Friday, March 22, 2019

American Conservatism, and the Socialist Specter Which Haunts It Still

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Back in February, Rod Dreher shared with his readers an idea for a new book: to introduce conservative Christians in America to "the warnings that people who grew up under socialism are sounding now to Americans about where our country is going....[this] is not primarily about economics, but rather about how the overall mentality of our culture, especially in our leading institutions, is preparing the way for socialism." This, predictably, led to a lot of argument in his comments section. What exactly, some of us asked Rod (and each other), was the "socialism" that existed under the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which he was presumably referring to, and how is that related to what he sees happening in the Democratic party and corporate America and large educational institutions today--especially given that his concern, as he said, wasn't with economics? In subsequent posts Rod brought up multiple different possible interpretations of what "social conservatism" or "social justice" mean, and how they are or are not compatible with "socialism"--with none of it, on my reading, being especially coherent. Ultimately he recognized that using the word "socialism," when what he really wanted to get at was what conservative religious believers needed to know when confronted with an ideologically secular conformity--a conformity that many who experienced the tyranny of various communist parties in Russia and eastern Europe have analyzed thoughtfully and well--"obscures more than it illuminates." Rod didn't cite Alan Jacobs when he came to this conclusion, but he should have--because Alan, I think, had it right: Rod wasn't concerned about socialism; he was concerned about the individualistic, ideological premises of liberal capitalism itself being even further entrenched in our society. As Alan put it:

What [traditional Christians] are battling against isn't a form of socialism, cultural or otherwise. I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market--a kind of metaphysical capitalism. The gospel of the present moment is, as I have frequently commented, “I am my own.” I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. That some kind of redistribution of access/prestige/attention and even economic resources might be needed to bring this gospel to those who have not previously been able to enjoy its benefits should not obscure for us what the core proclamation really is.

The fact that Rod saw the things he fears about ideological conformity as tied up with "socialism" is, unfortunately, a common mistake in America. Socialism is the bogeyman that conservatives of all stripes find easy to associate with all that distorts or corrupts those thinks they, in theory at least, hold most dear--namely, civil society, and the goods which social interactions in and through one's community, church, and family make possible. Given the rise of actually electable, self-identifying, democratic socialist politicians to national prominence in the Democratic party, it becomes doubly easy for Republican-voters of all stripes (including many conservatives, however defined) to simply associate "socialism" which whatever cultural concerns they have with the Democratic party's platform, or the statements they hear from various Democrats or presumably Democratic-sympathizing interest groups and movements. Sometimes those associations are accurate--but usually they are not. It would be unfortunate if some of the genuinely interesting struggles taking place among conservative writers today, whether it be Daniel McCarthy's "new conservative agenda" or Rod's own call to eschew any revival of "zombie Reaganism," continued to fail to take socialism--meaning, very fundamentally, putting social equality and collective empowerment before individual interests and private property--seriously. To do so is to leave the right side of the rhetorical battlefield empty, and thus available for our idiot president to fill.

Timothy Carney's mostly excellent new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse is a good example here. Carney is a talented writer, and he is clearly trying to set a higher bar for himself than the sort of conservative hackery was he was content with in his earlier books. This book has a real thesis, and in exploring that thesis--the question of the "localized erosion of civil society in our country," which he forthrightly admits in the acknowledgments isn't at all new, but rather hews closely to the ground which important sociologists and thinkers like Robert Putnam, William Julius Wilson, and many others have already plowed (p. 301)--Carney brings out many solid and thoughtful arguments. Starting with the data which shows it wasn't necessarily the most economically distressed white voters who decisively supported Donald Trump in 2016, but rather was the white voters who lived in the towns and cities where the social dysfunction which regularly attends the lives of the economically distressed (pp. 58, 62), Carney wants to explore why some places in America, and not simply certain groups of people, suffer. By comparing data sets specific to particular places, supplemented with some on the ground reporting, Carney smartly connects the collapse of certain sorts of economic opportunities--"low-skilled but reliable jobs....[which were] one of the many training grounds for life"--with the emergence of large numbers of people (mostly white men) who, failing to make America's supposed meritocracy work for them, find themselves flailing:

For college-educated men, high-skilled jobs still exist in today's economy, and those jobs often demand and cultivate the same virtues. For the man who was or would have been a factory worker, though, there aren't the salaried jobs of the elites or the reliable factory jobs of the past. There is instead irregular and even unreliable work--contractor jobs, occasional gigs. These are the sorts of jobs that don't reward or cultivate reliability or commitment, in a large part because they don't offer reliability of commitment in return. they reflect more an on-again, off-again relationship of convenience...and perhaps the cultivate other habits: detachment, the default stance of constantly looking for a better deal, and survival instinct that elevates self-preservation over loyalty (p. 82-83).

Leftist that I am, it is hard for me to understand how someone can notice the common denominator present in these places--the collapse of community, leaving in its wake far fewer examples of responsible citizenship and decent families and self-denying individuals; as Carney puts it explicitly, "the factory closing in Monessen destroyed Monessen as a community....[wiping] out the institutions of civil society"(p. 86)--and not come to the logical conclusion that the bulk of the problem is with what Jacobs rightly called "metaphysical capitalism": the acceptance of the supposedly overriding imperative to let individuals and corporations specialize and sort and relocate and maximize and to all the other things which homo economicus does so well. Carney poignantly describes how this cult of meritocracy and profit hollows out the human relationships that used to attend many once-stable communities (pp. 40-41), how it breaks apart those institutions--the church congregation, the local diner--which provided the places and contexts where mutual support and the goods of civil society could be experienced (pp. 102-103), how it deprives work of dignity and turns us all into interchangeable cogs in the Gig Economy (pp. 182-183). Yet when he visited Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, or activists working on the Sanders campaign in 2016, and saw the degree to which their actions in opposition to all of the above involved "building a mini-society" or "participating in community" or "making grass-roots connections"--in other words, when he himself acknowledged that the egalitarian aims of their work involved the strengthening of civil bonds, exactly the sort of thing that all good conservatives presumably cared about--he still couldn't help but basically discount them. "As progressives and socialists...[they] believed the solution to this real problem was centralizing power" (pp. 209-213). Is that really all that conservatives can see?

There are a couple of points in the book where Carney digs deep, and comes up with something perceptive about his own understanding of the world; maybe that understanding connects with why the socialism right in front of his face--at one point his own analysis leads him to praise the union-run unemployment insurance system of countries like Sweden and Denmark, and says the U.S. ought to do the same, putting labor unions in charge of distributing roughly $100 billion in welfare dollars every year! (p. 286)--can't be accepted in its own terms. In talking about Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the America Right, he quotes her statement that "the right can't understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life." He responds:

Hochschild...and others on the left perhaps can't understand that the folks of Trinity Baptist, Salt Lake City, and Oostburg see the church schools and the church slide as part of the public sphere and an integrative force. There's no admission charged on Sundays. The slides and coffee shops and concerts and sports teams at these churches tend to be open to all comers, and not merely believers. Even those who are exclusive when it comes to worship (see the Mormon temples) are inclusive when it comes to other events. The "gentiles" I met around Salt Lake City spoke fondly of bringing their kids to the monthly potlucks the local Latter-day Saints church would throw. The recovery aid programs that Hochschild described and that most churches have are open to all needy people. Homeless atheists or Catholics aren't turned away from Trinity Baptist. A mind-set that won't count these institutions as "public" is a mind-set that diminishes community and civil society (pp. 153-154).

