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.

 

Ferguson and race

I am very very reluctant to comment on the current situation in Ferguson Missouri and elsewhere. I feel so astoundingly unqualified.  As a middle-aged white male, I cannot bring anything like any personal history to this situation.  But an event that I thought couldn’t possibly support political polarization has become politically polarized, and I will try to comment.

First of all, I’m not sure it’s possible for the Ferguson chief of police to bungle this situation more completely.  Last Thursday, thanks in part to the timely intervention of Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, the situation in Ferguson had begun to calm down. Friday morning, Thomas Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, released video footage of what appeared to be a strong-arm convenience store robbery, claiming that Michael Brown was the main suspect in that event.  As Ezra Klein put it, that footage was completely irrelevant to Brown’s shooting, or to the actions of Officer Wilson, the policeman who shot him.  It was, in fact, a transparent attempt to co-opt the narrative regarding Brown’s character.  And it meant that the already volatile atmosphere in Ferguson exploded over the weekend.

(Jackson’s handling of this case, BTW, couldn’t have been less helpful.  In our household, in fact, ‘Ferguson police chief’ has become synonymous with foolishness; as in “well, she’s plenty stupid, but is she Ferguson police chief stupid?”)

There remain dueling narratives in the case.  This story does a reasonably good job of sorting them out. But the subsequent actions of the Ferguson police all tend to support, at least, this conclusion; that the Ferguson police aren’t used to having their authority questioned, and react badly when it is questioned.  The militarized uniforms and armaments facing unarmed protestors, the arbitrary arrests of journalists, the hostility to anyone attempting to film them, and the pathetic attempts by Chief Jackson to leak information to make Michael Brown look like a thug, they’re all classically defensive overreactions. Watching the cops react to the protests is eye-opening.

What everyone seems to agree is that Brown was jaywalking.  A policeman stopped him, they had a confrontation in which Brown reached through the police car window, or was dragged in.  A scuffle ensued, in the car.  Brown broke away, ran off, and the officer fired at him.  He turned, faced the officer, put his hands up.  The police narrative is that Brown then charged the officer.  Most eyewitnesses agree that Brown had surrendered, arms in the air, and that he did not charge the police vehicle.  At the very least, I’d have to say that the most credible evidence points to the shooting as a homicide, requiring, at the least, the filing of criminal charges against Officer Wilson.

But what’s so disheartening about this is the hopelessness and impotent outrage and misdirected fury within the Ferguson black community.  If the town of Ferguson is two thirds black, and yet all elected offices in the town are held by whites (except for one City Council member), what happens in city elections?  Last election in Ferguson, voter turnout was 12%. And it all becomes clearer.

Why vote if it won’t make a difference?  Why engage politically if it doesn’t matter?  Why try to succeed, if the only outcome you ever see is failure?

What’s gone wrong?  Why does Dr. King’s vision seem so far away?  Why are so many young black men in prison, why do so many young black women have children out of wedlock, why is the African-American family in such crisis?

I don’t know. I don’t know what ideas are even out there.  I do know that the Bill O’Reilly ‘black people just need to be moral, go to school, go to work, stop having kids, and stop committing crimes’ elderly white male conservative nonsense couldn’t be more misguided.  Our society needs to do more, provide more opportunities, incarcerate fewer kids. And stop pointing the finger, blaming the victim, making young black people the Other against which Virtuous White American must always contend.

And for kids to be constantly, incessantly hassled by the police isn’t helping.  I haven’t experienced that kind of harassment in my life, because I’m an old white guy.  I have African-American friends, and they say that hassles with the cops are a routine, regular part of their existence.

And maybe there’s this:  Every morning, after nights of rioting and looting and protests and violence, young black men and women go out into the streets of Ferguson with brooms and shovels and clean up the streets.  It’s their city, and they don’t want it trashed.  That’s a force for good, if it could be harnessed.

But for starters, train cops better.  Reinstitute community policing. Make every polcie vehicle carry a camera; make police work entirely transparent.  Let the police/citizen relationship return to what it should be; non-adversarial, cooperative, Officer Friendly ready, always, to help.  And get out the vote.  There’s a Ferguson police chief, for example, who needs to go.

 

Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri, is a town of some 21, 000 citizens, in St. Louis County Missouri, basically a suburb of St. Louis.  The 2010 census revealed that 67% of the town is African-American, and 29% is white/Caucasian.  However, the town employs 53 police officers, 3 of whom are black.  The mayor is white, as are 5 of its 6 city council members.  The chief of police is likewise white. But a state report on racial profiling found that 86% of traffic stops were of black drivers, and that 92% of arrests were of black suspects. A lot of news stories about the town have, with justification apparently, called it a ‘powder keg.’

And on Saturday, an unarmed 18 year old black kid named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police.  Witnesses say his hands were up and clearly visible when he was shot.  Here’s a link to the NBC news story about the shooting.  Meanwhile, the streets of Ferguson are clogged with protestors.  Tear gas has been used to dispel protestors, and some looters have been arrested.  Three national news reporters have been arrested. A group called The Ad Hoc Committee for Justice on Behalf of Michael Brown has made four demands.  The first of those demands is that the officer who shot Brown be publicly identified and arrested for murder.

The hackers’ collective, Anonymous, has released this video on YouTube.  A few hours ago, they released the name of the Ferguson police officer who they claim was the shooter.  They also hacked into the Ferguson police department website.  Ferguson authorities, though, say the name Anonymous released is wrong; that that officer thus identified was not the shooter.

The Chief of Ferguson police, Thomas Jackson, is a pleasant-seeming round-faced man, who has been fairly unshakable so far in press conferences.  He comes across as reasonable and mild.  He says he’s concerned about race relations in the town, and that he has made healing those divisions his highest priority as police chief.  But the police presence clearly visible in all the national news stories about the Ferguson protests is anything but benign.  We’re seeing SWAT teams, with full military style regalia, in armored cars.  Gunners on rooftops with machine guns.  It’s difficult not to conclude that the police have badly overreacted to peaceful protests, and that fear is driving events on both sides.

By all accounts, Michael Brown was a big, cheerful kid.  He graduated from high school this summer, and was looking forward to college this fall.  He wanted to be a heating and air conditioning engineer.  He was cheerful, outgoing, liked to rap, liked to make people laugh.  What a terrible loss, to his family, to his friends, to his community, to our country.

I don’t know anything more about this story than what I’ve read in the news, seen on TV, or read on the internet.  I do have a few thoughts.

It doesn’t really matter what was said or done by Brown or by his friend.  There’s talk of a confrontation.  I wasn’t there.  Brown’s friend tells a different story than the police have been telling, but we only have partial information from all sources.  But this kid should never have been shot.  I can’t see any justification for it, based on preliminary news reports.  Even if we believe the most pro-police news stories that have emerged, this was a shooting that should never have occurred.

