Benghazi, and Michael Bay’s Thirteen Hours

Say the word ‘Benghazi,’ and watch the fur fly. If you’re a conservative, Benghazi is a national disgrace, proof of the ineffectual and feckless foreign policy of Barack Obama and the rank dishonesty of Hillary Clinton. If you’re a liberal, Benghazi is a national tragedy unnecessarily politicized and trivialized by a right wing desperate for some actual scandal they can use to attack this President, and deny the Presidency to the woman who served as his Secretary of State.

My task today is to tell you about a film about Benghazi, directed by, of all people, Michael Bay. A film I expected to loathe, and ended up respecting and being moved by. Yes, that Michael Bay, known for mindless and idiotic action films about transforming robots, weighing in on the most tendentious political scandal of our age. Of course, I thought, the movie was going to suck; that went without saying. I was seeing it so you wouldn’t have to. You’re so very welcome.

I’m a liberal, and a Hillary Clinton supporter. I’m also a film guy. And so when I tell you that Thirteen Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is, for the most part, an honest, powerful and important film, and kind of interestingly revelatory, I suspect that most of you will worry that the old guy’s finally lost it. I knew perfectly well, going in, how I was supposed to react to it. But I make up my own mind. And yes, it’s  true that, to some extent, the film does perpetuate some conservative conspiracy theories. I just don’t think that’s very important.

Some background. September 11, 2012. Benghazi was the second largest city in Libya, a nation which, then, had recently, in 2011, been freed from the brutal and odious rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The United States supported the rebel faction that deposed Gaddafi, but the country began, almost immediately, to disintegrate, with some factions supporting the West, while others aligned with Isis, or Al Quada, or other Islamist extremists. The US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, supported Libyan independence, and the pro-Western factions in the country, and to show that support (and to meet with their leadership), he chose to spend a week in the mission compound in Benghazi, despite oft-expressed security concerns. And it was there that a large group of Libyan terrorists attacked.

In fact, there were two Benghazi attack centers. One was the consulate, where Stevens was in residence. The other was a CIA intelligence annex, tasked with monitoring Gaddafi-era weapons. Security at the consulate was provided by minimal personnel, plus a substantial Libyan militia presence (who turned out to be completely useless). Security at the CIA site, a mile away, was provided by civilian contractors, who reported to the CIA station chief. The contractors tried to save Stevens, but arrived too late. They returned to the CIA compound, followed by bad guys, and were attacked there. Of the four American casualties on that day, two were at the consulate, and two at the CIA facility. Most of the film is about the defense of the CIA compound.

The contractors were all former military Special forces. Those special forces are the heroes of this film. They all have beards, and cool tough guy names like Tig and Boon and Tanto and Oz. And the film’s protagonist, Jack (John Krasinski). They’re all married, all with families, and all with civilian jobs that they hate. And so, they take these security gigs, missing their families, but doing the job of warriors, because no one else will.

When terrorists attack the consulate, the contractors hear of it immediately, and want to drive to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his people. The CIA station chief, Bob, (played by David Costabile, a fine actor who often plays villains), refuses at first to allow it. The film therefore does support one conservative talking point: that the Ambassador could have been saved, but the guys who might have saved him were given a ‘stand-down order.’ An excellent Vox.com article on the film and the event points out that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation reached a different conclusion. (Still, given conflicting accounts, it’s hard to fault a screenwriter who chose to believe the one offering a stronger conflict).

The other major issue in the film has to do with their lack of air support. The contractors call repeatedly for some kind of military air support, which never comes. The reality, as found in both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee’s reports, is that the contractors didn’t receive air support because there weren’t any planes close by who could have provided it. So, in those two instances, the film does exactly what I was expecting it to do; support conservative talking points and conspiracy theories.

Here’s why, to me, none of that matters that much. Benghazi has not just become politicized, it’s also, perhaps inevitably, become trivialized. The current Republican talking points on the ‘scandal’ have to do with unimportant nonsense like who said what on Sunday morning talk shows a few days after the attack. The current Democratic response is a resounding ‘Hillary did nothing wrong!’ What both of these responses ignore, and what the film illustrates, is the complete failure of US foreign policy in Libya, and probably throughout the Middle East.

The US strongly supported one side in what became a Libyan Civil War. As a result, today, as the film both illustrates and points out, Libya is a failed state. It’s a surreal, violent, horror show of a country, and the movie gets that right. We see it over and over, what a dreadful, screwed-up, violent place Libya has become.

There’s one scene early in the film, as three of the contractors are running, weapons ready, towards a firefight. And as they run down a Benghazi street, they pass a bar, where a whole crowd of Libyans are watching a soccer game. This kind of thing happens throughout; the most bizarre juxtapositions of the brutal and the mundane. Another guy has set up a TV set in his backyard, and is watching the same game, while bullets fly past his head. It’s a country where the most horrific violence is so routine that people don’t pay it any heed.

It’s also a country where you really can’t tell the bad guys and good guys apart. There are Libyan characters who act heroically throughout, and of course, Libyan terrorists, led by this one, unnamed, long-haired guy. At one point, a car drives past the compound, and one of the contractors can’t decide whether to open fire or not. The car then turns around, and drives off. Was he lost? Was it reconnaissance? They don’t know, and neither do we, watching the film.

Of course, today, as Libya continues to collapse, as its two main factions and seven sub-factions all vie for power, the main response of the Libyan people has been to flee. There are half a million Libyan refugees in camps across Lebanon and flooding Italy. We think of the refugee crisis as involving Syrians, but it’s every bit as much a Libyan problem.

In American politics today, ‘Benghazi’ is the perfect illustration of what it means to strain for a gnat and swallow a camel. Conservatives shriek about how long it took Obama to call the attack an act of terrorism, while liberals shout just as robustly that Hillary was blameless. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pursued a policy in Libya that could not have failed more catastrophically, with an unbelievable cost in lives lost and families scattered. And the reason conservatives haven’t called them on it, is because they fully supported the essence of that policy, still do, and are upset that Obama didn’t commit to it more fully. Libya has failed, and thousands of people died, and that fact gets ignored by politicians left and right.

