Cinderella: Film Review

When I first heard that Disney was doing a live-action film based on the old Cinderella animated feature, I had the same reaction I’m sure a lot of you did: Why? The 1950 film was a classic in its day, Golden Age Disney at its best. But we’ve outgrown that time and culture. I could imagine a satire of Disney princesses, a la Enchanted. Or a tougher, stronger Cinderella, like in Ever After. Or a feminist or Marxist deconstruction Cinderella. But just a live-action version of the cartoon, with retrograde classist and patriarchal assumptions left unchallenged? No.

And of course, this new Kenneth Branagh version isn’t that either. It is, however, gloriously and unapologetically romantic in its look and its storytelling. It’s a gorgeous film. (My number one reaction to it, walking out of the theater, was that Sandy Powell just earned her 11th nomination and 4th Oscar for Costume Design). If anything, it’s a humanist reconstruction of the story. Yes, it’s a Cinderella in which a handsome prince sees a beautiful princess at a ball and falls in love at first sight. Except they’ve met before. And he doesn’t know if she actually is a princess, and doesn’t care. And they spend their time at the fancy dress ball playing hooky from it and, you know, talking. Engaging in conversation. And he likes her because she’s vivacious and smart and funny, not just because she looks amazing in that blue dress. (Although she does look amazing in that dress).

A critic I really like, the Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek said that she liked the film precisely because it wasn’t full of ‘female empowerment’ messages, that it wasn’t a film that said to girls ‘you can become anything you want to!’ That isn’t actually true, of course. Instead, Ella’s mom, as she dies, tells her two things, to be brave, and to be kind. I love that. I can’t imagine better advice for my own daughters, and my sons too. Be brave and be kind.

Cinderella is played by Lily James, who you probably know from Downton Abbey. And when you look at Lily James in closeup, you realize that she’s hardly a classic beauty; her nose is a little big, her mouth a little wide, her teeth a bit oversized. And it couldn’t possibly matter less. Her smile lights up her face, and she’s got such vivacity and energy and is so open emotionally, she’s spectacular in the role. The prince, Richard Madden, Robb Stark from Game of Thrones, is of course an exceptionally good looking prince. But he’s also a little dorky, a little awkward. You can see that he doesn’t really know how to talk to girls–he’s a prince, an apprentice king, learning politics on the job–but he likes Ella because she’s easy to talk to, because of her open enthusiasm for, basically everything. The evil step-sisters, Drisella (Sophie McShera, Daisy on Downton Abbey), and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), aren’t physically unattractive (they’re not ugly step-sisters), but they’re unkind, mean, selfish and stupid. And the name ‘Cinderella’ is pejorative, an insult. Until Ella embraces it. She doesn’t want her Prince to have any illusions; she wants him to know her as she is, a servant girl. But she says it proudly, with a smile. She’s learned what it means to be brave, and kind.

Cate Blanchett is the evil step-mother, and again, it’s a smart and human portrayal. Blanchett plays her as a survivor, a tough-minded pragmatist who does what she needs to do to get by in a world dominated by men. She expects Cinderella to wait on her and for the household’s dwindling income to extend to fancy dresses, because keeping up appearances is the way to catch a man, and without a man to look after her, how is she to survive? Her scenes with the King’s evil advisor, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgaard) are delicious, as we see two crafty practitioners of real-politikk sum each other up, and make common cause.

As we left the theater (I saw it with my wife and daughter, and a niece and her husband), we all laughed a bit, at the glorious preposterousness of Cinderella’s ball gown, at this imagined Mittel-European kingdom, on a picturesque coast, but also with Alps, and rosy-cheeked Scandanavian-looking peasants, but also, apparently, a thriving black community. Of course, it’s a fantasy; the whole thing’s a fantasy. But one with at least one foot in the reality of actual human experience. And a fantasy grounded in the notion that in a tough and brutal world, a world full of death and despair, we still have the capacity for courage. And kindness. It’s a terrific film.

 

Imagining a progressive Mormonism

I attended a terrific lecture last night. It was the Eugene England annual lecture, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at UVU. The speaker was Robert Rees, who teaches religious studies at Berkeley. I’ve admired his writing for years, and we became acquainted at Sunstone recently. Anyway, his talk will surely be available on-line soon, and I’ll link to it when it appears. Meanwhile, I don’t want to paraphrase, and did not, in any event, take notes.

To briefly summarize, though, he spoke of Latter-day Saints imagining a future in which our culture and our community is more open to progressive ideas, and he suggested a few ways in which that could happen. Mormons, for example, join other Christian communities in our belief that we humans have an important stewardship over the earth. Politically, climate change is a divisive issue, a partisan issue. But if we discuss the issue in terms of stewardship and not ‘environmentalism’ (a dirty word in some quarters), perhaps we can find common ground, especially as the frightening reality of climate change becomes increasingly apparent. It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which Latter-day Saints unite around stewardship and conservation efforts, and join with both political and Christian evangelical environmentalists in seeking solutions. When we read in the 10th Article of Faith that ‘We believe . . . that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory,’ it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s something we’re supposed to make happen, not just something we wait for.

I found myself moved and inspired by Rees’ great lecture and his vision. Again, I don’t particularly want to paraphrase his remarks. But I do want to join him in imagining, to the extent that we can imagine it, a future progressive Mormonism.

I imagine a world in which we stop paying lip service to female equality, and actually take concrete steps to make it happen. I imagine a world in which we reject, as unworthy, a vestigial sexual double standard. I imagine a world in which we embrace a non-judgmental model for modesty, one related to self-respect and self-confidence, and not shame or finger-pointing. I imagine a world in which our language about gender no longer reflects unreflective patriarchy. I imagine a world in which we embrace Mormonism’s unique theological stance with both genders represented as Deities.

I imagine a world in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are genuinely embraced, in Christian fellowship, and in which the standard of sexual morality required of straight Latter-day Saints applies equally to our gay family members.