The officer in question, therefore, should have been arrested and charged with this homicide.  That doesn’t mean that he should be considered a murderer.  There are any number of lesser charges that could be filed, and I don’t doubt that prosecutors are already sifting through the accounts that have been given.  And I fully understand that reluctance of Ferguson police to release the name of the shooter.  But he could and should be held in protective custody, pending formal charges being filed.  It also appears that Anonymous’ videos have hardened police resolve. A Ferguson police spokesperson said that the hackers’ threats ‘prompted their decision’ not to release the officer’s name.

People in authority hate, absolutely hate having their authority challenged.  One of the reporters who was arrested said the police officers asked him to leave a restaurant where he was filing a story.  When he didn’t leave quickly enough, they slammed his head against a soda dispenser. There’s no justification for that kind of police behavior. Others have been arrested for taking photos of officers.  But taking a photo is not only legal, it’s constitutionally protected.  I understand that cops take huge amounts of crap in their jobs, and that mouthy civilians have to be very high on their lists of annoyances.  But, at least in Ferguson, and elsewhere, police training needs to be substantially revamped.  Whatever happened to community based policing, for example?

I really do think, however, that it’s time for some cooler heads to prevail.  It’s time to get the St. Louis SWAT teams out of there, perhaps by sending in the National Guard.  Perhaps it’s time to turn over the investigation to state authorities.  President Obama has called for ‘calm;’ that’s obviously welcome.  But I’m also glad he didn’t join Ferguson by overreacting.

Still, this is a terrible situation, and one that plays itself out nationally.  I have good friends who are police officers, and I know how tough their jobs are.  Go on YouTube, and you can find dozens of videos showing officers using excessive force.  But this is a big country.  If the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project’s statistics can be trusted, there are around 4, 000 incidences of police violent misconduct in our country annually.  Any good cop will tell you that that’s 4,000 too many.  But in a nation of 300,000,000, it’s a fairly negligible number.  We can and should do better, but let’s not also overreact, or think the problem is bigger than it probably is.

But then, I’m a middle aged, middle class white guy.  Police misconduct doesn’t affect me much.  If I were black, I’d probably feel very differently, and with good cause.

 

Reclaiming the language

The Deseret News just published a letter to the editor of mine, about immigration.  In this letter, I tried to make a modest and reasonable proposal.  Since conservatives are so upset about illegal immigration, why not make more immigration legal?  In other words, if you’re concerned about people from Mexico and Central America crossing the border illegally, why not issue more green cards?  Especially since immigrants are a net plus for our nation economically.  Develop some process where people without criminal records can come over legally and work here.

(The DN comments responding to my letter have been hilarious, BTW. I especially love the high dudgeon displayed by one dude, incensed at the suggestion that immigrants might be better people than Americans.  How dare I?!?!?)

I get that immigration is a hot-button issue, and that some folks get really riled up about it.  But one aspect of it seems particularly interesting to me; the fury people display at the word ‘amnesty.’  We liberals are, apparently, ‘pro-amnesty.’  And amnesty has become an epithet. Dave Bratt, who defeated Eric Cantor in Virginia, basically won his race by using one word: he labeled Cantor ‘pro-amnesty.’  Amnesty, in this context, means ‘soft on crime,’ (crossing a border illegally being the moral equivalent to rape/torture/murder, apparently).  Amnesty means telling illegal immigrants, ‘ah, we were just kidding.  It’s all cool.  Stick around, why doncha?’  It spits on the rule of law.  Or something. Watch: every time an immigration bill comes before Congress, someone in the House of Representatives will stand up and say ‘it’s a pro-amnesty’ bill.  And then see potential votes for the measure just . . . vanish.

So I declared myself in favor of amnesty.  I like that word: amnesty.  It’s a really good word.  It’s an act of forgiveness, a pardon.  It’s related to words like ‘kindness’ and ‘pardon’ and ‘absolution.’  It’s a Christian word, really.  Of course, obviously, we should extend amnesty to people who crossed our border, got a job, support a family, pay taxes, start businesses.  So someone broke a law years ago.  Let it go.

Conservatives have been very successful with this tactic, of turning a perfectly good word into an insult.  “Liberal” is one.  For awhile, a lot of liberals started calling themselves ‘progressives,’ because conservatives had been so successful in demonizing ‘liberal.’  Well, to heck with that!  I’m a liberal, and I’m proud of it!  “Favorable to progress or reform?”  You bet.

Liberals do it too, of course.  Both sides seek political advantage through the careful use of language.  Don’t think that the political slogan ‘hope and change’ represented much beyond language that had been carefully vetted by focus groups and polls.

 

Still, it can get mighty sleazy.  In 1996, Newt Gingrich sent a famous memo to GOPAC, a conservative political action committee.  In this memo, he urged conservatives to memorize two lists of words, one positive and one negative.  Here’s the memo.

I’m sorry, but this list makes me ill.  It really does.  How does calling political opponents ‘greedy selfish traitors’ contribute to civilized discourse?  If words have meaning, then really strong words, like ‘traitor’ or ‘treason’ have to stand for something significant and dreadful.  They can’t just be used to win a Congressional race over a guy you may not disagree with all that much anyway. And the cynicism of it appalls.  “You, too, can speak like Newt!  Just memorize these word lists!”

But it does work. We see it all the time in relation to President Obama.  There’s got to be relationship between the frothing-at-the-mouth fury we see so often directed at this President, and the language used to describe him.  He’s a tyrant, a communist, an uncrowned monarch!  He wants to be king!  He’s destroying America!

Except their actions don’t really match the rhetoric.  If you really do think that this President is a tyrant, hell-bent on destroying America, then obviously, you have to impeach him.  But there’s no real enthusiasm among Republican leaders to do anything of the kind.  The only people calling for impeachment are people who can afford to use irresponsible rhetoric or engage in irresponsible acts.  It’s all House back-benchers.  And talk show hosts.  And Sarah Palin.  People who will never be held accountable for their words.  Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner occasionally calls Obama an ‘imperial President,’ but he has to do that; he’s terrified of the Tea Party right.  His actions belie his words; all he’s really done about Obama’s supposed tyranny is file that ludicrous lawsuit.  And when the Speaker couldn’t get even a purely symbolic, harshly punitive border-kids bill through the House, he then said ‘well, the President can deal with this unilaterally; he has the authority.’  After suing the President for doing exactly that.  Funny funny stuff.

Anyway, as a liberal–and I am a liberal, and proud of it–I intend to use the word ‘amnesty’ every time immigration comes up in conversation.  Let’s claim it!  It’s a great word.  Let’s try to use language that is precise, specific, clear, and accurate.  Let’s not go around calling each other traitors.  That’s just silly.

