Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Cautionary Tale about Anger

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"   

            Howard Beale’s immortal words from “Network” comprise one of the most memorable lines in cinema history.   And Network is definitely must-see cinema.   It’s about a veteran anchorman who is so sick of the soulless business known as network television that he implores everyone in his audience to open their windows and scream that they are fed up and will no longer play society’s games – which most of us never win anyway.   Moviegoers may not share the full extent of Beale’s anger, but his message cannot help but resonate.  On Main Street, we viscerally appreciate how dehumanizing contemporary society can be.   And we respect the guy who has the guts to speak truth to power and proclaim, on behalf of us all, “No Mas.”   

            Paddy Cheyefsky received an Academy Award for penning the Network screenplay.  He is the only person in history to have won three solo Oscars in that category.   A Jew from the Bronx, Cheyefsky was born in 1923 – two years after the birth of my mother, another Bronx Jew.  He came from a lower-middle class background, which means that he grew up much more affluently than my mother, who comes from arguably the poorest urban neighborhood in the United States, but I get the impression that Cheyefsky shared my mother’s propensity for in-your-face politics.   Purportedly, he was one of those guys who never shied away from a political or philosophical argument, and I have no doubt that many of his positions were anything but moderate.    As for his art, critic Tim Teeman describes it as follows:  “Chayefsky’s best-known characters were ‘thwarted people who feared nothing so much as unfulfillment.’ Their struggle ‘for a minimal amount of autonomy’ mirrored Chayefsky’s refusal to cede control in his life and work.”  As an artiste interacting with mercenary producers, he was frequently mad as hell, and as the most decorated screenwriter in the history of film, he didn’t have to take it from anyone.   Most of us don’t have that much power, however.  Sometimes, all we can do to express our anger is vote.

            And that brings me to Brexit.   When I think about the Brexit vote this morning, I keep thinking  of it as the product of Howard Beale – or more specifically, all of those people in Beale’s audience who are opening their windows and screaming the thoughts of “thwarted people who [fear] nothing so much as unfulfillment.”   I have no trouble looking at those people – those characters – and seeing them as fundamentally sane.  After all, when Thoreau told us that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation; what is called resignation is confirmed desperation,” wasn’t he really implying that a primal scream out the window might actually be rather healthy, and strangely liberating?

            As a fan of Cheyesky and Thoreau, I appreciate the Brexit vote, or at least part of the impetus behind it.   But that is the perspective of a consumer of literature and film, a fan of writers and artists who are often critical about the status quo.   I’m also exposed to a very different perspective – that of the Washington Post, New York Times, and such center-left TV networks as CNN or MSNBC.  There, the mavens don’t tend to come from the Bronx in the 1920s.  More typically, they hail from Westchester County, or the Mainline, or Winnetka, or from my own hometown of Bethesda, MD, where the median house value is more than $800,000. These people aren’t mad as hell – except at anyone else who is.  As a general matter, they’re happy with their bankbooks, their careers, and their prospects for the future.   At this point, I’d guess that if you are an Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, a frequent guest on a CNN show, or just another 35 year-old lawyer who lives in a million dollar home in West Bethesda, the world is your oyster.

So, if Cheyefsky was going to make a movie about Bethesda, MD, how might his characters react to Brexit?  (And I mean how would they react in the privacy of their own homes, not when they go into polite society and hide their elitism.)   I suspect it would go something like this:

“So, my friends, how is your 401(k) doing today?  How’s your stock market portfolio?  Personally, I’ve lost a fair amount of money yesterday and expect to lose even more in the upcoming weeks, thanks to the Brexit vote.   Oh, that angry mob in England – how dare they do this to my assets?  Well, I shouldn’t blame all of England.   The Londoners didn’t vote to leave the EU.  They’re too well educated and cosmopolitan to vote against stability and for chaos.   Here, a few miles from Washington D.C., we knew we could count on the Londoners to vote sanely yesterday.  It’s just those bigoted, uneducated fools in the hinterlands.   We had hoped they would put on their thinking caps and do the right thing, but I guess that’s not what people from the countryside do.   And that makes you wonder about what might happen here, in the mother ship, in November.   Is it possible?   Might the Red Americans actually elect ... him?   God help us.”

