Autumn of the Black Snake: Book Review

William Hogeland’s Autumn of the Black Snake is one of the finest books of popular American history I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Such familiar figures as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson and Henry Knox, come to life as never before, not as saintly paragons of civic virtue, but as they sometimes, often, were: grasping, venal, impatient, corrupt, and fundamentally indifferent towards people they regarded as their inferiors, particularly peoples of color. This is Hogeland’s fourth book about eighteenth century America, and all of them are remarkable, but I absolutely couldn’t put this one down. Above all, although I’m a history junkie–especially American history–Autumn of the Black Snake tells an extraordinarily important story that I’ve never heard before.

The book’s full title is Autumn of the Black Snake: The creation of the US Army and the Invasion that opened the West. Above all, it tells about the first real war fought by the new, fully constituted United States government. This war had no generally accepted name–not the War of 1812, not the Revolution, not the French and Indian war, though it was related to all three. And the stakes could not have been higher. Would the United States of America remain an eastern seaboard nation? Or would it expand, beyond the Alleghenies, and into what was then known as the ‘Northwest Territory’; the area we now know as western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. And once that territory was inhabited, cultivated, domesticated, administered, what was to stop further Western expansion?

George Washington had started his career in that territory, moving from his base in Virginia, on to surveying in Ohio, then land speculation, and also, of course, military adventurism.  He knew the area well, and thought it contained the richest land he had ever seen. Some of the richest plots, he had surveyed and claimed for himself. Any Virginia planter was anxious for new land, as tobacco farming (and later, cotton farming) so badly depleted the soil. Now, it was 1791, and he was President of the newly formed United States of America. Ohio beckoned. And his vision for America required aggressive west-ward expansion. And Washington was happy enough to try to purchase land from the peoples who already lived on it. When that failed, though, it could always be obtained via conquest.

Only the first attempt to send an army to conquer it was a catastrophic failure. The Shawnee leader, Blue Jacket, and the Miami leader, Little Turtle did not agree about much, but they did agree that the future of their peoples required military cooperation between all the tribes of the Ohio Valley. They were fighting for the survival of their people. They had, against all odds–including the difficulties of coordinating the efforts of people who spoke different languages, worshipped different Gods, were in every sense from different cultures. None of that had come to matter. Now they were busy getting their heads around a new identity–not as Shawnee or Miami or Ojibwa or Potawatomi, but Indians, as their enemies saw them. And so, Blue Jacket and Little Turtle led their forces against American militiamen, led by General Arthur St. Clair. They had fought and they had won. St. Clair may have lost 650 men; he might also have lost 900, casualty lists being unreliable. Every student of American history knows about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the defeat of General Custer by forces led by Sitting Bull. Almost no one remembers St. Clair’s defeat. But he lost, at least, twice as many men, and his defeat looked far more consequential. The western boundary of the United States looked to be the Allegheny mountains.

To Washington, that result was unacceptable. And he knew what had caused it. The soldiers who lost so disastrously were poorly trained, poorly supplied, and poorly led. And this, in Washington’s professional estimation, was inevitable, given Congress (and most Americans) detestation of a ‘standing army,’ and corresponding love of militias.

Militias fed an enduring American myth; the freeholding soldier/citizen, who left his plow, grabbed his musket, and ran off to victory in combat. Washington had tried to win a war using militiamen, and knew them to be entirely untrustworthy and ineffective. Most Americans thought of standing armies as following the British model–poorly paid mercenaries, drawn from the dregs of society, instruments of royal tyranny. But Washington knew this truth; that soldiers are as good as their training, their discipline, and their effective leadership. Alexander Hamilton, who had been Washington’s Chief of Staff, knew it too. So did Henry Knox, Washington’s head of artillery. America needed an army; Washington and Hamilton conspired to persuade Congress to provide it one.

Commanding it would be General Anthony Wayne, a man who Washington knew well from his Revolutionary War days. Wayne is in some respects another American archetype; the military man par excellence, who can’t do anything but soldier. Wayne had been an effective commander; post-war he proved an abysmal businessman, a hopeless financier, a miserable and corrupt politician. He was good at one thing; training and leading troops. Washington promised him five thousand soldiers, fully supplied, and sent him to Ohio.

I have always known about the militia vs. standing army rift in early American politics–it was a major theme in the fight over constitutional confirmation. I knew that, initially, we didn’t have an army. Then, suddenly, we had one, and have had ever since. I just assumed that at some point in the late 18th century, Congress had decided to authorize one. What I didn’t know was that St. Clair’s disastrous defeat (which I hadn’t heard previously known ,much about), provided the impetus Washington needed to get Congress to act.

And so, Anthony Wayne trained his army. It took him over a year. He built forts, and guarded supply lines, and his army began marching, inexorably, west. His movements may have appeared ponderous, but they were incredibly effective. Little Turtle, the singular military genius opposing him, said, in admiration, ‘Wayne never sleeps.’

We know how it turned out. I’m from Indiana, and we have a town named Fort Wayne. As late as the 1930s, Anthony Wayne was a sufficiently notorious military hero that a strapping young actor with an unfortunate name, Marion Michael Morrison, took Wayne’s last name for his own screen persona. Ohio was made safe for white people. Within fifteen years, its population grew, from a few thousand to 150,000. And the United States became known for west-ward expansion.

At what cost? And that’s part of the genius of Hogeland; he never forgets the cost. Washington, Jefferson, Wayne himself were all slaveowners. Indians could be defeated and killed because, well, they weren’t white. We know the names Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton. We don’t know Little Turtle, or Anthony Wayne. Hogeland writes:

That the more decisive war, and thus, the more important people, has lapsed into obscurity points to a vacancy in American memory when it comes to what is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of George Washington’s career, and to the political, moral, and existential burden his career, and its national indispensibility, will forever carry. That legacy is the formation of a permanent military establishment, via the conquest of indigenous people, in pursuit of the industrial and imperial power that, with our victory in its first war, the United States did go on to achieve.

Ultimately, the hero of this book is not Washington, nor Wayne, nor Wayne’s treasonous second-in-command James Wilkinson (who I haven’t talked about, but believe me, his story is insane). It’s Little Turtle. Little Turtle, who saw clearly how this professional army should be fought, and could be defeated. Little Turtle, whose outlook was never melancholy, but always tragic, who saw clearly what defeat would mean, who fought valiantly to prevent it, but who knew, in his heart, that his people were doomed.

Empires know what conquest costs. And the building of an American empire came on the backs of black slaves, of brutal and uncompensated labor by a people deemed inferior. And by the defeat of indigenous peoples, whose only crime was living on land Americans wanted, and who paid for it via genocide. Our history is not triumphant. It’s tragic. Hogeland captures that tragedy, while acknowledging genuine achievement. Can we hold that paradox in our heads?

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2: Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 was one of the summer movies this year I was most looking forward to. I hoped that I could catch it in its opening weekend, but other family members wanted to see it too, and coordinating schedules proved a challenge. But last night, we finally gathered at the cineplex. And we had a good time. It’s a surpassingly strange film, far more interesting in terms of its theology–I’m not kidding–than as the goofy comedy action movie it purports to be. But it’s entertaining; I’ll give it that.