But not, as it happens, by Michael Bay. And after the attacks fail, and the contractors head home, we see the main battlefield outside the compound, and the bodies laying there, and we see women, wearing burqas and weeping like their hearts are broken, going from body to body, mourning each one afresh. I honor Michael Bay for including that moment, and lingering on it, just as I honor him for capturing the nightmare landscape that modern Libya has become.

It’s not just a stupid action film. It’s a powerful film about the cost of war, on both sides. And it’s a film about how badly US foreign policy has failed that entire region.

There’s an early scene in the film where Ambassador Stevens talks to the contractors at the CIA compound. And he’s idealistic and inspirational, and we can see that he’s a decent, good, hard working man, who genuinely believes that Libya can transform, under US guidance, to become a safe, free, prosperous nation. And that possibility maybe did exist, briefly. And the contractors aren’t impressed. They’re veterans of Iraq, and Afghanistan. They’ve served multiple tours in ‘nation-building’ missions abroad. And they’ve seen the results. It doesn’t work. And they’re going to end up having to shoot themselves out of the mess that kind of idealism creates.

Benghazi doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton lied and it doesn’t mean that Republicans hyperventilate over trivia. Benghazi is about an instance of horrible violence in a country that no longer exists, where violence has become routine. It’s about well-meaning idealism, left and right, and about the honest, superbly trained grunts who have to make policies work that have no chance of working. In short, it’s a tragedy. Made by Michael Bay. Watch it yourself. Make up your own mind.

A world that doesn’t exist

Watching last night’s Republican debate was a corrosive experience, depressing and infuriating. I didn’t watch it last night–there were basketball games to watch–but I did record it and watch it this morning. It’s not just the egos on display, not just the personal attacks, not just the usual politicians’ blather. I’m used to that. I usually think it’s pretty funny. It wasn’t until this morning when I read this article on Vox.com that I put my finger on it. The Republican candidates were describing a world that doesn’t exist.

Of course, I understand that that many Republicans believe that the seven years of the Obama Presidency have reduced the United States to a dystopic nightmare hellscape. The Oscar nominations just came out, and Mad Max: Fury Road is up for Best Picture. My impression is, that’s what they think the US is now, a bleak desert where water is money and Charlize Theron only has one arm, and is pursued by a bad guy in a mask. I mean, I get that the candidates are trying to replace Obama; of course they need to make the case that they will do a better job than he has. But they sounded like a bunch of dopes last night.

Let’s start with the absolutely obvious: the US economy was in free-fall when President Obama took office and it isn’t anymore. That’s reality. Not even a point worth debating. We all remember 2008. In case we forgot, The Big Short is also up for Best Picture. I’ll grant that Presidents don’t have all that much power to grow or contract the economy, but this President did ask for an $832 billion stimulus, which created or saved 1.2 million jobs every year for five years, and which prevented the great recession from turning into The Great Depression: The Sequel. Was some of the stimulus money misspent? Of course it was. It still worked; not as well as it might have worked, because it was never big enough. But well enough.

We can argue over whether a neo-Keynesian stimulus is an effective way to jump-start an economy trapped in a demand-side recession (hint: yes, it is), but what we can’t argue with is the simple fact that right now, in 2016, the economy is doing pretty darned well. The US GDP is up nearly nine percent since the first quarter of 2008. The US has added more jobs than the rest of the advanced world combined in that period. The deficit has declined; if current trends continue, the next President will be in a position to pay down the national debt. Are there still economic problems in the US? Of course there are. Labor participation is a concern, as is income inequality. But the Republicans, last night, were saying things like ‘the United States cannot survive eight more years like the last eight.” That’s just so much fatuous claptrap.

The Vox.com article looks at foreign policy, a major focus of last night’s debate. And again, the candidates kept describing things that are just not true.

“ISIS is stronger than ever, and poses an existential threat to the United States.”

ISIS has lost nearly half of the territory it once controlled, and much of its leadership. The San Bernandino terrorist event killed fourteen people. That’s a terrible tragedy. It’s also more or less the same number of kids killed annually in high school football games (12, last year). It’s fewer than the number of people killed by champagne corks (24 last year). It’s fewer than the number of people killed by blunt force trauma in incidents involving cows (20 last year). Falling off horses is a bigger threat to the American public than acts of domestic terrorism. Yes, ISIS is dangerous, and US foreign policy needs to continue to focus on reducing its power. Existential threat? Please.

“The recent capture of a Navy boat by Iran proves how bad the nuclear deal was.”

Okay, so a Navy boat ran out of gas and drifted into Iranian territorial waters. The 10 sailors aboard were captured by Iranian forces, and held for one day. Because of the diplomatic ties we established during the nuclear deal, we were able to retrieve them without further incident. Some of the photos the Iranians took were kind of embarrassing. That’s all. But, boy howdy, the Republican candidates couldn’t talk about it enough. See! Proof! Iran! Bad! They made themselves look ridiculous, but what is not ridiculous is this thought: if most of the Republicans running for President right now actually won, we would almost immediately find ourselves at war with Iran. For no legitimate reason.

Jeb Bush warned about China and Russia. “China, Russia [are] advancing their agenda at warp speed. And we pull back. As president of the united States I will be a commander-in-chief that have the back of the military. We will rebuild the military to make sure it is a solid force.”

Jeb! was supposed to be the smart one. Anyway, this is all nonsense. Russia is caught in a military quagmire in eastern Ukraine, and its economy is in freefall. Essentially, Russia right now is a gas station with an army; aside from selling carbon fuels, Russia has almost no industrial base. China’s biggest stock market keeps shutting down. China has some very hard choices to make, with unprofitable state-owned domestic industries that probably need to be shut down, at the risk of a major recession.

