Does Your Vote Count?

In every election season, you hear people say their vote “doesn’t count” because they live in a solid red or blue state where the winner is already certain. Many will even offer this as a reason for not voting: “What does it matter? The [Democrat/Republican] always wins here anyway.” They often deliver this wisdom in weary, jaded tones, as though they’ve come by their cynicism the hard way.

The implication is that if they were in a swing state, where the election was more competitive, their vote would stand a better chance of making a difference, and they’d be more motivated to make it to the polls.

A corollary to this mistaken logic is to point to particularly close results, like Florida in 2000, as “proof that every vote counts.” Actually, they prove exactly the opposite. The official final result in Florida was 2,912,790 to 2,912,253, a difference of a few hundred votes. A single voter staying home, or even fifty or a hundred of them, would have made no difference to the outcome. Even at the epicenter of one of the closest elections in history, the odds against your vote “counting” would have been overwhelming. If you insist on measuring the value of your vote by the likelihood that it will influence the final result, then your vote effectively doesn’t count anywhere.

It’s technically true that it counts less in non-swing states — orders of magnitude less, in fact — but we’re talking about comparing two incredibly small numbers. If you would really be more likely to vote in Ohio than Georgia because your vote had, say, a 0.00001% chance of swinging the election rather than a 0% chance, then I’d say there’s something wrong with your priorities in general. You should be voting out of a sense of civic duty, individual pride, or some other factor that doesn’t vary according to where you live. It shouldn’t require a suspension of disbelief in which you pretend that your individual vote literally matters to the outcome.

In fact, that “suspension of disbelief” model (“what if everyone thought that way?”) is usually an overly simplistic way to understand collective action problems in general. It’s better applied to situations where there are no external moral values at stake, like the “paradox of thrift” in economics. In a case like voting, it should be seen as a matter of principle, not strategy or utility calculations.

Admittedly, as I discussed in my post on the Electoral College, the collective impotence of swing voters in non-swing states is a major issue that affects both elections and governance from top to bottom. But this doesn’t mean that an individual voter in a non-swing state is facing a materially different set of incentives from one in a swing state.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out exactly what people mean when they talk like this. In many cases it’s a way of complaining about some element of the overall system  — the electoral college, the two-party model, etc. — and they don’t literally mean that it will influence their voting behavior. In other cases, it’s just a convenient excuse for people who wouldn’t bother to vote anyway. (As a former political science major, I was forced to read enough speculative papers on voter turnout that I can assure you we have no idea what really drives it.)

But I suspect there are some people who have really decided not to vote because their state isn’t in contention. If you’re one of them, I hope you’ll reconsider. There may be valid reasons to sit out an election, but this isn’t one of them.

Is “Point Blank” a Ghost Story?

If you haven’t seen the 1967 movie Point Blank, stop reading now and watch it. But for those who know the movie (or don’t mind a few spoilers), I want to discuss the most common conjecture about it: that the main character, “Walker,” is meant to be a ghost.

Just to briefly review the plot: Walker (Lee Marvin) is a small-time criminal who helps his friend with a heist at the (recently shuttered) Alcatraz prison. After the job, his friend shoots Walker in order to steal his share of the money and run off with Walker’s wife (who he’s already been having an affair with), leaving Walker for dead on the island. Despite his injuries, Walker manages to stagger into the water and start swimming. A year later, he shows up alive and well, looking for revenge and his share of the money. His friend is now a well-established member of a corporatized mafia called the Organization, and Walker spends the rest of the movie hunting down one Organization member after another to get his money.

There are a lot of hints that what we’re seeing isn’t quite real: the odds against a gravely wounded man being able to make that strenuous swim across the San Francisco bay; the ending, in which Walker appears to vanish once he finally gets his money; a few ambiguous lines; and some general elements of the cinematography.

After re-watching the movie recently, I was struck by something else: Walker never actually kills anyone. Instead, his presence induces them to kill themselves and each other.  The closest he comes is in the famous scene where John Vernon goes off a balcony during their struggle, and even then it’s somewhat ambiguous how deliberate that was on Walker’s part, especially since his last lines before it happens are “I’m taking you to Carter [the mob boss] — we’re going to do this one together,” suggesting that he’s planning to keep him alive at least a bit longer to help get his money.

