Sunday, July 20, 2014

Princeton - July 20

Another beautiful day dawned with just the right amount of cloud cover to offer a nice backdrop for a field trip to Princeton University.

When I get to campus, I like going to the gate in front of Nassau Hall. These first two pictures are of the gate and Nassau Hall. 



Next, it was off to East Pyne Hall, where I discovered an amazing courtyard that would not look out of place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! One image was taken in black and white, the other with the "sepia" tone feature on my camera. The clouds add a nice backdrop. 



Then, it was off to my new favorite place on campus - Prospect House and the beautiful garden behind it. An array of coneflowers in various colors are still in bloom as are amaryllis, tiger lilies and others. Because this part of campus is somewhat secluded, it's nice and quiet and the scenery is spectacular.






The campus also has a number of sculptures. This one, David Smith's "CUBI XIII" reminded me of the TV show "True Detective." 


Here's an upward looking picture of the back side of Alexander Hall, which was featured on the U.S. Postal Service's 1996 stamp honoring the 250th Anniversary of the school. I used my camera's "vivid color" setting to take this one. 


My next stop was Blair Hall. This is a great building to shoot because of its geometry and the downward slope, which gives the photographer a great angle. For this photo, I used a very fast shutter speed (1/1600) which gave the scene a little added drama.


I then ventured into a part of campus I had not been to before - along University Place, and found Henry Hall and the archway that connects it to Foulke Hall. Both photos were taken using the "vivid color" setting. 



Outside the University Chapel is a statue of a pelican, which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is a religious symbol. 


On my way back to my car, I took this last shot of the Rothschild Arch, again using a fast shutter speed (1/1600) the gate itself remains deeply in shadow juxtaposed against the blue/white sky. 


I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the campus. If you'd like a high resolution copy of any of these images, email me at - scarylawyerguy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy.





Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review - On The Run

Alice Goffman's intimate portrait of life (and living) in the inner city, On The Run, is a fascinating look inside a world within our own that feels a million miles away. Ms. Goffman embedded herself in a not-so-great part of Philadelphia for six years, befriending a group of young men and women, chronicling their exploits, following them through their many run-ins with law enforcement and learning a social code that will make little sense to anyone who has not grown up in poverty. In the Philadelphia Goffman chronicles, police officers are racists who mercilessly beat the young men they arrest, lean on girlfriends and family members to give up their fugitive boyfriends/sons, and wantonly destroy property during raids. The men they are after are no better - poorly educated, rarely employed (and then, for only brief periods of time), father children they can't afford and engage in criminal behavior from the petty (minor drug dealing) to the more severe (gun fights, robberies, and assaults). The criminal justice system is an assembly line, churning out warrants, sentences on plea bargains and moving these fungible young men through the system - probation, incarceration and parole - over and over again. 

The numbing repetitiveness of this cycle has drawn mainstream attention in recent years, through books like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and a recognition at the federal and state level that mass incarceration, particularly for low-level and/or non-violent crimes, is not only untenable fiscally, but is perpetuating an underclass in our society that is unsustainable. That the new vogue in criminal justice policy focuses on diverting petty drug offenders out of prison and into treatment, prison populations are being reduced in both blood red Texas and deep blue California, and legislative bed fellows Cory Booker and Rand Paul are advocating for even more change, speaks to the pendulum swing that a generation ago focused solely on being "tough on crime" and launching a "war on drugs."

To be sure, drugs animate much of Goffman's narrative. Many of the men in her study deal drugs, largely hand-to-hand to scratch out a living, and accept the consequences that come with being involved in a criminal lifestyle. The collateral consequences to them, the people in their lives, and the community at large ripple out in ways both great and small. Family members are put in the difficult position of deciding whether to condone or reject sons who break the law, toggling between disdain for the police and their own children. Girlfriends and paramours have a code of their own, battling each other for the affection of men who father their children but can't support them, cycle through prison and cheat on them - often in plain view, who they fight with and turn in to the police only to reconcile as a court date or sentencing approaches, or risk arrest by smuggling drugs into prison. 

The community ecosystem is also affected. A black market for everything from bogus IDs to clean urine (lest one give "hot piss" to his parole officer) sprouts up as a side business for otherwise "law abiding" individuals and those with even rudimentary medical skills are sometimes called upon to set a broken arm, extract a wonky tooth or procure antibiotics because the police linger in the emergency room of hospitals trolling for young men who are wanted by the law. The world Goffman describes will appear foreign to many who read her book, but within it is a perversely moral universe that has its own code and lexicon - snitching is wrong, riding (protecting a wanted man from the police) is lauded, and small gestures, like attending a funeral at the risk of arrest, are counted among those in the neighborhood. 

The protagonists Goffman lived among are hardly sympathetic. The men are rarely if ever employed and the women in their lives often bend over backwards to aid and abet their criminal lifestyles. As Goffman notes, one man she met, Steve, did not hold down a job during the six years she knew him, which included periods when he had no active warrants or criminal cases pending. Most of the other men she associated with did not work either and those that did, held jobs for short periods of time, never opening bank accounts or renting apartments or homes. And while Goffman rightly points a finger at the fines, penalties and assessments that accumulate with each court date or conviction and make it almost impossible for someone to say, get their driver's license restored, there is far less drilling down into the responsibility each of these young men has for their actions. 

