The Death Penalty

Let’s talk about death.

Amidst all the hoorah about marriage equality and saving Obamacare, SCOTUS had another major decision, the inelegantly titled Glossip v. Gross. In that case, the death penalty survived a challenge based on the unreliability of the one of the drugs, midazolam, used to execute people. There have been some horrific botched executions recently, and that problem was compounded by the fact that death penalty drugs have become increasingly difficult to obtain. The companies who make them don’t want to support death anymore. So, did executions using midazolam constitute cruel and unusual punishment? The court answered ‘no.’

The access to drugs problem remains. In fact, that’s why Nebraska, shockingly, voted to eliminate the death penalty back in May. In fact, the Nebraska legislature passed the law getting rid of the death penalty by a veto-proof margin. Had to, as their governor threatened to veto it.

Most advanced nations on earth have eliminated the death penalty. 140 countries have abolished the death penalty, The countries that still have the death penalty is essentially a list of countries you don’t want to live in: Libya, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. And the USA.

So what do we think about the death penalty? As a civilized people, what do we think? It’s not an easy answer. Does the death penalty have a deterrent effect? That’s a hot topic in the criminology academic literature, and most peer reviewed studies have concluded that no deterrent effect exists. 88% of all criminologists believe that the death penalty does not deter violent crime. But that also means that 12% do believe in deterrence, and some recent studies have concluded that deterrence exists.

The well-known (and famously liberal) legal scholar Cass Sunstein, in an oft-cited 2006 study, made this compelling suggestion:

Many people believe that the death penalty should be abolished even if, as recent evidence seems to suggest, it has a significant deterrent effect. But if such an effect can be established, capital punishment requires a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. The familiar problems with capital punishment–potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew–do not require abolition because the realm of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a sharp distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context because government is a special kind of moral agent. The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs potentially involved in capital punishment may depend in part on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve. The objection to the act/omission distinction, as applied to government, has implications for many questions in civil and criminal law.

If, in other words, capital punishment deters killer from killing, then opposing the death penalty requires that we trade a life for a life; that we may be privileging the life of someone predisposed towards violence over the life of his future victims. If it can be proved that the threat of the death penalty is sufficient incentive for a killer to not kill, then governments that refuse to administer the death penalty may committing a very serious sin of omission.

That’s pretty abstract; let me make it more concrete. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people with a bomb in Oslo, then went to a summer camp on Utóya, an island in the Oslofjord, and murdered 69 others. Children. Breivik was, and is, an ideological extremist. He’s Islamaphobic, anti-Zionist, and ruthlessly anti-feminist. He murdered 77 people. He’s not remotely repentant. He was tried in 2012, found guilty, and given the maximum sentence possible in Norwegian law, 21 years in preventative detention, 10 of which are to include incarceration.

That might strike you as being a fairly mild sentence for a ruthless mass murderer. I wouldn’t disagree with you. It strikes me as pretty typically Norwegian. The responses, from King Harald, from Jens Stoltenberg, the Prime Minister, from the opposition parties, was ‘this is not going to change us. This is not going to change our commitment to democratic or humanist values.’ One girl, who was at the camp while Breivik was rampaging through it and who saw her friends murdered, said, in a widely quoted statement “if one man could show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.”

So. Inspiring? Or dangerously naive? One response to Norway’s response might well be: ‘Typical weenie liberals,’ right? And let’s suppose that some other ideological extremist found Breivik’s actions as heroic, not horrific. Let’s suppose there was a copycat wannabe. Would that person be deterred by the astonishing sentence Breivik received? If there were more killings, would Norway’s continuing commitment to opposing the death penalty also mean that Norway would have blood on its hands? Does Sunstein have this right?

In fact, there haven’t been copycat killings. Not yet, at least. But let’s take Sunstein’s argument seriously for a moment. Certainly, the death penalty does deter any further crimes that the guy we just executed might have possibly committed in future. It also deters any possible good the guy might have done, so there’s that. But can we as a society take the chance that deterrence works? Wouldn’t that be irresponsible of us?

Here’s the thing: most of the arguments I’ve heard for the death penalty strike me as atavistic. Whenever there’s a mass shooting–Charleston’s the most recent big one–the reaction of a lot of people, not just in media but in everyday conversations, is ‘fry the bastard.’ Break out Old Sparky; electrocute him. Shoot him. Hang him from the highest tree. We like that. We love Hollywood revenge fantasies. We love the idea of vengeance. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. All that.

Set that aside. That’s our lizard-brain talking. We do actually know better, especially those of us who profess Christianity. And let’s also leave off all the other objections to the death penalty–racial bias, inadequate representation, the unreliability of witness testimony, DNA proof of innocence claims. Let’s leave all that out of the equation. Let’s confine ourselves to Sunstein’s argument, and let’s assume, as he does, that deterrence is a real-world possibility.

Should we execute murderers? Should we do it to save the potential lives of their potential, eventual victims?

I spent the afternoon going back and forth on this. Finally, I concluded: No. We should not. Justice remains an essential societal value. But the death penalty does not serve the cause of justice, because it leaves off the single most important element in criminal justice, the possibility of redemption. We can ask juries to determine what happened, who did what, who is responsible. We cannot, and must not ever ask juries to determine the worth or value of any human soul. I say, let’s put ourselves on the same moral plane as Norway, not Libya. Let’s say no to death.

Language, liberals and conservatives

This post is, frankly, poorly thought-through. I feel like I’m reaching for something here. But I have been thinking a lot about recent Supreme Court decisions, Obergefell v. Hodges and King v. Burwell, and the vitriolic responses to the two majority decisions. And the re-definition of marriage. And the age of the earth. And language. Please bear with me.

It seems possible to me that one of the differences between liberals and conservatives may have to do with issues of language.  Both sides use the same rhetorical devices; both sides love anecdotal evidence and slippery-slope arguments and straw men, though I do think conservatives like arguments from authority more than liberals do. But it’s more fundamental than that. What is language? How does it function? What do words mean? And so I ask myself this: is it possible that a defining characteristic of conservatism is the idea that there exists a one-to-one correlation between word and meaning, that words are fixed in their meaning, that a word or sentence or phrase means what it means, and not anything else? And that liberals understand language more fluidly?

Follow me here. In King v. Burwell, the plaintiffs insisted that a plain reading of a single sentence in the Affordable Care Act meant something specific. Here’s the ever-invaluable SCOTUSblog on the subject:

Seizing on language buried in the complex formula for calculating the subsidy amount, the plaintiffs argued that subsidies were available only for plans purchased on “an Exchange established by the State.

