Noah Millman

For the Iran Deal, Against the Conservation of Enemies

State Department photo
State Department photo

Reading Peter Beinart, David Frum and Jeffrey Goldberg’s debate on the merits of the Iran deal, I was struck by something. Take a look at Frum’s list of gives and gets in the deal:

What did the Western world get from the nuclear deal just concluded with Iran?

According to deal proponents—and assuming Iran does not cheat—a delay of about eight months in Iran’s nuclear-breakout time, for a period of 10 years.

What did the Western world give?

1) It has rescued Iran from the extreme economic crisis into which it was pushed by the sanctions imposed in January 2012—sanctions opposed at the time by the Obama administration, lest anyone has forgotten.

2) It has relaxed the arms embargo on Iran. Iran will be able to buy conventional arms soon, ballistic-missile components later.

3) It has exempted Iranian groups and individuals from terrorist designations, freeing them to travel and do business around the world.

4) It has promised to protect the Iranian nuclear program from sabotage by outside parties—meaning, pretty obviously, Israel.

5) It has ended the regime’s isolation, conceding to the Iranian theocracy the legitimacy that the Iranian revolution has forfeited since 1979 by its consistent and repeated violations of the most elementary international norms—including, by the way, its current detention of four America hostages.

That seems one-sided.

Frum’s point is that items 1-5 provide substantial benefits to the Iranian regime, and that therefore, in his opinion, we should have been able to get more for them. That may or may not be true, and my bet is on “not.” It’s worth recalling that none of the other parties to the negotiation favored a more-aggressive approach to Iran. It’s also worth noting that the overwhelming response from people who actually do arms control for a living has been positive – meaning that what we got, assuming what we wanted was arms control, wasn’t nearly as meager as Frum asserts.

But I notice something different. Frum is valuing what our side got based on what it’s worth to us (and undervaluing it). But he’s valuing what our side gave based on what it’s worth to the Iranian regime. And that’s the wrong way to tally a ledger.

The right way is to look at each side independently. What did we gain versus what did we lose. What did they gain versus what did they lose. If you want your deal to hold, you hope that each side decides that their side of the ledger nets out positive. That’s what we call a win-win. And that’s what this deal looks like to me.

It is clear that the United States didn’t get everything we wanted – or everything we initially sought – out of the Iranians. It’s also clear that the Iranians allowed their own red lines to be crossed – they didn’t get everything they wanted either. There was, in other words, a negotiation. But the big picture – an arms control agreement and an end to sanctions and diplomatic isolation – remains what it always was and always was going to be, because that’s what would allow both sides to see a positive sum at the bottom of the ledger.

From my perspective, everything we “gave” to the Iranians was something that benefitted us not at all to retain, because the purpose of the sanctions and the isolation was to get a nuclear deal. Normal relations with Iran should be a positive goal as opposed to something we “gave” in order to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

(I would argue, by the way, that the same is true on the other side of the ledger: a nuclear program, rationally, benefits the Iranian regime very little. But I also recognize that there’s no reason to assume that Iranian ideologues are any more rational than American ideologues, and that Iran has sought to become a nuclear power for reasons of national prestige since the Shah’s time.)

And holding out for more should be tied to a real prospect of achieving more – in other words, real prospect that continued isolation would deliver an Iran that recognized Israel, cut its ties with Hezbollah, etc.

But not everybody does the math that way. A significant number of foreign policy opinionators ascribe real value to making the right enemies. Iran is a self-declared adversary of America’s founded on a revolutionary ideology of political Islam. It engages in international terrorism and hostage-taking. It refuses to recognize Israel. For a significant faction of the commentariat, the United States should stand opposed to a regime like that for deontological reasons. Even if it’s imprudent to go to war with them, we should maintain our posture of enmity. And this deal seriously compromises that posture.

I’m not a pollyanna about the deal. Much analogizing has been made between the deal with Iran and Nixon’s opening to China, but I think the analogy has serious limitations – because who is the Soviet Union? ISIS? I do consider ISIS a serious threat, as well as a nightmarishly horrible regime, because, should it succeed in becoming a functional state, it will exert a radicalizing and destabilizing influence throughout the Sunni world. But that means that it poses the biggest threat not to Iran, but to states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia – which are tacitly or even actively supporting it. And greater involvement by Shia Iran in the war against ISIS is hardly going to motivate those powers to shift to opposition.

Moreover, I am highly skeptical that Iran’s regime would desire, or benefit from, an explicit realignment towards the U.S. And I am equally skeptical that Iranian dissidents will see the domestic opening they hope for as a result of the deal. I believe the Iranian regime is rational and will focus on regime survival first and foremost, and I don’t see why they will feel greater need to placate the opposition after delivering improved economic conditions for the Iranian people. Certainly, China hasn’t felt that need.

