Still Amazing After All These Years

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Nearly 50 years ago I was a high school student working my first summer job as a maid-waitress-cook at a rustic lodge in the Trinity Alps of northern California. The lodge was owned and still under construction by one of my high school teachers. My sister had worked there for a week and gone home, saying it was too much for too little. I stuck it out for another three weeks, until one evening when a coworker badly mistreated me. I fled the lodge and walked three miles to the nearest phone to call my parents and ask them to come get me. I then trudged the three miles back to where I had been working so they would be able to find me (life before cellphones!). It was July 20, 1969. I looked up through the trees at the starry sky, totally unaware that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were about to touch down on the moon. Because of my call, my father missed the moon landing on TV. He never let me forget it.

Watching First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new film with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong making his way to that historic step onto the moon, I finally understood why my father was so upset. What a glorious, terrifying, awe-inspiring moment that was, and we sense it with more caution than elation as Armstrong hesitates on the final rung of the ladder before finally stepping down onto the dusty landscape. I don’t know whether Chazelle got it right, but he certainly got it impressively — the absolute quiet of space, the broad expanse and rugged terrain of the moon’s surface, the suspenseful risk of training, the view from the cockpit. And the musical score by Justin Hurwitz, who has worked with Chazelle on four award-winning films, works perfectly throughout the film.

So much could have gone wrong — and did, along the way.

For two hours the film builds to that moment when Armstrong steps onto the moon, demonstrating that it was more harrowing than glorious. So much could have gone wrong — and did, along the way. The film opens with Armstrong fighting to control his X-15 supersonic jet and land it without crashing. Training requires astronauts to practice precision tasks while spinning at such dizzying speeds that it’s a race against the inevitable moment when they will pass out. As the men are strapped into the Gemini module before taking off to practice docking in space, we expect to see the excitement and jubilation of astronauts finally realizing their little-boy dreams. Instead, their faces are subdued, focused, and even a bit apprehensive. And with good reason: despite all their earthbound preparations, there was no guarantee that they would return successfully. Indeed, numerous pilots had died during the testing phase. The space race was a grim undertaking, punctuated by moments of exhilaration, performed against a backdrop of angry protestors chanting against the enormous financial and personal cost.

Armstrong is calm, almost emotionless, as he contends with the rigors of space travel, the tragedy of a child’s death, and the stoicism of his wife Janet (Claire Foy). He can roughhouse with his young sons, but he can’t tell them he loves them. As he leaves for the moon, he hugs one son but shakes hands with the other. Such passionless focus is a strength, not a weakness, for someone in his position; Armstrong’s ability to think and react impassively in an emergency is a primary reason for his success, and Gosling portrays him masterfully.

But as an audience we want our heroes to be exciting and outgoing. My husband happened to meet Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins a few months later during their victory tour around the world. He was in Colombia at the time, and called out Armstrong’s name in his strong American English. As Mark describes it, Armstrong turned with a broad, winning smile and shook his hand vigorously before rejoining the parade. The weighty burden of weightless space had lifted for a while, and he could enjoy the gravitas of what he and the others had accomplished.

Raising the American flag and leaving it on the moon as a reminder of who got there first was a huge deal. It did not “transcend countries and borders.”

The quietness of Armstrong’s character makes the film less compelling and may explain the reason for poor turnout on opening weekend. It’s more likely that the poor turnout was owing to the controversy that preceded opening weekend. You’ve probably heard the disgruntled rumblings about the flag on the moon being left out of the movie, so let me address the controversy right here: yes, the American flag does appear on the moon in the film. It’s distant, and it’s small, but it’s there. Rumors about the flag’s absence began shortly after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, when audiences waited expectantly for that iconic moment. It didn’t happen, and social media exploded with boycott-laden outrage. (I don’t know whether the film was re-edited after the festival, or if audiences were simply expecting more, but the flag is definitely in the scene now.) Gosling explained in an interview that the moon landing “transcended countries and borders [and]… was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement,” so that’s why they didn’t include the flag-raising moment.

This is pure 21st-century poppycock, of course. Competition with the Russians was the driving force behind the space program, and the reason JFK dedicated so many billions of dollars for it. The Russians were ahead of the Americans nearly every step of the way. Raising the American flag and leaving it on the moon as a reminder of who got there first was a huge deal. It did not “transcend countries and borders.” It was the reason we were there. Chazelle and company should not have minimized it into a kumbaya moment of one-world humanism. Moreover, in his zeal to turn American exceptionalism into ordinary human accomplishment, Chazelle missed a great opportunity to make his statement — with the flag. Armstrong’s biography recounts how the astronauts struggled to assemble the malfunctioning flagpole. That struggle could have been presented as a metaphor for 21st-century American politics and the difficulty of raising the flag today.

