Friday, April 22, 2016

Shakespeare 400

Tomorrow marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (and Miguel Cervantes's death, too). There are celebrations worldwide, and there will be ongoing Shakespeare events and celebrations throughout 2016. (If you don't believe me, believe twitter, and search the #SHX400 hashtag.)

Let me recommend the Folger Shakespeare Library's 50-state First Folio tour, coming to someplace in your state. If you're near Cleveland, come see one (or more!) of the Cleveland Public Library's events and exhibits, and catch the Shakespeare Folio when it comes to town in June and July. And if you happen to see me around, say hello and ask a question or two.

In the meantime, let's have a special bonus round of "Ask Me About Shakespeare" for any Dagbloggers who have questions.

cross-posted from (and all questions or comments welcome at) Dagblog

Monday, April 18, 2016

What Is John Kasich Thinking?

Where the heck have I been? Short answer: doing Shakespeare stuff. (Much more about that soon.) But now I'm back in Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention is on its way, John Kasich is governor, and no one understands exactly how these two things relate to each other. So let me ask an important question this election season: What on Earth is John Kasich thinking?

First, let's review the key facts: Governor John Kasich is one of the three candidates still actively running in the Republican presidential primary. Of those three candidates, Kasich is currently coming in fourth. That isn't a joke; Marco Rubio still has more delegates than John Kasich. Rubio quit a month ago, just at the moment when winning Ohio convinced Ohio Governor John Kasich that he was in it to win it.

But coming in behind Rubio doesn't matter, because Kasich can't actually win a majority of delegates anyway. I don't mean "can't" is in "won't" but "can't" as in "mathematically impossible." Kasich was mathematically eliminated from the election weeks ago. I am not making any of this up. I could not make any of this up.

This, by the way, is the one billed as the sane, reasonable, practical Republican.

What could explain this seemingly irrational behavior? I see three possibilities, two of which explain the apparent irrationality as some degree of actual irrationality.

First, Kasich could simply be in denial. Getting close to the Presidency at all, even being a dark horse candidate for the nomination, can do strange and terrible things to the human mind. Once you've seen that possibility in front of you, it can be hard to accept that the chance has gone by forever.  (As a sidebar, some of the current tactical nastiness on the Democratic side might be explained by exactly this: getting close enough to make the possibility seem real while being far enough behind that it's already slipped through your fingers. It can take a while to work those feelings through.) Don't judge. This is a psychological temptation that most of us never face.

I'm going to call this the One Ring scenario, in which the power of the Presidency is so powerful that having it between your fingers, even for a few moments, will drive you obsessively mad. In this scenario, Kasich is Gollum, obsessively chasing a prize that he has long since lost.

The second possibility is the modified One Ring scenario, in which Kasich is not completely irrational but only mostly irrational. Kasich may well have set his heart on stealing the nomination at the convention, partly assisted by the fact that the convention itself will be in his home state (you know, the only state he's actually won). This makes Kasich Saruman rather than Gollum: trusting in his own guile to get the prize, but with a plan that's too clever by half and that also badly underestimates the sheer force of other claimants. (Is Trump Sauron in this scenario? He has all the best orcs! He's going to build a wall and make Gondor pay for it!)

Now, I've been talking up the contested-convention scenario on this blog for months now, and it remains a possibility. But sometime over the last month people started talking about a contested convention as a sure thing. That sudden hardening of conventional wisdom is alarming. And the truth is denying Trump the 1237 delegates he needs will be a close, close thing if it happens. Not to mention the fact that if he comes up a few short, people will say the highest vote-getter should win. Not to mention that if Trump somehow fails, it will be very hard to deny the nomination to Cruz.

If Kasich thinks that holding the convention in Cleveland will give him enough local advantage to take the presidential nomination away from TWO candidates who've BOTH beaten the hell out of him in 49 primaries and caucuses, he is being totally delusional about how much home-town advantage counts. One little stronghold is not enough, Saruman.