Justice Scalia’s dissent insisted that the word ‘State’ meant ‘state,’ one of the 50 states in the United States, not anything else. The majority’s interpretation of this passage, which made the the Secretary of Health and Human Services responsible for administering subsidies, led to Justice Scalia retorting “state means state. The Secretary of Heath and Human Services is not a state.” But as Nicholas Bagley of SCOTUSblog put it, the majority’s decision was “an enormous victory for common sense in statutory interpretation.” The point of the law was to make health care more widely available. The means to accomplish that was by using subsidies. So obviously Congress can’t have meant to provide subsidies only for people who purchased health insurance on a state exchange. Congress can’t have intended, for some odd reason, not to make them available to people who were insured through a federal exchange. In context, the phrase ‘established by the state’ has to have meant something other than ‘through a state exchange.’ ‘State’ can, for example, mean ‘nation.’ Justice Roberts’ decision quite properly chided Congress for ‘inartful drafting.’  But context matters. Unpacking the meaning of a phrase has to take into account many factors.

That’s exhibit A. On to marriage equality. One of the main objections to Obergefell by conservatives is that the Court majority (‘five unelected lawyers’) ended up ‘redefining marriage.’ And that’s certainly what it did. What I can’t figure out is why it matters. Marriage has been legally redefined many times, and usually for the better, in the direction of greater equality.

More to the point, though, is this: marriages are defined by married couples. My marriage is defined by many factors. We’ve been together for 34 years; we have long-standing habits and traditions which we rely on. We’re both pretty funny, and humor is an important part of our marriage. I like to cook more than she does. She’s more likely to think of ways to redecorate our home. I can think of a million other compromises that define who we are.

There’s a family down the street where the wife is an accomplished cyclist. They define their marriage, in part, by supporting her cycling career and the various races in which she participates. Another couple who used to live across the street, the husband played golf competitively. So that, in part, defined their marriage. His golfing had no effect whatever on my marriage, nor did it impact the cycling family’s marriage. My son and his wife define their marriage, in part, by trying new things all the time. Like, there was an airshow in their community; they went to see it. They attended a college hockey game. They went to a bluegrass festival. They like that; they enjoy being adventurous. I think that’s awesome. It also doesn’t have any effect on anyone but them.

Reading the ‘redefining marriage’ rhetoric, it sounds as though people believe that the word ‘marriage’ is only defined one way, and that defining it other ways will, I don’t know, open up some massive cosmic rift, destroying our society. Words have meaning, and words have power, but language is much more fluid than we tend to think.

Going on. Why do some Mormons believe that the earth is 6000 years old? Here’s why: Doctrine and Covenants, 77: 6-7:

Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals? A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence. Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed? A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.

Joseph Fielding Smith took this to mean that that earth is exactly 6000 years old, and that any understanding to the contrary was apostate. Elder Bruce R. McConkie thought so too. But nobody really thinks that anymore, I don’t think. I mean, even apologetic groups admit that the phrase ‘a thousand years’ could mean exactly 1000 years, or it could, and probably did, mean ‘a really really long time.’ Again, we see a situation where well known conservative advocates insist on a literal understanding of certain words or phrases. And liberals think language is more about context and shifting meanings.

A dictionary is not, you know, prescriptive. It has no force of law. It’s a monument to the state of the language in the era in which it was compiled. And the marvelous flexibility of English can be found in the inventiveness and imagination of its users. Word.

A reaction to Elder Packer’s death

Elder Boyd K. Packer of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve passed away on Friday. He was a man greatly revered by many many Mormons, not just because they were uplifted and inspired by his apostolic message, but because of acts of personal kindness he performed. I never met the man personally, but I have many friends who did, and they recall him with tremendous affection.

It’s important to remember that. Because Elder Packer was also one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Mormonism. He was certainly beloved, but it would be stretching the truth to say that he was universally beloved. I remember many years ago, my dear Grandmother, a lifelong, deeply faithful member of the Church, told me that if Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Twelve ever became President of the Church, that she would leave, she so detested him. In time, he did, and she didn’t, though sustaining him was teeth-grindingly difficult for her. By the same token, I know people who told me that their future membership in the Church depended on President Monson outliving Elder Packer. Since that has now happened, I suppose it means that I have friends who won’t be subjected to that particular trial of their faith. So that’s a relief.

What I want to do, and I hope it’s not too inappropriate, is to pass on some observations about Elder Packer that I’ve heard from friends over the years, neutral stories, to present, perhaps, a more nuanced view of the man. He was, I think it’s safe to say, neither hero nor villain. He was a staunch Mormon conservative; I am an equally committed Mormon liberal. I tried not to overreact to his, ahem, less temperate remarks, but I do admit to feeling wounded by him, at times.

But he was also a painter, an avid if somewhat untrained landscape artist. I have a friend, a very celebrated LDS painter, who painted with him. Elder Packer didn’t have any illusions about the quality of his work; he painted for his own pleasure. But, by golly, when he painted a horse, it darn well looked like a horse, and when he painted a tree, it looked like a tree. And his best work attempted to honor ordinary people who gave their lives to service; a laudable subject for any artist.

Elder Packer also loved to work in wood. He carved birds and other animals, then painted them; they looked amazingly lifelike. He carved a wooden Noah’s ark, full of carved miniature animals, mostly for his grandchildren. Here’s a link to some images of his work. I’ve seen the ark; a friend got permission to bring it to a gathering of Mormon artists. It’s beautifully done.

In one of his most famous (or notorious) talks, he addressed the subject of the Arts and the Spirit of the Lord. It’s not a talk I’m fond of, and that’s a shame, because I am an LDS artist, and I know the talk was intended to be inspirational. I regret that I didn’t find it so, and that’s not uniformly the case for talks by General Authorities on the subject of art; President Kimball’s talk A Gospel Vision for the Arts changed my life. I’m not, I hope, immune to being inspired.

Elder Packer’s talk, however, came at least from an informed perspective. He was an artist; he knew the struggles and difficulties we all face in trying to make art. My difficulty, however, was with the way his remarks insufficiently appreciated the subjective nature of art, the way in which different audiences respond to different works of art. I’ve seen works of LDS art that some of the audience found tremendously inspiring and that other members of the same audience disliked intensely, or even found offensive. It simply isn’t true that art is either ‘spiritual’ or ‘wordly.’ And I think it can be damaging to insist on that particular dualism.

But let that go. In this talk, Elder Packer talks about the work of a painter named C.C.A. Christensen. Here’s what he said:

I do not think Brother Christensen was a great painter, some would say not even a good one. I think his paintings are masterful. Why? Because the simple, reverent feeling he had for his spiritual heritage is captured in them.

I have since seen the Christensen paintings, and I agree with Elder Packer. There is a reverence to them, despite how ineptly they are, at times, drawn. In fact, my reaction to the exhibit of Christensen works was, if this is possible, a reverent giggle. I mean, some of the human figures were ill-proportioned, with one arm much longer than the other, and all the figures strike awkward poses, and in the Hill Cumorah painting, Joseph holds his arms close to his body, like a rabbit. But I also responded to the open sincerity of Christensen’s work. So Elder Packer and I had that in common.

Elder Packer was also an avid birder. I don’t know why people who follow that particular hobby call it ‘birding’ instead of ‘bird-watching,’ but they do, and Elder Packer was fond of it, and good at it. I’ve never birded, and have no interest in beginning that hobby, but I can certainly respect those who do. Birds are extraordinary creatures, and to want to follow them around, listen to their birdsong, haunt their habitats, strikes me as a worthy and fascinating pastime.

