From the Inside Out

Last September, the New York Times published an op-ed, titled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”  Its author, described by the Times as “a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us,” opted to withhold his or her name and job title from readers, for what could only be described as obvious reasons.

This mysterious official, describing him or herself as a conservative who “want[s] the administration to succeed and think[s] that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous,” went on to describe a White House in which “the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” while insisting that “many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

Naturally, the column caused a sensation in the days following its publication, sending the White House into a white-hot panic and inducing every pundit in Washington, D.C., and on Twitter to breathlessly speculate on who the unnamed official could possibly be.

Eleven months after the fact, we still do not know the answer to that question.  Nor, so far as we can tell, does anyone in the Trump White House—a place, we might add, where the person in question may well still be working today.

Considering that we live with a media-political-industrial complex that generally leaks like a sieve and cannot keep a secret to save its life, it’s worth noting just how remarkable it is that this particular secret has been faithfully maintained for all this time.  As we sit here, the identity of the author of this explosive missive remains a mystery to all but a small handful of people, none of whom has spilled the beans—not even to the Times’ own reporters.  (The paper’s news and editorial pages are functionally separate entities.)

While I hadn’t paid much thought to this ongoing whodunit for quite some time, it all returned to me last week upon the resignation of Jon Huntsman, Jr., as U.S. ambassador to Russia—a position he has held since October 2017.

Huntsman, 59, is an interesting character in the American political milieu, having previously served as America’s chief diplomat in Singapore in the early 1990s under George H.W. Bush, and later as our man in Beijing under Barack Obama.  (Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin.)  In between, he was elected governor of Utah twice—with approval ratings north of 80 percent at times—and in 2012 he even found time to run for president, albeit with extremely limited success.

As the most moderate of Republicans, Huntsman has long presented as something of an odd man out, having committed such party heresies as acknowledging the existence of global warming and the dignity of same-sex marriage.  Huntsman has always made a point of marching to the beat of his own drum, speaking freely—often curtly—about issues that every other member of his party would rather avoid.  (A tweet from 2011:  “To be clear.  I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.  Call me crazy.”)

It’s a tribute to Huntsman’s intelligence and guile that he has accomplished as much as he has, considering how inhospitable the GOP must be to someone of his particular ilk.

Could he be the guy who wrote the Times op-ed?  It certainly wouldn’t be out of character.  Indeed, the more one thinks about it, the more sense it makes.

That was the feeling of William Saletan in Slate two days after the op-ed ran last fall.  In a piece titled, “The Obvious Suspect,” Saletan argued that when you combine the column’s overall style, tone and content, its (over)emphasis on U.S.-Russia relations, and Huntsman’s literal and ideological remove from the Trump White House and Trump himself, the case for Huntsman’s authorship more or less writes itself.  It persuaded me then, and it persuades me now.

Of course, all of this “evidence” is circumstantial and speculative at best, and in a way, it doesn’t really matter who wrote the damn thing in the first place.  The fact that somebody did—somebody who managed to slip into the Trump orbit only to announce to the entire world how dysfunctional and duplicitous the whole operation is—continues to be the primary, unalterable fact of the matter.

It begs the question:  How many of these democracy-loving, Trump-thwarting people are left inside the noxious tent?  Have they all since been purged and spit out, or are a fair number of them still lurking, protecting us from the president’s worst instincts on foreign and domestic issues alike?  Is it possible we’ve been living with a tethered, Diet Coke Trump all this time, with the unadulterated, full-flavored version still to come?

When it comes to the most amoral chief executive since Richard Nixon suggested bombing the Brookings Institution for sport, it’s worth noting that things can always get worse—which, in this case, they most assuredly will.  To the extent that not every individual currently working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is an unqualified partisan stooge, the ratio has only grown more alarming with each passing week, as the administration hemorrhages competent, apolitical bureaucrats at a record clip with no signs of slowing down.