But what if Kasich is actually acting rationally? And what if I dropped the Tolkien analogies completely? Let's call the third scenario The Kingmaker Scenario. In this, Kasich is still betting on some form of contested convention, or at least preparing himself in case it happens. But rather than imagining himself as the white knight anointed in Cleveland to save the Grand Old Party from, umm, its voters, what if Kasich imagines himself as a player trying to strike the best possible deal? (Oh, fine. Let's call him Tyrion Lannister. Happy now?)

Kasich may know that he's not getting the crown, but see the possibility of getting something for himself at a contested convention because his little pile of delegates may make or break someone else. If neither Trump nor Cruz comes in to Cleveland with a majority, Kasich may be able to extract some promise from one of them in exchange for his votes, perhaps even the VP nomination.

Is that what Kasich is doing? I have no idea. Machiavellian cunning doesn't announce its plans to the public, and delusions don't always explain themselves well. If Kasich is really playing the angles, he has to pretend like he's still trying to win the election. If Kasich is too self-deluded to play the angles, we won't know until July. And if he is hoping to make a deal, it's not clear if there's a line he would draw. Is he hoping to put Cruz over the top? Or would he make the same deal with Trump? There's no way to know yet.

And let me tell you: here in Cleveland, the suspense is not a lot of fun.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Political Advice from the Past

I'm at a rare books library this week, with politics happily tuned down to a lower volume. That's true even though the library is around the corner from the Capitol Building, and almost across the street from the Supreme Court. So I was in town for Mitch McConnell's continued resistance to the eminent Merrick Garland, but I am busy doing other things.]
What do I have to say about Obama's strategy, and the Republicans' obstruction? Not much today; maybe next week. But I did get a piece of odd political advice in one of the 17th-century books I was reading yesterday. The book wasn't as useful as I had hoped it would be, and would be even less entertaining to you, but at one point the author (Thomas Scot, about whom you heard so much in grade school), throws out two couplets about the importance of guile and strategy in high office. First, he writes:

Not simple truth alone can make us fit
To beare great place in State, without great wit.

Honesty is not enough for high office; maybe necessary but not sufficient. Good-hearted simplicity is not a qualification. How that might apply to Obama and his antagonists, I leave for you to think through on your own. But Scot finishes his little epigram with these lines:

For when the Serpent comes to circumvent us,
We must be Serpents too, or else repent us.

And there, in honor of St. Patrick the expeller of serpents, is where I will leave it for today.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, March 14, 2016

Dear Republicans: You Did This. You Fix It.

Dear Republicans: I know that many of you are upset by Donald Trump's rise. I know that many of you are horrified. But let's be frank. This is your party. You did this. I won't walk through the details. But the thing speaks for itself: the Republican Party planted the seeds for this, cultivated those seeds through campaign season after campaign season, and now they have borne strange fruit.

You did this. You have to fix it.

I've heard some talk from various pundits about what Democrats or liberals should do to stop Trump. Some pundits talk about how we should vote in the Republican primary to shore up this or that anti-Trump. Some people have already begun muttering about how the Democratic nominee will need to use restraint against Trump in the general, about not stooping to his level, all of which is simply an attempt to impose rules to limit how the Democratic nominee campaigns. To all of that I say: no.

The Republicans did this, and the Republicans need to fix it. If you cannot keep Trump from becoming your nominee, we will take things into our own hands by beating him in the general. And don't you dare tell us how to campaign. We will beat Trump by any means required, because the health of our Republic demands it. You don't get to build the monster, lose to the monster, and then tell us all the ways we're not allowed to fight the monster. You beat him yourself, or you let us do it and don't complain about how.

If you can't stop Trump in the primaries, you need to stop giving us advice. If Trump gets to the general election, it's your turn to listen to us. You need to do your duty to America and vote for Hillary Clinton.

You don't want to vote for Hillary Clinton, or for Bernie Sanders? I get it; I understand that you're Republicans. In your shoes, I wouldn't want to vote for your party's nominee. But I'm not in your shoes, because my party isn't about to nominate a dangerous and shamefully unqualified demagogue to the highest office in the land. We're deciding between a competent pragmatist and a seasoned idealist. You're about to nominate a race-baiting realtor with florid psychiatric symptoms. Our party doesn't do that. Yours does. There is a price to pay for that.