First Man is a good film with some great special effects and fine acting all around. Jason Clarke is especially good as Ed White, and Corey Stoll is feisty as Buzz Aldrin. Claire Foy, best known for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in the excellent Netflix series The Crown, is wonderful as the stoic yet passionate Janet Armstrong. And with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing just six months away, I’m happy that this film has been made.


Editor's Note: Review of "First Man," directed by Damien Chazelle. Universal Pictures, 2018, 141 minutes.



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Elizabeth Warren’s Comedy Act

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I thought that American politics couldn’t get any funnier, but of course I was wrong. And right now, the funniest politician is actually the sour, self-righteous Elizabeth Warren.

Long ridiculed by President Trump, and millions of other people, for claiming to be an American Indian, Warren has now triumphantly released a study of her DNA. According to the Stanford professor who analyzed the data, “the facts suggest that [she] absolutely [has] Native American ancestry in [her] pedigree.”

Warren could have as much as 1/64th Indian ancestry. So just make that cup 1/64th full.

“Pedigree”? Oh well. But the unwary reader may conclude, as Warren appears to have concluded, that her Native American “heritage” has now been authenticated. But that’s ridiculous — for two reasons.

One is that the purported percentage of her Indian ancestry is a whopping 1/1024th. That’s right — one part in a thousand.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, please!”

“Fill it up?”

“Not quite. Just make it 1/1024th full.”

All right, I distorted the hard, scientific “data.” Warren could have as much as 1/64th Indian ancestry. So just make that cup 1/64th full.

Even the TV actors who burble about “discovering their Swedish heritage” by taking a DNA test and learning that they’re 40% Swedish aren’t as absurd as this US Senator.

The second ridiculosity is the whole notion of “heritage” based on genes. Culture has nothing to do with your body. But suppose it did. If you need to have your DNA analyzed to find out whether you’ve inherited some cultural characteristic, then you haven’t.

Even the TV actors who burble about “discovering their Swedish heritage” by taking a DNA test and learning that they’re 40% Swedish aren’t as absurd as this US Senator. But given her total lack of self-awareness (which is nothing unusual, given her occupation), I suppose it won’t take her long to appear on television to inform the other hundred million Americans who are at least 1/1000th Indian that now, because of the wonders of science, they too can discover who they really are — and prove it, by ending their long night of discrimination and electing one of their own (guess who?) as president.

We are all Indians now.




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Unite and Conquer

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October 8. Gavin Newsom, “progressive” candidate for governor of California, in debate with his Republican opponent, said this about President Trump’s proposed border wall: “The wall is intended to divide this country.”

October 8. Tucker Carlson, conservative pundit, said this about the attitudes of “progressive” Democrats, who, he asserted, wished to divide the nation: “Only a nation divided between warring tribes can be ruled effectively.”

The root concept is “divide and conquer” — a phrase frequently heard on both sides of the recent Kavanaugh-Ford slugfest.

How exactly did it work? If you were a Republican, you divided the Democrats, and then you conquered them?

I first encountered that cliché when I was in high school. It appeared in discussions of political strategy, and it seemed to make sense. If you were the emperor of Russia, you would naturally be looking for ways to divide the Austrians from the Prussians, so you could, if you wished, conquer them one at a time, or let them try to conquer each other. Books told me that “divide and conquer” was what Napoleon set out to do, and sometimes did, to the powers of Europe. And the “divide and conquer” idea often came up in comments about American political affairs.

But I always had a bad feeling about it. How exactly did it work? If you were a Republican, you divided the Democrats, and then you conquered them? How did you do that? What happened to the various pieces of the Democrats? Did some of them vote for you? Maybe. But wasn’t that just another way of saying that some of them liked you better than their own party?

The best example appeared to be the election of 1860, when the Democratic Party came apart and nominated two rival candidates, producing a contest in which the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency with less than 40% of the vote. Yet there was still a problem with the concept. Lincoln hadn’t divided the Democrats; they had divided and conquered one another, and he was happy to pick up whatever votes he could get out of the mess.

Another possible divide-and-conquer situation was the election of 1968, when disaffected Democrats allegedly elected Richard Nixon by not showing up to vote for Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. But Nixon hadn’t concocted some scheme to fund Vietnam War protestors while encouraging Humphrey to maintain his fatal support of the war. Nixon simply continued to support the war himself, while promising that he had a secret plan to end it. He didn’t divide his opponents and conquer them; he just got more votes than they did.

