33 and Me: Fallen nobility, losing wars, arbitraging the Black Plague and my further adventures in genealogy
I recently took a dive into genealogy. I blame bourbon and Donald Trump.
If you’ve read my political posts you know I fight the good fight and all of that, but sometimes I just get tired and discouraged. Tired of the direction I see our country heading and discouraged at the realization that there are a great many people who seem OK with that direction. And, in all likelihood, always have been even if I didn’t want to believe it. It’s sobering stuff so, sometimes, the only way to deal with it is to get drunk.
A couple of weeks ago, once again tired and discouraged, I got drunk and asked myself if I had any claim whatsoever to citizenship or permanent residence anywhere but here. Then, before doing a thing about it, I went to sleep. The next morning I was back to wanting to fight the good fight, but it’s always good know if you have an exit, so I decided to run out the ground ball I’d hit the night before. I signed up for a trial account on ancestry.com and began climbing up the tree trunk.
While I waded into some of this before with my mother’s family in service of a good, bloody yarn of murder and insanity, I knew virtually nothing about my father's side of the family until these past couple of weeks. I won’t bore people with a full-on family tree, but here are some fun facts and random observations one finds when one dives into this stuff.
Thirty-three fun facts:
1. I didn’t go too crazy building my family tree out horizontally because that gets really labor intensive really fast. Exponents are no joke. Besides, cousins are mostly bullshit anyway. Sure, we can all trace ourselves back to the same few thousand homo sapiens who survived the last ice age, but you only have to go back a handful of generations until we’re all basically fucking cousins. I’ll leave the bullshit cousins to people who are super into genealogy. Instead I just focused on direct patrilineal and matrilineal lines, figuring they’re a bit more meaningful.
2. While my name is Craig Calcaterra I didn't look too deeply at Calcaterras, either, because I'm not really a Calcaterra for genealogy purposes. My dad was born Richard McIntyre, was adopted and had his name changed by his stepfather, Garfield Calcaterra, when he was in his early teens. I didn’t know any Calcaterras beyond my dad and his sister growing up and, frankly, the name doesn’t have much significance for me beyond its current record-keeping function and the love-hate relationship I have with being extremely Googleable;
3. I took a quick look back at the Calcaterras out of curiosity, of course. Garfield's father was from Milan and his mother was from Austria. They immigrated in the late 1890s, settled in Iron Mountain, Michigan and had a zillion kids (there are a LOT more Calcaterras than you may imagine). One of them, Garfield’s youngest brother, Ralph Calcaterra, ended up being a super successful real estate developer in Palo Alto and Las Vegas and died in his 90s, just a few years ago, a pretty wealthy man. There are Calcaterra Streets in both San Jose and Las Vegas, both of which are named after him. For years friends have sent me photos of themselves in front of the signs and we’ve joked about it. I had no idea until the past couple of weeks, though, that they were named after someone I’m actually related to. Well, sorta related to. Certainly not related to enough to have gotten a piece of that Bay Area real estate scratch, sadly. Which, by the way, is literally the only money that has been in my family for about, oh, the last 300 or 400 years or so. But more about that in a moment.
4. My dad has known he was born a McIntyre for most of his life, but apart from an aunt who sort of floated in and out of his childhood, he didn’t know any of them or anything about them. He assumed the name was Irish. Actually, it’s Scottish. I suspected this because of the spelling but I was able to establish it for certain when I traced the direct male line of McIntyres back to the early 18th century when my sixth-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1712-63), came over from Islay, Scotland with his wife Margaret and a couple of kids.
5. The McIntyres were part of the Argyll Settlement, which consisted of three boat-loads of families, totaling 400 some-odd people, which settled in what is now Washington County, New York between 1738-1740. The McIntyres arrived on the second boatload, in June of 1739 on a ship called The Happy Return. Lachlan Campbell was the captain. I only know this because there are a whole bunch of Lachlan Campbell descendants who seem to spend a lot of time on ancestry.com. Note: your ability to figure out your family tree without actually doing shoe-leather research in old libraries and government offices is directly proportional to the kind of PR your ancestors gave their ancestors.
6. The Argyll Settlement (sometimes called the Argyle Settlement, which gave the name to the town of Argyle, New York) was kind of a scam, actually. Captain Campbell put it together, getting the King and the Governor of New York to promise families 1,000 acres of Hudson Valley farmland for each adult and 350 acres for each kid. The motivation: respectable Englishmen and their families in Albany and points south kept getting raided by Indians and they wanted some Scottish tomahawk fodder to create a buffer.
Don’t judge, man. People have done worse things to get some land.
Anyway, when the Argyll families got there, guess what? That’s right, no land. They were allowed to settle and farm but they didn’t get title for another 25 years when the Governor of New York finally gave in. The McIntyres got their land — only about 500 acres in all, so they were still kinda ripped off — in 1764 in what is now Fort Edward, New York. They’d spend the next several generations farming that land. For all I know they still are. My third-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1821-96) went west in the 1840s, however, leaving them to it. I should maybe look and see if I have any cousins still living in Fort Edward. Wait, no, forget that. Like I said: cousins are bullshit. Let’s carry on.
7. I can’t find anything about the first Nicholas McIntyre or his ancestors beyond the fact that he was born in Islay, Scotland around 1712 or so. I can trace his wife Margaret’s family back pretty damn far, though. She was a Patterson, and a direct line of Pattersons go back to my 14th-great grandfather, Thomas, who lived around Edinburgh in the late 1400s. If you trace other various matrilineal lines up through that family you can find your way into Scottish nobility, including the Park Clan (going back to the mid-1400s, also around Edinburgh), the Cockburn Clan (early-1400s) and the Home Clan (late 1300s). The most distant direct ancestor of that line I have found so far is a dude named David Home, 1st Baron of Wedderburn (1382-1453), who is my 18th-great grandfather. His family resided in Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire, Scotland for quite a few generations. The old one, not the current one. The current one only goes back to the 1770s and is so nouveau riche. Must be embarrassing for the people who have it now, really. They probably have fish knives and stuff, bless their hearts.
8. At least I think that was my 18th-great grandfather’s title and at least I think he lived in Wedderburn Castle. I’m a tad uncertain because one thing I discovered in all of this research is that people who do amateur genealogy seem to enjoy fudging it a bit if it makes their family look better. I couldn’t find any reason to question these particular lines, but some other person on ancestry.com who was looking at another random line to which I am related — some bullshit cousin, I’m sure — tried to tie in some pretty famous Anglican Bishop who was involved in a bit of history with Queen Elizabeth I as a something-something-great-grandfather of ours.
That would’ve been pretty cool! Except it made no logical sense for about 11 reasons that took only about ten seconds to Google.
Among those reasons: as far as I can tell via non-ancestry.com research, that guy had no kids and was never married because, in his heart, he was really still a Catholic priest even if he converted in order to keep from being imprisoned (note: he was imprisoned anyway and died there; do NOT fuck with Queen Elizabeth, man). So, yeah, that seems pretty dubious and is probably the case of a similar name and a bit of aspirational exuberance resulting in a sketchy family tree connection. There’s a phrase in media about stories being “too good to check.” There’s a notion in the law and in law enforcement about cases being a bit too neat. I think that applies to a lot of genealogy stuff too.
That being said, I think what I found out about my family between the 14th and 18th centuries is more or less correct. The specifics are less interesting to me than the patterns, however.
9. One clear pattern: my male ancestors, going back to those old Lords and castle-dwellers, were really good at falling down the social ladder as generations went on. I’m the direct descendant of a lot of third sons of fourth sons who were squeezed out of titles or land holdings in favor of older brothers or their sister’s husbands or by simple bad luck or bad choices. After their downfall they’d drift out on their own, somewhat aimlessly it seems. Thankfully they were, occasionally, lifted back up by good women and their more stable families. My family is still a pretty itinerant bunch, but when they have managed to stop and breathe for 50-70 years it was because a woman slapped some temporary sense and respectability into them. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.
10. My family also had a really bad habit of picking the wrong side in wars. What follows is a brief survey.
11. One of those Lords of Wedderburn — my 15th-great grandfather — fought and died on the losing side in the Battle of Flooden Field. Thankfully for my sake he did so after having kids. This was offset by another ancestor — some random English nobleman who was one of those third sons of fourth sons — who fought on the winning English side at Flooden Field. We’ll call that one a draw.
