Saturday, June 25, 2016

And, To End June For TRH On A Positive Note ...

... and, since I'm going to a conference on historic theaters, I'm happy to share this with all of you.

What an amazing place the Richard Rodgers Theater (formerly the 46th Street Theater) must be!  To have become the home of not one, but two hit musicals about American history!  In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, "1776" made its original Broadway run there.  Happily, not long after it closed, a film version of the musical was made with many members of the original Broadway cast, thus giving us a record of the show that has kept its greatness, and its insights into our history, alive and well many decades later.

Today, even as I write this, the now-Rodgers Theater is once again the home of a hit musical about our history, in a way that allows its story to overlap with the one told by "1776" about the Declaration of Independence.  As we all know by now, "Hamilton" tells the story, in rap-music form, of one of the most complicated and intriguing Framers of our Constitution--Alexander Hamilton. Perhaps even more so than "1776," it makes use of contemporary music, and even more contemporary casting, to take the past and bring it to life in the present.

And how lucky we are that two men, each essential to one of these two shows, got together on the stage of the same theater in which they both made history and helped it come alive at the same time, and talk about what it all meant to them!

There may be no greater argument for the value of historic theaters than this historic meeting.

I'll have more to say when I come back from Chicago.  Happy Fourth, everyone!

Can Markets Be Created To Serve Public Needs?

In the case of Feeding America, an organization that distributes food donations to food banks around the country, the answer is apparently yes--in a spectacular way.  Working with an economics professor, Feeding America was able to create a market for making and getting food donations that actually increased the overall supply of donated food.  You can read about this in greater detail here.

It's possible to look at this article approvingly from two different perspectives.  Conservatives will, with some real justification, see a practical demonstration here of the efficiency of markets versus the ineptitude and heavy-handedness of central planning.  But that's in part because contemporary conservatives see everything from an even-or, zero-sum perspective.  As the article shows, the market created for food bank donations and distributions was, in effect, a heavily regulated one, and one in which the regulation was done with a very clear goal of optimizing the outcomes for everyone.  This was not an case of putting faith either in social Darwinism or Big Brother.  It was a choice in favor of something in between.

And "something in between" is usually where the truth lies.  Would that we could get back to remembering that.

The Future Is In Space, Whether We Like It Or Not

Just ask tiny Luxembourg, which recently decided to use a very large chunk of its money--well into nine figures, in fact--to invest in the future of asteroid mining.

We do not have an infinite Earth, folks.  We are, far more quickly than we realize, not only reaching peak oil, but in fact peak everything.  Well, a lot of things, anyway.  And yet, many of the things we're running out of on this planet can be found elsewhere.  Specifically, beyond the planet.  In space.

For a long time, we have faced the future only through the medium of science fiction.  Perhaps that's because the present has become so frightening that the only vision of the future people can conjure is one that's even worse than the present.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  The best of what can be found in science fiction--which includes asteroid mining, by the way--has almost always made it into science fact.  Science fiction has, in fact, often served as a guidepost to some of the greatest developments in human history.

So don't bet against Luxembourg's bet on mining in space.  We will need to find new sources for natural resources soon.  If they are extraterrestrial sources, so be it.  And human ingenuity has thus far always found a way to get what it needs.

White Justice, Black Justice = No Justice

A tale of two young men in 21st-century America.

Both of them college athletes.  Both found guilty by the criminal justice system of raping unconscious women.  And both of them sentenced for their crimes.

But that's where the road diverges in two directions in the narrow woods of American justice. Because one of the young men is serving a mandatory sentence of 15 to 25 years in prison.  The other young man was only sentenced to six months, with the prospect of only having to serve perhaps half of that sentence.

One of these young men is white.  One of these young men is black.  Guess which one got the stiffer sentence?

Not much of a guess, is it?  Not in an America where a bigoted businessman can parlay his lack of experience, and his hatred, into a full-scale campaign for the Presidency of the United States, uncovering the rancid bigotry of a major American party in the process.

There will be no justice in America as long as there is racial disparity in sentencing.  None. At. All.

We all need to fight this.  For all of our sakes.

Steve Cuozzo's Prayers Are Answered

And so are mine.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post, who writes on New York real estate and is not anyone's idea of a preservationist, had written a column about the impending demolition of a former Presbyterian church in Manhattan, in favor of yet another high-rise hotel development.  The church had meaning to Cuozzo because, in an earlier stage of his career, he had worked there as an administrative aide when the church was being used as a performing arts center.