Lincoln didn't divide the Democrats; they divided and conquered one another, and he was happy to pick up whatever votes he could get out of the mess.

Now, imagine that you are Abraham Lincoln or Richard Nixon or any current, down-at-the-heels partisan politician, the kind of person of whom Tucker Carlson spoke in his October 8 TV program, calling them “hacks and joiners and drones.” If that’s you, would you rather “divide and conquer” your opponents, or simply get them to join your side and vote for you? The latter, surely. Even a Russian emperor would have preferred his opponents to join him instead of opposing either him or one another. That’s why the European powers contracted holy alliances. They would rather be allies than competitors, so long as they could maintain their power. This is human nature.

Coming down to the present, and Newsom and Carlson’s comments: why would Trump want to divide the country, instead of getting most of it to support him? Why would the Democrats find it easier to rule a nation “divided between warring tribes”? Does this make sense?

Suppose that you’re a modern “intersectional” foe of Republicans, and you’re trying to arouse antagonism to them by asserting that because they are “opposed to women,” they are also opposed to “senior citizens,” “people of color,” “the LGBTQ community,” “undocumented immigrants,” “working people,” and, for all I know, Finnish-Americans. Your goal may be to conquer, but it certainly isn’t to set the Finnish-Americans against the African-Americans, and the African-Americans against the immigrants. It’s to get as many groups as possible onto your side. You may call your opponents racists and sexists and so on, but that’s not because you want to divide the racists from the sexists; it’s because you want to shame, scare, and neutralize people who, you think, will never vote for you anyway. But this is not “divide and conquer”; it’s just denouncing your opponents.

Even a Russian emperor would have preferred his opponents to join him instead of opposing either him or one another.

If you want to understand how things really work, picture the two great American political parties as a pair of vacuum cleaners, roaring back and forth across the continent, sweeping up every vote and dollar that’s not nailed down. There isn’t any vote that they don’t want. Republicans can and do actively court gay and black voters; Democrats court evangelicals and conservative Catholics by quoting fondly from the Bible. This is not divide and conquer. This is unite and conquer. Each party dotes on the idea of “uniting this great country.” And neither is kidding about that. They want the whole thing, if they can get it.

I can’t picture Hillary Clinton holding a meeting in which she said, “To defeat Trump, we have to set the women against the gays, and the blacks against the Hispanics. It’s divide and conquer!” But I can picture her holding a meeting in which she said, “How can we ensure that all gays, blacks, Hispanics, soccer moms, overpaid executives, mainline pastors, police unions, publishers of provincial newspapers, Medicare patients, millennials, techies, former prison inmates, police unions, farmers, professors of Harvard college, and did I mention soccer moms, will support me? How can we unite them all behind us?” Again, this is not divide and conquer.

Akin to “divide and conquer” is the idea that politicians willfully create enemies so that they can unify their followers in opposition to the hated foes whom they have conceptually divided from the rest of the populace. This also is a strange idea, when you think about it. Yes, politicians are always attacking “enemies”; they blame things on “enemies”; and “enemies” are sometimes politically useful. But I can hardly think of a case in which politicians have simply created enemies in order to oppose them. Hillary Clinton denounced the “deplorables,” doubtless intending to inspire the non-deplorables to more fervent efforts on her behalf. But she wasn’t trying to manufacture an enemy; she was identifying enemies that she thought she already had.

Picture the two great American political parties as a pair of vacuum cleaners, roaring back and forth across the continent, sweeping up every vote and dollar that’s not nailed down.

Perhaps — and this is a big perhaps — Hitler gained massive political support by attacking the Jews. But he didn’t attack the Jews just because he thought that by doing so he would unite the other Germans. He attacked the Jews because he had a maniacal hatred of them. (And no, I am not — I repeat, not — making a moral equation between Adolf Hitler and Hillary Clinton.)

The current American antifa orgs are not attacking speakers who disagree with them in college forums, or people who happen to drive down the streets of Portland while they are showing off, because they want to arouse support by creating common enemies. They attack people who disagree with them because they don’t like people who disagree with them. They attack random motorists because they are in the way, and because they themselves are angry. This is not the arbitrary creation of enemies. This is self-expression, of a peculiarly non-strategic kind.

I suppose — indeed, I know — that I should now try to account for the fact that many intelligent people think that “divide and conquer” and “make up enemies” are profound and potent concepts, crucial to the understanding of political processes. But I can’t.




