Sunday, March 11, 2018

How To Cancel The Trump Show

In the climactic scene of the 1983 movie Wargames, a computer runs a myriad of nuclear war simulations, trying to determine whether there is a way to “win” such a fight. After exhausting all of the options (each of which resulted in total annihilation), the computer realizes “the only way to win is to not play.” 

I thought about that scene when Donald Trump went to Pennsylvania last night to rally support for a local candidate for Congress. “The media,” and by that I mean cable news, major newspapers, and online news outlets, are constantly gnashing their teeth over the Trump presidency and how to cover it properly, so here was a real-time opportunity to test whether they had learned anything from 2016, when, to take one oft-cited example, CNN cut to an empty podium where Trump was scheduled to speak hours later, and deemed it “breaking news.”

Would restraint be shown because Trump was going to campaign for a Republican candidate for Congress three days before election day and giving him airtime might put the Democratic candidate at an extreme disadvantage? Would anyone bother to wait until if/when Trump said something truly newsworthy before airing his remarks? Of course not. His remarks were carried live on cable news and his speech was then sliced into clips and disseminated far and wide, grist for hours of TV show coverage and print media reporting. 

Did he say anything newsworthy? Hardly. He called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” for the millionth time, bragged about the stock market, and hang on to your hats folks, told the audience what his 2020 reelection slogan would be. WOW. 

But Trump and the media are in a co-dependent relationship. Indeed, if you have the temerity to question whether it is appropriate or warranted to cover a Trump speech that is larded with insults, inaccuracies, and flat out lies, none other than the New York Times chief political reporter, Maggie Haberman will hop into your Twitter timeline to reprimand you. 

This is all of a piece with a narrative that reporters who cover politics have settled on - Trump runs a “reality show” presidency with the attendant plot twists, character arcs, blurring of fact and fiction, and cliffhangers that genre of entertainment is known for. Reporters, instead of focusing on what Trump does, not what he says, have played into this by covering Trump and his presidency like gossip columnists, not reporters. This should not be surprising - studies of the 2016 election showed little appetite for policy discussions and that tradition has carried on today. Consider the hand waving that occurred as Republicans saddled us with trillions in new debt while an entire day of media coverage was dominated by a fake “meltdown” by Sam Nunberg or Hope Hicks’s resignation as White House Communications Director. 

Like the computer in Wargames, the only way to “win” this game is not to play it. Media outlets can monitor what Trump says at a rally and dip into his remarks if he says anything newsworthy, but simply putting him on air so he can spread his own message without fact checking or question is acting as his propagandists, not his interlocutors. If the media continues to cover him the way they did last night’s rally, we as consumers have to change the channel, not click on the articles, or read the tweets. Ultimately, the only way a reality show gets canceled is when ratings go down. So too here.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Slow Burn

Watergate. The mere name conjures a time in our country’s history when the rule of law was challenged in ways we would hope would never happen again. And yet, its relevance is greater than ever, and thankfully, Leon Neyfakh’s hypnotic, addictive eight-episode podcast Slow Burn not only takes us back to that time when it seemed like our nation teetered on the precipice of collapsing, but forces us to consider what might happen if history repeats itself. 

Neyfakh is not content to simply convert All The President’s Men into podcast form. In fact, his goal, at least in the first few episodes, is to sniff around the lesser-known angles or those simply lost to history. And so we start with the curious case of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s first Attorney General and the weekend she was essentially kidnapped and held against her will in order to quell any risk that she might go public with what she knew, almost in real time, about the break-in. There is also Congressman Wright Patman, a Democrat who was onto Watergate early on, only to be kneecapped by a coalition of Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats, who put a quick end to his investigation. 

There is value in understanding these stories because it forces us to reconsider the accepted narrative that essentially boils down to two dogged reporters from the Washington Post working sources and breaking front-page news that inevitably led to Nixon’s downfall. And while there is truth to that (although, interestingly, Woodward and Bernstein are barely mentioned in the season’s eight episodes), the effort Neyfakh put in, through interviews, research, and writing, gives the story greater resonance. Whether pulling clips of then-RNC Chairman George H.W. Bush inveighing against Nixon’s antagonists in late 1973 (“let the man do the job”) or Nixon’s maudlin and rambling April 1974 address to the nation as he desperately clung to power, it is clear there is much more to the story than Deep Throat leaks in parking lots and the “missing” seventeen-minute tape. 

Slow Burn operates on two levels - it tells the story of Watergate, but its subtext could not be more clear, the (potential) parallel between Nixon’s downfall and the current investigation into President Trump, his aides, and the 2016 campaign.

For those who think today’s reporters spend too much time fetishizing Trump’s die hard voters, consider the episode True Believers, where we learn that the same thing was being done 45 years ago, when the bar flies and blue collar Democrats of Queens who supported Nixon did so because they feared societal changes reflected in the anti-war, women’s rights, and civil rights movements. They did not much care whether Nixon was guilty of any crimes (a vague whiff of “fake news” permeated their thinking) so long as he pushed back against the cultural changes they hated. Their attitude echoes forward today, where the xenophobia and racism of Trump’s “white working class” voters in the midwest is channeled through Trump’s demands for a border wall, criticism of NFL players, and wink-and-a-nod at white supremacists in Charlottesville. Indeed, stoking these racial prejudices was at the core of Nixon’s political strategy long before Trump appropriated it for his own gain. 