So why do I support the Iran deal, strongly? Because, from my perspective, there is a negative value to enmity with Iran and a positive value to an improved working relationship – independent of whether the deal is the best deal possible. Because I ascribe a very positive value to a deal that the arms control community in general considers quite strong, and exceedingly skeptical of criticism from quarters opposed to arms control in general. Because I’m aware that the track record of opponents to major diplomatic agreements is relatively poor in general. And because I think a war with Iran would be a catastrophic folly.

That’s reason enough, no?

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A Technical Note

United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Wall Street Journal aren’t the only organizations that have encountered technical turbulence lately: on Tuesday an item was incorrectly published on Noah Millman’s blog due to an error in our system. The problem has now been fixed, and we apologize to Noah and to our readers for the mix-up.

You can find Noah’s latest posts here at: The Necessity of Greece’s Separation and Obergefell and the Pursuit of Happiness.

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The Necessity of Greece’s Separation

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The causes, in this case, are fairly clear. The metropole (Brussels/Berlin) demands terms for renegotiation of Greece’s debt that leave Greece politically and economically utterly subservient to said metropole. The Greeks demand more favorable terms that allow their economy to grow again and have some measure of independence.

The Greeks have suffered far more from austerity than the American colonists did under British taxation. And the British metropole had at least as much reason to accuse us of ingratitude: its taxes were imposed to pay for a war waged on the colonists’ behalf, and the British were rather as disinclined as the German bankers are to have the relationship with the crown treated by the colonists as a blank check.

And, as with the American colonies, the remedy is either independence or genuine representation at the metropole. Either the EU needs to remedy its democratic deficit, creating political organs as powerful and responsive to the people as the ECB is to the imperatives of finance, or it needs to shrink from an empire to a club of like-minded states with already synchronized economies.

The difference is that Germany does not want to be an empire. It is more than happy to see Greece go if it will mean the end of their formal obligations and the ability to return to the normal arms-length relations of business (which include dealing with defaults, bankruptcies, etc.—creditors don’t make all the rules in international finance either, just most of them).

The necessity of separation, therefore, should be all the clearer.

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Obergefell and the Pursuit of Happiness

So I’ve finally gotten around to reading the gay marriage decision, and, as (to my reading) it depends more on the Declaration than on the Constitution, July 4th weekend feels like an appropriate time to air my thoughts thereon.

I will admit, when I first heard about the decision I was torn between being very happy about the outcome and not being thrilled about what I understood to be the reasoning. I am not a big fan of natural rights reasoning, not a big fan of substantive due process, not a big fan of sweeping principle-declaring decisions, and not a big fan of Justice Kennedy. I had figured the Court would come to a narrower conclusion that effectively nationalized same-sex marriage based on the Full Faith and Credit clause while still allowing states formally to define marriage as they individually chose. And, I admit, I hoped such a conclusion could garner a six-Justice majority rather than a majority of five, and thus produce something like a social consensus.

But after reading the decision, and re-reading Loving v. Virginia, the key precedent case, I have come to a more meditative conclusion. I understand the logic of Kennedy’s opinion, and see how it flows from the body of precedent – and how, while other decisions would surely have been more conservative, they would still have been innovative. But mostly I’ve tried to be a realist about what those other, alternative decisions would actually mean in practice, and how they would differ from what is likely to flow from Obergefell.

My (partial) defense of Kennedy’s opinion begins with the following thought experiment. Imagine that Loving had been decided the opposite way, upholding miscegenation statutes, and that, in response, an amendment to the Constitution had been passed with the following wording:

The family being the fundamental basis of society, the right to matrimony shall not be infringed.

The passage of this amendment would surely have overturned miscegenation statutes nationally – as it would have been intended to do. It would also have made it clear that prisoners, the mentally handicapped, the carriers of genetic diseases – that none of these can be denied access to matrimony. How, though, would it be applied today in the context of same-sex marriage? How should it be applied?

The answer hinges on the question of what marriage is. At the time of the passage of the amendment, it’s true, only a few would have argued that it encompassed same-sex unions. But in 2015 a great many people thought it did, and many states had come to express that view in their laws (whether prompted by the state-level judiciary or not). Once such a view is current, it becomes necessary for the Court to decide whether or not it is correct – because it is necessary to determine whether the definition of marriage restricting it to unions between men and women is, in fact, an infringement on a fundamental right. This is particularly the case when states have undertaken explicitly to define marriage as exclusively a male-female bond, and not merely done so implicitly.

