Category Archives: Popular culture, general

BYU, the Honor Code, and Sexual Assault

On April 7, at a Rape Awareness event on the BYU campus, it was revealed that women who report having been sexually assaulted may be reported to the Honor Code office. Turns out this wasn’t hypothetical. A nineteen-year old student from California had been raped, and had been contacted by a representative from the Honor Code office about a possible violation. A sheriff’s deputy had inappropriately given a copy of the case file to university officials. The young woman had refused to cooperate with the subsequent University investigation, and had been blocked from registering for classes. As a result, she was considering returning home to California. Utah County prosecutors have expressed their frustration over the case, because her absence from Provo might complicate their investigation into the alleged attack.

Of course, BYU does not regard being raped as a violation of the Honor Code. The point of an Honor Code investigation is to discover ancillary HC violations. Was she out past curfew? Was she alone with a man in her apartment? That kind of thing. However, it seems obvious that pursuing that kind of investigation could have a chilling effect on women reporting an assault. If a woman is raped, and knows that reporting that rape might result in university disciplinary action, she’s going to be less likely to report it. I don’t doubt that ‘fewer women reporting being attacked’ is an unintended consequence of this policy. It’s still a consequence.

And it seems just as obvious that this policy would really only apply to sexual attacks. If a woman is raped, she is the victim of a violent crime. Let’s suppose that a man was violently attacked. Let’s suppose that someone beat him up, for example. Would the Honor Code office get involved? Would they ask if he’d been somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, dressed inappropriately? In general, we would say that any victim of any violent crime should be encouraged to report that crime, and we would hope that the police would investigate the crime, with an eye to arresting its perpetrator. And in all such instances, if the victim of the crime was a BYU student, there’s really no appropriate role for the Honor Code office.

And so, ever since we learned of this policy, there’s been a lot of outrage about it. I share that outrage. 30,000 people have signed a petition asking BYU to ‘stop punishing victims of sexual assault.’ I agree with the goals of that petition. BYU seems to be straining at the gnat of minor HC violations, while swallowing the camel of serious violent crimes. I also think it’s very unlikely that those policies will change. This is, after all, BYU we’re talking about.

Let me clarify. I taught at BYU for over twenty years. They were joyful years. I loved the students I was able to teach, loved the colleagues I worked with, loved experiences I had there. I also found BYU administrators could be, at times, difficult to work with. I rather suspect that faculty across the country would say the same about the university administrations at their schools. BYU administrators don’t like being challenged.

As a faculty member, I was particularly troubled by the dress and grooming standards of the Honor Code. As a male faculty member, it seemed to me that the language of the dress and grooming standard unnecessarily and inappropriately sexualized the young women in our classes and at the university. I was told, on occasion, that it was my responsibility as a faculty member, to ‘enforce’ those standards. This meant that I was to scrutinize the clothing choices of our students, to determine if clothing was ‘form-fitting’ or ‘revealing.’

I do not know, did not know, and never cared to know what any of that meant. Those terms strike me as quite subjective. And for me to determine if a young woman was wearing an outfit that was ‘revealing’ would require me, as a male faculty member, to view her as something beyond simply as a student.

I decided early on that I wouldn’t do it. I opted out. My informal interactions with colleagues suggest that pretty much everyone opted out. It was my job to teach. It was not any part of my job to judge how people chose to dress. Or how they cut their hair, or how many earrings they wore, or if they chose to express their individuality through tattoos. I wasn’t going to worry about any of it. I taught my classes, and I made myself available for office consultations, and I wrote letters of recommendation when asked, and I made lifelong friends. I never once turned anyone in for anything.

Except that’s not entirely true. I did turn students in to the Honor Code office, twice. Once, it was a student who openly, obviously and egregiously cheated on a paper. Plagiarized. And, when I asked him to meet with me about it, was so dismissive, so contemptuous, and so obnoxious about it I felt that I needed to do something about him. He was a kid with a problem and an attitude, and I thought the Honor Code office handled his situation with a mix of sensitivity and firmness that, in my mind, was kind of the Platonic ideal for dealing with rude and dishonest students. So that was one. The second time I turned someone in, it was a stalker situation. A student asked me what she should do; she didn’t want to call the cops, but she also wanted this guy to leave her alone. Again, the Honor Code office handled the situation well.

So it sounds like I’m defending the Honor Code office. In a way, I am. I only interacted with that office twice, and both experiences worked out well. I heard anecdotally of students whose interactions with the HCO were less positive. The operative verb would be ‘hassled.’ ‘I’m being hassled by the Honor Code folks.’ That’s a shame. I think monitoring whether students wear their hair too long, or their skirts too short is silly. I do think that it’s helpful to have an office you can turn to when students cheat on exams or harm other students.

The fact is, almost every university has a code of personal conduct to which students are expected to conform. And almost every university in the country struggles to deal with the national scourge of sexual assault. President Obama’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault has listed 124 institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law regarding sexual violence cases. This is an important national issue. BYU is not alone in sometimes handling it badly.

Without becoming a BYU apologist, I do think that this situation is complicated in ways that have not been recognized in the public discourse over it. I agree, of course, that preventing campus rape should be a goal towards which every university should strive. One way to accomplish that is it to remove all possible barriers discouraging victims of sexual violence to come forward. This BYU policy creates such a barrier. The policy really does, therefore, need to change.

But there are ways in which the Honor Code could also help solve the problem. Since the code already prohibits ‘obscene or indecent conduct or expressions,’ then grossly sexist expressions would also seem to be prohibited. ‘Red Pill’ or ‘Gamergate’ attitudes towards women are already incompatible with the standards of the Church. As, of course, is rape itself. There are surely more positive steps that BYU can take. Call me naive, but in my experience, the will to take them largely already exists.

