Trump’s economic speech

Donald Trump was in Detroit over the weekend, giving a major policy speech on the state of the economy. Here’s the speech transcript, and here’s the Washington Post’s fact-checking article. So here we go, finally; a substantive description of what Trump’s economic plans might be.

I say ‘might be’, because it’s not like Trump hasn’t been talking about the economy all along. But he’s been doing it in his own idiosyncratic Trumpian way–dropping hints, riffing off the top of his head, dropping little factoids (none of them even remotely accurate), and commenting on them. And, of course, bragging. And what he’s said up to now hasn’t added up to, you know, ‘policy.’ He’s going to cut taxes; no, he’s not either going to raise taxes. He’s going to spend money on infrastructure; no, he’s not either going to do that. He’s going to make America great again. We’re going to win again. It’s all slogans and taglines, well seasoned with braggadocio. He has put some details of something that looks like an economic program on his website, but it bears little resemblance to his big Detroit address. He has now appointed a council of economic advisors. I think it’s likely they had a hand in writing his speech. So let’s dig into it.

Of course, the national news media has described the Detroit speech as a ‘campaign reboot.’ His tendency to make things up as he goes along has led to a very weird couple of weeks, in which he has picked a fight with a Gold Star family, suggested that Russia will never invade Ukraine (despite having done so two years ago), and kicked a baby out of a rally. He keeps shooting himself in the foot. He needs to quit. He needs to ‘appear Presidential.’ Hence a big, serious speech on economic policy. Read from a teleprompter. He looks like a loon right now; he needs to cut it out. He needs to seem grounded, serious, thoughtful.

So the mainstream media response to the Detroit speech is essentially drama criticism. Did he make this reboot look plausible? Was his delivery sufficiently grave? Did he seem Presidential?

I’m a drama guy, a theatre guy, and I don’t care. I’m interested in policy. I want to read his speech, and look at the specific proposals he offers, and see if they make sense. Under President Obama, the US economy has enjoyed the longest sustained period of economic growth. On the other hand, it’s not very robust growth–2 percent, more or less. We’d like it to grow more. Hillary Clinton has, on her website, a detailed job plan. It’s specific and detailed, with actual numbers you can look at. Trump’s never had anything like that on his website. But now we have a speech to look at.

It’s very . . . Republican. All the problems in our economy are caused by high taxes and regulation. And the first step, says Trump, is tax reform.

My plan will reduce the current number of brackets from 7 to 3, and dramatically streamline the process. We will work with House Republicans on this plan, using the same brackets they have proposed: 12, 25 and 33 percent. For many American workers, their tax rate will be zero.

Hey, your taxes are going down! Isn’t that great?

No. It’s not.

For most working people, the federal income tax is a negligible part of their tax burden. The federal tax that affects them the most is FICA, which pays for Social Security and Medicare. That won’t be diminished under Trump. The most effective federal anti-poverty program is the Earned Income Credit, which enables working families to pay a big annual bill–a car repair, replacing an appliance, put money aside for education . . . or pay a medical bill. Trump doesn’t address the EIC. No, this is a major tax cut for rich people.

And he has no way to pay for it. This tax plan will drastically reduce federal tax revenues. That’s all there is to it. He does not propose any corresponding spending cuts. If you are the kind of person who sees deficit and debt reduction as centrally important political issues, then you cannot, cannot support Donald Trump. He’s going to blow the budget up.

The corporate tax cut (which I actually agree with) is a tax that is easily dodged; very few big corporations pay it. Still, I don’t mind that tax cut; we’re not particularly competitive. But I had a warm fuzzy feeling when I saw Trump call for the end of the ‘death tax.’ Republicans have been inveighing against estate taxes since Caesar conquered Gaul; nice to see the New Improved Trump actually act, for once, like a Republican.

But it’s a terrible idea. The estate tax, let’s remind ourselves, was first proposed by that wild-eyed radical socialist commie, John Adams, who thought it would prevent the growth of a parasitic aristocratic class. (They had their own Paris Hiltons even then). Right now, the estate tax wouldn’t affect poor people, poor farmers, small businessmen of modest means, or the middle class. It’s a tax that really does only affect rich people; trust fund kids. How about, for once, leaving the estate tax alone?

But none of these proposals will help working class people at all. None of Trump’s proposals will lift anyone out of poverty, or in any sense whatever help lower class, lower-middle class, or middle class people at all. It’s trickle-down economics all the way. Trump is the Republican candidate for President of the United States. He’s got an economic council of Republican advisors. He’s gone back to the economic proposals of Jeb Bush. It’s a massive sell-out to his followers.

I found it a depressing speech. I’m enough of a cock-eyed optimist that I have, in the past, harbored some hopes that the Trump candidacy might actually accomplish some good. This speech ended that possibility.

For forty years, close enough, the Republican establishment has run for office on a platform of tax cuts for rich people, deregulation of business, and increased military spending. The Trump candidacy had, up to now, revealed how fed-up Republican voters were with an economic plan that wouldn’t help them at all, that would do nothing but increase income inequality. Trump’s kind of unhinged, but he did, at least, at times, talk dismissively of that particular agenda. (Of course, what he replaced it with was know-nothing nativism). Now, he’s acting Presidential (emphasis on acting–who knows what he really believes). The result is depressing. There’s not a single academic macroeconomist on his council of advisors. They’re all hedge fund guys (‘six guys named Steve,’ in Hillary Clinton’s clever phrase). They want to keep getting richer. And screw everyone else. So that’s what they put in the speech they wrote for Trump.

It’s a lousy plan, and it won’t work. The good news is, it has little chance of ever being enacted.

 

Star Trek Beyond: Movie Review

Star Trek Beyond has a lot going for it, not least of which is the absence of J. J. Abrams as its director. No disrespect intended, but Star Trek Into Darkness, which Abrams directed, never really succeeded as a Star Trek movie at all.  Too noisy, too busy, too frenetic; it never settled down and let the Star Trek mythos breathe. Abrams is famous as a Spielberg protege, and Super 8 was a lovely Spielberg homage. But Abrams has since been handed the keys to not one, but two beloved franchises, both with the word ‘Star’ in the title, and so far has made a frightful hash of them both. It was dismaying to see that Justin Lin, the Taiwan-born director of the last few Fast and the Furious movies, was helming this new Star Trek, but pleasantly surprised to see the actual movie.

Lin gets it. He didn’t just make another paint-by-numbers action movie. He understands that Star Trek is built on an ensemble cast, that it’s built on fully drawn and interesting characters and the relationships between them. And he understands that the Star Trek universe is, in a real sense, joyful. It’s about Space as an actual, next frontier. It’s about exploring that space. It’s about the personal and family cost of that exploration. This is a much more human film than the previous two. And Lin knows how to direct an action sequence.

Best of all, this film has Idris Elba, playing an alien villain named Krall, who (SPOILER) turns out to be neither really alien nor all that villainous. And the film begins asking the kinds of pesky questions that Star Trek films should be asking, like what happens when exploration becomes routine and boring?

Obviously the Chris Pine/Zachary Quinto/Karl Urban/Simon Pegg cast of Enterprise shipmates doesn’t enjoy the relaxed camaraderie of classic Shatner/Nimoy/Doohan/Kelley.  But Quinto is a terrific Spock, bringing a genuine wit to the role. Chris Pine is a perfectly adequate Captain Kirk, and Urban has really grown into a fine Bones. And I loved some of the smaller touches. I loved seeing John Cho as Sulu, with his husband and their little daughter. That nod to marriage equality took up exactly as much space as it needed to, which is to say, very little, but it made for a lovely moment. And Zoe Saldana is a firecracker as Uhura.

