Rand Richards Cooper
Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.
By this author
Some follow-up thoughts to my review of the drone-warfare movie, Eye in the Sky (You can read the review here.) The film explores the decision of whether to use a drone missile attack to wipe out a team of Somali terrorists inside a compound in Nairobi, Kenya, who are suiting up for an imminent suicide bombing. After surveillance cameras reveal a nine-year-old girl selling bread at a stand just outside the compound, we follow the military and civilian command’s agony of decision: is it justifiable to kill a nine-year-old in cold blood in order to eliminate terrorists plotting to kill many more innocents?
One question I had as I watched the movie, and then as I wrote the review, is whether feature films are the best way, or even a good way, to illuminate ethical dilemmas. As soon as I say that, of course, I think of a bunch of mainstream films over recent decades that do just that -- Silkwood, The China Syndrome, A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Concussion, and, of course, Zero Dark Thirty. In taking up political, environmental, military and other scandals and dilemmas, such films constitute the muckraking ethical arm of Hollywood. I guess your sense of whether they dignify and focus significant ethical conundrums, or dilute and trivialize them, will depend on what kind of moviegoer you are. Do you want pathos, or perspective? And are these aims mutually exclusive?
The taut military drama Eye in the Sky stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, a hardnosed British officer overseeing, from a bunker in the English countryside, a drone anti-terror mission in far-off Kenya. The mission is intelligence gathering; but upon discovering that the Somali Al Shabaab terrorists they’ve been spying on are plotting an imminent suicide bombing, Powell orders a drone missile attack on their hideout, a domicile located in a crowded Somali slum in Nairobi. The actual firing is to be done by a U.S.
Question: So where are you in American society if you have no cash in your pocket and you don’t drive a car? Answer: in the year 2025, or thereabouts. The cashless and driverless society, in other words, of our near future.
To me the most fascinating aspect of the U.S. currency redo and the Harriet Tubman $20 bill (aside from Alexander Hamilton being spared elimination via the popularity of a Broadway musical!) is that, as the Times notes, it’s not certain how long a life the Tubman bill will enjoy, since its arrival around 2020 is likely to be followed soon after by the abandonment of cash. To be sure, such prognostications aren’t exact science; the cashless society has been promised for at least half a century, and the driverless car has long been an abiding staple of pop futurism. But now we truly are at the brink of both changes; we’ve reached that moment where the remaining obstacles are not technological, but logistical and – most important – psychological. That is to say, in us.
To my mind the biggest question about Donald Trump, as I wrote back in January, is whether he represents a paradigm shift for Republicans or merely a passing phenomenon – whether he’s Barry Goldwater or, say, John Anderson. (Remember John Anderson? Probably not, and that’s the point.) As Matt Sitman noted here yesterday, an article in the Times last week by Michael Lind, titled “Trumpism and Clintonism are the Future,” argued for the Goldwater model, portraying Trump as avatar of a new Republican Party – and identifying parallel shifts on the Democratic side. The article is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with all of it.
But for now I’m going to put politics to one side and focus on personalities. The other night we watched on TV as Hillary fielded the question from the little girl about whether she, Hillary, would get the same pay as President that a man would. Hillary nimbly answered with a laughing rejoinder that elicited mirth while scoring a good political point. My wife and daughter cheered aloud. But my response was more grudging – as I find it often is to Hillary. I have no doubt she’ll be a capable President, and I expect to vote for her. But I don’t warm to her, and I’m hard-pressed to say why. Polls show all the candidates garnerning unprecedented personal negatives. I get that when it comes to Ted Cruz (smug self-aggrandizing weasel universally despised by his colleagues) and Trump (well, Trump). But why does Hillary inspire such dislike?
With Pope Francis’ exhortation on the family in mind, I’m going to ruminate on the daily ins and outs of negotiating with your young child -- and I’ll understand if some of you, for whom this kind of thing is well back in life’s rearview mirror, pass on by.
I view daily life with my daughter as dividing into the “appreciating moments” and the “teaching-and-learning moments.” Sometimes these categories overlap, but often they don’t. A ten-year-old is beginning to assert independence self-consciously, which means pushing borders, taking those tools of reasoning you’ve given her and wielding them against you, and blocking your path with an ever-harder-to-budge obstinacy. Petty arguments proliferate, and molehills become mountains; behind every small disagreement looms a potential battle of wills. One skill you sharpen in the years of being a parent is what I think of as “limb spotting” – seeing arguments before they arise, and quickly reckoning whether taking a stand is worth it. Do I want to go out on that limb, really?
Because once you’re out there, it’s hard to crawl back. And (switching metaphors here), once the battle is joined, the fog of war descends, and it’s easy to get disoriented. It amazes me, how easily I can lose track of the basic goal. Always the question should be, What am I trying to accomplish in this interaction? Keep in mind that there is a large category of things that shouldn’t have to be argued about, except that, well, it’s a ten-year-old on the other side of the issue. But even the pettiest conflict can yield lessons, if you pay attention.
