Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Reading

Four Truths About the Florida School Shooting — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

Onto the continuing tragedy of American gun violence are now piled many kinds of grotesquerie, not least the e-mails, sure to come to any parent with kids still in school anywhere in the country, offering “tips on talking to children about violence” and promising that your child’s school “has been performing lockdown drill protocols that our security team and consultants have recommended to ensure that we are prepared in the unlikely event that an incident occurs.” We have normalized gun killings to the point that we must now be reassured that, when the person with the AR-15 comes to your kid’s school, there’s a plan to cope with him. (That the planning is almost worthless is proved by the killings in Florida, where the murderer may have taken advantage of his knowledge of the lockdown protocols in order to kill more students.) Here, though, are four simple truths worth saying again, in the aftermath of the Florida massacre, about gun control and gun violence.

1. The gun lobby, and the Republican Party it controls, have accepted as a matter of necessity the ongoing deaths of hundreds of children as the price that they are prepared to pay for the fetishization of weapons. The claim of this lobby’s complicity in murder is not exaggerated or hysterical but, by now, quite simple and precise: when you refuse to act to stop a social catastrophe from happening, you are responsible for the consequences of the social catastrophe. If you refuse to immunize your children and a measles epidemic breaks out, you are implicated in the measles. If you refuse to pay money for sewers and cholera breaks out, you are complicit in the cholera. Acts have consequences. This complicity includes all of the hand-wringers and the tut-tutters and the “nothing to be done”-ers as much as the N.R.A. hardcore. Many people have predicted, repeatedly, that one gun massacre would lead to the next—and that more gun massacres would probably take place in one year in America than in the rest of the civilized world combined—and they have been proved right, and then right again. Since everyone knew that this would happen again, those who did nothing to stop it happening again—and everything they did to see that no one else could do anything to stop it happening again—are complicit when it happens, again.

2. The claim that gun massacres are mysterious or difficult or bewildering or resistant to legislation is a lie. When people say that nothing can be done because this law wouldn’t stop this one, or that law that one, they are acting in ignorance of the most significant and obvious fact: that no other modernized society experiences remotely the frequency or the horror of American gun killings. There is no mystery at all to stopping this, if there is a minimal will to stop it. A huge, repeated body of social science shows that gun control controls gun violence, and largely eliminates gun massacres, within the normal limits of human action. (People still die of infections; that is no argument against the efficacy of antibiotics. Crimes continue on our streets; that is no argument against the thousand small sanities that have so dramatically reduced violent crime in our cities.) If we had gun laws like the gun laws in Canada or in Britain, we would have gun violence at the level that it exists in Canada and Britain. There is no special American quiddity that would alter this—to insist otherwise is as irrational as insisting that American kids shouldn’t be immunized because American kids have a different kind of immunity than other kids. They don’t. Building small barriers to gun violence reduces all gun violence. The lesson of contemporary social science is that small difficulties have great effects; make crime harder and you have much less crime. Make getting guns harder and you will have fewer people using them. Merely make gun ownership as demanding as, say, car ownership, with a license to obtain and insurance to buy, and you will see a drastic reduction in gun violence and perhaps a near-end to the mass killings of children.

3. The Second Amendment is not a barrier to gun sanity. The reading, from left to right, of the amendment was—until the day before yesterday, historically speaking—that it provided no guarantee to the individual ownership of guns. The notion that it does is novel, radical, and wrong.

4. The attempt to turn the question of gun violence into a question of mental health is obscene. Of course, people who kill children en masse are crazy. That’s the given. Saying this says nothing; every country contains mentally ill and potentially violent people. Only America arms them. When Donald Trump, who last year signed a bill to end a mild Obama-era rule designed to keep mass-killing weapons out of the hands of people with certain mental illnesses, talks about reporting people who are “mentally disturbed” to the proper authorities—well, irony piles upon irony, and the only adequate tribute is contempt and silence.

Mueller’s Message to America — Paul Rosenzweig in The Atlantic.

With yet another blockbuster indictment (why is it always on a Friday afternoon?), Special Counsel Robert Mueller has, once again, upended Washington. And this time, it is possible  that his efforts may have a wider effect outside the Beltway.

For those following the matter, there has been little doubt that Russian citizens attempted to interfere with the American presidential election. The American intelligence agencies  publicized  that conclusion more than a year ago in a report issued in January 2017, and it has stood by the analysis whenever it has been questioned. But some in the country have doubted the assertion—asking for evidence of interference that was not forthcoming.

Now the evidence has been laid out in painful detail by the special counsel. If any significant fraction of what is alleged in the latest indictment is true (and we should, of course, remind ourselves that an indictment is just an allegation—not proof), then this tale is a stunning condemnation of Russian activity. A Russian organization with hundreds of employees and a budget of millions of dollars is said to have systematically engaged in an effort (code named “Project Lakhta”) to undermine the integrity of the election and, perhaps more importantly, to have attempted to influence the election to benefit then-candidate Donald Trump. Among the allegations, the Russians:

  • Conducted political intelligence-gathering activities in the United States;

  • Hid their activities by setting up virtual networks in America that masked their extra-American communications;

  • Influenced the American election by using false personas to organize rallies for Trump, criticizing Muslims and spreading allegations of voter fraud by candidate Clinton;

  • Stole American identities to create controlled accounts; and

  • Destroyed evidence of their activities.