It wouldn’t be Star Trek without the obligatory hot alien babe, in this case a martial arts wielding stripy alien named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who the movie introduces, who does some stunning stunt work, rescues the crew, and then spends the last third of the movie on its periphery, wondering she should do next.

I did mourn when the Enterprise is destroyed. That’s not a spoiler–it happens early on, and can be seen in the trailers–but come on. The Star Ship Enterprise is as much a character as of the crew, and she keeps getting wrecked in this reboot. The movies have not treated the ship kindly. And the ship is the point–one of the things we all loved about the series is the Enterprise. We love the holodecks and the Jeffries tubes and the voice of the computer, we loved the replicators and Bones’ sick bay, and engineering, and the various intricacies of transporting. Most of this film takes place on another ship entirely, an old one, wrecked on Jaylah’s planet and in need of repair, but, due to Scotty’s savvy, still spaceworthy. That was also a fun conceit, but still. We want the Enterprise to fly, and we want to live in her with the rest of the crew.

And the ending is laugh-out-loud funny.

This requires another SPOILER, but here you go. Krall’s an alien–or at least, he’s an evolved human–and he enjoys vastly superior technology. Kirk and the crew have to chase him down, and they no longer have the Enterprise to do it in; just this clunky old ship Scotty’s holding together with chewing gum and baling wire. Even if they catch Krall and his forces (who are heading towards what appears to be the space age equivalent of the Mall of America), how are they going to stop him?

But, see, Krall’s got all these little fighter jets, and their flight paths are coordinated via some kind of data stream. Which they disrupt, using ancient (our day) earth techonology. VHS, actually. If they broadcast sufficiently annoying music . . . And what could be better than the Beastie Boys, singing Sabotage.

I laughed out loud, right there in the theater. They rip off the original Independence Day! Except, instead of a virus on a Mac, they disrupt vastly superior alien technology with, of all bands, the Beastie Boys. Perfect.

This Star Trek movie isn’t perfect. It’s sort of clunky, and it spends a lot of time with various configurations of the bridge crew wandering around an alien landscape looking for each other. Also, it’s very coy about something that Captain Kirk should take much more seriously–casualties. Hundreds of crew die when the ship’s destroyed, and yet the movie takes those deaths much much too lightly. It’s a flawed Star Trek movie. It was still one of the more entertaining summer movies, and a movie that makes this particular series reboot worth watching. We enjoyed it a lot more than I was afraid I would.

 

Trump’s appeal, and the white underclass

A conservative friend of mine sent me this article from American Conservative magazine. It’s an interview with J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Legacy, a recent memoir. Vance came from a dirt-poor Appalachian family, and eventually graduating from Yale Law School. Fascinating interview, and a must-read book. And an interesting look at the political phenomenon of our day, the Donald Trump candidacy.

Trump’s strongest demographic is white men, and especially white men without college educations. It’s a group of people easily demonized. I’ve been reading Nancy Isenberg’s terrific historical study, White Trash; when I finish, I’ll review it here. But in short, the history of our nation is the history of class tensions, and the wholesale denigration of poor white people. We know, of course, that America’s prosperity was built, in part, on the backs of slaves. But Isenberg makes a persuasive case for an equally insidious dynamic; the deliberate division of American whites into social classes. And that remains partly true today.

The Vance interview adds a fascinating perspective on class, as it played itself our in his life and career. And I was fascinated by his political insights. After some moving descriptions of the desperate circumstances poor whites face all over the country, Vance says that neither major party has anything to offer the rural poor. Democrats offer ‘smug condescension,’ exasperation over people voting against their own economic self-interests, plus some handouts, which folks don’t much want. Republicans, of course, offer deregulation, tax cuts, plus free trade. Then, this:

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

I understand that. Trump’s candidacy resonates with a group of people who have been ignored, discounted and insulted. Trump’s rudeness, his thin-skinned inability to let any criticism go unchallenged, his willingness to break with what we have come to regard as the civilized norms for political discourse, all that makes him more, not less popular with his base. They share that sense of resentment, of having been put down and discounted. Trump speaks to them, precisely because he ‘tells it like it is.’ What strikes most of  us as rhetorical excesses resonate with his supporters.

Vance uses the word ‘elite’ a lot. And that’s become an important word in this election season.  It’s ‘the elites’ who rigged the election for Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders, ‘the elites’ who negotiated terrible trade deals that hurt the Rust Belt, ‘elites’ who condescend to and put down everyone who is not ‘elite.’

Vance talks about people he knew at Yale, who had never met a member of the white underclass, a professor who said that Yale should never accept students from state universities. Trump, says Vance, is the one guy who actively seems to fight elite sensibilities.

I get that. I understand that resentment, that feeling that people look down on you, or put you down. And I certainly think that Democrats can seem condescending.

But the ‘elite’ tag is most often applied to Hillary Clinton in his campaign. And I don’t get it. Yes, she’s a former First Lady; yes, she graduated from Yale. But her family background was anything but elite. Hillary’s kin were Pennsylvania coal miners. Her Dad got a football scholarship to Penn State, and was able to get an education. He became a moderately successful businessman, but Hillary’s childhood was hardly one of luxury and privilege. Bill Clinton’s family was dirt-poor. Okay, through a combination of hard work, good grades and scholarships, both Bill and Hillary made it to Yale Law School. (As did Vance). I wouldn’t say either of them come from ‘elite’ backgrounds.

An elite background would look more like this: a millionaire father, elite prep schools, Wharton School of Finance, and then a million dollar loan to start his business. Like, say, Donald Trump.

So, this season, we seem to be inhabiting a topsy-turvy world in which the Clintons are ‘elite’ and Trump is ‘champion of the working man.’ How do we liberals, we Democrats, we progressives reach out to those voters? How do we begin a conversation with this group of fellow Americans?

And at this point, I start to feel pretty pessimistic. I can think of lots of strategies that won’t work; I can’t think of any that might. We could, for example, do a point by point comparison between Trump’s policies (to the extent that he has any), and those of Secretary Clinton. Hard to see how that wouldn’t come across as kind of smarty-pants, in a ‘if you were smarter, you’d realize how bad Trump’s policies are’ kind of way. Or we could carefully explain to folks how much we enlightened Democrats can do for them. Mansplainin’ works so well when it’s men talking down to women; I’m sure it’ll work just fine if it’s urbansplainin’ to rural voters.

If Trump wins, we’ll have a stronger case to make. His policies will be disastrous, especially for the working poor; once the economy collapses again, we’ll have a case to make to fix things. But if (as I hope) Hillary wins, it’ll be time to really show what we can do. How about a major jobs effort in economically depressed areas? We have to do something. Because the kind of poverty Vance grew up with is not acceptable.

Why I stay

On Friday, I spoke at Sunstone, on the subject ‘Why I stay.’ A number of you were kind enough to ask if you could read the talk. Here it is:

“First, a moment of candor: I am a Mormon, because I was raised in a Mormon family. I grew up going to Church every Sunday, attending Primary and MIA; when I turned 19, I went on a mission. I never seriously considered doing otherwise. Why did I stay? Because, growing up, it never occurred to me to not stay.

Had I not grown up LDS, I think it unlikely that I would have found the Church on my own. But I don’t regret my lifelong membership and activity. Which is also not to say that I haven’t been tempted, that I haven’t suffered moments of doubt and difficulty and heartsickness over retrograde policies and cultural cluelessness. We stay for legitimate reasons, I think. Those of our faith who leave have similarly legitimate reasons for it.

It was on my mission when I experienced my first moments of cognitive dissonance. It wasn’t just the authoritarian style of my mission leadership. I didn’t know any better; I thought mission rules were supposed to be arbitrary and harsh. And while the policy of racially determined priesthood exclusion nagged at my conscience, it just didn’t come up very often. I was, after all, serving in blonde-haired blue-eyed Norway.