OK.  Cheyefksy probably wouldn’t have his Bethesdian character invoke “God.”  He would surely know if he were alive today that people hardly ever mention that word here in Bethesda.   But they do talk about 401(k)s, globalization, Red States and Blue States, bigotry, and the stock market.   Or about how our society might not be perfect, but it sure beats most of the alternatives.  Or about how the only kind of positive change that’s possible is incremental change.  Or about the fact that if Americans who live outside of the largest metropolitan areas had their way, we’d see societal changes that are absolutely horrible – just like what happened yesterday in Britain.  

My friends, I’m not going to tell you that the Brexit vote was fine and dandy.   I’m not going to say that it won’t have a lasting detrimental effect on global economics or even the freedoms and security that people enjoy.   But this much I can say:  yesterday’s electoral outcome was a shot that had better be heard across the bow and throughout the ship.   Yesterday reveals that there are two Englands – the London area, and everyplace else – and that the record wealth that is being enjoyed in London isn’t being spread very widely across that little island.   But need I add that there are also, as the huckster John Edwards correctly stated, two Americas – the one that has been getting richer and richer and richer in the past twenty years, and everyplace else.   

The talking heads, Op-Ed writers, and well-heeled Yuppies certainly have the prerogative to look at the Brexit or Trump voters and dismiss them as bigoted, uneducated fools.  But I suggest that they look in the mirror instead.  What are they doing to ensure that the wealth and power in our society is being spread widely and compassionately?   What are they doing to ensure that the humanism of a Paddy Cheyefksy is seeping beyond the world of literature and art, and entering as well into public policy.

Here in Bethesda we love our liberal politics and our liberal politicians.   But you will forgive the people in the hinterland if they look at, say, Bill Clinton, and have trouble relating to a guy who between 2001 and 2013 parlayed his career in “public service” into a reported $105 million in speaking fees.   Howard Beale’s audience is constantly making sacrifices – they work hard day after day, but can’t afford vacations in London.  Many can barely afford to take vacations at all.   In fact, it will take them five or six years of toil to make as much money as Bill or Hillary Clinton could make in a single hour of pontificating.    

I’m not asking for my fellow Bethesdians to pity the Brexit voter who lives in Leeds, Birmingham or Manchester – or the Trump voter who lives in Ft. Wayne, Ft. Smith, or Ft. Hood.   What I am saying is that we who come from affluence and privilege have responsibilities to those who don’t.  And if we don’t want to share our wealth or our power, at least we can grant our fellow-citizens their primal screams.  

In short, unless and until we’re willing to make sacrifices for our fellow human beings, we’ll be in no position to criticize our political opponents.    In the meantime, we can just count our money in the privacy of our own McMansions and wait for the next Howard Beale to wake his audience up and vote our heroes out.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections on the Orlando Massacre

Less than one week has elapsed since the massacre and we’re already seeing it take on a defined role in American culture: as a petri dish for indignation.  For political conservatives, the massacre has come to exemplify the decadence of the Obama Administration and the scourge of political correctness.  On television, you hear conservatives complain that our President has refused even to say the words “Islamic Radicalism,” let alone to take a strong stance against that cancer.  But behind the scenes, conservatives are complaining that the problem isn’t simply the “radical” form of Islam but Islam itself.   They note that all religions have their fundamentalists, but only in the Islamic world has violence spread like a common weed.  And where, ask the conservatives, is Obama in all of this?  Why does he use the strongest of language to attack Netanyahu and Trump while at the same time treating the Muslim terrorists with kid gloves?  Why does he suck up to the Iranians?  Whose side is he on, anyway?   It’s not the narrative you’re likely to read in the Washington Post or hear on MSNBC, but in Red America, it’s exactly what people have been talking about for a while -- and even more so after Orlando.

