Aside from Trump. . . .

Like 24 million of my fellow Americans, I watched the first Republican debates. Mostly, I watched for the same reason most of us rubberneck accidents on the freeway. We wanted to see The Donald crash and burn. He did not disappoint. Asked, by Megyn Kelly, about appalling comments he’s made about women in the past, Trump smirked and suggested those comments were all aimed at Rosie O’Donnell. After that gratuitous insult, he then treated us to a seminar on why alpha males, caught in the role of sexual harasser, tend to lose the subsequent lawsuits. Deflect, accuse, wonder why dames can’t take a joke and, geez, guys, it’s all just a bunch of political correctness. The next, day, he topped off this charming display of boorishness by suggesting that Kelly’s ‘rudeness’ to him was due to her menstrual cycle. What a prince.

So, usual Trump tactics and results. Say something insulting and idiotic. Watch your poll numbers go up. Get called on it, double down. Watch your poll numbers go . . . up. Apparently, in 2015, infantile tantrums work. (In all fairness, he did offer one of the few specific and sensible policy suggestions of the night. The man’s a pig; doesn’t mean he’s stupid).

Of course, it doesn’t matter. As the invaluable Nate Silver pointed out today, Trump can’t win. He may continue to go up a little in the polls, but his negatives are off the charts; he’s pretty close to his poll ceiling. He has a solid core of supporters, but twice as many people insist they would never, under any circumstances, ever vote for him, and that’s among Republicans. And as John Oliver pointed out on Sunday, none of this really actually matters all that much. There will be babies born before the 2016 election whose parents haven’t even met yet. We’re way way early.

So what did this first debate tell us? What can we learn from it? And what, especially, does it tell us about who might be the Republican nominee for President?

The most recent poll has Trump in first, Ted Cruz in second, Ben Carson in third. I have immense admiration for Dr. Ben Carson, an admirable man with a remarkable personal narrative. From my perspective, he looked lost up there. He has no political skills, and essentially no understanding of the major issues of the day. Ted Cruz is one of the lizard-people, I’m convinced of it. He exudes unctuous smarm. And he’s detested in the Senate; absolutely detested, including by fellow Republicans.

Carly Fiorina probably won the earlier ‘kiddie table’ debate, which didn’t surprise me, actually. I’ve heard her speak, and she’s very good. She’s well-spoken and intelligent, and understands the issues in a way that the other non-politicians running sometimes don’t. Her problem is her narrative. She was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which she ran into the ground. She ran for the Senate in California, and got clobbered. 12 of the 30 top operatives in her Senate campaign recently came out with a statement that they would never work for her again, ever, in any capacity whatever. And her former H-P employees make for a formidable (and computer-savvy) group who will do whatever they possibly can to sabotage her campaign. She’s another ‘too much baggage’ candidate, I think.

Of the actual serious candidates, I thought Marco Rubio did pretty well, as did John Kasich. And, speaking as a Democrat, that’s scary. Rubio struck a chord with his talk about a childhood in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck. If he could take that experience, and translate it into concrete policy suggestions that really would help the lower and middle classes, he could be a formidable opponent. And Kasich came across as a decent, honorable, competent man. When the man said that he had attended the wedding of a gay friend, I expected boos from the audience. None followed. Yay. I mean, it’s not like he said anything all that remarkable; basically, ‘I decided not to be a self-righteous jerk when my friend got married.’ But the ‘basic humanity’ bar has been set deplorably low by some of the more unhinged members of the people on that stage.

Let’s make a few basic assumptions. First, let’s assume that Joe Biden decides not to run for President, and that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. I know that a lot of progressives really like Bernie Sanders; I’m among them. He’s the Clean Gene McCarthy of this race; a man of integrity, a serious man with serious policy ideas. I think it’s great that he’s in the race. I don’t think he can win. He might even win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and still lose the nomination; Hillary Clinton is much stronger with minority voters. But I want the Democratic primary process to be tough, grueling, a real grind. It’s been awhile since Secretary Clinton was in a tough electoral contest. It’s good for her to struggle. I think she can win, but she has a lot of negatives, too.

Let’s further suppose that the Republican nominee, when all the dust settles, is Marco Rubio, and that he selects Kasich as his running mate. Rubio, from Florida; Kasich, from Ohio. That’s a formidable ticket. Ohio and Florida? In play?

Now, they’ve got to run on an economic platform that makes sense. No more ‘tax cuts for billionaires, because wealth trickles down’ garbage. They can’t just say ‘I feel bad for poor people because my Mom was poor, so see, I care about you and your concerns.’ You actually have to govern in a way that reduces income inequality, and puts more money in the pockets of poor people. No more running against ‘Obamacare.’ No more crap about how the nuclear deal with Iran will bring about the end of days. Rubio’s expanded Child Tax Credit idea is the kind of Republican idea that could actually make a difference in the lives of poor people. They need more policy proposals like that one. And if they do that, run as moderates, Rubio/Kasich could win.

Unless, of course, Trump runs as a third-party candidate. He’s kept that door open, as everyone saw last Thursday. And he would absolutely pull votes from Rubio. or any other Republican. But speaking as a Democrat, that’s a lot to hope for. Donald Trump is, fundamentally and essentially, an infant. And infants get bored.

Towards fun

I was having a conversation this morning with my son, and, as is our wont, we got to talking about what we’re reading right now. He’s working his way through the Game of Thrones novels, which I haven’t read yet, but undoubtedly will. He mentioned that some people think George R. R. Martin doesn’t write particularly well, but he thought the extraordinary plot construction, characters and story threads more than made up for whatever deficiencies the man may have as a prose stylist. And then my son said something profound. He said ‘reading is supposed to be fun.’

Yes! Yes, a thousand times yes! Obviously, we read for hundreds of reasons–to pass the bar exam, to figure out who-dun-it, to laugh out loud, to use up tedious/terrifying minutes in the dentist’s office. But those of us who love to read mostly do it because it’s fun. It’s fun to learn about the world. It’s fun to explore imaginary worlds. It’s fun to keep up with old friends, or to make new ones. It’s fun to root for the good guys to win, and for the bad guys to lose, and for the ordinary schlubbs in the middle to at least survive. Sometimes, in fact, I root for the bad guys to win, if they’re sufficiently rogueish and attractive. Anti-heroes are a hoot.