Let’s start by talking about dramatic structure. Hollywood action movies follow the basic structure of late nineteenth century melodrama. All of them, without exception. Hero, heroine, comic sidekick, villains and their sidekicks, bad guys doing dastardly deeds, ultimately defeated by good guys, usually involving a fight, with awesome stunts. The plots are often rather baroque, with multiple subplots all racing towards a satisfying and exciting final confrontation. Still, there’s always a discernible hero, with a strong objective. Often it involves some kind of quest. The hero is trying to blow up the Death Star, or steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, or steal a magical orb from one bad guy, and using it to activate an ‘infinity stone,’ or something. That last bit was, as far as I can remember, Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) quest in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In order to accomplish that, Quill assembles the team known as the Guardians of the Galaxy–Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (a raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (a tree, voiced by Vin Diesel). Comic sidekicks, in other words. It was an amusing, but frankly pretty conventional superhero action movie plot.

This sequel is very different in structure. For most of the movie, Quill and his pals are just trying to stay alive. As the movie begins, they have been hired by a gold-skinned, genetically perfect species called The Sovereigns, to protect Anulex batteries from destruction. A massive beastie attacks; they fight it, and win. But Rocket, the scamp, steals some of the batteries they were hired to protect. So the Sovereigns come after them, and destroy their ship. So there’s no noble objective, no quest. They’re just trying to stay alive, because they’ve infuriated an entire civilization for no good reason.

In my review of the first Guardians movie, I compared it to Star Wars. That would make this one The Empire Strikes Back, and sure enough, we get a “Luke, I am your father.” moment. (It’s not anything like Empire in any other sense). The father, in this case, is Ego (Kurt Russell), who we earlier saw, in a flashback, with Peter’s Mom, looking absurdly like Kurt Russell, age twenty. (I don’t know how they did that, but it’s a very cool effect). But the Ego who shows up and declares himself has aged, and says he has been searching for Peter for years. And so, Ego takes Peter, Gamora and Drax with him to his planet, leaving Rocket and Groot (now, baby Groot), behind to repair their badly damaged ship. Where they are captured by another group, the Ravagers, under the putative command of Yondu (Michael Rooker). They’re professional thieves, and Yondu essentially raised young Peter. But they’re on the outs from other Ravagers, who have rejected them because Yondu broke the Ravagers’ code, by selling children into slavery.

At this point, the movie gets very weird. We’re a third of the way in, and nothing like a plot has managed to reveal itself–no quest, no objective, other than just staying alive. And Ego is a generous and welcoming host, and his planet is beautiful, considering that he lives on it by himself, with one aid, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementiev). At which point, the movie becomes an exploration of the doctrine and theology of apotheosis.

Apotheosis: the process by which men become deified. Ego, turns out, is a God. He became a God over millions of years, during which time he constructed this planet to glorify, well, him. Peter’s his son, and Peter is divine. He has a share of Ego’s creative power. He can create worlds of his own, if he wants to. And he’s immortal. Human Mom, Divine Father. The music set it up beautifully. The songs are the best parts of this movie, as they were in the previous one, and as Ego’s ship descends to his planet, we hear George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

As a Mormon, I found this unexpected twist fascinating, because apotheosis is, sort of, a Mormon doctrine. “As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become.” Right. But the more Peter (and his friends) dig into it, the more we learn about Ego’s divine reign. He’s awful. He’s kind of a monster. Peter is not his Only Begotten–Ego’s fathered lots of children, who he then executed when he finds that they lack the divine spark that Peter has. Anyway, it looks like Ego’s kind of bored, and wants his divine son to hang around, for company. There’s also a bit of a ‘we can rule the universe’ vibe to it.

It turns out that his spark of divinity resides at the planet’s core, where it can be gotten to and blown up. Since Ego’s plan for ruling the universe involves mass slaughter, killing him seems like a good idea. He’s a God, and he’s immortal, but apparently, he can also be killed. So that becomes the big quest thing, the movie’s plot. But it comes very late in the movie. And has almost nothing to do with Peter, our protagonist, who does very little to accomplish it. Mostly, it’s pulled-off by Groot and Rocket, who escaped from the Ravagers (with help from Yondu, and also Gamora’s ferocious sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), who wants to kill Gamora, because of how their father pitted them against each other as children.

And that’s another theme of the movie, isn’t it? The abuse and murder of children. Yondu’s great sin, the thing that got him excommunicated as a Ravager, is his sale of children into slavery. He loved his adopted son, Peter, but Peter’s childhood was grim; a series of petty crimes. And, of course, that’s Ego’s great sin, too; the murder of his own children. Although almost nothing in the movie establishes Peter Quill as a Christ figure, he’s torn between two fathers; the brutality of Ego, his biological/divine father, and Yondu, the Dad who raised him, a Joseph the Carpenter figure.

So this is a movie about apotheosis, about men becoming Gods, about the most profound ideas of divinity, and divine responsibility, and the endless challenge of eternal life: boredom. Eternal life without eternal progression, really: the Mormon conception of hell. And it’s a movie about child abuse, about fathers abusing their children, and even murdering them.

And absolutely nothing in the tone of the movie, the approach of it, suggests either profundity or tragedy. It’s a clever, fun, post-modern comedy action flick, stylistically. Self-referential, with lots of jokes and deadpan insults splendidly delivered by Chris Pratt. Peter imagined, as a child, that Nightrider-era David Hasselhoff was his father, and sure enough, Hasselhoff himself gets a cameo. The Looking Glass hit, Brandy, is solemnly declared, by Ego, the greatest piece of music ever written. I love this exchange: “We’re friends!” “You’re not friends! You do nothing but fight!” “You’re right. We’re not friends. We’re a family!” (And, of course, the music’s perfect yet again: Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain). It’s a clever, funny, self-consciously self-referential movie, with jokes based on the characters, yes, but on ’70s and ’80s pop music, and other tropes drawn from superhero movies.

It’s an odd combination: theology, and post-modern jokiness. It’s too genial a movie to dislike. But what do we say about it? That it’s reaching for a profundity it doesn’t ever earn? That it’s fun but plotless, and let’s just ignore the theology stuff? Or this: that the Divine can be approached many ways, reverentially, yes, but also through jokes and fight scenes and goofiness? Ambitious failure? Or better, deeper, more interesting than it needs to be, given its origins as a summer superhero movie? And do we even have to choose?

Let’s talk about collusion

It’s been awhile. Our esteemed POTUS is back in the country, after zipping across various oceans, to the Middle East and Europe, where he hectored our closest allies about NATO ‘dues’ they don’t in fact actually owe, shoved the President of Montenegro, offended the Pope, and grabbed hold of a palantir orb with some of his Arab pals, in an apparent attempt to communicate with Sauron. (He does seem to like back channel communications). Meanwhile, the various investigations into the Trump/Russian connections keep trudging onward. Let’s catch up.

Have you had this experience? You’re talking to a Trump supporter, and you mention the Russian connection, and they look at you smugly and say ‘can you show me any evidence of actual collusion?’ And you can’t. And we still can’t; not quite yet. But we’re getting closer.

For example: this. In case you don’t want to click on the link, here’s the gist: the Wall Street Journal reported that, last summer, a Florida GOP operative named Aaron Nevins was in communication with a Russian hacker who goes by Guccifer 2.0. Guccifer had hacked into the DCCC computers, and provided Nevins with all kinds of information useful to the Trump campaign. Memos with self-oppo research (where you hire someone to look for dirt on your candidates, so they can be prepared for ads). Databases of voters in key districts. Nevins called it ‘a map to where all the troops were deployed.’ Also, internal details about congressional districts in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia, which were eventually used to create attack ads in those states. I’ll grant you that Nevins wasn’t involved in the national Trump campaign. But he shared his link to Guccifer 2.0 with Roger Stone, who was a highly placed advisor to the Trump campaign. Stone piously insists that he didn’t share that link with anyone else. We’ll see.