And then there’s Blue America, where I live.  Here, Orlando is a reminder of our feckless Congress, and by that, I mean the Republicans.   Increasingly, liberals have come to despise that word.   Republican politicians are no longer seen as individuals; like the Borg from Star Trek, they’re viewed as deadly automatons participating in a hive mind.   They take their marching orders from nefarious organizations and individuals who prevent them from voting their conscience, if indeed they have a conscience left to vote.   In this case, liberals assume, the Republican Congressmen will surely be following the directives of that evil organization known as the NRA.  As a result, even though we’ve seen another instance where dozens of people were killed as a result of assault weapons that civilians don’t need to hunt or protect their family, we can count on the Republicans in Congress to make sure that this nation continues to be awash in these weapons and that future acts of domestic terror will be as bloody as possible.  Thanks a lot, Borg.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Orlando is that it has done the impossible; it has succeeded in making an extraordinarily polarized country even more polarized.  That’s one reason I find it so difficult to share my own perspectives; I hesitate to throw more bacteria onto the Petri Dish.   We should be healing with love, not heaping more hate.   Nevertheless, at the risk of compounding the problem, please allow me to express the part of this tragedy that most sticks in my craw.   It’s exemplified by a single sentence – one that was uttered on a Facebook video by Seddique Matten, the father of the Butcher of Orlando:

“God himself will punish those involved in homosexuality.”

Those are not the words of an extremist Muslim.  Those are not the words of a violent Muslim.  Rather, they reflect the views of a large segment of traditional Muslims, Christians and Jews – peace-loving, law-abiding citizens who simply try to take their Scriptures seriously.  And it is precisely those words – and the attitudes they breed – that have made life unconscionably miserable for homosexuals over the centuries.   Yes, American society has made major strides in recent decades in accepting gay people for what they are, but don’t fool yourself – this country will reek of homophobia for a long time.  And tragically, we largely have religion to blame for that.

As a religious person, I feel a sense of responsibility for the abuses of faith.  I feel a sense of shame that the “One God” who I adore is seen by so many as a law giver who punishes the loving acts of consenting adults.   The people of faith who despise homosexuality are simply taking literally the words of Scripture.  How can I not feel compassion for these people?  Maybe they are the ones who are authentically religious, and I’m just trying to have it both ways.

Nevertheless, when I reflect on the Orlando Massacre, it is indeed difficult for me to feel compassion for Seddique Matten.  In fact, I find myself seeing him as one of the causes of the massacre, despite his “non-violent” philosophy.   What would have happened, I ask myself, if Seddique had adopted a different approach to religion?   What would have happened if he hadn’t raised his son in an environment that spoke of Divine Retribution?  Or if he had told his son that faith should not trump the voice of reason?  Or that it is reasonable to affirm homosexual love no less than heterosexual love as legitimate expressions of the human heart?   What would have happened if when Omar asked his father what it meant to “fear God,” Seddique responded that he fears that he will not do enough to show compassion for his fellow human beings and otherwise heal the world, that this will dishonor the Name of God and cause him to lose some self-respect?  

After weeks like this, I still believe in democratic government, organized religion, and MLK’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”   But let’s not fool ourselves.   Voters can frequently elect legions of uninspired and corrupt politicians, organized religions can breed one form of bigotry after another, and advanced industrial societies can devolve into moral swamps.   In other words, if you think you’ve seen the light at the end of this tunnel, you really are dreaming.  Until we do something about the awful divisions that are eating our society alive, we condemn ourselves to more and more Orlandos.  So let the finger pointing stop, and the unification begin.   Or better yet, let the finger pointing continue – only now, we had better point those fingers at ourselves.  All of us.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

I'm With Her

Who am I to contradict that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra? But it sure seems like it’s over – and the fight hasn’t even started.  I feel like I was getting ready for a championship bout, only to hear that one of the boxers knocked himself out heading into the ring.  

