BRILLIANT WAR HORSE!

Usually when I see a play and think that the acting is a little hammy and the script a bit sappy, I have not had a good time. In the case of War Horse, however, which Ginny and Molly and Cara and I saw last Sunday, those objections were overshadowed by the sheer awesome, brilliant theatricality of the production. This play, which is about an English boy and his horse and their experiences in France during World War I, was originally written as a children’s book, and is now being produced as a film by Steven Spielberg. I will admit to pre-judging these two works sight unseen when I say that I would expect them to be soppingly sentimental. And the play, which is running at Lincoln Center, is indeed sentimental (yes, it brought a tear to my eye.) But as you can see from the commercial that appeared on behalf of the London production (below), the puppets that are used to portray the horses (and other things, like a tank) are astonishing. Created and operated by the Handspring Puppet Company, they are life-like, and yet larger than life. Combined with lighting, music and video, the amazing puppets created an affecting, and amazing, theatrical experience.

SALUTING SPY

A self-proclaimed actor and writer named Will Hines has written about Spy on a website called splitsider.com.

“Maybe you’ve heard of Spy Magazine, the satirical magazine that was one of the funniest things ever in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but never read it. Now that Google Books has put much of the Spy archive online, you can see what the fuss was about. For me, it was the magazine that redeemed American culture while everything else sucked.

“Put simply, Spy Magazine (1986–1998) made fun of famous people. But that’s like saying Pixar likes to draw. Spy‘s issues were symphonies of attacks. They mocked pop stars, politicians, authors and Kato Kaelin with equal enthusiasm. They had a ruthless disrespect for celebrity that you usually only see in British tabloids. It mixed lowbrow silliness with highbrow investigation, but editors definitely preferred the smart stuff. Frankly, Spy could be annoyingly difficult to read: pages were unapologetically dense, and stories seemed careful to show off how brainy the staff was. But for fans like me and my snobby high school friends, Spy was a club for funny people too smart to be scared off by small type. And with every snarky inside obscure reference, I loved Spy more. I wanted to be those people, who seemed as they described themselves “smart, funny, fearless.” Yeah, and coolly above it all. . . .

“Unfortunately for Spy, its legacy is slash-and-burn bitchfests like Gawker or Perez Hilton, which have the same enthusiasm for tearing down the beautiful people, but none of the precision or creativity. To make fun of rich people, Spy would anonymously send checks for twenty-five cents to billionaires just to see if someone like Rupert Murdoch would cash it (he did, personally). Perez Hilton finds an unflattering photo of Charlie Sheen and draws a dick on his face.”

Hines says Spy was better than its rather lame progeny, among other reasons, because “it was run by actual journalists”; “was born in a cultural desert”; and “was beautiful to look at.”

Hines also says “Spy, especially in its early years, was filled with references to blueblood New York. I went to UConn, a college so rural we didn’t have a movie theater. But with each issue of Spy, I felt immersed in a rareified Big Apple, glamorized even as its editors made fun of it. They made inside jokes about novelists Jay McInerny and Tama Janowitz staying out too late at some TriBeCa club I’d never heard of. I’d never heard of TriBeCa. They mocked up an issue of Vanity Fair as if it were edited by Norman Mailer. They had so many unflattering photos of Donald Trump I’d assumed he’d once evicted them. They had a tiny drawing of The Puck Building in their masthead. Spy was so proud of its New York pedigree that it made The New Yorker look like Guns & Ammo.”

Concludes Hines, “When Spy worked, it was very good. It redeemed two separate half-decades. And for all its aloof, withering imitators, there isn’t anything as cool and smart and fun out there right now.”

Very nice, laddie. Thank you.

WE NEED A LITTLE. . . SELIG?

David Brooks of The New York Times and Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated are both good writers and astute commentators who almost never work the same topic. And they might not think that they were doing so earlier this week. But I do, and it’s my blog.

First, let’s hear from Brooks. “You could easily get the impression that American politics are trundling along as usual. But this stability is misleading. The current arrangements are stagnant but also fragile. American politics is like a boxing match atop a platform. Once you’re on the platform, everything looks normal. But when you step back, you see that the beams and pillars supporting the platform are cracking and rotting. This cracking and rotting is originally caused by a series of structural problems that transcend any economic cycle: There are structural problems in the economy as growth slows and middle-class incomes stagnate. There are structural problems in the welfare state as baby boomers spend lavishly on themselves and impose horrendous costs on future generations. There are structural problems in energy markets as the rise of China and chronic instability in the Middle East leads to volatile gas prices. There are structural problems with immigration policy and tax policy and on and on. As these problems have gone unaddressed, Americans have lost faith in the credibility of their political system, which is the one resource the entire regime is predicated upon. This loss of faith has contributed to a complex but dark national mood. The country is anxious, pessimistic, ashamed, helpless and defensive.”

