The politics of boredom

Politics is power, and political power can be exercised to accomplish many things, for good and ill.  But sometimes power can just be exercised, like a muscle.  It’s said that Caligula, at a banquet, suddenly began laughing.  His table companion nervously asked what the emperor found amusing, and Caligula is said to have responded, ‘I was thinking how funny it would be to stab you right now.  Nobody could stop me.  I can do anything, to anyone.’  Bet it made for a nervous meal.

And sometimes dictators use their power to bore.  It’s a constant in history; long tirades by tyrants.  We’ve read in recent months of Kim Jung Aun’s murder of his uncle; the detail that explains it is, apparently, that the uncle had the temerity to look bored during an endless speech by that preposterous young despot.  Hitler, of course, was famous for his speechifying.  His last days, languishing in the bunker, he ate chocolate cake for every meal, and he harangued his remaining staff for hours, long lectures on his own greatness and Germany’s glorious future, after the current minor crisis (the war he’d already lost) was over. Stalin’s speeches for the Presidium lasted most of the day, and at the end, had to be endlessly applauded–the first person who stopped clapping could be shot–and often was.  Mao Zedong’s screeching dogmatic tirades were so tedious–and so faithfully copied by his underlings–that being forced to listen to a political speech was a particularly feared form of torture during the Cultural Revolution.  Fidel Castro was probably the champion; his speeches, required listening on state radio, could go on for days.  Cubans braved sharks to escape them.  As the great Albert Camus put it, in The Rebel “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

I thought about this today, while watching Rachel Maddow’s show.  She described a press conference recently given by Vladimir Putin that lasted for four hours.  Now, a four hour disquisition is the work of a piker; Mussolini, at the four hour mark, was just getting warmed up.  But then Putin is pretty tinpot, as dictators go.  His actions in Ukraine are provocative, to be sure.  But this isn’t the Cold War, and he’s no Lenin, or even Peter the Great. And Ukraine’s government epitomizes dysfunction.  In any event, I think his acts call for a tempered American/EU response, for diplomacy over sabre-rattling, and sanctions over any armed response.  He’s a four hour monologue guy; that’s all. A lightweight.  Let’s not overreact.  This isn’t Munich, and President Obama’s no Neville Chamberlain.  How can I be sure Putin’s not much of a threat?  He stopped after four hours.

But the larger question is an interesting one; how often despots exercise the power to bore.  Why do so many big corporations have ‘retreats,’ and hire ‘motivational speakers,’ and subject their employees to brain-numbing seminars and presentations?  Why do academics spend endless hours creating ‘mission statements,’ or ‘assessment objectives?’ Because administrators can force them to.  Because it’s a way to maintain the power structure, make sure everyone understands their place in the world.  Why is so much of school boring?  Because bored kids tend to be tractable.  It’s enervating, boredom; it’s soul-draining.  It takes away your will to live.

Boring people is a form of aggression, is it not?  Because boredom is a kind of death; your brain deprived of stimulus, your soul not fed, but starved. John D. McDonald had a lovely definition of a bore: some who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.  Great conversation is life-affirming.  Boredom is the opposite. That’s why I always need a nap after Church on Sundays.  Fighting boredom is exhausting.

And yet, theologically, Mormonism actually does incorporate an opposition to boredom into its theology.  What?  And I know what you’re thinking; that sacrament meetings are the very definition of boring, the absolute epitome of this thing I profess to despise.  And that’s true; Church can be boring. I have two personal remedies.  One is that my wife and I pass notes back and forth during the meeting.  One antidote for boredom is snark.  And failing that, one can always just fall asleep.

But theologically?  What is eternal progression but a recognition of the negative power of boredom?  I think of the standard Protestant or Catholic heaven.  An eternity spent singing praises to God, right?  I love choral music; I met my wife singing in a choir, and singing together has been one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  And I love rehearsing great choral music.  I love the mental exercise of it. But an eternity spent doing nothing else?  No thanks.

I’m a theatre guy, and my greatest fear is that something I write or direct might be boring to an audience.  It’s an awful thought.  As a director, I’m actually in a position of authority over an audience, albeit a limited, voluntary one.  I’m responsible for entertaining all those people, it’s my job, it’s my task to allow them to pass two hours of their lives agreeably.  All those people, all those living souls. What if the play is boring?  What if two minutes pass (an eternity!), or even ten seconds, with a scene change or a blackout; two minutes or ten seconds in which nobody is being entertained!  Unsupportable; cannot be allowed.  So I do whatever I possibly can to pump up the energy.  I don’t care if people are offended.  Offended people are feeling something.  What I cannot live with is the idea that they might be bored.

In fact, the idea of eternity is a frightening one.  So you read every book ever written.  You read them all repeatedly, until you’ve got them memorized. You listen to every piece of music ever written, again until you’ve committed them to memory.  Likewise every painting, every sculpture, every play, every movie. Then what?  It’s quite terrifying.  And an eternity spent fighting boredom?  Frankly, there’s only one word for it. Hell.

(And really, those horrible Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” versions of hell, what with all the flaying and burning and torment, wouldn’t that really be preferable to a hell spent being bored?  Wouldn’t it at least stay interesting, to wonder what body part the demons were going to work on next, to compare the exquisiteness of various kinds of tortures?  Wouldn’t boredom be worse than that?)

But if we believe in eternity, we must also believe in eternal progress; we must believe that just as existence is never-ending, so is the ability to learn, to grow, to improve, to develop. So at death, either consciousness ends, either the entity that was ‘me’ ceases to exist.  Or it, me, I, us, we, me gets to continue.  And goes to either heaven or hell.  And hell is boredom.  So heaven has to be a place of eternal growth and learning.  It’s really that simple.

And so the most brutal dictators in history, essentially insecure as all such tyrants must be, have to keep proving it, how powerful they, how few limits exist for them. One way to do it is to kill.  Another is to torture.  And a third is to bore.  Know this: unrighteous dominion does exist.  How can you know when it’s being practiced?  It’s excessively boring.

The Bundy standoff

Big news in the Old West recently.  Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had not paid grazing fees for twenty years, and who has lost in court regarding those fees repeatedly, resisted the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to seize his assets, several hundred head of cattle.  He was supported in that resistance by a self described armed local militia.  This CBS news story strikes me as a good starting point, if you’re interested in reading more about it.

As the situation started to escalate, and as tempers grew ever more heated, the BLM backed down.  The Clark County sheriff Doug Gillespie helped negotiate a settlement, but one to which the BLM was not party.  400 head of cattle, seized from Bundy, were returned to him.  Negotiations are on-going, and the situation remains unresolved.

For some on the right, this whole situation is more about states’ rights than it is about one elderly scofflaw tax cheat.  The National Review offered their usual overheated and preposterous analysis.  Apparently, this is part and parcel with the Obama administration’s (legendary, and entirely fictitious) lawlessness and tyranny.  Blarg.

Obviously, nobody wanted for shots to be fired; nobody wanted that kind of escalation.  And yet, as I’ve been reading about this case, I couldn’t help but think about the ‘what would the Founding Fathers do?’ rhetorical question, much beloved on the Right.  In fact, this specific situation is one in which we know exactly, precisely, unequivocally what the Founders would have done.  It’s almost an exact historical parallel to the Whiskey rebellion.  In 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania forcibly resisted the collection of a tax on whiskey.  President Washington not only sent troops to deal with it, he personally commanded them (in the last military adventure of his career).  The Founding Fathers (or at least Washington, Adams, Hamilton–those Founders in the Washington administration), had little patience with armed insurrectionists.  One option in Nevada would have been to call out the National Guard, disperse those ‘local militias,’ disarm, arrest, and try them.  Probably just as well we didn’t go that route, but it remains an option.

