Archive for December, 2015

Star Wars Lives (No Spoilers)


On August 7, 1977 I finally went to go see the smash summer hit, “Star Wars.”  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I was working that summer at the East Park Drive-In movie theater, and our manager had told us that it was “unexpected and phenomenal” what this film had done.  The surprise hit took the country by storm, being held over month after month as the crowds kept coming.

I can still picture where I sat – right side, half way up in a packed movie theater on a Sunday night.  The words came on the screen, “A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy far, far away…” and then the music, the scroll, for the next two hours I was blown away by the best movie I had ever seen.


Little did I knew when Obi Wan introduced Luke to “the Force,” that I was watching a moment in film that would resonate for decades

The force!   Luke and Leia!   Hans Solo, Obi Wan Kenobi, such a different movie, both mystical and real, funny and dramatic, with special effects of a sort I had never seen.  It was so real, yet pure fantasy.

I realize no one can watch what’s now called “A New Hope” and have that same experience.  The technology of 2015 makes the effects of 1977 appear quaint.   The story line of Star Wars is so well known that no one can go into it and have the sense of surprise and exhilaration that hit us in the summer of ’77.   While getting old may be a bummer, it’s worth having been able to experience Star Wars that first summer – to understand first hand why it overwhelmed the American psyche and became iconic, even legendary.

The seventies had seen the rise of raw realism.   In politics the US lost in Vietnam and saw President Nixon resign in disgrace.   Top movies portrayed this cynicism as well – Marlon Brando as the Godfather, Jaws, the Exorcist, Taxi Driver, the French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, etc.


Films with a gritty cynical realism, such as Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” dominated the early seventies

The public was yearning for something mythical, a clear good vs. evil, a feel good story that transcended the every day.   In 1976 the film “Rocky” by Sylvester Stallone surprised the pundits by being embraced by the public as an unlikely case of a two bit has been boxer being given a chance for the title and having his life changed in the process.  That was a hint that the public was ready for a different kind of film, one that spoke to our hopes as well as our cynicism.


Sylvester Stallone tapped into that American desire for hope a year before Lucas with his surprise hit “Rocky”

Over the next years the sequels came – The Empire Strikes Back gave us Yoda and more substance to the characters.  The Return of the Jedi brought victory for the rebellion and apparent closure.  I enjoyed and looked forward to movies, but none captured the magic of that August 1977 night when I left the theater floored by what I had just experienced.

Then about 15 years ago the prequels started.   The Phantom MenaceAttack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  I enjoyed all three.   They were fun, intense, and the special effects were fantastic.  I thoroughly enjoyed the story.  The last half hour of Revenge is intense and raw.   Moreover the story line – that Anakin Skywalker would be redeemed and saved despite having done things that would make Hitler shudder – was powerful.   As I noted then, it really was a story of Anakin’s redemption.

I loved that my kids were putting together Star Wars legos and learning the characters better than I, and that this was a film experience that transcended generations.   Excellent entertainment, but it never left me feeling like I did that August nearly 40 years ago.


Episodes I – VI are essentially about Anakin’s Redemption. Where is the series going next?

Last night I took my sons, aged 9 (almost 10) and 12 to see The Force Awakens.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew the reviews were good, but I had not been in a hurry to see it.  Still, why not?   After all, Farmington’s movie theater has wide rocking comfortable seats, $4 admission and popcorn for $2.   Heck, that’s probably not much more expensive than Sioux Falls was in 1977 (and the seats are definitely more comfortable).

The “Long time ago…” screen came on, and I felt that feeling – one that connected me back to 1977, and I swear I almost had tears in my eyes as the music blared and the scroll started.  Star Wars!   Yet this film did something else.   It tugged at me emotionally in the same way the original did, something none of the others had done.   The last part of Revenge  was emotionally powerful, but in a different way.


When Star Wars opened May 27, 1977, FOX thought they might have a dud. Instead, to everyone’s shock, long lines greeted the hit from day one, and lasted all summer.

It wasn’t the same as 1977, but the movie had a pace, a feel, a sense of purpose that brought back the kind of emotion I had back then.  The gritty realism, the mix of humor and drama, and something new – connections with the original characters that made sense.   It was powerful, mesmerizing and fun.  If I had never seen any of the other films, I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it.  But in the context of the Star Wars series, this episode came closest to bringing back the emotion of 1977.   J.J. Abrams, trying to stay true to Lucas’ overall theme and vision, got it right.