No, that first ripple in my testimony came as the result of a talk, by a General Authority, at a mission conference.  Here’s why we weren’t baptizing; here’s what we should do about it. Why were Norwegians not responding to our message? Pride, the sinful pride of you missionaries, he said, and disobedience. (‘Balderdash,’ said the little voice in my head). He left us with more unnecessary and arbitrary rules to follow—blue-suits-only was one, forcing me to leave my perfectly serviceable brown suit in the closet—and he mandated a new door approach, which he promised would lead to much more mission success, as defined by more baptisms. The door approach was woefully ill-suited for the Norwegian culture, and frankly kind of Gestapo, enough so that I thought it was likely to get us arrested. I did try it for most of one day—I was a district leader, and felt I had to lead by example, until my companion begged me to stop. And we did nearly get arrested. And I had to face a dismaying reality—a General Authority had spoken, presumably by inspiration, misidentifying the difficulties we faced as a mission, and prescribing preposterous solutions. This was not supposed to happen.

Nor were his solutions instructively absurd, the blue suits a blood-on-the-lintels act of devotion. As time went on, in fact, I couldn’t help but notice that the missionaries who baptized were those most dismissive of this particular GA’s prescriptions, and most prone to call him by a particularly unkind but probably inevitable nickname. Strict obedience was, quite specifically, what didn’t work. And that gradual realization became increasingly devastating.

I’m not going to tell you the name of that General Authority. For many years, I wouldn’t listen to him speak in Conference. Of course, he wasn’t the only one whose talks I thought were best avoided. The wife of a former stake President once said ‘if you aren’t filled with the desire to throw your shoe at the TV during General Conference at least occasionally, you probably aren’t paying attention.’ For them, as well as for us, inspiration is, at best, intermittent.

Getting a revelation is exceptionally difficult. When I’m struggling for an answer to a prayer, I can literally spend hours pondering and praying and trying to listen. And I’m rarely certain that my prayers have been answered, and oftentimes, subsequent events will prove that I wasn’t inspired at all. Culture is a powerful force, and its whisperings can drown out the still small voice, even if we can tell the difference between them.

The brother in charge of our region was trying to come up with an answer to an intractable problem; the difficulty in preaching the Restoration to affluent western Europeans. Western American conservative culture tends to be authoritarian, and so he was led to an authoritarian answer. He was a cultural conservative, and spoke as one. It was wrong for me to have judged him, or to hold a grudge for so long. He was a good man, struggling to hear and respond to the Spirit. It took me a long time to gain that more charitable perspective.

And why did I seek that perspective? Because I did, over the course of two years service in Norway, also grow a testimony. Yes, I was disillusioned. But I began also to feel blessed.

What does that mean, to have a testimony? I want to use language with specificity and precision, and that means, perhaps, resisting culturally familiar, but imprecise usages and clichés. I do not ever say, for example, that “I know the Church is true.” Or “I know that the Book of Mormon is true.” I don’t know what those words mean. I don’t know what ‘true’ means in describing an organization. If I say ‘this book is true,’ I’m probably referring to Newton’s Principia, not Second Nephi.

What I can say is this; that through service to other people, total strangers in fact, I began to have thoughts and feelings that seemed to me to have been externally generated. I would speak to someone in my halting Norwegian, and suddenly be overcome with a rush of unanticipated eloquence. I would see a distant house late on a night wasted in fruitless tracting, and a thought would occur—don’t go home, don’t quit for the night. You need to get to that house now. And a door would open. Teaching a lesson, I would suddenly know that the doctrine we were teaching was irrelevant to this person’s life, and that I needed immediately to switch gears and talk about something else. And I would follow that impulse, and see a life transform.

To what then can I testify? To something quite limited, it seems to me, but also at least potentially liberating. I can testify that I felt, at times, influenced by a power outside myself, and that I continue to feel so influenced. But it also works; pragmatically, it genuinely gets the job done.

So, two things. I got home from my mission in June of 1977. The first movie I saw when I got home was Star Wars; it was also what I saw the next eight times I went to see a movie. Just for some historical context. But anyway, July, 1977, I got home from work one day and saw that the new Ensign had arrived. I leafed through it, and read a talk by President Kimball. A gospel vision of the arts. This paragraph blew me away.

For years, I have been waiting for someone to do justice . . . to the story of the Restoration . . . the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions . . . the transitions . . . the persecution days.

I did not know, at that point, what I wanted to do with my life. But that article hit me like, well, like Luke’s missile hitting the Death Star. In an instant, sitting on the sofa in my parents’ living room, I knew, who I was and who I was supposed to become and what I was supposed to do. I would be a playwright, and perhaps at times an essayist and novelist but mostly a playwright, and I would write, in part, about my own culture. Unsparingly, truthfully, compassionately, but with integrity; I would write about my people. Later, in college and in grad school, I would find models for my own writing—Ibsen and Chekhov, Tom Stoppard and Athol Fugard, and when I discovered Angels in America, the great Tony Kushner. But that moment, reading that Ensign article, that was what launched me. A revelation? A vision? Or just a flash of ambition? Whatever the source, wherever it came from, it began in single moment, and has lasted a lifetime.

The next moment of inspiration came in 1978. I was in a BYU choir, and we sang the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s magnificent piece, The Redeemer. I was a tall bass, and shared a riser with a tall blonde soprano. We chatted a bit during rehearsal breaks. At one point, she turned away, and I found myself looking at her, just the side of her lovely face, framed by her blonde hair.

It wasn’t love at first sight, not at all. We were both in choir again the next fall, and became friends. We liked a lot of the same books, we enjoyed the same music. Our relationship didn’t turn romantic for many months. But at that moment, sharing a riser, singing a piece of music we both loved, I knew, absolutely knew, that this person was going to be an important part of my life. She was a girl I shared a riser with; it’s entirely possible we would never have met again. But I knew, in my heart, that something beyond that choir and that music was going on. I didn’t think ‘that’s the girl I’m going to marry.’ Turns out, it was, and our marriage has become the centerpiece of the last thirty five years of my life. At the time, though, all I knew was that something significant was going to happen in my life involving this person. Marriage and four children? I had no idea. Still, something spoke to me.

Now, of course, you’re going to say, well, weird impulsive feelings happen all the time, without any religious meaning or context. People get inspired to pursue a career path, people meet and think ‘let’s keep this conversation going.’ Invoking gifts of the Spirit is not required to explain a common enough phenomenon. And that’s perfectly true. I interpret these two experiences as meaning something, but I know that something to be a Mormon cultural construct; The Spirit revealed my career path and the personal importance of the woman I would marry. That’s how I understand those experiences; other will say ‘career eureka moment and love at first sight.’

But that’s all right. In the D%C, we’re told that “in nothing does man offend God” more than when we “confess not his hand in all things.” That suggests to me that we’re not just justified but maybe sort of obligated to say ‘this was God speaking, this was inspiration, this was revealed.’ And that is what I believe today.

Annette and I married, we had four children, and I began teaching at BYU. And we had some joyful years, teaching theatre history and theory and playwriting, writing and directing and researching. And experiencing genuine moments of spiritual growth, transcendence, even. As well as moments of cognitive dissonance.

Is it just me, or did everything get weird in 2008? That’s my impression, at least. I’d write plays, and they’d be well received, and vigorously supported by the BYU administration. And then that stopped being true. A new University President was called, who knew not Joseph. More significantly, a new American President was elected. And, this is entirely my subjective impression of course, but it seems to me that conservatives went crazy.

I was too new at BYU and in Utah to understand or be much affected by the events of 1993, the brutal excommunications of the September Six. But my testimony has been buffeted by subsequent events, by further moments of cognitive dissonance. I am especially thinking of my LGBT friends and family members who feel, with justification, that there’s no legitimate place for them, that they will always be, at best, second-class citizens of the kingdom of heaven. And it breaks my heart.