And yet, as I read about this on the intertubes, I did feel some sense of poignancy.  One commentator pointed out that Clark County once had many rancher families.  Now Bundy’s the only one.  Clark County is home to Mesquite, quite possibly the tackiest gambling-oriented resort town in a state inundated with them. This protest is in part over the loss of a lifestyle.  Possibly it’s in part about images of the Old West, over nostalgia over a cowboy lifestyle now vanished, or vanishing.  Relegated to cultural obscurity, to the cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, replaced by the most sordid examples of pop culture tackiness (read Las Vegas).

And perhaps that goes a long way towards understanding at least some of contemporary conservatism.  Isn’t the Tea Party movement driven by white resentment, by specifically elderly white male resentment?  Isn’t it possible to see a successful Presidential campaign, by a black candidate with a suspiciously foreign name, based on a theme of ‘Hope and Change’ as threatening?  If you’re used to being in charge, being on top, seeing people who look like you running the world, wouldn’t you see a call for fundamental change as sinister, as threatening?

So it’s not surprising that this ridiculous ‘protest’ by a rancher who doesn’t recognize the existence of the federal government as a legal entity, who believes that ‘federal land’ actually properly belongs to the state of Nevada, his state, his western state, his place in the world, his home, could be so embraced by conservatives.

And let’s face it.  There was a time when you could graduate from high school, get a good job at a good wage at a local factory, work there all your life, retire with reasonable benefits, and meanwhile coach Little League or work with 4H, or volunteer as a Scoutmaster, and enjoy a good life.  Support your family, have a presence in the community, go fishing or hunting on the weekends.  Or a time when open range ranching was an economically viable occupation.  And those times are gone, probably forever.  And that world has been replaced by a world of uncertainty, and what must seem like moral relativism, and what must seem as the triumph of obnoxious young furriners, dang it.

So Clive Bundy’s in trouble again over his ranch.  So you pick up your rifle and show your support for a friend and neighbor, and the heck with his fruitier political views.  It does all make sense.

The BLM, the Obama administration showed remarkable restraint, and good for them.  But this will need to be resolved, and Cliven Bundy cannot win. Nor should he.

 

The power of bad reviews

I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews.  Really really really positive reviews.  It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute.  I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews.  I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work.  I like it a lot.

But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office.  And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor.  I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales.  What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting.  I’d like to see that.’  And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it.  And then I’ll check Rottentomatoes.com, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating.  And I’ll read a few reviews.  And rethink my plans.  By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind.  That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie.  I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it.  So that happens.

But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be.  I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen.  My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love).  When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews.  George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was  “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.”  Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”;  “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.”  “Effeminate men and male women.”  “Muck-ferreting dogs”.  And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.”  Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town.  And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.

Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show.  It was a cultural event.  Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’  You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both.  And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous.  ‘Please.  It’s Ghosts.  What’s your deal?’ 

I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare.  Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times.  And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album.  ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’  ‘Calculated to destroy America.’  ‘Worse than slavery.’   It’s pretty hilarious.

Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts.  What’s going on?  I’m going to find out for myself.’

I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film.  ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’  Well, no, it’s not.  It’s a film, and a darn good one.  I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.

So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away.  It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.

But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women.  Ferocious.  Even violent.  A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.

And I think it’s going to backfire.  I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women.  I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound.  I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ‘em.  And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.

I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews.  And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.

 

Noah: A Review

Let’s start here: Darren Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, is not just a gorgeous visual stylist, he is the one major director I know of who is genuinely immersed in the power of myth and in the power of tragedy.  Lots of directors today appropriate myth as material for otherwise conventional Hollywood melodramatic narratives: The 300, Clash of the Titans, Thor, the upcoming Hercules.  But the mythical trappings of these films are essentially just production design, and we leave them essentially unmoved. We think ‘that was awesome’, without ever having experienced awe.  Aronofsky explores myth creatively, even uses contemporary subjects matter to reimagine myth.  In Black Swan, he uses backstage ballet company squabbling to retell the myth of Odette and Odile; in The Wrestler, the wreckage of a life spent professionally wrestling is given the weight and depth of tragedy; Mickie Rourke’s Randy the Ram becomes a Hector, an Achilles, an Agamemnon.  The seeds of Aronofsky’s new Noah film are found in his 2006 film The Fountain, an extraordinary, complex multi-layered meditation on the Tree of Life, and (possibly), the redemptive power of love.  Ignore critics who scoff about the ‘Biblical accuracy’ of this Noah; this is not a Sunday School lesson, it’s a Darren Aronofsky film, and a great one.

There were giants in the earth in those days. . . . (Genesis 6: 4)

The operative OT word is Nephilim; ‘giants’ is a common translation.  Aronofsky calls them ‘Watchers’, and imagines them as fallen angels, sent to earth to help mankind, but cursed with bodies of stone. They’re ponderous creatures, and move as though every step is agony.  But they’re huge and powerful, and now, having helped mankind accomplish the ruination of the planet, they help Noah build (and they later defend) the Ark. When they die (and they can die, humans can kill them), they again become creatures of light, and are released, gloriously, to heaven.

And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . (Genesis 4: 22)

Tubal-cain is a central character in the film, superbly played by Ray Winstone.  After the slaughter of Abel, Cain’s offspring multiplied.  There are essentially two branches of humanity; the children of Cain and the children of Seth.  The Cainites have destroyed the planet; Sethites have been reduced to one family, Noah’s.  After a vision, Noah takes his family on a journey to find his grandfather, Methusaleh, and we see a ruined world; sludge ponds, tree stump deserts, abandoned mines and factories.  Having instilled in humankind an insensate greed for tools, Tubal-cain is king of what’s left.

Russell Crowe creates an essentially kind and loving Noah.  He knows The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) intends to drown the world, and that he’s to build an ark so that ‘the innocent’ (by which he means animals) can survive it, and initially, he believes that The Creator also intends his family to be spared, and his family to mark a new beginning for humanity. The difficulty is that he has three sons, and only one daughter-in-law.  And she, Ila (the magnificent Emma Watson) is barren; married to Seth, but unable to conceive.  His wife, Naameh (the equally magnificent Jennifer Connelly), is also past the years of child-bearing.  So how can mankind survive?

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.  And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence. . . . (Genesis 6: 11-13).

Noah goes to Tubal-cain’s encampment to look for wives for his sons.  And what he sees is a nightmare world, a world of brutality and sexual violence, a world of cruelty to animals, a world of murder, and above all, a world of rape.  We hear it more than see it; hear the cries of women subjected to violence, echoing everywhere in the camp.  And Noah feels, in his heart, his own capacity for violence.  He has killed in the past, defending his family.  He is a gentle man, and a kind hearted man, but he is a man, and he is shaken by the camp, but not just by its reality.  He’s also devastated by self-knowledge; by his own capacity to become that evil. He is, perhaps, titillated by it.  And that realization drives him mad.

And he kills, again he kills, not by design or intent, but by neglect and cowardice, he kills.  He kills a young woman that his son Ham has saved, a woman who is, in Ham’s words, ‘innocent.’  And Ham (Logan Lerman, also magnificent) cannot forgive it.

I will cause it to rain upon the earth . . . and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7: 4)

And we see it. And again, more than what we can see, we can also hear, and we see Noah’s family, in agony as they hear human beings, clinging to their Ark, drowning in despair, beating on the wood with their hands, shrieking in desperation.  And it goes on and on.  And they are devastated.

And, so, on the Ark, Noah gathers his family, and he tells them the story, of Adam and Eve and Creation.  Innocence and joy, purity and the love of the Creator.  And the serpent, and Cain’s violence to his brother.  And he tells his family that humankind must end with them.  They will save the animals, they will make possible re-Creation.  And then, one at a time, they will die.  And the youngest son, Japheth, will bury the last of his brothers, and then he too will die.  That is the vision the Creator has shown him.