My mind tells me that “Anything can happen in a Presidential election, especially when neither of the candidates is especially popular.”  But my heart says, “Are you kidding?   One candidate is a former Senator, a former Secretary of State, and one of the most knowledgeable public policy mavens in Washington.  And the other candidate acts like a character in Porky’s.”  (You remember, the movie with such classic lines as, “Paging Mike Hunt.  Paging Mike Hunt.”)

Eight months ago, Trump was that guy at the end of the bar who was cracking up the patrons with his off-color humor.  At 10:00 p.m., you laugh with him as often as not.  But now it’s midnight, and he’s still there, the same loudmouth, only he’s had four more beers and you’ve heard the same stupid lines for the past two hours.   What was once funny has become pathetic – you feel sorry for the drunk, and you feel even sorrier for yourself for having to listen to him.

“Paging Mike Hunt.  Paging Mike Hunt.”

Honestly, I don’t mind Trump’s foul mouth tendencies.  In fact, I kind of like them.  Who wouldn’t want a President who’d begin a State of the Union with the line, “Pull my finger.”  But the problem is that once the ensuing smell would dissipate, Trump wouldn’t have anything to say of  substance.  He’d merely regale us with name calling, empty promises, and the strong feeling that he cares as little about the Constitution as he does about “2 Corinthians.” 

Sorry to say it, but this blog is a “law free zone.”  I make my living practicing law and I try to keep the law as far removed from my avocational life as possible.  But how can I not point out that Donald seems to have no respect for the judicial branch of the government or the fundamental principles that the judiciary has enunciated?  One minute, he is calling for more than a billion people to be banned from the United States because of their religion.  The next minute, he is questioning whether a federal judge should be disqualified from a case because of his race.   How can any voter be confident that if Trump were elected President, he would honor the rule of law or consider himself constrained by the separation of powers?    

And then there are the domains over which Trump would legitimately be in charge, including the military.  Does he appear to you to be someone who should be trusted with the power to launch a nuclear strike?  What if a world leader insulted him by making fun of his hair or the size of his hands?  Would Donald feel compelled to at least send a few B-52s in that guy’s direction?  After all, when you’re that loudmouth at the end of the bar, you come to control the largest arsenal of weapons in the known universe, and someone insults you, you blow the son of a bitch up!  

Believe me, my friends. I have a sense of humor.  I hate the P.C. culture.  If you hung out with my college friends and me at a Rose Bowl Tailgater, you’d hear for yourself how much I love to laugh at the up-tight, sanctimonious, and smug culture known as official Washington.  I appreciate that Trump has at times served as a welcome antidote to that culture.  I appreciate that Hillary, and the spin doctors and other self-seekers who seem to flock to her like bees to their queen, frequently remind us of what we can’t stand about the D.C. mindset.  They’re the “sophisticates” that my hero, Stanley Kubrick, used to mock mercilessly.  They pretend to be superior, when in fact they go to the potty and have sex just like the rest of us.

“Paging Mike Hunt.  Paging Mike Hunt.”

But folks, this election is not being held to determine who gets to write one-liners for the next National Lampoon movie.  We’re deciding the next leader of the free world.   We need someone who is experienced in governance, has a public policy knowledge base that is wide and deep, is willing to learn what s/he doesn’t know, is willing to delegate to others, and is quintessentially sane.   At this point, we only have one candidate who fits that bill.  

So the choice is crystal clear.  In fact, it is so clear that regardless of whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent who is equally fed up with both, you are well advised NOT to throw away your vote and to instead strongly advocate one of the two combatants.

My vote will go to Hillary Clinton.  And I won’t just vote for her.  I’ll proclaim from the roof tops that we all had better come together and vote for her.   There is simply too much to lose by allowing the other guy even the slightest chance at victory.   And if you have never voted for Hillary before and are balking at starting now, I understand where you’re coming from.  I have never voted for her either.   But I don’t plan on telling my grandchildren that I had an opportunity to vote for Donald Trump’s opponent and didn’t seize it.  I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.  Do you?