And don't tell me that Hillary Clinton is just as bad as Donald Trump. You know that is a lie. And lies like that are how your party got so far adrift in the first place. It's time to stop lying to yourselves and to face the real world. There's no place left to hide.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Trump vs Hamilton

A brash loudmouth from New York City has been taking America by storm lately, to the consternation of the traditional political elite. I'm talking, of course, about Alexander Hamilton, and about Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's monstrous, Grammy-winning Broadway hit. A rap-driven Broadway musical with a racially diverse cast has managed to delight many conservatives with its joyful, reverent embrace of the Revolution and of the American Experiment. It's sold out a year in advance, and legions of fans, including me, bide time listening to the original soundtrack album over and over. (To quote Miranda's lyrics: his poor wife.) Hamilton isn't just a ground-breaking piece of theater; it's also a vision of America.

It's very different from the idea of America being peddled by that other phenomenal loudmouth from New York City, Donald Trump. Both Hamilton and Trump are enjoying unexpected, unprecedented success right now. So it's worth thinking about the competing national visions they're promoting.

Trump's vision is deeply anti-intellectual. There's a deep streak of know-nothingism in our history; Richard Hofstadter's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life makes the case so convincingly it breaks your heart. But Trump represents a new low point. His "speeches," which aren't really speeches but grab-bags of unrelated remarks, are pitched at something like a third-grade reading level, completely empty of anything like a policy, a plan, or an idea. (One of the secrets of Trump's success on Twitter is that he never has a thought too complicated for 140 characters. In fact, most of his tweets include three distinct sentences, with three Trump-sized thoughts.) And he is openly hostile to thinking, to expertise, to knowledge. Remember, this is a guy who believes every dumbass thing he sees on the internet. Trump appeals to a "poorly educated" voter base (Trump's words, not mine) by appealing to their resentment of education, and he's good at channeling that resentment because he shares it.

Hamilton, on the other hand, openly celebrates the Founders' intellectual achievements. America has a long anti-intellectual tradition, but it was founded by some serious thinkers and writers. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, Hamilton: that's a serious murderers' row of brainpower. The biggest exception, Washington, was a man of action with little formal education, but Washington wasn't bragging about that. He was part of a rich intellectual culture and he valued others for their intellectual attainments. (Compare even a random letter of Washington's with a Trump speech sometime and ask yourself which of them went to college.) The first sentence of Miranda's musical introduces Hamilton as "a hero and a scholar" and there is a constant focus on Hamilton's ferocious intelligence, his "top-notch brain" and his incredible gifts as a writer. ("Hamilton's a host unto himself. As long as he can hold a pen/ He's a threat.") You can watch Miranda pitching the idea of the show to an initially skeptical White House audience a few years ago, saying that Hamilton's success was "all on the strength of his writing; I think he embodies the word's ability to make a difference."

That emphasis on Hamilton's literary power is part of Miranda's surprising but effective case that Hamilton is like a rapper; verbal facility is the key (as is coming up from nowhere and getting in endless beefs). Hamilton recreates a sense of the Founders' intimidating brilliance through the most intricate and dazzlingly complicated raps that Broadway has ever seen. The result is that Hamilton clocks in at a staggering twenty thousand words, performed at a lightning-fast clip: faster than Sondheim, four times the speed of Gilbert & Sullivan, faster even than the famous "Model of a Major-General" song. You come away from Hamilton with the sense that the Revolution and hip-hop are part of a single, larger American conversation. But you also come away with the sense that nothing is more American than being smart. After all, America's inventors were so smart it was scary.