So, yes, there is absolutely evidence of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russia: Guccifer to Nevins to Stone. Of course, the Russians are offering pro-forma denials that Guccifer worked for them, but US intelligence sources know better. And there’s no evidence, so far, that Stone shared Nevins’ information with anyone else in the Trump national campaign. Still, this is collusion. This is what it looks like.

And here’s why it’s significant. Remember the second Obama Presidential campaign? Remember 2012? Well, the Democrats created what the Washington Post called “a high-tech political start-up whose main purpose was to put more people on the streets, armed with more information about the voters they were contacting, than any campaign had ever attempted.” They created a nonpareil voter database, allowing volunteers to contact undecided voters with better information than anyone had had before.

That database still exists, and has expanded. And in the waning days of the 2016 campaign, one of the advantages Hillary Clinton seemed to have was what pundits called ‘a strong ground game.’ She had more volunteers than Trump did, and they had this database to guide their efforts. So if polling showed a race as tied, it seemed likely that Hillary would outperform expectations, because she would working with better information.

But if that database was in the hands of the Republicans, that advantage could be lessened, or even eliminated. And look at what Nevins said he got from Guccifer: “sensitive information on voters in key Florida districts, breaking down how many people were considered dependable Democratic voters, undecided Democrats, Republican voters and the like.” Maybe not the entire database, but clearly at least some of it.

So, yes, there was collusion, and yes, it could easily have made a difference in the election.

What was the other major turning point in the election? Surely, it has to have been the Hillary Clinton email scandal, and the various twists and turns in that whole story. And a key moment in the election came when James Comey, the FBI director, announced that the FBI was not pursuing a criminal investigation into Hillary’s emails. He could have just let it go at that. But he didn’t. He chose to use that opportunity to give Secretary Clinton a real scolding. Remember?  “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Why did he do that? Well, we know a lot more about it now. As Business Insider describes it, Comey received a document regarding the Clinton investigation, a purported memo between Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, to a staffer for George Soros, saying that she had been assured by Loretta Lynch (Obama’s Attorney-General), that the Justice Department planned to go easy on Hillary. This memo is a fake. US intelligence has confirmed that its a  Russian creation. It’s not genuine. And Comey immediately mistrusted it. But it informed his decision-making nonetheless.

According to Business Insider, Comey “feared the document would be leaked and cast doubt on the credibility and independence of the FBI’s email-server probe — part of why he decided to bypass the Justice Department and announce the findings of the investigation in his impromptu press conference in July. CNN reported that sources close to Comey said he “felt it didn’t matter if the information was accurate, because his big fear was that if the Russians released the information publicly, there would be no way for law enforcement and intelligence officials to discredit it without burning intelligence sources and methods.”

So there we have it. The Russians hacked into DCCC computers, and got enough information to negate the Clinton campaign’s ‘ground game’ advantage. And perhaps the biggest turning point in the campaign, Comey’s press conference chiding of Hillary Clinton over the email scandal was driven by the FBI’s possession of a fake document they didn’t think they could properly or effectively expose.

Would Hillary Clinton have won without Trump having these improper advantages? Did the Russians really win the election for the Donald?  I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. Was there collusion? Absolutely, but who know who high it went. These news stories are highly significant, but they don’t constitute proof of anything. Still, the investigation needs to continue. We need to know. A hostile foreign power may well have put their favored candidate in the White House. That’s got to concern every patriotic American.

Alien: Covenant, Movie Review

My daughter and I went to see Alien: Covenant last week, having seen all the previous Alien movies, so why not this one? Like any Ridley Scott film, it’s stylish and attractive; the production design is attractively creepy, beautifully eerie. The acting was generally good, and the scary moments were appropriately scary. The fact that the movie really didn’t work very well at all isn’t really the fault of the production team. Editing, lighting, special effects: kudos to all. Sorry things didn’t work out overall.

We went to a weekday matinee, and the theater was close to empty. Which meant that my daughter and I felt freer than usual to talk a bit during the screening. And she kept saying “here’s what’s going to happen next. This is going to happen, and that’s going to happen, and that character there is going to die.” And I’d think, “I can see where you’re coming from. That’s clearly what they’re setting up. But it’s can’t possibly all be that obvious. Surely, a veteran filmmaker like Ridley Scott–just a few months shy of his eightieth birthday, with forty films in the can, an amazing career–will throw in some plot twist, surprise us, change things up.”

Nope. He never did. My daughter got it all right, every twist and turn. She got one thing wrong. She assumed that the character played by Danny McBride, a veteran spaceman named Tennessee, would be killed by the alien before the end of the movie. Because: Danny McBride. Fine actor, and it was nice to see him in a dramatic role, after all the obnoxious comedies he’s done. Still, it’s an Alien movie: I figured he was toast. So, here’s your spoiler: he survives.

But see, here’s the real problem. This is, as I understand it, the second movie of what should become a trilogy, closing out the Alien saga with Prometheus (2012), Alien: Covenant (2017), plus a third one, apparently. And based on the first two movies of that trilogy (if it happens, because IMHO, another movie’s completely unnecessary), what Scott’s trying to accomplish is to provide us with a complete, fully fleshed out origin story for the aliens. How did they come to exist, how did they spread, where did they come from, in short, what’s the deal with the monsters? And I don’t care, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

Here’s what I assumed: the aliens came from some planet somewhere. They evolved. They’re the apex predators on that planet, just as we humans are the apex predators on ours. At some point, some idiot brought them aboard a space ship, where they survived by, among other evolutionary traits, burrowing inside the body of a rival species so they can burst spectacularly out of some poor schmuck’s chest. That’s what I assumed. They’re a life form; they evolved. And I’m good.

Sorry, no. There’s an elaborate backstory. Michael Fassbender plays two androids, a good one and an evil one. I’m not going to give away anything more. Just know this; you’ll figure it out an hour in, and then you’ll doubt yourself, because it couldn’t possibly be that dumb. Yes it can.

So there’s lots of sound and fury. It ends up not signifying a darn thing. Various characters fight valiantly against creepy, evil, skeletal, fast moving aliens. And, mostly, succumb. The Ripley this time is a ship’s officer named Daniels. She’s played by Sam Waterston’s daughter, Katherine. She’s very good. She’s a fine actress, and she plays desperation convincingly.

Also, Billy Crudup is in this, and that’s always a treat. He’s such a fine actor, and he plays a complicated, compelling character, the ship’s captain (accidentally), out of his league and in over his head, but doing his level best to keep everyone alive. And screwing up, but still. Crudup is the reason to see the movie, I think, to the extent that there is one.

Other than that, I can’t even say it’s a big disappointment. My expectations were low enough, to be honest. This movie fell short nonetheless. Remember a few weeks ago, a very similar (VERY similar) evil-aliens-in-a-space-ship flick called Life? It was derivative and obvious and not very good. But the alien was scary, and I thought the movie, overall, worked a lot better than Alien: Covenant.  Shame, really. The first Alien movie was terrifically scary. The second one, Aliens, was even better. But the franchise hasn’t held up, and that’s disappointing.

 

Love is the purpose of life.

In Church yesterday, our former stake President spoke, a stake assignment, and he began by asking this: what is the purpose of life? What one word would we use to describe the purpose of life? And the word he chose was ‘joy.’ Men are that we might have joy, he said. It was a good answer I thought, for a talk in Church. We are, he said, meant to have joy, to experience joy, to fill our lives with joy. And it wasn’t difficult for him to find scriptures and General Authority quotations to support it. But ‘joy’ does seem to me, well, a trifle correlated. Like, it’s the official right answer to that question. I know too many people suffering from, among other ailments, depression. We don’t all get joyful lives. Lives full of worth, and dignity, yes. Not always happy lives.