Goffman is no passive observer to any of this and her active participation in the lives of these families may give the reader pause. Unlike a documentarian maintaining some objective distance from her subjects, Ms. Goffman clearly shows her sympathies toward those she has befriended.  The book is littered with casual mentions of her hanging out with people as they use drugs or discuss criminal activity, which might be written of as the sort of de minimus behavior not uncommon among teens and young adults, however, it is when Goffman's allegiances lean too heavily toward conduct few of us would accept that she erases the line of neutrality. For example, when a twelve year-old boy who threw rocks at his teacher has his day in court, Goffman is there to support the boy, and when the teacher doesn't materialize, Goffman describes the "exciting prospect" that the case will be thrown out. Huh? Since when do we revel in the possibility that a twelve year-old would avoid punishment for throwing rocks at an innocent teacher? 

Most egregious is a story Goffman buries deep in a lengthy afterword ("A Methodological Note"). There, she mentions driving around one of the guys she befriends while he's toting a gun and seeking vengeance for the shooting and murder of one of his friends. Had he gone through with his plan, Ms. Goffman would have been an accessory to a really serious crime and her passing reference to it in a place in the book few are likely to look suggests an utter lack of judgment about what she was doing in the service of her research. While hanging out with people smoking a joint could be written off, volunteering to drive somebody to a shoot out is a bridge too far.

Also missing from On the Run is any discussion of ways that policy makers could impact the lives of these families. While Goffman might brush this criticism off as "outside the scope" of her work, because of her immersion in the neighborhood and with young men and women along a broad age range, she is in a unique position to opine on these topics, but chose not to. While the answers might seem axiomatic (a data point she mentions more than once is that 60% of African-American men who do not graduate high school get arrested before their mid-thirties), there is little probing into how (or why) kids drop out of school, or whether they consider the consequences of having children when they are teens or in their early 20s, or why it is that so many of the young men Goffman meets spend an inordinate amount of energy avoiding responsibility, dodging the law and scamming when that same energy could have been turned toward more prosocial pursuits. And the answer is not entirely environmental. Goffman touches on some "success" stories in her book - of young men who avoided the criminal lifestyle and, while not rich, managed to avoid the many pitfalls their peers seemed incapable (or unwilling) to avoid. In the end, one is left to conclude that Goffman's closeness to her subjects impacted her ability to look at them with a more jaundiced eye. 


On the Run is a valuable piece of reporting, but the solutions that could be advanced by somebody who has this level of granular knowledge about what happens in communities like this is maddeningly out of reach. Ultimately, readers are left to ponder where the balance lies between our responsibility as a society to offer opportunities to those living in poor communities and the personal responsibility that must be taken by those that live there. Left unsaid is the fact that while most of the men Goffman encounters are either dead or in prison by the end of her time in South Philly, they left behind numerous young children who we can only expect will perpetuate this cycle of despair. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Problem With Hobby Lobby

Chief Justice Roberts famously declared during his confirmation hearing for that job that the responsibility of a judge is to simply "call balls and strikes." On first blush, the umpiring analogy is elegant in its simplicity - it offers the patina of what we think of when the word "judge" is used - fairness and impartiality, an objectivity that affirms our belief that justice is blind. But on deeper examination, the Chief Justice's use of this metaphor is both facile and subtle (a rare two-fer). 

The superficiality of his statement is axiomatic. The idea that every judge calls each case the same would obviate the need for appellate courts and never result in a case being decided by a panel of judges in anything other than unanimous fashion. The law would rarely evolve because the view of those judging it would be identical. The subtlety is thus equally apparent. The fact is, not every umpire has the same "strike zone." Some umpires might give an inch on either side of the plate, call a low strike (slightly below the knee) or refuse to call anything at the letters as anything other than a ball. Players know this. Managers know this. Even Major League Baseball knows this, because even in its belated move to implement instant replay, the one thing that is entirely off limits from challenge is the call of the umpire on a pitch. 

But the reason this system works is that even if the strike zone of one umpire differs slightly from that of another, so long as players and managers know that there will be consistency both by that umpire and, more importantly, a general consistency among umpires, that is, the universe of what is and is not a strike, minor exceptions notwithstanding, is known, the integrity of the game is not jeopardized. If umpires suddenly started calling a pitch that bounced in the dirt a foot in front of home plate a strike or a pitch "on the black" four inches above the knee a ball, the game would lose all credibility because the collective understanding of how the game is played, and more importantly, how it is judged, would disappear. 

So what does all of this have to do with the Supreme Court's decision in Hobby Lobby? Everything. The judicial branch of our (federal) government holds a unique place - ever since a little case every first year law student learns about - Marbury v. Madison - we have vested in our courts the right to have the final say on the validity of all laws in our country. That these decisions are made by individuals who are unelected cuts both ways - it shields them from public opprobrium, but has typically been honored by those who have served as a power that requires heightened discretion, lest their decisions be viewed as going against the will of our elected representatives. 

One of the foundational concepts of Supreme Court jurisprudence is the concept of stare decisis - that past precedent should be respected and only, in extreme circumstances, overturned. Indeed, this concept is essentially the "strike zone" of judicial review. The law is generally defined in the same way the strike zone is - and while judges (and justices) may quibble about their respective view of those parameters, but for some really compelling reason (say, finally recognizing that racial discrimination is odious and antithetical to everything we, as Americans, believe in), should be honored. By creating a durable body of law that is not subject to the personal legal views of any particular Justice, the Court's jurisprudence is considered stable - an articulated playing ground upon which everyone can exist. 

