine young man achieving a dream, and responding by kissing his romantic partner.  Who, in Sam’s case, happened to be another young man.

Sam is a barrier breaker, the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL.  He won’t be the first gay player.  In 2003, Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers in the first round, and played for six years.  Harris came out after his career was over, and now says he regrets not doing so while playing.  There have undoubtedly been many others.  Sam absolutely deserves kudos for coming out openly.  But times have changed; I don’t think there’s any doubt that locker room culture is more welcoming to gay players today than even eleven years ago.  Or, also, that it’s not entirely welcoming.

Like most of the players drafted, Sam finds himself in a perfect situation for him, and also a terrible one.  Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, is a very strong personality, who has already made it clear that in his locker room, Sam will be treated as just another player.  The Rams’ team is young, and St. Louis is close to the University of Missouri, where Sam played his college ball.  There’s already a fan base in the area ready to root for him.  That’s all true.  And Michael Sam was a tremendous college player.  But lots of great college players can’t hack it in the NFL.  Sam did poorly at the combine; was demonstrably slower and less agile than other guys competing as defensive linemen.  And the Rams, the team he’s joining, already is loaded at defensive end, Sam’s position.  Robert Quinn and Chris Long, the Ram’s starters, are outstanding players–Quinn’s probably the best end in the league.  Their backups, William Sims and Eugene Hays last year, were also excellent, and would start for any other team.  Sam is probably too slow to make an impact on special teams.  If the Rams carry five defensive ends on their roster, Sam might make the team as the fifth guy there. If they decide to carry four, he’s likely to be the odd man out. That’s not homophobia; just the harsh reality of life in the NFL.  His best chance of playing in the NFL would be if one of those players were injured.  And, of course, that’s also, brutally, possible.

One comparison I’ve heard is to Jackie Robinson.  And there’s some validity there. Michael Sam is a pioneer, as was Jackie.  Some people compared Sam to Kenny Washington, the first black player signed to an NFL contract.  (And Washington also was signed by the Rams, same franchise).  But there are a number of significant differences.

Not many fans know this, but the NFL beat major league baseball to integration by a year.  Jackie’s debut was in 1947; Kenny Washington’s was in 1946.  But Washington was only the first black player to sign; three others joined him in the NFL in ’46.  Washington was joined by Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley, playing professional football together.  (FWIW, Willis and Motley were superstars; Washington was a good player, and Strode’s career was short, just that one season.  Strode made his mark in movies; he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Spartacus).

But Jackie Robinson faced it all alone. And baseball was a much bigger deal back then than football was.  And the baseball season is longer, and the player uniforms don’t hide the man behind padding.  Jackie was always a target, and racist idiots had 154 games to unleash their bile on him.  I rather liked the movie 42, which came out last year, but my main criticism of it was that it never came close to capturing the sheer hatred Jackie Robinson faced every day of the ’47 season.  I don’t mean to diminish the struggles of Washington, Willis, Motley and Strode, but I don’t think they faced anywhere close to the sheer hatred that Jackie Robinson did.  But of course we should honor them all.  Their courage remains an inspiration.

The other thing about Jackie Robinson, though, was that he couldn’t just be a ballplayer.  He had to be a star.  He had to dispel the widely circulated myth that baseball really didn’t discriminate; that black players just weren’t good enough to play at the major league level. In the meritocracy of professional sports, black guys hadn’t been signed or scouted for a reason–there really were substantive racial differences that made them unlikely to succeed. And so on. That specific pile of racist BS was the main one that Jackie Robinson had to flush away, and the only way he could flush it was to excel, to be, not just an exciting and capable player, but a superstar.  And he did it.  He’s not in the Hall of Fame as a symbol or as a pioneer.  He’s in the Hall, absolutely legitimately, as a ballplayer.

Not only was Robinson an incandescent talent, he had also to exhibit near-saintly deportment.  Faced with endless taunts and provocations, he had to . . . turn away, to not respond, to not strike back.  For a proud and intelligent and ferociously competitive young man, that had to be incredibly, even incomprehensibly difficult. But Robinson was carrying the freight for his entire race.  He pulled that off too.

I don’t think Michael Sam will have to face anything like that today.  Sam just has to be a football player. The struggle, to be a good player but also a gay pioneer, probably ruined Kwame Harris’ career.  Harris was a first round draft pick, expected to be a star.  He was, as a player, a disappointment, and he now says that the subtle homophobia of the locker room was a reason he could never quite find his way professionally.  That might happen to Sam too, but I think times have changed enough that it might be easier for him than it was for Harris.

Right now, Sam’s just fighting to make the team, like any other rookie. (Also, in interview after interview, impressing people with his intelligence, passion and poise).  He has to demonstrate, in the locker room, that he’s just another player. He doesn’t have to be superhuman. He doesn’t have to be Jackie Robinson.  Everyone at Missouri says that last year, he was a team leader, a locker room enforcer, a good guy.  His sexual orientation matters, because it’s not going to matter.  Anyway you look at it, that’s progress.