‘Joy’ was certainly a better answer than ’42,’ that sublime Douglas Adams joke answer in Life, the Universe and Everything. Although I rather like the joke, because of this: Jackie Robinson’s jersey number was 42. From that, I might extrapolate this: the meaning of life is encompassed in the civil rights movement. The meaning of life is to treat all human beings with dignity and respect; the meaning of life is equality. That’s a good answer too. But it’s not quite right either.

Looking at the world, though, looking at Mother Earth and the creatures who inhabit it, a much truer answer comes to mind. The purpose of life is survival. That’s the biological imperative of all life; to carve out some niche, some corner of existence, and survive. My wife suggested another biological imperative; reproduction. But that seems inextricably linked to survival; we reproduce so our species can survive. So species survival becomes as crucial as individual survival; either way, the purpose of Life is to continue living. The purpose of Life, is Life.

But we’ve got that one sussed, we humans. We’re the most successful super-predators on earth. Other species may be stronger, faster, fiercer. Our claws aren’t weapons; our feet aren’t that fleet; our hands are comparatively weak. But we can shape the environment to our needs. That’s extraordinary. We don’t need to cower in trees anymore; we can cut trees down, and use them to build impenetrable fortresses. We have the leisure to contemplate questions like ‘what is the purpose of life,’ because we no longer are in danger. I live in Utah; mountains and deserts. Our biggest predators are probably mountain lions and wolves. Cats and dogs; we’ve domesticated them both to the point of absurdity. Fear of felines? Our cat is curled up on the sofa, sound asleep. That’s where he usually is. There is no sense whatsoever in which he’s a threat to me.

Nor is anything else. Bacteria, yes, and viruses. We cannot be killed by anything large, unless we behave with the most colossal stupidity. We can be killed by the tiniest of creatures. They’re what we fear, sometimes, when we’re feeling poorly. But mostly, we take survival for granted. That drives us in two directions. We can be killed by each other. It’s easy, but unprofitable, to worry needlessly about essentially non-existent threats. We worry ourselves sick about terrorism, a threat so infinitesimal it’s essentially a statistical rounding error. Or, we find ourselves feeling purposeless. What now, we think? Having won the fight for survival, what purpose comes next?

And if we’re Christians, the answer is something impossible, something nonsensical. Love God, and love your neighbor. God, who is invisible, who manifests Himself only indirectly; we’re urged to love Him. Commanded to, in fact. And then the really tough one. We’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. And who do we mean by our neighbors? Everyone.

The purpose of life, is to love. And maybe that leads to joy, or to salvation. But that’s what we’re meant to do, what we’re expected to do. And it’s essentially impossible. The Sermon on the Mount is built on paradoxes, on examples of behavior we could not possibly emulate, being imperfect.

And Jesus had to know that. He was born under hostile occupation. His people were despised and enslaved, and he was the poorest of his people. Nazareth was a tiny, unimportant, a backwater town in a backwater region. Did he know what it felt like to be struck across the face; did the requirement that we turn the other cheek come from personal experience? How do you love the people who have enslaved you? How do you love those who strike you, who compel you to carry their baggage a mile, who call you names and visit violence upon you? How do we love then?

I love my wife. I love my children. I love a few friends. I love other family members. That’s not always easy. And my love is hardly unequivocal. I get offended easily. I get my feelings hurt. But, yes, sometimes, I am able to truly love, I think. I hope. I pray. But a few years ago, someone I thought of as a friend hurt me badly. He damaged me, he lied about me, he tried deliberately to get me fired from a job I loved, and he advanced professionally as a reward. And I am required to forgive this person. I am required to love him. And I can’t do it. I’ve tried. The best I can do is a weak, milquetoast, anodyne expression of grudging charity. If I were driving in my car, and he stepped into the street, I probably wouldn’t run him down. But love him? Love him? It’s beyond me.

And what about people who are genuinely evil, rather than merely weak? As my wife and I discussed this, she asked if she was required to genuinely love Donald Trump? That should be simple enough; he hasn’t actively harmed me or her, and he’s clearly a damaged man. We ought to be able to find some compassion, at least. But I find it impossible to even consider. What about Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao? What about Hitler?

And yet, and yet. This is from George F. Richards, an LDS apostle back in the ’40s. It’s from October Conference, 1946.

I had a remarkable dream. I have seldom mentioned this to other people, but I do not know why I should not. I dreamed that I and a group of my own associates found ourselves in a courtyard where, around the outer edge of it, were German soldiers—and Fuhrer Adolph Hitler was there with his group, and they seemed to be sharpening their swords and cleaning their guns, and making preparations for a slaughter of some kind, or an execution. We knew not what, but, evidently we were the objects. But presently a circle was formed and this Fuhrer and his men were all within the circle, and my group and I were circled on the outside, and he was sitting on the inside of the circle with his back to the outside, and when we walked around and I got directly opposite to him, I stepped inside the circle and walked across to where he was sitting, and spoke to him in a manner something like this:

“I am your brother. You are my brother. In our heavenly home we lived together in love and peace. Why can we not so live here on the earth?” And it seemed to me that I felt in myself, welling up in my soul, a love for that man, and I could feel that he was having the same experience, and presently he arose, and we embraced each other and kissed each other, a kiss of affection.

I think the Lord gave me that dream. Why should I dream of this man, one of the greatest enemies of mankind, and one of the wickedest, but that the Lord should teach me that I must love my enemies, and I must love the wicked as well as the good?

Isn’t that why we’re here? Isn’t that why the gospel exists, to lead us to that point? Isn’t that the purpose of life? To love, to forgive, to embrace, without reservation or complaint, all our brothers and sisters?

We’ve mastered survival. Now we have to do something impossible, extend ourselves unimaginably, genuinely love our brothers and sisters. We start with our children, and we love them, impossible little pills though they sometimes are. And we love our families. That’s practice; that’s the easy part. But eventually, we have to find it in our hearts genuinely to love. Everyone. All of mankind, all living creatures. All. Is it easy? No, it’s impossible. It cannot, cannot be done.

So we have to do it. And that’s God’s work and his Glory. To get us to the point where we rely on His miracle; the miracle of Love, the miracle of at-one-ment. Because He is Love. And His Love is equal, and it’s full, and it’s unrestrained.

The purpose of Life is Love. And it’s impossible. And it’s necessary. The gospel is built on paradox, and that’s okay. Only by doing what can’t be done can we fulfill our purpose. Best if we start now.

Donald Trump and the oath of office

Jane Krakowski was on Colbert’s show last night, and as is obligatory when actresses appear on late night talk shows, Colbert complimented her on her appearance. “Thanks,” she said, and added that she was trying to lose her ‘Trump ten pounds.’ Everyone she knew was in the same fix: weight gain caused by binge eating, caused by Trump-caused anxiety.