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By the Sword

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We’re a society that worships brute force. We distrust peaceful and reasonable persuasion. The Brett Kavanaugh mess really brings that home.

The judicial nominating process overemphasizes abortion. Concentrating on Roe v. Wade — whether for or against it — only guarantees that we’ll continue to be a force-based society. That we’ll go right on obsessing over what the government will permit us to do, or force us not to do.

As a Christian, I believe that abortion is wrong — except when, to save the life of the mother, it becomes a sad necessity. But were I to decide against having an abortion, it would make a tremendous difference to me whether I was free to make my decision on conviction or under compulsion. By making the repeal of Roe v. Wade the holy grail of the pro-life movement, we who do oppose abortion are behaving not like those who trust in Ultimate Truth, but like those who depend on brute force.

Concentrating on Roe v. Wade — whether for or against it — only guarantees that we’ll continue to be a force-based society.

The idea of being bullied into sex is so abhorrent to most women that we flinch at the testimony of Dr. Ford — regardless of whether we’re certain we believe her or not. But we’re being manipulated, and not very artfully. I’m used to this game — as a woman, and as a gay woman especially. I see through it, and I’m tired of it. Americans need to grow up and stop permitting themselves to be jerked around by raw emotional appeals.

The Kavanaugh proceedings degeneratedinto a circus. We were inundated with high school hijinks — real or imagined — from the early ’80s. The spectacle was degrading to everyone who got dragged into it. And we’ve all been in it up to our eyeballs.

For the record, I believe Brett Kavanaugh. I don’t find Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony the least bit credible. I can believe that she may have been assaulted, but she’s done nothing to prove that Kavanaugh was the culprit. Her motivation in fingering him seems, to me, blatantly political.

We’re being manipulated, and not very artfully.

The proceedings have been violent because the minds driving them are violent. They’re dominated by a toddlerish desire to dominate. The political competition has been tit for tat for so long that each side feels justified in being aggrieved by the aggression of the other. It no longer matters who started it, because no one wants to finish it.

Each side’s aggression is actually necessary, and even welcome, to its opponents. It provides the excuse for continuing to aggress. Where the abortion issue is concerned, the unborn are aggressed against — so others must aggress to defend them.

As far from them as I am on many issues, I can easily enter into progressive women’s minds. Under those funny pink hats, when it comes to the abortion wars they have a real concern. They think that with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, they’ll be pushed around.

The proceedings have been violent because the minds driving them are violent. They’re dominated by a toddlerish desire to dominate.

The sexual assault he is alleged to have attempted is a metaphor for what they believe he wants to do to them. If government force is brought to bear — no matter how justifiable its advocates think it will be — those against whom it would be used are going to see it as violence. And violence is exactly what it is.

I believe the abortion debate is winnable by the pro-life side. But its affinity for government brawn gives the distinct impression that it doesn’t trust its own argument. Yet until that argument is won, its dependence on force will only continue to work against it. If all nine Supreme Court justices were pro-life, that would not change.

Many people are surprised at the vehemence with which Kavanaugh’s nomination was opposed. Frankly, I’m surprised that they’re surprised. “Live by the sword, die by the sword” is an adage that used to be clearly understood. The political powers-that-be are forgetting it at everyone’s peril.




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Locked with a Hundred Keys

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Nothing makes me laugh harder than the falling out between Andrew McCabe, former acting director of the FBI, and Rod Rosenstein, deputy head of the Justice Department. McCabe apparently released government-owned memos to the press, indicating that Rosenstein wanted to tape President Trump’s conversations and oust him from office by means of the 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of insane potentates. Who would have thought that such grimly determined stereotypes of justice would make such public fools of themselves?

The funniest thing is the public nature of this conflict. Big men in Washington dwell in a castle surrounded by a mile-thick dead zone of official secrecy. Where there’s a secrecy rule, they use it; where there isn’t one, they make it up; where they want to violate it, they do. Now, however, it seems that every second member of the Party of Management and Control is spilling data for his own advantage.

It’s maddening, neverending, Kafkaesque — a sickening emblem of life within the modern state.