But what happens when cases like Hobby Lobby are decided is that the integrity of this delicately balanced ecosystem is called into question - that in exchange for being given the power to have the final say on things, the Court will not rule in a way that is viewed as overtly political - is offended. It is no surprise that the modern nadir for the Court was its 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore. Called to decide not just who would be our next President, but to give all Americans the comfort of knowing that he had been selected fairly, the court instead issued an unsigned opinion that shut down a recount approved by Florida's highest court, explicitly said its own ruling should not be given precedential weight and handed the White House to George W. Bush. In other words, instead of rising to the occasion, the ruling smelled of bald-faced politics. As an unelected institution, no greater sin could have been committed. If the bedrock principle of our nation is the rule of law and that is subverted for what is viewed as a political reason, the whole system breaks down.

While the Hobby Lobby decision is not as egregious as the stain on the rule of law that attended the Bush v. Gore decision, it has the same potential to erode confidence in the impartiality of this hallowed institution. The problem for the Court is not that a contentious case was decided 5-4. It is that the rationale for the majority decision is so outside the court's jurisprudence as to be the equivalent of suddenly calling that ball in the dirt a foot from home plate a strike. Never before have a for-profit corporation's religious rights trumped a governmental interest in applying a law neutrally. And for those thinking perhaps the decision was limited, the Court gave no meaningful explanation as to whether not just closely-held corporations, but public corporations, could argue that a "sincerely held" religious belief could trump a governmental interest if a less restrictive means of achieving that interest was unavailable. As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent, all manner of challenges could arise based on this anachronistic interpretation of not just federal law, but the Court's own established precedent. 


This may sound like so much (pardon the pun) inside baseball that becomes grist for years of law review articles, but this shit actually matters, because once you've crossed a particular jurisprudential rubicon the consequences could be massive. The Supreme Court has now placed courts in the position of judging whether sincerely held religious beliefs will trump federal law if not properly accommodated. And this is not abstract - Muslim prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay are filing suit, citing Hobby Lobby, to permit communal prayers during Ramadan; and, as Justice Ginsburg noted, the Court's ruling opens the door for other faiths to challenge laws that impact everything from blood transfusions to immunizations, and this does not even get to what would happen if a public corporation made a similar challenge. Of course, the Supreme Court has the luxury of granting certiorari to less than 100 cases a year while rejecting thousands more, thus risking the type of piecemeal judicial interpretation throughout the twelve federal circuits that could have been avoided if the Court had stuck to its long-standing principles regarding the neutral application of laws that impact religious beliefs. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Media Hates Hillary

The media's hate boner for Hillary Clinton has reached call-your-doctor-if-your-erection-lasts-longer-than-four-hours levels in the wake of an otherwise innocuous comment Mrs. Clinton made with regard to her family's finances when her husband's second term as President ended in January 2001. Somehow, mentioning that the family was millions of dollars in debt because of legal costs associated with defending President Clinton has morphed into a sleazy hit and run job by the Beltway media that thinks it has split the atom by discovering the Clintons are now very wealthy.

The headlines scream about the $100 million Bill Clinton has earned in speeches, the hundreds of thousands Hillary is paid to speak to evil corporate elites and the sweetheart deal young Chelsea was given by NBC for a very modest amount of work. Wrap it all up in the Brazilian rain forest number of trees that have been felled since 1991 sliming the Clintons as first, Arkansas rubes who would turn the White House into a Waffle House, then into striving Gatsbys who summered on Martha's Vineyard to hobnob with the rich and famous, then as shameless carpetbaggers relocated to the tony New York countryside to launch Hillary's Senate career while shaming Bill into locating his post-Presidential headquarters in Harlem, and then, in 2008, as race baiters who were trying to kneecap Barack Obama, and you begin to understand that no amount of good either Clinton has done in their 40 years in public service will ever satisfy reporters, many of whom could only wish to make a scintilla of positive change in the world the Clintons have. 

Even more galling (and laughable) is the venom directed by cub reporters who were likely still in elementary school when Hillary was giving a groundbreaking speech about women's rights in Beijing in 1995 or declaring her support for "Palestine" (something for which she was ripped mercilessly) in 2000, not to mention all the work she did to improve access to health care as first lady of Arkansas when some of those now mocking her as a Wall Street sell-out were not even born. To pretend that the Clintons are the first two politicians to take money for speeches is also a joke, the irony being the person who made that action famous was none other than Ronald Reagan, who accepted millions in the months after his Presidency ended to speak to people overseas. George W. Bush made an offhand comment about the need to "refill the coffers" toward the end of his Presidency and no one batted an eyelash. Of course, unlike those Presidents, Bill Clinton formed the Clinton Global Initiative and has, over the last decade, funneled tens of millions of dollars, primarily into third world countries, to help eradicate diseases like AIDS, provide access to education, and support disaster relief, but that's of no matter, because he's rich. Seriously?

That Bill and Hillary Clinton, whose romance blossomed while they trekked around the country as staffers for George McGovern, are now being portrayed as insufficiently liberal would be idiotic on its face, but then I remember these same media types are putting every architect of the Iraq War on TV and, with a straight face, allowing them to rip Obama as having "lost" that war. In the end, Hillary only had it half-right. The "vast right wing conspiracy" was (and is) actively seeking to destroy her and her husband, but in some ways the more nefarious cabal is made up of so-called "mainstream" media types like Maureen Dowd whose nearly 200 columns about Hillary have been almost universally negative. Of course, this is all pseudo-intellectual masturbation for the Inside the Beltway crowd. Like so much of what they "report" on these days, the conversation is staged and directed at a fractional audience totally disconnected from the rest of the country. The opinion of ordinary Americans about the Clintons is much more positive. The President's approval hovers 70% as people appreciate more and more the litany of success that attended his years in the White House and Mrs. Clinton has been on the "most admired" list of women for the better part of 20 years. But then again, when have facts gotten in the way of a good media food fight? 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Princeton - June 22

Now that classes have let out for the summer, Princeton University is a great place to spend a Sunday morning taking in the beautiful campus. 