Rand Paul and Israel

Rand Paul has been in the news a lot lately, in trouble for being, in the past, a little too candid.  This article does, I think, a pretty good job of covering the controversy.  In the past, Paul has suggested that he would cut American foreign aid to most countries, Israel included.  When asked, point blank, if he would cut aid to Israel, he said yes, but then hastened to qualify it.  Now he says that he wouldn’t cut aid to Israel, and that he never said that he would cut it.  It’s become a thing.  Jon Stewart did a bit about it. It’s been prominent on MSNBC.  Politifact gave Paul’s denial’s a pants on fire award.  And so the narrative is: Rand Paul, flip-flopper. Or, you know, a liar. And I like Jon Stewart and I like Rachel Maddow. But I think the focus is off here.

The Presidential election is two years away.  Already, Rand Paul is spending immense amounts of time in Iowa, because that’s what you do when you’re running for President.  And so he’s trying to define himself, and Democrats are also trying to define him, less flatteringly. This is all normal stuff, though I hate to waste brain space thinking about a Presidential race two long years away.

But this Israel stuff is immensely depressing, is it not?  There are three intersecting/overlapping things going on right now.  First, Rand Paul is a libertarian, with views on foreign policy that are quite different from the views of the Republican establishment and, actually, not terribly reflective of the Tea Party Right.  Second, his ideas about Israel and foreign policy and foreign aid deserve a respectful hearing, not least because they are so different from what most politicians believe or are willing to say.  These are really important issues, about which we should have a vigorous and thoughtful debate.  Third, though, the media isn’t likely to allow that debate to happen.  Because the mainstream media aren’t interested in policy. They’re interested in the horse race, and in crafting shallow melodramatic narratives about the candidates.  They’re more interested in the question “did Paul flip-flop on Israel?” than they are in the question “what should American foreign policy be in regards to Israel?”  They want to ask “what did Rand Paul say and when did he say it?”  Not “why are we giving all this money to Israel?  Should we give more, or less, or should we cut off all foreign aid altogether?”

They’re interested, right now, in timing.  Who will announce, and when, and how?  They’d rather function as drama critics than as policy analysts.  They love it when a candidate ‘goes negative,’ and they love the subsequent campaign strategizing.  They’d rather focus on ‘who’s going to win,’ than on ‘what would these people do, if elected President.’

In the 2012 race, as the Republicans slogged through those endless televised debates, Ron Paul was the one guy who was consistently off the res.  He got booed a lot, and he clearly didn’t care.  He was the one guy who didn’t think America should be projecting military power abroad.  He opposed the war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan.  He wanted to cut military spending.  Those were interesting positions, and I admired his political courage in taking those positions.  Now his son is running for President.  And Rand Paul seems to actually want to be President, unlike his father, who always struck me as someone who would rather be true to his own libertarian belief system.  Do you want to be President, or do you want to be right?  Rand wants to be President, I think.

So, Rand Paul in 2010 and 11 tended to tell people what he really believed about foreign policy, and to some extent, he now seems to be backing away from positions that are unlikely to be popular.  And I get that, but I think it’s also a shame.  In essence, I think, Paul doesn’t think the media will allow for a substantive, nuanced debate on important issues.  I think he thinks, with good reason, that they’re more interested in playing ‘gotcha.’

Conservatives believe, as an article of faith, that the mainstream news media has a strong liberal bias, and that that bias warps their coverage of the news.  I think that’s total nonsense.  I think the reality is that the important mainstream news media figures aren’t biased, they’re incompetent.  They’re terrible.  They’re hopelessly bad at their jobs. They do a rotten job of covering what really matters: policy.  Instead, they focus on trivia.

This is not to say that I agree with Rand Paul, or that I intend to vote for him.  I don’t tend to agree with libertarians on most issues, and I probably won’t vote for him, if he’s the nominee.  But I think ideas matter.  I think he’s being treated badly, in part because he’s communicated his ideas artlessly, and in part because he’s not playing the political game very astutely.  But I also think he should be given a forum to communicate, clearly and thoughtfully and with as much nuance as is required, what he thinks about American foreign policy.  I think he should be allowed the space to carefully describe what he thinks about Israel, and our aid to Israel, and the weapons we’ve given to Israel, and the military expertise we’ve shared with Israel.  I think that’s an important and interesting set of issues, and we should be having a national conversation about it.  Especially now, given what’s happening.

I don’t care if Rand Paul has flip-flopped. I don’t care what he said in 2011, and how he’s ‘clarified his position’ since.  I want to hear him out on this important subject.  I want to know what he thinks, why he thinks it, what specifically he proposes.  And I want to know what Hillary Clinton thinks on those same issues, and why she thinks it. I want to know all that about all the candidates, from both parties, running for President in this next election.

I don’t think it’s going to happen.  And I think that’s a shame, and that it serves our nation poorly.  Can’t we be smarter about this stuff?  Because the guns are going off, and people are dying, and I don’t know that we’ve ever really debated our role in any of it.

 

 

The end of the Mormon Moment

Once again, cannibalized from my Sunstone talk.  The so-called Mormon Moment, and the way it ended.

The Mormon Moment was, at least initially, about seeming. Our world really did become a stage, it seemed, and we really did become players. We’re used to that anyway. From our first talk in junior Primary to Primary programs to the talks and testimonies we offer, we’re on display. We’re told to be good examples; we’re told to play missionary when in public. We’re told to testify to each other. We all know our lines, do we not? With Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, we felt it, the spotlight on our collective faces. We became a people defined by optics and soundbites, presentation and representation. The Mormon Moment was, in short, theatre.

That’s not to indict the carefully crafted ‘I’m a Mormon ads,’ nor, certainly, the people who appeared on them. But like reality TV, reality advertising consists of narratives carefully shaped and edited and presented. There’s a falseness there, right next to the sincerity and reality of the testimonies themselves. I’m a Mormon we said. I’m a painter, I’m a sculptor, I’m lead singer for a rock band, I’m a biker, and also, I’m a Mormon. We’re not all businessmen. We’re not who you think we are.

But theatre isn’t just an exterior art form. We offer carefully constructed simulacrums of reality that somehow also manage to dig under the surface of what we’re portraying; it’s representation, but at times it can become revelatory. Hamlet doesn’t exist; he’s a construct of language, given flesh by an actor, in a space. We see a production of Hamlet, and we marvel over the cleverness of the design, the careful blocking by a director, the specific line-reading choices of the actors.

