Category Archives: Popular culture, general

Bathroom madness

People have–how to put this?–certain sanitary needs. Men, women, young people, old people, all races; we all gotta go number one and number two. Straight people have to; gay people have to, and transgender people have to. We all gotta pee and we all gotta poo. And since America is a civilized society, we have provided sanitary and comfortable public spaces where we can take care of those needs with some measure of privacy. Typically, we have separate men’s and women’s restrooms. And generally, all of it works out just fine.

I suppose, to some extremely limited degree, transgender people might be said to complicate the issue of restrooms. Except that’s not really true. Gender dysphoria is a real thing. Transgender people aren’t confused about themselves. If someone who looks like a woman, and considers herself a woman, goes into the women’s restroom, no one thinks anything of it. It’s not like we can tell if she was born with male genitalia. And it’s not like we have any reason to care. In fact, generally, when we go to a public restroom, we pay as little attention as possible to the other people we’re in there with. What we do, and what we want everyone to do, is to conduct our sanitary business as quickly and anonymously as possible.

(We don’t like to think about it, which is why it can become comical when people do think about it. As, for example, with the several websites out there on the interwebs having to do with urinal etiquette. This one is my favorite. Haven’t found many corresponding comical women’s restroom etiquette sites. Odd, that.)

Except that oh-so-welcome restroom anonymity that we all rely on and are grateful for has disappeared, and the issue of which bathroom to use has suddenly become politicized. Now, suddenly, the fact that trans people have been using their own gender appropriate public restrooms for years has become a whole new thing.

The pattern has gone like this. It tends to start with well-meaning attempts to pass some local ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, followed by conservative backlash. That’s what happened in Houston in 2014, and in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2015. In Houston, the local ordinance looked like a winner, until opponents raised the issue of transgender bathroom use. In North Carolina, the local bill passed, alarming the state legislature, which again used issue of trans folks using public restrooms as the wedge to pass a bill overriding the Charlotte bill, denying other LGBT rights. And anti-trans bathroom bills are pending in a number of other states.

We should be clear about this; this really isn’t about where people go potty. In North Carolina, people are required to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. But central to gender dysphoria is the individual’s realization that s/he is, in the profoundest, most personal way, not the gender s/he was born with. Webmd.com covers it nicely. That’s what the North Carolina bill, and other similar bills in other states, denies.

These bills are the equivalent of legislators holding their hands over their ears and shouting ‘la la la la’ whenever anyone mentions transgender people. Which, of course, only has the effect of drawing unwelcome attention to what they’re doing. Next thing you know, Bruce Springsteen is canceling concerts, and businesses are moving out of state, and the federal government is filing lawsuits. Bathrooms are places where something messy is handled as neatly and cleanly as possible. These bills take that neatness and make it all messy again.

It’s important that we recognize this. The issue is not ‘which restroom should folks use.’ It’s ‘are transgender people dealing with a real condition.’ Is the central sexual and gender identity of a person what he or she says it is, or is that an issue that the state should decide for them?

Amazingly enough, though, that’s not how it appears on the right. The North Carolina bill is defended as a measure that protects young women from sexual predators. The idea is that trans women, or unscrupulous men dressing like trans women, could sneak into a women’s bathroom and harass or assault women. And that’s a potent argument, I suppose, because let’s face it, public restrooms are places where we all feel particularly vulnerable.

There is no factual basis for this fear, however. This article summarizes the existing evidence. Certainly, women are occasionally assaulted in public restrooms, but not by men pretending to be trans. Men do awful things sometimes. But assault and harassment are already illegal. A bill banning trans women from using women’s facilities would accomplish nothing. In addition to being almost impossible to enforce.

And yet the paranoia and fear this issue generates has become quite extraordinary. Watch Megyn Kelly’s takedown of Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. He consistently says ‘I don’t want an eight year old girl in a public restroom with a thirty year old man.’ ‘A man,’ asks Kelly, ‘or a transgender woman?’ That’s the key distinction and it’s one Patrick never manages to get his head around. To Patrick, there’s no such thing as a trans woman. Just a man in a dress, in a place where he shouldn’t be.

