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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)"

It's very easy--and entirely justified--to write A Flock of Seagulls off has a band who only manged to break out in the early days of MTV because of singer Mike Score's ridiculous hair...but keep an ear and an eye out for Paul Reynolds, the lead guitarist, probably no more than 19 years old when this gig took place, hiding in the background behind his fellow bandmates, who were sweating and humping and posing for all they were worth, while Paul just focuses on producing his multi-layered echo effects. He bailed on the band early, saying the rock and roll lifestyle wasn't something he could handle. But he kept on playing, and produces some wonderful folk and world music to this day. You can barely see the quiet teen-ager of AFOS, turtled up behind those oversize glasses, in those later clips--but he's in there.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I'm Pretty Certain Week Two is Actually the Name of a Band

Stolen without apology from the Twitter feed of Kieran Healy, one of the greatest (and wisest) academic wits of the whole blogosphere. As he introduces it, "If my imaginary Soc 101 is not to your taste, consider taking Soc 710: Social Theory Through Complaining, instead."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Ghost in You"

Some might say the reverb on the lead guitar is too loud and fuzzy, but I think it excellently counterpoints Richard Butler's voice, grown husky with age, but still carrying that Psychedelic Furs magic.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Five Favorite Stories from the Life of Jim Henson

I received a copy of Brian Jay Jones's wonderful, if somewhat workman-like, biography of Jim Henson for my birthday last December, and I've only just finally gotten around to finishing it. It's a fine work--not terribly insightful as a whole, but filled with an immense amount of research and some pretty incisive comments about Henson as an artist, a businessman, a father, a friend (apparently, and perhaps surprisingly, especially to the ladies), and more. He was a brilliant, hilariously funny, fantastically hard-working, supremely self-confident but never arrogant, deeply peaceful and spiritual (though never religious), intensely private, amazingly (though not very conscientiously) generous, somewhat oblivious, and ultimately self-contained man: he always knew that he'd be able to make things that were wonderful and worth watching all on his own, and so inviting other people to build Muppets and television shows and movies along with him was never about his goals, but rather about getting them to do great things alongside him. What more could anyone want to know about one of the greatest and most inspiring story-tellers, entertainers, and media pioneers of the 20th century than that?

So, rater than a detailed review (which is months late for the book, anyway), here are five wonderful little bits about Henson's life and career which I gleamed from Jones's biography:

1) Designing puppets was just something Henson got into while going to the University of Maryland as a means to breaking into the local television market in Washington DC. At any point, different television offers--behind the scenes camera-work, set design, anything--could have pulled him away from the means that would make him famous. It wasn't until he traveled to Europe in 1958 as a 21-year-old, bouncing his way through museums and hostels and bars, that he realized that puppetry was a serious art, one with a deep history and one that he could build a career around.

2) Henson initially didn't take Sesame Street terribly seriously as a show, and he never did devote more than just a couple of weeks a year to shooting the Muppet skit inserts (the Muppet operation at Sesame Street was always kept somewhat separate from the rest of Henson's work), but he was ferociously defensive of his Muppet creations for the show, setting up very tight reviews of all and any merchandising involving Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, and all the rest, and at one point almost shutting down an important deal with Disney because he wasn't positive that the Children's Television Workshop would be sufficiently protected from The Mouse.

3) The Muppet skits in the first season of Saturday Night Live were unloved by everyone involved (except, perhaps, Henson himself), and their separation from the show on NBC was entirely mutual...yet Henson took great, snarky pleasure, once The Muppet Show became an enormous, world-wide hit, in showing up John Belushi's mean dismissal of the "mucking fuppets" by showing off his creations' huge success.

4) Of all the guests that could-have-but-didn't-happen on The Muppet Show, the most astonishing (though perhaps not surprising, given that it was the first truly global television phenomenon, watched everywhere from South America to the Soviet Union) was a Beatles reunion. Ringo Starr was in talks and McCartney was interested; Lennon and Harrison weren't responding, but with a little more effort, it just might have been one of the Greatest Events in all Pop History. Certainly better than the Liberace episode ("a surprisingly bad pianist," Henson noted in his diary).

5) Henson was determined to get Sting to play Jareth in Labyrinth; his son Brian, however, told him that Sting would be a terrible choice, and that he needed someone with more rock and roll cred: David Bowie. Whom they got. And it's a good thing--can you imagine the long-haired, jazzy, deep-thinking Sting circa 1986 doing the Magic Dance?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Any Dream Will Do"

I've embarked on a project to read the entire Old Testament (using the Revised English Bible and Robert Alter's translations and commentary, if you must know), and for the past week or so I've been working through the story of Joseph. So this song has been on my mind, of course. Cheesy, yes, but getting three decades' worth of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat leads on stage at once? Not bad, says I. (Princess Kate at 2:08 looks to be enjoying herself too.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Libertarianism, Paternalism, and Pot

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

From 2003 to 2005, we lived in Craighead County, Arkansas, while I taught at Arkansas State University. Craighead was a dry county, having voted many years ago to prohibit the sale of alcohol in its borders. Despite numerous efforts by restaurant owners and others over the years, that public decision remains in place today.

As a bunch of Mormon teetotalers, this instance of prohibition didn't bother my family and I at all, not did it appear impact our social circle in any noticeable way. (At faculty get-togethers, it was common for one or another graduate student, having received prior assignment, to show up at some point during the festivities with a duffel bag full of wine and beer for those who chose to imbibe.) I'm grateful for it all the same, though. Primarily because it gave me an up-close chance to talk to people about, and think about, what it means when one segment of the general population--a population that is, despite what some may think of rural northeastern Arkansas, every bit as affected by the larger commercial and pluralistic world as any distinct group of 100,000 people (70,000 of whom live in the city of Jonesboro, where ASU is located) anywhere in the USA is likely to be--comes to a collective judgment which effects the whole population. In other words, when a local majority (in this case, a union of white and African-American conservative Baptist church-goers) democratically turn their moral and religious judgments into law.

This issue is back on my mind this week, because of a couple of recent events. One took place this past Tuesday here in Wichita, when the backers of a petition (one of whom was me) to greatly reduce the criminal penalties attached to the possession of small amounts of marijuana gathered during a meeting of our city council to urge them to put the issue on the ballot, despite having fallen a few dozen signatures short in our initiative effort, and despite concerns over state and federal authority and the wording of the resolution. The other took place online, when my old friend Damon Linker published a challenging article which argued that the success which libertarianism has enjoyed in the United States is almost entirely the result solely of a rise of non-judgmental moral "libertinism":

Americans now inhabit a world in which increasing numbers of individuals find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine submitting to rule by any authority higher than themselves on moral and religious matters. Sure, people continue to accept that one will be judged harshly and punished for violating another individual's consent (the only libertarian moral consideration). But beyond that? Don't be ridiculous. Who are you--who is anyone--to judge my behavior?