But I remember sitting on a train in London after seeing a particularly fascinating conceptual approach to Hamlet, engaged in a spirited discussion with a group of students. One girl sat quietly, by herself. To draw her in, I said, “what did you think of it?” “I hated it,” she said, quietly. Taken aback, I said, “really? I thought it was fascinating; the period, the setting, the acting chops on display. Why?” “I didn’t care,” she said. “I should care. He’s trying to decide whether or not he should kill himself, and I should care a lot. And he only decides not to because he’s terrified that what comes next might be worst. Life sucks so much for him, he wants to off himself. And you’re all, ooo, the design, ooo, the acting and concept. And I didn’t care. Hamlet’s too important for aesthetics.” She said that, in that train, and in a flash I realized that she was right. I didn’t care either, and I should have. Form without substance should leave us indifferent. It’s the substance that harrows.

So the Mormon Moment was, in very large measure, about Mitt Romney’s campaign for President of the United States. And there’s no foodstuffs with more empty calories than a Presidential campaign. Really; it’s all about optics and sound bites, stump speeches and media manipulation. And so so many balloons. Slogans, carefully tested. Hope and Change. Change we can believe in. What was Romney’s campaign slogan? I had to look it up: “Believe in America.” In his first run for President, Barack Obama briefly chose not to wear a flag pin on his lapel, a refreshing moment of rebellion from the handlers and managers. Then that became a thing, and now the pin is ubiquitous. Romney changed costumes, losing the suits as too corporate. We started seeing him in Dockers and checkered shirts. Even when he wore a white shirt and tie, the sleeves were rolled up. “I’m ready to get to work fixing America,” the outfit loudly proclaimed. Mostly we saw Obama in suits. “I’m a black guy executive,’ the suits announced. “A black guy you can trust.” And weren’t both as bogus and phony as Rick Perry’s new glasses? As the ‘oops’ guy poses as an intellectual.

And so, we can look at the whole enterprise cynically, and say, ‘they’re both the same, what does it matter, they’re both phony and the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t believe in Obama or Romney, any more than I believe that Axe body spray will make me more appealing to women.’  And part of you would be right. It really is all semiotic manipulation. We’re all good post-modernists, and share, as Lyotard put it, ‘an incredulity to metanarrative.’ The presidential campaign as performance art strikes me as a particularly rich field for that incredulity.

But that’s not all that’s going on. Under the outward form, we had to keep reminding ourselves, there really was substance. Let’s say you’re a young working mom, and it’s two o’clock in the morning, and your daughter is sick, feverish and headachy, plus her neck hurts. And you don’t have health insurance. And right then, right there, you’re faced with it, sick child, middle of the night, and you have two choices, and both of them suck. Both of your choices are completely, totally irresponsible. You can decide to take your child to the emergency room of a local hospital, and rack up a huge bill you have no possible way of paying, throwing already fragile home finances into even greater confusion and disarray. Or you can hope she gets better on her own. Maybe it’s just a late night kid’s fever, no big deal. Couple of Bayer children’s aspirin, and in the morning she’ll be running around same as always. Or it could be meningitis. And you don’t have health insurance. Two choices, and they’re both awful.

And that reality, that decision faced by millions of working poor families across the nation, that was what was at stake in the 2012 Presidential election. It wasn’t about slogans and balloons. It was about sick kids in the middle of the night. It was about cancer patients denied coverage because they’d been treated for acne when they were teens. It was about differences in policy with real world consequences. It was about that Mom, and that sick kid. It was as real as a punch in the gut. And one of the two candidates had gotten legislation passed that helped that Mom, and helped that child. And the other, it suddenly seemed, opposed it? And, of course, the irony is that the program Obama had enacted had originally been Romney’s idea.  But, Romney, after slogging through that Bataan death march of endless debates with insane people, had so compromised himself that the needed swivel to the left (which he executed with some dexterity), didn’t reassure.  And, of course, health care wasn’t the only issue in the campaign. It was about lots of things; Keynesian economics, foreign wars, regulation. But when it came to issues of equality? The choice was pretty stark, was it not?

The Mormon Moment had its ironies, not the least of which is that the media’s go-to person for explanations of all things Mormon tended to be progressives, most especially Joanna Brooks. In previous years, they’d gone to Jan Shipps, the ultimate inside outsider. And Jan did Mormonism a great service—put her name on the statue next to Colonel Kane and General Doniphan. But with Joanna Brooks, we had something even better than a inside outsider; we have an outside insider, bright as hell and articulate and insightful. I don’t, obviously, have the faintest idea who Joanna Brooks voted for. But does her writing not suggest a progressive?

But looking back at that campaign, I can think of two turning point moments above all others. The first came when President Obama made the appalling rookie politician’s mistake of telling the truth. “If you’ve got a successful business, you didn’t build that alone.” In other words: someone helped you, someone provided advice and capital, lots of someones pitched in to build infrastructure. What Obama dared suggest was that the Ayn Randian protean solitary genius, the Howard Roark or John Galt so loved by the libertarian right, is as much a figure of fantasy as Gandalf or Albus Dumbledore. His heresy was particularly resented by the likes of the Koch Brothers, rugged individualists who built their corporation entirely through their own hard work and enterprise, after inheriting a billion dollar company from their John Birch society founder Daddy, Fred Koch. Who got his start-up capital from Josef Stalin. True story. Still, they did it on their own! And bankrolled TV ad after TV ad showing President Obama tell businessmen that they didn’t do it on their own.

The President took a hit in the polls after that gaffe. But the more revealing incident came later in the campaign, when a Youtube video showed a clandestine recording of a speech Romney gave at a fundraiser in Boca Raton; the 47% speech. And the optics of that were particularly damaging. In the video, you can barely see Romney at all. Mostly, you see the backs of four people sitting in chairs. From time to time, we see a bartender in the foreground. The sound quality is patchy. And that all gives it the feel of authenticity. This, we think, is the straight scoop; this is what Romney really believes. Ignore the campaign; this is the real Romney.

It was devastating. It killed his chance of being President, I think. Because it felt real. Because it was real. There was no way to spin that video, no way to contextualize it to reduce the damage. And in a sense, the Mormon moment ended there, as the 47% video made its way from bartender Scott Prouty to David Corn at Mother Jones to Rachel Maddow to every major news outlet in America.  Mitt Romney lost control of the campaign narrative. From ‘sleeves rolled up, ready to go to work to fix what’s wrong with America,’ the narrative became, ‘I don’t care about nearly half the country, especially working class people.’ From ‘competent techocrat,’ to ‘arrogant rich plutocrat.’ The actor’s artifice revealed; it was that backstage moment when you discover that the magic castle is nothing but flats; painted canvas. It was devastating.

The 47% video was the beginning of the end to the Mormon moment. The Kate Kelly excommunication was the final death blow. No longer would the national conversation about Mormons be about Romney and all those nice grandkids and Jabari Parker and ‘gosh, did you know that Imagine Dragons and the Neon Trees are Mormon!” It became about excommunication, an old-fashioned, even medieval Catholic word, and how dismayingly oppressive it sounded to post-modern ears. What’s fascinating about the Kate Kelly case is the degree to which it became a battle between Ordain Women and Church Public Relations. It was, it seems, at least in part a fight over who would control the narrative regarding women in the Church. Ally Isom, from Church Public Relations, came on Doug Fabrizio’s show, and Fabrizio asked: “If women are raising that question, instead of being disciplined for raising that question, shouldn’t they be engaged in a conversation about it.” Ally Isom’s reply: “The conversation is not the problem. It is not what is being said. It is how it is being said.” In other words, it was always about style, about word choice, about presentation. It’s about the theatrics.

