Friday, December 9, 2016

Why John Brascia is the secret hero of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."

Just finished the annual family viewing of "White Christmas." So good. And the movie's secret weapon? John Brascia.

Who's that? This guy dancing with Vera-Ellen:


Here's my theory: John Brascia's role in this movie makes no sense at all. Danny Kaye is Vera-Ellen's love interest in the movie. He should be, by the usual logic of Hollywood storytelling, her duet partner in all her big dances. Indeed, Kaye and Vera-Ellen have a lovely dance early in the movie:


After that, though, it's Brascia — who utters no lines in the movie — who is the main dance partner. It's aided by the show-within-a-show conceit of the movie: They're practicing for an upcoming musical, you see. But again, this doesn't make a whole lotta sense...

...unless you consider this possibility: Brascia, and not Kaye, was the only dancer on set who could keep up with Vera-Ellen.

Yes, Kaye was enormously gifted as a dancer. But he was already in his early 40s when "White Christmas" was made. Brascia is a good 21 years younger. And Vera-Ellen is a hell of a dancer.

Watch this. Watch Brascia's feet, especially.


Love me some Danny Kaye. But he's not keeping up with Vera-Ellen there. John Brascia is.

It's OK! That's not a knock on Kaye. Vera-Ellen's vocals were dubbed by Rosemary Clooney. This movie knew what it's performers strengths and weaknesses were and adjusted accordingly. More than 60 years later, it's still a hell of a watch. And John Brascia, whose name I bet you didn't know, is one big reason why.

More evidence that Trump's support didn't come from the "white working class."

National Review detects something interesting in the exit polls:

The 2016 CNN Exit Poll found, for instance, that Trump won among married voters, winning 52 percent, but lost decisively among the unmarried (see table below). The 26-point marriage gap in the 2016 electorate is large. (The marriage gap is calculated by taking the difference between the two candidates for the married and adding it to the difference between the two candidates for the unmarried.) In fact, it surpasses the 24-point gender gap also found in the CNN Exit Poll of the 2016 electorate.
Who is married? It isn't the white working class — at least, not as much as it used to be.

WaPo:
Over the last few decades, members of the white working class have also become less likely to be married. As this chart from economists Shelly Lundberg and Robert A. Pollak shows, marriage rates have fallen for whites without a college degree. About 55 percent of white men and 60 percent of women with no more than a high school diploma are married, compared to about 70 percent of men and women with four-year college degrees.
More about the "marriage gap" here. What's interesting is that divorce rates for college graduates has fallen back to about where they were in the 1960s, before the rise of no-fault divorce. It's the working class that's increasingly full of broken and never-been marriages.

And the point here is not to sneer at that. But given the overlap between elites and marriage, National Review's discovery suggests maybe that "white working class" narrative about Trump's victory has some holes in it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Remember when Republicans complained Obama's policies created uncertainty?

WaPo:

That style, including his opaque personal financial dealings and his sudden shots at certain companies, has helped unnerve a corporate America that traditionally craves stability. Some business leaders and economists have worried whether executives can speak their minds about the president-elect or his policies without fear of facing Trump’s rage.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Why does Barack Obama think he's black?

An article at Carolina Journal suggests Barack Obama could've offered more racial healing to the U.S. if he'd identified as bi-racial instead of black:
Much of the Left imposes racial conformity — especially on those it considers its own. You need solid attachment to a demographic group, and not consider yourself different, an individual or, perhaps even worse, part of America’s old-fashioned melting pot. To lead that group there are expectations about what you should think, the language you should use, and how you should characterize others. It’s hardly the stuff of national unity.

Oh how I hate this piece. For a very simple reason.

It decries "the left's" tendency to force people to attach themselves to an ethnic group, rather than America,without mentioning or grappling with the historic reality and cultural (nevermind legal) power of the "one-drop rule."

Obama's decision to present himself as anything but a black man probably wasn't, for much and I'd say most of his life, a decision that really was his to make. Many Americans would've seen him as "black" no matter how complicated the reality of his genetics and upbringing.

Is this still salient? Yes:
The centuries-old “one-drop rule” assigning minority status to mixed-race individuals appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorization of people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Halle Berry. 
So say Harvard University psychologists, who’ve found that we still tend to see biracials not as equal members of both parent groups, but as belonging more to their minority parent group. The research appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

People forget how recent the worst of our history was. Obama was born before the Civil Rights Act was passed. He was born before the Voting Rights Act was passed. He was born well before Loving v. Virginia was decided. And as the Harvard piece mentions, it was as recently as 1985 "when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as “white” on her passport."

And, not to throw anybody under the bus: I was told growing up — by people who encouraged me to see Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero — that marrying a black woman would be wrong. Because to make biracial babies would be a disservice to those children.

The past is never dead. It's not even the past.

Our societal effort to celebrate biracial children — to acknowledge the fullness of their histories instead of stamping them with the "minority" label — is both welcome and a relatively new thing. It still gets pushback. I don't know how widespread it really is.

Given that, and given all the history, it's not really remarkable that Obama thinks of himself as black. It's also true that he's never, ever hidden his white ancestry — in fact, has spoken of it prominently and proudly but also sometimes too honestly for white critics to forgive. 

So Obama thinks of himself as black? Sure. Most Americans would've thought of him that way, too, even if he'd self-conciously tried to identify otherwise. To pin any blame for America's racial problems on a decision that was compelled by America's racial culture is ... silly.
 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

One last comment about Obama's "apology tour."

Rebecca Heinrichs writes that President Trump is poised to up-end Obama's "apology tour."

While certainly more a realist than idealist, more than anything, President-elect Trump has shown a desire to return prudence to the forefront of American national security and foreign policy, with an unapologetic commitment to American sovereignty and a recognition of American exceptionalism. He ran a campaign promoting the idea that America is unlike other nations. It is better. Unlike his predecessor, he will not highlight or apologize for her imperfections, because her imperfections still pale in comparison to what she is and the standards she holds herself to.
This is a standard for acceptable behavior that applies in almost no other realm of living that I'm aware of. "He has high ideals, so his failure to live up to those ideals means he shouldn't apologize for that failure." It's a standard that eliminates entirely the consequences of actual actions.