I am a theatre person, and I love going to a theater to see a play. While there, I expect to be entertained. Of course, ‘entertained’ is a contested term; I’m quite entertained by plays that some of you may find as exciting as watching grass grow. But I think we’re basically in agreement about some basics. We want to see a play that will move us, touch us, make us think, lead to conversation. We want to see believable characters we can care about (even if they’re bounders). Same with movies. I’m not saying I only want to see action/adventure, with car crashes and ‘splosions and movie stars running unscathed through enemy machine gun fire. What I do want is fun. That can mean a slow-paced film with lots of long conversations, if what the characters say is crackling sharp-witted (or engagingly dim-witted) and full of conflict.

As Kai and I were talking, I asked him what his response would be if I told him that I had two books which I knew he hadn’t read, and he could have either one–one by Elmore Leonard and the other by John Updike. His response was immediate, and was the same mine would be: Elmore Leonard, in a New York minute. To heck with the books lit professors assign to their classes. Though in fact, lots of lit professors nowadays may well assign Leonard.

This isn’t to say that I can’t or won’t read literary fiction, or that I only like crappy genre novels. In fact, I do like crappy genre novels, but my favorite contemporary (or ‘sort of contemporary’) novelist is the famously difficult David Foster Wallace. And I know that Jonathan Frandzen is Wallace’s writer bestie, and I love Frandzen too. But I will go to my grave insisting that Stephen King and Donald Westlake are as good (and as important and as vital and as ‘important’) as any other writers in America. The ‘genre v. literary’ dichotomy is so much nonsense; what I want is a good story well told.

But what I really loathe is the idea of medicinal art. You know what I mean. It’s the idea that seeing Great Works of Art is good for us, is edifying, enlarges our understanding, inoculates us from ‘worldly’ shallowness, teaches us uplifting and morally upright principles. And I suppose that there’s a level at which all that happens. But I don’t generally give a crap about being edified. My morality is my business; what I want from an artist is something, well, fun.

Rickie and the Flash: Movie Review

Rickie and the Flash is a big hearted, excessive wreck of a movie, as vital and messy as rock and roll music itself. It features a powerhouse performance by Meryl Streep, wonderful acting from an ensemble cast, playing sharply written characters in a wonderful Diablo Cody screenplay, in which nothing really is resolved at the end, because that’s just how life works sometimes. My wife and I both loved it. Sure, it’s flawed, and maybe a trifle sentimental, and a lot of critics haven’t liked it. Ignore them. When Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield rock out to Bruce Springsteen’s My Love Will Not Let You Down, the movie comes together perfectly.

Streep plays Rickie, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for a California bar band by night, and a grocery store cashier by day. Her life is a mess. She’s broke. She has an on-again, off-again thing with her lead guitarist, Greg, a wonderfully grizzled Rick Springfield. The rest of her band consists of elderly rock and roll wrecks: Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, Bernie Worrell (real life session musicians, all of them terrific). Streep learned guitar for the movie, and Springfield only agreed to act in it if the Flash got to really play; if they could plausibly play a rockin’ set in a real venue. The bar scenes are alive and electric. You sense how much the crowd there, in the bar, loves these guys; how much it means to them, to come every night and have a beer and listen to great old-time rock and roll. And their song list was terrific: from Tom Petty’s American Girl to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, from U2’s I still Haven’t Found What I’m Lookin’ For, to Sam and Sham’s Wooly Bully.

(In fact, I found myself wondering if the Flash are too good; if it was plausible that a band this solid would never have broken out of the bar/cover band ghetto. I don’t think so, though. I think there are a lot of terrific bands out there like this; not quite able to give up the music that is life itself to them, but also never quite famous or successful).

In the meantime, Rickie’s children despise her, and her daughter has attempted suicide. Years before, she left her husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) and their three children to pursue the life of a rocker. She put out an album, then her career receded into obscurity. Pete’s now a successful businessman, living in Indianapolis, and his second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), has raised the children. The two sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), have become successful young professionals. Josh is engaged, to Emily (Hailey Gates) who spends much of the movie looking horrified at the prospect of a life with this aging gargoyle of a mother-in-law. Adam is gay. In an interesting twist on expectations, Rickie, the Californian, is a die-hard Tea Party Republican; the rest of her family is vegan Democratic. Adam particularly loathes his mother, for what he perceives as her homophobia; Josh is more willing to forgive, as long as it doesn’t involve actually, you know, inviting her to his wedding.

And Julie, the oldest child and only girl, is a suicidal mess. With cause; her husband has left her for another woman. And Julie is played, superbly, by Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer.

Ordinarily, Julie’s crisis is the kind of thing Maureen would cope with. But her father is dying, and Pete, feeling out of his depth, calls on Rickie. Who does, in fact, fly home, and tries, awkwardly, to help. And there are a lot of wonderful cultural crisis scenes. Rickie’s a rocker; she wears more eye makeup than Alice Cooper, more leather than Joan Jett, and more bling than Mr. T. Meanwhile, her family–the Brummels–have become tastefully upper-middle-class, live in a McMansion, adorn the family kitchen with uplifting/humorous little posters. The first time we see Julie, she’s a total wreck; hasn’t showered in days, hair tangled, wears pajamas, flies off the handle. In fact, Rickie does help her, a little. They go out together (on Julie’s husband’s credit card), have a manicure and pedicure and eat food that’s bad for them and do Mom/daughter things. But Julie also blows off a therapy appointment, and then the three of them, Rickie, Julie, Pete, smoke some weed together, so when Maureen comes home, she hits the ceiling. And sends Rickie packing.

