Highs and Lows

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You probably remember the days when Christmas packages had to be mailed by December 10 if you wanted them to arrive for Christmas. Then private industry entered the delivery market and changed everything. This past month I watched in awe as deliveries from UPS, FedEx, Amazon Trucking, and yes, even the US Postal Service brought packages to my door within two days of my ordering them. I received half a dozen packages on Christmas Eve alone, including one that had been redirected from an incorrect address the day before.

This nearly didn’t happen. In the early days of FedEx, founder Fred Smith faced a serious cashflow problem. The company was millions of dollars in startup debt. Pilots were purchasing fuel with their personal credit cards. Employees were agreeing not to cash their paychecks, knowing they would bounce anyway. Desperate to stave off bankruptcy, Smith took the company’s last $5,000 to the Las Vegas blackjack tables. He returned in less than a week with $27,000 and used that money to secure additional funding. How could he take such a risk with the last of the company’s cash? He figured he would probably lose it all in bankruptcy court, so the real risk was in not doing anything.

Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything.

Uncut Gems shows a different side of gambling — not the glitzy glamour of roulette wheels and craps tables and exciting payoffs but the dirty, violent, addictive side that entices with the promise not of wealth but of the euphoric adrenaline rush during the heady anticipation of winning. For Howie Ratner (Adam Sandler) the desire is all consuming. He has to have that high.

The film’s frenetic, unrelenting pace mirrors Howie’s frenetic, unrelenting mania. The camera follows him from room to room and scene to scene without so much as a pause to orient the audience. Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything. The problem is, he doesn’t really want to fix everything, and he isn’t really after the money. Howie gets off on the risk and anticipation, the fear of losing it all and the release of fear when the game comes his way. Gambling is his cocaine. Winning is his euphoria. We don’t see any drug use in Uncut Gems, yet the movie is a story of freewheeling addiction — addiction to adrenaline.

Howie runs a jewelry store with an off-the-books, secondhand business in the back. As the movie opens he is working a deal to sell a 4,000-carat uncut black opal from Ethiopia through a Manhattan auction house. He expects to garner a million dollars on the deal. But he also has a short-term commitment with a loan shark that needs to be fixed today. (In fact, he has several such commitments.) So he uses the opal to solve several problems at once. He persuades Kevin Garnett (yes, the basketball star, playing himself) that the opal can give him good luck. Then, taking Garnett’s NBA ring as collateral in exchange for letting Garnett keep the opal overnight, Howie pawns the ring for cash; sends a photo of the cash to a loan shark, implying he is on his way to pay the loan; shakes off the heavies of another loan shark by giving them a fake Rolex; heads to his bookie, where he uses the money from Garnett’s ring to bet on Garnett and the Celtics, and finally gives way to the gambler’s euphoria as he watches the game — in which Garnett is in top form, because of his new talisman. All in a day’s work.

If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it.

But Howie doesn’t have time for the big hustle. Every plan has to be made on the fly. He’s entirely short-term oriented, because every moment could be his last. We feel his rising panic as he deals with big-time loan sharks and big-time enforcers who could kill or maim him at any moment. (Howie’s poorly capped teeth suggest an enforcer has taught him a lesson in the past, although how he lost his original teeth is never mentioned.) Like every compulsive gambler, he believes his plan will work and the next big win is as good as in his hands. Then he’ll pay everyone off and everything will be fine.

Like many gambling addicts, Howie is a family man. He was once the kind of guy who takes out the recycling on Wednesday night, recites the prayers at Passover, and attends his kid’s school play. And he still does all that. But he’s always distracted by his latest bet and yesterday’s collectors. If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife (Idina Menzel) to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it. She doesn’t even ask him what happened.

Howie is desperate but not hopeless, and therein lies the key to his character. Hope drives him. In that sense he is the eternal optimist. He’ll do anything, pawn anything, and promise anything to get out of the current jam and into the euphoria of a big score. The more cons he has going and the greater the risk, the higher he gets. Desperation is foreplay for him, and watching a game on which he has a big bet is orgasmic. It isn’t even about the money. When he wins big, he needs sex. But not with his wife. He needs Julia (Julia Fox), the beautiful mistress living in his downtown apartment. No wonder both are called scoring.

After Daniel Day-Lewis saw the film, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!

The camera work and musical score reflect Howie’s relentless determination. Usually dark and fast-paced, the music changes to a dreamy, jazzy arrangement whenever Howie is winning, to reflect his momentary euphoria. The lighting also brightens just a bit in those moments — not enough to be cheesy, but enough that you start to notice it after a while. The Safdie Brothers’ direction is controlled and masterful, even as Howie’s story is frenetically spinning out of control. This frenzy also spills into the audience, as the nearly two and a half hour film feels like 90 minutes. Kevin Garnett, too, is a revelation, delivering a believable performance that comes from deep within his soul, not sitting statically in front of his eyes, as happens with most sports figures who are called on to play themselves. His acting coach should have a separate listing in the credits.

Uncut Gems is a filmmaker’s film, and Sandler has come a long way from his silly Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison days. This isn’t his first foray away from comedy; he delivered excellent dramatic performances in Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Spanglish (2004). But Uncut Gems is his most impressive — gritty, manic, and unrelenting as it follows the life of a crazed gambler who just can’t get enough. After Daniel Day-Lewis saw it, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!! I wouldn’t call it entertaining, and I’m not sure that you, dear reader, would enjoy it. But when funnyman Adam Sandler wins the Oscar for Best Actor, at least you’ll know why.


Editor's Note: Review of "Uncut Gems," directed by Benny and Josh Safdie. Elara Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.



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First They Came for Lori Loughlin

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C-list actress Lori Loughlin and her husband are said to be “stressed” and “terrified” about the federal government’s actions in their college admissions bribery case.

They were originally charged in federal court with paying half a million dollars to get their two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California on the pretense that they were athletes for the crew team. They were indicted for fraud and conspiracy. They pled not guilty, so they were indicted for money laundering. Now they’re being charged with “attempting to bribe officials at an organization that receives at least $10,000 in federal funding.”

If you think this is a bizarre crime, it is. It’s just another way of making everything punishable by the federal government. And in this case it’s just a reiteration of the original offense, a way of punishing people over and over for the same thing.

It’s about time that people in Hollywood realized that the aggressive state, which almost all of them seem to worship, is perfectly happy to crush people like them, too.

It’s no wonder that an anonymous “source close to Loughlin” asks, “How do you go up against the federal government, when the government has decided to make an example out of you?”

I strongly suspect that Loughlin and her husband are guilty of a ridiculous overvaluation of “higher education.” I once happened to be on the campus of Cal State San Jose when graduation was approaching, and I saw a posse of leftwing students passing out “diplomas” representing degrees in Middle Class Status. They smiled and shook the hands of the “graduates,” in perfect imitation of the way the poohbahs at commencement exercises smile and shake your hand when conferring on you the proof that you, even you, have Gone to College. Point taken. Certificates aren’t education, even though some people are willing to pay half a million bucks for them.

But I also know that Loughlin’s criminal charges are an absurd (though by now, very typical) instance of piling on by the federal government. It’s about time that people in Hollywood realized that the aggressive state, which almost all of them seem to worship, is perfectly happy to crush people like them, too. Will they learn? I doubt it.




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High Crimes and Misdemeanors

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Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel wrote October 3, “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden. Some Republicans are trying, but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea.” They conclude, though, that it’s “hard to argue” that the phone call “rises to the level of an impeachable offense.”

I think that’s about right. I read the summary of the conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian president. It’s sloppy and unpresidential. The way to deal with it is to expose it, denounce it, and maybe laugh about it. Which has been done.

Americans have removed presidents from office many times — by denying them reelection, by persuading them not to run again, and by passing the twenty-second amendment. In 230 years Congress has never actually removed a president through the full process of impeachment, though in Richard Nixon’s case it came close enough to force him to resign. But remember what Nixon did. A team of burglars broke in to the national office of the political party opposing his reelection, seeking damaging information; Nixon helped to cover this up. What did Trump do? He suggested that the president of Ukraine investigate Joe Biden and his son, an action that was improper for him to suggest. A US president, acting under the authority of his office, should not ask a foreign president to do something that might help him in his attempt to be reelected. Investigating the Bidens is not wrong in itself, though. It’s probably a good idea.