Or take Rabbit Holes, which focuses on the proliferation of conspiracy theories during the Watergate-era. On the one hand, that this happened is unsurprising. As Neyfakh points out, Watergate was a conspiracy, and so, its existence allowed for a cottage industry to sprout where a plane crash that killed one of the Watergate burglar’s wives (Dorothy Hunt) who had $10,000 in cash on her when the plane went down, was believed to be an assassination because she had information that could have harmed the President. Mae Brussell, who is the focus of much of Rabbit Holes was, in her way, the Alex Jones of her day. On her syndicated radio show, she mused about the imminent revocation of the Constitution and the military’s use of dune buggies (don’t ask) as signs of a pending coup d’etat. Her 18,000 word manifesto, which spun out her various theories on shadowy figures controlling our government, was published during the heart of Watergate, and would not be unfamiliar to modern day Americans who think FEMA is herding people into concentration camps or Obama is a secret Muslim. 

Slow Burn picks up speed as the inevitable denouement comes into focus. Saturday Night is a thriller in miniature, detailing the frenetic 36 hours that led to Nixon’s firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignation of Nixon’s Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, who refused to carry out his order. The episode is made better by interviews with the Special Prosecutor’s staff reminiscing about a mad dash back to the office as word broke of their boss’s firing to ensure the evidence they had gathered would not be taken and the excavation of newscasts at the time, reporters at a loss for words and fearing for the future of the country. Listening to Saturday Night you can feel how close we came to a true constitutional crisis, but in pondering that near escape, you inevitably wonder, if something like that happened today, would we survive? 

Of course, the comparisons to the Trump/Russia investigation are inevitable, but the distinctions are, in some ways, as important as the similarities. As Neyfakh discusses, the original Watergate Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was almost a caricature of everything Nixon stood against - an east coast elitist (Harvard Law professor) who had served as Kennedy’s Solicitor General. His staff was full of young liberals who despised Nixon and wanted to see him taken down. Now compare Cox with Robert Mueller III, the man investigating Trump - Mueller, unlike Cox, is a member of the same party as the President, with “law and order” bona fides that stretch back decades. His team is made up of deeply-experienced career Department of Justice prosecutors and FBI agents, yet Trump is attacking Mueller and his team as rank partisans whose bias is disqualifiying. While Nixon did ultimately fire Cox, he did most of his fighting before that fateful weekend in the courts, not in the court of public opinion. That Nixon did not fully appreciate how badly he misjudged his action may be what is keeping Trump from doing the same. 

It is also important to consider that Nixon did not have what Trump has - a right-wing echo chamber that functions on a daily basis to undermine the investigation. While both men had/have die hard supporters who either refuse to believe the allegations or do not care if they are true, the fracturing of news media today is a benefit Nixon could not take advantage of. And perhaps most importantly, Nixon was faced with a Democratic Congress, which exercised its investigative prerogatives in ways that the Republicans who run Congress today, refuse to do. 

The essential thesis of Slow Burn is that Nixon’s resignation was not foretold and, in real time, the idea Nixon would quit the Presidency at the pain of impeachment and removal, was farfetched. It may be true that if Trump follows a similar path, we will look back the same way. Sitting here today, there seems like a lot of smoke around Trump, but as he chisels away at the credibility of Mueller’s work, a hurried resignation seems like a pipe dream as Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill lay the foundation for dismissing the results of Mueller’s work as partisan and biased. Of course, as Neyfakh shows, this same strategy was being deployed by Nixon, but ultimately, when the proof became incontrovertible, Nixon fell on his sword. I am not as confident Trump will do the same. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Book Review - A World Without Whom

If this book review is tl;dr, just know that Emmy Favilla slays in her epic style guide, A World Without Whom. Emmy is the hero we need to navigate the increasingly murky waters of English usage in the internet age and she takes on this challenge with confidence and brio. If you came for tips on proper punctuation, grammar usage, and when to cap major holidays, Emmy is here for that; however, where she really shines is in acting as a witty and self-deprecating guide to the ever-mutating rules of the road for writing on the internet. Her task is a Herculean one – unlike generations ago, when the OED was updated once every decade and the uproar caused in 1961 with the publication of Webster’s New International Dictionary (Third Edition) took years to sort through, the internet (lower case, in case you were wondering) has changed the rules of the game and requires near-constant updating on questions like “do you put the emoji inside or outside the quotation marks” that copy editors of yesteryear could not even imagine (the answer, by the way, is “outside”).

If A World Without Whom was simply focused on the never-ending battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists, it would be a pithy, but unremarkable addition to the niche area of English usage books in the library that dorks like me love. Favilla checks the boxes in her early chapters so readers are educated about the nuances of en- and em-dash usage, but things really pick up once the former Copy Chief at BuzzFeed (Favilla is still with the website but in a different role) digs into more important matters like contextualizing “Neville Longbottoming” and “thirst trap.” For an old like me, perusing the internet can seem like reading words in a foreign language and A World Without Whom is an excellent decoder ring.

Ms. Favilla is a cheeky writer, born on the cusp between Generation X and Millenials, (capped as proper nouns), her writing is sprinkled with sarcastic parenthetical asides the former will appreciate combined with the glib, acronym heavy patois the latter will recognize immediately. But even as Favilla is examining the outer bounds of English usage in the internet age (“is it ok to use the word ‘cock’ in a dek?” (a dek, we learn, is editorial lingo for sub-heading)), her feet are firmly planted on more prosaic issues like the adoption of the singular form of “they” (she supports, as do I), and the eternal battle over the Oxford comma (ditto and ditto).

