Sunday, April 10, 2016

Three Black Lives

Accepting the premise that Black Lives Matter, I figured I should be reading more about contemporary black lives, and so I picked up three very different memoirs, each essential reading in its own way. I started with How To Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston. Much of the book skewers the uneasiness of race consciousness in contemporary America, with satirical advice on topics like "how to speak for all black people" and "how to be black at the office". The satire is funny and sharp (as one would expect given Thurston's long career at The Onion), puncturing perceptions, making you think and laugh at the same time. Interspersed with the advice chapters, we get the fascinating story of Thurston's own life, growing up with a single mother in Washington DC during the height of crack, then being one of the few black kids at an elite private school and later attending Yale. And the third component of his book is a series of interview questions with what he calls his "black panel", a set of "experts" on being black (which included one white guy for a scientific control), who added another dimension with the fascinating diversity of their experiences. The questions were all great, but the most interesting one for me was "When did you first realize you were black?" This particularly struck me, since as a gay man, I had always assumed gays were unique among minorities in having to realize later in life that we are gay. But the question, while humorous, elicited some serious responses. Even though black kids always know they're black, many of them did remember particular experiences when they first realized that being black was more than just a skin tone, that it was a social category. The whole book was entertaining and gently illuminating. 

From this light start, I then turned up the gravitas with Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World And Me, a memoir written in the form of a letter from a father to his teenage son, telling his son the things he needs to know about where his father came from and what it means to him being black in America today. Coates grew up in a really rough part of Baltimore, and describes at a young age learning the rules of the street just to avoid being stabbed or shot. He later went to Howard University, which he calls "the Mecca", and was enthralled with that center of black culture. He describes people he knew and who influenced him, and things he has experienced that instilled in him an understanding of the particularly breakable vulnerable nature of "black bodies" -- everything from minor but telling affronts to personally knowing a man who was shot by police basically for being black in the wrong neighborhood. Everything is grounded in his very personal experience, avoiding polemics or politics, and that makes it profoundly powerful. It's all what he saw, what he lived, and what he felt. Polemics invite debate, but experience has a raw truth with no place for debate. His intense missive is elevated by the words with which his experiences are described. His prose is masterful, emotionally vivid and evocatively poetic. It is truly a brilliant work of writing, and a must-read for anyone wanting to understand this experience. In Coates' book, he spoke of his complete alienation from the white suburban lives he saw on TV as a child, and of those suburbs being built on piles of "broken black bodies" by the "people who need to think of themselves as white". While I understood his feelings, he didn't really explain what he thought caused that situation, and I didn't understand it until Cory Booker spelled it out for me.

The third book I read was United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good by Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark and now US Senator from New Jersey. His memoir is an inspirational story: we get some brief glimpses of his childhood growing up in one of the first black families to integrate themselves into the very white Harrington Park, New Jersey, and then attending Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law School. The meat of the story starts with him as an idealistic newly-minted lawyer wanting to help improve the city of Newark, and getting a real hands-on education by choosing to live in one of the most crime-ridden parts of the inner city. He tells the story of Brick Towers, a 16-story housing complex built in 1970, initially a promising place to live, but ultimately dragged down by landlord neglect to suffer rat infestations and broken elevators, and its location in a neighborhood of the city effectively semi-abandoned by the City of Newark to become a center of drug dealing. In the years he lived there, he got to know just about everyone, and he tells the story of the indomitable woman who lead the tenants association, of parents and kids who live there, and even of the drug dealers who worked there. He gains and shares fascinating insight into who these people are and how they got to be where they are. This is all intermixed with his own story of how he went from being a public interest lawyer to city councilman and eventually mayor and senator. Some skeptics will say that his actions and his book are all politically self-serving, but I think he came across as genuinely concerned to improve his city and his country. Living in blighted housing for a few days or weeks is a publicity stunt; Cory Booker lived in Brick Towers for 10 years until it was torn down, and then he sought another crime-ridden area of his city to move to. I don't see how one can say that's not the real deal. I found his book inspirational, in terms of gaining a new understanding of deep social problems that suggest practical solutions, and in terms of the faith that drives him, a combination of religious faith and a faith in his fellow citizens to work together to find solutions. I think Cory Booker is a new hero for me.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Reflections on Antonin Scalia

