Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor. 

By this author

Going, Going, Not Quite Gone

With summer approaching, a note on three pastimes that were staples of my youth – time-capsule American pleasures, one still thriving even as the other two sink into the mists of time.  

I was aimed in this nostalgic direction by a totally delightful article by the incomparable Dan Barry, in the New York Times ten days ago, titled “The Lost Art of Duckpin Bowling.” In part a profile of Amy Bisson Sykes, the world’s top female duckpin bowler, it’s also a funny and nostalgic look at a vanishing world.

Having spent much of my life in Connecticut, I was unaware what a local phenomenon the sport of duckpin bowling is (by the way, if you chortle at the idea of duckpin bowling as a sport, please take a look at Amy Sykes’ strapping physique). Its origins trace to the 1890s, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and Barry’s article reaches back into duckpin lore, retrieving tales of the nimble-footed “pin boys,” who cleared away fallen pins and set new ones, and the local tinkerer whose invention, the automatic pinsetter, ultimately put them out of business. Live by technology, die by technology: since those machines are no longer produced for duckpin bowling, no new lanes can be built -- and the closing of an alley brings other owners in like a swarm of vultures, Barry explains, to scavenge parts.

So duckpin bowling is dying out: from a peak of over 450 alleys a half century ago, the nation is down to just 41. One of them, Ducks on the Avenue, is right here in my own neighborhood in Hartford. It’s a windowless basement room, next to the CVS, where we have twice held our daughter’s birthday party (bad pizza, funny hats, beer for the grownups), and from whose open door arises the signature explosive clonk and clatter of falling duckpins, taking me back to similar parties of my own half a century ago, at Family Bowl in Waterford, CT. It’s a sound that to me will forever mean childhood.

Darwin's Team

Sunday night I watched Game 2 of the NBA finals, in which the Golden State Warriors crushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers by thirty points. The Warriors are led by MVP guard Steph Curry and his sure-shootin’ sidekick, Klay Thompson. This backcourt Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid shot their way through a season of prolific scoring, breaking records right and left. Winning their first 24 games (a record) and 54 straight home games over the past two seasons (another record), the team this year managed to notch a record 73 victories while losing only nine games, eclipsing the mark set in 1995-96 by the Chicago Bulls and their incandescent hero, Michael Jordan.

The records Golden State broke this year are the very definition of dominance. And they did it with a thrills-and-frills style, centered on Steph Curry’s virtuoso game, that frequently inspired awe. You can see a sampling of Curry’s impossible wizardry here. He is the kind of player whose feats of shooting and ball handling leave fans agog.

And yet I’m hesitant to embrace the team... so much so, in fact, that for the first time ever – strange feeling! -- I’m rooting for LeBron. Partly it’s an instinctive preference for the underdog. Partly it’s a grudging reaction to the smirk that Curry wears on his face (not his fault, I know, he’s just enjoying himself; but I guess I prefer intensity as an athlete’s default expression). Partly it’s the team’s status as the project of a group of Silicon Valley venture-capitalist investors, gazillionaires who pride themselves on taking a hyper-corporate approach to the team’s success (you can read about their approach in a terrific Times Magazine article here.)

But mostly my grudging response concerns the core feature of the Warrior’s genius. Their success on the court reflects an extreme reliance on three-point shooting – a long-distance bombardment the likes of which the pro game has never seen. To understand the extent of it, look at Curry’s numbers. Three years ago he set an all-time NBA record by making 272 three-point shots. Last year he broke it by making 286. This year he broke it again... making 402! An article from the Times’ statistics-based column, “The Upshot,” reveals graphically how Curry’s use of – and success with – the three-point shot is literally off the charts.

The Escape Artist

Is Donald Trump a fascist? Let me approach this question by taking a close look at the mechanics of how Trump operates as a candidate – specifically, at his astounding ability to elude the many traps set for presidential candidates during a campaign. Again and again political commentators have announced Trump’s imminent demise, following some gaffe or outrage. Yet the kind of slip lethal to other candidates fails to derail him. Always he gets away with it, and in fact often finds his popularity bolstered, rather than weakened.

How does he do it?  Consider – a propos of fascism -- the exchange between Trump and Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” some months back. It followed the flap over a maxim that Trump had retweeted: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Inspiring... except, as everyone knows by now, that its originator was Mussolini. Uh-oh!

With Trump as guest on his show soon thereafter, Chuck Todd raised the Mussolini tweet, asking the candidate if he knew its provenance.  “I know who said it,” Trump responded. “But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”

Todd pounced.  “Do you want to be associated with a fascist?” he asked.