This week has been especially bad, and it’s only Tuesday. Last night, the Washington Post dropped this bomb: Trump had provided two high ranking Russian officials with highly classified information, apparently just to brag. “I get great intel,” boasted Trump. “I have people brief me on great intel every day.” And then, to prove his point, he revealed code-word level information. And White House staff, panicked, began calling intelligence agencies to limit the damage.  At the same time, various Trump surrogates denounced the Post story as ‘fake news,’ with carefully parsed statements (Gen. McMaster’s was a gem) in which they take issue with things the Post story did not, in fact, say. Then, this morning, Trump cut them off at the knees, using Twitter to assert that he had the perfect right to share information with Russia. As a friend of mine put it on Facebook:

“[Media reports] Trump does staggeringly stupid thing

[Trump surrogates] he absolutely did not do the stupid thing

[Trump, tweeting the next day] I did the stupid thing

[Surrogates] …and that is why stupid thing is actually brilliant, and

[Trump, tweeting] I did it for the stupidest reason imaginable

[Surrogates] … the thing is now United States policy despite dishonest media reports on its stupidity, and also

(loop to beginning)”

As President of the United States, Donald Trump can declassify information any time he believes it to be in the national interest. He didn’t do anything illegal. I thought the best story on this was this one, on the Lawfare blog. Lawfare points to two crucial issues: first, that it matters why Trump did it: “what Trump thought he was doing might well inflect whether we should see this as an act of carelessness, an act of carelessness bordering on treachery, or an act of judgment (even if misjudgment) of the sort we elect presidents to make.” And second, that an act need not be criminal or illegal to be an impeachable offense:

Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law–just as he hasn’t here. He has the constitutional authority to dictate that the safeguarding of nuclear materials shall be done through sticky notes in plain sight and tweeted, even the authority to declassify the codes outright. Yet, we would all understand this degree of negligence to be a gross violation of his oath of office.

This analogy gets to the heart of my main concern about Trump’s Presidency. I do not believe that Donald Trump takes his oath of office seriously. For the first time in US history, we cannot trust this President to set aside his own emotional predispositions and act in the best interests of the nation.

There have been Presidents in the past that I didn’t think were particularly effective Presidents. This is because I disagreed with them on matters of policy. I thought their political philosophy was likely to prove ineffectual; I thought they were wrong. But I never questioned their patriotism. I never questioned their commitment to the job. I never questioned that serving the nation was their highest and only priority. Of course, people make mistakes, and some policy choices work better than others; of course, we’re all only human. But the men (only men so far, alas) who have served in the White House have always understood that they are doing the most important and difficult job in the world. Early in the first season of The West Wing, John Spencer, playing White House Chief of Staff, talking to his wife, tells her “this is the most important thing I will ever do in my life.” And she responds, understandably hurt, “it’s not more important than your marriage.” “Right now,” says Leo, “it is more important than my marriage.” And he was just Chief of Staff.

The Oath of Office is deceptively simple. “I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But its implications are profound. If you take that oath, then for the four or eight years you serve, it’s your first and only priority.

And I do not believe that that’s how Donald Trump understands his duties as President. I don’t think he considers that serving the nation and its people to be his first and highest obligation. I think he lets stuff get in his way. I do not believe him to be a serious person, taking a serious job seriously. I don’t know if he’s merely a particularly buffoonish clown, or if he’s actively mentally ill. He’s not . . . right.

That’s why his refusal to divest of his business interests is so disheartening. Every previous President has done this. President Carter sold his peanut farm; George W. Bush sold his baseball team. Trump has business interests all over the world. Are those businesses still important to him? Does he weigh their success as he conducts foreign policy; is profitability a factor in his decision-making? We have never asked that before about any former President. We find ourselves obliged to ask it about this one.

Far more important, though, is the raw emotionality with which Trump seems to make decisions. He gets angry, he gets frustrated, he gets his feelings hurt. So does everyone else. But most of us can set those emotions aside when we need to. Most of us can engage productively with that co-worker we dislike. Most of us can take a deep breath, set aside our resentments and fears and make important decisions.

i think it’s likely that Donald Trump is an immensely damaged human being. Of course, even mental health professionals balk at long range diagnoses. But Trump’s constant, incessant braggadocio has to some from somewhere. It’s not just that he seems to be a near-pathological liar. But have you noticed how his lies are pretty much always self-aggrandizing? He had the biggest crowds at his inauguration; he has the best temperment, he’s a phenomenal negotiator. He’s always the best; the smartest, the most aware. He doesn’t just get two scoops of ice cream, he deserves them. He’s such a good boy.

That has to be hiding some deeply seated inferiority complex, doesn’t it? And he can’t set it aside. And we don’t have time for him to work through it.

He gets the best intel, he tells the Russians. And then has to prove it. (Lavrov and Kislyak had to have been astounded. They didn’t think this would be so easy). By off-the-cuff declassifying highly sensitive intelligence, jeopardizing our relations with an ally, and quite possibly putting intel sources at risk. Let’s not forget this: Trump didn’t reveal classify information, he blurted it. To prove to his Russian comrades friends what good intel he gets. (To prove, yet again, once more, that he really is President, that he really did win). And people could die. Who did he compromise? How much at risk is our source?

It’s visceral, instinctive, our fear of him and of what he might do next. We sense it. This guy hasn’t put the nation first. He probably can’t. No wonder we’re all putting on ‘the Trump ten pounds.’ Every second this man spends in the Oval office is a continuing national emergency. Ending it will require impeachment and removal. Not much else matters politically.

 

Yes, the Comey firing is a big deal

Whenever a big news political event takes place, especially one that focuses on some peculiarly Republican bit of malfeasance, first, liberals react very strongly and publicly. Some conservatives rely on the officially approved spin. But there are always a few conservative intellectuals, affecting the diction, tone, and high Brahmin style of the late William F. Buckley, who carefully explain how unreasoning and hysterical we’re all being. More-in-sorrow-than-anger, you understanding. Publishing this sort of article is, I think the raison d’etre of the National Review. Think of the British conservative historian, Paul Johnson, saying that no Europeans ever understood why poor Nixon was so badly treated: Watergate was no big deal.

It may have seemed strange to see precisely such an article in Vox.com. I know a lot of people consider Vox a liberal site. It really isn’t though. Their motto is ‘explain the news.’ Not comment on it (though they do sometimes offer a point of view), but inform people, let ’em know what the substance of some prominent news story is. They’re surely seen as an anti-Trump site, but it’s because they don’t pull punches; if someone is lying about something, they’ll point it out. I should say that I’m a big fan. But it isn’t at all out of character for Vox to publish a contrarian article saying ‘here’s what everyone is saying. And here’s why they’re wrong.’

And so, a couple of days ago, Vox published an article by Richard A. Epstein, entitled “Attention, liberals: Comey deserved to be fired, and the Constitution is just fine.” It’s a well-reasoned and thoughtful article, though, again, infused with that Buckley/George Will/Paul Johnson tone of injured intellectual superiority. Here it is.

Epstein begins by agreeing that the decision by Trump to fire James Comey was poorly timed, and a political miscalculation. He goes on: “There are of course many reasons why one might oppose Trump’s decision to fire Comey, but none of them remotely deserve the hyperbolic responses that Comey’s termination has elicited. There are two sides to every story, and in this case the other side has, at least for the moment, the better of the argument.”

Epstein argues, first, that Comey should have been fired long before, because of his mishandling of the Clinton email case. He treated her with kid gloves, says Epstein. He didn’t issue subpeonas to any Clinton aides, he allowed Cheryl Mills to represent herself, and he didn’t conduct any of the ambush interviews that are usual in criminal cases. He took it easy on her, kowtowing to his superiors in the Obama White House.

Second, Epstein says, “criticisms of Comey’s conduct in the Clinton investigation had nothing to do with the president’s decision, which was made, we are confidently told (on the basis of no firm evidence), because Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump was, in Epstein’s view, perfectly justified in firing Comey over the mishandled Clinton email case, and there’s no reason to think Comey was fired for any more sinister reasons.

Finally, since Comey could legally be fired at any time by Trump, and given the ample reasons for dismissal detailed in the Rosenstein memo, it “requires contortions to convert an action that has independent justification into one that prompts talk of obstruction of justice and impeachment. In effect, one difficulty with that extravagant assertion is that it makes Comey de facto immovable from office so long as he continues to conduct this investigation.” Oh, and appointing a special prosecutor is also problematic. To whom would he report? Jeff Sessions? When there’s no smoke, there can’t be fire, says Epstein. And there’s no smoke.