That’s basically the situation the Court found itself in if it took the Loving precedent seriously. Loving clearly established the right to marry as fundamental, pre-political, and central to the Declaration of Independence’s concept of the “pursuit of happiness.” Note that there is nothing traditional about this idea. Traditionally, marriage was a matter better arranged by your parents than by you, and love was something you hoped would grow within and sustain happiness in marriage as opposed to marriage’s origin. Traditionally and cross-culturally, regulation or prohibition of exogamy has been more the rule than the exceptionLoving certainly didn’t invent the idea of the love match, but it did raise it to the level of Constitutional principle.

Assuming the Court did not want retrospectively to limit the scope of that earlier decision, Loving provides quite firm ground to stand on for rejecting most of the arguments against same-sex marriage, as well as the argument that marriage is traditionally a state-level matter raising no Federal issues. The Court did not have the luxury of dealing with abstractions. It had to deal with individual gay families demanding recognition, and individual states denying them that recognition, and claiming that denial is not an infringement on their rights because the people seeking to marry are themselves confused about what marriage essentially is.

My point, basically, is that the Court, assuming it did not want to limit Loving, was faced with a new question in 2015 presented by new facts. In 1967, nobody disputed that a marriage between a black man and a white woman was a marriage; the dispute was over whether such a marriage could be prohibited for reasons of the purported social good. The Court determined it could not, both because marriage was a fundamental right and because that purported social good (preserving the white race) was not a legitimate state end. In 2015, the Court had to opine on what marriage is in order to resolve whether two men or two women being denied a license to marry were being denied something they were due. It would certainly have been more conservative of the Court to say: we don’t profess to know what marriage is; the states seem to disagree about what marriage is; the debate about the meaning of marriage is relatively novel; therefore we decline to register an opinion other than to demand that various states respect each other’s decisions on the matter (the Full Faith and Credit approach). But that’s not the same as saying it is illegitimate for the Court to decide that it needs to have an answer to the question of what marriage is because there is a fundamental right at issue. Which, per Loving, there is.

And, stripping away the high-flown rhetoric, both about freedom and about the glories of marriage, that’s what Kennedy’s opinion for the Court holds.

What would have been different had the Court held differently? In practice, I suspect not much. Consider first three other possible routes to a similar substantive result. As noted above, the Court could have declined to say anything about marriage, but to require the states to respect each other’s decisions, as they do with differing laws on age of consent, degrees of consanguinity, and divorce. The result would be effective nationalization of same-sex marriage, the only difference being the requirement for some Americans to travel. Undoubtedly at some point in the future this would be deemed an unfair burden on those without the means to travel, and same-sex marriage would be formally nationalized.

Another alternative would have been to declare that sexual orientation is a “suspect classification” requiring more heightened scrutiny for exclusion. This would have been a somewhat awkward way into opening up marriage specifically, since nothing in earlier marriage law actually refers to sexual orientation, but it is at least plain that the intent of the various laws and state constitutional amendments defining marriage as a male-female bond that the intent is to exclude same-sex couples from marriage. The Court has, in the past, declined to define a sexual orientation as analogous to race in this way, and doing so could have far-reaching implications – but many of those implications are being reached anyway by a jurisprudence that declares discrimination against gay people to be “irrational” on its face.

Yet another alternative would have been to strike down traditional-marriage-preservation statutes on the basis of gender discrimination – which was the oldest argument in favor of same-sex marriage, and, not incidentally, the most telling, since the teleological arguments for the necessity of complementarity in marriage all derive from a conception of gender that values essential differences between male and female. Such a finding might also have far-reaching implications, but again, probably not very different from those we face now.

And what about an alternative world in which a five-Justice majority ruled that marriage was the province of the several states, and that radical innovations (like same-sex marriage), did not require recognition under the Full Faith and Credit clause? How long would such a decision last in the face of changing views across the nation? Not long at all, I should think.

Of course, it might be all to the good for the Court to have said: the law doesn’t say this – and to watch the people change it so that it does. I remain very proud of the New York legislature for doing its proper job and changing the law to say what they thought it ought to say.

But to say that the Court stole the people’s limelight is not the same as to say it became a tyrant. We have, for better or worse, gotten accustomed since Carolene Products to a Court that sees itself as the ultimate vindicator of individual rights, and we differ with each other mainly in terms of which rights we want to see vindicated. We the people could change that any time if we wanted to. We just don’t really want to.

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A Busy SCOTUS Week

Anybody even remember King v Burwell? Probably not. But if you are one of the few who still care, my thoughts on the decision – which I very much agreed with – can be found over at The Week.

Most of the piece talks about how King v. Burwell was properly deferential, and why that matters. A couple of paragraphs stand out, though, for having broader applicability.