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Common Sense on the Great Cincinnati Zoo Controversy

My wife is one of the most tolerant, open-minded people I know.  And yet for years, she liked to say that there is one “controversial” issue about which she could only see one side – gay marriage.  Her attitude was quite simple.  Consenting adults should be able to get married, regardless of race, color or sexual preference.  She understood that, at least at one point, she was in the minority on this issue, but she didn’t care.  Only one side of the debate had any resonance for her.   That was that.  

This past week, I experienced that same feeling of encountering a controversial issue, assuming that I was in the minority, but nevertheless viewing the majority view as utterly indefensible.   It’s a strange feeling to have, as I don’t like disrespecting the general will, and my head is rarely so swelled that I feel incapable of being wrong.  But on this issue, there seems to me to be only one civilized position to take, and yet I rarely hear anyone taking it.   Either something’s very wrong with me, or our society is quite uncivilized in a particular domain.  I’m betting on the latter.

The issue is whether human beings have any business corralling great apes and putting them in zoos.  And yes, what I am picturing in raising this matter is the killing of a majestic gorilla by the Cincinnati Zoo.  I’ve seen that incident covered by CNN on multiple occasions.  Each time, the moderator took for granted that there is nothing wrong with an American zoo keeping a gorilla on its premises.  The moderator then proceeded to interview zoo experts and legal experts on the issue of who was at fault for the gorilla’s death: the zoo, for intentionally killing the gorilla or for having a design failure that allowed a little boy into the gorilla pit; the boy’s mother, for not being more vigilant over her son; or nobody (“shit happens”).   At least on the segments I watched, there were no animal-rights activists interviewed.  It was simply assumed that zoos will have gorillas, and the only issue was what can/should be done to ensure that we don’t have to shoot any more of these animals or risk the lives of other children who feel compelled to hang out with gorillas at their local zoo.  

                Personally, I think reasonable people can disagree about the values of zoos generally.  If you want to put insects in zoos, or reptiles, or amphibians, I’m not going to argue.  But the Great Apes?  I’m sorry.   These are our closest relatives; they’re incredibly human-like animals.   The DNA of chimps and bonobos differ from human DNA by a whopping 1.2%, and our difference with gorillas is only slightly greater (1.6%).    So given that we are practically talking about our own kin, the only question we should be asking is whether we ourselves would enjoy living as some sort of zoo animal.   In other words, how would be feel about an existence of life imprisonment when our only “crime” was to be born into a species that is less powerful than a slightly different species that feels free to utilize their weaker counterparts for their own selfish purposes.  

                You’d think that “we, the people” would be satisfied with heating up the planet to the point where one out of every six species of plants and animals is now facing extinction.    Isn’t that enough of a muscle-flexing exercise for us?  Do we really need to take those animals that most remind us of ourselves and prevent them from living freely, the way nature intended them to live and the way we would ourselves choose to live if given a choice?   I understand that an argument could be made that if we don’t build zoos and expose one another to the beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom, we may be inclined to be even more reckless with the welfare of animals.   But do we really need to keep representatives of ALL species in captivity?   Can’t we distinguish between a snake, say, and a chimp or gorilla?   For isn’t there only one real lesson to learn from a visit to the Great Ape house: that we’re looking at our family members.  And no member of our family wants to do decades of hard time.  Talk about locking up innocent victims!

                As for the controversy that CNN would like to cover, I have no idea whether the zoo, the mother, both or neither should be punished for their conduct.   It’s not my job to investigate that incident.  But it is my job – and yours too – to ensure that our species is properly serving in the role of steward to the planet.  The fact that we have so much power relative to other creatures is, in my view, a source of duties, not rights.  If we can’t stop ourselves from killing fish, possums, and polar bears, let’s at least be sure that we’re treating the Great Apes well.  Instead of putting them in a cage, let’s bring them to their natural habitat and set them free – and if we catch any humanoids there killing them in the wild, those are the folks who should be doing the hard time.   Let’s put THEM in the zoos, not the innocent gorillas.