My political manifesto

Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors opined in class one day that actors were the most moral people in the world. His argument: the basis for morality is compassion, and compassion comes from empathy. And because they are in the business of creating characters, becoming other people, actors were pretty much always, you know, walking in the moccasins, so to speak, of other people. Hence greater empathy, hence greater compassion, hence morality. When he said this, I was in a show, acting across from a brilliantly talented actor who was also pretty much the most awful person I had ever met. Empathy was one of many human emotions he was wonderfully able to fake. Total narcissist, a womanizer and a creepy creepy person. We were doing a murder mystery; he was the killer, and I was the detective tasked with catching him. Watching him hit on every woman on the production staff gave my characterization added oomph, and I must say I found it supremely satisfying to hear the click of my handcuffs on his wrists, night after night.

Having said that, I would add that I acted for years, though not anymore, and that I generally love actors and consider many actors to be among my closest and dearest friends.

I thought about the misguided naivete of that professor yesterday, when I engaged in an entirely futile on-line debate about politics. A conservative friend found amusing a YouTube video caricaturing liberals; it was funny, he insisted, because it was true. I angrily asserted that it wasn’t either true, and that I could as easily stereotype conservatives. I argued poorly in that forum; let me redeem myself here by stating, firmly and unequivocally, what I believe to be true, absolutely true, in my heart of hearts true.

Principle One: American Liberals and American Conservatives are, for the most part, patriotic and decent human beings who differ somewhat in regards to matters of policy.

Principle Two: The Democratic and Republican parties are both comprised of people who love the United States, and want nothing more than for the nation to prosper and bless its citizens. Both parties are equal parts corrupt and idealistic. Most Democrats are decent, good citizens; some have the morals of pit vipers. Most Republicans are decent, good citizens; some have the morals of cockroaches. And both parties have individuals in their ranks who are narcissistic attention seekers, that being the besetting sin of politicians.

I am a liberal Democrat, deeply committed and passionate in my beliefs. I am a liberal  as a matter of principle and conscience. That does not mean that conservative Republicans are without principle or conscience-less. I study policy issues very carefully, and believe that my positions on matters of policy are factually based, supported by research and reason. That does not mean that conservative policy proposals are unsupported by evidence. Confirmation bias afflicts both sides; both sides tend to favor evidence supporting our previous prejudices and opinions.

As a liberal Democrat, I consider myself pro-choice. That means that it’s easy for conservatives to label me a baby-killer. I’m not a baby-killer. That’s preposterous. It’s a complicated issue, and in general, I come down on the side of a woman’s right to choose. My conservative Republican friends tend to disparage programs intended to alleviate poverty. That does not allow me to label them uncharitable or call them vicious meanies. It just means that they don’t believe federal anti-poverty programs are effective.

My father is much more conservative than I am, and there are a number of political questions on which we disagree. But he was and is a wonderful father, and I love and respect him immensely. My brother–one of the finest men I have ever known–is a Republican, but he called the other day, and we talked politics for an hour, and found very few questions on which we disagreed. Not all policy questions are partisan. Roads need to be repaired, schools need to be built, power grids need to be maintained.  Those may be ‘political’ questions, but surely they are questions about which reasonable people can find common ground.

None of this means that we can’t passionately advocate for our positions. Of course we can, and we must. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t genuine differences between parties and ideologies and platforms. Of course, those exist. It does mean that we can’t demonize the opposition. I do forget that sometimes, and apologize for it.

Let’s all commit ourselves to civil dialogue, and civil disagreement, when disagree we must. But what unifies us is much more important than what divides us. We’re American citizens. Let’s always continue to respect what that means.

The Sixth Circuit decision

After an unbroken series of victories in federal courts, those advocating for marriage equality had a bit of a setback last week. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold same sex marriage bans in four states, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Lower court rulings in all four states had gone for the plaintiffs, overthrowing such bans. The decision was written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton, with Judge Deborah Cook concurring. Senior Judge Martha Daughtrey dissented.

The Supreme Court recently decided not to grant cert in a number of cases involving same sex marriages, allowing lower court rulings to stand. No one knows why cert wasn’t granted–SCOTUS doesn’t have to explain itself to anyone. But it’s reasonable to assume that they decided not to review the cases because there was no dispute between them. Typically, SCOTUS reserves judicial review for instances where, on a single issue, lower courts disagree.

So plaintiffs in these four cases now have two options. One is, they could request that the case be reviewed by the entire Sixth Circuit en banc.  That is to say, they could request that the entire panel of Sixth Circuit judges look at the thing, rather than just three judges chosen randomly. Or, of course, they could ask the Supreme Court to review it. If they do, it’s probable that SCOTUS will take it.

Judge Sutton’s decision is, um, kinda unusual. It reads more like a civics lesson than a court decision. It suggests that the decision to expand the definition of marriage is not one properly decided by courts. It’s a federalism decision; a states’ rights decision. The definition of marriage is not something courts should decide. Then, when the decision does get into questions of case law and precedent, it does so idiosyncratically. For example, it uses a 1972 decision, Baker v. Nelson, in which a state court invalidated a gay marriage performed by a minister (subsequently denied cert by SCOTUS) as a valid precedent. But Baker was decided a long time ago, and is generally regarded as having been overturned by Lawrence v. Texas and United States v. Windsor, which are far more recent. And given an opportunity to weigh in on gay marriage, SCOTUS punted. But these developments might never have happened, as far as Judge Sutton is concerned.

Check out, for example, this passage:

Over time, marriage has come to serve another value–to solemnize relationships characterized by love, affection, and commitment. Gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of sharing such relationships. And gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of raising children and providing stable families for them. The quality of such relationships, and the capacity to raise children within them, turns not on sexual orientation, but on individual choices and individual commitment. All this supports the policy argument made by many that marriage laws should be extended to gay couples, just as nineteen states have done through their own sovereign powers. Yet it does not show that the States, ca. 2014, suddenly must look at this policy in just one way on pain of violating the Constitution.

Really? I don’t get this at all. I suppose what he’s saying is that state legislatures are capable of arriving at different conclusions than the conclusions reached by pro-gay-marriage activists. But that’s not the point. There are plaintiffs in this case who claim to have been discriminated against. That’s what you’re deciding. That’s the case before you. A decision that says ‘they might have been discriminated against. That’s possible. But it’s not really our place to say’ is preposterous. It is, in fact, your place to say. That’s your obligation, to decide that.

