Thursday, December 21, 2017

Never Trust an Action Hero: Star Wars' Lost Politics

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has hit the cineplex and begun raking in the customary astronomical profits. But the film has some angry detractors among hard-core Star Wars fans (a minority, I think, but a loud one) who complain bitterly that The Last Jedi is unfaithful to the Star Wars tradition. I'm not going to talk about the new movie here, and I'm going to do my best to delete discussion of it in comments (no spoilers!) for at least the next week. But I'd like to talk about the old Star Wars movies, the originals and the prequels, and the ambiguity that George Lucas tried, but failed, to give them.

The original 1977 Star Wars movie, the one now retroactively called "A New Hope," is filled with references to earlier film classics and it ends with a big one. The final sequence, in which Princess Leia hands out medals in a big military assembly, is a very clear reference to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the most visually-powerful Nazi propaganda film of all time. This is widely known, but poorly explained. Everyone agrees that this is a Triumph of the Will homage; very few people can persuasively explain why.

I think the best explanation is that this was George Lucas's failed attempt to add some moral complexity. After spending the whole movie very obviously associating the Empire with the Nazis (calling them "Stormtroopers" is not subtle), Lucas turns at the end and codes the Rebels as Nazis too. Whoa! Maybe I need to rethink things! Now, that move certainly does not work as intended, and basically never has. An audience of eight-year-olds is never going to catch the Leni Riefenstahl reference. Most people watching a summer popcorn movie aren't. And even if you do notice it, it doesn't work. The movie that comes before that scene is too joyful, too seductive, and too simple-hearted for that sudden moral twist to work. By the time you get to the end of the original Star Wars, everyone wants the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be bad, period. No arty little film-school reference, coming from left field with no preparation, is going to derail the audience at that point. No way.

Lucas seemed to give up trying to cast doubt on his good guys' politics through the next two sequels. But he went back at it hard during the prequel trilogy, which is filled with moments where the heroes mess up catastrophically. The prequel trilogy is three movies about people losing their democracy. They start with a Republic and blow it. And, over and over, it's the good guys, the Jedi and their allies, actively blowing it. There's no moral equivalence; Palpatine and his flunkies are clearly evil. But time and again we have scenes that are pretty clearly meant to inspire moral confusion. Yoda introduces the Stormtroopers for the first time. Jar Jar, who is an idiot but a good-hearted idiot, votes Palpatine into power. These are meant to be moments where the audience steps back and says, "Whoa! The good guys did what now?" Those emotional beats don't land, any more than the Triumph of the Will reference landed in the original movie. Audience members don't respond the way Lucas seems to be asking them to. Maybe it's that the prequels are actually more ambitious, morally and artistically, than Lucas could execute. (To say they're ambitious is not to say they're good: many bad movies are the burning wrecks of ambitions that were beyond their makers' skill.) Maybe Lucas would have been able to pull it off earlier, but had lost a step. Or maybe this would have always been beyond his grasp as a story-teller, because getting across moral complexity has never been his thing. He certainly didn't pull it off. But equally certainly, he tried.

The message that George Lucas has repeatedly tried and failed to get across in his Star Wars movies can be boiled down to: never trust an action hero. If you are looking for rational democratic governance, a bunch of impulsive, shoot-from the hip adventurers are really not your guys. They're just not wired that way. And this is a fair point. The Jedi are not the same as the Empire or the Sith or, God forbid, the Nazis, but you can see why the Sith view the Jedi as such a valuable recruiting pool. The prequels very deliberately shows the good guys' action-hero impulses being played, repeatedly, by Palpatine's manipulations. But they're vulnerable to those manipulations because their heroic instincts are naturally a little un-democratic. That's not my spin. That's the plot of Episodes II and III.

Action-adventure stories like Star Wars naturally have a little bit of authoritarian bias built into their DNA, whatever their superficial politics. Or, to put it another way, these stories have a natural authoritarian lean that a storyteller has to work around. Remember, a lot of these basic stories come from monarchical societies. Celebrating a class of armed overlords is the natural groove path.

Part of this is that adventure stories mostly solve problems through violence. The good guys are never going to spend a Star Wars movie registering voters or hammering out a legislative compromise. Their basic approaches to problem-solving are 1) shoot it, 2) blow it up, and 3) cut it in half with a sword. And people enjoy that more than a story about committee work. (Our girl Senator Amidala gets fed up with the whole being-a-Senator thing and flies off to kick some ass, leaving the trusty and reliable Jar Jar with her vote. How's that work out?) Now, democracies do sometimes have to use military force, and most good adventure stories pay at least lip service to democracy and freedom. "Beating People Up for Freedom" is the unofficial Jedi motto. But that adventure story structure also lends itself easily, even naturally, to politics that glorify violence and believe in imposing control from above by force.

But more importantly, good adventure stories focus on a small group of individuals, and on things that a few individuals can do in a story. Star Wars makes a lot of World War II references, but it's not really set up for D-Day; a vast battle where every individual only makes a small contribution isn't really how these movies work. It's always going to be about a few central characters taking decisive action. And that makes for good storytelling. But if you don't watch it, that can quickly devolve into a narrative where a few Special Shiny Important People make all the decisions for everyone else. In fact, it's hard to raise the stakes of the story without doing that. Things go Game of Thrones so fast you might not notice.

Look: at the end of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a promising young pilot who manages to score a decisive hit in a key battle. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the question of whether anybody in the galaxy ever gets to vote hinges on how Luke Skywalker happens to work out his feelings. The superficial question "Should the galaxy be ruled by one man's decisions, or by the people themselves?" stealthily changes to "Which one man should make decisions for the rest of the galaxy?" Sure, the happy ending is foreordained, so we don't really worry that people are going to stay under the Empire's thumb. But we're spent the last few hundred years in the real world working to reach a point where a couple of super-elite individuals get to decide everyone else's destiny. Maybe we shouldn't be leaving these decisions up to a Skywalker. And in fact, the three prequel movies are about the folly of letting a Skywalker make these political decisions. Anakin Skywalker working out his feelings is the original problem.

But don't take it from me. Take it from Yoda, who more than once during the prequels makes it very clear how badly he and his associates have failed. The never-trust-an-action-hero idea is not mine; it really does belong to George Lucas. He's just never managed to sell it.

 cross-posted from Dagblog (all comments welcome there, not here)

Monday, November 27, 2017

The New York Times Wants You to Know How Normal Everyone Is Here at the Applebee's

Here in bucolic Fairfield, California, amidst rolling vineyards and struggling big-box stores, unassuming souls like Norman Bates go largely unremarked. While most Americans would instinctively recoil from his habit of brutal murder and the uses to which he puts his victims’ bodies, here in Middle America he is Norman Next Door, a soft-spoken young man whose manners nearly any mother would applaud, working to keep open a family motel that serves both as symptom and as symbol of the economic anxieties roiling the heartland. Norman has heard murmurs advocating radical change, from Wal-Mart’s gun aisle to the local church’s pork-and-beans supper, and seems guardedly optimistic. Perhaps it will become easier for him to date. “Most girls don’t want to hear about being violently stabbed to death and having selected portions of their remains repurposed,” he says, browsing the knives at the dollar store. Now, he feels, things may be about to go his way.

    The Joker understands that mainstream Americans do not approve of him, or his plans to set most of Gotham City’s inhabitants on fire. He has come to see this disapproval as the fruit of consistent media bias. A slender man dressed with immaculate care, he possesses an infectious laugh that instantly announces his presence in any room. “Your big legacy media companies just aren’t equipped to think about crime on my scale,” he says, sweeping with his customary brio into a local Steak n’ Shake and nonchalantly commandeering a booth whose most recent occupants have succumbed to his poisonous gas. “They’re dinosaurs. They can only imagine mass extinction as a bad thing.”  He takes a sip from the Orange Freeze a newly departed customer has left untouched and gives his trademark roguish grin. “I think ordinary people, your average Americans, are tired of all the knee-jerk moralizing, the hypocrisy. The New York Times got so holier-than-thou about that thing with the orphanages, but they publish David Brooks twice a week. How do they justify that?” He feels the current political volatility, the disappearance of the Police Commissioner and Mayor, might at last permit his ideas to be heard. “The anarchy, the looting, the complete breakdown of civil order: it’s my moment.” He strolls along Maple Street, glittering with fireflies in the Midwestern dusk, toward the Volunteer Fire Department, another clever scheme in mind.
    Leatherface has no grand ambitions for himself. It has always been enough for him to live here, on the wind-scoured Texas plains, working with his brothers in the family’s humble assortment of businesses: a small gas station, adjoining restaurant, and a now-shuttered slaughterhouse. Often one of the brothers must resort to hitchhiking, hoping to steer passing motorists the family’s way. Leatherface does the homestead’s chores, his beloved chainsaw always at the ready. He even built the family’s furniture, using whatever traditional materials come nearest to hand. Years of thrift have become ingrained habit, and absolutely nothing goes to waste.
    "We’re just trying to put meat on the table,” he explains, slipping into an Applebee’s booth that other regulars, by unspoken agreement, leave reserved for him. He has brought his own dinner, wrapped in humble butcher’s paper, and tucks into his meal with a workingman’s eager gusto. He must occasionally readjust his homemade, lovingly hand-crafted mask, constructed entirely from recycled human flesh. “That’s what people outside the flyover states never understand. If they want to find out what this country is really about, tell them to come out here. Straight to my house.”