12. Those two branches of the family would not meet up again for about 350 years, this time in Indiana of all places, when my great-grandfather — descendant of the dead Scottish guy — married my great-grandmother — descendant of the victorious English guy. Imagine fighting a war for the survival of your name, your clan, your land, and your life, only to have it all end up in some podunk farmer’s wedding in friggin’ Indiana.
13. I can trace my mother’s family, the Kniffens, back to the English village of Kniveton (the name was a bastardization of he village) in Derbyshire. The family became fairly wealthy landowners by — I shit you not — buying up a bunch of dead people’s land after the Black Plague. That was pretty savvy! It also got them granted a title of minor nobility, which just goes to show you how messed up capitalism is, now and then. Or maybe that was feudalism. Whatever.
14. Things went well for the Knivetons/Kniffens for a couple of hundred years and they eventually owned several thousand acres. The rents were pouring in. Again, savvy! What wasn’t so savvy, however, was when my tenth-great grandfather, Sir Andrew Kniveton (d. 1669), began to believe he was an actual knight instead of some landlord with a courtesy title earned over the dead bodies of plague victims and spent WAY too much time and WAY too much money fighting on the Royalist side of the English Civil War. The Royalists lost, of course, and while grandpa Andy didn’t lose his head like Charles I did, he had his title stripped, lost a ton of money and ended up having to sell off almost all of his lands. His son, my ninth-great-grandfather, wisely bolted Oliver Cromwell and England for the New World.
15. The Kniffens were born to lose, it seems, because after about 130 years of some rather prosperous farming in New York and New Jersey they went Royalist again during the Revolutionary War. The king lost again, natch, so they had to flee to Canada in 1781. As I’ve noted in the past, subsequent Kniffens became farmers, roofers, murder victims, truck drivers and such. We get by as best we can.
16. Finally, the whole reason the McIntyres and all the others of the Argyll Settlement left Scotland was because they either took part in or were the children of those who took part in the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 which — anyone? anyone? — yeah, was a losing cause. As a result, political and economic conditions for people in western Scotland went south, crops failed and a famine hit. By the 1730s there was every reason to leave, so they left.
17. Thankfully, my family got their heads on straight, militarily speaking, after that:
Since then my grandfather, father and brother have all served the U.S. Navy during wartime. We’re due for a traitor, frankly. If I had to wager right now it’s Anna, but time will tell. Carlo has some moxie too, and they both have a strong distrust of authority.
18. After some time as a farmhand, my great-grandfather, William Woodford McIntyre (1881-1960), left Indiana where his people had been for a couple of generations and married the daughter of that Civil War hero. They moved up to Detroit, presumably for a job in an auto plant. He has a passport application from 1917 in which he said he intended to go to England and France to study aircraft manufacturing and design, but I don’t know if he ever went. As it was, the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses have him listed as working at a tool and die place. His son, my grandfather, Jim McIntyre (1914-1983), was listed as working at the same tool and die place on the 1940 census. At 25, he was still living at home. That year he met and married Irene Lazar (1916-1978), my grandmother.
19. Speaking of the census, the pre-1950 censuses were amazing. Instead of sampling, they simply went door to door and wrote down the name of every man, woman and child in the place, by hand, including their age, their job if they had one, their income if they cared to share along what languages were spoken in the house. Given current attitudes about privacy — and controversies about whether it’s even legitimate to ask about certain things — it’s insane to even think about the modern census going into that level of detail. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine doing genealogy research without those old censuses because they are a goldmine. Indeed, it’s much easier to find out stuff about a dead great-grandfather than a living uncle because of them.
20. That said, it’s worth asking whether genealogy is really all that important to begin with. At best it’s an exercise in privileged distortion. There are loads of records, going back centuries, for those descended from people from the British Isles or the parts of Continental Europe lucky enough to not have been bombed to bits. If, however, your family came from places that were bombed to bits — or if your ancestors were black, Indigenous, Jewish, Roma or were people who were otherwise systematically enslaved or exterminated by the folks whose records are intact — genealogy is a bit of a different matter. It’s a pretty superfluous bit of business, really. Do people other than whites descended from well-off Europeans do it? I have no idea. All I know is that if your roots go back to bombed-out and/or exterminated and/or enslaved peoples it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can easily track, even if you want to. The people whose histories are well-documented have spent centuries wiping out the histories of those whose are not.
This was evident when I made a brief foray into my paternal grandmother’s side of the family.
21. My great-grandfather, Abraham Lazar (1882-1954), was born in Romania. The town is unknown, as are the names of his parents or siblings. All that is known is that he was Jewish and was coming of age in the 1890s at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Romania, with laws being passed to prevent Jews from attending college, voting and participating in certain trades. It seems likely that, against this backdrop, Abraham’s parents thought it best to get their son out of the country to find a better opportunity elsewhere.
22. And they did. How? I have no real idea. All I know for sure is that he somehow got to England, alone, and then immediately traveled from Liverpool to Montreal on the ship SS Lake Champlain of the Elder Dempster Beaver Line, arriving alone, on August 4, 1900. He eventually got to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I have no idea how. He then met his wife, Dora Sofferin (1886-1970), whose family, also Jewish, came over from Russia and settled in Grand Rapids in the 1890s. They were married in 1903 and eventually moved to Detroit. I recently wrote a bit about Dora’s youngest brother Sammy, but that’s all I really know about that family besides a few basic birth/marriage/death records.
23. Earlier I joked about bullshit cousins. It’s a 100% certainly that, between the Nazis and the Soviets, I have no cousins left in Russia or Romania, bullshit or otherwise.
24. My grandmother Irene married Jim McIntyre in 1940. My dad was born in 1943. Jim and Irene were not a good match — he was a drunk and they both had volatile personalities — and they divorced by late 1948. She married Garfield Calcaterra in early 1949. When you put it all together it was pretty clear that she and Jim had been separated for a long time by then. It’s also clear that she and Garfield had been shacking up for a long time by then too and they were just making it legal once their divorces finally came through.
25. Irene and Garfield raised my dad and his younger sister in Dearborn, Michigan, which at the time was easily one of the most segregated places north of the Mason-Dixon line thanks to both Henry Ford’s virulent racism and antisemitism and thanks to longtime mayor Orville Hubbard, who was George Wallace, North. I’m not sure how an Italian guy with a Jewish wife managed to settle in Dearborn peacefully in those days, but it probably had at least something to do with Garfield Calcaterra being, well, as crooked as hell.
26. Garfield owned a taxicab company, Lorraine Cab. My dad remembers a lot of shady business around all of that. He told me once that, at Christmastime, police would show up at the house, one after another, and Garfield would give them a free ham. He kept the hams in the trunk of one of his cabs. There are about ten things wrong with that, the least of which is that no one seems to know where the hell the hams came from, but I choose to let it remain a vague, unexamined, grifty mystery. It’s also worth noting that my grandmother did the bookkeeping for the cab company, it was an all cash business and my dad remembers there being piles of bills stacked on the kitchen table every day. That may not have been as sketchy as my great-whatever grandfather arbitraging the Black Plague, but it’s certainly a hell of a thing.
27. Garfield Calcaterra died unexpectedly in 1965 so, obviously, I never met him. Then things got weird.
28. Garfield was only 58 when he died. My dad was already in the Navy, His little sister was close to graduating high school. My grandmother, not even 50 yet, did not deal with it well. I don't know her exact diagnosis, but she, in layman's terms, went crazy. Catatonic. Stopped responding to the world. Needed to be taken care of by her sisters and her daughter. It was really, really bad. In my family people referred to it as "her trip to Europe." If ever something came up from the mid-60s through the early 70s and she didn't remember she’d say "oh that must've been when I was in Europe” or someone else would say “you missed that, Irene, that’s when you were on your trip to Europe.” I'm told that she snapped out of it when my brother was born in 1971. Having a grandchild helped I guess.
29. In the meantime, Jim McIntyre moved to Kansas City, where an older brother lived. He sobered up. He went back to work as a draftsman, which had been his trade before he hit the bottle. He was living a clean but spartan life in a small apartment. A few years ago I found photos of my grandmother and Jim McIntyre in his apartment in the mid-70s. They had reconnected. Both damaged as hell but both having found a bit of light on the other side. The pictures are sad. Haunting, even. But sweet. They were in their 60s, but they seem like children.
30. My grandmother died of cancer in 1978. She was only 62. I have only vague memories of her. I wish I could have talked to her when I was old enough to do so. I wish I could’ve learned how she dealt with what she dealt with and not only came out on the other side of it but found both grace and room for forgiveness. There’s so little of that in the world. They’re the hardest things to grasp and to give.