As the final scene faded to credits and the oh so familiar music began, getting up to leave I felt something that must have been similar to what I experienced after that original.   My 12 year old son, who was lukewarm about going, said, “wow, that was great, I want to see all the rest again, I forgot how good Star Wars was.”   And as I get older and my body moves a bit more slowly and with more aches and pains, I take some comfort that Star Wars retains its relevance, and can still reach inside.   As I left the theater I knew that the force was with me.   May the force be with you!


President Trump


As Donald Trump continues to surges in the polls, people wonder what kind of President he would be.   My satirical post the other day has a bit of truth – Trump owes nothing to the Republican party nor does he have a well articulated vision.   Indeed, we might find out that Trump the President would be a very different character than Trump the candidate.

To put it bluntly, he’s lived his life as a kind of high end confidence man.  Not a blatant con artist, but close to it.   He has the one gift any good con man must have: the ability to know what is necessary to close the sale.  Up until now  he has masterfully said and done exactly what was needed to surge ahead in the polls and confound his critics.   He has tapped into the anger and Angst of those who they are losing their country to strange forces, promising to confront and defeat these threats (e.g., Mexicans “illegals” and Muslims) to ‘make America great again.’  In an era where Presidents face unprecedented constraints and challenges, he acts like he can handle anything.

No other candidate could do it the way he has.  Not worrying about pleasing donors or special interest groups he’s crafted a sales pitch that fits the mood of the country – or at least Republican voters, especially those who are older, white, and see a country changing at an incredible rate.   They hope that maybe Trump can restore the world to what it once was.

He can’t.  The world is changing too fundamentally and rapidly.  More importantly, he probably doesn’t want to.  Now he is “making the sale,” which is something completely different from “running the company.”  After selling himself to the public, if elected, the new task would be to govern.   And nobody has any reason to expect that he’d use the same ideas, techniques and positions to govern – salesmen don’t run the service department at car dealerships after all.


Despite the comparisons, Trump lacks the ideological conviction of the fascists – I’d be more scared of Cruz than Trump.

Trump does not seem to have any real ideological convictions.  Over time he’s espoused conservative opinions – but before he became a darling of the right pursuing the Obama birther silliness, he more often than not put forth liberal points of view.   One look at his personal life and it’s clear he’s not a social conservative.   Now he waves the Bible and professes deep faith.   Of course.  That’s what he has to do to make the sale.

As President, Trump says he’d want to surround himself with the best people.  Too often Presidents repay political favors or have party stalwarts as advisers.  Perhaps Trump would put a quality group around him and listen to them.  That would be a good thing.

He won’t lose the bombast, but some of the radical right wing zingers that are keeping him in the headlines now will give way to bluster about economic policy, tax reform (heck, Trump might be the one Republican who could push through a tax increase on the wealthy), and rebuilding the infrastructure.

In foreign policy, Trump’s brash soundbites hide the fact he’s been more dovish than much of the pack.   He seems content to leave Syria and ISIS to Putin and not get involved in that mess.   As for Ukraine, he’s happy to let Germany lead.  Indeed, he’s not calling for a massive increase in defense spending or some of the hawkish things others are promoting.  Lest we forget, unlike most Republicans, he opposed the Iraq war in 2003.

Looking at his past, and even the positions he now takes one could expect that despite all appearances Trump would govern as a pragmatist, even a centrist.

That doesn’t mean I think Trump would be a good or effective President.   Only that, as my satirical post the other day suggests, we can tell very little about a possible Trump Presidency from his campaign rhetoric.   For most politicians there is a desire to convince and stay true to a message, or core principals, be they conservative or liberal.   Trump is just making the sale, using whatever works.

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What is “Multiculturalism?”


While being praised for her principled stand to accept Syrian refugees on moral grounds, Merkel also repeated a claim she has made before: that multiculturalism is a “living lie.”   I don’t think the Chancellor was rejecting diversity but instead reacting to a form of multiculturalism that divides a society.   So what is multiculturalism?

America has a multicultural past, and a past littered with bigotry and prejudice.  The Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, the Chinese…many groups came and were met with distrust and often violence.