Clear enough, right? Now here comes Joe Posnanski, writing a piece that is complimentary to baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Posnanski says that recently he “wrote a little something about Bud Selig and how people cannot help but underestimate him. This has to do with Bud’s almost mythical ability to look baffled. Who can forget the Bud after the All-Star Game tie? Who can forget his rambling press conference when he held up the rule book after the rain-delayed World Series game? . . . .But Bud Selig has utterly transformed baseball. I’m not saying that he has always transformed it for the better. That’s a discussion for another time. But at the end of the day, baseball has been transformed — expansion, wild cards, interleague play, increased revenue sharing, drug testing, relative labor peace, new stadiums, All-Star games that determine homefield advantage, the World Baseball Classic, on and on. Maybe baseball stumbled into some of these things. Maybe it was pulled kicking and screaming. But this stuff happened. And Bud, unquestionably, was a force behind this stuff happening. He works the back rooms. He coaxes and ponders and considers. And sometimes he boldly acts. . . . Bud Selig might be the most influential baseball commissioner ever.”

Why are these stories connected? Because Posnanski is, in a way, illustrating the point Brooks is making. Selig, who is in charge of a pretty important American institution, is giving the American people what they want: leadership. “Not always for the better,” as Posnanski acknowldeges, but that’s not the point. People are smart enough to know that things don’t always work out as planned. But they do expect problems to be addressed. They do not want endless squabbling. They absolutely do not want endless partisanship. They want, as Franklin Roosevelt recognized, action: try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. All across America, people make decisions. They figure stuff out and move forward. Our debt issue is a bad thing. If we face it, it’s a problem. If we don’t, it’s a crisis. We need to have the common sense of Bud Selig.

DEMYTHOLOGIZING THE MAN OF MARBLE

Richard Cohen had a useful article in The Washington Post the other day, in which he takes on the myth around Robert E. Lee. “It’s about time Robert E. Lee lost the Civil War,” writes Cohen. “The South, of course, was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend — swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism — has endured even past the civil rights era when it became both urgent and right to finally tell the “Lost Cause” to get lost. Now it should be Lee’s turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country — not worthy, even he might now admit, of the honors accorded him.”

Cohen says that when he first moved to the DC area, “I used to marvel at these homages to the man. What was being honored? Slavery? Treason? Or maybe, for this is how I perceive him, no sense of humor? (Often, that is mistaken for wisdom.) I also wondered what a black person was supposed to think or, maybe more to the point, feel. Chagrin or rage would be perfectly appropriate.”

Cohen points to the new book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor. The prevailing view is that Lee was deeply conflicted over whether to choose the United States or Virginia, and then finally chose the South after feeling overwhelming social and political pressure. “When Lee consulted his brothers, sister and local clergymen, he found that most leaned toward the Union,” writes Pryor. “At a grim dinner with two close cousins, Lee was told that they also intended to uphold their military oaths. .?.?. Sister Anne Lee Marshall unhesitatingly chose the Northern side, and her son outfitted himself in blue uniform.” Lee would not have been alone in choosing to remain loyal to the Union. General George Thomas and Admiral David Farragut were among the approximately 40 percent of Virginia officers who remained loyal.”

Cohen acknowledges that Lee was a brilliant general, likening him to Confederate Rommel. (Ken Burns notes that Lee is responsible for more death of US Army solders than Hitler and Tojo combined.) “He deserves no honor — no college, no highway, no high school. In the awful war (620,000 dead) that began 150 years ago this month, he fought on the wrong side for the wrong cause. It’s time for Virginia and the South to honor the ones who were right.”

Cohen is more right than wrong; it is long past time that Lee’s name disappear from public buildings. But just because Lee would have had more familial support from his family than we realized doesn’t mean that he wasn’t genuinely torn (but yes, all the more reason to applaud Farragut, Thomas, et al.) But as we try to bury the Lost Cause mythology once and for all, it would be wrong to go too far in denying a man’s honor. There is no reason to believe that Lee did anything than other than the right as he saw it. It’s enough just to make it clear that this man of virtue, honor, and duty was wrong.

PAUL RYAN’S HOLLOW PLAN

Paul Krugman had another very fine column on the budget deficit in the Times yesterday.