Damon used as an example in his piece the case of a young woman at Duke University who has achieved some small  fame for performing in pornographic films as a way to pay for her education, a career which she has defended in part in libertarian language. This in turn prompted a long online debate between Damon and various libertarian interlocutors, revolving around the frustration one libertarian writer felt at being put into a position of not only not judging, but in fact embracing as a positive act of liberty, something that she considered deeply unwise:

As a libertarian, I want pornography and even prostitution to be legal, if reasonably regulated. But as a survivor of hookup culture, I can’t even implicitly condone rampant, publicized promiscuity (which even on camera and for money constitutes rampant promiscuity nonetheless). Keeping your experiments in sexual growth small and private helps to limit their potential to damage both yourself and our normative socio-sexual frameworks. I want to live in a community where people understand and respect that we are all sexual creatures, enjoy their sexuality in pro-social or at least benign ways, and limit it otherwise. Such a hypothetical community does not treat the decision to perform in pornography (and then talk about it all over the internet) as just one unimpeachably empowering life choice among many.

The heart of the argument which followed was basically this: does standing for the principle of individual pluralism and freedom (which is, however you justify it, the position shared by all varieties of libertarianism) necessarily make it inconsistent to refuse to endorse, or in fact to judge negatively and wish to oppose, various choices that people make with their liberty? In other words, can supporting libertarianism as a political ideology be separated from supporting the choice to be a moral libertine?

This argument might not appear to have anything to do with our argument over the decriminalization of marijuana here in Wichita, but in my mind the two issues were connected. There are, of course, a large range of legal and political issues at play in our local debate (all of which influenced the ultimate decision of the city council--which was to instruct a member of their staff to work with the petition-gatherers to re-write the proposed ordinance and seek to obtain enough signatures to try again on a later ballot--much more than I think the should have). You have the question of state and federal jurisdictions over drug laws, the precedents established (or have they been?) by Colorado and Washington, debates over recreational vs. medicinal marijuana use, disputes over the rules which govern citizen petitions, etc. But hidden within all that is a familiar question (one which I've staked out a position on before): when you are dealing with an issue or a matter which involves consequences that would be experienced solely by the individual making the choice (and yes, despite the talk one often hears about marijuana being a "gateway drug," the real costs of decriminalization, or even legalization, are widely recognized to be simply a--possibly minimal--increase of marijuana usage, with attendant effects upon vulnerable users...but not a crime wave or social breakdown), then on what basis, if ever, should judgments be allowed to turn into prohibitions? Most libertarians allow that, of course, you ought to be able to organize and express yourself in which ever way you want--but can that organizing, and judging, turn paternal?

Something I wrote in the aforementioned discussion may be helpful here. One could say that there are at least two, overlapping but non-identical, ways in which the refusal to exercise prohibitive judgment over another person's choices could be formulated along libertarian lines, theoretically speaking. In one case, it's for Hayekian reasons: generally speaking, you should refrain from developing one's judgments in the direction of paternal action because you just don't know enough to be able to speak knowledgeably about another person's choices (particularly their moral, personal, religious, or sexual ones). That's a powerful argument, one which I've taken more and more seriously as I've worked through the pseudo-anarchic positions developed by the scholar James C. Scott. However, I don't see this as necessarily requiring that those in the libertarian camp have to support libertinism, because strictly speaking it leaves open the sort of local, contextual possibility that, in this particular case, at this particular time, some hypothetical person actually might know enough to be able to speak authoritatively about what another person is doing with their life. In the other case, though, the connection is strong, because you're thinking in Lockean terms, not ones of epistemology but of property. Here, the demand that one not act paternally towards another arises not from the fact that you don't know enough to judge another's choices, but from the belief that you have no right to do so, because they own themselves (their rights, their conscience, their sense of self), and you don't. This is a pretty reductive analysis, I know, but I think it perhaps helps explain why, given our rights-obsessed culture and Lockean intellectual inheritance here in the USA, we so often see a cross-over from a concern with personal liberty, to a refusal to countenance any negative judgments of, much less prohibitions regarding, behaviors or choices which some segment of the population (even a local majority) considers bad or wrong.

As someone who philosophically favors communitarian accounts of our actions, values, and needs much more than individualist ones, the question of prohibition comes easier for me. I don't think there are, or at least don't think their necessarily ought to be, any near-absolute philosophical roadblocks in the way of local communities democratically trying to define themselves, at least as regards matters which don't come close to broadly accepted fundamental liberties. Buying a beer or smoking a joint don't qualify in either case. So why is it that I am basically supportive of what the church-goers in Craighead County are trying to maintain, while in the case of Wichita I'm actively involved in trying to gain signatures and drum up support for a possible effort to challenge state and federal laws in regards to cannabis?

It's in part because I've learned from Hayek, as well as from Scott; I've learned that large bureaucracies and entrenched laws too often stifle the sort of exploratory action which might enable people to understand better their own needs, to say nothing of the fact that such institutional structures too often punish, at great personal and social costs, all sorts of individuals who have worked out what their own needs are, and who attempt to get around those structures. Of course, that's just a highfalutin' and theoretical way of talking about those who find themselves robbed of the ability to find a job or participate in society because of stupid choice made when they were young, or those who are convinced (rightly or wrongly) that cannabis is something they desperately need for medical reasons. In other words, I've read their stories (probably most particularly here), learned about their situations, and come to greater appreciation of how this prohibition, at this time, is doing more harm than good. As always with me, it's a context thing.

I'm still willing to defend particular paternalisms; I think any healthy community should, for the sake of preserving social norms and preventing the (I think) ultimately damaging (in both a personal and civic sense) glorification of ever-multiplying, never-judged choices. Defending one's collective moral and cultural identity, and what it can achieve, is too important to be sacrificed to the cult of individual liberty. But if my communitarian ideas have changed at all over the past several years (and they have), it is that I know understand that a defense of norms and traditions--especially prohibitory, paternal ones--has to be able to constantly respond to the changing, pluralistic flow of information all around us. In this case, well, marijuana isn't a drug I have any interest in, or would ever want any of my kids to use. But it isn't, by any means, the worst thing they could do to their bodies (plastic surgery very like would be worse!), and if there people in my community that are being unnecessarily harmed by this prohibition, then I ought to recognize that the judgment I make as parent, in this case at least, is probably as far as I ought to allow my paternalism to go.

Two Comments on Last Night In Ferguson, Missouri

Last night my wife's Twitter feed went nuts, and we ended up--like thousands of other Americans, I'm sure--opening up the laptop and watching, stunned, the images of violence coming out of Ferguson, MO. Tear gas and rubber bullets tearing into protesters, journalists arrested, vicious words. Scary, scary stuff.

So this morning I've been reading the news--about the death at the hands of police of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen-ager, about the stunning overflow of intimidating force shown by the local police department, about the thinking of the protesters and where this all might be leading. I'm no expert on any of these matters, and I'm certainly without any local knowledge--but it doesn't seem hard to me to put two and two together. Or more specifically, to put together 1) the heavy-duty military equipment readily available to local police departments, thanks to federal government give-aways (better to cheaply off-load army surplus to those involved in law enforcement than destroy it or sell it on the international market, right?), and 2) the genuine paranoia that predominantly African-American populations and communities feel when confronted with yet another ambiguous incident which ends with the police closing ranks, the law privileging the shooter, and an unarmed teen-ager dead. The result is a script which almost writes itself, isn't it? Still, my main reaction is simply, again, feeling stunned.

But there are people putting together thoughtful observations nonetheless, trying to tease out how fear, the militarization of the police, racial division, a culture of violence and distrust, and the electronic enablers of all of the above, come together. So as I did over two years ago, when Trayvon Martin was killed, here are two thoughts, from a couple of smart people. First, Alan Jacobs, focusing on how there is a frighteningly easy unreality to what many police officers apparently think is obvious when faced with civil unrest:

Because [first-shooter] computer games are so popular and are so utterly central to the experience of above all males under forty, we should probably spend more time than we do thinking about how immersion in those visual worlds shapes people’s everyday phenomenology. We do talk about this, but in limited ways, primarily in order to ask whether playing violent games makes people more violent. That’s a key question, but it needs to be broadened. Ian Bogost wants us to ask what it’s like to be a thing, but maybe we need also to ask: What is it like to be a shooter? What is it like to have your spatial, visual orientation to the world shaped by thousands of hours in shooter mode?
I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces--the "warrior cops” that Radley Balko has written (chillingly) about. Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances--but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games. Consider all the forest-colored camouflage, for instance....It’s a color scheme that is completely useless on city streets--and indeed in any other environment in which any of these cops will ever work. This isn’t self-protection; it’s cosplay. It’s as close as they can come to Modern Warfare 3.

The whole display would be ludicrous--boys with toys--except the ammunition is real. The guns are loaded, even if some of them have only rubber bullets, and the tear gas truly burns. And so play-acted immersion in a dystopian future gradually yields a dystopian present. 

What is is like to be a first-person shooter? It’s awesome, dude. 

I will add at this point that a friend of mine, who works for the Navy, relates this anecdote: "The military recently had a scandal where each of the services was paying independently for research into camouflage patterns. Even the Navy got into the act; we developed a blue camouflage pattern, which is not only completely pointless but actually counterproductive, because the very last thing a sailor who has fallen into the water wants to be is invisible. The reason for all of this was termed the 'CDI factor': Chicks Dig It."

Second, Timothy Burke, who actually strongly disagrees with the way Alan chooses to focus on computer games and our violent social imaginary in contrast to the whole tangled web of feedback loops (most of which ultimately revolve around race) which have brought up to our present moment. Picking up on a recent incident where a mall cop, responding to a disturbance involving a shirtless, raving white man, targeted and maced a by-standing and entirely innocent black man who was standing nearby, he writes:

So this is just pepper spray in the face compared to being shot dead and left to lie in the street. But if we're going to get anywhere as a society with this, we have to see that the same infrastructure of violence, injustice and inequality is in play in both cases and many more. It's a mistake to focus on the individuals who shot or sprayed, to make them out to be unusual, "bad apples". Or to say, "Oh, that's inadequate training", to turn to a technocratic solution: oh, just change the training methods! This is something deeper, harder, worse.

The mall cop was facing a tense, tricky situation, but he had people all around him guiding him, telling him where the problem was coming from, telling him what peace he'd been summoned to keep. He got a call that told him what the problem was. But he couldn't--not wouldn't, really couldn't--see it. Because the problem was a shirtless white guy who'd been causing trouble for a while, and there he was next to an African-American man. So he saw what he is predetermined to see: a black threat.

We've militarized police (private and public), we've protected them from oversight, and we've built a society that for thirty years has been fed on ever-escalating fear: fear of crime (even as it drops precipitously), fear of difference (even as we become more richly diverse in our real sociologies), fear of a world that we can't control. FDR was right, but we lost that fight: fear itself is our national anthem now. So what happens when you create an army that is both fed by and shielded by fear and tell them they can do as they will, so long as they do it just to people whom history has named as scapegoats and victims, so long as they are guided by a racial unconscious?

Americans--white Americans in particular--shouldn't have to be brought so unwillingly to the understanding of what's happening now. The country's deep political DNA is fundamentally suspicious of unaccountable power, power that doesn't answer to the same law that the people have to answer to, power over citizens rather than power from citizens. But down there in the depths is another principle: that race, and blackness most of all, is the exception. Nothing of anything in all of those principles means a damn thing until that stops, until it's liberty and justice for all.

Well said, indeed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"The Other Times You're Just a Stinker."

I don't remember when I first saw To Have and To Have Not, but I suppose it was probably during my frustrated early college years--which might explain why, to this day, I think that movie is probably the most erotic, most sexual performance I've ever seen in my life. Two people, falling crazily in love with each other, literally while acting in front of the camera. This famous scene in particular, I can remember actually feeling a little embarrassed watching it, like I was peeping in on a private moment between two lovebirds. Which, of course, I was--we all were.

Bacall was more than Bogart-and-Bacall, of course....but she never denied that the romantic magic of her 12-year marriage to him defined her for the rest of her long life. There are far worse legacies than that, methinks. RIP.

Five Favorite Comedy Concerts

Last night, Melissa and I went back and (like probably many thousands of people) watched again Robin Williams's classic comedy concert, "A Night at the Met" (watch parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 right here). It just cracked us up, as well as making us nostalgic--Melissa hadn't remembered where the London cop joke ("Stop! Or I'll say 'stop' again!") had come from, and I was delighted to be reminded of the similarity between Caspar Weinberger and Bela Lugosi. Everyone admits--as I said in my post yesterday--that Williams at his best had something on stage, doing stand-up comedy, that was only rarely realized through all his other acting roles. I think that's true of many other performers as well--whether they succeeded or not in finding a way to turn their comedy into something that worked in other media (as an actor, a talking head, or whatever), their live, on-stage shows are where their brilliance is most easily viewed.

So, with that, because everyone loves lists, five comedy concerts that I truly love. (This was a hard choice, actually. Besides "Night at the Met," there's so much good stuff from Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Steven Wright, and many more. On a different day, I might choose other concerts. But for today, I'll stand by these.)

Steve Martin, "Live at the Universal Amphitheater" (1979): Only available on a rare video put out in 1984--or, fortunately, on YouTube. Martin's full, mature, final stand-up set, before he gave up live comedy entirely. (Watch both parts, and forgive the occasional lapses in transfer quality.)

Bill Cosby, "Himself" (1983): Stop lying to yourself. You had this album, or your parents did (probably on tape cassette), and you listened to it in the car, and it made you laugh like crazy. The bits about talking to the toilet bowl still do, today.

Eddie Izzard, "Dressed to Kill" (1998): I show the bit about the Church of England in my classes occasionally. It works.

Robin Williams, "Live on Broadway" (2002): I actually think this show, his big return to stand-up after having taken a break from it some 15 years earlier, is even better than "A Night at the Met." He seemed more in control of his demons, more able to use his desperation, somehow. And besides, it has the bit on golf, which ought to go down somewhere as one of the funniest five minutes in all human history.

Ellen DeGeneres, "Here and Now" (2003): Ellen DeGeneres isn't everyone's cup of tea--not dangerous enough, too bourgeois!--but I remember watching this show with Melissa, and we marveled at just how smart it was. Everyone on this list was, in their day, capable of writing really smart jokes, but here her entire set of Seinfeld-ish observational comedy is revealed at the end as a set-up for a final punch line, and that's just brilliant.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin William's Five Best (Live) Film Performances

Damn, damn, damn, damn. Depression. Suicide. What a terrible, terrible loss.

Of course, I can be critical. Robin Williams manic, surreal, free-associating, vulgar-yet-somehow-never-truly-"dirty" comedy, as hilarious as it was, had a limited cross-over to electronic media. Unlike Steve Martin, he was pretty inconsistent, I think, in the ways he tried (and the energy and wit he invested in trying) to translate his particular performing style into something that worked in front of the camera. And unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's pretty much indisputable that Robin Williams's best film and television work was more than 20 years in his past (in contrast to his ground-breaking stand-up routines, which he wonderfully returned to over the past decade). Still, none of that takes away the essential truth: Robin Williams was, at his best, a screamingly funny and profoundly insightful actor, an insane, improvisational, and insatiable fountain of mockery, emotion, and joy. And thanks to YouTube, posterity will be able to enjoy what he left us with. As always, in chronological order:

Moscow on the Hudson (1984): Williams loved to play weirdly ethnic characters, particularly Eastern Europeans and Russians, because somehow he knew how to plug his always-burning anger into those accents, and bring out something believable and wise. This movie, one of his first, was been unduly forgotten by most--but if you remember the 1980s, then you know that Williams played twice the Russian Yakov Smirnoff ever was.

Good Morning, Vietnam! (1987): Playing a highly fictionalized--and wonderfully so!--version of legendary Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer was probably the closest Williams's stand-up ever got to being translated to the silver screen.

Dead Poets Society (1989): For all its many faults academics like me love this film, as does anyone who wants to imagine themselves as somehow caught up in that moment of enlightenment, rebellion, and discovery which our highest myths of education all revolve around (whether we admit to it or not). In plunging headfirst into this myth, in an unpologetically manipulative and sentimental way, the movie needed as a central figure someone who could be profoundly normal while radiating a controlled madness all the same. In Williams, they found just what they needed.

The Fisher King (1991): Surely one the reasons why Williams did so well in Dead Poets Society is because he knew how to lecture--or, at least, when given lecture-type exposition, how to convey it like the best kind of teachers. I wish I could speak to my students in as captivating a way as he does multiple times in this wonderful Terry Gilliam film.

Toys (1992): Another unjustly forgotten, Gilliam-esque film, here Williams pulled off something actually quite remarkable: he plays another one of his pleasantly innocent crazies, yet his role, essentially, is that of the straight man, surrounded with much greater weirdness on all sides. A fine, fun film (with a great, early 90s pop soundtrack, by the way).

What am I missing? Well, I did say "live" performances, didn't I?

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Line 'Em Up"

I remember Richard Nixon back in '74 / and the final scene at the White House door
and the staff lined up to say good-bye / tiny tear in his shifty little eye,
he said, "nobody knows me / nobody understands.
These little people were good to me / oh I'm gonna shake some hands."

James Taylor, singing about a moment, exactly 40 years ago today, when Nixon resigned the presidency and left the White House--a moment that also, as I think both JT's song and a little reflection on anyone's part makes clear, encapsulates the rueful, confused, broken introspection which characterized (all too briefly!) America in the 1970s. Too bad it couldn't have lasted.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

What Happens When Parties and Elections Change, and Constitutions Don't

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

Yesterday, Ezra Klein summed up the Obama presidency thusly: "Obama [has] pushed more change through the political system than any serious observer expected....[b]ut he's done it by accepting--and, in many cases, accelerating--the breakdown of American politics. Judged against the rhetoric of his [2008] campaign, his presidency has been both an extraordinary success and a complete failure." That's not an unusual claim in these days of partisan absolutism, but it is a little surprising to see a wonky liberal like Klein to make it. Even more surprising--or perhaps it isn't--is to realize that Klein is making pretty much the same point that Ross Douthat has been making over the past several days in the wake of the news of President Obama's consideration of exceptionally wide-ranging executive actions to address the humanitarian crisis that our dysfunctional immigration policies have helped to create. Says Douthat: "what the White House wants to do on immigration...would be lawless, reckless, a leap into the antidemocratic dark." It would, in other words, be a case of Obama responding to a genuine problem by, Caesar-like, breaking through the laws by which presidents are supposed to act. I see the point of Douthat's fear, and agree with it--but I don't think Douthat is being honest about the causes that have brought our country to this point.

(Before I get into this, a quick aside: plenty of folks on the left side of the political aisle are quick to dismiss Douthat as a partisan hack and a close-minded prude. I can't do that. Admittedly, what I see as his tendency to either condescend towards or simply be oblivious of those issues and people that don't fit into his somewhat privileged moral boxes often drives me nuts. But for all that, he's a smart, wonky conservative, and not an anti-Obama crazy; when, in reference to those who "think that this president has been violating basic norms of constitutional government since the earliest months of his administration," he writes that "I am not and have never been one of them," he's describing his own commentary accurately. His observations are often--as in this case--genuinely challenging, and deserve a careful response.)

The heart of Douthat's charge is that not simply that Obama, in suggesting several possible executive actions (mostly revolving around a reprieve from legal limitations and deportation for upwards 5 million law-abiding undocumented immigrants who are closely related to American citizens or have been long-time U.S. residents, essentially a major expansion of the Deferred Action protocol which Obama put into action through executive order two years ago), is going beyond normal executive "latitude and discretion in legal enforcement" and moving into "a de facto rewrite of the law." No, what he thinks is worse is that the president, in his view, is embracing this "power grab" in such a way as to violate basic norms of constitutionality. Douthat does not deny that we are years into an era of unprecedented party polarization and congressional dysfunction; the incentives as they presently exist (gerrymandered Republican House members that find themselves in an endless race to prove themselves to be more anti-Obama and ideologically pure than any possible primary challenger) have created a fatalistic, "'let the policy happen, just don’t make me vote for it' dynamic," which of course creates a space for even more unilateral action from the White House. But he is convinced that there is, somewhere in the greyness, a Rubicon-type line which is being crossed, separating dubious constitutionality from outright caesarism:

But the absence, as Al Gore might put it, of a clear controlling legal authority only strengthens the importance of norms, precedents and judgment in these matters. And my judgment is as follows: Given....[that] it’s pretty reasonable to describe DACA itself [as a] moderately-but-not-grossly lawless, moderately-but-not-extraordinarily abusive of the president’s powers... then to describe a mega-DACA as something more extraordinary, reckless and (yes) caesarist, and therefore more worthy of outcry and opposition. I can’t prove, citing statute and verse, that this judgment is correct, and I can’t tell you exactly the moment (1.17 million work permits? 2.88 million?) when moderate abuse shades into something more extraordinary. But I think my basic judgment on these matters is a lot more credible and responsive to the facts than the “nothing to see here, just discretion as usual” argument offered [by the president's defenders].

I can't say I dispute this--but then, I think President Obama (like every president since Nixon) has acted unconstitutionally through their refusal to formally acknowledge the War Powers Resolution, so perhaps my opinion isn't surprising. Douthat thinks the fact that this is a domestic issue makes it even more frightening an omen for our country, as traditionally "domestic power grabs are usually modest in scope." Which, when you think about it, is an odd thing to claim in defense of one's position: are we supposed to believe that under our system of government power grabs are routine enough to be incorporated into institutional norms, and so the real crisis is that this president, at this time, is making this sort of power grab, as opposed to some other? That seems to be the upshot of Douthat's complaint.

Consider, for example, how important he thinks it is that President Obama and the Democratic party had taken legislative actions which were apparently responsible for making his political opponents become unwilling (due, no doubt, to the aforementioned partisan dysfunctions) to compromise on the issue of immigration:

[I]n the spring of 2012, Marco Rubio started working on a variation on the DREAM Act--one that wouldn’t go as far as the bill the White House favored, but seemed to have some chance of passage, not least because the context of a presidential election (and Mitt Romney’s struggles with Hispanic voters) gave Republicans a reason to seek compromise. At which point the White House, in a move that (to quote Ed Kilgore, no conservative) ”was universally understood as a preemption” of Rubio’s potential bill, released its own executive order--the precedent for the one being currently considered [that is, DACA]--legalizing the population in question, which (as the White House no doubt expected) made it politically impossible for Rubio to push forward with legislation that would have effectively just ratified that move.

From the point of view of Douthat's columns, this is evidence of the president's incipient caesarism, a willingness to score political points in an election environment by unilateral actions which would appear to only strengthen his own executive discretion in the future, by undermining the possibility of some actual, you know, law making. But of course, that's only looking at the Republican and congressional sides of the equation, isn't it? After all, is the White House, or the Democratic party, to be blamed for the Republican party having built, through so many years of effort, an electoral structure which is so closed to compromise and views the sitting the president as so toxic that any act of genuine legislative deal-making which isn't done from a position of either total conservative victory and complete conservative absence is accepted by Rubio & Co. as electoral suicide? Of course they can't be. One might, of course, claim that we need to expect the president to have higher standards than the average, vote-grubbing member of Congress; that the norms which have evolved to govern the significant powers of the presidency reflect such an expectation. But it seems to me the obvious response to that is very simple: why on earth would the party in power, the one in the White House, be any different kind of political animal than any other party? Just because President Obama doesn't have to win an election in a congressional district in Chicago doesn't mean that he somehow isn't a creature of the exact same dysfunctions which are currently poisoning Congress--on the contrary, the all-or-nothing partisan mentality which the White House apparently counted on to make Rubio and other congressional Republicans too angry/scared/weak to move forward actual immigration reform permeates our electoral system as a whole, from top to bottom. Non-power-grabbing norms don't emerge out of thin air: they depend upon institutional forms, and those institutional forms have to serve the needs and beliefs and practices of those who built them--and when they no longer do, the forms are abandoned, or at least disrespected, and the norms will, of course, follow. So if, on some level, Obama and his team saw in 2012 an opportunity to see Rubio trapped between his own political self-interest and the ideological and electoral infrastructure which he'd helped to build, is that really a power grab? Or is it, instead, the only game in town?

I'm not defending that game at all; on the contrary, it depresses me, so much that sometimes I genuinely despair. Unlike Eric Posner and other defenders of the president's contemplated measures whom Douthat attacks, I want to believe that the United States doesn't have to and shouldn't descend into what Sheldon Wolin described nearly 20 years ago as “plebiscitary democracy.” Rather, I believe in legislative supremacy and deliberative democracy (on the level of principle, at least), and I prefer to read our constitutional order in such a republican or populist light as to maximize its potential in that direction. But I can also read history, and see what what it tells us about the roots of our present paralysis. The institutional forms set up by our Constitution came to life and gave rise to governing norms through and the midst of party coalitions and a political culture much more regional, much more elitist, much less disconnected, and much less ideological than America became through the 20th century. All through the transformative rise of the American conservative movement (and sometimes as a result of it!), we became a more alienated, more globalized, more liberated, more diverse, and generally more "winner-take-all" country than we used to be, for reasons both economic and social and cultural. The Republican party of Marc Rubio, the Democratic party of Barack Obama, the electoral strategies which put them in power, the campaign financing which enabled them to make use of those strategies, the ideological and socio-economic framework upon which that money did its work--all of it over the past half-century has changed to the point of near unrecognizability. If it really does turn out that Obama feels he has no other option that to turn to--or indeed, that he is even now busily calculating the political advantages of employing--a little presidential caesarism in response to a serious domestic problem, Douthat needs to fault more than just the man in the White House: he needs to also fault the constitutionalism fetishism which refuses to seriously contemplate that our present system of government depends upon democratic and legislative norms that no longer have much good reason to exist.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

What Kansas Republicans Should Learn From Yesterday

[A quick follow-up from yesterday:]

Primary contests don't necessarily tell you much about general elections. The number of people who show up to vote is so small, and so selective--generally, the sort of people who bother to vote in political primaries, particularly closed primaries like we have here in Kansas, are much more committed to their representative parties and far more motivated by specific candidates and issues than is the case with most citizens--that it's rare that a primary election allows for predictions over how the main contest in three or four or five months will go.

That said, the primary election which was held yesterday in Kansas does tell us a few things--things that, by and large, are likely to be of far greater concern to Republicans than Democrats.

The main message, looking at the vote counts for victorious Republican incumbents such as Governor Sam Brownback (63% to 37% over his GOP rival, Jennifer Winn), Secretary of State Kris Kobach (65% to 35% over Scott Morgan), Congressman Tim Huelskamp in the 1st congressional district (55% to 45% over Alan LaPolice), and Senator Pat Roberts (barely clearly 48% of all votes cast), is pretty clear: their support amongst their own party is soft, at best. Obviously primary elections--again, being small and focused--can easily be swayed by particular issues and candidates. But still, when you are seeing more than a third (and sometimes fully half!) of all the registered Republicans who bother to cast a vote in a primary election on a Tuesday in August choosing someone other than the official flag-bearer for their party, you've got to be worried. A good many of those registered Republicans who went with the challengers down to defeat will, of course, come around and support the incumbent in November; many others are single-issue cranks who were just trying to send a protest, and don't consider themselves Republicans anyway. But that still leaves literally thousands of other self-identified Republican voters that quite possibly either will not vote in November or may even take seriously the Democratic challenger against any of the above. And in a race where incumbents like Brownback, Kobach, and Huelskamp already face large negatives with many voters, that has to be very worrying.

I didn't mention the Pompeo-Tiahrt match-up for the Republican nomination for the 4th district's congressional seat, even though the vote results there were similar to the above (Mike Pompeo, the incumbent, with 63%, over Todd Tiahrt with 37%), because that was an odd race, one that essentially was pitting two incumbents against each other, and both counting mostly on personal impressions to carry the race. Pompeo will almost certainly not suffer any consequences in November from the legacy of his sometimes nasty primary win. Similarly, though it is clear to everyone looking at the returns that Roberts is viewed by a large percentage of Kansas Republicans as a basically an unimpressive stuffed shirt, a career politician who can barely manage to remember what address his mail is being sent to, he also almost certainly doesn't need to worry; Kansas's strong Republican tilt will guarantee that, so long as he denounces "Obamacare" frequently enough, no Democratic challenger is likely to hurt him. And the same goes with Huelskamp; as many doubts apparently exist amongst some of the Republican party primary electorate here in Kansas about these individuals' competence, national narratives about fighting Washington DC will no doubt carry them through with mainstream Republican voters.

But what about the state races? There, of course, Brownback and Kobach, as well as all the rest of the state GOP, will play the anti-Obama card, and that will likely be more than sufficient to remind the majority of Kansas Republicans of the reason for their party identification. But when you look at the above results, you can't help but suspect, I think, that the state Republican party here in Kansas has not done a particularly expert job of seamlessly fitting the agenda of the Republican majority in Topeka in with the national conservative, anti-government, quasi-libertarian, family-values line. Surely many of the GOP voters who chose not to support current state Republican incumbents did so because they simply felt a need to send a message, and they may well have been successful (Brownback was quoted last night talking about how in November you would see a "moderate-conservative" block come together in support of the GOP, and even suggested that some of those who voted for Winn did so because he wasn't conservative enough....all of which backs away from the moderate-purging, RINO-bashing, true-believing Brownback revolution of the past few years, of course). But logically, that can't be the case for all of those tens of thousands of Republicans who voted against the incumbents. And those are GOP voters which, come November, with strong and potentially well-funded Democratic challengers facing them, neither our governor nor our secretary of state can afford to lose.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mr. Berry

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Today, Wendell Berry turns 80. There is much which could and perhaps should be said in honor of him on the occasion of his birthday, for the man and his writings contain multitudes. They don't contain everything, that's for certain; Berry is a man who has always understood, and has always fiercely insisted upon, the human virtue and civilizational imperative of limits, conservation, membership, locality, associations, family, belonging, identity, and place. Nowhere in his novels and poetry and essays can you find the idols of modernity--cosmopolitan freedoms, expansive profits, liberated individuals--being lazily praised. Yet within those careful words and humble worlds into which he has invested so much thought and meaning throughout his long life, there is nonetheless admittedly a huge range of possibilities. Berry is claimed by environmentalists, liberals, agrarians, anarchists, populists, conservatives, romantics, and libertarians; I've heard him quoted--accurately and approvingly!--by revolutionary socialists holding marching under the banner of Bakunin, radical Tea Partiers waving the flag of Jefferson, and Catholic home-schoolers invoking the principles of Chesterton. In some ways that is simply a testament to the power of his ideas. He is one of the greatest living anti-modernists, having held forth, in both word and deed, the viability and value of living a life that prefers tending to the simple (like improving a plot of land in Kentucky) rather than intending something grand (like going out and changing the world). He and his writings are a treasure, and anyone who has been touched by either or both owes him a great debt.

I've never personally met Berry, and for one reason or another I've continued to miss out on opportunities to do so. (If you can make it to the upcoming Front Porch Republic conference, where Berry will be the keynote speaker, I urge you: don't be late!). I have, however, been up close to him while he teaches on a couple of occasions, and have learned enormously from discussing his ideas with my students. I'm not alone with feeling that way; look through the FPR archives, and you'll see that, agree with this or that particular of his many insights or not, the man is as close to a patron saint that the Front Porch Republic is probably capable of having. So the best I can do here is thank him for all the ways he has challenged, provoked, edified, and inspired me over the years, and give him the last word. Others might choose from his poetry and fiction, but I will turn in to an essay of his, one of his greatest, I think:

That there should be peace, commerce, and biological and cultural outcrosses among local cultures is obviously desirable and probably necessary as well. But such a state of things would be radically unlike what is now called pluralism. To start with, a plurality of settled communities could not be preserved by the present-day pluralists' easy assumption that all cultures are equal or of equal value and capable of surviving together by tolerance. The idea of equality is a good one, so long as it means "equality before the law." Beyond that, the idea becomes squishy and sentimental because of manifest inequalities of all kinds....If I merely tolerate my neighbors on the assumption that all of us are equal, that means I can take no interest in the question of which ones of us are right and which ones are wrong; it means that I am denying the community the use of my intelligence and judgment; it means that I am not prepared to defer to those whose abilities are superior to mine, or to help those whose condition is worse; it means that I can be as self-centered as I please. In order to survive, a plurality of true communities would require not egalitarianism and tolerance but knowledge, an understanding of the necessity of local differences, and respect. Respect, I think, always implies imagination--the ability to see one another, across are inevitable differences, as living souls.

Primarily About Kansas

It's primary day here in Kansas. I voted earlier this morning, at a polling station at the church a little more than a half-mile down the road from our house. There wasn't a line--but then, there never is for primary elections, certainly not at 7am.

Why vote? Because I believe voting is both a civic duty and a political good. It isn't, I think, our greatest civic duty or our highest political good; I know too much about elections and all the problems with them (both practical and theoretical) to be able to say otherwise. But just because voting doesn't give or fulfill everything we might want it to isn't a reason not to find the time to do your homework and to make your choices (even if those choices, as they were for me, we're mostly a matter of signaling that I, as a citizen, was present). It's not the be-all and end-all of self-government, but it's something. So, just in case there's someone in Kansas (particularly someone here in the 4th congressional district) who hasn't voted yet and is open to being persuaded to by 7pm this evening, here are some thoughts.

Stuart Elliott, a friend, self-taught scholar, and general rabble-rouser, had a nice run-down of all ways in which elections in Kansas struggle to meet even the low bar for "democracy" which I mentioned above. I don't agree with him on every point--for example, he is critical of the closed primary system in Kansas, while I'm mostly supportive of it, as I think anything which both potentially strengthens the connections candidates have to parties, as well as the oversight which voters can wield over those candidates which the parties they support nominate, is worth pursuing. But overall we're on the same page when it comes to fusion voting (allowing multiple small parties, which might emerge to advance the ideological views of a minor portion of the electorate, to back the same candidate, thus increasing the possible influence of small parties in a first-past-the-post election system which we have), campaign finance reform in the face of the enormous advantages enjoyed by those with access to often undisclosed sources of funding (particularly important in small population states where a few major players can far outspend and thus dominate in the public eye races statewide), and most of all the weirdly paranoid contempt which our secretary of state, Kris Kobach, appears to feel for the most elementary duty of his office: helping the citizens of Kansas to be able to vote. If you're a Republican, and haven't voted yet, please: vote Scott Morgan. He won't win--in primary elections, absent a well-funded and/or ideologically networked opponent, the incumbent can easily count on the bulk of the people who bother to show up to support them--but a less than enthusiastic response amongst Republican voters who can recognize Kobach's policy objectives for the distracting and self-aggrandizing stunts they are will bode well for electing Jean Schodorf in November.

The big contest locally, of course, is between Mike Pompeo, our current congressional representative, and Todd Tiarht, a man who held that seat for 16 years before losing in the last major Republican primary fight in Kansas, the 2010 race to become the GOP senate nominee (and thus, given how strongly Republican this state is, our senator, which is exactly what the man who defeated him ended up becoming). Tiarht, for any number of reasons, wants it back, but he's almost certainly not going to get it. I don't have a dog in this fight--both Pompeo and Tiarht stand for too many things that I think are plain foolish and wrong--but I'm surprised that Tiarht's campaign against Pompeo, especially given the way Pompeo has strongly defended the NSA and the interests of agribusinesses, hasn't gone thoroughly Tea Party against him. That hasn't stopped some of Tiarht's supporters from painting the contest in those terms, and Tiarht himself has occasionally gone in that direction, but by and large he seems to have primarily run his campaign on the assumption that people remember him, like him, and will vote for him. No doubt there are many who do--but are enough of them committed Republicans of the sort who will show up for a primary election before closing time tonight? I strongly doubt it. (I can't deny that in my very limited interactions with both men, Pompeo seemed much more competent and intelligent than Tiarht, for whatever that's worth.)

Speaking of Tea Party challenges, though, we do have Milton Wolf, a perhaps slightly unhinged libertarian and constitutionalist, but still a generally impressive novice true believer, challenging our other senator, Pat Roberts, for the Republican nomination. Roberts is a thoroughly unimpressive career politician, about whom the most passionate arguments are simply whether he bothers with his home state enough to live here (he doesn't, but he does formally list a friend's house as the place where his mail should be sent) or enough to take seriously the prospect of actually having to make a case for why anyone should vote for him (he doesn't, having refused to debate Wolf or indeed to meet with him, leading Wolf to engage in stunts like the one above where he ambushed the senator on camera). Again, I have no dog in this fight ideologically speaking, but I'd delight to see Roberts taken out by Wolf all the same. For one thing, Roberts (non-)actions in this election have shown him to be, in my opinion, a complete stuffed shirt; for another thing, as I've suggested before, I really think it's valuable sometimes to see radicals (even, or maybe especially, those I strong disagree with) get involved in and thus mix up the established parties, particularly given that our election system is set up such that two-party dominance is essentially a constitutional guarantee. (Of course, the fact that Wolf's win would give Chad Taylor a shot in November is part of the calculation as well.)

Of course, there's also Jennifer Winn's single-minded attempt to push the important issues of reforming drug laws into the Republican gubernatorial contest (far better, I think, to contact Wichita's City Council and urge them to take seriously the petition to put the decriminalization of medicinal marijuana on the ballot), and numerous county races--many of which, as I suggested at the beginning, are uncontested, and to which the best we can do is signal our presence as part of the whole complicated mess which is democratic governance. For us here in Kansas, I can only echo Stuart Elliott once again: if we want genuinely competitive elections and a real exchange of ideas, such that more of Kansans can feel invested in and thus legitimatize those making decisions on our behalf, the most practical route is has to involve "re-invigorating the Democratic Party, the growth of grass-roots progressive organizations like Kansas People's Action, and a more creative and energized political effort by teachers and other unions." But in the meantime, we work with what we have--and that means, today, voting. So do it, if you haven't yet, okay?

Monday, August 04, 2014

Summer Movie Round-Up

Summertime is a good time for films--you're staying up late, you get too tired to do anything besides stare at a screen, you had to the theater to get out of the heat. It's been a pretty productive 2 and 1/2 months for me, film-wise; as the summer comes to a close (yes--here in Kansas, the kids head back to school next week, and Friends University will open its doors the week after), here's some short takes on what I finally managed to see:

At Close Range: A compelling crime drama from 1986 that had been on my list to watch for more than 20 years. I don't hear it mentioned often by other film nerds, even by those who love off-beat takes on American violence, but it's influence is pretty obvious: Sean Penn is every inch the struggling, soft-hearted, redneck bad-boy hero; Mary Stuart Masterson's less-mature-than-she-thinks-she-is 16-year-old ingénue is wholly believable; Crispin Glover captures, in a couple of brief scenes, the sad and desperate confusion and braggadocio of an unknowing, closted gay kid; and Christopher Walken has, of course, the scariest eyes in all film history.

The Boys From Brazil: A strange, not particularly involving paranoid thriller from 1978 that, if nothing else, provided Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck with paychecks during their declining years. A story about Nazi war-criminals hiding out in South America and putting in place a grand conspiracy to clone dozens of baby Hitlers around the world, it's most notable, I think, for the utterly creepy kid of who played all the versions of the young Adolph. I hope they'd given him some make-up and training, because if that's how he naturally looks and acts, I feel sorry for him.

Chennai Express: A hilariously weird Bollywood production which Megan made us all watch after she returned from India; it is, apparently, one of the biggest hits in the whole history of Indian cinema. From my point of view it was a fun mix of action and slapstick comedy, but actually I guess it's a pretty brilliantly put together parody of its own mega-star, Shahrukh Khan; Megan had to stop the movie every five minutes or so and attempt to explain to us how the scene we were watching was actually an inverted riff on some previous film of his.

Don Jon: A fairly filthy but genuinely funny and often even insightful tale of a stereotypical New Jersey Italian-American player (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed the film) who is addicted to porn. It's far better acted and scripted than it has any right to be, and through some delightfully sharp performances from a really great ensemble--Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, Rob Brown, Julianne Moore, Glenne Headly, and Brie Larson--it actually says something worth hearing about sex, romance, imagination, and commitment. I wish it somehow could have been made less dirty so I could get away with showing it to some young people I know at my church, but that's the way it goes, unfortunately.

Godzilla: Loved it! Yes, a complete B-monster-movie, but I was more that delighted with all the destruction and terror and the jokes we made about it all along the way. Ideally, I wanted this latest Godzilla movie--coming exactly 50 years after the first and best one--to hearken back to that mood: Godzilla as destructive god that we cannot stop, the retribution of nature upon humankind for the nuclear horror they had unleashed, a force we can only endure and vainly hope to turn aside until he returns to destroy us yet again. But as soon as I heard that there were going to be additional monsters in the film, I knew they weren't going to go for that, but instead would play up the whole quasi-heroic "King of Monsters" thing. Which, I don't deny, is awesome! When Godzilla ducks the leaping male MUTO and smashes it into a building with his tail, there was joy in the theater.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Also loved it. Wonderful, ridiculously incongruous soundtrack (Peter Quill's strutting final escape from the Kyln to the tune of "Escape" was just too perfect to be believed), delightful dialogue (I agree with many reviewers that Drax the Destroyer got some of the best lines), great special effects (the energy shield maintained by the Nova Corps was way cool), revealing as well as hilarious character moments (Rocket Raccoon revealing his surgically scarred back as well as asking for the artificial leg), and so much more. I've been telling folks for more than a year that this was the Marvel movie to see, and I'm happy to say I was proved right.

Lars and the Real Girl: A really clever bit of narrative inversion, resulting in a touching romantic drama. The conceit that crazy or damaged or anti-social characters are actually the wise and compassionate ones, capable of healing the lives of the "normal" folks around them, is probably as old as story-telling itself; this movie, once again featuring a great ensemble (Ryan Gosling, obviously, but also his brother and sister-in-law, played by Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, and the family doctor played by Patricia Clarkson), takes that idea, and works out how it might actually play out in real life. Made me cry multiple times, and I didn't feel manipulated by that emotionality at all.

Legally Blonde: I honestly did want to enjoy this movie--which we watched because our second daughter has discovered and fallen in love with the musical based on the movie--and truly, there were a lot of completely earned gags in there. Ultimately, though, I just couldn't stop engaging in a Marxist critique of its whole premise: why on earth would the majority of the many and various denizens of Harvard Law School give a hard time to someone who buys her way into that elite institution, since, in one way or another, that's what most of them do?

The Wannsee Conference and Conspiracy: I watched these two films at the same time, cutting back and forth between them on YouTube, which turned out to be a thought-provoking way of appreciating what people make of the ultimate horror story, the Final-Solution-planning Nazi conference which both of these films recreate. I've seen both before and the German Wannsee Conference still strikes me as the better film, as it portrays the meeting in a much more conversational way, without any obviously dramatic build-ups or defined character moments, allowing us to better understand, as the dialogue makes clear, that the real evil here is in the political, intellectual, and social structure which makes it impossible to anyone to truly think outside the murderous box they all reside within. Conspiracy allows us to believe--and perhaps it is an accurately belief, but I doubt it--that there were real possibilities, embodied in the characters played by Colin Firth and David Threlfall, for something other than the mass extermination of European Jewry to emerge from the movement that Hitler built. That gives us, as viewers, the opportunity to be filled with righteous hate for the SS officers played by Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, and they certainly play up their every subtle moment of contempt and superiority--but I suppose I'm too much a believer in Arendt's banality of evil to prefer the charming manipulator over the calm supervisor as an explanation for the worst crime of the 20th century.

The World's End: I've now seen all of the so-called Cornetto trilogy, and I've enjoyed them all--Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg really have a comic genius together. World's End is probably, in some sense, the best made of the three, with a genuinely brilliant turn by Nick Frost (he's funny, he's romantic, he's dramatic, he's an action star: in a more just world, it would have been him and not Chris Pratt starring in Guardians of the Galaxy), but I have to say that my favorite remains Hot Fuzz. Why? Because of the fences, that's why:

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Saturday Night live Music: "Hallelujah"

Last week, our second daughter performed in a musical revue, "That's Entertainment!," put on by the Wichita Children's Theater and Dance Company. She sang this song, and I thought she did wonderfully. I explained after the show about the significance of the song, and Leonard Cohen's influence, and the dozens of great artists who have covered the song--such as K.D. Lang below, who sang perhaps the definitive version of the song--to which she and our oldest daughter, who was with us, could only respond, in essence: "Dad, for people of our generation, this is a Shrek song, end of story." Well, anyway, this is for them.