    Darth Vader, weary at the end of another long day, agrees to an interview at a Cracker Barrel off the Ohio Turnpike. He orders coffee for what can only be reasons of politeness; his complicated and burdensome respirator apparatus will not allow him to drink liquid in public.  His detractors in the press view him as aloof, out of touch, and motivated by implacable evil, but he still sees himself as a humble farm boy from a tiny desert village he declines to name, a place so poor that his family actually had to farm for water. He never knew his father, but he claims still to feel that Dickensian desert demi-orphan inside him at his most impetuous moments, as when he is strangling another senior staff officer, and during whatever subsequent moments of fleeting regret.       
    He was raised not to complain, but feels that the public has come to see him solely through the lens of a one unfortunate, notorious day. “The single worst news cycle of your life, repeated forever,” he intones, in his deep, reassuring church-organ basso. “That is CNN.” He offers no self-justification or excuse for the destruction of the planet Alderaan and its millions of human inhabitants. He speaks instead of his faith, at once old-fashioned and profound, a set of lifelong, deeply held beliefs that have come to feel out of place in modern, secular society.
    “Is the problem that I created a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced?” he asks. “Or is the problem that no one in the liberal coastal elite could feel that disturbance? I find their lack of faith disturbing.” He counts out his tip carefully, in exact change, before leaving it on our server’s lifeless body.

    The few New Yorkers who have ever heard of Cthulhu consider him a malevolent demon-god intent on the elimination of all human life. But here in the hardworking blue-collar neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island, he passes easily for that most beloved of homespun meals, a plate of fresh calamari. Cthulhu considers his poor reputation a temporary problem, soon to be rectified, in his view, by the terrified madness and utter annihilation of every living creature. It’s a goal he has long dreamed of; he knows that not everybody understands. We meet at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, where his entrance reduces customers and staff to shrieking horror and dismay.
    “This country has a serious problem,” he says in a blood-curdling and nigh-incomprehensible gargle. “Washington doesn’t understand it. Mainstream media doesn’t understand it. No mewling pathetic humanoid could possibly grasp it. I alone know what the problem is, because I am the problem. You will all bow down to me before you die.” He demonstrates his point by disemboweling the morning-rush customers and brutally eviscerating the staff. The interviewer, reduced to gibbering madness, crawls out of the Dunkin’ Donuts having lost of his ability to speak. He has been permanently institutionalized; portions of this article have been reconstructed from his notes. But before leaving, Cthulhu takes two honey-dipped donuts in a wax paper bag: for all the world, in that moment, just another ordinary customer on the streets of the Real America.

cross-posted from Dagblog: all comments welcome there, rather than here

Sunday, October 08, 2017

What Is Praying?

I have been too angry to write about the mass murder in Las Vegas, and too angry to write about the empty and reflexive offerings of "thoughts and prayers" that now follow every murder like it. But let me take this opportunity to talk about the question of what prayers are, and how they might be different from thoughts. America's general enthusiasm for religion masks deep, sometimes nearly bottomless religious differences, and so many, many people talk about praying, but use that word to mean very different things: sometimes contradictory things. What is praying, anyway?

Praying is different from simply thinking because it is directed outside yourself, to some larger spiritual power. (This also makes prayer different from meditation. I have prayed, and I have meditated, and they are not the same thing at all.) Prayers have an address outside yourself; they are addressed to a god or to some other spiritual being. Some people pray to departed ancestors, to deceased saints, or to angels. But it's always to a spiritual being of some kind, rather than to someone who is walking around with a cell phone right now. The big differences in the way people pray are their reasons for praying and what they think prayer can accomplish.

On one end of the spectrum, there are people who pray in an attempt to influence or control events in the real world. They pray to get a promotion at work, to avert a hurricane, to cure a loved one's apparently incurable cancer. If you're Huck Finn, you pray for God to give you some fish hooks. There is a lot of this, all over our culture, and it doesn't break along clear denominational lines.

I tend to be skeptical of this practice myself. It is, on a fundamental level, a straight-up magical practice, no different from the prayers dedicated to idols during a ritual sacrifice. ("O mighty Jupiter, are you hungry? We have a delicious spring heifer for you. And, by the way, is there any chance you could make it rain?") In some cases, it is a very obvious magical practice, as with santeria rituals or the self-described "prayer warriors" who imagine they are fighting various demonic influences over our world. I am not interested in sorcery as a religious practice, and moreover I find it disrespectful. This is the omnipotent Creator of the Universe we're talking about. It isn't Let's Make a Deal.

But at the same time, many people I love and respect do pray this way, some of the time, and I would not try to talk them out of it. When my mother's cancer came back, I wasn't telling anyone not to pray for remission. I never would. Someone close to me once prayed for a desperately-needed career break, got it, and followed through on a promise to return regularly and light more prayer candles at the place where he'd made the original prayer. I don't have a real problem with that.

But I think almost everyone recognizes that this kind of prayer is only appropriate for situations when you have already done everything else that's your power, or when the situation is completely outside your power to begin with. You pray for the hurricane to pass your town by because, really, what else are you going to do? You pray for God to cure a loved one's cancer because there is nothing else you can do about your loved one's cancer. Almost everyone gets that. Even if you consider such prayer to be a form of self-deception, human beings sometimes need a little self-deception to keep going.

Things become very different if you expect such prayer to substitute for action. Lighting a candle in a church after you've already done everything you can to prepare for a key job interview is one thing; lighting a candle instead of preparing for your job interview is another, much stupider, thing. Praying that the chemotherapy cures your family member is more than understandable. Telling your family member to pray instead of trying chemotherapy would be grotesque.

So if someone's offering "thoughts and prayers" in addition to concrete action, that's terrific. But if
the "thoughts and prayers" formulation means, as it too often does, "I intend to pray that no more mass murders like this happen again, and that is all I intend to do about the problem," then as far as I'm concerned you can stuff those thoughts and prayers. Your magic does not work. It is a pathetic self-deception, and nothing can be more arrogant that offering someone who is suffering your grandiose delusions in place of actual help.

And for what it's worth, I never prayed for God to cure my mother's cancer. God already knew what I wanted and how desperately I wanted it. Mom's cancer had not come back because God figured that I wouldn't mind. So I did not pray for God to do my bidding or work me a wonder, like some petty conjuror. I prayed for God to make me a better son while my mother was still alive.

Once you move past the vast number of prayers that aim to effect the visible world, you get to a gray area of what I will call funerary prayers: prayers dedicated to the spiritual welfare of the dead. From the skeptical atheist's point of view, these prayers are at least as pointless as prayers that attempt to control business, medical health, or the weather. In fact, they may be even more pointless, since they are aimed at an afterlife whose existence atheists do not concede. The only advantage of such prayers is that they are immune from immediate falsification. When you pray for a tornado to miss your house and the tornado destroys your house, everyone can see your prayer didn't work. When you pray for the welfare of your dead grandmother's soul, who knows? There's no way to tell if it's working or not.

This kind of prayer was once a flashpoint in the violent Catholic-Protestant disputes that roiled the West from the early 16th to the early 18th century. But the practice of this kind of prayer has now become popular even in denominations that technically forbid it. (Lots of people do it, but you might also meet fierce objections to the practice; it's slightly unpredictable.) I was raised in a tradition that focuses strongly on these prayers for the dead, and even if I doubted their effectiveness I would still participate in them for reasons of culture and tradition, for much the same reason I would still always make sure my loved ones got proper funeral rites. At this point, I can no longer specifically remember praying for my mother's soul during her funeral, but I almost certainly did.

On the other hand, I have seldom prayed for the welfare of Mom's soul since her funeral, largely because I don't believe she is in need of such prayers. I have some deceased relatives for whom I never pray, because I'm very confident of their spiritual state, and other relatives whom, for various reasons, I give a more strenuous effort. (I will confess that I once began a silent prayer for a departed family member with the phrase, "Okay, Lord. Let's not make this about me.")

If someone says that they plan to pray for the souls of the Las Vegas victims, I am okay with that. Flights of angels sing them to their rest, and so on. But I wouldn't accept that as the sole appropriate action.

The last major form of prayer, and the form most of my own prayer life centers on, is prayer asking for spiritual strength and guidance. I pray to ask for more patience, more generosity, better understanding. I don't pray for God to change the world around me for my convenience. I pray for God to change me, and make me better.

If you're a skeptical rationalist type, this might seem like simply a particular form of focused meditation, a way to focus my own mind on what, to an atheist, can only be an imaginary addressee. And if it were only that, I would still defend its value. But I will add, again, that the practice is very different from meditation. When I meditate I am trying to clear my mind, to leave it blank. Prayer very much engages the parts of the mind that meditation is trying to still. Prayer has a direct, positive focus.

When I pray for wisdom and guidance, I am asking for help deciding what to do. In effect, I am praying for instructions. Such prayer is never a substitute for action. It is a prelude to it.