“The core of the Ryan proposal is a plan to privatize and defund Medicare. Yet this would do nothing to reduce the deficit over the next 10 years, which is why all the near-term deficit reduction comes from brutal reductions in aid to the needy and unspecified cuts in discretionary spending. Tax increases, by contrast, can be fast-acting remedies for red ink. And that’s why the only major budget proposal out there offering a plausible path to balancing the budget is the one that includes significant tax increases: the “People’s Budget” from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which — unlike the Ryan plan, which was just right-wing orthodoxy with an added dose of magical thinking — is genuinely courageous because it calls for shared sacrifice.

“True, it increases revenue partly by imposing substantially higher taxes on the wealthy, which is popular everywhere except inside the Beltway. But it also calls for a rise in the Social Security cap, significantly raising taxes on around 6 percent of workers. And, by rescinding many of the Bush tax cuts, not just those affecting top incomes, it would modestly raise taxes even on middle-income families. All of this, combined with spending cuts mostly focused on defense, is projected to yield a balanced budget by 2021. And the proposal achieves this without dismantling the legacy of the New Deal, which gave us Social Security, and the Great Society, which gave us Medicare and Medicaid.

“But if the progressive proposal has all these virtues, why isn’t it getting anywhere near as much attention as the much less serious Ryan proposal? It’s true that it has no chance of becoming law anytime soon. But that’s equally true of the Ryan proposal. The answer, I’m sorry to say, is the insincerity of many if not most self-proclaimed deficit hawks. To the extent that they care about the deficit at all, it takes second place to their desire to do precisely what the People’s Budget avoids doing, namely, tear up our current social contract, turning the clock back 80 years under the guise of necessity. They don’t want to be told that such a radical turn to the right is not, in fact, necessary.

“But, it isn’t, as the progressive budget proposal shows. We do need to bring the deficit down, although we aren’t facing an immediate crisis. How we go about stemming the tide of red ink is, however, a choice — and by making tax increases part of the solution, we can avoid savaging the poor and undermining the security of the middle class.”

I don’t understand how the Republican proposal is getting any traction at all. My parents recently died, after living long, generally healthy and independent lives, thanks in part to Medicare and Social Security. They were happy to be independent, and their kids were happy that they were independent. why do the Republicans want to be saddled with nationwide intergenerational misery?

ON TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY

Joe Nocera made a good point about education in the Times yesterday. “[S]ocial scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home. Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant.”. . . .What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.”

We are not indifferent to the fate of public schools in these precincts, given that my wife is a science teacher. It has long been her entirely sensible contention that she is happy to be held responsible for getting results, as long as it is acknowledged that there are significant factors outside her control. In one recent position she held in a middle school, there was no dean of discipline in the school, and no system for enforcing attendance. Yet the failures of chronic truants were held as Ginny’s responsibility.

Before she became a teacher, Giny was a nurse. There is a practice in hospitals where the staffs review the cases of patients who have died. The point is to eliminate errors, to imporve performance, to make people accountable for performance. But no one is expected to be a miracle worker. If patients are overweight, are smokers, are addicts, are homeless, present pre=existing conditions, the effect of these conditions is acknowledged. But if kids who are truant, or ill-disciplined, or who don’t do homework, or who are sick or disabled, or come from broken homes, or who are poor and who haven’t had dinner, and so on, are generally ignored in the face of a score that is either up or down. And that, Chris Christie, is why we still need teachers unions.

HAS HE NO SHAME?


I didn’t want to write about Donald Trump anymore, but he is making me do it.

Today, President Obama published on the White House website a long-form version of his birth certificate. This “certificate” is a longer, more complete document than the “certification” that his campaign released in 2008, which is what a citizen of Hawaii typically receives when he requests documents of birth. The publication of this document should stop all discussions of Obama’s citizenship once and for all.

Moments after the president released the document, Trump took credit for its release. Saying that he was “very proud of being able to accomplish something no one else was able to accomplish”, Trump said, “I’m taking great credit and you have to ask the president, ‘why didn’t he do this a long time ago? Why didn’t he do it a long time ago?’ When Hillary Clinton was asking, when everybody was asking, why didn’t he do it? It’s shocking. It’s shocking.”

Now, just for the record, on April 15th, in this blog, I said “[Trump] will retract this birther nonsense, Basically, he won’t want to be scraping this shit off the bottom of his shoe for the rest of his life, so he will claim to have made an open-minded investigation of the birther claims, and will proudly put his imprimatur on Obama’s citizenship. He will move from skeptic to validator.” I think that was pretty close.