If the person who penned the Times op-ed is, indeed, still “a senior official in the Trump administration” (whatever that means), I think it is well past time for a sequel.  In the meantime, there is an election on November 3, 2020.  As a wise man once said, if you want something done, you just may need to do it yourself.

Advertisements

The Prettiest Sight

In The Philadelphia Story, a lowly reporter played by James Stewart scornfully intones, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”  For one week on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this summer, that’s exactly what I was doing.  And oh, what a pretty sight it was.

Certainly, the Vineyard—regularly ranked among the priciest vacation spots in America—screams “privilege” in any season, from its private beaches and golf courses to its posh restaurants and hotels to its A-list clientele.

In my case, however, the fact that I was among New England’s most well-heeled (albeit in a budget-friendly rental unit with no room service) was ancillary to the real privilege I enjoyed for eight days and seven nights on this triangular island seven miles off Cape Cod:  The privilege to not care what was happening in the universe beyond the shore.  The privilege to disconnect from current events and suffer no consequences whatsoever.

See, in my normal, landlubber life, I’m plugged into the global newsfeed about as deeply as any good American should be, monitoring Twitter and the New York Times with freakish regularity to ensure I am always in the loop about whatever unholy nonsense the president has gotten himself into today (among other things).

But while on vacation, I made a deliberate effort to disengage from the minute-by-minute deluge of copy that otherwise scrolls across my transom, and just try to relax for a change.  By and large, I succeeded.

To be clear, this did not entail a total 24/7 news blackout.  Rather, it meant checking Facebook two or three times per day instead of the usual thirty.  It meant scanning Boston Globe headlines without necessarily reading the articles underneath them.  It meant not watching a single segment of cable or network television.

Most significantly, it meant absolute abstention from Twitter, and all the nauseating, petty political catfighting contained therein.

It meant, in effect, that I still had a vague, general sense of what was happening across the seven continents, but without the fuss of getting bogged down in the details.

What I took away from this experiment—this voluntary, temporary withdrawal from the media-industrial complex—was how precious little I was missing.  How trivial such seemingly earth-shaking stories really are when viewed in proper perspective.  How oddly pleasant it was not to be waist-deep in the muck of political tomfoolery at every hour of every day.  And how much I dreaded returning to my usual routine in the real world—which, of course, I did with all deliberate speed.

It begged the question:  What’s so great about the real world, anyway?  Why do I burden myself with the minutiae of global happenings when I could just as well spend my free time going for long walks and plowing through the collected works of Agatha Christie?

Keeping on top of the news may make me conscientious and informed, but does it really make me happy?  Would I be any worse off, as a person, were I to harness the laid-back habits I picked up on the Vineyard and maintain them until the end of my natural life?

In all likelihood I would not be, and that, in so many words, is the true meaning of privilege in 2019 America.  It’s not a question of wealth or fame (of which I have none).  Rather, it’s about the ability to tune out.  To be mentally on vacation for as long as one’s heart desires.  To ignore such unpleasantries as war, famine, global warming and the Trump administration and be affected by them not one whit.

Deep down, of course, this is just white privilege by another name, since to be white in America is to know that, however bad things may get, there will always be a spot for you on the lifeboat.  And to be a white man, all the better.

Naturally, as a bleeding heart liberal (or social justice warrior, or whatever we’re supposed to call ourselves now), I can hear the angel on my shoulder gently reminding me that the role of the Woke White Person in Trump’s America is to support and agitate on behalf of the downtrodden—immigrants, Muslims, and pretty much anyone else who isn’t Caucasian and/or male and doesn’t have the luxury to take a mental health break from reality—which requires paying close attention to what is being inflicted upon one’s fellow countrymen—and aspiring countrymen—on our watch, in our name.

On refection, it seems like a fair price to pay for someone whose life is sufficiently charmed as to be able to spend a week of every June on a place like Martha’s Vineyard, watching the sun rise over Edgartown Harbor and guzzling beer and clam chowder without a care in the world.