And for you to say (paraphrasing the rest of the decision) ‘the love and commitment of gay couples is equal to the love and commitment of straight couples, and the ability to raise children is, in both cases, identical, but that doesn’t mean we have to rule for plaintiffs. They should go out and become activists in their states, and get their local legislators to change the law’ is just preposterous. Judge Sutton, if you’re not going to rule in cases like these, why are you an appellate court judge?

Judge Daughtrey responded with a blistering, angry, and more than a little snarky dissent.

The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED talk, or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy. But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state’s constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the majority sets up a false premise–that the question before us is ‘who shall decide’–and leads us through a largely irrelevant discourse on democracy and federalism.

Wham. She then goes on to make what seems to me an obvious point:

In point of fact, the real issue before us concerns what is at stake in these six cases for the individual plaintiffs and their children, and what should be done about it. . . In the main, the majority treats both the issues and the litigants here as mere abstractions. Instead of treating the plaintiffs as persons, suffering actual harm as a result of being denied the right to marry . . . my colleagues view the plaintiffs as social activists who have somehow stumbled into federal court, inadvisably, when they should be out campaigning to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee voters to their cause. But these plaintiffs are not political zealots . . . they are committed same-sex couples, many of them heading up de facto families, who want to achieve equal status. . . .They seek to do this by exercising a civil right that most of us take for granted, the right to marry.

She then eviscerates the main argument made by the defendants in this, and other similar cases nationally, that redefining marriage might provide a disincentive for irresponsible heterosexual couples to marry, devaluing it somehow.  “How ironic,” she says, “that unmarried, irresponsible, heterosexual couples who produce unwanted offspring must be ‘channeled’ into marriage, and thus rewarded with its many psychological and material benefits, while same-sex couples who become model parents are punished for their responsible behavior by being denied the right to marry.” Ironic indeed.

Being remarkably eloquent in defeat still means you lost. The Sixth Circuit opinion will certainly be reviewed, either by the rest of that court, or by the Supremes. My guess is that this decision will probably go to SCOTUS, and that this time the justices will grant cert.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that the Supreme Court wants to risk the kind of controversy a sweeping reversal of all those cases, in all those other Circuit Courts, would cause. And it’s impossible to imagine Justice Kennedy, who authored the Lawrence decision, would decide to uphold decisions as silly as this one from the Sixth. I predict it will go to SCOTUS, who will vote to overturn 6-3, with Kennedy, Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsberg, Breyer and Roberts in the majority, and Scalia, Thomas and Alito in the minority. And Utah will provide the defining case of the controversy. Utah. Wow.

 

A theology of fear

Sunday was our stake conference. For those of you who are not Mormons, we worship every Sunday in a ‘ward,’ a group of 400-600 people. Wards are part of larger units, called ‘stakes’, a group of 8-10 wards; the guy who runs the stake is the Stake President. (The metaphor is that of a people gathered in tent, with stakes holding it together). Once a year, all the people in the stake get together for a big meeting, held in the stake center. And sometimes, occasionally, General Authorities of the Church come down and speak at stake conference.

This Sunday, we had the exceedingly rare experience of having, not just a General Authority, but an Apostle, Elder David Bednar speak to us.  This is very rare, and the stake center was crammed full.

Elder Bednar’s talk was outstanding. He talked about fear. As he pointed out, fear is generally described as something to be overcome. It’s a negative emotion, something that gets in the way of faith. Elder Bednar used as an example the story in Matthew 14, when Jesus walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are on a boat (presumably Peter’s fishing boat), and a storm starts up. Jesus approaches the boat, walking on the water, and says to them, “Be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid.” And Peter, ever impulsive, asks if he can join him. But when he starts walking towards Jesus, he’s overcome by fear, and begins sinking, and says “Lord, save me!” and Jesus catches him by the hand and says “oh, ye of little faith, why didst thou fear?”

Elder Bednar made several cogent points about this story. First, it appears that fear is, in this instance, the opposite of faith. Peter is able to walk, miraculously, on the water, because he has faith. But, understandably, his faith falters. He essentially says to Jesus ‘the surface tension of water is insufficient to bear the concentrated weight of a two hundred pound human. I’m going to sink.’ But he has just experienced another miracle, the feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes. He should know that Jesus had the power to supercede natural law somehow. If he had had faith, he could have performed miracles. Like walk on water.

So looking to Jesus is the essence of faith; looking to Jesus is what gives us courage, enabling us to overcome fear. Courage and faith are therefore linked. Although Elder Bednar didn’t say this explicitly, I would add that love seems similarly linked to faith and to courage.

Today is veteran’s day. I have not served in the military, and have never experienced combat. I know people who have. I can only imagine what they went through, my imagination aided, in my case, by movies. Think, for example, of Saving Private Ryan, and its depiction of the Normandy beach invasion by Allied forces. We see soldiers on boats ready to storm that beach, and we see and hear guns firing, bullets whistling past them, the impact sounds as men are hit. After watching that movie, I thought to myself, “I do not believe that I would be able to get out of that boat. I believe that I am too cowardly to do so.” But those men did get out of the boats, and did race up that beach firing their weapons, and did win that battle. That’s an extraordinary thing. And I feel chastened by their courage. I’m in awe of it. No doubt, for some, that courage came from their own religious convictions; they ‘looked to Jesus,’ as Elder Bednar suggested. For more of them, though, I think they thought of their families. I think they were driven by love. Which I also believe to be a gift from God.

But let’s talk about fear. There is another usage of the word ‘fear’ in scripture. It’s sometimes used as a positive thing: ‘the fear of God.’ It’s rather an archaic usage; we mostly use it nowadays as a colloquial expression meaning ‘a boss is going to crack down on underlings.’  As in “look at our sales figures for August. We’re having a meeting and I’m going to put the fear of God into our sales staff.”  But as Elder Bednar pointed out, that’s not really how the scriptures use the phrase. In Acts, for example, Cornelius the centurion is described as a man who “feared God with all his house, and gave alms to the people, and prayed always.” ‘Fearing God’ seems to refer, in this case, to a general piety and charitableness. Fearing God means to hold God in awe and reverence.  Not really be afraid of him.

A parent who wants his/her children to fear him/her, and beats them, is, let’s face it, a horrible parent. There’s certainly an Old Testament sense of ‘fearing God’ that strikes me as atavistic. We should obey God because if we don’t, He might zap us, send horrible floods or earthquakes or diseases. If we assume that terrible weather events are the sorts of things that God is personally responsible for, then it makes sense to fear Him, just as it makes sense, when hiking in the woods, to fear bears or wolves or poisonous snakes. But I’d rather not liken God to a wolf. That sense of ‘fear’ suggests an interesting theological question, does it not? Is God in charge of, say, weather? When a hurricane devastates a coastal region, or when a tsunami wipes out a beachfront community, is that something God sent? Does God do that, send terrible tribulations? If so, does He send them as a response to unrighteousness? Do we believe that a town destroyed by an earthquake had it coming?