Loretta Lynn, and a feminist fix for Saturday’s Warrior

Last week, I reviewed the new movie based on the popular LDS musical, Saturday’s Warrior. It was a very personal review, one in which I genuinely tried to be honest and also balanced, judicious. And I blew it. My review missed the single most significant problem with Warrior, and one that the movie made no attempt to fix: patriarchal gaze. I’ll explain what I mean in a second. But first, let me talk about Loretta Lynn.

In the film, we’re meant to believe that the song Zero Population, sung by Jimmy Flinders and his pals, rose up the Billboard charts in 1974, reaching number one. As one friend put it, “Uh, Zero Population, one, Clapton’s Layla number two?” And in my review, I ridiculed the idea that a song about limiting family size could chart. I was wrong. I’d forgotten that there was, in the mid-seventies, a song about choosing to limit the number of children in a family. It was a big hit. It reached number one. It remains today one of the most important songs ever by a massively important artist.

It’s just that it was on the country charts, not pop charts, and it was by a woman, Loretta Lynn. It was her song, The Pill. Enjoy:

It’s a breezy little number, comically defiant in tone. And it’s by Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter, the most decorated woman in the history of country music. Married at 15, a grandmother at 34, a champion of blue-collar women’s issues. Released in 1975, the song unleashed a firestorm. A lot of country stations wouldn’t even play it. But Lynn also received dozens of letters from rural doctors, thanking her for doing more to educate poor women about basic contraception than anything they’d ever done; their classes, pamphlets, visits. The song accomplished what they couldn’t.

What’s wonderful about The Pill is how triumphant it is. It reminds us how liberating having affordable, reliable, medically safe birth control has been for millions, heck, billions of women. It’s one of the greatest unsung advancements in human history. But of course, there’s also been cultural pushback against the idea of women taking charge of their own fertility, including, astoundingly, today. In the seventies, The Pill was a big deal, and it was very much an issue in the LDS Church. It isn’t at all difficult to find talks, from the pulpit, in General Conference, in which men told women they were to have as many children as they could possibly manage. I knew a woman who, back in the day, was denied a temple recommend because she told her bishop she’d gone on the pill. (I also knew an LDS couple who went on the pill, got pregnant, went to their doctor, and asked how this could happen, the husband hadn’t missed a day taking that pill. True story). That wouldn’t happen now, thank heavens. Those talks now read like the relics they are. And I’m delighted for it.

But back to Saturday’s Warrior. I’m a dude, I’m a guy, I’m an inadvertent avatar of Mormon patriarchy. And in my review of the movie, I missed what should have seemed obvious; all the talk about limiting the size of one’s family takes place in conversations between men. It’s Jimmy who’s the protagonist, who writes the Zero Population song and performs it, it’s Jimmy who rejects his father’s values, it’s Jimmy who has to recant and repent and reject his big popular successful song. And yet the issue at hand, the central issue of the entire play is a women’s issue. It’s not ‘is the position Jimmy takes on the abstract political issue of zero population growth viable.’ It’s ‘should women have the right to choose to limit how many children they will bring to term and bear.’

And raise. That’s in there too. Too often, it’s women, mothers, who feel like they’re in a boxing ring, pummeled daily by the pugilists ‘Too Much To Do’ and ‘Not Enough Time’ and ‘Not Enough Money’ and ‘Physical and Mental and Emotional Exhaustion.’ And of course men are in the equation. Men can and should be actively involved in child-rearing. In some families, that’s his primary role, leaving her to advance professionally. Certainly, if a married woman wants to take steps to prevent pregnancy, she should probably inform her husband, or even, if she wants to, consult with him, counsel with him, maybe. Up to her. There are surely as many ways for families to organize themselves effectively as there are families in the world (or Church, if we want to limit the conversation).

But it’s women, uniquely women, who grow another human being inside their bodies. It’s women, uniquely women, who give birth, who descend into the valley of death and struggle heroically out again with babies in their arms. I’m a guy. My understanding of what pregnancy and childbirth, those human experiences are like, my sympathetic feeling, remains one that’s essentially abstract.

It’s so weird to me, in retrospect, that Saturday’s Warrior, a play that’s fundamentally about pregnancy and birth and family is so cluelessly patriarchal. Or that it took me so long to notice.

In the spirit of Loretta Lynn and The Pill (and One’s on the Way, and Rated X; she talked about sexuality and childbirth in a lot of her songs), all that hardcore, grounded in life, hardscrabble, lived-experience, down and gritty feminism, let’s fix Warrior. And let me add; this is completely inappropriate, for any writer to offer to fix another writer’s work. I should be ashamed of myself. I am ashamed of myself. Call it a thought experiment, call it a writing exercise. Call it me being a jerk. I still think (or have convinced myself) it’s worth doing.

The protagonist pretty much has to be either Jimmy’s Mom or his younger sister, Julie. I’m voting for Julie.

So what if. . .

Julie promises Elder Kestler she’ll faithfully wait for him, then immediately starts dating other guys. There’s a wonderful little scene in the movie between Julie and her Mom where she tells her Mom she’s gotten engaged, only she approaches it clumsily, and Mom thinks Julie’s telling her she’s pregnant. Well, okay, what if she is?

Immediately, she has a decision to make. Could be a nice song there; she wants to go to college, she has some career plans, and she’s not in love with the baby’s father, who has nonetheless offered to Do The Right Thing By Her. Can she even consider terminating the pregnancy? Given her upbringing, probably not. Should she go ahead and marry the guy? The thought fills her with dread. What should she do?

What if she decides to go all Juno, carry the baby to term, give birth, and then give the baby up for adoption? I think, given her family and given what we know of her character, that would be the most plausible scenario for her. And then we get the scene in the pre-existence, where little Emily is waiting to come to earth a Flinders, and Alex Boye has to tell her there’s another loving family who wants her, and who will raise her, who she will love as deeply as she would love her parents-by-biology. That is, of course, entirely true, the power of adoption, plus it undercuts the play’s theological squeeginess nicely. Unneatens it. Messifies it. (For some reason, I’m in coinage mode today).