The difficulty with having the Supreme Court strike down legislation produced by a democratically elected majority cannot be answered by reference to the sanctity of the Constitution. (After all, all branches of government are guided by this document, which, by the way, does not enumerate among the court’s powers the right to strike down legislation.) Nor can it be answered by reference to some hermeneutical rule (originalism, or strict construction, or anything else) that places the court above suspicion — because suspicion is, itself, a social and political matter, not a matter of objective fact.

Rather, the counter-majoritarian difficulty can only be answered pragmatically, by reference to the proper functioning of the government. There are a variety of possible such defenses, some more conservative (e.g., Madison’s defense of the separation of powers) and some more liberal (such as John Hart Ely’s hermeneutic of democratic inclusion). But they all boil down to this: We want the government to work this way and that requires that we have a court that plays this role.

So what about today’s decision declaring that the Constitution requires all 50 states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Is there any answer to the counter-majoritarian difficulty here?

I’m going to read the decision before opining.

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Southern Civilization and Slavery’s Taint

Family of slaves in Georgia, circa 1850. Wikimedia Commons.

I appreciate and largely agree with the sentiments Ross Douthat advances in this blog post, and that Rod Dreher concurs in here, but I can’t resist asking a few pointed, perhaps uncomfortable questions.

The argument for Southern civilization tends to see the North the way Alexander Hamilton saw it, as New York City writ large. I’m a proud New Yorker myself, but even here you can find passionate champions of the case against progress – champions who, I venture to suggest, have not been as much heeded in Dixieland as they have been up north. It’s worth remembering that Henry “American System” Clay wasn’t a Yankee; he was born in Virginia and represented Kentucky in the Senate. And when you think of the enormous impact the Army Corps of Engineers, the interstate highway system, the big box store, and so forth have had on the Southern landscape, I wonder whether it isn’t better to see the anti-progressive Southern tradition as oppositional rather than representative even within its own region.

But granting, for the sake of argument, that the distinctive American strain of thought that stands in opposition to progress as the ultimate good speaks most eloquently in a Southern accent. Why should that be? Why isn’t Vermont, or Iowa, just as good a place to find the virtues of the small, the local, the independent, the stubbornly unchanged? Why aren’t the accents of Marilynne Robinson and Robert Frost just as eloquent as those of Wendell Berry and Allen Tate?

I think the answer has something to do with the tragic sensibility of so much of the best in Southern culture. That sensibility is often linked to the status of being a conquered people, and hence to the “lost cause.” But I think it goes back earlier, to the slave system that cause aimed to defend – and expand.

The ideological defenders of slavery made two central arguments, the one suspiciously convenient to their interests, the other distinctly inconvenient for any American. The first was that Africans were an inferior species of people whose best destiny was bondage to a superior race. But the second was that all civilization depends on the capture and intelligent direction of labor power, and that genuine universal equality is therefore incompatible with civilization itself, the only open question being according to what social system that labor power is to be controlled, expropriated and directed. John C. Calhoun was called “the Marx of the master class” because many of his arguments found an echo in Marx’s own critique of capitalist relations, but without Marx’s utopian optimism about the promised land of egalitarian communism that lay on the other side of capitalist exploitation. And Calhoun could call on good classical authority for his contention that freedom depended on slavery because no man who had to live on his own labor could possibly be free. That’s certainly how Aristotle saw the matter.

That second proposition – that freedom can only be purchased through slavery, and that civilization itself is necessarily based on the expropriation of labor – lends a distinctly tragic view to society if it’s not tainted by the foolish presumption that any group, class, or individual actually deserves the title of master. And that latter presumption is what was, at least among the sensitive minority of southerners overrepresented in its literary ranks, shattered by 1865. Such a sensibility is a particularly powerful corrective to the more general American optimism about our national experiment; indeed, it makes that view look more cruel than uplifting. It’s what the likes of Eugene Genovese have tried to rescue from the Southern conservative tradition, and represents much of what both the Yankee Douthat and the southerner Dreher value about southernness from an intellectual and spiritual perspective.

It’s worth valuing, and rescuing. But it’s worth recognizing as well that what’s being rescued isn’t something that was tainted by slavery, but – like the music, and the food, and all of Louisiana, pretty much everything on Douthat’s list – the product of slavery’s taint.

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The Laudato Si Hijacking

I admit, I have been unable to finish reading the big papal encyclical on the environment and climate change. So if the tone or argument changes radically part-way through, forgive me for getting it wrong.

But it seems to me, from what reading I did, that Ross Douthat and Damon Linker have it about right. Indeed, I would go further than either in my criticism.