Every death in the movie could be explained without Walker’s presence. His wife’s suicide, of course, could have just been a matter of her own guilt. (Her one-sided dialogue with Walker beforehand is the scene where he seems the most unreal.) In the balcony scene, Angie Dickinson’s character was there too and could have easily been the one to push him off — remember, her character hated the Organization just as much, because they’d killed her boyfriend when he wouldn’t sell them his nightclub. The two men shot at the storm drain could easily have been set up by Fairfax (the final surviving mob boss), just as he apparently set up his rival Carol O’Connor at the end. As this essay points out:

[Walker] has apparently been used as an instrument of furthering Fairfax’s position in the “company”, but he has also used Fairfax to allow him to act with impunity. In fact they have used each other to their mutual benefit.

The whole thing reminded me a bit of Michael Haneke’s Caché, in which the identity of a cryptic stalker is left unresolved, leaving viewers (including Roger Ebert) to pore over the details of the film looking for clues as to who it really was. I wonder if a similar exercise would reveal that Angie Dickinson or the little-seen Fairfax were plausibly behind the whole chain of deaths in Point Blank. If so, that would mean the story was not Walker’s dying fantasy, nor a traditional ghost story in which the ghost has real agency in killing people or driving them to their deaths, but rather a sort of alternate explanation of real events, a set of different means to the same ends. The conversations that each character had with Walker may have been hallucinatory or just speculative, while their interactions with each other and the way they died were still completely real. And what would that make Walker’s character exactly? Not the amoral, existential anti-hero that he’s usually described as, but more of the passive observer type of ghost, watching along with us as the same type of criminal corruption that killed him goes on to grind through the lives of his associates.

Whether you buy my theory or not, a lot of the standard rhetoric about the film is just wrong. Most importantly, Walker is not amoral and does not seem totally indifferent to human life and suffering. He’s not a human battering ram leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. There are lots of scenes where you would have expected such a character to just shoot someone dead (particularly his wife when he first comes back) but he never does. He spends the whole movie waving a gun around, but only fires it once, into an empty bed.

The novel behind Point Blank, The Hunter, presumably treats the character as completely alive and real, given that it was followed by twenty sequels. And the later adaptations of the book — with Chow Yun-Fat (1992), Mel Gibson (1999) and Jason Statham (upcoming) — seem to treat him as more of a standard action hero. But none of that means that Point Blank wasn’t up to something more complicated. I’m just still not sure we know exactly what it was.

The Ethics of Zoos

I often hear people express disapproval of zoos because of how unhappy the animals are in confinement. This has always struck me as too easy a position, since most of them are not in a demographic that goes to the zoo much anyway. You’ll notice that few people are plagued by this concern when they’re kids, and they rarely remember it when they have kids themselves. But for the years in between, it’s an easy patch of moral high ground.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s definitely a real wrong being done when large, intelligent animals are kept in close confinement. It’s particularly sad to see their frequent pacing and other repetitive behaviors, which are clear signs of stress and mental illness.

Zoos often defend themselves by arguing that as advocates for conservation, they actually have a net positive effect on overall animal welfare. I’m not convinced that’s true and I don’t know how you’d even begin to measure it, but I don’t think it’s necessary to justify their existence. I think the simple fact is that for most of us, the wrong done to the animals is outweighed by the gain to so many humans from seeing them up close. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.

In fact, the focus on conservation and education may sometimes be opposed to the interests of individual animals, because it can lead to overcrowding and an unnecessarily wide range of species. I’m always surprised, for example, by how much space is given over to boring herd animals. When’s the last time you heard an excited young voice at the zoo saying “come on, Mom, the gorillas can wait, I want to see the European Bison!” If I had a kid who said that, I think I’d just abandon them right there and then. And yet these kinds of animals get a huge amount of space in every zoo, while leopards, monkeys and other star attractions are crammed into boxcar-sized cages and glass-walled dioramas.

Similarly, when I visited the Leipzig zoo earlier this year, this conversation was being repeated throughout the aquarium building:

        Toddler, pointing to a big fish: “Hai?! Hai?!” (shark?)
        Parent, shaking head gravely: “Das ist kein Hai.” (that’s not a shark)

Kids know what they want to see, clearly, and it’s not the spotted archerfish or the bighorn sheep. And yet zoos and aquariums persist in boring them to death. At the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, the last “species of the month” — I am not making this up — was coral. Or take the “Antelope Yards” in St. Louis:

The Saint Louis Zoo has one of the finest collections of hoofed mammals in the nation. The Antelope House and Antelope Yards are home to most of our hoofed mammals. During the 1930s, the Antelope House was designed to faithfully reproduce huge geological formations found in Graniteville, Missouri. Large moated yards radiate from the house, which is open year round for a variety of hoofed mammals. A quiet, shady part of the Zoo, with simulated red granite qwgeaSVD243q a>aaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Sorry, I fell asleep just re-typing that. Look, you’ve seen the antelope at a zoo before, right? They just sit around all day, entertaining no one, indifferent to their own existence, probably praying quietly for death. They don’t want to be there any more than you want to see them.