Probably, to make it work, you’d have to create another subplot, with this couple, nice folks, in the preexistence, imagining a huge family (‘ten children, no, fifteen, no, twenty!’). And then they come here, and meet, and nothing. Wham; infertility. And we see them cope with that struggle. And then . . . baby Emily. Handed to them, by the play’s protagonist, Julie. Who says goodbye. And then resolutely gets on with her life. Which means her relationship with Tod, I guess, but she comes to him as an older and wiser and sadder and stronger repentant new woman.

(You probably would have to cut some of the Jimmy subplot, like maybe the whole Zero Population song, to fit all that in. Gosh, what a shame that would be.)

I think it would all work. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular, of course, and wouldn’t make any money, and I should probably be shot for even doing this. But it does seem to me that any text about pregnancy, or family size, or birth control needs to be from a woman’s perspective. Not mandates from the patriarchy. Insights, from actual women warriors.

 

 

GE, Trump and Sanders

A whole series of commercials for GE explain, I think, the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump political campaigns. But first, a story from my childhood.

I grew up in Indiana. The neighborhood I lived in as a child was, I now realize, pretty strongly blue collar, and that was reflected at the school I attended. I remember one day, in sixth grade, when our teacher asked a question that would be completely non-PC nowadays; she asked ‘what do your fathers do for a living? Where do they work?’ And around the room, the kids all answered: ‘He works at Westinghouse,’ ‘at Otis Elevator,’ ‘limestone worker,’ ‘at Crane (a naval base).’ In almost every case, the kids’ dads worked at factories or labor-intensive work sites in town. (We were just at the end of the Indiana limestone boom). When I said “my Dad’s an opera singer,” the kids stared at me like I was a Martian. And I knew recess that day would be, uh, trying.

What that odd classroom question reflected, however, was a kind of blue collar paradise that really did exist back then. You graduated from high school, got a job at the local factory, worked there for forty years, retired with a decent pension. Meanwhile, you filled your spare time with good works; coached Little League or volunteered as a Scoutmaster, or were active in your church, or joined the Elks or Moose Lodges or the Rotary Club. It was a good life, an honest life, hard work and sacrifice, but one that enabled you to raise your family and enjoy the fruits of a generally happy marriage.

And it’s almost completely gone nowadays. Gone for good, frankly. The economy’s changed. Those manufacturing jobs have vanished, and they’re not coming back. And it’s not just those jobs that are gone. It’s the whole social contract those jobs–that schoolroom conversation–represented. What we have nowadays is an information-driven economy.

Now, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are highly critical of free trade, and more specifically, the PNTR, the deal by which China got Permanent Normal Trade Relations, which has, as its end result, the reality that your I-phone was almost certainly built in China. Sanders says that one deal probably cost the United States 3 million manufacturing jobs. That’s almost certainly true, if we look at only one side of a very complicated series of calculations.

My point, for now, is not that those sorts of trade agreements have compensating virtues even for the US. Nor is it really that free trade is the single greatest weapon we could possibly wield in the fight against world-wide severe poverty. I mean, that’s true, but it’s a hard argument to make without sounding self-righteous about how much more moral your policy preferences are. (Not that this isn’t also a moral issue. Which is why I support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy).

No, the point is this: the US economy has changed, permanently and for the better, but with consequences that are severe and troubling for blue-collar workers and their families.

Which brings me to these commercials. They’re about a guy named ‘Owen,’ a software developer, who is very excited about his new job at GE. And he can’t explain it to anyone, because they literally don’t understand the ways in which the economy has changed, or because they regard those changes as threatening and foreign.

Here’s my favorite:

See what I mean? He’s telling his parents about this fabulous new job he’s gotten, one that he couldn’t be more excited about. And his father is almost openly contemptuous. He’s not going to be, you know, working. With tools. Like, a hammer.

The Dad’s a Donald Trump supporter. Right?

The next one shows Owen telling his friends about the job. And they are, apparently, all liberal arts weenies (says me, the lib arts weenie), resigned to their own lives working service industry jobs. (All of them, one presumes, feeling the Bern).

Finally this one. This time, his friends really, literally, don’t understand him. It’s like they’re speaking different languages. I love how condescending they are.

These commercials are weird to me, frankly. I mean, the obvious point is that GE is telling us about the way the company is changing. But in a larger sense, these commercials chronicle changes in the US economy that are frankly scary and more than a little damaging to a lot of people, in ways that have so far had all sorts of political ramifications.

What can we do? Work for GE, in development. Job retraining, education, expand the social safety net. But short term, let’s admit it; free trade causes pain, in addition to creating opportunities. And ‘picking up the hammer’ isn’t likely to work very well either.

The Trump/Kaufman hypothesis

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

I think Donald Trump is actually Andy Kaufman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound like anyone we know?

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

Are you having fun?

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

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

Please?

We’re living in a superhero movie

Yesterday I saw and reviewed Deadpool, which I saw as a rather interesting deconstruction of superhero movies, that simultaneously subverted and reestablished the conventions of that genre. Anyway, it got me thinking about superhero movies, and about superheroes in general. And the war on terror.

The basic narrative of superheroes is that certain people have extraordinary powers, which they feel compelled to use for the betterment of mankind. (Would you? If you had those powers, how altruistically would you use them? Wouldn’t you be tempted by, well, power, wealth, sex, revenge?) (Lawful Good? Or Chaotic Neutral?) Humanity is threatened with very serious and dangerous threats, which ordinarily we would be incapable of coping with. Good thing, then, that there exist these, what, benevolent Nietzschean demigods, who may wear ridiculous spandex outfits, but who will always save the day.