There does seem to me to be a lot of scriptural support for the notion that ‘natural disasters’ are actually supernatural; that severe destructive weather events are in fact sent by God as a punishment for wickedness–Sodom and Gomorrah, Zerahemla.  And it’s the kind of thing you do hear from time to time in Sunday School: “those people had it coming.” At the same time, when a Pat Robertson or other prominent right wing evangelical goes on the air to say “this hurricane was God’s punishment for allowing gay marriage” or something like that, most people respond with disgust and laughter. That kind of sentiment is no longer  acceptable in contemporary society, and rightfully so. We believe in, and worship, a God of love. And one of the ways the LDS church has distinguished itself in our day is in the area of disaster relief. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, the Church is on the scene with supplies–food, blankets, potable water, shelter. So, what, when God punishes people for their wickedness, we jump right in and try to make things better for the people being thus punished? Really?

I don’t think we believe that anymore. I don’t think we believe that God uses bad weather to punish wicked people. I certainly don’t believe in it; some Mormons may disagree with me. But I dislike the theological implications of that. A second possibility is even more appalling to me; the idea that God is in fact in charge of weather, but just lashes out randomly, out of, perhaps, a kind of divine Pique. That’s the God of predestination, is it not? A God that just picks some people to save, leaving the rest to roast forever? That was the mainstream theology of early nineteenth century America, which means it was the theology specifically condemned in the First Vision, was it not?

No, what I believe theologically is that our life here on earth is a testing ground, and that part of the test of mortality is dealing with random, arbitrary disasters. Weather happens. God set it up to happen, but I’m not convinced He directs it, particularly. I don’t think health setbacks are meant to teach us anything, for example. I think we just get sick sometimes. Certainly, we’re meant to deal with illness with courage and resolve; that is part of our test.  And maybe we learn something along the way. But I don’t think we’re supposed to go through life afraid that if we say the wrong thing God’s going to zap us with lightning. I think lightning just . . . strikes.

And yes, I believe that fear, and the courageous overcoming of fear are absolutely crucial to the testing of mortality. I think that we look to God for faith, and we pray in faith, not because we’re afraid of horrible things happening to us if we don’t, but just because. Out of love. Out of devotion. Out of gratitude. Not because we hope for a reward afterwards, because good things and bad things happen to us, here, randomly, without being deserved or earned either way. But we can always choose. And the right choice, the best choice, is always the most courageous choice.

There is another way in which ‘fear of God’ can function theologically, although this wasn’t one mentioned by or in any sense referred to by Elder Bednar in his excellent address. We can be afraid of each other. We can be afraid, not of God, but of ‘god.’ Not the God who loves us, who created a beautiful, terrible earth for our mortal final exam, but the ‘god’ made up of popular opinion, the ‘god’ of mainstream prosperous white American culture, the ‘god’ that whispers and gossips and points ‘his’ crabbed and arthritic finger at our everyday foibles and missteps. And who forbids, not sin, but life. Who mutters under ‘his’ breath imprecations against (this is crucial) courageous, principled acts of rebellion born of conscience. Not the God of the Tree of Life, but the ‘gods’ staring down at us from the various spacious and specious buildings of our oh-so-active imaginations.

Samuel Beckett, in the greatest play of the twentieth century, had a word for that ‘god.’ He called it ‘godot,’ a french diminutive. And his ‘godot’ is a ‘god’ that we fear, and wait for, and he never, ever, shows up.  ‘He’ doesn’t have to. As long as we never leave, as long as we stay put, as long as we spend our days testing the branches of our trees to ensure they’ll hold the weight of a hanging rope, ‘his’ purposes are amply fulfilled.

Because, you see, Peter and the disciples did have one more thing to be afraid of. Not just the storm and the sea and the fear of drowning. Read Matthew 14 carefully. All the miracles described there, the feeding of the multitude and the walking on the water came immediately on the heels of an act of state-sponsored violence. John the Baptist had run afoul of the tetrarch, Herod, and his step-daughter Herodias. And Herod had John murdered. It was right after that horrid event that everyone freaked out and ran to the wilderness, five thousand strong, desperate for answers, for comfort, for reassurance. For courage. It was then that Jesus fed them. It was then that Jesus defied a storm.

Because what Jesus understood was that godot is a coward, and like many cowards, a bully, violent and weak. And there’s really only one way to sidestep godot. It involves a storm on a lake, and a boat, tossed and turned. It involves a blessing, and bread and fishes, and a terrified people fed.

Short term, godot won. John was beheaded; Jesus scourged and crucified. And Gandhi and Dr. King; likewise murdered. But courage overcomes fear, faith is stronger than death itself. Ordinary young men, huddled in a boat outside Normandy, drove themselves, through love, towards heroism. No one remembers cowards, except as cowards. We ‘fear’ (honor, worship, sustain) God by loving our brothers and sisters. And love leads to faith and faith to courage.  And even amidst danger, we can be of good cheer. We must, in fact, overcome fear. That’s the real test, and one so many of us (Mormons, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Atheists) pass every day of our lives. By being, not just human, but the best humans we can manage to be, the most courageous, the most daring, the most audacious. Artists and artisans, merchants and beggars. Be courageous. Be strong. Be of good cheer.

 

Five bills to pass

So now what? Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives, and a smaller majority in the Senate. The President still has a veto, and has made it clear that he’ll use it. It’s time for (drumroll) bi-partisan cooperation. This President has never, once, shown any interest in working with Republicans, on any issue ever, according to my Republican friends. He has also been so open to working with Republicans, he’s consistently in danger of violating utterly essential tenets of liberalism, according to my Democratic friends. To both sides, the truth of Obama’s bi-partisanship couldn’t be more obvious. Obama simply will not work with Republicans, ever, on anything. Simultaneously, he’s so intent on pushing for Grand Compromises that we wonder how anyone could ever have considered him progressive at all. He’s ‘my way or the highway!’ He’s also Mr. ‘meet you way way more than half-way.’ It’s like those hardcore conservatives who insist that he’s Bozo, clownishly inept at everything. And also a tyrant, horribly dangerous because he’s such an accomplished villain. Both/and, either/or.  All, and also none of the above.

