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Friday, March 22, 2024

Why Even Uneventful Primaries are Better than Raucous Caucuses

[This is an expanded version of an Insight Kansas column which appeared in the Wichita Eagle today, March 22, 2024]

When my wife and I went to vote last Tuesday, in the first organized presidential primary which Kansas has authorized in over 30 years, our usual polling station was unusually quiet and empty. I talked to one of the election workers, the volunteers who do the real ground-level work to enable our creaky electoral democracy to continue to function. She told that, as a veteran of multiple elections, this was the least busy she'd ever been. Others who reported on the vote here in Wichita basically said the same thing--which, as a political junkie, ought to sadden me. It doesn't really, though.

I say that despite the dismal turnout: overall, barely over 8% of all registered Democrats in the whole state participated, with the Republicans doing only slightly better, with not quite 11% showing up to cast ballots. Given that the 20-year average for turnout across the nation for presidential primaries is somewhere around 27%, Kansas voters clearly weren’t fired up by the choices available to them. But then, no one expected them to be. President Biden and Donald Trump had already secured more than enough delegates to win their parties’ presidential nominations, and all of the candidates who posed even the remotes challenge to either of their re-nominations had dropped out. So what substantive reason was there to participate, anyway? Why did my wife and I, along with thousands of others?

First, because the substantive results aren’t the whole story; sometimes, voters have symbolic goals in mind. Some Republicans wanted to run up Trump’s totals as much as possible as a show of support in the midst of all his crimes and controversies. (He received 75% of the Republican vote, which wasn’t quite the record some Republicans were shooting for.) And some Democrats cast protest votes as a way of communicating their disapproval of some of Biden’s policy choices. (This was my wife's reason for voting; she, along with about 10% of the Democratic voters state-wide who participated, chose “None of these names," over the current president, who did end up with 84% of the results anyway.) But second, there is also the civic value of the procedure itself.

True, the civic process of this primary election was exceptionally tame--and while this election was particularly lacking in substantive electoral value, even those primaries where the selection of delegates in support of a party's presidential nominee is hotly contested would still be pretty low-key, in comparison to the caucus system which dominated the way the parties organized voters and vetted candidate support for more than 150 years. Some, including Governor Laura Kelly, have talked wistfully about how they prefer the “energy and excitement” of the caucus system, during which those party leaders and voters and activists who are able to gather in specific places at appointed dates and times, arguing and yelling, giving and responding to speeches, casting (or sometimes re-casing) nomination ballots or sometimes just literally pulling one's fellow caucus-attenders one way or another, as supporters of the different candidates line up and get counted.

I participated in the Democratic presidential caucuses in Kansas in 2008 and 2016, and observed the Kansas Republican caucus in 2012, and I agree—the level of engagement on display there is appealing, or at least was very much for me. But then, I'm quite intentionally a political animal, like our current governor and probably pretty much anyone else who ever actually runs for political office--while most citizens are not. For everyone who doesn't vibe with blocks of voters shouting down their opponents, with the hurry-up and wait and rushing to line up or stand up and cheer (or boo), all of which makes the halls that parties have to rent out to handle the crush of voters who show up confusing and cacophonous--well, for folks like that, the whole thing can be pretty alienating, especially if you know your preferences are in the minority, yet you still have a symbolic stand you wish to take. And all of that, of course, doesn't even begin to touch upon all the impassioned yet introverted citizens out there, or the opinionated folks who can't get off work or don't have reliable transportation or can't find child-care or are dealing with physical disabilities, etc., etc., etc. The fact that caucuses are simply not the best way to represent the great majority of folks who actually affiliate with our political parties is indisputable.

I can understand the argument that, for all of these costs and limitations, the participatory democratic virtues of caucuses make defending that system worth it. I certainly respect that a lot more than the grumpy attitude of Kansas's Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who thinks that spending state money to allow Republicans and Democrats to vote for their preferred presidential candidates is a waste of money, and should be left solely for the parties themselves to handle through caucuses (or not--don't forget that many times state parties don't even bother with them, and just select delegates for their party's conventions internally). I'm strongly of the belief that the processes of electoral democracy, however flawed, shouldn't be subject to demands for economic efficiency, and certainly not when you dealing with as relatively cheap an expenditure as $5 million dollars. But should they be subject to, as a matter of theory, a direct and participatory ideal?