Of course, superheroes represent the ultimate expression of melodramatic narrative structure, and of course, they’re also profoundly anti-democratic. Authoritarian, even. The collective will of the people is posited as insufficient to meet our nation’s challenges. We need to turn to . . . Superman. Or Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, the X-Men. Captain America.

But, of course, being a superhero would be wicked awesome. It’s the ultimate adolescent fantasy. Who wouldn’t love to be able to fly, or see through walls, or run really fast, or take a punch without damage? (Get back at those jerks! Get the girl who rejected you! Make a boatload of money!)  Or deliver one that fells bad guys with a single blow. As long as superheroes remain safely fictional, I can’t see them as malign. I like dessert too.

Except, of course, we have those abilities today, do we not? We have the ability to see through walls. To fly. To deliver significant damage from the sky. To see further, to map unknown terrain, to communicate over great distances. It’s not just that we can deliver murderous ordnance from great distances. We can hit very small, specific targets. We can essentially kill people remotely.

We have superheroes today. We can identify one of them quite specifically. His name is Barack Obama.

Now, he’s not a Superman. He wasn’t born on Krypton; he was born in Hawaii. Nor is he in the Spiderman/Aquaman/X-men family of superheroes. His DNA hasn’t been genetically altered, giving him physical powers beyond those of most mortals. No, he’s more like Iron Man, or Batman. He’s an ordinary citizen, but with abilities enhanced by technology.

But, yeah, he’s a superhero all right. I was thinking about this while watching the trailer for a movie I plan to see this week: Eye in the Sky. It’s about the war on terror; drone warfare. Look at what we mortals can do. Certainly, we can fly–vicariously, but with a birds-eye perspective. Apparently, we now have itty-bitty surveillance drones the size of a hummingbird that can peer through any cracks, look into homes half a world away. And then, if needed, we can rain down fire from the sky. We can quite specifically target a building, a house, a truck or a village square. Iron Man’s suit can launch small rockets. So can US drones.

I say it again. Obama’s Iron Man.

Only, in the real world of terrorist threat assessments and technological imprecision, we have to cope with two realities that superhero movies elide. Collateral damage, and unintended consequences. We may be able to track a specific terrorist suspect to a specific time and location, and we may be able to launch a drone strike to take him out. But if he’s hiding in a village, there will be other casualties. In fact, my Spidey sense tells me that it’s essentially impossible to kill a particular target without doing at least some damage to non-combatants.

And that’s gotta be infuriating. I mean, think about it; you’re in your home, minding your own business, and suddenly a missile flies out of the sky and takes our your neighbor. Or his cousin. Or your daughter’s best friend. Or your daughter. If the way to fight terrorism is to persuade marginalized peoples of the essential good intentions of the West, blowing some of them up would seem to work against that. The official word for it is ‘blowback.’ Anti-terrorism experts, American officials whose job title tasks them with conducting the ‘war on terror,’ tend to think that for every terrorist killed, we radicalize 50 people.

And, sure, other experts disagree.  But putting it in human terms, mission blowback makes sense. Drone attacks would have to be freaking terrifying. If you’re skeptical about American or Western expressions of good will and friendship, it wouldn’t take much to push you over the edge, to become a radical. Fire from the sky would do it, seems to me.

And that’s assuming that the drone actually gets the bad guy. There have been several known attempts to kill Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri. According to the human rights organization, Reprieve, those attacks have killed 76 children and 29 adults. Attempts to use drones to kill 41 terrorist leaders have led to over a thousand civilian deaths. The terrorist/civilian drone death ratio in Pakistan is around 36-1. This isn’t really a problem for Iron Man; it’s a very serious problem in modern anti-terrorist warfare.

I also understand why drone warfare is so popular for both the military and for Presidents. It’s a way to strike back against a potential threat without endangering American military personnel. The guy running the drone is probably in Phoenix or somewhere, while in Syria or Pakistan, his missile is doing what he does. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that officials don’t agonize over the human cost of drone strikes, or exercise forbearance when the potential for collateral damage is too high.

I’m just saying that in a very real sense, the commander-in-chief of the United States military, the President, is a superhero. He has most, if not all, of Iron Man’s powers. He’s got the ability to kill from anywhere, anytime, by giving an order. That’s a terrible responsibility. Only Obama-Man doesn’t get the luxury of a flamboyant and obvious villain. He gets nothing but moral ambiguity, ethical complexity. Kill a terrorist? Risk killing the family next door. Risk alienating and radicalizing the entire village. Not such a fun fantasy, is it? And one we would really rather not think about, or talk about, or make an issue of in a Presidential campaign. Though we really do need to. Do we not?

The Ted Cruz National Enquirer story

What does journalism mean anymore? What constitutes news? What are the ethical standards to which journalists should hold themselves? If you know something, or have a source that insists that he/she knows something possibly significant, at what point do you publish? What does it even mean, ‘to publish?’ Is there a point at which a news story is so slimy you can’t bring yourself to touch it?

Did Ted Cruz do it?

In a panel discussion on Larry Wilmore’s show the other night, Wilmore asked where people turned first for news. One of the panelists said she went to Twitter first. ‘If there’s a big story breaking, Twitter will have it before anyone,’ she said. Another panelist said ‘Reddit.’ No one said, you know, ‘CNN.’ News is what it’s always been; information about the world. What’s changed is that the mediation of editors and publishers and institutions has become increasingly passé. We’ll do our own mediating, thank you. We want to know what’s going on.

And of course, a lot of what passes through Twitter and Reddit and the internet is prurient and unimportant and quite definitely Not News, in the traditional sense in which News is presumed to be consequential, not just tabloid gossip. But tabloids serve their own purpose, do they not? And can become consequential.

