Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscar (but not Felix)

I watched more of the Academy Awards telecast than I should have, while doing dishes and eating dessert. I missed the messed up announcement for Best Picture, because I was asleep before the original mistake was corrected on the air. But I did see La La Land. Like Neo-Neocon, I liked it. Wonderful movie-watching company influences how I feel about a film, and I had truly wonderful company. Nevertheless, I think Robert Tracinski's curmudgeonly critique of the film has considerable merit.

Writing in The Federalist, Tracinski points out that La La Land is a messy homage that has more regard for success (in monetary terms) than for love.

In the theater, I remember wondering how Sebastian (Ryan Gosling's character) could honk the horn of his Chrysler (?) convertible so obnoxiously even when the car's engine wasn't running. More than a few cars make that impossible.

As for the Oscar telecast itself, I thought Viola Davis did an excellent job of emoting all over the stage when she picked up what was presumably a well-deserved nod for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, but I could have done without her misguided homage to artists like herself on the grounds that "we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life."

Ha! That statement that deserves only incredulity.

Emma Stone's promise to "hug the hell out of my friends when the numb feeling in my body wears off"(I think she said that -- it was something close to that, at any rate) made me smile.

Jimmy Kimmel seemed to be in over his head as the host of the show. Defending an actress accused of being overrated by emphasizing that she had been nominated 20 times for an Academy Award over the years would seem to make precisely the point Kimmel was trying to refute, would it not?

Most of the awards were predictable. It was the Hollywood version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, where black beats white, gay beats straight, and movies from any countries that a Republican president might want to keep a special eye on are automatically more artistic than comparable work by Indian and European filmmakers.

Arrival intrigues me, although I have not yet seen it. Hacksaw Ridge got robbed. It was, however, good to hear that Jackie Chan had finally won an honorary Oscar.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Thinking out loud

My friend Bookworm wrote a blog post explaining why she was recently indignant about Facebook acquaintances on the political left who tried to shame her into compliance with the dominant narrative about immigration. I'm not on Facebook and did not follow the argument, but it sounds like the people trying to shame Bookworm are, for all intents and purposes, open borders activists. I bet they were or are concerned about our allegedly mean-spirited president and anyone else who has the temerity to think that immigration laws should be enforced. But Bookworm's having none of it.

"America is not a shame culture," she noted. "It's never been a shame culture. And I'm for damn sure not going to accept it being turned into a shame culture now."

 I think Bookworm is right, but I started wondering why. I suspect that the reason that America is not a shame culture is that America is not a tribal culture. This country was founded on an ideal of equal justice before the law, and that's something you can subscribe to and celebrate regardless of social class, skin color, or any other characteristics commonly used as tribal identifiers. Shame works best as an incentive for behavior change in tribal societies, but tribal societies don't scale well.

Native American leaders realized that even before making contact with European culture (hence their formation of what would eventually be known as the Iroquois Confederacy). Ben Franklin, that genial master of cultural appropriation, was riffing on the same insight when he said in the eighteenth century that delegates to the Continental Congress had best throttle back on any consuming loyalties to their own colonies because if they didn't hang together in the fight with Great Britain, they'd all hang separately. And (to cherry pick a final example) Abraham Lincoln came along four generations later with a famous "house divided" speech that made the same point but drew on the bible for inspiration.

Past is prologue, they say, but it can sometimes be ignored. Because there are now more than 300 million of us and progressives have been saying for about fifty years that "the personal is political," we sometimes self-segregate into tribes. When we do, we're egged on in that "us vs. them" endeavor by community activists and other players in the "professional grievance" industry.

Fortunately, there is an accessible corrective for that tendency: all it takes is a walk back through the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution to see that the Founders set this country up as a nation of laws rather than as a nation of men. Our founders were acutely aware of the dangers of tribalism, and designed a system of checks and balances to avoid that. Even the simple Deists among them were familiar enough with Christian scriptures to see parallels between tribalist politics and what Saint Paul warned the Corinthians about in 1 Corinthians 1:12, which can be paraphrased as "If you all are running around saying things like 'I belong to Paul' or 'I belong to Apollo' or 'I belong to Cephas,' then you've lost sight of the unity in Christ that we said you all share."

Laws are meant to unite, and shame is meant to divide. That's not to say that shame is not an effective weapon in the arsenal of any functioning conscience, but shame depends on honor, and law sets the bar a little lower, requiring only simple obedience. There are sound reasons why societies built on shame have more than their share of capricious "off the rails" moments (think of the Salem witch trials,  the multi-generational and basically intramural feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and the justification for vigilantes and dictators everywhere). It's much better to be "a nation of laws" than "a nation of men."

For all the carping about President Trump's megalomania, he's not the one who put the bully back into the "bully pulpit" or justified executive orders with the pithily arrogant and stunningly dismissive "I've got a pen; and I've got a telephone."

Tribalist thinking encourages a cult of personality, which is why I'm impatient with pundits who talk in terms of "Barack Obama's America" or "Donald Trump's America." Yo, peeps -- ours is one nation, under God, indivisible. No president, good or bad, can lay claim to the American ideal, because it's bigger than him (or her) by design.

Paul Bolt had Thomas More explain the virtue of the law in his magnificent screenplay for A Man for All Seasons. More has a famous conversation while in jail when he's visited by his son-in-law, William Roper, who remonstrates gently with him for not making an effort to get with the program (because only 'getting with the program' will save More's life). Roper correctly surmises that More would give even the devil the benefit of law, but that rectitude shocks him:

Roper: So now you give the devil the benefit of law?
More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?
Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Thomas More was not alone in his enlightened humanist and Christian respect for law. It's not hard to imagine that his contemporary and fellow martyr, John Fisher, could have had a very similar conversation, albeit without an admiring biographer to immortalize his words later. Neither More nor Fisher would be shamed into abandoning principle, because neither one of them confused shame (or honor) with the law founded on recognition of inherent human dignity that Christian influence made bedrock for Western civilization.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The things you learn...

At 0815, flight-deck signal officer Ozzie Osborne (!) whirled a checkered flag in broader and broader, faster and faster eights over his head. First in line, Lieutenant Colonel James Harold Doolittle turned down his wing flaps and revved up his throttle. The heavy plane shook against the brakes. Jimmy had under five hundred feet of taxi before him and a mere six feet of clearance between his right wing and the tower. Even after their Eglin training, the runway looked awfully small to the army fliers, while the waves crashing over the deck seemed mountainous.

Osborne felt in his bones the Hornet's rise and fall, waiting for precisely the right moment. "You knew how long it would take them to run down the deck, and you wanted to start them as the bow started down because it would take them that length of time to get within fifty or seventy-five feet of the bow, and then, as the deck started to come up, you'd actually launch them into the air, or at least horizontal but on the upswing, in fact giving them a boost," said Steven Jurika. This meant that pilots spent most of the taxi heading straight at the waves.

Osborne's flag shot down, Doolittle yanked his feet from the brakes, the carrier tilted, and the lead B-25, filled to the max with fuel and bombs, began its slow shuffle. "He won't make it! He can't make it!" one navy pilot shouted over the din, but when Doolittle was asked later how he felt at that moment, he said, "Confident." The man flying number two to Doolittle, Dick Cole, remembered thinking: "It'd be a pretty bad feeling for everybody behind us if we took off and dropped into the water."

(From the April 18, 1942 Doolittle Raid on Japan as described in the book, Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness, by Craig Nelson)