What I think Donald Trump means by political correctness

Donald Trump is way ahead in all the national polls, in the race for the Presidency. And this unlikely fact is driving the professional political class crazy. Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. In the leadup to the 2012 election, the list of announced Republican candidates had a similar clown car vibe, and unlikely front runners did keep popping up–Herman Cain, anyone?–but eventually order was restored, and the putative favorite, Mitt Romney, did in fact become the nominee. That isn’t happening now. And various pith-helmeted politico/anthropologists have been jungle-safariing for an explanation.

The most recent of these was the respected conservative pollster, Frank Luntz, who declared “my legs are shaking” after meeting with a focus group of Trump supporters:

The focus group watched taped instances on a television of Trump’s apparent misogyny, political flip flops and awe-inspiring braggadocio. They watched the Donald say Rosie O’Donnell has a “fat, ugly face.” They saw that Trump once supported a single-payer health system, and they heard him say, “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” But the group—which included 23 white people, 3 African-Americans and three Hispanics and consisted of a plurality of college-educated, financially comfortably Donald devotees—was undeterred.

At the end of the session, the vast majority said they liked Trump more than when they walked in.

The same night, Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, who is working for the Jeb! Bush campaign, reported similar encounters with one particular Trump supporter: her father. She was on Rachel Maddow’s show a couple of nights ago, and she declared herself similarly baffled and appalled. Trump supporters don’t care: that Trump called Mexicans rapists and insulted Megyn Kelly and holds heterodox views (for a supposed Republican) on a whole range of issues. None of that matters. He says things that would permanently end most political careers, and his poll numbers go up. Then he’s called on it, refuses to apologize, refuses to back down. And his poll numbers go . . . up.

Here’s what I think is going on.

Remember, early on, when he said “I don’t have time for political correctness.” I don’t think he meant ‘political correctness’ as I generally understand the term. Political correctness usually refers to super-persnickity sensitivity to un-or-sub conscious sexism or racism in commonly used language. It relates to, among other things, the dismaying fact that English, unlike other languages, does not have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. Take this sentence: “when your child asks for chocolate, what he’s really asking for is. . . .” That’s sexist. It assumes that ‘your child’ is male. One unsatisfying solution would be to use the feminine pronoun ‘your child . . . she’s.’ Another, equally unsatisfying, would be ‘your child . . . he or she.’ My inner grammar finniken recoils at the increasingly popular compromise ‘they.’ Fact is, there’s not really an elegant way to de-genderize our personal pronouns. Well, the political correctness police don’t care about syntactical elegance. They want sexism gone from our language. They’re fine with ‘your child . . . he or she.’ Or worse, ‘your child . . . your child.’  Now I’m depressed. . . .

Sorry. Back to it. That’s not the kind of political correctness Mr. Trump seems to be referring to. Essentially, he’s saying ‘I’ll be rude if I want to.’ My beloved schoolmarm mother is, properly, horrified.

Digging deeper. I just finished reading a fascinating book, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson describes a woman, Justine Sacco, who, as she passed through Heathrow Airport in London, sent out a tweet about the trip she was taking to Africa. A dumb joke, she thought. She got on the plane, shut off her phone, fell asleep. When the plane landed, and she turned her phone back on, she discovered that her life was essentially over. Her tweet had gone viral, and was widely condemned as racist. She lost her job. She couldn’t get another one, because prospective employers would google her, see the tweet and the reaction to it, and decide she was toxic. 30 years old, and unemployable. Terrifying.

So Ronson’s book is about public humiliation, the ferocity of the cyberworld, the way we judge others based on a single tweet or comment or incident. And he cites several other examples of people whose lives were ruined, as Sacco’s was. But his book also includes a fascinating, and rather Trumpian, counter-example.

Formula One racing mogul, Max Mosley is not just prominent in his own right, he’s also the son of a prominent man–Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader during WWII.  Max Mosley was filmed by the British tabloid News of the World having a spectacular sado-masochistic sex orgy with five prostitutes, in a torture dungeon filled with German memorabilia. And he survived it, reputation and employment intact. He survived by going on a national news program and saying ‘yes, that’s me in those videos. I have a kinky sex life. So what? Lots of people do. I’m not ashamed, or embarrassed, any more than anyone else should be about their sex lives.’ And it worked. If anything, he was more popular afterwards.

I’m not saying that Donald Trump has Nazi-themed sex orgies, or anything like it. But there’s a certain game that somehow attaches to politics more than other endeavors. It’s a cycle of mistake-scandal-contrition-forgiveness that all politicians, when they say or do something embarrassing, are supposed to engage in. When Donald Trump says he rejects political correctness, he’s saying that he’s not playing. He’s unashamed.

Look at Facebook. If your Facebook newsfeed is like mine, it includes dozens, hundreds even, of politically-themed memes. And a lot of them show some prominent political figure, and a quotation of something offensive they said on some subject or other. And we’re supposed to recoil in horror. We’re supposed to take that particular quotation as indicative of the program or platform or personality of that political figure. We’re supposed to conclude that anyone who could say something like that must be either a monster or a moron. Certainly, having said that awful thing disqualifies him or her for public office.

Well, Trump’s not having it. He’s not playing that game. He’s not apologizing. He’s running for President because he thinks America’s on the wrong path. He wants to ‘make America great again.’ And a lot of people agree with him, and love how unabashed he is about it. And one of the things they like about him is that he’s not acting like a politician, carefully parsing every statement and focus-group-testing every stance. I get it; I get why he’s popular.

We all say dumb things all the time. And our mistakes don’t define us. We all have blind spots and we all have cockamamie ideas and we all have irrational and foolish prejudices. Trump just doesn’t apologize for his. Part of his personality is that he says rude things about people sometimes. Part of his personality is that he brags all the time about how great he is. That’s who he is; that’s the package. If you don’t like it, vote for someone else.

And that humiliating search for ‘gotcha’ quotations and past policy preferences, and the perceived necessity of groveling before the media when you get caught; it really does seem demeaning and unnecessary and self-righteous. That’s what Trump’s not interested in. He won’t apologize and he won’t back down. And that’s what he means by rejecting ‘political correctness.’ It is, I’ll admit, kind of refreshing.

(There’s still zero chance I’m going to vote for him. He’s just wrong on too many issues. But I am starting to get his appeal.)

The End of the World (as we know it)

My wife and I have just finished watching two TNT summer TV series we were pretty hooked on, both on the premise of huge national and international catastrophes. One was Falling Skies, the other The Last Ship. The series finale for Falling Skies aired a week before the season finale of The Last Ship, which will continue next summer. In Falling Skies, evil space aliens, called the Espheni, have invaded the earth, killed a bunch of people, are kidnapping children (so they can turn them into Espheni), and taking over the planet. A ragtag band of American guerillas, led by a former history professor named Tom Mason (Noah Wylie), fight back. They call themselves the Second Mass (after Massachusetts), and are loosely tied to a larger paramilitary structure. On The Last Ship, a global pandemic has swept across the world. A single US Destroyer, the Nathan James, has been tasked with finding a cure, the key to which, apparently, is found in the Arctic. So a heroic doctor, Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), and the ship’s heroic captain, Tom Chandler (Eric Dane), have to save what’s left of, you know, the human race.