Suppose we just made the fences a little higher and connected their enclosure to the tiger house? I can guarantee about a week of record attendance (during which you’d also save a bundle on feeding costs) and then the tigers would have three times as much space to roam around in. And if you gradually opened up the rest of the zoo to them, you’d wind up with something like Texas’s Big Cat Sanctuary, which looks way cooler than any zoo anyway.

Joking aside: whatever you think of zoos, they’re not going away and they’ll probably never provide the best quality of life for their occupants. But there are some ways to make them more interesting and more humane at the same time, and I think a “fewer species, more space for each” approach could be one of them.

Iris Murdoch and Frederick Exley

I recently read Under the Net (1954), Iris Murdoch’s first novel, and I was surprised by how much it reminded me of Frederick Exley’s cult favorite A Fan’s Notes, written about a decade later. I haven’t read anywhere about Murdoch’s influence on Exley, but I think it may have been considerable.

Under the Net is narrated by Jake, a young writer who’s spent years bumming around London and Paris, drinking and philandering with an assortment of bohemian friends, getting by on translation work while neglecting his own writing. He’s wildly ambitious but held back by his own lazy, anxious and self-critical tendencies, along with a considerable drinking habit.

At the time, Exley was just such a character himself, and A Fan’s Notes is his autobiographical novel of these years spent not writing. Each novel is a rambling series of drunken misadventures, odd jobs, dysfunctional relationships and missed opportunities. And there are strong similarities in the writing style, with certain passages in Under the Net that could fit right into A Fan’s Notes — like this one, where Jake describes his short tenure as an orderly at a Catholic hospital:

I was still more than a little nervous of my colleagues and superiors and very anxious to please. With the nurses, who were mainly young Irish girls without a thought in their heads, unless obsession with matrimony may be called a thought, I immediately got on very well. They were calling me ‘Jakie’ on the second day, and treating me with an affectionate teasing tyranny. I noticed with interest that none of them took me seriously as a male. I exuded an aroma which, although we got on so splendidly, in some way kept them off…

Beyond the Ward Matron into the stratosphere of the Hospital hierarchy my vision did not extend. It was with the intermediate portions of my small society that my relations were most uneasy. Under the Matron were three Sisters… and it was from these beings that I directly received most of my orders. The lives of these women, already far advanced, were made a misery, on the one hand by the Matron, who treated them with unremitting despotism, and on the other by the nurses who repaid them with continual veiled mockery for the pains which the Sisters, in order to recoup their own dignity, felt bound to inflict upon those beneath them. The Sisters found me hard to understand. They suspected me of wanting to score off them, not only because of my friendly relations with their enemies the nurses, but because, more than anyone else with whom I had contact in the Hospital, they divined something of my real nature. I presented them with a problem that made them nervous; and for them alone of all the women with whom I had to do in that place, I indubitably existed as a man. An electrical current passed between us, they continually avoided my eye, and when they gave me orders, their high-pitched voices went a semitone higher.

Those long and winding sentences, the breezy sexism, the sly tone that’s simultaneously self-aggrandizing and insecure: Murdoch may not have known Exley, but she certainly had him pegged.

Under the Net was far from the only great picaresque novel of the ‘50s, and the others — among them The Ginger Man, Lucky Jim, and The Adventures of Augie March — were almost certainly an influence on Exley as well. At one point he even alludes directly to the famous opening lines of Augie March. But there’s something about Jake that immediately “clicked” with Exley for me, in a way that Augie never did. I couldn’t articulate it until I found this excellent paper on the character of Jake, which quotes some other passages that bring the similarity home. First, here’s Murdoch’s biographer Peter Wolfe:

The strong satirical interest and wide social sweep generally associated with the picaresque novel demand that the hero be roguish and cunning, but not meditative. If he reflects deeply, narrative movement is choked and the social panorama diminished and blurred. Jake’s defect is that he is simply not rascal enough.

Yes, exactly — what separates Jake and Exley from the standard comic hero is the way they’re both stuck in their own heads. As Mary Cantwell wrote of Exley:

If he was essentially sedentary, his mind raced as furiously as a hamster in a cage, and just as circularly. I doubt there was a moment in his life when Fred was ever free of himself.

And the two books also share a kind of circularity: in a way, each is the story of its own creation. Here’s Kiernan Ryan:

In a nutshell, Under the Net is Jake Donaghue’s account of how he became the writer who wrote Under the Net.