You can start along Nassau Street. This first photo was taken at the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon using the "miniature" effect:


As I headed toward the University Chapel, I stopped at the Rothschild Arch and snapped this photo. The Latin phrase means: "Dedicated in love to mother and son." 


The University Chapel was open and an organist was practicing while I snapped away. The Chapel has many beautiful stained glass windows and its architectural design is quite impressive. The first photo is of the window above the altar, while the second is a close-up of the uppermost part, showing Jesus's crucifixion. 



After I left the Chapel, I headed for Prospect Garden. This botanical joy had many flowers and plants around a sculpture and fountain. I was able to take some great photos of roses, lavender, amaryllis, and a purple coneflower (thank you, Twitter!)










All in all, a great day to be out and about in Princeton. I hope to visit again soon!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The War Over Iraq

With some combination of "militants" and "terrorists" storming through parts of Iraq and American-trained Iraqi soldiers caving faster than you can say "Maginot Line," naturally, talk in Washington has turned to who "lost" Iraq. Republicans, never slow to pin everything from a rainy day to the impending socialist takeover on President Obama, have been shrill in their criticism. The President has been "taking a nap" according to John Boehner and was, according to John McCain, in such a hurry to leave Iraq that he forfeited the victory "won" by George W. Bush and the vaunted "surge." 

The DC media, who have not met a war it did not like since Vietnam, an inchoate threat it would not mindlessly regurgitate directly from GOP talking points, or an opportunity to second-guess Barack Obama, has joined the pile on, echoing Republican assertions that something, anything, needs to be done, and please, do it fast, and make sure you do not think through the repercussions because every complicated policy decision has to be hashed out in the span of a news cycle.

While others can better rehash the litany of fuck ups, erroneous predictions and straight up lies that were told in selling the Iraq War, the fact of the matter is that the things that are roiling that country now have been known for some time - sectarian differences between Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, endless struggles among those groups for the valuable oil reserves in various parts of the country, an authoritarian "leader" whose reflexive unwillingness to mend religious rifts that have built up literally over centuries suggested that all we had accomplished in toppling Saddam Hussein was installing a new strongman, just one who was sympathetic, not antagonistic, toward Iran. Not a small thing, by the way.

There is nothing wrong with Monday morning quarterbacking decisions that have been made, but if you are going to do that, a little honesty is probably in order. For example, the "surge" that Senator McCain is so fond of trumpeting was a lot more nuanced than simply sending more troops into harm's way. We also bribed, sorry, paid, the very Sunni militants we had been fighting to turn their guns against "terrorists" instead of us, tacitly wrote off the southern part of the country to the acolytes of Muqtada Al-Sadr (remember him?), gave a wink and a nod to nominal Kurdish independence in the north, and had little to do in Baghdad other than cement (literally, with walls) the ethnic cleansing that had largely separated Sunni from Shia. Of course, those facts don't fit comfortably on a bumper sticker or in a narrative that demands that we believe some go for broke strategy magically worked. [1]

As for the idea that some legacy force should have been maintained and that such a force would have made a difference when the people wearing the uniform of the home country refused to fight is laughable. The last status of forces agreement (SOFA) we signed had the name "George W. Bush" on the dotted line, not Barack Obama. When the current President sought to extend the SOFA, Iraqis refused to grant American soldiers immunity from prosecution in its courts, a non-starter that helped ensure our departure. [2] That fact notwithstanding, American troops left more than two years ago, at which point the "standing up" (as Shrub put it) of Iraqi forces was long past its due date. If the leaders in Iraq have done so little to engender the support, trust and loyalty of its own army, one, I might add, we spent north of $25 billion (not a typo) training, why is it our responsibility to now pull their chestnuts out of the fire? 

The fact is, our record of nation building in the Middle East is woeful and the mission creep now being advanced by people like McCain and his running buddy Lindsey Graham will do little but require that we take ownership of a problem for which we will not be able to impose a solution. The sectarian battles that are playing out in places like Iraq and Syria do not end in some Middle Eastern George Washington riding in on a white horse and creating what we think of as "democracy." In Egypt, a massive uprising of students who DID want something closer to the freedom we know and love were left in the dust because the only two factions that had the organization to take advantage of the political vacuum were the Muslim Brotherhood, who won the free election for President, and the military, which overthrew that leader when the people started rebelling against him. In Libya and Tunisia, halting progress is often rewarded with steps backward that no amount of American intervention will resolve. 

If what Mike Allen has reported is true, that is, that the Obama foreign policy distilled down to a bumper sticker would read "Don't Do Stupid Shit," not involving ourselves in Iraq is a no-brainer. We would be inserting ourselves on the side of a leader who thumbed his nose at us, at other major parties, and surrounded himself with a coterie of flunkies and sycophants who would not have looked unfamiliar in Saddam Hussein-era Iraq. We also cannot be expected to invest blood OR treasure into a country whose own people refuse to fight for its leader. What does it say that a band of a few thousand (at best) was able to overrun a major city like Mosul when tens of thousands of troops were at the country's disposal? 


