Thursday, September 29, 2016

Jesus Christ, Political Protester

I recall my shock the day I realized Jesus Christ was an organized political protester. That Sunday’s lectionary was Luke 13:10-17, “Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman on the Sabbath.” Telling a woman “who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years” to stand up and be healed, Jesus earned the synagogue leaders wrath and judgement. But, Scripture assures us, “the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing” (verse 17 NIV).

That Sunday, while the white male preacher droned endlessly about moral rectitude, I re-read the lectionary and realized something: Jesus was already teaching in the synagogue when this challenge began. An observant Jew in sufficiently good standing to honor ancient rituals, there was no way Jesus couldn’t anticipate the leaders’ negative reaction to his sabbath-breaking. This left only two options. Either Jesus didn’t care how those old linen-clad fudds responded… or he deliberately provoked them.

This moment of shocking revelation recurred recently during the protests over professional athletes, mostly African-American, kneeling in protest during the National Anthem. I’ve repeatedly posted links and comments praising this action, on both moral and First Amendment grounds, on social media. Though I wonder whether I’d join this nonviolent protest (some days yes, some days…), I support these athletes’ willingness to kneel on principle. This inevitably attracts similar responses from my more conservative-leaning friends online.

Their response usually goes something like this: “Protesting is easy. Anybody can do that. It takes real initiative to teach children, pray with the hungry, use your privilege to inspire children.” It’s often much wordier (one ran over two paragraphs of tiny smartphone type), but that’s the heart, that rather than protesting publicly, athletes should spend their influence doing small acts of private righteousness. And my friends aren’t wrong. Those are worthy ways to act.

But it’s a deflection. By throwing out a list of possible small, direct actions that lack public panache, my friends intend to change the conversation. The debate isn’t about whether feeding the hungry or clothing the naked are worthy things to do. The debate is about whether athletes should be compelled, by their public standing, to participate in the rituals of civic deism. Can we force anyone to stand for the anthem? Is patriotism mandatory?

In other words, can we privilege the rituals of righteousness above doing right? Violence against Black Americans, much performed under color of state authority, probably isn’t on the rise currently. However, it has become considerably more visible recently. This visibility gives us an opportunity to correct systematic injustices in American society, but it also encourages people comfortable with the status quo to dig in. Under these conditions, can we require anybody to enact civic rituals?

In Jesus’ time, synagogue meetings were probably the only time the entire agrarian community gathered in one place. By enacting the rituals of Judaism, they reinforced their shared ethnic identity under conditions of military occupation. The community certainly knew this woman’s health conditions. Jesus probably knew them before attending services. He chose the synagogue as the place to heal her within her assembled community, an act more righteous in that moment than observing Levitical law.

Sporting events serve that function today. Where I live, Nebraska Cornhusker games bring communities together, waving the same flag and singing the same tunes, across religious, political, and ethnic lines. People gather in homes and watering holes to rejoice together, singing songs and chanting favorite lines, the closest most Nebraskans ever come to a synagogue meeting or pre-Reformation village church service. Even Nebraskans living out-of-state participate in Husker rituals—witness my friends in New Mexico:

This makes Husker games the perfect place to protest injustice. Just as Jesus challenged the synagogue leaders’ complacency in their own house, Nebraska players taking the knee challenge state elected officials. And they manage to piss off officials just as Jesus angered the Pharisees. And though the Evangelist only mentions the synagogue leaders’ anger, we can imagine other Jews probably resented having their sacred rituals disturbed. We can imagine people saying: “Jesus, protesting is easy.”

But Luke insists “the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.” Maybe this means his healing the sick. But it probably also means his direct challenges to authority, especially religious authority that counseled not challenging the unjust state. These football players aren’t messianic, but they’re arguably prophetic, refusing to countenance injustice. And they’re doing it in our society’s most sacred confines. I believe these athletes’ prophetic message has only just begun.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Get Off Jimmy Fallon's Back, People!

I think we can agree this was pretty damn bad journalism. But still...
I’m legitimately frustrated and appalled by the editorial dogpile on Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, following his softball interview with Donald Trump last week. From bastions of investigative long-form journalism, like The Atlantic and The New Yorker (or, more accurately, their websites) to spot outrage voiceboxes like Slate and HuffPo, and even fellow comic Samantha Bee, the mass pile-on has been pretty vociferous. It’s also been flat damn wrong.