Here’s what Aronofsky has done with the myth of Noah; he has imagined for us a prophet who is wrong.  He has created a titanic figure in Noah, but also a madman, a good man driven insane by visions of violence and death.  And the heart of the movie is there, on the ark, as a three-way debate takes shape and defines the intellectual contours of the movie.

In fairness, let me urge you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and want to.  Spoilers to follow; and I think they can’t be avoided.  Because this film is also a moral argument, and an argument that is worth describing fully and honestly.

What Noah does not know is that Ila, his daughter-in-law, is no longer barren. Naameh, in compassion and love, has taken her to Methusalah for a blessing, and she is now with child.  Shem is to be a father, and Noah, a grandfather.  And when Noah finds out, his madness intensifies, and he declares that if the child is female (and if, therefore, she represents a possible future for humanity), he will kill her.  And Naameh pleads with him, and their children avoid him.  He has gone insane.

Or has he?  Because the film is now defined by an argument, and one side of that argument is that mankind does not deserve to live.  I’m reminded of Matthew McConnaughey’s character in True Detective, arguing that human consciousness was an evolutionary error, and that at some point, nature will simply fix the mistake.  Eradicate us.  And we’ve seen a world defined by violence.  We see in Tubal-cain’s camp; we see it today, in the Congo, or North Korea, or Darfur.

What Noah does not know is that his Ark has a stowaway; that Tubal-cain was able to climb aboard. And Ham knows it too, and is angry enough at his father to keep Tubal-cain’s secret.  And the king is a tough old bird, but he’s not stupid and he has something else going for him; he loves mankind.  He thinks we’re supposed to rule, we’re supposed to exercise dominion over the earth. Maybe at times we exercise dominion foolishly, but we can fix that too; we’re smart enough to shape our environment, to use tools to manipulate our world, and incidentally benefit ourselves.  Violence is our heritage and our legacy.  We were meant for power.

But there’s a third point of view.  And it does not come from divine revelation, as both Noah and Tubal-cain (both of whom pray, and to the same Creator), think their philosophies come from.  It comes from the human heart, from what we Mormons would call the ‘light of Christ within.’  It’s Naameh’s opinion, and it’s based on love.  She believes in, and forcefully articulates, the power of human love. She believes that we can choose good over evil, that we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, because she’s done it; she’s given her life for her family.

So: obvious.  Except it isn’t.  As Noah points out to her; she’d kill for her family.  Her love has an undercurrent of violence, or at least the capacity for violence, the possibility of it.  We love, and perhaps that does ennoble us, but we’re tribal beings, and we can and will kill for those we most care for. And maybe love is a powerful force, but those words, ‘power’ and ‘force’ are rooted in a capacity for violence, are they not?  And yes, Tubal-cain is disgusting as he kills for food, and when he tells Noah that he intends to take from him his women.  But don’t human beings share with other creatures an innate instinct for survival?  And isn’t the world of ‘innocence’, the world of nature, a violent one?

And when Tubal-cain is finally defeated (by Ham, the son whose filial devotion is most equivocal, the boy who has cause to hate his father), Ila goes into labor, and is delivered of twins. Twin girls.  And Noah, as promised, takes up his knife to kill.  And Ila begs of him one last favor.  The babies are crying.  Can’t she, at least, calm them, quiet them, allow them to die while peaceful?  And he allows it.  And when he realizes that he can’t do it, he can’t obey his Creator to that final extremity, he cannot, finally, kill again, that realization does not heal his madness.

And Noah . . . planted a vineyard:

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. (Genesis 9: 2o-21).

And he drinks, and it’s not comic; it feels like a punch in the guts, because we see it as more madness, as PTSD made manifest on the earth.  It’s only when Ham ‘uncovers his father’s nakedness’ (in the film, it’s translated as ‘leaves on a self-imposed exile, rather than cope with his father’s insanity’), that Noah begins to heal.  And the family begins to heal, and his marriage begins to heal, and we see, in the heavens, an image of hope.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. (Genesis 9: 13, 14).

I am a believing, practicing Mormon, which means a believing and practicing Christian.  A Bible reader and a Bible lover.  And this painful and tragic and wonderful film does the Bible the courtesy of taking it seriously.  It honors the text by creatively re-imagining it, by giving myth a personal gloss. It’s not a slavishly literal retelling of the story, and it does not provide comforting platitudes.  It honors the horror of the Flood, or of all floods, it honors the painful reality of God’s plan; that we’ve been sent here to a world of volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.  And war.  And murder.  And with an innate human capacity for violence.  I left the theater edified, discomfited, uplifted, disturbed. Shaken.  Moved.  It’s a great film.

 

Three faces of Lincoln on I-15

I’ve been making the Provo-to-Salt Lake drive a lot lately, for rehearsals and performances.  It used to be that there was really only one way to make that trip; via I-15.  Poor city planning, in my opinion, to put a big old mountain between the two largest cities in the state!  But with Frontrunner, we now have a reasonable alternative to the I-15 commute; we can take the train, which I do, quite a bit, and which I very much enjoy.  Still, I’ve been doing the drive three or four times a week, and I’ve just about got the billboards memorized.  This last weekend, though, as I was driving, something struck me: on that forty-five minute drive, there are three places where you can see the face of Abraham Lincoln.  And as I thought about it, the three I-15 faces of our 16th (and greatest) President, it seemed that they say something about America, or American culture, or maybe just about Utah.

Moving from north to south, the first Lincoln face is the first of a series of billboards advertising Ken Garff Motors; a bunch of auto dealerships.  The caption is ‘other car dealers would fire him.’  Because Lincoln was too honest, presumably.  The series of Garff billboards feature clever-ish messages on similar themes; that the sales staff at Ken Garff dealerships will really listen to your needs and concerns, that they are scrupulously honest with you, and that the same cannot be said of Garff’s competitors.  ‘We listen, we’re honest, they’re not.’  One billboard just features a big pair of ears, with the Ken Garff logo.  Another shows a Ken Garff ancestor, with unnaturally large ears. Good listeners; right? Another suggests, with brackets, the words ‘Truthful’ and ‘Full of it,’ with captions saying that ‘we’ are ‘Truthful,’ and ‘they’ are ‘Full of it.’  Plus, of course, Lincoln, who Ken Garff would hire, and his competition would not.

As it happens, I was in the market for a car a couple of months ago, and shopped at a Garff dealership.  I didn’t find the Garff salesperson particularly attentive to my needs.  Quite the contrary; I told him from the outset that I wanted a used car, within a certain price range and with certain features, and was shown several new cars, more expensive than I could afford and without the features I needed.  I don’t really question the dude’s honesty; it seemed that they had a special sale on for new cars, and he was determined to sell me one.  He did not succeed; I bought a car from one of Garff’s dishonest/unwilling-to-listen competitors.  A used car, within my price range, with the features I wanted.

This whole billboard campaign plays on two myths, neither of them particularly true.  One is that car salesmen are uniformly dishonest.  That may have been true once (‘this car was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sunday!’) but nowadays, with Carfax and other research tools easily available on the internet, there’s just too much information available to consumers.  A car is a major purchase, and there’s no excuse for people to come to the auto-shopping experience in ignorance. When I asked if I could see the Carfax report on the vehicle I ended up buying, the salesperson immediately printed it off and handed it to me. Why wouldn’t he?

The salesperson I bought my car from was not very experienced, and frankly, not very good at his job.  While test driving, for example, instead of focusing entirely on selling me the car, he spent some time griping about how he was going to miss lunch, and could we hurry things along, so he could get a sandwich.  I didn’t much like the guy, to be honest.  What he had going for him was a car I really liked, and could afford. But I didn’t think he was, you know, a crook.  I just don’t think salespeople can get away with that much anymore.