While the internet has democratized language in new and important ways, for example, the use of emojis to provide greater richness and context to statements that might otherwise be open to interpretation (a complaint of the early years of email – “they lacked ‘tone’”), in others, everything old is new again. Slang, and its mainstreaming into the culture via social media, is a subject Favilla delves deeply into so that you can properly pull out your receipts and sip your tea (although Favilla will be happy to know “jiggery pokery” made a comeback in one of Justice Scalia’s final dissents in 2015). But the thing is, appropriation of language has gone on since at least the first Airplane! movie and Grace’s “righteous dude” monologue in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s just that those riffs are now turned into GIFs (hard G in BuzzFeed style guide, fyi) and memes that have merged with common terms to create a new way of communicating.

And there is more. As Ms. Favilla rounds third and heads for home, she pours one out for lol to show how quickly jargon that originated in the internet-age can be sapped of its original meaning. First used in the literal sense that you were “laughing out loud,” twenty years on, lol has become the um, er, or like of electronic communication – a throat-clearing way to fill space while the sentiment lol was originally used to express has been supplanted by 42 (!) alternative methods (not to mention “crying man” emoji, the most popular emoji of them all).

Coolness in the culture has, is, and always will be driven by what people under the age of 30 deem it; which is why Facebook is now the Dad Jeans of the internet as younger people migrate to different platforms away from their parents’ preying eyes. And so, there is also the risk that A World Without Whom itself will become outdated or look like as dusty a relic as my 1911 Oxford English Dictionary, only in far less time. It is hard to know, but, as they say, nothing lasts forever, not even cold November rain (or the hyphen in “email.”). Nailed it.



Sunday, January 28, 2018

May You Live In Interesting Times

It would be difficult to imagine a more apt description of America in 2018. We live in a time of two countervailing trends. On the one hand, as described in Brooke Gladstone’s slim tome The Trouble With Reality, our President fits the four criteria of a demagogue first identified nearly 200 years ago by James Fenimore Cooper. Trump: (1) “poses as a mirror for the masses”; (2) “ignites waves of intense emotion”; (3) “uses that emotion for political gain”; and (4) “breaks the rules that govern us.” On the other, as Emily Fischer points out in her New York magazine essay The Great Awokening, the mainstreaming of the term “woke” is having its moment as society becomes increasingly sensitive to “the experiences of racial, cultural, sexual, and gender identities besides one’s own and to the injustices that shape our world.”

How can it be that we are led by a demagogue caught on tape bragging about groping women while powerful men are simultaneously being brought low by their sexual misdeeds? And why is it that some men are escaping accountability while others are shunned? How can it be that in a time when more information is available to us than at any other time in human history that objective “truth” seems more elusive?  

I think it is a combination of a few things - first, whether a person is capable of feeling shame, second, whether that person has people who support him no matter what, and third, the incentive structure for news outlets to frame stories in a way that generates outrage, not information.

The distinction between shame and embarrassment is an important one. Embarrassment results from our own feeling that we have done something wrong, whereas shame occurs when others make us feel bad about something we have done. In other words, you can only be shamed when you internalize criticism from other people. It should be no surprise that Trump is Exhibit A for this phenomenon. Faced with an avalanche of evidence that he engaged in various sexual misdeeds, from consensual adultery with “adult film” stars to sexual assault, Trump simply calls everyone accusing him a liar and moves on. On the other hand, you have Al Franken, who resigned his Senate seat after a photo and first-person account of his groping of a woman named Leann Tweeden was made public and other women came forward with allegations that he groped them too.

But Trump’s resilience and Franken’s resignation would not have happened if the former did not have an amen corner that defended him while the latter was dropped like a bad habit. Having handed his protectors the ammunition they needed, and without any way to corroborate Trump’s accusers’ allegations, the media moved on and all was forgotten. Franken was not so fortunate. Leading members of his party deserted him and, he felt both embarrassment and shame – that is, he acknowledged his caddish behavior and he was made to feel bad about that behavior by others, who told him he should step down from office.

Indeed, this pattern has persisted as the intersection between politics and sexual misconduct has sharpened. Roy Moore was “credibly accused” (to use the preferred vernacular) of sexual assault and harassment of teenage girls that occurred in the late 1970s, yet he resisted calls by some that he withdraw from his race for U.S. Senate, was endorsed by Trump, had money spent on his behalf by the Republican National Committee, and although he lost, still got more than 600,000 votes. He did this by essentially following Trump’s playbook – deny the allegations, blame “the liberal media” for smearing him, and rely on sympathetic reporters and news outlets to muddy the waters and call into question the accusations and their timing.

Of course, Moore is not unique. Congressman Blake Farenthold paid a former staffer more than $80,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit and simply chose not to run for reelection, he’s still in office. Congressman Scott DesJarlais carried on an adulterous affair and asked his mistress to get an abortion (family values guy and all) yet continues to represent the Fourth Congressional District in Tennessee and of course, former Senator David Vitter’s name turned up in the “black book” of a DC-area madam, and not only did he not step down, he was reelected in Louisiana. Deny, deflect, and rely on your right-wing news protectors to turn your sordid personal life into a vast left-wing conspiracy appears to be a sound political strategy.

Republicans have deftly taken advantage of two aspects of today’s media landscape – its fragmentation and, the reflexive willingness of at the so-called “mainstream” media to ascribe fault equally to both political parties, regardless of the subject. One need look no further than the fact that Hillary Clinton was adjudged to be less trustworthy than Donald Trump, a belief that was in part driven by the “vast right wing conspiracy” but also the mainstream media’s obsession over her email usage and its purported reflection of her shadiness. Meanwhile, Trump’s bombast was widely ridiculed, but aspects of his professional career, like his multiple bankruptcies and settlement of claims of racial discrimination, were not reported on with nearly the focus that the Clinton email server story garnered. Indeed, a study reported in the Columbia Journalism Review showed that in the final six days of the campaign, the Clinton email server story was referenced as much as her policy positions were in the last sixty-nine days of the election. 

