American Dharma

Last weekend, I watched American Dharma, the 2019 Errol Morris documentary that profiles political strategist Steve Bannon. Here’s the trailer.

This preview does an admirable job of encapsulating the film in just 2-1/2 minutes. Like all Morris documentaries, American Dharma is fascinating.

Because I deliberately try to steer clear of the news, I didn’t know much about Bannon. Hardly anything. I knew he was somehow related to the Trump presidency, but that’s it.

And because my political views are decidedly non-traditional — I’m a non-partisan small-i independent and/or small-l libertarian — I’m usually willing to give almost anyone the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t like Trump. I think he’s easily one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. But that’s not because he’s Republican. Some Republican presidents are good. Some are bad. Some Democrat presidents are good, some are bad. To my eyes, Trump is an awful president who just happens to be Republican.

All the same, I’m not one of those who believes “all Trump voters are racist”. I know that sometimes you have to make compromises. Sometimes you have to vote for somebody you don’t like simply because you like them a little better than the other option.

So, I went into American Dharma not knowing what to expect. I found it interesting.

Morris profiles Bannon’s rise to power, tracking his move from aspiring film-maker to chairman of Breitbart News to mastermind behind Trump’s 2016 campaign. Morris doesn’t badger Bannon. In fact, they have a reasonably open exchange, even though they clearly disagree with one another.

I actually found Bannon a somewhat sympathetic character. I don’t agree with his views, but I now understand more about the reasoning behind them. And I think he makes a compelling case when he argues that there’s a vast swath of people in the United States who feel abandoned, who feel as if the government does not represent them — and hasn’t for a long time.

To Bannon, Trump’s election was inevitable. To these disenfranchised voters — the farmers and mechanics and cafeteria servers of Middle America — Trump represents a voice who will speak for them. They don’t care that he often doesn’t make sense. And they don’t care that his aims are often what would once have been called un-American. They have somebody on their side.

By the end of the film, Bannon has made the case that there will literally be a violent revolution in this country if the political elite continues to ignore the vast middle. And I can’t remember whether this is explicit in Bannon’s statements or merely implied, but when you have a violent revolution, the previous rule of law no longer applies. The revolution is meant to overturn the established order, after all.

Bannon seems to believe that the U.S. Constitution is not sacred in any way. If it needs to be discarded in order for a “better” nation to emerge, then so be it. (Better as defined by Bannon and those who believe like him, obviously.)

It’s become very clear over the past few months that Donald Trump believes something similar. Trump doesn’t give a flying fuck about the Constitution. He’s doing what he was elected to do: serve his those who voted him into office. The Constitution is a nuisance to him rather than a guiding document.

And today, as his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, it was very clear that they don’t give a flying fuck about the U.S. Constitution or the rule of law either.

I have no idea what happens next. I suspect that calm will be restored, Biden will assume the presidency, and Trump will fade to oblivion, forever remembered as one of the country’s worst presidents. But I could very well be wrong.

Whatever happens, I wish people on all sides would take the time to listen to each other. The Right speaks and the Left doesn’t listen. The Left talks and the Right has deaf ears. They talk past each other. They use inflammatory jargon that serves to foster disagreement rather find consensus. It’s baffling.

Find somebody who disagrees with you. Sit down with them. Have a rational conversation. You’ll learn they’re not an idiot. They’re not evil. They’re simply another human being trying to find their way through life. And they happen to disagree with you a bit on how that might best be accomplished.

Never Give Up: In Praise of Failing Forward

I was interviewed this morning for a segment on Yahoo Finance. It didn’t go nearly as well as I had hoped. I was nervous. I fumbled when I spoke. I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say, even though I was speaking about my own experience.

Preparing to be filmed for Yahoo Finance
Here I am, talking to thin air…

As I stumbled — stopping and re-starting my sentences again and again — I began to panic. What was happening? I’ve been interviewed dozens of times in the past year, and I’ve interviewed dozens of people myself. I never have problems. I’ve had several interviewers praise my poise recently, but poise was nowhere to be found today.

Searching for Answers

While driving home, I tried to figure out what went wrong. Jeremy, the producer, had been friendly and organized and very clear about what he wanted. I spent plenty of time reviewing the topic we’d be covering (my tax audit in 2014) and I felt comfortable with the material. When I reached the television studio where we filmed the segment, I spent half an hour chatting with the woman who was managing things on our end. Everything should have gone great!

But it didn’t.

“You know, I always suck at television interviews,” I thought. But I know that’s not true. Sometimes I kill it when I’m on TV. Sure, I’ve had several bad experiences before, but it’s not true that I always suck at television interviews.

So, what makes some of my TV interviews go well and others poorly? Was there a common thread? I tried to find a common thread.

“Well, my favorite TV segments have been the ones where I’m actually talking with a live person,” I thought. I remembered a bit I did on DIY Christmas gifts a few years ago. For that, I stood in a local TV studio and joked around with the program’s host. That was fun. Or once in Denver, I did a segment about Fincon where I chatted directly with the news anchor. That went well too.