I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that even Cuozzo, who normally takes a 1-percenter's view of real estate development, could find room in his heart for being sentimental about a piece of old New York.  Which is why I'm happy to join him in reporting that the developer has decided to incorporate part of the church's facade into the new hotel.

Perhaps most impressively, as reported by Cuozzo, the developer is doing this out of recognition that preservation can add financial value to a project.  It's what preservationists such as myself have been saying for years.  Let's hope and pray that more and more developers recognize this--and soon.

And So The Heller Decision Begins To Crumble

I have written several times about the jurisprudential badness of the Supreme Court's District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the late Justice Antonin Scalia amputated the Second Amendment to find an individual constitutional right to bear arms, but then tacked on to the ending a lecture on the need to regulate guns that was unsupported by any legal rule or precedent.  A decision that much at odds with itself is not bound to be respected for very long.  And, in any event, Heller cannot be allowed to prevent a government from carrying out what is unarguably its most basic responsibility: the safety of the governed.

Which is why this is so important.  Although it respects the logic of Heller to the extent that such logic exists, it nevertheless enforces a view of the Second Amendment more consistent with what the Framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights intended:  the view that the right to bear arms is subordinate to the right to be safe, especially in public.  We have, sadly, allowed the need for gun companies to make money to get in the way of what was once patently obvious.  Let's hope that, with the help of courts like the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, it can become patently obvious again.

Which Is Worse? The Hypocrisy? Or The Danger?

Yes, folks, this actually happened.

And the rest of us are left to wonder, among other things, whose hypocrisy is greater.  The hypocrisy of a United States Senator, using Scripture to pray for the death of the sitting President?  Or the crowd of "conservative Christians," who laughed at the "joke."  Both violated the bounds of decency. And neither the Senator nor the crowd is in a position to identify with a man who suffered for the sins of many, having declared themselves willing to laugh for the sake of Christ at the thought of slaying the elected leader of their nation.  And too, in the Senator's case, there's his oath of office, which he violated in spirit, if not in fact.  Who knows what else he might violate?

On the other hand, the danger that may be foreshadowed by this incident may be even greater than hypocrisy.  We've already seen how, in Great Britain, a country formerly renowned for its civility, an M.P. can be shot to death for her political views, and the side on which the assailant was working won.  Who knows what political issue on that sceptered isle will next be resolved by a bullet?

And who knows how the example set by Jo Cox's murderer will be repeated here, accross the proverbial pond?

Kenneth Starr's Scarlet Letter

At least some of you, depending on the quality of your eduational system, may have read Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."  The letter in question is A, forced to be worn by Hester Prynne after being found guilty of adultery, but (spoiler alert) later on found to be on the chest of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover and the father of her daughter.  This theme, with its New Testament echoes (the parable of the splinter and the beam, for example), reoccures again and again in our culture:  the chief condemmnor of sinners is exposed as a sinner himself (or herself).

So, as it turns out, it is with Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton's chief legal tormentor in oppositon to the then-President's sexual proclivities.  The man who simply couldn't stand the thought of the President of the United States using the Oval Office for an affair with an intern turns out to have been, while president and chancellor of Baylor University, someone who turned a blind eye to incidents of sexual abuse.

And he got his comeuppance for it.  The arc of history is long, but it does indeed bend toward justice. Good riddance.

Whither Immigration Reform After A Split Supreme Court?

This past Thursday was, by any standard, an extraordinary news day.  It ended, of course, with the historic and misguided outcome in the British referendum on European Union membership, with the victory for the Leave side already inducing massive financial upheavals, as well as a massive amount of buyer's remorse by many who voted for Brexit.

I was inclined to write about Brexit, in fact, but I thought it over and decided that there's quite a bit to say about it, and maybe more than one post will be needed for me to get it done.  Plus, tomorrow is a getaway day for me.  I'm going to Chicago for a week to take part in the annual Conclave of the Theatre Historical Society of America, of which I am a board member and officer. So I won't have an opportunity to comment on Great Britain's self-manufactured crisis until after I get back, which will be just before the Fourth of July.  I can only imagine that, during that time, even more fodder for commentary will emerge.

With all of this in mind, I take this opportunity to talk about last Thursday's other major news story, which got somewhat buried by all of the Brexit hoopla:  the 4-4 split by the Supreme Court in their United States v. Texas ruling, which left in place a temporary injunction halting President Obama's expanded program of deferred prosecution for young undocumented immigrants and their parents.