…and James Dickey on A Fan’s Notes:

This is the horrible and hilarious account of a long failure, but a failure which turns into a success: the success that this book is.

…and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt:

But all the while, part of [Exley] was groping toward an accommodation with himself and the reader knows from the opening page what his victory will be. He would, of course, finally come to write A Fan’s Notes.

Of course, there are some big differences too. Murdoch’s story is full of exaggerated comic scenes and wild set pieces, while Exley’s experiences are darker, raunchier and more realistic. But that may just reflect the difference between outright fiction and what is really more of a memoir.

Whatever the extent of the direct influence, Under the Net provides another angle through which to view A Fan’s Notes. Exley’s novel is often compared to The Great Gatsby as a commentary on the emptiness of the American Dream. But Murdoch, quite unburdened by the American Dream, drew a very similar narrative from a very different source. Her inspiration for Under the Net was the early analytic philosophers and their focus on the inadequacy of language to describe reality or lived experience.

Jake can’t write because he’s not sure that any of his ideas or insights are really meaningful or “true” in this pure intellectual sense. Exley can’t write because he can’t stop measuring himself against his father and other conventional success stories, particularly the football star Frank Gifford. In a funny way, he’s using football in the same way that Jake uses philosophy. But in the end, they’re both suffering from the same anxiety of influence and cycles of self-doubt that can afflict any writer. Americans can be a little too possessive about our “dark side of the American Dream” narratives; it’s good to be reminded that they’re just a special case of a more universal experience in the modern world.

[Another book that evoked A Fan’s Notes for me is the dual biography Ross & Tom (1974) by John LeggettIf you’re insufficiently depressed by Exley’s story of literary failure, Leggett offers a powerful reminder that literary success can be even worse.]

Someone’s Killing German Celebrity Animals

Maybe you’ve heard of Knut, the polar bear cub at the Berlin Zoo who became famous a few years ago. Or Paul, the octopus in Oberhausen who correctly predicted all seven of Germany’s matches in the 2010 World Cup. You may not know about Heidi, Leipzig’s cross-eyed opossum, but in Germany she was almost as big a star.

What do these animals have in common, other than fame? They all died in unexplained ways after just a short time in the spotlight. Paul was simply “found dead” in his tank one morning, generating a storm of conspiracy theories:

According to Jiang Xiao, the director of a forthcoming thriller entitled Who Killed Paul the Octopus?, the creature had really been dead for the last three months. Jiang told the Guardian she was “60 to 70% sure” Paul had died in July and been secretly replaced by his keepers.

Explaining how such a deception could have been perpetrated, she added: “[Octopuses] all look the same. It is impossible to tell the difference.”

Within the next year, Knut had some kind of mysterious seizure-like reaction, fell into his moat, and drowned before the keepers could get him out. And Heidi had to be put down after developing “arthritis and other health problems.”

Now, am I suggesting that all three of them were being slowly poisoned by the same psychotic zookeeper, like the little girl in The Sixth Sense?

I hardly see how we can rule it out. But given that two of them died out of the spotlight, we really have no idea what happened to them, or how deep the conspiracy runs. And whoever’s behind it is getting desperate, because the stories keep getting less plausible. The latest rising star, a rabbit with no ears, was killed in March when (allegedly) a cameraman accidentally stepped on it.

Because my German reading level and general lack of taste limit me to only the trashiest newspapers, I’ve gotten regular updates on Knut’s “fan club,” a group of charmingly insane women who gather regularly at his trainer’s grave — where they have purchased a plot for Knut as well, if only the zoo would turn over his body. Why is the zoo still wasting valuable freezer space on a polar bear popsicle? Could they be afraid of what an independent autopsy would turn up?

The death last month of Bao Bao, Berlin’s giant panda, seems a bit less suspicious given his advanced age, though the public is still waiting for the promised autopsy results. And Flocke, another celebrity bear in Nuremberg, managed to escape to France with her Russian boyfriend just before the killing spree began. But if I were a German zoo animal today, I’d be keeping a low profile. As long as this maniac remains at large, a little publicity could be a dangerous thing.