As others have noted, the first rule of digging yourself out of a hole is that you stop digging. At some point, we need to say enough - having left behind the cookbook for how to run a "democracy," we need to allow the Iraqi people to decide whether they want it. If Republicans think so little of our $600 billion a year Department of Defense (not to mention the untold billions that go to the NSA and CIA), that they are incapable of defending us in the event these extremists DO take over Iraq, what, pray tell, are we paying for now? 

END NOTES

1. That McCain would fetishize a "go for broke" strategy is unsurprising coming from someone who picked an obscure (and unvetted) Alaska Governor as his running mate and thought it a great idea to suspend his 2008 Presidential campaign when Wall Street melted down. 

2. Even if we had signed a SOFA, the residual force was expected to be fewer than 10,000 troops. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Curious Case of Bowe Bergdahl

Last weekend, President Obama announced that the United States had negotiated the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban since 2009. In exchange for Bergdahl's release, the United States turned over five "high ranking" Taliban commanders who had been held in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade. These men were taken into the custody of the nation of Qatar, where they will remain for a year before being fully freed. 

The reaction from critics was immediate and over the top. Initially, the complaints had to do with the high price paid for Bergdahl's release, but quickly morphed into questioning whether Bergdahl was even worthy of release because of the suspicious nature of his capture, which may have occurred after he deserted his fellow troops. The story quickly snowballed and consumed news cycles for days, as allegations that other troops had died looking for Bergdahl popped up, others speculated that Bergdahl had been "flipped" like the fictional character Nicolas Brody in the TV show Homeland and others suggested the President had engaged in an impeachable offense for failing to provide notice to Congress as required by a proviso inserted into a recent Defense Appropriations bill. The fact that men were being held without due process in Gitmo for years on end was of no moment for those suddenly concerned about the rule of law. 

Of course, much of this narrative was driven by Republicans whose motivations were belatedly (as usual) discovered - John McCain had voiced support for a deal in the past, while others deleted anodyne tweets of support for Bergdahl in the wake of all the blowback. The same party that labeled anyone who questioned George W. Bush after 9/11 as flirting with treason now openly questioned the propriety of securing the release of one of our prisoners of war and much of the D.C. media gave them a pass. 

Indeed, the conduct of many in the media was even more shameful than that of the Republicans, who, after all, would find a way to criticize Obama if he declared his love of mom and apple pie. The President has been in office long enough that we have become desensitized to the odious, incessant, and unfair invective hurled at him by the other party, but the media's complicity in driving the narrative of Bergdahl as at best a deserter and at worst an enemy of the nation, was a travesty. The tone on Fox News was to be expected, but TIME Magazine put a photo of Bergdahl on its cover under the headline "Was He Worth It?" and the supposedly "mainstream" Washington Post joined the chorus of questioning the deal, allowing Allen West space on their website to publicly call for the President's impeachment. 

All of it reported without any context, little verifiable fact, and an almost reflexive desire to obscure the truth instead of illuminate it. It took days for the media to get around to reporting relevant information, like Bergdahl's condition at the time of his release (not good), that the claim that others died searching for him was tenuous, that the Taliban required secrecy regarding the negotiations in order to complete the deal, and that the "reporting" requirement that people claimed the President ignored may not have been ignored at all, and even if it had, its legality, as a limit on the President's authority as commander-in-chief was at a minimum, in question. In the meantime, Bergdahl's family was maligned, a welcome home parade for him was canceled because of threats that were directed to the town he comes from, and he has been tried, convicted and sentenced in the court of public opinion.

And these were just the facts about the instant case missed by the media. They ignored entirely the fact that George W. Bush had released hundreds of prisoners from Guantanamo and that other countries (most prominently, Israel) have done similar exchanges. Further, the idea that somehow the Taliban are unique enemies ignores history. Nazi scientists were recruited after World War II to lead our space program (look it up - "Operation Paperclip"), men who fought us in the rice paddies of Vietnam were leaders in that country when we re-established full diplomatic ties in the 1990s, and many of our closest allies were onetime foes (e.g., Germany, Japan, Italy, Mexico, England) who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of our soldiers over the course of our nation's history.  

Of course, this is of a piece with what passes for "journalism" inside the Beltway these days. Republicans stir a pot to get Eric Shinseki fired and reporters happily pile on, ignoring the fact that a bill that would have helped address the scandal they were gleefully reporting on was filibustered by the same Senate Republicans who wanted Shinseki's ouster. Once Shinseki was unceremoniously let go, those same Republicans negotiated a deal while the media moved on. 

What is particularly egregious about what now happens is that the benefit of the doubt, and indeed, the cheerleading the media did before the Iraq War without a hint of skepticism of anything other than those who questioned that war's justification, has now been flipped on its head so that even the most specious claims raised by Republicans regarding anything having to do with the Obama Administration is immediately reported as immutable fact, except the "facts" usually turn out to be at best shaded truths and at worst total fabrications (see, e.g., the litany of Obamacare falsehoods starting with death panels and ending with insurance death spirals, Shirley Sherrod, the IRS "scandal," etc.). The mea culpas get buried 20 pages into the newspaper (if anyone is bothering to read them anymore) or left to the Rachel Maddows of the world to point out. 


Such would have been the case with Bergdahl, regardless.The same Republicans screaming "impeachment" for negotiating his release would have done the same had he died in captivity.

Roses

Summer has brought a newfound appreciation for flowers. Here are some photos from a rose bush in my neighborhood. 