The similarities between the shows are almost as interesting as the differences between them. For some reason, both shows seem to think that ‘Tom’ is a particularly heroic first name. Both Toms are played by actors primarily known for playing doctors. Noah Wylie was the hapless Dr. Carter on ER, while Eric Dane was mostly known as Dr. McSteamy on Grey’s Anatomy. Both have scruffy actors playing rogueish-but-heroic secondary characters–Will Patton’s Captain Weaver on FS is just a somewhat older version of John Pyper-Ferguson’s Tex on TLS. On both shows, the main character’s love interest is a doctor; Tom Mason marries Anne (Moon Bloodgood), while Tom Chandler is clearly majorly into Dr. Scott, though of course, that series is only in its second season. There’s time for that relationship to develop. If she survives–the season cliff-hanger involved her getting shot, by a weasel-y little creep who declared ‘sic semper tyrannis’ as he pulled the trigger.

Both shows were entertaining and exciting, and while the final episode of FS was pretty disappointing, the show did deliver lots of predictable-but-agreeable entertainment over its run. And the scrubbed and eager sailors are a little easier to make fun of than the unshowered masses of the Second Mass, so I think I like TLS a little better. But that ‘sic semper tyrannis’ line pointed to the larger problem of both series. Essentially it comes to this: on both shows, the biggest threat to mankind is posited as being essentially really bad guys. Not the virus, not the space aliens–both of which are bad enough–but villains.

On Falling Skies, the Espheni were plenty scary. They included big six-legged spidery things called ‘skitters’, plus big super-robot fighting machines called mechs, plus big hornet flying things, all under the control of really tall skinny aliens called ‘overlords’, which were eventually revealed to be under the control of a ruling spider queen. But we got alien help too, from two rival alien races, the Volm and the Dornia. Problem was, the Volm saw earth as a tiny unimportant skirmish point in their larger war against the Espheni, and didn’t really see fit to give humans many resources in our fight, and the Dornia are mostly extinct, and mostly communicate via dreams Tom has about his deceased wife. But the CGI was well executed, the acting was mostly passable, and we liked following the twists and turns of the plot. But, in addition to fighting off skitters and being bombarded by hornet-things, Tom Mason also had to worry about a angry human jerkface, Pope (Colin Cunningham). And at times, Pope was a bigger, or at least more immediate threat than the Espheni.

It’s even worse in TLS. In the first season, the intrepid crew of the Nathan James discovers an evil conspiracy to use human bodies to power cities. In the second season, Dr. Scott having found a cure for the disease, we learn that that small percentage of the small percentage of the population who are immune to it don’t want the cure distributed. They sort of like the power trip of being the Superior Race. And they have a nuclear submarine. ‘Sic Semper’ dude belongs to that loathesome crowd.

And I don’t doubt that a global pandemic/alien invasion would bring out the worst in a lot of people, just as it would bring out the best in others. It just seems to me that the biggest threat the human race would face, after we got the disease/aliens under control, would be something a lot more basic. Feeding ourselves. Not to mention basic stuff like drinking water and sanitation.

The fact is, the basic problem of any species on this planet is one we homo sapiens have basically solved; the problem of food. We have, over the years, developed an elaborate infrastructure devoted to the production, refinement and delivery of food. We don’t think about it, but grocery stores don’t really carry all that much food at any given time. A constant stream of food goes from farms to processing facilities to transportation hubs. Someone has to load it on a truck, someone else has to drive that truck, someone else has to unload it. Someone else shelves it, someone else sells it to you. Every. Single. Day. And any disruption of any part of that chain could be catastrophic. And those space aliens skittering towards you, or that infected neighbor stopping by to chat make for pretty serious food-supply-disruptions.

On both shows, there are scenes where the characters are, as they put it, ‘low on supplies,’ and have to stop in some city grocery store to restock. In reality, uh, good luck with that.

There was this one moment in FS when Tom Mason, having been zipped off sky-ward by a hornet alien thing, finds himself under the care of the daughter of an elderly farmer at his idyllic rural farm. And Tom is inspired, and thinks ‘this is the America we need to rebuild.’ It was a nice moment, this history prof basking in a Jeffersonian fantasy. He’d also know, though, that our history didn’t unfold that way; that we’re in fact way more Hamiltonian as we’ve evolved. And it got me to thinking; who would in fact survive? If our lives were disrupted by ETs or nasty microbes; who would actually thrive?

Well, small rural farmers. I mean, cities are complex triumphs of infrastructure and organization, and thus easy to disrupt. A pandemic killing 98% of everyone? Wouldn’t that just devastate cities? But in the wide-open places of the flyover states, pockets of folks would probably survive. And with the skills to continue to survive. Skills which, frankly, I lack. Along with most everyone i know. Ain’t that a pleasant thought?

TV requires photogenic, easily identified bad guys. To give our even more preposterously attractive heroes someone to battle. I liked both these shows, and will keep watching TLS, probably. But a show about reestablishing infrastructure and food distribution nets? That would be awesome! Actually, probably not. But it would make for a nifty board/video game, I think.


Just watch me

I know it’s well-intentioned. I know that people are trying to be kind, trying to offer counsel based on life experience, trying to provide a more mature adult perspective. And there’s truth in it. Not all dreams are realistic. But there’s a message our young people, and especially our young women, in Mormon culture and also in American culture, are being taught. It’s a message of limitation. It’s a message of can’t, a message of don’t try. It’s a message that says that your dreams aren’t achievable. It goes like this: ‘you have to be realistic. It’s going to be impossible to balance what you want to achieve against the realities of family life. You can’t have it all. It isn’t possible. No matter how hard you work, no matter how smart you are, no matter how disciplined, you probably cannot do all the things you want to do.’

You want to be a cardiologist. You probably won’t be able to. You want to move to Los Angeles, and act professionally. That’s not a responsible, reasonable dream. You want to go to graduate school, get a PhD, make a scholarly contribution. That’s probably not realistic. You want to go to law school, get a job in a law firm, sue big corporations, argue cases in the highest courts. That’s not likely to come true. Why are you majoring in construction management? That’s not really a good major for a girl. Switch to something more sensible.

You can’t do it. You can’t balance marriage and career that way. You can’t spare the time, the many years of professional training and preparation required to succeed in that field the way you want to. You can’t do it.

And more and more, young LDS women I know are responding to that advice, that kindly intended, so reasonable, so rational advice. And here’s what I hear them saying:

Just watch me.

If you can’t help me, then at least get out of my way. I can too do this. And you can’t stop me. Nothing can. Nothing will. Just. Watch. Me.

And also, by the way, some encouragement would be nice. Not that I need it.

I taught at the university level for over twenty years. And while I certainly don’t claim to have had a lot to do with it, I look back over the young women I had the great privilege of teaching. And they’re doing it. They’re doing what our culture has tried to tell them they shouldn’t even try. They are achieving.

I have a friend, a former student, who is in medical school–in fact, I know several doctors and doctors-to-be. One’s an oncologist: one is currently in a cardiology residency. Young women who are going to change the world. I know a whole bunch of lawyers. Smart, capable, hard working young women who have no interest in a culture of limitation. I just got a wonderful Facebook message from an actress who I once worked with in a show. She’s at Harvard, getting her PhD. She’s a brilliant young woman, with a joyful, positive, optimistic confidence in her own ability to write and research and change the way we understand the world. I know several young actresses, women who have carved out successful careers in what I think is probably the most difficult profession in America. They’re not movie stars, but they’re able to support themselves, they’re always working, they’re accepting professional challenges, and they’re succeeding.