It's not a tenable standard. It's not one that Rebecca (who I think I can call a friend) would apply otherwise.

A nation isn't a person, though, so maybe there's an excuse in international relations for unremitting pride, but I can't think of it. Yes, the country has largely been a force for good in the world. Whole portions of the globe are free in large part due to America's actions. But the country has done ugly, wrong, nasty things along the way — both domestically and internationally. There's nothing wrong with pride as long as it's tempered with realism and, yes, the occasional apology.

Maybe you have to be, as President Obama has been, a black man in America to have a mature sense of both pride in one's country and a visceral understanding of its sins — and an understanding of why "we're awesome" isn't really the right response to those sins being acknowledged. Obama's about to leave the presidency, so maybe we won't have to have this argument for awhile. In any case, Rebecca's right: President Trump is unlikely to apologize, ever, for any American action taken on his watch. I wonder what the payoff to that attitude will be.

Reader email: The Electoral College

A reader:
seems to me a popular vote for president elect would never give your state a say in who it would be. No city in your state has enough population to sway the popular vote.
Me:

As it stands, no candidate ever comes to entice the votes of Kansans during the general election anyway: Everybody knows the state's electoral votes are in the bag. So we are ignored entirely, our wants and needs never pandered to.

That might change in a popular vote situation: States would cease to matter, but individual votes would be more meaningful. All those hundreds of thousands of Kansans who vote, fruitlessly, for Democrats, every four years would suddenly find their votes meaningful. Given the closeness of so many of our recent elections, a smart candidate might then be inclined to mine votes where he or she previously hadn't: An extra thousand votes in Western Kansas might suddenly make a difference they never had before.

Popular vote has its weaknesses, no doubt. But the Electoral College isn't exactly providing Kansas with a bounty of presidential attention.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What is empathy anyway? And do we need it in an age of Trump?

NYT's Amanda Hess doesn't seem to have much use for it.
Empathy, after all, is not sympathy. Sympathy encourages a close affinity with other people: You feel their pain. Empathy suggests something more technical — a dispassionate approach to understanding the emotions of others. And these days, it often seems to mean understanding their pain just enough to get something out of it — to manipulate political, technological and consumerist outcomes in our own favor.
I don't know if I think empathy, properly understood, is "dispassionate" or necessarily as manipulative as Hess suggests it is. My own take is that empathy is an attempt to walk (in one's imagination, at least) a mile in the proverbial shoes of somebody whose life and experiences are unlike one's own. That requires not just to dispassionately understand another's emotions, but to attempt to understand what it feels like to be that other person — to take seriously their fears, their joys, etc. That requires some emotional spadework, and a bit of humility. And that, in turn, raises the possibility you'll be changed by the act of empathy.

Since the election, I've argued against liberals writing off Trump voters. Some of my friends have mocked that approach — they understand everything they need to know about Trump voters because they voted for Trump, and, well, screw them. No need to try and get in touch with a Trumpista's feelings. And I get that: One's intentions rarely matter as much as one's actions when you're on the receiving end of those actions. If you're a person of color who — reasonably — believes that Trump's policies are going to make your life more difficult, painful, and scary, then I don't entirely blame you for consigning Trump voters to the "racist" bin.

Intent isn't meaningless either. And if every single person reading this manages to always match their good intentions with good actions — and has never accidentally hurt somebody along the way to doing something meant well — well, you're a much better person, morally, than I am.

What's more: In examining intent — using, yes, empathy — perhaps we can find what we need to change actions.

Here's where the humility part comes in. Why am I — privileged white guy that I am — so sure that I'd never be the kind of person who votes for Trump? What makes me different from that person? The answers I see from my liberal friends: We're smarter. We're better. We're more moral.*

*(Maybe that's a stereotype, too. Maybe I need to be more empathetic to my liberal friends.)

That's too easy. That's self-congratulatory. If the answer to your moral question is "I'm awesome," stop and ask yourself the question again, because you almost certainly arrived at the wrong answer. Empathy, as Hess suggests, might be an act of self-understanding ... but at its best, that self-understanding shaped by empathy is something like: I'm not the center of the universe. I can make wrong decisions. I can make decisions that, in other context, I'd find abhorrent. Because these things are possible, I should lean toward treating people with respect even when I disagree vehemently with them, because who's to say what I might do were I in their shoes?

So you look at the Trump voter and ask: What motivated them? Are they, say, terrified of people of color or terrified of terrorism? The latter is more understandable, and it might even look like the former. That's where a lot of us will want to wash our hands and retreat to our circle of Facebook friends.

But: If it is the latter, then liberals can look at the issue, devise solutions, and see if those solutions appeal to that voter. That's not unreasonable. That's what our politics is for.

If it is the former, well, there are limits to empathy. We're not required to endlessly try to understand simple wrongness.

Here's the thing, though: I keep coming back to Martin Luther King Jr. in all of this. If racist people are racist people and never shall their minds be changed — if we should write them off entirely — then it's unlikely the United States ever advances beyond the dark ages of Jim Crow. The non-violent Civil Rights movement was, in large part, an appeal to the empathy of many whites who otherwise might've been on the fence, or worse, regarding the rights of black folks. Empathy is not something merely to give, but also to receive and to elicit in others, in creating a better world .

All of this suggests that empathy is merely a political tool, something used to make other people conform to our standards. As Hess also suggests: That's kind of icky. Empathy is good and useful because it involves humility, because it involves an attempt at true understanding, because it involves (at its foundation) kind intent.

At its root, empathy requires humans to recognize that other people are also humans — with the same complicated mix of motivations, emotions, and obstacles we experience in our own lives.

