The Popularity Paradox

Woody Allen has always made a point never to read reviews of his own films.  The way he sees it, you cannot accept compliments without also accepting criticism, and since he has no desire to indulge the latter, he has opted to disregard both and just keep chugging along on his own terms, heedless of how the rest of the world might react to the finished product.

While one emulates Woody Allen at one’s peril, his philosophy of not being preoccupied with others’ opinions is a sound one—an idea that perhaps ought to be taken more to heart by the average American, and especially by not-so-average Americans like the one currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As things stand, if there’s one thing we know for sure about Donald Trump, it’s that he only cares about what other people think.  In every facet of his life, our president is essentially a human mood ring whose hue is perfectly synchronized with however his adoring public seems to perceive him at a given moment:  If they’re happy, he’s happy.  He quantifies all Earthly success in terms of ratings, status and wealth, and it has become abundantly clear that assuming the presidency has had absolutely no impact on this profoundly amoral view of the world.

While this dynamic worked beautifully for Trump as a candidate—“My poll numbers are bigger than yours!”—the fact of actually being commander-in-chief has introduced an unattractive complication into Trump’s perceived cult of infallibility:  At this moment, scarcely one-third of the country thinks he’s doing a decent job, and whenever he tries to make good on his core campaign pledges, his efforts are thwarted by either Congress or the courts.

This sure ain’t what Mr. Winning had it mind when he signed up.  Much as how Richard Nixon famously articulated, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump entered this job figuring that he could get away with anything so long as a majority of the public approved it—and that if the public didn’t approve it, he could simply claim the polls are wrong, as he did throughout the latter half of 2016.

In effect, he thought he could be an American Mussolini—ruling by executive fiat and steamrolling Congressional opposition through direct appeals to his base—and many of us had full faith that he would succeed, or at least give it the old college try.

Amidst all this fear that Trump would destroy American democracy as we know it (which he still has ample time to do, of course), we didn’t necessarily give much thought to what might happen were Trump to falter—how he would respond to a sustained period of fecklessness and public ennui, which we seem to have entered following last week’s aborted GOP healthcare bill, to say nothing of the ongoing Russian intrigue that has been piling up since before January 20.

Supposing this stench of failure doesn’t dissipate anytime soon, how does Trump justify his continued existence in government?  In the absence of being liked—nay, in the absence of “winning”—what exactly does Trump stand for in his own mind?  In the teeth of widespread public antipathy to his performance as America’s head of state—and “performance” is definitely the right word—what is the guiding principle that’ll carry him from one conflict to the next?

See, when there was a clear sense of what specific actions would sate the reptile minds of his minions—say, imposing a travel ban on Muslims or building a wall along the Mexican border—Trump could confidently put pen to paper and congratulate himself on a job well done.  Easy peasy.

What he didn’t count on—obvious as it was to everyone else—was that half of his campaign promises were unconstitutional, while the other half were fiscally insane.  Accordingly, short of torching both houses of Congress and crowning himself emperor (perhaps he’s saving that for the second term?), Trump was destined to face serious pushback to his agenda within minutes of “making America great again.”  Now that a major chunk of his policy portfolio is on life support or worse, he may need to decide whether playing to the angry mob was such a hot strategy after all.

Historically, presidents with exceptionally low approval ratings have taken the Woody Allen view—that is, to effect a conspicuous detachment from the passions of the unwashed masses, appealing instead to future historians as the ultimate arbiters of the rightness of their executive decisions.  As we know from such men as Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush, there is some credence to the theory that being unpopular in your own time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from achieving immortality—or at least respectability—a generation or two after the fact.

The catch, however, is that Truman and Bush were men of decency, conviction and patriotism:  Even in their lowest moments, they believed to their boots that they were trying to do the right thing and were prepared to defend their records until the last dog died.  In acting against the will of the majority, they evoked the classical ethos—championed by no less than the Founding Fathers—that the short-term desires of the people must occasionally be overruled in the long-term interest of the public.  In the long sweep of history, leaders who risked their reputations for the greater good of the country have been viewed very favorably, indeed.

Donald Trump is no such person.  Day in and day out, for 70 years running, our current president has only ever concerned himself with, well, himself.  Whether on top of the world or with his back against the wall, he prioritizes Trump first, the Trump family second, and everyone else not at all.  Matt Taibbi was perhaps being cheeky when he mused in Rolling Stone that “Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat,” but the image rings true:  In Trump’s eyes, no human being has value except for what he or she can do for Donald.