Yes, I agree, Fallon missed a wonderful opportunity to hold Donald Trump’s feet to the fire. His emphasis on personality qualities like The Donald’s ridiculous comb-over, which Fallon now-famously ruffled, showed a lack of ambition from an interviewer. Compared to NBC stablemate Seth Myers, who dedicated ten minutes to calling Trump a liar and telling him “Fuck you, exclamation point!”, Fallon looked like a cheerleader fumbling her homecoming date.

But we’re witnessing a bevy of legitimate journalists dogpiling a comedian for failing to do their job. For over a year now, we’ve seen journalists failing to take Donald Trump seriously. From lowballing his electoral chances in 2015, to belittling his voting base this spring, to playing he-said-she-said games all summer, journalists have overlooked numerous opportunities to puncture his pretensions. Now they’re angry a comedian isn’t doing their job.

The problem isn’t the vapid content. The problem is the expectations laid upon Fallon. Remember, his show airs at 11:35 Eastern, when healthy people have hit the hay. His audience consists heavily of unemployed people, college students, and white boys getting stoned and binging on Mrs. Fields—hardly a robust voting bloc. Though late-night hosts historically lean left, their audience overwhelmingly leans apathetic, and don’t want incisive issues.

American journalists have gone to remarkable lengths to accommodate Trump’s bizarre, content-free campaign style. They’ve broken to live coverage of frankly banal stump speeches which add nothing to the discussion. They’ve ignored his frequent disregard for basic political ethics, like using his “charitable” foundation to grease legal wheels while redirecting non-profit donations, um, somewhere. They’ve let him literally phone in Sunday morning political interviews from his living room.

Meanwhile, these same journalists have niggled Hillary Clinton’s fake scandals until, through sheer repetition, they appear legitimate. When Matt Lauer had Clinton’s ear for thirty minutes for an interview supposedly about national security, he dedicated over half his time to the e-mail quasi-scandal. This despite the fact that FBI director James Comey has admitted that, out of thirty thousand e-mails on Secretary Clinton’s server, the questionable content numbers fully two.

So yes, there’s a problem with how journalists handle Trump. Admittedly, it’s a difficult to address this imbalance directly. In the same interview, Lauer attempted to discuss substantive matter with Trump, who answered almost every question with the same stock banalities about “making America great again” and assertions of “believe me, believe me.” Asking Trump questions is somewhat like conversing with a kitten. Every query has the same high-pitched answer.

But that’s no damn excuse. If Lauer, and interviewers like him, have difficulty getting the Republican nominee to say anything, they need to pin him onto those banalities. They need to expose him for vacuous. In essence, Clinton is being pilloried because she actually speaks sentences with nouns, because her discourse has serious content. They’re conveying the message that they’ll give candidates free passes if they avoid saying anything.

I’m no Clinton partisan here, folks. I have serious problems with her, or more accurately, I have serious problems with her husband’s legacy. Can we seriously expect her to knee-jerk repeal policies her husband ratified, campaigned for, sometimes even campaigned on, like mandatory minimum sentences and submarining national poverty protections? But the media (which her husband deregulated in 1996) keeps avoiding these questions, like they avoid Trumps fake policies.

We’re witnessing a season where rabid voter bases have nominated a game-show host for the Republicans, and nearly nominated a Democratic candidate who literally joined the party the day before he sought to lead it. And journalists have avoided asking policy-based questions, cross-examining the candidates, or calling their bullshit. Basically they’ve wanted to ignore Trump while replaying the made-up Clinton controversies previously mercy-killed around 1996.

Faced with this basic failure of journalistic integrity, these same journalists wolfpack a comedian for failing to do their job. Please note, they’re still basically avoiding the candidate himself. Editorialists will criticize Matt Lauer or Jimmy Fallon for failing to ask good questions. But they still do everything possible to avoid reprimanding Trump for failing to provide good answers. And the band played on.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Peace, Love, and Employment

Steven R. Koltai with Matthew Muspratt, Peace Through Entrepreneurship: Investing in a Startup Culture for Security and Development

You hear so many theories why America and the EU have stable, democratic societies where sign-waving is the most virulent protest you’ll ever encounter. Why are these nations relatively peaceful, while poor nations worldwide incubate violence and terrorism? Perhaps the answer lies not in ethnicity or religion, but in poverty. People who die for their causes may not see a future, and that grim vision may reflect plain old unemployment.