And that’s one of the best scenes in the movie. I’ll grant that it’s a bit odd for a movie musical, starring Audra McDonald, to have Meryl Streep do all the singing. But McDonald is tremendous in this movie, a beautifully controlled and calibrated performance, balancing righteous indignation with genuine compassion. It would be so easy for Maureen to be the villain in this movie; the cold-hearted bitch keeping Saint Meryl from her children. It would be equally easy to make this a movie about selfish Meryl, heedlessly ruining her children’s lives to pursue a hopeless and foolish dream. But the movie doesn’t go either of those directions. Maureen comes across as, well, a really really good Mom. She’s the step-mother, obviously, but she put in the time; she raised the kids, and did a darned good job of it, and will cope with Julie’s illness, as she copes with everything, and we see, clearly, that she loves Julie every bit as much as Rickie does, only probably more effectively. And while Rickie’s clearly a woman who made some choices she regrets, we also see her in those bar scenes. We can see just how brilliantly good The Flash are, and how playing with that band, with those guys, is about as much joy as she ever gets to experience in life.

Jonathan Demme directed Rickie and the Flash with his usual humanity and compassion and intelligence. Demme’s 70 now; this might be his last movie. But as always, the acting is marvelous. Streep is as terrific as always, as is Kline, and as are both the young actors who play her sons. Mamie Gummer is brilliant. But the real revelation here is Rick Springfield, who almost walks away with the movie.

I’m not going to spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that nothing is particularly resolved, but that the characters all resolve to be grownups, set aside their pain and resentment, and acknowledge the essential messiness of love. And then the Flash play, and rock and roll works its magic. I loved this movie. If you don’t love good rock and roll, well performed, don’t bother with it. If you do, it probably won’t be in the cineplexes for long. Catch it soon; you won’t regret it.

Missing Jon Stewart

For the past few years, my weekday morning routine was the same; I would get my breakfast, sit in The Beast (my massive and beloved recliner), and watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recorded from the previous evening’s broadcast. I wouldn’t say that it’s been anything close to my main source of news or information. I watched it for one excellent reason; it’s been consistently, marvelously funny. It’s really kind of a miracle. Stand-up comedians hone their acts for months, then repeat them endlessly, like a politician does with his/her stump speech. But four nights a week, 22 minutes a night, Jon Stewart brought the funny. What an extraordinary achievement.

There has been, of course, a lot of ink spilled of late about the Meaning of Jon Stewart, or his Impact, or his Importance. What people haven’t done as successfully is describe exactly what he did. David Letterman ended his long late night reign recently, without anyone really noticing what his show was about; the nightly deconstruction of the cult of celebrity. By the same token, Jon Stewart’s show was about the deconstruction of television news. He wasn’t Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw; he parodied them. He paid attention. He was on to their tricks. Like every great satirist, he loved deflating pretention and self-importance. Above all, he had a finely tuned eye for BS. In fact, in a lot of ways, BS was his subject. His final monologue on the show was a short treatise, in fact, on BS, on the three types of BS he’d noticed, and how they functioned, every night, on the news.

I suppose it’s fair to admit that he was and is a liberal, and that Fox News was a favorite target of his humor. It would not be fair, or accurate, to say that his show was an all-out assault on conservatism, however. He took on CNN with every bit as much enthusiasm, and if he didn’t make fun of old-media dinosaurs like the evening news broadcasts on CBS or NBC or ABC, it’s only because they’re not on as much. The 24-hour news cycle has provided a fertile pasture for BS to proliferate.

No, what Jon found offensive about conservatism doesn’t seem to be serious policy recommendations, but the selling of policy, the marketing of politicians. That’s where the richest troves of BS were buried; both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have described themselves as ‘turd miners,’ and I think that’s crude but accurate. Bloviating windbags, of either party, were rich material for a comedian as astute as Jon Stewart, and he was as willing to make fun of Democrats as he was Republicans. His political agenda, if he had one, was for government to work, for policies that helped people who needed it. His two greatest campaigns were for extra funds to help 9/11 first responders, and for VA reform, for more money to help our wounded and hurting veterans.

Stewart’s Daily Show had two other features. First were his ever-changing cadre of correspondents, gifted comedians in their own right, who he would send out to ‘cover stories.’ Often this meant giving people with truly amazing views enough rope to hang themselves. The DS staff would find some local controversy and cover it; interview the participants. Sometimes, they’d pretend to take one side or another (usually the crazier side), in order to elicit a response. My wife and I would watch these pieces, and shake our heads in amazement that anyone would agree to be interviewed by anyone from the Daily Show. But often other news organizations would interview DS subjects after the shows in which they were featured had aired, and generally the folks would say they’d been treated fairly. They had been given an opportunity to explain themselves to a national audience, and they’d been quoted accurately.

You might say that those interview sequences were mean-spirited. After all, the point was to provide what seemed to be insane people a platform for them to air views. But, real news organizations do that too. Again, the point was to deconstruct mainstream news programs. On a news show, it isn’t particularly unusual to highlight some controversial issue by focusing on nuttiest fringe views imaginable. That’s what’s called ‘balance.’ So if a major network is doing a show about the US/Mexico border, they’ll interview some armed civilian vigilante type, out there with his shotgun and flashlight looking for ‘illegals.’ Controversy sells. (I also love how the various correspondents were given fancy titles: ‘senior foreign correspondent’).

It’s also worth noting, BTW, the subsequent careers of Daily Show correspondents. Steve Carell is a major movie star. Ed Helms and Rob Corddry are in-demand character actors. Stephen Colbert will replace Letterman at NBC, and Larry Wilmore and John Oliver have their own spin-off shows. If the Daily Show was a parody of CBS News, The Colbert Report was a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. Larry Wilmore’s show hasn’t quite found its voice yet, but looks a lot like those Sunday news shows, like This Week on ABC, expecially with Wilmore’s panel discussion feature. John Oliver’s show on HBO is the best of them all; a parody of 60 Minutes, really, but substantive enough to straddle that fine line between doing the news and making fun of it.

The final part of any Daily Show episode was the interviews, and to some extent, it’s late night formulaic, the place where the show drops its news focus and asks movie stars about their latest projects. But Jon Stewart transformed that part of the show as well. He did remarkably incisive interviews with major political figures, regularly sparring with Mike Huckaby and John McCain. President Obama was on at least three times that I can remember. Best of all, Jon loved authors. He often found interesting books, usually about either history or public policy, and interview their authors. I can’t tell you how many books I bought or checked out from the library and read after seeing their authors on the Daily Show.  At least thirty; probably more. He loved engaging with smart people who had interesting things to say.

