Crowded Out

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The first 48 hours of the Trump Administration were nothing if not illuminating. Following a dour, dire inaugural address in which the new president affirmed his commitment to faux-macho militarism and the destruction of free trade, Trump and VP Pence set off on the traditional post-inaugural parade. But much of the parade route was lined, not with adoring supporters, but with empty bleachers. Measured against Trump’s promise of an “unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout,” the entire day fell flat — especially when compared to Obama’s numbers in 2008 (or even in 2012, the much less “hopeful” time around). Aerial photos confirmed that Trump’s crowds did not stack up: there were huge gaps on the Mall, some of them even visible on the live TV feeds when Wolf Blitzer or someone equally dim tried to talk about a “teeming mass of humanity” that was not in evidence.

Measured against Trump’s promise of an “unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout,” the entire day fell flat.

The Trump team had many options available to explain this disappointment. First, the weather: dreary, overcast, continually promising rain that arrived right in time for Trump’s address. Second, the demographics: of course Obama would pull more people from DC and its suburbs, the center of the swamp that Trump has appointed himself (and half of Goldman Sachs) to drain. Third, the economics: heartland Republicans might wish to be there for the historic moment, but the depredations of Obama have left them unable to travel outside their own red states. Fourth: the priorities — and this would be a stretch for any politician, but bear with me: they could have said that the inauguration itself wasn’t what was important; rather, what mattered was individual taxpayers working to better their lives in their own communities, not traveling to pay homage to a new would-be god-king.

Faced with these and other possibilities, the Trump team chose the expediency of bald-faced lies.

When press secretary Sean Spicer took the podium on Saturday for a press briefing, he refused to accept any question, delivering instead a diatribe against the media for misrepresenting the crowds, which he estimated at “a million to a million and a half people” — a transparent falsehood. Asked about these remarks the next day, advisor Kellyanne Conway referred to Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts.” Alternative facts!

Of course, Trump never lies without also personally attacking the people he’s lying about. During a rambling, borderline unhinged speech to the CIA, of all people, he referred to the media as “the most dishonest human beings” — something which might be accurate, apart from the grotesquely dishonest context in which he was giving utterance. Other admin statements took a threatening tone: Reince Preibus spoke of “not allowing” the media’s obsessive quest to “delegitimize the president”; Spicer himself warned menacingly that the administration would hold the press “accountable” for, one assumes, telling the obvious truth.

They could have had a crowd of one geezer and a flatulent dog and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the fat stack of executive orders Trump is about to sign.

And here’s the thing: the DC press corps is packed full of liars, courtesans, and ass-kissers. Any other president would let these natural sycophants do their work for them: just promise them access and appear even vaguely “presidential,” and they’ll swallow anything — just look at the Bush buildup to the Iraq War, or any major Obama initiative. Trump & Co. have instead made clear that they will fight to the death anyone who doubts the anointed — a policy which would leave us soon with Breitbart and (maybe) Fox News as our new Pravdas. If he had wanted to float supreme above the press, that would be one thing — that would at least promise the pleasure of toppling an icon. Instead, he seems to desire endless flattery and coos of reassurance. For someone who claims to value masculine independence, he’s proving himself such a whiny, fragile little snowflake.

All of this, meanwhile, over just the most pointless thing, something not even worth lying about. The crowd size doesn’t matter, any more than the popular vote does, or anything else that isn’t direct, concrete governance. They could have had a crowd of one geezer and a flatulent dog and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the fat stack of executive orders Trump is about to sign. This, in fact, is the main danger facing the press corps, as well as the historically huge crowds that turned out to protest Trump the day after his inauguration: they’ll once again think they’ve vanquished him, when they won’t have delayed for even a second anything those working through him have planned.

In the meantime, though, the lesson remains: either Trump’s ego is such that he can’t bear coming off second best on any comparison to Obama, or he really is so beholden to audience numbers and ratings that he literally can’t see things anyway, or (more sinisterly) the administration wanted an early test case to see who would echo their lies, even when hard data and common sense both dictate clearly otherwise. Either way, it’s indication and confirmation of exactly how far we should trust anyone connected to the White House: the distance between a fact and its alternative.