After all, there is some happiness to be found in simply being involved—however meekly—in the national discourse, particularly when Election Day rolls around, as it is wont to do every now and again.  That’s to say nothing for the lowly blogger, who will sooner or later need to write about something other than lobster rolls and how to avoid being eaten by a shark.

For Pete’s Sake

The first time I ever heard of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., was in a Frank Bruni column in the New York Times in June 2016, titled, “The First Gay President?”

Two weeks later, Bruni cited Mayor Buttigieg (pronounced “BOOT-edge-edge”) in another column, “14 Young Democrats to Watch”—a list that included such then-unknown figures as Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum—while Buttigieg himself grew increasingly visible on the national stage, interviewed by Charlie Rose (ahem) in July 2017 and by the cast of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! in February 2018.

Buttigieg, 37, announced his candidacy for president on January 23, to extremely limited fanfare.  Now, however, he seems to be enjoying his 15 minutes in the limelight, thanks, in roughly equal measure, to generally glowing press coverage and surprisingly high poll numbers in early primary states.

While it is comically premature for anyone with any integrity to predict how the Democratic Party nominating contest will shake out (insert your own cable pundit joke here), Mayor Buttigieg—an Afghanistan War veteran and former Rhodes Scholar who speaks seven foreign languages, including Norwegian—is most certainly deserving of a long, hard look.

Indeed, in his initial column introducing Buttigieg to the world (or at least the world of New York Times readers), Bruni mused that, on paper, you could scarcely produce a more perfect future president if you built one, Frankenstein-like, in a laboratory.  Similarly, in a meet-the-candidate segment on a recent episode of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah struggled to find even the trace of a skeleton in Buttigieg’s professional closet and came up empty.

By all appearances, Mayor Pete (as he is known in South Bend) is the real deal—someone one underestimates at one’s peril.

For that reason, Buttigieg offers us perhaps the single greatest opportunity we’ll ever have to ask:  Is America ready for an openly gay president?

The answer, I suspect, is the same as it was regarding a black candidate in 2008:  “No it’s not, except in this one case.”

I don’t mean to imply that Buttigieg will be crowned the Democratic nominee in the summer of 2020, let alone be elected on November 3.  In a field of a billion contenders, a thirtysomething mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana will be a longshot in any context.

However, if America is to have a homosexual commander-in-chief in my lifetime, it will almost surely be someone like Mayor Pete:  A man so smart, so accomplished and so…normal…that his sexual preference becomes both trivial and irrelevant to all but the most obsessive voters.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it:  Other than being married to a guy named Chasten, there is absolutely nothing about Buttigieg that would lead the average citizen to assume he is gay—nor to think anything of it upon finding out.  In appearance, speech and overall countenance, Buttigieg comes across like any other plucky, overachieving public servant:  wonky, earnest, full of ideas and creative energy, and wholly unencumbered by any notion of personal or demographic limitations.

Buttigieg’s whole approach to the gay question—increasingly common among prominent LGBT officials, post-Obergefell—is to never even mention it, except as a casual aside or in response to a direct question from an unimaginative reporter.

Indeed, Buttigieg did not formally “come out” to the good people of South Bend until deep into his first term as mayor, in June 2015 (in a newspaper column very much worth reading).  And yet, when he ran for re-election that fall, he won with more than 80 percent of the vote.

This is the future of queerness in public life, and a major reason the gay rights movement has achieved so much in the past decade-and-a-half:  By drawing only as much attention to itself as is strictly necessary.  By assimilating to, rather than separating from, the society at large.  By embracing such bedrock American institutions as marriage and family, rather than running away from them.  By treating homo-skeptics with patience and respect rather than scorn and condescension, trusting that, in good time, they will come around.

By being the moderate, mild-mannered, monogamous mayor that he is—and an extraordinarily educated and well-spoken one to boot—Pete Buttigieg is essentially daring the public to give a damn about his personal life in any way, shape or form.

At this point in his political rise, it would appear that no one does.  Perhaps that will change should he miraculously capture his party’s presidential nomination next year, when the spotlight will become infinitely brighter and the public’s curiosity infinitely curiouser.