In fact, if Fox News eventually wore him down (he said watching that network was the hardest part of his job, and led to his retirement), then the authors and books he featured invigorated him. By the same token, that’s my final takeaway from the end of this 16 year era. Jon Stewart represented incisive wit and fury and even optimism in a time when our politics seems irretrievably broken. Television news is drowning in BS, as is public life generally. But the world is also a place where smart, passionate, informed people can come and tell you about the great book they just wrote.  I wish Jon well, and I’m going to miss him terribly. And hope the new guy, Trevor Noah, does well. Those are huge shoes to fill.

Unenumerated rights

Okay, Civics 101: The Bill of Rights to the Constitution describes basic, fundamental unviolable rights retained by the citizens, areas into which the government cannot intrude. We all know this, and if pressed, we could probably name most of the important ones off the top of our head. Freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble. When we say we live in a free society, the Bill of Rights is usually what we’re talking about. We take those rights for granted. We just assume, as a matter of course, that we can call the President of the United States or our local congressman a miserable rat fink and not get arrested for it.

What we don’t always consider, though, is the fact that some of the rights that the Constitution does enumerate are pretty strange, and don’t seem to deal with issues that anyone really thinks about anymore. They reflect controversies and issues that were important to 18th century society, but aren’t really significant to our society. The most immediate and obvious is the 3rd amendment, the one against quartering soldiers in your home. I mean, I would be pretty ticked off if someone from Hill Air Force base were to show up at my door and tell me I needed to put up some guys from the 75th Air Wing, so could I clear some space for them please. So, yay 3rd Amendment. The British did that; put troops in citizens houses, and people got pretty ticked off about it. But it’s not something that happens anymore.

If we were starting from scratch, I think that the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th amendments would all make the cut today. The 3rd and 7th seem iffy to me. The 2nd? If we didn’t already have it, I don’t think anyone would notice. Most countries don’t consider gun ownership a fundamental human right, and they seem to do okay. I bet it’d go.

Anyway, those aren’t all the rights we have. The 9th amendment makes that clear: the fact that some rights are enumerated in the Constitution doesn’t mean that that’s all there are. People have lots more rights than the 10 listed in the Bill of Rights. I see the 9th as kind of a rueful admission that times change, and some basic, fundamental rights will come more clearly into focus in time. As, indeed, has happened.

This issue of unenumerated rights, however, is the key to understanding some of the more controversial Supreme Court decisions. If The People, through their elected representatives, choose to enact laws that deny some unpopular minority its basic rights, it’s clearly the role of the Court to declare those laws unconstitutional. And so if someone were to say ‘hey, everyone hates Norwegians; they’re all still Vikings!’ and got Congress to pass a law banning, say, midsummer celebrations, Norwegian-Americans could say ‘hey, wait, first amendment, freedom to assemble’ and the Courts, presumably, would declare that law unconstitutional.

But what about the right of gay people to marry? Is ‘the right to marry’ an unenumerated right, as the 9th Amendment provides for? After all, Chief Justice Roberts made a point of the fact that the word ‘marriage’ is not found anywhere in the Constitution. Or is a right to marry so fundamental that it simply has to be one of those unenumerated rights the 9th amendment provides for? Likewise, Roe v. Wade. The constitution hasn’t a word to say about ‘privacy.’ Is there a constitutional right to privacy? So what about marriage? What about privacy? Unenumerated but obviously real rights? Or extra-constitutional legislating from the bench?

The real answer, of course, is that we don’t know definitively, and never will. Why would we? The 2nd amendment is really short, and nobody agrees about what it means. All texts support multiple readings; all texts, always, forever. The whole idea of ‘strict construction’ of constitutional texts is quite nonsensical.

But I would like to propose a possible rule of thumb that we might apply to this question. It’s the ‘of course’ rule. In other words, if you ask most people, ‘is the right to marry a fundamental right,’ they’d pretty much all say ‘of course.’ Unenumerated rights exist if basically everyone thinks ‘well, of course, that’s a right.’ Or you can turn it around. Ask most of your friends, ‘should the federal or state government have the final say in whether two consenting adults not of the same immediate family should be allowed to marry?’ Betcha anything the answer is unanimous. In fact, if you really want to have fun with it, say to your teenaged daughter, ‘honey, I think I should have final say over who you marry. I’m your parent, and I know best.’ Then stand back and watch the fireworks. Human beings simply do not make more important decisions in this life than the decision who to marry. So, it’s a right. Unenumerated, but a right. And thanks to the 9th amendment, i would argue (disagreeing with Justice Douglas in Roe) constitutionally protected.

So how about privacy? Is there an unenumerated but constitutionally protected right to privacy? I’ll grant that Justice Blackmun did us no favors with his unfelicitous language about ‘penumbras’ emanating from the 9th and 14th amendments. But let’s apply the ‘of course’ standard.

This is from Bruce Schneier, an internationally respected expert on security; on the measures governments take to protect their citizens.

Privacy is a basic human need. A future in which privacy would face constant assault was so foreign to the framers of the constitution that it never occurred to them to call out privacy as an explicit right. Privacy was inherent to the nobility of their being and their cause. Of course, being watched in your own home was unreasonable. Watching at all was an activity so unseemly as to be inconceivable to gentlemen of their day. You ruled your own home. It’s intrinsic to the concept of liberty.

And of all possible human communications, of all possible human decisions, what could be more fundamental than the right to make our own decisions regarding our bodies, our health, our treatment by our physicians? Doctor/patient confidentiality is just the beginning, not the end, of our right to have our health decisions kept to ourselves.

Of course, in abortion, there’s another consideration; the potential human life we call a fetus. I agree that balancing the right of a woman to privacy in her personal medical decisions, and the right of a viable human being growing in her uterus is a complicated and difficult task. That’s why Roe v. Wade did not legalize all abortions, under all circumstances. We might disagree with some of the specifics with which the Court tried to strike that balance, especially in the light of current medical advances. Still, I can’t help but think that the Court ruled correctly. Our continuing task must be to find ways to make abortion safe, legal, and rare.