In short, Elder Packer was a nature lover, and I am not one; he was a fly fisher, and I have never once fly fished; he was a painter, and I can’t draw a stick figure that doesn’t look ridiculous; he was a work carver, something I’ve never once even tried, for fear of lopping off a finger. He served in the military, and I did not, he understood some scriptures literally which I understand metaphorically. And so on. But he was also a teacher, and so was I. He was an active and faithful Latter-day Saint, and so am I, I hope and believe. He was a conservative. I am a liberal. There were times his words inspired me, and I’m grateful for that. There were other times when his words infuriated me, and I’m grateful for that as well, as they helped me sharpen and clarify my thinking.

I’m amazed at how much I’m going to miss him. I’m also grateful that President Monson remains the President of the Church. Rest in eternal peace, Boyd Kenneth Packer. And thanks for your ministry.

 

The Women’s World Cup

The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament finishes this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited, or feel more patriotic. Go USA! International sporting events bring out my usually fairly latent Americanism like nothing; I want to festoon my vehicles with bald eagle decals, hang a flag outside my home, even sing that ‘Proud to be an American’ song, which I usually avoid at all costs. This year’s World Cup narrative is a richly textured yarn, with numerous subplots and complexities, some of which actively encourage anthem-singing and some of which kind of don’t.

The USA squad is generally recognized as one of the three best in the world, but hasn’t won the World Cup since the Brandi Chastain/Mia Hamm team in 1999. That final remains the highest rated TV soccer broadcast in US history, and was wildly inspirational and aspirational: grrrl power. In fact, the USA should be good at women’s soccer. Millions of American girls play soccer. And although soccer is the most popular team sport in the world, that’s not necessarily because girls play it; in many football-crazed nations, the sport is tied to ideals of machismo that make soccer-playing girls national afterthoughts. Even as the US men’s national team lags behind the rest of the world in the development of young players, the Title IX-driven idea of sporting gender equality is something of a US phenomenon. Why not? Youth coaches in any sport love to talk about how the participation of kids in, whatever, football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, teaches invaluable lessons about laudable values: hard work, team play, fairness, sportsmanship. If those lessons are good for boys, they’re equally good for girls, are they not? So the success of women’s soccer should be applauded.

And applauded for another reason as well; it’s fun to watch. If, as a sports fan, I like the celebration of human excellence that sports embody, then why on earth would that be gender specific? I like soccer. I like the amazing athletes who play it. I love the strategy, the tactical decisions, the sheer beauty of speed and power and strength and quickness and field vision.

But I also love sports for its narratives, for the stories that unfold behind the scenes, then play themselves out on the field. One of the real revelations on this US team has been the play of central defender Julie Johnston. She’s an amazing athlete, tall and graceful and disciplined, and she’s technically proficient. She seems never to be out of position, even when dashing upfield for set pieces and counters. Her center back partner, Becky Sauerbrun, is equally tall, blonde, and capable. The US has given up only one goal in the entire tournament, and it’s mostly due to Johnston and Sauerbrunn. Johnston is dating Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zack Ertz, which is why you see so many Eagles’ players at World Cup matches; Ertz has made them all fans. When asked what a typical date would be for her and Ertz, Johnston said they loved playing UNO together. I think that’s so great; these two world class athletes dropping Draw Four Wild cards on each other, cackling in delight.  As for Sauerbrunn, she’s a noted bookworm, never without a book close to hand.  But in play she has this constantly worried look, like a Mom working as a crossing guard.

The US goalkeeper is Hope Solo, probably the most controversial player on the team, if not in the world. She’s the best keeper in the world, strong and powerful. But she’s also been accused of domestic violence, by her step-sister; accused of beating up a nephew twice her size. That’s not hyperbole; the nephew is a three hundred pound high school football player, and Solo goes maybe 5’11, 150. Large for a woman, sure, but did she really beat this big kid up? And that’s the thing about Solo; I don’t automatically disbelieve it. There’s an edge to Solo’s play, a barely controlled aggression. Even more than most keepers, she seems to regard being scored on as a personal affront.

(Do I defend her domestic violence? I do not. If it happened. Her accuser is a sister from whom she’s been long estranged. At the same time, Solo has had a drinking problem in the past. I don’t know what happened; the case has not been adjudicated. Presumption of innocence; all that. Hope Solo is, as always, a puzzle, an enigma. And a brilliant soccer keeper.)

One of the key plays in the entire tournament involved Johnston and Solo. Johnston made a rare mistake, taking down a German player in the goal box. It was an obvious foul, and she could well have gotten a red card dismissal for it. As Johnston wept, comforted by Saurbrunn, the referee rewarded a penalty kick; German star Celia Sasic took it. Germany never misses penalty kicks. I mean never; not once in World Cup history had a German player missed a penalty kick. They were 12-12. But you watched Solo back there, preparing, lithe as a panther, and you noticed how long she took. Stalling. With a look of utter confidence–barely perceptible contempt, even– on her face. She was clearly psyching Sasic out, and it worked; Sasic put her shot wide left.

There are other fascinating narratives involving this year’s team. This may be the last World Cup for the great Abby Wambach. Wambach is one of the greatest players in women’s soccer history; she tops the list of all time World Cup goal scorers, and is the greatest scorer in American women’s soccer history. She scored one of the great goals in World Cup history; a game tying header against Brazil in 2011, in a semi-final match the US eventually won. She’s tall and strong, and known particularly for her aggressive and accurate headers. And she turned 35 during this tournament. She’s one of the slowest women on the pitch, anymore. So there’s been a lot of question about how much she should play this year. There are younger, faster, more creative players on the roster–Morgan Brian, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux. But they’re not Abby Wambach; can’t match her sheer determination and courage.

The US was seen as an underdog against Germany. Morgan Brian played, with Alex Morgan as the only striker, an odd formation the US hadn’t used previously. It could hardly have worked better. Wambach came on right at the end, and meanwhile cheered her teammates on; was an inspirational sideline presence. I expect we’ll see the same lineup against Japan in the final, on Sunday.

But this wouldn’t be the Women’s World Cup without some sense of a larger purpose, of more significant socio-political issues at play. It’s not just that these are women playing what is regarded internationally as a man’s sport. It’s how they’ve had to cope with the corrupt cluelessness of the international soccer establishment. When men play in the World Cup, they play on grass, on perfectly groomed pitches that conduce to sporting excellence. But in this World Cup, FIFA (the morally bankrupt governing body for the sport), scheduled all the women’s games on turf. Turf is a bad surface for soccer. It’s a thin carpet laid over concrete; it’s painful to fall on, to dive on. And it’s plastic; players can get the nastiest contusions. Wambach was the most vocal athlete to raise a ruckus over the turf issue, and FIFA’s initial response was infuriating–condescending mansplaining, mostly. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s head, suggested that the women wear tighter shorts while playing, to increase viewership. Alex Morgan, the best US player, won a Player of the Year award; she says Blatter ignored her, didn’t know who she was.