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The Challenge of a Sectional Election

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In 1860 occurred the most momentous election in American history. Abraham Lincoln swept the North, receiving essentially no votes in the South. The southern Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, swept the South but received fewer than 100,000 of his total 670,000 votes from the North (if you include California, which gave him one-third of those Northern votes). The sectional South could not stand the idea of working with a sectional Northerner as president, and seceded. The election of 1860 was the fatal overture to the Civil War.

When one compares the electoral map of 1860 with the electoral map of 2016, one is hard pressed to say which election was more geographically polarized.

Fewer voters switched to the Democrats; indeed, many Democrats refused to be lured to the polls to vote for anyone.

The 1860 map is complicated by the fact that Stephen A. Douglas, candidate of the national Democrats, won some counties in the deep South and many counties among the Republicans of the Old Northwest. Breckinridge, the southerner, won counties in California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, while the border-state Constitutional Union candidate, John Bell, won many counties in the deep South as well as the border states. Compare 2016, when Hillary Clinton won most of the coastal West, most of New England, African American counties of the South, Hispanic or American Indian counties of the Southwest, parts of the upper Mississippi inheriting a kind of progressivism from German American or Scandinavian American roots, and geographically isolated large cities, university towns, and state capitals. Oh, and she won the government employees in northern Virginia. This sounds like a lot, until you notice that the rest of the country went for Trump — the vast length and breadth of the nation, over five-sixths of its counties. Not only did all of this go for Trump; it often went for him by majorities as large as or larger than those that Clinton piled up in coastal cities.

Things were very different in 1992, when Mrs. Clinton’s husband beat the Republican, George H.W. Bush. Back then, you could find a Democratic county without driving very far, even though Clinton won with only 43% of the vote.

The change toward a more sectionally divided America has been going on for a while, but maps of voter change show a geographical intensification in 2016, resulting largely from a rush of formerly Democratic voters to Trump. Fewer voters switched to the Democrats; indeed, many Democrats refused to be lured to the polls to vote for anyone. But there has been a very strong, though unquantifiable, intensification of antipathy toward Republicans in core Democratic areas.

The ten Democratic US senators who do not come from safe districts, who come in fact from states that Trump carried, and who are up for reelection in 2018, are not boycotting.

Meanwhile, Republicans have inexorably captured state house after state house. They now occupy the governors’ chairs and control the legislatures in 25 states, Democrats in only 6. On the other side, the government of California hired a former Democratic attorney general of the United States to defend it against any attack by President Trump — before President Trump even came into office — and Democratic cities have declared that they will defy the administration in regard to the prosecution of illegal immigrants and other issues of concern. Sixty or so Democratic members of Congress have advertised their inability to live with a Republican administration by boycotting the new president’s inauguration — many even questioning the legitimacy of his election.

It is notable that these are all, or almost all, members from safe districts. The ten Democratic US senators who do not come from safe districts, who come in fact from states that Trump carried, and who are up for reelection in 2018, are not boycotting. If, by 2018, nothing changes (which something very well may), these senators will be out of office, and the political sectionalization of the United States will be further intensified.

A little bit of context may be helpful, one way or another. Despite popular belief, no one got a majority of the popular vote in 2016: Trump got 46.1%; Clinton got 48.2%. But Lincoln got only 39.8% — an indication of considerably greater sectional feeling. In 1860 the two-party system crumbled into four parties, owing not just to Southern refusal to acknowledge the possibility of life with a Republican president but also to Southern and Northern hatred of a non-sectional candidate, Douglas. The question would be: was either Clinton or Trump a non-sectional candidate, in the contemporary sense?

There is nothing like the chance of losing one’s livelihood to spur people to desperate acts.

To continue: in today’s political mix there is no fundamental, essentially unsolvable problem such as slavery. What divides the two sections of the country is, I believe, the predominance of the “liberal” bureaucrats and wealthy “capitalists” who cluster in large cities and on the coasts. This predominance can be reduced or increased by action on a variety of fronts, all of which will witness vast outpourings of bile, but no actual secession. On the other hand, there is nothing like the chance of losing one’s livelihood to spur people to desperate acts, and that is what we are seeing in the contest between phased-out industrial communities, now backing Republicans, and state employees and benefit-recipients, backing Democrats.