Further, we learned recently that no less than six media outlets were aware of Trump’s affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the election but none reported on it because, according to them, the reporting did not meet their journalistic standards. That is a curious excuse considering media outlets were also aware that the Russian government had hacked into the DNC’s email server, stolen Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal email and handed all of that data over to Wikileaks, which dutifully published it all, in tranches, in order to gin up media coverage. Imagine if the Nixon plumbers took the information they stole from DNC headquarters in the Watergate Hotel and instead of being prosecuted for it, had their ill-gotten gains printed on the front page of The Washington Post.

For this, we have the carnival barker in chief to thank. I do not know if today’s culture is a reflection of Trump or if Trump is a reflection of today’s culture. Trump is our first (and I suspect will be our only) President who is also in World Wrestling Entertainment’s Hall of Fame, and that is fitting, for Trump’s style shares much with the artificial world of “faces” (fan favorites) and “heels” (villains) pro wrestling relies on. Professional wrestling characters are sharply written with little nuance and they use their time on the microphone to generate heat from the crowd. It is no wonder that one of the biggest heels on the indie circuit in the South last year was a guy who created “The Progressive Liberal” gimmick, including wrestling tights festooned with Democratic donkeys and who came into the ring wearing Hillary Clinton t-shirts. His was an easy character to boo in the heart of Trump Country, but the goal in pro wrestling, like talk radio, is to elicit a reaction, one way or the other.

In Howard Stern’s autobiographical movie Private Parts, two radio executives discuss a survey they conducted trying to understand Stern’s popularity. The research found that Stern fans were highly engaged and wanted to hear what he would say next, but crucially, Stern haters actually listened to the show for even longer periods of time, but for the same reason - they wanted to hear what he would say next. 

This sensibility has now extended deeply and pervasively into our politics and culture. Cable news shows line up guests who “debate” off of talking points that would not be out of place in a WWE ring, the predictable liberal vs. conservative argument that first flowered on CNN’s groundbreaking show Crossfire but has been reduced to a lowest-common-denominator discussion where Trump supporters ignore his myriad of deficiencies and Trump haters bemoan the end of the republic. Meanwhile, the same has extended to popular culture - the outrage, the reaction to the outrage, and the inevitable moving on to the next story in the never ending cycle all perpetuated on social media and television. 

In the end, we have incentivized cable news, newspapers, and web outlets to turn politics into professional wrestling, to create storylines of heroes and villains while also creating cliff hangers to keep us engaged and tuned in. I cannot think of better evidence that we get the government we deserve. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Friday, January 26, 2018

Almost Saturday Night

With news breaking in The New York Times that Donald Trump attempted to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June, the comparisons between Mueller’s investigation and Watergate became that much greater. It can be said that the nation narrowly missed a second “Saturday Night Massacre” when Trump’s White House Counsel, Don McGahn, threatened to resign instead of carrying out Trump’s order, and while that statement carries a patina of truth, what the superseding months have shown is a political landscape far different than the one Richard Nixon inhabited in October 1973.

As told in Leon Neyfakh’s mesmerizing podcast Slow Burn, the Saturday Night Massacre was directed at a person who almost seemed like a caricature of a Nixon antagonist. Archibald Cox was a member-in-good-standing of Nixon’s despised “east coast liberal elite” - a tweed-coat-and-bow-tie wearing Harvard Law School professor who had worked for Nixon’s 1960 election opponent, John F. Kennedy and gone on to serve in the Kennedy Administration as Solicitor General. Cox’s aides were young and liberal, but with a deeper enmity for Nixon and less respect for institutions than the World War II veteran they served. 

But here’s the thing - in light of Cox’s political leanings, looked at through the lens of our current political culture, that Nixon directing Cox’s firing (because the latter rejected the former’s faux-compromise on turning over tapes of conversations Nixon had surreptitiously made in the Oval Office) would be the tipping point that led to Nixon’s resignation, is surprising. And that is what makes Trump’s actions and those of his allies in Congress far more dangerous.

Nixon’s firing of a liberal prosecutor and former Kennedy aide drew bipartisan outrage and the swift appointment of a replacement, Leon Jaworksi, who would go on to lead the investigation through guilty pleas of many Nixon aides and the President’s resignation itself. Can we say with any confidence that the same would happen today? What is particularly striking is the fact that unlike Cox, whose political leanings could not have been less similar to Nixon’s, Mueller is a Republican, a career Department of Justice official appointed as FBI Director by President George W. Bush and as special prosecutor by another Republican, Rod Rosenstein, who had himself been appointed a U.S. Attorney by Bush, held over by Obama, and then picked as the number two in DOJ by Trump. 

Unlike Cox, Mueller’s team is not made up of wet-behind-the-ears young prosecutors just starting their careers. Rather, his are deeply experienced career DOJ attorneys who have prosecuted everyone from terrorists to Enron executives. And yet, Trump’s aides show no compunction about attacking Mueller and his team as rank partisans on a witch hunt against the President. Indeed, their efforts have been rewarded. While approval of Mueller hovers around 50 percent, it has fallen somewhere between 10 and 15 points (depending on the poll you read) as Trump’s allies have chiseled away at his credibility. 