If people say they will pray about what to do to stop another mass murder like the one in Las Vegas, I hear that and feel like it's the right thing to do. But appropriate prayer has to lead to proper action. "I've prayed on the Las Vegas murders, and I've decided we need to change some things," is what I'd prefer to hear.  But somehow that's never the party line.

cross-posted from Dagblog, where all comments are welcome (comments here are closed)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Some People Are Not Duelable

I'm not a big proponent of bringing back customs and manners from hundreds of years back. The centuries I study were much worse to live in than this one. But there is one concept from Ye Olden Days that (suitably retooled), I have always found pretty useful. That is the concept of people being "not duelable." I use it in my academic writing. I use it in my daily life. I occasionally teach it to graduate students. And it turns out to be a concept that both the Age of Twitter and the Age of Trump badly need.

Now, dueling itself is a vicious custom and should not come back. But that custom contained one illuminating rule: dueling is something that happens between equals. (It's also restricted to the upper classes; humbler folk who fight with swords, like the playwright Ben Jonson, are just street brawling.) You only duel people who are, generally speaking, on your own level.

If you're a 17th-century gentleman, or a Russian aristocrat, or a young swell in Flaubert's Paris, you don't get in duels with servants or bartenders or some poor hapless working stiff. That's beneath you. (I'm not going to idealize this practice; this is mainly about not giving the hapless working stiffs a fair shot at the rich folk, or allowing the working stiffs to fight back.) Fighting those people isn't simply wrong. The wrongness isn't even the main problem. Fighting with those people is demeaning to you. It lowers you. It invites shame and ridicule.

Early in the 20th century (a little late for this sort of thing), the novelist Vladimir Nabokov's father got so angry about a yellow journalist's attack on him that he decided to challenge someone to a duel over it. (Neither Dr. Cleveland nor Dagblog endorses fighting duels or threatening journalists.) Did he challenge the person who wrote the article? No. That person was, from Nabokov Sr.'s point of view, just some greasy little scribbler, not worth the bother of tussling with. Papa Nabokov challenged the newspaper publisher. (The younger Nabokov has a wonderful chapter about this episode in his memoir, Speak, Memory.)  None of this is exactly Nabokov Sr.'s finest hour, but it taught me the basic "not duelable" concept, which has real value.

Let's broaden the definition of "duel" here to mean any public or semi-public conflict which, on some level, involves your reputation. That's what duels were: fights designed to protect one's reputation, and when someone was not duelable that meant that fighting them, or even challenging them, would only damage your reputation more. Some kinds of political slagging and point-scoring qualify, alas. So do some entertainers' public feuds: two rappers beefing with each other are both acknowledging each other as peers and trying to raise their profiles. And, like it or not, academic writing has its share of this, both because professional reputations are closely tied to that writing and because academic debate works, especially in the humanities, by disagreement. It is almost impossible to write a publishable article about Shakespeare where you don't at least politely suggest some other Shakespeareans are wrong about something. Often, people are much less polite. Sometimes scholars get into epic running beefs. The letter pages of the Times Literary Supplement are notorious for hosting ongoing tweedy vendettas. The question of who is duelable and who isn't in academic arguments is one I've given a lot of thought to, and it needs a post of its own.

One of my favorite examples of non-duelability in pop culture is Crash Davis in Bull Durham, flat-out declining to compete with boy idiot Nuke LaLoosh for Annie's favors: "I'm not interested in anyone who's interested in that boy." Translation: I'm not going to compete with that idiot, because he's not a suitable rival, and it would be demeaning to compete against him." Not duelable, bro.

Two major-party Presidential candidates going at each other is unpleasant and arguably unseemly. But you can't say that conflict is inappropriate. As nominees, they are peers. But if the President of the United States, with all the majesty of that office, decided to beef publicly with say, an ESPN personality like Jemele Hill, which is too crazy to ever happen, he would be attacking someone non-duelable. If he were to get petulant with an NBA player, that is fighting with someone non-duelable. Calling an unemployed NFL quarterback a "son of a bitch" in public is totally attacking someone non-duelable.

Trump does not make the duelable/ non-duelable distinction at all. He fights with people who have vastly different statuses. He goes after the grieving parents of an American serviceman killed in action. He beefs at Rosie O'Donnell, still, for God knows what reason. He gets in spats with the Emmys telecast and the Apprentice, with ESPN. The list goes on, unfortunately. It's depressing to see.

The first problem with this is it's wrong, because the people he goes after are weaker and have no defense. One of the basic reasons large categories of people were originally designated non-duelable is because those people did not have swords or guns. (The laws often restricted weapon ownership to the upper classes.) Picking on the poor grieving mother of a dead serviceman is a disgusting way to use your power. It's wrong because unjustly harms other people. It makes you a bully, and a thug, and an asshole.

The other two problems, which are interrelated, are problems because they harm you, rather than your target. The main problem is that it destroys your dignity. You get into the gutter to fight some rapscallions, what you win is a trip to the gutter. You get dirty and you make a depressing spectacle of yourself.

Trump does not preserve the dignity of his office. He screeches at people who are, since inauguration, vastly below him in station. Part of this is that Trump still insists on operating like a fairly low-level New York media figure, a guy who gets into arguments on a call-in radio show. He's like a less well-adjusted Howard Stern. Part of it is that, frankly, he's a psychologically damaged personality. The rest is that Trump has always behaved like someone from an entirely different social class, rather than like a normal, socially-adjusted rich New Yorker. For all his money, he has never been able to learn the rules of upper-class Manhattan, social norms that usually get expressed as "taste," "manners," and "class." That he's a rich guy with the manners, and open resentments, of someone from a much lower class has always been a big part of his appeal. But it's not an act; Trump isn't someone who can charm donors to the Met and then switch it up to bond with a cabbie. He genuinely doesn't understand the normal rules of upper-class behavior, including the rule that some fights are just beneath you.

What Trump gains by his refusal to observe decorum is the ability to attack people that Presidents usually don't attack. What he loses is the protective aura of his office's dignity. It feels wrong to insult a President of the United States in certain ways, but that's ultimately predicated on the fact that the President isn't going to shout crude insults at you, either. The aura is a two-way protection.

Normally, the dignity of the President's office keeps people from calling the President a bum, but Trump doesn't respect the dignity of office and so it doesn't protect him. If a pro athlete called a president, any president a bum, I'd usually think that was a classless move. But the President in question called another pro athlete a son of a bitch in public yesterday, so he's the one who changed the rules.

And related to the loss of dignity is the problem that when you get down in the gutter to fight with some guttersnipes, the guttersnipes might win. Trump publicly slagging on Colin Kaepernick and Steph Curry opened the door for LeBron James to just lay Trump out:

That's not the golden political rhetoric of yesterday, but Trump is playing the playground diss game, and as playground disses go this is a classic. Trump has no one to blame but himself.

(I do not mean to imply that Mr. James is a guttersnipe. He is a sublime athlete and a philanthropist. But he's also a guy who sweats for a living, not somebody who gets called in to give the Cabinet advice. Do you remember when FDR got into that public insult match with Joe DiMaggio? That's right. You don't.)

The bigger question is whether the dictator of North Korea is duelable for an American president. All of Trump's predecessors thought not, and didn't waste time trading insults with a small-time dictator. Trump, who has no sense of dignity, is getting into a slagging match and, on balance, losing. But actually, this is not at all how people used to talk before duels. Duels are about saving face, but also about finding a way out of conflict if you can: a lot of energy focused on finding a way to say everybody's honor was satisfied without anyone bleeding out. Sometimes that failed, but that was the focus. Papa Nabokov found a way not to fight that duel. Trump and Kim are not looking for an elegant way out of this. They are woofing at each other like playground antagonists, both scared of looking "weak" by backing down. It's a situation that usually leads to the two knuckleheads trading blows because they're afraid not to.

The danger, of course, is that if these two idiots come to blows, it's not just them.

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Trump Does Not Care If People Get Hurt

President Trump's impromptu press conference today was a shocking display of his moral depravity and his allegiance to bigotry. There are so many things wrong with it, in so many stunning ways, that everyone is trying to digest it and focusing on different parts. But one particularly scary thing has not yet gotten much attention: Trump shows a nearly complete lack of interest in preventing more bloodshed like this. That is unprecedented, and extremely dangerous.

Every previous president of the United States has been deeply averse to civil violence and has always worked to prevent it. That's only natural. Civil violence and disorder are the opposite of government; our leaders' power is vested in exactly the order that civil violence disrupts. Our long national struggle over civil rights, which has often led to street unrest by various parties, has highlighted this. Every president, whatever their party loyalty or racial politics, has made keeping order and avoiding violence a paramount goal. Presidents who were sympathetic with angry segregationists, or who needed them for electoral reasons, still wanted to prevent any violence or lawbreaking by segregationist mobs. Even politicians who were themselves personally racist did not want racist violence in the streets, because preventing violence in the streets was always seen as crucial. In the same way, politicians who were for progress on civil rights were nonetheless very much against any violence by, say, the Black Panthers, or any riots in African-American neighborhoods. Preventing riots is central to the President's job, and to the President's authority.