There is zero evidence that China poses a military threat to the US, though. Zero. In fact, China is a US trade partner and ally, a very good thing, because China is the one effective power on earth who can talk sense to Asia’s crazy nephew in North Korea. In the meantime, under Barack Obama, the US military continued to enjoy more funding than the next nine countries’ militaries on earth, combined. Can I also say that I enjoyed Ben Carson’s description of the dangers of an EMP attack. I’ve seen those movies too. Let’s also not forget how dangerous those aliens look in the previews for Independence Day II. Not sure a Macbook virus can slow ’em down this time!

What really worries me is not ‘American weakness under the feckless leadership of Barack Obama.’ They’re running for President; they have to say silly things, sometimes. I also have my differences with Obama’s foreign policy, but ‘weakening America’ doesn’t make the list. What really worries me is that this kind of alarmist hooey appeals to a significant percentage of the electorate. I know a lot of political talk is drivel. But it should, occasionally, involve something other than drivel; some sensible analysis of the actual state of our actual union.

At least, open a window and look around. You’ll see a country that’s doing pretty well. We’re still lucky that way, we Americans.

 

 

Joy: Movie review

Joy is another prestigious, well reviewed, Oscar nominated David O. Russell film starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro. I loved American Hustle, and liked Silver Linings Playbook very much. I looked forward to seeing Joy, and enjoyed it, too, though it’s an oddly, and I think deliberately off-putting film. The story, very loosely based on Joy Mangano’s invention of the miracle mop, which is one of the strange things about it; Mangano is listed as an executive producer for the film, but Joy, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence, is never referred to by her surname, even when it would make sense.

If you look at the film’s IMDB’s page, the first user comment says ‘it’s the uplifting tale of the lady who invented the Miracle Mop.’ At one level, that’s a straightforward description of the movie. It’s an uplifting story, certainly; a desperately broke single Mom invents a new mop, and becomes a bajillionaire. My wife’s response to it was ‘it could have been a much better film if they’d just made some different choices.’ This is completely accurate. But the choices Russell makes in the film are, I think, intentional. The result is a film I admired more than enjoyed. I actually it’s kind of brilliant and honest and good. Just not very ingratiating, or emotionally satisfying. It doesn’t have that triumphant feeling, for example, of the exhilarating-but-dorky dance contest in Silver Linings Playbook, even though it could, if it wanted to. Let me dig into it a little.

To repeat: It’s a film about a bright and talented lower-middle class woman who invents a better mop. She draws it up using her daughter’s crayon set. She applies for a patent, and builds a prototype. She gets it on QVC, sells it on that network, and makes a fortune. That’s a wonderful story, and it pretty much really happened; the basic outline of Mangano’s invention are all in the movie. And, as such, it’s a film about the American Dream. Anyone, no matter how poor or disadvantaged, can have a dream and achieve it, even a single Mom with a dysfunctional family. Joy’s breakthrough came when she persuaded the producers at QVC to let her sell her product personally, which hadn’t been their policy. That moment, Joy having her big breakthrough on TV, would be a great ending to an inspirational film.

But that’s not really what this film’s about. Early in the film, Joy talks to her father’s girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who has some money inherited from her husband, about investing in the business. Trudy has four questions for her, about her qualifications and background; normal stuff. The fourth question, though, is this: ‘there’s a gun in a room, and you’re alone there with a business competitor. Do you pick up the gun?’ (I’m paraphrasing the line, sorry). And Lawrence, as Joy, says ‘I pick up the gun.’

And that’s what the movie is about. Picking up the gun. In other words, this isn’t really a film about the American Dream; it’s a film about the ruthlessness needed to make that dream come true. Having a vision for a new commercial product isn’t enough. Coming up with some improbable funding source isn’t enough. Getting a break isn’t enough. Working your butt off isn’t enough. You also have to be willing to pick up the gun. You have to act ferociously at times.

And that’s where the film goes. (Sorry, major spoiler coming). The QVC breakthrough isn’t the powerful, exciting ending of the film. It could have been, but Russell doesn’t go that direction. When she finishes selling her mops on TV, she learns that a supplier has raised prices on her. She’s now going to lose money on every mop she sells. She confronts that supplier, and it goes very badly. She’s close to bankruptcy. But there’s another, more shadowy figure behind that supplier, and that’s who she has to confront. And that’s when she picks up the gun. Not literally, of course, but, yeah, basically.

It’s not just the story choices Russell makes with the film script, it’s the way he films that script. The film is stylized, non-realistic. As she heads off on a plane, Joy looks at her sleeping children through the windows of a plane. Then the camera pulls back, and we’re on the plane. Her mother (wonderfully played by Virginia Madsen), spends all day, every day, in bed, watching soaps. But we see the soaps, not as they would be broadcast, but as they would be filmed, with actors posed for a three camera setup, not conversing, but talking past each other. When Joy goes to see her supplier, she asks to use the restroom. She discovers a sort of tunnel from the bathroom to the production floor. This is never explained, and in fact, makes no architectural sense at all. But we accept it, because the whole film’s like that. Not quite anti-realistic, but certainly pushed beyond realism.

And we are, in fact, as Brecht would suggest, alienated. The cost of that alienation is that we don’t end up caring much for most of the characters. The actors are, with one exception, somewhat stylized, too. It’s true of De Niro’s performance, and it’s true of Cooper’s. Not bad acting, not at all. One dimensional, not fully characterized. But intentionally, to serve the somewhat chilly demands of the film.

The one exception is Jennifer Lawrence, as Joy. As always, her complete connection to the role, her utter commitment to the emotional center of her characters, carries the movie. In fact, she’s probably ten years too young to play Joy. A divorced woman with two children (Langano had three), a checkered employment history, a seriously messed-up family; we’re basically describing someone in, at least, her mid-thirties. But Lawrence is terrific in the role; never less than totally enthralling. Her youth put me off for two seconds, and then I was captured.