Epstein also pushed back against the ‘Trump as incipient despot’ meme.

Nor is there anything to the claim that Trump has acted as a despot. Despots remove people in order to take over all the organs of government themselves. Cassidy seems to think the president has it within his power to appoint a successor to Comey entirely on his own, when the position requires confirmation by the Senate.

Allow me to respond.

First, Epstein seems to think that the case against Hillary Clinton ought to have been far more aggressively prosecuted, treated as the criminal investigation it was. But surely Epstein must acknowledge the political complexities of any case involving a major party Presidential candidate. I’m not saying that running for President is an excuse for all manner of criminal conduct. But at worst, Hillary Clinton was guilty of carelessness, possibly born of arrogance, and possibly reflecting her own discomfort with technology. And she was running for President; very likely to be elected President. (Sigh). Comey said, in a recent interview, that the difficulties of the Clinton case made him nauseous. I can well imagine it. Like it or not, the FBI is, if not a political organization, one that must of necessity sail on troubled political waters. Comey’s first loyalty had to be to the Constitution, of course (and no one has suggested he acted otherwise). But he had to think of protecting the Bureau itself, as an institution. I may disagree with some of the decisions he made. Some of those decisions do seem to have violated basic law enforcement protocols. But I don’t doubt that navigated those waters thoughtfully and carefully. He was in an impossible position.

And, while it’s not fair to call Epstein to account for actions that took place subsequent to the publication of his article, it really is true that the ‘Comey was fired because of his mishandling of the Clinton case’ narrative has been conclusively disproved. He really did fire Comey because, as Epstein puts it, “Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump confirmed it Thursday night, in his interview with Lester Holt, when he didn’t so much admit as brag that he’d fired Comey because of his pursuit of the ‘fake news’ story about Trump campaign Russian collusion. That interview was an amazing piece of candor, not least because it threw so many members of his own communications staff under the bus, people who had been doggedly defending the Clinton email narrative, even when they sounded ridiculous doing so. Holt didn’t even seem to work very hard for it, considering that, in his interview, he got the President of the United States to admit to obstructing justice, an impeachable offense. Smoke enough for you, Mr. Epstein?

Epstein suggests that despots act despotically according to a plan. If Trump’s firing of Comey is in fact an egregious act of tyranny, well, what’s the next step? Replace Comey with Chris Christie? (Or Rudy Giuliani?) What reason do we have to assume the Senate will confirm someone like that?

But Trump isn’t that kind of tyrant. He seems to be more of an instinctual authoritarian, a guy who doesn’t so much act as react. News reports describe Trump as watching cable news incessantly, raging furiously whenever they focused on the ‘fake news’ of Trump’s Russian connections, and ignoring the (to him) much more consequential story of Obama’s bugging of Trump Tower. Never mind that that never happened. Trump seems to have convinced himself that it did happen, just as he convinced himself that his inaugural crowd was the biggest ever, or any of the other ludicrous things he apparently believes.

Trump isn’t the kind of incipient dictator who carefully plans every step of his way to the top. He’s not Frank Underwood (from House of Cards). He gets angry. No, he becomes incensed. And sometimes he’s able to blow off steam on Twitter. But sometimes, his choler leads him to act. And often enough, he gets away with it, frankly because it just never seems to have occurred to anyone to make certain Presidential actions illegal. Every previous President has been constrained by norms, by protocols, by traditions. But Trump isn’t constrained by anything. Except the Constitution. Which also infuriates him.

He fired Comey impulsively, unreasoningly, because he hates the Russia investigation (fake news!), and also, apparently, because Comey wouldn’t pledge loyalty to him, to Trump. And how will he deal with the aftermath? By bluffing, by lying, by counter-attacking. And by relying on the cowardice and hypocrisy and lack of patriotism of the Republican leadership.

So, yes, Mr. Epstein. There’s plenty of smoke. We’re not over-reacting; the ship of state really is on fire. What there isn’t, yet, is a fire department.

Donald Trump talks to The Economist

The Economist is one of the most respected popular journals in the world. It is, as one might expect, particularly informative and interesting on questions of economics. It recently published an interview with President Donald Trump. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, chair of the National Economic Council, sat in. As New York Magazine put it, “Donald Trump tries to explain economics to The Economist. Hilarity ensues.”

Because businessmen participate in economic activities, buying and selling, there’s a presumption that they know something about economics. I think it’s safe to say that Donald Trump knows quite a bit about the Manhattan real estate market, and perhaps a bit about marketing and branding. He doesn’t know anything about macroeconomics, despite graduating from the Wharton School of Finance. This is, I think, less surprising than you might suppose. In my experience, a lot of guys who graduate in Finance loathed their required economics classes. Too theoretical, too abstract, and quite often, post-Keynes, counter-intuitive.

Anyway, Trump gets off to a splendid start.

What is Trumponomics and how does it differ from standard Republican economics?
Well it’s an interesting question. I don’t think it’s ever been asked quite that way. But it really has to do with self-respect as a nation. It has to do with trade deals that have to be fair, and somewhat reciprocal, if not fully reciprocal. And I think that’s a word that you’re going to see a lot of, because we need reciprocality in terms of our trade deals. We have nations where… they’ll get as much as 100% of a tax or a tariff for a certain product and for the same product we get nothing, OK? It’s very unfair.

A few points. Reciprocality is not a word. Also, no, the United States has no trade deals in which our goods have a 100% tariff with a 0% tariff for their goods coming to the US. That’s just silly; hyperbolic posturing. Also “National Self Respect” is not an economic principle. Reciprocity is.

And the very interesting thing about that is that, if I said I’m going to put a tax on of 10%, the free-traders, they’ll say “Oh, he’s not a free-trader”, which I am, I’m absolutely a free-trader. I’m for open trade, free trade, but I also want smart trade and fair trade. But they’ll say, “He’s not a free-trader,” at 10%. But if I say we’re putting a reciprocal tax on, it may be 62% or it may be 47%, I mean massive numbers, and nobody can complain about it. It’s really sort of an amazing thing.

Yes, as wholly imaginary scenarios go, it is quite amazing. I love the idea of reciprocal taxes of 62% passing some fantasy muster with free-traders. Trump based his entire campaign on protectionism, on tariffs, on ‘making America great’ by engaging in trade wars with everyone. If he’s a free trader, I’m a sword-swallower.

We have so many bad trade deals. To a point where I’m not sure that we have any good trade deals. I don’t know who the people are that would put us into a NAFTA, which was so one-sided. Both from the Canada standpoint and from the Mexico standpoint. So one-sided. Wilbur [Ross, the secretary of commerce] will tell you that, you know, like, at the court in Canada, we always lose. Well, the judges are three Canadians and two Americans. We always lose. But we’re not going to lose any more. And so it’s very, very unfair.

I think he’s talking about NAFTA Investor/State Arbitrations. And no, Canada doesn’t always win and America doesn’t always lose. That’s nonsense. Sometimes American companies win, sometimes Canadian tariffs win.

Time for an anecdote:

Now at the same time I have a very good relationship with Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. And I was going to terminate NAFTA last week, I was all set, meaning the six-month termination. But the word got out, they called and they said, we would really love to… they called separately but it was an amazing thing. They called separately ten minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions. “We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.” And I said, “Yes, it is. Absolutely.” So, so we did that and we’ll start.

Ah, the big-hearted sentimental lug! What a wunnerful guy. See, the United States is getting royally screwed by NAFTA (we’re not), and he was going to pull us out of NAFTA, but a tearful (implied) appeal by his good pals Justin and that Mexican guy (the President of Mexico is Enrique Nieto) led him to change his mind.