In a real sense, you can say that JFK became a pro-civil rights president because it was eventually his only way to get peace in the streets. When he entered the White House, civil rights was not on his agenda. Whatever personal liberalism he had on civil rights issues was strictly abstract; he was not going to act on that. But then he had to deal with furious, angry segregationist mobs and with Southern politicians from his own party who refused to control those mobs. Some of his phone calls with Southern governors (which JFK taped) are desperate and frustrating. And the transcripts make it clear that, more than anything else, Kennedy does not want to see anyone hurt or killed. Eventually JFK moves to back the civil rights agenda strongly because it's the right thing to do but also because he can't get any cooperation from the other side, so he just has to beat them.

But today President Trump did none of the things American presidents do to calm things down and prevent violence. He excused provocative behavior, claiming that white supremacists were "quietly protesting" when they were actually shouting about hating Jews. Worse still, he made it clear that he favored one side, and justified their violence to the greatest degree he could. He even said that some of the white supremacists were "fine people" and not white supremacists at all. NONE of that is what you do when you want people to stop doing something. All of it was aimed at excusing what they had done and signaling them NOT to stop. Ask yourself white the alt-right knuckleheads think when they hear Trump talking like that. What they hear is, "Keep going, fellas, I'm on your side."

That is just crazy. It shows Trump's complete, depraved indifference to public safety. And it exposes his indifference, or actual hostility, to the rule of law which his office embodies. The President is meant to enforce public order, and that legal order is the foundation of the President's power. And so every previous president has put questions of order-vs.-disorder before pettier questions of right-vs.-left or party-vs.-party. Trump has no seeming regard for public order, and sees things instead in ideological or partisan terms, as Us vs. Them. (None of his predecessors ever, even once, thought of any street thugs as part of "us.")  Or, even worse, Trump owes his allegiance to chaos itself. He is a representative of disorder, and thrives on it. That is a terrifying thought.

I would usually say that this is the kind of behavior that could get someone killed. But it's too late to say that now. Someone is already dead.

(cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.)

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Three Myths of Reverse Racism in College Admissions

Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting in the tiny teacher's room of the little parochial school where I taught, talking to a few other people about the news. The principal's administrative assistant said something about affirmative action letting unqualified black students into Harvard, and I asked her if she thought that was a real worry. She actually gasped. "Don't you?" she asked, in shocked disbelief that I could not be concerned, nay scandalized, about such a well-known social problem.

But I had just graduated from Harvard the year before, and I had never seen these unqualified African-American students that everyone was always talking about. Was Harvard secretly running another secret campus, where they hid all these unqualified minority students people kept mentioning? Or, if the people I had met in college were the supposedly unqualified minority students, why had they kept kicking my ass in chess? It made no sense.

Where I'd gone to college didn't make any difference to my co-worker, who knew what she knew. After all, everybody knew it. The Unqualified Black Harvard Student was a truth universally acknowledged, something everyone accepted as a proven fact, at least among white people who had never been to Harvard.

Now it seems the Trump-and-Sessions Justice Department is planning to investigate American colleges and universities for their alleged racist crimes against white applicants. So the Myth of the Unqualified Minority College Student is going to get official government backing, reality be damned.

This changes the game from the past decades of anti-affirmative lawsuits, which have been brought by private individuals and have traditionally had a plaintiff problem, in that the applicants suing whatever school always turn out to be marginal candidates at best. We can call this the Myth of the Wronged White Genius, a necessary companion to the Myth of the Unqualified Minority. The implication is that there are a number of brilliant white students, who would obviously be accepted immediately into whatever school they apply to except that they have been done wrong by by those Unqualified Minorities. Everyone knows about these people, too: unmistakable stars who would be open-and-shut, slam-dunk admissions cases. But somehow when it's time to sue a college these applicants, the Wronged White Superstars, never show up.

Instead, the plaintiffs in affirmative action lawsuits are people who either would, at best, squeak in at the bottom of an admitted class (as in the case of Allen Bakke) or, as in the absurd case of Abigail Fisher, a student whose own lawyers had to admit she would not get into the university of her choice even if race were not an issue. Bakke v. California did eliminate quotas; UC Davis Medical School was setting aside 16 of its 100 med-school berths for minority applicants, in a system not terribly different from set-asides schools had reserved for veterans and other favored categories. So even in Bakke's best case for his argument he would be, at the very best, in the bottom 16% of the entering class.

Now, we have only Allen Bakke's own word that he would have gotten in if not for those 16 slots. He was convinced this was true. But even so, that makes Bakke at the very best 85th out of a hundred. And Bakke would only be 85th if  every single minority applicant were less qualified than Bakke on paper, an assertion with neither facts nor probability on its side. So the heart of Bakke's own claim is that, by his own lights, he should be in the bottom tier of admitted applicants, the 90-something best applicant out of 100.

Plaintiffs like Bakke (or Grutter, or Gratz) tend to be bubble applicants. Anti-affirmative-action lawsuits, by their basic logic, are about contesting the last slot admitted to a particular program. The argument is, and has to be, that the plaintiff has been done wrong by offering any affirmative action, because the affirmative action applicants booted the plaintiff out of that last available space. So the plaintiff is by definition someone whose best realistic hope was just barely to squeeze under the wire.

That means even the best anti-affirmative-action plaintiff is someone who might or might not get into a school or program any given year, depending on who else applied. The 96th-best applicant one year might be the 106th-best next year, because every year a different batch of people apply. And we should add that rankings like this don't work out transparently, so that one admissions officer might rank an applicant the 95th best and another admissions officer, equally qualified and equally well-intentioned, might rank the same person 105th.

The argument isn't just "If not for affirmative action, I would have gotten into medical school." It is, and has to be, "If not for affirmative action I would have just barely made it into medical school." That's not the world's most rousing chorus.

Lately, anti-affirmative action groups have tried to resort to finding Asian-American plaintiffs, as in this recent piece from the New York Times. Of course, the NYT piece leads off with an apparently very qualified student who is not actually suing Harvard, as the NYT only admits near the bottom of its story. The Times also mysteriously fails to mention that this is not the first time Harvard has been sued over accusations that it should admit more Asian-Americans; we actually know a good deal about Harvard's admissions processes because of discovery from that previous lawsuit. Oh, and Harvard won that earlier lawsuit about this issue, so that might have been something the Times story mentioned, too.

But in any case, the Asian-American-plaintiff gambit doesn't really advance the case that affirmative action is discrimination against whites. The heart of that argument is that colleges are allegedly depressing the number of Asian-American students, and that someplace like Harvard should be 40% Asian-American instead of a mere 20 to 25%. That would lead to fewer white students, not more. This argument is basically that so-called liberal schools are already discriminating in favor of white applicants.

Now, the new Department of Justice is going to go for the gusto and claim anti-white discrimination. This may get around the problem of white plaintiffs with mediocre test scores by making the federal government itself the plaintiff and rendering all of the issues more abstract. Instead of arguing in court for a real but not-overwhelmingly-qualified white person, they can make the case about the imaginary wrongs done to all white people and bring the strictly imaginary Wronged White Geniuses, who would be academic stars if not for those pesky minorities, back into the conversation.

The strongest anti-affirmative-action cases have been against public universities, which are arms of the government. The case that an outside party can dictate the policies of a private university, like Harvard or Yale or your local small liberal-arts college, is a lot murkier. Also, anti-affirmative-action suits have generally, although not always, done better in cases of law or medical school applications instead of undergraduate admissions. This is because professional schools look at a smaller and more quantifiable set of qualifications and leave out murky questions like "character" and "promise."

That brings us to the third big anti-affirmative action myth, the Myth of the Clear Ranked Order. This is the assumption that every stack of college or grad-school applications can clearly be sorted in order of quality, from #1 to #103 to #19,346. But it never works like that. No healthy college admissions pool is going to have an applicant who is clearly and unambiguously better than everyone else in the pool. (That would be a sign that your school is getting an application from a student it usually couldn't land, so you're probably having recruiting trouble already.) And there's never, ever a clear line demarcating the last applicant who gets in from the first applicant who doesn't. That's always a judgment call, and another committee another year might swap around who just made it and who just missed.

The more accurate way to think about applicants is in groupings. There's a group you'd be very happy to have, another group that will clearly get in. There's also a group, which you'd always like to be small, of people who have no hope at all of getting in, and a group of people who are okay but who you are clearly not going to find the space for considering who else is in the pool. But these groupings will never coincide perfectly with the number of spaces available. If you have 100 spaces, or 2000 spaces, or 4000 spaces, you are never going to get exactly 100 or 2000 or 4000 applications from people you obviously want to admit and then a sharp drop off to much less qualified people. There will always be a batch of people who might have made it in and might not have.

This is most obviously true when schools are looking like character, leadership, originality, and so forth, and when they are judging things like extracurricular activities, letters or recommendation, and personal essays. Those things have to be judged qualitatively. Are all those clubs the student is in just resume-padding, or is there something real and interesting going on? In the school orchestra because you think colleges would like that, or because you're really interested in music? That has to be a judgment call, but every admissions office also has to make it.