Those elements are good in and of themselves. If it also means we get a better president, awesome.



Monday, November 28, 2016

Keep generals out of the State Department

Some of the names being bandied about for Secretary of State: Mitt Romney. John Bolton. David Petraeus. John F. Kelly.

The last two? Former generals — Petraeus from the Army, Kelly from the Marines. And maybe it's worth asking: Why do we keep putting military men in charge of our diplomacy?

Since World War II — and, roughly, the advent of the modern Department of Defense — former generals have served as the nation's top diplomat several times: George C. Marshall, Alexander Haig, Colin Powell. The latter two, it's fair to say, didn't exactly have distinguished tenures.

That's not necessarily due to their military backgrounds. On the other hand — correct me if I'm wrong — nobody from America's diplomatic ranks has been named to run the Defense Department.

It's a sign of American militarization that we have a tendency to think the skills of warfighting should be transferrable to conducting America's non-warfighting business abroad. More likely: It means the president's foreign policy is being run by somebody who already has a militarized outlook — something he can already get from, you know, the military.

I don't expect Donald Trump to build a team of rivals, believe me. But it's an ongoing issue. If you put warfighters in charge of warfighting and diplomacy, I suspect what you get is more war.

How Columbia Journalism Review gave government an excuse to crack down on reporters

Ari Fleischer makes the case that Trump is justified in treating the White House press corps like an unruly child:
The press hasn’t been kind to Donald Trump—and that isn’t its job. That job is to cover the news in a fair manner. But as the Columbia Journalism Review reported in October, campaign-finance disclosures show that those who work in journalism gave $396,000 to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump, with more than 96% going to Mrs. Clinton.
I hated the CJR report when it came out and still do. First, $396,000 is barely a drop in the campaign finance bucket. On its own, it sounds like a big number. Relative to the actual number of journalists, it's microscopic. So CJR's headline on the original piece — "Journalists shower Hillary Clinton with campaign cash" — is the kind of clickbaity sensationalism CJR might well criticize in other circumstances.

But let's take a closer look at the report itself.

NEW YORKER TELEVISION CRITIC EMILY NUSSBAUM, a Pulitzer Prize winner, spent the Republican National Convention pen-pricking presidential nominee Donald Trump as a misogynist shyster running an “ugly and xenophobic campaign.”
What Nussbaum didn’t disclose: she contributed $250 to Democrat Hillary Clinton in April.
Oh no! A television critic donated to the campaign!

Nussbaum should've disclosed her donation when writing about Trump (and did in a later column for the New Yorker) but holding TV critics to the conflict-of-interest ethical standards that apply to political reporters is silly and pointless.

Other examples from the CJR report:

• Orange County Register restaurant critic Brad Johnson in California this year made dozens of small-dollar contributions to Clinton’s campaign totaling more than $750. 
• Fox Sports spokesman Erik Arneson, responding to questions about three current and former employees who gave Clinton money, said the network “supports employees’ personal involvement in the political process as long as it is compliant with applicable laws.” 
• At ESPN, baseball news editor Claire Smith has made numerous small-dollar contributions to Clinton’s campaign that add up to almost $600. Smith, who in a tweet last week described Trump as a “would-be dictator & sexual predator,” did not return requests for comment, and ESPN spokesman Ben Cafardo declined to comment. 
• Lauren Goode, editor of tech and culture news outlet The Verge, explained that her $500 contribution in February to the Clinton campaign wasn’t about supporting Clinton’s candidacy—Goode just wanted, for reporting purposes, to get inside a fundraising event in Silicon Valley.

So. Lots of people whose jobs have nothing remotely to do with covering federal government — or even local government — are swept into this CJR database. That's ... obtuse.

What doesn't seem to be included in the database: People who actually covered the White House, or the Trump or Clinton campaigns, for a living.

That doesn't stop Fleischer from marshaling CJR's report as evidence of a biased White House press corps, though. CJR's standards for the database didn't reflect good sense or sensible distinctions, but it's made a handy cudgel for those who reflexively like to bash the press.

Tweet of the day

Adam Serwer:


Saturday, November 26, 2016

What print does that digital doesn't

This isn't entirely a new observation, but....

Three thoughts about the death of Fidel Castro

1. If anything should encourage modesty in U.S. foreign relations, the ability of Fidel Castro to survive nearly six decades as the ruler of Cuba should be it. We tried killing him, we supported a (brief) insurgency, we tried starving him. Nothing worked, except old age. This is a tiny island nation 90 miles from our shores. If we couldn't force our will there, we should be realistic about our ability to assert our will in, say, the Middle East.

2. Likewise, if anything should encourage modesty about U.S. intentions in the world, it's this: Fidel Castro was a rotten dictator who replaced ... a rotten dictator. Fulgencio Batista took power through a coup, remember, and presided over rampant corruption and exploitation of his country's economy by outside powers and corporations. America wasn't angry that the country was ruled by a strongman. America was angry that he wasn't our strongman.

3. That said, two wrongs don't make a right. Fidel really was a strongman. Lots of people fled the country or died trying to flee the country. He imprisoned gay people and journalists and dissenters of all sorts. The fact that he provided good medical care isn't really a counterbalance to that. American policy toward Cuba over the last century or more has been cynical, short-sighted, and often foolish. But that doesn't make Fidel Castro a hero. It just makes Cuba's story a bit of a tragedy.

Let's hope Castro's passing will help end that tragedy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Filmstruck Queue: "Le Samourai"

Three thoughts about "Le Samourai" just as soon as I create a fantastic alibi:


1. I'd never heard of this movie until today, when I saw it as a Filmstruck offering. When I saw the ingredients — a sharp-dressed French assassin living by the samurai code — I was helpless. Play! And it's rare that I say this: This movie was everything I could've hoped it would be. Smart. Funny. Stylish. Sexy. With a fantastically tragic ending that, yeah, you kind of see coming, but they sell the hell out of it. I hadn't heard of this movie 12 hours ago. I think it's one of my favorite movies ever, now.