Anyway, them dudes gotta work together, or ain’t nuttin’s gonna happen. So what are some actual genuine real national problems Republicans and Democrats could maybe work together and pass? Here are a few thoughts (and please feel free to correct me if I get any of these details wrong. I’m not a policy analyst-just an old retired college prof/playwright):

1) Highway bill. There’s about a 100 billion dollar gap between infrastructure needs nationally and the amount of money the gasoline/diesel tax raises for the Highway Trust fund. The gas tax is 24.4 cents a gallon, and hasn’t been raised since 1993. Raise the gasoline tax (which is comically low anyway, compared to most of the industrialized world. In Germany, for example, it’s, like, 8 bucks a gallon). There’s a Democratic bill that would raise the US tax by 15 cents a gallon, with a slighter higher hike for diesel. I don’t think that’s anywhere near enough, but it’s a start. Something needs to be done; the current approach is to toss an extra 10 billion or so into the pot every few months. A fix here should be possible.

2) Time to actually pass the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama was asked to hold it up for a few months, so that moderate Democratic red state US Senators could attack him for holding it up, distancing themselves from him, and demonstrating their ‘independence.’ Buncha cowards. Glad they lost; good riddance. Build the darn pipeline.

3) I rather like the Hire More Heroes bill, though. It’s a bill that would allow employers to not count veterans for purposes of the ACA employer mandate. Employers have to provide health care if they have 50 or more employees, but veterans already get VA benefits. Pass it; give our men and women in uniform a leg up in hiring.

4) It’s hard to imagine Republicans wanting to give this President more power, but Vox.com suggested they might pass a fast-track trade authority agreement that would make it easier for him to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Car companies don’t like it, but it’s a good bill and one Republicans have traditionally supported.

5) George F. Will had a recent column outlining the various things Congress could try to do now. It was, for the most part, a list of suggestions for legislation that, if passed, Obama will simply veto. But a repeal of the medical devices tax wouldn’t be the end of the world, and might slake some of the Republicans’ thirst for anti-Obamacare measures. Expect that to pass, and expect Obama to sign it. Though I sort of hope he doesn’t.

I’d love to hear some other suggestions. Certainly, it would be nice for Congress to actually, you know, do its job. Maybe get their approval rating up to Paris Hilton levels. Wouldn’t that be just swell.

 

 

Nightcrawler: Movie Review

Nightcrawler is the inspiring tale of a small business success story. I expect it to be cited in business schools as a perfect case study of triumphant entrepreneurship. It’s about a young man, without education or background, but full of drive and ambition, who finds a niche industry in which he can make his mark, who, through hard work and sacrifice, rises to the top. Indeed, I can only think of one popular-culture businessman’s-portrait equally inspiring; AMC’s television series about New Mexico pharmaceutical pioneer Walter White.

Rimshot. (If you missed it, that was an extended Breaking Bad joke just now). In fact, Nightcrawler is a superbly rendered portrait of pure human viciousness, an expose of the seamy underside of local television news programming, modern business ethics, and the whole positive thinking B-school mantras of success and achievement. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an extraordinary performance as an amoral creep drawn to the world of ‘nightcrawlers,’ which is to say video stringers, guys who cruise police radiowaves looking for particularly gruesome images of car wrecks, local crime stories, and other ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ sensationalism, which they then sell to local news outlets. It’s the same subculture that Richard Dutcher explored in his film Fallen. Dutcher’s film is a futile search for redemption in a lost and fallen world. This film, written and directed by veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy, discounts even the possibility of grace. It’s more like an extended exercise in the mechanics of pure sociopathy.

Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a petty crook living by his wits in LA, and desperate for the kind of career success his daily internet trolling has convinced him is within the grasp of anyone with a dream. He has a perpetual smile pasted on, talks in full sentences chock-a-block with bromides and cliches drawn from personal improvement seminars and TED talks, and he never, ever, the entire movie, blinks. His peculiar intensity creeps pretty much everyone out, except when, more or less by accident, he happens upon an auto accident being filmed by veteran nightcrawler Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). He gets his own camera, and sells some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the overnight news director of the lowest rated local newscast in LA. From then on, Lou is launched, and discovers he has a knack for getting shots other cameramen can’t (or won’t) even try for. Nina’s subordinate, Frank (Kevin Rahm), finds Lou’s footage repugnant and his methods unethical. But she outranks him, and Lou becomes the key to ratings success for a news outlet desperate for it. Meanwhile, Lou hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed) who is poor enough to work for a pittance, though increasingly troubled by Lou’s methods.

The film is thereafter structured according to that moral geometry. Lou will do literally anything to get footage for the morning news; Rick is his never-consulted conscience. Nina will follow Lou in doing anything to increase the station’s ratings; Frank is the angel on her shoulder, though one she has little trouble in ignoring. And Lou wins. Lou’s vision of the world triumphs. Nina’s success rides on his amorality.

And, of course, like any good sociopath, Lou’s primary interest in other people is in getting them to serve his purposes and ends. We see a sort of dreadful romance develop between Lou and Nina, entirely pragmatic on her part, entirely manipulative on his. And yes, they do sort of deserve each other. (It’s also beautifully played by both actors, especially Russo, who we see discover depths of pragmatic personal depravity she seems to find surprising. Like: ‘am I capable of, well, this? Yeah, guess so. How about. . . . this? Yep, that too.’

At one point, Lou points out that local news programs devote a few seconds a week on politics and public policy, spending most of every newscast on sensationalism. And the preference is for stories about crimes and tragedies in upscale white worlds; the ‘inner city crime is seeping into the suburbs narrative.’ This is not, in fact, true, as Nina and Lou both know; the stories they’re busy chasing are almost entirely anomalous. But they know their viewers. The purpose is to titillate. Their routine disclaimer–‘this footage is particularly graphic, viewer discretion is advised’–isn’t a warning, it’s a come-on.

And yet and yet. A lot of the fascination of this film is wondering what peculiarly awful footage Lou’s going to find next, and how much is he likely to get away with while broadcasting it. We’re implicated by the film as much as we’re appalled by it. We do this too, the film implies, we’re as much voyeurs as Nina is. And once we realize that Lou will literally do anything to get gory footage, we’re fascinated by that too. We do, in fact, want to watch.