I can say this about Scalia: the man knew how to wield a pen. His dissents were always colorful and entertaining, a guilty pleasure to read. How can one not appreciate someone who can drop words like "argle-bargle" and "jiggery-pokery" when brandishing his prose? It's unfortunate that this skill wasn't put in the service of better ends. In the annals of the Court, Scalia will be remembered for bringing the notions of "textualism" and "originalism" into currency. These are the ideas that correct judicial interpretation of the Constitution can be readily found by reading the plain words (textualism) and understanding the Founders' original meaning (originalism). They are meant to counter the notion that the Constitution is a "living document" that must be interpreted by the Court according to its essential principles in light of current understanding. Students of religion will recognize these theories as they apply to Biblical hermeneutics, and students of history will recognize how well the idea that one can gain universal agreement on the clear interpretation of the "plain words" (sola scriptura) works out. Taken at face value, Scalia's principles would have to rule that the Air Force is unconstitutional, as the plain text of the Constitution enumerates only an Army and a Navy, and the idea of military air power would not have been conceived of by the Founders. Though challenged on it, Scalia never did really explain how an originalist could endorse a decision like Brown v. Board of Education (the 1954 decision that ended school segregation), since the ratifiers of the 14th Amendment certainly didn't foresee or intend that implication themselves. His dodge is that he would have correctly decided Plessy v. Ferguson in the first place (that's the notorious 1896 case that ruled "separate but equal" schools constitutional). That's cheap hindsight. It's far more likely that an 1896 Scalia would have been as benighted by the prejudices of the day, finding segregated schools a reasonable social norm, as the present-day Scalia who heartily endorsed Bowers v. Hardwick (the infamous 1986 case upholding the constitutionality of sodomy laws). As called out in a New York Times opinion piece by Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner and law professor Eric Segall, Scalia is really a theocratic majoritarian at heart, content to find no power in the Constitution to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority, at least when it comports with his own conservative morality. When his principles would seem to lead to a conclusion that went counter to his personal morality, his intellect and prose would be brought to bear to torture his principles into confessing the desired conclusion. See, for example, his opinion for the Court in Raich v. Gonzales, finding that Congress's Commerce power could regulate people growing pot in their own backyard for their own personal use, and Justice Thomas's dissent in a rare split from Scalia. Likewise, one might well wonder how a textualist or an originalist finds "corporate personhood" (the idea that corporations are persons, and thus have the same rights as persons) in the plain text or original meaning of the Constitution. While he refused to see the straight lines from the Founders' principles through de Toqueville and John Stuart Mill to landmark decisions like Griswold (finding a fundamental right to marital privacy that made it unconstitutional to outlaw contraception) and Lawrence (overturning Bowers and sodomy laws), he could see "penumbras" when he wanted to. Ultimately, he was as guilty of "interpretive jiggery-pokery" as anyone. His originalism may have provided better cover for his anti-gay animus, except that his apoplectic dissents on every landmark advance in gay rights over the last thirty years unabashedly laid bare his conservative moral prejudices. Despite the clear constitutional jurisprudence that "bare animus" is insufficient rationale for a discriminatory law (i.e., a majority may not outlaw a minority without a reason better than "ew that's weird"), Scalia, in his dissent in Romer v. Evans, rises to the defense of bare animus when it amounts to moral disapproval of homosexual conduct. Beyond his legacy of originalism, he also leaves a legacy of coarsening the level of discourse around contentious issues, unfortunately now embodied in the records of our highest court, and emulated by many of his Federalist Society acolytes. The admittedly entertaining creativity of his prose often belied bare pugnaciousness, light on real argument. He was famous for his tart interrogations during oral arguments, and the zingers in his dissents. Here is a typical example in his stinging dissent in Obergefell (last year's landmark gay marriage ruling):