Yet while it often takes a generation or two, these mistreated immigrants had a goal: to become Americans and succeed in the American dream.  My Grandfather Wilhelm Erb was born in 1889 – the same birth year as Hitler.  Yet his father had come to America.  He lived a very German life, went to a German Lutheran seminary in Missouri and then gave German language sermons until he retired in 1963.  He worked a long time in Lester Prairie, Minnesota – which had a strong German population – before finishing his career in South Dakota.


The US has been more of a melting pot than a smorgasbord.   Go to Lester Prairie today – or New Ulm or any of the old German enclaves – and you won’t hear German spoken.   How many Italian-Americans are still more Italian in their ways than American?   Simply, people came here to embrace an ideal – freedom.   Those ideals are enshrined in the constitution; a multiculturalism that doesn’t require agreement to core principles would be self-defeating.

The Europeans have a more difficult task since their states have ethnic origins.   To be German was to speak German and embrace German culture.  To be sure, the differences between Bavaria and Prussia could be as immense as between any two European states, and in both Italy and Germany late statehood meant a kind of artificial forced nationalism — probably one reason those two veered to fascism in the early 20th Century.

Consider the aftermath of  WWI – Poles, Latvians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbians, etc., all wanted states built on some kind of ethno-cultural connection and resented requirements to offer protection to minorities.  Until the EU redefined citizenship, many states had overt blood citizenship laws, connecting citizenship with ethno-cultural heritage.


The ethnic nationalism of the late 19th Century led to massive bloodshed in the first half of the 20th Century

That kind of nationalism is a recipe for disaster.  Even in small states like Belgium ethnic differences can render a government dysfunctional.

Luckily the EU has redefined citizenship and moved to steer Europeans away from that kind of ethnic nationalism.   Ethnic nationalism will cause conflicts in an increasingly globalizing world as its proponents use fear, hate and ignorance to try to stir emotion.

The European Union is becoming a community build on common shared ideals.  The reason Germans, Estonians, Latvians, Greeks, French and 14 others all use the same currency with one European Central Bank is because they see a need for a pan-European identity.  When young Estonians fly to Berlin for work, and Europeans take pride in being able to work anywhere in the 28 country Union, that’s a strong voice or values that transcend borders.   The French and Germans see more shared between their cultures than opposed — a marked improvement over a century ago!


Yet this weakening of ethnic nationalism requires a positive force – something to replace it.   The EU’s embrace of western enlightenment values – individual liberty, markets, equal justice under the law, protection of minority rights, etc. — fulfills that role.  The reason you need something positive is that for a civil society to thrive there must be a sense of community, and sense that ‘we’re in this together.’

There is nothing natural about ethnic communities – ethnicity is an imagined commonality, after all.  Ethnicity as a key component is in fact very recent, becoming a force in Europe only as recently as the 19th Century.   But if there are just different communities within the same city or state there will be no civil society.  The associations that do form will be fragmented and more likely to cause division and conflict than cooperation.

That’s the kind of multiculturalism doomed to fail, and I believe that is what Merkel was talking about.  There needs to be a positive set of values upon which to build civil society, which can unite people of diverse backgrounds.  The EU potentially has that.   Europeans have a right to expect that refugees who come and stay, or migrants that are storming Europe to look for a better life, to accept those values and adopt them as their own.

They don’t need the same cultural practices – diversity in culture, cuisine, and dress should be welcome, they strengthen a society.  But the core values have to be shared, otherwise it cannot function.   Moreover, civil society has to be riddled with common interests across diverse groups.  People have to be working together, they have to see themselves as part of the larger ‘nation’ – a nation built on common core values.

If you don’t have that, minority cultures will be ghettoized and likely to rebel – either become supporters of groups like ISIS or riot as they did in Paris a few years ago.

Can this work?   Yes, but it’s a task that spans at least a generation.  The initial immigrants will find it hard to leave their culture and language, and thus be less likely to mix.   Older Europeans (or Americans) will be more likely to see the change as a threat, and thus engage in a xenophobic backlash.  But as young people grow, if they connect with each other – the children of immigrants seeing Europe as home and embracing the same core values as the children of natives, over time a strong integrated civil society can form.

So no to a multiculturalism that says immigrants and new comers can simply keep their old culture and face no pressure to assimilate.   No to a nationalism that says new comers must give up all vestiges of their old culture and become “just like” the natives.  Yes to a multiculturalism that allows diversity only within the confine of shared core values that yield a strong integrated civil society.  Yes to a sense of nation that rejects ethnicity as the core and embraces individual liberty, human rights and mutual respect.