31. Jim McIntyre died in 1983. My dad never reconnected with him and never seemed to have an interest in doing so. I never met him. My mother, somehow, and for some reason, made a few trips to Kansas City to help take care of him before he died. She has some observations and we got some of his few belongings when he died, but he remains more of a set of genealogy records than anything else to me. Oh, and one photo that my grandmother took when she was visiting him in 1976:
Add a few decades, a few pounds and a little more hair and I suppose that’s me, right down to the eyeglasses. I’m not sure what to think about that.
I’m not sure what to think about any of this, frankly.
32. My dad was brought up without his biological father around. My mom grew up without her mother in the picture. My brother is adopted and had no connection to his biological parents until he was in his 30s. I’m the only person in my family who grew up with both of his actual parents. None of that seemed to matter to any of us one way or the other.
33. I know that, unlike a lot of people who dig into their family's past, I got no feeling of connection or identity discovering any of the dozen and a half generations of relatives I uncovered. I found things to joke about and riff on and a few things that were interesting, intellectually speaking, but they still all seem like abstractions to me. Characters in stories more than family of any kind. I only began to feel some things when I got to the people I either knew or at least who knew people I know. Connections that mattered to people I care about and had some sort of influence, even if only tangentially, in my life.
Blood never mattered much to my own, immediate family. It doesn’t seem to matter all that much when applied across the generations either. Relationships matter. That’s probably all that matters, really. That's all we have. The rest is just . . . documents.
Sammy Sofferin started selling cigars on Detroit street corners when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of five children and was still living at home with his widowed mother. By 1920 the then-21-year-old had parlayed his cigar money into owning, and living in, a flophouse on Henry Street with a couple dozen tenants.
By the mid-20s Sammy was the proprietor of the Powhatan Club, one of the most famous -- and notorious -- speakeasies and gambling joints in town. Around this time he bought a house in Dexter-Linwood, the upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood on Detroit's northwest side. Sammy was moving up in the world.
By the mid-30s Sammy and his growing family lived in a large mock Tudor on Wildmere Street, two blocks from the exclusive Detroit Golf Club which, then as now, was a center of power in the city. It was an interesting choice, as Sammy would almost certainly have been denied membership because he was Jewish -- Sammy was a member of Knollwood, a Jewish country club in West Bloomfield -- but it spoke to his ambition.
His true arrival came in 1940. That was the year he opened "Sammy Sofferin's Wonder Bar and Indian Room" on the ground floor of the Book Tower on tony Washington Blvd. It was an immediate hit. It, and Sammy, quickly became Detroit institutions.
A typical evening out at the Wonder Bar would start with strong cocktails followed by brandy-spiked turtle soup or "shrimp a la Powhatan," which was bread shaped like a pyramid onto which fried shrimp, chicken livers, anchovies and scallops were attached with frog legs arranged around the base. Beef was always the centerpiece of dinner, with reviews of the 1940s focusing on "roast beef so tender and juicy it melts on the tongue," prepared "so pinkly rare, sliced nearly half an inch thick, swimming in its own rich brown juice." Later steaks moved to the fore, with the Wonder Bar credited as the first restaurant to introduce New York strips to Detroit.
Entertainment was also on the menu. One night you might be treated to the jazz stylings of Lee Walters. On another it might be Pedro DeLeon's samba quartet or "Spanish blues singer" Linda Garcia. Or maybe you'd be lucky enough to visit the Wonder Bar on a night "Latin troupe extraordinaire," the La Playa Dancers, led by "the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad" were on hand. On more tame nights you might get something a bit more standard from Charles Costello and his orchestra. Still, you could dance to it.
Sammy's track record with the Powhatan Club and his connections with lawyers, judges and business leaders around town ensured success for the Wonder Bar, but its location across the street from the Book-Cadillac Hotel gave it an added boost. Visiting entertainers and athletes were regular fixtures. So too were criminals. Prominent members of the Jewish underworld patronized the Wonder Bar for both business and pleasure. The mobster Moe Dalitz took meetings in the exclusive Indian Room. He met his second wife in the cocktail lounge where he was a regular.
Between Sammy's history with gambling and speakeasies, the nature of his business, the nature of his clientele, and the fact that he was, quite clearly, a lifelong hustler, it's hard to imagine that Sammy wasn't, at the very least, on extremely friendly terms with organized crime. Indeed, it'd be hard to imagine how he'd be allowed to run the Powhatan Club in an era when the Purple Gang controlled the liquor and gambling trade in Detroit without being on very good terms with them.
When Sammy died in 1969, two years after retiring and selling the Wonder Bar, the Detroit Free Press' obituary nodded at all of that but didn't quite make it explicit. Probably because they didn't have to.
So that's my uncle Sammy. Who, for as much fun as that all was to write, may as well be a total stranger to me.
As I mentioned when I wrote about my murderous great-great grandmother a couple of years ago, my extended family is a total black hole to me. I didn't know any of that stuff about her when I did that research and I didn't know anything about Sammy Sofferin this time last week. All of the information included in this piece came from looking at census records, telephone listings, real estate records, some newspaper clippings, restaurant reviews and other assorted documents I dug into after impulsively signing up for a trial account on Ancestry.com last Sunday afternoon. It certainly wasn't well-known family folklore of any kind. At least among anyone who is still alive.
I'm not sure why I signed up for the Ancestry account as I'm actually not all that interested in genealogy for its own sake. Oh, sure, I've found out a lot of stuff about what ship my sixth-great grandpa McIntyre came over on from Scotland in 1739 and what castle my 10th great-grandpa Kniveton lost in Derbyshire after he chose the wrong side in the English Civil War, but that's not super important to anything that matters in my life or the world. We are what we do and what we experience, not what someone who shared genetic material with us 300 or 400 years ago did. Even if it was, my mom, dad and my brother were all raised by at least one adoptive parent, so I'm a very strong proponent of family being about relationships over blood and nurture trumping nature.
Still, it's amazing how much information is out there if you simply look for it. Or, rather, if you take Daryl Zero's advice at the top of this article and don't look for any specific thing and just see what appears before you. Indeed, in some ways I like finding out about my family's history this way. If I had grown up around these people -- or around the people who knew them -- it probably wouldn't be so fascinating to me.
Family stories have a way of insisting upon themselves and their own narratives in ways that make it difficult to question what you hear. If you've been told your grandma was 1/8 Cherokee for your entire life you're probably not very likely to easily accept the fact that, nah, actually she's not. It's too much a part of your family's folklore. The same might happen if I had heard stories about my great-great uncle Sammy from some grandparent or second cousin. I'd have some opinions about it all based on their opinions about it and all of it would be filtered through some storytelling and unreliable narration.
As it is now, though, I can kind of take this all in with fresh eyes and no expectations. I can think of Sammy as just some person who seems to have led a pretty damn fun and interesting life and not some family member from whom I feel obliged to glean some meaning or significance. Or, as I suspect happens more often with people who are super into genealogy, I won't feel obliged to project favorable or admirable things onto him and hope it reflects well on me.
Families are just people. Some of them are murderers. Some of them are gangsters or, at the very least, friends of gangsters. It's a lot more fun to find that kind of thing out yourself than it is to hear some sanitized or exaggerated stories about them that colors your impressions.
Not that it's all facts and data to me. I mean, now that I know all this stuff, I'm probably gonna fantasize a good deal about going back in time -- let's say 1949? -- to order some strong cocktails and eat some Shrimp-a-la-Powhatan at the Wonder Bar. And yes, in my fantasy, I get a table up close to the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad and I get it all on the family discount.
According to NPR -- and a lot of other places, I should add -- "having policy proposals" is just one of many "brands" for a presidential candidate as opposed to an essential and basic requirement:
It's kind of nuts to think that having ideas aimed at addressing the pressing issues of the day is a just another type of branding like, say, being a "straight talker" or being "someone voters would like to have a beer with." Nuts and, I might add, corrosive. For a politician to have a "brand" is consistent with a view of the voter as a consumer, not a citizen. I think we've already done quite enough to commercialize existence without doing do to democracy as well, but I'm probably a few decades too late in objecting.
In other news, I am extremely impressed by Warren's campaign thus far. Maybe that puts me in the minority but, again, I'm someone who actually wants to fix the problems in this country rather than simply feel better about the country in some vague, intangible sense the likes of which Don Draper types might appreciate when applied to laundry detergent or frozen entrees, which is what most of the other candidates seem to be offering.