But this is also true of academic qualifications. If selective colleges reduced everything to a question of GPAs and scores, they would not be happy with who they got. They would believe that they'd let in some people who weren't actually as smart as many of the people they turned away. (There are colleges, of course, where it is just about grades and scores, but those are schools who aren't finding enough students they want at all; they are simply screening out people who are likely to flunk, and taking everyone else.) Take it from a white kid, with no legacy or athletic preference, who got into Harvard without straight As. Harvard took me over kids with better GPAs, including my own valedictorian and class president, for essentially academic reasons. Now, they may have been mistaken, and you don't have to agree with them. But other admissions offices made a similar mistake about me that year, and there's no sign of any nefarious motive. They just thought I would be a good college student.

This is all to say that suing a school like Harvard over alleged discrimination against white kids will get murky very fast.  It's not just grades and scores. It's also the classes the students took, the rigor of the school they go to, what their letters of recommendation say, the quality of their essays. You are not going to find that mythical Clear Ranked List running from 1 to 1600 or 1 to 2000. It just does not exist. Now, Harvard and schools like this certainly exploit the murkiness of this process to do what they want with admissions, including giving advantages to athletes and legacies, and even giving special preferences to academically undistinguished children of major donors. (Hint: rhymes with "Mar-ed Bushner.") But they also use that messy, murky process in pursuit of intellectual and academic excellence.

Now, my high school had a long drought during which we didn't get any applicants into Harvard at all, for something like 25 years, which really stings when you're a school in Massachusetts. It wasn't just my year's valedictorian that they turned down. They turned down years and years of our valedictorians. (I'm happy to say that my old high school now places some students at the Big H every year or two.) So, the year before I got in, some people decided that the only hope was ... affirmative action. A lot of hopes got pinned on one of the school's few (at that time) African-American students, someone whom I will call "Edward." Edward wasn't going to be valedictorian or salutatorian, but he was in the Honors Society, and ... you see where this was going. Some teachers and administrators, and some students, reasoned that although our white A students couldn't get in, a black A- student would. It was the Myth of the Underqualifed Minority, put into practice with the best intentions in the world. Everyone involved genuinely liked him, thought he was smart, and wished him the best.

Some people believed, as a totally self-evident fact, that Edward's race would make him a lock for admission. Once, when he was fretting about whether or not he'd get in, I heard his best friend tell him, in a get-real-already tone, "Edward. You're black." That simple. (The assumption baked into the Myth of the Unqualified Minority, of course, is that Harvard has to take A- students as the only way to reach its affirmative action goals. I mean, how many black A students could there be in America? No one at my school would have accepted that premise had it been presented to them explicitly. But that's what the Myth of the Unqualified Minority implies.)

Edward did not get in, of course. He went to another very good school, but he may never have been in serious competition for Harvard. But because so many people around him, including adults, had bought into the Myth of the Underqualified Minority and sold it to him, Edward was set up both for deep disappointment and, worse still, for guilt. After he got rejected, I literally heard him say, "I feel like I let everybody down."

You didn't let us down, Edward. It was the other way around.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Presidential Pardons and Obstruction of Justice

One thing is finally clear about the Russia investigation, thanks to Donald Trump, Jr.'s decision to tweet his incriminating e-mails: someone is going to prison over this. All three principals who took that meeting looking for Russian oppo research, Manafort, Kushner, and Trump, Jr., are likely in serious criminal jeopardy. Other figures (like Flynn, Sessions, and peripheral creeps Eric Prince, Carter Page, and Roger Stone) may be in danger of prison as well. But the Trump Tower Three certainly are.

The best advice any lawyer could give Donald Trump, Jr. is to flip, to make a deal with the prosecutors (immediately, right now) and agree to testify against someone higher up. But that is never going to happen, because it would mean turning on his own father, Donald Senior. Trump Junior is clearly unequipped for that. It would be hard for anyone to turn evidence on your mother or father, and Donald Junior isn't able to stand up to his father about much more trivial things. Not going to happen.

On the other hand, Donald Senior is not about to see his own son, or his favorite son-in-law Kushner, go to federal prison. So at some point President Trump may find himself overwhelmingly tempted to use his presidential pardon power. Pardoning people for crimes that helped put Trump himself in office would, under any of the usual American standards, be political suicide, but that does not mean Trump won't do it. He can't resist the temptation to tweet nasty things at cable TV personalities; he has nothing like the willpower or integrity to stay out of a Trump Junior prosecution. Trump does not believe the rules apply to him, which is what makes him so dangerous to the republic as a leader, but he also genuinely does not understand how rules, laws, or the Constitution actually work.

So Trump may trigger a genuine Constitutional crisis, triggering an unresolved problem in the Constitution itself: the danger that the President will use his pardon authority to carry out crimes against the Constitutional order, giving his accomplices impunity. Yes, the President would still be subject to impeachment and removal, but there would be no remedy short of that.

My (admittedly quick) glance at The Federalist (#69 and #74), doesn't help much. In #69, Hamilton concerns himself with plots for a military seizure of power, which is no longer necessary in an executive that commands a powerful standing army and security establishment. In #74, Hamilton is more concerned with Shays's Rebellion, which had after all helped prompt the Constitutional Convention, and focuses on the President's authority to pardon rebels as a tool for restoring domestic peace. (Hamilton is responding to the argument that the President should need at least one house of Congress to confirm pardons, and points to the Shays's Rebellion pardons as evidence for the benefits of the power to assure a speedy pardon.) You can say that the Framers did not quite plan for this situation, or perhaps more accurately you can say that the Framers gave Congress impeachment power to deal with it. But only the impeachment power.

So what happens if Trump decides to pardon his own confederates who are facing criminal charges for their work on his campaign? What if he pardons Kushner? Or what if he pardons Flynn and Manafort (both of whom are more likely to turn cooperating witness, because they're not related to Trump and might be looking at serious prison time)? Does he have the legal power to do that? The most likely answer is that he has the power, because it's one of the powers of his office, but using it would be a crime.

How can this be? Because doing something that is otherwise perfectly legal can become a crime when it is done to obstruct justice. Trump has the legal right to fire the FBI Director; firing the FBI Director to stop an investigation into his own advisers is obstruction of justice. Trump has the right to pardon federal criminals; pardoning one of his own flunkies to keep the flunky from testifying against Trump is criminal obstruction.

Put it this way: it is legal for me to buy a house. It is legal for me to pay more than asking price for a house (in fact, in some housing markets you have to). And it is legal to buy the District Attorney's house if he's selling it; public servants have to be allowed to sell their homes, too.

BUT, if I am under investigation by the District Attorneys office and I then offer to buy his house for, say, $100,000 more than the asking price (this is Cleveland; in San Francisco say a million over asking price) then it's attempted bribery and obstruction. Everything I did was legal, but I did it in order to obtain an illegal result. That is how the pardon power works, too. Chris Christie has the legal power to pardon criminal offenses in New Jersey; if he pardoned all of his own aides involved in Bridgegate, that's a new crime, because he would obviously be obstructing justice.

So if Donald Trump tries to squelch the Russia investigation by firing more investigators, or by pardoning his personal aides who are under investigation, that is obstruction and pretty clearly illegal. But the only remedy would be for Congress to impeach him.

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ask the Blue States About Terrorism

Here are a few pictures from Copley Square in Boston, where the Boston Marathon ends:

But as you can see, they are not from April's running of the Marathon. They are from a January demonstration against Trump's Muslim Ban.

And yes, that means that Boston held a massive demonstration for Muslim immigrants' rights right next to the site of a shocking terrorist attack by two Muslim immigrants. Just for logistical reasons, a lot of protestors must have had to walk across the Marathon's finish line, and by the sites of the bombs themselves.

A sign that Boston has forgotten the Marathon bombings? Oh hell no. They are still all too fresh in that city's mind. A sign that Bostonians don't care about the victims, or aren't serious about fighting terrorism? Don't be ridiculous.

A small explanation is that Copley Square happens to be Boston's best place for large gatherings like this, so that you have the crowds of protestors in the same public square where you have the crowds of cheering running fans. But the bigger explanation is that Boston, like many so-called blue cities, is both anti-terrorist and pro-immigrant. If that seems not to make sense to you, let me just say: these people are literally standing in a place that they know terrorists have attacked. They are literally putting themselves on the line here, so you maybe you should hear them out.

One of the oddities of American political life today is that our approach to terrorism is being dictated by the people in the least danger of a terrorist attack.

Here are the top US targets for foreign terrorists:
New York City
Washington, DC
Los Angeles
San Francisco

Maybe San Francisco makes that top tier, and maybe it belongs in the next one, with places like Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, Seattle, etc. etc. etc. But let's be honest: if Al-Qaeda or Daesh aka "ISIS" spends months planning a complicated attack on US soil, it's almost certainly going to be in one of those four or five top targets. Those are the places they care about; those are the places they've heard about. And those are the places that have large symbolic value overseas. International Islamist terrorists dream of destroying LAX and Times Square and the Capitol Dome. They are not interested in the so-called American Heartland. Islamist terrorists from overseas would never attack Oklahoma City, for example, because they don't really know where Oklahoma City is.

Now, that doesn't mean that Oklahoma City isn't a great place to live. It can be wonderful without being internationally famous. I've lived in a bunch of places that overseas terrorists have never heard of, and those places were nice. But the truth is terrorists aren't interested in underrated places that are nice to live. They're interested in attacking famous places. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but national security is more important than your feelings or mine.

