Out of Iowa

In his inaugural State of the Commonwealth address last week, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker said he could sum up his first year in office in one phrase:  “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised.”

It’s the sort of laconic, practical wisdom for which Baker has become known and liked around these parts.  (He is currently the most popular governor in the country, despite being a Republican in a sea of liberalism.)  Specifically, Baker was referring to such surprises as a massive budget deficit and the most ridiculous winter in the history of Boston.

In fact, at this moment, “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised” is possibly the most valuable advice any of us could ask for.

Why?  Because Monday is the Iowa Caucus, that’s why.

Yup.  After years of anticipation (or so it feels), we have finally made it to the official opening bell of the 2016 presidential campaign.  For all the pontificating that has occurred throughout the past year, Monday’s gathering in the Hawkeye State will be the first time actual humans cast actual votes for actual candidates.

Notwithstanding all the imperfections inherent in the caucus system—really, the whole process is nothing but imperfections—on Tuesday morning, we will have a much clearer sense of where the race stands than we do now.  And if there is one thing I can impart by way of context, it is not to be surprised when you get surprised.  Something weird is going to happen, and you might as well be prepared for it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I know what that surprise will be.  I haven’t the slightest idea who’s going to win the Iowa Caucus—or place second or third—nor do I know how those results will affect the 49 primaries and caucuses to come.

That’s not the point.  The point is:  Nobody else knows, either.

Hundreds—if not thousands—of polls have been conducted by dozens of organizations in the past year regarding the 2016 election, but the truth is that not a single person (with the possible exception of Nate Silver) can make a head or tail of what they mean.  Some pundits are dignified enough to admit it.  Most are not.

To be honest, I was all set to go into depth about the futility of presidential opinion polls, but New York Times columnist Frank Bruni beat me to the punch.  “We’re leaning harder than ever on polling precisely when that makes the least sense,” Bruni wrote last Sunday.  “We’re wallowing in polls even as they come to wildly different conclusions that should give us serious pause.”

Bruni’s best example of this (mine, too) is the fact that last week—on the exact same day—two separate surveys were released in New Hampshire showing a 3-point margin between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the first case, and a 27-point margin in the second.

Yup:  Same state, same week, same candidates, 24-point difference.

In an ideal world, that would be all we need to know about the uselessness of opinion-mongering as a predictor of who’s going to be the next president.  For Pete’s sake, if two reputable organizations can disagree that much about something that’s supposed to be so scientific, on what basis can we trust any statistic purporting to represent the views of the voting public?

The bottom line—as statisticians will tell you—is that the results of any single poll don’t mean a damn thing.  When it comes to elections, all that really matters is when a whole bunch of polls manage to agree with each other.  If one result says Sanders leads by 3 while another says he leads by 27, all we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure.  But if two—or three or four—organizations say Sanders leads by 3, well, now we’re getting somewhere.

In fact, quite often we have gotten relative consistency among the many outfits measuring the presidential race.  Indeed, the reason we all think Donald Trump truly is the GOP frontrunner is that he has placed first in just about every survey that has been taken in the past six months.  (All except four, to be precise.)  That—for better or worse—is what you call a pattern.

But patterns can be deceiving.  Just because you win the first 18 games of the season doesn’t mean you’ll win the Super Bowl, and a presidential candidate who spends an eternity as the “favorite” doesn’t necessarily win the first primary.

Surely, the 2008 election proved this once and for all.  Hillary Clinton—the Trump in that contest, as it were—spent the entirety of 2007 as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, then suddenly placed third in the Iowa Caucus, behind both Barack Obama and John Edwards.  With that, the narrative changed overnight from “Hillary has it all wrapped up” to “Obama is going all the way.”

Over the next few days, polls and pundits predicted Obama would not only prevail in the New Hampshire primary, but that it would be a rout—possibly a double-digit victory for the newbie from the South Side.

And what actually happened?  You guessed it:  Clinton won the Granite State by 2.6 points.

As a consequence of the Iowa-New Hampshire split, the nomination fight continued, state by state, until the bitter end.  Clinton did not formally concede until June 7—four days after the final votes had been cast.  By then, the entire electorate had been put through the proverbial wringer, fostering many years of bitterness between operatives of the two campaigns.

Could something like that happen in 2016?  You bet your sweet bippy it could—possibly in both parties, and definitely in the 12-person GOP.  Ask yourself:  Do Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie strike you as the sort of men who would go gently into that good night?  Does Bernie Sanders?  We know Clinton’s not going anywhere until the last dog dies, so why should we expect either of these contests to wrap up with all deliberate speed?  What, may I ask, is the hurry?

The final presidential primary is June 14.  I would be very surprised if we knew both parties’ nominees before then.  Indeed, I don’t see why the Republican race shouldn’t go all the way to the party convention in July (on the 40th anniversary of the last time such a thing occurred).

Then again, in a year in which we have come to expect the unexpected, perhaps a swift and clean primary season would be the most unexpected outcome of all.  Maybe the whole thing will be settled by Tuesday morning, leaving us to enjoy the next six months in peace.

That would certainly be a surprise.  Considering how much fun we’ve had so far, it would not necessarily be a welcome one.

Lights, Camera, Racism

For all the folks who are outraged and depressed by how thoroughly black people were ignored in this year’s Oscar nominations, there is at least one useful piece of data to keep in mind:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always ignored black people among Oscar nominees.  So, to this season’s snubbed:  Don’t worry, it’s not you.  It’s the Academy.

Yes, the near-total absence of color across the 24 categories in next month’s Academy Awards is lame, weird, troubling and shameful (really, no Samuel L. Jackson?)  However, as we take a measure of the AMPAS’s diversity problem here in 2016, we should view it in the context of the entire history of the Oscars, which—sad to say—has been utterly consistent in not recognizing great work by filmmakers who are not white.

Care for some numbers?  Of course you would.

Not counting this year, there have been 87 Oscar ceremonies to date, amounting to roughly 435 total nominations in each of the two dozen categories.  In that time, black male actors in leading roles have been nominated on a grand total of 20 occasions.  Meanwhile, leading black women have been nominated 10 times.  Among supporting performances by black men and women, the numbers are 17 and 19, respectively.  Crunching all of that together, we find that African-Americans have accounted for 3.8 percent of all acting nominations in history.  This despite the fact that black people comprise 13.2 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

(In case you were wondering, the proportion of African-American winners in the acting categories is 4.3 percent—slightly better, but not by much.  As for black representation in Oscar’s remaining 20 categories:  You don’t want to know.)

Since it’s insane to argue that black people are any less talented at acting than white people, the explanation for this discrepancy is that either a) black actors have not gotten the same opportunities as white actors, or b) Academy voters—who, themselves, are overwhelmingly white—simply don’t value performances by black actors as highly as they do those by white ones.  (That is, if they even bother to see them.)

Common sense indicates that the answer is a combination of both factors.  And if common sense isn’t sufficient, the documented history of Hollywood racism should keep you busy for quite some time.

While one might be tempted to dismiss the above as ancient history—and therefore irrelevant to the present crisis—now would be as good a time as any to summon the old Faulkner line, “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”

In fact, understanding racism in Hollywood is no different from understanding racism anywhere else.  It’s the sin that keeps on giving.  (Or taking, as it were.)

As with racism in sports, in government, in housing and on the streets, the biases in the film industry were already deeply ingrained when the art form began—possibly as a byproduct of two and a half centuries in which one race was the legal property of the other—and if there’s one thing we know for sure about institutional biases, it’s that they are a royal bitch to get rid of.

It’s the nature of large organizations to change at a glacial pace, if at all.  Once people get it into their heads that some outfit or other “looks” a certain way (read:  disproportionately white, male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), the impression becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, at which point the whole culture conspires to maintain the status quo—including those who stand to benefit from a sudden evolution in thoughts and practices.

Consider the words of Michelle Wu, the 31-year-old Taiwanese American who was just elected president of the Boston City Council.  “When I was growing up, I never imagined running for office,” said Wu in a recent interview, “And I think a big part of that was not seeing anyone who looked like me in government.  I was told all the time to consider figure skating, because Michelle Kwan was such a popular and nationally-known figure and Asian-American woman.”

There you have it:  If you think a certain organization or profession is off-limits to someone with your background or genetic makeup, you will be far less likely to ever associate with it, regardless of your actual abilities.  As a consequence, stereotypes will be reinforced and segregation will continue to rule the day.

This is not to remove one iota of blame from those who instituted white supremacy in the first place.  Rather, it is to observe how white supremacy was designed to be self-perpetuating—how the system of black disenfranchisement not only hindered the advancement of an entire class of American citizens in the present, but also created the conditions whereby racial discrimination could persist across all subsequent generations as well—even after passing laws intended to prevent such a thing from happening.

So when we ask, “Why isn’t there a single black face among the 20 Oscar nominees for acting?” we must begin with the fact that Hollywood was established as a discriminatory industry—creating the most stereotypical of black characters and hiring white actors in blackface to play them—followed by decades of studio-backed films whose black characters were either non-existent, subservient or (again) utterly and crudely one-dimensional.  Logically, this would have led to a great many promising black actors to direct their gifts elsewhere (or nowhere), further discouraging writers and directors from anticipating such talent in the first place.

For the most part, filmmakers have since forged past all of that, and black characters today—like gay characters today—are not marginalized or pigeonholed into specific types of roles (except when they are).

And yet—as both critics and actors have attested in recent days—black actors have hardly achieved equity when it comes to achieving the Hollywood dream.  If I had to settle on one culprit above all, it would be the implicit assumption among far too many members of the Academy that, deep down, they just don’t deserve it.  On the basis of the Academy’s newly-proposed remedies for its racial gap—including tougher voting standards for its older members—it would appear there is some credence to this view.  Someday maybe we’ll know for sure.

In the meantime—if we could end on a slightly optimistic note—I have one more data point to convey.

At the moment, the smart money is on Alejandro G. Iñárritu to snag the Oscar for Best Director for his arresting work on The Revenant, which would make him the first back-to-back winner in that category since 1950 (he won last year for Birdman).  As you may know, Iñárritu was born in Mexico, as was the most recent previous winner of the director prize, Alfonso Cuarón (for Gravity).  Before that, Best Director went to Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist and Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech—respectively, men born in Taiwan, France and the United Kingdom.

That’s right:  For five (and possibly six) years running, the Academy has given its award for directing—arguably the most prestigious trophy bestowed upon an individual—to someone who isn’t even from the United States.  This pompous Hollywood gang—so “pure” and old-school that it can only see white—has nonetheless summoned the imagination to repeatedly honor work helmed by foreigners—people Donald Trump would be perfectly happy to deport.  (Ang Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen, so he would be safe.)

Is this open-mindedness toward non-Americans a portent of an open-mindedness toward non-whites?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe it just means the Academy is so racist that it will scour the entire planet to avoid honoring a person of color.

In any case, it indicates that the Academy is cognizant enough to recognize that the world does not end at the corner of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, that its values represent America’s values (or so it would like to think) and that it might as well enter the 21st century at one point or another.  Sooner or later, people are going to talk.

Cruz Out of Control

Is it just me, or is Ted Cruz the most transparently cynical politician on planet Earth?

In the interest of charity, let’s say it’s just me.  After all, there are plenty of cynical people in politics, and picking out the cynical-est of them all is a bit like choosing which Oscar nominee is the most Caucasian:  In the end, why not just call it a tie?

Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, even among the most craven of presidential contenders, the junior senator from Texas is in a league all his own.  While this has been true from the moment he appeared on the scene, his steady ascension in the polls has made his abject wretchedness a matter of national concern.

Indeed, the sheer chutzpah infused in every sentence that comes out of Cruz’s mouth is a wonder to behold, as you realize we’re dealing with someone who will say and do just about anything to become the next Republican nominee—and, presumably, the next president—and who apparently has no understanding of the word “shame.”

If we wanted to be succinct about this, we could merely cite his recent Duck Dynasty-themed TV ad and call it a day.  (Seriously, how many hours were devoted to that face paint?)  Or we could revisit that time he cooked bacon by wrapping it around the muzzle of a machine gun and firing away.  (No, dear reader, that moment was not a hallucination.)

Truly, in the realm of primary season pandering, Cruz is a visionary and a prophet.  You sense that if he could win 15 more votes by skinning a live raccoon and wearing its carcass as a hat, he would do so without a moment’s pause—with a big, fat smile on his face.

Which brings us to the $1.6 billion question:  Is Ted Cruz as stupid as he looks?

Answer:  Absolutely not.  A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law and a nationally-recognized debater at both, Cruz is arguably the most intellectually formidable person in the GOP field, capable of processing complex ideas in ways that most other public figures don’t even attempt.  If you’re a Republican voter who values smarts above all else, Ted is most assuredly your man.

Herein lies the paradox and the punch line, which is that Cruz’s long-term electoral success depends almost entirely on garnering the support of idiots—folks who, at best, don’t give a rat’s ass about a fancy Ivy League education and, at worst, are openly contemptuous of those who have one.

Cruz understands as well as anybody that his only hope of winning the nomination is by pretending to be a total dunderhead, and damned if he isn’t giving it the old college try.  He is not going to let a little thing like dignity get in the way of becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

In this sense, Cruz doesn’t employ cynicism so much as he embodies it.  While the word “cynicism” has been used rather haphazardly in our public discourse over the years, it can best be defined here as purposefully saying something false in the understanding that your audience is too dumb to know the difference.

Up to now, Donald Trump’s birtherism has arguably been the gold standard on this front.  From the beginning, Trump knew perfectly well that Barack Obama was born in the United States and was constitutionally qualified to be president.  And yet, once he made the calculation (rather brilliantly, I must say) that there were enough ignorant rubes with whom he could build a base of support for his eventual foray into politics, he embraced the “Obama was secretly born in Kenya” conspiracy theory whole hog and—presto chango!—he is now the most popular Republican in U.S. politics.

Into this deranged, noxious atmosphere, Ted Cruz materialized last fall with possibly the most cynical public pose of all:  Embracing Trump as a swell guy with a lot of really good points.

Recall, if you will, that while Trump was inexplicably rising in stature with one galling, infantile comment after another, all of his GOP counterparts denounced and distanced themselves from him—except for Ted Cruz.  As Trump was called a “blowhard” by Jeb Bush and a “buffoon” by Rand Paul, Cruz all but linked arms with the Donald, insisting that the latter had his finger to the GOP winds and should not be so quickly discounted as some kind of unhinged carnival barker (thank you, Martin O’Malley).

Politically, it was a bold move for Cruz to align himself with a man with no apparent moral compass—someone willing to alienate virtually every racial and ethnic group in America as a means of taking over the GOP.  Like Trump himself, Cruz wagered that there were enough bigots and paranoids in the electorate to comprise a plurality of Republican primary voters, and that if those fine, upstanding citizens ever soured on Trump, why shouldn’t Cruz position himself as their next-best bet?

It seemed like an insane gambit at the time:  Trump was clearly a disaster waiting to happen and who in his right mind would tag along with that?

As it turned out—in a predictably unpredictable manner—Cruz’s low opinion of Republican voters proved 100 percent accurate, and he has benefitted from their credulity every step of the way.  While Trump remains as admired as ever, Cruz is in the best possible position to absorb Trump voters in the event of a flameout.  For Cruz, short of actually being in the lead, everything has gone precisely according to plan.

In the past few days, of course, all hell has broken loose as the unofficial détente between Trump and Cruz has officially come to an end.  Suddenly vulnerable, Trump has begun treating Cruz as disrespectfully as all his other rivals, while Cruz has finally—finally!—hinted as to what he really thinks about his party’s bully-in-chief.

While I haven’t the slightest idea how the average Republican primary voter is taking this drastic turn of events, I think I speak for most leftists and other non-Republicans in calling this the most entertaining clash of the entire 2016 race.  All presidential campaigning is crack to political junkies, but Trump v. Cruz is a veritable eight ball of excitement, and it’s going to produce one hell of a hangover when all is said and done.