Now Trump has upped the ante, and has begun to question Obama’s qualifications for being admitted to Columbia University. “I heard he was a terrible student,” he said, in part, rolling the point back and forth. “How does a bad student get into Columbia University and then Harvard Law?” He is now demanding that Obama release his transcripts.

The insinuation is clear: Obama was undeservedly admitted into Columbia because he is black. Trump may deny that this is his implication, but he cannot run from it.

Trump has had a glorious spring, proving to NBC that he is a world-caliber publicity machine who can manipulate the world’s media merely by whispering the word “candidacy.” On that basis, he has increased the viewership and rating for his cheesy TV show, and more deeply ingratiated himself into NBC’s plans. No doubt he has also increased the value of his name, which, by attaching it to condos and golf courses, is the source of much of his wealth. But Trump is now one small step away from destroying all that. Whether Obama had poor grades before he was admitted into Columbia or not is entirely immaterial; he has proven his legitimacy, indeed, to the point that his success now would legitimate whatever affirmative action program nurtured him. We are not talking about an academic underachiever who got a sheepskin from Basketball State on the strength of his jump shot. We are talking about a man who got himself elected president of the United States.

This is a thinly disguised shout of “Nigger;” perhaps not even disguised at all.

We are one short step away from the moment when America recoils in disgust from these despicable tactics.

We await only the moment when Joseph Welch turns to Senator McCarthy and says “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

THE THIRD AMERICAN REPUBLIC

It will always be an impediment to any mellowing of my feelings towards Ronald Reagan to recall his visit to Philadelphia, Mississippi after becoming the Republican presidential nominee in 1980. Philadelphia was the place where the Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in 1964, and for Reagan, in his first appearance as the nominee, to visit Philadelphia and discuss states’ rights was a highly transparent code that conveyed the despicable message that those who still opposed the cause of integration would have a friend in the White House if Reagan was elected.

It was therefore good news to read the other week that Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi and man with, as The Economist says, “a record of racially insensitive remarks,” avoided the opportunity to keep talking code, at least as far as the origin of the Civil War goes. “Slavery was the primary, central cause of secession,” Barbour is quoted as saying. “Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it’s regrettable that it took the civil war to do that. But it did.” The Economist sugsts that Barbour might be speaking code for a new era: “Mr. Barbour wants to be president. His remarks not only directly refute the ancient argument that slavery was not the principle cause of the war; they showed that there is no longer political gain in pretending otherwise.”

Which makes me think that the issues that created the war and that infected the country’s politics for more than a century are at long last disappearing. In the Times Talk discussion I moderated, we played a clip of Shelby Foote contending that to understand Americans of the 20th century, you need to understand the Civil War. “It was the Crossroads of Our Being,” Foote said. I wondered if it was still true that to understand Americans of the 21st century, you need to understand the Civil War. Ken Burns and David Blight, who have thought about the Civil War far more than I, agreed with Foote, with Blight making the particularly sharp observation that just as the Civil War was the result of the failure of the first American Republic, the Civil Rights movement was the result of the failure of the second.

But I guess here is where I depart from my learned new friends. It is true that much political argument takes place with language from the Civil War–states’ rights, big government–but I don’t think the polity actually thinks that way. The government is out of touch with the people. The massive success of the civil rights movement, the liberation of minority groups, women, gays and so on, has really changed the nation. we are all Martin Luther King Jr.‘s children now, even Haley Barbour, and when the third republic fails, it will be because we could not reconcile King’s view of freedom with Reagan’s, at least as it applied to economics.

Here’s a prediction, one whose accuracy I am sure I won’t be around to verify: there won’t be a civil war bicentennial commemoration, any more than there will be a War of 1812 commemoration next year. The issues will be gone.

BEST. . .GUITAR SOLO. . . EVER


Aztec Camera
was a Scottish new wave band from Glasgow whose creative engine was a young man named Roddy Frame. This cover of Van Halen‘s Jump, circa 1984, not only takes the party song and turns it into something strangely heartfelt, it then takes the resulting ballad and takes it. . . someplace wild. You’ll have to be patient through the boring video image, but you will be rewarded, because this song does have the best guitar solo ever.

RADIO REACH OUT

Thanks to Gerry Prokopowicz, a professor of history at East Carolina University, for having me on his program Civil War Talk Radio. We passed an enjoyable hour talking about the Disunion series, the drama of the secession winter, and misappropriated turkey sandwiches. For all those who care to listen, please follow this link: http://www.impedimentsofwar.org/singleshow.php?show=722. I was also a guest on the Takeaway on NPR to talk about the differences between how we’re marking the Civil War centennial and the sesquicentennial.