Steven Koltai was a serial entrepreneur and sometime angel investor, before attempting to translate his experience to public service. His sojourn at the State Department taught him about global development ideals, but also taught him why a government procurement system optimized for military purposes doesn’t do humanitarian goals very well. Now a Brookings scholar, Koltai has a proposal for cultivating world peace through home-grown entrepreneurship and jobs.

Traditional American economics, which we’ve tried to export, currently involves cash transfusions to the desperately poor, beside low taxes on the “job creating” rich. But that demonstrably hasn’t worked, here or abroad. Koltai musters generous evidence that startup economics, not coddling the already rich, will create more jobs in desperately poor nations: “In the United States the youngest firms, not our established corporations, account for nearly all net job growth.”

Some might immediately object that getting into the startup business will mean American government picking global economic winners. Not so, Koltai insists: America should instead partner with local governments, companies, and non-profits to cultivate an entrepreneurship “ecosystem” that fosters initiative while creating jobs. America can’t decide which private companies should succeed, but it can, and sometimes has, helped global partners construct startup-friendly cultures.

Steven R. Koltai
Besides his own experience, Koltai bases his positions on others’ theoretical and experimental data. Many European nations, despite not having America’s historic entrepreneurship culture, have invested in global entrepreneurship ventures, to great success. And Koltai quotes liberally from Peruvian revisionist economist Hernando de Soto, whom I’ll be investigating further. He makes the case that transnational prosperity rests on cultural, not monetary, grounds.

Koltai cites nations like Ghana, Rwanda, and Chile, historically poor nations that have recently invested in cultivating local entrepreneurship. Though it's too soon to call these nations rich, all have jumped in international business rankings, attracting valuable global investments. None are dirt-poor anymore, and the more entrepreneurs they have, the more they get. Their investments aren't expensive; money isn't even necessarily a high priority. The culture quickly becoming self-sustaining.

America is uniquely positioned to cultivate worldwide startup economies, as Koltai writes: “America today is revered as the land of entrepreneurship, not just the land of opportunity.” Global entrepreneurs already aspire to open branch offices in Manhattan and Palo Alto. And American leaders have already expressed interest in fostering entrepreneurship. Koltai worked in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and praises President Obama’s economic rhetoric—while admitting actions often fall short.

The bureaucracy Koltai encountered at State was badly outdated, resistant to top-level changes, and central to a public-private “old boy network.” Therefore, the changes Koltai proposes don’t just involve policy initiatives; he says we already have that. Instead, America needs a non-political procurement apparatus more responsive to small entrepreneurs and today’s rapid innovation culture. He proposes his “Six + Six” approach, to identify, empower, and cultivate both entrepreneurs and culture.

Koltai’s proposed solutions resemble neither libertarian capitalism nor command socialism. Instead, he presents a third-way structure broadly consonant with Distributism, an economic model based on independent operators owning their own tools. Koltai avoids using this term, as he avoids blatantly taking partisan sides throughout. But his proposals will require all conventional “isms” to re-evaluate their existing propositions. Global economic culture is constantly changing. Our humanitarian goals outweigh our party loyalties.

Nor is Koltai na├»ve. He recognizes that simply creating startup companies won’t solve everything overnight. While he writes that new companies create more jobs during their first five years than the rest of their operating lives, he also admits those are the years when most companies fail. “Still,” he writes, “more seedlings, more trees.” Creating a startup culture isn’t about nurturing individual companies; it’s about a culture receptive to risk-taking and invention.

Koltai proposes nothing short of a revolution in American foreign relations. Rather than sending drones to bomb terrorists, we should intercede before they become terrorists, diverting them into constructive enterprises. This means jobs. Over half of captured terrorists admit they felt desperate not from religious or ethnic tensions, but from unemployment. By creating global cultures that employ youth locally, we create a world economically inclined toward creativity and peace.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Plato's Little Book About Everything

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 73
Plato, Meno

Sometime early in his career, with his reputation building but his ideas not fully formed, Socrates, the great questioner, sat to dinner with the prominent Athenian Anytus and his guest, Meno. As happened whenever Socrates sat down, talk turned to higher subjects. Meno, a student of Socrates’ rival Gorgias, saw an opportunity to score points against a foe. So he channeled the conversation toward a hotly contested question: it is possible to teach students virtue?