The other myth is that Abe Lincoln was scrupulously honest; that he was some paragon of integrity.  The ‘Honest Abe’ meme was a campaign slogan; it was political marketing. It was no more true than the Garff billboards are true. Abe Lincoln was a very good President, in part because he was a crafty politician.  Before becoming President, he was a very effective lawyer, and his most lucrative clients were railroads.  He was, in short, a successful corporate attorney.  But watch the movie Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing old Abe.  You’ll see a politician perfectly capable of wheeling and dealing and arm-twisting and conniving, and selling the public on half-truths.  That’s why he was effective; he was good at all that grubby politicking.  I rather suspect that if Ken Garff were lucky enough to hire Abe Lincoln in sales, he’d be very good at the job, but not, one suspects, due to his scrupulous integrity.  He was a master politician and salesman–he got things done.

The second Lincoln face on I-15 is on another billboard; one urging people to read, and perhaps even memorize, the Gettysburg Address.  This is part of an effort spear-headed by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and others; here’s their website.  As part of that effort, BYU did a big thing at halftime at a recent basketball game; a group of school children recited the Gettysburg, led by a biker, Stan Ellsworth, who has a show on BYUTV, American Ride.  I love Ellsworth; a raspy looking dude in full biker regalia, but with a heart of gold and a patriot’s soul.

And I love me some Gettysburg Address.  It’s the second greatest speech in American history, the first greatest being Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.  It’s a profound statement of the greatest ideals of American democracy.  But let’s face it; it’s also an act of salesmanship.  It declares that the Civil War is a test of the proposition that a nation, dedicated to equality, can survive.  But that’s not now the South saw it. Lincoln, in arguing for the sacrifices made by all the soldiers who died on that battlefield, consecrated it to democracy.  But wasn’t the Civil War about the failure of democracy?  Did Lee’s soldiers, the brave and foolhardy men who marched straight uphill into gunfire on Pickett’s charge, really think of themselves as fighting for a new birth of freedom?  Or weren’t they actually in a sense fighting for an institution that denied freedom?  Lincoln’s words are inspiring, because they’re aspirational–he’s defining the struggle as nobly as he could, to, eventually, bring a warring nation together.

The third Lincoln face, again heading south on I-15, is on a mini Mount Rushmore in an amusement park in Lehi, Utah, part of the Seven Peaks Fun Center.  The Mount Rushmore seems to be part of a roller coaster–they call it the ‘Rush Coaster’, get it?   Here’s their website.

They apparently also have a miniature golf course, where you putt amidst replicas of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, plus also, of course, Mt. Rushmore.  And there’s other stuff too: laser tag, bumper boats, a pirate ship.

It’s probably a lot of fun.  If we had small children, we’d probably take them there.  From the freeway, the place looks kind of tacky, to be honest, but that doesn’t mean a good time can’t be had.  It all seems to me a bit more reminiscent of Jefferson (‘pursuit of happiness’) than Lincoln (‘last full measure of devotion’), but who knows, maybe you get a little patriotic buzz while shooting someone at laser tag.

The problem is, Mount Rushmore kind of creeps me out.  I know, it’s a popular place, three million visitors a year (and in South Dakota!), it’s a patriotic tribute to four great Presidents.  Still, there’s something about the history of the place that’s more about ‘manifest destiny’ than ‘four awesome politicians.’  Check out the wikipedia entry.

Mount Rushmore was always intended as a tourist attraction, and the original notion was that it would feature the likenesses of famous Americans, like Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill.  Multi-cultural, sort of.  But Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, wanted to do Presidents instead, and got Congress to fund it.  Borglum was a Danish-American-Mormon polygamist kid from Idaho.  As an artist, he liked heroic themes, and he liked big.  He did a six ton head of Lincoln.  He was commissioned by the Ku Klux Klan to carve Confederate Generals onto Stone Mountain, in Georgia.  He joined the Klan, but left (both the Klan and the project), over disputes over artistic issues, and (shocker), over money.

Mount Rushmore was a sacred mountain for the Lakota, who called it Six Grandfathers.  It was part of a spiritual journey taken by Lakota chief Black Elk.  It’s probably still owned by the Lakota.  But it got renamed after a lawyer named Rushmore, and, working under the incontestable legal theory that our army has more guns than you do, was ‘given’ to Borglum to carve Presidents into.  And Borglum was a nativist; a fan of manifest destiny.  He wanted there to be a museum with a glass floor, with images of native American leaders (Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk), under glass, so that whenever people visited the park, they’d literally walk on the faces of Indian leaders.

If you go to Mount Rushmore, and ask the Forest Service rangers about Borglum, and his wackier notions, they’ll tell you all about it; they’re all amateur historians and not big fans of the guy.  And the exhibits there nowadays pay respect to native cultures.  On their website, teachers can get lesson plans about geology and ecology and,yes, obviously, American history.  The place has a less-creepy vibe than the ‘let’s celebrate American expansionism’ ideology that Borglum intended to advance. But that vibe is still there.

And the addition, in Lehi, of a roller coaster and bumper boats, seems sort of quintessentially American; the commodification of icons, the transformation of ideals into the tackiest sort of entertainment.  And good for us. Jefferson nailed us; we’re about pursuing happiness, wherever we can find it.  In the cars we purchase, the speeches we memorize, and the roller coasters we ride.  All available off I-15.

 

 

90 percent

A Mormon feminist group called Ordain Women orchestrated the mildest of protests at the Priesthood session of the last General Conference of the LDS church.  They asked for tickets to attend.  They asked politely, and were politely turned away.  The Priesthood session is only open to Priesthood holders, which to say, only men.  I don’t have any idea why this is.  The sessions are immediately available on-line, and are broadcast on BYU-TV. No occult secrets are revealed, no special instructions shared.  I hardly ever go, because it’s held at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus, and I can’t manage the stairs. I can, however, watch it on my computer, and so can anyone else.  I can’t for the life of me see what harm would be done if, say, a widow wanted to go with her twelve-year old Deacon son.

So, when Priesthood session is happening, I usually read it or watch it on-line. I have never felt like I missed a thing when I don’t attend.  I have good friends from OW who were there, in Salt Lake, asking for tickets. It took a lot of courage and commitment to do that.  Good for them.

Anyway, as April Conference approaches, a spokeswoman for the Church’s Public Relations department, Jessica Moody, wrote a letter to Ordain Women, asking that the organization confine their protest to ‘free speech zones’ just off Temple Square.  If you’ve been to Conference in Salt Lake, you’ve seen the free speech zones; mostly they’re populated by evangelicals or other groups proselytizing against the Church.  Kate Kelly, an Ordain Women spokeswoman said this in response:

“We feel as faithful, active Mormon women we have nothing in common with people who oppose the church and want to protest against it. The church  is its members. We aren’t against the church, we are the church.”

During Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, when Mormonism was very much in the national and international spotlight, it was fascinating to see who the world media turned to for information and perspective and explanation. Mostly, it was Joanna Brooks, and Kate Kelly, and other leading Mormon feminists.  I thought about Joanna Brooks, in fact, when I read Kate Kelly’s comment ‘we aren’t against the Church; we are the Church.’ The fact is, media types weren’t much interested in pro forma comments from official Church sources, anymore than they’re interested in comments from official spokespeople for big business, or politicians, or movie stars, or any institutions big enough to have a PR department. They want the real skinny; they want to hear from someone who Knows.  For a long time, they loved Jan Shipps.  She was perfect; not LDS, but a scholar of Mormonism with impeccable scholarly credentials. Jan’s retired now, and nowadays, it’s an insider/outsider they want, someone like Joanna Brooks; a scholar, an active Mormon, but an insightful and thoughtful observer of her own faith and culture.  We liberal Mormons, we became unofficial representatives of Mormonism.  (Because of publicity generated by the national candidacy of a guy probably none of us voted for!)  We are the Church, indeed.