2. Just non-stop with the beautiful people. I mean...


Guys, I'm straight, but even I know Alain Delon circa 1967 is about as pretty as it gets.


I mean....


I'm blinded by all the beauty.

I know I know. Movies have beautiful people. What can I say? Even the extras were knockouts in this flick.

3. There's a scene when our protagonist takes his stolen car to a mechanic to make "legit" on the streets. I thought to myself: "Seems like Brian Cranston's character in 'Drive.'"

Wikipedia informs me that Walter Hill's 1978 thriller "The Driver" was "heavily influenced" by "Le Samourai." And, of course, "The Driver" was a huge influence on Ryan Gosling's "Drive."

Knowing your movie history can be tremendous fun, kids.

Bonus note: Other movies that owe a debt include John Woo's "The Killer" and (of course) Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" featuring Forest Whitaker as the Japanese-influenced hitman. Again: Knowing your movie history can be tremendous fun.

Monday, November 21, 2016

#NeverTrump Republicans fall in line

Matthew Continetti, June 17

This is not a good man. This is not a stable man. It is in the self-interest of no rational person to have him near the situation room.

Matthew Continetti, November 19

While hardly anyone — including the campaign of President-elect Trump — expected this outcome to the 2016 election, the Republicans I’ve spoken to over the last week are unified, enthusiastic, and eager to pursue Trump’s agenda. Giddiness is the attitude toward the prospect of GOP control of the White House, the Congress, and the courts.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Church

I continue to attend church, even though the old Mark Twain observation that "you can't pray a lie" remains true, at least for me, and I don't have faith to match the hymns or sermons. But community is a nice thing.

Here's my favorite part: The sharing of joys and concerns.

I don't know if your church does it. Certainly, it's not been practiced in all the churches I've ever attended. But at Peace Mennonite, a young child takes a microphone around the sanctuary, and members of the congregation share important news from the week.

My cousin discovered she has cancer.

The mother of a little boy in my son's class died suddenly.

And joys:

I found a place to live.

The disease in remission.

He's coming home. 

It's the difference between church and, I guess, Facebook for me. News gets shared on social media all the time. And that can be very helpful.  But in real time, face-to-face, I get a more palpable sense of community — of the act of "bearing one another's burdens" that community can be about.

I'm not a good bearer of the burdens of others. Not even my wife, all the time, and she's borne mine so wonderfully. So. Even though I feel a bit strange in the church, unable to sing most of the hymns, I persist. I am learning.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The worst argument for the Electoral College

The weakest argument for the Electoral College goes something like this:

The top ten states population is about 165 million total. 119 million people counted so far as of today voted in the 2016 presidential election. This is why the electoral college was created. So that the other 40 states matter! Otherwise the candidates just go to where the biggest populations are.
Yeah. Otherwise, we'd have candidates spending all their time in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — the fourth, sixth, and seventh-most populated states, respectively. 

Oh. Wait. 

The truth is already this: Kansas never sees a presidential candidate during the general election campaign. New York and California do, a little bit, but only because those are great places to raise funds. Otherwise, they're so solidly Democratic that it's not worth the time or money to bother with them.

What's more likely is this: Abolishing the Electoral College opens up the map. A Democratic vote in Kansas becomes meaningful — it won't be wiped out by the state's winner-take-all method of distributing electoral votes. A Republican vote in New York, similarly, would also be more valuable, for the exact same reason.

Candidates would have to go where the votes are; in a popular vote system, the votes are everywhere. Yes, there are more votes in the cities, so candidates would naturally gravitate there, but smart candidates would think in Moneyball terms, trying to find votes where their opponent might not. So maybe you start seeing smart campaigns target Latinos in Western Kansas and other groups in rural areas, people whose votes didn't really matter under the Electoral College, but might be vital under a popular vote system. 

It's too late to fix this year. But it's not too late for next. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Just to sum up...



I'm fairly aware there's not a large constituency for my position, which is roughly:

• Donald Trump ran a racist campaign.

• People of color and minorities (and women!) are right to be alarmed and angered by his victory. They are justified in wondering why we're supposed to care about the feelings of the "white working class" while their concerns about living under racist regime are so easily disposed of.

• That the system that produced this victory placed inordinate value on the feelings of white people — and can reasonably be called "white supremacy." 

• That it is nonetheless a bad idea, as a matter of democratic tactics, to write off ALL the Trump voters as irredeemables who cannot be persuaded to join our side. (I.E. It's an approach designed to help lose in 2020, as well.) 

• That there are ways of attempting that persuasion without giving up a public and vocal commitment to justice, racial, sexual, and otherwise. 

• That it's bad for society for both halves of the country to view the other half as the implacable enemy.

Manichaeism is emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't do much to solve problems.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What would Jesus do?

Folks, forgive me. This is a draft, at best, written after midnight when thoughts kept coming and I couldn't shut up my brain.

I used to be pretty decent at community-building. It was back in the early aughts, when I was a newspaper reporter given the privilege of being my publication’s first blogger — and I used the platform to celebrate everything that was wonderful about my community.

It was easy — necessary — for me to take that approach. As an “objective” journalist, my professional mission was to avoid at all costs seeming as though I had an opinion on the issues of the day. That’s not really an approach made for blogging, so becoming a cheerleader seemed like the right move. No, that’s not necessarily “objective,” but when you work for a Kansas newspaper, only a few people will object to seeing the stuff of their daily lives lauded by a journalist. Not coincidentally, I built up a nice group of fans and friends who also loved our town.

When I left the paper, I went into opinion journalism, and was freed from the old constraints. There were new ones, though. As part of my duties, I co-wrote a weekly column — which survives to this day — arguing issues with a conservative writer, who eventually became one of my best friends. The format was popular, but imposed new constraints. I had just 300-some-odd words to make a case. And the me-versus-Ben format for the most part discouraged the seeking of common ground or bipartisan solutions: Both of us became busy trying to win an argument.