Monday, May 26, 2014

Mad Men S7E7 - Waterloo

Napoleon's reign lasted over a decade and through his own will and genius the French emperor expanded his country's footprint, accumulated vast wealth, and made more than his fair share of enemies. Of course, his overthrow, brief return to power, and ultimate defeat at a place that, two centuries later, is now part of our lexicon as a place where you make your last stand, suggested that last night's "mid-season" finale, Waterloo, would result in someone's undoing. The obvious candidate was Don Draper, who, like the little French general, was mercurial, fearless in the face of opposition, reckless, and ultimately undone by his own ego. He was the only one who did not know his indefinite leave over Thanksgiving 1968 [1] was meant to be a graceful exit for committing the high crime of honesty in front of a client, but having (mostly) toed the company line after his return, he became the target of a palace coup by Jim Cutler, who leveraged Don's interruption of a meeting with executives from Phillip Morris [2] into a breach of contract action to terminate Don's partnership with the agency. 

Ultimately, Waterloo was much less about Don than Roger, his on again, off again, partner in crime and whose tortured relationship over the years could fill its own lengthy analysis. Roger Sterling was always the ultimate example of a man "to the manner born" - his father established Sterling Cooper with Bert Cooper way back in 1923 [3] and shortly thereafter, a long and fruitful business relationship [3] with American Tobacco, maker of Lucky Strike cigarettes, basically ensured that Roger would have to do little else besides count his money (and conquests) until he passed to the great beyond. But a funny thing happened on the way to "you know where." [4] Roger took some off-handed advice given to him by Don in a dimly lit bar one boozy night that set off a series of events beginning with Roger's decision to leave Mona for Jane. [5] The resulting financial squeeze made him vulnerable to a pitch to sell the agency to Putnam, Powell, and Lowe. [6] In the merger, he did not rank a box on the updated organizational chart, [7] but that mattered little as long as tobacco money continued to roll in. When the partners hung out their own shingle, it was American Tobacco that provided the ballast to do so.

When that seemingly never-ending stream of revenue dried up, [8] Roger was at sea. For a while, he took to trolling Pete Campbell, going so far as sneaking a peek at his calendar, where a planted 6 AM meeting with a representative from Coca-Cola sent Roger on a wild goose chase. [9] But somewhere between his LSD awakening, [10] seduction of Megan's mother, [11] and letting Don loose with Dow Chemical, [12] Roger got his mojo back. Sure, his bedroom had turned into a low rent 60s version of Caligula [13] and his daughter alit for upstate New York, leaving young Ellery in her family's care, [14] but Roger Sterling was again an account man, if not a leader of men. 

So it was interesting that the fulcrum for Waterloo was a very un-Roger like power play to protect his erstwhile Don Quixote instead of jettisoning him and cruising through to retirement on a wave of Harry Crane's spreadsheets and Jim Cutler's Vitamin B-12 shots. [15] Bert's lecture that Roger was not a leader surely stung, so perhaps in Bert's memory Roger finally decided to act instead of count his money. And sure, Roger's motivations may not have been entirely noble - after all, he was able to recover Joan's million dollars (plus an additional half million!) she thought Don lost when he torpedoed her, Bert and Pete's plan to take the firm public, [16] affirm his position as President of the firm while having the benefit of McCann's deep pocket, put Jim Cutler in deep freeze, avoid having to make Harry Crane a partner and oh yeah, pocket a nice payday for himself - but he still closed the deal. Not bad for the low low price of having taken a shvitz and held an early morning meeting with Jim Hobart. 

Roger's efforts to pull Don's chestnuts out of the fire were met with a surprising resignation from the enigmatic Mr. Draper. Perhaps it was, as the sound in his voice on that long-distance call with Megan indicated, a weariness over the constant battle just to get his job back, or the renewed bond he had with Peggy, but Don was surprisingly non-plussed when Roger presented him with his plan; [17] however, when it came time to sell the idea to the one person who they absolutely needed - the hollowed soul of Ted Chaough - Don poured on his incandescent charm, offering Ted the opportunity to go back to the roots that grounded them both - the purity of the pitch. In the balance, Don also put a lie to Jim Cutler's belief that Don was a charlatan - an all hat and no cattle illusionist whose fragility and weakness was exposed before the executives from Hershey's. [18] 

For Don, a man who once refused to sign a contract [19], to agree to both become part of McCann and sign a five-year contract to do so may seem surprising, but after watching his protégé slay Burger Chef he knows the future is in good hands. The juxtaposition of Peggy's pitch to Don's iconic Kodak speech [20] is interesting. The latter was delivered at a time when the country was looking hopefully to a new tomorrow, but Don's pitch was all about looking toward the past, about going back to a place where we know we are loved. [21] Now, the country had met its future - literally, men had landed on the moon less than 24 hours before the Burger Chef presentation - but Peggy leaned on the same yearning for a simpler time to close the deal. In a present that felt more disconnected than ever, when the communal experience of staring at the television deadened peoples' lives as the mood music of chaos, war, and unrest filled the screen, she offered the exact form of nostalgia Don did so many years ago - a place where we get what we want - a connection with the ones we love. 

That Don was sitting there as Peggy had the executives eating out of her hand was no doubt a point of pride, but, with the new corporate plan in place, may have been a more concrete handing off of the baton as Peggy assumes a greater role and Don a more secondary one. This generational transition was similarly done in 1963 when Roger spoke of both the decades of work he and Bert had put into the company but also identified Don as his partner "for the next 40 years." [22] Now, just six years later, it is Don who has found a mellower place that will surely be tested as it appears Ted will be returning to New York and another ghost is added to the list of those who seem to haunt him. [23] 

And to you, readers, I want to thank you for reading my recaps and sharing your thoughts about Mad Men as we all look forward to next year.