Why is this fight different from all other fights?  Easy:  Because neither fighter has the slightest shred of integrity or self-awareness and—perhaps not coincidentally—both are born showmen and narcissists concerned with the fortunes of no one but themselves.

To wit:  When Trump was exchanging insults with, say, Jeb Bush, the tiff was implicitly a battle between lunacy and reason, with Bush assuming the mantle of the latter as an antidote to the former.

Against Cruz, the rules of engagement have managed to achieve an added level of ridiculousness, as neither man has the faintest interest in moderation, decorum or intellectual coherence.  By every known account, Ted Cruz is the most personally unpleasant member of the U.S. Senate, particularly among those in his own party.  It might seem odd that a man of such intelligence and education would be so detested by his fellow Republicans—that is, until you realize that he channels every modicum of his rhetorical gifts to advance his own selfish interests (read:  being elected president), often in the most heavy-handed and theatrical way possible.

Indeed, we can’t know whether Cruz means a word of what he says, because—much like Trump—every syllable is uttered entirely for effect, without regard for the consequences of turning those words into actions.

Lately, for instance, Cruz has mused about “carpet bomb[ing] ISIS into oblivion,” partly to find out “if sand can glow in the dark.”  While we have all expressed such sentiments about how we would personally handle terrorism—typically in a college dorm at 4 o’clock in the morning after 10 or 12 drinks—to hear a sober grown-up say them in the middle of the afternoon—well, it’s a bit like those closet cases who are little too effusive about how much they love women.  There is a whiff of phoniness and overcompensation in the air.

Except that doesn’t matter with Cruz, because his target audience is precisely the sort of gang that eats that stuff up and thinks all problems can be solved with apocalyptic violence.  Since Trump’s attitude on this is virtually identical to Cruz’s (on ISIS:  “I would bomb the shit out of them”), their matchup is destined to be the most childish, petty and substance-free contest in memory, and there may not be enough popcorn to get us through it.  (At least not after we leave Iowa.)

It was Andrew Sullivan in 2009 who said the Republican Party would get worse before it gets better, but I think even he didn’t foresee just how completely the GOP would disintegrate into nihilism and self-parody.  How even its highest-achieving thinkers would appeal to the lowest common denominator.

At that point, you’ll recall, Sarah Palin was the party’s great shining star—an ideological demagogue who, on the basis of her syntax, was every bit as dumb as she appeared.  How interesting, then, that the current war for the nomination is between two demagogues who, by their backgrounds, are perfectly capable of enlightened, serious leadership but, because of what their party has become, have no plausible route to success except through cynicism and bombast.

Fasten your seatbelts, citizens.  It’s gonna be a bumpy year.

American on Purpose

Should Ted Cruz be elected president?  Heaven forbid.

But should he be permitted to run?  Sure, why not?

Now that we have successfully reached the year 2016, it is a moral certainty that we will be subjected to a Big Fat Political Controversy at least once a week between now and November 8.  This week, the issue happens to be whether Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, is constitutionally eligible to assume the highest office in the land.

As perhaps you’ve heard, Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta in 1970.  At the time, his father was a Canadian citizen by way of Cuba, while his mother was an American by way of Delaware.  The family moved to Texas when Ted was four, and he has lived there ever since.

The question:  Is that good enough to satisfy the requirement that the president be a “natural born citizen” of the United States?

As far as I’m concerned, yes, it does.  Case closed.

In general, of course, one’s personal opinion about a constitutional matter is as worthless as one’s opinion about global warming.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson would say, certain things are true whether you believe them or not.

However, this particular issue is not one of those things.  In establishing qualifications for the presidency, our founding fathers didn’t bother outlining what a “natural born citizen” actually is, effectively leaving their descendents—we, the people—to figure it out for themselves.

In point of fact, should Cruz become the GOP standard-bearer later this year, he would be the first nominee of either major party born outside the United States and its territory, meaning there is no direct precedent for him in our 227-year history of presidential elections.

As for indirect precedents, there are two:  The GOP’s 2008 candidate, John McCain, was born on a naval base near the Panama Canal, while the party’s 1964 candidate, Barry Goldwater, was born in Arizona before it officially became a state.  Although there was some controversy as to whether either of those circumstances fit the bill, lawyers and scholars ultimately decided in the affirmative, concluding that the spirit of the Constitution is surely broad enough to encompass those who—as any reasonable person would surmise—are of American descent and loyal to no country other than the United States.

To my thinking, that is the overriding principle to bear in mind:  Do the circumstances of a person’s birth and upbringing make it plain that he or she is a true blue American, not beholden to the whims and values of any other nation?

Call me crazy, but I would wager that anyone who has lived continuously in the United States since he was four and is currently serving as a U.S. senator is, for all intents and purposes, about as American as one can get.

If pressed, however, I might suggest a scenario that would make Cruz even more of an American:  That is, if he had lived in a foreign country until, say, age 40 (instead of four) and then moved to Texas and run for the U.S. Senate.

While generalizing about large groups of people is almost always a mistake, personal experience has taught me that the most patriotic Americans of all are immigrants—those who live in the United States by choice, not by accident.  The folks who are born somewhere else and, at one point or another, say to themselves, “You know what?  I think I’d like to live in America, instead.”

Those of us who were born in the U.S.A. rarely appreciate how lucky we are—how we get to reside in the greatest, freest, awesomest place in the universe without so much as filling out a form or passing a test.  How the mere fact of our parentage carries more sway than our knowledge of history, our level of civic engagement or our moral fiber.

Immigrants don’t have it so easy.  Not even close.  President Trump or not, to become a naturalized citizen, you have to work.  And work and work and wait and work and wait some more.

How arduous is the naturalization process, you ask?  Well, it took roughly two years for Christopher Hitchens to formally transition from a Briton to an American—and he was a prolific author and journalist who had lived in Washington, D.C., for more than a quarter-century prior to applying for citizenship.  One can easily imagine (or look up) the obstacles for someone who doesn’t have a publishing house and a fan following to vouch for his worthiness—not to mention someone who doesn’t speak English or who comes from a politically dodgy part of the world.

On the whole, naturalized citizens are more inherently patriotic than the “natural born” because the former truly have to mean it just to get in the front door, whereas the latter get their citizenship for free, no questions asked and regardless of merit or any other factor.  And American citizenship, once secured, is very nearly impossible to lose, which begs the question of why those who receive it automatically are given first priority when it comes to running for commander-in-chief.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Shouldn’t it be we natives who must somehow prove ourselves as Real Americans?  We are constantly reminded of how pathetic native born citizens fare on the basic civics test that immigrants are required to pass.  (Quick:  Which constitutional amendment guarantees the right to a fair trial?)  Is it too much to ask that our presidential candidates know at least as much about the American way of life as, say, a lowly transplant from Uganda?

The supposed dangers of electing a foreigner to the nation’s highest office—however sensible in 1787—are fairly laughable in today’s world.  The idea that a “usurper” (that wonderful 18th century term) could successfully burrow into American society and destroy it from within—or simply curry favor with his or her country of birth—seems a bit far-fetched in a 21st century American culture that pokes into every last detail of a candidate’s past before allowing him or her within 100 miles of the Oval Office.  For Pete’s sake, Barack Obama is still subject to paranoia about his loyalties and intentions and he was born in the United States.

Are we really about to elect a bona fide Manchurian Candidate without anyone anywhere realizing it?  Far be it from me to overestimate the intelligence of the American public, but I think this just might be something we could handle.  Besides, if we couldn’t, would this really be a country worth saving?

As it stands, by maintaining the “natural born citizen” clause of the Constitution, we are every year denying the chance for millions of people to become the next great leader of the free world, for no reason except that their parents happened not to live in the U.S. (or be citizens thereof) at the time of their birth.  In such an interconnected world as this, that seems like a rather paltry rationale for dividing Americans into the worthy and the unworthy.

We should get rid of this rule once and for all.  In the meantime, let’s leave Ted Cruz alone.