To my reading, the encyclical starts with a fairy tale. Once upon a time, human beings lived in relative harmony with the environment, because we understood our place within creation. But with the advent of modernity, we have lost sight of that place, both in terms of our proper humility and in terms of our proper responsibility for good stewardship. And the devastating consequences for humanity and the non-human world are all around us. Modernity cannot really be repaired from within; it must be re-founded on a proper moral basis, such that the fruits of the earth are properly shared and exploitation of both the human and non-human world is no longer the basis of our world economy.

I call this a fairy tale because there’s no evidence offered that the pre-modern history is at all true. That is to say, there’s no evidence that medieval Europeans, or the cultures of Africa or the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, avoided exploiting their environment to the best of their ability. And this is to say nothing of the cultures of Asia, from China to India to the Fertile Crescent, which were much more systematic and effective at maximizing their exploitation of the local environment, and which consequently lived closer to the Malthusian edge.

What changed, fundamentally, with modernity was the scope of human power. Human beings had previously only been able to exceed the carrying capacity of specific geographic areas, and when those areas were destroyed they could move on to new areas. That’s what human beings did in the first cradle of civilization – Mesopotamia – when long-irrigated areas grew too saline to support agriculture. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, though, human beings acquired the power to more and more fully exploit the resources of the entire planet – and the global human population exploded to take advantage of this new abundance. As a consequence, we are now arguably the largest single factor impacting the global ecosystem, responsible, by some measures, for the disposition of 25% to 40% of the entire terrestrial biomass.

Over that same period of time, we as a species have gotten better, not worse, at managing our relationship with the environment – more cognizant, not less, of the impact we are having on the planet. The environmental movement is now over a century old, and can claim some very substantial successes, and modern science remains the only actual tool we have for evaluating the impact of humanity’s activities on the ecosystem, a precondition to doing anything to alter that impact. The problem is that we are not getting better fast enough. The damage we are doing is escalating faster than our efforts to restrain that damage. It may in fact be escalating fast enough to usher in a global Malthusian catastrophe.

So there’s a good argument for what Douthat calls the “catastrophist” case – just as there is a good counter-argument for the “dynamist” position. But if there’s an ecological case for a reversion to pre-modern modes of production and distribution, that case needs to be made in ecological – and economic – terms, not in spiritual terms. After all, it could well be that such modes are more spiritually wholesome for human beings, and also more wholesome for the environment – but that they can only be implemented by killing off 85% of humanity, and then keeping the population suppressed by some means (presumably either through coercion or through the simple operation of scarcity). That, in fact, would be my own presumption before any evidence is presented, because the sevenfold expansion of the planetary human population over the past two centuries happened as a consequence of the adoption of modern modes of production and distribution, and I would assume – again, until evidence was presented to the contrary – that there was a causal relationship operative.

And even if that kind of radical restructuring is the goal, the only way to get from here to there – from an unsustainable economic system to a sustainable one – is through significant and conscious adjustments to human activity all around the world. How exactly are these to be implemented without recourse to some combination of technocratic direction or spontaneous response to the price mechanism? The encyclical pays lip-service to the importance of scientific and technical knowledge, but implicitly disdains politics as too infected with interest. The core assumption seems to be that if our hearts were changed, then all the organizational difficulties attendant on radically changing the way our civilization works would melt away. That may be – but should we bet the planet on it?

It seems to me that what Pope Francis is doing is hijacking ecological catastrophism for a pre-determined spiritual agenda. And that agenda isn’t even the one that makes the most intuitive sense as a purely spiritual response to said catastrophism. If I asked myself what religious system is most in tune with the challenges of radically reshaping the world economy to better protect the natural environment, Roman Catholic Christianity would not be the first one to come to mind. Indeed, my first impulse would be to say Buddhism, which preaches moderation, counsels non-attachment to things as the route to inner peace, has a strong tradition of vegetarianism (which, if universally adopted, would probably do more to stretch the carrying capacity of the planet than any other lifestyle change), and is considerably less-invested in fecundity than most religious traditions, Christianity included. If I were looking for specifically spiritual answers, that would seem to be the first place to turn. But the encyclical does not read like the product of a search for answers, because the answers were known in advance. The search was for an explanation of how these already-established answers just happen to be a perfect fit for humanity’s novel situation on the planet.

That effort might or might not pay off in terms of convincing people worried about the environment to take Catholicism seriously, or in terms of convincing Catholics to take environmentalism seriously. But qua reasoning, forgive me if I find it, well, Jesuitical. And I seriously question whether that kind of reasoning is the best way to respond to the concrete challenges of humanity’s burgeoning impact on the natural world.