But what about the times I’ve sucked? There was the time I did a piece for a station in Miami. I sat in a local TV studio and talked to empty air, staring directly at the camera. I bumbled my way through that one too. At the time, I attributed my poor performance to the fact I had a high fever, but looking back I now see similarities to today’s situation. In both cases, I was talking to nobody — looking into empty space while trying to act like I was an expert.

“Aha!” I thought. “This is similar to my public speaking problems. When I’m on stage speaking to an audience, trying to play the expert, I don’t do well. I get nervous. I stumble and lose my way. But when it comes time for questions and answers, I shine. I do great when I’m interacting with somebody, when there’s a give and take, a conversation. It’s tough for me when I’m left to ramble on my own.”

After experiences like this, there’s a part of me that wants to pack it in. I want to decline all future interview opportunities. But you know what? I’ve spent the past decade learning that in order to grow, in order to enjoy life, in order to become a better person, I have to do the things that scare me. I have to face my fears and act despite of them. Will I fail? Absolutely! Sometimes I’ll fall flat on my face. Other times, like today, I’ll shuffle and stumble and be awkward. But in the long run, these failures make me better. I improve by looking at what went wrong and trying to correct it the next time.

Never Give Up

Before the interview this morning, I was thinking about the notion of never giving up. My thoughts were prompted by a trivial experience.

Over the past few months, I’ve been playing a bit of Hearthstone, which is an online card game. I like to play in the Arena, which means I pay two bucks create a deck from random cards and then am matched against random opponents. I can continue playing until I’ve lost three games.

During my Hearthstone games, it’s common for me to fall behind early. It looks like I’m going to die an early death. It would be easy to quit when my opponent is crushing me after only a few turns. But here’s the thing: My style of play is slow and methodical. Despite falling behind early, I often rally to take control of the match. Longer ago, I did concede matches if I fell behind, but now I know never to give up. There’s a good chance I’ll rally for victory.

This “never give up” attitude applies to the game at another level. Sometimes when I build a deck, I’ll lose my first two matches. In the past, I’d just throw in the towel. I wouldn’t play a third match but would instead scrap the deck and build a new one. Not anymore. I’ve learned that even when I start 0-2, I can often finish with three or four or five wins. Yesterday, for instance, I almost gave up after being crushed in my first two matches with a new deck. Instead, I gave the deck another chance. I won. Then I won again. And again. In fact, I won six straight games, which earned me enough in-game currency to build a new deck for free. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d given up after losing my first two games.

“Never give up” is a common admonition in game and sports. “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” we’re told. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of The Amazing Race. After watching 25 seasons of the show, I’ve learned a couple of things about the competition. The first rule of the Race is to always read your clues. (It’s mind-boggling how many people lose because they didn’t follow instructions.) But the second rule of the Race is to never give up. No matter how wrong things seem to have gone for a team, there’s always a chance they’ve been worse for somebody else.

In Praise of Perseverance

This “never give up” attitude is applicable to the real world too, of course, and in non-trivial ways. During the 1990s, when I was buried in debt, I wasn’t good at persevering. I’d spend a month or three trying to pay down my credit cards, but then give up at the first sign of adversity. I did the same thing with my fitness. I’d lose a few pounds but then return to my gluttonous ways at the first temptation.

It’s trite, I know, but when I look at the people in my life who have been most successful — by whatever means you want to define that word — they’re the folks who don’t let setbacks rule their lives. They fail forward, using mistakes and adversity as a launching pad to self-improvement. It’s all to easy to use mistakes and setbacks as an excuse to not achieve the things you want; but it’s better to take the tougher route, to wrestle with these obstacles and overcome them.

I’m curious to see how this morning’s Yahoo Finance interview comes together. Maybe the final product really will suck. Maybe I was so nervous and incoherent that the producer won’t be able to create anything worthwhile from the footage. On the other hand, it’s possible that there’s enough material there for him to make me look charming and insightful (ha!).

Regardless, I know one thing: I’m not going to give up. The next time an opportunity comes along to do a television interview, I’m going to do it — even if it means I’m talking to empty space again. Someday, once I do this enough, once I fail enough, I’ll be just as good at giving TV interviews as I am at writing blog posts.

The Amazing Race

If you wonder why I haven’t been writing much around here, it’s not because of my personal-finance blog, and it’s not because I’ve been spending time promoting my book. Yes, I’ve been doing these things — and I’ve even begun to exercise again — but the real time-suck in my life lately is The Amazing Race.

Kris and I aren’t really fans of reality shows. Yes, we watch The Biggest Loser, but that’s because it’s about fitness, and because the first season we watched featured Tara Costa, who, quite frankly, kicked ass. We loved watching her outcompete the other contestants every single week. The Biggest Loser is actually pretty lousy television, for the most part. It’s excruciating how the show repeats stuff over and over and over again. (And I hate how they always show contestants doing stuff while there’s a voice-over describing exactly what’s going on — as if we cannot see.)

Anyhow, around Christmas, I read a rave review of The Amazing Race in some mainstream publication like Newsweek or The New York Times. The article mentioned something that piqued my interest: Since the Emmy Award for reality show was instituted, no show other than The Amazing Race has ever won it.