If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” I would hide my head in a bag. The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.
This is just plain mockery of Justice Kennedy's opinion, with no particular "disciplined legal reasoning" of its own to offer. (One might claim that there is legal reasoning elsewhere in the dissent, but really, no, it's just one long rant about "judicial putsch" that could have been equally aimed at Lawrence or Griswold or Loving or even Brown.) If ever there were a time to hide one's head in a bag, I would think it would be after writing something so derisive and insulting about a colleague I'd be facing the next day (and working closely with for the rest of my life). Often it is only the cleverness of the prose that distinguishes Scalia's writing from the incivil name calling and insults found on the typical Internet comments page (or more recently, the Republican debates). One might consider him the Supreme Court's original troll. A few years ago, when he was speaking at Princeton, a gay student pointed out the language in some of Scalia's dissents that was especially offensive (such as comparing homosexuality to bestiality or pedophilia) and asked him, even if he still stood by his argument, if he had any regrets for his offensive choice of words. No, he did not. It is ironic that he worried he was witnessing the deterioration of our culture with the advance of gay rights (despite his best efforts to fight it at every opportunity), and yet by his own example he lead the coarsening of constitutional legal discourse and contributed to the erosion of respect for the institution he served. That being said, I will miss reading his dissents. There is the guilty pleasure of the zingers, of course. But the best part of reading a Scalia dissent is knowing that it was a dissent, and that despite his grandiloquent tantrums, liberty and justice prevailed.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Six Feet Under

My latest "TV" binge watch (on my iPad) has been Six Feet Under, to catch up on the last two seasons that I never saw. Fittingly, on New Year's weekend, I watched the series finale. I had heard that it was extraordinarily well done, and that is so true. It was an amazing ride with the barely functional Fisher family, and I have to admit that there were times that I wondered whether I really liked any of these characters, even to the penultimate episode. But then in the final episode, life found a way to go on after a death that had affected them all, and it was so organic and so affirming. And then the final montage was simply wondrous. Structurally it combined two cinematic cliche endings — a ride off into the horizon and a roll call of every character and what happened to them — and yet it did it in such a fresh, profound way that it was extraordinary and luminous. The whole premise and structure of the series has been one long memento mori, a family-run funeral home with each episode beginning with a death, with characters often imagining conversations with the dead, constant reminders that life can be fleeting and death can be senseless. So it was brilliantly fitting that in the final montage we see the deaths of all the major characters, some sooner, some later. This span of lives over decades is telegraphed in flashing glimpses, interspersed with shots of Claire driving out of Los Angeles, away from the only home she's known, into a frightening, exciting, beckoning unknown future unfolding like the highway before her disappearing into the horizon, and all to the beautifully haunting song "Breathe Me" (Sia Furler). She's just learned her job offer in New York has been rescinded, but her dead brother urges her to go anyway, not to live in fear. And as she takes a farewell photograph of her family, Nate whispers in her ear "the moment is already gone, you can't capture it." Moments and lifetimes. What an exquisite piece of television, and what a perfect note on which to begin a new year.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Caesura Youth Orchestra

Part of the Jewish tradition in the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is to focus on "tzedakah" (charity). In that spirit, as I'm writing checks, I'd also like to give a shout-out to some special organizations over the next few days. Here's the first: We are proud to support the Caesura Youth Orchestra since its founding just over a year ago. You may have heard how LA's superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel came from a program in Venezuela that brought music education to children in impoverished circumstances. Caesura was created to bring the same model to our local community in Glendale. Music education in the context of an orchestra not only teaches children music, but it gives them the self-confidence that comes from mastery through practice and putting in the time and work, and the value of community and cooperation that comes from being a part of something larger. This kind of program is invaluable especially in the parts of our local community that have less financial and social capital than others. The Orchestra has had a good first year, just finished a Summer Music Camp, and they are starting their second school year. When you're thinking about charitable donations, we hope you'll join us in supporting the Caesura Youth Orchestra.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

BOOKS: Reading Lolita in Tehran

 Reading Lolita in Tehran book cover
When I think back on my school years, it is usually the English teachers who stand out as the most profoundly influential. I think this maxim would be accepted by the students of Azar Nafisi, author of the fascinating memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. I was transported by her account of her years as a professor of literature at various universities in Tehran in the wake of the Shah's fall and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The book is a witness to the horror of how a rather liberal and educated society can so quickly transform into a totalitarian theocracy, and of the sometimes surreal life under such rule. I'd had a fairly shallow and monochromatic understanding of modern Iran, so this book was very illuminating for me in filling in rich detail how the Islamic republic first arose amidst a complex mix of Islamists and a more Marxist-inspired revolutionary movement, and later how things changed (or didn't change) through the war with Iraq, and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. But what makes the book work so well is that it is not focused on politics per se, but on literature and the lives of a group of especially motivated students who continue to meet with Dr. Nafisi, even after she is pushed out of the university, in order to study the works of great novelists. Early on, when her students were pressing her for her approval of their urgent revolutionary ideals, she insists that she is neither for the Islamists or the Marxists, rather she is for Jane Austen and Henry James. At one point in her class, they even put The Great Gatsby on trial. The interplay between the themes and characters of classic novels with the lives and struggles of the women in Nafisi's private study group is fascinating, with each providing a mirror that shows the other in a new light. Her students share a common desire to study literature, but little else. Some are married, some are not; some are religious, some are not; and so on. Their varied experiences provide threads of many colors for Nafisi to weave into an exquisite Persian carpet of a memoir.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