Which leads us to arguably the most essential, inescapable fact about Trump as president:  Because he does not view human relations in moral terms—because he is a textbook sociopath with zero capacity for emotional growth—he can never be counted on to do the right thing, unless he does it by accident.  Unlike virtually all past presidents at one point or another, he will never face down his staunchest supporters and say, “I know you won’t approve what I’m about to do, but trust me, it’s for your own good.  Someday, you’ll thank me.”

What will he do over the next four (if not eight) years?  Presumably, what he always does:  When his approval rating is solid, he will sign whatever bill will keep those numbers up (e.g., the Muslim ban).  When his popularity tanks—as it has done pretty much this whole time—he will publicly throw a tantrum while privately using the executive branch as his own personal graft machine.  And when he manages to be both unpopular and ineffectual (e.g., failing to repeal Obamacare), he will do what he does best:  Pretend nothing happened, lose interest and walk away.

That’s what you get when you put an emotionally needy charlatan in charge of the largest economy on Earth:  Instability, immorality, ineptitude and intransigence.  A bumbling, crooked train ride to nowhere.

Unbelievable

If the continued existence of Donald Trump has produced any redeeming value for the American culture—and “if” is definitely the correct word—it has been the opportunity for us to argue about Donald Trump.  And for all the millions of words that have been expended on who Trump is and what he represents, we have yet to reach any real consensus on either score—a fact so improbable and bizarre that many of us have failed to even notice it.

Obviously, we’re not talking about whether the Republican presidential nominee is an infantile, boorish windbag.  On that we can all agree.

The more interesting argument—interesting because of its apparent insolubility—is the one that invariably takes the form of, “Is Trump really an X, or does he just play one on TV?”  While the identity of X changes from day to day, it has generally been some variation of “racist,” “misogynist,” “fascist,” “anti-Semite,” “Islamophobe” or some similarly charming personal quirk.

If the list of incidents that have inspired this debate is too enormous to tackle all at once, they have all conveniently followed the same basic pattern.  First, Trump will say (or tweet) something objectively repugnant about some racial, ethnic or social group.  Second, the press will roundly call him out for trafficking in racism, sexism, etc.  Third, Trump will express bewilderment that anyone could possibly infer sinister undertones in the offending remark, since everyone knows he is the least racist/sexist/whatever-ist person in the whole wide world.  Fourth, the press will present him with incontrovertible proof that his comment—by, in extension, he—represents the very definition of rank bigotry of the most obvious and odious form.  And fifth (as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has put it), Trump will retort with some variation of, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Certainly, Trump is neither the first nor last presidential candidate to be caught red-handed saying something appalling.  What sets him apart, however, is his fanatical insistence on doubling down, playing innocent and never giving an inch.  No matter how far beyond the pale he has trotted, never once has he apologized for the substance of anything he has said (or endorsed others for saying), always and forever projecting his prejudices onto those accusing him of the same.

Hence the aforementioned mystery:  Is he for real, or is this all a big elaborate performance?

Back in February, HBO’s John Oliver—addressing Trump directly—probably spoke for most of us in asserting, “You are either racist or you are pretending to be, and at some point there is no difference.”  Fair enough, except that Oliver’s formulation makes an implicit assumption that isn’t necessarily warranted—namely, that Trump consciously knows what he’s doing.  By framing the debate as, “Is he a bona fide bigot or is he merely pandering to bigots?” we are granting him a level of guile that he might not actually possess.

To be on the safe side, then, I would pose the $64,000 question as follows:  Deep down, is Trump as ignorant and prejudiced as he appears, or is he wholly oblivious to the consequences of his ugly behavior—i.e. ignorant of his own ignorance?  In other words, when he says, “I don’t think X is sexist” or “I don’t think Y is anti-immigrant,” could he be telling his own version of the truth?  When—to take the most recent example—he retweets an anti-Semitic graphic culled from an anti-Semitic website, is it possible that he is so thick—so utterly lacking in self-awareness and the cultural history of America—that he authentically, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about?