This is not a spectacle that most libertarians will enjoy. Some reforms that libertarians desire will be enacted by either local Democrats or national or local Republicans, but they will be tainted by today’s violent party spirit, and broadly discredited. I do not sense the spirit of limited government in the fact that most state governments are now one-party states. And when I look at the map of congressional districts in the election of 2016, see a vast expanse of safe districts, hardening into total irresponsibility. When you add the element of real hatred and hysteria, fostered during the election by political operatives and pressure groups and continued thereafter as a way to keep donations flowing, I see a period in which antipathy will blind people on both sides to any form of political rationality.

But yes, I hope I’m wrong.




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A Field Guide to Humanoids

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In one of Woody Allen’s best films, Manhattan, he portrays a television comedy writer who gets fed up with the triviality of his job. He doesn’t want to make audiences laugh at people anymore, because he no longer finds people very funny. Only as he’s quitting do we learn the name of the program for which he writes: Human Beings — Wow! There are surely times — perhaps daily — when our sentiments echo those of that title. Sometimes we find the fellow members of our species funny, but painfully often we can’t.

Equal parts children of the gods and descendants of the apes, we possess about the same number of traits from each. If aliens from outer space were to come to earth, intent on learning all they could about us, they’d probably be puzzled. Just as birdwatchers consult field guides to the species native to their area, our visiting aliens might make good use of a field guide to humanoids. Having studied the human drama all my life, I think I could write a pretty decent one. I know just what I’d want to tell them, especially if they ever obtained the vote.

One of the main strategies of statists is dehumanizing the opposition. It must be evil, and it must never change.

The political forces that would control us want to keep us alienated from one another. They employ the time-tested tactic of divide and conquer. They don’t want us to understand human nature, because then we would learn how to get along with one another. We’d never achieve perfect harmony, no matter how much we understood, but we’d certainly be able to function without constant, heavy-handed government supervision.

One of the main strategies of statists is dehumanizing the opposition. It must be evil, and it must never change. If it could be seen to improve, gradually becoming less evil and generally better, the state would no longer be needed to protect its minions from that wicked force.

What does it look like when people change their minds about an issue? Our statist lords and masters don’t want us to know. If we came to recognize it, we might be more patient with those who disagree with us. If we realized how effective nonaggressive persuasion can be, we’d be willing to use that instead of the coercion to which we feel we must resort if we’re sure nothing else will work.

Most of my friends and relatives are leftists. When I try to get them to understand what’s really going on in this country — as opposed to the twaddle they’re told — I get dogged resistance. They don’t want to understand the changes that are taking place. Their heads are stuck deep in the 20th century, and a mythical version, at that.

If aliens from outer space were to come to earth, intent on learning all they could about us, they’d probably be puzzled.

When people change their minds, the process is usually one of gradual evolution. They usually think (or want to think) that they arrived at their new opinion totally on their own, without having been persuaded by anyone else. Sometimes they even try to pretend that they never thought any other way.

They’re not going to publicly flagellate themselves for their errors, no matter how cathartic the spectacle might be for others. I know that I don’t like getting even a private flogging for mine. I sometimes do from conservatives, when I admit that I used to be a leftist. “So you know you were wrong, now . . . huh, huh, huh?” They actually think that treating me like a poorly housebroken dog and grinding my nose into a pile of poop will get me properly trained.

It shouldn’t be made personal, because it really isn’t, as the trite saying goes, “about us.” Truth existed for eons before we were born, and it will endure long after we are gone. It’s bigger than we are. We need it, but it does not need us.

I’ve seen tremendous change in many conservatives, particularly on issues like gay rights. Leftists are deathly afraid to admit this. Donald Trump is probably less hostile to gays than any president in history before Obama, but the LGBTQWERTY left has utterly convinced itself that his administration is going to herd them into boxcars and ship them off to some new Dachau.