In the end, my attitude here hasn't changed in 16 years, when I wrote up my thoughts after participating in the rushed, chaotic, in many ways enjoyable but ultimately just exhausting and frustrating Democratic caucus that was organized here in Wichita in 2008. The fact is the, for all the differences in the many ways the different states and the two major parties have employed the caucus method of selecting presidential delegates over the past century and a half, their one commonality is that they presumed more rural, more spatially intact, less diverse, and less divided and demanding political and socio-economic environments than the great majority of American voters live in today. For all the direct democracy that caucuses supposedly provide, in the much more generally urban and disparate and hurried social contexts which obtain across the majority of the United States of America, simply allowing for a straightforward in a statewide primary makes far more democratic sense. I'm not going to claim that there may not be parts of the country (Iowa, maybe?) where the prevailing political culture and existing democratic practices still fit relatively well with the participatory, caucus ideal. And, to be sure, I'm talking about the presidential election process; I'm more than happy to grant that caucus or caucus-type arrangements might well be an empowering improvement in how many parties struggle to connect with those voters sympathetic to their platforms on a local or state level. But yes: practically everywhere in the country, including Kansas, presidential primaries, staid as they may be, are best.

Of course, if that's the case, and simply asking people to show up and vote for the candidates they want their party to support, then one has to accept that you’re only going to get a large turnout if the results are expected to have an actual impact on what those parties do. Which, in Kansas this year, they didn't.

A couple of local pundits I know have their suggestions. Joel Mathis, more ambitiously, points out that since the candidate being voted on are "running to be president of the entire country," the only solution is "a national primary." His arguments for this are good, but they run smack into the reality of state control over elections (when the Supreme Court allows that, of course). I suspect that what Joel wants will only be possible when--or if--the Electoral College itself is on the table. But functionally we might get closer if we move, as Bob Beatty suggests, the Kansas primary to Super Tuesday. The earlier Kansas's primaries come in the election year calendar, the more likely they are to have some substantive weight in determining what presidential candidates parties select--and while Bob doesn't make this explicit point, since there are already 16 states--nearly a third of the whole country--that hold their primaries on Super Tuesday, encouraging Kansas to join that bandwagon would just get us functionally closer to Joel's ideal.

Whatever happens though, I was glad this primary happened, and I hope the legislature will organize another one in four years’ time, no matter what they naysayers complain about. True, a straight-up primary vote isn’t an exciting, participatory democratic process, and this year was especially predictable. But giving citizens broadly the chance to democratically express themselves doesn’t have to be exciting; sometimes, it just needs to be.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Do We Really Not Need Another Hero? (Thoughts About Dune)

Exactly a week ago, I and bunch of local Dune-loving friends caught Denis Villeneuve's Dune Part 2 in IMAX. It was glorious--a fantastic, rousing, compelling science-fiction spectacle which built upon and brought to a satisfying (but also very open-ended) conclusion the story which was begun in his Dune Part 1 back in 2021. I thought it was fabulous, and strongly recommend who hasn't seen it yet and has even the slightest interest in doing to go see the movie immediately, preferably on the biggest screen you can.

But that's just the spectacle part--what about Villeneuve's two-part Dune as a story? Here, as always, there have been opinions aplenty, everywhere on the internet; my friends and I definitely had more than a few of our own. For me, after thinking about it and reading about it, I believe I have to say that, as much as I praise these two films, they're missing something: they aren't mythic. Does that matter: as a matter of cinematic narrative, or--perhaps more importantly, especially to us geeks who know and love Frank Herbert's original story--as a matter of adaptation? Maybe.