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Father’s Day Musings

I spent this past Father’s Day at a soccer tournament up in Rockland County, alternating between cheering my son on and fearing he would drop of heat stroke. It is both exactly what I would have expected to be doing with a twelve-year-old son, and nothing I would have expected to be doing – exactly because that’s what twelve-year-old boys do, and nothing because I have essentially no interest in sports, and neither does my wife, so where did he come from?

Of course, kids are often wildly different from their parents in interests, abilities and personality. And they are often very similar. Genes can lie dormant for generations before popping up again unexpectedly – and nurture is funny, too, as often as not triggering reaction rather than replication.

But perhaps because I am an adoptive parent, I feel especially attuned to the patterns of similarity and difference. When my son and I share a familial joke, I’m especially delighted because there’s no reason to assume we’re both “made” to find the same things funny. And when he rejects something that I love, I wonder: did I introduce it to him in the wrong way? or are we just . . . made different? And perhaps because my son is approaching bar mitzvah, I’ve been doing a lot of accounting of my parenting in a period in my son’s life that is on the verge of formal completion.

A little more than a decade ago, I wrote a meditation on fatherhood that I still return to, over and over, partly because I’m incredibly vain about re-reading my work (or the small portion thereof that I think is any good) and partly because its themes really do recur over and over in my life, in different forms. Back then, I thought about fatherhood in precisely the terms Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus called unknown: as a matter of “conscious begetting.” Whether through nature or through nurture, my job was to bring a new being into being. How does one do that?

Well, I assumed – I can hardly bring a new being into being if I have not yet achieved “being” myself. I’d best get on that. And so I did, setting out – consciously – to make myself into the person who would be the proper father to this child.

From Caitlyn Jenner to Rachel Dolezal, conscious begetting is very much in the news these days – self-begetting, in their cases, but it’s always self-begetting, isn’t it; to say “I will mold this child” is to say, “I will make myself into the one who will mold this child.” And there’s something that’s been sticking in my craw about the chatter on both sides of these stories, and that is precisely the implicit conception of being that both sides share. Caitlyn Jenner either “is” a woman or she “is” a man deluding himself that he can be a woman. Rachel Dolezal either “is” a black woman or she “is” a white woman lying to people about being a black woman. And then we scream at each other about that “is,” and which “is” is true – and call each other names if we get it “wrong.”

But I do not experience life that way, as a core of being that is denied or accepted, repressed or revealed. Oh, I’ve had moments of that kind of experience, sure, moments of epiphany, or existential terror; moments when my life all seemed to make sense, or to be revealed as nonsense. But they are moments. And after each moment comes another moment.

Or, to quote Joyce:

Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.

I have a self, and I keep meeting him – he can’t be avoided or denied, not forever. But he also can’t be pinned like a butterfly. We do not seek ourselves, find ourselves, and end the search; we walk through ourselves. That is the search.

I thought, when I wrote that piece about fatherhood, that I needed to figure “it” out – the big “it,” the big “is” – before I could take on the mantle of fatherhood. How else could I pass “it” on – how else could I nurture another being to the fullness of “is?” It seemed like too big a burden to take on personally, alone – too awesome and too awful. I needed to off-load some of that responsibility, in my case onto tradition.

The bad news is: that responsibility can’t be off-loaded. You get no breaks as a father for saying, to your spouse or your community or your kid’s school, or your kid – or your god – “I did everything right; whatever’s wrong must be your fault.”

The good news is: the responsibility isn’t as awesome, or as awful, as it seemed. Nobody has “it” figured out, because there is no end to the figuring. Fatherhood, at least for me, isn’t being a rock, a love that never changes – perhaps because I “am” not a rock. It’s falling in love, over and over, with a creature that is constantly changing, as you are also changing.

And even if you fail, you succeed, in that you have left an impression – an impression of love – in a heart that will never be erased.

We disappoint, we disappear, we die, but we don’t.

Happy belated father’s day.

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Beshrew My Very Heart

Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Photography by David Hou.
Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Photography by David Hou.

Chris Abraham may have come up with a critic-proof gimmick to open his latest production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Abraham’s production begins with an induction that, even more clearly than Shakespeare’s, lets us know that we are supposed to have an intellectually-distanced relationship with the material to come. The actors address the audience in their own names and voices, and begin to talk about the play in a somewhat academic manner (there’s a wedding dress on stage which they talk about as a signifier; that kind of thing) before being interrupted from the audience by Christopher Sly, a British-born Canadian theater blogger who is having trouble finding his seat.

Sly (played by Ben Carlson, who returns as Petruchio in the play proper) protests the director’s liberties with blog-characteristic belligerence, moving from the audience to the stage as stage management and then security try unsuccessfully to bring him under control. Finally, he’s knocked out cold – and when he comes to, the actors commence to play the trick from Shakespeare’s own induction on him, telling him he’s a lord, presenting him with a “wife” (a male actor in drag), and telling him they have a play for him to see.