After hearing this fear expressed for at least the five thousandth time, I finally blew my stack. I asked a sad and quaking, safety-pin-wearing friend exactly what he thought it would look like if conservatives finally changed their minds about gays — humoring him by assuming, for the sake of argument, that a great number of them already haven’t. He gave me a long, blank look, like a schoolboy who’d failed to study for an exam. Then he launched into a litany of government actions that conservatives “must” support to show how really, really, really, really sorry they are for having been such meanies.

They’re not going to publicly flagellate themselves for their errors, no matter how cathartic the spectacle might be for others.

The concept of change happening organically in society — instead of being engineered by government — is totally foreign to him. He can’t fathom the possibility that people might be persuaded by logic and experience. Everything must be forced to happen. People who think this way are abysmally and inexcusably ignorant of human nature. It’s almost as if they came to this planet along with those visiting aliens and — like them — were seeing it now for the very first time.

If we don’t learn to understand each other, eventually we will destroy each other. There have been legends about extraterrestrial visitors since the days of the Pharaohs. We keep scaring ourselves by speculating that they might someday try to conquer and colonize this planet. I don’t think we need to worry.

They’ve been watching us through their binoculars and muttering, “Human Beings — Wow!” Like Woody Allen, they may not mean that as a compliment.




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A Monster Calls, a Lion Roars Back

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Boyhood should be filled with running and playing and studying and dreaming. It should not be filled with nightmares about unspeakable loss. Nevertheless, two excellent films released this month address that theme, each of them helmed by outstanding young actors and presented with exquisite cinematography. Although you would have to be emotionally empty to avoid a tearful sniffle at the boys’ plights, both films manage to avoid maudlin or gratuitous melodrama. Each is surprisingly uplifting, despite its dark themes.

A Monster Calls, set in England but filmed largely by a Spanish crew, follows the story of young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who attends a boys’ school where he is routinely pummeled by a passionless bully much larger than he. Conor barely notices the punches to his face, however, because life has already served him a punch in the gut — his Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer. So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches. (More about the monster in a moment.) This story could only have been told in England, where maintaining a stiff upper lip (while developing an ulcer) is taught to perfection in boarding school.

The only person he unleashes on is his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he will have to live once the unspoken ending has happened. Meanwhile, Grandma is facing the loss of her daughter with the same British stoicism, and expresses her need for control by expecting Conor to live in her house without touching anything. Conor eyes her with distrust and is vocal about not wanting to go with her. He daydreams about moving to the United States to live with his Dad (Toby Kebbell) instead.

So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches.

Conor is stoic on the outside, but on the inside he is raging. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, is a metaphor for the rage he feels, and also for the monstrous circumstance that is attacking him. The monster is a gigantic tree-like creation with fiery eyes and thunderous voice, yet he seems more like a mythological guide than a terror. He says to Conor, “First I will tell you three stories, and then you will tell me the fourth.” Of Conor’s own story he tells us, “it begins with a boy too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man.”

The film has a strong sense of magical realism. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible) and set decorator Pilar Revuelta contribute to this sense through skillful lighting, camera angles, prop dressing, and special effects. The score by Fernando Velasquez and Neeson’s powerful yet comforting voice are also important to the tone of the film.

Of course, the monster’s purpose is to help Conor express his rage and prepare for his grief. British stoicism be damned — rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child. Somehow Conor and his grandmother will have to come to grips with both, and find a way to do it together.

Another film steeped in local culture and unbearable loss is Lion, about an even younger boy. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is perhaps five years old when he inadvertently boards an empty train and travels over 1,000 miles to Calcutta before he can get off. Alone, frightened, unable to speak Bengali or even identify his mother by any name but “Mum,” he ends up on the streets with other abandoned children. Worse than facing the Faganesque threat of becoming petty thieves, these children are exposed to the threat of being sold into sexual slavery.

Rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child.

Saroo manages to escape that fate and eventually is adopted by a couple in Australia. But the thought of his mother and siblings grieving over his disappearance continues to haunt him until, with the blessing of his adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman), he returns to India to find his roots.