A profile of Nancy Pelosi in the New York Times appeared over the weekend which outlines her "coldblooded plan" for leading the Democratic Party, defeating Trump and forging a new path forward. The plan is cynical and cowardly. I likewise suspect it will ultimately lead to failure, either at the polls in 2020 or, barring that, in a toothless, uninspiring Democratic presidency should whoever is nominated adopt her thinking and win the election.
The most striking part of it is just how strongly Pelosi is leaning into fear as a justification for an unambitious Democratic candidate and platform:
Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not believe President Trump can be removed through impeachment — the only way to do it, she said this week, is to defeat him in 2020 by a margin so “big” he cannot challenge the legitimacy of a Democratic victory.
Can we acknowledge how remarkable this is? Not the part in which the leader of the opposition party is saying, in public, that she legitimately thinks the President of the United States of America is planning a literal coup, because hell, I wouldn't put that past Trump at this point. No, the remarkable part is that her response is to to try to "inoculate" against that in political terms by hoping for a rare-in-this-age landslide election.
I would like to think that, in addition to just hoping such a thing doesn't happen, she has used the considerable powers and resources at her disposal to begin to forge some sort of legal, institutional plan rooted in her status as he most powerful member of a co-equal branch of government to prepare for such an unprecedented act and to warn Trump against even considering it. If so, I feel like it'd be best for her to give it voice. Trump's casting aside of the rule of law these past few years has been a very public exercise in which he has always tested the waters via tweets and ideas floated via media surrogates, forging ahead with his lawlessness once he realizes that no one will effectively push back. As such, If Pelosi legitimately fears Trump will usurp power after losing an election, maybe it'd be a good idea to warn him against it now in terms that he will fully understand.
Let us also acknowledge that all of this talk of a coup, couched in an article in which she talks about her well-known issues with the left wing of her party, not so subtly lays the groundwork for her to place the theoretical blame for such a coup on that left wing rather than, you know, the guy she thinks is going to stage the coup. "If young Democrats get their way we'll tack too far to the left and create Generalissimo Trump!" Pelosi is clearly arguing. I'll grant that we live in a scary age, but so blatantly basing her political strategy on fears like that, and so cynically saying that those most vocally opposed to Trump would be responsible for it all, is pathetic, especially for a figure of Pelosi's stature.
Short of worrying about a coup, Pelosi is worrying about how Republicans will react if Democrats offer anything in the way of ambition when it comes to policy or make efforts to hold Trump or Republicans to account in any real way:
[Pelosi] offered Democrats her “coldblooded” plan for decisively ridding themselves of Mr. Trump: Do not get dragged into a protracted impeachment bid that will ultimately get crushed in the Republican-controlled Senate, and do not risk alienating the moderate voters who flocked to the party in 2018 by drifting too far to the left.
While reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of impeachment, Pelosi's comments later in the article about how it's convenient to be able to attack Attorney General Bill Barr rather than go directly after Trump, reveal just how afraid she is to get into any sort of confrontation with him. She has thus far shown no willingness to take even moderately aggressive efforts to investigate him or hold him to account in the wake of the Mueller Report or any of the numerous ethics scandals which have infested Trump's presidency. She seems to embody the concern, voiced fairly often these days, that it's best to avoid doing anything to draw Trump's ire or motivate the Republican media machine which would take shrill, hysterical aim at Democrats.
Nowhere in here, however, does Pelosi appear to acknowledge that Democrats could do nothing more provocative than cut ribbons at veterans hospitals and host the annual Easter egg hunt and Republicans and their surrogates in the media would still accuse them of being radical Stalinists hellbent on destroying America. Nowhere does she acknowledge that there is no act or policy position that Democrats could adopt that Trump will not rant and lie about and distort into something horrifying with the Fox News brigade throwing gasoline on the fire. He and they have done it countless times before and they will, with 100% assurance, do it again.
It is utterly pointless, then, to take a hands-off approach to Trump and Republicans, let alone to make that the lodestar of your political philosophy. Even if impeachment is a non-starter given the Republican Senate, using the full power of the Democratic majority in the House to investigate, subpoena and oversee the Executive is imperative. Not just because it's the right thing to do as a matter of basic governance, but because whether Democrats do that or not, Trump and the Republicans will claim they are doing it anyway, casting themselves as victims and casting Democrats as radical tyrants. If that's going to happen, you may as well do your damn job in the process and hold this administration's feet to the fire.
The policy strategy she advocates, such as you can even call it that, may be the saddest part of it all. Pelosi makes it clear here, as she has made it clear previously, that she would prefer that Democrats offer no substantive policy positions that might inspire voters and harness the energy of the party's motivated and highly organized base, all in the name of persuading the most swingy, uncommitted voters on a platform of platitudes and "alienation"-avoidance. The mythical "moderate swing" voter who, to the extent such beasts even exists -- and there's a lot of data suggesting they don't -- almost always swing right when they do, in fact, swing.
The absolute best that can be said about Pelosi's "coldblooded strategy" is that it's cynical. That she is counseling caution and moderation in the runup to 2020 in order to attract all of those swing voters and get a big, coup-negating victory but, once in power, Democrats will do good things, fix our nation's many problems and govern in such a way that makes our lives and the lives of subsequent generations better. That's the best case.
The more likely case: any Democrat taking her cautious, make-no-waves, offer-no-vision strategy now, if they even manage to win, will govern in a cautious, make-no-waves, offer-no-vision way. Partially because, if they promise nothing over the next 18 months, they will have no mandate to do anything ambitious whatsoever, even if they secretly wanted to all along. Mostly, though, because such an approach will be best adopted by someone who, in reality, has no ambition or concern about the future. Such as, I dunno, a nearly 80-year-old candidate who says he "doesn't have time" to lay out a healthcare plan and who "has no empathy" for the problems faced by the nation's largest living adult generation. For example.
It doesn't have to be this way.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who stand for things other than winning the next election for its own sake.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who support not simply getting rid of Trump, which is a given and the bare minimum that must be done to get us out of the nightmare of the past few years, but in taking the fight to him directly.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left invested in creating an affirmative vision of a better nation and society and doing what it takes to achieve that vision once in power.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who believe that achieving all of these things require that we not simply quietly tiptoe past the bully in the hallway and hope to God he doesn't see us, but who know that to stop a bully you have to punch him in the goddamn mouth.
Support them. Don't accept Nancy Pelosi's sad, cynical and fearful "plan" or anyone who thinks that's the best path forward. We can do better. And we should.
I haven't lived in West Virginia for a long time, but if you ask me today I still say that's where I'm from. It's the place that, more than anywhere else, made me who I am and helped me figure out what I cared about.
West Virginia has long been the poster child for states which are hurting or backward or down on their luck. There are some heavy stereotypes which come with all of that -- and there's a lot of misleading broad-brush painting when even the most sympathetic folks talk about its nature and its plight -- but there's a lot of truth too. I love my home state, but I also hurt when I see how much it and its people hurt. I want better for West Virginia.
Last night I met someone who wants better for it too. He's the first person who's come along in a long, long time who seems to understand how to make things better too. His name is Stephen Smith and he's running for governor in the 2020 election.
Smith is running hard now, early, because he has to. He has to because he's decidedly not the hand-picked choice of the Democratic Party establishment to take on incumbent Republican Jim Justice. When you listen to him speak, as I did last night, you quickly understand why.
Smith's aim is not merely to put an end to Republican rule in West Virginia. It's to end more than a century's worth of exploitation of West Virginia's people, its wealth and its resources at the hands of wealthy, largely outside-the-state interests. Businessmen, landowners and extractive businesses who have treated West Virginia as their personal piggybank but who have no stakes in its people, its future or its prosperity. It's a system of exploitation that was just as prevalent during the 80 years when the Democratic Party dominated state politics as it has been under the relatively recent phenomenon of Republican dominance. Its a system that the current Democratic establishment, led by former governor and current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, has shown no interest in fighting.
Smith's argument is that West Virginia's problems are not a function of Democrats vs. Republicans. Not a matter of the left vs. the right. Rather, "it's the good old boys versus the rest of us." Smith says to, "find the West Virginians who are working the hardest and hurting most -- that's whose side we're on." That side is not one anyone in power or most of the people seeking to take power in West Virginia have cared too much about, historically. As such, when you're aligned against both the Republican and the Democratic establishment as Smith is, you have a tough fight on your hands. They're backed by powerful, wealthy forces.