Given what we know that we know about this wretched excuse for a human being, I think it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that Trump is simply a dolt whose narcissism and gall preludes him from seeing what’s directly in front of his nose.  That he is such a profound sociopath that the very notion of causing someone offense—and needing to make amends for it—is totally alien to his way of seeing the world.

On the other hand, because we also know of his bald cynicism and general low regard for the American public—paired with his undeniable ability to tap into his supporters’ most violent passions and fears—it would require a massive leap of faith to take Trump at his word that he doesn’t perceive any racial or ethnic dimension to what is driving Republican voters so crazy in the first place.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump is trying to have it both ways:  He panders to the GOP base by speaking their own hateful language, then proceeds to placate everyone else by denying he did any such thing.  That—much like on his reality TV shows—he is playing out his fantasy as a devious puppet master who thinks he’s the cleverest person in the room.

But if that’s really what he’s up to, then why has he done such a lousy job of hiding it?  If the idea is to blow racial “dog whistles” that only his supporters can hear, why is it so easy for the rest of us to hear them as well?  Does he truly think the general public is that naïve?  Who’s fooling who?

In 1996, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a momentous biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, which argued that our country’s most brazenly duplicitous founding father was able to reside comfortably on both sides of innumerable issues thanks to an elaborate, lifelong game of self-deception—as Ellis put it, by “essentially playing hide-and-seek within himself.”  That is, Jefferson could say or write something one day, then totally deny having done so the next day, and deem himself to be telling the truth both times.  That he was, in effect, an early adopter of the George Costanza maxim, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Having just recently discovered Ellis’s book, I now wonder if Trump’s mind operates in much the same way.  Whether it’s likely that, through his many decades as an amoral businessman, he has trained himself to lie in a manner that manages to deceive even himself.  That when he says “believe me”—as he does every time he says something completely unbelievable—his boundless self-confidence comes not from flagrant dishonesty so much as from having drunk his own Kool-Aid.

Accepting this appraisal of Trump’s character—this odd combination of obliviousness and compartmentalization—it becomes plausible that he would see a Star of David superimposed over a pile of money, not realize its anti-Semitic connotations and, when confronted with them, work backwards from “I’m a wonderful person who would never do anything anti-Semitic” to “Therefore, this graphic can’t be anti-Semitic, either.”  It goes without saying that this approach to reality does not permit the introduction of contradictory evidence, and that is where all conflict begins.

As for the John Oliver question—Does it really matter if Trump’s bigotry is genuine or inadvertent?—I would argue it would certainly make a difference if he became president.  Deliberate, open prejudice—for all the misery it wreaks on society—has the one advantage of being, well, deliberate.  If Trump is fully cognizant of how offensive his antics are, it means he is capable—at least in theory—of reining himself in.

However, if he is so blind to basic social etiquette that he can’t even recognize racism when he sees it, then he couldn’t possibly be expected to become a less awful person, since—in his own mind—he would have no reason to do so.

Based on the events of the last year, I think we may finally have found the secret to what makes Donald Trump tick.

A Spot of Revolution

On June 23, the people of Great Britain voted narrowly to remove themselves from the European Union.  Although the decision occurred 11 days shy of July 4, many of those in favor of this so-called “Brexit” have interpreted it as Britain’s own declaration of independence.  Prominent English politicians Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have framed it as such, as has noted historian Sarah Palin, who went so far as to draw a straight line from Britons’ rebellion against the EU to the American rebellion of 1776 that we will be duly celebrating six days hence.

While there may indeed be superficial similarities between these two politically seismic events—in this of all weeks, such comparisons are hard to resist—the truth is that we have far more to learn from what makes them different than from what ties them together.

Chief among these differences—or at least the most ironic—is that this new British separation from Europe came about through democratic means and reflects the unambiguous will of the people.  On both counts, the American Revolution most assuredly did not.

It’s an easy thing to forget, but the process by which a free and independent United States of America emerged from the tentacles of an overreaching, overtaxing British Empire was about as far from pure democracy as such an act could be and was, by all accounts, both undesired and unpopular among the inhabitants of the 13 colonies at the time.

Although formal opinion polls did not exist at the end of the 18th century (too much work for the horses), no less than John Adams estimated that the American public in 1776 was probably divided evenly into three groups:  Patriots, loyalists and fence-sitters.  That’s to say that—annoying as taxation without representation undoubtedly was—only about one-third of ordinary colonists agreed that declaring independence was a good idea.