I admire the film’s honesty, though. It’s wonderfully uncompromising. In fact, the film struck me as a point-by-point answer to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Obviously, that’s ridiculous; pre-production for this film had to have concluded well before Trump even began running. But still, it’s a film that says ‘the American Dream is too alive. It’s harder than it used to be, and that’s a shame. But you can’t just have a good idea and work hard. You have to pick up the gun.’

 

 

The Political Divide: Obama’s final SOTU

President Obama gave the final State of the Union address of his presidency last night. It was, I thought, one of his finest speeches, equal measure inspirational and aspirational, thoughtful and wise and, to the extent that this is possible, conciliatory. I was moved, for example, when the President said this:

It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.

Vox.com had an interesting article today about this very issue, the political divide, the hostile rhetorical war between Republicans and Democrats that the President referred to last night. And that we saw, clearly, in the unhappy faces of the Republicans the cameras kept cutting to. (Poor Paul Ryan, BTW, stuck up there where we could see him react, or not react, to the President’s speech). We are, all of us, left and right, patriots. We are all Americans. When I see polling data that suggests that Democrats wouldn’t be happy if their children married Republicans and vice-versa, well, that’s a big concern. So Ezra Klein, at Vox, dug into the differences between the two parties:

I was caught off guard by how specific and personal Democratic voters’ issues tended to be. One woman told me she had lost a job because she had to take care of a sick relative and wanted paid family leave. . . .

“We’re talking about bread-and-butter issues,” Phyllis Thede, an Iowa state representative backing Clinton, told me when I asked about her constituents’ top concerns.

By contrast, Republican voters tend to be excited by more abstract issues: One of the most common answers I get from Cruz voters when I ask about their leading concern is “the Constitution. . . .”

Sarlin’s observations mirror interesting research from Matthew Grossmann and David Hopkins about how Republicans and Democrats differ. Their main finding is that Democrats are motivated by specific policy deliverables while Republicans are motivated by broader philosophical principles.

This resonated with me, and so I went on Facebook, posted the article, and asked my conservative friends what they thought of it. I was gratified to see that they tended to agree with it.

For one thing, it helps explain something I have never understood. When I watch the Republican presidential candidates debate and campaign, one thing that unifies them is their detestation of President Obama. “The failed policies of President Obama” is a constant. Of course, to some extent, that’s inevitable. It’s not like Barack Obama didn’t talk pretty constantly about ‘the failed policies of the Bush administration.’ But the rhetoric on the right suggests that, under President Obama, America is quickly becoming a dystopic hellscape, with a ruined economy, starving children, and Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron driving a huge armored truck really fast over a bleak desert.

It just ain’t so. In fact, it’s pretty silly. I mean, just look around. The United States remains a prosperous nation. Of course, we have problems; there are issues we need to solve. But President Obama has done a reasonably good job in solving actual, real problems. And in the State of the Union, as he listed actual, genuine accomplishments of his administration, the list was both factually accurate and impressive.

When I talk to my conservative friends, of course, they tend to downplay the significance of those achievements. You talk about a booming economy, and they say, ‘yes, but the deficit.’ And in fact, the national debt is large, and that’s a genuine area of concern. But the deficit has been greatly reduced during Obama’s Presidency, and it’s not like the the debt is actually doing damage to the economy. If the debt were harmful, we’d see it first in the inflation rate, which remains low.

But I’m starting to realize, an opposition to debt is a moral principle. It’s not whether or not the debt is actually slowing our economic growth. In fact, it isn’t. But it’s wrong anyway, as a matter of principle.

And that’s why they oppose Obama. It’s not because the country is falling into wrack and ruin. It isn’t. It’s because they seem him as a socialist, and see his policies as moving our country closer to socialism. And that’s what they oppose, as a matter of principle.

That’s why they hate Obamacare. I certainly agree that the ACA is a flawed policy. Ordinarily, when an important piece of legislation passes, and is shown to have actual, fixable problems, Congress proposes and passes legislation to fix things. But to Republicans, Obamacare is a step towards socialized medicine. Which they despise, as a matter of principle. So they don’t want to fix it; they want it gone. And so they downplay the actual good it’s done. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the fight against socialism.

One of my conservative friends mentioned Bernie Sanders as part of this conversation. He opposes Sanders, of course, because Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist. But he feels like he gets him; he sees him much more favorably than he sees Hillary Clinton, who he sees as unprincipled. Whereas, I prefer Hillary. I think she’s a pragmatist, and I think she’ll get things done. I don’t really think Bernie Sanders, if elected, would be all that effective.

Anyway, the President’s speech was inspiring, and also depressing. He outlined a legislative program which I largely favor. Which is unlikely to ever get enacted. And we’re heading into what is likely to be an ugly political season. And that’s also depressing to contemplate.

 

 

Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with El Chapo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BYU v. Utah, cooling off

On December 2, last year, in a men’s college basketball game between BYU and the University of Utah, Nick Emery of BYU sucker punched Brandon Taylor of Utah. Emery was properly assessed a Flagrant Two foul, and ejected from the game; he was subsequently suspended for BYU’s next contest. The game was in Salt Lake City; fans began throwing things on the floor. Eventually, order was restored, and the game ended, with Utah victorious by 8 points.

On January 7, Utah announced that they would withdraw from next season’s game with BYU. Larry Krystkowiak, the Utah coach released this statement:

The events that have occurred in our recent games with BYU led me to ask [athletic director] Dr. Hill several weeks ago if we could take a cooling off period and put the rivalry on hold. The level of emotions has escalated to the point where there is the potential for serious injury. Chris said he would support me in canceling next year’s scheduled game against BYU. I called and let Coach [Dave] Rose know our intentions a few days after our game [on Dec. 2].