Though this dialog, slim and plainspoken enough for non-philosophers to savvy in one sitting, represents an early development of Socrates’ thinking, and is often taught first in liberal arts curricula, Plato actually wrote it around the midpoint of his career. Thus it probably doesn’t reflect a conversation that actually took place. However, its use of real Athenian personalities probably indicates Socrates had this type of debate several times; therefore, it likely reflects Socrates’ actual ideas.

Pinned on the question of teaching virtue, Socrates follows his usual approach of answering the unasked question. Here Meno has left two questions unasked: what is virtue? And what is learning? The disputants tentatively define virtue as knowledge, a not uncommon belief in times when traditional religious definitions were in retreat. But the process of acquiring knowledge, they find more controversial. Indeed, learning becomes so abstract that they finish by abandoning their definition of virtue.

Plato and Aristotle, depicted by Raphael
Readers intimidated by longer Platonic dialogs, like Republic or Symposium, may find this a more amenable way of comprehending the foundations of Western philosophy. In most English translations, Meno barely runs forty-five pages, and largely avoids grandiloquent monologs. Perhaps Plato wanted the equivalent of a first-semester introduction for his students at the Academy of Athens. This book certainly fits the bill, and several Great Books colleges, like St. John’s and Notre Dame, begin with Meno.

Socrates considers knowledge something incorporeal, a transmission of the soul. We don’t learn things new, he says; we simply remember truths our spirits understood before our births. (Plato contradicts this in later dialogs, but he always values questions higher than answers.) Thus Socrates enlists Anytus’ boy slave to prove we already know everything important. In one of Plato’s most remarkable exchanges, Socrates, without having to explain almost anything, proves an untutored boy already understands geometry.

This discussion of philosophical precepts gets very abstract and mystical. Western philosophy actually began, among Pre-Socratics, as an attempt to understand reality without recourse to gods. Thales of Miletus believed reality was entirely physical. Pythagoras of Samos thought reality was mathematical. But Socrates found mechanical explanations too small for human motivations, and sought an emergent truth antedating man. His reliance on the clouds of glory Wordsworth says we trail was pathbreaking, but remains controversial today.

Meno, a general of the Thessalonian army, has the distinction of being, like Socrates, one of the few characters mentioned by both Plato and his contemporary Xenophon. Therefore, most scholars agree that Meno (or Menon) must have been an authentically historical figure. The ambitious Meno climbed high, and fell fast. The question, then, becomes: how much of his speech in this dialog can we consider authentically his? That’s a question we may never satisfactorily answer.

Both Meno and his host Anytus were generals of the Athenian-led alliance that fought the Peloponnesian war. Moreover, Plato’s own audience would’ve recognized Anytus’ name immediately. Both Plato and Xenophon name Anytus as Socrates’ accuser in the trial that cost his life. Like Judas, Anytus was apparently the master’s ally before becoming his enemy. We see the rift beginning in this dialog, when Socrates gently mocks Meno’s political strivings and sexual license. Anytus isn’t amused.

By the conclusion, as common in Plato’s dialogs, the motivating question remains unanswered. The teaching of virtue, as important a concept in democratic societies today as in ancient Athens, seems less clear than when we started. However, in the best philosophical tradition, we maybe finish up more confused, but we’re confused at a higher level of inquiry. We better understand what we don’t know, and why finding out matters. We’re prepared to keep asking questions.

Like most works from its era, Meno exists in multiple modern translations. College philosophy courses often favor GMA Grube’s translation, since it pirouettes between high-flown mystical discourse and Socrates’ famous earthy humor with ease. However, for self-guided students, Grube’s academic detachment may not be enough. I like the Focus Philosophical Library edition, because in addition to its plain-English prose style, it includes almost twenty pages of notes, the most thorough and useful annotation I’ve found.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Excellence Market

Sociologist Duncan J. Watts, in his book Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer), does something economists once agreed was impossible: he recreates the free market under laboratory conditions. Watts, a lead researcher for Microsoft Research, uses a little-known Amazon service, the Mechanical Turk, to reproduce the music market in exact detail six times. This tests whether markets really reward the best competitors in each field.