As remarkable as Russo and Gyllenhaal are in the film, I was perhaps even more impressed by the acting performances of Ahmed and Rahm. Both actors do a remarkable job of conveying an essential human decency, though leavened by cowardice. In a way, their characters become even more morally culpable than Gyllenhaal’s and Russo’s characters. They know what they’re doing is repugnant. But economic dependency doth make cowards of us all; Ahmed is paid, we’re told, thirty bucks a night, but we also see how desperately he needs it. We see less of Rahm’s character–the movie’s focus is on Gyllenhaal more than Russo–but we can see, on the margins of the characterization, the same quiet desperation. He’s putting stories on the news that he knows are not just unethical, they’re lies. He does it anyway, protesting all the while, losing every inter-office fight, swallowing every insult, never quite able to quit. A wonderful, subtle performance.

It’s a tough film to watch; simultaneously, it’s compulsively watchable. It’s, literally, like watching a car wreck. It’s not so much a film you watch as one you rubberneck at. A remarkable achievement, and a film that will stay with me.

Apocalypse not

I didn’t watch the mid-term election coverage last night. My wife and I went to a movie instead: The Maze Runner.  Those were our choices: MCNBC,or Maze Runner.  Two post-apocalyptic dystopias. Hey, at least, in Alabama, the voters’ initiative banning the imposition of Sharia law passed. (Just in time, before Obama could impose it). Betcha anything the veiled cheerleaders are why Mississippi State beat The Tide.

As a liberal Democrat, of course, gallows humor is pretty much the order of the day. The Republicans now have a mandate: to not let ISIS behead too many of us, and to stop the spread of Ebola. The reality is, this was a low-turnout midterm election, coinciding with some foreign policy setbacks, and a really scary but not actually dangerous disease outbreak. Old white people got scared, and voted. Minorities had stuff to do.

Right now, here’s what national politics looks like. The Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate. So the House passes lots of bills, which the Senate doesn’t so much as even consider. And the Senate passes lots of other bills, which the House also ignores. As a result nothing gets done. President Obama does some small-scale governing, within the limits of existing legislation; other than that, bupkus. That’s the status quo. It’s going to change.

(And in the Maze Runner, these kids, all male, live in a community surrounded by massive stone walls. They have tools, a forest, the means to survive. They’ve created a nice little community for themselves. An opening in the walls leads to a series of mazes, which they’ve been mapping. But the mazes change nightly, and nobody has survived in the mazes past sundown. It’s a stable, but dangerous society. A new kid shows up once a month, along with some supplies. But nothing really changes, not really. They have a community, rules, a leader; they vote on things like chores. Stasis.)

So the Republicans now control the Senate, in addition to the House. What will this mean?

Three possible scenarios:

First, a lot of the screwier House bills that right now get passed and then go nowhere are now going to be passed by the Senate, which won’t mean much, because President Obama will simply veto them. In fact, President Obama could set a new record for vetoes. Deadlock will continue, and nothing will get solved; there’ll just be a different mechanism for inaction. I do think that the anti-Obama rhetoric we’ve enjoyed so much the last six years could ramp up exponentially. The cries of tyranny! and dictatorship! and monarchist! that the crazier elements on the Right are so fond of will increase in volume and passion. We’re going to see more bills introduced to rescind Obamacare, for example. Only now, instead of Harry Reid ignoring those bills, Obama will simply veto. Ugly as American politics has been, and racist and vicious and vile, it’s now likely to get worse, and much much more personal. Good thing Obama’s got a thick skin. (I think it would be really cool if he vetoed some of those bills from the golf course). I also think impeachment is a possibility, not that Obama’s done anything to get impeached for, but they’ll come up with something. That will fail too, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.

(And in The Maze Runner, a new kid, Thomas, shows up, and actually kills one of the horrid spider creatures that guard the mazes. This freaks everyone out; change is scary.)

On the other hand, I rather suspect that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner would very much like to, you know, govern. They have two years to prove that Republicans can actually pass a legislative agenda. There’s stuff they can do. Not every bill out there is idiotic. They could pass a highway bill, for one thing, and probably will. That’s something that needs to be done, it’s not a tough fix, and there’ll be bi-partisan support for at least something that fixes infrastructure. It’s not likely to be a particularly good highway bill–they could possibly include some kind of anti-union provision for federal contracting–but there’ll be tremendous pressure on Obama to sign it. And if it’s not horrible, he probably will.

I watched Reince Priebus on Jon Stewart last night, and he said ‘we’ll be able to force Obama to work with us. We have that power now.’ But President Obama’s always been willing to work with Republicans, as long as what they propose isn’t completely crazy.

(And in The Mazerunner, suddenly, a girl shows up, the first non-male addition to their community. This terrifies everyone. Thomas also discovers that the maze has in fact been completely mapped, and that killing the spider creature is the key to opening a door to the outside. A way to escape is open to them all. Even more terrifying; the more conservative community members are about ready to kill Thomas. Also the girl.)

Priebus said something else that terrified me, though. He said ‘now we can really get this economy going.’ Thing is, we know what Republicans want to do economically. It’ll be more of their Holy Economic Trinity: tax cuts for rich people, spending cuts for poor people, and deregulation. Oh, and probably increases in the most bloated part of the budget; defense spending. Which leads me to my third point: budgeting could get really really nasty. As awful as budget battles have been up to now, they’re particularly going to get worse now. The Tea Party smells blood. We’re in for an awful two years.

(In The Mazerunner, the spider creatures attack, and many of the kids are killed. And they escape, and more of them die. And when they find their way out of the maze, what they discover isn’t particularly triumphant or good, but more death and destruction).

Which of these three scenarios is it going to be? Tea Party triumphalism, leading to massive numbers of Presidential vetoes? Sensible compromise, and some good legislation–a highway bill, immigration policy, education initiatives? Or some bruising budgetary battles? The answer is, all three. We’re in for a tough two years.

(The Mazerunner is the first movie in a trilogy. The next two movies, telling the rest of the story, haven’t been made yet. I could cheat and read the novels, but kind of don’t want to).

And then, gazing into my crystal ball, Hillary Clinton will be elected easily, and quickly become one of the most consequential Presidents in history. And the Tea Party could, once and for all, slink back to the margins of history, joining the No-Nothings and radical anti-Masons. So, silver lining, maybe. The Mazerunner kids do get out, though to what end? Uncertain, and possibly a little bleak.  As with America itself, this fine chilly Wednesday.

Election Day

And I voted. Earlier today. Got my sticker, and a candy bar. And now, until the next election, I get to complain about how everything’s going to heck in a handbasket, and if only they’d listened to me. . . .