Having been so comprehensively and preemptively mocked, I suppose I’m a fool for taking the bait and offering an opinion – on an actual blog, no less – about the production. But I feel compelled to, because while the opening delighted me, by the end I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more uncomfortable at a production of a Shakespeare play than I was after this Shrew.

Mind you: I’m not saying the production is a bad one. Nor am I even saying that I disliked it, much less that it was the worst production I’ve seen. (That honor belongs to Richard Maxwell’s staging of Henry IV part 1, which I saw over a decade ago, and walked out of after 20 minutes.) Indeed, I plan to see the production again later in the run, and I would urge anyone planning a trip to Stratford to engage with Abraham’s take by seeing it as well.

But it did feel like a production designed to make me dislike the play. And what made me uncomfortable was that it achieved that effect by just doing the play, faithfully to a fault, right down to the pumpkin pants.

Shrew is a complicated play, and announces its complexity from its first moments, with Shakespeare’s induction involving a drunken Christopher Sly whom a party of toffs decide to fool into believing he is a lord, who then gets to see a play – The Taming of the Shrew – that constitutes the rest of the text. We never return to Sly at the end, never find out whether he learns the truth of his deception, and that lack of closure invites us to wonder what our relationship to the play he watches is supposed to be, and our relationship to him as fellow spectators thereof. Are we, if we enjoyed the play, drunken fools, to?

But that play, to my mind, is itself more complex than it appears on the surface, a genuine and touching love story that Shakespeare deftly hides inside, and uses to explode, a genre – the “shrew play” – about a husband with a hectoring wife. I say explode because Kate is as atypical a shrew as Hamlet is a avatar of revenge. Just as Hamlet, far from cleverly plotting his vengeance (as in the original source material), instead comments obsessively on his inability to take it, Kate, far from hectoring, haranguing and trying to control her husband, is enraged by other men’s efforts to control her, and bitter about her inability to attract anything resembling affection from anyone in her life. This is not the story of a man getting out from under the thumb of a domineering woman, and turning the tables on her, but of a man choosing a difficult woman whom nobody else sees the virtue of.

And then, yes, schooling her in how to live with him. There is no way around the profound power differential implied by that schooling, and I can fully understand why that stings for many women, notwithstanding that Shakespeare also wrote plays (e.g., As You Like ItThe Winter’s Tale) where a woman puts a man through schooling necessary for him to be a fit companion. My experience of most good productions of Shrew, though, is akin to my experience of “The Philadelphia Story” – that is to say, I’m aware of the power differential between the female lead and her male “tutor,” and aware that her schooling is painful, even cruel, and that all of this is problematic. But I’m also aware of a real, mutual love, and a sense that his love is for this woman, at her best and most authentic; that the story isn’t about breaking her spirit but freeing it from its self-imposed bonds; and that the point isn’t that she should become meek and subservient but – well, yar.

That is not the feeling that I got from director Chris Abraham’s Shrew.

Instead, by doing the play as if it were what it announces itself to be, a typical shrew play of the period, Abraham makes it impossible – I hope – for any sensitive viewer to fully go along with the story being told.

The discomfort builds slowly, as the early scenes of the play are simply comic – and there’s nobody I’d rather watch perform the comedy of Kate’s inchoate rage than the divine Deborah Hay. But even in these scenes, I had the sense that I was being asked to participate in a cruel spectacle, because laughter like mine had helped make Kate who she is. By the time Petruchio had abducted his new bride from her wedding, I felt something was badly off. This Petruchio felt less comically zany than genuinely furious – and this Kate looked authentically frightened of what might now befall her.

As well she might have been. The Petruchio we see at home is not merely violent with his servants but downright cruel with Kate. The physical violence is played cartoonishly by those on receiving end, but Carlson’s Petruchio seems to mean every punch and shove. Rather than feigningly mad in his assessment of the food, her new clothes, and so forth, he very nearly spits his lines in his wife’s face, and tears her cap with real hostility. His only unconvincing statement is that he does this all out of perfect love; his protestations of kinder purpose read more of weary determination than of affection.

And bit by bit, Kate’s spirit is broken. When they meet an old man traveling on their way back to Kate’s father’s house, and Petruchio calls him a young maiden, Kate goes along – but not in the madcap spirit in which I’ve usually seen this scene played. Instead, she is hoping against hope that perhaps perfect submission if not sweet music will soothe her savage beast. And then there’s the kiss in the street. Never before have I felt this affection to be coerced rather than coaxed; never have I been more chilled by Petruchio’s “Is this not well?”