As I confessed when I watched Dune Part 1--with mostly this same group of dorky sci-fi-loving friends--nearly 2 1/2 years ago, I'm biased here. My first exposure to Dune wasn't, in fact, Herbert's novel(s); it was David Lynch's seriously compromised, definitely flawed, but still delightful 1984 adaptation. I was a 15-year-old Dungeons & Dragons-playing, Lord of the Rings-reading, "Star Trek"-watching (both the Original Series and the 1980s movies, of course) teen-age nerd; while I was familiar with Dune--I regularly saw Herbert's first four Dune books in a nice boxed set sitting prominently on a much-perused shelf at a gaming store I often visited, and was generally familiar with the story--I'd never read any of them. Watching Lynch's Dune on the big screen changed all that for me. By 1984 I'd already begun to develop an at least somewhat critical appreciation of film as its own story-telling medium (enough that I can distinctly remember thinking to myself, while sitting in the theater opening day watching Return of the Jedi, "you know, parts of this movie aren't very good"), so I think even then I probably was aware, even while grinning like a madman when Toto's guitars blasted out during the worm-riding sequences, that I wasn't watching any kind of masterpiece. But I didn't care. The movie's visionary story of Paul Atreides, a product of both generations of secretive breeding and training but also of a mother's genuine love, surviving terrible betrayal only to emerge as the foretold messiah of a persecuted and honorable people, was romantic and sumptuous and I loved it. So, of course, I had to buy the books, and devour them. Which I tried to do, with some success: I loved Dune, mostly enjoyed Dune Messiah, had serious problems with Children of Dune, and couldn't handle God-Emperor of Dune at all. (And yes, I know, much later there were a couple more, but by then my interest in Herbert's epic was completely exhausted.) My declining engagement with Herbert's treatment of Paul Atreides and his world was, in retrospect, perhaps predictable, for reasons worth exploring.

Those who know the books well--like some of my friends, for whom Dune lives much stronger in their imaginations than it ever did in mine--might have already spotted my difficulty. Lynch's version of the first Dune novel profoundly downplays one of the book's explicit plot-threads: that the messianic prophecy held to by the Fremen of Dune (or Arrakis) was in fact spread among them over a period of millennia by the Bene Gesserit, an all-female cult whose use of the spice melange, which is only available on Arrakis, has enabled them to read minds and see into the future, and they've used those skills to master strange physical and mental arts, and plan for the eventual emergence of the "Kwisatch Haderach," a male who would wield the same powers as the Bene Gesserit. The messianic prophecy of the Fremen, the promise of an off-world "Lisan al Gaib" that would lead the Fremen in a holy war against all the other powers in the known universe, was therefore actually one of presumably hundreds, if not thousands, of legends which the Bene Gesserit had purposefully cultivated to enable their Kwisatch Haderach, when he is finally born, to more easily step into the domineering role which the sisterhood imagine for him (and through which they would control him, from behind the scenes). Paul's messianic role, in other words, was manufactured on his behalf, not organic to Fremen, much less a reflection of the actual eschatology of the universe.

[I'm really proud of that one-paragraph summary of the dominant--though by no means exclusive--plot in Herbert's intricate and multifaceted overarching story, by the way.]

While Lynch's Dune is up-front about Paul Atreides being the genetic inheritor of a breeding program which the Bene Gesserit planned out, it basically elides the Machiavellianism which lurks behind it entirely. Lynch's troubled journey to his finished Dune included a 4-hour rough cut, which he aimed to turn into a 3-hour film (after the plan for two films which he'd originally scripted was shot down), and which he was then obliged, with great frustration, to turn into a finished movie of just a little over two hours. A huge amount, obviously, was left on the editing room floor, and a many last-minute reshoots were made to stitch the drastically shortened film together. If Lynch had been able to follow through with the sequence he'd originally imagined, then after Dune he would have turned to Dune Messiah, the second book of Herbert's original series, and the partially completed script for that movie which has only recently been finally recovered makes it clear that the Lynch was ready to dive into the plots-within-plots story of the Bene Gesserit attempting to take back control of the power which Paul, as the Fremen's messiah, had unleashed, as well as his own doubts and frustrations over the enormous costs--over 60 billion lives--of the wars his rise as resulted in. But even without that sequel, in the best, unofficial, reconstructed versions of Lynch's never-completed 3-hour cut (like the famed SpiceDiver cut, which my friends and I all gathered to watch before Dune Part 1), you can see the Lynch truly wanted to bring in details from the book which would complicate the story, make Paul's tale less of a revelation and more politically ambiguous.

But that was not to be. And honestly, I'm not entirely bothered by that. A little bothered, to be sure--but not entirely.