Now as it happens, as a Mormon who lived in Utah for five years, I and friends of mine could relate numerous situations which would suggest that Carney's cheery portrait of Salt Lake City is hardly the whole story. No doubt similar stories could be told about any exclusive community attempting to balance its desire to maintain its identity while simultaneously being a good, civil society-contributing neighbor. This is one way in which Carney's writing and analysis, fine as it is, fails to grapple with the real difficulties of community-maintenance in the way which, say, Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City did--or, for that matter, Rod Dreher's own The Benedict Option. In both these works, as different as they are, the authors understand that the binding power which church institutions can contribute to civil society is unavoidably also an exclusionary one: that some doctrine, or standard, or authority, is going to have to be acknowledged, in one way or another, however "public" the church coffee shops or baseball leagues or recovery programs may appear to be.

Now, to the extent that such pluralism--that is, the various bodies, some of them being more open than others, all contributing in their own distinct ways to a healthy civil society--is experienced as a problem, it is arguably one which just takes us back to "metaphysical capitalism" again: the idea that "any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny." Of course, the liberal foundation of rights in this country, whatever its abuses, can't be cavalierly dismissed. But it is equally important to recognize where that doctrine leads, and to recognize that socialist principles can, and do, provide an alternative to it. Socialism (or democratic egalitarianism if you must) ought to be fruitfully pluralistic--and it usually is, as anyone who has spent any time in societies that embraced egalitarian principles, and made use of socialist policies to adhere to those principles, can probably tell you. But it is admittedly true that many types of socialism--particularly, but not only, the state socialist and communist parties which dominated much of the world for much of the 20th century--were unfriendly, to say the least, to any component of that pluralism which excluded, as of course churches often do, despite (or perhaps one could say "in connection with") their manifest role in providing for the development and the strengthening of social goods.

This isn't an argument that such civil bodies, once socially empowered, would or should never be changed by being more thoroughly economically integrated with the rest of society. Of course such bodies, churches included, can't do what they do alone; even Carney recognizes that without an economic foundation which protects good work--that is, without strong limits on the marketplace--communities will fail, and families and individuals will follow, with churches and other particularist, voluntary organizations usually being mostly powerless to slow that decline. (As John Médaille wonderfully put it, while conservatives insist that politics in downstream from culture, culture itself is "downstream from breakfast.") But perhaps if those who hope for the overthrow (or at least the significant modification) of capitalism wouldn't so often fail to understand the place of what could be, and historically often was, one of their key allies in preserving anti-capitalist, genuinely social and familial and egalitarian values in a community, conservatives--or at least those conservatives who are able to break away from the always-trust-the-market-first mentality of Cold War fusion conservatism--might realize that what they're looking for is something we socialists (or some of us, anyway) have been talking about all along.

Back in January, Erik Olin Wright, a brilliant and profoundly original socialist thinker, writer, and organizer passed away. His book Envisioning Real Utopias had an enormous impact upon me; when I first read it, I found myself explaining and re-explaining its ideas to myself and everyone I met for months. The most important thing it--and so many other of Wright's writings--did, I think, was explain how the Marxist shadow over socialist, anarchist, egalitarian, and all other utopian thinking has too often blinded thinkers on the left from recognizing something pretty obvious: that what we are looking to do is empower civil society, to make the mutual support communities provide stronger, to make our social and economic worlds more democratic. Hence we leftists need to be guided, first and foremost, by a "socialist compass," and we need to recognize everything that falls within that compass, including what he called "interstitial" entities and strategies--or in other words, what a non-sociologist might call the dozens, hundreds, thousands of initiatives and organizations (neighborhood co-ops, women's shelters, intentional communities, environmental groups, and many more) which provide spaces wherein civil society, and not capital, rules. He acknowledged that the more doctrinaire Marxist thinkers would see these as a distraction from the longed-for revolution, but insisted that their emancipatory potential is real (Envisioning Real Utopias, pp. 322-327). And as for those civil associations which strengthen community and provide shelter from the hyper-individualism of liberal capitalism through particularist, sometimes exclusionary, even religious means? Should they be crushed by the secularizing Red Guards of some new socialist movement? As Wright explained:

A vibrant civil society is precisely one with a multitude of heterogeneous associations, networks, and communities, built around different goals, with different kinds of members based on different sorts of solidarities....It is tempting to deal with somehow defining civil society as only consisting of benign associations that are consistent with socialist ideals of democratic egalitarianism....I think this is an undesirable response....There is no guarantee that a society within which real power rooted in civil society predominates would be one that always upholds democratic egalitarian ideals. This, however, is not some unique problem for socialism; it is a characteristic of democratic institutions in general. As conservatives often point out, inherent in democracy is the potential for the tyranny of the majority, and yet in practice liberal democracies have been fairly successful at creating institutions that protect both individual rights and the interests of minorities. A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment through associations in civil society would face similar challenges...My assumption here is not that a socialism of social empowerment will inevitably successfully meet this challenge, but that moving along the pathways of social empowerment will provide a more favorable terrain on which to struggle for these ideals than does either capitalism or statism (pp. 145-148).

I can easily imagine many conservatives--and socialists too--seeing the forgoing as a lot of murky meanderings, neither promising of real social empowerment nor conserving genuine community stability. My guess is that Carney wouldn't touch it, despite it, on my reading, allowing for exactly the kind of economic support and community respect that his own analysis seems to point directly towards. For my part, I find it beautiful; it reads as a perhaps unintended, but nonetheless carefully thought out and genuinely expressed, olive leaf to everyone who wants civil bonds to flourish, equal respect to increase, and communities to be stabilized--in other words, to promote economic and cultural goods that most people need to lead fulfilling lives. Here's the truth, conservatives: socialists (at least those who haven't unintentionally absorbed a metaphysics which is more capitalist and individualistic than anything else) want those things too. So as the threat of Trump leads some American conservatives to rethink what they believe and where they're going on, here's hoping that they'll realize that the socialism (or the "left conservatism") which keeps on haunting their own arguments is more a helpful ghost, than a specter to flee.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Some Thoughts about Wichita and Baseball

For those who care, some thoughts about the controversy over the proposed baseball stadium (with its attached riverfront development package) here in Wichita. I can't make it to the special city council meeting being held on Tuesday evening to discuss the stadium and related matters, but perhaps some of these thoughts may be of interest to those who are able to attend. For whatever its worth...

1) I really want to see the new baseball stadium built at the corner of Maple and McLean Boulevard.
    1a) Of course, one of the primary reasons I really want to see the new baseball stadium built there is that Lawrence-Dumont Stadium is gone, and we presently have a big empty space at the corner of Maple and McLean, where a baseball stadium had previously stood for over 80 years.
    1b) And yes, like no doubt many others, I do find it very hard to believe that Mayor Jeff Longwell and other major city players, being anything but stupid, didn't count on the facts on the ground--despite Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh protest that it wasn't the case that "this is something that [we] just rushed through"--to help propel their plan for the new stadium forward. Build it (or rather, knock it down) and they will come, indeed.