And yes, I know a young woman who is majoring in construction management. She’s generally the only woman in her classes. And she’s excelling in her program. She knows exactly what she wants to do with her life, and she’s going to make it. I can also say that her parents support her goals one hundred percent. I can say that with confidence, because I’m one of them.

This is the future of Mormonism. This is where we are, and where we are going. And more and more, equality is going to be part of it, because these young women, these remarkable and motivated young women, simply won’t settle for anything else.

And what about the young men of Mormonism? Well, they’re going to have to keep up. They’re going to have to bring it. The women of Mormonism are simply not going to be interested in second-rate, or second-best. I’m honestly a bit more concerned about the guys, to be honest, because our culture coddles them, a bit, and they haven’t had to fight as hard for support.

But the women. Man, the young women of Mormon culture amaze me. Let’s stop trying to hold them back. Let’s stop well-meaning messages of limitation-acceptance. Tell these women that they can’t, that they won’t, that they never will. And listen to the response.

Just watch me.



Immigration problems, imagined and real

The United States of America does not have an immigration problem. There are, of course, a large number of Americans who are convinced, not only that illegal immigration does great harm not only to our nation, but to them, personally, and that some final solution should be our highest national priority. Shrieking at high volume that ‘they’re here illegally, illegally’ does not constitute an  immigration policy, but a certain orange-haired buffoon has dominated the polls by making a frankly racist–yes, I said racist, not nativist–appeal. He must find the subsequent poll numbers satisfying, perpetual ego-gratification being The Donald’s raison d’etre. The word ‘policy’ suggests research, cogitation, and an appeal to reason, none of which he, or his followers, seem capable of, but Trump has offered what can be best understood as suggestions to ‘solve’ the ‘immigration crisis,’ essentially involving turning every undocumented child in America into Anne Frank, and building a higher tech 1900 mile all-American version of the Berlin Wall. The costs, human, moral and political, no less than financial, of these preposterous propositions, he poo poos. He’s a fascist fantasist, not a real candidate for the Presidency. Because, you see, America does not have an immigration problem.

No ‘illegals’ flooding across the borders; the numbers of undocumented workers have declined over the last ten years. No need for ‘border security,’ which has succeeded mostly in trapping undocumented seasonal workers here against their wishes. They’re not ‘taking American jobs'; in fact, Hispanic immigrants have more entrepreneurs per capita than another other ethnicity. No crime wave; undocumented workers have much lower crime rates than other groups. I’m not saying that changes in immigration policy aren’t badly needed. Many immigrants are dreadfully exploited by their employers, without recourse. The eleven million or so undocumented folks already here should be able to come out of the shadows; have a clear pathway to citizenship, for example, involving paying a fine (the crime of illegal border crossing is a misdemeanor, comparable to a moving traffic violation, so a fine of a couple hundred dollars sounds about right), passing a citizenship test and background check, and a hearty handshake from a county clerk. We should absolutely pass the Dream Act. We should issue more green cards. There are positive steps that can and should be taken. But border security is not an issue, and the very notion of mass deportations is an obscenity.

What most Americans don’t understand is that Europe does have a huge immigration problem, with horrific human costs, and that there are things we could do to help. Europe is being flooded by immigrants, up to half a million this year alone, with accelerating rates that could push that number to a million. As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir:

These people are fleeing civil war and violent repression in Syria, Afghanistan and other Arab or Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa; they are fleeing poverty, hunger and economic dislocation in sub-Saharan Africa. They try to enter Europe from every possible direction by every possible means: They cross the Mediterranean to Greece or Italy on rickety, overloaded rafts and boats; they walk clear across Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary toward the supposed promised land of northern Europe’s large cities.

And European politicians are torn. Essential European humanist values war against growing nativist dissatisfaction, and against continuing economic struggles. The EU’s response to the financial crisis of 2007-8 was the imposition of precisely the kind of austerity measures Republican politicians called for in the US. Fortunately, we had a President willing to embrace Keynesian stimulus measures instead, despite ferocious opposition which prevented a full recovery. European economies remain stagnant, with a few genuine basket cases: Greece, Spain. And still, desperate, impoverished people come pouring in. And in every European nation, nativist resentment has led to home-grown proto-fascism. Politicians who don’t at least pay lip service to anti-immigration acrimony are electorally punished.

The US could help. We could take them. American immigration restrictions have always made exceptions for refugees fleeing political oppression and the most severe economic deprivation.

The Deseret News, my local fishwrap, published an op-ed piece calling for the nations of the world, including the US, to take ISIS seriously–meaning, I think, American ground forces supporting the illusory ‘good guys’ in the Syrian civil war, and the ‘feet-don’t-fail-me-now’ Iraqi “army.” I don’t pretend to have the faintest idea how ISIS could possibly be defeated, or what US military response is feasible, or potentially efficacious.

But we could take in some refugees. Perhaps even a great many refugees.

We are the richest nation on earth, and call ourselves the leaders of the free world. We can do this; a Marshall plan in reverse. Then, we fed the poor; we rebuilt the economy of a nation that we had helped defeat in combat. We have an even more compelling moral imperative here.

Lately, a favorite Republican talking point in regard to ISIS is that their existence is Obama’s fault. Apparently, he pulled out of Iraq too quickly, destabilizing the region. This particular bit of recent-historical revisionism is really too stupid to require much rebuttal; Obama followed the previously negotiated pull-out deadline the US and Iraqis had already agreed to, after conspicuously voting against the war that, you know, really and actually and genuinely destabilized the region. Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, in a way, kind of was ISIS, though comparatively less brutal–though he did drop poison gas on villages–and war-mongering–if you don’t count his invasion of Iran. And remember, Saddam Hussein was a US ally. He was our guy; we liked him. He was even given the key to the city of Detroit, remember.

Saddam was the evil we knew and were used to; ISIS is the new face of evil, internet-savvy and correspondingly more familiar, and thus, more frightening.  And of course, the refugees flooding Europe are fleeing Syria, but also Yemen and Egypt and Somalia and Lebanon. A lot of them are fleeing to Jordan, which is doing it’s best, but is badly overtaxed. And, of course, they’re desperate to reach Europe. And Europe isn’t all that far.

We could take them. We could help solve this. The Europeans are our allies, our friends, our closest world-associates. If foreign policy is the expression of national self-interest, this is an issue where our interests coincide. We could, and should, accept many more immigrants from the Middle East.

It is, however, sadly, difficult to imagine the response if an American politician called for something like this. One guy, however, could. The guy who isn’t running, the guy who will never run for public office again in his life.

Please, Mr. President, do the right thing. Save some lives, and help out our friends. Make America a safe haven. Say to peoples ravaged by war and violence and starvation: “come.” Come to us, tired, poor, wretched refuse of teeming shores. Homeless, tempest tossed. We’ll raise our lamp for you.