On Friday, news broke that the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer had published allegations that Ted Cruz had had affairs with five women, and also published oh-so-artfully distorted pictures of the women. It’s a salacious story, ugly and tawdry and vicious. I would very much prefer not to be writing about it, or even talking about it. But we’re in the middle of a Presidential campaign. Ted Cruz is one of the four people who has at least a chance of being elected President of the United States. Does a story about alleged infidelity count as news? Yes.  All the more so because everyone knows about it.

It’s been interesting to see how mainstream news outlets have covered it, how gingerly they’ve brought it up, how uncomfortably awkward news anchors have appeared. Rachel Maddow both began and concluded her segment by telling us that she felt as though she needed to take a shower. The big news organizations would really rather not deal with this. They won’t want to be citing The National Enquirer. Marital infidelity is an uncomfortable subject. They feel bad for Cruz’s wife. Also Donald Trump’s wife. Which is where the whole thing began. Possibly.

A Cruz super PAC created and ran a meme showing coyly nude photos of Melania Trump, from a GQ shoot some fifteen years ago.  Intended for Utah markets, just before the Utah primary, the implication was that Mrs. Trump would make a morally unfit First Lady. Trump was furious, and went on a Twitter war with Cruz, including a tweet with two contrasting photos of Melania, a former model, and a particularly unflattering one of Heidi Cruz. And the two men exchanged insults. In the midst of that unelevating back-and-forth came the Enquirer story, which Cruz insists was planted by Trump fans at the magazine. The story did source one guy only, Roger Stone, a Trump ally. And the CEO of the Enquirer is known to be a Trump friend.

And that’s what our Presidential politics has become. Insults and bullying, back and forth.

So when the story broke, Cruz gave a press conference, in which he appeared quite livid, called the story ‘garbage,’ and blamed it all on Trump. The Donald’s response, again on Twitter, was quite splendidly Trumpian: “Ted Cruz’s problem with the National Enquirer is his and his alone, and while they were right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, and many others, I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin’ Ted Cruz.” In other words: ‘it’s probably true. But I sure hope it isn’t.’ The perfect blend of sanctimony and smarm.

Okay. Personally, I couldn’t possibly care less if Ted Cruz has had consensual affairs with other consenting adults. Whether or not it happened does not, in any sense whatsoever, make me more or less inclined to vote for him. (Of course, there was never the tiniest chance I would vote for him anyway. Part of what I’m feeling right now is schadenfreud). Enough really consequential and important Presidents have also been adulterers to suggest that this particular sin probably shouldn’t be disqualifying.

But I do think the American people have a right to know one of two things. On the one hand, since the most important commitment a person can possibly make in this life is to his or her spouse, adultery would seem to tell us something pretty fundamental about someone’s character. Or, on the other hand, what does it say about Donald Trump if Ted Cruz is right, and Trump got a friend to publish an ugly and false story about a political rival? Did Ted Cruz cheat on his wife? I don’t know, and neither do you, but I do think that’s information voters should have in front of them when deciding who to vote for. Did Donald Trump plant a lying story? I don’t know, and neither do you, but if he did, that’s also information we should have.

So this story is news, and needs to be covered as news. And that means some digging, some in-depth reporting. Here are some questions I would like to know the answers to:

A PAC associated with Cruz gave half a million dollars to the Carly Fiorina campaign. That’s very unusual. It may have a perfectly innocent explanation. But on Friday, we learned that a Fiorina aide, Sarah Isgur Flores has been identified as one of Cruz’ paramours. Fiorina has also endorsed Cruz for President. A payoff, carefully laundered?

Another of the women, Katrina Pierson, is a former Tea Party congressional candidate and former Cruz aide. She now works for Trump, as his official spokesperson. She would seem to be central to the story either way. She has, however, insisted that both sides of it are false; she didn’t sleep with Cruz, and she didn’t pass the story on to Trump.

What’s the Marco Rubio angle? The Daily Beast reported on Friday that someone from the Rubio campaign had been peddling a Ted Cruz infidelity story for months, including to Breitbart.com. But Breitbart had decided not to run it, since it didn’t meet their sourcing standards.

Why is nobody talking about suing The National Enquirer? I’ll grant you that a lot of people are reluctant to sue anyone, whatever the provocation. Not everyone has Donald Trump’s itchy-suing-trigger finger. I’m just saying that if a national publication ran a story saying that I had committed adultery, and I hadn’t, I would insist on damages and a retraction. I’d sue. Cruz denied the allegations, and looked good and angry about it, but no law suit was threatened. Neither have any of the women threatened to sue, though three of them have denied the story.

There are undoubtedly other angles to this. And I do think it needs to be looked at, by actual, real, journalists. I understand that this sort of story makes everyone uncomfortable. I understand that it’s a grubby little story, and you feel gross reporting on it. But this is a genuine news story. It needs to be investigated. And, I think, it will be.

 

 

The Oscars: 2015

Sunday night was the Oscar broadcast, and my family and I all watched it together. And enjoyed ourselves. I had seen 6 of the 8 films up for Best Picture, and several of the other nominated films, and so had a rooting interest. This happens to have been an outstanding year for movies, and really, any of the 8 Best Picture nominees would have been a defendable choice. But I loved Spotlight, and was thrilled when it won.

This year was a bit controversial, of course, primarily because all the acting award nominees were, uh, a trifle single-hued. Which is why Chris Rock began the broadcast with a smart, funny monologue that managed to be both commentary and sermon on the always difficult subject of race. One of my FB friends said that Rock’s monologue made him uncomfortable, and that he was glad that it did. It made him face up to his own complacency and complicity in our culture’s on-going struggles with racial discrimination.  That was pretty much my response too. Well done, Chris Rock.