People leave the Church because the pain of staying overpowers the desire to remain. Our brothers and sisters who leave, do so because they need to avoid continuing pain. A short answer to the question “why do I stay?” is because I haven’t been hurt enough to require that I leave.  The Church has never hurt me. BYU is another matter entirely. While I loved my twenty years on the BYU faculty, loved the students and colleagues and classes and plays, my time there ended badly, and hurtfully. But at that point, four years ago, I do believe that Heavenly Father saved me, mostly by making me really really sick. Time for more forgiveness, time for humility, and perhaps a more nuanced understanding. Those events certainly never drove me to want to leave. I stay because I think there’s good I can accomplish by staying.

There are times when we need to speak up, allow our voices to be heard. It is wrong, morally wrong, for BYU to expel good students who have, due to a crisis of conscience or faith, decided to leave the Church. That policy is indefensible, and incompatible with basic gospel principles of agency and accountability. The recent changes in the handbook regarding the children of LGBT families seems similarly uncharitable, unkind, and inconsistent with basic gospel principles, including the second Article of Faith. As I look back at the mission conference talk that so bothered me, it seems another example of practices borrowed from contemporary corporate culture, overriding the personal, individual touch favored by the Savior. And while I applaud the recent LDS.org essays on history and doctrine, the perspective they offer are not reflected in lesson manuals and other approved materials.

As the surreal 2016 election has unfolded in all its magnificent weirdness, it occurred to that in a sense, I am a Hillary Clinton Mormon. That is to say, I am fully aware that the organization to which I have given my lifelong allegiance is, in many ways, not all it should be. I know of its checkered history, especially on issues of race and LGBT rights. I know that it is only fitfully progressive. I think it unlikely that I would ever have become a Mormon if not raised to it. I probably would have become a Democrat, but I’d probably be leaning Jill Stein right now.

But Mormonism has become my home, just as the Democratic party has. I don’t believe in magical revolutionary solutions. I prefer to work within the organization, to do whatever good I can, to nudge things forward bit by bit, rather than hope for an improbable breakthrough.  That’s not to say that improbable breakthroughs can’t happen, as we all learned in 1978. But in the meantime, I do what I can, function where I am.

Meanwhile, I have a friend, a former stake President, who told me a few years ago about his awesome calling. Twice a week, doctors and nurses and other medical personnel provided free health care to anyone who needed it; his calling was to organize those events. All supplies were free of charge, including medications. I asked how many of the people who took advantage of this opportunity were undocumented immigrants. He said that his instructions were specific and clear; they weren’t ever to ask. And didn’t. He said they were also told that the press was discouraged from reporting on it. This wasn’t public relations, he said, it was pure compassion, Christianity at its finest. And therefore the best calling he’d had in a life of service.

So that’s also why I stay. Gene England, ultimately was right; the Church is as true as the gospel. And when we say ‘the Church,’ what do we mean? I don’t often think of the larger institutional Church. I mean my ward, the three to four hundred friends and neighbors with whom I so happily worship, every Sunday of my life. It does indeed take a village to raise a child, and I am forever grateful to the Primary workers and Young Men’s and Young Women’s Presidencies who have served so faithfully, who have befriended and loved my children. And I think of my own opportunities to stretch my compassion muscles and serve.

A month ago, I was very ill. I called my home teachers for a blessing. One of my home teachers is from Mexico, and speaks very limited English. But something, the Spirit, spoke, and said that brother should seal and bless, and that he should do so in the language he was comfortable with, Spanish. And he laid his hands upon my head, and I only understood a few words of what he said. But I felt it, an almost overpowering feeling of love and kindness, what I believe was a personal communication from my Heavenly Father. I was going to be okay. It was in his hands. He loved me, and knew how much longer He needed me here. In the meantime, be of good cheer. My eyes filled with tears, and I looked in the face of my good brother, and could see he’d felt the same thing I had. And I looked at my wife, my anchor and my joy, and I knew we were together for a reason, even if it’s not always clear what that reason might be. Love. Kindness. Service. Love.

And that is why I stay.

 

 

 

 

Setting aside emotion. . .

The Republican National Convention is over. I didn’t blog about it; I spent the week without computer access, and now the Democratic Convention is happening. But I thought I’d offer some thoughts about the Republicans, by way of catching up.

It was a fearful convention. The speeches were full of fear; the appeal was almost entirely emotional. People are scared. My parents were in town recently, and when we talked politics I could sense their fear, not for themselves particularly, but for their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Everyday, we see it on the news; another mass shooting, another terrible terrorist attack. We feel vulnerable. A night club attacked, an airport, a public rally in a park. It’s not surprising that a political candidate would base his appeal to voters on those feelings. “We live in dangerous times. I promise to make you safe.” That’s an effective approach for a politician to take in these dark times. And Donald Trump’s nominating speech, the most important of his political career, played to fearful voters.

In addition, Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent, is not well-liked or trusted. It makes sense for Republicans to go after that vulnerability. But the tone grew uglier and uglier, with repeated called for her to be jailed, most especially in completely over-the-top speeches by Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie. Honestly, watching the convention, I was afraid for her. I thought that if she had shown up to the convention, she would have been physically unsafe.

I understand why the appeal to voters was so dark, so authoritarian, so full of dark forebodings and portents. It’s important to emphasize that Trump’s speech was specifically factually inaccurate. When he said “decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” that’s factually untrue. Violent crimes are down, not up. The Obama administration has not ‘rolled back’ criminal enforcement. Trump may have plugged into real feelings people have, but those feelings have no basis in fact. When he said “nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” he’s essentially making things up. No such threat actually exists.

But politicians need to respond to feelings too. I’m not attacking Republicans for addressing the genuine fears that their voters do seem to feel. Polling shows that voters generally feel like the country is on the wrong track right now. I don’t necessarily see that as a rejection of President Obama, who is quite popular right now. I think people are furious at gridlock, at a Congress that seems incapable of compromising or governing, at the ideological divide. That said, I would have appreciated a bit more emphasis on policy. What specifically will President Trump do, if elected?

We know a few things. He wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico. He intends to deport undocumented workers. He plans to prosecute the war against ISIS more vigorously. But what else? Granted that his speech was light on policy specifics; still, we can make some educated inferences.

“I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country.”

Law enforcement is almost entirely a local and state matter. The FBI investigates certain federal crimes, but they represent a tiny fraction of crimes committed. The only real way that the President can ‘restore law and order’ would be for him to declare martial law. If that’s not what he intends, he needs to clarify.

“We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS.”

He makes three specific proposals; to improve our intelligence-gathering in the Middle East, to work with allies, and “we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.’ The first two involve efforts the Obama administration is already doing. The third requires clarification; what does he mean ‘any nation compromised by terrorism.’ After the convention, he clarified. He meant nations like France.  France.

“I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great ones.”

In other words, he’s going to renegotiate trade deals. Specifically, he’s going to renegotiate trade deals with China, Mexico, South Korea, and the EU. This will almost certainly result in trade wars. Cycles of retaliatory protectionism rarely work out well, and even have a tendency to turn into real life shooting wars. Either way, they will not and do not result in economic growth. Expect another recession.

“I have proposed the largest tax reduction of any candidate who has declared for the presidential race this year.”

It’s very difficult to know what exactly the Trump tax proposal entails. As soon as his economic plans are scrutinized, he tends to change them. Still, he has made a proposal specific enough for the Urban Brookings Tax Policy Center to analyze it. Here goes.

Currently, the tax code has seven brackets. He would reduce those to three: 10%, 20% and 25%. He would raise the standard deduction to $50,000 (married filing jointly), and lower capital gains and dividends. The corporate rate would be cut to 15%.