This women’s team has become notorious on another front. The recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality came down last Friday, during the tournament, and was enthusiastically applauded by the women on the team. Wambach is married to former player Sarah Huffman. The most exuberant and creative player on the US team, dynamic Megan Rapinoe, is also openly gay, as is the team’s coach, Jill Ellis. And all three are LGBT activists. So for this team, at this moment in history, to win a championship, would be serendipity of the highest order. Go US indeed!

More to the point, this team is wonderful to watch. I’ve grown fond of little Meghan Klingenberg, who is short and feisty and relentless defensively. The German game was a showcase for Carli Lloyd, who scored one goal and set up the second one with a perfectly placed pass, to Kelley O’Hara, one of the youngest women on the team and one of the fastest. Lauren Holliday has an amazing knack for stopping off-target passes from going through. Christie Rampone, the oldest player on the team, has taken time off for childbirth and various injuries, but remains an obdurate and tenacious defender.

They’re a terrific team, and I love watching them play. I have watched at least part of every game played by every team in the tournament, and enjoyed every second. The best two teams have been Japan and the US. Japan is talented and superbly coached; they’ll be worthy opponents, and could well win. And that would be triumphant too, if a bit melancholy to this American guy.

July 1, 2015: the Presidential race

We’re a solid year, three months and change from 2016 Presidential election, and the campaign to replace President Obama is in full swing. It’s obviously way too early to make predictions. Today’s newspapers wrap tomorrow’s fish. But trends are emerging, candidates are just starting to separate themselves from the pack. And we’re probably learning more about the electorate than about the men and women vying for their votes.

Republicans first: here’s the latest polling data: CNN’s most recent has Jeb Bush as the frontrunner, at 19%. Guess who’s second. No, seriously, take a guess: I’ll wait. It’s Donald Trump, at 12%. The Donald. The guy whose campaign song is ‘We Shall Overcomb.’ The Bloviating Buffoon. Donald Trump. In second. And rising. Rapidly.

Look, the Republican race is going to be a roller-coaster, and it wouldn’t surprise me if all 57 candidates took turns at the top. But this is truly amazing news. I mean, seriously, did you see his campaign announcement speech? First of all, the size of the crowd was shockingly large. Was there really that much enthusiasm for Trump? Well, no. He paid people to show up. Then he gave this speech. Our country was falling apart, the unemployment rate is 21%, Mexicans are all rapists, so what we need is the most amazingly successful businesssman ever, me. Trump. It was truly something special.

His comments were offensive enough that NBC fired him from his reality show, The Apprentice. And that’s truly amazing. When people running for President announce their candidacies, the idea is to present themselves as positively as possible, to persuade people to vote for them. Trump’s announcement was so bizarre, it cost him the one gig that has made him a household name. Of course he’s a joke candidate, and of course he won’t win. But 12% of the Republican electorate, right now at least, support him. So, okay.

Hey, at least he is actually successful. The Republican field is littered with people who are most known for being bad at their jobs. The most unpopular governor in America, Bobby Jindal, and the second most unpopular, Chris Christie, are running. (Jindal’s campaign announcement consisted of a video he posted on-line, in which he talks to his utterly unenthused kids about his plans to run. Funny stuff). Former CEO Carly Fiorina is running; she’s mostly known for running Hewlett-Packard into the ground. The rest of the field seems to be one-term-and-out guys like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. Rick Perry is running despite being under federal indictment, and Scott Walker is as hated as any governor in any state in the country, except possibly Maine’s Paul LePage, who is not running for President, thank heavens, but who is currently facing impeachment hearings.

Why is Jeb Bush leading? He’s a Bush. People have heard of him. He’s got a lot of money behind him. But he’s got tremendous baggage, which is already weighing him down. His brother was not a good President (bottom five, I’d say), and Jeb hasn’t been able to distance himself from W’s biggest folly, the invasion of Iraq. He is, at best, the meh candidate, the guy who gets the nomination because, well, we’ve heard of him, how bad could he be?

It’s the Democratic side that’s getting kind of interesting. Hillary Clinton has clearly made the bold decision to actually run for President as a Democrat. That is to say, she’s staking out policy positions to the left of the kind of centrist New Democrat stuff her husband stood for. She’s made some early gaffes, but she’s got money, an organization, and a resume. I like her; always have. I think she’s going to win, and I’ll think she’ll be a good President.

Here’s the case I can make for Hillary: she’s prepared. She’ll be effective from Day One. And that’s important. Because the issues candidates run on are rarely the issues they face in office. George W. Bush did not anticipate that the central moment of his Presidency would be when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Centers buildings. Jimmy Carter did not expect, when he ran, that his Presidency would be defined by Iranian jihadists taking over the US embassy in Iran. The Presidency is about coping with the unexpected, not effectively shepherding orderly legislative initiatives.

But all the energy in this campaign, so far at least, has come from Bernie Sanders. That’s right; a 73-year old socialist from Vermont. But his campaign events are overpacked with wildly enthusiastic followers. He’s used social media brilliantly. His political persona is fascinating; he’s not remotely ingratiating. He seems impatient, unimpressed. He stands up and speaks; no jokes, no pausing for applause lines. He wants to get on with things. And that’s appealing. He’s the Occupy candidate, the anti-corporate class warrior. Everything about him screams authenticity and integrity. The political class doesn’t take him very seriously; the Beltway thinks he’s a loon. But so far, his campaign has been brilliant.

And I think his success, and Trump’s success, are emblematic of where the electorate is right now. I think people are afraid, and I think they’re angry. I think people believe that politics is broken, and that they’re getting screwed, and they want to lash out. So if conservatively inclined, they go for a bomb-throwing business mogul, a guy who promises to fix things. And for people of the liberal persuasion, they go for this tough old truth-teller, a guy who talks about income inequality and economic policies that favor the rich and unapologetically promises to raise taxes.

I think Trump’s campaign is going to fizzle; he’s just too egotistical. And I think the Republican electorate will flirt with every dancer on their card, before finally giving up, sighing in frustration, and giving their nod to the latest Bush. But the Democratic nomination is going to be, if anything, more volatile than that. I think Hillary is in for a tough fight with Bernie, and though I think she’s still the favorite, she’ll know she was in  a scrap.

And what then? Who knows. Predicting anything this far out is a fool’s errand. But checking my crystal ball, I think the nominees are Clinton and Bush, and that Hillary will win 54-46. Now let’s see how accurately I can prophesy.

The ancient law of hospitality, the Odyssey, and Sodom

With the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell decision, a lot of people on the internet have waxed apocalyptic, suggesting that the decision was morally catastrophic and predicting a bad end to American society. And where in scripture might one find support for the idea that homosexuality equals catastrophe? Where else, but in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom equals sodomy equals sinfulness equals destruction; that’s how the story goes. The problem is, if we read the actual scriptural account of Sodom, it turns out that Sodom’s destruction had essentially nothing to do with homosexuality. Sodom’s sin was to violate the ancient law of hospitality.