As I said, the injunction is temporary and, as a consequence of the Court's decision, a trial on the merits of the case can now proceed.  Basically, this suit was brought by the Attorneys General of several states, alleging that the President's program was guilty of statutory overreach that would, in addition, burden their states with additional costs (e.g., the need to issue additional licenses). Maybe you like their logic, and maybe you don't.  Personally, I think it holds no water.  But, in any case, the trial can now go forward, the judge can once again rule for the plaintiffs, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals can once again uphold that ruling, and the case can come back before the Supreme Court--which, by then, may have a full compliment of nine Justices.  And we in turn, by then, may have a new president who may or may not pursue the program or any other action to help 11 million effectively stateless souls.

And so, on immigration, the American beat goes on, with immigrants and their advocates being the ones taking the pounding.  Is there any lemonade to be made out of all these lemons?

Well, some.  The 4-4 split sets no precedent.  On the other hand, imagine what a nine-member Court might have done with an opinion written by the late Antonin Scalia.  No doubt the ability of Obama and future presidents to offer administrative relief to immigrants would have been reduced to rubble, while the concept of state standing to sue the Feds would have been stretched to maximum capacity not only for immigration, but perhaps for every conceivable issue on which the states might sue.

And, in any case, a program such as the one Obama has proposed is purely administrative in nature, and could easily be undone by any successor.  This leaves those of us who advocate for immigrants back to what used to be the future:  the need for a statutory solution in the form of comprehensive immigration reform.

How do we finally get to this promised land?  By doing what LGBT advocates have been doing for the past decade:  changing the minds of the American people about immigrants by changing the culture's perception of them, and especially how they came her in the first place.  Go beyond Op-Ed pieces and blogs (yes, including this one), and tell the stories of immigrants in songs, in films, in TV and Web series, on talk shows and in town meetings, in PTA meetings and day care centers.  Fill the everyday lives of people with stories about the "illegals," and they'll soon conclude that no human being is or should be illegal.

And then remind the American people that these human beings are being used as political props to prevent us from discussing and resolving a whole host of social issues, including climate change burning up states where many of these human beings live.

And insist on a fully-staffed Supreme Court, functioning as a truly independent branch of government, and not as a plaything of Mitch McConnell's.

Enough is enough.  Let's stop dividing ourselves to death, and remember that, before it was changed to "In God We Trust," our national motto was "E Pluribus Unum"--out of many, one.  Let's come together to write that thought into our immigration laws, so that no President needs to be sued for doing the right thing.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Muhammad Ali And The Fear Of Freedom

If you're under the age of 50, chances are you don't remember a little movie called "Easy Rider." Released in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War and the countercultural reaction against the Establishment that was blamed for it, it starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as two drug pushers on a cross-country bike trip after scoring a big deal. Along the way, they pick up a young Southern lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, the performance that launched him to superstardom.  (Major spoiler alert) Before Nicholson's character, George Hanson, is murdered, he tells Wyatt and Billy, the pushers played by Fonda and Hopper, that people aren't scared of them.  They're scared of what Wyatt and Billy represent to them:  freedom.
... talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em.*
I found myself reflecting on this line when I read about the recent death of another 1960s icon, one who staged his own countercultural rebellion against the Vietnam War and the Establishment: Muhammad Ali.

With the war and its folly long established as a sad fact of American history, and with the Establishment utterly redefined by the counterculture that stood against it, it is probably impossible for someone under 50 to remember the utter hatred, the undiluted vitriol, the immense and intense outcry by white America against a young heavyweight boxing champion who traded in his birth name of Cassius Clay when he converted to Islam, and then let himself be stripped of his championship when he refused to register for the draft that could have sent him to Southeast Asia.  It's perhaps best summed up for me by a (white) college roommate who, well into the '70s, referred to Ali by his birth name.  Long after Ali had been restored to boxing's good graces, and the rest of the county had moved on, a large segment of it wasn't afraid to show that it would never move at all.

It was this article that made me think about the link between the Nicholson character in "Easy Rider," and Ali.  It quotes him as saying the following, years after the draft controversy:
Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free.
And that was the real problem Ali faced when he defied the draft.  For many white people in this country, then and now, freedom is little more than a word that sounds good when you say it or hear it. But it's considered bad manners to act on what it really means.  Because that separates you from the crowd.  And what terrifies most white people, really terrifies them, is not being part of the crowd.