The way to deal with Trump's conduct is to expose it, denounce it, and maybe laugh about it. Which has been done.

And think, too, of the high crimes and misdemeanors of other presidents. Franklin Roosevelt pushed through blatantly unconstitutional legislation in 1933, and when the Supreme Court tossed it out, he tried to subvert the Court. That is corrupting the balance of power under the constitution. It was such a gross and un-American act that the most solidly Democratic Congress in the 20th century, composed mostly of his poodles, stopped him from doing it.

After Japan attacked the United States, Roosevelt signed an executive order to round up 110,000 Japanese Americans on the Pacific Coast and put them behind barbed wire. This was also blatantly unconstitutional, and, according to the FBI, not necessary. But there was a war on, and the public, the press, the Congress and the Court all let him do it. They didn’t condemn him, either, when the military under his command firebombed Dresden and Tokyo, or when he announced the policy of unconditional surrender, which likely prolonged the war. During the war, he also issued an executive order seizing the soft-coal mines to stop a strike by the United Mine Workers — an act that, when Harry Truman did it with the steel mills, would be found unconstitutional. Roosevelt cared nothing about the constitutional limits on his power. But the American people elected him four times, effectively making him president for life. Congress put his head on the dime, and the historians say he was the greatest president of the 20th century. No impeachment for him.

In 1945, Harry Truman authorized the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, which probably was not necessary, and then on Nagasaki, which clearly was not. If the Germans had done it, it would have been a war crime subject to prosecution at Nuremburg. In 1950 Truman took the country into the Korean War without a declaration of war or an “authorization for the use of military force” from Congress. Truman got an OK from the UN Security Council, but the law of the land said he needed one from Congress, and he didn’t bother to ask. In 1952, Truman seized the American steel mills by executive order in order to settle a labor dispute. That time, the Supreme Court, which was made up entirely of Democratic appointees, said his order was unconstitutional.

The historians now say Truman was “near-great.” And the neocons revere him.

FDR attempted such a gross and un-American act that the most solidly Democratic Congress in the 20th century, composed mostly of his poodles, stopped him from doing it.

Lyndon Johnson did ask for an authorization to join the war in Southeast Asia — the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution — but it was based on a false report that a US ship was attacked in international waters, without having violated the waters of North Vietnam. Almost 40 years later, George W. Bush asked for an authorization to start a war — not join one, start one — against Iraq, based on a false report that Iraq was developing a nuclear weapon. Johnson’s and Bush’s wars killed hundreds of thousands of foreigners.

Sum it up. We’ve had presidents who pushed through unconstitutional laws and tried to neuter the Supreme Court; who put more than 100,000 people in concentration camps without due process of law; who approved the killing of hundreds of thousands of foreign women, children, and old men in war; who took the nation to war based on falsehoods that they should have known were false (and maybe did); who went to war without authorization; and who seized the industrial properties of Americans without authorization. We’ve also had presidents who authorized illegal wiretaps, illegal spying, the removal of foreign governments, corruption of foreign elections, on and on.

Since Nixon, the only attempt to remove a president from office had to do with his lying about sex with an intern. And now comes a push to impeach a president over an improper suggestion made during a telephone call to a foreign ruler.

Harry Truman authorized the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, which probably was not necessary, and then on Nagasaki, which clearly was not.

I note also that a push to impeach Trump has existed ever since his election. His political opponents staged public protest marches against him before he had a chance to do anything. Now they go “Aha! We gotcha! A smoking gun!”

I run a risk by writing these words, because after they are published, a real “smoking gun” may pop up. Maybe, but it needs to be worse than this.




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Known and Unknown

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Current political controversies and “debates” have allowed me to discover that I know a lot of things. Really know them. I’ll bet you know them too.

  • I know that a nation doesn’t create prosperity by increasing taxes.
  • I know that no industry can be “fixed” by having it operate by force — that is, government.
  • I know that you don’t help “the homeless” by giving them more and more free stuff. You don’t help their neighbors, either.
  • I know that the world is not being destroyed by “climate change,” and that no one who takes out a 30-year mortgage and schemes to get his little daughter into Stanford really believes it is, no matter what he says.

“Income inequality” is neither immoral nor harmful in itself, despite the fact that holders of great wealth are generally harmful in themselves.

  • I know that Thoreau was right: that government is best which governs least.
  • I know that “income inequality” is neither immoral nor harmful in itself, despite the fact that holders of great wealth are generally harmful in themselves.
  • I know that the United States is not to blame for the political systems of other countries.
  • I know that the United States should stop trying to make itself to blame for the political systems of other countries.
  • I know that you can’t trust people just because they’re cops, soldiers, teachers, judges, or workers in “intelligence agencies.” (My, what a lot of scare quotes I use, and need!)
  • I know that a managed economy is a sick economy.
  • I know that it’s not a good idea to open any country’s borders to everyone who wants to cross them, especially when you guarantee the entrants free education, free healthcare, free housing, free lawyers, and applause.

A managed economy is a sick economy.

  • I know that guns don’t kill; people do.
  • I know that wars on drugs aren’t good for anyone but gangsters.
  • I know that wars on poverty aren’t good for anyone but bureaucrats.
  • I know that hanging around an Ivy League school doesn’t make you smart, but it’s very likely to get you a government job.
  • If people asked themselves, “Is that really true?”, and spent a few minutes finding out, there would be a revolution in this country.
  • I know that the great majority of America’s “leaders,” and “opinion leaders,” haven’t read a real book in the past 20 years, if ever.
  • I know that if people asked themselves, “Is that really true?”, and spent a few minutes finding out, there would be a revolution in this country that would dwarf all the upheavals in our history.

As you see, I could go on. But that’s a sample of the things I know — and again, that you know too. These things aren’t even debatable. We know them. It’s a waste of time to argue about them, unless you want a laugh; and it’s hard to laugh at irrationalities you’re expected to pay for, either with money or with something more important, which is sanity.

You can’t trust people just because they’re cops, soldiers, teachers, judges, or workers in “intelligence agencies.”

With that thought in mind, I’ve stopped listing the things I know and started listing the things I don’t know. This list is much longer — in fact, it’s endless — and it’s a thousand times more interesting.

Here are a few things that I don’t know, and would like to know.

  • I would like to know what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
  • I would like to know how far south the Vikings got in North America.
  • I would like to know where Jesus got the money that financed his ministry. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus?
  • I would like to know whether Lizzie Borden really did kill her father and stepmother, and if so, how she managed to do it without leaving any traces of evidence on herself. Recall that the parental units were butchered with an axe in a small frame house, just before noon on a warm day, when there were windows open all over the neighborhood, and people were walking by in the street, just a few feet away, and that one of the victims faced her assailant and might be expected to have made some protest, loudly.

Why are alligators native to the southern United States and to China, and to no place in between?

  • I would like to know what happened to Judge Joseph Force Crater, who disappeared from the streets of New York on August 6, 1930, and was never seen again. Though a ladies’ man, he had bought only one ticket for a show called Dancing Partners, which he did not attend, at least literally. (One thing I do know is that Judge Crater is the best of all possible names for a public official who suddenly disappears, and that Dancing Partners is a pretty good name for whatever it was that happened to him.)
  • I would like to know the explanation for the Crouch family affair, https://www.mlive.com/news/jackson/2010/11/peek_through_time_crouch_murde.html a series of mysterious deaths that began on November 22, 1883, in my home county in Michigan.
  • I would like to know why very few of the big infectious diseases were found among the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas, since those people had not only originated in the Old World but had many contacts with the Vikings. And by the way, didn’t anyone ever just get blown in a boat from Africa to Brazil, carrying his diseases with him?
  • I would like to know what happened to the Mound Builders and the Anasazi.
  • I would like to know why alligators are native to the southern United States and to China, and to no place in between.
  • I would like to know why Sequoyah gave his people a syllabary rather than an alphabet. Come to think of it, I would like to know why Saints Cyril and Methodius gave the Slavs a new alphabet, instead of adopting either the Latin or the Greek, which would have made more sense.
  • I would like to know what became of Wallace Fard Muhammad.