Say what? The difficulty is that word, ‘hospitality,’ with its Martha Stewart-ish overtones, and general sense of using-the-wrong-fork-at-dinner or mussing-up-the-guest-towels. To say ‘Sodom was inhospitable’ seems like pretty weak tea, acting as gay apologists, minimizing Sodom’s sin. In fact, the ancient law of hospitality was a very serious thing indeed, the defining characteristic of civilized society. Ancient Troy was destroyed because hospitality was violated. It’s mostly what The Odyssey was about. It was incredibly important.

The law of hospitality is best described as a whole system of rights and reciprocal obligations, without which civilization could not exist. If a stranger showed up at your city gates, you had two choices. You could bash his head in. Or you could invite him in, feed him, shelter him, and send him on his way with gifts. If you did the former, word got around, you were understood not to be a civilized society, and nobody would trade with you. If you did the latter, word got around, you were understood to be civilized, and trade flourished. As a guest, he had obligations as well; to not abscond with the silverware or the king’s daughter. Or your host’s wife.

Which brings us to Paris, and to Menelaus. When Paris ran off with Helen, he committed the most egregious possible violation of a guest’s obligations, the most despicable possible transgression of civilized values. Menelaus was absolutely justified in asking Agamemnon to join him an in attempt to seek redress, and Priam, though a good and honorable man in most respects, ought to have given Paris and Helen up. Instead, we had the spectacle of the Trojan war. Homer does not defend all Greek conduct in the war, nor does he condemn Priam and Hector and other decent Trojans. The tragedy of Troy was the inevitability of the Greek response to Troy’s breach of the hospitality code.

The Odyssey takes this all a step further. Odysseus is driven off his course, visiting island after island, city after city. The Odyssey can be seen as a primer on hospitality, a series of case studies on how it works, and what’s supposed to happen. Some people–Nausicaa’s people, for example–serve as good examples. Others–Polyphemus–are the worst possible subjects for study, absolutely defining barbarism. Meanwhile, back home in Ithaca, Penelope’s suitors–who have, in the beginning, a potentially legitimate reason to visit–become, over time, intolerable. They are initially guests, but by never leaving, they grow intolerable.

Hospitality was the key to civilization, and it makes sense that the most important work of Greek scripture would be an in-depth study of the hospitality code. And the longest section of the book deals with the most complex case; the suitors. We read it (or hear it), and learn;  yes, it’s possible to start off legitimate, and over time, become barbaric. And, in the end, of course, Odysseus and Telemachus set the course of civilized behavior back on track, by wiping the suitors off the map. The cost is high, but Athena sets matters right in the end, blessing Odysseus’ actions.

How does this relate to Sodom? Well, it’s another case study in hospitality. My friend Bill Davis explains:

Sodom and Gomorrah: What the Bible really says. The issue: didn’t God destroy S&G for homosexuality? Let’s go back and take a look. Remember the story? Two angels show up at Sodom and meet Lot at the front gate. In accordance with the law of hospitality, Lot invites them home. Next thing ya know, the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring the angels out to them. Why? To gang rape them.

Gang rape? Why? Well, in this period and location, one of the strategies certain cultures used to demonstrate their power and superiority over foreigners was to rape them. It’s not about loving relationships. In fact, it’s not even about sex. It’s about power and humiliation. The goal is to humiliate your enemies. Lot brought some strangers into town, and now the Sodomites are going to aggressively humiliate them to show them who’s boss. And this aggressive humiliation went directly counter to the very important, sacred laws of hospitality.

In other words, Genesis provides us with another hospitality case study. And anyone in the ancient world would have been appalled. There’s nothing bad that could happen subsequently to Sodom that wouldn’t have seemed entirely justified. It turns out, there’s an equally appalling story found in Judges 19. I don’t want to explore it in depth, but it’s about the same dynamic; a city refusing hospitality, and rape as a instrument of power. The difference is, in Judges, the rape is heterosexual. As Bill Davis points out: “if we claim that the story in Genesis 19 is a condemnation of the loving intimacy between homosexuals, then Judges 19 is also a condemnation of loving intimacy between heterosexuals.” Or, as Bible scholar Jay Michaelson puts it, “reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe.”

It’s also complicated by other scriptural accounts. The prophet Ezekial, for example, wrote this:

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  Ezekial 16: 48-50

Can we tie these two ideas together? Absolutely. One of the difficulties of the law of hospitality is that the people who showed up at your gate weren’t necessarily rich or powerful or important. It’s easy to treat people well if you think you can immediately profit by it; harder to just help people in need. Again, in the Odyssey, the one people that provide us the most unequivocal good example of hospitality were the Phaeacians–the people of Princess Nausicaa. When she and her handmaidens come across Odysseus, he’s naked, shipwrecked, and injured. There’s no obvious or immediate advantage to helping him. And he doesn’t initially even tell them his name. But Nausicaa’s parents, Arete and Alcinous, treat him with kindness and generosity nonetheless. Their story ties together those virtues of what we would call Christian charity to hospitality, precisely the virtues that Ezekial tells us Sodom most conspicuously lacked.

I know that in common parlance, Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality, and sodomy a synonym for gay sex. Justification for this perspective can be found in that strangest and shortest of New Testament works, the book of Jude:

Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Jude 1:7

I suppose you could argue that ‘going after strange flesh’ is a reference to homosexuality, or possibly bestiality. But the ‘lack of charity’ angle later becomes part of the equation; the people Jude condemns are ‘spots on your feasts of charity.’

There are, of course, other Bible scriptures that condemn homosexual relations. Most of them are part of the Law of Moses, which also condemns playing football (with a pigskin), or wearing cotton/poly blend shirts. Still, there’s the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, I Timothy 1: 8-11). Of course, Paul had nothing to say about gay marriage, because such a concept could not possibly have ever occurred to him. But the narrative that really does not have any scriptural support at all is the one in which the destruction of Sodom is used to demonstrate what God’s wrath will do to America if we embrace marriage equality. The story of Sodom is about arrogance, violence and a lack of charity. It’s about what happens when a society rejects the law of hospitality.  And that’s actually a warning with some teeth.

 

 

Obergefell v. Hodges: two sides of the same debate

And so, now Obergefell v. Hodges has come down. Not a shocking result, honestly, though I did think the vote would be 7-2 or 6-3, and not another razor thin 5-4 margin. I wonder if it’s possible that Chief Justice Roberts was hoping for a more conciliatory and moderate draft from Justice Kennedy, one he might be able to join, and was taken aback by how sweeping Kennedy’s decision was. But it’s done, and is unlikely to be undone. SCOTUSblog has lots of outstanding expert legal analysis on the decision; time for me to weigh in with my decidedly inexpert parsing of it. (As always, I am just a playwright with wifi; I do not claim any legal or scholarly credentials).