Now, I concede that “best reality show” isn’t exactly high praise. Still, I decided to take a look. I found some clips on YouTube and was intrigued, so I bought a season from iTunes. I watched the first three episodes and thought, “Wow! I love this.”

When Kris got home from work that cold December day, I suggested that she watch the show with me. “I don’t want to watch it,” she said. “It’s going to be lame.”

Fine. I continued to watch the show myself. Eventually, she watched part of an episode with me. When the show was over, she asked sheepishly, “Can we watch the first episode of the season?” And so we did. And we haven’t stopped watching since.

Note: For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, here’s how The Amazing Race works. Around a dozen teams of two gather at the starting line in a major U.S. city. Each team is composed of members with an existing relationship: best friends, sisters, “dating long-distance”, and so on. (There are certain “stock” couples every season, such as the gay couple, the Christian couple, the geeky couple, the black couple, the models, and the loudmouths.) Teams are given clues to find their next destination, which could be anywhere in the world. They have to figure out where they’re going, booking their own travel. Along the way, teams have to stop to perform certain challenges, such as bungie jumping or building a bicycle or eating raw octopus. At the end of (nearly) every leg, the last-place team is eliminated. At the end of about a dozen legs, the final team wins a million dollars.

We watched the three seasons that we could buy from iTunes (seasons 13, 14, and 15) between Christmas and New Year. Then we used Netflix to get seasons 1 and 8 (the only seasons available on DVD).

“I want to watch more,” Kris said when we’d finished.

“There isn’t anymore,” I said. “Only those five seasons are available to purchase. If we want the rest, we’ll have to get them illegally.”

First up, we asked Chris G. if he could check for bootleg copies of the other seasons as he traveled through southeast Asia in February. He checked, but couldn’t find them. Meanwhile, Kris and I watched seasons 13, 14, and 15 again.

“I want to watch more,” Kris said when we’d finished.

I sighed. “You know, there’s a guy online selling all fifteen seasons on DVD, but it’s surely not legal,” I said.

“Is there a legal way to buy the other seasons?” Kris asked.

“No,” I said.

“Then we don’t have any other choice. Buy them.”

And so I paid $150 to get all fifteen seasons on DVD. For the past two weeks, our evenings and weekends have been spent watching our favorite teams (and less-than-favorite teams) race across the world. We’ve watched seasons 2, 3, 4, and 5, and are now on season 6. (Man, Jonathan needs to put a cork in it. We’re hoping he and Victoria get eliminated soon. He’s an ass.)

So, that my friends, is why there hasn’t been much to read about here during the month of March. It’s not because of the book. It’s not because of the other blogs. It’s because of The Amazing Race.

The Lugubrious Life of Benjamin Button

I’m cleaning out some of my old text files, and I found this movie review, which I wrote last spring. Since tonight’s Oscar night (and this film was nominated for Best Picture last year), it seems like a good time to share it.

You know, a lot of times when I see well-reviewed movies, I like them. And even if I don’t, I understand why other people might. But there are times when I see a critically-acclaimed movie that I just don’t get it. So it is with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a recent movie about a man who ages backward. He’s born old and dies as an infant. (This is just like Mork from Ork’s son, if you’ll remember.)

Benjamin Button is not a bad movie; it’s just a bland movie, with nothing in particular to recommend it. The filmmakers want for the plot to be heavy and laden with meaning. It’s not. It’s almost poignant — but not quite.

For me, one of the most bizarre aspects of this film was how clumsy some of the shots seemed to be. I don’t tend to think of cinematography or staging as “clumsy”. Most of the time when we see a Hollywood film, things are so polished that they’re orders of magnitude beyond clumsy. But in this movie, there were a couple of times that I thought to myself, “That was awkward.”

(And here I wish I’d noted an example, but it’s been two weeks since I drafted this, and I can’t remember a specific instance of what I mean.)

Still, the film has its moments. Here’s an excerpt from a letter Button writes to his daughter:

It’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

That’s brilliant stuff. I buy into this mindset 100%.

And here’s a terrific bit of dialogue that’s wasted in this film. Benjamin and Daisy, the love of his life, are “meeting in the middle”. He’s growing younger and she’s growing older. At this point, he’s about 26 (though looks 50ish) and she’s about 20. They go out to dinner. She pulls out a cigarette:

Benjamin: I didn’t know you smoked.
Daisy: I’m old enough. [beat] I’m old enough for a lot of things…

In a different movie, that could have been great. In this movie, it’s just sort of flaccid, as is much of what happens here.

Though I didn’t hate this film, I liked very little of it. My favorite part is probably the five or ten minutes during which Benjamin lives in the Russian city of Murmansk. He strikes up an affair with the wife of an American spy. While everyone else is asleep in their hotel, Benjamin and this woman spend time downstairs in the lobby, in the kitchen. They stay up all night and then separate in the early morning hours. It’s as if they live in an empty world that belongs only to them.

There’s no emotional center in Benjamin Button — none that you can believe, anyhow. It all feels contrived.