We may have avoided a Saturday Night Massacre II last June, but the intervening months have allowed Trump and his allies to salt the earth beneath Mueller’s feet. Nixon’s downfall was due in large part to the release of tapes, the “smoking guns” that proved Nixon was actively involved in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in, among other things. Will the same be true of Trump? Will people accept the admissions he made about firing FBI Director James Comey to get rid of the Russia investigation as clear evidence of obstruction of justice? Are there emails and testimony of aides who flip on him that will show collusion or obstruction? And as importantly, will it matter? Or will it all be dismissed as “fake news” by Trump’s allies, whose media echo chamber on Fox News and elsewhere will provide the needed cover to protect him? It is impossible to know, but, like Watergate, it will not end well, regardless. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Good Place - Season Two

When I first wrote about The Good Place midway through its first season, it felt like writing about a small indie band very few people had heard of. While the show featured two legitimate stars – Kristen Bell and Ted Danson – NBC’s 13-episode commitment and the show’s premise, of an unworthy soul put in eternal paradise, did not scream visionary art, but then it happened. Keener viewers than me surely saw the season finale plot twist – that Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell), along with her three friends Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, were not in the “good” place after all, but rather, an elaborately staged simulacrum of the good place that was in fact, the “bad” place (i.e., hell). Eleanor’s eureka moment, as the group is fighting over who will go to what they think is the bad place to save the others left show creator Michael Schur with one last rabbit to pull out of his hat – a cliffhanger where Michael (Danson) is revealed to be the diabolical mastermind behind the scheme. Once his ruse is discovered, Michael simply snaps his fingers, wipes everyone’s memory, and starts all over again.

It was bravura television and since I did not see the plot twist coming, the ending did what I suspect Schur hoped – it required me to rewatch the entire season with a totally different understanding of what was going on. It was so clever and so unexpected, that I had no idea what direction Season Two would take. At the risk of repeating the error of writing about Season One before it ended, if anything, Season Two has exceeded its predecessor’s high standard. Having shown his ability to think outside the writing box once, Schur did it again. Instead of simply making the second season a carnival-funhouse-mirror version of the first, he conceded the point early on – Michael would create a new “good” place, and every time, Eleanor would figure it out: THIS IS THE BAD PLACE she screamed, in everything from monk’s garb to a cowgirl outfit (well, except attempt #649 when Jason figured it out, which, as Michael whined, was a real low point.)

And so, the narrative arc became not about Michael’s efforts to torture the humans, but his need to partner with them to avoid being retired (having his essence scooped out with a flaming ladle and his every molecule placed on the surface of a different sun) and sending them to the bad place when Sean, his boss, discovers that Michael did not merely do a second reboot, but more than eight hundred. Of course, because Season One ended with such a dramatic plot twist, even as Michael was incorporated into “Team Cockroach” you were never quite sure where his allegiances fell.

To Danson’s credit, his virtuoso performance is the beating heart of the show. His two-steps-forward-one-step-back effort to become a better err demon centers much of the second season’s best humor. In an ethics lecture focused on the “trolley car” problem (whether to crash into a group of five people or steer the trolley onto a side track and kill only one), Michael misses the point entirely, instead speculating about how you can kill all six people (hang a pole out the side with a blade attached to lop off the one person’s head and run over the other five – DUH). In the same episode, he casually mentions that being French automatically sends you to the bad place (plus, while stealing a loaf of bread scores -17 points, three are added if it’s a baguette, because it makes you vaguely French). When Janet’s unresolved feelings for Jason threaten to destroy the neighborhood, Michael refuses to kill her, lamenting that she is his friend, and later, he reluctantly comes clean to Eleanor and the gang when they realize he has no plan to get them to the real good place.

Opting for this story telling arc allowed Schur to dig far deeper into the ethical and philosophical conundrums we experience. Is lying okay in certain circumstances? When can you put your own needs over those of others? Can you trust an actual demon? Schur is neither pedantic nor heavy-handed in tackling these problems. Like the parent who slips veggies into the chocolate chip cookies, his musings on these cosmic queries are done with a light touch. Eleanor notes the value of the little white lie, just dressed up in the fancier cloak of “situational ethics.” Michael’s coded message to the group at a satirical comedy roast just before they are to be sent to the bad place is laced with references to Kant and Kirkegaard, but you do not need a two a.m. dorm room rap session to follow along.

And because Schur so successfully flipped the script to end Season One, the possibilities for how Season Two will end are limitless. We wait to see if our four heroes will convince the judge that they belong in the real good place, but do they? Tahani, for example, has not really shown much growth. When she learns she was felled by a statue of her sister, her takeaway was not that she wasted her mortal life nursing an insatiable amount of jealousy toward her sibling, but rather, that she died in Cleveland. Similarly, when she confides in Janet that she uses the “Duke” test (either university or title of nobility) for her dating partners and that Jason was unemployed at the time of his death (and in the sad way, not the good, rich way), she exposes her elitist attitudes just as much as when she name drops Johnny Depp (they dated), Taylor Swift (her best friend), and Vanessa Redgrave (whose panic room she was in with Javier Bardem). Jason has remained an amiable dunce throughout, and while he attracted both Janet (they married in Season One) and Tahani (they “pounded it out” in Season Two), has he done anything to distinguish himself other than sharing a story of slashing a rival dance crew’s tires to avoid a confrontation and securing the group’s escape from Sean by lobbing a Molotov cocktail and yelling JORTLES?

This is where the unpredictability Schur inserted thanks to his season one twist will really come into play and also why his mentioning that The Good Place shares storytelling DNA with LOST may also be meaningful. After all, LOST was about souls stuck in purgatory who needed to learn how to trust and have faith in one another before they could receive their eternal reward. Might something similar happen to our fab four? Then again, we may find out Michael played a long con (another LOST nod) and a snap of the fingers may result in an 803rd reboot.