Now one of the things animating our red/blue split is a deep division on what to do with terrorism. Everyone agrees that terrorism is a serious problem. The general Red Team approach to terrorism is that this is a deep national emergency that calls for shutting down immigration, increased military strikes overseas, and heavy ethnic profiling of Muslims: in some cases outright demonization of Islam itself. The Blue Team strategy calls for a mix of police and military responses with diplomacy, patience and outreach. The Blue strategy is built around trying to isolate the terrorists and sharpen the divide between them and everyday Muslims. The Red strategy considers that a hopeless cause, and demands that we use the hammer as hard as we can, everywhere. Sometimes it considers Islam itself the problem. Blue voters see making the fight about Islam itself as one of the worst and most self-destructive things to do: basically pushing people into the terrorists' arms.

Now, these strategies work against each other. You can only follow one. Either you're doing outreach to Muslims, or you're denouncing Islam. And both sides feel that the other strategy is dangerous and self-destructive.

Because we're a democracy, we resolve this conflict by voting. And over the last few elections, the Red voters have won, and we're following the Red strategy. But here's the problem:

The places that the terrorists target are overwhelmingly Blue, full of Blue voters. New York, Chicago, LA, DC, San Francisco: all super blue. Almost, like, ultra-violet. A lot of the second tier targets are likewise blue: either the Democratic strongholds of Democratic states, or the Blue island in a Red or Purple State. Boston. Miami. Philly. Seattle. If terrorists ever attack Missouri, God forbid, it will be in Democratic-voting St. Louis. If, God forbid, terrorists attack Georgia, it will be in central Atlanta. That's how the terrorists' strategy works. They want large, busy, and well-known urban areas.Those are the places that are pro-urban, pro-trade, and generally pro-immigrant. They are also the places where the most American immigrants are.

In fact, the Red strategy has one precisely because it's favored in less populated rural areas. More people vote for Blue candidates, both for President and for Congress, but our system builds in an advantage for rural districts so that a smaller number of voters defeat a larger, but more geographically concentrated, group of voters.

So we're following the Red anti-terrorism strategy, but the Blue voters are the targets. They are the ones at risk. If we try the Blue strategy and fail, it's Blue voters whose lives are at risk. But if we follow the Red strategy and it fails, most of the Red voters will still be safe in their rural areas. Their mistakes won't get them killed. Daesh (aka "ISIS") is not going to be launching any attacks on Youngstown, Ohio or rural Wisconsin. Not now, and probably not ever.

So let me suggest that maybe the Blue-state voters, and the urban-blue-pocket voters may know what they're doing. They may have actually thought this through. Don't tell them that they don't take terrorism seriously. A lot of them live in New York City. And even if they are wrong, they deserve to be listened to, because they have skin in the game -- sometimes all of their skin in the game -- in the way most of the rest of us do not. If you find yourself puzzled and frustrated by the politicians and the policies they vote for, the approach to fighting terrorism that they support, let me translate what those urban Blue voters are saying to the rest us:

Publicly hating Islam is not helping. Stereotyping people is not helping. You are making it worse. Please, please don't get us killed. Thanks. 

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

About Julius Caesar

So those literary geniuses, Fox News and Donald Trump, Jr., have decided to attack a "New York play" that they allege stages the assassination of Donald Trump. It is, of course, Shakespeare in the Park's production of Julius Caesar. And of course, Fox and Trump's loyal followers don't need to actually see the play to raise an enormous outcry, because denouncing people is too much fun for fact-checking.

It makes me sad, because Julius Caesar has been more important to America than any of Shakespeare's other plays. It was the play most taught in American schools for many decades, because it speaks about questions at the heart of the American experiment: about the nature of a republic and the duties we owe it, about the danger of tyrants and the dangers of civil violence. It's sad to see a public debate based on ignorance about this play.

So, alas, it's time for a special edition of Ask Me About Shakespeare, coming to you this time from Washington, DC, where I'm spending a month at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Let's take it away:

How much of this production was paid for by the NEA? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)

None of it. Nada. Zilch.

When does a play like this verge into political speech? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)

It's a play about the Dictator of Rome. It is and has always been about politics. Its central subject is politics. Every major male character is a Roman politician. Come on.

Does that change things? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)

In that political speech has even more protection under the First Amendment, maybe. Political speech is a guaranteed Constitutional right.

Okay, but Shakespeare isn't about current politics.

Isn't he? Julius Caesar has been used to comment on current politics over and over again. It's been used to critique the rise of Mussolini. And at least once it's been used to implicitly comment on Obama in the same implicit way that Shakespeare in the Park is implicitly pointing at Trump.

One of the basic rules of understanding Shakespeare's history plays is that he is always more interested in the history of his own day than the history he is writing about. Always.

How is it still Shakespeare if it's in modern dress?

People have been doing "modern dress" Shakespeare for more than a hundred years at this point. Let's not act like it's some crazy novelty. And Shakespeare and his partners did "modern dress" themselves; they did Julius Caesar in 16th-century clothes, probably with a few "Roman" costume pieces thrown into the mix. People don't start putting Julius Caesar in togas until the 1800s.

The Public Theater, which stages Shakespeare in the Park, follows a standard rule about modern dress: they change costumes, in ways that are meant to work as visual footnotes, so that Roman senators for example dress like American senators. But they stick faithfully to Shakespeare's actual words and never add any modern language.

This play is not an adaptation of Julius Caesar. It really is Julius Caesar.

Why is Caesar killed by women and minorities? (-Fox N., NYC)

Because the Public Theater has, for the last fifty years or so, been a pioneer in cross-casting across gender and race. Fox News may object to this as political correctness, but it's a way of opening up parts to a wider range of American actors and ultimately making the pool more competitive. It's hard to find good Shakespeareans. Letting talented actors of color into the casting mix, and giving women a wider range of roles to play, definitely improves the overall standard of acting. This has now become standard practice; the last two professional Shakespeare plays I saw (one in DC, and one in Staunton, Virginia) cast across race and gender lines.

If you ever have a choice between seeing a mid-tier white male British actor do Shakespeare and seeing James Earl Jones do Shakespeare, by all means go with James Earl Jones. It's the American thing to do, and you won't be sorry.

But doesn't that look like Trump?

Yes, vaguely. Clearly, the Public is okay with people drawing that connection, which a lot of the audience was probably going to read into this play at this moment anyway. Much the same way that casting African-American Caesars during the last Administration let people draw the Obama connection.

But they aren't calling that character Trump, and Julius Caesar's lines are (how to put this?) deeply unlike the way our current President speaks.

But Shakespeare never depicted a living public figure on stage.

Didn't he? Actors and playwrights in his day were specifically forbidden to depict living people on stage, but they pretty clearly did it anyway. Loves Labors Lost is none-too-subtly about a particular king of France, and gives its King a posse of friends named after actual French noblemen.

Part of Shakespeare's costume inventory was clothing that various noblemen had gotten rid of once it went out of fashion. So there's always been the possibility that his actors could signal a topical reference by dressing like the political figure they were mocking, dressing in the man's actual clothes. Once, a while after Shakespeare died, his acting company bought a much-hated Spanish ambassador's sedan chair when that ambassador went back to Spain. When they carried one of their bad guys around stage in that chair, everyone knew who they meant.

So, they're endorsing Trump's assassination, right?

There is no way that Julius Caesar endorses Caesar's assassination. It is clearly a terrible thing to do, and all of the assassins are punished.

In fact, all of the conspirators except Brutus are clearly self-interested and immoral.  (As Antony says of Brutus:

All of the conspirators but only he
Did what they did in envy of great Caesar.)

Let's go to the Public Theater's own website to describe the play. In its director's words:

"Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means.
To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him." – Oskar Eustis

Eustis is right that the play presents both Caesar AND his assassins as dangers to the public. Caesar is a tyrant in the making, who is destroying the Roman Republic and replacing it with an autocracy. But his assassins are, well, assassins. They traffic in blood, and threaten Rome as much as Caesar does.

And this, of course, is why earlier productions could invite an Obama reading: that reading is that Obama is being attacked by these vicious politicians.

The joke here is that Julius Caesar depicts Caesar's enemies pretty much the way most of the people denouncing the play see Trump's critics: as a pack of conspirators who envy the great man's greatness.

Then who's the good guy?

Shakespeare's play doesn't have simple bad guys and good guys. That is why the play is still worth reading. It's morally complicated, just as the world we live in is.

But they show him being murdered on stage!

In the original script. It's been like this since around 1599. And that assassination scene is not designed to make you all excited about assassinations. Oh God, no.

No one treated Democratic presidents like this.
Maybe you should read Barbara Garson's Mac Bird! which specifically adapts Macbeth as a critique of LBJ.

Well, they should have left Trump out of it.

They can't. I couldn't be more sorry to tell you this, but there's no way to do that right now. People will make the Trump connection whether you want them to or not.

I just spent a semester teaching Shakespeare's history and tragedies, a semester that started about a week before inauguration. And I never discuss current politics in my classroom, least of all with undergraduates. I never said Trump's name in the classroom. But my students wanted to make the connection, over and over again.