And it doesn’t matter who won. No one won. And that’s the reality under the theatrics: pain. Serious, debilitating pain. It hurt the Church. It hurt Kate Kelly. It hurt Hannah Wheelwright. It hurt a lot of us here. Here, on Mormoniconoclast, I imagined two women. One, a young professional, accustomed to being treated as an equal, who looks at Church culture and is overcome with cognitive dissonance. Result: pain, disillusionment, anger and frustration. The other, a woman who has never felt disrespected in the Church, but does feel disrespected by Ordain Women, who feels that her own life of faith and sacrifice is being slighted. Pain. Someone responded by positing a third hypothetical women, torn apart, sympathetic to both sides, pained at having to take sides, caught in the middle. Pain, and more pain. And civility erodes, and it turns out nobody controlled the narrative, the narrative became collateral damage. Families shredded, pre-mature faith transitions. People all over the Church writing The Letter. It was, and remains, awful.

So what’s next?  How will the next narrative read?  Is it time for retrenchment?  Time to double-down on engagement?  I wish I had something more profound to offer than ‘we will see.’

Fox News vs. MSNBC

Okay, so you’re at a family function, and you find yourself alone in a corner with your Tea Party-supporting Uncle Bob. And Aunt Lydia’s home-made root beer has had that one week extra to really ferment.  And you’re a progressive/liberal/commie, and Uncle Bob is at his most obstreperous.  (I’m aware that a lot of you who read this aren’t actually progressive/liberal/commies, but go with me here.)  And so you suggest that his opinions aren’t actually factually based, because he watches Fox (or Faux) News.  And he says, ‘oh, and the news you get from MSNBC isn’t biased?’

And there’s the equivalency.  Fox News vs. MSNBC.  Maybe Fox News does lean right, but the entire mainstream (or ‘lamestream’) media is biased too.  On Fox, we conservatives are getting the straight scoop, the real skinny, the actual news divorced from leftist ideology.  Fox is a corrective, sure, but that doesn’t mean Fox isn’t ‘fair and balanced.’  Fox also clearly distinguishes between ‘straight news’ and ‘opinion,’ and has some first-rate journalists doing the straight news bits.  But MSNBC is basically nothing but opinion, with hosted opinion-based shows back to back to back.  Except for weekends, where MSNBC does reality shows set in prisons.

I don’t watch Fox News much, but I do watch it some.  Let me start off by saying this: in general, Fox News commentators are better at their jobs than many MSNBC hosts are.  I don’t mean truer, or more factually based, or more reasonable.  But. . .  let me explain.

When I was in grad school, I had a job in radio. My station, WFIU, was a PBS station, and so we carried Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and other PBS programming, as well as, of course, such public radio fave-raves as Car Talk and Garrison Keillor.  I also had a show of my own; a classical music call-in game show called Ether Game.  I hosted it every Tuesday night, mostly written by staff (I had staff!), but occasionally by me.  And on Saturday mornings, I had a sports talk show, co-hosted by a friend and fellow sports nut.

That sports talk show was the single most difficult thing I have ever done.  We were just establishing ourselves, and didn’t have a lot of callers at first.  A lot of sports talk radio is dreadful; shouty and angry and judgy.  I wanted something different, a sports talk show focused on evidence and expertise.  I interviewed an Olympic swimmer about her practice routine, for example.  A gymnast about Title IX.  A wide receiver coach about how to train wide receivers.  That kind of thing.  I love sports, know sports, can talk about sports with, I think, some knowledge and insight.  But my gosh it was difficult.

Try it.  Try talking non-stop for ten minutes.  On any subject on earth, on something you perhaps know a lot about.  You have to talk with some fluency, and you can’t repeat yourself, and you have to say something engaging and interesting to listeners.  I knew and liked the subject matter, I knew a lot about it, I’m a reasonably articulate guy, I think, and I researched; OMG did I research.  It’s still incredibly difficult.  To be good at talk radio requires a very specific skill set that very few people on earth have.

I loathe Rush Limbaugh’s politics, for example, but I admire his talent immensely.  He’s incredibly good at what he does.  Howard Stern is amazing on radio, not that I share his obsessions and foibles, but he’s extremely good at what he does.  Dave Ramsey’s exceptionally gifted.  Garrison Keillor is a frickin’ genius.

Well, talk radio tends to be dominated by conservatives.  I’m not sure why, but it does seem to be true. And most Fox News hosts came from radio, and brought that skill set with them.  I think Sean Hannity is one of the most annoying people on earth, but he’s a talented radio guy, and he’s brought his own articulate presence to Fox.  Bill O’Reilly’s a radio guy.  Glen Beck was, and is.  If you watch Megyn Kelly’s show, you can see how much she struggles with the format. She can be a sharp interviewer, and she’s good at TV, but she can’t just riff, the way O’Reilly and Hannity can.  She doesn’t have that radio background.

Far and away the best show on MSNBC is Rachel Maddow’s show; not surprising, given her background in (liberal) talk radio.  If you watch Rachel regularly, you’ll notice a habit she has.  She repeats herself a lot.  She’ll say something like, ‘the strongest allegations about Chris Christie, the biggest arguments against him, the people making the toughest case against him. . . .’  That’s a radio trick; people are in their cars, driving, and not necessarily paying close attention, so you repeat yourself a bit, with slight varieties between each repetition, to make sure you’ve captured their full attention. It enables her to make a more nuanced argument, and to base it in history of some kind.  That’s her strength.  And if you watch her on election nights, you realize how good she is at off-the-cuff improvisation.

So Fox News is, in many respects, just better at TV broadcasting than MSNBC is.  On Fox News, the messaging is tight, clear, punchy.  On MSNBC, it feels more self-indulgent.  Lawrence O’Donnell isn’t a very good TV show host–nowhere near as good as Rachel–because he goes off on idiosyncratic tangents. (And sometimes has to apologize later). Now, when there’s a big major story breaking, MSNBC is excellent, because they simply become an extension of the work being done by the professionals at NBC News.  Fox doesn’t have as many real journalists at their disposal; they’re not great at breaking news.  MSNBC is improving; Steve Kornacki’s terrific, as is Jose Diaz-Balart, as is Melissa Harris-Perry.  But Al Sharpton’s show is painful to watch, as is Chris Matthews’.  And I really dislike Morning Joe, though it’s a popular show. Beats me why.