Season Two also provided a few callbacks for fans like me. We get a cameo from Mindy St. Clair, eternally living in the “medium” place (which happens to be a suburban home from the 1980s that includes a clunky old VCR and the Pierce Brosnan “World’s Sexiest Man” issue of People magazine) as a horny cokehead in a period-perfect big shouldered skirt and jacket combo. When we learn Janet came up with the idea of using frozen yogurt as the thematic food for the neighborhood (frozen yogurt being a food people think they enjoy but know is kind of a bummer) I was reminded of Michael’s observation from Season One that he liked frozen yogurt because it showed how humans will take something perfect (ice cream) and ruin it just a little so they can have more of it. Similarly, when Eleanor and the team give Michael a “starter kit” for being human, which includes a set of car keys (which he can ask if anyone has found or tap his pockets to look for), I thought of Michael’s lament from Season One that he wanted to have human experiences, like pulling a hamstring or telling someone to “take it sleazy.” And when the group decides to risk going through the real bad place so they can plead their case for entry into the real good place before an all-powerful judge, Michael is thrilled because it is a futile plan, created with unearned confidence, and doomed to fail – in other words, a quintessentially human idea.

It is in these scenes where Schur’s sharp eye for the human condition shines. The demons who run the “toxic masculinity” shop in the bad place are of course frat bros who fist pound and ball tap each other while prepping for the creator of “Girls Gone Wild” inevitably arriving in hell. Sean, Michael’s boss, notes that he selected the body of a 45-year-old white man because that is the easiest way to fail upward. And, in what I thought was one of the more poignant lines in Season Two, Eleanor explains to Michael, who had just experienced the existential crisis of mortality, that the reason humans are always “a little sad” is that we understand that we all die one day. It is these minor riffs and grace notes that make the show something more than just a philosophy lesson put through a pop culture blender and one of the many reasons it is my favorite thing on television.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review - Perfect

Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series is one of the most iconic moments in the storied history of our national pastime. It is a feat that had never before been done and has not been done since. In Lew Paper’s wonderful book Perfect, we are transported back to that fateful October day in Yankee Stadium and dive deeply into the people and personalities at play during a game that would become immortal.

While reading Perfect, I kept thinking about the TV show LOST because so much of the book unfolds in flashback - to small towns in Oklahoma, hard scrabble homes in the midwest, and cramped apartments in big cities. These were men who came of age as children of the Depression, and who, through sheer will and determination, made it through that awful time to achieve great success. They were also soldiers, war heroes, husbands, fathers, and sons who Paper shows us in three dimensions. Jackie Robinson is of course a singular figure, and Paper tidily goes through his ascension to the major leagues as the first African-American player but I found the juxtaposition between Robinson and his teammate Roy Campanella even more compelling - the former was a social justice warrior who exhibited superhuman restraint against racists who taunted him, while the latter was more equanimous, having played in the Negro Leagues for many years and with a more convivial nature that allowed him to shrug off the slurs and epithets. 

And this context is important, be it to understand the uniqueness of Pee Wee Reese, a child of the South embracing Robinson when he came up to the majors, or the complicated experience of Mickey Mantle, a young man of prodigious talent who was seduced by fast living in New York. There are also lesser known players and stories, like Enos Slaughter, a lifelong Cardinal traded to the Yankees late in his career grousing decades later over the portrayal of an incident when he spiked Robinson that carried the whiff of racism and Dale Mitchell, who made the final out in the game and although he was a career .312 hitter who had played on a World Series champion in 1948, was forever defined by the called strike three (that most players acknowledged was a ball) that ended the game. 

And speaking of the game, it at times feels secondary to the narrative and that may be because the Yankees scratched out just five hits and two runs, one of which was a Mantle home run. Unlike the modern game, with its endless substitutions, shifts, pitching changes, and slow pace, Game Five took just over two hours, and both Larsen and his opposite number, Sal Maglie, pitched the entire game, and the only pinch hitter was Mitchell, who came to bat with two outs in the top of the ninth. To be sure, there were a couple of close calls, Robinson smacked a grounder into the hole between short and third in the top of the second that clipped the glove of Yankees third baseman Andy Carey before shortstop Gil McDougald corralled the ball and made a throw that beat Robinson by a half step, Duke Snider crushed a ball in the top of the fourth that would have been a home run had it not leaked foul by six inches and Gil Hodges smashed a ball to left center in the top of the fifth that Mantle caught just before it hit the ground, later describing the catch as the best of his career. 

The game is notable for other reasons too, like the fact that no less than seven future Hall of Famers played in the game (for the Yankees - Mantle, Berra, and Slaughter, for the Dodgers - Reese, Robinson, Snider, and Campanella, along with both team’s managers), but what Paper does so well is tease out connections to what still stands as a singular athletic achievement. There is the near-miss World Series no-hitter from 1947 - another Yankees vs. Dodgers match up - when journeyman Bill Bevens no-hit the Dodgers for 8 and 2/3 innings (he did allow a whopping ten walks) before his no-no was broken up by Cookie Lavagetto (the Dodgers ultimately won the game) and the presence of Sandy Amoros, whose catch in the sixth inning of Game Seven of the 1955 World Series helped secure Da Bums’ one and only world championship while they played in Brooklyn.

The 1956 World Series would also serve as a coda to both the players and the teams. Players like Berra, Reese, Robinson, and Campanella (who was paralyzed in a car accident a little over a year later) were reaching the end of their careers. New York’s place as the center of the baseball universe was coming to a close too. After battling each other seven times in the World Series between 1941 and 1956, the two teams would not again square off in the fall classic until 1977. The Dodgers were denied a third straight National League pennant in 1957 and moved to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. They were joined on the West Coast by the New York Giants, who went from the Bronx to San Francisco during that same off season. The Yankees would continue to dominate through the mid 1960s, winning the World Series in 1958, 1961, and 1962 and the AL pennant in 1960, 1963, and 1964, but even though New York added a second team in 1962 (the Mets), never again would three teams share one city or compete so aggressively for fans and titles. In that way, Larsen’s gem is a fitting exclamation point to this era of baseball and Paper’s book Perfect captures the moment beautifully.