STAGE: Bent


We saw some breathtaking theatre last Saturday at the Mark Taper, in their production of Bent by Martin Sherman. The play is a powerful, horrifying chronicle of gay life in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. It begins in the liberal, decadent Berlin of the 1930's (picture Cabaret), but where Cabaret merely gestures at the horror to come, Bent actually takes us there, as the play's protagonist, Max, goes on the run, is captured, and ultimately transported to Dachau. Max does what he needs to do to stay alive in the grip of captors with a vicious talent for treatment calculated to lacerate one's soul and strip one's humanity. There was a moment when Max was broken like Winston at the end of Orwell's 1984, yet this story goes beyond that moment as Max, through Horst, a man he meets on the transport, learns to rediscover and reclaim his humanity and dignity even in the face of evil. The arc of this story is heart-stopping, and the enactment of it that we saw on Saturday night was gripping. The performances were all electric and spot-on, particularly Patrick Heusinger and Charlie Hofheimer as Max and Horst, and Will Taylor as Rudy, and all the rest of the cast. The direction by Moisés Kaufman was fantastic, so creatively realizing this story, and pulling out all the stops of the theatre craft. The stage, lighting, and especially the sound were used to marvelous effect (such as creating a train just from sound and light).

This play originally premiered in 1979, illuminating the previously little-known persecution of gays under the Nazis, and establishing the pink triangle as a reclaimed symbol of gay pride. Thirty-five years later, it remains as relevant as ever. One of the most frightening things was just realizing how quickly a liberal society can be taken over by jackboots. Germany in the early 1930s was not so different from America in the 1970s or even now for that matter, and yet how quickly complacent liberals fell under the boot. (I'm currently reading a book that tells a similar story of Tehran circa 1980.) I know that several memorable scenes from this play will haunt me: the SS bursting into Max and Rudy's apartment, when Max is forced to betray his own love, the amazing scenes of Max and Horst making love without moving or touching each other, and the electrifying end.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

BOOKS: Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring

During the American Revolution, not only were the politics revolutionary, and the military tactics, but the espionage as well. In his book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, Alexander Rose tells a fascinating story of how George Washington used spies during the war. Using words like "handler" and "tradecraft", well-known to modern audiences familiar with Tom Clancy novels, he finds the roots of these concepts in the tradecraft of 1777, when best practices were first being worked out. We get a thorough account, not only of more well-known heroes and villains such as Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold, and Major André, but of a network of spies that ran through most of the war and remained unknown until generations later. Rose brings a historian's meticulousness to his work, carefully identifying each person and not going too far beyond his sources. At the same time, he does a good job giving a rich and full picture of the men in this history, their character and their likely motivations, based on their family history and place in the political, religious, economic, and social tides of their times. It was very interesting to see how the constant struggle to balance security against efficiency played out in the quest for timely accurate information. The spies were constantly worried about exposing themselves to undue scrutiny, while Washington fretted how to get their information faster. The book also provided an eye-opening window on life in New York and Connecticut during the Revolution, places that were deeply divided in their loyalties. It's easy to forget that not all Americans at the time were pulling for the American side. There were many loyalists supporting the British, as well as opportunists playing both sides, and one could never be completely sure where one's neighbors stood. In telling his spy story, Rose also paints a vivid picture of what life was like in such a time and place.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