The final scene, where Kate reveals herself to have become a new, and newly tractable wife, is always a tough one for directors aiming not to be horrible male chauvinists, and is frequently given a twist that undermines Kate’s speech about the need for female subservience – some suggestion of collusion between husband and wife to win the bet, or an exaggerated delivery that makes it clear this is a performance, or something. But Hay plays it straight. Her Kate has finally learned that a quiet marriage requires absolute obedience to her rightful lord. And Carlson’s Petruchio is authentically relieved that his plan worked at last, is ready to love her and be loved, and contemptuous of fools like Lucentio (Cyrus Lane) who think they can acquire a compliant wife, without investing the necessary personal effort. His beloved Bianca (Sara Afful) looks sure to be a shrew to him, not because he chose poorly but because he has not the stomach to tame her.

I want to be very clear: this is all played very well, and effectively. And it’s awful. In the past, I’ve found Shrew to be one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies. I could not laugh other than bitterly at the bulk of this Shrew – I had trouble even applauding at the end – and I suspect that was deliberate. Abraham’s production is too well-constructed and well-played for it not to be.

But I wonder to what end. Marriage is, among more pleasant things, an arena of conflict. And those Shakespearean comic couples who look like they might find marital happiness – Viola and Orsino, Beatrice and Benedick, Rosalind and Orlando – none of them seem like they will never fight. They just seem like they know each other, and that they love each other, and that will make a difference. Meanwhile, those who look like they likely won’t find happiness – Portia and Bassanio, say, or Hermia and Lysander, or Helena and Bertram – what’s missing is that knowledge. I have always in the past counted Kate and Petruchio among the former rather than the latter. Not this time.

If Petruchio’s plan of awful rule and right supremacy is a terrible route to peace, love and quiet life, even if they appear to work at first, then what is the answer to Petruchio’s challenge?

“He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak: ’tis charity to show.”

It cannot be “make a better choice of wife” because that is Lucentio’s mistake. It must be that there is something in what Petruchio is up to other than cruelty. That something is precisely what Abraham has deliberately undermined so that we may see the cruelty as cruelty. That something is comedy, is playfulness, is humor.

I venture there’s not a husband alive who has not said, “evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!” many a time in his married life, the only question being whether he is more inclined to mutter it or to shout. And, whether he says it with humor. Because that, ultimately, is the best test of health and happiness in that marriage – does he find it funny that he feels, and sounds, like Petruchio, or does he not. If he can laugh, then maybe so can she.

If he cannot, well, he may win a sullen obedience or he may not – or she may of him, or she may not. But love? I have my doubts.

The Taming of the Shrew will be performed on Stratford’s Festival Theater stage through October 10th.

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Home News: Infinitely Polar Bear in Theaters

Imogene Wolodarsky, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and Ashley Aufderheide in "Infinitely Polar Bear," written and directed by Maya Forbes.
Imogene Wolodarsky, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and Ashley Aufderheide in "Infinitely Polar Bear," written and directed by Maya Forbes.

Unabashed self-promotion time here. The first feature film I was involved in helping bring to fruition (in this case as an executive producer) is coming to theaters next week. The New York premier was this past Monday, and on June 19th, “Infinitely Polar Bear,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, opens in New York and Los Angeles, and should be coming to a theater near you very shortly thereafter.

Infinitely Polar Bear” tells the story of Cam Stuart, a man struggling with manic-depression who has to become primary caregiver to his two daughters and, through that responsibility, finds the purpose that keeps the darkest depths of his illness at bay. I’ve often described it as like “Kramer vs. Kramer” meets “Housekeeping,” and I know I’m biased but I think it holds its own in that company.

The film is a love letter by writer-director Maya Forbes to her late father, who is the model for the father in the film. And it’s also a film that speaks to me very deeply as a father, particularly anchored as it is by Mark Ruffalo’s heartfelt performance. I’m not bi-polar (so far as I know), but recognize myself in Cam, both at my best and at my worst. That recognition is a big part of why I got involved in the film.

I appreciate the very limited but very real nature of the hope that the film’s story holds out. This is not a story of recovery, much less of cure. Cam Stuart is not going to “get better” – but he can be a little better, for today, for tomorrow, if he has something, someone, to be better for – in his case, his girls. And the film is honest as well about the burden that places on the girls, to know that they are the best thing keeping their father on this side of sanity.

And I also appreciate that, notwithstanding the seriousness of the material, the film is very funny. It’s not so much “the lighter side of mental illness” as a joyful look at life, inevitable trials notwithstanding.

You can see a trailer below, and get more information on the film here.

And very shortly, you can go to the theater and see it.


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