Smith, however, has some things working for him.
Chief among them is organization. Smith has spent 20 years as a community organizer, running the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. Such work is not done from an office in Charleston. Most of it is done on a hyper-local level. It's the sort of work that lends itself to local organization and such organization has been the core element of his campaign.
Already, more than a year-and-a-half before the 2020 election, Smith has recruited campaign captains in each of West Virginia's 55 counties and has recruited 41 down-ballot candidates at the local and county levels to help spread his message. By the end of May he expects to have visited every single county in the state. That early work has already led to a network of volunteers and donors that, in numbers, are several times larger than his closest competitors. In a state where candidates tend to rely on a few TV commercials, a few mailers and the belief that West Virginians will simply do what they're told by the people in power, Smith's campaign has a remarkably uncommon energy that is sure to work to its advantage. West Virginians are hungry for candidates who will listen to them and talk to them rather than talk at them, patronize them and take them for granted.
The message, obviously, is just as important as the organization.
Smith is not afraid to speak frankly about class. About race. About people taking that to which they are entitled as citizens as opposed to politely asking those who have taken so much from them already to kindly give a little back if they can be bothered to do so.
His campaign appearance last night began with a video referencing the Battle of Blair Mountain in which striking miners took up arms against coal companies, bought-and-paid for sheriffs, strikebreakers and their hired guns. He talks about how he worked personally to help aid striking teachers during the 2018 work stoppage who, like the miners at Blair Mountain, wore red bandanas when they marched (he handed out red bandanas to people in attendance last night). He notes that some of those miners and some of those teachers were Democrats, some Republicans, some independents and some apolitical. He notes that the miners who took up arms and the teachers who hit the picket line were white and black. He notes that the majority of striking teachers were women. The common thread was that the wealthy and powerful will do anything they can to divide and exploit those who are less powerful, but that when the less powerful band together they can take back what is rightfully theirs.
Smith minces no words when he says how to do that:
All of these are things which make perfect logical sense but which, for whatever reason, political candidates are afraid to say out loud. Probably because they get most of their support from the wealthy interests who have taken for so long and stand to lose when the people stand up and fight for themselves. Or because they are simply afraid to fight those interests.
I'm a politically outspoken person. Anyone who reads this site knows that. I'm not, however, a person who has worked for campaigns, donated in any great amount to campaigns or who has spent much time advocating for a specific candidate. That's probably because I care deeply about a certain set of ideas and values and, in my lifetime, it has been extraordinarily rare to find candidates who share those ideas and values in more than the most temporary or tangential of ways.
That has changed with respect to the 2020 West Virginia gubernatorial race. I am supporting Stephen Smith, both with my time, my effort and my money. I'd ask that, if you share these ideas and values, that you consider supporting him too. I'd ask that you do that whether or not you're from or whether or not you live in West Virginia. I ask that because if Smith's organizational model, his energy and his message can win the day in West Virginia, it'll be proof that they can win anywhere.
And God knows we need more of that everywhere.
Learn more about Stephen Smith here. Help join the fight here. Help fund the fight with a donation here.
I just read that they're going to shoot most of the "Hillbilly Elegy" movie in Georgia, not Ohio because Georgia has tax credits for production. I know that's not J.D. Vance's decision or anything, but I find it amusing that the movie about a guy who got famous for a book in which he argued that people need to take responsibility for their lot in life and how they should not expect handouts is chasing government subsidies. The only way this could be more delicious would be if Vance cited the lack of Ohio tax credits as poor people's fault.
Still, this is pretty on-brand. I mean, Vance's book was all about enriching himself by leveraging a people and a place of which he is a not a part, so using Georgia taxpayers for this Ohio-set movie in about a guy who wants people to think he's from Kentucky is only right. I'm not sure how the dissonance between the whole taxpayer subsidy thing and his by-your-own-bootstraps ethos will be resolved, but I'm sure he'll make an effort to do so in some glib New York Times editorial soon.
If you're wondering why I'm so cranky about this, you can go back and read the stuff I wrote about Vance and his book in the past. It'll explain it all:
The short version: while Vance had a genuinely rough upbringing and talks about it in frank and often affecting terms in his book, he is far more interested in using his experience as a vehicle with which to advance a conservative political agenda which blames the poor for their own struggles. His doing so found an eager audience on both the right and the left, with conservatives citing his personal success as evidence of the efficacy of their blame-the-poor ethos while liberals nodded along with him, not questioning his portrayal of the rural poor because his version helped assuage their guilt and gave them license to continue to look away. It's pretty odious all around.
If you want two better books about what it means to live in Appalachia and which explains the actual, not imagined, struggles Appalachian people face, I'd ask you to go read Elizabeth Catte's "What you are getting wrong about Appalachia" and Brian Alexander's "Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town."
They won't make fancy movies starring Amy Adams out of those books, but they have the benefit of containing actual information.
The website I write for a living -- HardballTalk at NBC Sports -- is ten years old today.
The longest I ever held any other job was five and a half years. I only practiced law, in total, for eleven years.
Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
An article appeared in the Washington Post yesterday about a lynching in Wytheville, Virginia in 1926. A man named Raymond Byrd was arrested after being accused of raping a white woman. He was killed in his jail cell by a mob, his body was dragged through town behind a car and he was hung from a tree. Only one person was ever charged with a crime after it occurred and he was quickly acquitted by an all-white jury. That was the end of that.
The Post’s story is less about the lynching itself, though, than it is about a man named John Johnson. Johnson is in his 80s and he has spent the past several decades researching Byrd’s killing. He has complied newspaper articles, documents and artifacts. Most importantly, he has complied a list of names of many of the people who likely took part in Byrd’s lynching. Johnson has been trying to figure out what to do with his information and how — or even whether — to publish it or otherwise make it public.
Part of the problem is that Johnson is a black man and fears both for his own safety and the safety of other blacks in Wytheville who have helped him in his research. It may seem odd for someone to worry about such a thing in 2019, especially over an event that occurred in 1926, but as Johnson’s story makes plain, racial animus and the desire to shield those responsible for racist acts has followed him his whole life and remains strong to this day, even nearly a century later.
But this is not just a matter of open and obvious racists standing in the way of enlightenment. It is the case even among those who are otherwise sympathetic with Johnson’s cause.
In the story we meet a fellow researcher — a white woman — who has information about the lynching and a list of several names Johnson does not, yet she is unwilling to share it with him. Why?
I’ve got relatives all over the county, and I don’t want to hurt them. We’re not up to making people feel bad about their ancestors . . . Being eight generations, I feel very connected to them and wouldn’t want [people] to be negative toward me,” she continued, not elaborating, as she would later, that she’d “resent it” if anyone asked her to bear responsibility for what a relative had done because “I’m not guilty of any of that,” and “nobody today is guilty of that,” and that while she was in favor of museums and Civil War memorials, she did not think the lynching needed a memorial, or a place in a museum, or a public reckoning involving names because “people would be very angry about it — I can feel it.
This despite the fact that no one here is seeking anything from anyone. Everyone who could be held legally or financially accountable for the lynching is long dead and all relevant statues of limitation have run. No one is suggesting actual consequences for anyone because such a thing would be impossible. All Johnson is looking for is a basic acknowledgment of history and even that is too much for some. It's ironic that, in an age when a certain sort of person finds it fashionable to profanely and giddily tell others than their actual, current feelings matter less than facts, some people’s feelings about their relatives’ complicity in a 93-old murder are so precious and fragile that they are effectively foreclosing any examination of a literal criminal atrocity.
We’re supposed to care about the feelings of the descendants of murderers, but imagine how this must make the black citizens of Wytheville feel. Imagine how the relatives of people who were murdered or who were put in fear of racial violence on a daily basis for decades and centuries on end feel to hear that it may make someone uncomfortable to be told that their great-grandfather was a murderer. As a white man who hasn’t known much in the way of adversity in life I can’t put myself in their shoes of course, but as someone who is both descended from a long-dead murderer and whose family was upended and, in many important ways, still suffers from the consequences of that violence, I can tell you that (a) the skeletons in your family's closet can't really hurt you; and (b) knowledge and understanding of a dark history can be beneficial to healing and improvement. In my family’s case that violence was an isolated and random act no one had to worry too much about after the fact. I can’t even begin to imagine how it would feel to be the target of centuries of systematic, state-sanctioned violence and be told “sorry, it would hurt some people’s feelings to talk about it.”
Not that such denial to confront past racism is limited to over-the-top violent acts like the lynching of Raymond Byrd.
