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.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

STAGE: Newsies

So glad we got the chance to see Newsies while it was here in LA. What a delightful musical, just good old-fashioned, foot-tapping fun. The dancing is a sight to behold, dancers flying around stage, leaping, doing kicks, splits, and other moves that we just watched in wide-eyed, open-mouthed enjoyment. The staging is a dynamic, fantastic recreation of 1890s New York City. The story is sweet and old-fashioned, loosely based in a historical event when the "newsies" (the boys who hocked newspapers, you know, as in "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!") went on strike against Joseph Pulitzer's The World newspaper. We haven't seen a more endearing singing-and-dancing bunch of street kids since West Side Story.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

FILM: Woman In Gold

I don't understand why the critics are so down on Woman In Gold. We really enjoyed it. Fascinating story about a headline legal battle for restitution of Nazi-looted artworks, interleaved with a woman's memories of her youth in a prominent Jewish family in Vienna before WWII and her harrowing escape after the Anschluss. Helen Mirren is flawless in her portrayal of Maria Altmann, determined to achieve justice but understandably reluctant to face the ghosts of her past in Vienna. Ryan Reynolds plays a young family-friend attorney who risks his career taking on the case, at first just for the profit potential but ultimately for much more personal reasons. Sure, there's a moment or two of necessary legal exposition, but I was fully engaged with the drama both in the present and the past. It's also beautifully filmed, with some vivid recreations of pre-WWII Vienna, as well as gorgeous scenery of Vienna and Los Angeles. We discussed the film through dinner afterward, and dove into Google later on to get even more background on the fascinating story. So far as I can find, it seems that much of it is pretty true to fact. Maria Altmann's film escape from the Nazis seems much closer to the truth than was that other Maria's famous escape. And now, of course, we are eager to revisit the real Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I when we are in New York next month, now that we know much more of her story.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Thoughts on Indiana: Balancing Liberty and Civil Rights

When the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, much controversy surrounded its prohibition of discrimination in "public accommodations", which meant that hotels, restaurants, and theaters would have to serve black and white alike. While it was acknowledged that the law could require governmental actors to treat citizens equally, it was not broadly accepted that the law could mandate equal treatment by private actors. Shouldn't a privately owned business have the liberty to employ and to serve whomever it chooses? Understandably, that was the point of view of the owners of hotels, lunch counters, and other businesses in the south who were being forced by the new law to serve blacks and whites the same. It was also a point of view shared by some for philosophical rather than discriminatory reasons. Some such as Barry Goldwater worried about governmental encroachment on liberty, and that it was unwise for the government to "legislate morality". That view had also been the position of the US Supreme Court nearly 100 years earlier, when it struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional in its attempts to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations. But much had changed in those 100 years, including the increasingly central role of commerce in our society, and along with that, the Supreme Court's increased recognition of Congress's power to regulate commerce. And enough of a majority in Congress recognized that continued private discrimination in the commercial sphere would have been intolerable. It clearly was not tenable to simply say "if one restaurant chooses not to serve them, they can find another". Blacks were shut out of hotels and restaurants in neighborhoods or even entire towns and regions, effectively curtailing their freedom to travel. Property owners and realtors conspired to keep blacks out of "white neighborhoods". Without mandating anti-discrimination in public accommodations, coordinated private action could (and did) keep oppressed minorities from being able to participate fully and equally as citizens in our commerce-centric society. Now from our point of view 50 years after Selma, it seems pretty clear that the regulations of public accommodation were necessary and proper.

Yet the tension between competing liberties underlying the public accommodation issue remains with us. I think many Americans share a "common sense" instinct that discrimination on characteristics such as race and religion is wrong. And I think many Americans also share an instinct that each person should be entitled to make their own choices about the work they do and who they do it for. No one should be forced by the government to do something against their conscience. These two principles come into conflict when one person's conscience collides with another's notion of unacceptable discrimination. In the area of commerce, Americans have generally come down on the side of anti-discrimination, especially when it involves large corporations or relatively impersonal business transactions, where the involvement of the business owner's conscience can seem rather indirect and abstract. Now we are at a new flash point in the tension between personal liberty and anti-discrimination laws that centers on bakers, florists, and photographers. While there are certainly analogies to be made to lunch counters and buses, there are differences that should be considered. The fact that these are small businesses and personal services with expressive elements bring the liberties in question into sharp focus. I think one must acknowledge that the participation of the baker or the photographer in a wedding presents a level of tacit endorsement not present in providing a hotel room or a restaurant meal or a train ride.

When trying to sort out questions like these, I find it is good to seek out analogies to probe for principles, and to try to eliminate my own partisan prejudices. And it is good to try to imagine how the "other side" sees things. To that end, I've been contemplating thought experiments like these: Imagine a marriage which is legal, but which you would find morally repugnant. For me, I am imagining some religious cult community making arranged marriages between girls at the youngest legal age to the eldest patriarchs of the cult. If you were a baker, how would you feel about baking wedding cakes for those cult people? (And please include nice little figurines of a young bride and an old groom. And could you write some messages about wifely obedience in the icing?) Reject them, and you're practicing religious discrimination and facing legal trouble. Similarly, should a gay baker be required to bake a cake for an Exodus "graduation" ceremony for ex-gays? Should a Jewish tattoo artist be required to take a customer who wants a swastika tattoo? If you want the principle of anti-discrimination above personal liberty in all cases, you need to be prepared to force all of those service providers to serve all of those odious customers. On the other hand, if you think that there needs to be some room for personal service providers to exercise conscience and choice of who they serve, then we've got a trickier set of questions to figure out where to draw the line and strike the balance.