What strikes me, reading both Kennedy’s decision and the dissents from Roberts and from Scalia, Alito and Thomas, is the degree to which they’re writing at cross purposes. They’re not even addressing the same issues. That’s been true throughout this debate. One side insists that the central issue here is a radical redefinition of marriage, that it’s about how marriage even gets defined and who should define it, even, on the margins, calling this particular redefinition a potentially catastrophic and certainly radical social experiment. What that leads to, frankly, is federalism. Conservatives are generally fonder of federalism than liberals are, and that’s the main issue that Roberts addresses; whether unelected judges should define something as fundamental to society as marriage, or whether The People should define it, through their elected officials, state by state.

That’s a reasonable position. But if, in fact, citizens of the United States have a fundamental right to marry, then to deny that right to members of an unpopular minority is a wrong that needs to be redressed. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that all citizens receive equal protection under the law. If some citizens of the United States are denied legal equality by the states in which they happen to reside, then that becomes a matter for judicial intervention. Citizens are being harmed. Citizens are being discriminated against. And it’s not just appropriate for courts to step in; it’s necessary. That’s their function.

Put another way, does Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell bully the states? Is this a situation where courts unfairly tell states what they can and can’t do? Or is this a situation where states are bullying gay people, and the court is telling them to cut it out?

So: do citizens have a right to marry? The Constitution never mentions marriage; the word ‘marriage’ never appears in the Bill of Rights. So how can Justice Kennedy insist that there is a constitutional right to marry? Here’s Justice Roberts final paragraph:

If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.

So let’s talk about rights, and let’s talk about history. What is a ‘right worthy of constitutional protection?’ And what I write next may seem simple-minded and foolish. It may be presumptuous of me to say that my status as a layman, my lack of legal credentials, could also give me a different, and dare I say, needed perspective. But here goes. Rights are fundamental areas into which government cannot intrude. And rights are basically what most people believe to be rights. You believe that something is a right because, come on, of course that’s a right. Why wouldn’t it be?

It’s certainly true that the Framers never mentioned marriage. But then, their understanding of marriage was very different from ours. The primary legal requirement in 18th century America involved the posting of the banns, which took place three weeks before the wedding. (And I suspect that was mostly for well-off families). You could register a marriage with the county clerk, but this was rarely done. Divorce was difficult to obtain. Marriage itself was a subset of property law.

More to the point, though, the Bill of Rights did not include a right to marry, because nobody thought to include one. I mean, fathers might forbid their daughters marrying some wastrel n’er-do-well (leading, at least in novels, to spectacular elopements), but the idea that a government entity would forbid some marriage or another was just nonsense. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that ever happened.

But soldiers were quartered in people’s houses without the owner’s consent. The British had done that, and it was bitterly resented. So the Third Amendment is in the Bill of Rights, though today it’s mostly just considered a charming anachronism.  And states and communities did insist that men form militias, and drill periodically with their muskets, and so we have the Second Amendment, though its meaning has morphed weirdly into a right to buy a hunting rifle at Cabela’s.

Most particularly, the Bill of Rights does not include a right to vote. That’s because the Framers wanted to limit the voting franchise. But today, we believe that all adult citizens have the right to vote. And getting those rights into the Constitution required further amendments; the Fifteenth and Nineteenth.

Not long ago, a friend of mine proposed on Facebook this: that there existed a fundamental right for all children to be reared by their biological parents. Would I support calling that a right? I’d never thought of it before; never considered it. So I thought about it. And after some somber reflection, I decided that that idea was crazy. I couldn’t have disagreed more. The simple reality is that some biological parents are terribly neglectful and abusive, enough so that they’ve forfeited their parental rights. And other people just can’t deal with kids, and give them up for adoption, and that’s terrific, that’s a great thing, adoption is a wonderful human institution giving kids in tough situations a chance. So there you are. Someone proposed that something should be considered a right. I disagreed, and I think most folks would disagree. That’s a decidedly minority position. So it’s not a right.

So, okay, what about marriage? Do citizens, consenting adults who have decided to commit their lives together, have a basic, fundamental, human right to do that, to marry?  Should we consider that right as basic and fundamental as the right to free speech, or freedom of the press, or the freedom to worship freely? The Obergefell decision lists lots of case law precedents to support the majority’s claim that marriage is a right, but let’s instead just be, you know, people. What do we think? Don’t worry about legalities; is the right to marry a fundamental human right?

Man, I can’t imagine how anyone could say that it isn’t. I mean, not everyone gets to marry, and not all marriages work. But we think divorce is a tragedy, and feel compassion for our unmarried friends, precisely because we think marriage is so important.  Think about it. Is anything more basic than our society’s commitment to marriage? Is there anything more intrinsically, fundamentally important than marriage? Is there a choice we make, ever, that’s more important?

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out, and there’s terrible heartbreak and sorrow and pain involved. But that fact only shows how important it is, how essential we regard it as being. For two people to say ‘I choose you, I commit my life to you, I have decided that you are the one person on earth I want to be with for the rest of my life’ goes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being. And in our culture, in American culture in the 21st century, the main way people make that kind of public declaration of that commitment is through the institution we call marriage. Of course, some people choose not to marry; that’s also their right. But it basically comes down to this: are gay people fully citizens of the United States? And if not, why not? That’s the question that Justice Kennedy answered so eloquently:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

This is not to say that the concerns of the other side aren’t worthy of our consideration. But I would suggest to you that marriage is a right, and that the more you think about it, the more you’ll agree that it has to be. And that’s why I say, after careful reflection, that Obergefell was rightly decided.

King v. Burwell decided. Yay.

This morning, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Carter v. Burwell, otherwise known as the Obamacare decision. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, and ruled against the plaintiffs in the case. Essentially, the arguments made by the Obama administration won. And great rejoicing was heard throughout the land.

Actually, that’s kind of true, the great rejoicing part. Oh, sure, there were ill-tempered rumblings in the tiny village of Scaliaville, and presumably the twin cities of Thomas and Alito were less than entirely gruntled. But the muted response from the GOP suggests the corner into which a different decision would have painted them. Ten million people are currently enrolled in the Affordable Care Act insurance policies available to them, most of whom would, in all likelihood, have lost their coverage. Republicans in Congress would have had to come up with some alternative plan, some new ideas, which they frankly don’t have. Republican Presidential candidates can go back to safely denouncing ‘Obamacare’ without facing unpleasant consequences (until they have to face the general electorate, which is coming around on the ACA).  Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief right now, because the ACA, like Keanu Reeves, has dodged another bullet. Listen carefully: you can hear John Boehner’s quiet ‘whew.’

Here’s what King v. Burwell is about, best I can understand it. (And, as always, remember, I’m not a legal expert in any sense. Not a lawyer, not a law professor, just a playwright with wifi, and an addiction to SCOTUSblog).  The way Obamacare works is that people who couldn’t have previously have afforded health insurance were able to receive a federal subsidy to help pay for it in a health care exchange. States were supposed to set up those exchanges, which are sort of on-line insurance stores. But in fact, 34 states didn’t set them up. Another provision of the ACA allows the federal government to set up a national exchange, which is, in fact, where most people got their policies. But the bill was awkwardly worded. It’s possible to read one small section of the bill as saying that the only people eligible for subsidies were those who bought their insurance in state exchanges. Here’s the relevant passage, from Section 36 B of the ACA: subsidies could go to those who purchased insurance in “an exchange established by the State.” Well, did that mean that people who bought theirs in the federal exchange were therefore not eligible for the subsidy? That was what the plaintiffs argued.