So yes, although the Constitution does not explicitly mention marriage, I think it’s unreasonable to conclude that marriage is not a fundamental constitutional right. And although the Constitution does not explicitly mention privacy, a right to privacy can nonetheless exist. Unenumerated rights are rights nonetheless. The 9th amendment says so.

 

 

Rain: Book review

Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History is an absolute miracle of a book, a meditation on a subject everyone absolutely takes for granted, which also happens to be a phenomenon without which there could not exist life on this planet. It’s also superbly researched, and written with a poet’s eye and gift for language. It’s one of those books you want to read slowly, so as to savor every paragraph and sentence. I finished it last night, and set it aside with a palpable feeling of regret, though of course, I can always read it again.

My son gave it to me for Fathers’ Day; said he saw it in a bookstore, was intrigued by the title, read the first three pages, and found himself hooked. I had the same experience. I wish I could guarantee that you will too. But it is a book about rain. If that idea turns you off. . . .

But start with this thought: there was life on Mars, and water. What Mars did not have was rain, and Mars remains today a lifeless rock. Are you fascinated by science, and especially by that most baffling of all currently unanswered scientific questions; why does life exist on earth? That’s one of the question this book addresses.

Or another: what is the connection between grunge rock and roll and the fact that Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Kris Novoselic are from, not Seattle, but Aberdeen Washington? Seattle is a city known for its rainy days and nights, but Aberdeen, a few miles further inland, is a good deal rainier. Listen to early Nirvana. Have you noticed the rain-dripping sound of Novoselic’s bass? What about The Smiths? Johnny Marr and Morrissey are from Manchester, the rainiest city in the famously rainy British Isles. Is it any wonder that the Smiths’ sound is so, well, gloomy? Is there a connection between the sunniness of certain bands’ popular music and the cities in which its members grew up? Or, in case of Nirvana and the Smiths, the raininess of their cities of origin? That’s another issue Barnett’s book raises, explores, discusses.

Or how does rain make itself manifest thematically? What poets have written particularly rain-intensive poems, what novelists have featured it, what painters have employed rain as a motif? What is the general history of rain in high and popular culture?

All right, how about this? What is the history of drought-busting rainmakers? What charlatans went about trying to make it rain? What have actual scientists done to bring rain to drought-stricken areas? What ideas have worked? Which ones have not? All questions carefully and thoughtfully explored by Barnett.

And, terrifyingly, what about environmental catastrophe? What is the history of acid rain, and how was it ended? What can be done today about various kinds of toxic rainfall? And, of course, what about global warming, climate change, the environmental crisis in which we currently find ourselves? What’s going on, what is the state of current research, what can be done, what are people trying to do? A fascinating subject, is it not? And an important one?

Buy it. Read it. Slowly, so as to savor its every detail. This is a wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The appeal of Donald Trump

This is awkward. I read an article yesterday afternoon that helped me understand a phenomenon that otherwise has me baffled; the rise of Donald Trump in pre-election polling, and the reasons why his supporters like him so much. But I don’t feel good about linking to that article. For one thing, it involves a term, a description, a word, that I find disgusting. For another, it posits a tendency among some conservatives that I would find tremendously offensive if it were applied to liberals. I have many conservative friends; I don’t want to insult them. But I also want to write about this article. So here goes.

Let me start back in 2007-8, as Barack Obama began his campaign for the Presidency. His slogan was ‘Hope and Change,’ a perfectly innocuous slogan that nonetheless suggested, to some conservatives, something perfidious. But really, going back to his campaign rhetoric, the kinds of changes he was actually talking about seemed quite straightforward. He talked quite a bit about corruption. He talked a lot about the revolving door between people in government and lobbyists. He talked about bills written by lobbyists, favoring corporate interests. He talked about hyper-partisanship blocking meaningful legislation. I found him inspiring. And then he got elected and none of that happened. Lobbying reform fell by the wayside.

I think Obama has been a good President in many respects. The economy was tanking in 2008; he’s righting that ship. The ACA was a huge positive, as was the Iran deal. But let’s be honest; not much in the US government has changed in any fundamental way. Hyperpartisanship remains a problem; not much can really change there. Liberals and conservatives have substantive differences. But corruption remains as entrenched as ever. And people are getting sick of it. Hence the appeal of Elizabeth Warren; hence the energy behind Bernie Sanders’ campaign. And also, the appeal of Donald Trump.

And I get it. We look around, and the economy is certainly doing better than it was, but we still all know people struggling to find work, and job security feels like a fantasy. A college education was supposed to set you up for a good job; now it basically sets you up for massive debt payments. And the destructive spectre of climate change remains a constant, nagging fear. So when Trump says ‘the American dream is dead,’ it strikes a chord. In fact, the USA remains an incredibly wealthy nation, and the middle class isn’t actually doing all that badly. But that’s not things feel.

I’m trying to see this all from the perspective of those of my friends and family members who self-identify has Tea Party conservatives. It helps that I’m also male, white, and old (I’m 59). Everything’s changing, and it’s scary. Our grandkids are struggling. Obamacare’s probably a disaster; Fox News says so. We’re used to getting excellent health care from great doctors; Obamacare looks like it’s messing with that, changing it. The Iran deal is scary; can we really trust Iran? Seriously, Iran? And it’s worse than that. Almost every night, on the news, we see cops getting in trouble for shooting someone. Maybe those shootings are justified, or some of them, but that constant barrage of stories about it is eroding the respect people have for the police. And the same black activists show up everytime something happens. Couldn’t our first black President provide some healing, some perspective? Like, telling black people to put their lives in order. In fact, all institutions seem to be under attack. Conservatives never have liked abortion, have always feared gun control, and have generally been skeptical about feminism. And, now, suddenly all these frightening changes. And now, even marriage is under attack; suddenly, gay people can marry each other? Seriously? And underneath all of that, driving it, is the spectre of the national debt.