You can also follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


END NOTES

1. In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13. 
2. The Runaways, Season 7, Episode 5. 
3. The firm's creation is dated to the 40th anniversary party held in late 1963. The Gypsy and the Hobo, Season 3, Episode 11. 
3. The press release SCDP issues announcing its severance of ties with American Tobacco notes their nearly thirty years of work for the client. Chinese Wall, Season 4, Episode 11. 
4. The Doorway Part I, Season 6, Episode 1. 
5. Six Month Leave, Season 2, Episode 9. 
6. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12. Of course, Don was on a walkabout in California dealing with his own drama and might have been able to head off the whole thing at the pass. 
7. The nascent elevation of Guy MacKendrick was mercilessly snuffed out by Lois and her rogue driving skills. Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency, Season 3, Episode 6. 
8. Hands and Knees, Season 4, Episode 10. 
9. A Little Kiss Part I, Season 5, Episode 1. 
10. Faraway Places, Season 5, Episode 6. 
11. At the Codfish Ball, Season 5, Episode 7. 
12. Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 11. 
13. Time Zones, Season 7, Episode 1. 
14. The Runaways, Season 7, Episode 4. 
15. The Crash, Season 6, Episode 8. 
16. For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6. 
17. As Don noted, when McCann acquired PPL (and Sterling Cooper) back in 1963, instead of being a cog in that large machine, he, Roger, Bert, and Lane formed their own agency. Now, six years later, they were running into the arms of the suitor they had collectively rejected. Shut The Door, Have A Seat, Season 3, Episode 13, Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7. 
18. In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13.
19. Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7. This was the nadir of Don and Roger's relationship, with the former making a condition of his signing a contract that he and Roger have no further contact.  
20. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13. 
21. Indeed, instead of going with the obvious pitch of the Kodak Carousel being a "spaceship" Don referred to it as a "time machine." The Wheel, supra. 
22. The Gypsy and the Hobo, supra. 

23. RIP Bertram Cooper, you soup sipping, avant garde art collecting, ball-less wonder. I didn't like your shabby treatment of Don of late, but, like your one-time secretary Ida Blankenship, who you once called an astronaut, you died watching the real ones land on the moon. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mad Men S7E6 - The Strategy

"You never say thank you." 
"That's what the money's for."

- The Suitcase Season 4, Episode 7 [1]

On Peggy Olson's 26th birthday, her night was ruined by her lush of a boss who wasn't satisfied with her tag line for Samsonite and so, made her miss a birthday dinner and with it, a boyfriend who couldn't tolerate being second fiddle to her work. Of course, what was happening that night had little to do with a tag line for a suitcase, it was about a man who did not want to hear the news of the passing of the one person in his life who knew and loved him, as flawed as he was. It was about someone not wanting to face the cold reality of life, and so, took out that frustration and fear on the only person he knew could take it. But in the end, after a night of soul baring and emotional intimacy, when Don finally made that fateful call and confirmed what he already knew to be true, he and Peggy shared a tender moment, his hand gently enclosing hers, appearing to cement a bond that had been long in forming. 

It's no surprise that the few glimpses of Don's desk we see include a photo of him and Anna Draper, but four years (and a few weeks) later, he and Peggy re-convene in that same office, but with quite a bit of water under the bridge. Instead of deepening a bond that had been built ever since Don put Peggy on the Belle Jolie account, [2] had deepened when Don visited Peggy in the hospital where she was recuperating from the birth of her child, [3] become more complicated when Peggy came to the rescue after Don crashed Bobbi Barrett's car, [4] and survived the launch of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, [5] The Suitcase was a high water mark after which Peggy and Don's relationship dissolved, slowly at first, but over time, much more quickly. First, Megan supplanted Peggy as Don's emotional nourishment; [6] then, when Megan quit the firm to try her hand at acting, Don blamed Peggy, [7] riding her mercilessly until she quit and took another job. [8]

The merger of SCDP and CGC brought Peggy back into Don's orbit, [9] but by this time, Don's blackened soul and Peggy's unrequited desire for Ted were on a collision course. Peggy has been nursing a rather stiff grudge against Don for "breaking" Ted, for crushing his spirit by dangling the threat of the revelation of their affair to a client [10] and shaming Ted, who Peggy viewed as virtuous, into absconding to California with his wife Nan and two boys in tow. [11] Of course, that was just the cherry on the sundae for years of verbal abuse, dismissiveness and humiliation that Don piled on her, but the tent poles for The Strategy were these two beautifully acted (and written) scenes between Peggy and Don that took place in Don's old office (now occupied by the odious Lou Avery) that buried the hatchet of all of that rancor. There, after Peggy had her tantrum, drunk dialed Don and tried to get pissy with him, each laid bare their fears and insecurities. 

The pitch for Burger Chef was not about mom's battle with fast food any more than Don cared about what was being offered for Samsonite way back in 1965 (a year Peggy and Don ruminate over in one of the scenes). Instead, it stood as a convenient proxy for Peggy's own perception of herself - of being a single woman at 30 unable to relate to being a mother and unsure about what families do, and to give Don an opportunity to be tender and paternal - to be supportive in ways he rarely was when the power dynamic was reversed, to acknowledge that he feared having done nothing and having no one in his life and not wanting Peggy to suffer the same fate. To tell her, because only he can and have it matter to her, that she is doing just fine. Because to both of them, nothing outside the office will ever seem as important as what happens in the office, because Peggy knows Don better than anyone and heard in his floating of the pitch from a child's point of view that he wasn't wild about the agreed upon strategy. But here, instead of being competitive with Peggy, of bickering over her desire to be placed on accounts or dismissing her ideas as kernels that he turns into CLIO award winning material, he is instead charitable and mentoring - walking her through the creative process that goes on inside his head without rubbing her nose in it or feeling the need to save the day. 