The Rose Exposed

On Saturday, I was involved in one of the coolest arts events of the year. The theatre company where I do most of my work, Plan B, is housed in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center; one of six resident companies that share that facility. Well, on Saturday, we all arrived in the morning and spent the day creating works of art, which were then performed Saturday night at 8:00. The event was called The Rose Exposed.

All the works shared a theme: Dreamers. Dreamers refers to kids who, as small children, were brought to America by their undocumented immigrant parents. Now they’re here; they speak English, consider themselves American, have never known any other country. But they are not American citizens, and cannot get, for example, a Social Security card. They’re stuck. As is a piece of legislation, the Dream Act, that would allow them to become citizens; it’s stuck in Congress. Can’t get out of committee or to a floor vote. Which it would certainly pass. Thank your Republican congressmen for that. Anyway, ticket proceeds went to Art Access, an organization that explores and documents Dreamers’ lives.

Anyway, my contribution was a play. X, Y and Z are young Dreamers, late high school, early college age. And Z has earned, but cannot accept, a prestigious fellowship, because he doesn’t have a Social Security card. So his friends, X and Y, are searching various government databases to see if there’s some form, some process that will allow for an exception for their friend. Three actors, Latoya Rhodes, Tyson Baker and Anne Louise Brings, directed by my good friend Mark Fossen. And they all did superb work. Honestly, my only regret about the whole thing is that, during the performance, I thought of a Donald Trump joke that would have killed, if only there’d been time to insert it. Dang.

The whole thing began with a short film by David Evanoff, with a Star Wars scroll introducing the companies, and then backstage footage of each of the groups rehearsing. I love Dave’s work, its mixture of eloquence and impudence, and the opening film set the stage beautifully for what would come.

Next up, the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, featuring a wonderful young pianist, David Horton, performing the Third movement from Leopold Godowski’s Sonata. Played with beautiful sensitivity and, of course, remarkable skill.

Three of the companies at the Rose are dance companies. And as always, when I see dance, I wonder why I don’t go to see dance events more often. Dance is so remarkably beautiful. Anyway, next up was the Repertory Dance Theatre’s piece, to a Ravel toccato, performed by Anastasia Magamedova, featuring guest artist, Melanie Paz, who is herself a Dreamer. It was a piece of extraordinary precision and beauty, creating a series of tableaux, morphing then into the next set piece.

My friend Julie Jensen also wrote a play, for another resident theatre company, PYGmalion. Magamedova played again, this time Debussy. PYG’s play was about the idea of Dreaming more generally; Bijan Hosseini, Tamara Howell, Tracie Merrill and Aaron Swenson (terrific actors, who I very much regret not having had the chance to work with professionally. Yet) built the play around monologues about the dreams parents have for their children. Not specifically about the political issue that had brought us all there, but that doesn’t matter; it was a lovely piece, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Next up, another dance company, Sweet Beast Dance Circus, with an imaginative piece about Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden. It was sweet tempered, warm-hearted, and very very funny. Loved their use of a wheelbarrow and a long rope, which their Lucifer seductively wrapped around himself. Wonderfully acted and danced. Their music was a Schubert Impromptu, performed by Magamedova.

My piece, from Plan B, was next. I thought it went well. I was exceptionally well served by my director and actors. Could the piece have been perhaps a little too on-the-nose thematically? Could be, but I’m not going to worry about it. David Horton wrote and performed the music for our piece, and it worked spectacularly, especially the way it sparked Mark Fossen’s director’s imagination. Gave the piece a final mood of melancholy that fitted the evening perfectly.

The final dance number was by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, accompanied by Horton performing six short Schoenberg pieces. The dance was itself in six parts, each a solo number featuring a different member of the company, broken up by the entire company marching in lockstep perpendicularly across the stage.

The evening culminated in a performance by Magamedova of William Bolcom’s The Serpent’s Kiss, one of those amazing rag pieces he composed. It’s a fun, showy piece of music, and it brought the audience to their feet.

But, then, the whole night was spectacular. Can you think of a better way to spend a Saturday night? To see five original works of performance art, saucy, profound, amazing, moving. And all for the best of causes. I am so honored to have been a part of it.

American fraud: University Assessment

I used to teach at a major University. I don’t anymore. I was once tenured faculty; I’m not anymore, for health reasons. I miss teaching, I miss interacting with sharp kids. And I miss good colleagues who became good friends. And I find that old habits die hard. Nothing I do now is governed by the academic calendar, but I am still aware of that calendar, and I do think ‘today, I would be meeting new students, yesterday would have been filled with department meetings.’ And that’s the part of university life that I don’t miss at all. Meetings, and especially meetings about university assessment.

‘Assessment’ essentially describes the way professors determine whether or not students are learning anything in their classes. At least, that’s the idea; to describe it so reasonably essentially involves slathering huge quantities of lipstick on some fabulously ugly pigs. We’re supposed to decide what ‘learning outcomes’ we expect from our students. We then devise ‘assessment instruments (or ‘rubrics’), and measure outcomes. And then adjust our teaching in response to those findings. Numbers are good. If you can prove that ‘learning outcomes’ are being achieved, and can prove it statistically, that’s the holy grail. The powers that be want evidence based educational improvement.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a terrific article by Erik Gilbert. In case you don’t want to bother with the link, he says that his kids are heading off to college, and as they prepared to make that important decision, he realized that he didn’t care about their assessment programs:

My lack of curiosity about assessment when making an important choice about my children’s education probably surprises no one, but it should. It’s unsurprising in that no one, higher-ed insider or not, ever seems to worry about this when choosing a college. No admissions officer ever touted his institution’s assessment results. No parent ever exclaimed, “Suzy just got into Prestigious College X. I hear they are just nailing their student learning outcomes!”

Gilbert then continues to describe his experience with assessment:

Every year on my annual productivity report I write a mandatory and usually somewhat contrived narrative describing the ways in which I have changed my courses and teaching in response to the assessment data from the previous year. As an administrator, I sit on the Learning Outcomes Assessment Committee. . . .

So, what does it say that I looked at climbing walls, not assessments, when making a significant and expensive decision about my sons’ educations? It says that I, like virtually everyone else, don’t think that good assessment makes good universities and well-educated students or that bad assessment makes bad universities and poorly educated students. In fact, I am starting to wonder if assessment may actually do more harm than good.


The dirty little secret of higher education is that assessment–which involves a huge expenditure of time and resources–is essentially worthless, if not actually harmful. The key, in fact, is the line ‘mandatory and somewhat contrived narrative.’ Because he’s trying to be fair and balanced and reasonable, he understates: the narrative of assessment is essentially fraudulent.

I admit that my views on this subject are extreme. When assessment was presented to us in various department and college faculty meetings, I made an obnoxious pest of myself by asking, repeatedly, why we were wasting time with this ridiculous nonsense. That phrase, ‘ridiculous nonsense,’ led to a meeting with a Higher Administrator. Who admitted that, of course assessment was worthless. But we had to do it, so stop rocking the boat. Which I did. To the dismay of many many colleagues, who privately told me that my anti-assessment tirades were both entertaining and spot-on, so please don’t stop.