This proposal is almost comically regressive, and would add trillions to the deficit. Rich guys would benefit tremendously. It’s not a serious proposal. William Gale, co-director of the TPC, calls it “pie-in-the-sky nonsense.” To be fair, Trump has also said that this would merely be the starting point for further negotiations with Congress. Otherwise, this proposal would be ruinous for the US economy.

In his speech, in other words, Trump’s nomination speech, the most consequential of his political career, didn’t just appeal to fear and hatred and other negative emotions. It has policy implications. And the policies he either espouses or suggests are uniformly unworkable. A political campaign needs to appeal to the mind as well as the emotions. I would suggest that Trump fails both tests.

 

Secret Service Clinton Rumors

I have a family member who told me recently he could never, under any circumstances, vote for Hillary Clinton. The reason? Because his cousin knows a guy who knows a ward member who was a member of Mrs. Clinton’s Secret Service detail. And you wouldn’t believe the stories of depravity! Another friend of mine told me the same thing; her cousin has friends, good LDS people, I was assured, who know a Secret Service agent, and who had stories of literally hundreds of women smuggled into the White House for sexual trysts with Hillary Clinton. The Clintons have an open marriage, you see. And now, there’s one Gary Byrne, also former Secret Service, who declares himself ‘sickened’ by the horrible stuff he saw when serving in the Clinton White House in the ’90s, which he just had to put into print, now, twenty years later.

Byrne’s book has been hotly condemned by the non-partisan Association of Former Agents of the U. S. Secret Service. They point out that Byrne was a uniformed security officer, not part of the Clintons’ detail, and thus not in a position to have seen what he claims to have seen. Plus, Byrne’s book puts him, an obscure low-level agent that most of agents at the time barely remember, at the center of events. Byrne’s publisher, Center Street, is a Christian imprint that also does all kinds of rabidly right-wing political books, and that is also known for paying pretty well. Did Byrne make it all up? Was he passing on gossip? Because it’s easy enough to dismiss the possibility that he might be telling the truth.

Remember the Arkansas state troopers? Back in ’93, two troopers who had been assigned as security for then-governor Clinton claimed that they had arranged sexual liaisons for Clinton, an expose first published in American Spectator. David Brock, author of that article, later apologized to Bill Clinton, saying that the troopers in question were in it for the cash, and calling them ‘slimy.’

The fact is, we don’t actually know very much about most public figures. What we see is a carefully crafted image. And it’s shocking when we learn of ugly incidents or facts or opinions that contradict the family-friendly portraits we’re used to. We initially refuse to believe it. Bill Cosby can’t have done that. What, Tiger Woods? But John Edwards seems so wholesome.

But with someone like Hillary Clinton, there’s a huge incentive for some unscrupulous people to paint her in the worst colors imaginable. Gossip can go viral. And if the source is putatively someone like a Secret Service agent, someone in a position to see all sorts of, well, secrets, all the better. That’s why all this gossip comes from someone’s best friends’ cousin’s neighbor’s nephew. It sounds authoritative.

I don’t believe any of it, though. First of all, all these stories fit too neatly into pre-existing sexist narratives. Byrne’s book describes Hillary Clinton as a raging harridan, a foul-mouthed and abusive queen bitch. No one else ever describes her that way, but it’s easy to believe, because it fits a specific cultural stereotype. The other ‘secret service’ narrative fits a different stereotype: she’s sexually voracious, a (shudder) lesbian. Also, in one particularly nasty bit of slander I’ve heard, Hillary Clinton’s a poisoner, a murderess akin to Livia Drusilla, the supposedly lethal second wife of Caesar Augustus. (Her Secret Service codename was Livia, it seems. Except it wasn’t, of course).

There’s never any corroborating evidence for any of this. And there should be. If Hillary Clinton was indeed foul-mouthed and violent, there should be dozens of similar stories from former employees, associates, acquaintances, former friends. Especially given, let’s face it, a voracious tabloid press in this country willing to pay big bucks for any verifiable Clinton nastiness. By the same token, according to my friend’s story, Hillary smuggled hundreds of sexual partners into the White House. Well, White House visitors are logged. Those logs are public information. Shouldn’t be hard to prove, or disprove that specific allegation. (And, of course, it turns out to be bonkers).

This election is going to get nasty. It’s already been nasty, and it’s very likely to get nastier. Donald Trump is going to be subjected to attack ads. Probably, if the ads they’re running right now are any indication, they’ll just use his own words against him; that shouldn’t be difficult. But Hillary will be attacked too, and probably a lot of the attacks will take place under the national political radar. Expect to see viral emails. Expect an increase in this kind of gossip. There will certainly be more anti-Hillary books. And Trump’s use of social media in this cabin has been unparalleled. And he loves conspiracy theories.

As I’ve talked to many friends about this election, the main reaction from most people is to express their dismay for the two major party candidates. And national polling suggests that most Americans are as appalled with Secretary Clinton as they are with Mr. Trump. When you ask what their problem is with Clinton, they say, ‘she’s corrupt, she’s dishonest, she’s crooked.’ But then you ask for specifics. And they’ll say something like ‘Benghazi’ or ‘her emails,’ so-called ‘scandals’ that were thoroughly investigated, and in which Mrs. Clinton was cleared.

The distrust of Clinton is, in other words, inchoate, non-specific. It’s just ‘what everyone knows.’ You hear vague references to ‘all those scandals.’ If you point out that non-partisan fact-checkers have declared her the most honest politician in this election, they stare at you in incredulity. Surely, that can’t be true. Surely, I have to be kidding.

I’m worried about this election being decided in the shadows, in the murky darkness of gossip, slander, rumors and innuendos. That’s why these ridiculous Secret Service stories are so dangerous, and need to be challenged.

That’s why it’s so important, this year above all others, for fact-checkers to do their jobs. That’s why it is so important that we all vigilantly ask for evidence, for solid, corroborating proof of any particularly nasty allegation. Because this political year is about to get ugly. Hold on to your hat.

 

The Legend of Tarzan: Movie Review

Let’s face it: the Tarzan tales, as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are fundamentally colonialist, ethnocentric, and racialist. They’re about a white man, an English aristocrat, who, though raised by apes, becomes an African leader, then eventually, a member of the House of Lords. Blue blood rules; blue blood, in fact, could be said to be divinely appointed to rule. Primitive African tribes survive thanks to his protection; animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands. All of which make a modern movie treatment of Tarzan, uh, problematic.

The new Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan, seems at least to have recognized that this is a problem, though its solutions are at best half-baked and at worst appalling. It tries three solutions. First, in structure and tone, this movie follows the template and structure of superhero movies. Second, Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense. And third, the movie puts Tarzan in a specific historical context. Every superhero needs a super villain, and we get a good one here, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), agent to loathsome Belgian King Leopold II.

In fact, the movie is set in the Belgian Congo, the private domain of Leopold, an area rich in minerals, including diamonds. It’s important to note that the Congo wasn’t colonized by Belgium, the nation. It was owned by Leopold, a private investment by a monarch. Anyway, in the movie’s version of events, in 1866, Leopold’s plans for the Congo have faltered, because he’s broke. So his henchman, Rom, works out an elaborate plan. Rom meets a Congolese chief, Mbonga (Djimoun Hounsou) who, he has learned, hates Tarzan. So Rom promises to capture Tarzan, and trade him for diamonds, which Mbonga’s tribe has in profusion. This will pay the salaries of the mercenary soldiers that Leopold has hired to serve as the Force Publique, his own private army. Thus allowing Leopold to control and exploit and enslave the native population.