How salty did St. Peter and St. Paul’s conversations get while they were arguing theology?

  • I would like to know exactly what Aaron Burr had in mind, or if he had anything in mind, when he did those strange things that got him indicted for treason.
  • I would like to know exactly what happened to Louis XVII and to the little princes in the Tower.
  • I would like to know why insects preserved in amber for tens of millions of years appear to be the same insects that live with us today.
  • Having had kidney cancer, I would like to know what causes it. In fact, I would like to know what causes a lot of forms of cancer. And other diseases. Many.
  • I would like to know how salty St. Peter and St. Paul’s conversations got while they were arguing theology. (See Galatians 1 and 2.)
  • I would like to know why — really, why — Richard Nixon didn’t demand a recount in the election of 1960.
  • I would like to know why, after some of the greatest lines of poetry ever written (“Look! Look! He is climbing . . .”) Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk” https://poets.org/poem/evening-hawk concludes with “a leaking pipe in the cellar.”
  • I would like to know why Eleazer Williams, an American who translated the Book of Common Prayer into Iroquois, suddenly decided that he was the king of France.
  • I would like to know where the rest of the Satyricon is.

Why — really, why — didn't Richard Nixon demand a recount in the election of 1960?

  • I would like to know, out of all the Viking ships that set out for Iceland, Greenland, or Vinland, and all the Polynesian vessels that set out for Hawaii, once those places were known, what proportion got lost and were never heard from again.
  • I would like to know what happened on board the Mary Celeste.
  • I would like to know where the Griffon went down.
  • I would like to know what happened to Peking Man.
  • I would like to know who wrote the book of Job, and when, and where.
  • I would like to know, for sure, how the pyramids were built, and what all those big rooms inside the Great Pyramid were used for.

And, not least, I would like to know what readers of Liberty would like to know. What’s on your list?




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More Sweet Thoughts about Love

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Suppose that one of your acquaintances used this as the heading of his Twitter account:

I am simply here to help save the world. Nothing is more important than love.

How would you react? If your eye fell only on the second sentence, you might think something like, “Sweet, but childish. Like a little kid. Actually, he may be letting his little kid write some of this stuff.”

It’s true: kids don’t know much about literacy, agriculture, airplane technology, telecommunications, vaccines, and anesthetics, or (to look on the other side of the coin), ignorance, conflict, death — all arguably more important than love in this world we inhabit. And if it’s just a question of moral values, kids may not understand that truth and justice are often far better than love.

No child says he is here to save the world. Only the most narcissistic of adults say that.

So, you think, that sentence must have been written by a child — or by one of those childish old souls you’re afraid to talk to, because they’re certain to load you with theosophical advice. Should you commit the error of making eye contact, the conversation will go like this:

Well hello! And how are you today? (Delivered with a smarmy glare and a wet handshake.)

Uh . . . All right, I guess. (Somehow, you don’t want to discuss the fact that you’ve lost your job and you don’t know where the next mortgage payment’s going to come from.)

Just remember one thing (an admonition strongly suggesting that you have trouble remembering anything): nothing is more important than love.

Recalling such scenes, you feel a sense of doom as your gaze drifts back to the left of “love,” where you discover the portentous saying, “I am simply here to help save the world.”

No child says he is here to save the world. Only the most narcissistic of adults say that. “Help” is in the sentence merely to fend off accusations of extreme narcissism. Of course, that level of self-consciousness indicates that the narcissism is not naïve at all; it is ruthlessly assertive, fully convinced of itself, and aggressively intolerant of any doubts.

If it’s just a question of moral values, kids may not understand that truth and justice are often far better than love.

Now that, unhappily, you have read both sentences, you try to put them together, and find it a creepy experience. Here is a narcissist billing himself as a crusader for love. Either he has so little introspection that he doesn’t recognize the love that’s important to him is self-love, or he has so much contempt for his audience that he expects everyone to swallow whatever he says.

But at least, you may be thinking, the theme is love. This guy may be dotty and self-absorbed, but thank God he isn’t devoting his life to saving the world with some political scheme, with some campaign of force. Then you remember that love has been the justification for many egregious acts of power. The medieval church burned heretics at the stake in the name of its love for men’s souls — including those of the heretics. Laws that send people to jail for using or selling drugs are purportedly motivated by love for our children — including those who use or sell drugs. Prohibition was justified largely as an expression of Christian love for the American family. How much better it was for the gay marriage movement to use “Love Wins” as one of its slogans — though even in that instance, there was the specter of punishment if you didn’t agree. Recall those people who were dragged into court because they declined to make gay wedding cakes. Recall the false accusation that such a cake had been deliberately defiled by (gay) staff at Whole Foods.

All good motives can be reasons for bad deeds and bad emotions. “I am become a socialist,” says Pierrot in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo. “I love Humanity; but I hate people.” If love is really the most important thing in the world, it must have tremendous force for ill as well as good. Remember the scene in Stardust Memories in which someone comes up to Woody Allen and says, “I’m your biggest fan” — and shoots him.

Then you remember that love has been the justification for many egregious acts of power.

Such meditations on love and messiahship may make you hesitate to read any further in this fellow’s Twitter account. But if you do, here is the sort of thing you’ll encounter:

“Shut the hell up you b—— a— n——. You will continue to run this country further into the ground and risk lives every time you breathe. You’re not the president. Just a dumpster full of hate. FOH. [F— outta here] Sick to my stomach that literal s— currently represents America to the world.”

“@AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is only speaking facts. This is so far beyond political party affiliation. Across the world ... no matter the border ... from sea to shining sea ... 45 and all his white hooded cohorts are a national disgrace. And if you support them ... so are you. Clowns.”

“Dear @realDonaldTrump ... you are a disgusting, racist, piece of trash ... Sincerely, Everyone who is not a disgusting, racist, piece of trash.”

As the song says, “This can’t be love.” Nor is there any indication that it’s a response to any experience of hate directed at the author or anyone he knows. In appearance, it’s a message posted by an anti-homosexual white racist (“b—— a— n—— ”) who has had some kind of falling out with the “white hooded cohorts” of the Ku Klux Klan but has lost nothing of their hatred. Few racists refer to themselves as racists; they’re too busy attributing evil to other people. The denunciation of the president as a racist may be taken simply as an instance of projection, as Freud called it.

I am by no means an appreciative reader of Freud. I dislike the coyness with which he modestly suggests, on one page, that such and such may possibly be considered an object of speculation, and five pages later assumes that the same such and such is obviously true. His grounds of argument and the progress of his arguments seem to me utterly fallacious. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and I think that Freud was onto something when he identified projection as a primary means of pseudo-thought. He doesn’t put it in exactly this way, but I think it’s true that the more out of touch with reality you are, the more you are inclined to claim that it’s other people who are out of touch — and, because you’re defending yourself from charges that the rational part of your brain (if any) would naturally bring against yourself, you are especially eager to say that you’re not like those other people, who are guilty, guilty, guilty.

Few racists refer to themselves as racists; they’re too busy attributing evil to other people.

It’s pretty clear that anybody who is tweeting the things I’ve quoted — without, as I say, any particular external incitement, of the type that regularly carries tweeters away — is projecting a s— load of hatred. If this be love, thank you, I’d rather have the Caesar salad. The fact that the tweeter believes in himself as an apostle of love is a matter of still more concern. It’s one thing for a person to be “a good hater.” It’s another thing to believe that hate is the same thing as love. There are good haters and bad haters, and whoever wrote those passages is a bad hater.

By now you may have guessed who that bad hater is. It’s Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett, who was arrested on February 21 for faking an attack on himself, a gay black man, by pro-Trump bigots using some of the vocabulary he had applied to Trump. After the arrest, Chicago police also accused him of having sent a vilely racist and sexist and threatening letter to himself, complete with a white substance suggestive of anthrax powder. The alleged motive? His desire for a raise in salary (currently about $1.3 million) as a C-list TV actor. The cops’ idea was that self-love might sometimes be the most important kind.