What never happened, though, not once, not ever, was any attempt to sell the program on its merits. If, for example, some trusted senior colleagues had spoken, talked about how valuable assessment had been to them, how much their teaching had improved; if any respected figure in higher education had ever once offered a testimonial, I think we might have been better disposed towards it. Never happened. Instead it was the worst kind of top-down management; you are doing this, period, so shut up.

Anyway. I taught playwriting. Here’s how you teach playwriting. You have students write plays. They read them aloud in class, and you lead a discussion, offering feedback. The students are asked to re-write their plays. A couple of weeks later, we read the re-write, offer more feedback. Repeat as necessary. Then, if possible, produce the play.

“But how can you know, how can you demonstrate, that the plays have actually improved, that the feedback really did help?” This from a senior assessment administrator. “What rubric can you devise to assess your method?” And this is what she suggested. Contact all the other college playwriting teachers in the state. Send them my students’ plays; get them to send me their students’ plays in response. Come up with a form, breaking plays down into different categories: characters, structure, dialogue, stagecraft/theatricality. Assign points to each play in each category. Everyone reads everyone’s students’ plays, and all assess them according to these criteria. If a play’s first draft scores a 30, and the rewrite scores a 45, then the feedback you offered was helpful.

I came out of that meeting greatly discouraged. Essentially, I would need to read four times as many student plays as I was already reading, and so would my friends at other schools. We were talking about a prodigious amount of work, all to prove what? That plays improve when they’re re-written?

Then, it occurred to me, that I had two alternatives. I could do all that, send bundles of plays off to colleagues at four other universities, do all that reading and assign all those numbers. Or I could just take ten minutes some afternoon and make up a bunch of numbers.

Guess which one I did.

Everyone did. I had another colleague who taught a beginning theory class. The students had various units in which they learned about various kinds of critical theory, and how to apply those theories to play texts: feminist theory, post-colonialism, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on. It was a terrific class, wonderfully taught by an energetic and imaginative colleague. The main assessment tool was a series of critical essays the students were expected to write at the end of each unit, applying the theory to the assigned play. Anyway, I was asked to be one of the assessors for that class, reading a ton of essays and assigning points in various categories: clear thesis, strong use of evidence, coherent argument, etc.

Here’s what we learned, and could prove (with numbers!). Some students were really into theory, and others much less so. Some students wrote really well, other students didn’t particularly. If a student didn’t like theory very much, and didn’t write very well, she could still work hard and do well in the class; this professor gave great feedback on the written work, with room for students to redraft.

So that’s what we learned. Obvious stuff that we already knew. Also, we learned, that the colleague teaching the class was really good at it. We knew that too. The next semester, I’ll admit, we kind of blew off all that reading. Making up numbers was way easier.

To be fair, the Chronicle also allowed someone to rebut Gilbert’s article, and Joan Hawthorne’s response is passionate and well written. It’s an administrator’s response, and describes the heady early years of assessment, a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, insisting that what professors professed was more important than what students learned. I don’t buy it. The straw man she sets ablaze is certainly flammable, but no, there never was a time when professors didn’t care if students learned the material in their classes. I can say that with some confidence; my father, grandmother and aunt were all university professors.

At this point, I think the burden of proof is on assessment, not on its detractors. If assessment is so terrific, why have no faculty, anywhere, defended it? Why isn’t the literature replete with anecdotal evidence, with ‘I thought I was a good teacher, but assessment opened my eyes’ testimonials? Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that administrators and compliance officers are keeping assessment’s dessicated remains breathing because doing so justifies their bloated salaries and ever-expanding numbers? Why do I see this as analogous to primary education, with its preposterous proliferation of standardized tests for second-graders?

I will say this: many faculty fake the numbers. We learn the assessment jargon, and we pretend that assessment matters and that we’re doing it properly. I did, and so did every colleague with whom I interacted across campus. Assessment is just the latest edu-babble fad, super-attenuated but essentially worthless. It does no good, and never has, because it doesn’t actually serve the students. It is–here’s that phrase again–ridiculous nonsense. Time for it to go bye-bye.

Sharknado, the first three: review

I think the success of the first Sharknado movie took the programmers at the Syfy network sort of by surprise. Of course it was a preposterously bad movie, based on a ridiculous premise. One of the enchanting pleasures of Syfy is their glorious revival of the tradition of the B-movie. No, not just of B-movies, of entertainingly terrible movies, the whole grindhouse/drive-in/American International/Roger Corman movie tradition. When I was a teenager, my friends and I loved to go to the Starlight Drive-in and watch abysmal (but fun) movies. Or, on nights when my parents weren’t home, we’d watch Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater on WTTV, the Indianapolis station that also showed IU and Indiana Pacers’ basketball games. I grew up watching awful sci-fi/horror movies. I think they’re awesome. Sharknado proudly partakes of, and contributes to, that tradition. Which is why my wife and daughter and I recently watched the last two.

But really, was Sharknado that much more ridiculous than other Syfy offerings? Was it worse than Scream of the Banshee, say, or Dinocroc? Or Dinocroc vs. Supergator? Or Dinoshark? Or Frankenfish, Pteracuda, Piranhaconda, Lavalantula, or The Man with the Screaming Brain? Yep, they’re all for real, and have all been broadcast in the last five years on Syfy network. So once you’ve committed to a movie on the premise of an anaconda/piranha crossbreeding, why not follow it up with one about tarantulas made of lava? Or, for that matter, a movie about a tornado that sucks sharks out of the sea and drops them on big cities?

But Sharknado took off. One main reason is Twitter. The actual viewing audience for the initial broadcast was actually not all that impressive. But enough people live-tweeted it, and those who did were sufficiently snarky, Syfy decided to re-broadcast the next night, but include the more amusing tweets. Let’s not pretend for a second that Syfy isn’t in on the joke.

But what about the actors? And there you have it, the secret to the success of these movies. Let’s not kid ourselves, acting in Sharknado requires a certain skill set that’s not quite, but is related to, acting. Ian Ziering has starred in all three Sharknados, and, you know, he does just fine. He treats the character Fin (yes, the character is named Fin) seriously, and commits physically to all the action requirements, most of which would seem to require a chain saw. You don’t ever not believe him. In the third movie, when he announces that he plans to name his infant son Gill, the joke landed precisely because he committed to it. After Beverly Hills 90210, his career pretty much flat-lined, which makes him just the right kind of star for a Sharknado-type movie. Famous enough to carry the picture, desperate enough to accept the role. (John Heard was in the first one, a better known, and probably even more desperate actor–he slept-walked through the first third of the movie, then became shark bait without anyone missing him).

The first movie also featured two main actresses: Tara Reid and Cassie Scerbo.  Tara Reid, you probably know. It’s not like she doesn’t have some impressive film credits: The Big Lebowski, American Pie. But she never could act, and after some forays into reality TV (and a famously botched boob job), she needed a hit. But she’s dreadful in all three Sharknados. Part of it’s the writing. Thunder Levin, the writer, has yet to give April, her character, anything to do except stand on the periphery of scenes and bite her lip in anxiety. Plus, Fin and April, for some reason, use a shark attack crisis as a perfect opportunity to work out their relationship issues. But whatever the challenges of the character, Reid conspicuously fails to meet them. In the perfect marriage of actress and character, April and the actress who plays her both manage to do nothing but annoy. (Bo Derek (!) plays her Mom in the third movie, and manages to out-bad-act even her.)