Right at the beginning, Chief Justice Roberts tells us his approach:

If the statutory language is plain, the Court must enforce it according to its terms. But oftentimes the meaning—or ambiguity—of certain words or phrases may only become evident when placed in context. So when deciding whether the language is plain, the Court must read the words in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.

I mean, obviously. I’ll grant that the statute’s language was unclear. But could Congress seriously have intended to limit so drastically the scope of the subsidies? Isn’t it obvious that someone just screwed up? The whole point of the bill is to allow people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to get insurance. Obviously, subsidies had to be available to everyone. The kind of exchange, state or federal, you bought it from is clearly unimportant and irrelevant.

What Roberts gave us, therefore, is a common sense reading of the statute. What’s the bill trying to accomplish? If the meaning of one passage is unclear, go back to basics. Assume that Congress didn’t stick five words in the middle of a big, important bill that would undermine everything else it’s meant to accomplish. Here’s his conclusion:

Petitioners’ plain-meaning arguments are strong, but the Act’s context and structure compel the conclusion that Section 36B allows tax credits for insurance purchased on any Exchange created under the Act. Those credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.

Roberts did adopt a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ tone to point out what he called the bill’s ‘inartful drafting.’  “The Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation,” wrote Roberts, an elegant prose stylist saddened by awkward phrasing by a lesser writer. Frankly, I wish he had taken Congress more sternly to task. There’s no reason why five poorly chosen words in a too-hastily drafted law should have jeopardized the health coverage for millions of Americans.

Roberts is generally described as a ‘conservative,’ and the word seems apt. But his final two paragraphs give us a window into the kind of conservative he aspires to be.

In a democracy, the power to make the law rests with those chosen by the people. Our role is more confined—“to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803). That is easier in some cases than in others. But in every case we must respect the role of the Legislature, and take care not to undo what it has done. A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter. Section 36B can fairly be read consistent with what we see as Congress’s plan, and that is the reading we adopt.

In contrast, Scalia’s temper tantrum of a dissent reveals his own brand of conservatism. His is the kind of textual literalism that allows for not the tiniest ambiguity or context.

The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says “Exchange established by the State” it means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.” That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so. This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an Exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits. You would think the answer would be obvious—so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it. In order to receive any money, an individual must enroll in an insurance plan through an “Exchange established by the State.” The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not a State. So an Exchange established by the Secretary is not an Exchange established by the State—which means people who buy health insurance through such an Exchange get no money.  Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.

Accusing Roberts of knee-jerk partisanship, Scalia reveals his own blinkered partisanship. By refusing to look at a strangely worded passage in context–and by refusing to acknowledge the possibility of simply human error in drafting a statute–Scalia demonstrates yet again how bizarre his understanding of collegiality has become. Would he seriously have deprived millions of fellow citizens of health care coverage (and the attendant protections against medical emergencies or serious accidents) simply out of pique, or because one phrase in a 20, 000 page bill was ambiguously worded? Apparently so, sadly.

Still, the right thing happened, and for the right reasons. Whew indeed.

 

Charleston, race, and the confederate flag

Like, I’m sure, all of you, I have been heartsick over the senseless murders in Charleston. I don’t understand it. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the oldest and most important black churches in the country. They were holding a Bible Study class, and welcomed the shooter with open arms, and held an hour-long dialogue with him, before he opened fire. I don’t understand any of that. How can you look people in the face, how can you talk to fellow human beings, how can you study with them, how can you hold a conversation with someone, and then pull out a weapon and start shooting? It’s incomprehensible.

I debated whether or not to use the killer’s name. He pretty clearly wanted to publicize his cause, and part of me doesn’t even want to allow him that tiny victory, of attaching his name to the names of the extraordinary men and women worshipping that night at Emanuel AME. At the same time, I feel like perhaps it would be just as wrong to deny this deeply troubled young man his humanity. He’s clearly ill, clearly delusional. His cause would deny the common humanity of those who he hated so pointlessly. And the families of the victims who spoke at his bond hearing expressed such an astonishing willingness to forgive, it humbles me, sets me an example I do not know I will be able to live up to.  So, let’s say it this way. On June 17th, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, a librarian, Susie Jackson, a church choir singer, Ethel Lee Lance, a church sexton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, a school administrator, Clementa C. Pinckney, a pastor and state senator, Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson’s niece, Daniel Simmons, a pastor, Sharonda, Coleman-Singleton, a pastor, speech therapist and track coach, and Myra Thompson, a Bible Study teacher were brutally murdered by Dylan Roof, a racist.

So what do we do now? President Obama called for national legislation restricting the purchase of firearms. He’s absolutely right about that, and I have no hope whatsoever of it actually happening. But the African-American community in South Carolina have called for a lesser, more symbolic response. They have asked to have the Confederate flag removed from the statehouse grounds. Obviously, this cannot happen without Republican support; very much to his credit, Mitt Romney called for it as well.

Not many others, though. The main Republican candidates for President were all asked about it; their responses were monuments to cowardice and political expediency. But perhaps we shouldn’t expect much from politicians.

As Larry Willmore pointed out on his show on Monday night, the Emanuel AME Church is found on Calhoun Street in Charleston. Calhoun was the most significant exponent of the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery.

I hold that in the present state of civiliza­tion, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one por­tion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.

John C. Calhoun, Speech in the US Senate, 1837

 

What this means is that every piece of correspondence sent or received from the Emanuel AME Church bears the name of a defender and supporter of slavery. That every car filled with worshippers at that Church drives down a street named for the most significant racist in the political history of the United States. And many streets in Charleston are named after generals in the Confederacy, a treasonous government specifically established through force of arms, and intended to maintain undisturbed the institution of slavery.

Okay, that was harshly put. I’m a Northerner, unpersuaded of the virtues of the Southern cause. I reject the fantasy of a noble South, invaded by Yankee aggressors. I know that the civil war was a catastrophically bloody war, and that Sherman’s march to the see, though tactically brilliant, brutalized an entire region. Robert E. Lee, and J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson were military geniuses of the first order, and their story is surely a tragic one, as none of them were really pro-slavery. Lee fought for Virginia, not for slavery. His tragedy is the political tragedy of federalism run amuck. ‘Virginia,’ that abstraction, is not worth fighting, killing and dying for.