But–and this is the point I really want to make–there’s no way MSNBC is anywhere near as important to liberals as Fox is to conservatives.  Not even close.  The ratings bear this out; Fox clobbers MSNBC in TV ratings all the time. And that totally doesn’t matter.  Because liberals don’t tend to get their news from TV.  And conservatives do, mostly from Fox.

This is basic demographics.  The median age for Fox News viewers is 65.  Fox News viewers skew heavily old, white and male.  Rachel Maddow actually wins her time slot regularly among the 25-54 age demographic.  Older people are used to getting their news from television.  They’re also used to TV news personalities being authoritative–Cronkite, Rather, David Brinkley.  And Fox News speaks to their fears and concerns.  The national debt is a potent issue for those viewers, because they’re worried about their grandchildren.

(This also explains Megyn Kelly getting her own show.  She’s not much of a journalist, though she is a pretty good interviewer, and has a feisty, confident on-air personality.  But she is an attractive young blonde woman.  Demographics; older white men like pretty blonde women.)

But younger, more liberal voters tend not to watch network television at all, and mostly, when they do watch TV, it’s via the internet.  And satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert speak to their style and approach.  Fox News seems square, earnest in comparison (and the Fox News website is generally considered lame).  Liberals are much more likely to get news from a variety of sources, most of them internet sources: Daily Kos, Salon.com, vox.com, 538.com, Huffpo, Politico.com, etc.  Paul Krugman’s blog is a daily must-read. I agree that conservatives have their pet websites too: Breitbart, National Journal, Heritage, Cato. But I know conservatives who really do watch Fox for hours every day.  I don’t know a soul who could bear to watch that much MSNBC.

So Uncle Bob is right when he says that MSNBC is, in a sense, the liberal equivalent to Fox News.  (Though, I would point out that the second most popular show on MSNBC is hosted by a conservative, Joe Scarborough, something for which Fox has nothing comparable).  But it isn’t true that MSNBC and Fox are really equal.  Fox News is an immensely important part of the conservative movement, and of the Tea Party movement.  MSNBC is . . . just another news source.

Of course, mainstream media are also important, though their influence is diminishing.  CNN can be embarrassingly bad, especially at international news.  And of course, the myth of ‘liberal media bias’ needs to be dispelled once and for all. We all of us, right and left, suffer from confirmation bias, and though I do believe truth exists, it can be frustratingly difficult to discern.  Reading broadly and widely helps.  Watching one network all the time is a waste of time.  We can use news to confirm our prejudices, or we can try to learn something from the media we consume.  We can’t watch or read everything.  But we have, at our fingertips, the greatest source for information the world has ever seen.  Maybe we could use that resource in a way that increases wisdom and understanding.

 

Two big political questions for Mormons

Today, we Utahns enjoyed the edifying spectacle of seeing our last two Attorneys-General hauled off in handcuffs for political corruption.  Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, who between them were Attorneys-General in Utah for sixteen years, both charged with multiple counts of receiving and soliciting bribes.  Chatting with an old friend from Indiana, he asked the obvious question: what’s going on in Utah?  Why are all your attorneys-general crooks?  And the best answer both of us could come up with is this: Utah’s a one-party state.  With veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, the Republican party rules untroubled by any thought of electoral consequences.  And that lack of voter oversight can lead to, well, corruption.

That’s the first question, and the first attempt at an answer.  Here’s the second question: why do Mormons hate President Obama so much?  A recent gallup poll asked people if they approved or disapproved of this President, but also broke down the results by religion.  Turns out, Mormons hate him more than any other religion.  He got a 18% favorable, 78% unfavorable.  So why do we Mormons hate this President so much?

I’m just going to discount the possibility that it’s because he’s a terrible President and Mormons, with our powers of spiritual discernment, saw it before anyone else did.  Or that we’re all conservatives because only conservatism is compatible with gospel values.  I’m ignoring both those possibilities, because this is my blog and I can say anything I want to on it.  And also because that’s silly.  Neither political party has any kind of monopoly on truth or values or good policies, and no objective look at Obama’s Presidency could possibly fail to notice that he’s had some successes and some failures, like every President ever.  I’m a Mormon, and I think he’s an excellent President.  I have also, on this blog, called for his impeachment.  I think NSA spying on us violates the Constitution, and that drone warfare is an abomination.  I also think Obamacare is a big success story (the evidence for that is pretty well overwhelming), and that he’s been an effective advocate for sensible economic policies. And for the poor, which is my number one issue anyway. So Obama’s a mixed bag.  Add it up, and he’s been a good President. Top-tier.

But conservatives hate him, and Republicans tend to froth at the mouth at how much they hate him, and that’s weird.  Mormons tend to be conservative Republicans, hence his bad poll numbers. Plus, he defeated a Mormon hero, Mitt Romney (an estimable man, I think.)  Plus he’s black.  That’s all gotta be in the mix.  But mostly, it’s because he’s a liberal and Mormons really really aren’t.

Here’s one theory about why Mormons tend to be Republicans.  Mormons disproportionately live in the western states, especially Utah and Idaho.  And those states tend to be very conservative.  Utah and Idaho are very conservative, and have large Mormon populations, but Wyoming and Montana also tend to be very conservative, and don’t have majority Mormon populations.  Western states tend to have large amounts of federally owned land, which is a constant source of friction. We fancy ourselves independent loners, who enjoy wide open spaces.  Rural Americans tend to be more conservative than urban Americans, and Utah is really quite rural.  Except for Salt Lake City itself, which is also Utah’s one enclave of hard-core liberals.  So Mormons are conservatives because Mormons are rural Westerners, who tend to be conservative.  It’s entirely demographics; has nothing to do with doctrine or beliefs.

But I live in Provo, and Provo/Orem is really pretty urban, with two major universities, and lots of suburbs. And Provo/Orem are, like, majorly conservative.  Democrats are outnumbered in my town at least 10-1.  So the ‘independent right-wing rancher’ theory doesn’t entirely hold up either.

We’d like to believe that voters are well-informed and thoughtful and make their decisions based on reason and evidence.  I don’t think that’s all that true for most people. There’s a lot of social science research on this; most people respond viscerally and emotionally to political questions, which they’d otherwise prefer not to think about much.  In Utah, a Republican named ‘McKay’ is going to do very well in most elections, because LDS people have really positive associations with the name ‘McKay’ and a great many voters will just vote the straight Republican ticket anyway.  That name and that party affiliation will generally be enough to win any race that guy enters.  Not caucuses, though, because caucus voters tend to be very well informed and passionate, and of course also really majorly conservative.

So why are Mormons such hard core Republicans?  I think it’s about one issue above all others.  I think it’s because of abortion.