From the beginning, Smollett’s story appeared ridiculous: he was attacked in downtown Chicago by masked men who had been waiting for him to walk by at 2 a.m. on one of the coldest days of the year, men who shouted racist insults, beat, kicked, and bit him, poured bleach on him, and put a noose around his neck (tied like a tie you wear to dinner). He emerged with one small cut on his face, an intact cellphone on which he had been conversing, and a Subway sandwich that was preserved unharmed until his arrival at his home, where a friend called the police, about 40 minutes later. When the police came, Smollett refused to let them take his phone for a few hours and have it examined for clues. He said he needed it. Much later he provided a much “redacted” list of his calls.

The more out of touch with reality you are, the more you are inclined to claim that it’s other people who are out of touch.

Clearly, this was a hoax. Yet everyone from Donald Trump to Trump-hating Democratic presidential candidates immediately expressed horror and sympathy; no investigation was needed or desired. It was remarked by citizens of Chicago that people living close to the nonevent were less willing to believe the story than people living far away — more evidence for the libertarian idea that the higher you build a pyramid of power, the less those at the top understand about the world beneath them. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and hundreds of others at the acme of political and “cultural” influence seemed anxious to prove this.

One thing that Trump, who was busy being a fool like all the others, clearly didn’t understand was the vicious hatred that the alleged victim had for him, despite the fact that the hatred had been advertised as much as it could possibly be. Anyone could access Smollett’s public utterances, and you would think that anyone who did would notice the way in which “love” was being used to license hate. You would think that even Kamala Harris would have hesitated to proclaim, in cadences reminiscent of the hypnotized characters in The Manchurian Candidate, “Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know.” But I have so far encountered no one who confessed that, well, yeah, those utterances were sort of a bad sign, that maybe there was something a little . . . strange about them. Can it be that the confusion of love with hate has become so common in our society that it is no longer noticed — so ordinary and inoffensive, indeed, that when it is witnessed it is spontaneously shared?

This kind of confusion is encouraged by the culturally-official dogma that if one cares about victims, including alleged victims, one must believe them, whether their stories are absurd or not. Only under these conditions can the behavior of Robin Roberts, host of “Good Morning America,” be explained. Roberts, star of a program run by ABC News, gave Smollett an interview of whopping length, in which her most probing question was how he could heal if the cops failed to wreak justice on his assailants. (He replied that he couldn’t bear to consider the possibility.) Clearly, she believed the victim — everything the victim said.

He emerged with one small cut on his face, an intact cellphone on which he had been conversing, and a Subway sandwich that was preserved unharmed.

After the scandal was officially exposed, she tried to wipe the egg off her face by saying that when the interview was recorded the police still seemed to be going along with Smollett’s story. Who was she to question the police? Days after that, her associates at the network, prompted to defend her, “suggested that Roberts was a victim, who was ‘lied’ to by Smollett.” So now it’s the job of a news person cheerfully to believe the victim (and the police), even if it makes her the victim of lies.

Roberts interviewed Smollett two weeks after the “crime.” It’s safe to say that by that time almost everyone who’d ever heard of the case was convinced it was a hoax — everyone, that is, except the people whose job it was to report the facts. But even with two weeks to put the facts together, Roberts hadn’t a clue. Finally confronted by the amazing! revelation! that Smollett was not entirely on the up and up, Roberts said:

This touches all the buttons. It’s a setback for race relations, homophobia, MAGA supporters. I cannot think of another case where there is this anger on so many sides and you can understand why there would be.

Pardon me — what is she babbling about? I understand how the Jussie thing might be considered a setback for race relations (although I don’t think the discovery of a hoax can do anything but increase truth and candor, which every well-meaning person values, regardless of race), but how can it be a setback for “MAGA supporters”? Or for “homophobia”? Does it increase or decrease the fear of gays? Roberts is literally saying that it decreases it, which she would probably think is a good thing, but . . . what is she babbling about?

Can it be that the confusion of love with hate has become so common in our society that it is no longer noticed?

More babble issued from politicians and media people, spin artists all, who responded to the scandal by regretting that “conservatives” or “Trump followers” or “rightwing bloggers” or some other groups they don’t like would pounce on it and use it for their own purposes. This tactics, now in use whenever the Left embarrasses itself, is a new wrinkle on the ugly old face of American journalism. Newspapers in the 1850s were violently partisan, but even the most absurd Southern rag wouldn’t have run the headline: “Abolitionists Pounce on Legree Misdeeds.” I do feel a bit underrepresented, though, when I read about all these other people pouncing. Why shouldn’t I — or you, or you, or you, whoever you are — pounce on this story, too? It seems that anyone who’s interested in a hysteria-free society would want to use it for some purpose. To point a lesson, perhaps.

Yes, and lots of lessons, but not the one that is most often heard in media comments on the incident — the idea that Smollett’s actions will lead people to think that hate crimes are not a serious issue. Bigots will continue to think that, just as credulous people on the other side will continue to believe that hate crimes are happening all around them. Any hate crime is serious, but any fake hate crime is serious, too.

If you want to know an approximation of the truth about the frequency of hate crimes, you might consult Wilfred Reilly, a professor who teaches at an historically black college and has a new book on the subject. In a recent op-ed, he provides documentary sources on the large number of hate crime hoaxes (he claims to have easily numbered 409 confirmed instances) and says:

To put these numbers in context, a little over 7,000 hate crimes were reported by the FBI in 2017. . . .

However, hate crime hoaxers are “calling attention to a problem” that is a very small part of total crimes. There is very little brutally violent racism in the modern USA. . . . Inter-racial crime is quite rare; 84% of white murder victims and 93% of black murder victims are killed by criminals of their own race, and the person most likely to kill you is your ex-wife or husband. When violent inter-racial crimes do occur, whites are at least as likely to be the targets as are minorities.

From that, you can take whatever lessons you want, but such facts are a good deal more useful than the constant hurling of charges between Right and Left about inattention to hate crimes on our side of the racial or political divide.

Newspapers in the 1850s were violently partisan, but even the most absurd Southern rag wouldn’t have run the headline: “Abolitionists Pounce on Legree Misdeeds.”

What is most disturbing to me about the Jussie Smollett incident is nothing that I’ve mentioned above. It’s a particular manner of regretting the incident, a manner that became very common across the moderate-to-hard-Left spectrum in the days when Smollett’s guilt was thought (by some) to be in doubt. I refer to the touching hope that he wasn’t lying after all.

One example — this from a writer published by CNN:

I continue to hold a sliver of hope that the dots that continue to feel so far apart will eventually connect and the picture before us will show he was telling the truth all along. I hold hope that those faint whispers that began almost as quickly as the story made its way across the networks will be silenced[!], that Smollett will be vindicated. And the people who took to social media to demand justice for him will not be left to look like fools. . . .

I . . . am still hoping that he's telling the truth. It may be naïve, but it's a hell of a lot better than trying to answer the "what" — as in what do we do next?

Apparently the author, like Jussie Smollett, is laboring under the impression that we just have to be doing something majestic all the time. But the vital phrase is, “I am still hoping that he’s telling the truth.” Which means —  You’re still hoping that bands of bigots are roaming the streets, beating up gays and blacks? Still hoping that race hatred is so plentiful that it never runs out, even in downtown Chicago at 2 a.m., with enough wind chill to blast your hands off? Still hoping that the world is a terrible place that only you can save?

Ah yes! That may be it. It’s all about you, isn’t it?




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Glorious Beale Street

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“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city,” James Baldwin wrote in the 1974 novel on which Barry Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk is based. It refers to an area of Memphis important to African-Americans, designated by an act of Congress as “the Home of the Blues.”

In the 1860s black traveling musicians began performing there; they eventually developed a genre known as Memphis Blues, led by such legends as B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Rosco Gordon, Memphis Minnie, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King was once billed as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”

An astute real estate developer, Thomas Church, became the first black millionaire in the South after he bought land along Beale Street following a devastating yellow fever epidemic. The famous Church Park, a cultural and recreational center where blues musicians gathered, is named for him, not for a religious organization.

By the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings.

In 1869 a congregation of freed slaves began building the Beale Street Baptist Church. Besides the congregation, it housed the newspaper offices of civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells. Such notables as Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, while Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR spoke at the 2,000-seat auditorium in Church Park.