Unapologetic racists, the sorts of which who may have, at an earlier time, lynched a black man, exist and will always exist, but those sorts are pretty easy to spot and pretty easy to deal with in modern times. The problem is that they are held up as the only example of actual racists in this country and everyone who falls short of the standard set by hood-wearing, cross-burning klansmen are implicitly absolved. The people in Wytheville are turning away from a shocking, violent act, but a bigger practical problem are the millions of people who simply do not understand the consequences of our far more common and run-of-the-mill racist past and/or refuse to reckon with them in any meaningful way. They likewise refuse to understand how much they themselves benefitted from it either directly or, because they are white, benefitted from it in comparison to people of color.
We refuse to appreciate that our family may have acquired some degree of current wealth because our parents and grandparents owned homes or property in which equity was built while people of color were prohibited from owning property for centuries (because they were property) and have been subjected to housing discrimination for the past 150 years, thereby impacting their financial prospects to this very day.
We laud the example and legacy of our fathers or grandfathers who may have moved around to take advantage of educational or professional opportunities that helped them, and thus us, move up in the world but refuse to acknowledge that such opportunities were almost totally foreclosed to people of color until very, very recently and that even now such opportunities are not offered equally.
We live in an era in which the consequence-free extrajudicial killing of black people occurs with disturbing regularity. Part of the reason such a state of affairs persists is because we simply refuse to see it as the logical and inevitable extension of such killings which took place in the past, which went unpunished then and go unexamined to this very day.
George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I would offer that those who refuse to remember the past are complicit when it does so.
The Mueller Report is finished and it has been given to the Attorney General. We now begin what I suspect will be a nasty, extended fight over whether and/or when it should be released to the public.
I'm struggling to think of a single reason why it should not be released, in full, to the public. While there may be some security concerns around the edges of the thing they can be dealt with easily via redaction of names and the like. All other objections to releasing it would seem to be political in nature.
Republicans will not want it released because it will, in all likelihood, serve to make some Republicans look bad. Either because they were involved in the underlying matters (a small number of them to be sure) or because they have said and done things in the past two years which will prove to be embarrassing or stupid in light of what the report has to say (a great many of them, particularly Members of Congress).
I'd like to say I'll be surprised when Republicans object to the report's release but, sadly, I will not be. These are people who argue, with a straight face, that it's good to make it hard for people to vote, after all. Fighting against transparency and sunlight won't trouble them a lick.
As for the substance: I've been far less caught up in the Mueller Report hype than most of my friends on the political left. While I think the investigation was and is important, the idea that Mueller would indict multiple figures in the administration, let alone anyone close to Trump personally, has always seemed like fantasy to me, both for legal and practical reasons (more on that below). Mueller is no avenging angel and possesses no magic bullets which will end the nightmare of the past two years and change. The only thing that will effectively deal with that are effective oversight and pushback from Congress, political action, and elections. Mueller ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky, even if he found out something big.
Which is not to say that what's in the report is not important. There are many things Mueller has already uncovered for which a full explanation and accounting must be made and a lot of questions about Trump, his campaign and his administration which must be answered, whether or not any indictable criminal activity was found. A non-exhaustive list:
It should finally be noted that, even if Mueller has not sought any further indictments, that does not mean that he has not found potentially criminal conduct on the part of either Trump or high-ranking campaign or administrative officials. There is a well-established -- and well-founded -- hesitance on the part of prosecutors to seek criminal charges against a sitting president and a strong belief among legal scholars that doing so is impermissible under the law. Rather, the notion is that Congress, a co-equal branch of government, is the primary means of sanctioning criminal conduct on the part of the executive. As such, it quite possible that Mueller has uncovered acts which are, in fact, criminal, but which are not appropriate for indictment given the figures involved or, possibly, are simply not appropriate for indictment at this time.
More likely, it is possible that the facts and conclusions presented by Mueller constitute a basis for Congress to act in some way, shape or form, be it action taken directly against the administration or legislation aimed at ameliorating what has happened or preventing it from happening again. We are entitled to know what Congress knows regarding all of this, both because Congress is the surrogate for the people, and because we are entitled to know the basis on which Congress acts in our name and in our stead.
The Mueller Report, in its entirety, must be released. Anyone who stands against its full release -- anyone who stands for anything less than full and total transparency regarding the important effort which has been undertaken these past two years -- stands against democracy.
Over at the baseball site I wrote about Angels outfielder Mike Trout and his new contract extension.
Short version: Trout is the best player in baseball and, perhaps, is the best player in baseball history. He is about to sign a contract extension that will pay him $430 million over the next 12 years.
A lot of people think ballplayers make too much money but, by any objective measure, the Los Angeles Angels are getting a bargain.
. . . it points to something much more frightening — that love itself exists outside the framework of justice. There is no court at which to plead your case, no authority who can grant you recompense.
On Friday Larry Baer, the CEO of the San Francisco Giants, was caught on tape having a loud, public argument with his wife. In the video he tried to rip a cell phone out of her hands, which caused her to tumble off of her chair and to the ground as she screamed "help me!" Baer walked away and made no effort to help his wife or act in any way to suggest that he cared that he sent her down to the asphalt.
It was a disturbing scene and the lack of criminal charges and the couple's later joint statement that it was all just an embarrassing misunderstanding did nothing to make it better. Whether you or the authorities consider it a crime or not -- I think it could be classified as battery, even if I do not believe Baer will actually be charged -- you cannot say Baer's behavior was acceptable. If you saw that happening to your mother or sister or daughter or friend, you would not be blasé about it, charges or no charges. You would consider it abuse.
Yet, so many of my readers and people responding to my stories about it online are blasé about it, or worse. Sometimes far worse.
I've blocked dozens of men calling Baer's wife a "bitch" or worse, or claiming that she was "looking for attention." Despite clear video of the incident, several people have defaulted to the old stand-by, "hey, we don't have all the evidence" or "maybe there's more to the story here, don't jump to conclusions." This morning someone commented, saying, "[h]e grabbed for the phone. Perhaps his wife was talking loud on it and embarrassing him. So he appeared to have a negative passionate moment, not a planned one." I wonder what would happen if a black man or a poor man or -- heaven forbid, a woman -- upon being arrested for something, attempted to get out of trouble by saying they simply had "a negative passionate moment."
Over at my website we, unfortunately, have an upvote/downvote system for comments, allowing readers to agree or disagree with other readers. A fun thing is happening with those: anyone voicing criticism of Baer or condemnation of domestic violence is receiving tons of downvotes. Far, far more than comments on most articles ever get. I have deleted the misogynistic comments, but those generally defending Baer or condemning those who would criticize him are receiving upvotes, again, in far greater numbers than our site normally gets. I strongly suspect that the articles have been picked up by various men's rights forums -- which are a cesspool of misogyny as it is -- and that they are very sending traffic over to specifically upvote and downvote comments which conflict with their pro-abuse world view. It has happened before, to my site and to other sites.
I, like anyone with decent parents, teachers and other adults in his life, was taught growing up that violence against women was abhorrent and unacceptable. That it was the worst thing a man could do. When I was young I believed, naively, that most people were taught this too. As I got older I lost my delusions on that score. If I held on to those delusions at all into adulthood they were lost after a friend got jury duty on a domestic violence case in the late 1990s. The defendant threw a phone -- an old dial-up desk phone that had some weight to it -- at his wife, hitting her and splitting her head open. The trial resulted in a hung jury. One of the jurors who would not vote to convict the guy said in the jury room, "I'm not gonna send a guy to jail for hitting his wife with no phone." This, by definition, was a man who passed a voir dire that, theoretically, was aimed at weeding out people with preconceived views on the matter at hand.
Evidence doesn't matter to some people. Even when abuse is caught on video it is meaningless to them. The "hey, people are innocent until proven guilty" and "let's not rush to judgment" responses in these instances are, usually, a dodge and, since we're not the cops and are not on a jury, they're also irrelevant.
It's simply the case that, as most women know but most men, I suspect, don't quite appreciate, there are a lot of men out there, more than you think, who simply do not think it's wrong to abuse women. Who think it's far worse, in fact, for a man to be held accountable for abusive behavior than it is for him to engage in abusive behavior to begin with.
It makes me sad. It breaks my heart. But it's the truth.
Steven Spielberg has a problem with the movie "Roma." Maybe not artistically -- I'm guessing that he, like most people, liked it -- but with who produced it and distributed it and how. And after learning about his objections to it, I'm choking on the irony of it all.
