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. 

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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. 

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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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