Cassie Scerbo, though, is something else again. Again, it may be the writing; her character, Nova, is a badass. She isn’t given much to do; shoot a semi-automatic weapon, throw hand grenades, look good in a bikini. But she more than meets all three challenges. More to the point, she has some energy. She’s forceful; she’s fun to watch. She’s only in the first and third movies, and the second movie is poorer for it. She’s the one actor in this thing that I think could have a subsequent actual career. Fin is a bit torn between the two great loves of his life, April and Nova, and Syfy obligingly sent a piece of debris hurtling towards April at the end of the third movie. Now we all get to vote on-line on whether April dies or not, in the fourth movie. Guess how I voted.

I appreciate watching a good actor meet an acting challenge, though. And in the third movie, they bring in the perfect Sharknado actor, for a far-too-brief appearance near the end. David Hasselhoff. And, I’m sorry to say this, but he’s brilliant. Genuinely good. Just tongue-in-cheek enough to play up the ridiculousness of the movie’s premise, but also charismatic. I mean, Hasselhoff’s career was built on joke-TV–Baywatch. His job was to be the one actual dramatic character in a show that was otherwise all about the bikinis. Well, this one’s about sharks. He knows how to handle this kind of material. (Frankie Muniz was also pretty great).

I mean, watching Sharknado movies does require a good deal more suspension-of-disbelief than is usually the case. If, in fact, tornados could suck sharks out of the ocean, they’d just die. If, miraculously, sharks didn’t die up in the air, they’d die when they hit the earth. Even if, somehow, they survived the fall, they’d die anyway, because they’re fish; they can’t live out of water. Even when (in all three movies) they land in commercial swimming pools, they’d die; fresh water with chlorine? Lethal to salt water sharks. Certainly, sharks wouldn’t be biting people much. But the silliness of the premise is most of the fun.

But in addition to the, you know, actual actors in these things, there are also many many cameos. In the third movie, Mark Cuban plays POTUS, and is impressive; at least, he looked like he was having fun. Ann Coulter plays VPOTUS. (Never have I so rooted for sharks to eat someone. But alas).  Matt Lauer and Al Roker play themselves in the last two movies, until they both become shark lunch. We get to see Lou Ferrigno, Bill Engvall, Jackie Collins, Lorenzo Lamas. Will Wheaton was in the second one. Of course, they all get shark-chomped pretty quickly, but that’s the gig; you get ten seconds of screen time, and then the actual stars of the movie–the sharks–take over.

And the sharks are, well, dreadful. Bad CGI is half the charm. The action isn’t really ever terribly convincing, and the effects are, well, low budget. And quite apart from the general absurdity of a sharknado, the movie’s plots are preposterous. But that’s why and how Syfy makes them. They don’t cost much, and they deliver. Movies are supposed to be fun. It’s nice when they’re also not poo. But when the movie is called Sharknado, I’ll settle for fun.


“We’re not gonna take it”

Following a recent rally and speech in Alabama, as Donald Trump left the stage, what I assume is his campaign theme song played loudly, following him off stage. I’ve heard it a couple of times since, following his speeches. It was Twisted Sister’s anthem, ‘We’re not gonna take it.’ If that is indeed Mr. Trump’s theme song, it strikes me as an astonishingly appropriate one.

It’s an interesting question, is it not, the selection and use of a campaign song? There was a time when campaigns commissioned songs from musicians:

Let’s put it over with Grover. Don’t rock the boat; give him your vote. There’s a time for a man who’s a leader of men. Let’s put it over with Grover again.

Sadly, that most perfect of Grover Cleveland campaign songs wasn’t written until 1968, by Richard and Robert Sherman, for a Walter Brennan movie. (The Shermans also contrasted it with a boring one for Benjamin Harrison). Of actual campaign songs, it would be difficult to top Bill Clinton’s choice of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow)” in 1992. Optimistic, forward-thinking, and catchy; hard to beat. John Kerry’s choice of CCR’s “Fortunate Son” in 2004 was equally inspired, especially given who he was running against; a politically connected guy from a wealthy family whose National Guard service was essentially a ploy to get out of fighting in Vietnam. Mike Dukakis also hit the jackpot with Neil Diamond’s “They’re Coming to America.” Given the anti-immigrant sentiments of today’s Republicans, I’m surprised someone on the Democratic side doesn’t revive that one today. Except that it’s associated with Dukakis, and he lost badly.

I’ve only mentioned Democratic candidates’ theme songs. Sadly, Republican candidates have had a tendency to pick songs by artists who disagree pretty strenuously with their policies. John McCain and Sarah Palin went with “Barracuda,” because that was Palin’s nickname as a high school point guard. But Heart, who wrote and recorded it, turns out, loathed Sarah Palin’s politics, and threatened to sue. Likewise, Tom Petty didn’t take it well when George W. Bush used “I won’t Back Down” for some early events. At least Mitt Romney, when he used Kid Rock’s “Born Free” picked a song by a Republican, though Kid Rock has since disavowed membership in the party, saying he’s “f-ing embarrassed” to have been a Republican.

But now Trump seems to have chosen “We’re not going to take it.” And that song’s absolutely perfect; the song, the band, the message.

Watch the Twisted Sister video:


The grotesquely evil and abusive Father, the nerdy kid who can only find solace in the music of, well, Twisted Sister. But the power of music marks the kid’s revenge; one power chord drives the father out the window, crashing to the ground. It’s a song of defiance and rebellion, but it’s a strangely non-specific kind of rebellion. And it’s led by Dee Snider, Twisted Sister’s lead singer, who deliberately dressed like a sort of androgynous gargoyle. The point was to profit by choosing a look parents would loathe. (Look at some of their early videos, like “The Price,” where Snider wore no makeup and dressed in jeans).

Look at that chorus, though: We’re not gonna take . . . ‘it’. What is this ‘it’ we’re not going to take?

We’ve got the right to choose, and there ain’t no way we’ll lose it.

This is our life. This is our song. We’ll fight the powers that be just

Don’t pick our destiny ’cause, you don’t know us, you don’t belong.

Chorus: We’re not gonna take it, no we ain’t gonna take it, we’re not gonna take it anymore.

Oh, you’re so condescending, your gall is never ending

We don’t want nothing, not a thing from you.

Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated

If that’s your best, your best won’t do.

All, of course, sung loudly and emphatically, by a guy dressed like some kind of grotesque glam rock parody.

What do we know about Trump’s supporters? They’re fed up, they’re angry, they’re furious about a political process that seems both hypocritical and ineffectual. They like Trump because he gets things done. They also like him because he ‘tells the truth.’ In fact, he doesn’t actually tell the truth; whenever his claims can be fact-checked, they turn out to be, in almost every instance, ludicrously inaccurate. But he says things–often insulting things– that most politicians don’t say and then he doesn’t back down when challenged. Plus, he’s rich, and he’s spending his own money on this campaign. He won’t be beholden to ‘special interests’ if elected. (He is now accepting campaign donations, which, I predict, will have no impact whatever on his popularity).