"Roma" is a Netflix movie. It made a brief, small-scale theatrical run to qualify for the Academy Awards, but the vast majority of people who have seen it have watched it via Netflix, either on their TV, laptop or tablet. Spielberg does not like that what he considers to be a TV movie was eligible for the Best Picture Oscar for which it was nominated. He thinks it should've been up for an Emmy instead. I read this morning that he intends to use his considerable power to prevent that from happening again in the future by getting the Academy Governor's Board to bar Netflix movies from Oscar consideration.
Spielberg has both aesthetic and business objections to Netflix flicks. On the aesthetic side, he is said to "feel strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation" as it relates to screen size, sound, and overall experience. For this I do have some degree of sympathy. I watch far more movies at home these days than I do at the theater, but I still have a soft spot for the moviegoing experience. If I am truly interested in a new release, I will make a point to get to the theater to see it.
But I don't have to. Maybe Spielberg assumes that those of us not rich enough to have a dedicated screening room in our Pacific Palisades homes are watching VHS cassettes on a 19" Magnavox sitting on a metal TV stand, but the fact is that it's not hard or even super expensive anymore to get a really nice visual and audio movie experience in our living rooms. I have a rather crappy TV by today's standards -- it's an HD flat screen, but I bought it like 13 years ago and it's not paired up with a big sub-woofer or surround sound or anything -- but it's still pretty good for anything but the grandest epics and most intense special effects-laden movies. For most movies I watch, including movies like "Roma," it's perfectly fine.
For the sake of argument, though, let's grant Spielberg's point about aesthetics. Let's defer to his obviously hefty cinephile bonafides and grant him that it's better to see a movie made for the big screen than made for Netflix. I'll grant that because what I find far, far more objectionable are his complaints about the business side of this.
The business objections of Spielberg and others on the Academy Governor's Board to Netflix movies are varied. Some of it is just that they don't like the money Netflix throws around, which is nothing I particularly care about. For the most part, though, Spielberg and his friends don't like the way Netflix interacts with movie distributors and theaters when it does those limited theatrical runs required for Oscar consideration. Specifically, Spielberg doesn't like the manner in which they rent theaters out instead of licensing films, which allows them to keep, rather than share, ticket sales, and allows them to avoid reporting box office numbers. In the aggregate, Spielberg's complaint is that Netflix is messing up a well-worn and established movie distribution model.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty damn rich coming from Spielberg. Because while I love a great many Spielberg movies, the guy's business legacy is that he fundamentally altered the model of film distribution in this country which, in turn, had a massive and, many argue, negative impact on the artistic side of filmmaking.
Spielberg broke into the business as part of the "New Hollywood" generation of writers and directors who came of age in the 60s and who came into professional prominence in the 70s. These were young auteur-types to whom Hollywood studios gave unprecedented freedom and autonomy because, frankly, the studios were losing money, were out of touch with the prevailing culture and had no idea how to woo audiences anymore.
New Hollywood movies focused on characters -- often characters who lived on the margins of society -- over spectacle. They trafficked in dark and often violent themes. Plots and storylines were heavy on ambiguity. Happy endings were not necessarily, or even often, the order of the day. From "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Five Easy Pieces" to "The Godfather" to "The Conversation" "Nashville" to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "Raging Bull" and any number of movies I could name in between, some of the greatest movies in American history were made during this period.
The distribution model of these films was radically different than what we see today. Whereas now films open in thousands upon thousands of theaters on a single day, in the 1970s, films opened in a handful of cities at first and were rolled out to other cities over time, allowing word-of-mouth and critical consensus to build. This helped filmmakers gradually sell what were often tough sells, artistically speaking, to audiences. It's not fair to say anymore that certain things simply won't "play in Peoria," but it's probably the case that it's easier for things to play in Peoria if the people in Peoria hear that something played pretty well in Chicago, Indianapolis and Rockford a couple of weeks ago.
Then in 1975 Steven Spielberg made "Jaws" and it changed everything.
Rather than rely on word-of-mouth, Universal Studios spent millions on a well-planned and highly-coordinated marketing campaign to promote "Jaws" before its release. TV and Internet trailers are ubiquitous now, but they were rare in the mid-70s. "Jaws," however, featured a high-profile national prime-time commercial buy. The producers and the author of the novel on which the movie was based hit the TV talk show circuit to promote the film and the publisher of the book worked with the studio to ensure that the paperback version matched the film poster as a means of cross-promotion. The movie also had the most elaborate array of marketing tie-ins of any film to date, including a soundtrack album, T-shirts, plastic tumblers, a book about the making of the movie, beach towels, blankets, shark costumes, toys and games.
More significant was the abandonment of the slow-roll distribution. "Jaws" opened simultaneously in hundreds of theaters across the entire United States. It was more than a movie, it was an event. It made a massive amount of money in its first weekend and, in so doing, single-handedly ushered in the Blockbuster Era. Today we take first weekend box office figures for granted as a measure of a film's success -- indeed, we deem a film a success or a failure based, almost exclusively, in how that first weekend goes -- but we didn't start doing that until "Jaws" came out in June of 1975.
There is no question that the blockbuster distribution model makes way better business sense than the old way of doing things -- studios are rolling in cash now in ways no one every could've imagined back in the 1970s -- but it fundamentally altered the artistic and aesthetic sense of Hollywood as well.
Marketing is essential now in ways it never was before "Jaws." It's far easier to market spectacle and thrills than it is to market character sketches and ambiguity, so we get more of the former now than we do of the latter. It's far easier to get people into a movie theater if they have a really good idea of what they're going to see than it is to spring surprises on them, so modern marketing gives far more away about a movie's plot than it holds back and sequels, copycat films and films with shared universes proliferate. People like to feel good far more than they like to be challenged so, while movies have always been about entertainment, the product is made to go down with a few more spoons of sugar than they did during the New Hollywood era. The "Hollywood Ending," primarily a function of morality in the Golden Age, is now a function of test marketing and focus groups.
Which is not to say that good movies aren't made now and the the industry has gone to hell. There were a lot of truly crappy movies made in the early-to-mid 70s (we remember the good ones and forget the bad). There have likewise been tons of fantastic blockbuster movies that followed "Jaws" into America's multiplexes, many of which form the cultural DNA of people of my generation and beyond, many of which were made by Steven Spielberg. And despite the now 44-year-long blockbuster mentality of Hollywood, there have always been a handful of good, small, dark, morally ambiguous or challenging artistic movies that slip past the beancounters every year. And yes, even a couple of those were made by Steven Spielberg.
But it is inescapable that Spielberg almost singlehandedly changed the moviemaking business. He did it by basically blowing up one distribution model and replacing it with another and in so doing he fundamentally changed both the business and artistic sides of Hollywood. For him to now bitch that someone else is doing that is quite the damn thing.
I just read the statement from Micheal Cohen prefacing his testimony before Congress.
Cohen is simultaneously believable about which he speaks yet is still delusional about his role and his own character. What he said is simultaneously revealing by virtue of the fact that someone is actually, finally, giving voice to those words in an official setting yet obvious in that nothing he says is at all surprising to anyone who has paid even a bit of attention. Overall, his statement speaks to how villains believe themselves to be the heroes of their own stories. His statement will not change Trump supporters' views, because they are lost causes who are even more deluded than Cohen is.
Trump was and is unfit. He was and is a lying, crooked, racist imbecile. This is not news nor should it be news to anyone.
Neither this testimony nor any magic from Robert Mueller is going save us from that because so many people want it or, at the very least don't care. Trump once famously said that he could shoot someone in the middle of the street with impunity. I don't know about that, but I am confident that he could be found to have committed the highest of crimes or misdemeanors and the United States Congress would do nothing to stop him or punish him. That is simply where we are as a country right now.
The only way through it is to elect someone who is not him and to begin the long and hard work of fixing all that has been broken. Unfortunately a whole lot of people are going to actively or passively prevent that from happening for many different reasons.
At least the ones who actually love Trump will be straightforward about it. A lot of other people who claim they hate Trump will nonetheless help his cause because they hate other things and other people more. They hate Democrats or they hate progressive policies or they hate the media or what have you and, while giving lip service to their disdain for Trump and all he represents, they get something out of him that they fear they would not get from someone else. They want to let corporations poison the water, let banks put poor people in debtors' prisons and ensure that the judiciary is in their pocket as they do it, and Trump is in the best position to do make that happen. These people, too, believe themselves to be the heroes of their own stories.