I imagine a world in which income inequality is decried from the pulpit as unworthy the Body of Christ. I imagine a world in which all Latter-day Saints lift each other, in which poverty is seen as the human tragedy it genuinely is all over the world. I imagine a world in which no child goes to bed hungry. I imagine a world in which all children are safe from violence, despair, squalor and hatred, and in which all children, and all adults, have access to state-of-the-art health care.

I imagine a world in which the artificial construct we call racial difference no longer divides us, no longer holds some of us back, no longer turns our discourse harsh and ugly and violent.

I imagine a world full of laughter. I imagine a world in which teasing is allowed. I imagine a world which embraces the preposterous absurdity of human ambition, human pretension, human arrogance and human self-absorption, and finds joy in our unique apprehension of foolishness.

I imagine a world in which we Latter-day Saints continue to confront, honestly and openly, the most troubling aspects of our history, in a spirit of forgiveness and Christian charity. I imagine a world in which our fondest hope for those of our faith who leave us is that they find peace and acceptance within some other faith community, while we continue to offer them fellowship and love, kindly and without judgment.

I imagine a world in which we are, all of us, free. Free to reason, to search for truth, to , to disagree civilly, to discover and grow and learn. I imagine a world in which knowledge and truth and reason replace prejudice and acrimony.

And I don’t imagine a world in which lions lie down with lambs of their own accord, in which peace reigns only because Jesus has returned, in which cataclysm leads to spectacle, leading to millennium. I imagine a world in which we make peace happen. I imagine a world in which we forgive and love and care and rejoice together because we decided to embrace that paradisiacal future, together, willingly and joyfully.

That’s the world I imagine. I don’t expect I’ll live to see it. I won’t mind, if I can see the rawest beginnings of it starting to take shape.

We look around us and we see progressive accomplishment and regressive backlash, over and over, in a pattern described in the Book of Mormon. That tale ended tragically. Ours doesn’t need to. Let’s embrace a better future, together, as brothers and sisters should. Let’s make it happen. Let’s build our own cities of Enoch, in our homes, in our wards, in our communities.

Let the great work commence.

 

 

Debt and deficit

I have lots of friends on Facebook, and politically they range from socialist to liberal to conservative to Tea Party. Makes for some fun conversations. Some of my conservative friends insist that President Obama is hopelessly and incomparably bad at being President, that he has visited incalculable harm on the United States during his time in office, that his Presidency is one from which our nation may never recover. And when you ask what events, what policies, what actions have led them to this preposterous conclusion, they will point out, accurately enough, that the deficit has never been higher, and go on to assert that the debt incurred during the Obama Presidency will cripple our economy.

I get that, I really do. If you point out that the deficit isn’t as high as conservatives think it is, that it’s falling rapidly, and that it’s not actually damaging the US economy, you will be accused of ‘drinking the Kool-aid.’ Which is to say, of blindly and thoughtlessly following Obama, of being swayed by this President’s charisma to believe in absurd and untrue things. Oh, and of complete ignorance of economics. The debt is huge, the deficit massive, and the only way out is via huge cuts in federal spending, especially cutting Medicare, Social Security, welfare, food stamps, and all other federal strands of the social safety net.

So the question is this: how sincere are the concerns of Tea Party politicians, of House Republicans and other fiscal conservatives? Is Paul Krugman right, when he argues that the debt and deficit are being used cynically by right wing ideologues to further their ‘small government’ political agenda? Or are the concerns about the debt and deficit genuine? Is US indebtedness an actual, for reals, honest-to-Pete national emergency? Or is it all a big bluff?

From the point of view of actual Tea Party folks, voters, of course their concerns are genuine. They see this issue in personal terms. If they had family members who were racking up huge amounts of credit card debt, they’d be terribly concerned, and they’d do whatever they had to do to fix it. That’s how they see this, through the lens of personal finance. They are terrified of burdening their grandchildren with debt. The fact that the federal government can do things, and is required to do things that no family would or could ever do is immaterial. It’s all about the grandkids.

(But only up to a point. In fact, the US is doing something right now that is quite absurd. We’re saying to young people ‘you should go to college. It’s the key to your financial future. But the reality of college nowadays will require you to incur debt equal to a home mortgage in order to get that education.’ That’s a rotten deal for young people, and they know it. Especially when they know perfectly well that, in Europe, college is free.  Ask the Tea Party folks if they support free college education, and I can predict the response. ‘We can’t afford it.’ Meaning the US. Can’t afford to educate our 18-22 year-olds. Uh, the richest country in the history of the world).

But back to the debt and deficit, because it’s much more comforting to worry about potential problems fifty years from now than actual-factual problems right now. Let’s suppose that the Tea Party is right, and that the national debt is a huge problem, crippling the US economy going forward, and the deficit adds to the debt annually and is dangerously fiscally irresponsible. To go back to the ‘family finance’ model, let’s suppose that your family has incurred a debt. Let’s suppose that you’re living beyond your means, spending more every month than you bring in. There are two things you can do (and you may have to do both). You can increase your income (perhaps by having someone work more hours, or take a second job), or you can cut family spending. So if the deficit is really a big problem, you need to do both things; increase revenues and decrease expenditures.

So lately, to be obnoxious, I’ve been conducting a little thought experiment with my Tea Party friends. Let’s suppose that you’re right. Let’s suppose that the debt really is destructive, that continuing deficit spending really does need to end. Let’s suppose that we’re facing a national emergency if we don’t do something about it.

All right then, what is the current budget deficit? Tea Partiers will usually say ‘it’s a trillion dollars.’ It isn’t. The deficit was $483 billion in fiscal 2014. But fine, we also need to pay down the debt, so let’s go with their figure; let’s say we need to reduce the deficit by a trillion dollars.

Now, this is a national emergency, right? This has to be done. And cutting discretionary domestic spending won’t get us there. We need to look at both sides of the ledger, at cutting spending, and raising revenue, right? As you would do with your family. So we ask two questions: what is the most bloated, irresponsible part of the federal budget? And what sector of the population is most conspicuously undertaxed?