Monday, when Jessica Moody’s letter was made public, was pretty discouraging to a lot of my LDS feminist friends.  Many took particular issue with this:

“Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme.  Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership. Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”

I have a couple of reactions to this letter, and to the heartbreak I’ve seen expressed by many many friends.  First, it is at least encouraging to think that the Church’s leaders are engaged in ‘helpful discussions’ with LDS women, inside and outside of Church leadership.  I’m encouraged to think that members of the Twelve are really listening to the ‘thoughts, concerns and hopes’ of women in the Church.

I have no special insight into what the future might bring. I do know that the narrative of the nineteenth century Church was filled with stories of women, called as midwives, laying on their hands and blessing women about to give birth, and of Relief Society presidents holding blessing meetings with their sisters. I can imagine almost any future.

But only one present.  And it seems to be defined as this: “Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for Priesthood ordination for women, and consider that position to be extreme.”  So what we have is a fight over definitions.  OW wants it to be clearly understood that ‘we are the Church.’  But Sister Moody’s letter wants to define OW as ‘extreme,’ as a tiny minority, easily ignored and rightfully marginalized.

Back in October, a PEW poll of Mormon men and women offered statistical evidence supporting Sister Moody’s position.  In that poll, 84% of LDS men, and 90% of LDS women, oppose priesthood ordination for women.  And when the Deseret News published a story about Moody’s letter, the comments section on-line was flooded with responses, almost all of them ferociously opposed to OW’s goals.  Many (not all) of the comments were vitriolic, profoundly un-Christian.  It saddened me to think that people in my Church could harbor such anger towards their sisters and brothers.  I kept seeing that number.  90%. And not just the number, but also the vitriol must be immensely discouraging for Ordain Women’s adherents.

But then, that number is hardly surprising. A lot of progressive notions follow a similar pattern. Initially feared as radical, they come, over time, to seem less and less so.  Such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, when they began advocating for women’s suffrage, faced similarly overwhelming majorities. In 1911, an organization called the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOW), started by a woman, had chapters in 25 US states.  In their literature, they claimed that “90% of women don’t want” the vote.  And they invoked the scary thought of “petticoat rule”.  Shiver.

I have no doubt If you had asked our forefathers what they thought of ‘miscegenation’ (that is, interracial marriage), I’m sure at least 90% of men and women would have thought that a radical notion, and opposed it.  Gay marriage: I can’t even imagine nineteenth century Americans knowing how to frame the question.  That one wouldn’t have been opposed by any 90% of Americans; if we can even imagine a poll asking about it. Everyone would have thought the idea a crazy one. Today, close to 60% favor it.

I do think the 90% figure is probably pretty accurate.  My wife, for example, doesn’t want the Priesthood, because she says it sounds like way too much work.  But she’s also an ardent feminist.  That’s also a responsible and intelligible position. Me, I’m still trying to figure out why the Sunday school President in a ward needs to be a guy.  Or why the Relief Society President can’t sit up on the stand with the Bishopric.  Or why it needs to be the entire Bishopric up there.  I’m an incrementalist, maybe.

And yet, and yet.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” said Dr. King.  He was quoting a nineteeth century Unitarian minister (and committed abolitionist) named Theodore Parker.  Here’s Parker’s quotation in context:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.

And Jefferson was a great thinker, a great President, a brilliant man, and a man who owned slaves, and knew that doing so was an abomination.  And yet, he preached equality, though rhetorically he limited it to ‘all men.’  And still the arc bends, past the Amistad, through Antietam, on past Selma, and it bent again to touch the heart of Spencer W. Kimball, in 1978. I can’t see the shape of the arc either, from my limited, skewed perspective. But the world is better today than it was a hundred years ago, and better then than a hundred years further back. Can I see ahead another hundred years?  No: I’m too short-sighted.  Does it bend towards female ordination?  I don’t know.  But change there will be, and I believe it will be just, and righteous; bending towards a millennium.  And still the arc bends.

 

 

 

Ukraine

And. . . the bizarre West Wing parallels continue.  This article does a nice job showing the more obvious ones; the last two seasons of The West Wing are about a Congressman, Matt Santos, as he runs for the Presidency, and the Santos=Obama prescience is really quite amazing. (Not to mention Vinick=McCain).  But now there’s another one.  The last year of the fictional Presidency of Jed Bartlet is marked by a crisis in Kazakhstan, in which the President puts American troops right in between a Russian army and Chinese troops.  Well, we have a Russian army invading a neighbor; not an exact parallel, but once again, there are voices calling for American armed intervention.

Or sort of.  In fact, I don’t know of anyone actually calling for President Obama to send troops to Ukraine.  You kind of have to read between the lines.  Bill Kristol, for example, wrote:

Ukraine can expect no serious assistance in getting Russian troops off Ukraine soil or helping secure Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nor is President Obama committed to seeing to it that President Putin pay a real price for his actions.

And his entire column is an angry denunciation of President Obama’s measured, diplomatic response to this particular piece of Russian aggression.

Bill Rogers, R-Michigan, (kind of a favorite go-to guy on the Sunday talk shows, because he’s articulate and usually pretty reasonable), said “Putin is playing chess with us; we’re playing marbles.”  But he also agreed that President Obama doesn’t have a lot of viable choices:

There is not a lot of options on the table and, candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed,” the Michigan Republican said. “And unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them. Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”  He continued:

There are not a lot of options on the table and, candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed, and unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them. Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”
In other words, me paraphrasing: ‘we probably can’t send troops in, though we could have earlier, and should have. So, darn it, we probably can’t go to war over this yet.’
Good old Lindsay Graham weighed in as well, calling President Obama “weak and indecisive,” and saying that Presidential weakness on this scale “invites aggression.”  He then added melodramatically “President Obama needs to do something!”  Others have attacked President Obama’s supposed timidity and weakness: Dick Cheney among them.  And everyone–by which I mean the mainstream media and Congressional Republicans– agrees that this is the defining crisis of the Obama Presidency.
That’s bonkers.  When President Obama took office, the American economy was in freefall.  Tanking big time.  That was the defining crisis of the Obama administration, and he handled it pretty darn well.  I know our economy has stagnated, but the fact that the Speaker won’t even bring a jobs bill up for a vote in the House has a lot more to do with it than any action the President can realistically take.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a serious matter.  The Ukrainian people suffered greatly under the Soviet Union’s tyranny, and we have a moral obligation to support their Democratic aspirations.  We also have treaty obligations towards Ukraine; specifically, the Budapest accords, to which Russia is also a signatory, and which Putin has violated most egregiously.
But the fact is, we have no national interests at stake in Ukraine. And Putin has not invaded most of the country, nor has he tried to take it over.  He hasn’t, for example, sent troops to Kiev.  He’s in Crimea, putatively to protect the lives of Russians living there–a big majority of the Crimean population.  Worst case (and most likely) scenario; the Crimea votes on which country they want to be part of; Russia, or Ukraine.  We probably could live with that, and so could Ukraine.  We don’t really have a dog in that fight.
I suppose the President could have sent troops to Ukraine two weeks ago, to prevent the Russians invading.  Problem is, you sort of have to be invited to send troops to foreign countries, and no such invitation was (or would ever have been) extended. I suppose the President could have sent ships to the Black Sea or something.  In the middle of the Olympics, precipitating an international crisis.
I think everyone can agree that it’s morally wrong for a country to unilaterally violate another nation’s sovereignty, and especially egregious to do so under some made-up pretext.  But we have no credibility on that issue internationally either.  Because that’s precisely what we did in Iraq.
So why on earth are we listening to Bill Kristol on Ukraine?  Or Lindsay Graham or Dick Cheney?  They were wrong, spectacularly and brutally and violently wrong, on Iraq.  What on earth qualifies those characters as geo-political players, as people whose expertise should be consulted?
What solutions are they offering?  Kick Russia out of the G-8. Not sure it matters, plus Putin doesn’t even care enough about the G-8 to attend the last one, plus we can’t do that unilaterally, and Germany might not agree to do it now.  They need Russian oil.  Sanctions?  A lot of Europe relies on Russian oil.  We can, and should, freeze Russian assets in American banks.  But there’s not a huge economic price Putin’s going to have to pay here.
Diplomacy is the answer, and I get that it can feel like a pretty ineffectual one.  But that’s how civilized nations resolve their differences.  Russia is not, let’s be clear, behaving like a civilized nation right now, and should be condemned for it.  But we didn’t either, in 2003.  Did we?