Then again, perhaps not.  Maybe the country really has gotten past its worst hang-ups about LGBT folk in the public square and are prepared to judge all candidates for higher office strictly on their ideas, experience and the content of their character.

Someday we’ll find out for sure.  Until then, we can dream.

Big Ten

If alphabetical order, here are ten of my favorite movies of 2018:

BLACKKKLANSMAN

Spike Lee’s wildly (and disturbingly) entertaining portrayal of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who, with the help of a Jewish colleague, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and lived to tell the tale.  What Stallworth found, it turned out, was a gang of rowdy, bloodthirsty dimwits who could be fooled into believing anything so long as it was preceded by refrains like “White power!” or “America first!”  Any resemblance to current events is purely non-coincidental.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

By now, it should not be breaking news that Melissa McCarthy is a first-rate actress.  (That Sean Spicer imitation didn’t happen by accident.)  However, in case there was any residual doubt that McCarthy can do pretty much anything, as Exhibit A I offer her work here, playing a New York alcoholic who commits widespread literary fraud in order to pay her rent and feed her cat, eventually drawing the attention of the FBI.  I’d hasten to add that it’s all based on a true story, but if you know anything at all about New Yorkers, you probably figured that out already.

THE DEATH OF STALIN

If you’ve ever wondered what Veep would be like if it took place inside the Soviet Union in the 1950s, wonder no more!  Directed by Armando Iannucci—yes, the very man who created the funniest show on television—this ridiculous political farce about the jockeying for power among Kremlin bureaucrats following the demise of Uncle Joe undoubtedly carries a greater ring of truth than the official record might suggest.  Accurate or not, its cast of characters provide more demented laughs than any rogues gallery this side of the Trump White House.

THE FAVOURITE

Speaking of demented, here was a similarly-pitched historical rivalry committed ever-so-exaggeratedly to celluloid.  In this case, the competition unfolds at the throne of England’s Queen Anne in the early 18th century, and involves an All About Eve-esque usurpation of one loyal servant by another, both of whom vie for the queen’s affections with steadily-escalating, um, fervor.  The queen is played by Olivia Colman, her two suitresses by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.  The latter’s suggestion, “Let’s go shoot something!” is possibly the finest line reading in any movie this year.

FREE SOLO

Rarely am I driven to a movie theater by a New York Times opinion column, but after reading Bret Stephens’ beaming reaction to this documentary about 33-year-old rock climber Alex Honnold, I needed to know what all the fuss was about.  I understood quickly enough:  In 2017, after months of preparation, Honnold attempted to become the first person in history to ascend the 3,000-foot-tall face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope or harness—a suicide mission if ever there was one.  As Stephens wrote in his column, “In a world of B.S. artists—and in a country led by one—Honnold is modeling something else, a kind of radical truthfulness.  Either he’s going to get it exactly right, or he’s going to die.”

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

If the idea of the director of Moonlight adapting a novel by James Baldwin doesn’t get you racing to the nearest art house, I don’t know what more I can do for you.  Having made the best movie of 2016, Barry Jenkins could scarcely have chosen a richer source for a follow-up than Baldwin’s 1974 novel about love and racism in New York that, like much of Baldwin’s work, doesn’t seem to have aged a day.  That’s to say nothing of the divine lead performances by KiKi Layne and Stephan James and the gorgeous art direction, set design and musical score, the likes of which we haven’t seen since, well, Moonlight.

LEAVE NO TRACE

If a man raises his daughter right—teaching her important values, reading her fine books, feeding her healthy food—is it any business of the state that he does it in a tent in the woods somewhere in rural Oregon?  That’s the question this movie poses—in a blessedly non-political manner—and it’s to director Debra Granik’s great credit that it provides absolutely no answer.  All it offers is truth, realism and a group of people who are all doing the best they can under the circumstances.  Isn’t that what a movie is for?