Future Post Found: GOP Angry at Trump

NOTE:  Wordpress sometimes acts funny with drafts, and today they apparently had problems with the space-time continuum and I found a draft of a post from August 12, 2016 in my draft box.  I found it a bit surprising:


(From the future – August 12, 2016)

Republican insiders are furious with Donald Trump, as on Tuesday he came out endorsing a single payer health care system, arguing that Hillary Clinton’s endorsement of Obamacare was not enough to maintain the integrity of the system.  “Look,” Trump said, “I’m a business man, I know how to make the books work.  Our health system is in crisis, Obamacare was a milquetoast plan that simply lined the pocketbooks of insurance companies.   We need an efficient single payer system.”

This is not the first time the Republican nominee for President has changed his opinion since accepting the nomination in Cleveland just under three weeks ago.  His embrace of the Paris Climate Change convention shocked people a day after he accepted the nomination.  “I know I’ve been saying that under a Trump Presidency we would no longer follow the guidelines – that the agreement has not been ratified by the Senate and thus is not the law of the land.  However, after extensive discussions with scientists, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is real and we have to do something NOW.”

At that point Ted Cruz, who finished second in the GOP balloting, lashed out at Trump as a “liar and a con man, who just duped the Republican party and half the country.”  Trump shrugged it off, “a leader needs to be able to change his mind when it’s right, and not be stuck with dogma.”

Then on August 2, 2016 Trump met with Muslim-American leaders and came out saying that was “amazed at the beauty and depth of the Islamic faith,” and was convinced that ISIS is perverting it.  “I was wrong when I lumped all Muslims together,” he said, “and a Trump Presidency will not try to limit religious groups and in fact will welcome immigration from Syrian refugees trying to flee ISIS evil.”



“How can you people be falling for this,” Clinton said, as Trump’s poll numbers rose, this time with liberal support.

An exasperated Reince Priebus, Chair of the Republican party, said there is nothing the party can do.  “We can’t take the nomination away from him,” he said, “though these position changes are troubling.”

Hillary Clinton, fresh off a campaign stop in California, worries that Trump’s new approach is winning Democratic support.   “People,” she said, “remember what he was saying last year!  Remember when people said he sounded fascist!   I am the real thing!”   Alas, Trump’s new ad listing Clinton “changes of position” over the past few years seems to undercut her claim at authenticity.

A furious Mitch McConnell said, “it’s like two Democrats are running,” and noted that “this is what happens when you go for an outsider.  He has no real track record, he says things on the fly.   We may have trouble holding the Senate and even the House at this rate.”

For his part, Trump insists he’s still a ‘real Republican,’ but “I am a leader, I listen to people and am not afraid to shift positions if that’s what is required for success.  I promise to make America great again, and that is something all should be able to get behind.”


Fiorina was surprised to learn that Trump was sending her to tour a planned parenthood clinic to find out “the real story.”

Redstate’s Erick Erickson could not conceal his rage, saying the Trump has been a “liberal plant” all along, and that conservatives should refuse to vote for the Presidency and instead focus on down ticket races.  “Maybe it’s time for a revolution,” he hissed, “this is over the top.”

Marco Rubio’s legal team is looking into the laws governing the electoral college.  “Most electors are good Republicans,” he noted, “and may be willing to vote against Trump if he doesn’t make clear he’s standing by the principles he enunciated in Cleveland.  Even if state law holds the electors to their candidates, there is a loophole – they could vote Trump Vice President and Fiorina President.”

Vice Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina brushed off questions about the electoral college or Trump’s shift on hot button issues.  “He’s the candidate, I know how to read an organizational chart,” she said grimly.

Political Scientist James Melcher of the University of Maine at Farmington was asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer what we should make of all this.  “This is uncharted territory,” the esteemed political oracle noted.  “Never has a candidate been so less beholden to a party.  He doesn’t care.”   Blitzer pressed, “Do we have any idea what a Trump Presidency would look like?”

“No, Wolf,” Melcher replied, “what he says today has no apparent relation to what he’ll say or do tomorrow.”

Trump supporter Janelle Cox of Michigan was upbeat, saying her support was unwavering, no matter what he does or say.  “It’s the Donald,” she said, “we love him.  We trust him.  He’s sort like family, like the big brother I never had.  And I love big brother!”