BYU v. Utah is one of the more intense college sports rivalries in the nation. And like all intense sports rivalries, it involves emotions quite ridiculously disproportionate to what’s really at stake. Words like ‘hate’ and ‘loathe’ and ‘despise’ (and also ‘love’ and ‘worship’ and ‘adore’) tend to pepper sports fan conversations. So, of course, the cancellation of this one basketball game has led to all sorts of wild speculation and accusations of bad faith. Mostly, it’s directed at Chris Hill, the Utah Athletic Director, who, I’ve been reliably assured, ‘hates’ BYU and is trying to ‘destroy’ BYU.

Of course, for some BYU fans, the U’s decision is definitive proof of the perfidious irreligious moral depravity of the Utah program. BYU and Utah had a contract! Contracts are sacrosanct agreements! Utah can’t unilaterally cancel this game! Except that this particular contract had a buy-out clause, with a financial penalty attached; Utah exercised that clause, and paid the money. From the other side, Utah fans say that BYU is a dirty team. There have been a number of incidents recently of BYU players acting out violently. But most of those incidents–basically all of them, except for Emery’s loss of composure–have involved the BYU football program. Not men’s basketball.

As a BYU sports fan, I’m troubled, frankly, by the unsportsmanlike play of the BYU football team recently. And I can’t help notice how tepidly the BYU administration tried to keep Bronco Mendenhall, the football coach, when he was offered a job at Virginia. BYU will have a new football coach next season, Kalani Sitake; I wish him the best. He has a well-earned reputation for integrity and teaching excellence. A reputation he earned while coaching at the University of Utah.

It’s also been pointed out that Larry Krystkowiak, the U coach, lost his head a few times when he played in the NBA; that he punched opposing players a couple of times. So accusations of hypocrisy get to fly in both directions. ‘Larry K was a dirty player!’ ‘BYU pretends to be so moral and Christian, but look at this kid punching this kid!’ ‘Chris Hill hates Mormons!’ ‘BYU only cares about money!’

Meanwhile, of course, the BYU athletic director, Tom Holmoe, has been trying to see if it’s possible, through negotiation, to reinstate the game. Good luck with that, especially since his opening negotiating tactic was to call the U’s decision ‘stupid.’ Best of all, the Utah legislature is making noise about involving itself! Of course it is. Speaker of the Utah House, Greg Hughes, says he worries about how cancelling this one basketball game “might impact the public.” Let me see if I can help Speaker Hughes with this: not playing the game would absolutely impact the public. In the sense of some few members of the public not being able to see a basketball game they’re rather like to see.

What the most aggrieved voices on neither side of this debate seem all that interested in addressing is the nature of fandom itself, the emotional investment we fans make in our silly games. (Which are silly, though I love watching). And, of course, the high emotions experienced by the players. Nick Emery, whose sucker punch started the controversy, is a returned missionary, and, by all accounts, a really nice kid. He apologized profusely for his actions, saying, “I got caught up in the intensity of the game and let my emotions get the best of me.” He also apologized to Utah, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak, his teammates and fans of both schools. Taylor, the kid he hit, accepted his apology; said it was no big deal.

I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, Indiana University, and the Utah Jazz; I am therefore obliged to ‘hate/loathe/despise’ the Los Angeles Dodgers, Purdue University and the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, I have very good friends who are Dodgers’ fans, my best friend is a Lakers’ fan, and my home teaching companion got his PhD from Purdue. I like sports, in part because of the emotional investment I make in the teams playing. The stakes, in a ballgame, are simultaneously very very high, and also trivial beyond belief. It matters a lot who wins, and it also doesn’t matter at all. You get all caught up in the game, in who wins and who loses, and you also feel like a bit of a fool for caring so much over this . . . nothing. And it’s okay to feel both those emotions simultaneously. In fact, I think it’s sort of necessary.

Otherwise, we’re in danger of losing perspective. And maybe that’s what Chris Hill and Larry Krystkowiak are really saying, something actually kind of valuable and important. People on both sides of this particular sports rivalry were taking it too seriously. Things were getting out of hand. This isn’t about Nick Emery; it’s about the rage and fury in the stands. We need to mellow out, maybe. Maybe it’s time, as Krystkowiak said, for everyone to cool off. Let the game go. Give it a few years, and try again.

 

Ted Cruz: natural born citizen

One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was the original cast recording of the Broadway musical Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, book and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, quite brilliant. I’ve had Hamilton on the mind a lot lately, and I got interested in this question: could Alexander Hamilton have been elected President? I mean, would he have been eligible to be elected? Was President Obama eligible? What about Ted Cruz?

I always thought Hamilton couldn’t be. Next Monday will be his birthday: January 11, 1755. (Or maybe not: Hamilton was never sure about the year). Specifically, he was born in Charlestown, St. Kitts and Nevis. British West Indies. His parents, James Hamilton and Rachel Faucette had been married, but were divorced at the time of Alexander’s birth; Rachel accused, in court documents, of being a whore. Hamilton was therefore illegitimate. (She was more successful than that suggests, though; she ran a shop, and owned five slaves). When his Mom died, Hamilton was apprenticed to a local merchant, who eventually paid for his college education.

So, was he a ‘natural born citizen?’ I’m not a legal scholar; here’s an interesting article by a guy who is one. The Constitution was ratified in 1788, went into force in 1789. Article II, Section One sets out the qualifications to be President:

No Person except a natural born Citizen or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.

I’d always assumed that this excluded Hamilton, since he wasn’t born within the boundaries of what would become the United States. But he’d been a resident of New York City for years before the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution were ratified. He never actually ran for President, but if he had, he would certainly have been considered eligible.

Which brings us to Obama. Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, uncontestably born in the United States. Of course, there was once a certain amount of ridiculous birther nonsense regarding his birth. In fact, if he had been born in Kenya, to a Kenyan father and an American mother, he might not have been eligible to be President. That’s not actually relevant or important, of course, but it is interesting.