And so, of course, post-broadcast commentary initially focused on Rock, and his comments, and did he go too far or not far enough. And, of course, our responses are all subjective, depending on our own pre-existing predilections. But then, after that particular pile of dust had settled, came another long-standing tradition; critics ripping apart the Oscar broadcast itself. This article, from The Daily Beast, with the title “How to fix the terrible broken Oscars” is typical of the genre. The Oscars, we’re told, are much too long. They spend too much time on minor (and uninteresting) awards. They’re too self-congratulatory, an industry pretending it’s an art form, an empty exercise in solipsistic narcissism. Beautiful people, beautifully dressed, handing gold statues to each other.

Well, I don’t care, and I don’t agree. I like the Oscars. I like the long speeches by winners of the various technical awards. I like the profusion of accents and looks. I like the melt-downs, and the special musical numbers. (In fact, since five songs were nominated for Best Song, we should have seen performances of all five). I don’t care that it’s long. I look forward to Oscar night every year.

A few observations:

Chris Rock did an interview by a movie theater in Compton, which made the valuable point that the films people actually go to see are not the films that are nominated for awards. That’s absolutely true. I talked to my parents a few days before Oscar night, and they hadn’t seen most of the pictures nominated. This year, in fact, was much better in that regard than most years: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road were both popular films, financially successful hits. So the Oscars tend to go to films that most audiences haven’t seen. But this isn’t because they’re weird, boring art films that general audiences wouldn’t enjoy. Spotlight, the Best Picture winner is a perfectly accessible and interesting film. If it had received half the marketing oomph that, say, Gods of Egypt or Zoolander 2 got, there’s no reason to think people wouldn’t have gone to see it. This was true of all the Best Picture nominees this year. Room was one of the most emotionally powerful films I have ever seen. Brooklyn was lovely. The Oscars are a way to market really good films that haven’t been sold very aggressively. I wish Hollywood’s marketing was a little more courageous. But people will now see Spotlight that wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. That’s not nothing.

And I genuinely think the Oscar broadcast serves a valuable educational function. All those ‘minor technical awards’ are given to insanely talented people working in incredibly important disciplines. When we see a movie, it’s easy to take for granted the images that appear on-screen. But that exciting action sequence you enjoyed involved a collaboration between a production design team and a sound editing crew and cinematographers and fifty other people. The Oscars give us at least some sense of the complexity of the filmmaking process. That’s valuable, I think.

And don’t even think about making their acceptance speeches even shorter. This is the career highlight for a whole bunch of your fellow human beings on this planet, people who have spent their lives learning an incredibly difficult profession, and rising to the top of that profession. Let them have their moment in the sun.

I mean, writing and directing and producing an Oscar broadcast is immensely difficult. Somehow, you have to make a three-hour-plus awards show, in which movies audiences don’t know are honored, and you have to make it entertaining. That’s not easy. Sometimes, the performers whiff. For example, I thought Sacha Baron Cohen’s introduction of Room was tacky, unfunny, and inappropriate. It’s a beautiful film, and he made fun of it; not cool.

But mostly, I enjoyed the whole night. Okay, it’s excessive and long and not always riveting television. It doesn’t matter. If you love film (and I do), why not celebrate film-making and film-makers? Of course, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Of course there’s a lot of ego involved. It’s still one of my favorite nights of the year.

 

The lily-white Oscars

The Oscar nominations just came out, and as usual, were greeted with cries of outrage from everyone whose favorite movie got dissed. Or (I live in Provo), outrage because Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn haven’t come to town. (They have come to Salt Lake, forty miles away, but I’m old, sick, and the weather’s been lousy). But also because of how few people of color received nominations.

Which complaints seem to me completely justified. Let’s grant, first, that determining the ‘best’ actor’s performance of the year is entirely subjective. Eight films were nominated for Best Picture, but for all of us that list had some real head-scratchers. I liked Mad Max: Fury Road a lot, and was thrilled to see it get an Oscar nomination, but my wife thought that was a ludicrous selection. Comedies and action movies are routinely ignored by Oscar, despite the fact that they are essentially the movies that keep the film industry alive financially. One big complaint about the Oscars is that they honor films no one has heard of or seen. Like Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn. Film is both an industry and an art form, and profitability and respect don’t always walk hand-in-hand.

Complaints about color-blind Oscars do seem justified this year. If there were movies about the African-American experience, by African-American filmmakers, that were exceptionally well-done, and that were ignored by the Academy, then African-Americans in the industry could legitimately feel ill done by. And if those same films had some nominal white participation which was, actually, honored by the Academy, then the exclusion of Black filmmakers can seem particularly egregious.

And that happened. Straight Oughta Compton was an outstanding film about N.W.A., well-reviewed, a terrific film about an exceptionally crucial group in the history of rap, crucial chroniclers of the African-American experience. It was directed by F. Gary Gray, an important African-American director, and the cast was essentially all Black. Its two principal screenwriters were both white, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. And Herman and Berloff were the only two Oscar nominees from that film. Creed was another excellent film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, another fine young Black director. It starred Michael B. Jordan, a wonderful young actor who gave a career-launching performance, after doing equally outstanding work in such films as Fruitvale Station and Red Tails. Again, it received one Oscar nomination; for Sylvester Stallone, for Best Supporting Actor.

Sorry, but that just seems like a deliberate snub, an intentional insult. Which, of course, it wasn’t. The Academy members who vote on these things are pretty much all Hollywood liberals, exactly the people who would be appalled and offended to be accused of racism. But they’re also, most of them, white. A recent study by the Los Angeles Times showed that of the 5, 765 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 94% were white, and 77% were male. Only 2% are Black, and fewer than that were Hispanic. And they’re old; average age 62.

I know people who get the mailers. They take the whole thing very seriously. But their votes are heavily influenced by sentiment and prejudice. The Creed vote makes sense. Creed was a Rocky movie; the final chapter, one presumes, in that endless saga. It’s about the boxing career of Apollo Creed’s kid. Rocky movies don’t win Oscars, not since the first Rocky did. But Sylvester Stallone is one of the giants of the industry. The political incorrectness of the second Rambo movie and jingoism of Rocky IV have long ago been forgiven. I can well imagine a kind of groundswell for his nomination. And while Creed was an outstanding movie, it is a Rocky movie.