Of course, none of the people I voted for are going to actually win. I live in Utah’s Third Congressional District, which means the incumbent is Jason Chaffetz. He’s not a bad guy, but he is wrong about pretty much everything; he’s a Republican, after all. The district is heavily Republican, and his opponent, Brian Wonnacutt, has hardly campaigned. He’s an old short bald guy, a software engineer who has never run for public office before. But he sort of inspires me, to be honest. He’s fighting the good fight, doing the best he can. He does believe in the scientific consensus regarding global warming, which Chaffetz rejects, because, you know, Al Gore. Reason enough to vote for Wonnacutt.  He’s going to get crunched, though.

I also voted for Charles Stormont in the hotly contested State’s Attorney race. The incumbent is Sean Reyes, who was appointed after the last AG, John Swallow, was arrested for corruption. Stormont and Reyes both work in the AG’s office, which means they’re pretty much equally qualified. Utah has, of course, a proud tradition of electing Republican crooks as Attorneys General, which means both guys are running on ‘we’ve got to clean up the AG office.’ (I don’t mean that all Republicans are crooks. I know of many crooked Democrats. Just that Utah’s AG’s have had a discouraging track record).  I have no reason to think that Reyes is corrupt, but I think a Democratic AG would be a nice change of pace. But Reyes will win. This is Utah.

(Of course, the State’s Attorney race I’m most interested in pits is the race in Illinois, where Alicia Florrick is in a tough three way race, going up against Bald Evil Guy and Frazier Crane’s brother Niles. I’m rooting for Alicia, but she’s got some problems, what with her law firm representing drug dealers and stuff. Plus, I don’t think her snake of a husband being governor will help at all. For some reason, the vote there isn’t for a few months. But, you know, go Alicia!)

Anyway, I’m a Democrat, and I live in Utah, which means that most of the folks I support are going to lose. But there is also a bond measure on the ballot in Utah County. It would raise money to support Provo School District schools, many of which are in very poor shape. That bond measure really really needs to pass. Provo High is falling apart. Sunset View Elementary is structurally unsound.

And see, that’s one of the reasons to vote. Because it matters. It does actually matter.

The people I voted for are mostly going to lose. The ballot measures I most strenuously oppose will probably mostly win. But if the bond measure passes, our local schools will receive some much needed upgrades. And that’s important.

I know that political engagement can be frustrating, and that politicians can be obtuse (or worse) and that so much of our national political conversation is, oh my gosh, infuriating. Trying to use the political process to do good in this world can feel like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. But I will cling to my spoon til the day I die, and I will dip and pour, dip and pour, and maybe some tiny good will come from it. So go vote. It doesn’t take much time, and it isn’t particularly painful. Grab your spoon. Let’s empty that ocean together.

Madlibs news

You know the game Mad libs? It involves a story of some kind, but with details missing. “_____ and ______ ______ to the ______, where they’re attacked by a savage_____.” And you say to your friend, ‘give me someone’s name. Now a noun. Next, an active verb. Followed by a noun.’ And they go ‘Iggy Azalea. Daffodil. Brick. Zip. Aardvark.’  And you fill in the blanks: “Iggy Azalea and a daffodil breathe to the brick where they’re attacked by a savage aardvark.” (Answers, in this case, provided by my wife). And we all laugh. And, in this case, root for the aardvark.

Well, watching some of the Sunday news programs, it occurred to me that the news cycle has become a big game of Madlibs. It goes like this: “___a___ is a huge problem. It poses an existential threat to the continuing existence of the __b____. But ___c___ has not _____d_____. Instead, President Obama has ___e____.  As a result, ____f___.  What’s needed now is ____g_____.” Everything’s always an emergency, and the threat level is always high. And that very last blank, the correct answer is always “Presidential leadership.” Which, in every instance, has been inadequate. That’s the game; that’s how the story is shaped.

Let’s play. a) has included, in recent months, Syria, Ukraine, Putin, ISIS, and Ebola. b) is pretty much always The United States, unless it’s The Planet. c) is always ‘current polices’ and d) is ‘have not succeeded. e) is pretty much always ‘has not formed a policy,’ or ‘been indecisive,’ unless we watch Fox, in which case it’s ‘has been playing golf.’  f) changes depending on the story; it could be ‘Syria remains a trouble spot,’ or ‘Ukraine’s government is endangered,’ or ‘we’re all going to die of Ebola.’ g), of course, is ‘Presidential leadership.’ It’s always Presidential leadership that’s lacking, is needed, has not been forthcoming. It’s pretty much always Obama’s fault.

The national, mainstream media loves this storyline. ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC; they all rely on the same script.  It’s dramatic. It can be sustained indefinitely. It turns every situation, domestic or international, into a crisis. They imagine us, home watching television, shaking in our boots. (Mostly, we’re not. Me, I’ve been watching the World Series). And of course, all those news organizations pretty much have to do this to justify their existence. They are competing for audience share, and the shows with which they’re competing are similarly expert in creating a breathless sense of drama and urgency and crisis. Will the cops on CSI catch the serial killer? Will the Walking Dead folks get turned into zombies? Will Tom Brady win another ring?  Will Penny dump Leonard, will Sheldon get a clue about Amy? Will Isis attack Manhattan, will Ebola kill us all?

The answer to those last two questions, of course, is no. Emphatically, definitively no. Isis controls part of northern Syria and western Iraq, and are primarily a threat to the Kurds and to Yazidi Christians. Isis poses a humanitarian threat, of course, and if the Iraqi army is unable to cope with them–and so far, the Iraqi army’s response has been tragi-comically inadequate, though Kurdish forces have been far more effective–there may be further steps that the international community, most especially the UN, may have to take. But the notion that ISIS poses a genuine threat to the United States is preposterous. We know what ISIS wants–to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. That goal is entirely unachievable. There are a few things the US can properly do about ISIS. For the most part, President Obama has done them.

As for Ebola, well, it’s a terrible disease, in West Africa. There have been approximately thirteen thousand reported cases, mostly in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and to a lesser degree, Guinea. Around five thousand people have died. That’s awful. Five thousand of our fellow human beings, dead. What a dreadful thing for those people, those communities, those families.  The World Health Organization has been highly (and properly) critical of the inadequacy of the international response to the disease, insisting that proper quarantine measures could completely contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control has been working on a possible treatment, and Doctors Without Borders’ medical personnel have been absolutely heroic.

But here? In the US? Have you heard the joke about Ebola? I’m not going to tell it; you won’t get it. (rimshot). There is no Ebola crisis in the United States. It’s not an easy disease to catch, and if you haven’t been working in close proximity to Ebola patients, in personal contact with their bodily emissions, you’re not going to get sick with it. Watch; the next big story is going to be people getting the flu, and panicking, because they’re sure it’s Ebola. The national news has been ridiculously irresponsible in their reporting of this issue. It’s not a crisis.