Winning an argument, I’ve always hoped, involves some degree of being right. And being right has become very, very important to me. To the exclusion, perhaps, of other important values.

Here’s where I mention that my return to Kansas has brought my return to regular worship at the Mennonite church. I’m not a good Mennonite; I don’t really know that I believe in God, and certainly I don’t believe in any kind of orthodox idea of God. But I love a church community, and in my life I’ve particularly come to love Mennonite church communities. Which means, in recent days, I’ve wondered what the Mennonite response to the election of Donald Trump should be.

Granted, this is the viewpoint of a particular kind of Mennonite. My congregation, like the college town I live in, is full of white liberals who see themselves on the side of the underdog. The town can get more than a little bit self-congratulatory in its liberalism; Mennonite earnestness and modesty quiets down that tendency in the church … for the most part. But there’s not much question about how most folks in the congregation voted; if anybody did cast a ballot for Trump, they are in hiding.

The reason for the question — how should Mennonites respond — came from an unease about how many of my friends have reacted to Trump’s election: With declarations of something like total war. “If you voted for Trump, you’re not my friend,” I see folks writing. The passion is understandable — particularly if you’re a minority or person of color who has been made to feel, by Trump’s rhetoric, that your life is about to get much, much more difficult.

It also seems to me to be incorrect.

I wrote this earlier about the topic (with some small revisions):

“To cut ourselves off from people who have made what we think was a grievous error in their vote is to give up on persuading them, to give up on understanding why they voted, to give up on understanding them in any but the most cartoonish stereotypes.

“As a matter of ideology, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on democracy. As a matter of tactics, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on ever again winning in a democratic process.

“And as a long-term issues, confining ourselves to echo chambers is part of our national problem.”

That still seems right to me. Democracy requires persuasion, not isolation. It requires engagement, and it’s tiring and it takes a lot of work and it requires us to spend a lot of time hearing opinions we don’t like from (in many cases) people we don’t like.

OK. But what about the Mennonites?

Mennonites have a rich history of shunning politics. In fact, they have a rich history of fleeing uncomfortable political situations. They’re pacifists — which they believe comes directly from the example of Jesus. The Mennonites I know today are the literal and spiritual heirs to people who fled Germany for Russia, then Russia for the United States, to avoid compulsory military service. In World War II, many declared themselves conscientious objectors and suffered scorn from their fellow Americans as a result. There’s a lot that’s noble about that history.

So I asked myself this:

Would the most "Mennonite" response to this election would be Is it to bury ourselves in communities of like-mindedness, walled off from a world we don't like? Or is it to work for peace and justice where we find its absence?

And then I realized: Historically the answer is “yes.”

And then I realized: That’s OK.

Which is to say this: Mennonites preserved their faith community by raising up those walls, hard, and by largely confining themselves to communities of like-minded believers. In my hometown of Hillsboro, churches continued to worship in a German dialect through the late 1950s. (My boss in high school, the owner of a local grocery store, could still converse and — more memorably — sing in that dialect.) When my family moved to the town in the mid-1980s, we were gobsmacked by its insularity. We made jokes about it, but we also, for a very long time, felt very alone.

That’s been both a strength and a weakness for Mennonites, clearly. They preserved their identity, but they made relatively few converts. Mennonites are still, today, often a gathering of white people with German surnames. There are charms to this. There are also problems.

What’s all this have to do with politics? Are we called to isolating ourselves to preserve our moral goodness, or to engage a world we see as fallen?

I think the answer is yes.

Which is to say: We are right to build communities of people who believe more or less as we do. That’s how churches exist. And if one looks to the Bible, it would seem that there are limits to the engagement that might be required of us. “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy and stay at his house until you move on.As you enter the house, greet its occupants. If the home is worthy, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” That’s not a call to keep engaging past the point of all understanding.

But those words came from Jesus.

The Jesus who called Zaccheus down from the tree.

The Jesus who forgave the woman at the well.

The Jesus who fed the hungry because they followed him and wanted to hear more from him.

The Jesus who cured the child of a Roman centurion.

Mennonites have another tradition. One that works at the creation of peace and justice where those features are absent. They are drawn to places of conflict, and work for resolution. This means bringing together antagonists. It means finding a way to end the conflict that is mutually acceptable. It’s hard work, driven more by hope than success. It is noble and worthy.

So. Where does that leave me?

If you’re not Christian — or not Mennonite, perhaps — you probably left this piece awhile back. I don’t blame you.

But here is where I am arriving:

I want to keep writing about politics. I want my values represented in the debate, and expressing them is the best way I know how.

But I need to focus a bit less on being right. I need to work harder to abandon arguments that appeal to people who think like I do. I need to work on persuasion, instead.

Ah, but persuasion is just another tool of being right. So what I need to do more actively is listen. To consider and process the opinions of people who think differently than I do. To care about them. *To show my work* at doing that processing, so people know that I’m hearing and listening to them, instead of just trying to win the argument with them. I need to be open to the possibility that my mind will be changed once in awhile while still holding firm to some essential values.

There’s tension in all this. A balance that might be difficult to achieve. To try to be right, and yet to realize that “rightness” perhaps carries you only so far. To try to be right and recognize you’re occasionally wrong. To try to be right, yet modest enough to truly hear people who also try to be right - and come to different conclusions.

I know some folks will point out I’m showing my privilege. As a straight white guy, I have less to lose in a Trump Administration than many people of color. That’s entirely correct. And I can’t let the mission of engagement override the moral requirement of aiding, defending, and being on the side of the oppressed. But I must try to do both.

I must be more about the building of community than the winning of arguments. There are plenty of people who do the latter; not enough of the former.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Alexander Hamilton probably wanted Hillary Clinton to win.