However, by the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings and the neighborhoods surrounding it instead of renewing them. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated not far from Beale Street.

Eventually the neighborhood was restored by the racially diverse Beale Street Development Corporation, and the area is now a popular tourist destination featuring the Beale Street Music Festival in early May each year. Beale Street’s development is tightly controlled by the city of Memphis, the BSDC, and a management company.

In so many ways, the story of Beale Street is an apt metaphor for the African-American experience — artistically gifted, entrepreneurially astute, politically active, brought down by neglect and resentment, and then restored by a consortium of well-intentioned but often misguided do-gooders who have changed the essence of what it once was.

In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from Fonny's cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art.

Beale Street is also an apt metaphor for the characters in Jenkins’ movie If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story at heart, the film uses flashbacks to show how Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) grew up as childhood friends, fell in love as teenagers, planned a future that included marriage and family, and saw their plans destroyed when Fonny was falsely accused of a heinous crime.

Although the movie takes place in Harlem, the characters represent different aspects of the Beale Street story. Fonny is an artist with big dreams. In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from his cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), works tirelessly against injustice, and Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is a rising activist who tells Tish at one point, “Unbow your head, sister, and do not be ashamed.”

Tish and Fonny’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are both hardworking entrepreneurs. (Well, OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.” And in truth, Fonny is in jail because false witnesses have been suborned against him.) Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) represents the church in the black community — moral and austere. And of course the urban renewal board is represented by the overzealous justice system that intends to clean up Harlem by putting the young black men in jail — whether they’re guilty or not.

Jazz and the blues also play central roles in this film. The soundtrack, mostly performed as string adagios, is bluesy, haunting, and full of despair, an emotion created by the close, discordant, unresolved harmonies and the deep, slow vibration of the bow across the bass strings. At the end, the credits roll to the sound of Billy Preston and Joseph Green’s slow, jazzy, plaintive “My Country ’tis of Thee.” If ever there was a time for singing the Beale Street blues, this is it.

OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.”

Although Baldwin describes the young lovers in his novel as plain and unattractive, Jenkins chose to cast his Tish and Fonny with two astonishingly beautiful young actors. KiKi Layne radiates wide-eyed innocence mingled with tough determination, and Stephan James is not only handsome but also blessed with kind eyes and a warm smile. Who wouldn’t be drawn to them? Studies show that we trust and like attractive people more readily than ugly people, and clearly Jenkins was not going to take any chance that the audience might not sympathize with his protagonists. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the casting; it was a pleasure watching these two fall in love on screen.

We don’t learn the nature of the crime with which Fonny has been charged until 45 minutes into the movie, although we learn in the first five minutes that he is in jail. Jenkins also softens the scene of the first sexual encounter between the two by having Fonny gently cover Tish’s naked breasts with a blanket in a gesture that is both protective and romantic. It subtly tells us that Fonny could not have done what he is charged with; he just isn’t that kind of guy.

Sadly, under our flawed, overcrowded, injustice system, it doesn’t much matter whether a person is guilty or innocent, especially if the person is poor or black. Most never go to trial. In fact, according to legal scholar William J. Stuntz, an astounding 94% of state felony convictions and 97% of federal convictions stem from plea bargains. If you can’t afford bail, you’ll sit in jail, waiting for your day in court, often for months and sometimes for years. So you take the deal and the record, just to get out of jail and back to your life. As Tish says to the audience in voiceover narration, “I hope that no one has to talk to anyone they love through a glass.”

Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal.

Moreover, plea bargains have now become the safer bet in a legal system where freedom hangs on how a jury interprets the evidence and the defendant. Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal. The deadly “to life” tacked on to many sentences today is especially chilling for the innocent; how can you convince the parole board of your remorse for a crime you did not commit?

The routine indeterminate sentencing of “to life,” which is bad for many reasons, was created three generations ago by liberal reformers. Its heyday is long past and needs to be eliminated, along with mandatory sentencing and three-strikes rules, to allow judges to judge and prisoners to have hope.

If Beale Street Could Talk presents a powerful story of love, loss, and loyalty. Baldwin’s 1974 portrayal of the injustice of our court system is just as true today. Barry Jenkins’ film version is not completely true to the novel, nor should it be — film is a visual and aural genre and needs to be adapted accordingly. The film is beautiful to watch, even though it is heartbreaking to comprehend.


Editor's Note: Review of "If Beale Street Could Talk," directed by Barry Jenkins. Annapurna, 2018, 119 minutes.



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Mueller Time

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President Corleone

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In late November 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, President Obama was in Peru for the APEC Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Riding in the back of the US presidential limousine with a few of his closest aides, he turned to his longtime advisor, Ben Rhodes, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”

This struck me as an odd thing for the president to say.

Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not.

It is from Rhodes’ new book, The World as It Is, which I have not yet read. I found it in Peter Baker’s review of the book in The New York Times.

In the following, I will explain why I thought it odd and then mull over why he said it. The purpose of the exercise is to amuse.

* * *

At first glance, Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not. More to the point, the life experiences of Corleone seem to bear little resemblance to those of Obama.

Michael Corleone, as every film buff knows, was not keen to join the Mafia. In his mid-20s, however, he murdered both the drug kingpin and the NYPD captain who had tried to kill his father, Don Vito Corleone, and, badabing, he was in.

Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked.

A few years later, when he became the head of the Corleone crime family, he orchestrated the murders of all his family’s rivals in New York City. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful baptism montage in The Godfather tells the tale. Then, for decades, Michael Corleone controlled the bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder that are the Mafia’s bread and butter. He was cold, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. He even had his brother Fredo murdered.

The scene Obama referenced in his comment to Rhodes is in the final film of the series, The Godfather, Part III. In it, Michael, who had been trying to extricate himself and his immediate family from the world of organized crime by transferring his ill-gotten gains from the rackets to legitimate businesses, has just survived a machine-gun attack from a helicopter arranged by Joey Zaza, who he had personally chosen to take over the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael, now about 60 years old and in ill health, stands in his kitchen and wails, “Every time I try to get out . . .they pull me back in.”

The rest of the movie is a series of betrayals, counter-betrayals, and murders. Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked. The trail of corpses only ends when, much later, Michael, broken, forgotten, and alone, falls off his chair, dead.

Obama has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head.

Now, it is pretty clear what Michael Corleone meant by his comment. He was trying to morph from a shady mafioso into a legitimate businessman, but his criminal past had created underworld entanglements so deeply rooted, so strong, that try as he might, he was never able to break free.

But what did President Obama mean? In what sense did he identify with this tragic figure, Michael Corleone?

President Obama is fit, rich, and relatively young, with a loving wife and family. He can choose from among the endless opportunities available to former presidents, or choose to do nothing at all. He can stay out of the political arena and Washington forever, if he wants to. Hollywood would welcome him. In fact, it already has.

He stepped down from the presidency with his head high, unbowed by scandal. He has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head. There is no Watergate, no Teheran Hostages, no Iran-Contra, no Monica Lewinsky, no missing WMDs, no Special Counsel to dog his footsteps for the rest of his days. There is no helicopter circling. In fact, some argue that his was an untainted, if not exemplary, presidency. Some even say that his has been a charmed life.

Likening his disappointment with the 2016 election results to Michael Corleone’s torment brings to mind the little boy whose ice cream falls from the cone and splats on the sidewalk. The boy looks at the sky and says, “Why me, God?” OK, that probably goes a little too far, but you get the point.

The remark seems odder because there was a more apt comparison much closer at hand.

In the runup to the election in November of 2000, Bill Clinton’s hand-picked successor, Al Gore, was thought by many to be the favorite. But while Gore won the popular vote, he lost in the Electoral College, some say because of an unfair assist by the Supreme Court. As a result, Bill Clinton had to give the keys to the White House not to his chosen successor but to George W. Bush, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, gay rights, energy, abortion, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.

Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding.

Before the 2016 election, Barack Obama’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, was the clear favorite. But while Clinton won the popular vote, she lost in the Electoral College, some say because of Russian help. As a result, Barack Obama had to give the keys to the White House to Donald Trump, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, immigrant rights, energy, women’s health, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.