What does this story really say? That Trump is desperate to be liked. That he didn’t act in the national interest (as he conceives it) because two world leaders weepingly (extrapolating) begged him not to. In short, that Trump can be manipulated. He ran, remember, on his skills as a negotiator. We’ve seen no sign of any such skill set. And, you know: good. NAFTA’s a good deal. Hey, Justin and Enrique. Keep it up guys.

The Economist asks him four separate times what a fair NAFTA would look like, and all Trump can do is recite various synonyms for ‘big.’ It would be ‘huge,’ ‘Massive.’ He clearly doesn’t have any idea.

He thinks our trade deficit with Mexico is 70 billion dollars. It’s not. He thinks our trade deficit with Canada is 15 billion. It’s not. Also, who cares? My economist son likes to point out that he, personally, has a trade deficit with his local grocery store. He does in there all the time and buys food. They give him food, he gives them money. Never once has he so much as offered them a single avocado. And yet the Republic prospers.

Later, he invents a narrative in which he denounces Chinese currency manipulation on the campaign trail, and immediately after he wins, China stops doing it. He is right about one thing; China did stop currency manipulation. In 2014.

Now comes my favorite exchange of the entire interview:

Another part of your overall plan, the tax reform plan. Is it OK if that tax plan increases the deficit?
It’s called priming the pump. You know, if you don’t do that, you’re never going to bring your taxes down. Now, if we get the health-care [bill through Congress], this is why, you know a lot of people said, “Why isn’t he going with taxes first, that’s his wheelhouse?” Well, hey look, I convinced many people over the last two weeks, believe me, many Congressmen, to go with it. And they’re great people, but one of the great things about getting health care is that we will be saving, I mean anywhere from $400bn to $900bn.

Mr Mnuchin: Correct.

President Trump: That all goes into tax reduction. Tremendous savings.

But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll… you understand the expression “prime the pump”?

Yes.
We have to prime the pump.

It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?

Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?

Yes.
Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just… I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.

Everything about this is amazing. First of all, the US is not the highest-taxed nation in the world; we’re just about the lowest-taxed. Second, ‘prime the pump’ is an economic metaphor for a basic Keynesian concept: when unemployment is high, governments borrow money short-term to provide an economic stimulus to increase demand. That metaphor has been around since the early 1930s. The US has very low unemployment right now. A tax cut will have no stimulative value. It won’t ‘prime the pump.’

And Trump did not invent that metaphor. As New York put it:

Telling The Economist you invented the phrase “priming the pump,” to describe a plan that does not prime the pump, is a bit like sitting down with Car and Driver, pointing to the steering wheel on your car and asking if they have ever heard of a little word you just came up with called “hubcap.”

Once again, in full view of the international community, Donald Trump has demonstrated his own unique blend of arrogance and ignorance. He’s the loud-mouth in the bar, sitting on the bar stool next to Bill Belichek’s, haranguing the coach about what the Patriots should do on offense. He should play a guy named Tom Brady.

 

The Comey firing

On June 17, 1972, five men were caught in an attempted robbery of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a rented room in the Watergate hotel. They had previously broken into the DNC rooms on May 28th, had rifled through some filing cabinets and bugged a couple of phones. Although that operation had gone smoothly, the bugs had begun to malfunction. The second break-in was needed to repair the phones, and also to continue to look for damaging intelligence that could be used against the Democratic presidential campaign. The Watergate burglars had been hired by G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Nixon campaign, the break-in authorized by CRP (Committee to Re-elect the President) chair, Jeb Magruder, White House counsel, John Dean, and Attorney-General John Mitchell. It’s possible that President Nixon did not know of or approve the initial burglary. But he aggressively participated in the subsequent cover-up.

Once it was learned that President Nixon routinely recorded conversations in the Oval Office, the Watergate investigators tried to subpoena the audio tapes. President Nixon claimed executive privilege; Archibald Cox, who had been appointed Special Prosecutor, kept insisting. On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliott Richardson, to fired Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. his deputy, William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fired Cox; he also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor-General Robert Bork, third in command, was ordered to fire Cox, and after some soul-searching, did. This series of events has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and is seen as one of the more significant events in the scandal that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation.

What the Watergate burglars were looking for was damaging intelligence, stuff they could use to smear Democrats or foreknowledge of their strategies and tactics the Republicans could counter. They bugged phones, they rifled through files. During the recent election, Russian hackers did much the same thing. They hacked into the files of the DNC, looking for damaging intel. They didn’t actually find a lot, but they did find some snarky emails, in which Clinton campaign staff said nasty things about the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and they found other documents that suggested that the DNC did not treat the two Democratic candidates equally, but favored Hillary. When the hackers released this information on Wiki-leaks, it drove a wedge into the already-shaky relationship between Democratic voters who preferred Clinton and those who preferred Sanders. We do not know, and will never know, how significant a factor any of this was in Donald Trump’s eventual electoral win. We don’t know, in a close race, what effect the Wiki-leaks revelations had on voters’ behavior. What we do know is this; Russians hacked the election, because, for whatever reason, Vladimir Putin preferred Trump over Clinton.

We know, of course, a lot more about Watergate, the historical event, than we do about Russian electoral interference. With Watergate, we know who did what, and when. That’s not true so far with the current scandal. We do not know, for example, the extent to which the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s electoral preferences, or to what degree, if at all, members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians prior to the election. We don’t know if Trump himself is guilty, at all, of anything. I expect that, in time, we’ll know a lot more.

Former acting Attorney-General Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday may have seemed somewhat mundane, and not really all that revelatory.  No ‘smoking gun,’ in other words. But that’s generally not how these things work. I remember Watergate vividly. I was in high school then, and every day after school, was glued to my TV watching the Watergate hearings. I remember listening to the drip drip drip of new information, and trying to put it all together. What Yates did was confirm a lot of facts that had previously been reported. We do know more today than we did last week.

Last week, preceding her testimony, FBI director Comey made a request of President Trump, for more funding to expand the FBI’s investigation into the Russian hacking and possible Trump campaign collusion. Yesterday, President Trump fired Comey. This means that the most significant three people conducting investigations into Trump/Russia when Trump took office 110 days ago were James Comey, Sally Yates, and Preet Bharara, New York US Attorney. Trump has now fired all three of them. Again, we don’t know if Trump or his campaign were guilty of, well, anything. It would, however, be easier to cut him some slack if he didn’t act so darn guilty.

Again, there’s no hard evidence of collusion. But we do know that Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, may also be a Russian spy. (US intelligence agencies, apparently, regard him as one). We know that vast numbers of high ranking Trump officials met with Kislyak and other Russian officials, many times, during the campaign. Michael Flynn, of course, was among them. Trump has repeatedly claimed he didn’t and doesn’t have any business dealings with Russians. We know that’s not true; in a recent story admitted that Russian money funded Trump golf courses, and there are many other Russian/Trump connections discovered by journalists, including, in a stunning story, a major investigation by USA Today.

Of course, Watergate was a major historical event, certainly one of the most consequential in our nation’s history. Right now, the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections is in its infancy. We don’t know, or at least, have not yet proved, collusion.

But if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump or his campaign staff did collude with Russian to influence a Presidential election, that seems to me much much more important than even Watergate. Whatever we may think of Richard Nixon, he didn’t collude with a hostile foreign power. Nixon was certainly devious, thin-skinned, and amoral. But he was no traitor. But that’s what we’re saying Trump committed: high treason. No evidence yet, but he just fired the guy investigating the case. It’s hard to come across as guiltier than that.