Above all, Trump has played the oldest card in the deck. He’s able to reassure voters that all their problems, all their feelings of economic insecurity and worry about the future and sense that the future is slipping away are all the fault of a single, unpopular minority ethnicity. The ‘Mexicans,’ are to blame. And, by golly, he’s going to deport them. Build a wall and keep them out, and get them both to build it and pay the costs involved. Like Nero blaming ‘Christians’ for the Great Fire of Rome, or the Hutu blaming the Tutsi in Rwanda, or the Gio and Mano blaming the Krahn in Liberia, scapegoats are always simple-mindedly easy to identify and splendid targets for finger-pointing. (Note how deftly I sidestepped Godwin’s Law). And the results can be brutal.

In fairness, this has not yet happened with Trump. The rhetoric has been fierce; actual violence has been limited to a single appalling incident in Boston. Still, Mr. Trump can at least be cited for failure to establish a civil tone in this campaign. And unfocused, inchoate rage is discernible underneath the excitement of Trump supporters for his campaign. He’s not going to take ‘it.’ They’re not gonna take ‘it’ anymore. Take that liberal elites. You’re condescending, trite and boring. You’re outa here.



Birthright citizenship

Over the next fifteen months before we all get to vote on who the next President of the United States will be, lots of things will have happened. We’ll all have seen the Star Wars movie. We’ll know what finally happened with Katniss. Apple will come out with a nifty new dingus, Amazon will deliver by drone, and Wall Street crooks will go unpunished. Kale will come in injectable form, houses will be equipped with holodecks and engineers will be working out the final bugs in transporter technology. 2016 is going to be dope.

We’re in the silly season of Presidential politics, is my point. Candidates are jostling for position, raising money, giving speeches, trying to figure out what voters’ main concerns are and what issues might be profitably emphasized. Trying to get noticed. Now, in August 2015. With football season starting in, like, two weeks. And because one candidate, the most unlikely candidate in years, is leading the Republican race by a big margin, the issues he’s focused on have tended to draw the most attention. Which means Trump, and which means immigration. And, lately, he’s been saying a lot about an obscure but important issue; the idea of birthright citizenship. A policy that has to change, apparently. Trump calls it a ‘magnet for illegal immigration.’

And other candidates are weighing in. Chris Christie: “While birthright citizenship may have made sense at some point in our history, right now, we need to relook at all of that.” Lindsay Graham: “I don’t mind changing the law. I think it’s a bad practice to give citizenship based on birth.” Bobby Jindal: “We need to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants.” Scott Walker, asked if he supported ending birthright citizenship, responded ‘yeah,’ before waffling. Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush wouldn’t go that far, but both agreed that illegal immigration is a serious issue. (HINT: no, it isn’t.)

Here’s the thing: birthright citizenship isn’t a policy, and it isn’t a law that can simply be changed legislatively and it isn’t ‘a practice.’ It’s in the Constitution. And it’s not really ambiguous or obscure. Here it is, from Article One of the Fourteenth Amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside

If you’re born in the United States, you’re a citizen of the United States. Period. And yes, the National Review and Daily Caller have recently made themselves look ridiculous by arguing that ‘all citizens born in the United States are citizens of the United States’ doesn’t mean, you know, that being actually born here somehow means that you’re, like, a citizen or whatever. (I’m absolutely not going to link to those two publications, by the way).  Silly websites are welcome to publish silly articles all they want to–First Amendment–but the facts are that getting rid of birthright citizenship requires an amendment to the Constitution, and that will never, ever happen. And trying to make it happen will also have the charming side effect of destroying the Republican party. Which I would rather not have happen, thank you very much. ‘Cause: Lincoln.

Reading articles about this issue is sort of fun, though. It’s not hard to read between the lines of the various statements of the Republican Presidential candidates to see what a tricky issue this is for Republicans. First of all, they have to pretend that illegal immigrants are currently pouring over our southern border–which they’re not–and that undocumented workers therefore create a host of big social problems–which they don’t. Trump wants to build a big fence, and get Mexico to pay for it. He won’t and they won’t. It’s a silly, nonsense issue. And Trump won’t let it go, because he’s not a serious man. He just pretends to be one on TV.

And it’s not like there aren’t actual, real things that can and should be done for those people who are now in our country, living their lives half-in-shadow and hoping for some resolution to their legal status. We could, for example, pass the Dream Act. We could create a sensible pathway to citizenship. We could end the grotesque exploitation of these workers by employers. There are real things we could really do. Instead, Trump flies around in his helicopter saying ridiculous things on the subject.

And I, for one, hope he keeps running, keeps up in the polls, keeps harping on building big walls and calling Mexicans rapists. Keep it up, Donald. The race for the Presidency, in fact, may already be over. To find out why, some recent history.

In my lifetime, two candidates from California have won the Presidency; Nixon and Reagan. Both were conservatives; Reagan, massively so. From 1960-1996, California only voted for a Democrat for President once. Nowadays, of course, California is a reliable blue state, a Democratic stronghold. What happened?

Immigration hysteria. In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson, in a close race for re-election, blamed illegal immigrants for all his state’s problems. He strongly supported Prop 187, which denied all sorts of state benefits to undocumented workers. And Republicans haven’t won California since. Hispanic voters noticed. And they vote.

To win the White House, Republicans probably need to win about 45% of the Republican vote. Mitt Romney, you may have noticed, did not win the Presidency. He won 27% of the Hispanic vote, and polled afterwards, Hispanics kept going back to one word–self-deportation–as the main reason they went Democratic.

Self-deportation then, birthright citizenship now; the Republicans keep shooting themselves in the foot with Hispanic voters. Jeb Bush would rather actually come up with a sensible immigration policy: and you can see how uncomfortable Trumpian demagoguery on this issue makes him. He speaks fluent Spanish; his wife is from Mexico. I don’t particularly want Jeb Bush to be President, but this is a policy where his instincts are reasonable. His brother, as President, proposed an immigration bill that wasn’t half bad. Marco Rubio sponsored a decent enough immigration bill in the Senate; he’s not a wacko on this issue. So there was reason to think that Republican outreach to Hispanics could work.

And there’s still plenty of time for Rubio or Bush to revive their respective candidacies. But the Republican electorate is, by and large, insane on this issue. Make any proposal that provides for people who are already here to stay and you’ll get accused of supporting ‘amnesty.’ Blarg.

Self-deportation was a terrible idea when Governor Romney proposed it; birthright citizenship just flat isn’t an issue at all, because the Constitution is very hard to amend, and no amendment ending citizenship for frankly racist reasons has a chance of passage. So it’s not like this is, you know, a thing. But for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it’s about the best question they ever get asked. “Do you support birthright citizenship?” “Yes. I support the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.” Boom.

Meanwhile, millions of young people, the Dreamers, remain in a preposterous legal limbo. That’s the issue we should be talking about; passing the Dream Act. This is America. We built our nation on immigration. How about this: I will support any candidate who supports full amnesty and the Dream Act. And oppose any who don’t.


Once I was a Beehive: Movie Review

Let me start with the easy stuff: Once I was a Beehive is terrific fun. Within the sub-genre of ‘Mormon films,’ we’ve seen plenty of excellent serious films, many of them about missionaries. Maclain Nelson, who co-wrote and directed Beehive, even starred in one: The Saratov Approach. But the comedies haven’t been much good, ranging from the mediocre The Singles Ward to the execrable The Home Teachers. What we haven’t had up to now is a comedy made with intelligence, insight, humanity and good-hearted affection for the quirks and oddities of Mormon culture. I know that comedy’s hard. Still, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to see Once I was a Beehive, a genuinely funny movie that avoids every potential misstep and creates believable human characters and derives its humor from carefully observed and beautifully realized actual people; a comedy, in short, that just plain works.