The Cohen statement is a good read. But if it takes his words for you to believe that Donald Trump is unfit and deserving of removal from office -- that, in Cohen's words, Trump is a "racist, a conman and a cheat," -- I'm not sure what planet you've been living on, because it's been manifest for years and years.
Over three years ago I wrote an essay about how environmental calamities that have hit the places where I grew up -- Flint, Michigan, Parkersburg, West Virginia and Southern West Virginia -- were not mere accidents. They occurred because those with wealth and power consider the lives of poor people in poor places like that to be cheap by design.
I ended the essay by noting that such has always been the case and that, in all likelihood, it always will be the case. It will happen again and again because politicians simply don't care about the people who live there and the general public, for the most part, cannot be bothered to care.
This morning I woke up to see this:
I've lived long enough and I know enough history to know that our system is frightfully efficient at crushing both hope and the hopeful. I know that powerful forces will align in an effort to thwart anyone who dares push back against the power and the priorities of the wealthy. I know that a handful of progressive politicians and activists are, at present, no match for both the machinery of corporate America and the apathy of most Americans.
But seeing a politician actually say things like this out loud is unbelievably inspiring. Every bit as inspiring as it is shocking.
"Green New Deal backers say they want more high-speed trains to make airline travel less necessary, and more electric cars and charging stations. But experts warn that changing the existing fleet of cars in the U.S. would be an extraordinary effort." -- NPR tweet, February 9, 2019
"Colonists say they want to throw off the yoke of royal tyranny and form a new nation founded on the principles of self-evident truths about equality and liberty. But experts warn that winning a revolution against England would be an extraordinary effort." -- 1776
"Abolitionists say they want to end slavery, America's original sin and an atrocity of untold depths and darkness. But experts warn that changing the economic model of southern agriculture would be an extraordinary effort." -- 1852
"New Deal backers say they want to rescue the nation from economic catastrophe and take steps to both prevent another one and mitigate the effects of another one should it occur. But experts warn that doing literally anything would be an extraordinary effort." -- 1932
"World War II backers say they want to stop the march of fascist tyranny that promises untold death and destruction and imperils the very notion of freedom and democracy. But experts warn that defeating Germany and Japan would be an extraordinary effort." -- 1941
"Civil Rights activists say they want to end a century of Jim Crow laws and extend Constitutional protections to everyone, not just whites. But experts warn that asking people not to discriminate and actually abide by the law would be an extraordinary effort." -- 1954
"President Kennedy says he wants to put a man on the moon in an effort to inspire a nation, prove its superiority to communist dictatorships and to open up a new frontier of scientific discovery and human imagination. But experts warn that landing a man on the moon would be an extraordinary effort." -- 1961
Doing anything that truly matters takes extraordinary effort. Aid in that effort. Help direct that effort if you genuinely feel that it is misguided in some important way. But don't sit the hell back and whine about doing something simply because it takes effort.
I'm an unpopular figure among a certain swath of media professionals. Newspaper folks, mostly, or people who started their careers working for newspapers. They don't like me because I've spent a good chunk of the past decade arguing that it's bad when old establishment media folks coast on their reputation, credentials and presumed authority and that the old media companies are flawed to the extent they are unable to quickly adapt to new information or ways of thinking, causing them to roll forward on inertia.
In other news, the former Executive Editor of the New York Times has written a book largely about how new, online-based media is bad and irresponsible and will lead to the ruination of society. The book has been found to include multiple, significant plagiarized passages and a plethora of errors that were likely overlooked because the author was deemed too important and established to edit and fact-check. Meanwhile, the book's old school publisher is standing behind the author, saying it'll fix what can be fixed. It's hard not to see that as an admission that, plagiarism and errors notwithstanding, it's simply not practical or viable for them to stop publication at this point.
A couple of years ago I wrote about my seven favorite movies in this space. Number one on that list was "The Conversation." It's still number one. I'm having a hard time imagining it will ever not be number one.
It's not a movie that, when you finish it, you say "ah, that was fun." It's not at all uplifting and there's very little action in it. Many people find it boring. I understand that. I don't blame those who don't like it for "not getting it" or whatever. Slow burns and character sketches are not for everyone. Most people watch movies to enjoy themselves and be entertained. They should, too. That's kind of the point of a movie, even if I like to torture myself with bleak, contemplative stuff like this on occasion.
Its lack of action and lack of feel-good appeal notwithstanding, aesthetically it's just a beautifully-shot and perfectly-acted movie. There isn't an ounce of fat on it. Gene Hackman is, if not my favorite actor of all time, in my top three, and this is his greatest role. And, as you can tell by our shared taste in eyewear, I like Harry Caul's personal style.
More deeply, I identify with its themes.
I've spent a lot of time in my life trying to find the right balance between observing the world with objective detachment and actively participating in it. When I was a lawyer I'd often find myself keeping myself too far removed from my clients when I found them or their interests objectionable or getting too close to them, sometimes losing my objectivity, when I did not. Since I've become a writer -- working at home, not interacting with many people in person on a daily basis -- I've felt like more of a voyeur than a participant in the world on occasion, with a tendency to disengage. This tendency is far more pronounced when I'm under stress or when I'm unhappy. It's not a good quality, and it's something I've worked hard to notice and head off when I slip into it, but I'll likely always have to work on it. To not become a low-tech version of Harry Caul, letting life simply happen to him. Either not caring to participate in the business of living beyond watching others do it or not knowing how to participate in it until it's too late.
I write all of this today because a friend of mine just pointed out a great interview of Francis Ford Coppola -- conducted by Brian DePalma of all people -- about the making of "The Conversation." It's from 1974, just as the movie was being released in theaters, so there is none of that reverent, "talk about your classic movie" stuff. You can tell Coppola knew he had a good movie on his hands -- it was nominated for Best Picture several months later, in a year that was stacked with amazing films -- but he freely talks about its flaws too, in a way I bet he wouldn't now if you asked him. It's also interesting because (a) there's an exchange in there in which I suspect DePalma got the seed for making the excellent "Blow Out" seven years later; and (b) based on stuff he says about his movie making style, you can see the hell Coppola would go through making "Apocalypse Now" a few years later coming straight down Market Street.
There are a lot of great technical details in the interview too. How Coppola went about filming the opening segment in the park, the choice of lenses to give it that voyeuristic feel and all of that. I've read a lot about that stuff before, but there's a new bit in there I hadn't read about the sound editing which kind of blew my mind. There are a lot of jarring transitions from loud to quiet in the movie and I used to think it was just because it was poorly mixed like a lot of 1970s movies are, but Coppola talks about how that was intentional and explains, quite satisfyingly, why that is so. It's one of those things that makes perfect sense and which I'm somewhat embarrassed I didn't think about while watching it, oh, 10 times.
It's been a year or two since I last watched it. After reading this interview, I'm going to have to make it 11 soon.
A couple of Twitter friends recently told me about how, as a fun exercise, they identified the number one song on the Billboard charts on their birthday for every year they were alive. It sounded like a fun idea.
And it was a fun idea until I remembered that I'm older than them it takes me a lot more time to do this sort of thing. Which is fine. I got a lot of time. It's what I have most of, actually. So let's do this thing.
Per the Billboard Hot 100 chart archive, here is the number one song on July 14 of every year since I was born, along with a thought or two about each song or, short of that, a tangential thought or two each song inspired in my too-much-time-on-its-hands brain:
1973: "Will It Go Round In Circles" -- Billy Preston: Preston is one of many who has been called "The Fifth Beatle." In related news, just before this one took the top spot, a George Harrison song and then a Paul McCartney Song hit number 1, so he was the third "Beatle" to have a hit that summer. Note: I do not think he was the fifth Beatle. That was Clarence Walker.
1974: "Rock Your Baby" -- George McCrae: The second of three "rock" songs to hit number 1 in 1974, along with "Rock the Boat" by The Hues Corporation and "Rock me Gently" by Andy Kim. This one was the best of the three. In other news, I was baptized on my first birthday, so this is a fairly appropriate song.
1975: "Love Will Keep Us Together" -- Captain & Tennille: They actually divorced eventually, so this song was a lie.
Over at NBC Sports I wrote about the massive disconnect that exists between the stuff that wins baseball games and the stuff that makes baseball teams money. At present, the business arrangements of the league mean that teams can stink on ice yet still rake in cash while winning doesn't do that much for the bottom line.
It's an out-of-whack incentive structure that is bad for the game in both the short term and the long-term.