Before catching Dune Part 2, I went with some of these same friends to see the 40th anniversary re-release of Lynch's 1984 original on the big screen--and seeing it that way, as a whole, separate from alternative cuts and closed-off possibilities, reminded me of what I'd see four decades ago: a science-fiction story of a myth brought to life, of a promised messiah acting out their own legend and becoming more than human as a result. It's absolutely hokey, that's undeniable. The film is crowded with too many details from the books, all of it designed to serve a straight-forward hero's journey. And yet I could only, once again, applaud the genius of how Lynch compressed and rewrote elements of Herbert's Dune so as to tell a story--almost certainly not the one he'd wished to tell, but the one he was obliged to carry across the finish line anyway--that truly works, dramatically speaking. 

Just one example: the Bene Gesserit's "weirding way," a set of physical and mental disciplines, including extensive combat training, appears only as a commanding voice in Villeneuve's films--which is, admittedly, its most famous (and plot-important) aspect. But in the midst of all the other stuff he crammed in--the Mentats, the Navigators Guild, and more--Lynch decided to turn the weirding way into "weirding modules" which Jessica, for the love of her husband, let House Atreides in on the secret of, and by which the Bene Gesserit's trained vocal powers could be weaponized. This gives the Fremen a secret weapon to use against their enemies, one that Paul is essential to their mastering. And, of course, it turns out that Paul's own Fremen name, "Muad'Dib" is a particularly explosive force. In these and other ways, Lynch's film works to make everything, all around Paul, manifest his legend, whatever the pain involved and whatever the cost may be.

Villeneuve's films reject that approach, which is an eminently defensible way to tell the story. First, because he had the budget and the technical skill to put on the screen five hours worth of Dune adaptation, so he could take much more time to emphasize characters and scenes (the expanded focus on Liet Kynes, the Judge of the Change when House Atreides arrives on Arrakis, is a great example of this) that contextualize the complicated, plans-within-plans reality of Paul's fate. But second, and more importantly, Villeneuve clearly loves the original books, and as such, really doesn't love the prospect treating the story Paul's rise as something explicitly heroic, and definitely not as the authentic embodiment of a mythological truth contained within an otherwise manufactured Fremen myth. Hence Villeneuve introduces factions among the Fremen, with Paul's great love and the eventual mother of his children Chani being presented as one of the most vocal resistors to accepting the Lisan al Gaib legend, insisting at multiple points in the film that such stories only exist to pacify and control the Fremen. And while that colonial-resistance spin isn't at all present in the books, since Herbert truly did believe that 1) all messiahs are to be feared, and 2) all messiah stories are manufactured anyway, this addition of Villeneuve's really does reflect Herbert's bottom-line secularism and cynicism well.

All of this is fine--it's Herbert's story, after all, and while the author may be dead and authorial intentional nothing like it used to be, there is still something to be said for respecting the explicit text. Except that is exactly the problem, or at least one potential problem. Because Herbert was too good a writer to turn his whole epic in the just plots-within-plots, all the way down. Paul Atreides really does have something special about him, and he really does become something more than he was. He really does put on a Fremen stillsuit the correct way the very first time, without any previous instruction; that's right in the text. He really does summon a massive worm to ride upon, without any ability (and that point in the story, anyway) to communicate with them. Herbert actually voices this mysterious ambiguity--that a person bred to step cunningly into the role of a prophet might actually, innocently, be a true prophet all the same--explicitly, having Princess Irulan (the child of the emperor who set up House Atreides to be destroyed, and whom Paul and his Fremen will completely overthrow) at one point write in her diary about Paul, "How much is actual prediction…and how much is the prophet shaping the future to fit the prophecy? Does the prophet see the future or does he see a line of weakness, that he may shatter as a diamond-cutter shatters his gem with a blow of a knife?" In other words, could the Kwisatch Haderach, this immensely skilled and impossibly perceptive individual, also be a figure in some actually, only-coincidently-Bene Gesserit-orchestrated, prophesied eschaton? As Timothy Burke--who supports whole-heartedly the approach which Villeneuve has taken in these films, seeing it as a way to avoid a "sad but necessary"-type of justification for White imperialism arguably present in the story's subtext--put it, "the problem in the end is that Paul Atreides is both a fake messiah and a genuine superhuman." Villeneuve has his own, still unfolding, way of responding to that dilemma, Lynch had his much more direct solution. And maybe there's something to be said, beyond just my own 40-year-old nostalgia, for the latter? 