Now, had President Obama said to Rhodes, “I feel like Bill Clinton must have felt when Bush beat Gore,” it would have made perfect sense. True, the bit about “almost getting out” doesn’t quite fit here, in that Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding. Still, the circumstances are remarkably similar.

But when Obama sought to explain himself to Rhodes, what popped into his mind was not the face of the charming former president whose liberal, if triangulated, legacy had suddenly been put in jeopardy by a more conservative successor. No. When he gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.

Go figure.

* * *

While the above should help clarify why I found the president’s comment odd, it does not explain why he made it. Three possible explanations follow.

Peter Baker suggested the first possibility in the NYT review of Rhodes’ book. Here’s the complete line that includes the comment: “In handing over power to someone determined to tear down all he had accomplished, Mr. Obama alluded to The Godfather mafia movie, ‘I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.’

When Obama gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.

But in The Godfather, Michael was handing over power to Joey Zaza, his chosen successor. Joey wasn’t trying to tear down anything the Corleone family had built; he just wanted it all for himself, and Michael dead. That’s why Michael couldn’t get out. Am I missing something here? Hillary Clinton was Obama’s hand-picked successor. Is she supposed to be out to get him? Is Donald Trump or some other rival that I’m unaware of trying to keep President Obama from “getting out” of politics? Is there some opponent who’s trying either to assassinate him or to “pull him back” into the political arena? No. This explanation of Obama’s comment just isn’t working.

More importantly, is Baker suggesting that President Obama was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder? That doesn’t sound like the kind of analogy that President Obama would encourage, not if he’s proud of his accomplishments. It certainly wouldn’t do much to burnish his legacy. No, Baker’s explanation just doesn’t fit. It lacks verisimilitude.

The second possibility is hypothetical. Given that bending the arc of the moral universe can be very hard work, let’s say that President Obama sometimes resorted to means that ever so slightly trimmed ethical or legal corners in order to achieve the precise curvature that the moral universe seemed to call for at the moment. By employing this hypothetical, we may be able to find a context in which the words that the president uttered in the back of “the Beast” that day in Lima make sense.

Is Baker suggesting that the president was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder?

Let’s say that President Obama quietly approved the fix of Hillary Clinton’s illegal handling of classified documents, and her hamhanded attempt to cover it up in order to keep her candidacy alive. Let’s say that he put the desired end, a Democratic successor, on one side of the scale and the means proposed to achieve that end, a political decision not to indict, on the other side, and decided that the greater good would be served by putting the fix in, cut corners and all. When, in spite of the fix, the public’s confidence in Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness plummeted, let’s say that President Obama became more eager than ever that his successor be a fellow Democrat. Let’s say that he approved of an effort to discredit Donald Trump by, among other means, using the fishy DNC-funded Steele dossier to manipulate a judge into allowing surveillance of the Trump campaign. Let’s say that when Donald Trump won the election despite this effort to derail his candidacy the president was concerned.

Let us now imagine how President Obama’s comment might sound in this hypothetical scenario.

A few weeks after the election, President Obama, wearing an immaculately tailored dark suit, was riding in the back of his armored black Cadillac Escalade with a few of his closest aides. He was looking through the five-inch thick bulletproof window. He knew that in order to get Hillary Clinton off the hook and to put Donald Trump on it he had done things worse than the Watergate break in. He also knew that, at that very moment, the effort to conceal those deeds was growing a web of semi-transparent lies that was threatening to ensnare him.

If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach. He could have stepped off the board directly onto the sand, a free man. The new president would have had his back and her administration would have been composed of the very people who had helped him to put her in office. He would have been out, scot-free.

He closed his eyes and pressed his right temple to the glass. He realized that he was in a war. He would have to fight or he would end up like Nixon, disgraced. Sitting next to him was his long-time advisor, Ben Rhodes. The president turned to him, sighed, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”

If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach.

The third possibility is not as illogical as the first or as far-fetched as the second. It is this: the president was joking.

Frankly, this is my favorite explanation, in part because it is the least disheartening. No one wants to think ill of the president, do they? And all of that abusing of presidential power for personal gain and self-preservation in the second explanation would make the president seem so grubby, so small. No one wants to believe that possible. People want to think the best of the president, not the worst. Right? I mean, only Vladimir Putin would want the American people to think of their president as a Mafia don.

OK, then. So no one laughed. Maybe Ben Rhodes didn’t get the joke. That’s OK. Apparently, Peter Baker didn’t get it either. But I suspect that if President Obama were asked about it, and he was being perfectly honest, he would admit that he had just been trying to be funny.

Let’s just say.

“Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.” — Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, July 17, 2018




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Yes, But Is It True?

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You probably heard the scuttlebutt about All the Money in the World, even if you haven’t seen the movie: the film was set for a mid-December release with Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, but six weeks before its release actor Anthony Rapp made sexual allegations against Spacey, and rather than risk their $60 million investment in the film, producers opted to cut all of Spacey’s scenes and reshoot the film with Christopher Plummer. Plummer was an excellent choice — he even looks like Getty — and the editing is virtually seamless. But after seeing the film, my reaction was that they needn’t have bothered. Getty is so despicable in this film that Spacey would have fitted right in. I was so repelled by the character’s meanheartedness that I couldn’t even stomach the thought of visiting the Getty Museum again.

But how accurate is this film?

It’s set in July 1973, when young J. Paul III (Charlie Plummer — no relation to Christopher), Getty’s 16-year-old grandson through Getty’s fourth wife, is kidnapped in Rome. The backstory shows Getty with a special affinity for this particular grandson — his namesake, in fact — and his desire to groom young Paul for the business world. (Come to think of it, that might have been extra creepy with Spacey playing the role.) This makes it all the more despicable when Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom demanded for Paul’s return. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) is determined to change his mind, and soon Getty’s security agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) is on her side. Much of the film focuses on the conflict between the two: Getty, who loves only his money and his art, and Gail, who is willing to give up all further ties to the Getty fortune if her former father-in-law will just pay the ransom for her son. In one particularly deplorable scene, Getty turns Gail away and then immediately meets with an art dealer who offers him a painting of the Madonna and Child by an old master. Getty pays the price demanded — almost as much as the kidnappers’ latest demands — without batting an eye, and caresses the face of the cherubic baby with more apparent love for this oil-on-wood painting than he feels for his family.

J. Paul Getty is so despicable in this film that Kevin Spacey would have fitted right in.

Meanwhile, one of Paul’s captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), befriends Paul and begins to protect him from the other kidnappers. He cares for him tenderly, almost like a father for a son. The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping. In the end, Getty dies clutching his painting while Paul is nurtured by Cinquanta. Gail inherits the Getty fortune, and she gets the idea of turning his California villa into an art gallery to share with all the world.

Hold on a minute. That isn’t exactly how it happened. Getty died in 1976, three years after Paul’s abduction and two years after the Getty Museum was founded — by Getty, not by Gail. And it was his son J. Paul II, not Gail, who negotiated with his father for the ransom. Moreover, Getty provided three legitimate reasons for not paying the ransom. First, he had 14 grandchildren, and he felt that paying the ransom would put all of them at risk. Second, he believed that giving in to the demands of criminals leads inevitably to increased hijacking, lawlessness, and terror. The third and most compelling reason was that, far from being the favorite, Paul had been something of a hippie and a bum, was estranged from his grandfather, and had often joked about faking a kidnapping to get money from the billionaire. Getty, ever careful with his money, initially wanted to call Paul’s bluff. Once he knew that Paul was truly kidnapped, he negotiated with the kidnappers and paid the money. Getty does present these reasons in the movie, but because Paul has been established as a favorite (and because the audience has seen that the kidnapping is real) the arguments seem callous, uncaring, and heartless.

It’s true that Getty was frugal to a fault, but he was also a risk-taker who earned his billions. He invested $50 million in his Middle East oil fields before they finally paid off. No one would have bailed him out if his oil wells hadn’t come in. And he recognized his weaknesses. He often lamented the fact that he wasn’t a good husband. He is quoted in Psychology Today as having said, “I hate to be a failure. I hate and regret the failure of my marriages. I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success."

The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping.