ROMA

You don’t hear the word “Felliniesque” bandied about much nowadays—particularly not about a Mexican director best known for the third Harry Potter film and for launching Sandra Bullock into space.  Yet there is no more succinct way to describe Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma—a semi-autobiographical depiction of Cuarón’s childhood from the viewpoint of his nanny—than to observe how much it resembles—tonally and visually—much of the best work of Italy’s most famous auteur.  If Beale Street luxuriates in the most lavish possibilities of color film, Roma does the same for black and white.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Who would’ve guessed that Black Panther would only be 2018’s second-best comic book blockbuster with an African-American protagonist?  While I shan’t say a word against Ryan Coogler’s groundbreaking, socially-conscious cultural behemoth, this animated Spider-Man spinoff nonetheless wins the superhero sweepstakes in my mind by the sheer force of its charm, its wit and—most pleasantly surprising of all—its acute understanding of the awkwardness of being the new kid in school just as puberty is beginning to kick in.  (See Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which just missed my list, for the female version of this.)

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

I’m generally skeptical about turning human beings into saints, but if Fred Rogers wasn’t a saint, I don’t know who is.  In an age when we are (justifiably) jittery about leaving small children alone with kindly-seeming men of the cloth, here was a Presbyterian minister with a children’s TV show who proved to be exactly as gentle and trustworthy as he appeared—perhaps even more so—and who, as David McCullough once argued, probably had a greater educational impact on young people than any human being in the 20th century.

Kaspersky Password Manager

Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again

Unplugged

I recently returned from a week-long trip to paradise—Martha’s Vineyard, to be exact—and while I was there, I did something that, for me, was both unthinkable and unprecedented.

I kept away from social media and the news.

That’s right.  From the moment our ferry cast off from shore, I ceased all contact with my Twitter feed and didn’t reconnect until after returning to the mainland.  For good measure, I also generally avoided Facebook, the New York Times and cable news, opting to remain as ignorant as possible about what was going on in the parts of the universe not directly in front of my nose.  For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I just didn’t want to know.

Now, maybe tuning the world out is the sort of thing most normal people do to relax at their favorite summer getaways.  But as a prototypical millennial news junkie, I can scarcely imagine being walled off from current events for more than a few hours at a time, vacation or no vacation.  Since acquiring my first Droid in the summer of 2010, I’m not sure I’ve gone a single day without checking my social media apps at least once.  You know:  Just to make sure I’m not missing anything.

Having lived under the tyranny of Zuckerberg and Bezos for so long, I’ve realized with ever-growing acuity that I am every bit as addicted to the little computer in my pocket—and the bottomless information it contains—as the good-for-nothing Generation Z teenagers I’m supposed to feel superior to.  More and more, I recall Jean Twenge’s terrifying recent Atlantic story, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and I wonder whether any of us—of any age group—are going to emerge from this era better citizens and human beings than when we entered it.

So it was that, on the occasion of my annual sojourn to my favorite summer retreat—an island I’ve visited annually since before I was born—I decided I needed to find out whether I’m capable of cutting myself off from the GoogleTube cold turkey.  Whether—if only for a week—I can bring myself to live as I did for the first 23 years of my life:  Without constant, hysterical, up-to-the-second news flashes from every corner of the globe and, with them, the instantaneous expert (and non-expert) analysis of What It All Means and Where We Go From Here.

Mostly, of course, I just wanted a week without Donald Trump.

Did I succeed?

Kind of.

Yes, I still read the Boston Sunday Globe (mostly for the arts pages).  Yes, I still listened to my favorite NPR podcast while riding my bike.  Yes, I still posted pictures on Facebook before going to bed.  And yes, I still allowed my cable-obsessed bunkmate to watch a few minutes of Morning Joe before we headed out to breakfast each day.

All of that aside, I nonetheless fulfilled my core objective of not actively following world events closely—if at all—and believing, to my core, that nothing in life was of greater concern than which ice cream flavor to order at Mad Martha’s and whether to wear jeans or shorts while hiking at Menemsha Hills.  (The answers, respectively, were butter crunch and jeans.)