I think that for liberals, underneath every other concern is one huge one, overriding all others; the fear of catastrophic climate change. We’re terrified about the possibility of environmental disaster rendering this poor planet essentially unfit for human habitation. And I think that for conservatives, the one big concern, the one that overrides all others, is the fear of economic collapse, caused by a massive, unpayable national debt. That’s why conservatives question the science behind man-caused climate catastrophe, and that’s why liberals insist, a la Keynes and Krugman, that the debt is manageable, and that the real issue is income inequality. Both sides are terrified, and both sides are convinced, deep down inside, that the other side is fundamentally malevolent. Driving it all is fear.

And, of course, politicians seem utterly useless. Mealy-mouthed, disingenuous, devious, too cowardly to tell anyone the truth about anything. Scaredy cats. Gutless, craven, yellow.

Which brings me to the article I read yesterday, the one I’m too much a ‘fraidy cat to link to. There’s a word out there, a disgusting one, describing a certain kind of gutless conservative. Over the last couple of election cycles, we’ve seen the following pattern. A Republican politician running for office will say something controversial. The national media calls him on it, and the next day, he walks it back, apologizes, backs down. That’s where this word (that I’m not going to use) comes from. What it means is; a coward. A wimp. A wussy guy who backs down to the forces of political correctness. Who, perhaps, even derives some kind of sexual pleasure from his own weak-kneed pusillanimity and lack of basic manliness.

So look at the pattern that Donald Trump has been following. He announced his candidacy by saying, among many other bizarre things, that Mexicans coming across the border are, for the most part, rapists. His ratings went up a little. The national media called him on it. He refused to withdraw the comment; in fact, he doubled down. And his ratings went up a lot. And that pattern has repeated itself many times.

Trump doesn’t sound like a politician and he doesn’t act like a politician. He says what he thinks, even if it strikes mainstream media types as racist or sexist or foolish. He doesn’t care; he never, ever backs down. He’s plugging into something. People are fed up. They’re fed up on the right and they’re fed up on the left. Trump seems like a truth-teller. He’s certainly not wussy. Everything’s about the need to be ‘tough.’ There’s a reason he’s so popular.

But is there something else? I hesitate to bring this up; I really do. But is it possible that Trump’s popularity may, in part, have a racist, or at least racialist origin? Is it possible that Trump’s appeal owes some small debt to conservative discomfort over gender politics? People know Trump’s history; they know he’s been married three times, that his daughter is a model, that he sponsors beauty pageants–and why not; every red-blooded guy likes looking at pretty girls. Lately, the story is that he was accused, by one ex-wife, of having raped her while they were married. (Trump’s lawyer defended his client by saying that there’s no such thing, legally, as marital rape. Legally, that’s not true; rape is a crime of violence, married or not. But in the minds of some conservatives, is it possible that the idea of ‘marital rape’ seems like, well, misplaced political correctness? As his poll numbers continue to rise?)

Trump started off his campaign by saying that the people the Mexican government were ‘sending over here’ were, many of them, ‘rapists.’ That’s nonsense on about ten levels; the Mexican government isn’t sending anyone anywhere, Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, are exceptionally law-abiding, with less propensity for violent crime than any other group of people. Plus, border control is a nonsense issue; illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle. Still, Trump’s line has resonance on the right. Our country’s under attack. ‘Those people’ are coming over here, and doing any matter of damage, and Trump at least has the guts to say so.

Donald Trump is not going to become President of the United States. I think I can say that unequivocally; too many people hate him, too many people think he’s a buffoon. Look at the polls; his negatives are off the charts. But there’s a reason for his appeal. And it’s more than a little scary.

 

 

Hunting and other sports: my crystal ball

One of the odder buildings on the BYU campus is the Monte L. Bean museum. It’s up on the north ridge overlooking campus, just east of the Marriott Center, and it provides popular daytime activities for families with small children. Monte L. Bean was a successful LDS businessman, whose favorite leisure activity was big game hunting. In 1978, he built a museum to display all the animals he’d killed. The collection has since expanded, and has a legitimate educational purpose; lots of life sciences exhibits, plus classrooms and labs. But for little kids, the cool part is seeing all the lions and tigers and bears. And, you know, giraffes, gazelles. There’s even a Liger. Plus, of course, it has a very cool, kid-oriented, gift shop.

I got to thinking about the Bean museum as I read about one of the biggest stories in the news these days, the American dentist who shot and killed Cecil the lion, and his subsequent flaying on social media. My immediate reaction was the same as most people’s. I thought that what this hunter did was contemptible, and I wished him ill. On the other hand, I just read Jon Ronson’s terrific new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about the way social media can absolutely crucify ordinary people who do dumb/wrong/shameful things, and thought this dentist’s story would make a perfect case study for this new phenomenon. Disproportionate public humiliations, the internet version of putting someone in the stocks or sewing a scarlet A to their clothing. And so possibly we should all cut this dentist a little (very little) slack? Like, maybe, cool it on the death threats?

But then, I got to thinking about big game hunting itself, the practice of going on a safari to Africa and shooting different sorts of wild animals. Or, like, bighorn sheep from helicopters. That kind of thing. Like the stuff Monte L. Bean apparently was into. And of course, I totally get how horrifically hypocritical it is for us all to get all excited about Cecil the lion. When you consider the wholesale slaughter of other intelligent mammals that make up most of the protein in our American diets, outrage over one dude shooting a lion seems pretty ridiculous. Cows, pigs, chickens, anyone? We’re bothered by the death of Cecil the lion, but quite unperturbed by the deaths of Bessie, Wilbur, or (Chicken) Little. I don’t hunt, never have and never will, but I freely admit that my objections to hunting are aesthetic, not moral. I like my meat wrapped in cellophane, and I’d rather not think about how the specific steps that got it to the store. I even wrote an anti-slaughterhouse play. And, driving home from the theater, opening night, stopped at a MacDonald’s. Not proud of my hypocrisy, but I do at least admit to it.

So granted, our objections to big game hunting are, to a very large degree, emotional and sentimental. We like lions, because they’re awesome to look at (in nature documentaries), and because we liked The Lion King as kids. We like otters and dolphins and pandas, and don’t like weasels and rats and three-toed sloths. I remember the movie March of the Penguins and how scary it was, to see those cute little penguins under deadly attack from the vicious leopard seals. But leopard seals are just trying to survive too, and have every bit as much right to dinner as penguins do. And baby seals are cute, too.