The details of these activities are painfully explicit; the indictment cites dates, times, places, messages, posts, and specific rallies. In short, if the facts prove out, there can be absolutely no doubt—none whatsoever—that Russian actors engaged in a multi-year, multi-million-dollar campaign of influence.

From this, it seems that two things are clear. First, while the “official” purpose of this indictment is to criminally prosecute violations of American law, the indictment also has a second purpose—to inform the American public and their representatives. Let’s be blunt—none of the Russians who were indicted will ever,ever, see the inside of an American courtroom. Russia won’t extradite them and we won’t, realistically, expect them to do so. The individuals may not have as much freedom to travel (say, to the French Riviera) for fear of arrest, but otherwise the effect on them will be negligible.

Given that reality, this indictment (which prosecutors sometimes call a “speaking indictment”) is so detailed precisely because the evidence will never be presented in a court. It is designed to give as full an accounting of the known facts as the prosecutors reasonably can. Beyond prosecution, the clear goal here is to speak to the American public—and if this message isn’t sufficient, then no message can possibly sway the body politic.

The indictment is also conspicuous for failing to allege any act of collusion between the Russian actors and any Americans at all. There are no identified American co-conspirators and there certainly is no allegation that the Russians acted with the knowledge of (much less the approval of) any individuals in the Trump campaign. As far as the indictment is concerned, the Russian activity was initiated by the Russians for their own strategic benefit, and candidate Trump may only have been an incidental beneficiary of their activity.

Again, that seems an unlikely proposition. But in fairness to President Trump, we need to acknowledge that, thus far, the Mueller team has alleged no active collusion. For the Trump team, that will be the takeaway from today’s indictment.

For the rest of America, the takeaway should be much grimmer: The threat to the integrity of our elections is real. The main question that Mueller asks is not whether the Russians are guilty, but what America is going to do about it? If, faced with this reality, we continue to do nothing, then the blame for the next failure will be on us.

Ben Franklin, when asked what sort of government the Founders created, is reported to have said “a Republic, if you can keep it.” Americans must now to decide if we want to keep ours.

Breaking Barriers — Sopan Deb profiles an actor with Down Syndrome who plays the lead.

Near the end of 2015, the playwright Lindsey Ferrentino and the actress Jamie Brewer were watching clips of Donald J. Trump, then a candidate, appearing to mock a reporter with a physical disability. They were horrified — which made their work on a new play, centered on a character with Down syndrome, all the more significant.

“From that point forward, the play took on a new meaning for me,” Ms. Ferrentino said.

“Big time,” Ms. Brewer added.

“Watching you watch that video, seeing your reaction to it, you cried,” Ms. Ferrentino said, turning to her.

“I was emotional,” Ms. Brewer said.

The play, “Amy and the Orphans,” which opens March 1 in a Roundabout Theater Company production at the Laura Pels Theater, is a barrier-breaking show. Ms. Brewer, 33, and her understudy, Edward Barbanell, 40, are thought to be the only known performers with Down syndrome to play the lead in an Off Broadway or Broadway theater production.

The show is about three siblings who reunite after their father’s death, and the road trip that follows. Ms. Ferrentino, who debuted with the critically acclaimed play “Ugly Lies the Bone,” in 2015, was insistent that the title role be played by someone with the disability, even leaving a note in an early draft of the script: “Finding a talented actor with Down syndrome isn’t difficult. So please do it.”

Ms. Brewer is a veteran actress best known for her groundbreaking work on the television series “American Horror Story.” Mr. Barbanell, who goes by Eddie, played Billy in the 2005 movie “The Ringer,” starring Johnny Knoxville. He and Ms. Brewer have performed onstage for much of their lives.

But taking on such a large and high-profile theater role is a completely new challenge.

“The biggest hurdle is the amount of dialogue and stage direction that comes all at once,” said Gail Williamson, Ms. Brewer’s agent, and a prominent advocate for performers with disabilities. “When you’re doing a television show or a film, you have a scene and you can work on that one scene. Doing theater, you have to have it all down.”

At the rehearsal space for the show, Ms. Brewer was going over lines with fellow cast members Debra Monk, Mark Blum and Vanessa Aspillaga. In the scene, Amy, wearing pink noise-canceling headphones as she watches a movie on her tablet, is visited by her two siblings, played by Ms. Monk and Mr. Blum. Ms. Aspillaga portrays a caretaker. Every few minutes, after a scene would start, the show’s veteran director, Scott Ellis, would interrupt to offer notes and tweak the blocking. Turn this way. Walk that way. React more.

The stops and starts were especially important for Ms. Brewer. The more repetition, the easier the memorization, and the more the scenes would be ingrained into her muscle memory.