Here’s another expression of the same fear, from a Facebook post. And I know; it’s just a Facebook post. But it captures a certain level of paranoia so perfectly that I finally decided to use it:

As I recall from Roman/Hebrew history the Romans made it a law that all Hebrew brides had to be raped on their wedding night by a Roman officer to consummate the marriage. Finally the Jews rebelled and it was stopped.
This similar thing happened in Scotland when the King of England made it a law that all Scottish brides had to be raped by an English officer on their wedding night.

Principally I think that this Obama gender coed bathroom thing is similar and will foster a lot of feelings and many problems and I think cases of rape will go way up!

Yes, this person actually cites the imaginary medieval legend of ‘droit du seigneur’ as somehow similar to this bathroom controversy. It’s as though the Obama administration, for siding, quite properly, with the LGBT community, is not just indifferent to the epidemic of rapes that’s sure to follow, but actively encouraging it. ‘Cause, you know, Obama=pro-rape. And, by golly, that’s where we’re going to draw our line in the sand. Over bathrooms.

Obviously, this will eventually all die down. Six months from now, it won’t be an issue. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that something as mundane as using a public restroom can become a battlefield in the cultural wars?

Donald Trump, making politics funny

He’s going to make America great again. There’s going to be so much winning, we’ll get tired of it. He’ll pay off the national debt (not reduce the deficit, pay off the debt) in eight years. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President, in large measure because a sizeable number of Americans are convinced that this guy, more than anyone ever before, knows how to fix the American economy. For everyone. No tradeoffs, no trickle-down, no pain, pure gain.

How is that not funny?

When Stephen Colbert took over the late show on CBS, he knew he would be covering the election. He was desperately afraid that Donald Trump’s candidacy would end before he had the chance to make fun of him. I remember a similar sentiment back in 2004, when, on David Letterman’s show, one of his writers came out and announced his support for the re-election of George W. Bush. His reasons? “I’m sixty one years old, and a professional comedy writer. And frankly, I just don’t want to work all that hard anymore.” It’s our right, as Americans, to make fun of politicians.

In Ohio, it is against the law to knowingly and recklessly lie about an opponent or policy or ballet initiative. This law was challenged in court by a non-profit, the Susan B. Anthony List. Their suit is winding its way through the court system, with one finding, by the US Supreme Court, that the non-profit did have standing to sue. What I love about this lawsuit is an amicus brief filed by the Cato Institute and comedian P. J. O’Rourke. Can government criminalize political statements that turn out not to be true? O’Rourke argued that the answer has to be no. As O’Rourke put it: “This case concerns amici because the law at issue undermines the First Amendment’s protection of the serious business of making politics funny.”

This Politico article includes the O’Rourke amicus brief in its entirety. If you read it, don’t skip the footnotes; they’re funnier than the brief itself, which is plenty funny. But O’Rourke makes a serious argument:

While George Washington may have been incapable of telling a lie, his successors have not had the same integrity. The campaign promise (and its subsequent violation), as well as disparaging statements about one’s opponent (whether true, mostly true, mostly not true, or entirely fantastic), are cornerstones of American democracy. Indeed, mocking and satire are as old as America, and if this Court doesn’t believe amici, it can ask Thomas Jefferson, “the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Or perhaps it should ponder, as Grover Cleveland was forced to, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”

In modern times, “truthiness”—a “truth” asserted “from the gut” or because it “feels right,” without regard to evidence or logic—is also a key part of political discourse. It is difficult to imagine life without it, and our political discourse is weakened by Orwellian laws that try to prohibit it.

The preposterous overstatement, the unsupported assertion, the ad hominem attack, the construction of various straw men, they’re all an accepted and essential part of our political discourse. As, of course, is the outraged denial, the counter-accusation, the competing fantasy narrative. And, yes, it’s true that The Donald exemplifies everything coarse and ugly about our politics. But also everything ridiculous, foolish and preposterous. Human beings, are, after all, pretty ludicrous. Shouldn’t that be reflected in our most elevated discourse?

Is Donald Trump a serious threat to American democracy? Of course he is, through his xenophobic nativism, his astounding ignorance, his buffoonish notions of foreign policy. But aren’t those same qualities–ignorance, prejudice, buffoonery–also pretty funny? Trump is literally clownish. Best of all, he’s astonishingly thin-skinned. And that’s funny too.