With the rise of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), it makes religious liberty weigh stronger in the balance, though I'm not sure everyone has really thought through the consequences. I think libertarians will generally like RFRAs, as religious liberty ultimately boils down to freedom of conscience. Social conservatives think they like RFRAs, because they imagine them protecting their own religion. They will, but I'm not sure they yet realize that RFRAs will have to protect any and all religions equally. And my religion is whatever I claim my religious convictions to be. The courts will not be able or willing to adjudicate which religions are proper religions, or which convictions are central to a faith. Some clever stoner has already founded the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana. I also can see an interesting wrinkle where, as more churches are turning to give religious recognition to same-sex marriage, RFRAs will enable gay couples to add religious anti-discrimination arguments to their petitions for equal treatment. Thanks, RFRA! (That would be an echo of Perez v. Sharp, the 1948 California Supreme Court case that declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Andrea Perez, a white woman seeking to marry a black man, asserted a free-exercise-of-religion claim because her Catholic church was willing to marry her but the state would not issue the license.) The US Supreme Court in 1878 foresaw the problem of giving absolute freedom to religion, writing "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." (From Reynolds v. U.S., where they ruled that being a sincere Mormon did not excuse one from generally applicable anti-bigamy laws.) These same fears and very words were cited by Justice Scalia in 1990, ruling that Native American religious regard for peyote did not trump Oregon state law (Employment Division v. Smith). Backlash to that decision triggered the first RFRA at the federal level, with strong bipartisan backing. With RFRA, Congress basically said, "if the Court won't find strong religious freedom in the Constitution, then we shall enact it as law". I think it's only a matter of time before Warren Jeffs or someone like him files a RFRA claim seeking his FLDS church to be excepted from the anti-bigamy laws. With RFRA, they could make a compelling case. There would certainly be a rich irony in that. A favorite jeremiad of social conservatives is that allowing gay marriage starts a slippery slope to polygamy. And yet it may be that the latest RFRAs, pushed by conservatives as a backlash to gay marriage, are what open the door to polygamy. And wouldn't Mike Pence want to bake that cake?

Friday, March 27, 2015

FILM: The Way He Looks

There's something about a good coming-of-age story that never gets old because it taps into our nostalgic recollections of those tender and tempestuous feelings of our youth when we were still figuring out who we were and what our place was in the world. In the Brazilian film The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho), we have the classic triangle story of a boy on the fringes of the high school social scene and his girl best friend, and how everything changes when a new boy transfers into the school. The intriguing added dimension to this story is that the protagonist, Leonardo, is blind. So not only is he dealing with more typical teenage angst of wondering what his first kiss will be like, but he also struggles with being teased at school, and he wants to stake out some independence in his life, despite having some unavoidable dependence on others, especially his protective mother. The actors who play Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), his BFF Giovana (Tess Amorim), and the new boy Gabriel (Fabio Audi) are all genuine and touching in their portrayals of the complex brew of feelings that get stirred up. Writer-director Daniel Ribeiro's film has all the earnestness and charm of The Wonder Years, and even though you probably know broadly how the film will ultimately turn out, it is a warm and engaging story, and a delight to see it unfold.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

FILM: Lilting

Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou's film Lilting works quiet poetry in its elegiac portrayal of two near-strangers who lack a common language but share a common loss. Junn is an older Cambodian-Chinese woman living in a senior community in London who speaks no English, and with the untimely death of her son Kai, has no one left. Richard, Kai's English partner, wants to reach out to her, but his attempts are complicated not only by their language barrier, but by Junn's unawareness that her son was gay. With the help of an amateur translator, they grapple their way to a common understanding of their shared loss. Cheng Pei Pei perfectly embodies all of Junn's sadness, dignity, simmering resentments, and pluck, while Ben Whishaw portrays powerful emotions with masterful restraint. There are poignant scenes of each of them living with their own memories of Kai, and a perfect mix of lightness and seriousness in their attempts to communicate. Director Khaou visualizes this very touching story with a quiet beauty that is almost haunting.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

FILM: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

It was too much to hope for that the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel would live up to the first one. It was indeed second best. It was delightful to see all those great actors again, the film had some nice moments, and I did enjoy much of it though more out of warm feelings for the characters carried forward from the first film. Kind of like the sort of class reunion where you enjoy it more for reliving old memories jogged by seeing familiar faces than for the stories of what is going on with the people now. While the script tried to capture the great life struggles and lessons of the first film, most of the new story lines were rather contrived, really strained the willing suspension of disbelief, and at times didn't even make any sense. The direction didn't help either. Dev Patel's character, while exaggerated in the first film, was over-the-top in this one, and addled by some strange relationship between his fiancee and some new character (Sonny's "best friend" who we've never seen before and he doesn't care for anymore, who is maybe part of his fiancee's family, but who can make sense of it?). I don't recall Bill Nighy's character being quite so stumbling and at a loss for words, but that's all he was allowed to be here. Maggie Smith was mostly played up for her Downton-dowager-style tart remarks, and what the heck exactly happens with her in the end? I did enjoy the unexpected turn of Celia Imrie's story line, and Penelope Wilton gets a nice bit of depth in the end. If you liked the first film, you can enjoy the second one if you go in with lowered expectations and don't try to make too much sense of it, just go with it. But it is quite clearly the second best.