More on Batman

A month ago, in discussing The Dark Knight Rises, I wrote that

Batman has become a different character for each generation of readers. In his first incarnation in the ‘40s, he was a grim pulp detective. In the ‘50s and ‘60s he was campy and gadget-happy, culminating in the Adam West TV show and movie. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, like most superheroes, he became more boring and socially conscious. And in 1986, he was reinvented by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns…

Today a friend sent me a link to an interesting post about continuity in fictional characters, which addresses the same subject from another angle:

…some of these characters, like King Arthur and Batman, while perhaps loosely defined at the start, have some kernel that either coheres or fails to cohere with additional elements … in part, what determines which elements become canonical is the extent to which they cohere with the central concept of the character, and with the other elements that, perhaps because they cohered so well with the central concept, had become canonical…

In Batman’s case, you begin with the origin story: a young boy sees his parent murdered by a criminal, then moves into a cave and begins dressing as a bat and fighting crime. In short, you have a fairly dark story, beginning as it does with a child witnessing the murder of his mother and father.

I think that’s (in part) why the “light-hearted” Batman didn’t stick very well. It wasn’t cohesive with the character (I also think that comic book fans as a group probably weren’t the sort of readers who appreciated goofball comedy). And I think that that’s why the 1980s reimagining of Batman as even darker, grimmer, etc, stuck so well. If a central element of the character is that he watched his parents die when he was little and he blames this on criminals, and then he spends the next ten years doing nothing but training to fight crime, it’s going to make the most sense for him to be an obsessive, overly focused, somewhat grim individual.

Ultimately, there’s a narrative for these characters, and narratives are ways of editing from the infinite possibilities inherent in what happened. Narrative writers look for stories that hang together. The Batman narrative hangs together better if we edit out the campy version.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s definitely part of what’s going on here. Frank Miller’s “dark” version of Batman rang true in a way that an equally dark version of Superman (or, say, Yogi Bear) would not. But it’s only part of the story. Miller was re-purposing the character to comment on crime, urban decay and Reagan-era society (and to some degree, indulge his own interest in old noir-style storytelling) in a way that had nothing in particular to do with Batman, and could have been done with any number of other moody superheroes (as in Watchmen, for example).

Also, the campy Batman only “didn’t stick” if you look at it from the perspective of a young contemporary comic book fan. This version of the character arguably achieved a  greater cultural significance in its time than any of the other incarnations since. From Wikipedia:

The live action television show was extraordinarily popular, called “the biggest TV phenomenon of the mid-1960s”. At the height of its popularity, it was the only prime-time television show other than Peyton Place to be broadcast twice in one week as part of its regular schedule…

I’d guess that for a narrow majority of the population, the name “Batman” still evokes Adam West before Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, “Catwoman” Julie Newmar or Eartha Kitt, and so on. I was only eight or nine when the first Tim Burton movie came out, but I’m pretty sure that I had already seen the show in syndication, and maybe the Adam West movie too. Would the average nine-year-old today even recognize Michael Keaton after the same twenty-year remove? (Sorry, Michael Keaton. I liked Desperate Measures.) Will the average nine-year-old in twenty years know anything about the Christopher Nolan Batman?

Anyway, I still like the idea of a coherent kernel to fictional characters, even if I might not apply it to Batman in quite the same way. It’s why I haven’t seen the new Sherlock Holmes movies, for example: the trailers’ portrayal of a young, smug, wisecracking action hero just feels so out of sync with the character I know through the books (and Jeremy Brett) that I can’t imagine being convinced by it. Maybe the new “Sherlock” TV series (which I haven’t seen) represents the character being pulled back towards his “essential” qualities. I hope so.

Rat-catching

If the Best of Wikipedia list was still active, I’d nominate the brief “Rat-catcher” entry:

Keeping the rat population under control was practiced in Europe to prevent the spread of diseases to man, most notoriously the Black Plague, and to prevent damage to food supplies.

Anecdotal reports suggest that some rat-catchers in Europe would raise rats instead of catching them in order to increase their eventual payment from the town or city they were employed by. This, and the practice of rat-fights, could have led to rat-breeding and the adoption of the rat as a pet…

Rat-catchers would capture rats by hand, often with specially-bred vermin terriers, or with traps…

It goes on to mention Roald Dahl’s classic “The Ratcatcher,” a charmingly venomous short story about the elaborate schemes and esoteric knowledge of the title character, who is in many ways quite rat-like himself. (Dahl was obviously taken with this idea of people coming to resemble the animals they obsessed over, and used it more literally in the even creepier story “Royal Jelly.”)

Anyway, I recently discovered another incarnation of this character in Pamela Branch’s 1951 mystery “The Wooden Overcoat”:

It was a small man with spectacles, wearing a Burberry and with his trousers neatly furled around his legs by steel bicycle clips. He had a bedraggled moustache and carried a cardboard attaché-case. He took off his hat and disclosed a bony forehead and a lick of hair which drooped almost into his eyes. He handed her a card and watched with a watery stare while she turned it over. Alfred L. Beesum, it read. Rodent Officer, retired.