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

TV Review - House of Cards Season Five

Now that Kevin Spacey has been fired from House of Cards, reviewing the show's fifth season is much different. While the show will return for eight episodes before calling it a day, it has been tarnished by association and may limp to a finish without much more than a novelty’s level worth of curiosity of how it handles Spacey’s firing in the context of the overall storyline. 

Of course, Spacey’s downfall viz a viz the show is ironic. The fifth season saw his character, Frank Underwood, pushed to the side in favor of his wife Claire, who is now President after his resignation (don't ask). Indeed, the show's hiatus is a good opportunity for the show runners to think about where they want to go and what they want out of the final season because the fifth season was so bananas crazy (not in a good way) that a pause will be good regardless.

When House of Cards started, it balanced much of what makes DC intrigue interesting - political sabotage, deals cut behind closed doors, and just enough lurid titillation to pique without being prurient. But as the show has progressed, the machinations have become less believable and the suspension of disbelief required, far greater. This was never more true than in Season 5, which unfolded for the first half against a ridiculously convoluted electoral theft story that made Bush v. Gore look simple and then spent the second half fast forwarding past what could have been a season-long arc of Frank's undoing (at his own hand as it turns out, in a finale-aside that would have been missed if you blinked) and elevation of Claire surrounded by scheming aides eager to take advantage of her naivete and inexperience.

Sometimes, shows that start out strong lose their thread (looking at you, Homeland) and even before Spacey’s outing as a sexual predator, it was clear House of Cards had morphed from drama to parody. Spacey’s scene-chewing monologues became flabby, less Machiavelli and more dorm-room 101 philosophy, and while the body count piled up, it required a belief both in the fecklessness of law enforcement and every tinfoil-hat conspiracy about dark forces running the country to not be laughable. 

Looking back, it is clear that the early decisions to navigate Frank into the Oval Office so quickly ended up being too much to fast. The show jettisoned any pretense of being a “DC drama” that might have been based on legislative horse-trading or lower-level skirmishes in favor of more and more outlandish scheming and mendacity that ultimately involved state-sanctioned murder, false arrest and imprisonment, and manufactured terrorist attacks to spook the populace. On the other hand, we are asked to believe the Vice President of the United States could keep secret a live-in lover (who she kills in the penultimate episode) while also, hello, BEING MARRIED TO THE PRESIDENT. It is absurd, even for televised drama. 

There may be a small opportunity for redemption in Spacey’s exit. With Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood now unshackled from the yoke of her marriage to Frank, eight episodes is more than enough time to tell both a taut political story and consider the reckoning that all those who have done bad things deserve. 

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017 Year in Books

I'm too lazy to blurb all the books I read this year, so here's the list. My goal was to review every book I read, but as you'll see, I didn't quite make it. Of the books I did review, a couple I really liked are "Word by Word" (#18), "Nomadland" (#31) and "Fear City" (#33). A couple I liked but didn't review are "The Stranger in the Woods" (#14) and "The Lonely City" (#28), the latter was probably one of my two or three favorites of the year. I thought Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon" (#17) which landed on a few best-of lists was a little disappointing and Perrotta's Mrs. Fletcher (#29) was WAY overrated. There is also a bit of fluff like "Make Trouble" (#27), which you can read in about 20 minutes and "The Asshole Survival Guide" (#34). The rest are a mixed bag of good ("A First Class Catastrophe" (#35)), bad ("The Road to Little Dribbling" (#5)) and ugly (in that early 70s facial hair is not good, but reading about the Swingin' A's was excellent "Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic" (#11)). 

I hope you got to read some good books this year too! 

6. The African Svelte, Daniel Menaker
9. If Our Bodies Could Talk, Dr. James Hamblin
10. Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle & the Creation of Holmes, Michael Mims
11. Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, Jason Turbow
13. The One Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World, James Barron
14. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel
15. The Course of Love, Alain de Botton
16. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge & Why It Matters, Tom Nichols
17. Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
20. The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry
22. Last Call, Daniel Okrent
23. Grocery, Michael Ruhlman
25. Paths to Happiness, Edward Hoffman
26. Caeser’s Last Breath, Sam Kean
27. Make Trouble, John Waters
28. The Lonely City, Olivia Laing
30. The Thousand Dollar Dinner, Becky Diamond
34. Get Capone, Jonathan Eig
35. The Asshole Survival Guide, Robert Sutton
36. A First Class Catastrophe, Diana Henriques

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Trump’s First Year Was A Huge Success

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” - Les   February 29, 2016

During an election year that seemed to move at the speed of light, the above quote from CBS chairman Les Moonves was barely a one day story. The context of Moonves’s quote related to the record ad revenue his company and other media outlets were collecting and of course, the needle moved even more when Donald Trump was on their air. His comments were echoed by CNN President Jeff Zucker, who called 2016 “the best year ever” for cable news, and it was not because they were doing deep dives on the fine points of tax policy. Showtime aired a series about the campaign dubbed The Circus and an after-action report conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review found that in a six day period near the end of the campaign, the New York Times filed as many stories about Hillary’s email as they did in the final sixty-nine days about her policy positions. 