And now Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee have announced their intention to boycott the Oscars. George Clooney and Lupita Nyong’o have voiced similar criticisms. Chris Rock, this year’s host, is being pressured to step down. The story has legs.

So, for example, why wasn’t Will Smith nominated for Concussion? Big star, important, issue-oriented movie? Why not a nod? Well, who should he replace? Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl? Terrific actor, former winner, in an exceptionally well-made movie about transgender people? Okay, then, why not Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, or Michael Fassbinder for Jobs?  Except that Hollywood loves biopics. And you’ve got a film about a victim of McCarthyism, or a film about the founder of Microsoft. It’s not an easy call.

What makes this issue so fascinating is the way it illuminates the way racism actually functions in our society. Here you have a group of people who would rather die than be regarded as racists. And with the very best of intentions, they try to honor particularly outstanding members of their group. And they end up belittling and insulting their Black colleagues, quite inadvertently. But the outrage of the Hollywood Black community is real, and justified. Racism’s insidious that way.

Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with El Chapo

The actor Sean Penn has been under fire lately, because of an interview he recently conducted with Joaquin Guzman, otherwise known as El Chapo: Shorty, in Spanish. El Chapo is probably the most famous druglord in the world. Penn’s interview was published in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone. It was also immediately ridiculed by pretty much every late night comic. El Chapo is famously reclusive; now, suddenly, he’s best buddies with a movie star? Shades of Dennis Rodman/Kim Jung Un? Hilarious. Also, over the weekend, the Mexican police arrested El Chapo, and suggested that they were able to find him, in part, because of information found in Penn’s interview. So El Chapo is presently in prison. We’ll see how long that lasts; he’s escaped from prison twice before.

Anyway, Penn’s interview has been widely ridiculed, first, because it happened, and second, because Sean Penn’s writing style is somewhat pretentious (and therefore comical). The idea of a movie star weighing in on American drug policy is seen as ludicrous. He’s a naive, silly, privileged white American celebrity; of course, he’s ridiculous. Shame on Rolling Stone for publishing it. What were they thinking? And so on.

So I thought I’d read the article. Make up my own mind about it. If the article is indeed silly, I’d make fun of it too.

Here’s the shocker: it’s not silly at all. It’s not very well written. But Sean Penn is a serious man, who asks serious questions. Is he naive? Does El Chapo dupe him? Is this just nonsensical pro-drug cartel propaganda? I don’t know. But look past the infelicities of Penn’s prose. There’s a thoughful critique of American drug policy in Penn’s piece: here’s the link. Read it yourself.

Start here: Economics 101, Prices are set by the immutable laws of supply and demand. If demand is high, prices (and profits) will rise. If, for any commodity, we artificially reduce supply, and demand remains high, prices and profits will skyrocket. If, for example, we make certain drugs illegal, and demand for those drugs remains constant, the result, inevitably, will be El Chapo. A drug cartel. That is to say, some ruthless person will create a highly organized and extraordinarily profitable, criminal enterprise. In fact, lots of cartels will rise, and compete. And, while competing, will shoot each other. A lot.

All of which El Chapo knows, I think. Here’s an excerpt:

Is it true what they say that drugs destroy humanity and bring harm?
Well, it’s a reality that drugs destroy. Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn’t a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living.

Do you think it is true you are responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world?
No, that is false, because the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all. That’s false.

Did your drug business grow and expand when you were in jail?
From what I can tell, and what I know, everything is the same. Nothing has decreased. Nothing has increased.

Do you consider yourself a violent person?
No, sir.

Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort?
Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.

What is your opinion about the situation in Mexico, what is the outlook for Mexico?
Well, drug trafficking is already part of a culture that originated from the ancestors. And not only in Mexico. This is worldwide.

El Chapo, in Penn’s interview, is completely unrepentant. He says, proudly, that he supplies more heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana than anyone else in the world. He’s proud of it. He’s quite open about his money-laundering efforts, and points to many respectable international corporations who are his business partners. Eventually, he wants to invest more in the energy sector. Of course, he’s a murderer, he admits. But not indiscriminately; only when it’s a matter of business. Does Penn glamorize him; does he soft-pedal El Chapo’s murders? No, not really. Also, sure, of course he does. Sean Penn’s a movie star. He’s considering making a movie about this guy. He’s pitching that movie to us, the audience.

Should movies glorify criminals? I don’t know if they should, but that is what they do, at least at times.

What about, for example, the Godfather films? Don’t those films sentimentalize Don Corleone? Don’t they turn the Don into something of a Teddy Bear? (In fact, the Don’s downfall is partly because he’s unwilling to get into the drug business. It’s ‘infama,’ he says). Isn’t Michael Corleone a family man, a war hero, a legitimate businessman? Sure. But also, of course, a stone-cold killer. What about Scarface? We think of the ’83 De Palma film, with Al Pacino, but the 1932 film had every bit as important a director (Howard Hawks), and an equally compelling lead performance, with Paul Muni. Hollywood likes gangsters; always has. Also gangstas, nowadays. As long as they’re Americans. Or white. Or, at least, can plausibly be played by a young Al Pacino. Or some supercool black dude.

Of course, for every film glamorizing gangsters, there are twenty glamorizing the cops who catch and arrest brutally kill gangsters. Sicario, one of the best films of 2015, is an example. In that film, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is laughed at by Josh Brolin, her partner, when she suggests that they arrest a suspect in the drug trade. That’s not really what they do. Murder’s more final.