I can think of three possible arguments. The first is the question of the dramatic style incumbent upon any story told in this particular genre. Dune, in any of its incarnations, is not a romantic comedy, is not a documentary, is not a one-act play. It is a sprawling science-fiction epic about the dramatic reversal of fortune which those who thought to destroy House Atreides and take control of Arrakis suffer at the hands of Paul Atreides and the Fremen, filled with vicious betrayals, spectacular action, and terrible violence. If you're going to film this story, you simply have to make your protagonist at least somewhat mythic; otherwise the whole project collapses. Freddie deBoer, in a delightful piece in which he admits that, on the level of imagination anyway, he's totally ready to sign up for the Fremen jihad under Muad'Dib, put it this way:

On a serious note--if Paul and his movement aren't seductive, if the audience doesn't feel the pull to romanticize them, then there's no movie. It's like Fight Club, another story that gets aggressively explained a lot--driven, to be fair, by misinterpretation from both fans and critics alike. It's true that Tyler Durden is not a figure to be consciously admired, let alone emulated. (Please do not emulate him.) But he has to be cool. If he's not seductive, if there's no sense that we want to be like him, then there's no stakes and no lessons; there's nothing to be gained by holding up a figure that we all admit is wrong and bad, in that kind of story.

Given that deBoer is talking about the Paul Atreides played by Timothée Chalamet in Villeneuve's Dune Part 1 and Part 2, I should emphasize that I'm not attempting to flip his comments against his own appreciation of these films. Villeneuve really does give us an exciting, engaging Paul; his story, as played against a tableau of remarkable sci-fix visuals, is compelling and great fun. But there is nonetheless, I think, a degree in which Dune's story, as it is told in these two recent films, cannot be carried by Paul alone. Which again--is fine! The story is not made any less, at least not in terms of the overall sweep of it, by introducing additional protagonists with agency, humor, and anger. But if we were to focus solely on Villeneuve's and Chalamet's Paul, it's undeniable that they want him to recede before the whole weight of Dune's epic-ness. He treats his visions as frightening, disturbing, an annoyance, a threat: in other words, as a disruption. Lynch's Paul, as played by Kyle MacLachlan in a way which makes his every interior thought explicit, with a kind of radical openness, is clearly communicated to the audience as believing his visions, of making them a part of him, and growing along with the story's unfolding myth accordingly.

Second, let's think about the cinematic situating of characters who, because of the story they are part, are arguably necessarily mythic. That is: grand, awesome, larger than life. There are plenty of ways to tell stories which invert those myths, the focus on the god's clay feet, etc. But at some point, if that is all you're doing, you then have to ask yourself: why tell this story at all? Surely there are better ways to dramatize the stories of the little people that those in power use or abuse or pass over, than to spend a great deal of time reconstructing the life of these characters, and not allowing them to be seen in the way that history, for better or worse, as brought them forward to us today, the audience. Noah Millman makes this point very thoughtfully by considering four recent films that he considers sad failures: Napoleon, Ferrari, Maestro (about Leonard Bernstein), and Priscilla (about the wife of Elvis Presley):

All of the foregoing films are, in some fashion, telling stories about greatness: world-historical greatness on a political and military level, the race for glory in a competitive sport with death and bankruptcy always around the corner, the drive to create great art and to touch a mass audience. I can certainly understand the desire to avoid simple-mindedly worshipping great people, or people who sought greatness. But these are not films that focus on the price exacted by that quest for greatness, or that are alive to the ironic role of contingency in history, or that emphasize how any great achievement rests on the shoulders of innumerable unknowns, or any of the many ways that one might complicate a “great man” narrative and make it more interesting than hagiography. No, what they have in common is an apparent disbelief in the quality of greatness itself. 

Again, it would be wrong to directly apply this against Villeneuve's adaptations of the Dune story, not least because Noah is talking about movies that were all, to one degree or another, biopics, while none of the faux-documentary conventions which attach themselves to that genre apply to science fiction. Even if you can make the comparison, it's not as though Chalamet's Paul isn't presented as competent, smart, charismatic, etc. (the extended Fremen attack on the spice harvester in Dune Part 2 nicely fits into making Paul larger than life among his fellow rebels). But once again, I can't help put wonder if telling a story about an individual who achieves universe-changing significance, who is received by the Fremen who brought him as the universe's messiah, and who demonstrably manifests--in the books, definitely in Lynch's version, and even in Villeneuve's as well--awesome powers, isn't served as well quite as it might have been otherwise by constantly reminding people (mostly, in Villeneuve's films, through Paul's mother Jessica, who becomes increasingly Machiavellian with every scene) that the prophecy Paul is inheriting isn't a "real" hope?