I found this article describing the history of the Confederate flag. It’s pretty straightforward. To say that it’s a traditional symbol of Southern heritage, or Southern pride, or Southern values really isn’t true at all. It was adopted in 1948, by Strom Thurmond, as a rallying symbol for segregationists.  It started flying over courthouses as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

But, of course, symbols mean different things to different people. I don’t think Lynyrd Skynyrd perform in front of a Confederate flag because the band is racist. I think they wrote Sweet Home Alabama in response to what they perceived as Neil Young’s put-down of their state in his song, Alabama. They liked the rebel vibe the flag gave them. I don’t think the Dukes of Hazzard were racist idiots for putting a rebel flag on their car, nor did that TV show intentionally mean to be racist. 6 of 10 white Southerners want to keep the flag; that does not suggest that 6 out of 10 white Southerners are racists. It speaks to regional pride, not the violent suppression of people based on skin tone.

But that’s also not a good enough reason to keep it. I’ll grant you that symbols have slippery meanings. But if a symbol is deeply and personally offensive to one group of people, and is liked by other people out of some sense of fond nostalgia, then weigh those two responses and get rid of the darn thing.

South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, called for the legislature of her state to remove the flag, to debate and vote on the issue (which will require a two thirds majority to pass). But as Larry Willmore pointed out last night, why not just take it down? Why can’t Haley just order the flag removed. Then let the legislative debate be about putting it back up?

And of course, it shouldn’t just come down in South Carolina. Georgia and Mississippi should get rid of theirs too, while they’re at it. Oh, and Virginia? The Virginia flag includes the phrase ‘sic semper tyrannis.’ That’s what Booth shouted after shooting Lincoln. Seriously, do you really want to keep that historical association?

The flags should come down. Put the flag in museums; be done with that symbol of racism and oppression. That needs to happen. It won’t end racism and it won’t end racially motivated violence. Easy access to firearms makes it much too easy for deluded and violent people to act out their most despicable fantasies. Still, any triumph over racism is a step towards progress. Let’s take this small step, at least.

 

Mad Max, Fury Road: Movie review

Finally saw it. Took me a month, saw, like, ten other movies in the meantime. Despite rapturous reviews, both from professionals and from friends, it took me forever. Nothing against the movie; I liked it just fine. Just this: based on the previews, I thought I might find its admittedly state-of-the-art Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Cirque du Soleil aethestic a bit tiresome. That happened, but much less than I was afraid of. As a triumph of stunts, CGI, design, cinematography, editing, and just pure imagination, it’s really quite astounding.

It’s basically Buster Keaton’s The General, with slightly less amazing stunt work, but with updated sexual politics. In Keaton’s day, of course, they couldn’t cut around anything; any action sequences were entirely designed and performed by Keaton himself, and he treated that old civil war locomotive as his own private playground. But the two films are structured identically. It involves a chase, a decision, leading to another chase. Our Hero (and companion) is badly unnumbered in both films, and the bad guys have every advantage. But pluck, determination, and an astonishing ability to scramble up and around vast pieces of machinery allow Our Hero to save the day.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go watch The General. I’ll wait.

Finished? Great, wasn’t it? Let’s move on.

Here’s the biggest similarity between the two films. The General is set in the middle of the American Civil War, with photography specifically inspired by Matthew Brady. This new Mad Max is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where deformed and motley brigades of macho dudes fight over the most basic liquid elements of life; water, gasoline, mothers’ milk. Women are completely subordinate; we see a room full of nursing mothers hooked up like cattle to milk extractors. The most attractive women are the exclusive property of grotesque warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who also preaches a post-mortality in which he will choose his fellow Valhalla immortals, incentivizing his War Boy followers to feats of the most astounding derring-do at his behest.

But neither film actually feels particularly tragic. The General is a romp; Keaton turns the Civil War into slapstick. Death itself becomes a set up for a sight gag. And Mad Max never gives us time to consider the implications of this post-global warming/post nuclear holocaust slayground. The stunts in both films are spectacular, and we respond viscerally; we’re in awe. They’re not just the same film in terms of plot structure; they’re tonally similar. Only the gender politics are different.

So: gender. In Mad Max, the women of this horrific community have a savior, Furioso (Charlize Theron). And she has embarked on a daring plan to rescue women from Joe’s harem, and take them to her home, a Green Place. It involves a huge semi-truck, a war truck, a beast of a machine that can all kinds of punishment, and has to. But Joe sends his boys to chase it down. Over the course of that chase, Max (Tom Hardy) joins forces with her (after an obligatory ‘getting to know you’ slugfest between them), and they’re also joined by a renegade War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), converted, I think, by the power of Troo Luv (he falls for one of the women).  The most important decisions in the film are generally made by Furiosa (though advised by Max), and she gets a lot more screen time. She can shoot, she can steer a truck through the most impassable obstacles, she can beat up bad guys; she’s an action movie star. And she shows remarkable leadership skills, including occasional moments of compassion and tenderness.

So she’s a feminist heroine, right? And that’s one way the film has been marketed and sold–it’s a strong feminist triumph story. And I suppose you could argue that the Hollywood model which this film follows so closely is inherently anti-feminine. But she’s not a terribly feminine feminist, if that makes sense. She has the central characteristic of male action figures. She’s good at violence.

Again, in contrast to The General, it’s refreshing. Keaton riffed on gender roles throughout, but of course it’s gender as understood in 1926. Marion Mack is his comic foil. He rescues her repeatedly, but without much tenderness–a lot of the comedy comes from Mack’s game willingness to be stuffed into sacks, tossed onto boxes, stepped on and trapped in a bear trap and otherwise mistreated. Not that Buster’s ever violent towards her; it’s all slapstick violence. They’re on the run, and Keaton’s character doesn’t have time for chivalrous delicacy. Marion Mack’s character is courageous, plucky and patriotic; you could make a case for her feminism too, if you wanted to and were willing to overlook a 1920s culture’s construction of gender.

Both films are awesome; The General because it’s so funny, Mad Max because the stunts and the design are so spectacular. We’re more blown away by them than we are moved or thoughtfully provoked. It is a little strange to have nuclear destruction and global warming (or for that matter, the Civil War), treated as throwaway background for otherwise frenetically active movies. In the case of Max Max, I kept thinking of another, far better (and infinitely less successful financially) film, John Hillcoat’s 2009 version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which also starred Theron. Another road movie, another despairing future, another trip through hell. But The Road was relentless in its despair. To the extent that there are things we could do to prevent global warming or nuclear war, it’s a lot more responsible film. But almost nobody saw it, and everyone saw Max Max.

I mean, seriously, Mad Max showed the War Boys riding into battle with a soundtrack, provided by one vehicle carrying four kettle drums, and by another with a guitarist hanging from bungee cords, playing his axe while bouncing around in front of a moving vehicle. A flame throwing guitar, I should add. And sure, Custer rode into battle with a regimental band playing Garry Owens, and for Apocalypse Now‘s helicopters, it was Wagner, so war can certainly have a sound track. But the guitarist was just pure amazing. It was the kind of throwaway detail that made the viewing experience so viscerally rewarding.

So Max is certainly one of the most exciting action films in years. It was a triumph of design and of film craftsmanship. I enjoyed it; don’t think I didn’t. If I felt a trifle cheated at the end, it’s maybe because the movie fed the gut much more than it fed the mind. That’s okay. But the pieces were in place for a full meal; not just dessert.