2) I don't have any particular complaints with how the city plans on paying for the new baseball stadium.
    2a) Note that I said "particular complaints," not "fundamental complaints." Fundamentally speaking, it is, in my judgment, rather bizarre to run a major city construction project by way of (as the excellent reporting of Chance Swain in The Wichita Eagle has laid out for us):
        --the state issuing STAR and the city issuing general obligation bonds...
        --whose purchase by banks, investors, or other financial bodies is based on the expectation of repayment...
        --such repayment being dependent upon increased sales and property tax receipts...
        --those increased receipts being in theory encouraged by the imposition of Tax Increment Financing and Community Improvement Districts (known as TIFs and CIDs) in the as-yet undetermined area around the future stadium, which legally enable the collection of higher sales and property taxes by the city...
        --those higher tax rates themselves being dependent upon new property development and commercial traffic within those districts associated with the construction project in question...
        --meaning that subsidies need to be provided to encourage developers to put up the money for building those venues which will generate the aforementioned traffic...
        --all of which--how convenient!--turns out to be very appealing to a certain AAA baseball team owner that was looking to get more involved in real estate and commercial development, and wouldn't come to Wichita without such a promise.
    2b) Having laid out all that, note that there are very good reasons--economic, legal, and political reasons--why American cities (particularly slow-(or-no-)growth mid-sized American cities like Wichita) find this kind of debt-driven, development-dependent, subsidy-focused, "growth machine" financing pretty much unavoidable. Exploring alternative responses to those fundamental economic, legal, and political conditions is, I think, necessary, and consequently something of an obsession of mine. But unlike some critics, I don't think that, simply because one might reject the legitimacy of any or all of the above particulars, the appropriate response needs to be a fundamental rejection of all development. I don't think austerity-mindedness is any kind of solution here; the consequences for the financing of all the other multifaceted programs and processes at work in a complex city, programs and processes which many individuals, families, and businesses are dependent upon, would be too great. And, it must be emphasized, it is to the credit of city leaders that they have very carefully worked out revenue-sharing and other agreements with the team (assuming it does, in fact, come) to provide some guaranteed coverage for the costs.
    2c) So in other words, my attitude is: yes, criticize the overall process, imagine ways to move our city--and America's urban economies generally--towards something more sustainable and less bizarre, but in the meantime, work within the system as best you can.

3) All that said, leaving aside a deep-dive into the systematic particulars of the financing place for the new baseball stadium doesn't mean there aren't larger questions worth asking about the whole arrangement. Let me suggest a few here:
    3a) In a lengthy and exceptionally well-research article in the Eagle, Carrie Rengers quotes multiple sources making clear something that academics who study these issues have known for years: that the indirect public financing of the construction of expensive athletic venues is almost never justified in terms of subsequent economic development. Given the long and not-always-successful history of baseball in Wichita, I would be interested to know in detail not just why Mayor Longwell and others thinks their plan is financially solid, but more importantly, what convinced him that attracting a AAA baseball was project to take this risk upon, as opposed to something else.
    3b) Moreover, it is worth noting that of the three examples that Mayor Longwell has pointed to in support of his vision of providing an economic and cultural shot in the arm to the city through building what was necessary to bring a AAA team here, only one of them, according to Rengers's reporting, reflected a similarly convoluted set of financial incentives and land swaps--and that was Charlotte, NC, a city with a half-million more residents in its urban core and a million more people in its overall metropolitan area. So not, perhaps, an entirely good analogy to Wichita's situation. Of the other two examples Rengers reported on in detail, one, Durham, NC, did involve some significant city investment, but was actually mostly the result of multiple corporate owners committing their own capital, which obviously isn't the case here. The other example, Oklahoma City, involved the something impressively straightforward: the city directly payed for the stadium with specific, voter-approved tax increases. Which leads me to asking...
    3c) Councilman Bryan Frye, in a Facebook post, defended the importance of this project by pointing out that the "west bank of the Arkansas River between Douglas and Maple has languished for decades with little to no development interest, revenue creation, and/or investment in public amenities." Leaving aside exactly why it is a problem to have a one-third mile stretch of grass along the Arkansas River opposite the Hyatt hotel and Waterwalk Place fail in its (required? obligatory?) "revenue creation," I would ask why he followed up this defense by asserting that this project "had to be done without adding [to the] citywide taxpayer burden." Why? Besides the fact that, since property-tax-dependent general obligation bonds will almost certainly be involved, that isn't entirely true, was it really a complete given that the city couldn't have simply paid for a new stadium, as a public amenity, outright? Maybe--especially given how the last sales tax proposal turned out here in Wichita--it's reasonable to assume this; maybe the political culture of Wichita is just more negative and suspicious than OKC's, and so simply financing the stadium directly (the way Intrust Bank Arena was) wasn't an option.
    3d) But if that's the case, why not say so? Might it be that saying so--that if Mayor Longwell and others had, back in 2016, put it to the people of Wichita that attracting a AAA baseball to the city was worth paying for, up front--would have resulted rather in the discovery of a consensus in favor of simply maintaining the level of baseball we currently had, thus suggesting that city leaders and major players focus on developing political support for funding other priorities (like, oh, Century II?) Given that those other needs haven't gone away, it's a possible trade-off at least worth contemplating.

4) One last thought, related to "the level of baseball we currently had" which I just mentioned. It may well be the case that the confidence Mayor Longwell and others have in AAA baseball will be justified. (After all, Wichita, however slowly changing and growing it may be, is obviously a different place than it was in 1984, when the Wichita Aeros, the last AAA team to play here, departed for Buffalo, NY.) But until and unless we see those results, there remains the fact that the baseball which has had a long history of strong support here is the National Baseball Congress. The city has apparently already reneged on a promise to the owners of NBC to give them office space at the new stadium, and now the likelihood is that the NBC World Series--you know, that delightfully wacky and fun two-week series of baseball all through the day and night every August--will be forced out as well. If there is any way that existing baseball fans in Wichita--not the new ones that the city is counting on creating, but the ones that already existed last year and continue to exist this year as well--can push to shape this (as even city leaders admit) less-than-transparent process into something more reflective of public wishes, it would be in making certain that the World Series, which has had a home in Wichita since 1935, continues to be guaranteed a place.

Okay, I can't think of anything else. Enjoy the meeting, everyone and anyone who can make it. I hope that the result will involve both a showing of respect and some mutual learning by and for everyone involved, and the creation of greater confidence in bringing this project to a positive end.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Tale of Two Congressmen (with a 10-Point Constitutional Excursus)

[The Wichita Eagle ran this morning an editorial of mine praising Senator Jerry Moran, one of my senators here in Kansas, for breaking with his party and voting in support of the resolution to deny President Trump the authority to use his emergency powers to claim non-appropriated funds to build his beloved wall along the Mexican border. Since my argument in that piece touches on matters of constitutionalism and presidential power that I've written about before, I decided to expand on my piece below.]

President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency back in February, which--in his view and that of his lawyers, anyway--gave him the authority to spend taxpayer money to build a wall along our southern border (despite Congress not having constitutionally appropriated funds for him to do so), has been, to say the least, divisive. That divide, or at least one aspect of it, played itself out interestingly in my own back yard--specifically, in the responses of two men men who represent me in Congress: Senator Jerry Moran (left) of Kansas and Representative Ron Estes of the 4th Congressional District of Kansas (right). (And yes, I know, as a resident of Kansas I am technically represented by two senators, but everyone who knows him--including most of those who genuinely like and have voted for him--knows that Senator Pat Roberts checked out of the whole "citizen representation" thing years ago, so I'll just leave him aside.)

Moran and Estes are both conservative Republicans, which is unsurprising--this is Kansas, after all, and despite some interesting developments and potentialities here in Wichita, south-central Kansas remains a pretty conservative place. Moran and Estes reflect that; their voting records show consistent support for identifiably conservative causes and the agenda of President Trump. (In Estes's case, his career congressional vote total is 95% in line with Trump; for Moran, it's a slightly smaller 89%.)  But in this particular case, those two interests--call them "conservatism," however defined, on the one hand, and the Republican party and its leader as a vehicle for expressing conservative goals, on the other--parted ways. You can chart the parting by looking at the comments Estes and Moran issued when Congress held a vote to remove the president’s claimed emergency powers in this case, as allowed under the 1976 law which presidents have invoked whenever they've used their emergency power over the past 40 years. When the House voted on the resolution in late February--and passed it--Estes voted against it. When the Senate voted on the resolution last Thursday--and also passed it, thus requiring President Trump to veto this legislation if he wants his emergency powers claim to move forward--Moran supported it. Why?

On my reading, Estes thought this issue was pretty straightforward. In a four-sentence statement, Estes mentioned President Trump by name three times. He spoke of Trump “rightfully exercising” his presidential powers, and of “supporting the president’s actions to address this crisis.” He was, in other words, voicing what probably seemed to him a straightforward political matter. The President of the United States was doing something which he, as a Republican, agreed with, and so as a good member of the president’s own party, he was going to support him. In this case Estes, as I think his statement clearly reveals, understood himself to be spokesperson for the Trump-supporting Republicans of his district; whatever else Estes may or may not think about any of the larger issues involved, to not support Trump’s agenda--particularly an agenda item that Trump emphasized all through his campaign and ever since--would be a political betrayal of those who voted for him. This is the "delegate" model of representation, and it is perfectly defensible.

For Moran though, the issue was anything but straightforward. His statement also mentioned President Trump by name three times. But that was in the course of a 26-sentence long outline of arguments, which wound around some of the fundamentals of our constitutional system (such as: it is “a violation of the U.S. Constitution” if the executive branch spends money that goes beyond “appropriations approved by Congress”), around fears for the future (such as: “this continues our country down the path of an all-powerful executive, something those who wrote the Constitution were fearful of”), and around basic ethics (such as: “the ends don’t justify the means”). To be sure, he made it clear that he basically agreed with his party’s (overwrought) concern about conditions at the southern border. But in this case, Moran’s conservative, Constitution-protecting values trumped (pun most certainly intended) the president’s aggressive claims to do what he thinks he must about those conditions. In this case, Moran was acting in accordance with the "trustee" model of representation: being entrusted by voters to use all one’s resources and experience to make, on their behalf, difficult decisions–which this one clearly was.

What do I, personally, think about that decision? Well, I think it was a good one--building a wall along our southern border is, in my view, a pointless waste of money, a needlessly and stupidly provocative approach to the problem of illegal immigration, a symbolic move representative of a genuinely inhumane way of relating to our hemispheric neighbors and the rest of the world, and contemptuous downgrading of hundreds of miles of precious environmental space. It ought not be built, and so if Congress can slow Trump's moves in that regard, they ought to. But given that, as a conservative Republican, Moran almost certainly disagrees with all of those points (except possibly the first; I suspect he really does have substantive fiscal complaints about the proposed wall), what about the substance of what actually brought Moran to his decision? That is, what do I think of his constitutional reasoning about the need to curtail the expansion of executive power through emergency declarations and the like?

More than 4 1/2 years ago, President Obama's move to essentially legalize millions of technically illegal residents of the United States created a firestorm of "Unconstitutional!" accusations, and I waded in. This resulted in a series of lengthy arguments between my friends Damon Linker, David Watkins, and myself. Rather than rehearsing all the theoretical claims and counter-claims those blog posts laid out, let me just briefly lay out, in the context of Moran's constitutional case for opposing President Trump's claim, how I think about the whole matter now:

1) Moran writes that, in his view, "if the enduring value of the Constitution disappears...Americans will be less free." I don't entirely disagree with that, but I wouldn't make that claim myself.

2) I wouldn't make it because it suggests to my mind a fetishization of the U.S. Constitution, and the particular sort of freedom it supposedly guarantees.

3) But I think if you look at our Constitution, or the very idea of constitutionalism, both historically and theoretically, you can see that it has primary served as a means of invoking (and thus defining, and thus also limiting) a particular sense of "peoplehood" as connected to a particular polity. In the modern, post-Westphalian world of sovereign capitalist states, that means it turns the demos into a creature under contract, plugged into and committed to (and perhaps empowered by, but perhaps also restricted by) a set of procedures by which "popular sovereignty" is expressed.

4) I'm not calling this a bad thing; on the contrary, liberal constitutionalism has been an important way by which a limited form of democracy could be realized beyond self-governing communities and on a mass scale, which has had many good results. Still, it simply isn't the sine qua non of freedom, and no particular constitution, most certainly including our own property-defending one, shouldn't be treated as such.

5) Does that mean I don't think it's a big deal when someone violates the constitution? No, I think it is a big deal--but I may disagree with many in what kind of big deal I consider it to be.

6) One thing that is essential to understand is that constitutions--again, speaking theoretically as well as historically--have been, and remain, performative in a way bodies of law in general mostly are not. Since constitutions generally do not define, and thereby do not either allow or proscribe certain actions, but rather define and thereby either include or exclude certain persons, or particular certain ways said persons may or may not qualify as citizens, or the particular roles those citizens may or may not execute in diverse ways, there is a qualitative element to questions of constitutionalism that is simply besides the point in most other areas of law.

7) This means it is perfectly reasonable, I think, to declare an action both legal and unconstitutional. Someone--say, a President of the United States--could take an action that is arguably within the realm of legal statutes, but has taken that action in such a way, or justified it with such arguments, or made the choice to take that action in such a context, as to reject the norms, traditions, assumptions, or provisos that have developed in conjunction with the performance of the constitution in question. (This, for everyone who didn't bother to click on the links above, is what I said about Obama's immigration order--legal, but not constitutional.)

8) Now, as those norms themselves perpetuate the way in which the constitution in question is interpreted, and as those interpretation and their continued performance necessarily impact the way in which we as citizens understand ourselves to be governed, it is perfectly logical to understand unconstitutional acts to be a threat to the "peoplehood" under which we our governed.

9) So consequently, when President Trump claims he has the inherent emergency-declaring authority to spend money that Congress, which according to the language of the U.S. Constitution is the only branch of our national government which can authorize the spending of money, has denied him, then he is performing the role of President of the United States badly.

10) The law may or may not make room for the legitimacy of his performance. But in acting in this way, he is challenging the one the primary procedures by which, for better or worse, Americans have historically articulated their democratic sovereignty--and while that may not be an immediate threat to our "freedom," it absolutely challenges (yes, in the same way Obama, Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and most other presidents also challenged) the premises on which this particular democratic polity was, and still is, imagined to work. So, yes--it is a big deal, and worth trying to stop, for whatever reason.

To go back to Moran--however much our reasoning may diverge, note what is the same about it. Moran is thinking about the U.S. Constitution, about how it functions and what it means. We don't think about it the same way, but his thinking about it, however much I might dispute elements of it, is serious. And it is always impressive to see someone in Congress think seriously about not just the political popularity, or the partisan necessity, of a given issue, but rather about, for example, the danger of establishing a “precedent for future presidents” (as Moran did). Estes’ statement invoked President Trump, and for many voters around here that was enough; but Moran, on the other hand, invoked his “understanding of history,” his “intellect,” and his “gut.” That is a hard decision, and I think it is one deserving of praise.

Not that my praise necessarily matters a great deal. After all, I’m neither a Republican (though I do vote for some on occasion) nor a conservative (though I hold to some conservative views); as such, the core supporters of both men can dismiss these thoughts of mine out of hand. But aside from that, I am also an American citizen and a resident of Wichita, Kansas, and as such, these two men represent me in Washington, D.C. So as someone you represent: thank you, Senator Moran.Though I may often disagree with you politically, this week you’ve earned my appreciation, and my trust.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Listening to Macca #2: Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway

The next two albums Paul McCartney put out were his first with Wings. The way Sir Paul felt about this always shifting, never stable collection of musicians--only two of whom (his wife Linda, and lead guitarist Denny Laine) could ever really be called "bandmates"--has occasioned all sorts of musical speculation; note that on these two albums alone the band shifted from being called "Wings" to "Paul McCartney and Wings," a shift that would be repeated in reverse in the future. I remember reading in an interview somewhere that the early on these musicians barely functioned as a band at all--they were having fun and smoking a lot of pot together, for certain, but they had no focus. Perhaps McCartney simply didn't know how to lead a band on his own, and by the time he figured out how, he wanted to be on his own anyway. In any case, the bad had a rough start, and these two albums are clear evidence of that.

Wild Life came out in December of 1971, barely six months after Ram, his second solo album, had been released. (Macca is nothing if not a man who just can't want to make music, again and again and again.) As I wrote last month, Ram was a polished pop album; not great, but with some fine tunes on it. Wild Life, unfortunately, was a step back as far as I am concerned. It is really hard to take seriously cuts like "Bip Bop" or the title song, as they seem so obviously the result of being stoned in the studio, finding a single lyric or two so funny, and a single riff or two so entertaining, that you decide to simply call those finished songs and leave it at that. Most of the rest of the album is similarly underproduced, the one exception being "Dear Friend," which is really a quite fine and heartfelt ballad. And I have to say I loved Wings's prolonged jam to Mickey & Sylvia's R&B tune, "Love is Strange"; they needed more of that. Overall though, I give the album a C. (Incidentally, at the time of making Wild Life, McCartney, inspired by some of what his old best friend John Lennon was up to, decided to write a protest song: "Give Ireland Back to the Irish." It's...not terrible; I mean, the tune isn't all that bad. But it's about the least clever and least passionate protest song I've ever heard. After I listened to it a couple of times through while going through all the bonus audio available with Wild Life, I realized you could sing the first line, which is the title, "Hey look, I just wrote a protest song!" I think that sounds better.)

Red Rose Speedway is a little better, but only a little. McCartney and Wings were clearly still often just farting around in the studio, searching for some magic to happen, not showing the kind of discipline and work that a songwriter and musician of Macca's talents is obviously capable of. There's really no excuse for undeveloped ditties like "Big Red Barn," "Single Pigeon," or "Little Lamb Dragonfly" to be on there--though to be fair, it's not like "My Love" is at all that better, musically speaking: they're all equally slight bits of whimsy, and yet that song went to number one and I'll still listen to it all the way through when it comes on the radio, so what do I know? The closing medley is another bunch of throw-aways, any one of which probably could have been developed into solid songs, but they just didn't take the time. Still, what makes me think that maybe McCartney's crew weren't solely flailing around was "Get on the Right Thing," a Macca song from the Ram sessions which they turned into a terrific--and completely underrated; I'd never heard it before listening to Red Rose all the way through--funky rave-up. Seriously, I think it may be on the same level of McCartney's very best pop work. Too bad they couldn't have given the same dedication to any of the rest of his compositions this time around. As it is, Red Rose gets back up to Ram's B- territory, I think, and that's about it. (And yes, I have listened to all the errata that would have appeared if Red Rose had been the double album originally imagined; the only real loss, I think, was "Night Out," which has some real rocking potential. And why didn't they insist on putting "Live and Let Die" on the album? It's only the best James Bond theme song ever.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

One Way to Tell Elizabeth Warren's Story

[This began at a Facebook comment Monday morning, and now it's a Politico article. The version below is the one I wrote before it was edited down. One way or another, I hope someone gets it to Warren's hands, because I'd like to believe she might this helpful, or at least food for though.]

Elizabeth Warren’s formal announcement last Saturday that she was running for President of the United States was not, if the world of online activists was any indication, accompanied by an excited rush of progressive speculation. Not that there was a complete absence of such–that was hardly the case. Warren has long had her fans, and campaign consultants, strategic advisors, and fund-raisers on both sides of the political aisle see her as a serious, credible candidate for the highest office in the land. But the overarching narrative of her announcement, the feel it had as the news broke, was not what some once imagined it would be.

Part of this is simply that times change. Warren’s 2014 book A Fighting Chance fervently attacked the rising inequality that, by the end of Obama’s time in office, increasing numbers of Democrats were being forced to admit their president had done little to alleviate, and made her–someone whose ideas were central to Dodd-Frank, one of the very few financial reforms Washington passed in the wake of the Great Recession–the de facto star of what was called, just four years ago, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” Paul Krugman ruefully admired her “enlightened populism”; she was labeled “the most recognizable leader of a resurgent progressive movement” by The New York Review of Books, and compared to Louis Brandeis in The New Yorker. But that was then. Today, it is failed (and maybe once-again) presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, not former President Obama, whom most Democratic presidential aspirants are modeling themselves after, and proposals for Medicare-for-All, minimum wage hikes, and wealth taxes abound among the declared nominees. That’s not to say that Warren’s mix of serious wonkery and "save-capitalism-from-the-oligarchs" ideology wouldn’t be able to distinguish itself from the positions staked out by Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, or anyone else; it probably could. But at the very least, like Sanders himself, she now finds herself occupying some very contested space.

But for all that, the real reason for the perceived lack of mojo for Warren among some of the loudest members of the activist left was the news, which broke just days before, that she had described herself as “American Indian” on her application to the Texas bar in 1986. This wasn’t a bombshell. It has long been known that Warren had for years, on and off, identified herself as Native American, in keeping with family legends about Cherokee and Delaware ancestors. Yet for some, actually seeing that seemingly bizarre claim in Warren’s own 32-year-old handwriting was the end of the line. In the middle of a desire to exorcize the Democratic Party’s racist past, as well as the need to find a presidential candidate whose mistakes won’t provide Trump with a ready-made script of mockery (one that, in Warren’s case, is already much-practiced by our president), more than a few Democrats seem prepared to declare her candidacy prematurely over. She’s damaged goods, this line of thinking goes, no matter how great her ideas are.

In response to this skepticism, some suggest that Warren’s best (and perhaps only) option is to stay away from her past and lock away her family stories, and instead focus her campaign entirely on her attacks on the 1 percent and her proposals for structural economic reforms. But there is, I think, a better alternative. It is risky, and the odds of Warren being able to pull it off are, I admit, not very good. But still, the rewards--both for her candidacy and, for those of us who mostly agree with her diagnosis of American capitalism in 2019, for the country--would be great. I think Elizabeth Warren, an intellectual white female lawyer, a bankruptcy expert and U.S. senator and an emeritus professor at the most prestigious university in America, should tie her Oklahoma history and her life story and her ideology all together. I think she should give her version of “The Speech.”

I refer, of course, to Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union,” the speech he gave in March 2008 when the Jeremiah Wright scandal threatened his run for the Democratic nomination. It was beautiful and audacious, a speech that talked about racial resentments and divisive Christian traditions and the mysteries of faith and the legacy of lynching and the burden of history and the idea of a national community that can include all of the above while still remaining whole. It is the speech more closely associated with his campaign and his vision of politics than any other, and more than a few believe he wouldn’t have been elected president without it. (I was personally blown away by it, as this blog post made clear.)

Now, I am pretty confident that Warren wouldn’t be able give a speech that good. She doesn’t have Obama’s rhetorical gifts, and the context from which she would give it—a 69-year-old white woman discussing her own ethnic appropriation, as opposed to a 47-year-old black man discussing his pastor’s anti-American language—isn’t nearly as open to charitable understanding. Still, it be worth it for her to try.

Why? Because while the story she could tell in such a speech would be even harder--because it would be more personal, more embarrassing, and more complicated--than the one Obama took on, it might, with the hindsight of the past decade, be an even truer one. It would be a story about economics and class as well as race. It would be about Warren growing up aspiring and ambitious in lower middle-class Oklahoma in the 1950s and 1960s. There she was, a smart young woman, a talker and a thinker, far from the easy routes to social acceptance and financial power, working from when she was 13 to help keep her family from falling into poverty. And it would be about--because it would have to be--how a resurgent Native American population unavoidably complicated the question of where an ambitious lower middle-class young white woman in the small city that was Oklahoma City in the early 1960s could socially find herself.

Seeing Warren, the daughter of white Oklahoma, alongside the assimilatory Indian termination policies imposed by the federal government during the years while she grew up would be educational in itself. Those policies led to the end of much of tribal sovereignty and the cutting of funds to reservations. They complemented the well-meant but deeply troubling Indian foster systems that numerous white churches (including my own) set up through these decades. And they helped to flood mostly white urban public schools with Native American children and teen-agers, most particularly in her own home state--Oklahoma having been born, after all, as essentially a glorified holding cell for tens of thousands of Native Americans defeated in America’s genocidal wars against them.Warren could use the speech to ask both herself and her audience: How would all that affect the way you might have received the (apparently mostly fictitious, but treasured all the same) stories of Native heritage which your beloved aunts passed down to you? And what might that history tell us about who was able to use the tools that postwar American capitalism provided to change their fortunes--and who wasn’t?

But that’s just the beginning. Because it’s also a story about growing up a somewhat liberated (going to law school while a young mother, and raising children as a single law professor after her divorce) but nonetheless mainstream Republican in the 1970s. It’s about finding success through that ethic, mastering the arcane topic of bankruptcy law and ambitiously job-hopping, building a new life for herself bit by bit. Yet during these same years, her party was rebuilt along small-government and Christian conservative lines--mostly, as an interesting parallel, by the descendants of white farmers who fled the bankruptcy, poverty, and near starvation they faced in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, and built new lives for themselves in California, a generation before Warren was born.

This could be a striving middle-class story as rich as any John Updike novel. Someone from the edges of the establishment--an Okie, no less!--gets to the center, to the big cities of the East Coast, to Harvard Law School itself. No one could show that kind of determination without being willing to leave behind a lot. And yet, did she nonetheless feel kind of guilty (or maybe kind of defiant) about succeeding? Sometimes did she feel out of place in this social and economic and intellectual world, so very distinct from the one she sacrificed so much to escape from?The centers of elite academia are for the most part racially and economically homogeneous, nothing like the congenially low-rent, mixed-ethnicity, public school Oklahoma world Warren was born into. Once again, Warren could pose a crucial question about America to herself and her audience: What are the costs of an economy that rewards the strivers (sometimes, anyway), but also deepens the gaps between the lives they build and the lives of those they left behind?

In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren co-wrote two important academic books, As We Forgive Our Debtors and The Fragile Middle Class. Both showed in great detail how the loosening of banking regulations and the shift away from an industrial economy made consumer spending and debt central to middle-class life, and how damaging the effects of this change were to those who simply wanted to hold on to the sort of life which, 30 years before, Warren was raised to believe was expected. (The book she co-wrote with her daughter, The Two-Income Trap, makes this comparison even clearer.) All these writings were informed by Warren’s own choices, as well as by the shifting ground beneath others as they sought to follow a similar path. Which presents more hard, yet revealing, questions to ask and answer. How much did her obviously conflicted feelings about her Oklahoma (and, yes, her folkloric Native) heritage, about the distinctiveness of her early years and experiences, and about how (or if) she should express that in an environment filled with trust-fund children and Phillips Exeter or Deerfield graduates, play out in her mind? What did it have to do with her eyes being opened and seeing the real social and familial implications of the data she was researching? And finally, the real political heart of this exploration: how did her life and her life’s work combine to lead her to the political change she went through in the late 1990s?

The progressives of today--and Democrats in general, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat--have little interest in the politics of Clintonian triangulation. But Warren could take that era and present it as a turning point. It may be that this nearly 70-year-old woman, exactly because of where and when she came from, exactly because of the rungs of the ladders she clumsily (and, yes, in some cases wrongly) grabbed at and found comfort in as she moved upwards and away from where she started, was able to see what was wrong not just with the Republican Party she was leaving, but also with the Democratic Party she was joining. That was a Democratic Party which, for the most part, couldn’t present its ideals or its candidates without complicated and, in retrospect, often damaging compromises. Warren’s story could, perhaps, model a new path, in a way that Hillary Clinton’s story never fully could.

At least, that’s a story I imagine Warren might be able to tell. Many wouldn’t find it persuasive, and many others, even if they found it coherent and powerful, couldn’t accept Warren as the vehicle for it. But still, it’s the sort of story that, were it packaged into a campaign speech, could bring the dreams and resentments and hopes and fears of tens of millions of white American middle-class women along with it, exposing their concerns and desires to a probably discomforting light--but also, perhaps, casting them in a new one.

To be honest, I don’t expect this to happen. I expect, instead, that Warren will stick with bashing the billionaires. Heaven knows they deserve it! But if she never thinks enough about her own story, her own choices, and her own mistakes, in order to show us a way of seeing her, at this moment, as someone who could be president, and someone who could make the structural changes she’s promising personally meaningful—well, that would be a loss. Because in following her career, and her scholarship, and maybe most of all her embarrassing mis-steps, I’ve come to suspect that she really does have a story like this in her. My hope is that she, and her speechwriters, suspect she does too.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #1: McCartney and Ram

My pop music project for 2019? Listening to Paul McCartney's entire post-Beatles oeuvre. Why? Well, why not? Is that a good enough reason for you?

The fact is that late last year, around when the remastered 50th anniversary White Album was released, I listened to this delightful interview with Rob Sheffield (whose book on The Beatles blew me away), and it made me realize: man, the post-Beatles McCartney has been making music for nearly a half-century, and beyond the big radio hits, I really don't know it all that well. So, along with my old friend/music guru in Texas, I have a plan to work through every album (well, nearly; probably not the ones full of covers) Macca has put out, either on his own or with Wings. Should be an interesting year. My plan is to post about a couple of albums or more on the last day of every month through the end of 2019. Feel free to stick around for the whole trip, if you're so inclined.


First of all: McCartney. Honestly, this is a pretty terrible way to start this series out. This album, recorded by Paul and Linda essentially in total secrecy while The Beatles fell apart and McCartney was no doubt feeling all sorts of anger, confusion, and sadness--but also excitement over what was going to come next in his life--is, frankly, barely there; it's like a bit of hurried graffiti by some busy genius that someone packaged to sell to rabid fans who would pay good money for any incomplete bit of errata from their hero...except in this case the "someone" was Macca himself. The majority of its 13 tracks are unfinished collections of isolated riffs and chords stitched together--or not--in the hopes of getting a bunch of "songs" over the two minute mark. This is really kind of sad, because I think "That Would Be Something" and "Momma Miss America" probably could have been, with some lyrical thought and more studio work, really great tunes. There's only two songs on the album that really seem "finished" to me. The first, "Teddy Boy," is solid, but more like an outtake from The White Album than anything else. The other, of course, is "Maybe I'm Amazed," which is arguably McCartney's greatest solo composition from his entire career--a beautiful, brilliant, rocking love song, with passionate vocals and killer guitar solos. That song alone is so good it forces me to grade this D effort as a C.

Next comes Ram, a far more polished effort, and consequently much better. Still not a really great pop music creation, but definitely getting there. McCartney's love of folk and country musical styles (if not actual folk or country-western music itself--basically what John Lennon famously derided as Paul's weakness for "granny shit") really develop on this album, resulting in some pretty fun songs: "Dear Boy," "Home in the Heart of the Country," and "Long-Haired Lady" are all worth listening to a time or three. And there are some tight rock and roll numbers as well: "Too Many People" is probably about as close as McCartney can ever get to building up righteous indignation, "Smile Away" is made to be shouted out to a clapping and chanting audience, and "Back Seat of My Car" is a fine ballad. "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" is, of course, a classic late-period Beatles number: clever, hummable, with peerless musicianship throughout (though I will go to my grave believing that's the voice of John Cleese, not McCartney himself, on the telephone). Overall though, a solid B-, not higher than that. Of course, if they'd put "Another Day" on the album," I'd probably have to score it a whole grade higher--but they didn't. Silly producers. (Oh, and by the way: props to Macca for the whole "Thrillington" experiment; it's actually some pretty great 60s-style jazz orchestra elevator music, if you're into that sort of thing.)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Definitely Not My Favorite Python, But Probably the Most Pythonesque Python for All That

I've talked about Michael Palin's fascinatingly comprehensive and yet un-critical diaries, John Cleese's funny and sometimes scary arguments with himself, and Terry Gilliam's hauntingly familiar and yet frustratingly disconnected ruminations. Since Terry Jones has, tragically, descended into dementia and Graham Chapman is, equally tragically, dead, that leaves Eric Idle, the only musician among the Python's, easily their most savvy, business-smart, and traditionally ambitious member, the one with the strongest sense of old-fashioned showmanship, and by far the one with the most immature and sexist sense of humor, as the final member of Monty Python to produces his memoirs. Now he's done so, and it's great. I'm not certain I have a lot more to say beyond that, though.