In response to my complaints that Hillary won the popular vote even while losing the Electoral College, my friends who are (ahem) perhaps more faithful to the Constitution as written point out — correctly — that the Constitution has a number of “countermajoritarian” features, that the American government was designed as a republic instead of a straight democracy in order to ensure the majority couldn’t tyrannize the minority.

In fact, they say, the Electoral College is an important one of these countermajoritarian features because it gives individual states more of a role in selecting the executive, instead of leaving it a straight-up popularity contest.

There’s pretty strong evidence, though, the Founders didn’t intend the popular vote losers to regularly win office. One feature of the old — failed — Articles of Confederation  is required a supermajority (nine of the 13 states) to pass legislation. Which meant a single state, or a small minority of states, could muck things up.

That requirement appears nowhere in the Constitution. And the authors of that Constitution resisted calls to give each state the exact same representation in Congress because they thought such a move would be too countermajoritarian. Here’s Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist No. 22:

Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Deleware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. It may happen that this majority of States is a small minority of the people of America; and two thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded, upon the credit of artificial distinctions and syllogistic subtleties, to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third. The larger States would after a while revolt from the idea of receiving the law from the smaller.

Which, ahem:



This election was not precisely what Hamilton was writing about. But jeepers, it’s kind of on point, no? The Founders were countermajoritarian, perhaps, but not that countermajoritarian. In fact, they saw some danger to the republic in such features.

Similarly, James Madison wrote in Federalist 58, warning against a requirement that Congress need a quorum to pass laws — saying it gave the minority too much power over the majority. And at the end of the day, the majority is supposed to win, right?

Why wouldn’t we apply this logic to the presidential election?

In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences.


You may point out that Hillary, while winning a greater number of popular votes, did not win a majority. I say fine! Let’s dump Gary Johnson and Jill Stein from the ballot and have a runoff election!

Or there are other answers. “Countermajoritarian” features have their place in our governance, but it’s a limited place. If a minority of voters can routinely win the presidential election, trouble is probably stewing. I’ll get in trouble with my conservative friends for saying this, but the Constitution, as it currently works, is clearly defective. Let’s fix it.

Filmstruck Queue: "Hard Eight" by Paul Thomas Anderson

Three thoughts about "Hard Eight" just as soon as I have a quickie wedding in Reno....


1. This is P.T. Anderson's first feature — he'd go on to really break through in the mainstream with his next, "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" after that — and it's a little different from the sprawling ensemble-driven pieces that made his name. This movie focuses mostly on a single character, Philip Baker Hall's Sydney, and his relationship with a young, dumb ne'er do well played by John C. Reilly. It's a great role for Hall: Sydney is a cipher until the movie's final moments, when the reasons for his paternal care of Reilly become suddenly clear in a burst of violence. And the circles under Hall's eyes? Man, they deserved an Oscar acting nomination on their own.

2. There's a cameo here, all of two or three minutes, by Philip Seymour Hoffman before he was Philip Seymour Hoffman.  One hand, there's no reason to expect future stardom here: Hoffman's got long, stringy hair and a chubby body, and not all of that is character development. But the manic energy — tinged, ultimately with regret — that Hoffman brings to this part of a redneck hotshot at the craps table proves the old adage about there being no small parts.

3. I'm now convinced that every movie with John C. Reilly should feature a short monologue about his martial arts skills. Between his part in this movie and "Boogie Nights," it's kind of easy to see why Reilly — who once seemed to rival Hoffman as one of his generation's leading dramatic film character actors — took a left turn into comedy.

Bonus: Now we know why Samuel L. Jackson shaves his head these days. Oof, that hairline.

Filmstruck Queue: "Paths of Glory," directed by Stanley Kubrick

Three thoughts about "Paths of Glory" just as soon as I'm shot for cowardice in the face of the enemy:


1. This in one of Stanley Kubrick's early movies, and you can draw a straight line from this picture to "Full Metal Jacket" in its anti-war themes. More than that, this is an anti-authoritarian movie: A picture about how the elites sacrifice the lives of real people, how they dance in their palaces and feast on sumptuous foods while ordinary footsoldiers are quite literally forced to give their lives for the errors of those elites. There is no happy ending here, only the relentless logic of an awful story that ends up exactly where it must once the wheels are set in motion.

2. Kirk Douglas is one of he best movie stars we've ever had. He's beautiful — check him out shirtless in his opening scene, all 1950s Charles Atlas virility — and he's fierce. When he denounces a commanding general in the climactic scene — "And you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again!" — his hair flies askew and his eyes are filled with rage, and you want to stand up and cheer. They truly don't make them like this any more. 

3. All these French soldiers sound like they're from Queens. 

Bonus thought: If you like old or independent movies, the new Filmstruck service— which combines the forces of Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection — is the bomb. Totally worth it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Liberals: We're overthinking this. Hillary didn't lose. This is what it should mean.

Interesting:
Nate Cohn of the New York Times estimates that when every vote is tallied, some 63.4 million Americans will have voted for Clinton and 61.2 million for Trump. That means Clinton will have turned out more supporters than any presidential candidate in history except for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And as David Wasserman of Cook Political Report notes, the total vote count—including third party votes—has already crossed 127 million, and will “easily beat” the 129 million total from 2012. The idea that voters stayed home in 2016 because they hated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a myth.
We already know the Electoral College can produce undemocratic results, but what we don't know is why — aside from how it serves entrenched interests — it benefits the American people to have their preference for national executive overturned because of archaic rules designed, in part, to protect the institution of slavery. 

A form of choosing the national leader that — as has happened in this election — gives greater weight to the preferences of whites over the preferences of the overall body of voters might plausibly be said to be White Supremacy. When that form was created by men trying to ensure slavery wasn't overturned, the argument grows stronger yet. Throw in the number of black votes that might've gone missing due to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the conclusion becomes more difficult yet to avoid.