The answers are clear enough; the US spends more on defense than the next seventeen highest countries in the world combined. Is it a national emergency if we shut down the six golf courses the Navy operates in Guam? No. Let’s cut $400 billion from the defense budget. We’d still be the highest spending country in defense in the world, by a wide margin. And the super-rich, the top 1% have seen their taxes decline for years. Let’s raise the top marginal tax rate to 1970 rates. And we just made another $400 billion. Add increases in capital gains taxes and estate taxes, and we’d come pretty close to reaching our goal. One trillion dollars.

Then I ask this: if in fact the national debt is a national emergency and eliminating the deficit our top national priority, would you support the budget I just proposed. Would you support cuts in defense spending, and raising taxes on the richest folks in the country? If you’re saying, we must do this, we have to do this, we are bankrupting the future of our grandchildren if we don’t eliminate the deficit immediately, all right then. I have a concrete proposal that would accomplish it. Granted, perhaps, cutting defense and raising taxes wouldn’t be your first choice. But would you support it? In an emergency? Which you insist we have right now.

There have been two usual responses. Here’s one: ‘look, squirrel!’ In other words, a very rapid change of subject. The second is anger: obviously, I don’t understand foreign policy or economics. Cutting defense spending would leave us open to terrorist attacks. (Not true; we’d still have plenty of resources to fight terrorism). Taxing rich people would destroy our economy. (That’s never been true historically; in fact, the economy has never grown faster than during times when the highest marginal tax rate was 91%).

But the Up response, the ‘look, squirrel’ one has been the response of the national Republican party. Right now, in fact, the Republican dominated House and Senate have both proposed budgets, exercises in fantasy really, because there’s no chance at all of President Obama signing either of them into law. And both those budgets include increases in defense spending.

Which suggests to this Hoosier boy one thing: conservatives are not serious about the deficit. They’re using it as a pretext to cut domestic spending. It’s not about fiscal responsibility, it’s about conservative small-government ideology. Sorry to be cynical, folks, but it’s so. The Republican party is, and remains, the party of the rich, of big business, of Wall Street excesses. The Democratic party, in instructive contrast, is only mostly the party of rich business interests. Meanwhile, kids really are getting screwed, but not in the nebulous future, by debt and deficits, but right now, by the student loans that make college, which is a good thing, possible. Some day soon they’re going to get fed up, and kick all the old rich white people out. Can’t happen too soon either, says this rich old white guy.

Emperor and Galilean

Last Friday, I was invited to Hillcrest High School, in Draper, to see the North American premiere of Ben Power’s translation/version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Emperor and Galilean. I had a terrific time, and thought the production was imaginatively staged and beautifully realized.

Emperor and Galilean is surely the most obscure and seldom staged of Ibsen’s plays, even more infrequently performed even than his early Viking melodramas, like The Warrior’s Barrow or The Vikings at Helgeland, which are fun enough that Norwegian theatres still produce them from time to time. As it happens, though, I have seen a previous production of E and G, at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo, in 1989. That production was nine and a half hours long (not seven and a half, as I may have told people mistakenly), which points to the main reason that the play isn’t done very often–it’s very very long–ten acts altogether. Actually, it’s two five-act plays; Julian the Apostate, and The Emperor Julian, but I can’t imagine anyone doing either play alone. They tell one continuous story, and neither play would be thematically or narratively satisfying separately.

E and G tells the story of Flavius Claudius Julianus, Emperor of Rome for just two years, otherwise known as Julian the Apostate, because of his attempt to reject Christianity as the state religion, and return Roman worship to neo-Platonist paganism. In a battle against the Persian empire at Samara, Julian was killed; according to one source, by a Christian soldier in his own army. Ibsen has him killed by Agathon, Julian’s best friend from his early years as a Christian.

I had to read the play in grad school, and ended up falling in love with it. The usual reading of the play is that Ibsen, following Nietzsche, was arguing for a synthesis between the sensuousness of paganism and the spirituality of Christianity. If that’s indeed the point of the play, I have to say that that synthesis certainly doesn’t work very well–Julian’s attempt to create it lead to civil war, and to his own destruction. Plus, there’s no evidence that Ibsen even read, let alone cared about Nietzsche. Plus, I couldn’t possibly care less about a synthesis between pagan sensuousness and Christian spirituality. If those are indeed the main philosophical concerns of the play, then I wouldn’t be alone in considering it a play that has well deserved its obscurity.

I don’t think that’s what it’s about, though, and I don’t think those themes were given much expression in production. As the play continuously reminds us, it’s a play about the choice between Emperor and Galilean, about balancing the needs of the state and the demands of leading a Christ-like life. And it’s a play that shows, unmistakably, how state power corrupts and corrodes religion. As one parent said at the talk-back session following the play, ‘it’s a play about the First Amendment. It’s showing how badly we need it.’ Amen, brother.

When we see the play today, in 2015, we see a fanatical megomaniac who causes untold destruction by his vicious insistence on his own personal ideology. We’ve had our fill of those characters in my lifetime, have we not? I see the imposition of a state religion, any state religion, Christian or pagan, leading to war and violence and death. I see a huge, unnecessary, religious war fought in southern Iraq, by an army also intent of destroying the religious center of Persia/Iran. We see a play about issues that still resonate. We see, in Julian, a figure that we know all too well, and we see how damaging his charismatic fanaticism can become.

Ibsen builds the play around Julian and his three best friends–Agathon, Peter and Gregory, plus his pagan mystic guru Maximus. As the play begins, Agathon is proud of the fact that he has managed to lead a pogrom against local pagans, killing a whole lot of them. His fanaticism remains unabated, and eventually, he kills his apostate friend. Peter’s Christianity finds expression in fellowship and loyalty–he’s the one friend to stick with Julian no matter what, even after he grows appalled by Julian’s excesses. Gregory leaves Constantinople and founds his own religious community, which is eventually destroyed by Julian’s men. Gregory is really the one genuine Christian we meet in the play, and he is martyred for his devotion. Maximus, meanwhile, is about four/fifths a flattering fraud, but he does seem to have real visions, and those visions have consequences. Julian is told that he will complete the work of two great World Spirits; men who changed the world, advancing civilization. The first two are Cain and Judas Iscariot. I’m not sure that’s a parade I want to head up, but Julian eats it up. And that vision devours everyone else, in time.