 

Change

I’ve been reading a terrific book lately, Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, about the bankers who ran the economies of the four great nations of the earth during the 1920s and 30s, and how their stubborn allegiance to a monetary policy based on the gold standard led to the Great Depression, and eventually to the dreadful events of the 40s and beyond.  The main characters of the book, Benjamin Strong, Montagu Norman, Emile Moreau and Hjalmar Schacht, are a bit overshadowed by a fifth figure, John Maynard Keynes, who was also active during the period, a gadfly, commenting throughout, who had the annoying habit of being right pretty much about everything.  Since I just wrote a play about Keynes, I found myself wishing I’d read this a year ago!  But better late than never.

The big Four bankers in the book clung to the gold standard because, as far they knew, doing so had always worked before, so why change?  In fact, the gold standard never really worked well at all; major panics and recessions plagued the Industrial Revolution at regular intervals, and nobody knew how to prevent them.  We still don’t, though our better grasp of monetary policy does seem to have smoothed things out somewhat, 2007-8 notwithstanding.  (And the Great Recession was as much caused by bankers and governments ignoring the lessons of the past as by applying them). 
But the point is, the bankers of the 20s and 30s really were sensible men, busy applying the lessons of the financial crises of the past, and unable to comprehend how completely the world had changed. 
We do that, we humans.  Generals fight the latest war by the strategies and tactics of the previous one, business people apply the successful models their grandfathers employed, election campaigns follow the blueprints of earlier contests.  We think about the world through existing prisms, and though ‘thinking outside the box’ has become a cliche, boxes continue to constrict cogitation.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit the last few days, in relation to a few major stories.  First, the current unrest in the Ukraine, and the emerging narrative on the Right about what our President has done poorly, and what we should do now.  Second, the release by the Joint Chiefs of new proposals for national defense spending.  And a third thing: the debate in Utah over air quality.
As you probably know, Vladimir Putin has sent troops to the Crimea, a direct violation of the Budapest accord, which Russia, the Ukraine, the US and the UK signed in 1994, guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty.  I think it goes without saying that Vladimir Putin doesn’t give a rip about international law, or that he just violated a treaty to which the nation he leads is signatory. Although US media sources are quick to declare that claims of violence directed towards ethnic Russians living in the Ukraine are merely pretexts for Putin’s invasion, there have in fact been reports of such violence. I think it’s likely that if the Crimea were to hold an open plebiscite, that Crimean Russians would probably vote for the region to rejoin Russia.  That’s also a factor.  But really, this seems like a power grab.  Putin has publicly mourned the end of Soviet hegemony over its former republics, and just as he sent forces to Georgia in 2008, he’s doing the same now in Ukraine.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently told President Obama that, in her conversation with Putin, she wasn’t sure he was completely sane. Makes sense; he’s reliving the Cold War, at least to some extent, which always was irrational.
But so is the American Right.  In a moment of international crisis, it’s customary for politicians to set partisanship aside and support the President.  Not this group of conservatives, who have apparently decided to set aside patriotism in favor of more name-calling and second-guessing.  He’s ‘weak,’ we’re hearing.  He doesn’t ‘project strength.’  The Russians will always test a new President, and Putin, having tested this President’s resolve in Syria, has now decided it’s okay to push even harder, and retake part of an old Republic. 
We’re re-fighting the Cold War, in other words.  Weak=bad and strong=good, and the Russkis only respect tough guys. 
But we had a tough guy in the White House in 2008, and it turns out, the Russians tested him too, in Georgia. And George W. Bush didn’t do much about it then either, because, let’s face it, his options were very very limited.  As are this President’s. 
We can apply diplomatic pressure.  Putin doesn’t seem to care.  We can kick Russia out of the G-8.  But Germany has balked at that, because Germany needs Russian oil and gas. 
Or we could send troops in. Which, let’s face it, we’re not going to do, anymore than President Bush would have in Georgia.  We simply do not have any compelling national interest in the Crimea.  Unless we’re seriously contemplating sending our young men and women into harm’s way so the President can ‘look strong’ when John McCain or Rudolph Guilani makes fun of him.
The Cold War is over. And Iraq and Afghanistan have made us very leery about foreign adventures.  What we have not done, as a nation, is rethink our national priorities.  We haven’t had a national conversation about the military, about what we want it to do, and where we want it to go, and under what circumstances we are willing to send young people to fight, and kill, and die.  Are we in fact the world’s policeman?  Isn’t that a better job for the United Nations?  How does the UN Security Council reign in Vladimir Putin when Russia has a permanent veto over all UNSC decisions?  What’s the use of having an international treaty, like the Budapest Accord, when one of the countries who signed it has no intention of being bound by it?  
Which brings us to the US defense budget.  Here are the facts. The US has an annual defense budget of 682 billion dollars. That’s 39% of the money spent by the entire world on weapons and soldiers. That’s more than the next twelve (or ten or fourteen, depending on how you calculate exchange rates) countries combined.  If we cut our military spending in half, we’d still be number one in the world in military spending.
That’s crazy.  That’s completely unsupportable.  The doctrine that the military still relies on is this: we need to be able to fight two full-out wars on two different fronts simultaneously. That’s World War II level thinking.
The threats we face today are 1) international terrorism, 2) rogue states, and 3) humanitarian military disasters in failed states.  Category 3 clearly doesn’t concern us much, considering how completely the US has managed to ignore the continuing horror show in the Congo.  Category 2 bothers us now in Crimea, but we’re not going to send troops there, for all kinds of obvious reasons.  The biggest rogue state in the world right now is obviously North Korea, which continues to experiment with the ‘insane complete dictator’ form of government. The fact that the closest thing we have to diplomatic relations with North Korea is Dennis Rodman speaks volumes, but so does the fact that every time Kim Jung Aun starts to act up, China (its only ally) steps in quietly and shuts him up.  Dude can’t feed his people; I don’t think they’re honestly much of a threat. 
That leaves terrorism, and right now our strategy for dealing with terror seems go as follows: figure out where a terror cell is, send in drones, kill a few terrorists with considerable collateral damage, and tick off local populations sufficiently to boost recruitment into terrorist organizations.  So that works splendidly. 
Okay, so, here’s my standard for ‘advanced’ or ‘civilized’ or ‘industrial’ or ‘First World’ nations.  I call it the ‘daughter’s fiancee’ standard.  Let’s suppose that your daughter got engaged to a guy from another country, and told you they planned to live there after the wedding.  How concerned would you be?  If the fiancee was from, say, Switzerland, you’d be totally cool with it, wouldn’t you? So, that’s a positive daughter’s fiancee country, or PDFC. If he was from, say, Somalia, you’d freak out, right? So that’s a negative daughter’s fiancee country, or NDFC?  Well, let’s compare the US to all the other ‘positive daughter’s fiancee’, let’s compare the US to all the PDFCs in the world.
So let’s compare the US to other PDFCs in the world in terms of taxation.  Let’s look at total taxation as a percentage of GDP.  The US is around 26%.  That’s low. The UK is 39%, Finland 41%, France 46%, German 40%. I linked to the chart; see for yourself. If your daughter married a French guy, you’d be delighted, wouldn’t you?  Visit ‘em in Paris?  C’est magnifique. 
(It’s an interesting chart, isn’t it?  Do you notice something?  That PDFCs all have high tax rates?  NDFCs low tax rates?  How thrilled would you be if your daughter moved to Ethiopia (11.6%)?  Or Bangladesh (8.5%)?  Direct correlation between high taxes and functioning economies?)
So here’s my point.  The US has the lowest tax rates of any country you’d want your daughter to live in.  It also has the highest defense spending of the next fourteen countries combined. So what things do we end up not having enough tax dollars to really do very well?
Health care.  Education.  Environmental protections. Transportation. Pensions. Retirement.  Maternity leave for mothers and fathers. 
Can we rethink these priorities?
Right now in Utah, one of the biggest problems in the state is air quality.  It’s a huge issue. Salt Lake County has the worst air quality in the country.  It’s due to a combination of factors: mostly too many cars, in a valley surrounded by mountains.  And, following this session, the legislature has, apparently, no plans to do anything whatever to alleviate it.  Because we’ve always had single family homes in suburbs, where you really do have to have a car to get around.  Public transit?  More high density neighborhoods?  Don’t even think about it.
We need to rethink.  We need to reconsider. We need to rethink the military, our place in the world, lifestyles built on non-renewable energy, recklessly expended, and rendering our planet uninhabitable. 
Here’s Keynes, writing in 1919:

In continental Europe the earth heaves and no one but is aware of the rumblings. There it is not just a matter of extravagance or “labor troubles”; but of life and death, of starvation and existence, and of the fearful convulsions of a dying civilization.

 

And, as Keynes predicted, those ‘fearful convulsions of a dying civilization’ would spend themselves in the worst kind of barbarism, violence, ferocity and genocide. I’m not saying we’re on the brink of anything similarly catastrophic.  But our priorities seem to be, for now, to dig a hole, and sit in it, and pull the dirt in over our heads.  All is well, all is well.  But I’m not persuaded anything we’re trying works all that well anymore.

Pompeii: a review

Spoiler alert: everyone dies.

You don’t go to see something like Pompeii because you think you’re going to see a cinematic masterwork.  You go because you’re looking forward to two hours of escapist fun.  Pauline Kael once wrote: “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”  Well, Pompeii isn’t great trash, but it’s fairly enjoyable trash; my wife, my daughter and I had a good time at the movie, and a better time making fun of it on the way home.

(And yet, somehow, sitting there in the dark, whispering snarky comments back and forth, isn’t it possible also to feel somehow diminished, to feel some regret over the fact that we’re treating this immense human tragedy as fodder for laughs?)

A lot of the fun is seeing actors in unaccustomed roles.  Kiefer Sutherland plays Corvus, a Roman centurion turned Senator; my daughter called his character ‘Evil Jack Bauer’ and he was certainly a wonderfully disagreeable character, a genuine villain, with his bleached hair and Peter Lorre lisp.  His BFF was Sasha Roiz, the Captain on Grimm, playing a character named Proctologist (checking IMDB) Proculus.  And Kit Herington (John Snow in Game of Thrones) was the hero, a gladiator named The Celt, actual name: Milo.  ‘Milo’ we hooted!  And his best friend gladiator was Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, a marvelous, dignified, powerful presence who sort of dominated the movie.  His character was called Atticus (‘Finch!’ we hooted), but I couldn’t help but think of him as Otis.  Milo and Otis; get it!  Hilarious. And yet all four main actors were really quite good.  Of course, there was also a girl, Cassia, played by the lovely Mireille Enos look-alike Emily Browning.  Cassia is daughter of Pompeii’s leading citizen, the sort-of-mayor, Severus (Jared Harris), and she’s in love with a gladiator, and he with her.  Which totally could happen.  Not.

But, this:

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore. (Pliny the Younger).

 

‘Cause here’s the thing: we can treat the tragedy of Pompeii in several ways. Divine retribution for the wickedness of Pompeii is a popular one. I remember visiting Pompeii–one abiding memory is of, uh, nasty statuary.  Plus, you know, their popular amusements involved watching people kill people. It makes for a handy sermon topic: the wickedness of Pompeii led to the city’s destruction by a vengeful God.

And this very question gets asked in the film itself.  Sweet little Cassia asks it of her gladiator boyfriend, and Milo confirms it; to his way of thinking, the destruction of Pompeii is divine retribution for the brutality of the Roman conquest of Britain, which he personally witnessed and where he saw the deaths of his parents.  It’s vengeance by the Celtic Gods.  Which ends up being more or less the point of view of the movie.

Except.  In point of fact, of course, God didn’t have a darn thing to do with it. Pompeii was destroyed by an active volcano.  The people of Pompeii died, not because they built a society on the shaky foundation of routine violations of (at least) the sixth and seventh commandments, but because their town was foolishly situated.  Vesuvius is answer enough; let’s not wrest scripture.

But this is a movie, a popular entertainment.  It has to have a plot; it has to tell a story.  And the story it tells is the most hackneyed of melodramas.  Evil Jack Bauer/Corvus has killed young Milo’s parents back in Britain, then risen off that triumph to a seat in the Roman Senate.  He’s a proto-typical corrupt politician.  And, like all villains in all melodramas, he has malign intentions directed at the lovely person of innocent Cassia.  He wants to marry her; he makes it clear, he wants to dominate her, break her. He’s an abusive jerk/corrupt politician.  And he lisps.  Kiefer Sutherland’s quite terrific in the role, though I have to say, it involved a lot of horseback riding for an aging actor with a bad back.

Because you think that; the film gives you leisure to think things like that.  You see Carrie-Ann Moss in the thankless role of Cassia’s mother, and you think, ‘you’re Trinity, we’ve seen you do martial arts, kick Evil Jack Bauer in the bejoobies!’  But she doesn’t; she just looks kind of stricken.

Another problem: the film has all these combat set pieces; gladiatorial fights, carefully choreographed and actually pretty cool.  And Milo and Otis get to fight an entire Roman cohort; not quite a centurio, but a buncha soldiers.  And it’s all very cool.  But what’s the point?  We see gladiators die, but Vesuvius has already started burping fireballs; they’re all going to die anyway. We see Milo and Otis pull of some nifty battlefield tactics, fight two on 50, and win.  And so we get to see . . . how cool gladiatorial combats must have been as a spectator sport?

And so does this implicate us as an audience?  Does it make us complicit in watching scenes of enacted violence?  Well, maybe some, but it’s blunted; it seems normal.  We’ve seen movie stars dispatch stunt men in so many movies by now, it’s become old hat.  And because we never actually see actual people actually dying, we’re not actually complicit, are we?  What we like is kinetic sport, action movie stunts as an art form. We’re not ancient Rome (or Pompeii); we know those same stunt men will move on to the next film, and whack and slice and stab and fall down all over again.  The Hunger Games is many times more effective at implicating us, in causing us to at least consider the moral dimensions of being entertained by violence than something like Pompeii can manage.  This thing is hackneyed: another bad guy/good guy/pretty heroine/sidekicks extravaganza. But check it out; cool CGI!

I did laugh when Graecus bought it.  Joe Pingue played Graecus, a slimy fat Roman leech with pasted on forehead curls (a first century combover!) who buys and sells gladiators (and choreographs their combats) for a living.  When Vesuvius blows, he hops in a litter and has his slaves haul his butt to the harbor, where he bribes a ship captain into letting him aboard.  The ship pulls out of the harbor, and it looks like it’s going to escape, but Vesuvius is lobbing molten rocks towards the harbor, and after one near-miss washes away the curls, another nails Graecus dead center. And I laughed.  He wasn’t a character, he was a caricature-of-evil, and Pingue played him as such; we’re meant to cheer when he goes down.

But that’s this movie’s sensibility.  The director, Paul W. S. Anderson is a hack.  No, he’s not Paul Thomas Anderson, and he’s not Wes Anderson; not one of the good directors named Anderson.  This is the guy who directed that loathsome Three Musketeers a few years ago.  Remember that one, with Logan Lerman as D’Artagnan and Milla Jovanovich as Milady and some flying boat contraption?  Shudder.  You know the guy?  Directed three (3) Resident Evils?  Alien vs. PredatorDeath Race?