Hatred of Ali had nothing to do with defying the government; conservatives have proven over the last quarter-century that they're happy to defy the government if they think it's against them.  On the other hand, it had a lot to do with Ali's skin color.  African-Americans (or, as they were called then in so-called polite society, Negroes) weren't supposed to be truly independent thinkers.  Oh, they had "freedom," legally, but they weren't supposed to act like it.  Because then, they might get the idea that they deserved justice. And, to the whites who still believed the antebellum South could rise again, justice for black men and women scared them to death.

Fortunately for all of us, Ali had something that has to go hand-in-had with the desire to be free, if you ever expect that desire to be fulfilled:  courage.  He stayed the course.  He refused to renounce his stance.  He regained his stature in the boxing world, and moved beyond it, to become an international celebrity and source of hope to many.  Even some in the sports journalism world, such as the late Dick Young of the New York Daily News, learned to forgive and accept.  And thank G-d for a white, Jewish sportscaster named Howard Cosell, who championed Ali and never let us forget why the rest of us needed to champion him as well.

In the end, Ali destroyed the hatred, and changed how many of us look at each other, and at the rest of the world.  He wasn't afraid of freedom, and he helped others to lose their fear of it as well. And that's why he truly deserved his own, self-proclaimed title:

The Greatest.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Politics Is Interested In You, And It's Armed

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you. ”
--Attributed to Pericles

Why take advice from Pericles, if in fact it was his advice?  Well, apart from his accomplishments as a political and military leader during the golden age of Athens, the quote above is one well worth heeding in any case.

And, sadly, the events of the past week illustrate why.

The assassination of British Labour MP Jo Cox, an outspoken advocate for the Remain camp in the current debate over next week's referendum in Great Britain on whether to remain in the European Union, is surprising only because it happened in Great Britain, a country formerly renowned for the civility of its political life.

That, however, may be changing.  The debate between the Leave and Remain camps, largely driven by concerns over EU policies on immigration that have brought large numbers of Muslims across the Channel, has provided fodder for some of the most intolerant--and, quite frankly, racist--voices in British society, most notably the UKIP Party.  As that wise old philosopher from "The Empire Strikes Back," Yoda said, "Fear leads to hate.  Hate leads to anger.  Anger leads to suffering."

And, in the case of Jo Cox, all of this lead to death, depriving her husband of a wife, her two young children of a mother, and her country of what even Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron described as "a rising star."  A loss of a well-reasoned voice not only in the EU debate, but the debate over many issues dividing a trouble nation.  And one less reason for Britain's former colonial possessions here in the States to envy life in the country that gave birth to us.

No surprise, however, at the mass murder in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub.  Why should there be? Haven't their been enough slaughters of the innocents?  Haven't we seen the warped, self-serving views of gun-lovers lead to the utter lack of outrage over the sense ending of lives that often had barely begun, and in any case that didn't deserve to end violently and early?  Haven't we already turned the words "thoughts and prayers" into a national code for "Too bad, but we love guns more than we love life"?

But this is still America.  We have the right to do and be want we want, and to be left alone as long as we leave others alone.  Right?  Isn't that the assumption, at least in part, that gay bars like Pulse were built upon?  The idea that they were sanctuaries for people who, because of an orientation they did not choose, needed a place where they could be themselves and not be ashamed of that?

Well , forget all about that assumption.  The reactionary forces around the world, on either side of the pond and all around the globe, have renounced "live and let live."  Even victory isn't enough for them. They don't want victory over you.  They don't want you to exist.  The fact that you exist is somehow a rebuke to them, an affirmation of their own smallness, pettiness, greed and intolerance.  And, rather than learn from you, they'd rather destroy you.  And forget that you ever existed.

And that is why this election year may possibly be the worst time in the world to stay at home. Forget about making some sort of noble "protest" about only being able to choose "the lesser of two evils." This is not a time for smug complacency.  It is a time to fight for survival at the ballot box. Because, by the time the next election comes around, and your dream candidate is ready for you, who is to say that you'll be alive to cast a vote?

Do I sound like an alarmist?  Maybe I am.  Maybe I'm just so angry about the indifference on both sides of the political divide that does nothing but raise the body count that I can't stop thinking, writing and screaming about it.  Thank God for a handful of leaders like Chris Murphy and Susan Collins, and pray for many more like them.  And work, contribute, and vote this fall to elect many more like them.