Watts describes how he recreates the market under blind conditions. Members of each music market had no communication with users in other markets. They had limited resources to purchase a selection of download files from independent and unsigned artists, mimicking real-world market scarcity. And because the Mechanical Turk service pays participants pennies per momentary service provided, it was cost-effective to recruit thousands of participants, recreating realistic market scale.

This experiment produced, according to Watts, six very different market outcomes. No two music markets produced equal hit parades. Watts writes that “the very best songs never did terribly, while the very worst songs never actually won.” Nevertheless, a song that tanked on five charts could do modestly well (without ever overwhelming anybody) on the sixth. The marked inconsistency of outcomes provides an important challenge to received market economics.

(I should note that, though Watts describes this experiment in his book, he did not perform the experiment solo. The original research outcomes, published in Science magazine in early 2011, were co-authored by Matthew J. Salganik and Peter Sheridan Dodds, both of Columbia University. Unfortunately, in experimental science as elsewhere in culture, an idea’s spokesperson often receives more credit than that idea’s originator.)

Duncan J. Watts
Basically, Watts demonstrates that market outcomes aren’t a function solely of merit. Songs didn’t succeed exclusively because they were good. Though lousy songs, as determined by consistent chart performance, never received more than a muted reception, and usually failed, hit status didn’t automatically accrue to good music. To put it another way, if you suck, you’ll probably fail, but if you’re awesome, success is contingent, and never guaranteed.

For long-term outcomes, the principal outcome modifier apparently wasn’t individual merit, but word-of-mouth scuttlebutt. In markets where participants communicated openly, sales would initially travel among people sharing their stories. Later, when songs moved enough units to chart, that measurable success produced even more success: people wanted to hear what they believed their friends and peers were hearing. First friends wanted to share experiences, then success came to justify more success.

This was echoed in market conditions where participants didn’t communicate. Where people didn’t know what peers and friends already liked, they didn’t feel compelled to spend scarce resources on music they didn’t know. They tended to reproduce their individual comfort zones branching out little. They spent less money, enjoyed what they had, but also felt disconnected from the market. Charts, under these conditions, tended to fizzle rather than soar.

We should stress here that Watts et al. didn’t reproduce an exact real-world analog here. We can use his example to speculate informedly on runaway successes, from Justin Bieber to Coca-Cola to Donald Trump. However, we cannot rerun real-world markets under laboratory conditions, controlling for just one variable. In the non-laboratory world, events simply happen, and we can at best conjecture. Watts’ results let us, at best, improve our spitballing.

Within that stipulation, though, we see something important happening. People who communicate about the things they love, about art or food or politics, show a clustering tendency. Political candidates who create something for voters to talk about, like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, naturally create buzz, and therefore following. Candidates who talk policy, like Martin O’Malley or Jim Gilmore, fizzle quickly and vanish, because nobody talks about them.

Just as important, discussion drives outcome—and outcome drives discussion. Committed players who talk good games dominate social consequences. And players who talk poorly, but can purchase their way into discussions (see Citizens United), can also dominate outcomes. That’s why music companies buy saturation advertizing for mediocre artists. It’s also why artists, politicians, and manufacturers who tell us what we already think we know, succeed even when they’re boring.

This also raises an important question: what ideas does our talk advance? Are we building up discussions that improve our shared outcomes? Simply tearing down what we oppose actually reinforces what we oppose, because it keeps these undesirable outcomes centered in our discussion. The “Lesser of Two Evils” approach rewards evil. Because in the marketplace of ideas, mere merit isn’t good enough. Real-world success is more nuanced than that.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Notes Toward a New Iranian Cold War

Jay Solomon, The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East

I had a grim suspicion I’d dislike this book in Chapter One, when author Jay Solomon describes visiting Iran’s Holy Defense Museum. He describes a display of cars, in which Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, putatively by Mossad, as “chilling,” “ghostly,” and “grisly.” As though memorializing the dead were morally offensive. The images he describes sound less awful than a typical Catholic crucifix, but they’re Iranian, so...