Ibsen loved guys like Maximus; he loved creating fatuous blustering pompous jerks–Torvald, in A Doll House, Manders in Ghosts. We often take Ibsen too seriously–there’s a savage satirical wit in Ibsen that it can be easy to miss, especially in British English translations of his works. I wonder if anyone has ever thought to play Maximus as comic relief. It would certainly fit nicely with the rest of the Ibsen oeuvre.

Anyway, Hillcrest’s production was imaginative, energetic, lively and theatrically spectacular, with lots of smoke effects and projections and timely-falling set pieces. David Chamberlain was terrific in the huge role of Julian, and I also loved Carter Walker, Steven Hooley and Russell Carpenter as Gregory, Agathon and Peter, respectively. Of all the other supporting characters, I was particularly taken with Skyler Harmon, who played the conniving Ursulus, the Emperor Constantius’ fixer and right hand woman.

Above all, kudos of Joshua Long, the director of the production. Long has clearly created a tremendous high school drama program there at Hillcrest, with massive parental support. Watching the show, I estimated a cast size of around 90, but counting the names in the program, there were closer to 120. That’s a lot of costumes to build; how many moms were enlisted in that effort? Refreshments were sold during the show’s two intermissions, and again I saw supportive parents working for the success of the show. Long told me afterwards that he had tremendous support as well from his principal and administration; good for everyone involved. Those kids, in that cast, will never forget this experience as long as they live. They were involved in a fantastic undertaking, a very much neglected masterpiece given new life on stage. I can’t imagine anything cooler.

 

The NCAA tournament

The annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament started yesterday, an orgy of missed shots, wild dunks, last second finishes, agony and joy. Sixteen games were played yesterday, all of them nationally televised, five of them decided by one point. I watched at least some of all of them; basically I wore out my remote. As always, it was very exciting.

And not. Because if you’re a lifetime basketball fan–and I am–you can’t help but notice how bad college basketball has become. Every possession, more or less, ends with a guy blasting past a defender, flinging a wild shot in the general direction of the rim, followed by five guys flailing to grab a rebound. College baskeball has become an over-coached, over-defended, badly officiated (make that ‘horrendously officiated’) travesty. At its best, basketball can become an argument, a statement in a continuing debate over how the game is supposed to be played, over strategies and tactics and fundamentals. At its worst, basketball is thuggish, slow, and ugly. And dangerous; it amazes me that more kids aren’t hurt.

And Kentucky’s going to win. Kentucky, with six freshmen and three sophomores in their regular playing rotation. And you might think, wow, what a dynasty! All those young players; how good are they going to be next season! Ha. Next season, they’ll all be in the NBA. They’re ‘college students’ in the same sense that the kids on Glee are in ‘high school.’

Grantland.com’s Brian Phillips had an interesting article today discussing the problems inherent in the current game. As Phillips points out, there are a number of relatively simple rule changes that could be implemented that would speed the game up, open it up, and make it more entertaining. But it’s almost impossible for the NCAA to make those changes, because doing so would require that they admit that they are creating and selling a product, ‘college basketball broadcasts,’ that needs to be tweaked to make it more fun to watch. The fiction is that these are ‘student-athletes,’ college kids engaged in an extra-curricular activity, televised as a public service, so that their families and interested alums can enjoy seeing them play. In fact, though, the NCAA generates billions of dollars from college basketball. And does so through a business model in which they don’t pay the people who generate it.

Every time I drive from Provo to Salt Lake and back, I pass several billboards for BYU sports. Right now, it’s basketball season, and so those billboards feature Tyler Haws, the star of the team. Haws, of course, isn’t being paid for the use of his likeness on those billboards. Nor are his teammates compensated for all the posters and tee shirts and hats and bobbleheads and water bottles featuring the BYU basketball team. I know the argument: they’re being compensated in that they receive a college education. That’s a valuable commodity. True enough, and especially for someone like Tyler Haws, who is a good student. Still, it seems disproportionate; millions of revenue generated, with almost nothing going to the players.

Remember last year’s tournament? Exciting stuff, right? Shabazz Napier and UConn? Remember what Napier said afterwards? How some days were just ‘hungry days,’ because his scholarship didn’t provide sufficiently for meals, and he wasn’t allowed to get a job or in any other way make enough money to buy a Big Mac?

Okay, Shabazz Napier’s in the NBA now; for him, it was worth it. Most players have that dream; the dream of a professional career. For 98 percent of them, it’s a pipe dream. So what happens then?

John Oliver’s show, last week, straightforwardly recommended that college basketball players be paid. I’ve heard that from other sources. And it’s probably going to happen. Ed O’Bannon won his lawsuit against EA Sports, after suing them for using his image without his permission. That verdict is being appealed, but when the appeals are exhausted, we’re going to see some compensation for college athletes.

Meanwhile, let me give the ‘fix the NCAA’ problem a shot. I taught for twenty years in the BYU Theatre department. We had a lot of kids in our program who wanted careers on Broadway or Hollywood; most of them didn’t make it. But they did get a good college education, and I have former students who are attorneys, successful business people, some are in medical school; they didn’t so much abandon their dreams as re-route them. The kids who acted in our college theatre productions weren’t paid. But a lot of our students were paid; to work in the scene shop, to hang lights, to sell tickets, to work in marketing. And our actors were actively encouraged to work professionally. I remember one actress who got the lead in a Disney movie. When her work on that film was done, she came back to school, acted in college productions, finished her degree. Now she’s a successful professional actress. As faculty, what did we think of her work on that Disney movie? We thought it was awesome. We had a party and watched it. We rooted for her then, and we root for her today.

So I’m going to make some recommendations to the NCAA, none of which I expect that organization to listen to for a second. Because, let’s face it, the NCAA is appalling, an organization of rule-bound ninnies, liars and hypocrites. Overpaid frauds. It’s an group of college administrators, after all, hardly nature’s aristocrats; these are people who think ‘university assessment’ is a good idea. They won’t change until they have to.