It’s a simple story made wonderful by the acting of Sunny Pawar, who beat out 2,000 other young hopefuls for the part and didn’t even speak English when he began filming (which may have contributed to the uncanny portrayal of his character’s sense of confusion and loss in Calcutta). In early scenes he makes tangible the bond he shares with his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his Mum (Priyanka Bose), as he proudly shows that he can work and contribute to the family table. One gets the sense that the cinematographer simply followed him around the hills of west India and the streets of Calcutta with a camera and caught him doing what he naturally would do. Greig Fraser’s soaring landscapes and cluttered, colorful cities are magnificent as well.

Dev Patel, best known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, in which he had the same job — portraying the older version of a young main character — steps into Act II of Lion with similar natural skill. He demonstrates the complex emotional confusion experienced by an adoptee old enough to remember his previous life and family, profoundly appreciative of his new parents, yet not completely at home in either location. He doesn’t quite know how to interact with his adoptive brother, who also joined the family as an older child; he plays cricket and surfs, but doesn’t know how to scoop curry with naan. He becomes isolated and withdrawn, confused by a combination of grief and guilt, until he is able to return to India and complete his search.

“Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief.

The film is about more than an orphaned boy’s search for his hometown; it touches on deep issues of child trafficking, international adoption, cultural identity negation, emotional handicap, and what it means to be a family.

Lion is one of those “stranger than fiction” stories that would never have been greenlighted if it weren’t true. “Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief. Yet the film is based on A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierley, who also served as co-scriptwriter of the film. From interviews I’ve seen with Brierley and then from watching the film, I would say it’s as true as he can make it. The acting is true too — vulnerable and heartbreaking, light as a bird and strong as a lion.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "A Monster Calls," directed by Juan Antonia Bayona. Focus Films, Apaches Entertainment, 2016, 108 minutes; and "Lion," directed by Garth Davis. See-Saw Films, 2016, 118 minutes.



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Single Vision

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Welcome to My Neighborhood

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The first time we saw Connie she was packing a snub-nosed .38. It was strapped snugly to her narrow hips, which were wrapped in skin-tight jeans — knee-high black leather boots and matching jacket rounding out her outfit.

She didn’t look around as she mounted her Harley — or put on a helmet. Her dirty blonde mane was blowing in the breeze. Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

We’d just moved in across the street from her house, a plain, white block bungalow without frippery or landscaping, other than a lawn, doubtless maintained because of the nearly free irrigation water available — and her job.

Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

Parts of the Phoenix metro area are serviced by the Salt River Project (SRP) irrigation district, organized in the 1800s to exploit the flows of that perennial river for the benefit of the surrounding desert farms. Today, much of the farmland has been turned to housing, and the irrigation water, delivered by canals, to lawns bordered by berms to retain the water.

The schedules for lawn flooding are on a rotating continuous timescale, with no lawn receiving its share at the same time each irrigation period. Floodgates may be opened or shut at any time of the day or night, according to SRP’s schedule. Most homeowners, people who work regular jobs and value their sleep, prefer to hire out this task. Enter Connie, who, for a small fee, was available to take care of your irrigation responsibilities.

Within days after our move into the neighborhood, Connie came over to introduce herself, scope us out, and proffer her services. It didn’t take long for her to feel comfortable and express her relief that we weren’t black or Mexican. Before she got too carried away, ranting and raving against those two groups, I told her I was Cuban-American and my wife was Mexican-American.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

She said that was of no consequence. She was prejudiced against these people as a group, not against particular individuals, and she added that one of her best friends was black.

Yeah, right, I thought. To allay our doubts, she explained.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. We had needed at least as long to absorb it. (What sort of neighborhood had we moved into?) She continued, explaining that the gang had been formed for protection and that racial and ethnic affinities were the simplest methods for organization. The gangs — black, white, and Chicano — set behavioral rules and enforced them. Compliance led to respect, and respect to incipient friendships — the tortuous path that had led her to a friendship with a black.

Whether Connie was a racist might be debatable, but her opinion of men was definitely single-minded. Glancing at Tina, my wife, and then locking eyeballs with me she declared in no uncertain terms that all men were after the same thing. Sex — no exceptions.