(I feel like doubling down on this point. Once more, I really enjoyed the divisions Villeneuve introduced into the world of the Fremen; in the by-now classical model of the hero surrounded by doubts (including their own), it's handled very well. But when Chani, after Paul has drunk the Water of Life, after he has become what the Emperor's Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother denounces fearfully as an "abomination," after he is just casually reading the minds and telling the futures of everyone around him, Chani still denounces the whole idea of Paul being the Lisan al Gaib as a myth that oppresses the Fremen. Really? For that acting choice to make sense to me, I'm going to have to go with Chani being angry, confused, frustrated, whatever--not as her being a reliable narrator of what's "really" going on in the story, because what's really going on is that Paul, whether or not it was something the Bene Gesserit ever wanted, has kind of become a god. Perhaps Lynch's underlining of this point by having Paul make it rain on Arrakis was too much--it's not in the reconstructed 3-hour versions of his film--but damn, it actually kind of follows, whereas I think Chani angrily riding away on a sandworm in the final scene of Dune Part 2 doesn't entirely.)

Third and finally, let me invoke one Max Rockatansky, the protagonist of the Mad Max films, a property that admittedly doesn't have anything remotely like the political, emotional, or ecological range and depth of Herbert's Dune universe (but which has some great stories under its belt nonetheless). Specifically, let me talk about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, where Max, wandering the post-apocalyptic desert, is adopted by a community of child survivors, who imagine he is the legendary "Captain Walker," returned to them, to help them return to and rebuild a world which none of them have any real memory of:


Mad Max, of course, isn't Captain Walker--we know this, because we'd just seen the latest turn in Max's history in the first 45 minutes of the movie, and it has nothing to do with being a returned or resurrected airline pilot, a messiah, that could fly these children to a new life. And yet, in fighting to make it possible for this small community to live and escape and build anew somewhere else, didn't he fulfill their crazy, chanted prophecy after all?

My point, in the end, is no more than the heart of The Music Man: "I always think there's a band, kid." There's something to be said for stories that are centered on myths and heroes, because embracing myths, believing in them, is part of making it possible for heroes, for people who transform the presumed possibilities of one's world (or for boy's bands, for that matter), to be. Of course, this is kind of pedantic at this point: it's not like we're lacking in movies with heroes! Every Mission Impossible film, every movie the Rock stars in, is actively engaged in the myth-making business. So why complain that Dune, a book which makes the manipulation of myths a key part of its overall tale, is adapted in such a way as to center that manipulation, rather than the myth itself?

Maybe no reason other than nostalgia after all. Or maybe because the book itself, as reflected in Lynch's flawed and interfered-with but still majestic interpretation, makes it impossible, arguably even against Herbert's own intention, to thoroughly dismiss the possibility that the Bene Gesserit, like any group of story-tellers anywhere, may have mythologized better than they could have possibly known. That wasn't Herbert's own self-understanding of what he wrought, and that hasn't been the dominant understanding of what Dune has to say over the decades; most readers, I think, have always gotten the point that Paul Atreides is supposed to be understood at least as much as a pawn as a protagonist, as least as much a murderous villain as a national liberator. Lynch himself saw that in the books as well. But in being forced to finish his adaptation on terms other than his choosing, he still found a way to double-down on the book's heroic, mythological elements that didn't, I think, entirely undermine what Paul Atreides meant, or at least could mean. I'm going to hold out the hope that when Villeneuve finishes his three-part tale, with an adaptation of Dune Messiah, he'll leave the door open for us viewers to see that Chani, or even Paul himself, may be scrambling to understand just how real the myth they are a part of, the myth which inspires Stilgar and the other Fremen, the myth which has arguably outstripped the Bene Gesserit's millenia-old machinations, may be. Because for this view, at least, if only for the time I'm taking in the story on the screen, it's real to me.