BOOKS: Plato at the Googleplex

Rebecca Goldstein feels that philosophy is embattled, both by scientists who dismiss it as a pre-scientific pursuit and people in general who don't see its relevance. In her book Plato at the Googleplex, she makes an engaging and entertaining argument that the questions raised by Plato 2400 years ago are as relevant and important today as ever. The centerpiece of the book are imaginative dramatizations of Plato encountering modern people at the Googleplex, at the 92nd Street Y, being interviewed by a Rush Limbaugh-like talk radio personality, and getting an fMRI brain scan. These dialogues are alternated with lectures providing background on various aspects of Plato, setting him in the context of the politics and recent history of his time, and giving a good account of why he was just so challenging to his contemporaries. She is wanting to address a broad audience, and the book sometimes skirts a fine line of being a bit patronizing by trying to be accessible, but I was ultimately won over and found it worthwhile to stay with it. Her characters who are foils for Plato in her dialogues are sometimes buffoonish caricatures. But then I remembered that that's often how it was in Plato's own dialogues, so she is actually doing a faithful pastiche. Not only did I learn a lot I didn't know about Plato, but I found she did succeed in showing his way of thought to be vital today, pondering questions like whether morality can be crowd-sourced, how to raise children, whether followers are your best friends, and what if anything might be left of free will when neuroscience has scanned the entire brain. If you have any interest in philosophy, don't leave this book unexamined.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

FILM: Far From The Madding Crowd

In Thomas Vinterberg's Far From The Madding Crowd, Carey Mulligan does a great job of playing the fiercely independent yet charming Miss Everdene that any man would fall for, and Matthias Schoenaerts is the picture of quiet strength and steadiness as the aptly named Mr. Oak. Anyone who enjoys Victorian period dramas will find much to enjoy in this adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, a tale of love and passion, as well as perseverence. Not having read the book, I found some of the fundamental elements of the story puzzling, why she makes some of the decisions she makes. But perhaps I should just take the heroine at her word that "she finds it hard to explain her feelings in a language created chiefly by men." As with similar Victorian stories of spirited heroines, things work out in the end. The characters are all very well played, and the film is worth seeing for the cinematography alone. Many vivid scenes of English farm life look like a Van Gogh painting come alive, and will make you want to visit that lovely Dorsetshire countryside.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Want To Do Something About Income Inequality? Start Tipping More.


I've said many times that I despise the custom of tipping. It's a misguided, arbitrary, and capricious economic distortion in the industries it touches. And I welcome the signs of its entrenchment starting to crack loose. But given that it is what it is for now, I wholeheartedly endorse the recommendation of this article. I'm in.

Money quote: "Would more generous tipping really have an impact on the incomes of the working poor? Yes: If everyone in the top 20 percent of the income distribution (those with family income over $121,000) upped their tips by an average of only 65 cents per day, an extra $11.6 billion annually would end up in the pockets of the working poor and middle-class."

Saturday, May 02, 2015

STAGE: Immediate Family

We very much enjoyed Paul Oakley Stovall's dramedy "Immediate Family", now playing at the Mark Taper. A lively romp on the themes of race, sexuality, and religion awaits when an impending wedding brings four black siblings back to the family home, and one of the brothers, Jesse, has a surprise for the family: a Swedish boyfriend. Bryan Terrell Clark does a great job playing Jesse's difficulty in figuring out just how to break the news to his family. All of false starts, awkward hinting, and procrastination are so genuine and so familiar to those of us who have lived it. The parents in this family are deceased, but the father's portrait prominent in the living room is a constant reminder of what he, a preacher and local leader through the civil rights era, stood for. The eldest sister Evy (Shanesia Davis), an English teacher, very much feels her father's legacy, and has her students writing essays about black heroes. But certain heroes, like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, or Bayard Rustin, are conspicuously absent from her list. A much more liberal half-sister (oops, it seems Daddy had another child with someone other than his wife) breezes in from Europe, adding some spice to the stew. And the poor boyfriend Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan) arrives late in the proceedings to find out that some members of the family think that he's just the wedding photographer. Or at least they pretend to. There is a great scene near the end where most of the others storm out after an emotional explosion, leaving Evy and Kristian alone together. After an awkward silence, they start to speak, not facing each other, not quite ready to face each other, but speaking from the heart and knowing the other is listening. A powerful scene in an engaging play. (And great direction by Phylicia Rashad.) While I can't speak to the racial element from my own experience, I can speak as a gay man who married into a more conservative small-town religious family, and much of this drama really rings true. After the play, we were flashing back to our own experience of coming home to meet the family, and family members' grappling to come to terms. As all good drama does, this play takes a very specific experience and tells its truth in a way that many will connect with.