But never forget that politics can come looking for you, whether you are in public life.  It found Jo Cox.  It found the Pulse night club.  And it may yet find you.  So prepare to meet it.

And beat it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

It's Time For Hillary's "Sister Souljah" Moment

Well, hard as it may be to believe, the primary season is finally over.  It ended the other day with the holding of the District of Columbia Democratic primary, which Hillary Clinton won handily.  We now have presumptive presidential nominees for both of the major political parties.

And yet, the drama is only beginning.

On the Republican side, it almost looks like a gift from the gods to the Democrats.  Donald Trump's inability to control his mouth, combined with his need for free media to replace the money that would ordinarily come from donors (who know better, in his case), threatens to turn November into a disastrous month for the GOP.  But they still have two things going for them.

Hillary Clinton.  And the 800 pound gorilla on her back named Bill Clinton.

A lot has been said about how "unlovable" Hillary is.  No one is ever going to accuse her of winning a personal popularity contest.  But, as President Obama once said about her, she's "likable enough."  I do not think of that as being her major problem going into the fall.  After all, her opponent is hardly likeable at all.  He's selling hate, not love.  Nor do I think corruption is her problem. Everyone in politics has had something to say about her e-mails, but, as we are now finding out, she's not the only one in the world with an e-mail problem.  Et tu, Donald?

No, her problem is that which his supposed to be her greatest asset:  her husband, the 42nd President of the United States.  The Democrat who gave away welfare and banking regulation to the Republicans, trusting that they and their donors would never dream of abusing his generosity.  The author of "third way" politics, never counting on his opponents to come up with a fourth way--impeaching him, and then taking the inches he gave them, and turning around and demanding the rest of the yard.

The '90s are long gone, long enough to have inspired their own wave of nostalgia ("Fuller House," anyone?  To say nothing of "Girl Meets World"?).  And, in the distance between then and now, the Boomers are being pushed out of the dominant space they have long occupied among American voters by Gen Xers and Millennials.  These generations have come of age without the comforts and the sense of certainty about progress that we Boomers (yes, I'm one) took for granted.  They're not sold on unvarnished capitalism.  They see capitalism as looking to sell them to the highest bidder, and damn the price for those who have been sold.

That's why the voters in those cohorts are sold on Bernie Sanders.  He speaks to them because, to borrow a phrase from Big Dog, Hillary's husband, he feels their pain.  And they feel certain that they know where their pain comes from.  It comes from Republicans, and the Democrats who love pretending that they can be "bipartisan" with Republicans.  And that's why, as far as they're concerned, "third way" is no way.

But that hasn't stopped Hillary from selling warmed-over "third way" politics, moderately adjusted for the post-Obama era.  And there's that word:  moderately.  Millennials, Gen Xers and even some Boomers (including your humble and obedient servant) don't see a world that can be saved by moderation.  It needs to be saved by action.  Government action.  Executive action.

Why?  I suspect that it's because, in the end, Hillary is a better spouse than Bill.  She doesn't want to tarnish his Administration's record, or Bill's political brand generally.  She worries that tilting in Bernie's direction would effective do that.

She should worry a lot more about becoming President.  And, whether or not you are married to a former President, if holding a job with that much power and responsibility means anything, it has to mean the willingness to go your own way.  Because it's more often than not not only the best way, but the only way.

We all know about Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah" moment, when he established his independence from African-American leaders by criticizing racial comments made by a rap artist.  Hillary needs to have her own Sister Souljah moment.  She needs to understand that, if she's elected, nobody's going to give a damn about what Bill thinks.  He had his moment.  This will be her moment.  And the country is in a much different place, one which can't benefit from breaking bread with a party that has turned into Banana Republicans.  This is a nation with the kind of problems that demand a classically liberal approach.

The best way for Hillary to have a Sister Souljah moment?  Sign on to Bernie's agenda.  Without reservation.  Without qualifications.  Without fear of seeming "too liberal."  America isn't dying from a surplus of liberalism; it's dying from a desperate lack of it.  And, if she can sign on to the whole shebang, sign on to the part about breaking up the banks.  Yes, it means repudiating part of her husband's record.  So what?  So he admits he made a mistake?  It's not like it's the first time he's had to do that.  Does he want his wife (and himself) to make history or not?

Do it, Hillary.  Show you're ready for the loneliness of power, and for a nation that needs you not simply to be the first woman in the Oval Office, but your own woman in it.