We wouldn’t want to live in a country where we can’t make fun of our leaders. And we need to recognize exactly what country it is we do live in. This is America, home of hucksters and flim-flam artists. This is the country of tacky late night commercials and used car salesmen and televangelists. This is the country that invented the mullet. We’re named after Amerigo Vespucci, for heaven’s sake. Have you read his book describing this cool place he discovered? It’s pure P. T. Barnum.

And that’s why Trump’s candidacy strikes me as so . . . American. He’s salesman, first and foremost. I mean, his signature achievements are a whole bunch of hilariously over-decorated hotels with his name on them. The name Trump isn’t so much associated with success as tackiness. And, again, that’s funny.

So we have a Republican candidate for President who isn’t remotely qualified for the job. A thin-skinned, obsessively litigious, sexist bozo. Surely laughter is our best response.

As long as he doesn’t win.

 

Baseball advanced analytics, and movies

If you’re a fan of American team sports, you will undoubtedly have come across something called advanced analytics. I just celebrated a birthday, and my son gave me my annual present, the new Baseball Prospectus. It’s a very large paperback book filled with the names of baseball players, and lots and lots of numbers. It does include such traditional statistical measures as batting average, or runs batted in. But most of the numbers are more esoteric: WAR, FIP, TAV. I am famously bad at math. But I devour this book, for one simple reason. The numbers in it help me understand the game of baseball better.

The point of advanced analytics is to look for market inefficiencies. Let’s suppose that your careful examination of baseball statistics leads you to conclude that some particular baseball skill is more valuable than other teams think it is. You may be able to acquire players with that particular skill at a discount. This gives you a competitive advantage. Like acquiring a catcher who is good at pitch-framing. You can get those guys on the cheap.

My son and I were talking today, and we wondered if this same dynamic might be applied to movies. Obviously movie producers have certain beliefs about what qualities audiences are looking for in movies. Number one, they like movie stars. They clearly believe that audiences are attracted to movies that star actors people have heard of and liked in previous roles. If Tom Cruise approaches a studio with the script for an action movie, it’s almost certain to get funded. But the star in question generally needs to be a male, and youngish. Tom Cruise isn’t actually young–he’s 53 years old–but he looks young, and can plausibly play young action stars. Demi Moore was born the same year Cruise was, but she isn’t a legitimate star anymore, because she’s a woman. (She’s also probably a better actor than he is, but that’s also not relevant).

But is that actually true? For example, Liam Neeson is 64 years old, but has reinvented himself as an action movie star in all those Taken movies. Heck, Colin Firth, hardly an exemplar of male studliness, starred in an action movie, and was great in it. Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez and Scarlett Johansson have all starred in action movies within the last year. So has Helen Mirren.

Here’s what I think; audiences are attracted to good movies, and turned off by bad ones. Tom Cruise is still an action movie hero, not because audiences still clamor to see him in movies–most audience members think he’s kind of a weirdo–but because he has a good eye for scripts that showcase his skills.

Would you go see an action movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer? I sure would, if the script was good. Would you go see a buddy cop action/comedy starring Michelle Williams and Maggie Gyllenhaal? I would love to see that movie. Would you go see a sci-fi adventure movie starring Michelle Yeoh, with Michelle Rodriguez as second lead? Absolutely! What about a mainstream revenge action film with Amanda Peet? She’s a terrific actress, and that’s the kind of role she’d rock.

And such are the realities of Hollywood that you, Mr. or Ms. Producer, would save a lot of money in salaries. I mean, it totally stinks that Jake Gyllenhaal (a wonderful, charismatic actor) gets more per picture than his frankly more talented sister Maggie gets. But for the right, savvy producer, that particular brand of sexism could also mean money in the bank. It’s a market inefficiency, and one you could exploit.

Yes, there’s tremendous sexism in Hollywood. No question about it. And it reflects a larger sexism in society generally. But in the world of television, there’s one producer who regularly casts women in action/murder/suspense TV series. Her name is Shonda Rhimes and she’s doing pretty darn well.

Drew Barrymore, action star. Make it happen. Get a pitch-framing catcher, Hollywood. Sexism is, in addition to being reprehensible, a market inefficiency. Trade on the margins, Hollywood, and give some great actresses a chance.

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.