In other words, the momentous decision by a band of renegades to secede from the world’s mightiest empire—an audacious, treasonous and altogether cataclysmic move—was made in defiance of the wishes of a supermajority of the public at large—a fact made all the more glaring by the Declaration’s pretence of creating a democratic, self-governing society that derived its authority from “the consent of the governed.”

The delegates to the Continental Congress, for their part, were selected by the legislatures of their respective colonies—a vaguely republican system for the time—which then enabled said delegates to do whatever the hell they wanted once they got to Philadelphia.

And that—with very few exceptions—is exactly what they did.  By and large, those who voted for independence in July of 1776 did so from a mixture of personal conviction, horse trading with fellow delegates and a general sense of which way the wind was blowing.  In any case, the so-called “will of the people” never really entered into the equation since, for all intents and purposes, the Continental Congress was the people.  (We need hardly add that the Congress was 100 percent male and 100 percent white.)

It’s not that the Founding Fathers were indifferent to public opinion—as the war heated up, securing popular support became essential to sustaining the Continental Army—but they certainly didn’t consider it legally binding.  In the opening decade of the American republic, the word “democratic” was an epithet that conjured images of mobs and anarchists who reacted to leaders they didn’t like by burning them in effigy.  The aforementioned John Adams went to his grave believing his finest moment as president was to have averted war with France in 1800 despite overwhelming popular support for just such a war.  For Adams, defying the will of the people was the ultimate badge of honor, and hindsight has surely borne him out.

Of course, to marinate in the facts of America’s founding is to reach some extremely ambivalent conclusions about democracy, realizing, as we must, that those men in wigs and puffy shirts got along just fine without it.  In a way, the Founding Fathers ruined it for everyone by being so exceptional:  In the hands of anyone else, the plainly elitist nature of the Continental Congress—and later the Constitutional Convention—would’ve flatly negated the very principles it claimed to stand for and strangled our infant nation before it ever had a chance to breathe.

However, because the founders were so faithful to the cause of liberty and freedom—and not merely to their own self-interests—they somehow managed to negotiate the contradictions their experience in nation-building required and allow future generations to live up the standards that they themselves did not.

In the Western world today, democracy through popular vote is taken more or less for granted, while major decisions made behind closed doors are looked upon with high skepticism, if not outright contempt.  Yet we cannot ignore the reality, in the U.S. and U.K. alike, that almost every political decision—major and minor—is enacted not by “the people” but rather by representatives of the people who, in the end, behave however they damn well please, assuming—often correctly—that they will never be held to account when and if things go wrong.

In some quarters, this week’s “Brexit” vote has been hailed as a heroic popular revolt against such elitism, while in others it has been seen as a cautionary tale against allowing direct democracy to carry the day.  (Not that these interpretations are necessarily mutually exclusive.)

The million-dollar question, in any case, is whether popular rule is the solution to all conflicts or whether, instead, there are some questions that are simply too important to be decided by the whim of the majority.  In a typically cutting op-ed in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi argues for the former, writing, “If you believe there’s such a thing as ‘too much democracy,’ you probably don’t believe in democracy at all.”  Taibbi was responding, in part, to a Boston Globe op-ed by Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff, who observed, “Since ancient times, philosophers have tried to devise systems to try to balance the strengths of majority rule against the need to ensure that informed parties get a larger say in critical decisions.”

The natural follow-up, then, is who exactly are these “informed parties” and what qualifies them as such?  For that matter, how do we establish which decisions are “critical” and which are less so?

We might agree that some citizens are smarter and wiser than others and that direct democracy is too unwieldy to be exercised on a daily basis, but how do we reconcile these assumptions with the democratic ideal that no citizen’s voice is valued higher than any other?  The short answer—based on some 240 years of experience on this side of the Atlantic—is that we don’t reconcile at all.  We simply learn to live with the contradiction.

For now, we can occupy ourselves with the double irony that, on the question of declaring independence of one form or another, America employed elitism in the service of promoting democracy, while Britain employed democracy in reasserting its identity as a nation that is still technically ruled by a monarch.  Karl Marx famously said history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  Depending how the next few months go, “Brexit” may unleash both at the same time.