Solomon’s official press biography identifies him as “chief foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.” Reading this patchwork of innuendo, weasel words, and lies of omission, one wonders what back-of-the-matchbook journalism school Solomon attended. I’d expect rigorous, fact-checked evidence from somebody of Solomon’s standing. Yet I uncovered numerous half-truths, dissimulations, and prevarications by double-checking his claims on my smartphone. He barely even tries to conceal his equivocations.

For instance: very early, Solomon pitches Iran’s military ambitions, capabilities, and size in grim apocalyptic terms. He specifically sells the Qods Force, Iran’s special forces. He never mentions that, despite having six times the Navy SEALs’ manpower, they’ve never won long-term extraterritorial battles against state-based enemies. Iran’s biggest international conflict, the Iran-Iraq War, sputtered to a draw after eight years. Jane’s Defense Group notes one-party states seldom win overseas conflicts.

Or, Solomon says Iran’s religious dictatorship explicitly hates American capitalism. He never mentions why. This elides that American agents, prompted by global petroleum interests, overthrew a secular, democratically elected Iranian government in 1953. Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh had previously chased the Shah into exile; Americans reversed this. Sure, that was over sixty years ago, and America publicly regrets this now. But religious demagogues keep this memory alive.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaking to Iranian diplomats
in Vienna earlier this year (State Department photo)
Finally, Solomon writes that Ronald Reagan “concocted a plan to ship missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. … The scheme became known as the Iran-contra scandal and nearly led to the impeachment of President Reagan.” Anyone old enough to remember the televised Congressional hearings knows that’s half the truth: Reagan’s Israeli allies urged hostage releases merely to sweeten the deal.

President Reagan commenced unauthorized diplomatic negotiations with a state enemy, Iran, sold them weapons for money, and shipped the proceeds to anti-Communist contra rebels in Nicaragua. Congress had expressly forbidden supporting the contras, accused of crimes against humanity. Reagan faced impeachment for circumventing Constitutional checks. Only Ollie North eating the blame saved Reagan from becoming another Richard Nixon, and Reagan redeemed his image only through years of PR campaigning.

We can debate whether Iran has proven itself an international bad actor. I believe it has, but for reasons other than Jay Solomon claims. Informed readers will notice multiple occasions where Solomon tells half the story, based on incomplete, spun, or sometimes largely fabricated evidence. This reads less like journalism, more like a book-length op-ed praising Cold War. My problems come across most acutely when Solomon actively belittles diplomacy.

Though Solomon concedes early that the Obama Administration’s diplomatic efforts probably averted war in 2013, he disparages diplomacy’s long-term efficacy. He notes that the administration’s concessions, particularly its economic compromises, are permanent, while Iran’s concessions on development and inspections have a ten-year sundown provision. Solomon would prefer, um, something. He’s vague on what he’d rather, but explicitly regards diplomacy as the art of giving bad guys what they want.

Former FBI lead international hostage negotiator Chris Voss writes that people who swagger into negotiations, making demands and talking tough, often feel morally vindicated, and look good on camera. They seldom get what they want, though. People who listen sincerely, make strategic horse-trades, and remain amenable to change—people who, in short, practice diplomacy—more often come out ahead. Would America rather act tough, or successfully defend its interests?

Because, seriously, that’s the dichotomy Jay Solomon offers. He chastises the Obama Administration for reversing nearly forty years of policy practice, saying a serious America doesn’t negotiate, it demands. But two generations of high-handed demands have permitted Iran’s leadership to retrench itself while, not coincidentally, black marketeers have enriched themselves circumventing America’s economic sanctions. This book’s thesis is, essentially, let’s double down on policies that demonstrably don’t work.

I tried remaining fair-minded. In drafting this review, I tried saying: Stripped of Solomon’s editorializing, this book might make an informative primer on American-Iranian diplomatic history. But I can’t even say that, because Solomon omits just enough information to frustrate informed readers, and mislead uninformed. By misinforming his readers and fanning flames, Solomon goes beyond mere disservice to the facts. I believe this book actively encourages nationalistic unawareness.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Rabbi of the Wild Frontier

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 12
Robert Aldrich (director), The Frisco Kid

Rabbi Avram Belinski has no business travelling abroad. Having recently finished rabbinical school in Poland (with great difficulty), his superiors have shipped him to America to bury him. But he takes his mission seriously, to help found San Francisco’s first Orthodox synagogue. When the road across America proves perilous, he falls in with Tommy Lillard, a bank robber and relic of the fading Wild West. This mismatched pair learns they need each other to survive.