Richard III reminded them of Trump. Hamlet's uncle reminded them of Trump. Macbeth reminded them of Trump. And those characters are much clearer villains than Caesar is. We got to an example of tyranny, or demagoguery or political dishonesty, and I had to keep students from talking about Trump. It got exhausting after a while.

Trump is on everyone's minds. He kind of insists on being on everyone's minds. And so people are going to connect him to plays like Julius Caesar.

Look, it's a play where a successful politician, who attracts huge rallies of the common people, is seen as a threat to centuries of democratic government. That politician has a band of dedicated enemies who are motivated by a mix of patriotism, rancor, and envy. 

You don't have to say Trump to get audiences thinking about Trump. (In fact, Shakespeare in the Park literally never says the word "Trump.") The audience is going to make the connection to Trump no matter what. It's inevitable. So there's a logic to just letting them do that and running with it. This has to be the Julius Caesar about the beginning of Trump's presidency, because no audience is going to let it be anything else.

Well, is Shakespeare really any guide to today's politics?

More than two centuries of American politicians have thought so. And Julius Caesar is also a play about the danger of propaganda and mob fury in politics. It's a play about lying to the people to get them angry. Mark Antony is a gifted orator and a smooth liar, who eventually whips the common people into a murderous frenzy based on falsehoods and distortions and then sends them out to do violence. 

In fact, one of the key scenes in the play has a mob murder a poet whom they've mistaken for someone else. That happens onstage too.

So, angry people on Twitter, remember: Julius Caesar is also a play about the dangers of being whipped up into an angry, undiscriminating mob. Maybe you should log off for a bit and give it a read.

(cross-posted from Dagblog, where comments are welcome. Comments are closed on this site.) 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How This White House Lies

Donald Trump is both one of the most gifted liars in American politics, a genius of dishonesty, and at the same time hopelessly bad at lying. His lawless firing of FBI Director Comey shows the ineptitude. Trump led with a story so weak that no one could pretend to believe it and then, within forty-eight hours had abandoned that story for one that was actually more incriminating. A White House that keeps changing its story is in crisis. A White House that changes it story to something more damaging is out of its mind.

The problem for Trump is that his approach to lying, which has been enormously effective for most of his career, is not working in this situation. The problem for Trump's press secretary and deputy press secretary, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is not just that they are being sent out to lie, but that they are sent out to lie like Trump himself, without Trump's skill set, even in situations where Trump's approach is wrong.

There are two things that make a lie work. Some lies work because they are plausible. Others work because they are emotionally satisfying. Some lies are both, of course, but others work by being one or the other.

A plausible lie is one that seems believable from an objective standpoint. It's false, but the falsehood sounds likely: it's the kind of thing that actually does happen, it doesn't contradict any known facts, there's no real reason not to believe it. A stockbroker claims to be bringing in, say, 15% more money a year for clients than he really is; you would need to see his books to bust him on that lie, whereas if he claimed to be doubling clients' money every six months it simply wouldn't be plausible. If I pretended to be close buddies with some of the famous people I went to college with, it would take some time and effort, or some bad luck on my part, to bust me. A google search will show that I actually did graduate from the same college as those people did, in the same year, so for all you know we might once have had some deep conversation in the dining hall. The lie is plausible.

An emotionally satisfying lie, on the other hand, is one that satisfies the listener's emotional needs. It may not make them happy -- in fact, it may make them fearful or enraged -- but it hooks them. It fulfills their need to feel loved, it offers a way out of medical or financial trouble, it offers them a scapegoat for their failures, it confirms their belief that they have been persecuted. (See Michael Wolraich's Blowing Smoke for the addictive power of "feeling hard done by.") And if the listener wants or needs to believe badly enough, the lie doesn't have to be that plausible. If you really want to blame Mexican immigrants for losing your job, the fact that immigration for Mexico is actually declining does not matter a bit; you won't even take that fact on board. People on Twitter have been congratulating Trump for going to Israel when Obama did not, which is completely ridiculous. Obama did go to Israel, of course. It only takes five seconds to check. But the people the lie is aimed at don't want to check. They want to believe.

Most Washington Beltway types, the reporters and lawyers and Congressional staffers and so on who make up most of our political and chattering classes, tend to lie as plausibly as they can. If they're going to tell a falsehood, they will try to make that falsehood as probable-sounding and hard to check as they can manage. Sooner or later every White House Press Secretary has to tell a lie, large or small; when they do, they make it as plausible as they can, because they know they can't bank on their listeners' desire to believe. They're talking to an audience that wants to fact-check them, so they craft lies that can stand up to scrutiny from skeptical and dispassionate, or even hostile, observers. Washington, DC and New York City are cities of plausible liars.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is an absolute master of the emotionally satisfying lie. His genius is telling people what they want -- no, need -- to hear, and getting them to invest their emotions in the lie. And like many people with a gift for emotionally satisfying lies, he has a tendency to believe his own falsehoods, at least some of the time.

Emotionally-satisfying lies are key for people who need small groups of people to believe in them intensely. That includes con artists, cult leaders, and domestic abusers. (I am not calling the President a domestic abuser, and certainly not calling him a religious leader of any kind. I'm just talking about how he lies.) Those liars get their targets deeply keyed up, and deal with attacks on their credibility with various rationalizations and counter-attacks. They are just saying that because they're trying to drive us apart, baby. Don't listen when your mother tries to break us up. These lies don't have to make any sense; they just have to give the believers some way to keep believing. The most successful lie in history, alas, is probably the abuser's special: I only hit you because I love you. That lie works, until it stops working, because the victim cannot bear the truth that the abuser does not love them.

Most journalists and politicians, because they are plausible liars, don't understand how Trump functions at all. Those are not the lies they would tell. That is not the model they follow. Trump's lies only make sense when you understand them as aimed at people who are already in his bunker, sipping his delicious Kool-Aid. This is fake news! This is just people who hate Trump! It's core emotional appeal to believers.

Trump's big problem is that lies designed for bunker-dwellers break down under the scrutiny of the wider world. An abuser's victim may believe he hits her because he loves her; she may need to believe that he hits her because he loves her. But the District Attorney never believes that shit for a second. An abuser who brings those lies into a court of law is in for a world of (well-deserved) hurt. Implausible but emotionally-satisfying lies don't work for an audience that hasn't bought into them emotionally. A cult leader talking to people outside the bunker just sounds crazy and sad.

Emotionally-satisfying lies to a core audience have gotten Trump where he is today. But it's always, always time for plausibility when the police show up. Emotionally-satisfying lie do not help when you're under investigation. They will probably hurt you. Cops don't want to believe you. Lawyers and reporters don't want to believe you. Judges do not want to believe you. They want to hear the truth, and if you can't give them that you need a lie they can't poke holes in.

Trump needed to switch gears when the investigations began. He didn't, because he's probably not capable. He is emotionally dependent upon the same lies that his believers are.

Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders, on the other hand, have an even more intractable problem. They are forced to go out and tell the Washington press corps, the people for whom banal but plausible lies are designed, a series of Trump-like lies: emotionally satisfying to Trump, utterly implausible, and dead in the water to an audience who's not already strongly biased toward Trump. Largest inauguration crowd in history is a classic of its kind. Transparently false, but exciting for people who want to believe it. But that's a catastrophic lie to tell to the Post and the Times.

Certainly, with Trump seemingly in genuine legal jeopardy, his flacks should be sticking to the plausible fictions. But those obviously are not their orders. Instead, they are marched out with outrageously flimsy BS, like "Trump fired Comey for being unfair to Hillary," which not only fails to convince reporters but antagonizes them and makes them pay closer attention to everything you're trying to hide. Big, big mistake. And Spicer, for whom I feel the kind of pity I feel for some of the sufferers in Dante's Hell, is also forced to tell Trump-like likes without anything like Trump's talent for telling them. Spicer, really, should stick to believable bullshit. Trump's grandiose disregard for truth requires Trump's grandiosity and emotional conviction, his instinct for telling his rubes victims voters what they need to hear and his own deeply needy emotional commitment to his lies. These really are not the kind of lies you can hire a middleman to tell for you. You need to tell them yourself. But sooner or later, you will need to deal with the truth.

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

Friday, May 05, 2017

Today in Jedi Studies (Self-promotion Edition)

Yesterday, I had a small humor piece published by McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

It's called "Questions for the Jedi Vice-Chair of Graduate Studies"
Do I absolutely have to construct my own lightsaber to graduate?
Will you accept 30 hours of transfer credit from the Dark Side?
How will being at one with the Force prepare me for today’s job market?
You can read the rest here:

(Comments, as always, welcome at Dagblog)

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Moral Necessity of the Civil War

So, Donald Trump said some stupid and ignorant things about the Civil War. Not much of that is worth discussing: the man says stupid and ignorant things because, well, he's stupid and ignorant, so there isn't much to analyze. The one part we should stop to think about is Trump's conviction that the Civil War should have been avoided. That's not an idea that he came up with on his own. He doesn't come up with ideas on his own. He picks them up from outside. This idea has been around a long time.

Trump regrets the Civil War. He wishes that the Civil War had not been fought. He got those ideas from other people, and those people are very, very wrong.