Still.here’s my fix for the NCAA. Number one: permanently abandon, once and for all, the notion of the ‘amateur athlete.’ The Olympics doesn’t bother with it anymore, and neither should the NCAA. All those ridiculous rules in which a player is suspended and a program punished because his coach bought him a sandwich accomplish nothing except expose the NCAA to ridicule.

An athletic scholarship should be non-revocable. All athletic scholarships, in all sports offered on campus. Pay for those extra scholarships by cutting the salaries of coaches and athletic directors. Every athlete receiving one should be guaranteed a college education. If a coach recruits a player, and gives him a scholarship, then that kid gets, free of charge, five years worth of a college education, period. Right now, coaches routinely recruit more players than they have scholarships for, and if one of them turns out to be less good at basketball than the coach initially thought, he’s out of luck. That needs to end. Let colleges offer as many athletic scholarships as they want to, no limits, but with the understanding that they can’t take that scholarship away, at all, ever, for any non-academic reason. If the kid gets injured, he keeps the scholarship. If a kid doesn’t make the team, he keeps the scholarship.

Also, let them be college students. Put serious limits on how much time kids spend in practice. ‘Voluntary workouts’ count against practice time. Every second a kid spends out of class, in a weight room or in meetings or working out with coaches counts against practice time. Limit practice time to twenty hours a week, and enforce it.

If a kid is able to earn money off the court, that’s fine. Let him appear in a Disney movie. Or play on a D-league summer team. Or appear in a local commercial. Or sell his autograph. Or flip burgers. Whatever. None of that is any of your business. (Will this lead to abuses? Will boosters offer the starting quarterback no-show jobs at their businesses? Sure, probably. I just don’t think that kid of petty corruption is policeable).

I would probably put a cap on coaches salaries. I’d also like to see coaches treated like tenure-track faculty. If they make tenure, you can’t fire them. And give them some classroom responsibilities. Make ’em teach a class or two.

None of this is likely to happen, of course. But I’d love to see it. These kids are being mistreated, and it’s wrong. And while we’re at it, make the game a little more fun. For starters, let the kids play. Limit coaches time-outs to two per half. Let college kids be college kids. I promise, they’ll amaze you.

 

 

Chris Borland

Twenty years from now, when we look back on it all, we may well decide that this is the turning point, that Chris Borland’s retirement was the first domino to fall. It’s going to seem weird. A multi-billion dollar sports industry, the NFL, running the most popular team sport in the United States, just . . . ending. The Super Bowl, the single biggest TV event of the year, just going away. But the demise of professional football will only seem remarkable in retrospect. When it all ends, we’ll all sit back and agree that there was nothing else that could have been done. It just wasn’t worth it.

Chris Borland is 24 years old. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history, then was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He is a thoughtful and intelligent young man. His position, inside linebacker, was one in which the 49ers wouldn’t seem to have needed much help. The 49ers had two of the best inside linebackers in all of football, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman; it was thought that Borland wouldn’t play much. But then Willis hurt his foot, and Bowman was slower than expected to recover from knee surgery. Early in the season, Borland won the starting job, and was spectacular. He looked like a superstar. A few days ago, Patrick Willis, age 30, announced his retirement from professional football. His foot just wasn’t getting better, and he was concerned about the quality of his life going forward. But 49ers’ (and I count myself as one), weren’t concerned. After all, we had Chris Borland.

And then, yesterday, Chris Borland likewise announced his retirement from professional football. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t disgruntled. He didn’t have some kind of religious experience that persuaded him to do something else with his life, as former 49er Glen Coffee had had. (Coffee, after a promising rookie year, retired, saying he had become convinced that ‘God didn’t want him to play football’). No, Borland retired because he had researched the long term effects of multiple minor concussions. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” Here’s  the interview.

Over 70 former NFL players have been diagnosed post-mortem with degenerative neurological disease. Numerous studies have demonstrated a connection between head trauma and subsequent brain damage. Borland did his research, and made an informed decision about his health and his future. He also left a lot of money on the table. As a budding star, he could easily have made a bundle if he’d stuck around a few years.

But what’s really remarkable about Borland’s announcement has been the reaction of his teammates and other current NFL players. Pretty much everyone’s been supportive. Borland’s 49er teammate, Frank Gore, long considered the epitome of the NFL tough guy, said he ‘respected Chris’ decision.’ Here’s a sampling of supportive tweets.  The words used by his fellow plays seem particularly interesting to me; they talk about his ‘courage,’ and how hard it can be to ‘do the right thing.’

I didn’t expect that. The NFL code of toughness says that if you ‘get your bell rung,’ you find a way to get back in the game. Most former players can tell humorous stories about games in which they were concussed, but got back on the field. ‘I played the second half, and still don’t remember a thing about it.’ That kind of thing. But the data is piling up, and those stories aren’t as funny as they once were. In the most recent Super Bowl, Patriots’ receiver Julian Edelman may well have caught the winning touchdown pass while concussed. The reaction around the league was pretty hostile; he should have come out of the game, players are saying. His coaches should have forced him out.

And that’s how football will die, I think. Not with a bang, but a whimper. More and more parents will decide not to sign that permission slip; more and more high schools will have to weigh insurance costs, and decide there are better extra-curricular activities for their students.

And more and more fans of the sport (like me) feel conflicted about it, and question whether this is a sport to which we should give our time and attention. We’ve seen too many former players who have a hard time climbing stairs or bending over to pick up their grandkids. And too many who have suffered brain trauma. Chris Borland is right. And he won’t be the first.

 

The Utah Legislature, education, and testing

The Utah legislature meets annually, for a limited time: 60 days. This wasn’t a bad session for education, with 515 million in new ed spending, always welcome news. The leg also had discussions about SAGE, the Utah year-end assessment test that all students have to take, which in part determines school funding priorities. A bill was proposed that would have phased SAGE out. That bill did not pass, unfortunately. But at least they’re having a conversation about it.

Because of that, I can’t help but think that, even with all the new funding, this was an inconsequential session in regards to education. They could have made a genuine difference; they could have actually improved the way kids are educated in the state. But education professionals and education reformers won again, armed with their two great buzz words: ‘accountability’ and ‘assessment.’ And so testing will continue. What a shame.

Here’s why I hate testing so much. I am a teacher, the son of two teachers, grandson of another. I have three sisters-in-law who are teachers. My brother was a teacher. My son is training to become a teaching. Teaching is in my blood. And when I teach, my loyalty, first and foremost, is to my students. Nothing else, no other considerations, can be allowed to get in the way. Teachers focus on kids, those kids, in that classroom, their needs and difficulties and strengths and weaknesses. Of course there’s a subject matter that needs to be taught, and lesson plans that need to be developed, and we do have to come up with some way to figure out how much the kids are learning. But it’s always kid-oriented, directed for and about students. And sure, testing can be a valuable tool, when subject-matter and classroom limited. (Though I never once in my entire career gave a multiple-guess or true/false kind of test. Never once.)

This is just fundamental. Teaching has to be about students. We learn as much as we appropriately can about them. And the point isn’t just to get them to superficially understand certain facts or concepts. The point is empowerment. We want our kids to learn new skills, develop new ways of understanding the world, while always, always respecting their independence, their autonomy. We don’t teach math because there’s anything inherently valuable about figuring out an algebraic equation, but because there’s a kind of mental discipline that working out algebra problems helps develop.

Now, of course, the whole time we’re focusing all our attention on the students, we also are getting paid by the school system. We do owe our employees a certain loyalty. But teaching works best when we’re able to forget that, and lose ourselves in a kind of illusion of selflessness. And honestly, it’s not that much of an illusion. Teachers aren’t paid all that well, and the hours we spend outside the classroom, and the dollars we spend of our own money for classroom supplies all do suggest that teaching really is more a calling than a profession.

And think back to the genuinely great teachers who made a difference in your life. I think, for example, of my old high school drama teacher, Mary Forester, who routinely put in 80 hour weeks to give the school’s outcasts and misfits a place where we belonged. I think of Kenny Mann, my high school English teacher, who told me that short stories I wrote were genuinely engaging, and encouraged me to keep writing. (And I remember how painfully I took the news of his premature death from AIDS). I think of Marvin Carlson, my grad school advisor, who made a point of greeting me every time he saw me in his own bad Norwegian, because he never forgot that I had some fluency in the language.

Bad teaching, though, is what happens when the teacher has some other agenda than caring for students. I remember, for example, a grade school teacher of my oldest son’s. Her own son was in her classroom, and was the school bully, and when we would talk to her about it, it was clear that her primary agenda was to stand up for her kid, and not protect mine. Understandable, perhaps, but immensely damaging, until we were able to transfer Kai to a different school.

Conservatives sometimes complain about higher education having a liberal bias, suggesting not only that some college professors have an ideological bias, but that indoctrinating students ideologically is more important to them than just teaching. I think that does happen, and that it’s wrong. Overly tendentious political correctness is genuinely damaging to academic discourse. At the same time, feminist or Marxist or post-colonial literary theory are important lenses through which we can and often should view texts. The best teachers are those who can teach such theories, without insisting on the ideology. Good teaching is an effort to genuinely engage students in the world of ideas. All ideas, at least initially.

Ultimately, though, good teaching isn’t liberal or conservative. It’s personal, it’s respectful, it’s deeply and powerfully empathetic. And the best classroom moments are those when you sense that this classroom needs something other than the lesson you’ve prepared, and toss your entire plan out the window.

So what happens if institutional imperatives clash with the personal attention you have to give your students? I taught at BYU, I got a paycheck from BYU, and BYU has an Honor Code. I taught playwriting, and some student plays were frankly confessional. What if a student, in a play, admitted to having violated the Honor Code? Would I feel some kind of divided loyalty? Honestly, I never did. It never even occurred to me. I never turned a student in, and can’t imagine ever doing so. I was a teacher. Confessions made in class were, to me, privileged communications.

But once you introduce a state-required standardized test, and tell teachers that their raises and the funding of their schools requires that students do well on it, you’ve fundamentally changed the entire teacher/student dynamic. Suddenly, the worst possible kind of education process–forced rote memorization of worthless facts–becomes the way you have to teach. (Of course teachers teach to the test; the stake are too for them high not to). Suddenly the illusion of selflessness disappears. Your loyalty isn’t to your students anymore; it’s to the dictates of the state, or the principal of your school, or the school board, or whoever else in power needs your kids to do well on the SAGE.

It’s destructive, and it’s unnecessary. Education professionals insist on the necessity of ‘assessment,’ and when you protest, they respond with the other ‘a’ word: accountability. Suddenly, if you protest, you’re a freeloader, a cheat, someone who wants to be paid to do a job but opposes being held accountable for how good you are at it.

But teachers are already accountable. You’re accountable every time you look over a classroom of students. You feel that responsibility; you want them to do well, you care about them, you want them to excel.

When a student wrote a paper for one of my classes, I read it, I marked it up with comments, I gave it a grade. I always gave students the opportunity to re-write. Did their re-writes improve the paper? Yes, without exception, they did. How did I know? How could I prove it? By what assessment metrics could I demonstrate that improvement? I didn’t have any. The paper was better. I have read how many student papers in my lifetime? Several thousand? I know a good paper when I see one, and I also can tell when a paper improves. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.

Assessment and accountability. Those have become the two most destructive and damaging words in contemporary American education. They have become the false gods our education establishment worships. And both find their perfect expression in standardized, state-required tests.

The way teachers survive, I think, is through a kind of practiced mendacity. Teachers pay lip service to the A-words, while preserving as much of their own integrity as they can. Some teachers, of course, take it a step farther, by falsifying their student results. That’s understandable, and, in a sense, laudable, as acts of civil disobedience are often laudable as a response to tyranny. But what really needs to happen is for parents to get involved. Make a fuss. Insist that states end testing. End it now, end it everywhere. And meanwhile, when your kids take the SAGE test (or whatever malevolent equivalent your state’s cooked up), tell them to flunk on purpose. If everyone did that.. . . .

 

 

 

The Senate weighs in on Iran

Freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) is not a stupid person, at least if we assume that dummies don’t graduate from Harvard and Harvard Law. Nor should we really question the man’s patriotism; he served in the military, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like a lot of young politicians (he’s 37), he’s ambitious; he wants to make his mark. He’s off to a rousing start. He authored, and got 47 senators to sign, a letter to Iran, carefully explaining our Constitutional form of government. And also why any deal their government negotiates with President Obama isn’t worth doodly-squat.

The ‘Cotton letter’ really is something to behold. Here’s how it starts: “It has come to our attention . . . that you may not understand our constitutional system of government.” That’s the tone; condescending and imperial. Insulting? I think so. It’s an open letter to “The Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and it’s about Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the Obama administration. Which suggests that it’s intended, first of all, to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif.

So who is Zarif, this Islamist fanatic, this provincial Persian, this ignorant non-entity? Well, Zarif has two Master’s Degrees in International Relations, one from San Francisco State University, and one from the University of Denver, and a PhD from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, also in Denver. I’ve learned all kinds of stuff about Zarif; took me three minutes to find his his Wikipedia article. (I assume Cotton has, at least, a staffer who could have shown him how to find Wikipedia). Zarif’s an expert on nuclear disarmament. He has two kids, both born in the US (and thus eligible for American citizenship). He probably speaks better English than Cotton does.  So, yeah, I think we can safely assume that Zarif is reasonably familiar with the US constitution.

All across the country, newspapers are condemning the Cotton letter. One of them is the highly conservative Deseret News, which called it ‘ill-timed,’ which is about as far as they dared go in criticizing a Tea Party darling. What at least some of these op-ed pieces have pointed out is not just the questionable judgment (even patriotism) of a bunch of senators criticizing an on-going negotiation. The Senate’s constitutional ‘advise and consent’ role is, actually, limited to formal treaties. The Senate has no constitutional role in on-going negotiations. The President is charged with conducting foreign policy. Which this President happens to be particularly good at. Sorry, but it’s so.

The Cotton letter reminds the Iranians that President Obama will be out of office in 2017, and that it’s quite possible that the new President will not share his foreign policy objectives and tactics. That’s certainly true, as far as it goes. But what the President and Secretary Kerry is currently negotiating is not a formal treaty between the US and Iran. It’s a complicated multi-national agreement involving Britain, France, China, Germany and Russian, in addition to other nations. Are 47 Senators really intent on binding the hands of the incoming President like this? Let’s suppose that the Republicans win in 2017 (the letter seems to take that as a given). Will the first act of President Republican Guy’s new administration be an open slap in the face to our closest allies, as well as a de facto declaration of war against Iran? Seriously?

The last paragraph of Cotton’s letter states that ‘any agreement . . . that is not approved by Congress’ is nothing more than ‘an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khameini.’ It would therefore be easily revokable. That’s factually inaccurate; it would be an agreement involving many other nations. And it’s also ignorant of Iran’s complex governmental structure. As the Deseret News editorial pointed out, Khameini is not a dictator. He certainly has a lot of power in Iran, but it’s delicately balanced between the elected government, the Council of Mullahs, and other entities. It’s certainly true, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week (in his equally ill-advised speech) that Khameini has made appallingly anti-Semitic statements in the past. Those statements have, however, been repudiated by, among others, Zarif.

I’m not quite sure that it’s fair to call Cotton ‘Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree’ as Salon.com did recently. Nor is it fair to call his dumb letter an act of treason. That’s a strong accusation, and overstated in this case. It was just stupid. That’s all, and that’s enough. Basically it sends a message internationally that a lot of people in the American Congress are dimwitted. And that some of them are running for President.

As, for example, Marco Rubio, who seriously asked Secretary Kerry, earlier this week, if the reason we haven’t sent more troops into Iraq, or launch more air strikes, to fight against ISIS is because we didn’t want to offend Iran. Secretary Kerry’s rather starchy reply “the facts completely contradict that.” Among those facts would be the presence of Iranian troops liberating Tikrit. Or the 2700 air strikes the US has already launched against ISIS.

At least for now, it appears as though the Republicans have their foreign policy issue heading into 2016. It’s going to be Iran. The Obama administration is soft on Iran, apparently, and also soft on ISIS. Because John Kerry is willing to sit in a room together with Mohammed Zarif.

I do think that the Cotton letter accomplished one thing. It persuaded Zarif that the US Senate doesn’t need to be taken seriously on foreign policy. And now negotiations can continue. And when she takes office, President Clinton may even have a functioning majority in the Senate again. I can think of 47 guys who are going to be vulnerable.

 

Netanyahu speech fail

The big news Tuesday, of course, was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner. Post-speech analysis described it as an extraordinary piece of political theatre, which it certainly was. It was also essentially unprecedented. To have the head of state of an American ally address Congress to attack the foreign policy of a sitting President, at the invitation of Congress really does seem to be something brand new. And as a card-carrying liberal, I guess my reaction is supposed to be offended outrage. I’m supposed to describe the invitation as ‘disloyal’ or, depending on how partisan I feel, ‘treasonous.’I think I’ll pass.

I watched the speech, then later read it on-line, and the main thing I remember about it was the ovation Congress gave Netanyahu. It lasted forever. It was a huge standing ovation. It was Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium fervid. And, like those early Beatles performances, the noise of the wildly over-the-top ovation tended to overwhelm the music and the performance.

Basically, Netanyahu hates the idea of negotiating with Iran. The preliminary deal with Iran that the President announced in November 2013 was described by Netanyahu in apocalyptic terms. Here’s the key passage:

We must always remember — I’ll say it one more time — the greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but lose the war. We can’t let that happen.

But that, my friends, is exactly what could happen, if the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran. That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.

And the US Congress went nuts applauding.

I don’t know how it played in Israel. Netanyahu is in a tough election, and Likud (his party) is very slightly behind in the polls. It’s possible that this speech, made in America, might turn the corner in a close Israeli election. It’s more likely that it won’t make much of a difference. It’s not like he said anything new. That kind of apocalyptic rhetoric has resonance with some of his voters, but certainly not all of them. A poll taken right after the speech showed Likud getting a slight bounce, but not enough to win the election. It’s still basically tied.

