Lady Liberty Weeping:

As we attempt to come to terms with our nation’s refugee policy having been subjected to elective surgery in a hastily constructed MASH unit behind Trump Tower, it’s worth considering whether President Donald J. Trump will soon overtake preemptive war atop the list of “America’s Worst Gifts to the 21st Century.”

Yes, my days of underestimating Trump (and overestimated the American electorate) are over.

Like many this week, I’ve become much better acquainted with the plight of the world’s refugees and the United States’ ability to positively impact their future.

This from’s Dara Lind left my gut feeling thoroughly punched:

Since World War II, refugee policy in the US (and in other countries following the US’s lead) has been made on the premise that there are evils being committed in the world against powerless groups, and that it is the duty of stable and wealthy countries to protect members of those groups. Trump’s executive order makes it clear that this administration does not share that sense of obligation.

Today, the individuals who make up these “powerless groups” number in the millions worldwide. And, for those refugees who are citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, Trump’s order temporarily blocks their entry into the US — lest a terrorist were to sneak in the country among them.

(Meanwhile, don’t doubt that the Trumpian definition of “temporarily” has been lifted from an “alternate” dictionary. Since no citizen of the aforementioned countries has committed an act of domestic terror here in America, we’re dealing with an executive order that offers a temporary solution to a nonexistent problem.

Which begs the question, how does one know when our nonexistent problem has been solved?

Never, is my guess.)

But, as I was saying — lest a terrorist were to sneak in the country among them.

Because that’s the rub: Lots of Americans are scared of terrorists.

And, sure, the American people are all in when asked to go shopping, to the movies, to the ballpark — to patriotically spend money to keep the economy nice and healthy.

Otherwise, the terrorists win!

But ask them to help save tens of thousands of refugees, and too many Americans seem to think that risk is too great. According to the CATO Institute, “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”

For perspective, the odds of an American dying in a car crash are about 1 in 47,000 per year.

Yet, after taking appropriate precautions (i.e. wearing our seat belts, performing safety maintenance on our vehicles, etc.), we don’t hesitate to hop in our cars every single day.

The Obama Administration’s vetting process for refugees can take up to 2 years per individual. That process has a current success rate of 100-percent. I’d say “appropriate precautions” had already been taken prior to Trump’s order.

Again, the US can choose to save tens of thousands of refugees, and the risk to its own citizens is so small that it barely warrants comparison to the car crash fatalities statistic above.

Know empathy. Know hospitality.

Be America again.

How Would Babbitt Have Voted?

J. Frank DobieDo George F. Babbitts walk among us today?

Almost certainly.

Do they remain conformists? Sure. Are they disproportionally drawn to careers in sales? Probably.

Do they vote? And, if so, for whom?

I have a guess.

In any case, Babbitt is on my mind thanks to J. Frank Dobie, who once observed:

To an extent, any writer anywhere must make his own world, no matter whether in fiction or nonfiction, prose or poetry. He must make something out of his subject. What he makes depends upon his creative power, integrated with a sense of form. The popular restriction of creative writing to fiction and verse is illogical. Carl Sandburg’s life of Lincoln is immeasurably more creative in form and substance than his fanciful Potato Face. Intense exercise of his creative power sets, in a way, the writer apart from the life he is trying to sublimate. Becoming a Philistine will not enable a man to interpret Philistinism, though Philistines who own big presses think so. Sinclair Lewis knew Babbitt as Babbitt could never know either himself or Sinclair Lewis.

Thank you, Sinclair Lewis. And, thank you, J. Frank Dobie.

Maddow: Bill Clinton Should Have Resigned

A few months back, Rachel Maddow was a guest on Ezra Klein’s podcast.

The entire interview is well worth a listen (find it here), especially if you’re interested in the odd path, full of zigzags, that eventually led Rachel to a prime-time slot in cable news. I particularly enjoyed hearing about her stints in radio — which included, of all things, a spot on an FM “Morning Zoo” show [insert clown horn sound effect and cartoon whistle].

But Ezra truly struck podcast gold when he asked her for examples of opinions she holds that she concedes most people disagree with.

Among them, this:

I think that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency because of his sexual impropriety with an intern. I think that’s not a popular view [laughs]. But I think that … because it was somebody who was in his employ, it was wrong enough that it was an affront to the presidency.

She goes on to say that a Clinton resignation, in turn leading to an Al Gore presidency, wouldn’t have been a bad option for the country. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Democrats today might agree. Had Al Gore taken over Clinton’s presidency in 1998, I think it’s much more likely he’d have won outright in 2000.

That means no Dubya. No Cheney. No enhanced interrogations.

Maybe no 9/11 — if you believe Richard Clarke.

Of course, Rachel Maddow saying Bill Clinton should have resigned isn’t the same thing as her supporting his impeachment. I doubt she did.

But here’s credit where credit’s due: her view seems to me to be a principled, feminist — indeed, progressive — take on Bill Clinton’s behavior.