The most prominent birther back in the day was Donald Trump, and his preposterous pursuit of The Truth of Obama’s Birth Certificate is actually significant, because of what it tells us about Trump’s character. I mean, it’s not like there’s any shortage of Trumpian character deficiencies that probably ought to give voters pause, but his obsession with the President’s birth had that unlovely blend of odiousness, mendacity and cantankerous pigheadedness that’s just primo Trump. He’s stopped talking about it lately. Because he’s got a new target: the Presidential eligibility of Ted Cruz.

The facts: Ted Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta Canada, on Dec. 22, 1970. His mother, Eleanor Elizabeth (Darragh) Wilson and his father, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz, were working as computer programmers for an oil drilling company. Rafael Cruz was born in Cuba, attended the University of Texas, and applied and received political asylum, then moved to Canada. He was a Canadian citizen at the time of Ted’s birth. Cruz’s parents divorced in 1997.

So, should Cruz count as a ‘natural born citizen?’ I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. Probably, pragmatically, he should. The Congressional Research Service, in 2011, looked into it, and concluded that anyone who was a citizen at birth (as Cruz was, because of his mother’s citizenship) was eligible to run for President. I don’t see why that wouldn’t apply to Obama too, though, had he actually been born in Kenya. (Which he wasn’t. Because he was born in Hawaii. Can’t say that often enough). And last month, the Harvard Law Review published an article which came to the same conclusion.

But there’s never been a Supreme Court review of this question. The ‘natural born citizen’ clause of the constitution remains murky. If someone were stupid enough to challenge Cruz’s candidacy, it might go all the way to SCOTUS, and be definitively adjudicated. That’s probably not going to happen, though.

Here’s Donald Trump, out of the kindness of his heart, just trying to be helpful:

. Ted–free legal advice on how to pre-empt the Dems on citizen issue. Go to court now & seek Declaratory Judgment–you will win!

As Trevor Noah pointed out on The Daily Show last night, everything about this tweet is fabulous. First of all, addressing it to ‘Ted’: colleague to colleague, you see. I love the faux helpfulness. And Trump’s offering ‘free legal advice’ (to a Harvard Law school graduate, a guy who has argued seven cases before the Supreme Court). And then the advice: seek a Declaratory Judgment! In other words, take this fringe issue, and place it front and center in your campaign. “Hi, I’m Ted Cruz, and I’m running for President. An office for which I may not be constitutionally eligible. Vote for me!”

Trump’s just trolling, of course, and a week from now, the ‘Cruz eligibility issue’ will have disappeared. Here’s how it’s actually going to be resolved; Ted Cruz is running for President, and if he can persuade enough people to vote for him, he’s going to be President. He’ll be inaugurated, and he’ll move his family into 1600 Pennsylvania. Is he ‘constitutionally eligible?’ Not important: an esoteric legal question. Trump’s exploiting it, kind of slimily, because that’s what he does. It will work if it persuades some people not to vote for Cruz. I don’t really see that happening. There are plenty of other reasons not to vote for Ted Cruz. Or, for that matter, Donald Trump.

Here’s where this gets fun. All the legal analyses I mentioned above are by scholars using what is today the mainstream approach to the Constitution. It’s a ‘living document.’ Our understanding of it is colored by our time, our culture, our national needs. We need to govern today, now. Our reading is inevitably subjective, culturally determined. An approach which Ted Cruz philosophically opposes.

The pragmatic, ‘what does it matter?’ approach I just took directly contradicts the approach Ted Cruz (and certainly his followers) otherwise take to the Constitution. I mean, for some conservatives, things just are constitutional, or they’re not. It’s like there’s a single, definitive, engraved-in-stone Only Right Way to read the Constitution. Or the Bible. Or any other presumably authoritative text.

Is Obamacare constitutional? I’d say, of course it is. It passed both chambers of Congress, was signed into law by the President, and crucial provisions of it have gone through judicial review. Of course it’s constitutional.

But to some conservatives, none of that matters. Article I Section 8 enumerates specific things Congress can do. Regulating health care is not on that list. Therefore, regulating health care is not something Congress is allowed to do. It doesn’t matter that the Framers lived in a time when doctors were as likely to kill people as to heal them. It doesn’t matter that the General Welfare clause of the Constitution could arguably preempt Article I Section 8, which could be seen as just some suggestions. It doesn’t matter that we can probably stretch the Commerce clause to cover it. Nothing counts if it’s not specifically and clearly on the list. According to the Platonic Ideal Form for Ultimate Constitutional Readings, as revealed by God to James Madison, Obamacare can never be legitimate.

Go to TedCruz.org, his campaign website. Link to The Issues. Number one on his list is Defending The Constitution. And it takes about two seconds to find this gem:

We need to restore the Constitution as our standard. We need to protect the people by rolling back the federal government to the functions the Constitution sets out. We need to give power back to the states and the people so that we remain a land where liberty can flourish.

Of all the candidates running for President this cycle, the most fervent constitutionalist is undoubtedly Ted Cruz. Certainly, the one above all who, at least rhetorically, defends this notion of Constitutional Inerrancy, of our Founding Document as Monolithic, Literal and Definitive, is Ted Cruz. And the phrase ‘natural born citizen’ certainly suggests ‘born in the United States’ more than it suggests ‘born of an American mother and Canadian father, in Canada.’ What does the phrase ‘natural born’ suggest to you? The place where he was born, right?

Pragmatically speaking, this isn’t an important issue. Ted Cruz is running, people are going to vote for him, or not, and if enough people do, he’ll be the next President. But according to the logic of his reading of the Constitution, according to the Doctrine of Constitutional Literalism, it’s hard to see where he’s got a case. Contemplating both the delicious irony and the small whiff of hypocrisy at the heart of Cruz’s candidacy should get us through January, at least.