Hamilton is the story of an intellectual, but also of an immigrant. While Trump and bashes immigrants on the campaign trail, Hamilton celebrates its Caribbean-born hero as "another immigrant/ Comin' up from the bottom." Hamilton gets called an "immigrant" over and over, by nearly everyone in the show. (At Yorktown, Hamilton and Lafayette cheer each other with the phrase "Immigrants! We get the job done!") And Hamilton itself is deliberately cast across color lines, with African-American, Latino, and Asian performers playing various white historical figures; that's both a radical move, because casting a black Jefferson is nowhere close to a neutral choice, but also a completely legible move, growing out of decades of color-blind casting in classical theater. (If you can cast a black Juliet on Broadway without the audience getting too literal, a black George Washington is just one more step.) Hamilton is celebrating America as a glorious melting pot and casting a Hispanic writer-performer in the lead while Republicans are seething with xenophobia on the campaign trail and ranting about a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants (because no human smuggler has ever thought of using tunnels. Loser of a plan. Sad!). Hamilton's America looks like America; Trump's America is nativist and whites-only.

So one vision of America is pro-immigrant and pro-intellectual; the other is anti-minority and anti-intellectual. Those combinations are not accidental. They're not inevitable either; Jefferson was both an intellectual and a racist. But anti-intellectualism and either nativism or outright racism have gone tightly together for a long time. One early anti-immigrant party was literally called the Know-Nothings. It comes down to the question of how we define America.

America was created in recent history, as countries go, and that makes it all too obvious that we don't really have to be here. Older nations have grown up over much, much longer periods of time (and went through some long, difficult pains to develop national identities). Being French is pretty straightforward. But being American ... what even is that?

One answer is that America is defined by a set of ideas (and ideals): America is the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the belief in liberty. We're an invented country, and the thing that holds us together is our shared democratic beliefs. That's an appealing story, on a lot of levels, and it's at least partly the truth. That story also has the virtue of providing a relatively clear test that gets around the murkiness that ethnic or racial definitions of America fall into: there are these documents and principles, and if you embrace them you're one of us. That vision lends itself to immigration, because you can be one of us, in the most important way of all, the second you step off the boat. And that's inevitably an intellectual definition of being American; it's about philosophical ideas. Hamilton reflects this time-honored vision.

But that intellectual definition isn't very welcoming to people who dislike abstract thought or who actively resent it. It's all pretty airy-fairy, and not really about concrete facts. So there's always been another answer to the question "What is America?" that gives an answer based in race and ethnicity. Being American is being white, speaking English, being culturally and ethnically like the other "real" Americans. This idea never dies. And it allows people to justify taking things (land, money, labor) from groups who get defined as "not American," so it can, uh, whitewash things like land grabs as noble and virtuous rather than, you know, criminal. It's always had that base economic appeal. Of course, because the question of who a "real American" is, or who counts as white, is never straightforward and has constantly changed throughout our history, this vision of America is always, at best, intellectually incoherent and usually flat-out stupid. (I mean, the main thing that makes us American is ... being like the English? What?) But this is the Trump vision.

This is the vision of America that allows some people to say, matter-of-factly, that New York City is not American. Note that one of Ted Cruz's counterattacks on Trump is that he has "New York City values" which means not being really American. From any sane perspective, New York City is as American as America gets. Is London not English? Is Paris not French? Don't be a jerk.

It would be nice to say that one of these visions is the real answer, and the other is not. Clearly, I prefer America-as-idea to America-as-ethnic-tribe. The truth is that both answers are partial truths, and both have been operating throughout America's history. But that doesn't mean that one vision isn't better than the other. The Hamilton vision is better than the Trump vision in every way, morally and pragmatically. It is worth fighting for. It is worth winning for. And it's no accident that Hamilton is joyous and forward-looking while Trumpism is pessimistic and aggrieved, endlessly talking about past grievances and lost greatness. The politics of ethnic resentment demand that you claim to have been robbed, which is pretty hilarious coming from white Americans, so that it always looks back to the lost good old days and treats modernity as awful. But Hamilton's vision is American in its optimism. The vision of America as ideal can always look forward. Our ideas, our beliefs, will always have a future. We can always build America. We can always make America better. And new Americans will flock to that banner every day. Those of us who embrace America, the idea, have not yet begun to fight.

I'll let George Washington sing us to the chorus:

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog