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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2019

Here we go. The usual rules apply: these are what I consider to be the best films I saw for the first time in 2019, regardless of when they were released. Alphabetical by title:

The Farewell. Despite the strong reputation of all involved, and despite the plainness with which the filmmakers presented the China which actually exists today, I kept expecting, up until the final moments of the film, for some kind of sappy Hollywood reveal. (Nai Nai actually knows she has cancer, and she wants to prevent her kids from knowing that she knows about their effort to prevent her from knowing that she has cancer becomes she loves them so!) It never happened. The film ended and the bald facts of loss, and the deep strangeness--or is it that strange?--in how different families and cultures choose to deal with that universal fact are laid before the audience without apology. A film that is stark, and warm, and beautiful, all at the same time.

Hotel Mumbai. In some ways, this is a totally conventional "can our heroes escape this death-trap?" action film. But in so many otherwise it is not. The bad guys are not sugar-coated nor made relatable nor demeaned to in any way; these terrorists are young both devout and worried young men and hard-core killers, at the same time. Similarly, the people stuck in the hotel and simultaneously fearful, suspicious, defiant, and totally ordinary, with the result that brave actions are presented as the examples of bravery they are, without any guarantee of success (mostly, they fail). This partly--but only partly--fictionalized re-telling of one tiny part of the horror of the Mumbai attacks is manipulative in the most honest way: it shows, graphically, a terrible situation, and allows you to care about those who endured it, somehow.

If Beale Street Could Talk. This movie's story is a painful one, beautifully told. James Baldwin's novel is a tragedy, with the unjustly convicted Fonny forced to live his life behind bars, watching his son grow up without him. And yet, the feeling is quietly triumphant. Barry Jenkins's direction makes the racism at the heart of this love story ultimately kind of small and pathetic in the face of the grace, beauty, and fidelity that Tish and Fonny have between themselves. Yes, the legacy of racism (in the form of an emotionally ruined rape victim and vindictive, twisted cop) destroys their future...but it does not destroy them. The quiet, intense cinematography and soundscape of the movie takes a rough story and, without moderating the horror and injustice of it all, makes it glorious to behold.

The Irishman. Lots of buzz around this movie, obviously; possibly Scorsese's final film, and certainly the only time we're ever going to see De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci (and don't forget Keitel!) all in a movie together. Still, in watching it, I couldn't help but team it in my mind with another 3+ hour-long movie about gangsters I watched, and loved, this year (see below). Anyway, no, I didn't find the CGI to make these actors in their late 70s look 40 years younger entirely persuasive, and yes, the fact that Scorsese adapted without any narrative questioning what is almost certainly complete fiction bugs me a little. But the heck with that. This was an epic gangland tale, with all the beats and twists and sudden violence carried off with a subtlety and skill that only a team of greats could have managed. The 15 minutes or so during the tribute dinner, where Scorsese cuts between close-ups and framing shots, showing De Niro's, Pacino's, and Pesci's characters all starting at, confronting, and confessing to each other, putting the final act of the movie in motion, is as good a work of cinematic story-telling as Scorsese has ever filmed, I think.

Knives Out. I am so glad that we managed to avoid all reviews of and spoilers for this film until we saw it. Just great, delicious fun, with so many wonderful turns (Linda cooling smoking her cigarette, watching her hysterical husband chasing after the cops! Marta being frightened at Fran's apparently dead body, starting to flee, then performing CPR anyway! And Blanc plunking on the damn piano!) and so many clever narrative clues (the letters burned at the edges! the dogs barking at Ransom!) Like any contrived mystery story, there are holes in the story, covered up by coincidences--but honestly, the more we all as a family thought and talked about it, the tighter, and therefore more delightful, the story became. It's rare to be exposed to movie that's just a wicked joy to watch unfold; Knives Out did that for us, in spades.

Look & See. Definitely not everyone's sort of movie; think a Terrence Malick film (he was one of the movie's producers, for whatever that's worth), with even less narrative than usual, then inter-cutted with a very straightforward and only moderately engaging documentary about farmers pushing back against the corporate agriculture world. Am I putting this on my list solely because Wendell Berry is a hero of mine? Maybe. But the man's words are prophetic and haunting in themselves; putting them together with images of farmland wasted, mountaintops removed, and rural communities bankrupted and in despair makes them even more powerful. Berry is, more than anything else, a witness: a man's whose agrarian sensibilities, and whose lifetime of work, has opened his eyes to scenes that modern capitalism routinely disguises. To see the world though his eyes, while accompanied by his words, is a great accomplishment.

Once Upon a Time in America. I re-watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly this summer, which got me on a Sergio Leone kick, and I decided to check out this one, which I'd never seen before. Oh man, this movie was just so much. I loved its rich, pulpy, almost baroque characterizations of the inhabitants of old New York City, the immigrant Jews and crooked cops and ambitious city-builders to be. And it's such a hit parade of late 1970s Hollywood; besides De Niro and Woods, you have Tuesday Weld, William Forsyte, Danny Aiello, and more. While Scorsese used computer effects to try to make an old De Niro seem young, decades ago Leone used ordinary make-up to show a young De Niro growing old. It works better. The story actually gives the women in the gangsters' lives a significant role to play, which I didn't expect from Leone, and which puts this movie ahead of The Irishman in that regard. And actually, in more than that regard as well; there was fullness to this movie, an expansiveness and growth--like America!--which The Irishman (perhaps appropriately, given that the whole film is implicitly about aging and death) lacks. Given a choice between the two, I'll take this one--though preferably I'll have both.

Pather Panchali. I've told myself that I need to watch The Apu Trilogy, the famed story of Apu, a poor boy from Bengal, filmed by Satyajit Ray at the very beginnings of Indian cinema more than 60 years ago, for decades. Some years ago I determined to watch them, and I got around to seeing Pather Panchali, the first and most primitive--and also most haunting--of the movies, but then never completed the trilogy. This summer, though, I finally did watch all three--Pather Panchali, then Aparajito, the story of Apu as a teen-ager and student, and finally Apur Sansar, where Apu is a young man, husband, and father--and I loved them all. I perhaps related most to the final film--I could see myself in the conflict-fearing, ultimately unambitious Apu, and I suspect I would respond to the tragedies of that movie much in the same way he did--but it is Pather Panchali that stands above the rest in its brilliant, simplistic, even crude presentation. Rarely have I seen rural poverty dramatized so unsentimentally and effectively, despite the enormous cultural distant between Ray's sensibilities many decades ago and my own today. The moments of childhood wonder and grace in that film, and the desperate sadness of Apu's loss, made all the worse for the utterly undramatic way that loss is presented on the screen, are nothing less than masterful.

Rocketman. By contrast, I'm not going to pretend that this movie is a masterpiece; it's not. But dammit, it was great fun, filled with pretty consistently creative and engaging takes on all the usual biopic tropes--and, of course, great music. The filmmakers missed some pretty easy choices--what, no "Burn Down the Mission" or "I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford"?--and parts of the film were manipulative as heck, but oh well. He's Elton John, folks! Compared to the simultaneously show-boaty and inauthentic Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie knocked it out of the park.

Widows. Another non-masterpiece, but a clever, smart, and only occasionally ridiculous-coincidence-dependent heist film, and all that adds up to a fine film. I loved that the filmmakers didn't feel a need to come up with any contorted exposition heavy scenes to explain the presence of so much political argument, domestic drama, racial conflict, and more in this otherwise completely straightforward action flick. Instead, they just went ahead and put it in, and the cast (all of whom were excellent, from Viola Davis's star turn all the way to every supporting character, whether it be Daniel Kaluuya as the gangster whose teaching himself Italian or Lukas Haas as the amoral real estate developer who probably knows exactly what's going on and doesn't care) made it all sound entirely appropriate and informed and connected. My wife thought the final betrayal was a necessary part of the story, while I didn't, but either way, it's a solid two hours, well worth spending.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2019

Well, here we go. As usual, in alphabetical order, by author:

Loka Ashwood, For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America. A wonderful synthesis of survey research, oral history, and political critique, grounded in a specific time and place, and adding up to an excellent analysis of the overlapping effects which poverty, government land-grabs, local corruption, and capitalist exploitation have had on so many rural communities in America. The overall frame of "for-profit democracy" needs more theoretical work to be entirely persuasive, I think, but Ashwood's work adds greatly to our ability to properly assess the anti-government vs. libertarian vs. anarchist sensibilities which exist among the rural poor. More thoughts here.

Michael Austin, We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America's Civic Tradition. Michael (who is an old friend) has written here the sort of book that I usually admire but don't especially approve of; his civic-mindedness rarely engages in any kind of structural consideration of the causes of America's democratic dysfunctions, instead staying on the level of human psychology, political history, literary expectations, and more. But I can't deny the profound decency of this book, however moderate his tone itself may be. This is a wonderful call to a renewed political ethos in the United States, one premised upon respecting limitations, showing empathy for others, and developing a more mature perspective on what human beings, in the midst of disagreement, can nonetheless achieve. More thoughts here.

Timothy Carney, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.This is the sort of book that really hits my sweet spot: a thoughtful, detailed, perceptive argument, one that makes use of solid electoral and economic data, about a social problem (really, a whole nest of interrelated social problems), written from an unambiguously conservative, traditionalist perspective, but which is honest enough to recognize that it is the structures of capitalist globalism and individualism that are most fundamentally at the root of that problem. Carney isn't about to become a socialist, but his reportage and observations are enough to make any honest person--including the author himself--admit that, in a different world, he could and probably should be someone on the left. More thoughts here.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Yes, I am fully aware that there are many solid critiques of the social evolutionary theory of morality and belief which Haidt made extremely popular in this book, and in particular of the political implications that Haidt draws (even I think much too casually) from his theory. Still, the fact remains--as someone who is not terribly familiar with cognitive psychology and the evolutionary claims which ground, I found Haidt's book wonderfully informative: well-written, with lots of clear and compelling examples and data that, far from be obscure, was inviting and engaging. There is obviously a lot of good reasons why this book become such a hit; I used it in a honors seminar this year, and it sparked some truly wonderful conversations. I wish I'd read it years ago.

Eitan Hersh, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. I just finished this book, and while I think organizationally it needed one more one-through, in general I was surprisingly impressed by it. "Surprisingly" because I generally dislike books with long, explanatory, "how-to" subtitles. But at its heart, this is a great, bracing read. He shows, with data that strikes me as mostly pretty solid, that political hobbyism--particularly the political pontificating all over social media--is a real, structural problem for the people Hersh's own class, and the class of most who would read a book like this: white, college-educated, left-learning citizens. It really is a wonderful complement to Austin's book above; while Michael made a moral case for taking on the emotionally difficult work of reaching out to those you disagree with, Hersh shows us exactly who needs to hear that case (namely, people like you and me), how we are excusing ourselves from it, and how to stop. Politically speaking, this a fine, practical book.

Margaret Kohn, The Death and Life of the Urban Commonwealth. This is the best work of political theory I've read in years. Kohn uses the framing device of Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities to develop her notion of "solidarism," a kind of localist/urbanist populism or socialism, that advances a wide range of theoretical claims about property, equality, democracy, and more, in the context of city life. In the pages of this book she makes smart, provocative readings of Locke, Marx, Kant, and more, using them all to create an intellectual perspective on how we should address classical problems in political theory in a world which is overwhelming urban, and where traditional notions of sovereignty are being replaced, however inconsistently, with the belief that our "commoweal" would be better served by thinking more in terms of municipality rather than nationality. A great book.

Charles Marohn, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. I've been a fan of the Strong Towns movement for years,so it was wonderful to get a copy of Chuck's book and see all these ideas about city planning, city financing, and city life put together into a single argument. The book isn't a brilliant, scholarly treat of urban history or economic, but is a delightful mix of practical observations, intellectual speculations, and hard-nosed accounting. Marohn makes it pretty clear that the American municipality is committed to a profoundly unsustainable financial model; recognizing that truth opens one up to seeing questions of political and environmental sustainability in different lights as well. More thoughts here.

Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism. This book made me want to argue so much--which benefits such a short monograph.I don't know Mouffe's work on democratic theory and social democracy terribly well, but I know enough to understand that she sees herself, in this book, on insisting upon the accuracy of some of her earlier writings, here in this moment of Trump and Brexit. The populism she is calling for is, again, one that in many ways I am highly sympathetic to: that is, recognition that democratic politics have to be organized not around liberal universalism (though she defends the liberal constitutionalist state as a necessity, nonetheless--another thing I'd like to argue with her about), but rather around real social empowerment. What she sees as the fake, xenophobic populism of those mentioned above has appropriated the participatory feel which the particularism of democratic societies inevitably generate; the left needs to reclaim that. A good, impassioned read.

Benjamin Park, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier. It's been a long time since I read a single, book-length study of Mormon history, and I'm very glad that Park's book is the one which broke my fast from this topic. This is the first truly serious study of the Council of Fifty, a mysterious group that cast a long shadow over a short but vital moment in my faith's history; the minutes of those meetings were locked away in church archives for nearly 200 years, only recently being made available. Park's study of them, and his weaving of the story they tell of Joseph Smith's sometimes revolutionary, sometimes reactionary, mostly deeply illiberal ideas, into everything else that Smith was involved in and was happening to his city of Nauvoo in the early 1840s, makes for a tour-de-force. I'm not sure I fully agree with Park's theoretical analysis of what it all adds up to, but before theory you need to have the facts, and Park here provides them in great detail.

Noah Toly, The Gardener's Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics. Another one of those books that I didn't think I would care for that much, as Toly's background is equal parts of evangelical Protestantism and public administration, both of which are fields and perspectives I have little attachment to. But as the book progressed, Toly's thesis is laid out carefully and powerfully: that climate change, to say nothing of multiple other environmental concerns, are best understood in light of the tragic character of our fallen world. That's not a call to give up and embrace our sinfulness; rather, it is a call to re-orient how we think about our stewardship towards God's creation by way of some Niebuhrian thinking about our "dirty" responsibility for it all. It's a thoughtful assessment of how believers should talk about the world, and I'm grateful for it. More thoughts here.

The Mormon-American Boy Scout, 1913-2019. RIP.

[Cross-posted to on By Common Consent]

Today, the Mormon church officially ends its formal involvement with Boy Scouts of America. This change was announced more than a year and a half ago, but when you're looking at a form of social organization that has shaped the lives of millions of people, involved the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, and has more than 100 years of history and tradition and norm-building behind, change can be hard. While I have no direct knowledge of this, I am confident that in some Mormon congregation in the United States there is, right at this moment, some teen-age boy or weary Scoutmaster or desperate mother scrambling to get forms filled out for the last merit badge the boy in question will ever earn, or setting up the flags and rushing to get the tablecloths for that last Eagle Court ever to be held in the boy's Mormon church building, all with the aim of squeezing everything under the wire at the last possible second. I'd like to pay tribute to such folks, if I may. All of us Mormon believers and members who, one way or another, will get caught up in the church's new youth program owe them our respect. They're holding on, until the bitter end, to something that the church as a whole may very well be better off without--but which I am positive we're going to miss in a more than a few ways, all the same.

First of all, let me make it clear that I'm not kidding around with that "better off" line. Thanks to technology, thanks to globalization, thanks the evolution and diversification of social expectations and assumptions in America over the past century, and thanks most of all to how the Mormon Church itself is changing, the Boy Scouts of America and Mormonism--and at least 20% of all BSA members were there primarily because the latter tied its youth programs for boys to the former; check out this thread for a consideration of some of the demographic and financial implications of all this--aren't the fit they once were. Ending that tie will probably be a good thing for many thousands of young people (and not just males) throughout the Mormon church in America, all of whom were, for any number of physical, psychological, and spiritual reasons, never going to get kind of acceptance, support, and engagement their adolescent and teen-age bodies and minds desperately need from a tradition-bound organization like BSA, no matter how it evolved. So yes, let's create something new. But every change entails costs, and building a new thing without a long backward glance all the equally (if different) good things you're leaving behind is unwise, to say the least.

As with so much else, my grasp of all those good things which the folks I speculated about in the first paragraph are themselves grasping for goes back to my father, Jim Fox. If he were still alive, I wouldn't doubt for a minute that would be one of those faithful Mormons getting every last drop out of the Scouting program he officially could, right up until the end. It was with him throughout his entire life, after all. The Mormon American Scouting experience was probably at its strongest exactly when Scouting as a whole was at its strongest in America: namely, the 1950s through the 1970s, when suburbanization, the Cold War, rising middle-class wealth, fears about television, and a hundred other things combined to make Scouting a near-requirement for the healthy white male adolescent members of the Baby Boom. Layer on top of that the correlated organizational mentality of the post-WWII Mormon church in America, and a near-requirement becomes a total one. Mormon President David O. McKay organized an official Church-Scouts Relationship Committee in 1951; in 1963, the Mormon church started holding annual conferences for their general leadership at Philmont Scout Ranch. Dad, born in 1943, caught all of that and more. That he grew up surrounded by horses and fields and nature and camping and all sorts of general husbandry makes Scouting seem like a natural choice for him; that he was a dedicated member of the church, absolutely committed to following through on every rule the organization laid out for him, makes it seem not only natural that he would have embraced Scouting, but actually hard to imagine anything otherwise. Jim Fox, the paterfamilias, not a Scout? Impossible! Certain we Fox boys--that is: Daniel, me, Stuart, Abraham, Jesse, Philip, and Baden (you know, the whole gang)--can't imagine our father otherwise, and I know, when it comes to Mormon boys thinking about their own fathers, we're not alone.

While dad was never a professional Scouter, I strongly doubt anyone who didn't actually work for Boy Scouts of America could have organized his family's life--and, specifically, his sons' lives--more thoroughly around this program. From our expected beginning as Bobcats to our expected finish as Eagles, from day camps to World Jamborees, from his multiple stints as a Scoutmaster and Young Men's leader to his central role in two major LDS Boy Scout encampments (we got to go the first one; our children got to go to the second), Jim Fox worked to convey his commitment to his family and his church and his country all through this single church-approved organized program. To this day, as our own families grow and continue to change, as our church itself does, I suspect all of us would say, to one degree or another: his commitment worked. Again, I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that. After all, among the many thousands of American Mormon boys raised by American Mormon Baby Boomers out there, how many would admit that it was Scouting experiences--good or bad, grand or small--which at least partly shaped the way they think about fatherhood responsibilities, or patriotic stories, or environmental history, or military service, or financial sacrifice, or personal goal-setting, or outdoor recreation, or religious authority, or civic duties, or natural spaces, or really the whole warp and woof of how we put ourselves together as American citizens and 20th-century Mormons? A huge percentage, I suspect.

Yes, there were always criticisms of the way in which Scouting shaped the priorities and practices (and budgets!) of how the education of males happened in the American Mormon environment, and rightly so. A lot of those criticisms were absolutely deserved. Completely aside from all the limitations of Scouting as an educational framework I mentioned above, none of us who went through the program can honestly deny just how much sometimes cruel, sometimes offensive, and sometimes just plain stupid stuff was built into all our activities and expectations: the night hikes, the Scout camps, the merit badges, the 50-milers, the Eagle projects, all of them, all too often, attended by hazing, by fakery, or by pointless nonsense. Every one of us can tell our stories. (Being tied to your cot in the middle of the night? Mocking the kid who slips and tumbles down the hiking path--or being that kid yourself? Counterfeiting a signature on a needed form, then lying about it when challenged? Yep, I was, at different times, all of that and more.) But beyond it all, at least from what I can see (and I am certain many hundreds of thousands of other American Mormons saw and still see much the same), there was the camaraderie and the joy in accomplishment, the sense of being incorporated into an ethos that carried with it a sense of place and progress, a whole worldview of struggle (however sometimes inauthentic) and honor (however sometimes patriarchal) and old-fashioned fun (however sometimes exclusive), all of it built into a set of books and rules and traditions which penetrated ordinary suburban families and whitebread Sunday school classrooms. Learning the Law of the Pack! Getting your Totin' Chip badge! Watching the torchlight Order of the Arrow ceremonies! Wood Badge and Eagle Palms and the Silver Beaver! Or just putting on that uniform, and taking responsibility for your class, coming up with games and plans and assignments so this weekend's camp-out won't be a bust. You sweated those responsibilities, but could righteously own their successes (when they came, and they often didn't) as your own. After all, you had a badge on your shirt that said they belonged to do.

Sure, it's all terribly easy to make fun of (the Mormon blog By Common Consent has done so many times). In our better moments, we all laughed at it ourselves--and then, hopefully, sometimes, also forgave both ourselves and others for all the ways the program might have caused some hurt. But I, at least, can't just snigger at all those neckerchiefs and beads and ranks. There was more to it than that; the very fact that Scouting was inextricably built into how Mormonism was realized in our very-male family made that very clear. Our father was utterly committed to defending the truth and value of every silly accoutrement of this worldview, of every symbol of everything it taught us and everything it allowed us to be. It was for him, like so many other American Mormon men of his generation, a component of America's civil religion, a religion of trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, friendliness, courtesy, etc. (you all know the rest), and a religion which he saw as perfectly aligned with both Mormon Christianity and the American nation. And whatever the faults of that worldview, it also allowed, however rarely, life-changing (or, given the ages of those involved, maybe it's better to say life-beginning) experiences that were more than the sum of its parts.

As it happens, my wife and I have had only daughters--a fact of our family that not only led me to have 10 wonderful years at our church's Girls Camp, but has also been central to shifting my thinking about some of the most controversial issues of my adult life, in ways have tended to reinforce my already-existing tendencies towards intellectualism, criticism, and doubts in general. Those three descriptors aren't usually associated with Scouting, so for all the above reasons and more, I should say good riddance to Scouting in my church, right? Well, no. Again, I'm not sad to see it go--really, it should have been made optional decades ago. But maybe the uniformity of it, the forced discipline of it all (however wrongly it left some behind), was part of the appeal? To a boy in their elementary and middle-school years, that can't be ignored. I'm not that boy any longer, thank goodness--none of us are, and none of us should be. But there will always be more of us coming along, and the value of having something whose history and legends--and often you couldn't tell them apart--can allow, even empower, those Mormon boys to see themselves as having a place in a social order and a moral scheme that isn't just Mormonism can't be ignored either.

At the first of those two aforementioned LDS Scout encampments that my father helped to organize, I was touched by Boy Scout royalty--William "Green Bar Bill" Hillcourt, the author of The Boy Scout Handbook, or at least that version of it which I and most of my brothers carried to every church and Scout meeting every week between the ages of 10 and 14, through the 1980s and beyond. So maybe my affection for the program is wholly a product of a kind of defiant geekiness, of nerdy me being able to sit beside an 84-year-old man wearing green shorts who told us stories about Lord Baden-Powell, the Chief Scout of the World, himself? Could be. But think about that geekiness, that nerdiness, and about how many young suburban teen-age boys experience it, and how they experience it, both today and 30+ years ago. They've got the wrong shoes for the long-distance run, they're embarrassed at carrying their violin case around the halls of their school, they're stupidly terrified they'll get their hand caught in the lathe at wood shop. To the extent that school and social realities have so changed in America today that none of the above would likely weigh down any typical American boy, the country has become a better place. But no doubt other embarrassments, other humiliations, other confusions have taken their place. Thank goodness for any organization, any program, any arrangement, that can get grown, competent, responsible adults close to such kids, to run alongside them as they stumble along the race track, to praise them (but also instruct them) as they struggle with their bows, to show them the rules for operating machines to give them confidence and keep them safe. Parents do this, of course, and school teachers and church leaders as well. But so did Scoutmasters. And if, in doing those things, they did it while dressed in a particular way, and did it during a particular meeting, and rewarded you upon concluding your task or challenge with a particular emblem, all of it adding up to make you think that you were, in running that race or playing that song or building that rocket ship, also being enlisted in a particular national--nay, "civilizational"!--project, with a language and a style and set of moral expectations all its own? I can see a lot of power in that.

I have no idea if any of my brothers think, or ever thought, the same. But even if they don't, and never did, think like that, I nonetheless bet that they, at one time, felt the same, felt that the whole goofy, yet solemn, yet infectious aesthetic of Scouting added something deep to our late-20th-century white middle-class American Mormon lives. Dad certainly felt that, all his adult life. It would be ridiculous to pretend that such a fully lived feeling left no mark on all us boys, standing their in our rumbled uniforms, wearing our Scout badges, adjusting our neckerchief slides. And the same goes, I suspect, for many, many thousands of other formerly (and perhaps still) nerdy Mormon-American boys. Which is why, for all my awareness of the limitations inherent to Scouting, I come to its defense--and why, when the president of the United States treated one of its admittedly overblown and faintly ridiculous rituals as an occasion to show off his sleazy self, it really pissed me off.

I reach up onto my clothes closet shelf, dig past years of Girls Camp mementos, and pull down some old awards and books--either my own that I've packed up and taken with me through all the moves and changes over the decades, or gifts from my Dad. Ever read the original Scouting for Boys, written in 1908? It's a hoot. Lots of practical advice on building rope bridges, lots of games and songs, lots of half-baked history about legendary figures from England's past, lots of vaguely creepy invocations of "manliness," lots of prescient recommendations about physical health, lots of helpful fire-building diagrams, and lots of wacky stuff that, frankly, would have made for some brilliantly weird troop meetings (instructions on how to spot and capture escaped convicts, for example). Read this book, and you know you're in the presence of a powerfully smart, powerfully moralistic, and powerfully strange visionary.

Scouting was, back then, pretty obviously an almost cultic offering, as determinedly off-center a challenge to bourgeois society as any other 19th-century call for radical reform. Which, of course, is what Mormonism partly was also. So the unity they found in each other, back in 1913, was perhaps a match made in heaven--and heaven knows that's something my father, to say nothing of multiple presidents of the Mormon church (eight of whom were awarded the Silver Buffalo, the highest honor Boy Scouts of America offered), would have insisted was the gospel truth. I don't believe that myself--not quite, anyway. But the entwining of Scouting and Mormonism did mean that a perfectly ordinary American boy like me, just like millions of other perfectly ordinary, nerdy, middle-class American boys, could excel in, and even earn honors for being part of, something downright counter-cultural and weird. Just about nobody, least of all my Dad, would likely have ever recognized that claim. How would they, with us Scouts going about our flag ceremonies and essentially baptizing a handed-down series of colonialist, sometimes borderline racist, phrases and practices for our daily use? Still, the undercurrent remains. The "citizenship" Scouting originally--and still, hidden deep down, to this very day--calls for is one that is fundamentally sustainable, communal, participatory, and rural, all of which runs against our daily disposable, individualistic, remote and virtual, suburban and urban worlds. Mormonism, at its best, calls beyond all that. Scouting, even Mormon-American Scouting, at its best, sometimes did too.

The Mormon church will survive its separation from Scouting, of course. (And, just to be clear, that separation is institutional only; there is no prohibition whatsoever against us Mormons individually involving ourselves in Scouting, as a couple of families I know locally have already decided to do, enlisting their children in local Scouting units.) For all I know, the goal-oriented, family-centered youth program of the next century of Mormonism will be able to effectively recreate, in a more appropriate context, all of the leadership and traditions and aspirations and nerdiness which Scouting did. I hope so. But, as this century-long stage of my church's life comes to an end, I express gratitude to my Dad, and to thousands of other Mormon leaders like him, who put on the cook-outs (where everything was fried in bacon grease) and the camp-outs (where the tent caught fire in the middle of the snowstorm) and the Courts of Honor (where the little brother knocked over the painstakingly constructed Pinewood Derby race track). They did so with a humor befitting the inherent goofiness of it all, yet also respecting--sometimes because they believed it (as Dad did), and sometimes just because it was woven into the program itself--a vision that connected and challenged and situated innumerable Mormon-American boys in ways that sometimes actually taught them and inspired them and planted seeds inside their heads that made them, just maybe, a little bit different, a little bit geekier but also a little bit smarter and a little bit more capable than they would have been otherwise. Any and every parent and teacher and church leader ought to do the same, of course, and will no doubt continue to try to do so. Best of luck to us all! It does no harm to the truth, however, to admit that having a program with a hundred years of history, and the hard work and crazy ideas of many hundreds of thousands of others, to draw upon was, all things considered, a real asset. Losing that, if only formally, is not without its costs.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Christmastime, Still (Sometimes) in the Dark

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I woke up this morning early, the day following last night's arrival of the Winter Solstice, of Midwinter, giving us the shortest and darkest day of the year (at least in the northern hemisphere). The only light in the house was from our tomten display--the nissen and gnomes who watch over our home, every Christmas season. Did someone forget to unplug the lights, as we are supposed to before everyone goes to sleep? Or did our watchful friends want to remind us of something? I wouldn't doubt the latter at all. The whole house is silent, but that's understandable; after all, as Astrid Lindgren taught us long ago, the tomten speak a "silent little language," that presumably only our dog Stella could understand.

Exactly ten years ago, I wrote about the way some of our family's holiday traditions revolve around the silence, and the dark. Well, children grow, and times change (as Lindgren wrote, "winters come, and winters go"). Some of our story-telling traditions have been retired, perhaps to return when our children return with their children. But midwinter still comes every year, and I remember (or am reminded, by our small, silent wintertime companions), of all that is happening out there in the darkness. So I am reposting it below. I teach Sunday school in our congregation, but still, this is not a lesson that I would teach this Sabbath day, the final Sunday of Advent. More's the pity, perhaps. Anyway, there will be family and friends at our home this evening all the same, as some traditions endure, even as they change. So this foggy, silent morning, I listen to the day's most appropriate carol (whether you prefer the majestic version, or the humble one) and I am thankful for a God--and, perhaps, His little servants--who moves in the dark.


Each Christmas season, usually right around this date, we have a story night: we get the kids together, and sometimes some friends, and turn out the lights and burn some candles and drink hot cocoa and share stories. Maybe we read them, and sometimes we tell them from memory. Old stories, new stories, fables, poems, scriptures, whatever. Given the ages of our girls, it often descends into silliness, but not always. Anything is allowed, really, just so long at involves something spoken, into a dimly lit room, to chase away the dark.

Christmas is a celebration of light, right? That's part of the old idea, anyway, carried down by who knows how many traditions. Celebrating the birth of the Light of the World right around when the globe turns ever so slightly, and days start to grow longer again, is pretty well grounded historically, besides making perfect theological sense. (Even us Mormons, who sometimes like to make a big deal about rejecting much of traditional Christian practice, can't deny that.) But of course, the light of the season takes place in the midst of darkness--it, in a way, depends upon the darkness, you might say. The star the wise men followed couldn't be seen in the daytime. The shepherds were terrified and entranced by an angelic call and choir coming to them from out of night sky. And, of course, there is likely a deeper darkness lurking through the whole story: Joseph's desperation in his search for a place for his pregnant wife to rest, Herod's implacable determination to murder a prophecy before it can threaten his reign. Clearly, the doubts and dangers of the dark are there, right from the beginning of the story.

And they've never left the story, have they? Jesus lived and died and was resurrected, and left His followers behind, to spread His gospel and bless the world with His gifts. So Christians gave gifts to each other, some of whom--the St. Nicholases, among others--helping to in time to turn an essential Christian principle into something larger. As these gift-givers of all sorts spread throughout the world, they picked up stories to go along with them, and not all of the stories were filled with light. Some, by contrast, were dark. Krampus. Zwarte Piet. Père Fouettard. Belsnickel. And my favorite, Knecht Ruprecht, whose appearance and role in these stories (all having to do with those undeserving of gifts, or who use their gifts dismissively, being punished) obviously ties him to even deeper, older stories, stories of the wintertime and seeking protection and blessings in the midst of the darkness which the gift-giving of the Christmas season only fleshed out and gave greater meaning to: the tomte, hobs, kobolds and goblins throughout Western and Northern Europe, from which our modern interpretation of that power contained in Christmastime draws so much of its force.

We have a tomten in our home. He doesn't come out very often, but come St. Andrew's Day, we make sure he's given a position of prominence. He sits up on a high ledge over our kitchen and living room, every Christmas season, watching (and maybe reporting) on us. I confess I've never seen him move--but then, I wouldn't, would I? Just as I've never seen Santa Claus, but I know he's out there, in some form or fashion, somewhere, I trust that there are tomte all around us. They're likely much older than any of us, but beyond that I wouldn't guess what they're role in the eternal scheme of things may be. But these little guys--lurking about in the dark, unpredictable, maybe irascible, sometimes cute but occasionally frightening, perhaps somewhat damaged by all the time they've spent in the shadows and in the nooks and crannies of our homes and our collective consciousness--seem to be very part of the whole matter of gift-giving, in particular the gift-giving that makes it possible to get through cold winter nights.

Best to trust that they'll do their business, whatever it may be, and leave them otherwise alone, I say. Literature and scriptures alike are full of stories of those who try, usually to their detriment, to get too close to whatever God is doing in the dark. That He is doing something is undeniable; whatever we want to make of the story of Job, we can't pretend it's anything other than God making use of Satan, the tempter and tester, the wicked (but wise?) Adversary who goes "to and fro" across the earth, watching us from dark corners and the recesses of our hearts. Cain got too close to the dark, and he ended up a wanderer too. As did Gollum as well, of course. And the Walker.

You don't know about the Walker? Shame on you, for allowing Midwinter's Day to arrive, and for not having picked up your old copy of Susan Cooper's beautiful, evocative story, The Dark is Rising, which tells the tale of Will Stanton, an eleven-year-old boy, who finds himself caught up in a struggle for the soul of England (and perhaps the world), fighting the power of the Dark, and those it has misled and betrayed, the Walker--a man from the 13th century, who had been doomed to wander the earth until Will, the last of the Old Ones, was born--being only the most tragic example. It's not a perfect book by any means, but it is perhaps perfect for today. And no scene better captures the drama contained in all stories of gifts in wintertime than Will's confrontation, on Christmas Day, with the power of the Dark, as it attempts to destroy him during worship services in his local parish church. Fortunately, he is not alone--and he has gifts (treasured Signs, conveyed through the centuries to his hands) to help him withstand a power that had destroyed the minds of others:

Will, seeing some figures move towards the door out of the shadows, realised that the church was not empty after all. Down there by the little twelfth-century font, he saw Farmer Dawson, Old George, and Old George's son John, the smith, with his silent wife. The Old Ones of the Circle were waiting for him, to support him against whatever lurked outside....

"All ready, Will?" said the rector genially, pulling on his overcoat...

"No," Will said. "That is--no." He was trying desperately to think of some way of getting the two of them outside the church before he came near the door himself. Before--before whatever might happen did happen. By the church door he could see the Old Ones move slowly into a tight group, supporting one another. He could feel the force now very strong, very close, all around, the air was think with it; outside the church was destruction and chaos, the heart of the Dark, and he could think of nothing that he could do to turn it aside. Then as the rector and Paul [Will's older brother] turned to walk through the nave, he saw both of them pause in the same instant, and their heads go up like the heads of wild deer on the alert. It was too late now; the voice of the dark was so loud now that even humans could sense its power.

Paul staggered, as if someone had pushed him in the chest, and grabbed a pew for support. "What is that?" he said huskily. "Rector? What on earth is it?"

Mr. Beaumont had turned very white. There was a glistening of sweat on his forehead, though the church was very cold again now. "Nothing on earth, I think, perhaps," he said. "God forgive me." And he stumbled a few paces nearer the door, like a man struggling through waves in the sea, and leaning forward slightly made a sweeping sign of the Cross. He stammered out, "Defend us they humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries..."

Farmer Dawson said very quietly but clearly from the group beside the door, "No, Rector."

The rector seemed not to hear him. His eyes were wide, staring out at the snow; he stood transfixed, he shook like a man with a fever, the sweat came running down his cheeks. He managed to half-raise one arm and point behind him: "...vestry..." he gasped out. "...book, on table...exorcise..."

"Poor brave fellow," said John Smith in the Old Speech. "This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being in his church."

"Be easy, Reverend," said his wife in English; her voice was soft and gentle, strongly of the country. The rector stared at her like a frightened animal, but by now all his powers of speech and movement had been taken away.

Frank Dawson said: "Come here, Will"....

Each of the Old Ones touched him gently as he came into the group, as if joining him to them, and Farmer Dawson took him by the shoulder. He said, "We must do something to protect those two, Will, or their minds will bend. They cannot stand the pressure, the Dark will send them mad. You have the power, and the rest of us do not."

The resulting confrontation is the most dramatic of many such confrontations in the book; it is the first time the Signs of Power had been properly used in centuries: the first time in many generations which the Light, used by one who fully understood its power, could be used directly against the Dark. And what is to be make of these Signs: crossed circles made of bronze, stone, iron and wood, which Will has found and threaded through his belt?

When the light went out of the Signs, Paul and rector stirred. They opened their eyes, started to find themselves sitting in a pew when a moment ago--it seemed to them--they had been standing. Paul jumped up instinctively, his head turning, questing. "It's gone!" he said. He looked at Will, and peculiar expression of puzzlement and wonder and awe came over his face. His eyes travelled down to the belt in Will's hands. "What happened?" he said.

The rector stood up, his smooth plump face creased in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. "Certainly it has gone," he said, looking slowly round the church. "Whatever--influence it was. The Lord be praised." He too looked at the Signs on Will's belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smith of relief and delight. "That did the work, didn't it? The cross. Not of the church, but a Christian cross, nonetheless."

"Very old, them crosses are, rector," said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. "Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ."

The rector beamed at him. "But not before God," he said simply.

Rightly said. I think Christmas Day, like any day--including Midwinter's--is a gift to us, a gift that began with a power far beyond ours, a gift that, for all I or anyone knows, involves beings and histories and events taking place well outside of my eyesight, in dark places that He'll light for me, but only when and if needed. I need to be reminded of that. I need to respect that God, and the gift of the Son, born, very possibly, sometime in the midst of the cold and dark, may have had it work that way for a reason. A reason, to be sure, that I don't fully understand...but I can tell stories about it nonetheless.

And so tonight we'll tell stories by candlelight: funny stories, scary stories, Christmas stories. It's the right time of year to do it. Some of the stories we'll tell we've heard before, of course, but that's all right. Even the best and oldest and most well-worn stories--stories about frightened shepherds, and mysterious strangers, and a young couple in trouble and all alone--sound like new, when you tell them in the dark.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Listening to Macca #12: New and Egypt Station

Here I am, at the end of 2019 and the end of this 12-month journey through pretty nearly everything Sir Paul McCartney has recorded and released since the Beatles broke up 50 years ago. It's been a trip--and I'm happy to say that, from the perspective of my ears anyway, it's ending on a positive note. Last month, with my head full of some surprisingly strong rockers on the albums Macca put out when he was 65 (Memory Almost Full) and 66 (Electric Arguments) years old, I found myself wondering what kind of narrative my story-telling brain was going to come up with to make sense of a man who just kept on making new music, kept on touring, kept on doing what he loved even though any other person, not matter how talented, would presumably have retired. Didn't it make sense to imagine someone like McCartney wanting to go out with some great rock and roll? Well, it did...but that wasn't his choice. Instead, his choice is to continue to be himself: a performer and musical creator. And the fact is, I think, when Macca looks at himself as a 71 or a 76 -year-old man up there on the stage, sometimes the wonder, the strangeness, the impressiveness, even the mordant hilarity of his ability to just keep on keeping on, still sparks something in his genius that will be worth remembering--maybe even when he, surely the last and greatest survivor of the 1960s, finally hangs it all up.

In the meantime, it is undeniable that in the 2010s, McCartney was finally slowing down. In the years during which these two albums came out, Macca released nothing else. No other irons in the fire, at long last, or so it appears--no more classical compositions, no more electronica experiments, no more vanity projects looking back at the history of rock and roll or whatever. Instead, just two albums that show his continued termination to explore different ways to put his apparently endless pop song-writing and melody-making talent to work. The first, New, is the weaker of the two efforts, I think. There are three stand-out songs: "Alligator," "Queenie Eye," and "I Can Bet." All have clever vocal effects, great guitar work, and solid beats. "Queenie Eye" has a great rave-up quality (and a video that included pretty much every celebrity who'd ever said they'd like to sing with Paul), but the latter is my favorite, because it brings out Macca's ever-present R&B passions. There are a couple of other tunes on the album that could have been great: I love the lyrics and the acoustic guitar on "On My Way to Work," and "New" has some more of that bright, expansive musicality which he'd discovered on Electric Arguments, but in both cases they just needed a little more work or producer push-back, they feel abbreviated or unfinished, somehow. The rest is middling and pleasant. No one is immune to being invited into a nostalgia trip, and "Early Days" certainly qualifies, though some of the lyrics (especially "Now everybody seems to have their own opinion / Who did this and who did that / But as for me I don't see how they can remember / when they weren't where it was at") make me think that this was more McCartney setting himself the task of writing a song to settle scores with Beatles fans, rather than something authentically occurring to him as he worked in the studio, especially since he's made it more than clear over the years that he actually doesn't dwell on the past much. "Appreciate" and "Hosanna" are pretty weak, and "Road" and "Scared" are both typically unfinished McCartney productions, but the rest is fine. I give it yet another B-.

Egypt Station, though? I think I kind of love this album. Obviously it can't really compare to one of the truly great albums by McCartney, but I kind of want to put it on that level anyway, because I get a lot of (admittedly kind of immature) joy from some of the songs on it, while others just suck me into a cool, provocative lyrical world. The jokey, faux-scandalous "Fuh You" is, along with everything else, a really great sing-along pop tune; I want to believe that it's getting massive play in dance clubs, though it almost certainly isn't, which is a shame. There is a run of songs on this album with lines that lack what seemed to me the slightly packaged sentimentality of "Early Days" on New, and instead reflect someone of an advanced age feeling alternately broken down, or defiant, or dismissive, or honestly (and surprisingly) satisfied. "I Don't Know" (Well I see trouble/ At every turn / I've got so many lessons to learn"), "Happy With You" ("I used to drink to much / Forgot to come home / I lied to my doctor / But these days I don't"), "Who Cares" (Who cares what the idiots say? / Who cares what the idiots do?"), and most of all the sneakily wise "Dominoes" ("And soon we'll see / that you and me / We're really friends"), which has a simply captivating chord structure to boot--altogether, they almost make me believe that the album really is the journey down some metaphorical train line that Paul apparently at least partly wanted his listeners to think. There is some perfunctory stuff on the album--"Caesar Rock," "Hand in Hand," and "People Want Peace"--but even all of them have some nicely produced elements included. And "Despite Repeated Warnings"? Well, it's not a first-class political song, but compared to his "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" from more than 40 years ago, this is a pretty smart and impassioned bit of anti-Trumpism. So yeah, a really good album--I'm going to give it a B+. So high? Maybe, as I wrote above, I can't really justify putting this in the range of Flowers in the Dirt or Tug of War; maybe I'm inflated its grade just because to give me a good send-off. But if so...well, this is my project, after all.

And with that, my journey comes to an end. Stay tuned for my retrospective/wrap-up, coming before the end of the year!

It's Time for Wichita (and its Government) to Get Strong

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

A short while ago, The Wichita Eagle ran a column of mine on the brouhaha over whether the Wichita City Council ought to continue with the current limit of two terms for city council members, or if is ought to be expanded to three. Since talking about government is what I do for a living--and since this argument is likely to come back sometime in the new year--let me expand on this a little.

To reiterate, Wichita has a council-manager form of government. That means that the city is divided into districts (in our case six, meaning each council member theoretically represents the concerns and interests of roughly 65,000 people), and the mayor is simply an at-large member of the city council, with some particular procedural responsibilities (supposedly enough to make it a full-time position, whereas every other member of the council is nominally a part-time employee of the city), but fundamentally no different from anyone else elected to the council to a 4-year term. Practical executive power--that is, the authority to keep the city running on a day-to-day basis--is not vested in the mayor or the council, but rather in a city manager, who is hired (at $228K a year, more than twice what the mayor is paid) by the city council, and theoretically subject to their oversight. It's a perfectly respectable--and arguably much more efficient--form of municipal government, one that became dominant in the U.S. during the reforms of the Progressive Era a century ago, and is, in all its many varieties, the most common municipal form, characterizing the great majority of small to mid-size cities.

Still, the complaint which motivated Councilmember Jeff Blubaugh to propose the one-term extension to the term limits imposed on the Wichita city council by the voters in 1991 is exacerbated under the council-manager arrangement. His concern was that part-time, term-limited council members often end up being entirely dependent upon the historical knowledge, the bureaucratic expertise, and the institutional preferences of the city’s permanent staff, with whom the city manager obviously has a long-term, professional relationship with. Such a relationship could, presumably, work to the detriment of any council member who is seeking to represent their constituents' interest. As he put it, "Staff can tell you whatever you want to hear. And after a certain amount of time, they know that you’re gone, and you’re leaving." He's not wrong on this point. Though it's worth noting that the same thing can be said about the way elected council members often find themselves, upon entering office, in a subservient position in regards to long-standing, well-established private development interests as well. All of which, to my mind, is more than enough reason to look at the deeper, more structural causes at work in Blubaugh's entirely valid concerns.

If you set aside the major financial and population centers in this part of the country (meaning Kansas City, Denver, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, or Dallas, all of which have metro areas with millions of people, and all of which Wichitans too often compare themselves to), and look instead at actual peer cities to Wichita (meaning mid-sized cities that serve as regional centers to the mostly rural land that surrounds them, as we do), you'll see a pattern than our city ought to learn from: most of them have instead elected to embrace a strong mayor form of government. That is, the mayor is elected separately from the city council, does not sit and vote with them, and instead wields real executive authority on behalf of a city-wide mandate, rather than having most power outsourced to the city manager. The city councils in these cities are similarly strengthened, with increased legislative responsibility and authority given them to balance out an empowered mayor. An effort is also made to make them more immediately connected to the people they represent, either by increasing the number of people elected to the council (and thus shrinking the number of residents which each council member is expected to represent), or by including a greater number of at-large members elected (thus giving to citizens multiple opportunities to connect with candidates and express their political ideas through their votes).

Let's run through a list of peer cities that fit the criteria I mentioned above; for example, consider (from the smallest in population to the largest) Des Moines, Iowa; Spokane, Washington (my home town!); Boise, Idaho; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Lincoln, Nebraska; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. With the exception of Des Moines (which, it should be noted, is barely 2/3rds the size of Wichita), every one of them have opted for the strong mayor system. With the exception of Boise, every one of them have at least 7 elected members on their city council, and most have 9, with an average council member-resident representation ratio of one city council member for every 57,000 residents, significantly lower than Wichita (even that average is misleading, since five of the above cities--Des Moines, Spokane, Fort Wayne, Lincoln, and Colorado Springs--include at least one, and usually multiple, additional at-large elected city council members in their total). And incidentally, none of them, with the exception of Lincoln, have any term limits on those elected to city government, and in Lincoln's case the term limitation (of three terms, rather than two) has been imposed on the mayor, not the city council.

Every city is different, of course, with a political culture that develops organically over time. There were particular reasons why Wichita voted--though keep in mind that the vote was a narrow one--to impose term limits back in 1991. Still, cities grow and the times change. It has been nearly 30 years since that vote, so perhaps it is time to think again about how our city organizes its government, and consider the alternatives. The primary idea behind the strong mayor alternative is the acknowledgement that, within a city of hundreds of thousands of people, distinct interests and agendas will emerge, and hence the city’s law-making body must be able to effectively represent--and, where appropriate, contend over--that wide range of interests. And similarly, such empowered representation would also require a mayor democratically empowered to respond to, implement, or sometimes reject the results of such a contentious process.

“Contention,” of course, scares some people; their ideal is a city government that is apolitical, city elections that are non-partisan, city staff that are disinterested and neutral, and overall a city political culture that never, ever rocks the boat. There is much to be said for that ideal, of course. One of the consequences of the strong mayor alternative would indeed be the more explicit politicization of Wichita's urban governance. But as I've argued before, there are equally good reasons for that politicization. And moreover, the claim that city elections in Wichita over the past 30 years really have been non-partisan, and really didn't involve political parties and voting blocs and all the rest, is simply false, and everyone who pays attention knows that to be true. So perhaps Wichita needs a governing model that matches the actual reality of the city we have become? We are not a small homogeneous hamlet with only small-scale disagreements. A city council that is strengthened, and balanced, so as to convey and put into effect the large-scale, contentious disagreements and needs of a city like our own, might therefore be an improvement which is long overdue.