‘Good afternoon,’ said Fan. ‘Retired?’

‘Thet’s right,’ said Mr. Beesum. He spoke with hardly any movement of the lips. It flattened his vowels and, as if to make up for this, he enunciated his consonants with great care. ‘I em now free-lancing,’ he explained. ‘Heve you rets or mice?’

‘Rats. Dozens of them.’

‘Good. I don’t do mice.’

‘We killed eight this morning in no time at all.’

‘Oh? Mey I inquire by what method?’

‘I’m afraid it was a tennis racquet.’

The little man sucked his teeth. He looked pained.

‘My campaign will be on a broader scele.’

‘What are you going to do?’ asked Fan.

Mr. Beesum hesitated. He took off his spectacles, polished them, and replaced them.

‘Em I essured that it will go no farther?’

‘I won’t tell a soul.’

‘Well,’ said Mr. Beesum. He looked suspiciously at the house next door and lowered his voice. ‘I shell open the offensive with sticky boards. The secret glue thereon hardens almost instantaneously when in contact with anything cold. Rets’ feet are cold.’

This surprising information made Fan glance at him quickly. He was quite serious. She swallowed a giggle and adjusted her expression. She wanted to ask him why he had chosen his esoteric profession, but she was sure that he would take umbrage.

‘I see,’ she said carefully. ‘What do you use for bait?’

‘Rets like cake.’

He seemed indisposed for further discussion, so she led him along the gravel path to the right of the house. Outside the back door, on the small brown lawn, lay eight dead rats, carefully graded in size. Some of them were quite young.

Mr. Beesum considered them with professional interest. He took eight paper bags from his attaché-case and put one rat into each, writing something on every bag in pencil. He sealed the bags and put them into a paper carrier…

‘This evening,’ he said, trying to concentrate, ‘I shell note the runs end launch en etteck upon a small front. I shell edvance two sticky boards to locate the enemy’s main forces. Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted.’

I wonder if this character was a source for Dahl’s story, which appeared just two years later in the collection Someone Like You, or if they were both influenced by another source.

In any case, if you’re looking for more old-timey rat-catching tips (and who isn’t?), the Wikipedia entry also led me to the incredible 1898 volume “Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher,” which covers everything from chemical poisons to trained ferrets.

The End of the Electoral College?

What if we could eliminate the electoral college without amending the Constitution? What if it was already happening?

The National Popular Vote movement is trying to do just that, and surprisingly, it looks like there’s a reasonable chance they’ll succeed before the 2016 or 2020 election. But few people seem to know about it — I was unaware of it myself until recently — and I thought it might be helpful to review what’s going on. A national popular vote sounds like a pretty good idea to me, but as with my post on gay marriage, I’ll try to keep my own views out of it. Whether you’re for or against it, this is something worth knowing about.

How does it work?

It’s all based on a kind of legal trick. The Constitution gives each state the right to appoint its electors however it wants. So the NPV’s strategy is to introduce the same bill in each state legislature, a bill that says: instead of giving our electoral votes to the popular vote winner in our state, we’ll give them to the popular vote winner nationwide — but this only kicks in when enough other states have passed this bill that we add up to a majority in the electoral college.

There are 538 electoral votes in total, so it takes 270 (half plus one) for that to happen. Nine states totalling 132 electoral votes have already passed the bill, and it’s passed the lower house in twelve more.

Once the bill is passed by 270 electors’ worth of states, there’s no need for the remaining states to pass it: the electoral college system is effectively gone. The winner of the national popular vote will automatically win the Presidency, regardless of state-by-state results.

I think it’s fair to call this a “trick,” as I did above: it seems highly unlikely that the drafters of the Constitution considered anything like this possibility. But the fact that it’s a trick doesn’t mean it won’t work.

What would change?

It’s a mistake to think that this would only make a difference in the rare cases (like 2000) where the popular vote and electoral vote disagree. It would have a massive impact on every election. Without the need to win “swing states,” Presidential campaigns would be run differently from top to bottom, and not just in terms of where they spend their ad money or devote on-the-ground resources: as Hendrik Hertzberg points out in this interview, it would also change many of their policy positions and even which issues are on the table. For example: whatever you think of our Cuban trade embargo, you should realize that the main reason it still exists is that Florida is a swing state, and neither party wants to risk alienating the large Cuban-American exile population there, which is decidedly more pro-embargo than the rest of the country. Without the electoral college system, it would likely have ended long ago.