Abortion evokes very powerful emotions for social conservatives, and for Mormons.  The argument that ‘The prophet has spoken on this’ is a winning argument in almost any setting, and there’s no question that the Church has taken a strong stance against elective abortions.  And it’s an emotional issue. One the one side of it are people who believe, with all their hearts, that women absolutely should be the ones to make the most essential medical decisions regarding their bodies.  On the other side of it, you’ve got the ‘baby-killer’ argument. So you can demonize the other side as either ‘anti-women’ or ‘baby murderers.’  Strong stuff.

Of course, it’s a far more complex and nuanced issue than either of those formulations would suggest.  While the Church is certainly strongly ‘pro-life’, it does also say that morally defensible abortions can be performed when the pregnancy places a mother’s life at stake, or when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.  And in those situations, the person who should have ultimate responsibility for deciding whether or not to terminate the pregnancy should be the woman.  That’s one reason that some evangelical Christians protest against the Church at General Conference; we’re soft on abortion, in their view.

And to criminalize abortion would be a catastrophe.  We’ve seen it before; young women so desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy that they’ll go to any extreme, including medically dangerous procedures performed by back-alley charlatans.  The brilliant Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days captures the agonized desolation of a young woman who will go to any extreme to terminate her pregnancy. Historically, women have always known ways to end an unsustainable pregnancy, secrets passed down by midwives and other older women who know the secret.

As a Democrat, I support Bill Clinton’s formulation: abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I also love this reasoning, from one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace:

The only really coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both Pro-life and Pro-choice.

Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life.

At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.

Abortion is, in other words, a highly emotional issue that isn’t simple and isn’t black and white, but which easily be framed in black and white terms. Especially when we’re talking about something as absolute and fundamental as killing babies.  Or denying women basic human rights.

But this isn’t about me being torn.  It’s about why Mormons are Republicans.  And the emotional power of the abortion issue trumps every other consideration.  And as long as the Democratic response to the issue of abortion is ‘it’s a nuanced and complicated question, not a black-and-white one,’ which is perfectly true, we Dems are going to lose a lot of elections in Utah.  For a very long time.

 

 

 

 

 

Suing the President

John Boehner and Barack Obama don’t like each other.  That seems apparent.  I don’t know, of course, how personal this is, or if it’s just political and professional.  I had a colleague at BYU who I just flat out disagreed with pretty much all the time on pretty much every issue our department confronted.  But when we weren’t squabbling in faculty meeting, we got along fine.  Our disagreements were entirely professional. When we were able to talk on neutral subjects–football, say–we got along really well.  At faculty parties, his wife and my wife became pals.  It may well be that President Obama and Speaker Boehner’s disagreements are like that; professional and political.  John Adams said really rude things about Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson returned the favor.  But when they were both out of office, they re-established their friendship, and their correspondence is one of the glories of American letters. Maybe Obama/Boehner will have the same happy outcome.  But I’m rather inclined to doubt it.

Anyway, for weeks now, Speaker Boehner has been threatening to sue the President.  President Obama’s response has been, basically, ‘bring it.’  The President’s on the stump these days, making what sure seem like off-the-cuff speeches about how much he would love to work with Congress (read ‘the House’) on legislation, but that they don’t seem interested.  The Senate sent over a bi-partisan immigration bill months ago, and it would probably pass the House too, in a straight up-and-down vote.  But in an election year?  Immigration?  It’s a toxic issue for Republicans, who are much more afraid of Tea Party challenges to their right than they are of possible Democratic challengers in the general election.  So Speaker Boehner won’t call for a vote, and that means President Obama gets to make fun of him for it.  It’s all pretty amusing.

But not as slap-stick comical as this lawsuit malarkey.  The guys at the invaluable website vox.com have been all over this, with four separate (and very good) articles about it, looking at it from several angles.  Here’s Ezra Klein on the issue:

Consider what happens if Speaker John Boehner wins  his lawsuit against President Barack Obama: the court will order Obama to implement the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate without further delay. Which, given that Obama only delayed the mandate until 2015 and court cases can take a long time to wind their way through the legal system, might mean the court will order Obama to do something he has already done.

What’s even odder about the suit is that Boehner hates Obamacare’s employer mandate. And the business groups that back Boehner hate Obamacare’s employer mandate. So Boehner is lifting heaven and earth to get the court to demand Obama more rapidly enforce a policy Boehner hates, that Boehner’s allies hate, and that Obama says he’s going to start enforcing in a few months anyway.

It’s as if Pat Riley was suing LeBron James to force him to begin playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers sooner.

Exactly.

Our friends on the Right insist that President Obama’s delay in implementing this so-called ‘employer mandate’ is clearly and obviously unconstitutional.  Funny how they didn’t think so when President Bush unilaterally and without Congressional approval delayed the implementation of Medicare Part B.  George W. Bush did exactly what conservatives accuse Obama of doing; changing the specific requirements of a law. I don’t remember the howls of protest then.

And it’s the kind of thing the Constitution is very vague about.  The Constitution says Congress passes legislation.  The Executive branch executes those laws.  So, we have a law, requiring employers to provide insurance to their employees.  Because of feedback from the business community, President Obama decides to delay implementation of that provision by a year.  So is that a case in which the President is illegally re-writing a law?  Or is it a minor case of tweaking a deadline, in order to better execute the law?  The Constitution doesn’t clarify this point, and shouldn’t, for something that’s so obviously a gray area.  As the courts will certainly rule.

So why is Boehner doing it?  Why is he pursuing a lawsuit that he almost certainly won’t win, to implement a law that he loathes?  Ezra Klein, again over at Vox, thinks it’s an idiotic gambit legally, but quite brilliant politically.

See, conservatives really really really hate Obama.  I mean, frothing at the mouth, spittle emitting hatred.  There’s this thing called the internet; mostly consists of tubes or something, best I can understand it.  Go on Reddit or Facebook or something, and post  ‘boy, I think Obama is a really good President.’  It’s kind of entertaining, to see how angry people get.

So people like Sarah Palin–well, actually, Sarah Palin–have been calling for President Obama’s impeachment, because, I don’t know, Benghazi.  And their latest meme is that he’s lawless.  He’s trampling all over the Constitution!  He’s consciously destroying America!  Or something.  And Boehner, because he wants to keep being Speaker, says all that too.  So when Boehner talks about this ‘lawless criminal’ in the White House, exercising ‘king-like authority,’ he’s just echoing the rhetorical excesses of everyone on the Fox News right.