So, okay, negotiations with Iran continue, and have been fruitful.  What’s Netanyahu’s counter-proposal? To continue with economic sanctions. Those sanctions were originally designed to damage Iran’s economy, thus encouraging Iran to discontinue it’s nuclear program. The fear is that Iran, if not stopped (or pressured to stop themselves) will build and deploy nukes, and launch an attack on Israel.

But they won’t. Vox.com’s Max Fisher carefully explained why this is not a realistic possibility. As Fisher points out, Israel has a second-strike capability that would wipe Iran off the planet, and Iran knows it. So we’re to assume that Iran’s leaders are suicidal loons capable of destroying their own nation if they can take Israel with them? Then why on earth would economic sanctions have any effect? That’s really the essence of Netanyahu’s speech: Iran is run by completely insane anti-Semites intent on Israel’s destruction no matter what the cost to themselves, but who are nonetheless rational enough to be deterred by some short-term economic pain. Really?

That kind of rhetoric, though well received by Republicans, isn’t anything new. Netanyahu’s been giving speeches in the US warning everyone of the dangers of a nuclear Iran since 1996. His rhetoric was apocalyptic then too. A nuclear Iran was immanent then, too. They were ‘on the brink’ of nuclear capability then too. And, as President Obama noted, Netanyahu made very specific predictions in 2013 about the bad things that would follow the deal when it was made, none of which have come true. The speech may have done Netanyahu’s electoral chances some minimal good. But it was a deeply illogical and dangerous speech.

I don’t think, though, that that’s what Congress heard. I think what the Tea Party wing of the Republican party heard was nothing more complicated than a foreign politician (from Israel, no less, the one foreign country loved most by religious conservatives), stand up to that Kenyan Commie in the White House.

But the speech, and the invitation to give the speech, is very likely to backfire. There’s a bill before Congress that would impose new sanctions on Iran in June if no final, comprehensive disarmament agreement is reached before then. President Obama has criticized that bill pretty strongly, saying that diplomacy is on-going, and Congressional interference would endanger complex and important negotiations. Despite the President’s opposition that bill looked like it had strong bi-partisan support, and was likely to pass the Senate, in addition to the House. Remember, there are a lot of Democrats who strongly support Israel. And you can count pro-Iranian Senators on the toes of one hand. Or the fingers on one foot. (They don’t exist, in other words).

But that bill is now dead in the water. Maybe it gets revived. But for now, the spectacle of Republicans insulting the sitting President of the United States over a question of foreign policy (constitutionally, the exclusive purview of the executive branch) has completely soured Democratic support for that bill in the Senate. Rhetoric has consequences. And applause, in this case, may have been emotionally satisfying, but it was a rhetorical blunder of the first order.

Meanwhile, one of the largest cities in Iraq, Tikrit, presently under the control of ISIS, is under attack from Iraqi forces trying to take the city back. I say Iraqi, but it’s more accurate to call it a joint military operation by Iran and Iraq. In fact, two thirds of the troops engaged in combat against Isis are Iranian. And I can’t imagine the courage of those soldiers. If they’re captured by ISIS, there will be no prisoner exchange or humanitarian treatment of wounds. Shi’a troops, captured by ISIS, are summarily executed.

In his speech, Netanyahu compared Iran’s government to ISIS:

Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.

And it’s not difficult to find evidence to support that contention in the speeches of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Ahmedinejad is out of office, and Hassan Rouhani is in. And Iran’s fighting alongside Iraq in the battlefield even as we speak. And what’s the reaction of General Dempsey, in charge of the American portion of the fight against ISIS? Awesome.

So Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress. He spoke eloquently and his remarks were well received. His speech was also extreme, illogical and almost certain to backfire. Well done, sir.

 

Crooked Still

I have discovered an amazing new (to me), unique (to me) band, and I want to turn you on to them. They’re called Crooked Still, and I can’t get enough of them. Call ’em progressive bluegrass, folk/country, Americana roots, they’re just astonishing. As far as I can tell, they don’t compose; they don’t have any original music in their set. It’s all classic folk songs, or blues, or country, or even the Beatles.

So here’s their lineup: cello, stand-up string bass, violin, banjo and a vocalist. The first thing you probably notice is that they don’t seem to need a guitarist. The second thing you might notice is that they also don’t have drums, or percussion. The percussive element in their music is largely provided by the banjo. And the possibilities they discover in the cello are just remarkable.

So it’s Aoife O’Donovan (vocals), Dr. Gregory Liszt (banjo), Corey DiMario (bass), Tristan Clarridge (cello), and Brittany Haas (violin). O’Donovan and DiMario met at the New England Conservatory of Music in 2001, and then formed up with former cellist Rushad Eggleston and Liszt to form Crooked Still. While they were all finishing grad school, they did some gigs in and around Boston. Eggleston left in 2007, and they added Clarridge and Haas in 2008. They’ve put out five albums, the best of which is Some Strange Country in 2010, though I also love Friends of Fall (2011), and Shaken by a Low Sound (2006).

Let me play you some of their music. Here’s my favorite of their songs, a weird, fascinating, creepy classic American folk song, Wind and Rain. I love the haunting refrain, love how it ends up tying the whole narrative together:

Next song is exactly the kind of song they shouldn’t be able to do without a guitarist; this cover of Robert Johnson’s Come on in my Kitchen. It’s classic Southern blues, and it’s been covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to Keb Mo to the Allmen Brothers. Listen to how perfectly the cello handles the coke bottle slide of Johnson’s.

The next song is the one you might have heard of: they used it in True Blood. It’s the great gospel song Ain’t No Grave. Listen to Liszt’s banjo picking in this, probably the most exuberant song about the resurrection of the dead perhaps ever recorded:

Okay, just one more. To give you some idea of their versatility, here’s Crooked Still doing the Beatles.

It does look like the band’s creative energy may have waned. They’ve all been busy on other solo projects since 2012. But they gave us 5 great albums, and may reunite this summer, according to their website. So we’ll see.