Palin's diaries (and I really need to finally get around to reading the final volume) are documents of their time, the impossibly detailed and often quietly funny observations of, so it seemed to me, a smart man to likes looking at and reacting thoughtfully to and learning from the world around him--but not someone who is especially drawn to challenging or questioning or struggling with it. John Cleese's autobiography of his early years, on the other hand, was endless challenges and questions and struggles, mostly with himself and his own prejudices and judgments and assumptions (but often with others' as well, of course). Terry Gilliam's scrapbook-slash-autobiography painted a scattered portrait of man kind of unhappy with himself, but not too much, because he understands his own pre-occupations and the fact that they have driven him all over the map, and only occasionally coalesce around a project or a work of art or a relationship upon which he use his powers to create something great. Idle, though? Idle is man who survived some very difficult times, worked very hard, got very lucky, reaped great rewards, loves all of it, and doesn't think too much about What It All Means. It is probably the closest thing I have ever read to a genuine, straight-up, celebrity memoir, with names dropped on page after page after page, all done with absolute cheer and never a recrimination. Well, that's not entirely true; he really does seem genuinely contrite about the way he cheated left and right on his first wife, but once he gets past his not-particularly-embarrassed confession of having been a sex-obsessed asshole for years, it really doesn't trouble him, presumably at least in part because he was making enough money to sufficiently cover up any regrets that anyone had about his behavior.

Idle is, I think, in addition to all that I wrote above (indeed, probably in ways centrally connected to all of that) easily the most American of all the Pythons. He moved permanently to the U.S. in the early 1990s--and not just America, but Hollywood--after getting annoyed at the response to his latest film, Splitting Heirs ("If that's how you behave when someone brings eight million back to spend in the country, I shall take my flops to America, where they don't even mind if you are successful"--p. 172). And he loves it here--he loves the individualism, the opportunity, the chance to do one thing, and then do a completely different thing, and face no resistance whatsoever (so long, of course, as you're a funny, rich, white male with tons of celebrity friends, which Idle never pretends he isn't). Gilliam came to England and found, for all his frustrations with the way it changed in the 1970s and 1980s, a grounded culture and way of being in the world which spoke to him; Idle, by contrast, the child of abandonment and abuse and relative poverty, never seems at all interested in finding any kind of permanent ground at all. Again, that's not entirely true; he is utterly smitten with his American wife and dearly loves and cares for the many friends and connections he has built for himself over the years. But he's probably never really stopped being the sneaky, on-the-hunt smart-ass which his upbringing taught him to be--and again, why should it? His humor and sense of fun brought him into the orbit of everyone from George Harrison (their friendship is a large and delightful part of the book) to David Bowie to Robin Williams to Michael Caine to Mike Nichols to Peter Cook to Mick Jaggar (lots of guys, you're thinking? yes, I noticed) to dozens and dozens more. Why change--or rather, why change the constant changing--when what you're doing seems to work?

Monty Python was, in the end, a brilliant comedic troupe of people who made smart, snotty, silly fun of everyone. They were not serious satirists (though they could do that, when they thought it appropriate), but rather among the most absurdist snarkers ever. By that measure, hats off to the snarkiest one of them all. He's always looked on the bright side of his life, and good for him. I hope he never stops (and neither does he, that's for certain).

Sunday, December 30, 2018


The above characters, in spoken Chinese, are "Wǔshí ér zhī tiānmìng"--but I can't speak Chinese, so that is irrelevant. What is relevant is the phrase's meaning: "At 50 I knew the mandate of heaven." It is the fifth clause in perhaps the most famous passage from Confucius's Analects, found in Book 2, Line 4: "The Master said: 'At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I was unperturbed; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing the norm.'" The master is Confucius, of course (the photo above is of a statue of him in Nanjing, China, which I took in 2014). Did he actually express this personal biography. Doubtful, but it's really impossible to say.

I'm 50 today. How does my biography compare? By 15, if not earlier, I was pretty certain that mine was to be a life of reading, writing, thinking, and speaking, though whether that was going to be through teaching or journalism or some other vocation remained to be seen. By 30 I was in graduate school, and firmly committed to the path I'd chosen, though there were going to be a lot of difficult times and doubts ahead. At 40? By then I was here at Friends University, and content to stay; though the decade to come was going to involve the some of the hardest and most painful times in my family's life, it did not fundamentally challenge what I'd taken as my vocation. And now...50. Do I know heaven's mandate--or, depending on how you translate the line, its command, its decrees, its destiny, its will?

I know I don't have the confidence in my own person, or my own intellectual or religious traditions, that this line suggests Confucius himself had--which I guess implies, if I want to use the Analects as my standard, that I never really managed to get past 40. But my own doubtful nature may not mean that I, nonetheless, can't claim something of the connection he supposedly felt by the time he got to my age, a connection with something higher, something older, something truer. I've always been blessed--thanks to my upbringing, my family, my wife, my children, and so many other people and events in my life, including some pretty terrible ones--with a degree of sehnsucht, a longing that, however inchoate it may be, I've nevertheless also always been able to understand as connecting me to something real and meaningful. Consequently, I've never been able to understand those who think there's nothing above us, nothing around us, nothing in, or of, heaven, of Tiān (天). So maybe, on one level or another, I am hitting Confucius's 50-year benchmark. Or so I hope. Anyway, I guess I still have 20 years yet to improve, right? Time to get going.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The 10 Best Movies I Saw in 2018

Once again, these aren't necessarily movies that came out in 2018; in fact, only three of these ten are. But they are all movies I saw for the first time this year, and loved. In alphabetical order, by title.

13th. It's unusual that this year I watched a fair number of documentaries, three of which have really stayed with me. This is the first. Ava DuVernay has produced a documentary on race, violence, and the prison-industrial complex that is terrifically powerful--maybe almost too powerful, at the expense of the effectiveness of its message. The film's basic thesis--which follows Michelle Alexander's once radical but now broadly accepted argument that criminal justice policies in the U.S. have essentially perpetuated the same forms of surveillance and coercion that were constructed to control free blacks after the Civil War--is built impressionistically, with great use of music and horrifying visuals, but the middle section does a deep dive into the 1990s, focusing on Clintonian triangulation, ALEC, private prisons, party re-alignments, and economic inequality, to my mind sublimating the whole racial argument of the first 40 minutes to class-based one. But in the final section the explicitly racial themes re-emerge, connecting a lot of loose ends, though not all of them. The result is a film that left me with lots of unanswered questions--which perhaps was intentional. Anyway, a great, necessary documentary.

Blade Runner 2049. This was fabulous film. It was perhaps a little on the long side; there was definitely two hours of movie there, but maybe not more than two and a half. Still, without the long journey to the orphanage, the wonderful twist about who or what is the next step in human/replicant evolution couldn't have been set up properly, and pretty much everything else was wonderful, so I don't know what I would have cut. (Maybe the some of the weirdness with Joi.) The final scene of K laying on the steps, snowflakes melting and making tears on his face, with something nearly identical to the Vangelis theme playing in the background, was a wonderful homage to probably the single greatest scene in sci-fi cinema. In terms of the overall plot, I admit I think 2049 actually works better in terms of the original, theatrical release of Blade Runner, when there was no question of Deckard's humanity; the idea that he's a replicant himself I think actually takes something away from what 2049 had to say. But then, honestly, movies like this are about so much more than plot.