The movie begins with Lane Speer (Paris Warner), on her way to a camping trip with her Mom (Amy Biedel) and Dad (Adam Johnson). She’s fifteen, there’s a party she wants to go to, and she doesn’t particularly want to go camping. But her good-natured Dad teases her out of her bad mood, and we see the bond between them, and when they get into their canoe and head for the wild, what we see is a real family, outdoorsy and close-knit.

Cut to Dad’s funeral. Cancer. And Lane is quietly devastated.

Cut ahead a year. And Mom Speer is engaged to remarry, to a Mormon guy, Tristan Samuelson (Brett Merritt). And they’re going on a three week honeymoon, and they have arranged for Lane to spend those weeks with Tristan’s sister, Holly (Hailey Smith). And Holly’s daughter, Phoebe (Mila Smith), is sort of a brilliant mess, with a serious anxiety disorder, a therapy dog she can’t be parted from, and a sort of needy nerdiness. Enter Sister Carrington (Lisa Clark), an obnoxiously enthusiastic Young Women’s President, who pressures both Phoebe and resolutely non-LDS Lane to come to Girls’ Camp.

Clark is initially very funny in the role, but in her characterization, I thought I identified the film’s first major pitfall; that kind of cartoonish caricature wears pretty thin pretty quickly. I needn’t have worried. As Carrington’s exquisitely planned (and scrapbooked) schedule falls apart, so does the character, and Clark’s performance shifts, turns Carrington into a real person, vulnerable and snappish. Hailey Smith gives a quieter, still funny, but equally nuanced performance as Holly. And then they arrive at their campsite, and Barta Heiner rides up in a motorcycle.

In a rational universe, Barta Heiner would be recognized as the national treasure she really is; both the best acting teacher in the country, and an actress at the level of Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. That’s not hyperbole, though I also admit to a certain prejudice; she has been my revered friend and colleague for nigh on thirty years. In Beehive, she plays Nedra, the Girls’ Camp director and a tough and crusty outdoorswoman. Poor Lane, who by now is totally weirded out by the whole Mormon-centric Girls’ Camp experience, immediately recognizes a kindred spirit, and decides to stick around.

And a good thing she does. Because of her father, Lane has skills the other girls lack–she can set up a tent, read a map, cook a tasty meal over a campfire. And we also see her basic, essential kindness, also learned from her father, we presume. She befriends odd little Phoebe, helps her come out of her shell, helps hide, and protect, her therapy dog.

There are ten girls at this camp, and all are fully realized characters, both in the screenplay and through their performances. Clare Niederpruem is particularly strong, as Bree, Sister Carrington’s daughter, whose immediate, instinctive reaction to self-reliant Lane is essentially that of Elphaba to Galinda. And vice-versa. (Everybody sing along: “Loathing, unadulterated loathing, for your face, your voice, your clothing!”) But the movie really works based on the performances of Paris Warner and Mila Smith, as Lane and Phoebe. Both girls are tremendous. At times, Smith comes across as a precocious little female version of Sheldon Cooper; at times, she’s a frightened child with an anxiety disorder who just wants her doggie. These two performances make the movie–the grown-up actors, all of whom are terrific, are really there in support the two girls.

And it’s all pretty funny. There’s a scene where the girls, challenged to pair up and create, with a partner, a ‘spirit animal’ that defines something about themselves, give us a pretty hilarious menage of lions and dogs and (in the case of Lane and Phoebe) Galapagos tortoises. A little later, Sister Carrington reveals her ‘spirit animal.’ When Lisa Clark said ‘cougar,’ I laughed out loud. It was just a little throwaway joke, without the set-up-payoff-reaction shot structure of most movie jokes, but it nailed me. You know that obnoxious faux-profound line ‘I never told you it would be easy. I said it would be worth it?’ In this movie, it’s a punch-line, and a funny one. But also not in a mean-spirited sort of way.

I have a feeling that people who have been to Girls’ Camp would find the movie funnier than I did. And, let’s face it, Girls’ Camp is, in our culture, as much an exercise in indoctrination as it is a fun camping experience for teenaged girls. This movie faces that reality, finds a way to make it funny, but it does so with some real affection, and with this perspective: Girls’ Camp is about a lot more than just Mormon-centric preachifying.

That’s a fine edge. Does this movie make fun of Young Women’s programs, and especially, of Girls’ Camp? Yes. Does it recognize how relentlessly didactic Girls’ Camp can get, with every hike an object lesson and every task a sermon? Yes. Those are all fine subjects for satirical comedy, and the movie realizes the comedic potential inherent in each. But does the movie ultimately suggest that Girls’ Camp can provide a genuinely empowering experience for young women? That it’s about friendship and fellowship and kindness as much as it’s about ‘Trial of Faith’ scavenger hunts? Yes. That’s a thin line for a movie to tread, and I applaud Nelson and his whole team for treading it so dextrously.

(I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s one choice the movie might have made that would have ruined it, I think, and which, gratefully, it decided not to make. Comment for further enlightenment).

There’s one final issue I’d like to raise. Is this a feminist movie? Is this a movie likely to be applauded by Mormon feminists, or should it be? It is, after all, a movie with an almost entirely female cast. (There’s one guy at camp with them, the bishop, who apparently spends the entire week in his tent listening to an audiobook version of The Hunger Games; a pretty good joke right there.) It’s a movie about female leaders, about a Young Women’s President, and also about Bree, a Laurel President, who learn how to be real leaders over the course of Girls’ Camp. It’s about women with genuine leadership skills, about strong, independent, powerful women. It’s about Nedra, the older woman played by Barta, with a military background and wonderful compassion and friendship for young Lane. It’s about teenaged girls who overcome cattiness and cliqueish-ness and selfishness and grow, as friends, as women, as Christians. (It’s also, in one of its funnier scenes, about women pretty shamelessly objectifying hot young male forest rangers). Best of all, not one modesty lecture. Never once.

I consider myself a Mormon feminist, to the extent that I can be, given my gender. But, sure, yeah. It’s a movie about one official LDS program that really does try to empower young women. I’d say, sure, it’s a feminist film, maybe not with a capital F, but in its own quietly effective way.

Two final, personal notes. Full disclosure: I know and consider myself friends with many, if not most of the people in this movie. Not the kids; most of the grown-ups. Yes, that absolutely means that I was prejudiced for it to be good. Get over it.

Also this: there’s a testimony scene at the end of the movie. And I mostly dislike testimony scenes in LDS movies. And see, here’s the thing: I have this weird medical thing, a product of my chemo-therapy, where the tear duct in my right eye is damaged. I tend to cry a lot, even when I’m not remotely sad. So, in that testimony scene, I noticed my right eye was leaking a lot. And I thought, ‘well, that’s annoying.’ And then I noticed my left eye was leaking just as much. And my left eye isn’t damaged at all. So that happened too. Seriously, people, go see this.