If you can set all this aside and watch All the Money in the World as a work of fiction, you could probably enjoy it. Gail is a strong, indefatigable heroine. Getty is a mean, despicable villain. Paul is a sweet, likable victim. Chase is a character who undergoes change. The acting is topnotch, and the story is tight and suspenseful. But as a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists in general. I’m always puzzled by how hateful Hollywood capitalists are toward capitalists in any other field.

Another biopic with a liberal sociopolitical agenda and a sketchy hold on the truth is The Post. Once again we see a film about a real person that is heavily skewed to fit Hollywood’s culturally acceptable storyline, whether it’s true or not. In this case, the story is “women were oppressed in the ’60s.” The “oppressed woman” is Katharine Graham, the powerful Pulitzer-Prize-winning publisher of the Washington Post during its most successful and influential decades.

In the mid-1960s, Daniel Ellsberg was a military analyst working on a top-secret study of classified documents about the war in Vietnam. What Ellsberg discovered was a trail of misrepresentations and outright lies about US involvement in Southeast Asia stretching as far back as the Truman administration. This 7,000-page study would become known as the Pentagon Papers. The gist of the story was that everyone knew that Vietnam was a war the US could not win, but no one wanted to be associated with defeat, so they kept offering platitudes like “our progress over the past twelve months has exceeded our expectations” when they knew we were losing ground. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

As a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists.

Disillusioned by what he discovered, Ellsberg began systematically sneaking the report out of the offices a few folders at a time over the course of several months, right under the noses of the guards. After copying the originals and returning them to their filing cabinets, Ellsberg made the papers available to several antiwar congressmen before offering them to Neil Sheenan of the New York Times, who wrote a series of nine articles containing excerpts and commentaries. But before the second story could be published, a federal court issued a restraining order and shut the story down, citing national security violations and threatening felony indictments if the Times published another installment.

Ellsberg had made numerous sets of copies, and offered them to several publications. The restraining order applied specifically to the Times, leaving the door ajar for the Washington Post and other papers to publish. Maybe.

This is where The Post begins. The movie is not so much about what the Pentagon Papers contained or Ellsberg’s role in obtaining them as it is about the Post’s decision about whether to defy the implicit injunction and run the story. At the center of the conflict are publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and Graham’s close advisor Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), who was in the middle of helping Graham take the Post public when the story broke. Not only was freedom of the press at stake, but Graham stood to lose millions of dollars if the sale of shares in the Post fell through.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

Standing trial in this film are both the New York Times and the stifling cultural setting of the 1960s — especially the upper-class 1960s. Streep’s Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female. She’s tentative, indecisive, often close to tears as she faces decisions. In one scene, Beebe coaches her on what to say in a meeting with potential investors. She writes the phrases down on a notepad so she won’t forget them. She fumbles as she enters the boardroom, unsure where to put her armful of books and notes. And when the time comes to say her words, she stares at them on the notepaper, unable to give them voice. Beebe, noticing how flustered she is, steps in and makes the point for her.

As a 21st-century audience with 21st-century sensibilities about women, we aren’t comfortable with Graham’s discomfort. We want her to be bold and take charge. We don’t like seeing her walk behind three male colleagues as they virtually snub her, and having her take it without so much as a roll of her eye or a clenching of her jaw. We don’t like the fact that she seems clumsy and always out of breath. We also aren’t comfortable with the way she inherited the Post, almost as an afterthought, from her grandfather to her father to her husband and finally, when no one else was left, to her.

Kay Graham was a skilled hostess and socialite at a time when a woman’s home and children were a reflection of herself. At a social gathering of ladies, one woman asks Kay, “How do you find time for everything when you go to the office all day?” My audience groaned, but these women were serious. Similarly, at a dinner party, as soon as the conversation turns to politics, the hostess calls out cheerily, “That’s our cue to leave the table, ladies!” And they do — cheerily.

Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female.

This scene reminded me of being invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a wealthy college classmate in Chevy Chase, a posh neighborhood near DC, in 1972, just a year after this film takes place. After dinner I went into the TV room with my then-boyfriend, where all the men were watching football. Soon the matron of the house called to me from the doorway, “Wouldn’t you like to join the women in the living room?” I was enjoying the men’s conversation and told her I was comfortable where I was. Undaunted, she coaxed again, suggesting that I might want to join the cousins for board games. Finally, exasperated, she sent me to the playroom with a trumped-up message about cake and ice cream for the children. I had no idea at the time that men and women were supposed to separate after dinner.

But this was Kay Graham’s life — or so the filmmakers would like us to believe. It fits the social narrative that women are victims. And there is some support for this characterization of Graham. In her memoirs, she said of her father’s decision to give the paper to her husband, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” She also confesses to having lacked confidence in her own decisions and having been slighted by the men in the room during business meetings. Streep presents these weaknesses to a fault in the film.

While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically.

But Graham was a cagey, crafty woman. Notice that she didn’t say, “It never crossed my mind that I was capable of taking on an important job at the paper.” She said, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me” as such. The remark says more about her father than it does about her. Similarly, if men slighted her in business meetings, she would have considered that a condemnation of them, not herself. I asked a friend of mine, a publisher who was part of the news scene in Washington during the decades when Graham ran the Post, what he thought of her. Without thinking twice, he said, “She was strong, demanding, and hard to work for.” Not for one second did he buy Meryl Streep’s characterization of Kay Graham as timid and indecisive.

The characterization of Kay Graham isn’t my only complaint about The Post. While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically. Let’s face it: this is a piece about writing. And talking. And talking about writing. There isn’t much action, and Spielberg is an action director. He does what he can to spice it up with odd camera angles, mood lighting, and naturalistic acting techniques. But it doesn’t quite work. The movie does pick up in the second half, when they’re racing against time to read the Pentagon Papers and meet the Post’s front page deadline. But again — it’s about reading. And talking about what they’re reading. This film would also be difficult to follow for someone who doesn’t already know the story. Spielberg provides precious little exposition, and if you didn’t already know who key players are from their names, you wouldn’t be able to figure it out from the context.

Nevertheless, The Post has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture for Spielberg and Best Actress for Streep. And if it weren’t for the fact that she so utterly misrepresents Kay Graham, I might agree. It’s a stellar piece of acting. Streep is famous for listening attentively and stepping into the conversation before her partner has completed his lines — as though she just thought of something and can’t wait to say it. But when Hanks parrots back the same style, the result seems forced and competitive. I’m crossing my fingers for Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (see my review, “Knights in Dark Satin”) if only because I don’t want to be lectured about politics even one more time by Meryl Streep.

In creating their political parable, Spielberg and screenwriter Liz Hannah are about as subtle as the Old Spice aftershave your father used to wear. They want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House. They do this by presenting the cultural victimhood of women, the importance of whistleblowers, the so-called separation of the “fourth estate,” and the suspicious, paranoid personality of the president in the White House.

But let’s examine these so-called similarities. MeToo movement aside, women have made gigantic strides in journalism, medicine, boardrooms, academia, politics, and just about every field except perhaps moviemaking, where the casting couch is finally airing its dirty linen. Whistleblowers are back too, but they don’t need the New York Times to break their stories. Wikileaks, YouTube, cable news, and Project Veritas are just a few of the current outleats for non-mainstream voices.

The filmmakers want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House.

And journalists are still in bed with the stories they cover. The Grahams frequently socialized with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, Robert McNamara, and other leaders in Washington. Their stories were influenced by their friendships. The Post went after Nixon with a vengeance, but looked the other way at the Kennedy men’s sexual infidelities and Bob McNamara’s part in the Vietnam War. In the movie, Ben Bradlee glances wistfully at personal photographs taken with the Kennedys and declares, “The days of smoking cigars together are over,” suggesting that journalists would now become objective and trustworthy — that today’s mainstream media are objective and trustworthy. Spielberg might like to think that’s true, but it isn’t. Journalists and Hollywood types continue to fawn over their favorite politicians, especially the Clintons and the Obamas, but also including Donald Trump (if they want to get an interview).