If you’re a liberal who likes that idea, well, you might not like some of the other effects. For example, industrial unions get a lot of power from their ability to turn out so many votes in midwestern swing states like Ohio. A national popular vote would probably reduce the already-declining influence of organized labor in Washington.

Who benefits?

The answer may vary from one issue to the next, but I think Democrats would come out a little ahead at the national level. And I’m obviously not alone, since it’s all blue states that have passed the bill so far, and almost all the opposition to the movement comes from conservative Republican groups like this one.

In that interview, Hertzberg downplays this, suggesting that Republican opposition is just a hangover from 2000, and that as the memory of that election fades, the NPV will come to draw equal support from both parties. I’m unconvinced, for at least three reasons. First, he says himself that a national popular vote would likely increase turnout, and conventional wisdom is that higher turnout is better for the left. Second, a popular vote tends to favor urban issues over rural ones, and urban areas also skew liberal. And third, entirely apart from the swing state effect, the electoral college exaggerates the power of voters in low-population states (since no state can have less than three electors) and those states are disproportionately red.

But at the state level, it’s much less of a partisan issue. It’s more about swing states vs. non-swing states. Large non-swing states like Texas, California and New York are completely ignored by Presidential campaigns (except for fundraising, of course) and that’s just as infuriating to Republicans in those states as it is to Democrats.

In a way, that’s the real trick of this strategy: it plays the Republican party off against itself. Republican politicians at the state level are facing a very different set of incentives on this issue than those at the national level.

Is it legal?

If and when this movement gets to 270 electoral votes, there will be multiple legal challenges that are very likely to reach the Supreme Court. It seems to me the strongest anti-NPV argument is that the Constitution forbids interstate compacts without Congressional approval. The Supreme Court has taken a lenient view of this requirement in the past, but that doesn’t mean it would do so again with the stakes this high.

Actually, my first thought on hearing about this plan was that if the states in this compact can allocate their electors to the national election winner, what’s to stop them from allocating their electors to the winner amongst themselves, thereby disenfranchising the rest of the country? This is obviously an unlikely scenario, but it’s a little troubling that it’s even possible. This white paper from a conservative think tank gets a little more hysterical about it:

Is this power of state legislators completely unrestricted? If it is, then Rhode Island could decide to allocate its electors to the winner of the Vermont election. In a more extreme move, New York could allocate its electors to the United Nations. Florida could decide that Fidel Castro always appoints its electors.

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But even if this challenge stands, it doesn’t mean that the NPV bill is invalid, just that it has to be approved by Congress. And while that would probably be harder than the initial state-by-state process, it’s still far more plausible than a Constitutional amendment.

How soon could it happen?

It’s hard to tell. They’ve gotten halfway there in about five years, which is impressive. But some of that is probably because no one took them very seriously. From now on, every state that passes the bill will push it further onto the national stage and mobilize more and more serious opposition.

Again, the nine states that have passed the bill so far add up to 132 electoral votes, so they need to capture 138 of the remaining 407 to get over the top. How many ways could that happen?

Well, first of all, it’s hard to see any of the current swing states passing this bill, since it would mean giving up their current outsized influence. That’s about 100 electors off the table right there. Of the remaining ones, New York (29) and Oregon (7) seem like the safest bets. But that still leaves about 100 to go, and it’s pretty hard to see them getting there in the short term without Texas (38) — where they seem to have more or less gotten nowhere — or a coalition of smaller Republican-dominated states.

So overall, I’d say this is still a fairly partisan movement, in practice if not intent, and that’s likely the main thing holding it back. But as soon as you see this bill passed in a red state, even a light red one, it’s time to really start paying attention. After that tipping point, the rest could happen fast.

The Sight & Sound Poll: Not Very Useful

carl dreyer

A month ago, I wrote that if you pick old movies according to critical acclaim, “you’ll find yourself watching a lot of material that just isn’t very entertaining by modern standards.” This week the British Film Institute has made my point for me with the latest edition of their highly-regarded Sight & Sound magazine critics’ and directors’ polls. Click here to see the critics’ “Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time.”

This isn’t officially a list of old movies, but it may as well be, given that they all but ignore everything in the last thirty years. They also ignore genre films almost completely: there are only four outright comedies (two silent, one French), only one crime movie, one musical, one Western, one horror movie, no animated movies, and nothing that could really be called an action movie. In fact, there are only about ten movies on this list that a casual moviegoer would have even heard of. The rest is dominated by auteur favorites like Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Roberto Fellini. Some of the greatest mainstream directors — Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Huston, Michael Powell, David Lean — are completely unrepresented. Even some that are thought of as critical darlings, like Nicholas Ray, John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, don’t make the cut either.