The Day of the Jackal. This is one of those classic spy thrillers from the 1960s and 70s that I've somehow missed out on over the years; it was great to finally sit down and watch this through. Terrific, intelligent plotting and acting throughout. It did what only the best of these sort of hunt-the-killer films manage to do--get you rooting for both sides, as they try to outwit one another, get desperate, and make mistakes, but never allowing one side or the other to appear to have the edge. I confess being a little disappointed by the final couple of minutes--after all this clever cat-and-mouse stuff, it ends with the good guy spotting the assassin, racing up the stairs, and breaking in on him just seconds before he shoots his target? But then it occurred to me: back in 1973, that probably hadn't already been done a thousand times already, and therefore worked better then than it does today. Every movie trope has to be cinematically invented at some point, right? Well, The Day of the Jackal probably invented a bunch, and used them all wonderfully. 

Hacksaw Ridge. This was a fine war movie, though it can't compare to Dunkirk, or other solid war films I've seen in recent years. In fact, much of Hacksaw was actually pretty close to your typical well-made WWII movie from the 1950s or 1960s--a straightforward tale of heroism, succinctly told. But the uniqueness of this particular war movie's story, about a conscientious objector of truly superhuman courage, demanded some scenes that kind of broke that straightforward mold (pretty much everything that featured Private Ross's damaged, WWI-veteran father, for example). And say whatever you want about Mel Gibson; his staging and shooting of the original assault on the ridge was one of the most efficient and visceral bits of cinematic warfare I've ever seen, easily comparable to Spielberg's famed 20-minute D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan. Every bullet hit somewhere, every explosion threw rocks and clods of dirt and flesh into the air, the chaos was total, yet I never lost track of the whole flow of the fight and where everyone was within it. Great, kinetic filmmaking there.

Ordinary People. This is a sad, powerful film, which interestingly exhibits in its form exactly one of the major sub-themes of the entire story: control. The first hour is just masterful in its refusal to give you any sense of where the story is going emotionally; Robert Redford, as a first-time director, made me feel as a viewer like everyone was holding their breath, just waiting, waiting for some moment of crisis and catharsis. When those things finally come with the revelations about Conrad's guilt and his own eventual healing, I found--perhaps not surprisingly, as a 50-year-old man with grown children and a 25-year-old marriage--that I was more drawn to the father, Calvin, than the son and his psychiatric drama. I wanted to understand Calvin's weakness, and his despair as he realizes he can no longer love his wife in her own weaknesses. But the movie wasn't about that story, and Ordinary People is a perfectly economical, perfectly organic film: it shows only what flowed naturally from the original premise, and there was nothing extra left at the end. A plain film, but absolutely deserving of its Oscars (though Sutherland was robbed).

Paris is Burning. This massively influential 1990 documentary on the African-American and Latino drag culture of New York City in the 1980s is one which I should have watched a quarter of a century ago. The first half is, perhaps, overly anthropological, almost clinical, in its look at the drag balls of Harlem, but then it takes a deeper turn, with every interview implicitly--or explicitly--haunted by the way this subculture was shaped by outside forces of racism, sexual violence, poverty, and the universal (yet always at least partially socially constructed) aspirations of the human heart. There's a deep sadness to the film, but even deeper than that is a feeling of joy, which you kind of can't help but experience, I think, when you see any community of human beings, in the midst of decisions both good and bad, coming together to--as Dorian Corey, a self-described "old queen" who'd been around the scene since the 1960s, and probably my favorite character in the movie, put it--"make their mark on the world." A great, important film.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Simply put, this is the greatest comic book movie I've ever seen. Note that I didn't say "super-hero movie"; while those two genres are obvious deeply entwined in each other, for all sorts of historical reasons, technological developments of the past couple of decades have really made it possible to take super-heroic (and super-villainous) characters and situations and make plausible, even persuasive, cinematic use of them in any number of science-fiction, fantasy, action-adventure, horror, and even other story-telling contexts. That's not to say lots of super-hero movies have successfully pulled that off; few have, I think. But the fact remains that we can accept super-heroes on the screen as characters who aren't necessary obliged to seen in terms of the colorful, melodramatic, outrageous, always-partly-winking mise-en-scène of a comic book. Which means that we're at the point that we need to recognize the "comic book movie" as a distinct thing, of which super-heroes can be a part, but aren't necessarily. Of course, that's not a new recognition: just think of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, or Ang Lee's Hulk; think of Sin City or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World--of them, to one degree or another tried to get the comic book sensibility on the screen. Well, Into the Spider-Verse was easily ten times better than all of them combined, and I say that not just because I am an old, old fan of these characters. Visually stunning and engaging, it had jokes (both straight-forward and profoundly meta), thrills, tears, and triumphs, every one of which was, to my eyes, utterly inextricable from the way the animation dazzlingly portrayed it in front of my eyes. In short, it was everything a well-made comic book story can be, and it was also a movie. More than any other film I saw this year, Into the Spider-Verse was, or at least should be, an absolute game-changer.

The Witch. This wasn't the best horror movie I've ever seen, but it came pretty dang close. Besides the gorgeously unnerving sets and scenery and dialogue and costumes, what I loved most of this tale of the supernatural in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s was that it really was a straight-up tale of eldritch evil, with all sorts of scenes and narrative beats to misdirect you, convince you that there was going to be some wild psychological reveal (it's group paranoia! it's familial self-delusion! it's predestination hysteria!) just around the corner, any minute now, explaining everything. Or at least, that's how I felt watching it: I kept anticipating a hint of ambiguity, and read what I saw accordingly. But no, actually, there was no ambiguity, no unreliable narrators, no nothing: it really was just a story of the Devil destroying an isolated Puritan family all along. I love it when a story manages to pull the legs out from under my own intellectual rationalizations, and this one definitely did.

Won't You be My Neighbor? The third documentary on my list this year, and certainly the best; probably, if I had to rank them, the finest film I saw all year. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a tremendously affecting film telling a tremendously affecting story; a beautiful, inspiring, deeply sobering documentary about great, strange, beautiful man. Fred Rogers was, to my mind, a Christian saint, and his saintliness is underscored by just how obviously weird his determination to love and trust all children, and to be seen as lovable and trustworthy by all of them, sometimes was. I appreciated so much that the film, while by no means wallowing in that weirdness, never downplayed it; on the contrary, it regularly came out--implicitly, if not directly--in the comments of the many people interviewed for this pseudo-biopic, including his wife and children and television people who worked with Rogers for years, as he went from one crusade to the next, as he grew older and sadder, but always returning to that core of honesty and grace and optimism that enabled him to be the communicator he was. A film worthy of its subject.

Working Girl. I had this dvd laying around the house for months, and finally got around to watching it, not expecting much from this early 80s comedy. Man, was I wrong. Sure, it's a Wall Street Cinderella story, with plenty of surprisingly unsubtle--for a Mike Nichols's movie, anyway--class and ethnic touches: all the Staten Island secretaries working on Wall Street have huge hair and gaudy jewelry, and are all dating miserable cheating Irish guys. (I should note, though, that subsequent arguments on FB have convinced me that, while the hair may well have been employed by the filmmakers for stereotypical purposes, it was nonetheless definitely reflective of the reality of the era.) Anyway, the movie absolutely charms. By the final scenes, when Harrison Ford's sad-sack character declares his love, Sigourney Weaver's bitchy character gets her comeuppance, and Melanie Griffith's character gets her dream job, I was surprised by how delighted I was by various dialogue and staging choices (the quick elevator bit at the end had me completely sold). This is one discovery I could watch again and again.