Every spring I join a public-radio discussion of a literary competition called The Tournament of Books. In the T of B, sixteen novels published in the preceding year are put into a tournament bracket to compete against each other in head-to-head competitions judged by a panel of writers and critics. The competition was dreamed up by writers Kevin Guilfoyle and John Warner as a semi-tongue-in-cheek literary alternative to March Madness hoop dreams. The winner gets a statuette of a rooster (you know, a writer to crow about), and, with luck, a boost in sales.
For me, it’s a way to get a lot of novel-reading done (sixteen in ten weeks!), and to trawl for new books and writers I might come to cherish.
One favorite of mine this year was The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy. A terrifically impressive debut novel (and National Book Award finalist), it takes up the lives of the thirteen children of Viola and the late Francis Turner, most living in and around Detroit. The title refers to the family’s debt-laden and recently abandoned house, located in an East Side neighborhood that has suffered mass desertion in the economic disaster of the past decade. Though she keeps us mostly in the present – with Francis long dead and Viola an ailing and elderly matriarch -- Flournoy jumps intermittently back to Alabama during WWII and the events in the couple’s early life that led them to journey north. A multi-generational family epic, The Turner House creates a poignant portrait of the downfall of Detroit, telling the history of the African-American Great Migration via the triumphs and travails of one family.
No essay this time, just a quick thought and some links. In case you missed it, Nicholas Confessore published a piece in the Times a few days ago exploring the impact and significance of Trump on, and to, the GOP. “How the GOP Elite Lost its Voters to Donald Trump” is a good companion piece to David Frum’s Atlantic essay of a few months ago, “The Great Republican Revolt.” Both cast Trump as harbinger and agent of a great undoing in the GOP, and both put blame squarely on the party itself. Frum writes that “The GOP planned a dynastic restoration in 2016. Instead, it triggered an internal class war.” Confessore lays out a revolt against “a party elite that abandoned its most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty over the past decade as the party’s donors, lawmakers and lobbyists prospered.” In so doing, he says, the GOP “paved the way for a Trump-like figure to steal its base, as it lost touch with less affluent voters and misunderstood their growing anguish.”
Bear with me as I shift our gaze from the drama of our politics to the even more fractious realities of Europe. Looking over there these days, you wonder if we’re seeing not just widespread problems, but the failure of European union itself. Like some marriages between people, that marriage of nations seems designed for success only: it works fine as long as things go well, but grievous flaws emerge under pressure. Two cataclysms have provided that pressure: the economic meltdown; and the refugee crisis spurred by catastrophe in the Arab world and inflamed – as we saw again last week -- by ISIS terror.
While the economic crisis can bewilder anyone lacking a PhD in economics, the second crisis is easy to grasp. Take southeastern Europe’s porous gateway to strife-ravaged areas in the Levant, add the erasure of interior border controls wrought by the EU Schengen Agreement, plus the liberal asylum policies in prosperous Western European nations... and you get a tidal wave of desperate humanity aimed at Europe. Complicating things, once those refugees arrive, is the hamfistedness many Euro countries have with multiculturalism, and the particularly vexing nature of the European-Muslim encounter.
The case of Germany is both emblematic and crucial, so I’ll focus on it. The Merkel government greeted the refugee influx with exceptional generosity, taking in an astonishing one million asylum seekers last year. Consider the implications of that number. It’s more than the U.S. accepted in the entire last decade -- and remember, the U.S. population is four times greater than Germany’s. Imagine if we agreed to take four million Arab refugees this year. When President Obama pledged to accept a paltry 10,000, all hell broke loose.
I listened yesterday to an engaging conversation on NPR’s On Point with Thomas Frank, the journalist and political analyst whose new book is Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? It’s worth listening to, if you’re a Democrat uncertain of the party’s current direction and paying attention to the Sanders-Clinton race.
You’ll remember Thomas Frank from his provocative first book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), in which he returned to his home state to dissect how conservatives used culture-war issues to bewilder and bemuse working-class people into voting against their own economic interests—in effect, parlaying Nixon’s Southern Strategy into a kind of Midwestern Strategy to secure the heartland for the Republican Party.
Whatever you think about this point of view, Frank can be credited for focusing on economic inequality; well before it became topic du jour on the talk-show circuit, he had it in his crosshairs as the vexing hallmark of contemporary American life and politics. His new book assigns Democrats a big portion of the blame. Put succinctly, Frank’s charge is that the party has crassly abandoned its traditional working-class base in order to romance wealthy and ambitious professionals—and that Bill Clinton did the heavy lifting in this betrayal. On his website Frank charges bluntly that “the Democrats are a class party in the most basic sense of the phrase, and the socioeconomic group whose interests they represent most enthusiastically—the satisfied and prosperous professional class—simply doesn’t care all that much about income inequality.”
Just a quick note to commune with those who enjoy, and extend condolences to those who endure, the annual spring rite of March Madness that begins today. It’s the time of year when for three extended weekends, my calendar and, where possible, my work and social life are organized around certain blocked-off slots. Those slots are filled with my watching college basketball. I have done my office-pool bracket and am ready to roll. Or to recline, anyway: for the next few weeks my wife knows that my default location, Thursday through Sunday night, will be on the recliner in front of TV.
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