Meanwhile, here’s the relevant audio, excerpted from “The Ezra Klein Show” podcast:

Indy, Why Does The Floor Move?

Giant tortoises have invaded the lemur habitat at the Dallas Zoo.

And one lemur presumed it might pause for a breather atop its new flatmate.

(Afterward, the “What the Hell?!?” look the lemur gives the tortoise is priceless.)

Happy Holidays:

From my twitter feed, @DeepCoffee:

Critics — The Real “Phantom Menace”:

Originally published on Monday, May 24, 1999, in The Coffee Shop Times.

I’ve seen “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” three times already. The last occasion was a 5:15 AM showing — that’s right, 5:15 in the morning — at a large theatre near UCLA. You’re thinking I’m crazy, I’ll bet, but there were at least 200 other psychos in the audience with me. Everyone was cheering, laughing, and clapping the whole way through as if it were 5:15 PM. And it’s not just in media-hungry L.A. that this is going on. Theatres in cities all across the country are running the film around the clock to keep up with demand.

By the time you read this, the film will have more than earned back the $115 million George Lucas paid (out of his own pocket) to make it. Not bad economics — spend three years and a large chunk of change, and the audience happily lets you make it back within six days of the film’s release.

What does it all mean? The fans — the average Americans — have spoken. People are standing in impossibly long lines to see the movie at all hours of the day and night — and they’re doing it again and again. And loving it.

And then there are the movie critics. The “wise” ones, the observers and commentators on our nation’s most beloved pop culture institution. Their powerful thumbs-up or thumbs-down can often doom a film to a speedy trip to the 99 cent rack at Blockbuster. And these “experts” have almost unanimously panned “The Phantom Menace,” their comments ranging from polite dismissal to savage mockery. By any indication, this film should be bombing at the box office.

But this is one of those wonderful occasions where the American people demonstrate their true depth of character and spirit, where they prove they’re smarter than the so-called pundits. You see, “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi,” have always been stories that appeal to the innocent part of us. They’re child’s adventures, full of innocence and wonder.

This fourth film, the first in a series of three prequels, is no different. It chronicles the attempts of two Jedi Knights, master Qui-Jon (Liam Neeson) and apprentice Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to save the planet Naboo from the evil forces of the Trade Federation (predecessors to the evil Empire of the original trilogy). Their journey takes them and the teenage Naboo Queen, Amidala (Natalie Portman), to the planet of Tatooine, where they encounter a slave, young child prodigy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). The Force is indeed strong in Anakin, as Qui-Jon soon ascertains. Anakin’s kind and giving ways, in addition to his remarkable powers, save the group’s hide both on Tatooine and later on Naboo.

There are lots of treats along the way, too. We learn where R2D2 and C3PO come from, as well as see Master Yoda in action back in his pre-swamp days. Also making appearances are Jabba the Hutt and a whole host of other alternately repugnant and cute creatures most will remember from the other films. The special effects, including sweeping alien landscapes, a futuristic drag race, and battle sequences galore, are simply the best that have ever appeared in theatres. They will take your breath away.

The dark shadow hanging over this exhilarating ride, of course, is that we know that young Anakin Skywalker will eventually fall from grace and become the evil Darth Vader. How this happens will have to wait until Episodes II and III of the prequels, but it will be well worth the wait.

Nobody I know under the age of 25 has been anything less than wild about this film, despite its flaws. And those who like it that are older seem to have one thing in common — being young at heart. This, in fact, explains why the critics just don’t get it, while America does.

Film criticism — indeed, criticism of any sort — is the realm of the hyper-intellectual, where mostly middle-aged cretins sit in cushy offices, wildly overpaid to tear apart the creative work of others. Most of these people don’t even know the difference between screenwriting and directing and editing. Often their reviews are platforms to celebrate their own self-absorbed cleverness, rather than evaluate whether a film might appeal to the audience or contribute something worthwhile to the body of filmic artwork. Sounds a lot, in fact, like the United States Congress, or any other number of “institutions” of leadership.

There are, arguably, two kinds of people in this world — those who believe in magic, and those who don’t. Those whose imaginations still fuel their dreams, or not. Those who still are pure enough at heart to believe in good and evil, in redemption, and in the triumph of the human spirit over the coldness of intellectualism and technology. Or not. It is a sad commentary that the halls of power are mostly filled with the “nots.”

Luckily, the seats of movie theatres are filled with those who are still kids at heart. For them, “The Phantom Menace” will nourish that part of them, and this, I believe, will do more good for the nation’s soul than any amount of scholarly writing, or bills passed by Congress to ban automatic weapons or approve money for Kosovo.

George Lucas was recently interviewed by Bill Moyers for TIME magazine, and offered this thought:

I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’ — that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer, then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith.

This is the beauty of Lucas’ creation. In addition to being chock full of cool stuff — creatures and toys and spaceships and exotic planets — it is layered with significance and purpose beyond the eye candy. And it is only with an non-cynical, unjaded eye that you can step into this realm and experience the multiple levels of meaning. “Star Wars” is a gateway to a deeper and more profound part of ourselves, but it’s not available to those who have ceased to see the wonder in the world around us.