It’s happened before, of course. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page happily discussed leaks to the press. James Comey bragged about using a friend to leak classified material. The IRS leaked information about groups it didn’t like. Et cetera. Meanwhile, the nation at large awaits the “release,” as if from penal servitude, of material legally supposed to be free to the public — about Benghazi, about the FBI attack on conservative and libertarian groups, about the aforementioned conversations of Strzok, Page, and the other members of their coven, and about the FISA procedures used to spy on Trump and his campaign (as well as other persons and entities). Freedom of Information Act suits are won, court orders are issued, even the president orders the release of documents, but official after official still manages to sequester, slow-walk, and block for “review” and “clearance” thousands of documents that the people have a right to see. The excuse is that allowing this information to escape would reveal the methods of the government employees involved. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

It’s maddening, neverending, Kafkaesque — a sickening emblem of life within the modern state. It reminds me of the horrifying conditions of slavery, as portrayed by Abraham Lincoln. In a speech delivered on June 12, 1857 (I am not a worshiper of Lincoln, but this is one of his best speeches), he discussed the eagerness of Southerners to prevent the slave from ever, on any account, becoming free:

They have him in his prison-house; they have searched his person and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key — the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they have scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more difficult than it is.

Substitute truth for slave and the description fits the present case.

Even Trump is imprisoned. What he should do is take the FISA file, and any other file he wants to liberate, xerox it with his own hands, and throw it out to whoever wants it. But he doesn’t. Even he appears to be frightened of the torrent of truth he might unleash against our secret masters.




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Corporate “Compensation”

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On September 9, CBS announced that its CEO, Les Moonves was out the door. The cause was a second round of accusations of sexual misdeeds.

So what if he gets fired? But what struck me about the CBS report on his ouster was this:

A financial exit package for Moonves will be withheld pending the results of an ongoing investigation into the allegations against him. Moonves was eligible for as much as $180 million if fired without cause, according to an employment contract he signed in May 2017. Recent reports indicated a potential payout in the range of $100 million.

One hundred million dollars? One hundred eighty million dollars? This is something that libertarian theory should go to work on. How can a corporation possibly assume that anyone this side of Thomas Alva Edison is worth that amount of money? And remember, in this case the skill that is being rewarded in this egregious manner is simply that of throwing darts at demographics and guessing which TV shows will turn out to be popular. How many other people could do that just as well? To put it in another way: could you get somebody just as good with an exit package of $99 million? How about $99 thousand?

How can a corporation possibly assume that anyone this side of Thomas Alva Edison is worth that amount of money?

In every walk of elite life we see this ridiculous inflation of compensation. Even colleges and universities imagine that they can’t get anybody good if they don’t pay at least a million a year, and maybe ten million. And look at the outcome. In every walk of elite life we see seamless mediocrity, or worse

My own suspicion is that there’s a cartelization at work. These people stick together, raising their salaries by insisting that they won’t get paid less than the last one that got hired someplace. But that’s not enough to explain it. The corporate hiring committees — and the boards of directors, and the big investors — need to say what the hell is going on. Is this class solidarity gone wild? The class being the “made men” of the corporate world, whose pride demands that every goon in the mob gets as much grease as he possibly can.

And wait — that’s the amount of money he was going to get if he did a crummy job and they fired him. If they wanted to get rid of him.

But hey. Please don’t tell me that in a capitalist system, people are paid according to their financial value to the enterprise that employs them. Do you think that with anyone but Les Moonves at the helm, CBS would be $180 million poorer? And wait — that’s the amount of money he was going to get if he did a crummy job and they fired him. If they wanted to get rid of him. It wasn’t his ordinary compensation. I don’t know what that is. The article I cited says $70 million a year as “take home,” but what about the income that dropped into his portfolio?

No. Explanations that are economic in the narrow sense won’t work. There’s something more going on, something that can only be explained by a libertarian sociology — or maybe a libertarian pathology.




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Life is a Custard Pie

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"Life is a custard pie. Sometimes you get to eat it, and sometimes it smacks you right in the face." — Lori Heine

In my first eighteen months of life, I never took a step. I didn’t even crawl. Mom would set me down somewhere, and I would stay there, like a doll, until somebody picked me up again. My parents took me to the doctor to find out why I wasn’t walking yet. He told them to stop worrying over me, and to just let me do it when I got good and ready.

One afternoon, I sat out on our driveway, where I had been plunked. Beth Ann Kahn sat facing me, and we were playing. “Patty-cake, patty-cake . . . baker’s man,” I sang as she smacked each of my palms with hers — as if to compensate for not walking, since well before my first birthday I’d been an eloquent singer.

My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway.

“Bake me a cake as fast as you can,” Beth Ann murmured, casting a glance at the clown getting out of his car at the curb across the street. She scooted closer to me, watching the stranger in the polka-dotted jumpsuit.