The Entertainer

Quick question:  Is there is any meaningful difference between Sarah Palin and Donald Trump?

There are probably a few distinctions worth mentioning.  Several billion dollars in net worth, for one.  Palin is (or was) a career politician, while Trump has never been elected to anything.  Palin has held unyieldingly conservative views her entire adult life, while Trump has oscillated back and forth as it has suited him.  Palin stars in reality TV shows, while Trump only hosts them.

On the whole, however, I am increasingly finding the two Republican stars interchangeable.  The longer our present Trump hysteria persists, the more it conjures déjà vu for that period in 2008 when, thanks to John McCain, America was presented with a singular political phenomenon it could not ignore, however hard it tried.

Specifically, I have decided to approach the Trump question as comedian Lewis Black approached Palin.  Asked in 2010 about his estimation of the one-time Alaska governor, Black quipped, “What I believe is she’s actually not real.  That’s the only way my mind can deal with it, that she’s a fiction character come to life.”

Sounds about right to me.

Donald Trump may technically be a living, breathing human being—in possession of some semblance of a heart and brain—but to the tens of millions of us observing the presidential race from our respective couches, he is, for all intents and purposes, a cartoon character.  A TV-based caricature whose presence has no relationship to reality and who will never, ever, ever be elected president.

This has been true from the moment in 2011 when Trump, disposing of whatever dignity he had left, publicly converted to Birtherism by expressing doubt as to whether President Obama was born in the United States.  Then, none of us actually took his rantings seriously, but we happily imbibed them nonetheless, because, hey, we all need to indulge our guilty pleasures now and then.

Now, of course, the circumstances are slightly different, insomuch as Trump is running for president and is currently the highest-polling candidate in the Republican primary field.

But here’s the weird thing:  We still don’t take him seriously.

If I may be allowed a prediction:  Should he win the nomination, we won’t take him seriously then, either.

And if he is elected president?  To quote Basil Fawlty:  “We’ll worry about that when we come to it, shall we?”

Of course he won’t win the nomination, let alone the keys to Air Force One.  Up to now, his candidacy has been built on a foundation of sheer chutzpah, blissfully bereft of anything in the way of policy prescriptions, intellectual maturity or basic ideological coherence.  While plenty of candidates have succeeded with one or other of those characteristics, Trump would be the first to pull off the hat trick.

But he won’t, because sooner or later, the utter ridiculousness of his existence will cease being a mixture of hilarious and appalling and be merely appalling, and his whole act will just plain get old.  Sure, in the future he may experiment with actual legislative proposals—launching a drone war against China, perhaps?—but there is little evidence that this would have much effect on his core fans, who seem perfectly content with the substance-free specimen they have now.

A word about those supporters.

In most recent opinion polls, Trump is gobbling up endorsements from 20-25 percent of registered Republican voters—more than any of his competitors by far.

But let us realize how insignificant this data point actually is.  According to Gallop, 23 percent of Americans today identify as Republicans.  (Democrats are 28 percent and independents are 46 percent.)  While it is certainly impressive for anyone to carry 25 percent support in a 17-person field, when we talk about one-fourth of GOP voters, we are only talking about one-fourth of one-fourth of the total American electorate.

Which means—if my calculations are correct—that, for all our shock and awe at Trump’s supposedly amazing popularity, the enthusiasm in question is felt by little more than one-sixteenth of all American voters—an amount that would be negligible if it referred to any other subject about which pollsters might bother to inquire.

We might refer to Trump supporters as a fringe group.  Statistically-speaking, they are.  Indeed, their number is less than half the percentage of those who currently approve of the U.S. Congress.  (Presumably there is minimal overlap between the two.)

So when we—and especially our media—continue to treat this cretin as if he were a legitimate political figure, we are just being lazy, selfish hedonists.

We follow Trump’s antics for the same reason we eat junk food:  Because it provides a temporary rush of pure primal pleasure, followed by a crushing sense of shame, guilt and emptiness, which in turn can only be cured with…more junk food!

No one in the journalism profession genuinely thinks Trump is worth covering.  They cover him anyway—and we tune in—because of how morally superior it makes us feel.  We see a grown man behaving like a petulant child and we think, “Well, I may not be rich or famous, but at least I’m not a complete jerk.”

Trump’s campaign has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with distracting ourselves from the deadly serious matters that, sooner or later, we will have to confront for real.