I know, I know, this is a republic, not a democracy. But this isn't like the Senate, where the structure can be said to "cool" fiery, short-term passions. There's simply no good reason for producing a result most voters said they didn't want. That we've entered an era where the system repeatedly produces that outcome doesn't mean that Democrats have the wrong message for America. It means they have the wrong message for, I guess, Florida. The Florida panhandle, if you want to get specific. And that's not the same thing.

It also means the system is delegitimizing itself.

Perhaps instead of battling each other over whether liberals need to reexamine their principles, what we need to really do is work hard and persistently for fair elections that really represent the preferences of most voters. Such a system won't always produce wins for Democrats. But it would probably produce wins for Democrats when Democrats win. That's not too much to ask.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Netflix Queue*: "The Conversation," starring Gene Hackman

Three thoughts about "The Conversation" just as soon as I rip my apartment apart in a fruitless search for the wiretap....



1: Francis Ford Coppola sandwiched this movie between "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II." That's an astonishing run of movie artistry. And it's a reminder that Hollywood used to make movies for, you know, adults: There's some sex here, but it's not fun. There are no explosions, on-screen at least. It's about the quietest thriller you'll ever see. If you're not a cinephile, and if you're relatively young, it's possible you haven't heard of it. Go ahead. Give it a try.

2: The movie is well-known for its contemplation of the surveillance society that Americans were only then becoming dimly aware that we lived in. (Spying? That stuff's for Russians!) On second viewing — I last saw it about 15 years ago — what strikes me is how much the movie is about perception, and how having the different pieces of a puzzle very much affects what you think the puzzle might look like when whole. If I were to create a mini movie marathon, I'd package it together with "Rashomon" and Christopher Nolan's "Memento."

3: The score, featuring piano compositions by David Shire, is simply gorgeous. Here's Soundtrack.net summing it up beautifully: "As Harry Caul is a stoic, taciturn character, Coppola understood that much of his underlying repression and sadness fell into the hands of the music. What the film ends up with, and it works like gangbusters, is a central character who refuses to say much of anything about his own personal life, but a score that tells you everything anyway."

Bonus thought: Two days after Donald Trump was elected president, darn tootin' I was in the mood for a paranoid thriller.

Bonus Bonus: Tie for funniest unintentionally funny scene: Gene Hackman being followed by a mime. Gene Hackman pretending to play the saxaphone.

* Ok, actually Amazon Prime this time.

I'm not cutting off my pro-Trump friends

Here and there on Facebook, I've seen a few of my friends declare they no longer wish the friendship of Trump supporters — and vowing to cut them out of their social media lives entirely.

I'm not going to do that.

To cut ourselves off from people who have made what we think was a grievous error in their vote is to give up on persuading them, to give up on understanding why they voted, to give up on understanding them in any but the most cartoonish stereotypes.

As a matter of idealism, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on democracy. As a matter of tactics, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on ever again winning in a democratic process.

And as a long-term issues, confining ourselves to echo chambers is part of our national problem.

Don't get me wrong: I expect a Trumpian presidency is a disaster, particularly for people of color. And in total honesty: My own relationships have been tested by this campaign season. There's probably some damage yet to make itself apparent.

But people are more than the sum of their votes. We are more than the sum of our votes. Let's maybe take a deep breath before we sunder too many relationships.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Here's how we remake American government.



Note: This was more or less written prior to the election — a time when I thought the campaign would end with Democrats having some power to create change. That ain't gonna happen for a couple of years. Still, for the sake of conversation....

Something’s gotta change.

That much is clear after an election that was one of the most divisive ever — one that left many of us feeling, as Alec Baldwin said on SNL, “gross.” Our governance and our politics have failed us. It is within our power to fix it.

These fixes aren’t marginal. So let’s admit up front that radical changes could have radical, unexpected consequences. But let’s also admit that a system that put Donald Trump in charge of nukes is a system that deserves radical reconsidering, at the very least.

Seven ideas to fix it all:

• Scrap the presidential system, replace it with a parliament. I suspect a lot of frustration in the land right now is that nobody really has the power to get things done. Dems get frustrated because President Obama was limited in carrying out his agenda by a Republican Congress; Republicans are frustrated that Congress was limited in carrying out its agenda by a Democratic President. Everybody has a little power, but not enough to actually make proactive changes. That’s frustrating for everybody.

You’ll notice, too, not many thriving democracies have duplicated the American system over the years, even though we’re the oldest democracy. So. Let’s build a parliament. Two houses: Congress and the Senate. The Congress would be voted in like it is now — from districts in each state. The majority party (or coalition) in Congress would then appoint the executive from within its own ranks. One big benefit? It greatly reduces the likelihood that somebody like Donald Trump, with zero record of public service, could come so close to running the show. But the structure would put Congress and the executive — we could still call him or her “president” in order to — in the hands of the same party. That party would then be held accountable by voters for how it implemented its agenda.

(One other item that’s important to note here. I was going to suggest a requirement for a pause on legislative branch investigations while the executive is in office. But only some investigations — anything involving items that transpired before the executive took office — and the pause would only last until the executive left office. We don’t need Hillary haunted by a thousand more Benghazi investigations, for example. Investigations would be reserved for actions taken by the executive and his/her representatives after they’d taken office. That leaves current accountability in place while reducing a lot of petty harassment that goes on with these things. I’m not sure this requirement is needed, though, in a parliamentary setup: One party is unlikely to harass its own executive with unnecessary investigations.)

On a related note:

Scrap the Electoral College. Or make the electoral vote apportionment in each state equal to the popular vote: The college is a relic of pre-Civil War times when the “nation” was more like a confederation — more like the European Union, say, than France. Twice in 16 years, now, the popular vote has been overridden by the Electoral College. I’m not sure the system can withstand it happening again anytime soon.

But what about checks and balances? You’re right: We don’t want crude majoritarianism to reign. How to put the brakes on a runaway majority? And how to incorporate a form of strong-states federalism that our conservative brethren will no doubt clamor for?