So I didn’t get the blow-by-blow of President Trump’s meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un.  I didn’t hear the early reports of children being snatched from their parents at the Mexican border.  And I didn’t see that raccoon scaling the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota.

What’s more, I noticed that as the week progressed, I grew increasingly less bothered by how out-of-the-loop I was in my little self-imposed cone of radio silence, and it got me wondering whether I couldn’t keep up this stunt indefinitely.  Whether, in effect, I could become a beta version of Erik Hagerman—the Ohio man, recently profiled in the New York Times, who severed all ties with society on November 9, 2016, and hasn’t looked back since.  Dubbing him “the most ignorant man in America,” the story left little doubt that Hagerman, in his calculated obliviousness, is probably a happier and more well-rounded individual than three-quarters of his fellow countrymen.

Of course, Hagerman is also extremely white—not to mention extremely male and extremely upper middle class—and there is no avoiding the uncomfortable fact that choosing to ignore the daily machinations of the Trump administration is a direct function of white privilege (as countless Times readers pointedly noted at the time).  To be white is to be insulated from Trump’s cruelest and most outrageous policies; thus, there is little-to-no risk in not keeping a close eye on them every now and again.

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” said Jimmy Stewart, with great scorn, in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.  As a member of the privileged class—in my whiteness and maleness, if not my disposable income—I recognize the profound moral failing of even thinking of mentally tuning out an American society in which virtually every racial, ethnic and cultural minority finds itself under threat.  Silence is complicity, and I very much doubt I could live in happy ignorance knowing, deep down, that a great deal of preventable suffering is occurring just beyond my immediate line of sight.

But it sure was nice while it lasted.

Sex Crimes and Misdemeanors

It’s Thanksgiving week, folks.  For me, that means several things will most definitely happen, as they always do:  I will eat half my body weight in pie.  I will listen to “Alice’s Restaurant” on the radio.  I will go to the TD Garden for a Celtics game (16 in a row, baby!).  And at some point, I will re-watch Hannah and Her Sisters.

In years past, none of those things was the least bit problematic.  (Particularly the pie.)  This year, however, I am faced with a moral dilemma that has hit the country like a tidal wave over the last couple months:  If a movie is made by someone who has committed a mortal sin, am I duty-bound not to watch it ever again?

Hannah and Her Sisters, released in 1986, has ranked at or near the top of my favorite films list from the moment I first saw it in the early 2000s.  A “Thanksgiving movie” of sorts—the holiday is observed at three different junctures in the story—I never miss it during the latter days of November, much like It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve or Jaws on the Fourth of July.

The trouble is, Hannah was directed by (and co-stars) one Woody Allen, the beloved New York and Hollywood institution who, in 1992, allegedly sexually assaulted his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was all of seven years old—a crime for which he has never been punished, either legally or financially.  Despite years of wide public knowledge of his possible—if not probable—predatory behavior toward prepubescent girls, he continues to churn out a film a year—invariably starring A-list actors—most of which turn a healthy profit and occasionally snag a stray Oscar or two.

Prior to the Age of Weinstein, Allen was able to get away with this through benefit of the doubt:  He would deny all accusations of impropriety and it would become his word against Dylan’s.

Then, in 2014, Dylan dispatched an open letter to the New York Times detailing the horrifying—and apparently ongoing—physical and mental trauma she has suffered from the incident in question, and the tide of public opinion began to turn—sort of.  (Allen’s response, also published in the Times, was a master class in condescending bitterness, clarifying nothing except how much he loathes Mia Farrow, his former partner and Dylan’s mother.)

Smash-cut to today—with one predator after another falling by the wayside, from Harvey to Cosby to Spacey to Louie—and it seems only a matter of time before Woody is evicted from polite society once and for all, and I would say good riddance.  Better 25 years late than never.