Do the critics really believe that Godard made four movies better than anything by those directors? Would any of them actually come home from work, crack open a beer and pop in a DVD of Man with a Movie Camera (“the Constructivist Soviet silent of choice”) or Au Hasard Balthazer (Robert Bresson’s “devastating tale of an abused donkey passing from owner to owner”)?

Of course not. They’ve just decided to treat this poll as a film school curriculum rather than a chance to give sincere recommendations. As you read the obtuse museum-wall-text explanations for their selections, just remember that these are people whose day job is telling you whether to bring your kids to Ice Age: Continental Drift 3D or Katy Perry: Part of Me. It’s understandable that when the British Film Institute calls, they’d feel the need to air out their inner snob.

Don’t get me wrong: the dozen or so popular movies they did pick are all great movies (Vertigo, The Searchers, The Godfather…) and while I’ve only seen a few of the more art / experimental type picks, I’m sure they’re all excellent too. But while this may be a list of the “greatest” movies in some sense of the word, it’s definitely not a list of the most entertaining ones, and in many ways it’s almost the opposite. A critics’ poll that asked “what are the most entertaining/engaging old movies for modern audiences?” would be much more useful, and I’m surprised no one has done that. Maybe I’ll poll some of my movie-buff friends and give it a shot here.

The Dark Knight Rises & The Dark Knight Returns

(WARNING — MAJOR SPOILERS)

More than any other superhero, Batman has become a different character for each generation of readers. In his first incarnation in the ‘40s, he was a grim pulp detective. In the ‘50s and ‘60s he was campy and gadget-happy, culminating in the Adam West TV show and movie. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, like most superheroes, he became more boring and socially conscious. And in 1986, he was reinvented by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, one of the most influential comics ever published. 26 years and seven movies later, this story — more or less — has finally been filmed.

The Dark Knight Returns was a non-canon story that takes place years after the official chronology of the comics. Batman has been retired for years, brooding over the death of Robin. (This was such a popular idea that Robin was killed off in the canon a few years later.) He puts the costume back on and takes on a violent criminal gang that hides in the sewers, but the gang’s young musclebound leader defeats him. He’s helped by a teenage girl who wants to be the next Robin, and after some more brooding they go after the gang again. On the second try, Batman defeats the mutant leader. After a little more action, he fakes his death and retires again, this time for good. Our last glimpse of him is as a happy civilian scout leader, exploring underground caverns with the new Robin and some former members of the gang.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has been retired for years, brooding over the death of his girlfriend. He puts the costume back on and takes on a violent criminal gang that hides in the sewers, but the gang’s young musclebound leader, Bane, defeats him. He’s helped by a young cop who will later develop into the next Robin, and after some more brooding they go after the gang again. On the second try, Batman defeats Bane. After a little more action, he appears to fake his own death and retire again, this time for good. Our last glimpse of him is as a happy civilian in an Italian cafe; meanwhile, new Robin is seen exploring underground caverns… well, you get the idea.

What parts of the comic does the movie leave out? A little angry satire of Reagan-era politics and urban decay. A bizarre fight with Superman in which Batman almost kills him. And a very creepy aged version of the Joker. And of course, the movie adds a couple of sexed-up female characters and a pointless love triangle.

The real difference is this: The Dark Knight Returns was not just “dark,” it was scary. When I first read it — I was probably nine or ten — it frightened me in a way that comics never had before. And not in the hyper-violent sense of Miller’s later effort Sin City; more in the sense that so many characters were deeply emotionally damaged, and seemed to be dealing with a level of constant psychic pain that almost numbed them to the over-the-top physical punishment that’s dished out in any comic book.

The Dark Knight Rises was a fun movie, but Batman Begins is still my favorite of the current series (you can read my rant about The Dark Knight here) and I’m not sure any of them match up to the Tim Burton ones. I think Burton struck the right balance between taking the material too seriously and not taking it seriously enough. The Joel Schumacher movies went too far in the direction of camp; Nolan, as many critics have pointed out, takes the Batman story very seriously indeed. But he can’t possibly take it as seriously as Miller did — not with this much studio money riding on the result — and his movies suffer from the comparison. In The Dark Knight Returns, Miller showed that if you really want to excise the campy, lightweight side of a superhero story, it’s not enough just to dim the lighting and add some politics and social commentary. You also have to recognize these grown men in costumes for what they obviously are — insane — and follow them down that rabbit hole. When we finally get a movie that does that, it might be closer to the horror category than action, but it’ll definitely be worth watching.