In fact, our country’s most popular religious system, Christianity, has this to say about the type of experience I refer to:

Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)

I’m not necessarily comparing Lucas to Christ, or claiming his universe is somehow perfectly holy (indeed, “Phantom Menace” is not without flaws — clunky dialogue abounds, for example). What Lucas has done, though, is tapped into the best part of all our subconscious and spiritual sides, and offered us stories about ourselves. He has given us a new tool, another key, to explore the complexities of what our lives mean.

Most critics out there have dismissed “Phantom Menace” out of hand; they think it a corny, shallow special-effects-laden piece of cotton candy, or a cynical merchandising tool, or a hopelessly simplistic and retro morality play. To those people I challenge you to check your spirit, and remember — if you can — who you were as a child. Is there any Anakin Skywalker left in you, who looks up at the stars and longs to visit them all? Or have you long since become Darth Vader, a cold machine devoid of spirit?

For those who don’t get it, your soul may be, as George Lucas would say, “in deep poodoo.”

I’m going to see “The Phantom Menace” a fourth time tomorrow.

See you in line.

Robert Zimmer, Jr., is a screenwriter and Jedi-in-Training.
Twitter: @DeeperMagic

Famous Brits Who Couldn’t Drive (Very Well):

What did J.R.R. Tolkien and John Lennon have in common? I mean, besides international fame, British birth certificates, and well-developed right brains?

For both, automotive travel presented prohibitive challenges.

In Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carter, we find out that Mrs. Tolkien had good reason to boycott Sunday drives in the family car, “Jo”:

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey CarpenterThere was the unforgettable occasion in 1932 when Tolkien bought his first car, a Morris Cowley that was nicknamed ‘Jo’ after the first two letters of its registration. After learning to drive he took the entire family by car to visit his brother Hilary at his Evesham fruit farm.

At various times during the journey ‘Jo’ sustained two punctures and knocked down part of a dry-stone wall near Chipping Norton, with the result that [Tolkien’s wife] Edith refused to travel in the car again until some months later — not entirely without justification, for Tolkien’s driving was daring rather than skillful.

When accelerating headlong across a busy main road in Oxford in order to get into a side-street, he would ignore all other vehicles and cry ‘Charge ’em and they scatter!’ — and scatter they did.

Meanwhile, in The Lives of John Lennon, by Albert Goldman, an accounting of John Lennon’s final road trip behind the wheel — accompanied by Yoko and their respective children from previous marriages, Julian and Kyoko:

The Lives of John Lennon, by Albert Goldman[It was explained] to John [Lennon] that the road was only one lane with a lay-by every sixty yards. If a car appeared from the opposite direction, John should make for the nearest lay-by or allow the oncoming driver to pull off first. John took off with Julian riding beside him in the front seat and Yoko sitting with Kyoko in the back seat.

…[L]ooking up the road, he saw a car approaching. Neither vehicle was moving rapidly. Visibility was perfect. Suddenly John panicked. He hurtled off the road and slammed into a ditch. They all were thrown forward violently, striking their heads against the dashboard, the windshield, or the side walls of the car.

What happened next enraged Yoko every time she thought about it, for years to come. John forced his way out of the front door and, dragging Julian after him, got free of the car. When he realized that he wasn’t badly hurt, he seized the boy and began dancing about like a mad troll. ‘We’re alive! We’re alive!’ he caroled gleefully.

Yoko, stunned, bleeding from facial wounds, suffering pain and hearing the howls of her child next to her, was furious that John had not thought for her. What she failed to realize was how relieved John must have felt at this moment. He had to know he need never drive again.

C.S. Lewis preferred walking.


The French people still committing beautiful acts of artistic flourish:

From The Twitter Feed…

Tax Fairies?

Ted Cruz annoys me to no end.

His podium presence reminds me of a high school debate student who binge-watches the musical, 1776, for its oratorical insights.

While aspiring public speakers are told to master their stage fright by imagining the audience in its underwear, Cruz seems to have chosen the strategy of picturing a powdered wig on his head.

Add to this the faux contemplative, pregnant pauses in his speech, and the concerned, beseeching angles of his eyebrows, and you’re left with a vomit-inducing act with its Insufferable Ass knob dialed to 11.

But I digress.

Cruz is on my mind today thanks to this from Kevin Drum, which effortlessly pokes holes in the Texas senator’s goal of eliminating the IRS:

Cruz also thinks he can eliminate the IRS. Or, in any case, “the IRS as we know it.” Has anyone asked him just why he thinks this? His plan still has a 10 percent income tax. It has a standard deduction. It has a child tax credit. It has an EITC. It includes a charitable deduction. It includes a home mortgage deduction. And there’s a business VAT to replace the corporate income tax. So who’s going to oversee and collect and audit all this stuff? Tax fairies?

Here’s hoping “tax fairies” become as commonplace in our political vernacular as Obamacare.