George Orwell selected the title of his famous dystopian novel by flopping the publication date, 1948, to create 1984, and Spielberg likes to point out the similar connection between 1971 and 2017 to emphasize his allegorical connection between Nixon and Trump. (In fact, he rushed production of The Post in order to release it in 2017.) Nixon is portrayed as the bad guy in this film, going off on a tirade against the press and banning all Washington Post reporters from ever entering the White House again. (These are Nixon’s own words, by the way, using audio from the Oval Office tapes, although we don’t know the context of the recording; was he banning them because of the Pentagon Papers or because Post reporter and future “Miss Manners” columnist Judith Martin crashed his daughter Tricia’s wedding?) President Trump’s paranoid war against the press, tweeting diatribes in the middle of the night, and threatening to close down the mainstream media, come inevitably to mind.

Ironically, Richard Nixon was the president who finally had the courage to end the draft and the war in Vietnam, and therefore he should be considered the hero in the Pentagon Papers. But Nixon’s brooding paranoia would not allow him to let Ellsberg get away with being a whistleblower. Hoping to tarnish Ellsberg’s reputation, Nixon’s lackeys broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, searching for records that would impugn his mental heath. That break-in led to the Watergate investigation, Nixon’s downfall, and the Post’s biggest story. Could a similar downfall be on the horizon for Trump?


Editor's Note: Reviews of "All the Money in the World," directed by Ridley Scott. Imperative Entertainment, 2017, 132 minutes; and "The Post," directed by Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, 2017, 116 minutes.



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What Followed the Triple Axel

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In America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, you can be anything you want to be, if you just dream big enough and try hard enough. Right.

Well, not quite.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team. Ross Miner did just that on January 7, skating a nearly perfect program to a rousing medley of Queen songs that earned him a silver medal behind 18-year-old skating phenom Nathan Chen and his five quadruple jumps. No one was going to beat Chen; silver was the new gold in 2018.

To win that silver medal, Miner had to be perfect. And he was. From the exquisitely light landing of his opening quad-salchow to the high, tight rotations of his triple lutz-triple toe to the musicality of his footwork and the unusual entrances into his fast, centered spins, Miner was perfect. No panic, no worry, he was “cool, relaxed, got hip, got on his tracks” as the lyrics sang during his footwork pattern. In figure skating there’s a term called “peaking at the right moment,” and Miner did. He laid out a perfect program when he needed it most: the national championships leading into the Olympics.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team.

Miner handily beat bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and pewter medalist Adam Rippon. At 17, Zhou has the quads but not the musicality of a seasoned skater; at 28, Rippon has the seasoned performance quality, but he choked when it counted, falling on his quad and popping two of his planned triples into singles. It was a devastating moment, one sure to haunt him for the rest of his life.

But hold on. Ross Miner didn’t make the Olympic team. He’ll be in South Korea as an alternate behind Zhou and Rippon. Unlike what happens in track and field, swimming, skiing, and just about any other sport, winning at U.S. Figure Skating Nationals doesn’t guarantee you a trip to the Olympics. In figure skating that decision is made behind closed doors by a committee that examines the skaters’ “body of work” to decide who is most likely to bring home a medal. And this season they’re betting on Rippon. Thanks for the memories, Ross. See ya later.

Selection by committee instead of competition also allows the judges to keep out the riffraff, which they weren’t able to do in 1994, when national gold medalist Tonya Harding, accused of masterminding the attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan, sued the United States Figure Skating Association for her right to compete on the US team in Lillehammer, Norway. Under the new rules, she would not have been able to sue, because medaling would not have guaranteed her a spot.

But that wasn’t the first time the judges tried to keep Harding down. A jumping powerhouse from the time she was a child and the first woman to land a triple axel at Nationals, Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted. She wasn’t “an old timey version of what a woman is supposed to be.” There was a hard edge about her that came from growing up in hard circumstances. She had thick thighs, over-permed hair, and heavy makeup; her practice outfits were too garish, her music too brash, and her performance dresses too full of froufrou. She practiced in a shopping mall ice rink. Instead of taking her under their wing and helping her succeed, the judges brushed her aside with low scores and hoped she would go away.

Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted.

Nancy Kerrigan was the opposite of Tonya Harding. She wore simple practice dresses and elegant performance dresses, pulled her sleek hair back into a bun, selected classical music for her routines, and even had her tiny front teeth capped to please the judges and develop the proper “look” for ladies’ skating. She was a skilled, elegant skater as well, with confident jumps and her trademark hand-on-knee spiral that young skaters liked to imitate. But more than anything, she had the look. The judges loved her.

Everyone knows what happened next: a goon named Shawn Eckardt hired another goon named Shane Stant to clobber Nancy Kerrigan with a collapsible baton during practice just two days before the senior ladies’ competition at Nationals in 1994. Eckardt was Harding’s bodyguard and the best friend of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding was blamed and her career was over. As the US gold medalist, she successfully sued to compete at Lillehammer. But at her ensuing trial she would be banned for life from any USFSA competitions, events, or activities.

Although pleas were entered and verdicts were pronounced in the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure. Eckardt was a self-important blowhard who insisted he had done espionage work for the CIA. Gillooly would have turned in his own mother to stay out of prison. Harding would have done the same to save her career and compete in the Olympics. In a situation like this there’s a tendency for the brain to rearrange its memories in a way that defends and protects its host; I doubt that Tonya Harding really knows what she knew, and when she knew it.

All of this is chronicled admirably in the new film I, Tonya. Libertarians will see an ironic connection in this title that is probably unintentional; just as no one person can make a pencil, no one person is responsible for the making of Tonya Harding. She is the product of poverty and poor education, abandonment by her father, beating by her mother, more beating by her husband, and unfair judging in a sport that was the only good thing in her life. I’m not defending her here; what happened to Kerrigan is inexcusable. But I am strangely sympathetic to her as a tragic hero who fell so far and so hard.

In the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure.

The film uses the mockumentary interview format made popular by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest in such films as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. This fictionalized interview style is exactly the right choice for presenting a story that relies so completely on unreliable narrators who think they have a lock on the truth. The result is a film that’s as funny as it is tragic.

We see the same kind of delusional defensiveness in the mock interviews with Tonya’s mother, LaVona Harding (Allison Janney). “She skated better when she was enraged,” she explains, justifying her harsh treatment of Tonya, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her (the real LaVona denies the knife throwing, but she acknowledges and justifies the “spankings”). When Tonya’s coach suggests that a ladylike demeanor might help Tonya fit in more with the other skaters, LaVona shouts, “Tonya doesn’t fit in. She stands out!” When LaVona thinks Tonya needs a little more determination to prove herself on the ice, she pays a fan to heckle her own daughter. She is cold, cruel, and unintentionally comical, and Janney plays her to the hilt of the knife she flings into Tonya’s arm.

The other characters are equally entertaining in a “stranger-than-fiction” sort of way. It’s like watching skating’s equivalent of a 20-car pileup: you just can’t look away. And it does offer a plausible backstory that makes Harding (played at different ages by Maizie Smith, McKenna Grace, and Margot Robbie) a more sympathetic character as a battered woman, bullied by everyone around her, than the one we’ve seen in documentaries over the past 24 years.

“She skated better when she was enraged,” Harding's mom explains, justifying her harsh treatment of her daughter, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her.

As a former skating mom, I remember the meanness of certain skaters, the prejudice of certain judges, the “acceptable” sabotage that often went on in dressing rooms. I taught my daughter to hold her head up, skate her best, and act as though everyone liked her. Eventually, everyone did. But a girl as socially inept as Tonya, with an ex-husband as hotheaded as Gillooly and a bodyguard as delusional as Eckart might almost be forgiven for . . . um . . . Nope. Not forgivable.

Nevertheless, the film has become something of a darling among the feminist set who are determined this year to make heroes out of victims with vaginas, even one who may have ordered a hit on another victim of the same gender. The black-dress ladies fawned over Tonya at the Golden Globes and are likely to do the same at future awards events this season. Watching the real Tonya Harding skate her landmark 1991 program as the movie credits rolled, seeing the joy on her face as she landed her triple axel and completed a clean program, I could almost agree with them. It was all so senseless. She didn’t need to beat Kerrigan to beat Kerrigan.


Editor's Note: Review of "I, Tonya," directed by Craig Gillespie. Clubhouse Pictures, 2017, 120 minutes.



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