“No,” Trump answered; “I want to be associated with interesting quotes. And hey, it certainly got your attention, didn’t it?”

Does anyone still doubt that Trump is a force to be reckoned with? A seasoned TV political journalist, Chuck Todd thought he had Trump on the ropes. I mean, who wants to be associated with a fascist? According to the conventional script, now was when the candidate winces and remorsefully retracts the tweet, expressing regret that it was misunderstood and thanking the journalist for raising the issue. Humility and retreat, in other words.

But not the Donald. No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes! Parry, then thrust: And it got your attention, didn’t it? Touché! In the space of two seconds, via a nifty little rhetorical dodge, Trump turned a looming disaster into a sparkling little triumph. Take that, Chuck Todd and the rest of you! You think you’re going to trap me in some tricky little talk-show snare? Fat chance! No, I’m going to take the little pile of doggy doo-doo you’re trying to get me to step in, and bury you in it! I’m going to turn this garbage into gold!

Trump performs this kind of alchemy again and again. He’s a magician, a Houdini-like escape artist. A Times article portrays some nervousness in the Hillary camp about what constitute the best tactics in campaigning against Trump. They are right to be nervous. I know I am.

Safety Schools

An article in my home newspaper raises again the topic of college life and the “safe space” that figures prominently in student conceptions of education today.

The Hartford Courant reported last month on a successful effort at Hartford’s Trinity College to cancel an appearance by rap artist Action Bronson, whose violently misogynist lyrics offended many. A petition bearing 1,000 signatures – hefty participation in a college of just 2300 – asserted that Bronson’s performance on campus “would create a psychologically harmful and drastically unsafe space” for women, LGBT students and survivors of sexual assault. The student concert organizers who booked the performer agreed to rescind the invitation, apologizing, in a campus-wide email, for not doing “a thorough enough check” of Bronson’s lyrics and videos. Apparently they first considered allowing him onstage as long as he refrained from performing certain songs, including one called “Consensual Rape.” Ultimately, though, they decided that “the very act of bringing Action Bronson to this campus runs counter to the college's obligation to protect the emotional and physical safety of its students.”

A Trinity senior who co-authored the petition described feeling “relieved,” and remarked that “people are kind of feeling their faith in humanity has been restored. We all came together and made a decision — hey, we don't think this is OK.” As for the administration, a letter from a dean informed alumni and parents that the rapper’s prospective visit “caused a great deal of hurt and alienation in our community;” that his lyrics “are not in line with Trinity's mission or what we stand for as a community;” and that banning him was “the right decision.” “The learning that has taken place,” the dean wrote, “has focused on the importance of dialogue that leads to a safe, respectful, and caring community.”

Trans Links

It’s been fascinating to see the issue of transgender rights migrate from a mere blip at the edge of the cultural and political radar, to a burning topic of contention, with front-page headlines seemingly every day. I’ve appreciated the frank back-and-forth that dotCommonweal readers have engaged in, in my posts and Mollie Wilson O’Reilly’s as well. It isn’t always easy to discuss this topic with openness, humility and a readiness to listen and learn.

Trans America Redux

As I predicted last summer, transgender rights have continued to loom large in the national conversation. Every day brings another story. Today it’s a front-page Times article about a trans boy in a small town in Vermont and the disagreements over what bathroom s/he will use in high school. Yesterday it was a RAND Corporation study, commissioned by the Defense Department, which found that allowing trans soldiers to serve openly, in the words of one defense analyst quoted in the piece, “is a nonissue in terms of the impact on the budget, military readiness, unit cohesion, and morale.”

And the other week it was the eruption of legal action and political angst in North Carolina, where the passage of bathroom ordinances restricting use by birth gender has generated a large backlash, with the federal government intervening on behalf of the right of trans people to use the bathroom of their choice, and a counter-backlash, with traditional-minded Carolinians expressing resentment at the federal government for stepping in. The driver for such stories is a directive, issued by the Education Department to schools, that extends Title IX protection, which bans discrimination based on sex, to transgender people. President Obama has clarified and forcefully defended the directive, and its application to school facilities, as a matter of protecting children’s dignity.  

In all these “pee in peace” controversies, I’m struck by two questions. The first is practical. As pragmatic Americans shouldn’t we be asking ourselves, how in the world can one enforce a bathroom ordinance such as the one passed by North Carolina? Even if you granted legitimacy to the idea of assigning bathrooms by birth gender, how would you make it work? Would we employ someone for every bathroom in the US? And what would they do? Check birth certificates? Check genitals?

And if a law or regulation is blatantly impracticable and unenforceable, what is the point of passing it in the first place?