That’s why we have the Senate. But let’s go back to populating the Senate the old-fashioned way: Appointed by their respective state governments to represent state interests. But the Senate won’t be a co-equal of the House of Representatives, as it is now. What we’re aiming for is a House of Commons-House of Lords situation, where the House of Commons does the real work of passing bills and the House of Lords has limited powers to slow or halt legislation it doesn’t like. Let’s work out the details later — my initial, throw-it-out there proposal is that the Senate would require votes representing two-thirds of the states in order to block House legislation.

Federalists: If you want an additional role in this process, let’s talk about giving the states a role in directly proposing or scotching legislation. Again, they’d have to meet a high bar — with agreement from the majority of legislatures in two-thirds of states. We can tinker with this; let’s keep talking.

And, oh yeah: We’d still have a Bill of Rights in our new Constitution.

• Won’t gerrymandering ensure a permanent majority for one party? Not if our new Constitution requires House districts to be drawn the way they do in California now, with an independent commission drawing boundaries according to populations and community interests instead of with the intent of protecting “safe” seats for either party. The result of that reform is that more California seats are competitive than was the case under the old system.

Not only is this good in small-d democratic terms, it also has a side benefit in reducing polarization: A Republican who has no fear of running against a legitimate Democratic opponent is a Republican with incentives to run as far right as possible, in order to stave off primary opposition. Competitive races would require candidates who operate closer to the center.

• As long as we’re at it, let’s require that House candidates campaign entirely using public funds. There are two big problems with today’s money-driven politics. First, it gets our representatives in the mindset that they’re representing the money and not the constituents. Second, our representatives spend godawful amounts of time raising money for their next campaign. So. Get them out of the business.

Note to conservatives who weep about the death of the First Amendment here: Spend all the money you want advocating for the candidate you desire. But the candidate won’t be able to receive your donations to spend at their own discretion, nor would they be allowed to coordinate with you or political action committees. This leaves money more influential in the process than I’d like, but it’s probably impossible to get money out of politics entirely. So. Let’s at least insulate our elected officials from it.

One more House reform: Ranked-choice voting required in all House races. This could allow for the emergence of third parties that might more properly represent the range of American politics than just the A-to-B spectrum of Democrats and Republicans.

• Finally, term limits for Supreme Court justices. If such limits existed, I have to believe that Donald Trump’s support in this election might’ve slipped somewhat. As it was, there were too many people who weren't ready to let Hillary Clinton have possible control over the court for  generation. And frankly, this isn’t a bad idea: Merrick Garland excepted, the parties have been appointing younger, less-experienced jurists to the court in order to maximize their chances of serving 30 years, maybe more.

So. Limit justices to a single, 18-year term. Rotate the seats so that one comes up for approval every two years. And let the nominations come, as they do in some states, from independent panels, with the president picking the candidate from (say) three finalists, subject to approval from the House.


Yeah, this is all kind of crazy. It’s a dramatic reimagining of our governance. But drama is too much of our political lives these days. These six steps might help reduce that drama.

One last thought for my conservative friends

If you've spent the last eight years using the word "tyranny" to describe the presidency of Barack Obama, but then turned and supported Donald Trump — a man of clear authoritarian instincts — to be president, well: I don't believe you anymore. I have to assume everything you said about "liberty" and "freedom" was just a fog of words meant to help your side retain power.

Awake. Haunted.

I'm up. In a few minutes, I take my son to school. He's alarmed by the news I just gave him. I told him he doesn't have to worry.

I hope I'm right. I don't really believe I am.

I try to practice my politics somewhere in the neighborhood of "a pox on both your houses," trying to remember that the speck I see in the eye of my political rivals is probably matched by the log in my own. Politics is ever an elbow-throwing business, the Republic usually survives, and so I don't want to let myself get too high or low about specific outcomes.

But what haunts me is this: Many of the people I know who ended up in the Trump camp pretty much expect him to be a disaster, too, or they did until they convinced themselves otherwise.

And they did convince themselves — in some cases because tribal affiliations demanded it, in other cases out of spite, and in many cases because they ardently believed that Hillary Clinton was just as monstrous as their candidate.

But they know. They know he's awful. And hey supported him anyway.

What's next for liberals now that Donald Trump has been elected?



So, liberals, this is the country we’re stuck in. Unless you’re moving out — and you’re probably not — you now have a couple of alternatives:

• Surrender.
• Fight for your values.

Let’s choose the latter. How do we do that? A couple of lessons learned and strategies going forward:

Let’s vote our hearts. Except for the opportunity to nominate (potentially) the first woman president, Bernie Sanders (despite not being an actual Democrat) probably stood closer to the heart of the Democratic base than Hillary Clinton, who had supported the Iraq War and who was enmeshed in Wall Street.

I supported Clinton during the primaries, despite my concerns about her on policy, as well as the Clintons’ predilection for making it easy on GOP scandalmongers trying to ruin their reputation. (The same scandalmongers never really laid a glove on President Obama, but it requires the target of that scandalmongering to be disciplined, a trait the Clintons have never managed consistently.) I was thinking tactically — expecting she would be more likely to beat a Republican opponent and thus defend what gains have been made the last eight years. I was wrong.

In fact, if you want to jump out of the piece right now because I didn’t see what was coming and why, I don’t blame you.

If you look back at the 21st century elections, Democrats have won when they love their candidate — Obama in ‘08 and ‘12 — and lost when they’re thinking tactically: Kerry ‘04 and now Clinton ‘16. So. Vote what you love. And if you’re worried Americans won’t accept the lefty you love, consider this: Nobody would’ve given Donald Trump more than a punchers’ chance of winning when he started. Anything can happen, and having the nominee you like can move the “Overton Window” in a direction you desire. Timidity does not move that window.

(Would Sanders have beaten Trump? Who knows? One thing’s for sure: He would’ve robbed Donald of some potency on economic issues and in challenging the elites. In any case, you either win or you lose — and Dems lost with Clinton. Might as well lose in the pursuit of ideals.)