But here’s my larger point: is big game hunting on its way out as a sport? It doesn’t matter if the reasons aren’t rationally defensible; emotions matter, and it seems to me that this is a sport that fewer and fewer people are willing to defend. That happened with fox hunting, for example. It’s been illegal in the UK since 2005. Well, there was a time when it was a very popular sport. How many British novels had fox hunting scenes, how many TV shows and movies, how many popular depictions of whooping aristocrats riding in hot pursuit of foxes. “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible,” Oscar Wilde called it, to the scandalized titters of his largely aristocratic audiences. But nowadays, it’s seen as barbaric. An uncivilized sporting relic; the kind of thing decent people just don’t allow. Well, does the case of Dr. Palmer DDS v. Cecil Felidae Leo suggest a similar social dynamic? Is big game hunting just not cool anymore?

Or other once-popular sports? What about team sports? I am on record as suggesting that American football may well be a sport that’s dying. The long-term health effects from brain injuries have increasingly led some of the best young professional players in the NFL to decide the risk isn’t worth the money. And the reaction from the players who do keep playing is even more interesting. When 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired after a very successful rookie season, the reaction from his teammates was to applaud him for his courage, with the subtext ‘I wish I could afford to do that.’  (And shortly thereafter, his teammate Anthony Davis did the same, retired mid-career).

I would argue that professional boxing might be the next major sport to go. It’s certainly lost a lot of fans; it’s nowhere near as popular as it once was. I’m not a boxing fan, and never have been, but when I was a kid, I certainly knew who the heavyweight champion of the world was. Everyone did. It was a big deal; star boxers were major celebrities. Not anymore; I couldn’t name three pro boxers anymore, and I have no idea who the heavyweight champion is. I think maybe he’s European. But I think mismanagement and corruption have as much to do with boxing’s decline, as much or more than any collective distaste over the atavistic violence of the sport. After all, mixed martial arts seems to be thriving. I don’t get that either, but it does seem to be a thing.

What about auto racing? NASCAR’s numbers are down, and the Indianapolis 500 has seen a ratings slump. I have seen just enough auto racing in my lifetime to consider it the smelliest, loudest, boringest sport ever created. But if movies are any indication, there’s still something thrilling about watching fast cars driving really fast. It’s possible that climate change may force a change in auto sports, but for now, they remain fairly popular.

Soccer’s doing well, and should; it’s one exciting sport. Baseball remains the favored sport for those of us with contemplative, Zen-state powers of concentration. Basketball is simply beautiful. Big game hunting may be gone from the planet in twenty years, and good riddance. What sport might be next to go?

 

 

Lord Baden-Powell and sexuality

In 1908, General Robert Baden-Powell, later elevated to Lord Baden-Powell, a highly decorated veteran of the Boer War, founded an organization he called The Boy Scout Association. That same year, he published Scouting for Boys, a guide to safely camping outdoors, and the first iteration of what would become the Boy Scout Manual. The year previously, Baden-Powell had tried out his ideas for what he hoped would become a national organization to promote wholesome, enjoyable outdoors activities for young men, by taking twenty boys to Brownsea Island and having the first Scout Camp. Two years later, an American businessman named W. D. Boyce discovered the British organization, and decided to start an American version. There’s a lot of mythology regarding the histories of both Baden-Powell and Boyce, but the basic facts are clear enough; Baden-Powell is the founder of Scouting, and Boyce the father of American Scouting.

Baden-Powell was, by all accounts, a charismatic leader, a ripping good storyteller, and a kind-hearted and gentle teacher. It’s quite possible that he was also a closeted homosexual. There have been several biographies of Baden-Powell, most of them hagiographic, intended for boys. Tim Jeal’s 1990 biography, The Boy-Man: The biography of Lord Baden-Powell is superb; meticulously researched, judicious in its conclusions, engagingly written. Jeal concludes that Baden-Powell was also gay. Two earlier biographies had reached similar conclusions. Evidence for this conclusion is entirely circumstantial. Baden-Powell came from a generation where homosexuality was considered a grave moral defect, deeply shameful and immoral. He almost certainly never acted on his feelings.

But consider the evidence, circumstantial though it is. He was a deeply sensitive and artistically talented boy, who played with dolls, but avoided girls at all costs. As an artist, his favorite subjects were attractive young men. In the army, he acted in a number of amateur theatricals, always playing women’s roles. Pretty young women sent him into a state of anxiety, which his friends all teased him for, and his closest emotional attachment was to a young man named Kenneth McLaren, a friendship which nearly ended when McLaren married, and finally did end when Baden-Powell married. In 1912, Baden-Powell, aged 55, met Olave Soames; she was 23. They married, but Baden-Powell was crippled by terrible, psychosomatic headaches every time they went to bed together. Eventually, he had to leave their shared bedroom, and sleep in an army cot elsewhere in their home.

I do not mean to suggest that his marriage with Olave was unhappy, nor was it childless; they had three children, a son and two daughters. Olave was his steadfast companion in running both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, the equivalent girls’ organization he founded in 1912. Nor did he seem to be a particularly unhappy man; Scouting became his life, and he was a beloved figure among British boys.

Jeal’s biography (which I whole-heartedly recommend), also deals judiciously with the one genuinely dark rumor about Baden-Powell; that his politics were essentially fascist, and that he supported the Nazis in the Second World War. What’s true is that Baden-Powell was both conservative and politically naive, and reflexively patriotic, and that he distrusted communism. It’s certainly true that an early Scout badge included a swastika. But that was well before that particular symbol had been appropriated by the Nazis. He was, finally, a former military officer who valued discipline, and wanted his Boy Scouts to conduct themselves in an orderly, restrained manner. The evidence does not, however, suggest that he was a fascist.