The Circle: Movie and Book review

The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers. I suppose you could say it’s both dystopian and futuristic; it has a 1984/Brave New World vibe. I found it more or less by accident, and liked it so much I recommended it to my wife and daughter. They both read it, and liked it as much as I did, and so, last Friday, we decided to go together to see the new movie based on it. The movie was quite good too, though we agreed it wasn’t quite as effective as the novel. I should point out that the movie got horrible reviews, with a very low score on Rottentomatoes.com. And also that liking the novel is, apparently, exceptionally uncool. Guilty as charged: I liked both movie and novel a lot, and think the critics that didn’t like either are wrong. I will add that the theater was packed when we saw the movie, and, shamelessly eavesdropping as people left, heard enough to think that pretty much everyone who saw it the same night we did liked it too. Found it as chilling as we did.

I’m going to take it a step further. I think it’s an exceptionally prescient and important novel. I think the questions it raises are important ones, and exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves right now. So there.

The Circle is a high tech company; that’s its name. It combines the best features of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Paypal, Amazon, and any five other exceptionally big, hi-tech companies. It’s the coolest place to work you could possibly imagine. It offers the best benefits–dorm-like housing, gyms, off-the-charts health care–provides the best after-work social life, and sells the best products. Today, you may have an Amazon account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account; you probably have thirty internet accounts, each with its own password. The Circle gets rid of all that inconvenience; you get everything through The Circle.

Mae Holland is a young woman, bright and ambitious, working in a dead-end temp job. But she has a friend, Annie, who works for The Circle, and who gets her an interview. Which she aces. Next thing you know, she works in Customer Care. Better money than she’s ever made in her life, plus they extend her health benefits to cover her parents. This is huge, as her father suffers from MS. Mae is ecstatic.

Except, it turns out, her social score is kinda low. She goes home weekends, to help her Mom; she’s a no-show at various Circle parties. Her bosses notice, and she’s called on the carpet; kindly, of course, but firmly. After-hours social events are, of course, completely voluntary. But a low social score is, hmm, a matter of concern.

Circle-world is a place where everything is enumerated, evaluated, rated, assessed. Every customer care interaction is scored on follow-up customer surveys, and she’s encouraged to follow up on the follow ups, inquire about low scores.  She’s also given a side responsibility; product surveys, attitude polls. Plus, you know, there are all these parties she has to get to. She acquires a boyfriend, Francis, who, after love-making, wants to know how he did. What’s his score? And who gets real whiny if he doesn’t get a perfect 10. It’s not worth the hassle telling him he’s closer to a 3.

The tone of the novel is matter-of-fact and straightforward. Eggers specializes in scenes that are both comic and kind of horrifying. Mae is our window into this company, and her character serves Eggers well. She loves the place. She’s a compelling character, and we want to shake her; we want to shout ‘run!’ But she doesn’t. Whatever unease she may feel, she works off by kayaking. Or in love-less, frantic, self-destructive sex with Mystery Man, Kalden. We can absolutely see what makes Mae the most all-in Circler of them all. Though we’re worried to death for her.

But there are warnings. Not just Kalden; Annie, her friend, who landed her the gig, is clearly losing it. And Mae’s specifically warned by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer. Mercer’s kind of a doofus; he makes chandeliers from deer antlers, and is pretty much a Luddite. Or at least, an anti-Circle version of one. Mercer is close to and wonderfully kind to Mae’s parents. But Mae wishes he’d just stop pestering.

The Circle has a political agenda, too. The company has three CEOs, one of which, Eamon Bailey, is, of course, like, the perfect boss. Kind, generous, endlessly sympathetic, a plausible surrogate father for all the young Circlers. And Eamon is the main spokesperson for the multiple uses for SeeChange, a small, easily overlooked digital camera with excellent video and audio pickup. Eamon urges followers to put SeeChange cameras everywhere, every public place. SeeChange, he says, will end both government tyranny and terrorism, through complete, radical transparency. He also urges all politicians to go transparent; wear a SeeChange camera 24/7. People behave better, he says, when they know other people are watching. He suggests that transparency is a basic human right. Privacy is Theft becomes one of the company’s slogans. (Sharing is Caring is another). And Mae, to set an example, goes transparent too. Wears a camera everywhere; is on display, on the internet, always. A more-aware ramped-up Truman Show.

Okay, spoiler alerts. All these policies and devices are revealed publicly, in a big  Circle auditorium (which in fact, is not an arena, but a proscenium, the one public space configuration that most emphasizes performer domination and control. Bailey’s radical democracy looks a lot more authoritarian the more we interrogate it). Anyway, Mae introduces a new Circle innovation; using SeeChange to find missing miscreants. It becomes a game; let’s see if we can find this fugitive from justice, everyone! And they do, in less than ten minutes. Then the crowd insists that Mae use that technology to locate Mercer, who has become something of a hermit. (Of course they all know about Mercer; they know everything about her). And all those busy SeeChangers out in the world find where Mercer’s holed up. Panicked, he gets in his truck, tries to escape, run away from all the cameras and drones. And Mae doesn’t call it off. And he runs his truck off a cliff.

To people who essentially live virtually, for whom the internet and it’s many uses and possibilities, I can see how this movie could be seen as a gratuitous attack on the coolest thing on the planet. I think that may explain at least some of the bad reviews. But Eggers is on to something; people do not necessarily act better when they know people are watching, especially when they’re part of a crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes dozens of instances where people’s lives have been ruined by the collective judgment of internet users. And we may not have quite reached the point of The Circle‘s notion of radical transparency, and SeeChange cameras may be a few (very few) years off, but everyone has cameras, and it’s much much more common nowadays for particularly shocking (but context-less) images to go viral. Dr. David Dao was, no doubt, treated shabbily by United Airlines, but United flies millions of passengers around the world without untoward incident. Should the company pay? Undoubtedly. Should it be hounded out of business? Am I an old, clue-less white guy intimidated by technology? Of course I am. How implausible is the fictional Circle? Not remotely. Is Eamon Bailey something of a cartoon villain? Okay, sure. So’s Big Brother.

The movie takes the same essential scenario as the novel, but creates a filmic narrative around it. Mae’s two love interests disappear–there just isn’t time for Francis, who is in any event an essentially comedic character. If the movie had gone for satire instead of cautionary tale, Francis might have worked. As it is, I didn’t miss him–he’s completely absent. Kalden likewise goes away, sort of; in the book, he is eventually revealed to be Ty, the Circle’s Founder and one of its three CEOs. That revelation comes much earlier here, and Mae and Ty don’t have a romantic/sexual relationship. Biggest of all is this change: Mae isn’t a Circle-worshipper in the movie. She actively wants to destroy it. And does, but that’s creepy too; she wins by buying in most completely to Eamon’s doctrine of radical transparency.

The casting is well-nigh perfect, with Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks (who else?) as Eamon, John Boyega as Ty, and Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, quietly superb as Mae’s father. The one misstep, I thought, was Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, who never really found his footing in the role. Best of all, IMO, was Scottish actress Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend, Annie. In the book, Annie ends up in a coma, but it doesn’t really have the resonance of the movie, where we can read Annie’s self-loathing self-destruction in the actress’s face. That’s what movies are great at; faces.

The movie’s good. It’s great to look at, beautifully acted, and tells the story of The Circle with economy and dispatch. I found it almost as chilling as I found the novel. I did find the novel a bit richer, but that’s often the case of novels-turned-movies. Above all, I found myself cherishing privacy more than ever. I’m a fairly social person, I think, and I love social media. Up to a point. Any tool can be abused, including, of course, the most powerful tool of them all. The internet. Can we love it, and also find it terrifying? I rather think we can, and should.