With Trump’s victory last November, one would have hoped the media writ large would course correct. While The Washington Post boldly placed “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its homepage and The New York Times brags about skyrocketing revenue from new subscribers drawn in by its purportedly aggressive coverage of Trump, 11 months into Trump’s first term in office, he has succeeded in waving many shiny objects in front of reporters’ faces even as the federal government, and its role in our daily life, has been radically altered.

For all the spinning on cable news that Trump has been a failure, I would argue that a week from now, when, in all likelihood, Trump has a splashy signing ceremony for the Republicans’ massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, he will have achieved as much in his first year in office as Barack Obama, and, over the long run, potentially much more. Here’s why:

Trump Is Reshaping The Federal Judiciary For The Next 20 Years: The top line here is the seating of Neil Gorsuch, a 50-year-old conservative jurist who may serve until the 2040s, on the U.S. Supreme Court, but it goes beyond that - Trump is one retirement (Anthony Kennedy) away from locking in that majority with a replacement who, like Gorsuch, may serve for 25-30 years. A worst case scenario where either Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer (or both) retire before 2020, would be cataclysmic. 

But Trump’s influence extends well beyond the Supreme Court. After all, while it does render decisions of great consequence, it also issues fewer than 100 opinions a year. The real action is in the twelve circuit courts of appeal, and there, Mitch McConnell has used the Senate as a turnstile, approving more of Trump’s nominees (twelve) in his first year in office than any President in history. 

Republicans Are Dismantling Wide Swaths of the Regulatory State: Do you care about the environment? Sexual assault investigations on college campuses? Consumer protection against heavy-handed (or illegal) actions of major financial institutions? Having unfettered access to all corners of the Internet? I have bad news for you. All of those things are under assault, a two-pronged assault in fact, that has rarely been seen in Washington. 

The first prong was predictable - Trump installed many regulated-industry friendly leaders as Cabinet Secretaries and administrative agency heads to either reverse or stay implementation of Obama-era regulations in many of the areas (and others) mentioned above. The other, less so. Republicans in Congress have utilized something called the Congressional Review Act, which grants Congress power to overturn, by simple majority vote, any regulation passed in the last 6 months of a prior administration. In total, Congress overturned 12 Obama-era regulations, including an FCC rule on Internet privacy protections, an SEC regulation that required energy companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, and a Department of Interior stream-protection rule, which prevented coal companies from dumping waste into stream valleys. 

The Tax Cut Bill: The idea that we would borrow at least $1.5 trillion and hand that money to corporations and the wealthy at a time when income inequality is already at a level unseen since the 1920s is bizarre enough without considering several other things. 

First, the tax cut bill is more expensive than advertised because the personal income tax cuts in the bill have a sunset provision in 2025. The Bush tax cuts had a similar sunset provision and were (mostly) made permanent when they lapsed, adding trillions in long-term debt. So too here. Some future Congress and President (not Trump) will be put in the position of trying to raise taxes or borrow even more to make the tax cuts “permanent.” WONDER WHICH ONE THEY WILL CHOOSE?! Second, the tax cut bill will increase the deficit. We have seen this movie before - first under Reagan and then under Bush 43 - tax cuts do not pay for themselves and the growth of government will result in a deficit that is already nearing $700 billion a year, swelling even more. This crowds out our ability to invest in things like research and development, infrastructure, and other social goods. Ultimately, interest rates will also increase, making it harder (and more expensive) to buy a home, a car, or other goods and services. Finally, the tax cut bill includes a repeal of the individual mandate under Obamacare. This will result in fewer healthy Americans purchasing insurance, resulting in insurance companies raising premiums on the rest of us. The repeal, along with other, subtle tactics that have undermined the ACA (smaller enrollment window, no marketing to get people to enroll, etc.) is further eroding this salutary public good. 

What makes these changes so pernicious, is that they largely happen in the background, not all at once. Three or four years from now, politicians will fuzzy up the next economic crash or trillion-dollar budget deficit (remember, Republicans argued that Bill Clinton was somehow to blame for the 2008 market crash because he signed legislation that overturned the Glass-Steagall Act (which had largely been rendered moot anyway) and not the Bush Administration’s reckless tax and monetary policy and indifference to regulation.) Climate change is something that is felt over time, Miami is not going underwater tomorrow, and people will debate whether job growth or loss was due to policies enacted (or reversed) without a clear cut answer. 

Even more consequential is how difficult it will be to undo the damage. As noted, the Supreme Court is one retirement away from having a conservative majority locked in for years to come. Regulations take a long time to promulgate and become effective (and that is before legal challenges that can slow things down even longer). Corporations, already awash in trillions of dollars, now have a green light to further consolidate, which affects everything from what we watch on TV, read in the newspaper, and view on the Internet, while giving them even more money to lobby for laws and regulations that benefit them. Had you told a Republican politician that in Trump’s first year in office, all of the above would be accomplished, I suspect they would be quite happy.

Of course, what also helps is the media’s disinterest in focusing on these issues. It is far easier (and profitable) for them to gorge on controversy instead of considering whether allowing coal companies to dump run off into freshwater is good public policy or not. Media conglomerates are also not neutral referees. They must be responsive to shareholders, not the public interest, and the more money that is shoveled their way, the more “the circus” plays on in Washington, adding to their advertising revenue and ratings, the less their incentive to be fair-minded arbiters of the public good. And for those small corners of cable news or the print/web media that are reporting on these ills, left-wing outrage is just as profitable as the right-wing version even though little can be done to change things. 

Even if Trump resigned tomorrow or was impeached, even if Democrats take back one (or both) houses of Congress in 2018, the effect of the last 11 months will be felt for decades. It may not be good for America (or democracy), but hey, at least Les Moonves is happy. 

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