And yet the movies remain, and with them the question that will continue to plague us until the end of time:  As a consumer, is it possible to separate the art from the artist in one’s daily life?

For me, the answer has always been yes, and the #MeToo movement has done nothing to alter my basic view on this subject, which is that compartmentalization—i.e., the willful disregarding of certain facts at certain moments—is an essential component of one’s appreciation of the arts.

We might agree the world would be a better place if millions of men were not disgusting, power-hungry pigs who systematically treated women like their own personal playthings.  However, it is equally true that great ugliness can occasionally yield great beauty, and it does society no favors to cast out every film, TV show, album, painting and idea that was borne from a morally repugnant source.  Knowing what we know about the Founding Fathers, I would offer America itself as Exhibit A:  Are you prepared to renounce “all men are created equal” just because the man who wrote those words didn’t seem to believe them himself?

Of course you’re not, because great works transcend the context from which they arose and can be considered and appreciated anew with each passing generation.  We can condemn the man without condemning the work, because in the long run, we will forget the man altogether while the work will endure indefinitely.  That’s what art is all about.

As it happens, Hannah and Her Sisters is a perfect illustration of how minimally a film director’s faults extend to the final product—particularly when the former happens to be a prodigy and the latter happens to be a masterpiece.

The great irony of Woody Allen (assuming the assault allegations are true) is how generous his films are toward women—how he so frequently casts first-rate actresses in strong leading roles and draws out some of the finest performances of their careers.  It’s no wonder Hollywood starlets keep knocking at his office door:  Allen’s films have produced more Academy Awards for acting (seven) than those of any other living director, and all but one of those Oscars were won by women.

In short:  If Woody Allen the man believes in treating women like crude sex objects, Woody Allen the writer-director has not received that memo.  Apparently he can compartmentalize even more profoundly than his audience.

For that consideration alone, Hannah and Her Sisters deserves to retain its place high up on the Mount Olympus of cinema.  Beyond being an absorbing, warm, complex, funny, nuanced, ironic and economical tale of New York sophisticates living at the intersection of ambition, lust and existential dread, Hannah is also the rare male-directed film that repeatedly passes the Bechdel test—the feminist rule of thumb that asks, “Does this movie contain at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?”

Boy, does it ever.  Indeed, the people in this movie talk to each other about pretty much everything sooner or later—love, sex, death, God, suicide, Bach, Caravaggio, E.E. Cummings, The Marx Brothers, architecture, opera, quail eggs, infidelity, artificial insemination and what Jesus might think about pro wrestling if he came back tomorrow.  (The film’s answer to that question is among Allen’s gut-splitting-est punch lines.)

What is finally so remarkable about Hannah and Her Sisters—alongside Allen’s other top-tier achievements like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall and the notorious Manhattan—is how deeply it understands human desire and why we behave the way we do.  Why, for instance, a happily-married accountant would betray his wife by fiddling around with her emotionally vulnerable sister.  Or why a frustrated actress would subject herself to one rejection after another before deciding to try her hand at screenwriting.  Or why a successful TV producer would quit his job to go search for the meaning of life.  Or why a reclusive painter would refuse to sell his work to a man who will pay top dollar for it.

Of course, the answers to these mysteries can take years in therapy to sort out—which, in Allen’s own case, they famously have—but one imagines it has at least something to do with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—another timeless, irreplaceable concept first articulated by America’s most hypocritical founding father.

As a two-hour treatment of this material, Hannah and Her Sisters is on par with Ingmar Bergman in its seriousness of purpose and depth of thought, while somehow incorporating the same riotous, neurotic humor that has characterized virtually every film Allen has made since he began in the late-1960s.  It is a nearly perfect movie that enriches my mind and soul every time it plays—particularly on or around Thanksgiving—and I don’t require Woody Allen himself to uphold high (or, indeed, any) ethical standards for himself in order to enjoy the artistic and intellectual gifts he has bestowed upon the world—past, present and future.

When it comes to cinema, the heart wants what it wants.

The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.