 

Ahem.

The Hateful Eight: Movie Review

I just left the theater, having seen Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and I’m still trying to put it all together. My reaction, and what it all means, and what I think he’s doing this time. I’m not sure I can, not yet. It’s a strange and enigmatic film, a film that’s clearly trying to say something about our society, about race and gender and violence, and how they relate to our past. But its thinking seems muddled to me, unclear. It’s also a film that’s difficult to analyze without giving away plot points, and it’s also a film where spoilers are particularly to be avoided by critics. It’s essentially an Agatha Christie closed door mystery (though the bloodiest Agatha Christie ever), and if I say too much, you’ll want to hunt me down and shoot me. Which I’d rather avoid.

So this is going to be an impressionistic review, mostly, if that makes sense. A ‘thoughts that occurred to me while watching the thing’ kind of thing. If you’re on the fence as to whether or not you should see it, BTW, don’t. If you generally don’t like Quentin Tarantino films, you won’t like this one either, and if you’ve liked his earlier films, you’ll like this one a lot. Samuel L. Jackson was on Colbert the other night, and when asked why he enjoyed acting in Tarantino films, he said, essentially, ‘what’s not to like? He writes complex, interesting characters, wonderful dialogue, fascinating, thoughtful scripts. Plus, (and here Jackson got a naughty grin on his face), he uses the biggest blood bags anywhere. Huge blood bags. So cool.’ Yup.

  1. The opening shot in the film is of a snow-covered wooden crucifix carving. The camera holds on that shot forever, while we see a horse-drawn coach pushing through a snow storm. That same shot is repeated during the closing credits. The film is otherwise absent religious imagery, except that during a particularly awful murder, a character plays Silent Night on a piano.
  2. The cast includes several Tarantino favorites–Samuel Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell.  But the two strongest performances are by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is remarkable), and Walton Goggins (Boyd Crowder, from Justified). Tarantino has always been brilliant with actors, and nowhere more so than here.
  3. Basically, the story: Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, aka The Hangman, a bounty hunter, who is bringing Daisy Domergue (Leigh) to justice. They’re on their way to a town called Red Rock, but a blizzard has forced them to take refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a general store/saloon. Also there are a lawman, Chris Mannix (Goggins), a former southern General, Smithers (Bruce Dern), a farmhand, Joe Gage (Madsen), a British traveling hangman, Oswaldo Mowbray (Roth), another bounty hunter and Civil War officer, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), and one of Minnie’s employees, Bob (Damien Bichir). Also there, the carriage driver, O.B. (James Parks). Ruth is convinced that one or more of the other men is in league with Daisy, and intends to kill him and rescue her. Which one? Why? That’s the mystery.
  4. As just a mystery, a who-intends-to-do-it kind of thing, it’s really terrific. I mean, genuinely compelling. I had no idea, and yet, the revelation of the plot was completely convincing.
  5. The language in the film makes an occasional nod to nineteenth century diction, but it was inconsistent, and at times the characters sound very contemporary.  I suppose it’s possible that the film’s linguistic anachronisms are the result of sloppy research or authorial indifference, but I don’t think so, any more than I think that Tarantino was unaware (in Inglourious Basterds) that Adolf Hitler did not die in a fire in a Paris movie theater. He’s a meticulous and careful writer. I think the anachronisms are deliberate, an attempt at Brechtian alienation, or metacinematic commentary, or something equally suggestive.
  6. For example, it’s astonishing how many details of the ‘old West’ it gets right. Like details regarding how one cares for exhausted horses in a barn. Or how one lays out a rope line in a blizzard. Great care taken here with research.
  7. I would just point out that there are four female characters in the film, and that all of them are subjected to horrific violence.
  8. The key to the entire story is clearly Daisy, and Leigh is, as I said, amazing in the role. She’s not just an abused woman (when we first see her, she has a black eye). She’s a provocateur, someone who is deliberately provocative. And the relationship between her and Ruth is fascinating. He beats her up, but it’s never personal; he needs to keep her in line. Horrible things happen to her over the course of the film, but she also controls a good bit of the action. I can’t say more without revealing too much, but it’s a terrific performance. A strong woman who nonetheless gets beaten badly?
  9. So, what thematic purpose does her abuse serve? Why are all the women in the show treated so brutally? Why is Zoe Bell (Tarantino’s favorite stuntwoman) in the film, and why is her character so fascinating? She plays Six-Horse Judy, the only woman capable of handling a six horse team. And why does she die so soon?
  10. By the same token, the film is clearly also about the violence of the Civil War, but also the reconciliation of North and South; about former enemies who actually form a relationship. And die? Fade into the past?
  11. Mythmaking is central to this film, and especially a letter from Abraham Lincoln. It’s a film where all the characters know each other by reputation. And where we’re never quite sure who is telling the truth about what.
  12. As always with Tarantino, the score is tremendous. Ennio Morricone’s music is simply extraordinary. And the film ends with Roy Orbison singing ‘There Won’t be Many Coming Home,’ a song I had never previously heard of, but perfect for this film.
  13. Of course, it’s unbelievably violent. It’s a bloody mess. For no other director on the planet is it more important to remember that portrayal does not equal advocacy. Quite the contrary, in fact. Always, always, ask this: what’s he trying to say?
  14. Taking a stab: it’s a portrayal of America and our history. Racism, brutal violence towards blacks and women, sexual violence, a vicious struggle, something approaching resolution. Two former soldiers, covered with blood, desperately wounded, reconciling.

There are scenes that feel like a punch in the gut. There are films that are gory, and also gruesomely funny. It’s a Quentin Tarantino film. It’s not like anything else. At all, ever.