“Hidy-ho, there, girlies!”

He waved a white-gloved hand.

The little girl who lived there was having a birthday party. My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway. Fwap-fwap . . . fwap-fwap went his gigantic, floppy shoes.

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

Beth Ann began to whimper. “That’s Curt the Clown,” my mom explained from the folding chair on our lawn. “I’ll bet he’s going to make animals out of balloons!”

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Beth Ann burst into tears. Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

“Oh, honey!” I heard Mom say.

“Where you goin’?” sniffled Beth Ann.

Curt the Clown was going to go inside, and I wouldn’t see him anymore. He was almost to the front door. Maybe I could catch him, if I ran!

The world flew past as I strained forward. Faster — faster! “Hey!” I called to the retreating clown. “Hey, there!”

I reached out for him. That was a mistake. Not just because he was still too far away, but because the driveway tilted. It rose up to meet me, and I landed smack on my chest.

I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

“Oh, my baby!” Mom swept me up into her arms. “You walked! You ran!”

Mrs. Kahn was out of the chair beside my mom’s and she had picked up Beth Ann. “Lori doesn’t do anything halfway,” she noted, holding her sobbing daughter close.

I scowled at Beth Ann. She was the baby. Mom hoisted me into the air and laughed. I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

For obvious reasons, I have loved clowns ever since. I’m well aware that many people think clowns are creepy. It’s become a sort of collectivist prejudice. We’re simply expected to find clowns creepy because “everybody” says so. But like everything collectivist, I think that anti-clown hysteria is creepy.

Curt the Clown has gone on to that great three-ring circus in the sky, so I can’t thank him personally for the role he played in getting me on my feet. But in his honor, I’m on a mission to redeem clowns’ reputation. I’ve written a young-adult novel, appropriately titled Good Clowns. It’s being published September 10.

The Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit.

Is Good Clowns a “libertarian” novel? It’s libertarian in spirit, if not in letter. Riley Brannigan, its 9-year-old heroine, is the daughter of professional clowns. She’s bullied for this at school, because most of the kids agree that “clowns are creepy.” In the parlance of young-adult fiction, my book takes on the issue of bullying.

“We’re a clown family,” Riley’s mother reminds her. “Clowns don’t fight.” This appears to put our heroine at a disadvantage, because the chief bully is more than willing to fight. But the Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit — which call for far more courage than violence.

The Brannigan family may not know they’re libertarians, but since I created them, they certainly are. I won’t give away too much of the plot, as I hope as many as possible will read through to the conclusion for themselves. In any case, may we all persevere in handling the political violence we face daily with dignity, grace, and wit. May we never take ourselves too seriously. And may we eat the custard pie more often than we take it in the face.




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Racism

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In 1979, undercover Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth noticed a phone number in a local newspaper in a small ad seeking members to begin a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He called the number and pretended to be a white supremacist, hoping to infiltrate the organization in order to thwart the rising violence against black residents in general and the black student union at the college in particular. Soon the KKK leader suggested that they meet in person. The only hitch? Ron Stallworth was black.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman tells the tale, and it’s a gripping, suspenseful, often humorous, and often troubling one. As the film narrates the story, KKK leader Walter Breachway (played in the movie by Ryan Eggold) eventually asks for a face-to-face meeting with Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son), Stallworth arranges for a white undercover narcotics cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to stand in for him. Yes, a black and a Jew both manage to infiltrate the hateful KKK by posing as the same white supremacist. Stallworth continues to talk with Walter by phone while Zimmerman continues to meet with Klan members in person, necessitating that their stories and even their voices match. Walter’s second in command, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), grows suspicious, or perhaps jealous, and as his sadistic streak surfaces we worry for Zimmerman’s life.

Director Lee chooses caricature rather than character with some of his KKK subjects, but after watching decades of black caricature on film, I can forgive him this hamhandedness.

During the course of his investigation Stallworth contacts David Duke himself (Topher Grace), then the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and future Louisiana State Representative. The boyish Grace, best known for the TV series That ’70s Show, plays Duke with perfect oblivion to his bigotry. Lee is a bit heavyhanded, however, in his determination to connect Duke’s rhetoric with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric.

Adam Driver provides a nuanced performance as the lapsed, nonchalant Jew forced to confront his feelings about his heritage when he is threatened simply because of his genetic stew. Corey Hawkins is fiery as Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael), and Laura Harrier channels Angela Davis luminously with her big round glasses and bigger round afro as Patrice Dumas, president of the black student union. Harry Belafonte is a standout as Jerome Turner, carrying with him the weary weight of his own decades in the civil rights movement. Director Lee chooses caricature rather than character with some of his KKK subjects, particularly the slack-jawed near-imbecile Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) and Walter’s perky, overweight, frilly aproned wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). But after watching decades of black caricature on film, I can forgive him this hamhandedness.