But Madlibs news is pretty much always irresponsible. It’s always interesting to watch ABC’s This Week news program. The New York Marathon took place yesterday. ABC previewed the race. What was their focus? The possibility of a terrorist attack. Of course. Terrorists are scary.

And so these oh-so-serious journalists interview actual terrorism experts, and ask serious questions about the serious security measures in place during the race, and it all sounds really seriously dangerous. And the people they interview take the possibility of terrorism seriously—that’s their job. They can’t very well say ‘look, there’s essentially no chance of a terrorist attack at this race.’ They’d look terrible if there were an attack. But they ran the race, and there was no attack, and honestly, that’s about what we should all have expected.  Our reaction shouldn’t be ‘whew. Dodged a bullet there.’ It should be, ‘life goes on. Nice job, Wilson Kipsang.’ He’s the dude that won it.  Good for him. Amazing athlete. Make him the story.

Human beings are terrible at risk assessment. We really are pathetically bad at it. We’re terrified of an exotic foreign disease, while munching down Big Macs, blithely ignoring the fact that nobody in the US has died of Ebola, and 600,000 of us die annually of heart disease. We freak out over the possibility of an airplane crash, but drive ourselves to the airport in our cars, quite forgetting that the drive is much more dangerous than the plane ride. And, of course, terrorism has us terrorized. While 30,000 people die a year from gun violence.

The Madlibs approach to news has, of course, political implications. President Obama’s approval ratings are very low right now. In Utah’s hottest Congressional race right now (and one in which I, alas, can’t vote, because I don’t live in that district), Mia Love will probably beat Doug Owens. Her ad campaign is breathtaking in its simplicity–she shows a picture of Doug Owens and a picture of President Obama. Boom. As much as the Republican House is loathed nationally, most Republican incumbents are going to win reelection, and Democrats are in trouble. Why? Because President Obama hasn’t ‘done anything’ about ‘all those crises.’ Because he ‘hasn’t shown Presidential leadership.’  Fill in the Madlibs blanks. Old people vote Republican, old people watch the news, and old people scare easily. And voting’s hard. You have to, like, stand in line. It’s going to be a landslide.

And the one thing you can’t say is the simple truth. ISIS is not a crisis. Ukraine is not a crisis. Ebola, for heaven’s sake, is absolutely no crisis at all. President Obama has handled all those situations exactly appropriately, because in each case, there wasn’t much to be done. The ‘lack of leadership’ meme is a phony, fake narrative, drummed up for the sake of ratings by news organizations desperate for relevancy. ____a_____ is actually ___b_____. The only thing we have to ___c____ is ______d_____ itself. Fill in the blanks. a) America. b) doing fine. c) fear. d) fear.

 

The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs: Book review

Greil Marcus is an historian, a rock critic and a cultural commentator, known for books that tie together rock and roll music and recent American and world history. His most recent book is The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, which it is my pleasure to review and to recommend. The ten songs of the title are not, of course, the only songs discussed in the book, but they’re carefully, if somewhat idiosyncratically chosen; not the songs most folks, or most rock historians would recommend. Many of them, I had never heard of. But the free-wheeling discussions of those songs, and of the artists who covered them, is lucid, thoughtful, tough-minded, intelligent. I loved this book.

May I also recommend that, if at all possible, you purchase and read this book on Kindle, or some other kind of tablet device. The reason is simple: you’re going to want to listen to the songs, and in many cases, you’re going to want to watch videos of the songs in live performance.  If you’re like me, you’re not going to know at least some of them, or recall them to memory. This is less a book than a book experience, and to fully appreciate Marcus’ discussions of these songs, you’re going to need to have them immediately accessible.

He begins the book by quoting this provocative conversation between journalist Bill Flanagan and Neil Young, in 1986:

“The one thing that rock and roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequence. The country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself to church. Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”

“That’s right,” Young said, “Rock and roll is reckless abandon. Rock and roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock and roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.”

And those quotations set the stage for the rest of Marcus’ discussion. It’s a book about how rock and roll inverts time, reverses cause and effect. It’s about rediscovery and re-imagining. It’s about how brilliantly some artists make an old song their own, and use it to comment on their own time and place. It’s about odd psychic connections between performers and eras.  It’s not so much about timelessness as it is about the ubiquity of time-specificity. It’s quite specifically about Cyndi Lauper turning a mid-seventies Brains’ song Money Changes Everything, and turning into a theatrical punk anthem, all rage and fury and hard-earned truth. And Amy Winehouse finding truth and meaning in a sentimental standard. And it’s about a superb conceptual artist finding a way to memorialize tragedy.

Marcus begins with a discussion of The Flamin’ Groovies and their 1976 hit, Shake Some Action. I’d never heard of this band or song–I was on a mission in 1976–but it’s remarkable, an “argument about life, captured in sound.” It’s a song full of reckless abandon, an unstable song, in which the constituent elements, drums, bass, guitars, vocals, are in constant and exquisite tension with each other. A nice way to begin a book about exactly that tension driving an entire art form.

Next comes Transmission, by the Manchester punk band Joy Division, featured in the 2007 film Control. It’s a song that deconstructs the power of radio, built again on instability and danger. Said Joy Division co-founder Bernard Sumner, “I saw the Sex Pistols (in Manchester, in 1976, in a hall that barely held a hundred people). They were terrible. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.”

In the Still of the Nite was a doo-wap classic, originally recorded by the Five Satins in 1956. Sung by the nineteen year old Fred Parris with some high school buddies, on leave while in the army. It made every oldies album ever. It was featured in American Graffiti and in Dirty Dancing. And then David Cronenberg used it in Dead Ringers, and it took on a whole new meaning. This is also part of Marcus’ project in this book; to show how relatively innocuous songs become darker and more violent as they’re used by great film directors.

Marcus uses the Etta James classic All I Could Do is Cry to explore the kaleidoscope of meanings surrounding the Barack Obama inauguration in 2013, the selection of Beyonce and not Etta James–still alive, and furious at the omission– to sing At Last, the exquisite, and exquisitely inauthentic perfection of Beyonce, and how, playing Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, Beyonce still somehow transcended her own status as media creation and idol, and found the profound and ugly truth of the pre-civil rights era music scene.

Marcus does include one Buddy Holly song, not That’ll be the Day or Peggy Sue, but Crying, Waiting, Hoping, and segues into a brilliant discussion of the Rolling Stones’ cover of Not Fade Away, and the Beatles’ earlier cover of Crying, Waiting, Hoping.  So, yes, his history of rock music does include terrific discussions of, you know, the usual suspects, the Beatles and Stones and Dylan.