But the problem is, if in fact Obama is a lawless criminal, acting in a king-like disregard for Constitutional values, well, there’s a perfectly adequate Constitutional remedy for that: impeachment.  But Boehner doesn’t want to pursue impeachment.  First of all, he knows perfectly well that Obama hasn’t done anything impeachable.  Second, he knows how an irresponsible impeachment would backfire politically.  Right now, the President isn’t very popular; impeach him, and watch his numbers climb and his political capital grow.  It’s not even entirely clear that the House can impeach Obama.  Impeachment is a serious step, and Boehner has to know he can count on exactly zero votes from House Democrats on it, and there are enough Republican moderates to make it a very chancy proposition, especially, again, when Obama hasn’t done anything to build a bill of impeachment around.  And, of course, impeach and remove is a complete impossibility; Democrats control the Senate.

Hence, this ridiculous lawsuit.  It gives Boehner the space he needs to keep up the ferocious rhetorical attacks on Obama the Tea Party loves so much, without quite having to go so far as impeachment.  It’s smart-ish politically.  The only cost is that the President gets to keep making fun of him for it.  But that’s the key to Boehner’s speakership; speak loudly, and carry a tiny stick.  He’s certainly the most inept Speaker in US history, but being Speaker right now, is an impossible gig.  He’s really really bad at his job, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else being better at it.

Of course, the House can always vote to repeal Obamacare again.  That always works. And isn’t that great?  They vote over and over to repeal the ACA, then file a lawsuit seeking to force Obama to . . . implement more quickly the ACA.  What a strange political world we inhabit.

Movie Review: America, Imagine the World Without Her

Dinesh D’Souza’s new documentary, America: Imagine the World Without Her is, let’s admit it, a competently made piece of Tea Party propaganda.  I saw it at a matinee at 10:30 in the morning, and the place was packed.  I was also the youngest person in the audience by twenty years.  Leaving the theater afterwards, I heard audible sobs, saw genuine tears shed, saw people who had clearly been moved by it.  Part of me wanted to make a scene, but I didn’t. Internet trolls are bad enough; a movie troll is nothing to aspire to.

And I admit: it’s pretty well made.  Lots of costumed reenactments–Washington leading troops to battle, Lincoln giving speeches, Frederick Douglass likewise. Lots and lots of sweeping helicopter shots of American landmarks–Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge.  Lots of inspiring country rock patriotic music.  It sets a brisk pace, makes its points with clarity.  Even the ubiquity of D’Souza’s presence as interviewer is intentional and effective.  He’s from India; he’s dark-skinned and he’s conservative, One of Us, so we’re absolved from the charge of racism.

And he has some interesting interviews; gets some pretty prominent lefties to say suitably inflammatory things: Ward Churchill, Alan Dershowitz, Bono.  So it looks, you know, balanced and reasonable.  Fair.  It isn’t.

The stated premise of the film is intriguing; what would the world be like without America?  Would it be a better or a worse place?  Specifically; the movie starts off with a battle scene in which a British sniper kills George Washington.  Well, what if that had happened, what if we Americans had lost the Revolutionary war?  But D’Souza doesn’t pursue that question much, probably because the answer’s pretty mundane.  We don’t know what would have happened, but probably we’d have just ended up more or less like Canada.  Slavery would have ended sooner than it did, and our system of government would be parliamentary but still democratic.  No 2nd Amendment.  We’d be fine, in other words.

What really interests D’Souza, though, is Howard Zinn.  Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States tells our history from the perspective of marginalized people–Native Americans, slaves, poor immigrants, workers.  D’Souza clearly loathes Zinn and everything he stands for, and offers an alternative American history; that of Alexis de Tocqueville.  D’Souza thereby sets up a false dualism; the American narrative is either that of a 60s radical socialist historian, or that of an early 19th century French aristocrat who rode around Ohio and was impressed by this nation of farmer/inventor/entrepreneurs.  And those are our choices.  America is defined by one of those narratives; it’s either/or, Zinn or de Tocqueville.  Ignoring, oh, the work of maybe 20, 000 historians also defining America narratively.

And that’s what we get, this insultingly simplistic rendering of the American story. Zinn says that we robbed Native Americans, practiced genocide.  D’Souza says ‘no, we didn’t murder Native Americans!  They died of disease.  We made treaties!  We were civilized!’  And thereby reduces a complicated history to one that’s more comfortable to us today.  Or slavery; yeah, we practiced slavery.  But so did lots of countries!  Plus, we had white people slaves, people in indentured servitude!  Plus we fought an idealistic war to get rid of it!  So we’re not really to blame for anything.  At all.  America still gets to be good!

Of course, D’Souza has his villains.  Obviously.  Worst of all: Saul Alinsky.  In D’Souza’s unsubtle rendering, Alinsky is essentially a mobster, a commie agitator, a secretive operative intent on destroying America.  And he has two great allies today: Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.  (Obama’s grandfather knew Alinsky slightly in Hawaii; Hillary wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky.)  See, Alinsky was trying to destroy America!  Because he was a communist!  And now Obama is trying to destroy America! Because he’s a communist, fundamentally hostile to American entrepreneurial capitalism.

That was one of the times I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t help it; it’s just too funny.  A pro-business moderate like Obama (or for heaven’s sake, Ms. Wall Street Hillary Clinton!) being portrayed as a communist!  Corporate profits were around 10 trillion last year; if Obama’s trying to destroy capitalism, he’s really bad at it.

The historical ignorance of this movie, the straw man arguments, the foolish knee-jerk anti-Obama assertions, the astonishing lack of nuance, ultimately it makes for a dispiriting experience.

I wondered how D’Souza would deal with the fact that he’s in jail: that he was arrested for violating campaign finance law.  It’s nicely done.  First, we see him sitting in a jail cell, in handcuffs.  He looks glum, and the voiceover says ‘I made a serious mistake.’  And then he goes on to talk about the IRS “scandal”, where the IRS supposedly targeted Tea Party groups seeking 501 (c) (4) status. See what he did there?  Sleight of hand: he can say ‘hey, I admitted my errors,’  but in the context of Obama persecuting critics of his administration. Like Dinesh? You can read it that way if you like. . .

At one point, the film shows a clip of Michael Moore at an Occupy Wall Street rally.  Earlier, D’Souza makes a big deal of the fact that his previous film, Obama’s America, was the second biggest money-making political documentary ever.  Well, what’s first?  Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.  And Moore’s the one filmmaker more than any other who D’Souza resembles.  They both make propaganda films, polemical films essentially defining the political divide.  They both make films that play to the confirmation bias of hard-core partisans, left and right.  They both make unsubtle, manipulative films.

And they both lost.  Moore’s film tried to win the 2004 election for John Kerry; D’Souza’s first film tried to win 2012 for Mitt Romney.  Both made tons of money-both failed to achieve their more important objective.  This film is aimed at Obama again, to be sure–conservatives can’t clear their throats nowadays without expressing their contempt for this President.  But it’s also aimed at Hillary.  It’s making sure that We all understand what a Threat she is.  That’s nonsense, of course, and I think it’s likely to fail again. A diet of pure bile is never all that nourishing.  And this guy has nothing to offer but bile.