While the plot of BlackKKlansman covers just nine months in the 1970s, the story spans more than a century. It opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind, presents upsetting clips from Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the KKK, and ends with footage from the deadly riot in Charlottesville last year. And Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner provides a soft-spoken, emotional, and tender account of the horrifying 1916 lynching and burning of Jerome Washington in Waco, Texas.

If there is one underlying truth about racism, it is this: government is the Grand Wizard of bigotry.

I’m always a little uncomfortable and defensive when I see films like this; it’s important to be aware of black history, and I’m glad these stories are being recorded on film. But it feels as though I’m intruding somehow, as though all whites are being accused of the same ignorant, bigoted mindset that we see on the screen. In reality, of course, white supremacists represent a tiny minority of the population, while white voters, white activists, white teachers, and white politicians have worked vigorously in the cause of civil rights.

If there is one underlying truth about racism, it is this: government is the Grand Wizard of bigotry. Government legalized slavery and enforced the Fugitive Slave Law. Government institutionalized segregation through neighborhood-based public schools and “separate but equal” policies, and governments outlawed miscegenation. Government imposed poll taxes and voting questionnaires. Government grants and welfare in the 1960s were well-intentioned, but they incentivized single motherhood, established barriers to work through public assistance programs that were difficult to relinquish for an entry-level job, and created a dragnet rather than a safety net that virtually destroyed the black family in urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, activists — black and white, male and female — exercising their rights to free speech and open dialogue were the catalyst for change and inclusion. Freedom of speech is the most important right we have. It’s the foundation for all other rights. Yet too many activists today are turning to government to establish hate laws that limit free speech. These films seldom acknowledge the friendship and genuine concern felt by so many white Americans, or the fact that discovery of truth is a process. Lee gives a welcomed nod to this idea at the end of the film, but it takes a long time to get there. Still, BlacKkKlansman is well made and well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "BlacKkKlansman," directed by Spike Lee. Focus Features and Legendary World, 2018, 135 minutes.



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What I Learned when My Panera Closed

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On July 10, I walked into my local Panera shop to take out a turkey and avocado sandwich and was told that the place would be closing five days later. I hadn’t been prepared for that.

As you probably know, Panera is a chain of sandwich shops. The menu is limited but tasty. You can take out or eat in, and if you choose the latter, the seating is pretty comfortable. Food is moderately priced. I visited Panera about twice a week, usually to take something out but sometimes to sit down and enjoy one of the small hot breakfast sandwiches — scrambled egg (or over easy) with bacon and cheese.

I have no moral objection to maximizing one’s profits. Yet I remembered what I’d seen in my Panera during its busy hours.

But now I’d have to find another place for such minor pleasures and conveniences, and that wouldn’t be easy. My Panera was only 1,000 steps from where I live. I didn’t want to get up early on Saturday morning and drive someplace for a breakfast sandwich. And if I wanted to get something on my way home, I didn’t feel like driving six miles out of my way, to the now-nearest Panera. My life would change — only a little, but not for better. I liked the people who worked at my Panera, and they liked me enough to give me advance notice of their closing. I was glad to hear that places had been found for them in other Paneras. But I would miss them.

Why was my Panera closing? “We do a good business in the morning and afternoon, but as you know, the place is sort of empty after 6 pm.” All right; I have no moral objection to maximizing one’s profits. Yet I remembered what I’d seen in my Panera during its busy hours.

The knitting club that occupied several tables once or maybe twice a week. The perpetual Scrabble people. Quite a few people meeting for cards. The basically-gay Meet Up every Saturday morning, where anyone could sit around and talk with anyone without fear of embarrassment. The low-income families who regarded Panera as a luxury restaurant. The old lady who infested the place, plumping her bag down at a table and then wandering around finding ways to talk to strangers — complimenting their hairstyles or their boyfriends or their reading matter and generally making herself a nuisance. But who can tell? Maybe the people who were nice to her — and everyone was, except me, who always hid in a book at her close approach — really valued her attentions.

What would happen to her, now that the place was closing? What would happen to the knitters and the Scrabblers and the chatters? Where would they go?

Change happens. Business decisions are made. But the loss of my Panera made me realize, though not for the first time, how precious what they call capitalist business is.