But an American journalist, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of Leopold, and wants John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (otherwise known as Tarzan, played here by Alexander Skarsgård) to bring him with him to Africa. And Jane, Tarzan’s wife, really wants them to go. She was raised in Africa, where her father taught English–her closest friends are African. She considers herself African. And, in the brief glimpses of Tarzan’s origin story the movie provides, we learn that she met Tarzan when she found him half-dead, nursed him back to health, and taught him English.

So Tarzan, Jane, and Williams return to her village, where Rom and his soldiers lie in wait. They nearly kidnap Tarzan, but do kidnap Jane. This works just as well for Rom’s purposes. His plan is to deliver Tarzan to Mbonga, and he knows that Tarzan will do anything to rescue his wife. So Rom and Jane (and many soldiers), sail down a river towards Mbonga’s camp, and Tarzan follows, making good time by swinging from tree vine to tree vine, and getting reacquainted with his ape family. And Williams follows along, with Jackson’s grumpy weariness providing comic relief.

Along the way, Williams learns all about Leopold’s plans. He’s built a series of forts in the Congo, and rail lines for transport, and he has recruited this fearsome private army of brutal mercenary thugs. Williams is able to document everything.

Mbongo and Tarzan finally do confront each other, in what I frankly thought was the best scene in the movie. Mbongo hates Tarzan, because he killed his teenaged son; Tarzan killed the kid, because the kid killed Tarzan’s beloved ape mother. The two men, as they fight, realize how similar they are, and how destructive and unworthy their enmity. And reconcile. The scene works because Hounsou is so terrific, and it plays to Skarsgård’s rather limited strengths as an actor. The movie could have ended then, and been quite satisfying, I think, if you could have included some way to rescue Jane.

But it’s a summer blockbuster. It’s a big budget superhero movie. It has to end in a big noisy fight. And so, we move on, to a big final set piece. Rom has to deliver a trunk full of diamonds to the mercenary captain, and Tarzan has to rescue Jane. And while we’re at it, the riverside town where the mercenaries are all going to land has to be destroyed. And so, Tarzan summons armies of lions, wildebeest, alligators and hippos which attack and destroy this Force Publique stronghold. Summoning animals to fight for him is Tarzan’s main superpower, you see. It’s a ridiculous scene, of course, though not badly staged or filmed or edited, and it culminates satisfactorily, with Jane getting rescued, Tarzan reunited with her, and Rom being eaten by alligators.

And finally, Williams issues his report of Leopold’s intended atrocities to the British authorities. I think we’re meant to see that report as putting an end to the worst of the King’s atrocities, though the British lords who receive the report seem, in the movie, to greet it with decided equivocation. Still, like any superhero movie, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and moral justice prevails.

Except, of course, nothing like that occurred. First of all, Leon Rom wasn’t eaten by alligators in 1886; he decorated his house by Stanley Falls with the skulls of murdered Congolese, and died a wealthy man in Brussels in 1924. Williams did deliver a report of Force Publique atrocities, but it was widely ignored. And the nefarious plans for the brutal subjugation of the Congo that Williams discovers? The forts, the rail lines, the savagery of Leopold’s private army? All of that happened. Leopold grew fantastically wealthy (though mostly through rubber, not diamonds), while treating the native peoples in the region with unprecedented viciousness. Best estimate; 10 million murdered. Ten million people. That’s just an estimate; it might have been fifteen million.

(Things haven’t improved. The Congo has been, since 1998, the site of the bloodiest of civil wars, with millions dead. All unpleasant vestiges of colonialist exploitation and enslavement).

Tarzan, of course, is a fictional character, and this movie tells a fictional story. That’s fine, I don’t actually think Iron Man exists either. But this Tarzan ties itself into historical events, and employs historical characters; Leon Rom, George Washington Williams, King Leopold II. And it shows Tarzan defeating Rom, and Williams defeating Leopold. And those things never occurred. Which means I left the theater with a distinctly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Tarzan is a problematic character nowadays. Making a straightforwardly Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan movie in 2016 would seem a bit like remaking one of those ’40s comedies in which husbands spanking their wives was treated as jolly fun. Uh, no, not anymore. But this movie strains at a colonialist gnat and swallows a genocide camel. It struck me as bizarrely ill conceived. It’s a movie that relies on its audience knowing absolutely nothing about African history. I found it insulting and infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t just do that, just sweep the wanton and brutal murder of fifteen million people under the carpet, because they get in the way of your big CGI movie climax.

It’s a shame, too, because it’s an attractive enough movie, and there are scenes that work well. Hounsou is terrific in too-small a role, and I can’t say enough about Margot Robbie’s sensational Jane. Robbie is the most open-hearted of actresses, absolute in her commitment to the role, and courageous in her acting choices. Sam Jackson does wonderful Sam Jackson things, and all the Tarzan stuff was well executed; the yell, the flying in trees, a scene where he rolls around felinely with lions. Through some combination of gym time, anabolic steroids and CGI, Skarsgård looks terrific, though his performance never quite grabbed me. And, as usual, Christoph Waltz was a sensational villain.

And I can understand the impulse to turn Tarzan into a superhero. But they placed him in a specific historical context, which they then got horribly, unforgivably wrong. As we left the theater, my wife and daughter gave it a B-minus. As a, you know, movie, I’d agree. But I’m not inclined to forgive it. F.

 

What I don’t know, what I know

I don’t want to watch anymore. I’m watched out. Another police shooting, another unnecessary and unprovoked killing, another panicky cop’s lethal mistake. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Only, wait, no, that’s not all; turns out there was another one a few hours later, in St. Paul, Minnesota. And so we add two more names to the list, two more African American men executed without cause or merit. Philando Castile. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Dontre Hamilton. John Crawford. Ezell Ford. Dante Parker. Akai Gurley. Rumain Brisbane. Jerame Reid. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Alton Sterling.

And yes, there were cops killed in Dallas last night. And that was tragic and awful and unnecessary too. And they go on the list too.  Absolutely. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. There were three others; as of this writing, their names haven’t been released. But yes, police work is dangerous. I know a few cops, and I know the prayers their families offer every shift they work. “Please, let him come home safely. Please protect her. Please, not today.”

But the movement is called, rightly and appropriately, Black Lives Matter. That’s what needs to be said, repeated, insisted upon. Because that’s what, apparently, we in the white community don’t simply take for granted.

And I feel helpless, impotent, infuriated and heartsick. Mourning doesn’t seem to be enough. Posting and blogging and tweeting doesn’t make a difference. I’m an old, fat, sick white dude. I got nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do have a slight glimmering of a few somethings.

I don’t know much about the way police officers are trained. But I do know that a lot of police departments–Las Vegas, Seattle, New York–have implemented de-escalation training, a shift of emphasis from ‘control the situation’ to ‘calm the situation down,’ less confrontational, and that the results have been substantial decreases in violence, and in police shootings.

I don’t know all that much about gun laws, in part because I don’t know much about guns. Since Heller, we have to accept that, at least for now, the 2nd Amendment is understood to mean that private citizens have a constitutional right to own firearms. I think Heller‘s a foolish decision, wrongly decided. But it still allows the state to prohibit the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, it allows for laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in places like schools and government buildings, and it permits all kinds of laws imposing conditions on the sale of guns, or banning “dangerous or unusual” weapons. There are, in other words, a whole bunch of gun-restricting regulations that Congress could pass. Also, an Australian-style national gun buy-back program is constitutionally permissible.

I don’t know how to get rid of most Americans’ guns. I don’t think there’s much question that the fact that American gun ownership is off-the-charts internationally, and the fact that American gun deaths are likewise out of control are correlated. We’re a heavily armed people. We don’t need to be. When cops go out to maintain public order, they’re obviously on edge, knowing how heavily armed the populace is. Cops are human, cops are scared, and yes, cops make mistakes. We can support the police, and also hold policing to a higher standard. Those ideals are not incompatible.