We signed up for her irrigation services.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged. Her house was ringed by security cameras, footage from which was usually available to neighbors to figure out neighborhood mysteries. On at least one occasion, she helped resolve a vandalism incident. Her boyfriend, a muscle-bound, tattooed skinhead in a permanent tank-top, was surprisingly modest and self-effacing. He would often wait hours in front of her door for a response.

Connie, however, was a meth head and occasionally went on binges. Once past the high, she’d get nasty and combative but then, when coming down, would sink into maudlin depression. Her solace was Frannie, our octogenarian neighbor. Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman. She and Tina would often share a glass of wine in the afternoon under the carport and talk men. I think it was Frannie’s affinity for Tina that facilitated Connie’s trust in us.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged.

Connie once invited Tina to a shooting range. She’d always wanted to try some shooting, so she enthusiastically accepted. Connie provided Tina with what Tina called a “complicated” handgun, while Connie took a semi-automatic rifle (Tina, knowing little about guns, called it a machine gun).

The female bonding experience was going well until Tina became friendly with the cops who were sharpening their skills in the adjacent gallery. Connie turned combative and abruptly cancelled the date.

Her immediate neighbors were of two minds about her. The family due west was reminiscent of the Gallaghers, the family depicted in the TV series Shameless — dissolute, disorganized, undisciplined, and possessed of a passel of kids. Connie pirated her TV cable off their cable and, I believe (I didn’t pry), shared the monthly fee. The family due east was a couple of editors for the Arizona Republic, the state’s leading newspaper. They and Connie were feuding — something having to do with a tree growing over the cyclone fence separating their back yards.

When Connie found out I was a mason, she asked that I build a block wall between her property and these neighbors’. Except for those lots, most properties in the old subdivision were separated by four-inch-thick block walls supported every ten feet by eight-inch-thick block pillars. I agreed, but I needed to look at her back yard to estimate the extent of the job. She took us over for a look.

Her home was neat and clean. She’d remodeled the tract house to carve out a tiny control room where she monitored the surveillance cameras, and a gun closet where her arsenal was stored. But her bedroom took the cake. A four-poster, crinolined, oversized bed dominated the room, together with a four-by-eight mirror on the ceiling. We didn’t ask.

Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman.

Connie didn’t depend for her income on just being the irrigator. When a neighbor discovered her call-girl website, the place went ballistic. (Meanwhile, of course, all the men surreptitiously peeked at her website.) Two doors down from Connie and one door down from the Gallagher-like family lived a cop. He knew all about Connie. He refused to get involved. His philosophy was, if Connie didn’t disrupt the neighborhood, he left well enough alone.

One midday our house was broken into. Purely by happenstance, Tina showed up while the burglar was inside. Tina didn’t hesitate; although small in stature, she was fearless, a rock climber, and built like a female Schwarzenegger. She opened the door and bee-lined toward the hubbub. Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground and was about to begin pounding when the woman yelled that she was pregnant.

Having been brought up by drug-addled parents in dodgy environments and shuttled between foster homes, Tina had street smarts and could spot a line of BS instantly. “That jewelry that you stole was given to me by my husband just before he was killed in a shoot-out,” she responded, giving the thief pause.

Tina dragged her to the phone and called 911. The operator told her not to attempt to apprehend the thief. While Tina was on the phone, the thief slipped her grip, ran across the street, and jumped up on the four-inch block wall separating Connie’s house from her cable-sharing neighbors. Then, incredibly, she ran atop its length to the next street, where her car was parked. For all her athletic abilities, Tina couldn’t catch up, though she did provide a description of the car.

Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground.

The thief didn’t get away. Two female officers had already been dispatched and caught her attempting to flee. Tina ID’d the woman and, expecting a lecture about taking the law into her own hands, apologized to the officers for not following the dispatcher’s orders concerning the thief’s apprehension. Instead, the cops congratulated her and expressed a wish that more citizens would get more involved. They added that the woman had done time and was under suspicion and surveillance for similar burglaries in the area — one reason they’d been able to respond so quickly.

When we related these events to Connie, she said the woman was lucky she hadn’t broken into her house.