“That was great, Jamie,” Mr. Ellis said. “Back it up one more time,”

Another stop, more direction and then repeat. Mr. Ellis kept offering words of encouragement to the cast, while Ms. Ferrentino sat nearby, taking notes on a notepad smaller than her hand. Occasionally, she would whisper to Mr. Ellis. Throughout the rehearsal, Ms. Brewer cracked jokes; nearby, Mr. Barbanell quietly observed.

The play is based on Amy Jacobs, Ms. Ferrentino’s aunt, who also had Down syndrome and is now deceased. When Ms. Ferrentino began writing the play, her process was complicated by the limits of her aunt’s verbal skills, which made creating dialogue a challenge. In 2015, she reached out to Ms. Williamson, whose entire client roster is made up of performers with disabilities. Ms. Williamson connected her with Ms. Brewer, who had just become the first person with Down syndrome to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week. The playwright and the actress met for coffee and hit it off immediately.

Ms. Brewer told Ms. Ferrentino that when she had played characters with Down syndrome, she often had to cater to an audience’s expectations, regardless of her abilities. Immediately, Ms. Ferrentino decided that the play would be as much about Ms. Brewer as about her aunt.

“That informed how I wrote the play,” she said. She wanted to give Ms. Brewer room “as an actor, and a person, a chance to step outside that role and show the audience who she actually is.”

Ms. Brewer, an only child, grew up in Orange County, California, before moving near Houston, where she was involved with a local theater. She said she started performing around eighth grade, with her family’s support.

“Individuals with disabilities have different ways of coping with things,” Ms. Brewer said. Her way, she explained, was plunging into the arts, like her character, who must handle her father’s death.

After the play was written, the task was to find Ms. Brewer’s understudy. Ms. Williamson connected Ms. Ferrentino with Mr. Barbanell, who was living in Coral Springs, Fla.

For their first meeting, Ms. Ferrentino told him not to prepare anything; she just wanted to meet him. But Mr. Barbanell, accompanied by his mother, was ready with scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Julius Caesar,” “Henry V” and “Romeo and Juliet.” At a diner, he pushed his ice cream sundae aside and insisted on showing Ms. Ferrentino his skills.

Just like that, he won her over.

“He performed the most beautiful, word-perfect Shakespeare,” Ms. Ferrentino said. And instead of finding another Amy, Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis decided that Mr. Barbanell should occasionally be given his own performance dates — and when he played the lead, the play would be “Andy and the Orphans,” with some scenes rewritten for a male lead.

On the first day that the cast rehearsed in the actual performance space at the Laura Pels Theater on 46th Street, Mr. Barbanell, urged by Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis, stood up and enthusiastically recited Romeo’s balcony speech from “Romeo and Juliet.” (“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”)

Encouragement for this cast was not in short supply, Mr. Barbanell noted.

“Because I have Down syndrome, I’m down and I’m up,” Mr. Barbanell said. “I’m like an elevator, and they brought me up,” he added, referring to Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis.

Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis have embarked on a learning process of their own. Neither had ever done anything like this. And it turned out not to be as daunting as it seemed.

“The questions that we had, so far, are, ‘What is it like having actors with Down syndrome in our professional rehearsal space?’” Ms. Ferrentino said. “Well, we’ve answered at least that question. It’s not that different. So the next question is, what would it be like to have them in performance? Who knows what the answer to that is?”

Mr. Ellis added, “That will be the next thing.”

Being an advocate for those with disabilities is a role Ms. Brewer and Mr. Barbanell take very seriously. They both want to open doors and change attitudes. Mr. Barbanell told a story about working as a bus boy at an assisted-living center, where he constantly heard epithets from his co-workers directed toward people with disabilities.

When he found out he was cast in “Amy and the Orphans,” Mr. Barbanell had a message for them on his way out the door: “Take a look at me now.”

[Photo by Nina Westervelt/NY Times]

 Doonesbury — Twitting.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Friday, February 2, 2018

Short Takes

White House will release Nunes memo.

Air strike cripples Syria cave hospital.

12-year-old girl held in L.A. school shooting.

Robert Wagner now a “person of interest” in Natalie Wood’s death.

No, Trump did not have the “highest audience” for the SOTU (unless you count those who blazed a doobie during it).

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Whole Lotta Colluding Going On

Martin Longman at Washington Monthly has a detailed record of when and how the Trump campaign worked with their Russian handlers starting in July 2016.

So these are some of the activities of Trump, his campaign staff, his foreign policy advisers, and his good friend Roger Stone in the time period in which he received a counterintelligence briefing warning him that his campaign might be infiltrated by the Russians.  As a result, as the NBC News article makes clear, the briefing was a little awkward:

The situation was complicated by the fact that the FBI had already become aware of contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russia, and was beginning to investigate further. Former CIA Director John Brennan has said he told the FBI about a pattern of contacts the CIA observed between members of the Trump team and Russians, and former FBI Director James Comey said the bureau then began investigating in July 2016.

No collusion, my ass.