I don’t know how to solve the problem of racism. I do know that we’re fighting a whole of history here, and that the fact that black people face less legal discrimination now than they did when I was a kid does not mean that the black community hasn’t been profoundly and significantly harmed. Larry Wilmore last night said that his home, in Pasadena, is also home to a significant Armenian community. He has lots of Armenian friends. But, he said, if you’re with them and you mention Turkey, the reaction is immediate, angry and harsh. It’s been a hundred years since the Turkish massacre of Armenians, but feelings are still raw. Why, then, should we assume that centuries of systemic violence and hatred directed towards blacks, by whites, in America, hasn’t been similarly damaging and hurtful, and with lingering, residual effects?

I don’t know how to change the political direction of this country, how to combat the effects of institutional racism, or how to reverse the tide of violence. But I do know this: nothing will happen for good or for ill unless millennials vote.

This is really important. And it’s not just about gun violence, or racism, or Black Lives Matter. It’s about climate change. It’s about paying for college. It’s about health care. There are a huge variety of life-or-death issues that have political ramifications and political solutions. And if you’re reading this, and you’re 18-35, you probably know the statistics on this as well as I do.

The General Social Survey, one of the most respected national surveys shows that millennials are, in fact, very politically engaged. You engage in political discussions on the internet. You post political views on social media. You’re very likely to attend a rally or a protest. That’s all great. And it means nothing–absolutely nothing–if you don’t vote. And you don’t. Less than 20% of you vote in local or state elections, and less than 40% in Presidential years.

Think about your grandparents. Grumpy old gramps, who watches Fox News all day, and yells at kids who cross his lawn, and whose favorite topics of conversation are his health and what a terrible President Obama is. I mean, you love him to death, but you don’t take him all that seriously, do you? Well, he has a much greater say on what’s going to happen in this country than you do. Because he votes. So does Grandma. Every election, without fail.

You remember the Michael Brown shooting? Remember all the protests, all the anger, all the people who showed up to express their outrage over that shooting? When you read about Ferguson, and how much more likely black residents of the town were to be pulled over and fined, and how essential those fines were to the city’s finances, and how few Ferguson cops were African-American, well, it was disgraceful, and infuriating, and the anger of the protesters seemed completely justified. And someone decided to do something about; set up a voter registration booth right there in the middle of the protests. If you were a Ferguson resident, and African-American, well, there was your chance to make a change, vote out an incompetent mayor and replace the police chief. Guess how many new voters were registered in Ferguson Missouri. Just take a stab at it.

128. One hundred. And twenty eight.

And I thought of Fannie Lou Hamer, testifying in 1964 about how badly she was beaten in Mississippi by the local sheriffs, for the crime of trying to register to vote. Because, as she put it, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want a change! We want a change in this society in America!”

Well, so do I. And I don’t know how to solve this. I don’t know who to blame, or what solutions to try. But I do know this: we have to try. Because this America, this violent and racially charged and furious America does not represent who I want to be, or who you want to be, or who we want to be together.

I believe, like Kendrick Lamar, “if God got us then we gon be alright.” I pray every night for peace, for our nation’s secular salvation. And then I listen to that still small voice and I realize what He’s saying. He gave us hands to work, to help our brothers and sisters. And we gave us minds, to think. And those hands and those minds have to work together. And we start by voting. Every election: vote. That’s all I got, and all I know.

 

 

 

I pray every night for peace, for our nation’s secular salvation. And then I listen to that still small voice and I realize what He’s saying. He gave us hands to work, to help our brothers and sisters. And we gave us minds, to think. And those hands and those minds have to work together. And we start by voting. Every election: vote.

The Purge: Election Year

I’ll say this about the Purge movies; they’re getting better. In James DeMonaco’s futurist dystopia trilogy, positing a future United States of America in which the economy booms due to a nasty annual bloodletting, the storytelling and basic filmmaking chops have clearly improved, film by film. And this third film, Election Year, is the first film to really explore seriously the ramifications of the films’ premise. In broad outline, the idea behind the Purge movies have become increasingly plausible. In detail, of course, they’re silly action movies. So how well do they speak to our day?

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir had a lot of fun with this kind of analysis, writing that there are two versions of an election year available:

One of them is a ludicrous and idiotic narrative about race and class in America, full of unbelievable characters and implausible plot twists, anchored in the naïve belief that popular revolt through the ballot box can bring down a corrupt oligarchy. The other one is a movie.

Yes, very funny. I would put it this way: for the Purge movies to really work, we’d have to find the premise sufficiently plausible that it sends a little chill down our collective spines. Parallels to our reality would have to really resonate, so much that we’d nod a bit in recognition. So, here’s the basic Purge idea. What do you think?

At some point in the future, at a moment of national crisis, a conservative party called the New Founding Fathers of America (the NFFA), establishes a new holiday, the Purge. For twelve hours, during the Purge, everything goes, with no legal penalties for any act by anyone. Including murder. From 7-7 some night, roving gangs, wearing garish costumes and masks, just randomly go around killing people. During the Purge, no emergency services are available; no cops, no EMTs, no ambulances.

As a result of the Purge, the US economy has boomed. Unemployment is essentially non-existent; inflation unheard of, profits are high. This is, the movie suggests, because the government doesn’t have to spend much on welfare, or health care, or food stamps. There just aren’t any excess people. Welfare recipients are, uh, culled annually, like English football relegation, only lethal. Rich people, of course, can afford really tight security systems, and are tend not to be victims of the Purge. Poor people are on their own.

This whole thing has a racial component, especially in the third movie. We see various NFFA leadership meetings, concluding with a religious rite scene, set in a cathedral, in which a succession of poor victims are ritually sacrificed by NFFA leadership. The NFFA consists entirely of older white people. Meanwhile, a multi-ethnic coalition opposes the NFFA. Led by a Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a blonde white woman, who is running for President (and might win, if she can just take Florida). Hillary Clinton? Kinda sorta maybe?

There’s another group out there, an underground revolutionary group, that sets up an emergency ward for the wounded, and is led by a charismatic gangster, Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). Only Bishop’s done with conventional politics and do-gooding. He’s got a plan, to assassinate the entire NFFA leadership. And Senator Roan wishes he wouldn’t. She thinks she can win the election fair and square.

Of course, that’s all just background. The actual plot of the movie has to do with Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), head of Roan’s security team, and his efforts to protect her from an assassination attempt by, essentially, the entire US government. They’re joined by a convenience store owner, Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), who is determined to protect his store from a nasty girl gang of murderous teens wearing prom dresses and Catholic school uniforms, armed with AR-15s. Joe, and his one employee, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), an immigrant from Mexico (with, apparently, mad sniper skills), save Leo and Charlie when they’re set upon by a group of German tourists, Purging having apparently become Euro-chic. Joe and Marcos also have a friend, Laney (Betty Gabriel), who spends the Purge riding around in an armored van rescuing people in need. So Laney, Joe and Marcos join Leo and the Senator, and try to fend off mercenaries hired by American rich people conservatives. That’s the plot. It’s still basically an action movie.

So how plausible is it? Not very. I mean, come on. American conservatives, in my experience, tend to believe in a bootstraps narrative, in which America is defined as the place where anyone with sufficient gumption can be successful. Republicans want to lift poor people, not, you know, murder them.

But let’s suppose that high welfare rolls really were what was holding our economy back. Let’s suppose that high social spending on a parasite class really was a major drag on the economy. (Not true, actually, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant the premise). Could we really solve that problem by just shooting the bottom five percent every year? Or, you know, essentially deputizing all our sociopaths?