I never built a wall for Connie; she was too unpredictable. Instead of improving, Connie’s situation deteriorated. She took more drugs, got more combative, and alienated more neighbors. We sold our house at the top of the market bubble (the one that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner didn’t spot), made a tidy profit, and moved away. Frannie told us that Connie ended up in prison for, I think, owning a firearm — a no-no for a convicted felon.

I love a diverse neighborhood: academic editors, polyglot artists, cops, Aryan Brotherhood meth heads, Cuban & Mexican-Americans, housing bubble speculators, handy call girls, classic car collectors, and other unique personalities we never got a chance to meet.

Our new neighborhood in a small town, anarchic in a completely different way, is calmer. While the characters aren't quite so extremely colorful, the property mix — along winding and hilly streets that change names seemingly without logic, and irregular land parcels — contains multimillion-dollar homes on acreage next to mobile homes and modest DIY homes on small lots, and even a nearly perennial creek called Miller Creek. We don’t even lock our doors.




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Look Twice

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In Robert Hayden’s sonnet “Those Winter Sundays,” a man looks back with painful regret on his childhood relationship with his father at a time when he was too young to “know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.” The father apparently has died, and it’s too late to tell him what the son now knows. The poem begins:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The speaker reveals his father’s unacknowledged daily sacrifice and then admits his own coldness toward his hard-working but “austere” father. He shamefully admits “speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished [his] good shoes as well.” It is simply too painful to linger over the details, and through a poetic technique known as enjambment Hayden demonstrates the speaker’s urge to rush past the painful memory, tumbling past the natural line breaks until he deliberately slams on the brakes with the consonant-heavy “banked fires blaze” and a mid-line period. There he forces himself to open his eyes and admit it: “No one ever thanked him.” Even now, as an adult, he can’t bring himself to use the word “I.” Childlike, he finds excuse in numbers: “no one” did.

The director’s method is an artful avoidance of details. Lonergan sidles up to the tragedy, taking a full hour before he presents it to us.

Skilled filmmakers use similar tools to demonstrate the psychological trauma of a protagonist. In the critically acclaimed (but audience-panned) Manchester by the Sea, director Kenneth Lonergan demonstrates the inability of his protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), to face a horrific tragedy in his life. The director’s method is an artful avoidance of details. Lonergan sidles up to the tragedy, taking a full hour before he presents it to us and distracting us by other problems along the way: Lee is working as a janitor and living in a one-room basement apartment when the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) takes him back to his hometown of Manchester. In flashbacks we see that Lee has had wonderful experiences in Manchester with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), his three children, his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and his boisterous friends. Yet he refuses to return to Manchester to become Patrick’s guardian after Joe’s death.

In this way Lonergan treats the real tragedy almost as a side story, with the characters involved in it barely introduced in the film. Even after we see what has caused Lee to be so withdrawn from life, he doesn’t linger to discuss it. It is simply too painful. Just as Hayden rushes past his protagonist’s tragedy through enjambment, Lonergan rushes through Lee’s tragedy by revealing the story in snippets and flashbacks that flame up and then retreat again into the darkest reaches of his memory. Nevertheless, the story within the story is always present, always breaking through.

Critics have praised Manchester by the Sea in general and Affleck’s performance, which is indeed raw and real, in particular. But does it deserve 97% approval rating? Audiences find it slow-moving, drawn out, and unsatisfying. The grumbling of unfulfilled audience members surrounded me as the film ended and the lights went up. “That’s it?” I heard more than one person say.

Even after we see what has caused Lee to be so withdrawn from life, he doesn’t linger to discuss it. It is simply too painful.

I agree with them in part — it is so slow that, the first time I saw it, I actually left after 45 minutes. I decided to give it another try, a couple of weeks later. The second half, after we find out what’s eating at Lee, is emotionally and artistically powerful, with moments that are so unbearably real that we, too, want to rush through them, even though we can’t look away. The film doesn’t give us a happy ending or even “closure,” today’s buzzword for dealing with tragedy in a timely fashion. It’s not a movie for a pleasant Friday night date. But life’s problems aren’t fixed in two hours. Sometimes they can’t be fixed in a lifetime. Closure isn’t available for certain acts that can’t be undone and words that can’t be unsaid. The reality of that level of regret makes Manchester by the Sea intensely satisfying, even though it is agonizingly, stupefyingly slow.