The (Non) Apology Tour

As the New York Times has reported, President Obama will visit Hiroshima later this month, the first sitting American president to do so since the U.S. destroyed the city with an atomic bomb in August 1945. Together with the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later, the attack killed on the order of 200,000 Japanese civilians and ended World War II.   

No sooner had the announcement of Obama’s visit been made than the White House disavowed any intention to apologize for those deaths or to reevaluate the decision to cause them. “He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” announced Benjamin J. Rhodes, a national security adviser. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest elaborated the point, saying that the president “appreciates... that President Truman made this decision for the right reasons,” said Earnest.

Earnest’s comment is nuanced to the point of unintelligibility. (What is he actually saying? That President Obama understands that Truman didn’t order the bombing out of a sadistic desire to commit mass murder?) The truth is, such careful, cautious parsing fits this president. To visit Hiroshima and say nothing about the decision to drop the bomb is precisely the kind of carefully hedged and calibrated action that makes Obama such a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty kind of president. On the glass-half-full side, well, unlike any of the eleven Commanders-in-Chief before him since Truman, he is making the trip. No caveat issued by his press secretary can efface the symbolism of the visit. And, of course, Obama knows it.  

A Tale of Two Photos

I was only nine years old, but I recall the image clearly:  an Olympic medal ceremony, two African-American athletes standing on the podium, black-gloved fists raised, heads bowed. It’s fair to say that the 1968 protest by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, and the political brouhaha that followed, is one of my earliest political memories.

I was reminded of it by a front-page story a few days ago about a photo currently sparking controversy. It shows a group of African-American women, all members of this year’s graduating West Point class, posing in what’s known as an “Old Corps” photograph. Dating back to the 19th century, “Old Corps” photos show groups of cadets dressed in formal regalia, celebrating their impending graduation. The current one makes for a striking update, sixteen black women in traditional gray dress uniforms with sabers at their belts. And one additional element: they are all raising their fists.

The Times reports that the image, posted on Facebook, “touched off a barrage of criticism in and out of the armed forces, as some commenters accused the women of allying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and sowing racial divisions in a military that relies on assimilation.” The article outlines the military’s emphasis on an apolitical officer corps, and quotes a former drill sergeant who argues that the women’s gesture affiliates them with a movement “known for inflicting violent protest throughout various parts of the United States” -- and as such constitutes a political statement, while in uniform, “that goes against Army policies.” He likens the gesture to occasions when he disciplined soldiers for making a Nazi salute in photographs. If the Nazi salute is punished, why not the black-power fist?

The Joy of Love

I’m writing today about a remarkable Catholic couple and their marriage, life, and death together. My wife, daughter and I went to Maine last weekend to attend a wake and funeral mass for Lucille and Robert Robinson, parents of one of my best friends, Michael Robinson. Married for sixty-three years, Lucille and Bob died within six hours of one another—on the same night—as they slept side-by-side in the assisted-living facility where they’d been living, in declining health, for two years. They were ninety-three and ninety-five years old, respectively.

Their wake was at a funeral home in downtown Portland, a stately former residence whose rooms were filled with Robinson family photographs and memorabilia, creating a warmly domestic feeling as the couple’s four children, nine grandchildren and many friends gathered to exchange sympathy and stories. I had certainly never been to a double spousal wake before, and it was deeply comforting and apt to see husband and wife in mutual repose, their caskets arrayed alongside one another. Both held rosaries, and on Bob’s chest lay the medal and insignia of the pontifical honor of the Order of St. Gregory, which he received—twice—for his service to the church. Around the room the panoply of photos brought back the couple’s youth; especially lovely was a dashing shot of the two smiling out the back window of the car as they drove off from their wedding in 1952.

The Robinsons’ story forms a template for American Catholic life in the last century. Growing up during the Great Depression, both Lucille and Bob served in the military during World War II, she as a Navy nurse, he as an Army sergeant. After war’s end they returned to join the wave of vets whose belated college educations and subsequent hard-working lives helped propel postwar America to world dominance. The first members of their immigrant families (hers Italian, his Irish) to attain higher education, they both attended Boston College, where they met at a party during Lent in 1951. At the party, as they drank lukewarm beer, Lucille wondered aloud when Mass was being held—and Bob quickly recited the schedule. Piety and warm beer: it turned out to be the perfect recipe for romance. The couple was married within a year, inaugurating a family tradition, since thirty-five years later their son Mark would also meet his future wife at B.C.—as would Michael as well, five years after that. Maybe the college could use this in its marketing effort. Meet your Mate at B.C.!

Droning On

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?