Probably not, no. And yet, here’s the paradox of this movie; it starts with this appalling premise. And the movie tells us, repeatedly, that the idea of the Purge is desperately immoral. And heroic Senator Roan campaigns on the idea that the Purge is violent and sick and needs to go away. And all the more sympathetic characters in the movie are all in agreement about how awful the Purge is.

And yet, the movie is also built on the idea that the Purge does, in fact, work. We see a debate between Senator Roan and her NFFA opponent, and when he asks her what she proposes (“more welfare spending?” he sneers), she doesn’t have an answer. In fact, the movie advances an even-more-contemptible idea–that poor people are nothing but a drag on the economy. A net minus for any advanced nation.

In a way, the Purge movies, when they’re not distracting us with firefights, are sort like Swift’s A Modest Proposal. An insane idea, presented tongue-in-cheek, to force us to confront our own prejudices. Only the Purge movies don’t just toss this awful, murderous idea out there. They build a narrative around the idea that the awful, murderous idea is also economically sound.

So, at first, I thought this series, for all the bloodshed it depicts, did at least have its heart in the right place. Now I’m less sure. I can at least say this. In our own time of scary, scary politics, we do have a blonde woman to vote for. At least there’s that.

 

 

 

Hillary’s emails

Yesterday, FBI director James Comey announced that no criminal charges will be filed against Hillary Clinton or any member of her staff in relation to her use of any unauthorized private server while she was serving as Secretary of State. So that’s over.

Ha.

Because Comey didn’t just say that Secretary Clinton wouldn’t be charged with anything. His statement was actually kind of remarkable. He went into great detail regarding the investigative process the FBI went through, and why the investigation reached the conclusions it did. He was thorough, and he was persuasive. I found his statement fascinating, and recommend it to anyone interested in these issues.

I don’t know why Hillary Clinton used a private email server and not the .gov server available to her. Still, I want to put this case into some perspective; view it in human terms. See if that brings some clarity.

The first thing that jumps out at me, reading Comey’s report, is the number 30,000. That’s the number of Hillary Clinton emails the FBI initially examined, but their investigation turned up several thousand more. She switched servers a few times, and switched devices. Here’s Comey:

Secretary Clinton used several different servers and administrators of those servers during her four years at the State Department, and used numerous mobile devices to view and send e-mail on that personal domain. As new servers and equipment were employed, older servers were taken out of service, stored, and decommissioned in various ways. Piecing all of that back together—to gain as full an understanding as possible of the ways in which personal e-mail was used for government work—has been a painstaking undertaking, requiring thousands of hours of effort.

That’s a huge number of emails. 30,000, 35,000; whatever the number may have been, it’s a lot. I’m a pretty avid emailer, but I don’t send 50 a month.

Previous Secretaries of State had private email accounts, but used the official government email systems for public business. But they also didn’t send out anywhere near that many. Secretary Clinton really likes to communicate via email. Official procedure should have gone as follows; if she wanted to send a personal email, she needed to put away her official government device, step out of the room, and access her personal email device located in another room. That’s a colossal pain in the neck. It would work well if your life was really neatly compartmentalized; you deal with work when you’re at work, and you go home and open your email on your home PC. Her life isn’t like that; never has been.

Because she’s a woman? Because the balancing act–home/work–is different for women than it is for men? Because men can do this; step into another room, another space, to deal with the annoyance of a family situation? And women can’t?

Because, while she was Secretary of State, two big personal events also took place. Her mother died, and Hillary had to plan her funeral. (And isn’t it true that planning a funeral is different for women than it is for men?) And Chelsea Clinton got married. Hillary and Chelsea are very close, and you can imagine all the emails it took to plan Chelsea’s very nice, expensive, highly political wedding. And, again, isn’t planning a wedding a different experience for a Mom than it is for a Dad?

So, she’s in a meeting. They’re discussing some international situation. She’s got her Blackberry, she’s emailing various underSecretaries. She gets an email from Chelsea–‘what do you think of these flowers?’ She’s supposed to excuse herself, leave her meeting, get her personal device, respond to Chelsea’s email, then put the device away and go back into her meeting.

It strikes me as . . . unreasonable.

And so, she resisted. And in order to keep her personal account, in order to store all those emails, government regulations required that she print off every email, no matter what the content, and store them in big binders full of email hard copies. They tried it for a couple of months, and Secretary Clinton realized what a colossal pain the whole thing was going to be for her staff, printing off hundreds of emails every day, filing them, storing them someplace. So they quit doing it.

Why didn’t anyone stop her? Why didn’t someone say ‘you can’t do this?’ Because she was the Secretary of State. Her boss was POTUS. It was too trivial a matter for the President of the United States to worry about.

There are a couple of other factors to consider as well. Comey says that the FBI was unable to determine if anyone had hacked her private account; whether her carelessness with internet security protocols ever led to foreign actors getting hold of American state secrets. But whether or not anyone hacked her account, we know that US government computers, the official, secure computers that Hillary was supposed to use get hacked all the time. Google ‘US government computers hacked.’ Look at the links that pop up: ‘hacking of government computers expose 21 million people.’ Over and over again. (Is it possible that foreign hackers were so busy actually compromising US cyber security that they missed Hillary’s private server entirely?)

Comey’s statement has been parsed by everyone, on every side of the political spectrum. First, here’s Comey’s explanation of why he didn’t file charges:

Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.

People who would, for political reasons of their own, very much like to see Hillary Clinton indicted, read this statement, and conclude that the fix was in. She’s a crook, and she got away with it. Elites protecting elites. But Comey’s actually referring to the principle of prosecutorial discretion. This is normal practice for law enforcement officials: to decide that a technical violation doesn’t rise to the level of criminality. Comey gives us a subtle, nuanced description of a complex process.

It also recognizes the reality that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, and that she is now running for President. Comey adds this clarification, which some people have found confusing.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

What does he mean by ‘security or administrative sanctions?’ Clearly, Comey’s not talking about any kind of criminal charges. He dealt with the issue of criminality in his previous paragraph. But it’s possible that the FBI could recommend some other kind of lesser penalty. In other words, someone else doing what Hillary did could be fired.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Hillary should be fined for her actions. That would be the kind of ‘lesser sanction’ that Comey suggests. But you can’t. The only way to fine Clinton would be as the result of a criminal procedure. You can’t just say ‘Mrs. Clinton, we’re not going to charge you. But could you please pay a fine?’ Can’t happen. A judge can fine someone in lieu of jail time. But that was never going to happen.

Didn’t Hillary Clinton know how bad this whole thing might look? Didn’t Bill Clinton realize how his innocent airport visit to Loretta Lynch’s plane would appear to people? This story, from Vox.com, explains it beautifully. Bill and Hillary Clinton are caught in a horrible, toxic cycle of suspicion and mistrust with the press.

I think it goes back to what was likely one of the most traumatic events of the Clintons’ lives: the suicide of Vince Foster. Foster was a close personal friend of them both, and a trusted aid. When he saw how badly the press overreacted to the travel office story, he fell into a deep depression, resulting in his tragic suicide. And then the Clintons found themselves accused of having murdered him.

I don’t think they’ve ever recovered from it. I think it’s even possible that Hillary Clinton suffers from untreated PTSD stemming from Vince Foster’s suicide. And she concluded, probably both Clintons concluded, as a result, that they are never going to be treated fairly by the national media. Scandals simply erupt, based on nothing, and there’s nothing they can do to prevent it. So who cares about appearances? So a private email server looks bad? It could become a big problem? Well, so what? If it’s the emails, it’ll be something else.

Hillary Clinton knows she will never be treated fairly, that her reputation will be maligned no matter what she does. And her reaction is to keep on keepin’ on. Her instinct is to hunker down, fight harder, study more, and try to do some good in this world. The email thing is over. Let’s elect her President.