Let me say, up front, that if there had been a way to free every American slave without bloodshed, that would have been great. I am not for American lives being lost at Gettysburg, any more than I am for American lives being lost on Omaha Beach. But I do not regret that the United States defeated the Confederacy any more than I regret that United States defeated the Nazis. I will say this clearly: the Civil War was a good thing.

Trump is voicing the regret that the Civil War was fought at all, the regret that white Americans had to come to blows with one another over something as trivial as the freedom of black Americans. "No reason" for it, in Trump's words, as if the freedom of millions upon millions of souls were not a reason.

But history, our own history shows us that there was no peaceful bargain that could have freed the slaves, for the simple reason that slave-holders stubbornly refused to release their captives. There was no compromise on the table: the Confederacy rebelled rather than accept any further compromise.

And freeing the slaves, all of the slaves, is not a negotiable demand. Slavery is a terrible crime. It is inexcusable.

Now, somehow all of this has become impolite to say. You are supposed to be considerate of white Southerners' feelings about slavery. It is considered rude to speak about their ancestors' horrific crimes against millions of people without considering the delicacy of their feelings. In fact, you're supposed to say something polite about how awful Reconstruction is, which is like talking about how terrible the GIs who liberated the concentration camps were. I'm through with it. The truth is the truth.

Is this about regional pride? Okay then. As a Northerner, I take enormous regional pride in the defeat of the Confederacy and much deeper human pride in the abolition of slavery. Those are great and precious achievements. If you are an American but are not proud of these things, you cannot call yourself a patriot.

Now, saying this in such a crude way is considered "incivility." That was exactly how it was framed before the Civil War, as certain white people in both the South and the North deplored the rudeness and incivility of the slavery debate. By this, they meant the intemperate rudeness of the anti-slavery side. The same complaint echoes through the 1840s and 1850s: wasn't terrible that people couldn't just put aside their trivial differences and get along in harmony?

"People," in this formulation, means white people. What about the black people? They, and their human rights were the "trivial differences" meant to be put aside in the name of good manners.

Ever since the Civil War there has been a cultural and political project of reconciliation, meaning reconciliation between white Northerners and Southerners. This project, like the antebellum campaign for compromise and civility, focuses on solidarity between white Americans at black Americans' expense. Black citizens' rights are not only ignored, but deliberately kept out of the conversation as a potential obstacle to white people singing Kumbaya with each other.

This can't-we-get-along project fosters the ridiculous lie that the Civil War was somehow not about slavery, the explicit declarations of the Confederates notwithstanding.We're told that the Civil War was "complex" and had many subtle causes, as if the issue of slavery alone did not dwarf every single one of those causes. And the noble cause of white people's harmony requires Northerners to be tactful and nearly apologetic about the war. Northerners are expected to seek Southerners' forgiveness for stopping their ancestors' monstrous crimes against humanity.

To hell with that. The Civil War was about slavery, and it was the slavers' fault. No subtlety or nuance is important enough to change those basic facts. Those are the central truths, and the rest are details around the edges. The Civil War was never going to be fought over tariff policy.

But these are still the unwritten rules of civility in America, especially around discussions of race. No one expressly announces these rules, and no one could, because they are morally depraved. But they are carefully followed: you can observe them in our politics and our media. The unspoken rule is that white people are meant to be polite and respectful to other white people at all costs, and disrespect to a fellow white is mannerless incivility. Defending the rights (and basic humanity) of non-white people is never treated as an excuse for being "uncivil" to a white person, least of all a white man. Rather, "incivility" is treated as yet more offensive when performed on behalf of people of color. To impugn a white person, and disrupt the serenity of American intra-honky harmony on behalf of someone considered lower down the racial hierarchy is treated as a particular insult and outrage.

This is why in some conservative quarters calling someone a racist is considered the most horrendous and unpardonable offense. Not because the accused person is not a racist, but because they are, because (although this can not be stated) they consider it morally outrageous to violate a fellow white person's privilege or to embarrass them on behalf of anyone from another race. The "anti-racists are the real racist" response is built on the deep emotional conviction that blacks, Latinos, etc., are indeed inferior and that it is a mortal insult to be upbraided for the sake of a person that one does not accept as an equal.

Do you think I'm wrong? Watch cable news for a week. Listen to your loud uncle at Thanksgiving. Watch the tape of Mitch McConnell silencing Elizabeth Warren for incivility. The incivility is calling another white person to account for their racist words and deeds. Jeff Sessions's racist words and racist actions are matters of public record  It is treated as the greatest of sins. Shooting unarmed black children is deemed, by some, and honest mistake, but calling other people racist is treated as entirely beyond the pale.

That is the logic that imagines the Civil War an unnecessary tragedy: a world view that imagines white folk as fully alive and human, meant to live in untroubled harmony together, and views the problems -- even the most basic rights and needs -- of other races as insignificant issues that must not be allowed to disrupt white folks' mutual amity.

But the Civil War, although tragic in its means, resulted in triumph. The liberation of millions of human souls from bondage is one of the greatest victories of all time. Would it have been better if those millions of Americans had been freed voluntarily? Yes. But that was not going to happen. And they had to be freed. I thank God for that victory. And I bless the Republican Party that did it, a Republican party that we my never see again.

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Brexit vs Breakfast: Food and Free Trade

The United Kingdom officially triggered Article 50 today, meaning the two-year march to Brexit has begun. The UK is leaving the European Union, and leaving without any concessions, any deals, any accommodations. It's the "hard Brexit." There are many reasons this is a bad idea, but let's keep it simple: the United Kingdom cannot feed itself.

Britain does manage to grow somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the food it eats. The last numbers I saw were 54 or 55 percent. So better than half, but not nearly self-sufficient. And Britain does export some food and drink (read: beer), exporting things that its farmland and climate are good for and importing other things that it can't grow, or can't grow well. (If there are any British grapes, there should not be.) But the UK imports more than twice as much food as it exports. Britain depends on imported food from its neighbors, and has throughout its modern history.

Why is this? Because Britain's population is too large for Britain's own farmland too feed. Too many people on too small an area, with a good chunk of that area unfarmable. (Britain has plenty of lovely mountains.) They couldn't feed themselves if they tried. In fact, they have been trying, very very hard, and they can't.

This is not a question of farming more land: just about all the arable land is being farmed already. England has no field untilled, no stone unturned. And it is not a question of efficiency, because British farmers are already incredibly efficient, already wringing the absolute maximum yield from each acre. That they can feed more than half their massive population from that amount of land is actually pretty impressive. They cannot do better than they are already doing. In fact, they're getting close to some ugly short-term/long-term tradeoffs, where they could increase this year's harvest by a few percent at the cost of making the land less productive later. That is not a way out of their problem.

Now, the British are obsessed with British farmers. UK supermarkets slather their products with labels for British beef, British cream, British etc. etc. But that obsession just masks the basic problem that Britain doesn't produce enough beef, butter, and so on. The imperative to buy and cook home-grown products functions to distract the public from the larger problem that there's not enough home-grown food.

Likewise, British farmers are heavily subsidized by the EU, and this deal -- or rather, complete lack of deal -- kills those subsidies, which may or not be replaced. So this may hurt British farmers, too. But that complicated and murky policy question is much less important than the far simpler problem of not being able to feed your own population without buying food from other countries.

Where does most of that imported food come from? All over the world, but about half of the gap is made up by European Union farmers. Remember, England's traditional breadbasket is Ireland. It's been dependent upon Irish farming throughout its modern history. (Yes, even during the Potato Famine; Ireland exported food to England during the Potato Famine, and met its quotas, while the Irish themselves starved.) And of course, England's other nearest neighbor, France, is an agricultural powerhouse, blessed with acre after acre of prime farmland. So the EU produces more than a quarter of the food the British eat.

Now, I'm no economist. But it strikes me that if your country is dependent upon imported food, you never, ever want to leave a free-trade agreement. Tariffs on agricultural goods can only drive up the price of food for your people. God forbid you ever get into an actual trade war with the people who sell your citizens at least five meals a week.

Throwing up trade barriers on food makes that food more expensive, obviously. And, free markets being what they are, making one quarter of the country's food more expensive makes all food prices rise. If Irish beef is more expensive because of taxes, then people can charge more for British beef too, and will.

This makes daily living more expensive for everybody, but it hits poorer people much harder, because more of their income is taken up on basic necessities. Rich people spend a much smaller percentage of their income on food; even if they buy more expensive groceries, or go to fancy restaurants, it's a much smaller part of their monthly budget. (Having excess money for things beyond basic needs is what being rich is.) But if, say, one-third of your monthly income goes to the groceries, a spike in grocery prices can be truly painful.

The "elites" that Brexiteers love to jeer at are not going to be hurt by this; they will still have their French wines and their long lovely dinner parties. They will just pay a small surtax on those pleasures. It's the poor and hard-working Little Englanders, the people who voted for Brexit to stick it to the London elites, who will get it stuck to them at the supermarket checkout. They are the people who are going to be bringing home less bacon, and paying more for what they bring.

If this all seems like a stupid and self-destructive idea, well, Britain has never been Europe's farming superpower. But in the EU it's become the banking superpower, making enormous money as the financial capital of Europe because the whole bloc could locate its premier financial services in one city without worrying about financial borders. And now that those borders are returning ... oh, wait. What was the plan here again?

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