And here’s what Jeal concludes about Baden-Powell’s homosexuality; it drove him.  His accomplishments are startling; something drove him to achieve. He was an honorable and brave soldier, a genuine war hero, a man who devoted his life to working with children, and a charming and funny raconteur. Jeal quotes at length Baden-Powell’s final letter to his beloved Scouts; I think it captures him beautifully:

I have had a most happy life, and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and to enjoy life. . . One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong when you are a boy, so that you can be useful and enjoy yourself when you are a man. . . . but the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try to leave this world a little better than how you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy feeling . . . that you have not wasted your time, but have done your best. “Be prepared” to live happy, and to die happy.

So what does any of this mean in relation to the current controversy regarding Scouting and gay leaders? I would say that it doesn’t mean anything. If, as seems likely, the founder of Scouting was gay, it did not impact the importance or value of the organization to any degree whatsoever. What was the exact nature of his relationship with Kenneth McLaren? We don’t know, we will likely never know, and it does not matter.
Lord Baden-Powell was a wonderful man, who devoted his life to improving the lives of boys and girls world-wide. He was also a fine writer and painter, and a genuine war hero. That’s how we should think of him, because it’s the only aspect of his life that matters. And if today, a similarly gentle, decent and talented man, who also happened to be gay, were to be named Scoutmaster of a troop in the Boy Scouts of America (or for that matter, the Boy Scouts Association in England, or any of the Scouting organizations active internationally), the result would be, not just benign, but actively positive. Children would learn valuable skills, and have a lot of fun doing it. Period. And, in time, that someone else could say, like Baden-Powell, ‘I have had a most happy life, and I want you to have a happy life too.’ That’s the good Scouting can do. Irregardless of the orientation of the volunteer leaders that make it great.

 

January 1973: Book Review

January 22, 1973, was the date that the Supreme Court announced their decision in Roe v. Wade. It was also a crucial day in John J. Sirica’s courtroom, where he precided over the trial of the Watergate burglars. Also on that date, the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris peace accords, ending the war in Vietnam. And none of those stories led the evening news broadcasts. Because that was also the day Lyndon Johnson died.

January, 1973, was one of those months in American history where a whole lot of crucially important things happened at once, like April 1965 (which was also the subject of a terrific book, by Jay Winik). I just finished James Robenalt’s book, January, 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month that changed America forever. It’s a very good book; not a great one, but an enjoyable read. It’s a book where the extraordinary events it describes are inherently dramatic and interesting, while Robenalt’s analysis of those events struck me as a trifle too breathless. He seems to be striving for significance where, perhaps, less exists than he seems to think. It’s undeniably fascinating that so many important events seem to have happened at the same time. I’m not sure that coincidence is quite as revelatory as Robenalt would have it.

The key figure in the whole story is, of course, Richard Nixon. What a fascinating character; what an endlessly transformative president, for good and ill. What fascinated me was the relationship between Nixon and aide Charles Colson. Robenalt was able to quote long conversations verbatim, because those conversations were, of course, recorded. What’s amazing is Nixon’s thin skin, his obsessive loathing of enemies for slights real and imagined, his paranoia, his long-standing grudges. Colson was his sounding board; the guy he could sit and vent to for hours on end. Nothing really new here; Rick Perlstein’s brilliant Nixonland covers it all more thoroughly and, I think, more insightfully. But it’s fascinating to me that the end of the Vietnam war, a signal achievement if ever there was one, was marred by Nixon’s jealousy of Henry Kissinger, and an order to bug Kissinger’s phone, to see if he was talking to the press about it. During that same month, both former Presidents Truman and Johnson passed away, and Nixon’s main concern was over which church their memorial services would be held in. The pastor of the National Cathedral was too anti-war (and, thought Nixon, secretly anti-Nixon), for Nixon’s taste. And so he engaged in unseemly negotiations with Lady Bird Johnson over memorializing President Johnson somewhere else.

But that was Nixon. A brilliant geo-political thinker. Surprisingly, even shockingly liberal when it came to domestic policies. You look at the man’s actual accomplishments, and they’re remarkable. He founded the EPA, and pushed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Mammal Marine Protection Act through Congress. He supported and pushed for the adoption of the 26th Amendment, granting the vote to 18 year olds. He ended the draft. He returned tribal lands to Native Americans, and granted tribes self-determination. He increased funding for cancer research.

But politically, his Southern strategy was built on exacerbating racial tensions at a time when it appeared that real progress had been made. He was the politician of white resentment, of ‘law and order’ (which everyone understood to mean ‘cracking down on black inner cities.’)

Was he, for example, a feminist? Well, he signed Title IX into law. No other bill has done more for college women, to promote fitness and achievement and empowerment. Three of the four justices who voted for Roe v. Wade were Nixon appointees, including Justice Blackmun, who authored it. He was also prone, in private, to use the worst kind of gutter language regarding women. Nixon said he supported the Equal Rights Amendment while campaigning. Then he did little about it while in office. Mixed bag? Pretty much, I’d say.

Of course, when we think of Nixon, we don’t think of Vietnamization or the opening to China. We think of Watergate. And it’s in the Watergate passages that Robenalt’s book is at its strongest. Judge John J. Sirica presided over the initial Watergate trial in January 1973, a trial that Robenalt covers in great detail. Robenalt is a lawyer, and it’s clear that he is deeply troubled by Judge Sirica’s judicial overreaching in that trial. Sirica was convinced that the defendants in the case were lying. He was convinced that they were covering up for their bosses, that the question of motive had not been adequately answered. Why were these guys burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate hotel? Who paid them? Who was continuing to pay them? And so, when Liddy and McCord and Howard Hunt all agreed to plead guilty to the charges against them, Sirica (inappropriately and even illegally) went out of his way to refuse those pleas. He basically took over the case from the prosecutors. He committed, in short, the most egregious possible judicial misconduct. He also got away with it, because, of course, as we now know, he was right. There was a larger conspiracy, and the Watergate trial defendants were lying about it. It’s a fascinating story, and Robenalt tells it well.

Of course, historical perspective is always illuminating; the media consensus over Roe was ‘whew, at least we’ve put that issue to rest, once and for all.’ And I had forgotten how very quickly the Vietnam agreement came after the bombing of Hanoi. Of course, those sorts of ironies and insights are the main reason we read a book like this one. Anyway, I strongly recommend it. What a fascinating month. What a fun book.