When you drive through the great heartland of America and stop to take a piss or buy a hamburger at McDonald’s, you often find that you’re in the place where the whole town hangs out. If it weren’t for McDonald’s, where would the farmers get together to gripe about their crops? Where would the teenagers woo and scream? Where would the church ladies plot their next fundraiser? Maybe in the church basement, if they were forced to do so. But they’d rather go to McDonald’s.

Before my Panera, there was another restaurant in that space, a very nice Italian restaurant. It moved to another place in town, and I could no longer walk there to eat. So that was a loss. Change happens. Business decisions are made. But the loss of my Panera made me realize, though not for the first time, how precious what they call capitalist business is.

How precious, and how fragile. I know of towns where nearly all the businesses have died. Try being an old person in a town like that, and wanting to go someplace to get some coffee. Or see people you know. To just get out of the house! A capitalist business gives you a way to do all that. In fact, capitalist businesses give you most of the pleasures in your life. Yes, they may go away, but the biggest problem is that when they do, you’re left with the things that won’t go away, which are the non-capitalist businesses. There are towns I know where the only things open are the police station, the DMV, and the welfare bureau.

So that’s what I learned when my Panera closed. Maybe it will be replaced by an even friendlier focus of the neighborhood. I hope so. I hope that the obnoxious old Panera lady will find someplace pleasant to spend her days. If she does, it will almost undoubtedly be because some capitalist wanted her business. And mine.




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Eerie Sounds and Apparitions

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How strange our political people are!

Their strangeness isn’t enough to make their lives interesting. Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, the many Roosevelts — all had fascinating lives, no matter how you assess them. Robert Novak, the political commentator, wrote a fascinating account of his own life. But who wants to read a biography of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Charles Schumer or Nancy Pelosi or Chris Matthews or George F. Will?

Yet such people have the power to create those uncanny moments that shake one’s faith in a rationally comprehensible world. It’s as if one heard a voice from the closet, calling, “Eat more rocks!” What? you wonder. What was that? The voice said what?

Brennan has repeatedly denounced Trump for denouncing people in the same way in which he himself denounces Trump.

On August 18, John Brennan, former CEO of the CIA, said something that has had me reading his words over and over, trying to figure them out — but it just isn’t possible

Since the 2016 election, Brennan has made a lot of statements that were over the top, especially statements about Donald Trump, who failed to reappoint him to any leading office in the secret police. He has repeatedly denounced Trump for denouncing people in the same way in which he himself denounces Trump. Responding to Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, where Trump neglected either to denounce Putin for interference in the 2016 election or to bomb the former Soviet Union back into the Stone Age, Brennan tweeted (July 16):

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

That was enough to indicate that although Brennan spent his official life trying to identify people who were committing treason, he has no idea of how treason is defined. (See Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution.) The message showed his incompetence as well as his aptitude for slander. But it was not impossible to understand.

On August 18, however, he went on Rachel Maddow’s show and moved boldly into the realm of the surreal. Maddow noted, quite sensibly, that he had accused Trump of committing treason, but this seemed a new thought to Brennan. Looking, as always, like Zinjanthropus with a bad hair day, he denied that he had done that. Here are his remarks, as transcribed by The Hill:

I did say that it rises to and exceeds the level of high crimes and misdemeanors and nothing short of treasonous, because he had the opportunity there to be able to say to the world that this is something that happened.

And that’s why I said it was nothing short of treasonous. I didn’t mean that he committed treason. But it was a term that I used, nothing short of treasonous.

That speech must have left Maddow feeling pretty woozy; I know it made me that way. As she observed, again quite rationally, “nothing short of treasonous means it’s treason.” “Well,” she said, trying to make some kind of sense out of this, “you didn’t mean that he committed treason, though?” “I said,” Brennan replied, “‘it’s nothing short of treasonous.’ That was the term that I used, yeah.”

The message showed his incompetence as well as his aptitude for slander.

Maddow might disagree with me, but at this point I wondered how many surreal people have infiltrated our government. Plenty, I think. But my worst moment came when I looked at the summary that The Hill, which is a mainstream venue, made of Brennan’s account of his “treason” claim:

Former CIA Director John Brennan said that he didn’t mean President Trump had committed treason when he called Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin “nothing short of treason."

Brennan clarified the comment during an interview Friday, after NBC’s Rachel Maddow said Brennan said the press conference “rose to treason.”

Clarified . . . Clarified? Tell me, isn’t that Rod Serling, standing at the back of the set?




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