The call back to The Suitcase was unmistakable but also distinct. The Don of 1969 is a world-wearier person. For all the attention we draw to his lack of empathy or (self) awareness, he is stung by the slings and arrows of bad fortune. He may blanch at most of the rules placed upon him by the other partners (although it seems he's broken most of them in spirit if not by their letter), but he found an untapped reservoir of good will toward Peggy that was absolutely endearing and afforded him the wherewithal to put himself in service of someone who he obviously values. The two scenes between Don and Peggy are interesting in that the way they were scripted placed Peggy in the power position - she was the boss, but there was almost a Yoda/Luke Skywalker vibe to it - she'd like to underscore the possibility that the pitch could involve the mother coming home from work, but Don knows that is a story that people are not yet ready to hear. He isn't pressing to make his idea the winner, but rather, nurturing and nursing her in the way a teacher might aid a prized pupil who is on the cusp of achieving something great. 

And because of that, she finds her theme - family - whether it's around a kitchen table or strangers sitting in a restaurant, who you are with defines who you are. In so many ways, the entire arc of Mad Men has been about that quest to, as Bob Benson put it, find comfort in an uncertain world. Don long ago noted that he felt as if he was just outside his own life, trying to scratch his way into it, [12] but everyone else has wrestled with those same demons. Joan walked into a marriage with a man who thought nothing of sexually assaulting her in a fit of pique [13] because marriage and appearances mattered, it was not long after Pete married Trudy that he was telling her father he did not love her, [14] Peggy's romantic liaisons sometimes bring her short-term enjoyment, but the one long-term boyfriend she had ended up with a knife buried in his chest [15] and her swoon over Ted ended spectacularly; the marital failings of the Roger Sterlings and Don Drapers of the world are well known and need little comment. 

So it came as no surprise that Pete had no problem bringing his new girlfriend Bonnie east to show her off at the office, but left her cooling her heels when he visited his daughter Tammy in Cos Cob. Sadly, his daughter barely recognizes him and recoils behind her nanny when he arrives (and who can blame her, that sport jacket would frighten young children). When his estranged wife shows up hours later (no doubt knowing he would have to wait until she returned home), Pete does what Pete does best - acts like an asshole - but Trudy was engaged in her own tit-for-tat and when he tried to moralize about her dating habits, buried him with the same caustic tongue that warned him about opening his fly within 50 miles of their home, [16] basically telling him he no longer matters in her (or their daughter's) life. So much for "family." That Bonnie does not like "New York Pete" is unsurprising, but the reality is that "California Pete" is not that different, save for the lengthening side burns and more casual office attire. 

Meanwhile, Joan proves she's learned some lessons the hard way. Having (finally) tossed Greg out on his ear [17] and taken a pass at Roger's occasional flirtations, she was more than happy to have Bob around to give little Kevin presents or take a day trip to the beach, but when Bob pulls an engagement ring out of his (loud) sport jacket, she demurs. She'll wait for love and go solo because although the idea that we all need comfort in our lives, and particularly for those living through the turbulence of the late 1960s, she's unwilling to accept an "arrangement" with Bob, who she subtly "outs." [18]

The mood music, that is, the sturm und drang that propels the narrative, is familiar. A major account dangles in the balance, seats are being re-arranged around the table (Harry sure is getting paid back nicely for leaking word of the firm's pursuit of Phillip Morris to Don), and some reckoning is likely to occur, but beneath that, and where this show has always shined brightest, is in bonding the audience to the characters and the characters to one another. If you've invested seven seasons worth of viewing the trials and tribulations of these people, you couldn't help but swell a little at the sight of Peggy, Don, and Pete sharing burgers and sodas after all these years, all those battles, and all that heartache. The image of Don and Peggy slow dancing to Sinatra's My Way, its lyrics suggesting "the end is near" felt equal parts ominous and poignant. When Peggy softly put her head against Don's chest and he kissed her tenderly on the top of her head, it was hard not to think of a father and daughter sharing a wedding dance, but maybe it was just simply two people who long ago formed a familial bond that each had carelessly threw away and now hoped to get back.  

END NOTES

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2MV-x924KA
2. Babylon, Season 1, Episode 6. 
3. The New Girl, Season 2, Episode 5. 
4. Ibid.
5. Shut the Door, Have a Seat, Season 3, Episode 13. 
6. See generally, A Little Kiss, Season 5, Episode 1 and 2. 
7. Lady Lazarus, Season 5, Episode 8. 
8. The Other Woman, Season 5, Episode 11. 
9. For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6. 
10. The Quality of Mercy, Season 6, Episode 12. 
11. In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13. 
12. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12. 
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. The Better Half, Season 6, Episode 9. 
16. The Collaborators, Season 6, Episode 3. 
17. Mystery Date, Season 5, Episode 4. 

18. The return of Bob Benson will surely please some, but this storyline had the feeling of nothing more than a throw away to close the Bob Benson "loop." The loss of Chevy's XP allows him to leave SC&P and go in house General Motors, never to be heard from again. Farewell, Bob.