For now, it’s all one giant freak show, and—you know what?—we might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

In a priceless new Rolling Stone  article titled, “Inside the GOP Clown Car,” Matt Taibbi argues that we probably shouldn’t be so flippant and blasé about Trump’s total media saturation, since its perpetuation could lead, in Taibbi’s words, to “the collapse of the United States as a global superpower.”  Not to mention the generally poisonous atmosphere that his comments about women and immigrants have unleashed.

I see very little to worry about.  The environment that Trump hath wrought is ugly now, but it will pass soon enough, and equilibrium will return to our system as it always does.

I began with a comparison to Sarah Palin because I think her own character arc is instructive here.

As you’ll recall, Palin totally shook up the 2008 race when she landed on the underside of the GOP ticket, galvanizing Republican voters with passionate speeches, snappy one-liners and her inspiring, wholesome family.

And then she lost the election by 8 ½ million votes, quit her job and was forever lampooned by Tina Fey and others because—oh, that’s right—she is a total flippin’ idiot.

Palin’s status as an unqualified clown is bleeding obvious to us now, but she made quite a mess before we finally, collectively, decided to treat her like the reality TV sideshow that she is.

With Trump, there are no ambiguities whatsoever.  We know exactly how absurd he is—it’s confirmed every time he opens his mouth—and if he remains a role model for a plurality of Republican voters then, well, that’s because they’re absurd, too.

The party will eventually snap out of it, if only out of self-preservation.  In our lifetimes, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have nominated a candidate so transparently unelectable who, all the while, held no particular political views and was openly detested by virtually every other official in his own party.

Naturally, Democrats are rooting for exactly that, and the liberal media have every reason to keep pretending that this man is a real story.

If I were a Republican voter, I would be horrified by this sordid state of affairs.  As it stands, I can’t imagine being more thankful that I’m not.

That is, unless the Donald somehow secures the nomination and selects a certain former Alaska governor as his running mate.

Political Sniping

Warning:  The following contains spoilers about the movie American Sniper.  Proceed with caution.

Reading the various reactions to Clint Eastwood’s new movie American Sniper, two facts immediately leap out.

First:  No one can seem to agree on the movie’s point of view vis-à-vis the Iraq War.  Some say it’s neutral or apolitical, while others consider it a full-throated endorsement of the theory that American involvement in Mesopotamia was (and is) a good idea.

And second:  In nearly every analysis of what American Sniper is about—and whether it’s any good—the conclusion perfectly matches the politics of the person making the analysis.  Generally speaking, those who opposed the Iraq War also dislike the film, while those who considered the war necessary and just think the movie is great.  Those whose politics are ambivalent, private or nonexistent fall somewhere in between.

Joined with the debate about the movie’s version of Iraq is the depiction of its protagonist, Chris Kyle, the real-life Navy SEAL who killed more Iraqis than any other sniper and, as a consequence, spent the rest of his life struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder.  That is, until he was killed by a fellow veteran who was, himself, stricken with PTSD.

Does American Sniper portray Kyle as a pure All-American Hero and—far more interestingly—should it have?  Here, too, individual answers seem to track with whatever people happened to already think about these subjects.

What is clear, in any case, is that Kyle is given highly sympathetic treatment by Eastwood and is meant to be shown, in the end, as a Good Guy.  What is more, the movie is ultimately meant to be about Kyle and Kyle alone—his experience, his struggles—and is not necessarily interested in the world that is going on around him.

Is this a valid approach to filmmaking?  Can a movie like this be truly apolitical, as so many critics say it is?

In a fiery column in Rolling Stone, journalist Matt Taibbi says no.  Referring to “the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain” as “the real villains in this movie,” Taibbi argues, “Sometimes there’s no such thing as ‘just a human story.’  Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.”

Taking this theory a step further, I think it’s worth considering whether any movie can lay claim to being completely removed from politics of one sort or another.  Or, indeed, whether there is any point in trying.  My inkling is that it can’t and there isn’t, and it’s just as well that this is so.

As it happens, this is not the first time that an ostensibly “personal” Clint Eastwood project has been attacked for having a secret political agenda.