Penn got the interview through the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who famously wrote an open letter to El Chapo, encouraging him to use his wealth and power to promote the power of love, and not the power of violence or money. Of course, that really is sort of charmingly naive. But she also said that she trusts El Chapo more than she trusts the Mexican government, and that’s a pretty popular opinion in her country. In her subsequent interactions with him, she discovered that Chapo was interested in a film about his life. As she pitched that idea to various Hollywood producers, Penn heard of it, and got interested. It wasn’t just Penn interviewing the guy; del Castillo was there too.

His article, then, is partly a self-glorifying narrative of how he got to meet this guy, but that’s not its main purpose. Mostly, it’s a critique of the United States’ ‘War on Drugs,’ a policy or series of policies that, argues Penn, have unequivocally failed. Again, Penn does not write terribly well. Frankly, some sentences, you don’t even know what he’s saying. His article is passionate, but he does, at times, come across as cluelessly naive. He likes Joaquin Guzman, based on one short dinner and subsequent conversation. There are 27,000 drug-related homicides in Mexico a year. There is a part of me that wants Penn to interview the families of those murder victims. Do that next, pal.

But on one crucial point, he is right. US drug policy has failed. We’ve treated a public health problem as though it was a criminal justice problem. Our prisons are crowded, with non-violent offenders getting a PhD in criminality at taxpayers expense. We also treat an economic problem as though it was a moral problem. El Chapo’s fortune is the result. If he had not made that fortune, someone else would have. Arresting him (and extraditing him to the US, which is in the works), is viscerally satisfying. A really really bad guy is going to do hard time. Awesome. It will accomplish exactly nothing.

Really, it’s time to try something else. Legalization and treatment, for starters. And wave goodbye to the prospects of any politician in America who proposes that solution. Which, to be clear, is probably the only solution with a chance of working. Sean Penn wrote a serious article on a serious subject, and has been made to look like a buffoon. That’s where our public debate is on drugs. And that’s a shame.

Chronicling change, or stuff that used to be true, but isn’t anymore

Kind of a grab-bag post this time. A ‘once we all . . . but now we all. . . ‘ kind of thing. What changes, major or minor, have you noticed in contemporary society? I’m not looking for things like Uber, or electric cars. More everyday kinds of things. Feel free to weigh in.

  1. Hospital food isn’t terrible. I got sick recently, spent some time in the hospital, and I couldn’t believe how good the food was. They had a big menu you ordered from, and 40 minutes later a delicious entree–with dessert!–would show up, hot and tasty. Apparently, American medicine figured out that patients recover faster if they have a better hospital experience. In a way it’s sort of a shame. Used to be, when friends got sick, you’d say sympathetically ‘you poor thing, eating hospital food.’ No longer; I almost didn’t want to go home.
  2. The DMV experience is quick, efficient, and not all that unpleasant. It always used to be, when you talked about difficult experiences with the government, you could count on the DMV for providing completely miserable government employee interactions. Now you can schedule your appointment on-line, and be in and out in minutes. At least you can in Utah; I wonder if Indiana has followed suit.
  3. Political advertising doesn’t work anymore. When this election, prognosticators all thought Jeb! Bush would be a big favorite, because he had raised so much money for his campaign. Money=TV ads=electoral success. Sure enough, Bush has been running ads all across Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as in other early states. And the polls show his candidacy tanking. He’s at a whopping 3 percent nationally. Meanwhile, The Donald is way ahead, in first place, without running any ads at all. (He ran his first ads this week). Of course, Trump gets tons of free media attention; he doesn’t need to spend. But I don’t see much evidence that spending works anymore. I think, BTW, that this is an awesome development. Political ads are, way too often, shrill and annoying. Which may explain why they don’t work.
  4. Cops don’t seem to spend their free time in doughnut shops anymore. Remember what a proven laugh-getter this way; linking cops to doughnuts? Police Squad, that hilarious old TV series starring Leslie Norris (which led to the Naked Gun movie series) began each episode in a doughnut shop, for example. But it isn’t all that true anymore. I think police departments have emphasized fitness a lot more recently. Also there aren’t as many doughnut shops anymore.
  5. I don’t want this to sound like a grumpy old white dude, but there was a time when the best writers were Americans with these grumpy old white dude names. Not anymore. I think this is awesome, but right now the best writers in the world are all people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, David Bezmozgis, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Yiyun Li, and Rivka Galchen. I mean the best playwright in America is probably Lin-Manuel Miranda, except he’s also probably also the best composer and performer. I can’t tell you how heartening this particular change is.
  6. Four-way stops: out! Roundabouts: In! I grew up in Bloomington Indiana, a town known for a terrific local music scene, a great college basketball team, and four-way stops at every corner. I don’t think any city planner anymore would put a four-way stop at an intersection where she could put a roundabout. Way better.
  7. Of course, there will always be highly partisan news outlets, like Fox News or Salon.com or National Review or the Nation. But have you noticed how many factually based, determinedly not-partisan websites there now seem to be? Like Vox.com? Or Fivethirtyeight.com? A welcome development, I’d say.
  8. For some reasons, a lot of the TV programs I like watching anymore feature ads that seem pitched to old people. Ads for denture adhesives, bowel regularity pills, burial insurance, lift chairs. Viagra ads. (Especially the ones where the couple are on a beach, watching fireworks, and look fondly at each other. And hold hands. And. . . ?  I hope they at least drape a blanket over themselves). I saw one the other day, an ad for adult disposable undergarments, where they’ll deliver them to your home, so you don’t get embarrassed in the grocery store line. Yikes! I’m not that old! I have no idea why these ads for those shows; its not like I haven’t always liked game shows.
  9. Airline travel used to another reliable laughter-inducer. It was annoying, security checkpoints were intrusive, the seats were too small, the service terrible. Even really good comedians, like Louis CK and Ellen Degeneres used to make airline jokes. Nowadays, though, air travel . . . still sucks. So that one’s still true.

I’d love your observations. The world is changing; it’s good to chronicle change.