Editor's Note: Review of "Manchester by the Sea," directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Amazon Studios, 2016, 137 minutes.



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A Cheap Date

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Politically speaking, libertarians can seem like a cheap date. We’re good enough for a nice time, when a prettier, sexier option is unavailable. But let’s face it, whenever the supermodel or the football hero flashes a flirtatious smile, a lot of our potential partners will desert us.

These days, we’re doing plenty of strategizing. Should we take this course, or that? I’ll switch to the team sports metaphor that works so well in politics. For the most part, the choice appears to come down to the following: do we woo players from Team Red or Team Blue? Our franchise is perpetually struggling to stay competitive, and free agents are again beginning to shop their allegiances around.

Both Left and Right recognize how obnoxious — even downright dangerous — big government can be when people they don’t like have control of it.

The ever-shifting team standings have not altered the opinion I’ve held for the last several years. We need to take as many players as we can from both sides. Their willingness to sign with our franchise depends largely on where their team sits in the rankings. This is tiresome, the situation is silly, and most of them are idiots. But however degrading it is that we need to include them in our considerations at all, thisin no way alters the facts.

To put the matter as simply as possible, when their team is winning, they have little desire to abandon it. But when the other side gains the upper hand, they start getting itchy. They recognize how obnoxious — even downright dangerous — big government can be when people they don’t like have control of it. Even though it strikes them as a dandy idea when they think they might, however indirectly, wield power, as the Left believed it did through Obama, and the Right now anticipates doing through Trump.

Cheap dates can take comfort in one thing. Sometimes those who condescend to date us actually fall in love with us. They may only be looking for a good time at the moment, but once they’re close enough to actually get to know us, our philosophy may take hold. That is obviously the case every time the political pendulum swings from one side to the other, because our numbers are increasing. Perhaps not as rapidly as we’d like, but steadily nonetheless.

Our country is so deeply in the thrall of statist authoritarianism that growth may not happen for the liberty movement in any other way. When we peruse the mainstream media’s coverage of libertarian ideas — and that coverage is always scant, at best — we can plainly see that what there is of it is usually inaccurate, or even slanderous. They started out with Gary Johnson’s 2016 campaign byportraying him as a pothead, and after his unfortunate “Aleppo moment” — so unfortunate that it has apparently become code for “disastrous gaffe” — they used it to define him totally. But the good news, which no mainstream media site is ever going to bring us, is that a fast-growing majority ofthe country no longer trusts them to tell it what to think. The opportunity for libertarians to win new hearts and minds has never been greater.

The segment of the population it makes the most sense for us to woo is the independent middle. This is the category in which the “experts” try to stick libertarians when they don’t know what sense to make of us, or when they simply want to make us disappear. Though nonpartisan “moderates” are stereotyped as ignorant, or as just not caring about politics, there are far too many of them to be so mindlessly dismissed.

Our country is so deeply in the thrall of statist authoritarianism that growth may not happen for the liberty movement in any other way.

When our philosophy is explained to them by people not invested in distorting it, we often find that they are kindred spirits. Libertarianism is a treasure such individuals are happy to discover, because it explains things they’ve never been able to make sense of before. They very well may be better matched with us than those who’ve been weak-minded enough to waste years of their lives as authoritarians in the first place.

I suspect that Donald Trump will turn out to be very nearly as big a tyrant and bully as Hillary Clinton would have been. If we’re counting on keeping all the converts who defected from the political Right during the Obama years, the flash and dash of The Donald will prove irresistible to quite a number, and our hearts will be broken yet again. Over the course of the Trump regime, however long it lasts, many leftists with the sense to be at least temporarily scared by big government will bat their lashes at us and whisper sweet nothings in our ears. Some who originated on the Right will stay with us but others won’t, and we can be pretty sure that our success rate in keeping converts from the Left will be similar.

Our hearts are precious; we should guard them. We need to keep ourselves true to what we’ve come to recognize as truth, come what may — knowing that, after all, we’re worth more than a cheap date, and trusting that the people worthy of our devotion will be the marrying kind.




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