In 2004, Eastwood made a movie called Million Dollar Baby, about a woman who believes her sole purpose in life is to be a professional boxer.  (Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead!)  When she is sucker-punched by an opponent and left paralyzed below the neck, she decides she has no further reason to live, and pleads with her trainer and only friend (played by Eastwood) to unplug her life support and allow her to die.  After a period of struggle and a talk with a local priest, he does just that.

Because both the boxer (played by Hilary Swank) and the trainer are shown as sympathetic characters, the movie was considered by some to be an “endorsement” of assisted suicide, leading to a brief but intense national debate about both the movie and the issue itself.  How irresponsible, many said, for a serious film to portray assisted suicide in a sort-of positive light.

Against this wave of condemnation, the critic Roger Ebert offered the following rebuke“Million Dollar Baby raises fundamental moral issues.  At a moment of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision.  I do not agree with their decision.  But here is the crucial point:  I do believe that these characters would do what they do in this film.  It is entirely consistent with who they are and everything we have come to know about them.”

In other words, movies are about individuals, not causes.  Directors are free to have their characters behave however is natural to them, and it is up to us, the audience, to make moral judgments.  In all cases, however, we should understand such behavior as being specific to those characters—Chris Kyle included—and not infer them to be representative of any larger philosophy of life.

The problem, though, is that we just can’t help ourselves.  As Taibbi points out vis-à-vis American Sniper, movies do not exist in a vacuum.  It’s silly and naïve to think otherwise.

The truth is that everything is political, whether we realize it or not.  Politics is life.  The word itself, in its original Greek form, means “relating to citizens,” meaning every one of us is on the hook.  So long as you’re alive and occasionally leave the house to interact with the rest of humanity (tiresome as it can often be), then you are engaging in the art of politics.

As such, once a movie presumes to be about anything at all, it becomes a political document, and we are free—encouraged, even—to wade through any possible larger meanings it might hold, whatever the director’s intent.

In the current Oscar race, for instance, the big pre-Sniper controversy concerned whether Ava DuVernay’s Selma is unfair in its depiction of Lyndon Johnson circa 1965.  Because it’s about the Civil Rights Movement and its present-day parallels, Selma is political to its core.  (Its theme song, “Glory,” even includes a reference to Ferguson, Mo.)

However, take a deeper look and you’ll find politics intruding upon every last entry on the Oscar shortlist.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is ostensibly about nothing more than the experience of growing up in 21st century America.  But it’s also about single mothers, deadbeat fathers, alcoholic stepfathers, inspiring teachers, and the virtues of hard work.  Do you mean to tell me those are not political issues?  Open a newspaper:  When have they ever not been on the front page?

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a dark comedy about a washed-up movie star attempting to resurrect himself by putting on a Broadway show.  As such, it’s also about the nature of celebrity and fame, the integrity of art and (again) what it means to be a good father.  All political matters.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is about an aspiring drummer and the terrifying music teacher who pushes him to within an inch of his life.  Which means it’s really about the costs of ambition and the lengths that some people will go to achieve greatness and immortality.  In America’s hyper-competitive culture, coupled with our meritocratic national work ethic, what could be more political than that?

And so forth.

So when people say that American Sniper is not a political movie, they are wrong twice.  First, in the view that the movie has no opinion about America’s adventures in Iraq (to wit:  could it really be a coincidence that the one soldier who questions the war’s purpose ends up getting shot in the face?).  And second, in the implication that a Navy sniper’s psychological profile has no political dimension.  As if killing Arabs for a living were a purely personal matter.

Indeed, if American Sniper were truly non-political, we would not be arguing about it at all.  We wouldn’t need to.  And what a boring, worthless movie it would be.

No, the film’s inherent relevance to our national conversation about foreign affairs is what makes it so valuable and compelling.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t a deeply personal story as well.  Of course it is.  That’s what the cliché “the personal is political” is all about.  Chris Kyle’s suffering is real, but it has a context that we must acknowledge in order for it to make any sense.  We can only heed Eastwood’s central message—America must take better care of its veterans—by understanding what makes their return to civilian life so difficult.  There’s no way to do that without returning, sooner or later, to the policies that sent people like Kyle to Iraq in the first place.