For some reason, someone keeps giving this guy a hundred million dollars to make bad movies.  And while Pompeii isn’t good, it’s probably going to go down in history as his masterpiece. I’ll give him this.  Some of the actors are good, none are awful, and one, Akinnouye-Agbaje, is really good. The effects are convincing, and while the scenes in which we see Pompeiians die have no (none, zero) emotional impact, that’s more about us being jaded than anything else.

And at least he has the courage to let everyone die.  There’s a tiny ‘but their love will live forever’ coda at the end, but still; everyone does die.  And that’s ultimately the truth about Pompeii. Everyone died.  And the reason has nothing to do with God.  The reason really was just this: Vesuvius.

 

Our conservative Constitution

In the 1940s, with the world embroiled in war, the conversation in economic circles turned to what would come afterwards.  With two major world wars in thirty years, whatever Europe was doing clearly wasn’t working.  What should humankind try next?  What might work better? William Beveridge, a British economist, chaired a committee that produced a report describing one possible future; the European social welfare state.  I’m not alone in calling it a ‘combination state’; a market economy, but with a very strong social safety net.  And some version of that combination state has become the European norm. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, South Korea; basically all the countries in the world that work pretty well, all have some version of the combination state. Basically, use this rule of thumb; if your daughter told you she was marrying someone from one of those countries, and she and her new husband were going to live there, you’d be fine with it.  Those kinds of countries.

The United States is pretty close to a combination state, but we’re not really one by these measures: we don’t have universal health care.  We don’t really subsidize higher education.  There are lots of family-friendly policies (mandatory maternity/paternity leave for new parents, mandated work days and vacations, generous retirement benefits) that all the countries listed above have, and that we don’t.  That’s why America is usually described as a more ‘conservative’ nation than the other successful countries in the world.

For example, Norway had a national election last September, and although Labor won the most seats in Parliament (Storting; literally ‘Big Thing’; I love Norwegian), a conservative/centrist coalition gained enough seats to win power.  But the Norwegian Conservative party (Høyre, or ‘Right’ in Norwegian), is only comparatively conservative; most Høyre members hold to policies that would put them on the left fringe of the Democrats here.

For example, in that election, Høyre ran on issues like improving Norway’s health care system, improving Norway’s hospitals, and better care for the elderly.  There’s a long waiting list, for example, for nursing home care–that was an issue in the campaign.  But nobody, on either side, even mentioned, oh, requiring families to pay for nursing home care, or requiring college students to pay tuition (they pay none, even if they go to college in some other country), or things like co-pays for doctor or hospital visits. No responsible politician in Norway could hope to win on such a radically conservative agenda. Erna Solberg is the new Prime Minister–she’s ‘Conservative,’ but is seen as a moderate, and is anyway hardly a polarizing figure.

So it’s interesting, isn’t it?  Why is it that all of Europe, basically, is some version of a combination state, but the US isn’t?  Why is stodgy, old, traditional Europe so much more liberal than the US?  The answer, I think, has to do with our Constitution.

The US Constitution essentially favors conservatives, and makes political life difficult for progressives.  When I say this, I don’t mean that the Constitution is built on a Christian foundation, or that it favors a market economy, or that God inspired our Constitution, and God’s a conservative.  I don’t mean any of that.  I mean it in this sense; the Constitution makes it easier to block legislation than the other forms of Democratic government we see on the world stage.

Most countries in the world have Parliamentary systems of government.  To take Norway, again; 8 political parties won seats in Storting.  That means that if you’re a politically engaged Norwegian, you can choose to support a political party pretty close to your views. You vote for your guy, and if he wins, you hope the party you favor can join the ruling coalition government. Supporting even a tiny party, like the Green party (with one seat in Storting), still makes sense–that one guy could join a coalition, and wield genuine power in a government.

But in America, the Republican party consists of pro-business people, religiously oriented social conservatives, Tea Party constitutionalists, internationally expansionist neo-cons, libertarians–it’s an unstable coalition.  Honestly, guys like Rand Paul should probably just be libertarians; people like Michelle Bachman should probably just be Tea Party candidates.  But Paul or Bachman can’t really leave the Republican party without diffusing its power.  That’s because we elect candidates, not parties.

So when a Parliamentary coalition government is formed, they really do get to rule.  They will always have a majority in Parliament; in fact, that’s the source of their power.  Most European parliaments are unicameral, or, if bicameral, one of the houses is constitutionally nugatory.  So in England, whoever has the most seats in the House of Commons rules.  The House of Lords has no say in governing; the Lords exist as a kind of super-advisory committee.  (Most Lords are really awesomely-successful people who just got Lorded; imagine having a governmental body with no power, but consisting of people like Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and John Elway, who could be put on committees and offer advice).

Anyway, that’s the secret.  Parliamentary government means that whoever wins an election gets to set and pass its agenda. It was inevitable that some election, hard-core progressives would win, and we’d get a social welfare state.  And once implemented, welfare states are hard to get rid of, because people really like them.  A lot.  So Erna Solberg, the new ‘Conservative’ Prime Minister of Norway can’t realistically run against having a national health service.  People like it too much.  Try to get rid of it, and you’re going to lose a vote of no confidence, leading to an election you’re going to lose.

But in America, the central Constitutional doctrine is separation of powers. The Framers were way too cynical about human nature to trust anyone with that kind of power.  In a Parliamentary government, the executive branch is inextricably linked to the legislative branch.  Here, they’re separated.  It’s difficult to get legislation passed.  Intentionally.

American government is, right now, almost comically inept, risibly incapable of governing.  The House of Representatives is so politically opposed to the policies of President Obama that they essentially won’t vote for anything he proposes.  We end up having these horrible, bruising fights over absolutely routine matters, like raising the debt ceiling, which simply means paying our nation’s bills.  The result is gridlock–nothing gets done.  I’m not saying that this is an outcome the Framers intended, or anticipated, but it’s not necessarily one they would have minded much.

This is why I say the Constitution is basically a conservative document.  Because isn’t the essence of conservatism a skepticism towards new ideas?  Progressives saying ‘hey, let’s try this!’  And conservatives saying ‘not so fast, there, bub.’  Conservatives want to study things out, think it through, carefully consider all the possible ramifications of any change in policy.  Conservatives are, by nature, cautious.

I see it, for example, in the current debate over marriage equality.  Liberals say ‘it’s not fair to deny an entire class of people something as basic and fundamental as marriage solely on the basis of fundamental biological differences.’  And conservatives are saying ‘marriage is the founding, central, crucial institution of society.  Let’s not rush into changing that something that fundamental.  Let’s slow down.’

And when it comes to federal legislation, our constitution makes it easier to block new ideas than it is to enact them. It gives a lot of power to those who want to say ‘wait.’  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I do think that a US combination state is inevitable.  It really does appear to be the favored form of government internationally.  I mean, mankind has tried the ‘insane paranoid dictator’ form of government–it didn’t work very well, and doesn’t work today, in North Korea.  We’ve tried the ‘maybe we don’t even need a government; let the strongest survive’ approach–it didn’t work well either, and doesn’t today, in Somalia.  We’ve repeatedly tried the ‘thugocratic laissez-faire, favoring one guy and his ten best pals’ approach, currently on display in Russia.  What works is democracy.  What works is free markets.  But also, what works, is a strong social safety net.  We can see that lots of places today, and we can see as well that it generally works pretty well, with some hiccups.  Maybe when we implement it, we’ll have cured the hiccups. If so, (and this is hard for me to say), we’ll have conservatives to thank.

Meanwhile, we can see that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does actually seem to bend towards social justice.  With that quote from Dr. King, let’s keep the good fight going. While respecting our conservative friends, urging us to carefully look before we leap.