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

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

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

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

The Oregon standoff

The current stand-off between armed militia guys and the feds in Oregon has its comical side. While I deplore the tone of this Deadspin article, it’s also pretty funny, and reflects an attitude towards the militia guys that will increasingly become the norm. They’re already late-night fodder; never a good thing. And the militia’s rather desperate call for snacks suggests, at the very least, that someone maybe didn’t think this through very carefully. Still, it’s a dangerous situation, and one that deserves a nuanced appraisal.

Here are the facts, as I understand them. (And, as always, if I get this wrong, let me know). A father and son, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were supposed to report to federal law enforcement yesterday. In 2012, they were convicted of setting fire to federal lands adjacent to their property. Most sources I’ve seen have said that the fire they set was intended to cover up for their having poached deer on that land. (Defenders of the Hammonds dispute that). Anyway, they were convicted, sentenced, and served their time. But appellate courts, reviewing their case, found that they should have received harsher sentences under federal anti-terrorism guidelines. So, on Monday, they were supposed to go back to jail to do more time.

I don’t blame the Hammonds for thinking the whole thing is massively unfair. Granted, the increased sentence has been thoroughly adjudicated, including a Supreme Court endorsement. Still, I’d be ticked if I were them. I don’t really see why this act of arson warrants another five years in prison for a 73-year old.

But now come Cliven Bundy’s boys to complicate things. The militia guys are there because this whole thing ties into one of the more contentious issues in the west, federal land use policies. On the extreme edge of the land use debate, we find Ammon and Ryan Bundy. The two Bundy brothers have joined forces with friends who share their views, and travel around the country injecting themselves into various national controversies regarding federal control of land. So this small group has occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, probably to provide safe haven for the Hammonds (who don’t seem to want it), and also, as Ammon Bundy has said, to create a base where patriots can gather in defiance of the tyrannical federal government.

The United States government controls huge chunks of land in the West, in Oregon, Nevada and Utah, among other western states. The Bureau of Land Management is seen as administering those lands in a high-handed and confrontational manner. Ammon Bundy calls the BLM’s fees for ranchers’ grazing rights unconstitutional. That means, for the militia, this is a question of high principle. The specifics of the Hammonds’ case is getting lost here.

It also appears that the Bundy militia were sort of hoping for a lot more people to join them. Blaine Cooper, a member of the group, went on Facebook and asked for people to send them ‘snacks.’ He suggested that food and other supplies could be mailed to them. They’re hoping, in other words, for supplies to be delivered to them by the federal government’s mail service, to the federal government address they’re currently occupying, in defiance of the federal government. All this suggests that maybe this plan wasn’t all that carefully thought-through.

So how big a deal is this? Honestly, their poor planning reminds me of is John Brown, and Harper’s Ferry. I wouldn’t call the Bundys ‘terrorists.’ But Brown was indeed a terrorist, an ideological fanatic. He took over the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, hoping to inspire a slave insurrection. Again, his forces were few in number, short of supplies, and poorly trained. If slaves didn’t revolt and join him, he had no chance of success whatsoever. And, in fact, his takeover was very short-lived, and the federal forces (under the control of an officer named Robert E. Lee), had little difficulty capturing him.

But what Brown may have really been hoping for did come true; a bloody, ferocious intra-regional conflict. What was the proximate cause of the Civil War? Sure, Fort Sumpter. But that was more symptom than cause; really, war was inevitable once Abraham Lincoln was elected President. And his election became inevitable when the national Democratic convention, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1860, couldn’t agree on a candidate, splitting the party. And that result was the inevitable consequence of ‘bloody Kansas,’ the battle over whether ‘the territories’ would be slave or free. And Kansas was bloody, in part, because of a series of murders committed by John Brown against slave owners. John Brown therefore might be remembered as the most spectacularly successful terrorist in history.

Brown was successful, in part, because on one point (and one point only), he was unequivocally right; he believed chattel slavery to be a moral abomination. He was successful because his message was seen as compelling by many Americans, and terrifying by many others. And the war came.

I use him as a parallel because he launched his insurrection so badly ill-prepared, as the Bundys seem to have done. I cite Brown, because his example shows how terrible the consequences of his kind of revolt can be, and because thinking of him in connection to the Bundys scares me to death. And I think that fear may be why some folks on the left have referred to the Bundy militia as ‘terrorists,’ and called for an armed response.

But on sober reconsideration, an armed response to the incidents in Oregon would mark a criminally misguided overreaction. The Bundy militia does not actually pose much of a threat to anyone. They haven’t taken hostages, for example, and haven’t shot anyone. They’re just occupying some buildings in a remote and obscure federal land use facility.

Also, they’re wrong, dead wrong, on every point. No one’s going to rally to their call (oh, a few people might, perhaps), because their call is too kooky to take seriously. Of course the federal government can constitutionally own and administer land. In fact, determining issues of property ownership and control is one of the most essential duties of any government anywhere.

And ranchers are not getting short-changed. In fact, as fivethirtyeight.com recently posted, ranchers are getting a great deal from the BLM. Federal grazing fees are 93 percent lower than the average market rate. The BLM’s fees only cover around fifteen percent of their costs; the rest of the tab is picked up by, well, you and me. Taxpayers.

So the Bundys’ argument is entirely notional, unconnected to any actual reality. It’s a cloud cuckoo land insurrection. They believe that it’s unconstitutional and illegal for the federal government to own land and to charge ranchers to use it, no matter how good a deal ranchers get. That’s frankly a nonsensical argument, and it will increasingly be seen as one as this controversy continues. Their cause is not morally or legally compelling. And they don’t seem to have sufficient supplies to hold out all that long.

Let’s resolve this peaceably. Or, as the LDS Church put it, in an official statement on this matter: “we are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.” Amen. Or, instead of citing Captain Moroni (who wasn’t, let’s face it, bothered by the legal minutiae of land use policies), let’s quote Acts 5, and Gamaliel: “Refrain from these men, and let them alone. If this work be of men, it will come to nought. If it be of God, you cannot overthrow it.” I’m betting on the former.