Eastwood has been rightly criticized for simplifying this narrative into an old-fashioned “good guys vs. bad guys” story (every Iraqi in the film serves no purpose except to be killed), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should follow his lead.  Judging from the contentious response it has garnered thus far, we haven’t.  However unwittingly, American Sniper has re-ignited one of the most important debates in contemporary American life—namely, have the past dozen years of U.S. foreign policy been one giant dead end?

To that extent, the movie has served a useful purpose.  Through the profile of one person, however lionized, it has provoked people to think more seriously about a subject of global importance they would just as well ignore.

Not bad for a movie that isn’t interested in politics.

Monsters Among Us

Maybe it’s just me, but I found the kid who was drenched in blood, with a red laser dot pointed directly at his forehead, far more sympathetic than the cute, cleaned-up one on the cover of Rolling Stone.

No one likes a preening, narcissistic prima donna with perfect skin.  But someone who spent an entire day rotting in a pool of his own fluids, unable to tend to several dozen open wounds, looking positively defeated when finally taken into custody?  The poor dear.

Rolling Stone ruffled all sorts of feathers with the release of its current issue, whose cover is occupied by the pretty boy face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving of the two Boston Marathon bombers.  Critics howled that the image romanticizes Tsarnaev, making him out as some sort of “rock star.”

In response, a Massachusetts State Police sergeant leaked heretofore classified photographs depicting the capture of Tsarnaev at the end of a daylong manhunt, to remind everyone of the barbarian he really is.

Reading “Jahar’s World,” the article about Tsarnaev in Rolling Stone—which I strongly recommend to everyone—I sensed the light bulb above my head illuminate.  For the first time since the April 15 attack, I felt like I really got it.

But “it,” I do not mean that I understood Tsarnaev himself, and the reasons he might have had to join his brother, Tamerlan, in executing a savage and unforgivable assault on our free society.  Indeed, such insights are beyond the faculties of anyone outside Tsarnaev’s own head, and perhaps Tsarnaev himself.

Rather, I now better comprehend the particular context from which Tsarnaev emerged—the one that led Rolling Stone editors to depict him as they did.

Janet Reitman, the author of the piece, quotes Peter Payack, Tsarnaev’s high school wrestling coach, who says of him, “I knew this kid, and he was a good kid.  And, apparently, he’s also a monster.”

That’s it.  That’s the key to the whole business:  The terrible, frightening prospect that the bad guy was also a good guy.

This is entirely distinct from the profile of the typical teenaged mass murderer—the “loner” who “kept to himself” and “didn’t seem to have any friends” and one day brought his machine gun to school and massacred a few dozen classmates.

As Reitman’s article makes clear, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wasn’t like that at all.  He wasn’t a loner, he didn’t keep to himself, and he had plenty of friends, several of whom Reitman interviewed for the piece.  They seem like friendly, normal folk, and so does he.  No one suspected he was capable of committing an act of terrorism because he never gave anyone a reason to be suspicious.

Indeed, Dzhokhar here is seen not merely as a nice guy, but also as uncommonly generous and a positive influence on his community.

He would often go out of his way to do favors for friends.  He seemed to be perennially carefree and at ease—aided, no doubt, by his apparently bottomless supply of marijuana.

He cared passionately about his Muslim faith, but unlike his elder brother, showed no desire to enforce its values upon others.  Indeed, he talked about religion so infrequently that many of his friends—Christians and Jews among them—did not know he was a Muslim at all.

Details like these, taken together, lead one to an inevitable and frightening conclusion:  With just a bit of cosmic shuffling—slight alterations of time and space—Dzhokhar could have been a friend of yours or of mine, and neither of us would necessarily have felt a fool for forging such an acquaintance.

He could have been you or me.

To restate the point by Payack, the wrestling coach:  Dzhokhar was not a super villain, devilishly biding his time until the perfect opportunity to unleash holy hell finally presented itself.  Rather, he was a decent kid who committed an evil act, for which he cannot and should not be forgiven.

The question then becomes:  What do we do with this information?  Does any of it really matter?

In legal terms, it matters not one whit.  A crime is a crime, and any good that Dzhokhar might have done prior to April 15 is irrelevant background noise in a court of law.

Probably the only lasting use of the details in “Jahar’s World” will be sociological, forcing us to pause about what we think we know about human nature and the people with whom we surround ourselves every day.

The problem, as this whole sordid episode suggests, is that the conclusions to which we might ultimately be led may well be too horrible to contemplate.