Critics pooh-poohed this movie upon its 1979 release, dismissing it as harmless, unkempt vehicle for its star, Gene Wilder. Already in his middle forties, Wilder made an unusually aged rabbinical graduate, though the culture clash aspect of his performance, so different from his saddle-weary Blazing Saddles character, received praise. Breakout star Harrison Ford, as Lillard, went largely unremarked at the time. However, it marks a pivotal moment in America’s relationship with its own frontier history.

Rabbi Belinski arrives in Philadelphia laden with ample baggage: ritual garments, traditional temple silver, and a hand-transcribed Torah. Within minutes, though, he finds himself robbed of everything except his precious scroll, beaten senseless and dumped roadside in his long underwear. In the classic Western tradition, he loses everything. Pennsylvania’s storied Amish community nurses him back to health, Belinski’s first encounter with distinctly American culture. Remember, this predates Ford’s star-making turn in Witness by six years!

Losing one’s baggage, literal or metaphorical, looms large in Western literature. Owen Wister’s genre-defining classic The Virginian begins with his nameless hero losing his Back East luggage. The West, in American mythology, strips newcomers of their urban, “feminizing” affectations, making everyone equal. The American West defines us by where we’re headed, not where we come from or what we bring with us. Though reality doesn’t always follow this myth, the story remains important to Americans.

Gene Wilder (left) and Harrison Ford in The Frisco Kid
Having made his recovery, but lost his resources, Rabbi Belinski must work his way across America; he quickly finds employment laying railroad track, a job for which he’s supremely unsuited. (As the established star in 1979, Wilder, as Belinski, gets greater screen time than Ford, especially in early scenes. More recent releases, since Ford became a bankable star and Wilder eased toward retirement, have foregrounded Ford’s unshaven cowboy. Realize in advance, this is slightly inaccurate.)

Ford, as Tommy Lillard, makes his living robbing trains. Superficially, he’s good at his job, cutting a dashing image on rearing horseback. But his hauls are embarrassingly small, and he lives out of his saddlebags, largely spending each day’s spoils that night. His journey frequently overlaps Belinski’s for some time before they actually meet; each inadvertently keeps covering the other’s lapses. Even before they join up, these men plainly complement each other’s respective, profound weaknesses.

Once they meet, Belinski and Lillard struggle to handle one another’s culture. Like countless white settlers before him, Belinski must learn that Eastern urban mannerisms don’t belong out West; he must make bold stands, spit tobacco, and occasionally fight for his beliefs. Lillard, meanwhile, faces a frontier rapidly approaching its close. He must learn culture and build connections with others, because soon enough, his rootless, rapacious lifestyle will have no place in America’s New West.

All this message gets bundled through raucous screwball comedy. Though somebody else plays the Decaying Cowboy role, the story nevertheless presents another angle on the character type Wilder immortalized in Blazing Saddles. Its similar “buddy drama” quality, inverted for laughs, also unpacks characters by showcasing their weaknesses. But it expands upon Blazing Saddles by being even more fiercely Jewish than even Mel Brooks would dare. The motley product is alternately hilarious, pious, humane, and touching.

Almost by definition, the Frontier means occupying an eternal present, where past heritage and future aspirations vanish into savage Mountain Man fantasies. But being Jewish means keeping ancient traditions alive, despite society’s advancing demands. And being American means embracing the continent’s diverse influences: Belinski and Lillard quickly find themselves indebted to various Christian and Native American communities. These two men find themselves changed by each other. But they’re also changed simply by being in America.

That, ultimately, is this movie’s binding theme: that being who you are isn’t good enough, you must also be who you’re becoming. Individually, these characters are unprepared for the changes history forces upon them. Together, they have the ability to grow. Each encourages the other, pushes through the other’s weakness, and brings out the other’s most hilarious potential. Like Blazing Saddles, there’s a serious message here. We just needed a ludicrous comedy to find it.