He then takes a chapter off, so to speak, to write a lengthy alternative history of rock, imagining that Robert Johnson had never died, but had lived to see his music memorialized.

But in the next chapter, after this little Delta blues interlude, Marcus gets to the heart of his thesis. He ties together Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), as later covered by the Beatles, and The Brains’ Money Changes Everything, as finally covered by Cyndi Lauper. Music is truth and truth is beauty, but behind it all is poverty and despair and the desperate truth that money is actually what makes a difference. John Lennon, born in Liverpool into abject poverty, and Cyndi Lauper, haunting the New York music scene for eight years, raped twice, hospitalized for malnutrition, later found a solid core of pure truth in songs about money, the power of it, the necessity of it, but also the way it warps humanity. Watch Lauper’s live performance of Money Changes Everything, kicking a garbage can around the stage, then climbing into the garbage can and soaring over the audience, triumphant and wiser and sadder than ever.  It’s on Youtube. I don’t seem to be able to link to it right now, but watch it. Marcus is never better than in that chapter.

And then, three wistful codas. First, he writes about This Magic Moment, first recorded by the Drifters, but then, cold-blooded as a rattler, covered by Lou Reed, and used by David Lynch in The Lost Highway. Next, Guitar Drag, less a rock song than a piece of avant-garde multi-media art, by Christian Marclay. A guitar is dragged behind a pickup truck. Just as James Byrd was murdered, in 1998, dragged behind a truck. An unforgettable moment.

And finally, To Know Him is to Love Him. The most treacly and sentimental of all songs, first recorded by the Teddy Bears, in 1958. And later covered, in a revelatory performance, by Amy Winehouse. Revealing, finally, everything we lost when that brilliant young woman’s life ended so tragically. Because that’s rock and roll too. Brilliance cut short, far too frequently.

I spent one day devoted to this book, looking up the songs and listening to them (sometimes repeatedly), and then devouring (and at times arguing mentally with) Marcus’ discussions of them. What an exhilarating read. Really, if this subject at all resonates with you, read this book.  You’ll be thrilled at how much you have to think about afterwards.

 

 

Madison Bumgarner

Last night, the San Francisco Giants, my favorite baseball team–heck, my favorite sports team since I was, like, eleven–won the World Series. If human beings are, by nature, tribal–we Oogites good, you Jookians bad!–sports fandom is an artificial recreation of ancient warfares and hostilities. We choose up sides based on accidents of geography, or on whim, caprice–we find ourselves rooting for laundry. Sometimes even explicitly–we root for the team wearing red socks, though we carefully misspell it ‘sox’ as though to distance or even absolve ourselves of the inherent silliness of the enterprise.

But sports fandom is also a celebration of human accomplishment. In that sense, a great athlete’s accomplishment are similar to any amazing thing done by homo sapiens. When I look at the cave drawings at Lascaux, I’m filled with awe, and also with a sense of human kinship. Watching a great pitcher pitch or a great sprinter sprint or a great gymnast fly is like listening to a great symphony or reading a great novel. It’s something amazing done by a fellow sojourner on this planet.

So today, I celebrate the San Francisco Giants. Which means, this year, celebrating the one reason above all that my favorite team won the championship. It means, above all, celebrating Madison Bumgarner.

Madbum, as he’s affectionately known, is a 25 year old from Hudson North Carolina. In fact, he’s from an area known locally as ‘Bum-town,’ named after his family. He’s distantly related to the actor James Garner. He married his high school sweetheart, Ali Saunders. He gave her a cow for a wedding present, and wore jeans to their wedding. He’s a Baptist. And this World Series, he pitched better than anyone ever has in the history of the game of baseball.

The World Series is best of seven, which means that the first team to win four games wins the series. No single pitcher has won four games by himself, but Bumgarner is the 13th to win three. So let’s say that those are the thirteen greatest pitching performances of all time.  If winning the World Series is the ultimate goal in the sport, then it follows that pitching brilliantly in three games in any series would give your team an immense advantage. Here’s the list of 3 game winners.

Five of the 3 game winners pitched back in baseball’s Pleistocene era, when teams may not carry more than five pitchers, where home runs were rare, and therefore pitchers could afford to coast through some early innings, and rest wasn’t as paramount as it would become. So I’m going to discount the accomplishments of Bill Dinneen, Babe Adams, Jack Coombs, Sam Wood and Red Faber all of whom pitched from 1903-1917. Christie Mathewson of the Giants, however, was 25 years old in 1905, same age Bumgarner is now, and pitched three shutouts in that series. He gave up zero runs in three games. He’s the closest comparison to Bumgarner.

Bob Gibson won three games in pitching the Cardinals to the World Series victory in 1967, won two games in 1968, and was on the mound in game Seven in ’68, losing to Mickie Lolich. I remember that game vividly. I had ‘borrowed’ my Dad’s transistor radio, and taken it to school, and I spent all of recess wandering around the playground at my school, trying to find the best radio reception. Mr. Elkins, the one male teacher teaching at Grandview Elementary saw me, and kept sidling up to me for updates, and he allowed me to have a little longer recess so I could keep him posted.  Gibson pitched games 1, 4 and 7 of the ’67 series, and allowed 1, 0 and 3 runs in those three games. It was an astonishing performance.

The other comparable performance would be Randy Johnson’s in 2001. Johnson pitched a shutout in game 2 of that series, and allowed 2 runs in the game 5 blowout. He then pitched in relief in game 7, and won the game, but he did give up what should have been the winning run in the 8th inning of that game. But the Diamonbacks rallied against Mariano Rivera in the 9th, and Johnson was named MVP.

Bumgarner started game 1 of this year’s series, and won, allowing one late run, a meaningless home run by Salvador Perez. He pitched a shutout in game 5. Then, in game 7, on two days rest, he pitched the last five innings, allowing nothing.  All the pressure in the world on him. The Giants led 3-2 when he came into the game, and that was also the final score.

The greatest World Series pitcher of all time is probably Bob Gibson. The greatest single World Series may be that of Christie Mathewson. But Bumgarner has a collective Earned Run Average, in five Series games, of 0.25. Nobody’s close to that. At the very least, he deserves to be mentioned along with Curt Schilling, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson as one of the most remarkable clutch pitchers ever. And I put him number one. By almost any measure, the Giants should not have beaten the Royals in this World Series. They won because of Madbum. What a remarkable pitcher. What an extraordinary series.